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FALLBEIL: THE TEUTONIC GUILLOTINE

Historical documents and one old engraving suggest that the Germans may have used a primitive decapitation machine in the middle ages, but it was all but forgotten when the Germans rediscovered the guillotine in the late 1700s. It was reintroduced thanks to the French Revolutionary armies fighting their way into Western German areas and spreading "Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité" along with a new justice system to all their neighbors.
The guillotine was adopted in several German States and coexisted with the more traditional hand-axe (Richtbeil) in other states as the primary execution method for over 140 years.
Starting out as an exact copy of the French 1792 guillotine, the German guillotine (or Fallbeil) gradually evolved in different directions leading to several unique designs, both of the tall wooden and of the shorter metal type. The following section highlights a few of these.

THE HAMBURG FALLBEIL 1856-1933

The French guillotine spread to surrounding countries at the time of the Revolution, either through the spreading of French law to areas conquered by the armies of France or through the legal reform that the Revolution inspired. Despite the excesses of the Terror, many of the basic ideas of the Revolution were progressive and sound. Some areas of Germany embraced the legal reforms and adopted a uniform death penalty statute and the guillotine by the early 1800s. In German, the guillotine was renamed "Fallbeil", literally translated "Drop-Axe". Over the years the German Fallbeil evolved along its own path separately from its French cousin. Early Fallbeils were identical to the 1792 guillotines that inspired them, but by the mid 1800s Prussia used mostly a short fallbeil constructed entirely of metal. The picture on the left is quite different. Although the machine is tall and made mostly of wood it is not a French design at all but a completely German design used in Hamburg from 1856 to 1933. The blade shape, release mechanism, U-shaped mouton, bascule frame extensions with the fabric funnel and the dual cross braces clearly separate it from the 1792 design. The permanent scaffold included a trap hatch allowing the body to be dropped into a box in the room below. In the background the tall prison walls can be seen, topped with cloth screens to prevent any viewing of the execution from the outside. The machine only was used in 18 executions from 1856 to 1917. After this time, the executions started becoming more frequent and when the Nazis took power in 1933 the Fallbeils started working around the clock claiming far more victims than the guillotine did during the Terror years of the French Revolution.

GRETE BEIER EXECUTION 1908

This photograph has been identified as showing the preparations for the execution of Grete Beier in the interior yard of the regional courthouse in Freiburg, Saxony. Grete Beier was a young socialite, daughter of the mayor of Freiburg, who poisoned and shot her fiance because she did not love him but would not defy her family who wanted her to marry him. She forged a note to make the murder appear to be a suicide and almost got away with it, but was ultimately caught and confessed. She was sentenced to death and beheaded on the 23rd of July 1908 at the age of 22 by executioner Moritz Brand.
The guillotine is similar to a French "Schmidt" design but has taller posts, two track spacer braces, a wood shield to hide the blade and a foot rest on the bascule plank. This could be the same guillotine that was later used in the town of Weimar. Weimar was part of the Kingdom of Saxony between 1806 and 1918.

THE REICHHARTS OF MUNCHEN

These old photographs both show Bavarian executioner Franz Xaver Reichhart with a Mannhardt type fallbeil. On the left photo Franz, standing to the left of the fallbeil, is a young assistant to the Bavarian sharfrichter who is wearing the top hat. It could be Lorenz Scheller. The photo was probably taken between 1885 and 1895. The photo appears staged, ie not taken at a real execution. The awning is an unusual touch. Note the blade with the curved hand-holds which does not appear in the other photograph. This may indicate two different fallbeils and ,possibly different locations, Munich and Würzburg for example.
In the photo on the right Franz has been promoted to head executioner and has inherited the privilege of wearing the top hat himself.

