Friday, May 11, 2007

Sophie's Choice

Authoritarianism.  Shall we pause for a moment to remember Sophie Scholl?  Sophie was a student at the University of Munich and was arrested in February of 1943 for distributing anti-Nazi propaganda.  After a show-trial before the notorious judge Roland Friesler, she and her brother Hans were sentenced to death for treason.  Their treason was passing out mimeographed articles critical of the Nazi regime.  Friesler's court, the Volksgerichtshof or people's court, was an extra-constitutional court which was formed by the Nazis for the prosecution of political crimes.  Freisler was judge, jury and prosecutor all rolled into one, and no appeal was possible.   Although Sophie and her brother were told by their lawyers that a death sentence would be carried out no sooner than 99 days after their trial, the siblings were led directly from the court to Stadelheim prison where they were executed that very afternoon.  Sophie was 21 years old.  She and her brother Hans were allowed to meet with their parents briefly before they were taken away and they shared tearful farewells.  Can you possibly imagine yourself in their shoes?  Close your eyes and put yourself in their place for a moment.  Your beautiful daughter is about to be taken away and beheaded for passing out a tract.  You will never see your handsome son again, your precious children are about to be murdered by YOUR OWN GOVERNMENT! 

It was never the intent of the Nazis to be sadistic or barbaric or cruel for its own sake.  It was their intent to be firm, to be united, to be one among many following the vision of the great leader. 

Sophie was taken into a courtyard before her executioner, Johann Reichhart, who was a professional, from a dynasty of ax-men which went back eight generations, and who kept meticulous records from the beginning of his career in 1924 to the abolition of capital punishment in Germany in 1949.  In all he executed over 3,000 souls.  Sophie said, "The sun is still shining."  She then was placed upon a bench, face down and her arms and shoulders held down by two assistants.  The fallbeil was then fitted past her neck and released.  The heavy blade, already raised and set before the prisoner had arrived, descended.  The death took three seconds at most from the time the prisoner entered the courtyard.

Reichhart was justifiably proud of the fact that he minimized the suffering of those who he was called upon to kill.  And though he was a dedicated Nazi and a true believer, he knew that something wasn't quite right with the government that he worked for.  When the Allies were approaching, he pulled off the side of the road on a bridge, and threw his fallbeil, his portable guillotine, into a ravine.  Reichhart was denazified after the war, and lived until 1972, advocating until he died for the reinstatement of capital punishment in Germany.

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