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Last Axe Decapitations in the West October 21, 2010

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

A description this morning from one of Beachcombing’s books of the season Charles Duff’s A Handbook on Hanging, reviewed in September. To make sense of what follows it should be remembered that Germany had inherited from Prussia beheading as a form of capital punishment. Of course, France too favoured decapitation but employed the more lithe and winsome guillotine – arguably stolen from an English original, the Halifax Gibbet (another day, another post). The Germans, however, who were medievalists when it mattered, persisted with blocks and sharpened axes in parts of the country, particularly Berlin until suprisingly late. Duff carries us on.

‘German headsmen went into retirement [under Weimar], but as Adolf Hitler and his friends gathered political momentum those headsmen began to regain hope. A philosopher of Italian Fascism had written that the capital punishment of those who were a danger to the State was an accepted tenet of that creed; and German National Socialism seemed unlikely not to accept so useful a principle. It so happened that a distinguished Englishman (who was interested in the rise of Hitler) used to visit Germany before the Führer came to power. One morning, in the early 1930s after a heavy political banquet, this Englishman decided to go out of the city for a walk in the open country – just to get a breath of fresh air and clear his head. As he walked across a field in the early morning mist he saw at some distance ahead the figure of a tall, well-built man who appeared to be chopping wood in a curious manner. On approaching him the Englishman noticed that it was not wood but turnips he was chopping: and that they were not being chopped into small pieces but were merely cut into two. The tall man, each time he cut a turnip, went through a ritual as follows. He would pick up a turnip from a heap, mark it, place it on a log, stand back, swing his formidable axe, bringing it down with a swish and he nearly always cut the turnip neatly into two pieces. Then he would stand back, draw himself sharply to attention, raise his right hand in the Nazi salute, look solemnly skywards, and say aloud, ‘Heil Hitler!’ Pause. And then he would repeat the whole ceremony over again… The Englishman was deeply interested, and in his best German asked the tall man what exactly he was doing. ‘Merely keeping my hand in’, the tall man replied. When the Englishman showed by his face that he was puzzled, the tall man said: ‘Have you not heard the phrase ‘Heads shall roll’? Well I advise you to study politics. I am a principal executioner and headsman. Decapitation is a certain cure for political dandruff. Mine is going to be a fine job soon, and I wish to be able to defy the competition.’ (109-110)

The first Nazi axe decapitations came in 1933 (the year Hitler came to power) and proceeded apace until 1938 when they were replaced by other more efficient methods including the guillotine. Beachcombing is wondering about the last judicial decapitations by axe or sword in the west. Were they the German executions of 1938? The answer is certain to be no. But in which case where did the last state-ordered axe executions take place? Were there examples from South America or eastern Europe? [drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com] Beachcombing would also like to know what Duff’s source was – there were many ‘distinguished’ Englishmen who went to Nazi political banquets…

Beachcombing should note that some Arab countries still use beheadings today, while, of course, Japanese executions by sword were notorious in the Second World War (yet another post, yet another day).

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15 Dec 2010: SEVERD writes in about the last axe execution: ‘I believe the last judicial executions with the axe (richtbeil) in Germany were carried out in 1935 when the axe fell on the necks of two women (Natzmer and Falkhayn) condemned for espionage.  The executions were carried out at Berlin- Plotzensee Prison and the executioner was Carl Groppler, one of the state scharfrichters.  It is possible the executioner described in Duff’s book could have been Reindel, Englehardt or Groppler. They all competed for “work” and made money at it.  The image of the axe-swinging German executioner become a negative icon damaging to the new Nazi government.  Standardization also was the watchword as Hitler seized control and unified Germany. So it is hardly a surprise that in 1936 same year Hitler directed the Reich Ministry of Justice (oxymoron eh?) to issue an order standardizing the guillotine (German “fallbeil”) throughout the Reich.  The guillotine replaced the axe in states where it and even the sword, were formerly used.  In fact the guillotine had been used in some German states as far back as the Napoleanic occupation of Prussia.  The hand axe also was used in some Scandinavian countries up to1900 but not in South America or Eastern Europe.  There is some record of the hand axe again being used in the post-war Eastern Zone of Germany and the guillotine continued to be used for many years.  Capital punishment in the Western Zone was abolished in 1949.’ Thanks SEVERD!