The rough scaffold, the pile of sand/sawdust under the head bucket and the transport crate in the foreground seem too real to be staged, so I believe this photo was taken before a real execution. Franz was the Bavarian sharfrichter from 1894 to 1924 and is fairly young in this photo, so it probably dates back to 1900-1905. It is possible that this photo was taken before the execution of famous Bavarian outlaw Mathias Kneißl in February 1902.
The next photo shows the same execution team about 15-20 years later. Franz Xaver is an old white-haired man and his young assistant from the last photo is a now middle-aged man. This again appears to be a staged execution.
When Franz Xaver Reichhart retired in 1924 at the age of 73, his nephew, Johann Baptist Reichhart took over the office. Comparing this photograph to the one below it is remarkable how similar the two fallbeils are, down to the scratches in the paint on the blade and the blemishes on the right post. These could have been taken the same day except for the different execution teams...

This photo presents good view of the entire fallbeil with the all-metal frame and mechanism. Only the bascule and support "table" of the machine are made of wood. The metal "sledge", a sort of gliding frame to which the blade is attached, is shaped like and upside down "U" and comes to rest at the base of the tracks in two boxes stuffed with felt and leather, thus dampening the impact of the 68 kg "drop axe". A winch with a hand crank (Laying on the floor under the machine) and a rope are used to raise the blade assembly. The condemned stepped on the footrest before being strapped, with two leather belts, to the cradle-shaped bascule. The upper lunette board was held open by a simple pin on a chain and the release was a vertical lever arm tilting the big curved "hook" which can be seen going through the hole in the top of the blade.
This machine type was designed by clockmaker Johann Mannhardt in 1854 and this particular one operated through 1945. It was used in Munich by both Franz Xaver and Johann Reichhart and probably two executioners before them. The photo was most likely taken in 1924 in the courtyard of the Regensberg Prison. The man on the right, holding the lunette pin, has been identified as Johann Reichhart but is in fact his assistant, Huber. The man in the top hat, at the execution lever, is actually Johann. The picture is almost certainly staged and may have been taken to commemorate Johann's nomination as chief-executioner. The third man would be Donderer, the assistant who got Reichhart into trouble by getting a side job demonstrating a mock fallbeil at a wax museum in Munich.

A second photo taken the same day, shows the fallbeil at a different angle, giving a clear view of the fabric "tub", the square shock absorber tubes and the blood "gutter" protruding under the lower lunette. This gutter connected to a hole at the front of the table and directed the blood to the scaffold floor in front of the machine where a pile of sawdust or sand was placed to capture the spillage.
Above the executioner's head there is a small bell attached to the prison wall. The "Armesuendersglocke",or Poor Sinner's Bell, was an integral part of the execution ceremony, and was rung continuously during the execution. A black curtain visible on the left side of the photo was also a symbolic part of the ceremonial, which remained religious in nature until 1940. The black veil remained even after that time in the Nazi execution rooms.
Johann went on to become quite infamous for executing about 3,000 people, most of them political opponents of the Nazi regime, including members of the "White Rose" anti-nazi movement. After the Allied victory, he continued his grim trade for the other side by hanging Nazi War Criminals at the Landsberg prison.
This actual fallbeil was reported destroyed at the end of WWII. One of identical design, from the prison of Würzburg, was transferred to Breslau in 1937. It was captured by the Soviets at the end of WWII and is currently exhibited at the War Museum in Kiev.

THE MANNHARDT FALLBEIL

The first steel guillotine constructed in Germany was designed by clockmaker Johann Mannhardt in 1854 and remained the only type used until around 1936. The original drawing on the right is from 1854 and stamped by the Royal Bavarian Justice Ministry. The drawing was titled "Fallschwert", Falling Sword, at the time although "Fallbeil" - or Falling Axe - was the name that was ultimately retained.
The design was adopted in several German States while others retained the older French design. By the end of World War 2 Mannhardt-type fallbeils had been used at Stadelheim, Plotzensee, Hamburg, Bruchsaler, Wolfenbuettel, Strasbourg (France) and Wroclaw (Poland) so there were at least six of these machines in existence at some time. To my knowledge only four have survived to this day.
When the Nazi justice ministry "standardized" on the guillotine as the official the death penalty method throughout the Reich in 1938, the Mannhardt machines were the only ones they deemed re-usable.

