1946: William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw

4 comments January 3rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1946, fascist William Joyce, famous by the nickname “Lord Haw-Haw” for his English-language Nazi propaganda broadcasts, was hanged at Wandsworth Prison for treason.

As a pugilistic young anti-Semite with the unusual credential of being a Unionist Irish Catholic, Joyce had been a moving spirit in the interwar British fascist party. (Since audio broadcasts would define Joyce’s life, it seems appropriate to refer the reader for a fuller biography to this recent Oxford biography podcast.)

But because time loves a good laugh, it had the guy haranguing his countrymen for insufficient patriotism marked out for the last treason execution in British history, and unrepentant about it by the time he got there.

The Brooklyn-born Joyce (he never lost his American citizenship) who naturalized as a German in 1940 had a rather tenuous claim on the patriotic high horse to begin with, and after the war, that meant the treason charge proceeded on legally doubtful grounds: speaking the King’s English didn’t mean he owed allegiance to the king. Prosecutors ultimately hung him with a British passport he’d obtained fraudulently, and the legal principle has never since sat well with jurists.

It was just the tool at hand. The British government really hated the guy.*

However limited the resources at his disposal — sparse intelligence, paltry staff, and of course, after 1942, a disastrously collapsing war effort — he had fashioned them into broadcast spin to twist the British lion’s tail in countless British homes throughout the war.

Here’s one episode, with Joyce savaging Winston Churchill, selected from archive.org’s library of Joyce broadcasts (1-7, 8-16, 17-23).

[audio:William_Joyce_Churchill.mp3]

Joyce’s star shone brightest and his invective cut deepest early in the war. Once everything at the front stopped coming up Teutons, he descended into irrelevance and self-parody, albeit without professing the slightest doubt in his fascist convictions.

This last broadcast, prepared just a few days before Germany capitulated, has our day’s principal ramblingly drunkenly from the besieged Nazi capital.

[audio:William_Joyce_final_broadcast.mp3]

Content-wise, not much had changed eight months later, but at least he managed to make his gallows statement coherently.

In death as in life, I defy the Jews who caused this last war, and I defy the power of darkness which they represent. I warn the British people against the crushing imperialism of the Soviet Union. May Britain be great once again and the hour of the greatest danger in the West may the standard be raised from the dust, crowned with the words — you have conquered nevertheless. I am proud to die for my ideals and I am sorry for the sons of Britain who have died without knowing why.

There’s a thorough, and lavishly illustrated, history of Joyce here.

* Authorities passed on prosecuting his wife Margaret, who’d also appeared on some Lord Haw-Haw broadcasts. Under the circumstances, Joyce’s daughter (by his first marriage) Heather Iandolo turned out pretty balanced.

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1945: The Belsen war criminals

13 comments December 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1945, British hangman Albert Pierrepoint executed eleven guards of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and two other Nazis in occupied Hameln.

Liberated only eight months before these hangings, Belsen provided the to-us-familiar store of Nazi atrocity stories. Forty-five sat in the dock at the Belsen trial under British military authority, including the notorious camp commandante Josef Kramer — better known as the Beast of Belsen — and the “Angel of Death” Irma Grese.

Those two, and nine others less distinctively nicknamed, faced the gallows. (They were hanged together with two other war criminal convicts not connected to the Belsen trial, Georg Otto Sandrock and Ludwig Schweinberger, for a total of 13.)

On December 13, 1945, Pierrepoint hanged Grese; then, Elisabeth Volkenrath; and then, Juana Bormann, each individually. Finally, the men were then dispatched in pairs.

(Other than Kramer, the most notable was Nazi doctor Fritz Klein, who gave this reading of medical ethics when queried while the camps were still operating: “My Hippocratic oath tells me to cut a gangrenous appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the gangrenous appendix of mankind. That’s why I cut them out.”)


Of all this batch, Irma Grese, the “beautiful beast”, enjoys the liveliest afterlife.

If one finds her pretty, then she was a pretty young thing — only 16 when she hitched herself to the SS; turning 22 during her fatal postwar trial.

Stalking the camp with her whip, and (rather conveniently) cited with the ravenous sexual appetite a B-movie screenwriter would give such a character, part of her siren song is plainly the fetishistic magnetism of Nazi women.

But in the numerous discussion threads about Irma Grese, any number of her advocates will emerge.

