When people think of a guillotine, they usually picture a medieval setting with a castle, a crowd of peasants and villagers ready for a spectacle. Beheadings were often an event to be witnessed during the French Revolution, after all. What most people probably do not envisage is a guillotine sitting in a room with fluorescent lighting and a man in a suit.
The device was used by the Nazi’s during WWII and is believed to have ended the lives of almost 16,000 people – men and women alike – during their twelve years in power.
The Germans use of the guillotine came to light when it was discovered in the Bavarian National Museum in Munich. It is believed the machine was responsible for the beheading of 21-year-old Sophie Scholl on February 22, 1943. She was convicted of being a leading member of the White Rose movement. They were a group who peacefully resisted the regime and wrote anti-Nazi pamphlets which they distributed to university students in Munich.
Sophie was the first of her comrades to be sentenced to death—which took place merely three hours after being found guilty by stout Nazi judge, Roland Freisler.
Sophie shared a cell with her brother and Christoph Probst, both members of the White Rose movement. According to one account, Sophie walked proudly to her death, and is said to have stated: ‘How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine sunny day and I have to go, but what does my death matter if, through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?’
A few moments after her final words left her lips; her head fell into the bloodied basket below. She was one of 3,009 people put to death by Nazi Germany’s prominent executioner, Johann Reichhart who later said that Sophie was the bravest person he ever killed.
Within an hour, Hans Scholl and Christoph Probst met their fate the same way. It has been reported that Hans shouted ‘Long live freedom!’ as he made his way to the chamber.
It is rarely mentioned, but when the Nazis first came to power, they were cautious about using the death penalty. At the beginning of their regime, they did not wield much authority and feared an uprising if they were to execute their own people.
In the Plotzensee Prison, only 45 people were sentenced to death between 1933 and 1936. That figure was dwarfed in later years. At the beginning of the Nazi regime, Hitler was concerned that judicial execution varied throughout the nation. There was the guillotine, hanging, shooting, and perhaps most gruesome, an ax. Hitler established a standard means of implementation to put “miscreant citizens to death” as reported by the Daily Mail. At first, Hitler was reluctant to use the guillotine, as it evoked memories of the French Reign of Terror. He much preferred the use of concentration camps.
“At least we have not set up a guillotine,” Hitler said in a newspaper interview at the end of 1933. “Even the worst elements have only needed to have been separated from the nation.” Over eight and a half years, approximately 16,500 people were killed by the device. Although it is believed that beheadings are a painless way to die, there is anecdotal evidence that the brain retains some functions inside the severed head for at least 90 seconds after the blow.
Nonetheless, one Nazi doctor claimed that a trip to the “dentist was worse than the guillotine,” because the nerve endings were severed and the brain did not feel any pain. Those who were killed came from all walks of life — and all age groups. The youngest to be beheaded was Helmuth Hubener, who was just 17 when he was guillotined for distributing anti-war leaflets around Hamburg. After he had been sentenced to death, Helmuth said to the judges: “Now I must die, even though I have committed no crime. So now it’s my turn, but your turn will come.”
The sentencing of a child to death appalled many. Even members of the Gestapo appealed for clemency. However, at 8.13 on the evening of October 27, 1942, Helmuth was beheaded. For executioners such as Sophie Scholl’s killer Johann Reichhart, the Nazi boom in the use of the guillotine made them wealthy. Those who dropped the blade were paid 3,000 Reichsmarks per year — and received a 65 Reichsmark bonus per execution. Reichhart earned enough to buy a villa in an affluent Munich suburb.
Cruelly, the Nazis even charged the families of those they had imprisoned and beheaded. For every day that a prisoner was held, a fee of 1.50 Reichsmarks was charged. The executions cost 300 Reichsmarks. Even the 12 pfennig cost of posting the invoice was demanded back by the Nazi state.
On October 12, 1943, another member of the White Rose sat in his prison cell waiting for the guillotine. His name was Willi Graf, and he had acted as a recruiter for the group. He wrote to his family that morning, “On this day I’m leaving this life and entering eternity. What hurts me most of all is that I am causing such pain to those of you who go on living.” They had no idea that Willi had been beheaded and found out the truth only when a letter they sent to him was returned, stamped bluntly with the word “Deceased.”
His own letter reached the Graf family a few days later. It is likely that Willi met his fate on the same guillotine as Sophie Scholl. In fact, several hundred — perhaps more than 1,000 — died on that piece of macabre machinery. Today, the Germans are divided as to what to do with the instrument of death and misery unearthed from the Munich museum’s basement.
Some think the guillotine should form the centerpiece of a new exhibition about those who resisted the Nazis. Franz Josef Muller, on the other hand, the last surviving member of the White Rose, feels that it should stay locked away. ‘No, this should not go on display,’ the 89-year-old Muller says. “No entertainment must be made of their violent deaths. The memory of Sophie and Hans is deep within me. I think of them every day.”