The Guillotine in Nazi Germany

We associate the guillotine with France and particularly with the French Revolution. However Germany also used the guillotine and Nazi Germany used it a lot, decapitating thousands of people.

From 1928 to 1932 there were no more than  two or three executions a year in Germany. The rise of the National Socialist party in 1933 produced  a sudden increase in executions. Before 1933, only murder and high treason were capital crimes and in Berlin, beheading (with the axe) was the only lawful method of execution. (Other states used beheading with the axe or the guillotine).

When Hitler came to total power, he decided that criminals and enemies of the state should be executed by either guillotining [or hanging from 1942] and he ordered the construction of 20 guillotines. There were 64 executions  in 1933, 79 in 1934, 94 in 1935 and 68 in 1936.  Between 1933 and 1944, a total of 13,405 death sentences were passed. Of these, 11,881 were carried out.

Between 1943 and 1945, the People’s Courts sentenced around 7,000 people to death. In the first few months of 1945, some 800 people were executed, over 400 of them being German citizens.

Many executions were carried out in Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison. Between 1933 and 1945, some 2,891 people were decapitated or hanged in Plötzensee.  Some of them had belonged to Communist resistance groups, others to the Harnack/Schulze-Boysen Organization (the Red Orchestra), and still others to the Kreisau Circle. On the 20th of July 1944, an attempt was made on Hitler’s life by a group of army officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. The attempt failed, and between the 8th of August 1944 and the 9th of April 1945, a total of 90 people were executed in Plötzensee for their parts in the conspiracy.

Plötzensee’s guillotine was delivered on the 17th of February 1937 from Bruchsal prison in Baden. In late 1942, a steel gallows beam was erected in the existing execution chamber, and five, later eight hooks, for attachment of nooses.  The two execution areas were separated by curtains.  Condemned prisoners  spent their final hours shackled in special cells on the ground floor of a building which was known as the  ”house of the dead,” before being led across a small courtyard to the execution chamber.

Plotzensee Prison execution room

The executioners receive an annual salary of 3,000 Reichsmarks and a special bonus of 60 Reichsmarks for each execution, which was later raised to 65 Reichsmarks. The families of the executed prisoners had to pay an “invoice of expenses.”  The public prosecutor charged 1.50 Reichsmarks for every day of custody in Plötzensee, 300 Reichsmarks for the execution, and 12 Pfennigs to cover the postage for the “invoice of expenses.”

Initially Roettger, the Plötzensee executioner,  came twice a week and carried out his work in the early evenings. Guillotinings could be carried out at three minute intervals.  Hangings involved slow strangulation, not the more merciful neck breaking drop used in the UK and other countries.  The prisoner was led in with their hands tied behind them and made to get up onto the two step step-up, the executioner following them and placing the thin cord slip knot around their neck. They were not hooded or blindfolded. The executioner got down and simply pulled the step-up from under them leaving them suspended with little or no drop. Subsequent prisoners had to witness the struggles of the earlier victims before it was their turn.

On the night of the 7th–8th September 1943, 186 prisoners were hanged  to prevent their escape from the prison following heavy damage by an Allied bombing raid in which some cell blocks and the guillotine were damaged.

Because the guillotine could not be used the prisoners were hanged from the hooks in groups of eight. In the night of September 7-8, 1943, 186 people died in this manner. Six prisoners whose clemency proceedings were still pending were “mistakenly” hanged. When Reich Justice Minister Otto Thierack learned of this he concealed the error and ordered the mass executions to continue.  A further 60 were hanged over the next few nights.

Plotzensee guillotine after the air raid

Guillotines were also used in other German cities and in countries occupied by the Germans.  The two photographs below are from Dresden. There is a block of condemned cells in the small courtyard of a building which is now used by a local university.

Dresden guillotine condemned cell

The guillotine was set up next to the cell block.

Dresden Guillotine

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