Can we leave it at the fascination that female war criminals inspire? Certainly few 22-year-old Einsatzgruppen men have the mitigatory evidence of a coming-of-age in farming and retail so lovingly emphasized, the precise measure of complicity in genocide analyzed in such detail (pdf).

Grese, perhaps, strikes as impressionable, in the youthful sense of absorbing one’s place from the world one inhabits. Her hangman wrote that “[s]he seemed as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet.” As a camp guard, she wins promotions; to her interrogators, she accepts responsibility equal to Himmler’s; among those condemned at the Belsen trial, she alone is defiant.

In that guise — and whether or not it is rightly attributed to her — she presents back to her interlocutor those timeless questions of personal identity and moral responsibility: where does abnormal psychology leave off into perfectly conventional psychology that just happens to occupy an abnormal world?

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1950: James Corbitt, the hangman’s mate

16 comments November 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1950, famed British executioner Albert Pierrepoint carried out his most difficult assignment: hanging his friend.

Though not literally the Isles’ last hangman, Pierrepoint is the last one everyone thinks of, the man who defined the hangman’s job for the 20th century.

Discreet, orderly, and as quiet as he was efficient,* he was the brand-name executioner for stiff-upper-lip England of the waning empire, with over 400** hangings to his name from 1932 until he resigned over a fee dispute in 1956.

Despite his proper avoidance of the spotlight, Pierrepoint’s excellence at his craft would make him a celebrity — especially after the press fixated on his role hanging Nazi war criminals after World War II. The ready-made morality play upon the scaffold boards could hardly be resisted: the English grocer, meting out a dignified and precise measure of justice to the likes of the Beast of Belsen.

Hanging Around

Pierrepoint’s characteristic client wasn’t a war criminal, but a humdrum British murderer, only a handful of which attract especial remembrance today.

Still, in the immediate postwar years, the growing reach of the mass media and burgeoning public controversy over the death penalty would frequently put Pierrepoint in the middle of the era’s highest-profile hangings, including:

Tish and Tosh

Like as not, this day’s affair hit the sturdy hangman harder than any of those.

James Henry Corbitt was a regular at “Help the Poor Struggler”, the piquantly named Oldham pub Pierrepoint bought and managed after World War II. Known as “Tish” to Pierrepont’s “Tosh,” the two had sung a duet of “Danny Boy” on the night that Corbitt went out and murdered his girlfriend in a jealous rage.

Corbitt was not exceptional as a criminal, and he was indisputably guilty; we wouldn’t notice him if not for his acquaintance with the man who put him to death.

But Pierrepoint would remember this one well, as he later wrote in his his autobiography:

I thought if any man had a deterrent to murder poised before him, it was this troubadour whom I called Tish. He was not only aware of the rope, he had the man who handled it beside him singing a duet. The deterrent did not work.

Remarkably, the most prolific executioner in British history had come out against the death penalty, or so it seemed. (He later backed away from a strong anti-death penalty position, though without retracting his original reservations. The death penalty had been a decade off the books by this point, in any case.)

It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men and grandmothers.

I have been amazed to see the courage with which they walk into the unknown.

It did not deter them then and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any … capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.

It’s an open question how much Tish’s hanging this day really contributed to Pierrepoint’s retirement six years later or his apparent change of stance on his trade. But it provides the gut-wrenching dramatic pivot for the film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.

Interestingly, while the hangman saw in Corbitt’s fate a troubling indictment of the death penalty, the hanged man’s son to this day still says dad deserved to die.

More on Albert Pierrepoint

For a man so ubiquitously present in the mid-century experience of Great Britain, and who undertook such a dramatic volte-face, it’s no surprise that Pierrepoint has attracted plenty of attention — including this website, and a number of books.

Also of possible interest: Hangmen of England: History of Execution from Jack Ketch to Albert Pierrepoint (we’ve met Jack Ketch here before). More dry factual data about Pierrepoint, the father and uncle who preceded him in the post, and other recent practitioners in Britain’s colorful line of executioners is here.

* The English practice was for Pierrepoint to pinion the prisoner’s arms in the condemned cell, escort him a few steps into a hanging chamber, hood him, and execute the sentence without further ceremony. The whole process took mere seconds — a record fast seven seconds from cell door to trap door in the case of James Inglis — which Pierrepoint seems to have had a gift for dignifying in his (usual) silence with a sort of calming paternal assurance.

