Purim

2 comments February 24th, 2013 Headsman

February 24, 2013 is the Jewish festival of Purim. (Actually, it began at sundown last night.)

This holiday, corresponding to 14 Adar of the Hebrew calendar, falls on different dates of the Gregorian calendar (most often in March). It commemorates a bloody story from the Book of Esther. (The quotes in this post are from this translation of Esther.)

The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.


The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.

If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herodotus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.

Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.

Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”

13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.

In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:

“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.

The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”

Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”

And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.

Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.

“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.

By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.

Haman and his gallows have consequently stood as a potent literary device ever since: for perfidious council; for violent anti-Semitism; for unusually spectacular punishment (to be hung “as high as Haman”); for the concept of getting one’s comeuppance or being hoisted by one’s own petard.

At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.


“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.

Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.

The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar

So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.

And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”

And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”

So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.

Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.


This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.

Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.

Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.

Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)

That part of the narrative has unsurprisingly invited highly prejudicial interpretations, especially among hostile Christian interlocutors (pdf).

American pastor Washington Gladden called the first Purim “a fiendish outbreak of fanatical cruelty.”

The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.

The Nazis promoted the Jews-as-mass-murderers version, too; there’s even an instance where the Zdunska Wola ghetto was required to provide ten Jews to hang for the ten hanged sons of Haman. The frothing anti-Semitic propagandist Julius Streicher, being positioned on the trap for execution after the Nuremberg trials, reportedly bellowed “Purim Fest 1946!” to the witnesses.

Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”

Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.

* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.

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1945: Johann Georg Elser, dogged assassin

17 comments April 9th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1945, in the dying days of the Third Reich, 42-year-old Johann Georg Elser was executed by gunshot in the German concentration camp Dachau. He died for a failed attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life more than five years before.

It goes without saying that, had he been successful, he would have changed history immeasurably.

Elser, who went by his middle name, didn’t fit the profile of someone who would try to kill Hitler.

He wasn’t a Jew, a Communist or a member of any of the other minority groups the Nazis persecuted. He wasn’t political at all, in fact.

A carpenter by trade, with one illegitimate son, his hobbies included playing the zither and the double bass.

He was the kind of ordinary, working-class German the National Socialists tried to reach out to. But from the very start, he made it clear how much he despised them and all that they stood for.

British historian Roger Moorhouse, in his book Killing Hitler: The Plots, the Assassins, and the Dictator Who Cheated Death, summed it up very nicely when he said Elser harbored a “deep and personal hatred for Hitler.”

He was a practical man at heart and was not interested in political discussions. He had no desire to change other people’s minds, but he steadfastly refused to make any accommodation to the new regime. When Hitler’s speeches were broadcast, he would silently leave the room… In May 1938, a Nazi parade threaded its way through his hometown of Königsbronn. Elser, like many others, turned out to watch, but as those around him gave the Hitler salute, he refused to do likewise. When a colleague reminded him that it might be sensible to conform, he replied curtly, “You can kiss my ass.” He then ostentatiously turned about and started whistling to himself.

How Elser’s silent, passive resistance turned into action is unclear, but by the autumn of 1938 he had made up his mind to kill the Führer.

Unsure how to accomplish this, he traveled to Munich to get some ideas. Every year on “Die Neunte Elfte”, the November 8-9 anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler came to the Bürgerbräukeller and gave a speech to the old guard.

That day in 1938, actually just hours before another would-be assassin tried to kill Hitler, Elser slipped into the beer hall pretending to be an ordinary customer and “noted the layout of the room, the position of the lectern and the patent lack of effective security measures.”

He had found his place and his time: he decided that the following year, he would plant a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller, timed to go off right in the middle of Hitler’s big anniversary speech and kill him and as many Nazis as possble.

Elser’s meticulous planning and preparations over the next twelve months were nothing short of amazing. He stole a fuse and some gunpowder, and got a job at a quarry specifically so he could acquire some explosives. Knowing nothing about bombs, he made countless prototypes and tested them in empty fields in the countryside.

In the spring of 1939, he went back to Munich and the Bürgerbräukeller to make some detailed sketches of the building and find an appropriate place to hide the bomb. He chose a thick stone pillar behind the lectern, which supported a balcony. In August, he brought his tools and bomb-making materals to Munich to set about with his final phase of the plan.

The fastidious assassin’s modus operandi was shockingly simple, and shockingly bold.

He would visit the Bürgerbräukeller every night at around 9:00 to take his evening meal. An hour or so later, he would sneak up to the gallery of the function room, where he would hide in a storeroom until the bar closed and the building was locked.

