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Execution of Olympe de Gouges with the guillotine, ink drawing by Lavis de Mettais , 1793
The Baden guillotine (replica, Municipal Museum in Bruchsal Castle)

The guillotine [ gijo'tiːn (ə) ] (historically also fall sword machine or Köpfmaschine called) is a by the French physician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin called guillotine to enforce the death penalty by beheading .

Medical aspects of killing

When using the guillotine, death occurs as a result of the severing of the highest part of the spinal cord (cervical spine) and thus the interruption of the spread of excitation. While it is predominantly assumed that unconsciousness occurs within tenths of a second - for example, the decapitated person no longer perceives it when he is presented to the audience - reactions from the severed head were still recognizable according to isolated reports. For example, statements about alleged attempts to speak by severed heads have been handed down from the time of the French Revolution. The German doctor Johannes Wendt and the French Séguret made experiments to research the reactions of the heads. Then you should reflexively close your eyes, for example, if a hand moves quickly towards the face or the head is exposed to bright light. According to a report by the French doctor Beaurieux from 1905, the head of a guillotined criminal reacted to calls for about 30 seconds. Something similar is reported about Hamida Djandoubi , the last person to be beheaded in France.

It is also controversial whether death is painless, because the large-scale incision, in which muscles, tendons and bones are severed, theoretically gives a brief pain stimulus. However, since the decapitation prevents any transmission of information from the trunk, only the parts of the cervical plexus that have not been severed remain for information transmission. In all other nerve tracts, a lack of information in the central nervous system occurs in fractions of a second , a brief feeling of numbness, as described for neuralgic pain . The other forms of pain have different processes than central pain , or there is again a lack of time, see psychosomatic pain .



"The Scottish Maiden", Scottish forerunner of the guillotine (Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh)

In the past, guillotines were occasionally used in prison. The first known specimens from Naples and Holland date from the 12th and 13th centuries. Other forerunners are the guillotine of Halifax (English "Halifax gibbet", 1280, also "Halifax Machine"), the Italian "Mannaia" (Italian for cleaver, 15th century) and the " Scottish Maiden " (English for Scottish Virgin, 1564-1708). In Germany guillotines were known under the names "Dille", "Diele", "Hobel" or "Welsche Trap".

Well-known personalities who were executed with a guillotine before the 18th century were Konradin , the last Staufer (executed in 1268 by means of a "Welschen Trap"), Demetrio Giustiniani (1507 in Genoa), Beatrice Cenci (by a "Mannaia") and Henri II de Montmorency (1632 in Toulouse). On a woodcut from The Martyrdoms of the Apostles , 1512c by Lucas Cranach the Elder , St. Matthias is beheaded with a simply constructed guillotine. In 1553 Heinrich Aldegrever sketched in a fictional etching how Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus beheaded his son with a mannaia , a forerunner of the guillotine.

However, the guillotine was completely out of use by the 18th century.

Suggestion by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

Guillotin , the namesake of the guillotine
Achille Chéreau: Guillotin et la guillotine. 1870

On October 10, 1789, Guillotin submitted six articles for planned deliberations on a new penal code and the execution of sentences, including a motion to introduce a mechanical beheading device to abolish cruel and dishonorable forms of execution. He was supported by the executioner of Paris, Charles Henri Sanson , who vividly described the disadvantages of beheading with the sword. On December 1, at this advisory meeting, at which Guillotin gave a lengthy speech and, in addition to other proposals for reform of the penal system, also described the “simple mechanism” for beheading, the term “guillotine” was used for this device for the first time. The National Assembly commissioned the royal personal physician and permanent secretary of the Academy of Surgery, Antoine Louis , to draw up an opinion on it. On March 17, 1792, Louis submitted a design based on the Halifax guillotine. The report stated: "Such a machine that never fails will be easy to manufacture." On March 20, 1792, the application was granted. The debate about what would later become known as the guillotine was accompanied by a passionate argument about the death penalty. Guillotin, who was not involved in the manufacture of the device by Louis and Schmitt, suffered from the use of his name for this instrument, for which "Louisette" and "Mirabelle" (by Mirabeau) had also been suggested, because he had neither invented nor witnessed its use with capital criminals. He had only recommended its introduction and use for humanitarian reasons. His descendants took on a different name.

The first “guillotine” was constructed by the German piano maker Tobias Schmidt from Rue Saint-André-des-Arts on behalf of Sanson . Schmidt first tried the crescent-shaped cutting edge from Louis' design on sheep, and it worked perfectly. However, when he continued the experiments with corpses, the neck was not always completely severed. Only by increasing the weight and introducing the beveled cutting edge, which gives the guillotine its characteristic shape and turns the cutting process into a cutting process, the device worked properly. Even with the first models there was also the table or the seesaw ( French bascule ), a board to which the person to be executed was strapped on his stomach and which was then folded forward horizontally. Thus, the head was brought between the posts of the guillotine on the neck support (lower bezel), which was then locked with the counterpart that could be slid downwards.