Pierrepoint hanged six American soldiers under the auspices of U.S. military forces deployed to England during the Second World War, and confessed to considerable discomfort with that entity’s protracted pre-hanging procedures that had him standing on the scaffold with the condemned man for several minutes.

* And perhaps well over 600 hangings; the figures are disputed.

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1942: Partisans by the Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger

6 comments November 21st, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date in November 1942, this photograph of an SS unit executing anti-Nazi partisans in Belarus was taken.

Behind this striking but all too typical image of brutal field executions on the eastern front lies the sordid story of one of the strangest military formations in the Nazi service.

The Dirlewanger brigade was formed under a man whose fortuitous early enrollment in the NSDAP had enabled him to pull strings to get himself out of Dachau, where he had been sent after his second molestation conviction, and where unfolding events could have easily seen him on the other end of the firing squad.

Instead, Oskar Dirlewanger formed a unit of criminals and reprobates: poachers at first, and eventually, as it grew into the SS-Sonderbatallion Dirlewanger, men culled from the camps or soldiers condemned by the army, some literally trading the likelihood of execution themselves for service under one of the most disreputable commanders in the field.

Oh, and, just incidentally — it stuck them into a lawless environment where they could probably practice and refine their pathologies unchecked. Some “rehabilitation.”

As of this relatively early date, the convict floodgates weren’t yet entirely open, and the existing German volunteers were supplemented by a goodly portion of Soviet citizens recruited in the occupied territories. From 1942 to 1944, they hung around Belarus hunting guerrillas and doing to them — well, you know. (The original notion of using poachers was to exploit their ranger-like woodsman talents for anti-partisan warfare.)

Oh, and civilians. Tens of thousands of civilians. That almost goes without saying.

Sadly for Dr. Dirlewanger, events further south were undoing all his bloody work, for it was also in the November 1942 that the Red Army decisively turned the tide of the war with its counterattack at Stalingrad — in fact, it was this very date in 1942 that it completed its encirclement, stranding a quarter-million freezing Wehrmacht regulars on the banks of the Volga, only a handful ever to see Germany again.

The Dirlewanger brigade would have its own turn being minced by the Soviet war machine, though not before it had a notorious hand in drowning the Warsaw Uprising in blood.

Dirlewanger himself was tortured to death by Polish guards a few weeks after the war ended.

Part of the Themed Set: The “Ex” Stands For “Extrajudicial”.

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1946: Amon Göth, Schindler’s List villain

September 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Plaszow concentration camp commandante Amon Göth was hanged near the camp site by Poland’s postwar Communist government.

Göth is most widely recognizable as Ralph Fiennes’ fiendish character in Schindler’s List, one of the American Film Institute’s top movie villains of all time. (And, naturally, a first-class bastard in real life, too.)

A short-drop strangulation is not the way you’d want to go. It turns out, though, that Steven Spielberg (ever the sentimentalist) seriously tidied up the proceedings.

As you watch the video of the real Amon Goeth’s exit below — and it’s a snuff film, so proceed advisedly — consider the following:

  • Amon Goeth does bear a passing fair resemblance to Ralph Fiennes.

  • To judge by their getup — dig the masks! — the executioners might have been Batman and Robin.
  • To judge by the discharge of their duties, the executioners might have been Larry, Moe and Curly. Goeth survived two drops (notice the executioner on the right gesticulating in frustration as the second try fails) before they finally got it right:

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1944: Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, for the plot to kill Hitler

26 comments July 21st, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1944, four senior Wehrmacht officers who had come within an ace of murdering Adolf Hitler less than 12 hours earlier were summarily shot in Berlin — the first of thousands executed for the most famous assassination attempt on the Fuhrer.

One of those rare moments where historical epochs (arguably) turn on the minutest exigencies of chance, the so-called July 20 plot had seen Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg insinuate a bomb into Hitler’s conference room in modern-day eastern Poland, then fly back to Berlin to mount a coup d’etat.

Blam

Stauffenberg had every reason as he left Wolfsschanze to believe the devastating blast at 12:42 p.m. must have killed the Nazi dictator. Little did he know that another officer at the table where the high command was plotting strategy for the eastern front had, in the name of legroom, shifted the deadly satchel to the other side of a heavy oak table support — shielding Hitler from the brunt of the explosion.