Thereafter, he was free to work by flashlight until the bar staff returned at around 7:30 a.m., when he could sneak out of a back entrance.

His first priority was to chip out a cavity in the stone pillar to hold the bomb. But, finding the pillar was now dressed with wooden cladding, Elser was forced to spend three nights sawing a hole in the wooden surround.

Every sound had to be muffled, every speck of sawdust collected and disposed of: he could afford to leave no evidence of his presence. Even the sawn wooden panel was fashioned into a flush-fitting secret door.

Good thing he was a carpenter.

Having accessed the pillar, he could now begin to dig out a recess for the bomb. Using a hand drill and a hammer and chisel, he spent most of the following month loosening mortar and prising out bricks — all of which, of course, had to be meticulously tied and removed from the scene in a cloth sack.

Progress was painfully slow.

In the cavernous hall, every hammer blow he struck echoed like a gunshot, and to escape detection he had to time his blows to coincide with external sounds, such as the passing of a tram or the automatic flush of toilets. Working by night preparing the pillar in the Bürgerbräukeller, he labored by day putting the finishing touches to his bomb and, of course, the elaborate timing mechanism.

It all took two months.

On November 2, six days before the Big Day, Elser finally concealed his bomb, which had been put in a wooden box lined with cork to muffle the ticking sound of the timing mechanism, in its hidey-hole. Hitler’s speech was scheduled to start at 9:00 p.m. on November 8 and would last for an hour. The bomb was set to go off at 9:20.

It did so, right on time, with a spectacular explosion that smashed the stone pillar, brought down the overhead balcony and ceiling, shattered windows, blasted out doors, killed eight people and injured 67 more.

The only problem was, Hitler wasn’t among the dead or wounded. In fact, he wasn’t even there.

He had pressing business in Berlin and wanted to get back that same night, so he had rescheduled his speech for 8:00 p.m. instead of nine. He finished and left the building at 9:07, thirteen minutes before the big reception Elser had prepared for him. By the time the bomb went off, Hitler was already on the train back to Berlin.

That Elser failed was through no fault of his own: it was just sheer, terrible, rotten luck.

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Assassination has never changed the history of the world.” Perhaps he is right in most cases, but it’s hard to believe that statement is true when it comes to Hitler. In this case, thirteen minutes substantially altered the history of Europe for the rest of the century.

Getting back to Elser: ever the careful planner, he knew what to do to protect himself once the bomb went off. He was miles away from Munich at the time, trying to sneak over the border into Switzerland. Unfortunately, he was caught by German border guards.

At first they thought it was a routine arrest, but then they saw the contents of his pockets, which included a postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller and sketches of his bomb design. The guards didn’t yet know about the assassination attempt, of course, but what they saw made them suspicious and they turned him over to the Gestapo.

On November 13, Elser confessed everything. When a flabbergasted Hitler read the preliminary investigative report which supported Elser’s lone-bomber story, he demanded, “What idiot conducted this investigation?”

He couldn’t wrap his mind around it, and neither could anyone else.

In the wake of the assassination, mass arrests were made: anyone who seemed unusually interested in the Munich speech, or didn’t express sufficient enthusiasm for the Nazi Party, could fall under suspicion of being part of the plot.


At Munich’s Feldherrnhalle on Nov. 11, Hitler conducts a memorial ceremony for the victims of Elser’s assassination bid.

As Moorhouse explains,

To many Nazis, Elser was simply an enigma. He was an ordinary German. He exhibited none of the typical signs of “degeneracy” that they claimed to be combating: apart from his brief flirtation with Communism, he was a virtual teetotaler, not promiscuous, did not consort with Jews, and was not close to the Church. In fact, he was exactly the sort of solid, upstanding, working-class German that they thought they had won over — and, indeed, that had become the backbone of the Nazi Party.

Unable to believe Elser’s claims of full responsibility, the Nazis concluded he must have been “led astray” at the very least, perhaps by agents of British intelligence. In spite of beatings, torture, and other coercion, however, Elser stuck to his story, even building another bomb, identical to the first, right in front of his interrogators to prove he could do it by himself.

He never managed to fully convince them; in fact, for decades after the war, historians and other scholars theorized about who else was in on his plan. Some speculated that the attack was even engineered by Hitler himself, to gain support for his cause and to create an excuse to crack down on dissidents.

It wasn’t until 1970 that two German historians who studied the matter announced there was no evidence that Elser had acted in concert with anyone else or even told anyone about his plans.