After Antoine Louis, the guillotine was initially called Louison or, as mentioned above, Louisette . A song published in number 10 of the royalist, satirical journal des actes des apôtres , which deals with the new rulers , shows the expression guillotine for the first time (even before the first machine of this name was built). Through the use of language in the press , the name guillotine caught on. Popular nicknames were le rasoir national (the national razor) and la raccourcisseuse (the short-maker).

Introduction of the guillotine

During the French Revolution , the guillotine was introduced as the only execution tool by decree of the National Assembly of March 20, 1792.

The backgrounds are of different nature. For one, the machine was supposed to streamline the numerous executions. Furthermore, the execution should be made painless for those affected, because beforehand an executioner with a hand-held ax might need several blows. For the namesake Guillotin, humanitarian reasons were decisive. He said that one cannot take away the fear of dying from the condemned , but that one can limit the agony of the execution itself. Torture and particularly cruel methods of execution, such as cycling, should be abolished with the guillotine. In fact, there are reports that the models used during the French Revolution sometimes had to be completely detached after several passes - as was the case with the execution of Louis XVI. , allegedly because of his thick neck.

The execution of Louis XVI. of France and the action of the guillotine

In addition, the revolution's claim to equality should also apply to execution: before that, beheading was reserved for the nobles as a “noble” way of death, ordinary people were hanged on the gallows . The guillotine was used to standardize all executions.

On April 25, 1792, the mugger Nicolas Jacques Pelletier was the first person to be publicly executed with the new guillotine. At 3:30 p.m., the executioner Charles Henri Sanson was sentenced to death in public on Place de Grève . The Chronique de Paris wrote about it the following day:

“Yesterday, at half past three in the afternoon, the machine was used for the first time, which is intended to cut off the heads of criminals sentenced to death. The person to be executed was a certain Nicolas-Jacques Pelletier, convicted several times by the judiciary and finally convicted of hitting a private person with several blows of the cane and stealing a wallet containing assignats worth 800 livres and other effects .

The novelty of the punishment had led to a considerable swell of those whom barbaric pity leads to such sad spectacles.

This machine has rightly been preferred to other types of punishment: it does not stain man's hand with murder of his own kind, and the speed with which it hits the guilty party is more in keeping with the spirit of the law, which can often be severe, but never may be cruel. "

Executed on the guillotine were u. a. the French King Louis XVI. , Marie Antoinette , Georges Danton , Antoine Laurent de Lavoisier as well as Maximilien de Robespierre and Friedrich Freiherr von der Trenck . The execution of Louis XVI. and Marie Antoinette had such an echo in the German Enlightenment that the previously welcomed revolution in France was increasingly critical of what was happening there.

Until the death penalty was banned in 1981, death sentences were carried out by guillotine in France. Until 1870 this was done on the so-called scaffold , an elevated platform. Thereafter, the guillotine continued to be set up in public, but at normal floor level, in order to reduce the display character of the executions. At the last public execution in France on June 17, 1939 in Versailles, Eugen Weidmann , a six-time murderer, was judged. After that, the executions were carried out in the respective prison yards. The last guillotine execution in France took place on September 10, 1977 of Hamida Djandoubi . In 1981 the death penalty was abolished in France by President François Mitterrand ; since February 19, 2007 it has also been prohibited by the constitution.

Use in France

The 1792 model

The first versions of the French guillotine consisted of the two posts about three meters high, which were held together at the top by the crossbeam. In the crossbeam there were two pulleys over which the rope ran, which brought the iron block, the so-called mouton (sheep), which weighed about 40 kg, into position together with the knife. The posts were screwed to the base at the lower end and reinforced with steel struts. At the front end of the bench was a vertically placed board which, as soon as the delinquent was strapped on his stomach, was placed horizontally and pushed forward. Now you put the neck on the lower neck board, called the lunette (because of the crescent-shaped cutout), and pushed the counterpart down. The executioner then triggered the trigger mechanism. This model is considered to be very prone to failure because there was no shock absorption to slow down the mouton. This version is the one used in the first execution in 1792 and is therefore called the 1792 model.

The Berger model

In 1868 the assistant executioner Alphonse Léon Berger presented the French government with the construction plan for a new, improved guillotine. He was hired to build this new guillotine immediately. From then on, all machines were replaced by the Berger model. The main improvements were in the crossbeam, which now contained the much more complicated trigger mechanism. On the crossbeam, which is also called the big top, was the pulley for the pulley system to pull the mouton up with a knife. The knife was now triggered with a lever instead of a clamping lock. In order to prevent the machine from warping, which was caused by damage from the impact of the heavy sled, large compression springs have been attached to provide shock absorption. The side of the bezel on which the head was separated from the body was covered with sheet metal to prevent damage to the wood from the blood. In addition, more wooden struts have been added to the base to the left and right of the frame.