Four men died. Hitler had hearing loss, an injury to his right arm, and one hell of a grudge.

Stauffenberg weaseled out of the confused bunker and flew back to Berlin, expecting that his confederates were even then launching Operation Valkyrie — a contingency plan for martial law in the case of civic disturbance that the conspirators intended to use to mount a coup.

Failure to Communicate

Control and distribution of information was not the least of the many threads in the tapestry of July 20, 1944. Hitler had risen to power on his artful grasp of propaganda; today, his headquarters’ mastery of communications would overpower the putschists’ rank amateurism.

While en route, Stauffenberg had no ability to communicate to the wider world. Landing in Berlin three hours after the not-quite-deadly-enough blast at Wolfsschanze, he must have been stunned to find that Valkyrie had not been launched. Apparently, fragmentary reports from the east were unclear as to whether Hitler had survived; everyone was reluctant about committing himself.

Frantically, Stauffenberg — already deeply committed — rallied his comrades and set the treasonable gears into motion. But by this time, communications with Hitler’s headquarters had been re-established and contradictory reports of the assassination attempt’s success were flying in Berlin. Stauffenberg’s sincere but incorrect eyewitness testimony of Hitler’s death became increasingly untenable. Compounded by the sluggish and ill-coordinated action of the conspirators, officers of a more opportunist bent soon began lining up with the bad guys.

Joseph Goebbels, the senior Nazi in Berlin and Hitler’s wizard of public relations, was inexplicably left unmolested for hours — long enough to phone the radio station (also never seized) an announcement of Hitler’s survival. “To think that these revolutionaries weren’t even smart enough to cut the telephone wires! My little daughter would have thought of that.”

Conspirators’ orders to military units around Berlin went out late, piecemeal, and far too often fell on ears already deaf to the appeals. In some cases, the proclamations that should have been queued up for inundating the airwaves instantaneously were with some other officer not on the scene, and consequently were haphazardly redrafted on the fly — for telex operators who had caught the day’s drift themselves and intentionally delayed or ignored them.

From the perspective of a radio editor it was tragic. Tragic because the way in which details were handled made it obvious that this revolt had had very lithe chance of succeeding. (Source)

The coup fell apart almost as soon as it began.

Fromm Here to Eternity

Most decisively of all, timely information had prevented any participation by Gen. Friedrich Fromm, Stauffenberg’s commanding officer and the head of the Reserve Army — it was that position that allowed his aide access to Hitler’s person, and it was under his authority that the putschists were issuing their Valkyrie orders.

Fromm fell in the “opportunist” camp, and would have been ready to strike had the Fuhrer been demonstrably killed. But a telephone connection straight from the scene of the crime assured him that Hitler had survived … and that his adjutant was a wanted man.

Fromm the potential collaborator quickly turned the tables on Stauffenberg and company late on the night of the 20th.

The Schwein Abides

Before advancing to our heroes’ foreordained fate, take a moment to appreciate this newsreel rushed into production to assure the German public that everything was under control. It’s an impressive advance on statist slick-talking from Germany’s World War I clunkers (like this):

Notice Hitler greeting Mussolini — the two had been scheduled to meet that day; it would be their last encounter in this world. His maimed right arm hanging concealed beneath a greatcoat, Hitler shakes left-handed.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Now that Fromm saw which way the wind was blowing, he acted with alacrity: many executions in the days to come were the product of Hitler’s vengeance, but this night, Claus von Stauffenberg, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, Friedrich Olbricht, and Werner von Haeften were shot on Fromm’s orders for Fromm’s benefit. Here’s Shirer’s description of the fatal scene:

Fromm … had quickly made up his mind to eliminate these men and not only to cover up the traces — for though he had refused to engage actively in the plot, he had known of it for months, sheltering the assassins and not reporting their plans — but to curry favor with Hitler as the man who put down the revolt. In the world of the Nazi gangsters it was much too late for this, but Fromm did not realize it.

He … announce[d] that “in the name of the Fuehrer” he had called a session of a “court-martial” (there is no evidence that he had) and that it had pronounced death sentences on four officers: “Colonel of the Genera Staff Mertz, General Olbricht, this colonel whose name I no longer know [Stauffenberg, his aide], and this lieutenant [Haeften].”