It may seem surprising that Elser managed to live for four and a half years after his attempt on Hitler’s life, but there was a explanation perfectly reasonable from the standpoint of a totalitarian bureaucracy.

After his confession, Elser was sent to the the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He was given enough to eat, and two rooms, and even allowed to play the zither again, but he was kept in solitary confinement all those years. The Nazis — still operating on the theory that the British were ultimately behind the assassination attempt — stashed Elser away as a witness in a show trial against British leaders after the German invasion of the British Isles. Talk about hubris.

Of course, this invasion never happened, and as the tide of war turned against the Germans it became clear that Elser had outlived whatever usefulness he might have had. In February 1945, he was transferred from Sachsenhausen to Dachau.

He met his end quietly, taken outside his cell by a young SS officer and shot in the back of the neck. A week later, it was reported that he had been killed in an Allied bombing. By the end of the month, Dachau was in Allied hands.

At least six cities in Germany, including Königsbronn and Stuttgart, have places named after him, or monuments or plaques erected in his memory.

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1942: Jakub Lemberg and family

4 comments March 2nd, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942, on the first day of Purim, Jakub Lemberg was executed together with his family in the Nazi ghetto in Zdunska Wola, Poland.

Lemburg, a 43-year-old internist and pediatrician, was head of the Judenrat in Zdunska Wola and thus it was his task to do the Nazis’ dirty work, such as putting together lists of his fellow-Jews for deportation.

He revealed himself to be a man of exceptional character and courage, and the circumstances of his death, as recorded in Louis Falstein’s The Martyrdom of Jewish Physicians in Poland, should not be forgotten:

The Gestapo chief ordered Dr. Lemberg to deliver ten Jews to be hanged for the ten hanged sons of Haman. Dr. Lemberg replied that he could deliver only four Jews: himself, his wife and their two children. Hans Biebow, “the Butcher of Lodz,” seized Dr. Lemberg and turned him over to the executioners, who killed him in the cemetery.

The Zdunska Wola ghetto was liquidated five months later. And in 1947, Biebow got his.

Here’s an image of Lemberg testimony (in Hebrew) from the Yad Vashem database.

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1941: Forty-eight French hostages

1 comment October 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On “a beautiful autumn day” this date in 1941, four dozen French leftists were executed by that country’s occupiers as punishment for the murder of a German officer.

On October 20, 1941 — sixteen months into the German occupation — a pair of Communist commandos assassinated the Feldkommandant of Nantes, Lt. Col. Karl Hotz (French link).

News of this crime went straight to Adolf Hitler himself, who personally ordered a fearful reprisal.

The list of the executed hostages as published Oct. 23 in L’oeuvre

Accordingly, the collaborationist Petain government was induced to select 50 persons from among the ranks of detained German political prisoners. Pierre Pucheu, who would later be executed himself,* intentionally selected Communist types in an effort to confine the retaliation to fellow-travelers.

On this date, those 50 — well, 48, but who’s counting?; the numbering can get dodgy in these mass-execution scenarios — were put to death at three different locations: five at Fort Mont-Valerien; sixteen at Nantes; and most notoriously, 27 internees of Choisel (French link) at Chateaubriant.**

In three different batches of nine, the 27 reds and trade unionists were fusilladed into the ranks of Gallic martyrdom. They remain among the most emblematic French martyrs of the occupation; there’s a cours des 50-Otages named for them in Nantes, and various streets that bear individual victims’ names — such as Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in Paris. (Timbaud was a Communist steelworker.)


Monument to the martyrs of Chateaubriant. Image (c) Renaud Camus and used with permission.

The youngest, 17-year-old Guy Moquet (you can find his name on the Paris Metro) was the son of an exiled Communist parliamentarian (French link).

He made headlines in 2009 when current French President Nicolas Sarkozy had added to the educational curriculum the reading of Moquet’s brave-but-sad last letter to his family: the decision drew some rather mean-tempered fire because of Moquet’s political persuasion. In the end, the text bore a fairly universal reading that could play inoffensively to posterity — like its postscript injunction,

“You who remain, be worthy of the 27 of us who are going to die!”

There’s a thorough roundup of the Oct. 22 executions (including poetic tribute) here.

* Vindicating Winston Churchill’s prophecy to the Times upon receiving news that “These cold-blooded executions of inocent people will only recoil upon the savages who order and execute them.” (Oct. 25, 1941, as cited in the The Churchill War Papers, vol. 3)

** Fifty more were supposed to be executed if the assassins weren’t promptly turned in, but that second batch never took place. (There was, however, a different batch of 50 executed on October 24 in retaliation for a different political assassination. Maybe they just all ran together.)