Use in Switzerland

The Lucerne guillotine was used for all civil executions in Switzerland from 1879 until the death penalty was abolished.

In civil criminal law, decapitation by the sword has been the common method of execution for those sentenced to death since early modern times . The guillotine was added in 1835, with individual cantons giving convicts the choice between it and the sword. Hans Vollenweider (born February 11, 1908 in Zurich ; † October 18, 1940 in Sarnen ) is the last offender to be sentenced to death and executed in Switzerland after a civil criminal trial . On the morning of October 18, 1940, Vollenweider was guillotined in the workshop of the prison in Sarnen.

In Swiss military criminal law , shooting was provided as a method of execution. In this way, 30 people were sentenced to death in World War II, 17 of whom were executed by the end of the war. The military death penalty in wartime was abolished in Switzerland in 1992.

Use in Germany

Munich guillotine from 1854
model replica, scale 1: 6

In the Napoleonic Wars , the guillotine came to the occupied German territories. During the French era , parts of what would later become Germany were initially occupied and later annexed (→ left bank of the Rhine ). During this time people sentenced to death were guillotined there, for example in November 1803 in Mainz the robber Johannes Bückler known as "Schinderhannes" .

In the period that followed, the guillotine was only used in parts of Germany. During the Nazi era , most civil death sentences were carried out with the guillotine. A total of around 12,000 people were killed with the guillotine during this time, almost 3,000 of them in the Berlin-Plötzensee prison , which has been the central execution site for the extensive catchment area of ​​the city of Berlin since 1937 .

The "Mannhardt guillotine"

In the German Reich, in addition to “guillotine” and “guillotine”, the designation “falling sword machine” was in use. In the course of the 19th century, a design different from the French design became common. Typical of this is the Bavarian guillotine built by J. Mannhardt & Co Munich in 1854 : the main material for the entire machine is iron instead of wood; the knife is screwed to a slide weighing around 200 kg, the ends of which fall into two shock absorbers filled with fabric. It falls a meter and a half to the neck. The release mechanism consists of a single steel rod that acts as a lever to engage the slide and release the lock. In contrast to the French model, the sledge is not pulled up with a rope alone, but with the help of a hand winch with a backstop and a steel wire rope. In addition to the attached bench , the guillotine has a movable strap. It was only later removed by the executioner Johann Reichhart , which, according to him, shortened the execution from three to four minutes to a few seconds.

The "Tegel guillotine"

From 1937, on Hitler's orders, the 20 central execution sites in the Reich were equipped with a machine that was manufactured in series by the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in the factories of the Berlin-Tegel prison - hence its name. The guillotine underwent the biggest changes to the Mannhardt model by reducing the overall height of the machine from around two and a half meters to a little less than two meters. The release mechanism was changed from a simple lever to a spring-loaded mechanism, which is located in the upper cross beam. Instead of just a backstop, the hand winch was also equipped with a gear system that reduces the force required to bring the carriage together with the knife blade into position. Other changes were the flat, narrow benches, which were also immobile.

In addition to the guillotine, the hand ax was also used in the German Reich until standardization in 1938 .

In the Third Reich, great care was taken not to use the French name . The best-known victims of the guillotine include the members of the White Rose , including Sophie and Hans Scholl .

Johann Reichhart carried out most of the executions (around 3,000) and is considered "the" German executioner . Wilhelm Röttger , from 1942 to 1945 at the central execution sites in Berlin-Plötzensee and Brandenburg-Görden , achieved a similar number.

The guillotine remained in use after the Second World War. The last person to be guillotined in West Berlin was the robbery murderer Berthold Wehmeyer on May 11, 1949 . As the last person to be sentenced to death in West Germany, Richard Schuh was guillotined in Tübingen on February 18, 1949 - also for robbery and murder .

From 1950 to 1960 the death penalty was carried out with the guillotine in the GDR in Dresden and then until 1968 in Leipzig. One continued to speak of "falling sword machine".

The Baden guillotine

Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus beheaded his son with a forerunner of the guillotine. Engraving by Heinrich Aldegrever, 1553

Between 1848 and 1932 37 men and two women were executed in Baden . Since 1856, the execution was carried out using the guillotine manufactured by the Johann Mannhardt company in Munich for 1000 guilders. The location of the guillotine was in Bruchsal , whereby the knives were always kept separately. To transport the guillotine (by train) to execution sites in Baden, the guillotine was dismantled and packed in boxes. Since the Baden executions had been carried out in Stuttgart - that is, in Württemberg - since 1937, the Baden guillotine reached the Berlin-Plötzensee prison in Berlin in February 1937 .