In the courtyard below in the dim rays of the blackout-hooded headlights of an Army car the four officers were quickly dispatched by a firing squad. Eyewitnesses say there was much tumult and shouting, mostly by the guards, who were in a hurry because of the danger of a bombing attack — British planes had been over Berlin almost every night that summer. Stauffenberg died crying, “Long live our sacred Germany!”

The courtyard of the Bendlerblock on modern-day Stauffenbergstrasse in Berlin, where Col. Stauffenberg and three compatriots were shot. Photo by Daniel Ullrich, licensed by CC-by-sa.

Minutes after they died, the SS arrived on the scene and forbade any further executions of potential witnesses.

Fromm’s gambit didn’t work any better than Stauffenberg’s had: he was arrested right away, and was himself later shot.

What If?

While the afternoon’s theatrics may have been doomed from the moment Hitler arose unkilled from the bomb’s debris, his miraculous escape from death — “confirmation of the task imposed upon me by Providence,” he told the nation in a radio address an hour after Stauffenberg’s execution — is an inexhaustible mine for historical hypothesizing.

That the bomb could have, and would have with the least change in the principle variables, slain the dictator is widely accepted; a 2005 reconstruction of the blast scene by the Discovery Channel supports that belief in the context of the cable-documentary-friendly format* of Adolf Hitler plus slow-mo explosives. (Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series set up the episodes excerpted here with the plot’s historical background and the crew’s investigation into the precise dimensions of the blast space — a combination of file footage, modern recreation shots, talking heads, and tromping about the forest in the modern remains of Wolfsschanze.)

But that’s the easy what-if.

More problematic — and well into the realm of bar-stool dickering — are the questions of what would have happened if the explosive had hit its target.

Stauffenberg enjoys latter-day popularity in Germany — the street where he was shot bears his name — in no small measure because of the confessedly quixotic nature of the attempted murder. Indeed, he probably died at the height of his potential popularity for history.

But it’s not for nothing that this attempt (though it did have many botched antecedents) took place in the weeks when Germany’s military position went from desperate to disastrous. Over the preceding two months, Soviet offenses had pushed the front back to the prewar Polish border, and the Normandy landing had opened a rapidly expanding western front. The assassination had a healthy dose of self-interest … and therefore was at least potentially antithetical to other interests at play in the great conflagration.

The motivation of sparing the Fatherland the ravages of war on its own soil is not ignoble of itself, of course. But given this opposition circle’s years-long failure to take effective action against Hitler while he went from successful crime to successful crime, one might ask a little more than a late-breaking suicidal gambit for unreserved historical vindication.

The German military’s deal with the devil had seen Europe’s greatest armed forces squandered by its dumbest commander. The end result would bleed the Nazi state white at unspeakable human cost … but also, arguably, towards one of the better postwar outcomes imaginable.

And would the coup even have achieved the goal of leaving Germany unoccupied? It seems impossible to think that any outcome would have been worse than Hitler, and the last year of the war was also its bloodiest … but among the spectrum of counterfactual alternatives, the appealing possibilities mostly seem to work out in spite of the plotters, rather than because of them.

1. Civil War?

Countercoups, or even outright civil war, might very likely have erupted between rivals for succession. This might have worked out as the best-case situation — fragmenting German resistance and hastening the inevitable — but it might also have given Germany a leaner, meaner fascism with a path to enduring long-term. Predicting any particular arrangement of players to emerge from this black box is a just-so story, and any of them probably leads to one of the other three alternatives; certainly the plotters weren’t banking on their own subsequent overthrow.

2. Status Quo Ante?

The coup might have utterly failed to obtain peace. German was close to defeat; the Allies were demanding unconditional surrender, and the entire point of the plot was to surrender on better terms than that. Had no quarter been offered, the putschist government might then have fought on (either by choice, or by the compulsion of internal politics) to much the same end, although quite plausibly with much less gratuitous bloodletting in the camps. Accidentally abating the Holocaust would be a very significant plus, of course, but probably not what posterity has in mind when it goes naming streets for the man.

3. World War Against Russia?

The new government might have successfully made peace with the western Allies, which was its fervent hope. Under the circumstances of the summer of 1944, that practically implied the continuation of the global war with the capitalist and fascist powers aligning against the USSR. The horrors of the eastern front up to the summer of 1944 then would likely pale in comparison to what followed. You could tell the story so that it all works out in the end, but replacing the long Cold War with an immediate hot war, especially with the United States less than a year away from its first successful A-bomb test, isn’t exactly a presumptive improvement.