Part of the Themed Set: Illegitimate Power.

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1943: Willi Graf, anti-Nazi medic

1 comment October 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1943, anti-Nazi student activist Willi Graf was beheaded at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.

Graf was a conscientious Catholic whose disaffinity for Naziism manifested in an early refusal to join the Hitler Youth: he did a short stint in prison in 1938 for having continued associating with a banned Catholic youth league.

This subversive fellow might have been destined for the chop regardless in the black years to come, but for a thoroughgoing radicalization, he was drafted into the army as a medic and got a front-row seat on the Holocaust and the horrors of the eastern front.

During a 1942 study leave back in Munich, Graf met White Rose resistance figures Hans and Sophie Scholl and began participating in that circle’s distribution of illicit anti-Nazi leaflets.

He was arrested within months and condemned on April 19, 1943 to die as a traitor — though actual execution of the sentence waited several months on the Gestapo’s vain exertions to extract from their prey actionable information on other collaborators.

A number of schools around Germany are named in Graf’s honor.

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1934: Ernst Roehm, SA chief

1 comment July 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1934, in the coda to Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives purge of the Nazi party, the emerging dictator had his longtime ally shot.

Bavarian World War I veteran Ernst Röhm (Roehm) had been a National Socialist brawler of the earliest vintage: after the armistice, he was among the Freikorps paramilitaries to topple the short-lived Munich Soviet. He joined the NSDAP’s predecessor, the German Workers’ Party, before Hitler himself, and he stood trial with the future Fuhrer after helping Hitler attempt the Beer Hall Putsch. They were so tight, Hitler politely ignored Röhm’s open homosexuality.

But most importantly, Röhm was the energetic organizer of the Sturmabteilung, or SA — the party’s private army ready at arms for street battles with Communists, roughing up Jews, Praetorian Guard duty for party brass, and various and sundry other unpleasantries.


An SA brownshirt tosses a book on the pyre at a May 10, 1933 book burning.

Röhm grew the SA like a weed. At well over 4 million men by the time of Hitler’s Chancellorship, it greatly outnumbered the army itself.

This gave Röhm personal designs on absorbing the army into his paramilitary instead of the other way around, and it gave Röhm the literal boots on the ground to manifest his own commitment to the “Socialist” bits of the “National Socialist” project. His noises about the “second revolution” to come after the Nazis had already obtained state power were most unwelcome.

“One often hears voices in the bourgeois camp to the effect that the SA have lost any reason for existence, but I will tell these gentlemen that the old bureaucratic spirit must yet be changed in a gentle or, if need be, an ungentle manner.”

-Röhm, Nov. 5, 1933 (Source)

Well, those gentlemen weren’t about to wait around to be changed in an ungentle manner. Hitler was induced to sacrifice the man who raised him to power in favor of those who could keep him there, personally arrested his old friend and aide-de-camp as the June 30 purge got underway.

A sucker for nostalgia, Hitler didn’t have Röhm killed outright — the fate of many others in those terrible hours — but instead shipped him to Stadelheim Prison in Munich.* After due consideration, though, the treacherous chancellor did what he was always going to do.

Alan Bullock, in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, described the final scene.

Hitler ordered a revolver to be left in his cell, but Röhm refused to use it: “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself.” According to an eyewitness at the 1957 Munich trial of those involved, he was shot by two S.S. officers who emptied their revolvers into him at point blank range. “Röhm wanted to say something but the S.S. officer told him to shut up. Then Röhm stood at attention — he was stripped to the waist — with his face full of contempt.”

A nice twist of the Long Knife by its wielders: they justified the purge on the grounds of an imminent coup attempt by the dead SA boss,** branding the murders of Röhm and his comrades … the Röhm-putsch.

* The same prison where the White Rose resistance members were later executed.

** Reinhard Heydrich supplied a dossier implausibly alleging Röhm was on the take from the French.

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1934: Night of the Long Knives

3 comments June 30th, 2011 Headsman

In the dark hours this date in 1934, a bargain with the devil was sealed in blood.

Months before, even mere hours before, it was still possible for longstanding adherents of the National Socialist Workers’ Party to demand the “Socialist” part of the program.

The SA and the SS will not tolerate the German revolution going to sleep and being betrayed at the half-way stage by non-combatants. … It is in fact high time the national revolution stopped and became the National Socialist one. Whether [the bourgeoisie] like it or not, we will continue our struggle — if they understand at last what it is about — with them; if they are unwilling — without them; and if necessary — against them.