Older wooden guillotines were retired and replaced by the new "Tegel" design, which is described in the section below. Some of the Mannhardt machines were modified to match the new design. The bascules were removed and replaced with a fixed wooden tables and some machines received a blade shield and a metal head bucket in lieu of the fabric one.
This photograph shows the Mannhardt machine from Wolfenbuettel which was also used by the Nazis during the war but was not modified when this photo was taken. The freestanding metal bucket is probably a goofy idea by the photographer, and was not part of actual guillotine accessories.
Note that the frame is welded, not bolted, the sledge crossbars having circular protrusions around the bolt holes and there is a small hinged spatter shield attached to the left post. Because of these fabrication details this fallbeil is not one of the original Mannhardts. Its exact origin is unknown.
This fallbeil was captured by the Allies in 1945. It was put back into service in the British sector where it was used to execute criminals sentenced under German law for crimes committed during and after the war, as opposed to those sentenced by Allied War Crime tribunals, who were hanged.

These two photos show the same Wolfenbuettel fallbeil after modification. Note the metal bucket, the added downspout to the floor and the lack of a tilting plank. The original bench was reused but its center track is filled in with a wood plank.
The photo on the right was taken in the Wolfenbuettel prison execution room, around 1947 when the British were using it.

The photo on the left shows an unusual modified Mannhardt with a steel table and steel tilting plank. In 1944, this fallbeil was transferred from Strasbourg, France to the new execution center at Bruchsaler where it was used to execute 55 people. There is some evidence that it is the fallbeil that was used in Strasbourg between 1890 and 1914 when Alsace-Lorraine were under German rule.
The second photo shows a damaged Mannhardt fallbeil in the death house of the Plotzensee prison, where thousands were murdered by the Nazis. The machine has the fixed table, blade shield and metal bucket. It was transfered from Bruchsaler to Plotzensee before the war and is probably the restored fallbeil currently displayed at the Brandenburg memorial. This photo was taken by the Soviets shortly after the capture of Berlin.

THE TEGEL FALLBEIL

This fallbeil is "THE" Nazi guillotine. After 1933, when Hitler and his henchmen refashioned the German judicial system in the image of their oppressive regime a lot of new crimes became capital offenses, leading to a drastic increase in the number of executions in the Reich. To meet this new demand for "justice" many prisons were designated as execution sites (Sixteen such sites by 1942) and equipped with metal fallbeils as required by the standardized procedure.
These fallbeils were first built by the inmates of the Tegel prison in Berlin, hence their name. They were more crude than the Mannhardt design, lacking the hinged bascule and the external pulley frame. The visible "pivoting hook" release mechanism was also replaced by an internal system triggered by a pull rod.
Other changes include a geared winch to reduce the force required to raise the sledge, a lunette with an oval opening and a push button release and a hinged sheet metal shield to protect the executioner from blood spray.
The Tegel guillotine shown on the left was used at the Brandenburg prison and is currently displayed at the Deutsche Historisches Museum. It is very well preserved and contrary to most other Tegels it is not painted and does not have the blade shield. The crude bench made of wood planks with four hefty wood legs is characteristic of the original Tegel design. On some restored Tegel fallbeils (Pankrac, Vienna) the rear legs have been replaced with square metal tubing.

These are two infamous Tegel fallbeils from Poland. The one to the left is being examined by Red Army soldiers after the capture of Poznan. Note that the crank rotation is parallel to the blade and not perpendicular as on the Mannhardt system. The soldier on the left is pulling the release system which looks much like an old fashioned toilet pull. There is no blade installed on the sledge. The soldiers provide a good scale to see of how short the machine actually is (about 8 feet).
On the right is the Tegel fallbeil from the town of Katowice, nicknamed "the Red Widow". (Photo by Adam Cyra). It was used to execute over 550 people accused of resistance against the Nazi occupation between 1941 and 1945. The machine is currently stored at the Auschwitz-Birkenau holocaust Museum.