4. 1918 Redux?

In the all but unimaginable case that the post-Hitler government successfully sued for peace on both its fronts (or accepted unconditional surrender), it would have had to give up to a Soviet buffer zone much of what the Soviets ultimately conquered. Millions who died fighting for it, and millions more who died in concentration camps while the fighting played out, and millions of women raped by the conquering Red Army, would have considered that arrangement an improvement; still, the peace itself could have ensconced a less crazy and therefore more durable military dictatorship in central Europe, which wouldn’t necessarily seem like an altogether positive outcome vis-a-vis the actual postwar history. More worryingly, this might have horribly recapitulated the post-World War I scenario in which the liberal politicians who accepted defeat, and not the crazed reactionaries who caused it, were blamed for the loss, fueling the subsequent rise of some unattractive revanchist successor state. Precisely because that example would have been uppermost in the officers’ own minds, it’s hard to believe this least-bloodthirsty path would have been the actual consequence of the coup.

And so on …

Second-order effects from any of these possibilities generate a novelist’s trove of alternative histories. What would the map of eastern Europe have looked like? Whither European Jewry … and therefore the postwar state of Israel … and therefore the political chessboard in the Middle East? What would an early resolution in Europe have meant for the Pacific theater, or for the Chinese revolution? How would decolonization movements have been affected had the war concluded earlier, or had it transformed into a worldwide anti-Communist war?

Postscript

Somewhere in those alternate realities, staff at the re-education camp are bantering over happy hour about what would have happened if Stauffenberg had failed.

Who knows if “internally peacable European social democracies” are a bullet point for the pie-eyed optimists, or the incorrigible pessimists?

A few of the books about Stauffenberg and Operation Valkyrie

Poor Col. Stauffenberg is due to be played by a smirking Tom Cruise in the biopic Valkyrie, a role that has drawn some slightly overheated controversy in Germany over Cruise’s adherence to Scientology.

* And, let’s face it, blog-friendly, too.

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1923: Albert Leo Schlageter, Nazi martyr

5 comments May 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1923, a German paramilitary was shot by a French firing squad near Dusseldorf for his anti-occupation sabotage efforts.

Albert Leo Schlageter, a World War I veteran and conservative Catholic who signed up with the right-wing Freikorps and tangled with communists after the war, joined the fledging Nazi party when it absorbed his Freikorps unit in 1922.

The next year, France occupied the Ruhr to secure war reparations payments then crippling Germany, which would do much to speed the rise of the Nazis in the years ahead.

Schlageter was nabbed sabotaging railroad lines in resistance, and Berlin’s protests didn’t help him much.

He became a Nazi martyr literally overnight, and as the nationalist right ascended, the place of his passion was marked with a 90-foot cross and used for party rallies. His name christened a naval vessel, a Luftwaffe fighter wing, two SA units, and several Nazi badges and decorations:

A 1923 NSDAP pin honoring Schlageter.

There was also a play about him, Schlageter, whose debut performance was for Hitler’s first birthday as Chancellor in 1933. The most famous work of Hanns Johst, it was notable for the line “Wenn ich ‘Kultur’ höre, entsichere ich meinen Browning!” — “When I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my gun!” — subsequently adopted by so many gun-reaching Nazi kulturkampfers that it is provenance is regularly misattributed.

Unsurprisingly, Schlageter’s cult has waned into obscurity since 1945. But one needs not endorse his philosophy or its horrifying posthumous expressions to appreciate the man’s struggle against foreign occupation and bravery in what he took to be the country’s interests.

For the Communist Karl Radek, this martyr of the right stood for many more whose sincere intentions had been bent against themselves — “those German Fascisti, who honestly thought to serve the German people.” Addressing the Communist International’s Executive Committee in the days after the officer’s execution, Radek anticipated Schlageter pointing the way to a future very different from that which came to pass:

Schlageter, a courageous soldier of the counter-revolution, deserves to be sincerely honoured by us, the soldiers of the revolution.