Populist, not Bolshevik. (In fact, stridently anti-communist.) Nevertheless, a distinct menace by the have-nots against the haves.*

Especially so because they were the words not of some impotent scribbler but of Ernst Roehm, commander of the the Nazis’ paramilitary brownshirts. And threatening, too, for Adolf Hitler for this same reason: his ascension the previous year to the Chancellorship had entailed terms with a German elite who needed but mistrusted the man’s mass party. Something was going to have to give.

The Communist exile Leon Trotsky’s 1933 analysis of the infant Nazi Germany’s dynamics proved prescient.

The banner of National Socialism was raised by upstarts from the lower and middle commanding ranks of the old army. Decorated with medals for distinguished service, commissioned and noncommissioned officers could not believe that their heroism and sufferings for the Fatherland had not only come to naught, but also gave them no special claims to gratitude. Hence their hatred of the revolution and the proletariat. At the same time, they did not want to reconcile themselves to being sent by the bankers, industrialists, and ministers back to the modest posts of bookkeepers, engineers, postal clerks, and schoolteachers. Hence their “socialism.”

German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. … The “socialist” revolution pictured by the petty-bourgeois masses as a necessary supplement to the national revolution is officially liquidated and condemned.

The Night of the Long Knives this date took those blades to the “socialists”, to the men like Roehm whose dreams of redistribution were reckless enough to picture his working-class militia supplanting the German army proper.

As its price of power, the Nazi leadership purged these dangerous elements.

At 2 a.m. this date, Hitler flew to Munich to personally arrest Roehm on the pretext of averting an imminent coup by Roehm’s SA.** Elsewhere in the Reich, coordinated arrests and summary executions destroyed the Nazi party’s “left”, and throughout this date, and continuing into the next, did not scruple to sweep up whatever other conservative elements Hitler considered unreliable.

It was a dangerous but ultimately decisive move. Albert Speer saw Hitler on July 1, and remembered him ebullient at the triumph.

Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. … Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: “I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else!”

The final death toll is uncertain. Hitler copped to 77 in a speech to the Reichstag two weeks later which chillingly claimed that “in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge”; it is likely that the true number is much higher. But its effect went far beyond those immediately killed: it tamed the SA’s independence, and permanently subordinated it to the military; and, it brought Adolf Hitler the dictatorial power that would make the succeeding years so fruitful for this blog.

Among those known to have been seized and executed and/or murdered this date:

Roehm himself died on July 2, initially spared for his many good offices for the Nazi cause before Hitler realized he could not leave him alive.

The armed forces, apparently the day’s big winner, would pay a price of their own for the arrangement.

“In making common cause with” the murderous purge, observed William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “the generals were putting themselves in a position in which they could never oppose future acts of Nazi terrorism.” As the quid for the quo, soldiers were soon required to swear “unconditional obedience” to Adolf Hitler, and this oath would give countless Wehrmacht officers sufficient reason or excuse to eschew resistance to their leader until much too late.

Barely a month after the Night of the Long Knives, the ancient German President Hindenburg died in office. Hitler, who now commanded the clear allegiance of his nation’s elites and had savagely mastered his own party besides, succeeded the powers of Hindenburg’s vacant office along with those of his own Chancellorship and became the German Fuehrer.

* When the Nazis were knee high to the Weimar Republic, their party program sought such radical stuff as abolition of rentier income, generous old-age pensions, and nationalizing trusts.

** The historicity of any actual coup plot is generally dismissed, although the event is still known in German by the expedient sobriquet the Nazi leadership gave it, Roehm-putsch.

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1941: Mirjam Sara P., T4 victim

2 comments May 27th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On or about this day in 1941, a twenty-two-year-old woman known only as Mirjam Sara P. was executed/murdered by means unknown, probably gassing.

The notice of her death was postmarked “Cholm Insane Asylum.” However, as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton notes in his book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, there was no such place: “As far as can be determined, the Cholm Insane Asylum was a fiction.”

Yes, Mirjam was Jewish. This certainly could not have helped her case, but she was actually killed as part of another genocide: the T4 program, the Nazi policy of involuntary euthanasia on people suffering from deformities, incurable illness, mental illness or anything else that made them into “useless eaters.”

Begun in 1939 with the killing of five-month-old Gerhard Kretschmar, who’d been born blind and missing two or three limbs, the T4 program would end the lives of over 200,000 people, about two-thirds of them after the program officially ended in 1941.

T4 had six death institutions, called “state nursing homes,” which were equipped with gas chambers. The operation was supposed to be a secret, but it was too big to be concealed and before long the German people thought they had a pretty good idea what was happening to their disabled loved ones.

