An instrument of murder that no one has been allowed to see for decades. It had long been visible without anyone suspecting it. We are talking about the so-called Munich or Stadelheim guillotine, developed in 1855 by the tower clock designer Johann Mannhardt. His device, called the "drop sword machine", was used to make executions more humane – faster and more reliable. Public spectacles in which a drunken executioner fails to kill the delinquent with a sword blow should be a thing of the past. The Kingdom of Bavaria ordered two machines from Mannhardt, one for Munich and one for Würzburg.

Hannes Hintermeier

Feuilleton-Korrespondent für Bayern und Österreich.

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The Munich guillotine was in use for ninety years. Until 1933, 125 convicts were executed with it, in the twelve years of the "Thousand Year Reich" around 1200. Including many political opponents. As the President of the People's Court, Roland Freisler, put it, they proceeded according to the motto "High treason is: what does not suit us!". Johann Reichhart, supposedly the fastest executioner of all time, completed the task in a few seconds, according to the protocol.

Allegedly sunk in the Danube

The corpses ended up in shortened coffins, were usually handed over to the anatomy. The bereaved received a hefty bill. The death penalty was a lump sum of 300 Reichsmarks, the beheading 144 Reichsmark extra. The last victim of the Munich guillotine was the stolen goods and poacher Guerrino Bozzato from Padua on April 10, 1945.

Then the device is transported to the prison Straubing, rumors circulate that it had been sunk in the Danube. Instead, it moves to Regensburg for repairs and continues to gather dust there until it is offered to the Bavarian National Museum in the early seventies. This catalogues the disassembled new entry with the original traces of blood under the numbers NN2777.1 (execution bench) and NN2793.1 (guillotine frame). The blades, each weighing fourteen kilos, are stored separately.

What Karl Valentin has to do with history

In 1982, the guillotine made a trip to the Munich City Museum, which commemorates the comedian Karl Valentin. In his panopticon, he showed instruments of torture and a guillotine that looked amazingly similar to the original. Valentin played a failed execution (the executioner does not find his hatchet) and made jokes about executions ("Headaches of any kind are guaranteed to be eliminated very quickly by executioner Wuchtig"). The exhibition organizers were not aware that the Stadelheim guillotine actually stood in the show. At that time, the scientific proof provided thirty years later by a new consultant at the Bavarian National Museum was missing: Sybe Wartena succeeded in proving this, and the journalist Ulrich Trebbin made the find public on Bayerischer Rundfunk. The story spread widely in 2014, including internationally.

On the eightieth anniversary of the execution of the Scholl siblings – they were beheaded in Stadelheim on 22 February 1943 – Trebbin presented the result of his preoccupation with the fallsword machine as a book. He first traces their path through history, explaining why the term guillotine was avoided in Germany because it was too reminiscent of the mother of all of execution, the French Revolution. The last execution by guillotine took place in France in 1977.

After 2014, there were many unsuccessful attempts to persuade the Free State to make the guillotine accessible. The author, who works as a trauma therapist in Munich, argues balanced yet passionately for a presentation. Although he understands the objections, he does not consider politics to be competent to decide the fate of the guillotine. As a therapist, he knows that tabooing leads to repression, a pattern that blocks healing in all post-war periods. But the chances are not good, because descendants of White Rose member Christoph Probst submitted a petition to the state parliament in autumn not to issue the guillotine.

Ulrich Trebbin: "Die unsichtbare Guillotine". The Hatchet of the White Rose and its history. Friedrich Pustet Verlag, Regensburg 2023. 232 pp., ill., born, 24,95 €.