Schlageter went … to the Ruhr, not in the year 1923 but in the year 1920. Do you know what that meant? He took part in the attack of German capital upon the Ruhr workers; he fought in the ranks of the troops whose task it was to bring the miners of the Ruhr under the heel of the iron and coal kings. The troops of Waters, in whose ranks he fought, fired the same leaden bullets with which General Degoutte quelled the Ruhr workers. We have no reason to believe that it was from selfish motives that Schlageter helped to subdue the starving miners.

The way in which he risked his life speaks on his behalf, and proves that he was convinced he was serving the German people.

[The German Communist Party] believe[s] that the great majority of the nationalist-minded masses belong not to the camp of the capitalists but to the camp of the workers. We want to find, and we shall find, the path to these masses. We shall do all in our power to make men like Schlageter, who are prepared to go to their deaths for a common cause, not wanderers into the void, but wanderers into a better future for the whole of mankind; that they should not spill their hot, unselfish blood for the profit of the coal and iron barons, but in the cause of the great toiling German people, which is a member of the family of peoples fighting for their emancipation.

Schlageter himself cannot now hear this declaration, but we are convinced that there are hundreds of Schlageters who will hear it and understand it.

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1945: Albrecht Haushofer, German Resistance intellectual

3 comments April 23rd, 2008 Sarah Owocki

On April 23, 1945, in Nazi Germany’s Berlin-Moabit prison, with the Red Army fast approaching, the SS executed Albrecht Haushofer for his part in the previous year’s July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

A social and political conservative and driving force behind the nascent field of “geopolitics,” which held views of the State “as a geographic organism or a spatial phenomenon” that were incorporated into the National Socialist ideology of “Lebensraum,” Haushofer was an early darling of the drive to find academic and scientific justification for Nazi beliefs and ideals — this despite his own part-Jewish parentage.

Haushofer had reservations about the intentions of the Nazi party following its rise to power in the 1930s, but he nonetheless consented to represent it in foreign affairs, having spent significant time abroad as a geopolitics student in the 1920s. Acting as chief foreign affairs adviser to Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s chief deputy, Haushofer traveled widely to promote German foreign policy. During this time, he wrote a series of historical dramas — Scipio (1934), Sulla (1938), and Augustus (1939) — containing progressively more strident symbolic criticisms of his age.

Believing that Germany must not get involved in another disastrous foreign war, Haushofer was a significant force in negotiating for peace with Britain and France. “The peoples of Europe are in a position in which they have to get on together lest they all perish,” he wrote; “and although one realises that it is not common sense but emotional urges which govern the world, one must try to control such urges.” As Hitler’s desire for war became ever more paramount, however, Haushofer lost his position with the government and returned to Germany, remaining active in secret talks to persuade the British to accept a new peace agreement.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Haushofer remained a professor of geopolitics at the University of Berlin, but distanced himself from his Nazi past and began associating with elements of the German resistance. As the war wore on, he consistently opposed any attempt on Hitler’s life, but finally agreed to join the July plot as the only way to end the war without bringing further disaster upon Germany. With the plot’s failure, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and executed just days before the Red Army liberated Berlin.

Haushofer composed the Moabiter Sonette (pdf) while in prison, a series of poems posthumously published in 1946 regarded as among the most powerful documents of the German antiwar movement. One of his most well-known sonnets, “Schuld,” attemps to express — in sad retrospect — the weight of his moral guilt in the face of impending death:

“Schuld”

…schuldig bin ich
Anders als Ihr denkt.
Ich musste früher meine Pflicht erkennen;
Ich musste schärfer Unheil Unheil nennen;
Mein Urteil habe ich zu lang gelenkt…
Ich habe gewarnt,
Aber nicht genug, und klar;
Und heute weiß ich, was ich schuldig war.

“Guilt”

I am guilty,
But not in the way you think.
I should have earlier recognized my duty;
I should have more sharply called evil evil;
I reined in my judgment too long.
I did warn,
But not enough, and clear;
And today I know what I was guilty of.

The poem’s last line can be variously translated as “And today I know what I was guilty of” or “And today I know what my obligation had been.” Through this subtle play on words, Haushofer created a powerful poetic link between his failure to act decisively and the supposed “guilt” — “not in the way you think” — for which he had been condemned. His poems remain a testament to the power as well as the responsiblities of the individual under dictatorship, and have earned their writer a place in the annals of history as well as modern-day memorials to the German resistance movement.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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