Open criticism of a fascist government is not advisable if you like your life, so the families were limited to publishing heavy hints in their relatives’ newspaper obituaries.

Perhaps the saddest part of Mirjam’s story is that she should have survived. Of course, none of the T4 victims should have been killed, but Mirjam had excellent odds of surviving the Nazi era … until a particularly boneheaded decision by Child Welfare Services and the immigration authorities in Palestine in October 1936.

What’s Palestine got to do with it, you ask? Mirjam P.’s story is told in Tom Lampert’s documentary history, One Life, and it begins in 1933:

This Adolf Hitler guy made Mirjam’s mother uneasy, and she decided to get her family to safety as soon as possible. Mirjam, fifteen years old, long considered a “difficult child,” had been staying in a juvenile reformatory school and sanitorium for the past eighteen months when her mother called her home. She had been sent there after she stole money from her mother and ran away from home.

Mirjam, her mother and her stepfather emigrated to the city of Tel Aviv in Palestine in September 1933, nine months after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany.

Palestine didn’t agree with Mirjam; she hated the weather and had trouble learning Hebrew and Arabic. A year after her arrival, she went to live with her father in Haifa. She left after only a couple of days, however, returned to Tel Aviv and embarked on a spree of petty crimes. Her mother asked for help from Child and Welfare Services, who had two doctors examine Mirjam.

The first doctor pronounced that Mirjam had

… an advanced case of severe psychopathy with pronounced ethical defects. She lies, incurs debts, and has stolen repeatedly from her mother and her friends. She has run away from home multiple times … She roams the streets and is in danger of becoming morally depraved as a result of her strong sexual drives. In order to avoid further violations of the law, she must be admitted to a mental institution as quickly as possible. Since such an institution does not exist here, it is absolutely essential that she be sent back to Germany immediately.

The second doctor agreed:

P. is a psychopath with severe ethical defects and insufficiently developed powers of judgement. She tends to thievery and vagabonding, incurs debts, and has already developed the traits of a swindler … In order to avoid the threat of moral depravity, it is urgent that she be admitted to a remedial educational home … I know that no such institution exists in Palestine or in the neighboring countries. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the patient be sent back to Europe without delay …

Child Welfare Services provided a private tutor for Mirjam, then sent her to a group home for girls, but she didn’t fit in there and was sent back to her mother. Very quickly she fell back into her old habits. She was arrested and put on probation, but she just got arrested again. In a remarkably stupid move by the authorities, she was expelled from the country and sent back to Germany in October 1936. Perhaps Palestine thought they’d given her enough chances.

Back to Germany.

The same country she had fled from to escape Hitler. The same country where by now, under Hitler’s regime, Jews had been banned from public high schools, universities, the civil service, the army and the medical field, where Jews had been deprived of their citizenship and the rights that went with it, where Jewish-owned businesses were boycotted, where things showed every sign of becoming worse and did.

To Germany Mirjam had been sent, to prevent “serious damage to … herself, to her family, and to society as a whole.” She was eighteen years old.

Mirjam spent a few weeks with her grandmother in Berlin, but she left because she was afraid (justifiably so) that the Nazis would put her in an “education camp.”

For the next several weeks she traveled around Europe, going to Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. She tried to find a job but she lacked the necessary papers. In March 1937, she was arrested in Zurich for borrowing money under false pretenses and not repaying it. After twelve days in jail, the Swiss dropped her off at the German border.

Back at square one, Mirjam got into trouble again for petty crimes and served eight months in prison. Then she confessed to having sex with a German boyfriend, in violation of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Mirjam’s boyfriend was prosecuted and claimed he hadn’t known she was Jewish; Mirjam stated she had told him shortly after she met him. He was acquitted in December 1937.

After her release from jail, Mirjam was admitted to the Heckscher Psychiatric Hospital and Research Institute in Munich. She had her intelligence tested and performed poorly. Nurses at the hospital stated Mirjam was a demanding patient, she was lazy, she left her room a mess, she would not take responsibility for her mistakes, and she didn’t have realistic expectations for the future.

After three weeks there, the hospital sent a report to the Jewish welfare office in Munich, which indicated she hadn’t changed much since she was evaluated in Palestine:

In our judgment, P. is a mediocre but normally endowed, weak-willed, unrestrained, and asocial psychopath. Predominant are her physical urges, her limited powers of judgment and insight, and above all her lack of ethical and moral inhibitions. She is incapable of leading a responsible and purposeful life … External compulsion might gradually teach her the value of regular, long-term work and an orderly, honest life.