The rear view shows the metal tub with lateral cut-outs for the head strap, an adjustable leather belt that passed under the forehead of the condemned to prevent him from lowering his head. This strap is very visible on the photo of the Wolfenbuettel fallbeil above. Also visible are the shock absorber tubes, the blade shield and the nearly vertical blood deflector under the tub. The diagonal steel braces designed to stiffen the bench legs are missing on both of these machines.

These modern photographs depict two additional Tegel fallbeils exhibited in museums. To the left is a close-up of the blade of the Vienna fallbeil, which was pressed into service in 1938 shortly after the Anschluss. It claimed many victims among opponents of the Nazi regime in Austria. It is currently displayed at the Vienna Museum of Criminology. The head bucket is a reproduction and is not properly designed. The top of the bucket should have been secured to the metal supports visible above the head strap post thus it is mounted much too low. In addition the bucket should not have a rear wall. It was designed to catch the head and direct the spillage down to the floor drain located under the deflector spout. It was never intended to contain the blood.
On the right is the Tegel fallbeil from the Moabit prison in Berlin. In addition to being used by the Nazis, this one also was used after the war and became the last fallbeil to claim a life under West German law, when murderer and rapist Berthold Wehmeyer was beheaded in West Berlin on May 12, 1949. The fallbeil is currently exhibited at the Strafvollzugsmuseum in Ludwigsburg.

THE PANKRAC FALLBEIL

The Nazi fallbeil also made its way to Czechoslovakia when it was annexed as the "Reich Protectorate of Moravia and Bohemia". The fallbeil was of the standard "Tegel" design and is shown in the Pankrác execution room, on this 1943 photo (Left). Between April 5, 1943 and April 26, 1945 a total of 1,075 people were executed in Pankrác prison, located in southeastern Prague.

Most of the victims were Czech citizens resisting the Nazi occupation.
Just 12 days before the capitulation of Germany, the machine was used to execute 5 people. It was then broken up and its wood parts were burned while the metal parts were thrown in the Vltava River in an attempt to conceal the Nazi war crimes.
After the liberation of Prague its remains were retrieved from the river. The guillotine was reconstructed from the parts and is currently displayed in the original execution room preserved as a Memorial to the victims of the Nazis. The Memorial is located within the still-functionning prison of Pankrác and is highly revered among the Czechs as a symbol of the sacrifices and hardships endured by the people during the war.
The three other photos (by Vladimir Sebecek) show the modern memorial with the gallows and the rebuilt fallbeil.

The wood bench and lunette are reproductions which explains why they are so different from the original ones seen in the black & white photo above.
It appears that other parts, like the head tub and winch, also were lost and have been replaced with reproductions, however the core of the fallbeil on display is still the original machine brought to Prague in 1943.

POST-WAR FALLBEILS

For four years after the end of World War II the death penalty remained on the books in West Germany. While the War Crimes Tribunals run by the Allies mostly used hanging as the execution method, the German courts and the court operated by the French occupation authority retained their traditional method of execution by beheading.

Although numerous fallbeils captured from Nazi prisons were available, there was some reluctance to use these instruments on common criminals and especially war criminals. Prior victims were considered martyrs and heroes by the victors and using the same instruments in this manner could dishonor their sacrifice. Some were however reused, among them the ones from Moabit and from Wolfenbuettel. The East German STASI also used one Tegel fallbeil in Dresden until the 1950s.
At least two new fallbeils were built after the war by locksmith firm Otto Tiggemann in Hamm/Westfalen. The machines were hybrids, mostly based on the old Mannhardt design but with the metal buckets of the Tegel version.
The photo on the left shows the Rastatt fallbeil which was used nine times between 1946 and the abolition of the death penalty in 1949. It is on display at the Strafvollzugsmuseum in Ludwigsburg.
On the right is the Mainz fallbeil, also known as the Rheinland-Pfälzische fallbeil, which was completed right after the abolition and never used. It is exhibited at the Landesmuseum in Koblenz.

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