The first guillotine that was used in Bavaria came on loan from Baden . In May 1854 it took the executioner Lorenz Schellerer seven attempts to behead a murderer with the executioner's sword. The audience almost lynched him because of it. Therefore King Maximilian II ordered the introduction of the guillotine. On August 19, 1854, a woman and two men were guillotined for the first time in Bavaria in Munich.

Use in Austria

In the history of the Habsburg monarchy and later German Austria, no guillotine was traditionally used; the choking algae served as an instrument of execution . After the annexation to the German Reich in 1938, a guillotine disguised as "machine parts of the device F" was sent from the Plötzensee prison in Berlin to the Vienna regional court and used there. This guillotine can be seen today as an exhibit in the Vienna Crime Museum. At the regional court in Graz, from the end of 1942, those sentenced to death were executed with a guillotine by the Nazi judiciary.


  • Stefan Amberg : Enforced. Johann Reichhart, the last German executioner . Goldmann, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-442-06765-0 .
  • Daniel Arasse : The guillotine. The power of the machine and the spectacle of justice . Rowohlt, Reinbek 1988, ISBN 3-499-55496-8 .
  • Johann Dachs: Death by the guillotine. The German executioner Johann Reichhart (1893–1972) . Ullstein, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-548-36243-5 .
  • Alister Kershaw: The guillotine. A history of the mechanical guillotine . Kriminalistik publishing house, Hamburg 1959.
  • Georg Korn: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814). A contribution to the history of medicine and the medical status. 1891.
  • Gotthold Leistner: Saxony and the guillotine. A contribution to the story of a killing monster . In: Sächsische Heimatblätter 48, 2002, pp. 130–149, ISSN  0486-8234 .
  • Guy Lenôtre: The guillotine and the executioners at the time of the French Revolution . Kadmos-Verlag, Berlin 1996, ISBN 3-931659-03-8 .
  • Michel Ferracci-Porri : Beaux Ténèbres. La pulsion du mal d'Eugène Weidmann . Normant, France 2008, ISBN 978-2-915685-34-3 (the last to be guillotined in public in France - "a German": Eugen Weidmann ).
  • Andreas Schlieper: Enlightened killing. The history of the guillotine . Osburg Verlag, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-940731-13-5 .
  • Angela Taeger: The guillotine and the invention of humanity. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2016, ISBN 978-3-17-029278-9 .
  • Thomas Waltenbacher: Central execution sites . The execution of the death penalty in Germany from 1937–1945. Executioner in the Third Reich . Zwilling-Berlin, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-00-024265-6 .

Film, music and literature

See also

Web links

Wiktionary: Guillotine  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Guillotine  - album with pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. The last time the guillotine fell on, accessed on November 14, 2007. Detail page not available, October 6, 2017.
  2. 30 Extraordinary Photos That'll Leave You Stunned Bright Side (5: 37–5: 55/6: 17 Video) Bright Side, Upload September 11, 2017. Accessed October 6, 2017. - Picture from the last beheading in France, 1939.
  3. Achille Chéreau: Guillotin et la guillotine. In: Union médicale. 1870, p. 64.
  4. Georg Korn (1891), pp. 18-20.
  5. Georg Korn (1891), p. 20.
  6. Georg Korn (1891), p. 20 f.
  7. Eugène Hatin: Histoire politique et littéraire de la presse en France , Paris: Poulet-Malassis & De Broise, 1861, p. 53 f.
  8. ↑ In detail: Blazek, Matthias: With the rule of the French, the guillotine was introduced in all German states - the new type of execution was considered humane and should be used with all those sentenced to death , Sachsenspiegel 42, Cellesche Zeitung of October 19, 2013.
  9. So in Berlin-Plötzensee, Breslau, Hamburg-Stadt (cf. on this: Heinrich Jauch (1894–1945), First Public Prosecutor in Hamburg - regarding the “Red Navy Trial” and the executions) and Königsberg by the executioner Carl Gröpler and his successor Ernst Reindel .
  10. Der Spiegel 50/1997: Execution of Paul Rebenstock .
  11. Hany Kratzer: The First Woman on the Guillotine , January 11, 2018 , accessed January 12, 2018.
  12. Helmut A. Seidl: A murder trio on the scaffold. The executed at the first use of the guillotine in Bavaria. ISBN 978-3-7448-6412-1 .
  13. ^ Criminal history in the Federal Ministry of the Interior , accessed on March 30, 2017.
  14. Willi Weinert: “You can put me out, but not the fire”. Biographies of the resistance fighters executed in the Vienna Regional Court, a guide through Group 40 at the Vienna Central Cemetery and to sacrificial graves in Vienna's cemeteries. 3rd, improved and enlarged edition. Wiener Stern-Verlag, Jauker, Vienna 2011, ISBN 978-3-9502478-2-4 .