The evaluator suggested Mirjam be sent to the work unit of the State Mental Institution and Nursing Home.

A 21st-century reading of these evaluations suggests Mirjam was suffering first from Conduct Disorder and then its adult equivalent, Antisocial Personality Disorder. Conduct Disorder is noted “by a pattern of repetitive behavior wherein the rights of others or social norms are violated. Symptoms include verbal and physical aggression, cruel behavior toward people and pets, destructive behavior, lying, truancy, vandalism, and stealing.”

Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed only in adults and is defined as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”

Both disorders are marked by impulsivity, recurring trouble with the law, persistent stealing and lying, and lack of empathy for other people, all traits Mirjam had. These conditions, while serious, would not by themselves merit inpatient psychiatric treatment today — although, in these days of managed care, almost nothing does.

In April 1938, Mirjam escaped from the psychiatric hospital and quickly found herself in jail — petty theft again. Writing from jail during her pretrial detention in May, she asked to be expelled from Germany so she could go live with her father in Palestine, because “as a Jew it is impossible for me to amount to anything here.”

Instead she was sentenced to fourteen months in prison. After her release, in mid-June 1939, the court committed her to the Philippshospital in Goddelau. It was her next-to-last stop on the road

On February 1, 1941, the Charitable Ambulance Service (a tool of T4) picked up 29 Jewish patients from Philippshospital. On February 4, 67 Jews, including the 29 Philippshospital patients, were registered in the logbook at the T4 death institution Hadamar.

Their names were not recorded, but chances are Mirjam was among the group. At Hadamar,

Up to 100 victims arrived in post buses every day. They were falsely told to disrobe for a medical examination. Sent before a physician, instead of examining them he assigned one of a list of 60 fatal diseases to every victim, then marked them with different-colored band-aids for one of three categories: Kill; kill and remove brain for research; kill and break out gold teeth.

Ten thousand people would die there before the end of the war, through gassing, starvation and deliberate drug overdoses.

The district attorney’s office inquired as to her whereabouts and received a death notice from Cholm Insane Asylum: “We wish to inform you that the patient Mirjam Sara P. died here on May 27, 1941. Heil Hitler!”

In fact, she was probably killed earlier than this; the death dates of T4 patients were often pushed forward so the institutions could continue to charge fees for their care.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Known But To God,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Summary Executions,Women

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1948: Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann aide

Add comment May 4th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1948, SS man Dieter Wisliceny was hanged in Bratislava for his role in the destruction of European Jewry.

The Hauptsturmfuhrer joined the Nazi party in 1933 and became one of Adolf Eichmann‘s key lieutenants* implementing the Final Solution in the occupied east.

The porcine Wisliceny himself seems to have been more of an opportunist than anything else — a washout theology student who got in with the Nazis on the upswing and happily enriched himself shaking down Jews who were trying to avoid deportation from his fiefs in Slovakia, Hungary or Greece, generally without providing much substantive life-saving in return.

Arrested after the war, Wisliceny gave damning testimony to the Nuremberg court about his onetime boss.

[Eichmann] said he would leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had 5 million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.*

Wisliceny had actually been Eichmann’s superior in the 1930s, and helped to promote the man. As Eichmann surpassed him in rank, so the policy of wholesale extermination Eichmann came to symbolize surpassed Wisliceny’s Zionist emigration position.**

Notably, Wisliceny would claim that Eichmann showed him a written extermination order never recovered after the war.

I was sent to Berlin in July or August 1942 in connection with the status of Jews from Slovakia, which mission is referred to more fully hereinafter. I was talking to Eichmann in his office in Berlin when he said that on written order of Himmler all Jews were to be exterminated. I requested to be shown the order. He took a file from the safe and showed me a top secret document with a red border, indicating immediate action. It was addressed jointly to the Chief of the Security Police and SD and to the Inspector of Concentration Camps. The letter read substantially as follows :

“The Fuehrer has decided that the final solution of the Jewish question is to start immediately. I designate the Chief of the Security Police and SD and the Inspector of Concentration Camps as responsible for the execution of this order. The particulars of the program are to be agreed upon by the Chief of the Security Police and SD and the Inspector of Concentration Camps. I am to be informed currently as to the execution of this order”.

The order was signed by Himmler and was dated some time in April 1942. Eichmann told me that the words “final solution” meant the biological extermination of the Jewish race, but that for the time being able-bodied Jews were to be spared and employed in industry to meet current requirements. I was so much impressed with this document which gave Eichmann authority to kill millions of people that I said at the time : “May God forbid that our enemies should ever do anything similar to the German people”. He replied : “Don’t be sentimental-this is a Fuehrer order”

This version of the story presents its narrator in a notably un-culpable light, as befits a man giving evidence with his own life on the line. Eichmann, the nimble bureaucratic operator, scoffed at the story.

Do you believe that he sat down in order to write to me: ‘My dear Eichmann, the Fuhrer has ordered the physical annihilation of all Jews’? The truth is that Himmler never wrote down a single line in this matter … I never received an order of any kind.†

Wisliceny’s evidence against his former associate may have been motivated by the prisoners’ dilemma, but his testimony injured Eichmann all the same when the latter finally came to trial years after the war. It was cutting.

I consider Eichmann’s character and personality important factors in carrying out measures against the Jews. He was personally a cowardly man who went to great pains to protect himself from responsibility. He never made a move without approval from higher authority and was extremely careful to keep files and records establishing the responsibility of Himmler, Heydrich and later Kaltenbrunner.

Reliable or not, this stuff didn’t do Wisliceny (enough) good, either. He was handed over to Czechoslovakian authorities after the war, and hanged for war crimes.

(Some sources give February 1948 as the execution date; I believe this may have been when Wisliceny was convicted.)

* In the version Eichmann gave at his trial in Israel, his line was “five million enemies of the Reich.”

** “A memorandum (Vermerk) of April 7, 1937, signed by Wisliceny presents an argument for the emigration of all German Jews, which could be achieved only by supporting the Zionist enterprise.” (Yehuda Bauer, Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945)

Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945

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1948: The condemned from the Doctors’ Trial

2 comments June 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1948, seven SS men were hanged at Germany’s Landsberg Prison, condemned for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the so-called Doctors Trial.

Four of the hanged were doctors; three were non-physicians who assisted them. Their trial (which included 16 others, variously acquitted or sentenced to prison terms) by an American military tribunal was a conscious attempt to establish criminal responsibility among the medical profession.

As prosecutor Telford Taylor* said in his opening statement.

To kill, to maim, and to torture is criminal under all modern systems of law. These defendants did not kill in hot blood, nor for personal enrichment. Some of them may be sadists who killed and tortured for sport, but they are not all perverts. They are not ignorant men. Most of them are trained physicians and some of them are distinguished scientists. Yet these defendants, all of whom were fully able to comprehend the nature of their acts, and most of whom were exceptionally qualified to form a moral and professional judgment in this respect, are responsible for wholesale murder and unspeakably cruel tortures.

It is our deep obligation to all peoples of the world to show why and how these things happened. It is incumbent upon us to set forth with conspicuous clarity the ideas and motives which moved these defendants to treat their fellow men as less than beasts.

One of several war crimes trials after the big Nuremberg Tribunal (and held in the same courtroom), the Doctors Trial dealt with the Third Reich’s Frankenstein lab of medical experimentation.

Some of this was combat-related. How long can a downed pilot survive in the North Sea? Throw a POW into freezing water and find out.

Some was more conventional medical advancement, shorn of any ethical sense. How can we treat malaria? Inject some untermenschen and start testing.

And some of it was straight from the Nazis’ racial purification theology: euthanizing the disabled, castrating and murdering Jews and Gypsies, that sort of thing. It’s all a rich tapestry.

The doctors hanged this date included

  • Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician and the co-director of the Aktion T4 euthanasia program**
  • SS hygienist Joachim Mrugowsky, for experiments with concentration camp prisoners
  • SS surgeon and German Red Cross head Karl Gebhart, who enjoyed experimenting with operations on unanaesthetized prisoners
  • Waldemar Hoven, chief doctor at Buchenwald

They kept company with three others who didn’t see the “patients” but pushed around the paper for those who did.

Many of this day’s scaffold clientele died unrepentant; Karl Brandt harangued at such length that the hood was put over his head mid-sentence to move proceedings along.

Landsberg Prison was a fitting site for their expiation. As the New York Times reported (June 3, 1948)

The men died on two black gallows erected in the courtyard of the prison where Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf” while confined after his 1923 Munich putsch.

* In 1970, Telford wrote Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, arguing that American officials had committed war crimes in Vietnam because “we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg.”

Telford died in 1998, so his commentary on the accountability-free torture of the modern war machine is unavailable.

** Karl Brandt was actually condemned to death by a Nazi court in the closing days of the war and only narrowly avoided execution. His crime? Moving his family out of Berlin so that they could surrender to the Americans instead of the Russians.

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