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Monday, July 13, 2009

Excerpt from White Rose History Vol. 2, July 13, 1943... The Trial. The Executions.

On July 13, 1943, Clara Geyer had taken the earliest train out of Ulm – together with both Josef and Erika Rieck, of course. By 9 am, they were sitting in the courtroom. This was the first time she had heard that Judge Freisler was not involved, that the trial would take place in a Special Court with Judge Schwingenschlögl presiding. Someone whispered that this judge was “human.” She could only hope.

Whoever passed along that “secret” was badly mistaken. In December 1941, a Polish youth named Boleslaw Buczkowski had been arrested for defending himself when attacked by the farmer he worked for. The farmer had accused the youth of stealing an apple and had hit him. Buczkowski retaliated and gave the farmer a cut over his eye. The Polish youth – who had just turned seventeen – fled into the forest and foolishly admitted to someone that he wished he could set the man’s farm on fire.

Four months later, a judge sentenced Buczkowski to eighteen months in prison. During sentencing, the judge justified the stiff judgment by stating, “With the Poles, only a harsher sentence seemed to achieve the usual goals of punishment meted out.”

The District Attorney’s office in Munich was horribly upset by what they perceived to be too mild a sentence. They appealed to Judge Schwingenschlögl, who re-opened the case in August 1942. In the new trial, the youth was given a death sentence. Schwingenschlögl de­creed that the Pole’s execution be announced throughout the greater Munich area by means of 410 placards. His family was prohibited from claiming his remains, and his farewell letters were destroyed.

If Clara Geyer had known that about Judge Schwingenschlögl, she would not have been as happy that Judge Freisler was not sitting on the bench. As it was, she believed they had been “very fortunate indeed.” And – she noticed that she and Erika were the only women in the courtroom.

Judge Schwingenschlögl was assisted by District Court Counsel Boller and Dr. Eder. Dr. Hohmann acted as prosecutor, and there was no court clerk. Dr. Reisert, a good friend of the Geyer family, had gained permission to represent all four defendants. The judge read the indictment into the court record. The defendants were accused of credible knowledge of a treasonous activity and failure to report same. The prosecutor did not try to make a case for aiding and abetting etc.

The judge questioned each defendant individually. First Söhngen, then Eickemeyer, followed by Geyer, with Dohrn last. Clara stated that her husband “gave the best answers out of all of the defendants.”

Schwingenschlögl grilled Geyer about his religious beliefs. Why are you a fanatical Catholic, he wanted to know. Geyer responded that he was not a fanatical Catholic. “A fanati­cal Catholic is never a good Catholic.” – “Why then do you go to church every Sunday?” said the judge. – “Because I must set a good example for my children,” replied Geyer.

The prosecution then called in Gisela Schertling, specifically to testify against Wilhelm Geyer and Josef Söhngen. “We all held our breath,” said Clara, “because everything hung on her statement.”

To their shock and voiceless ecstasy, Gisela recanted everything she had said in her Gestapo interrogations. She spoke in favor of Wilhelm Geyer and bore witness on his behalf.

The prosecutor was caught completely off guard by this development. He tried to undo the harm her testimony was wreaking on his case by introducing facts not in evidence. The judge would have none of it. If it was not already in the files, Schwingenschlögl told Dr. Hoh­mann, he could not mention it now.

Addressing Gisela directly, the judge inquired, “Do you have anything to say regarding the Gestapo reports?” When Gisela said she did not, the judge started to dismiss her. “Then I have no further questions for you.”

Söhngen saw his opportunity and took it. He jumped up and said, “But I have some questions.” He would never forget the expression on Gisela’s face when she turned to look at him. “It was immediately clear that I had won,” he said.

The judge permitted the defendant Söhngen to cross-examine Gisela Schertling. She recanted every last bit of her statements made in Gestapo custody. Without hard copy of those transcripts, Dr. Hohmann was hard pressed to prove that she had said what Agent Beer claimed she had said. The February 16 meeting between Hans Scholl and Josef Söhngen? It never happened.

It is easy to see why Clara Geyer thought they had gotten a good judge. Söhngen remembered that while he was questioning Gisela, Schwingenschlögl would occasionally interrupt. “I think you mean to ask if…,” he would say, presenting Söhngen’s query in an even more favorable light.

When Söhngen finished with Gisela, Dr. Hohmann called in Karl Rieber to testify against Geyer. He had been present for Theodor Haecker’s reading, they reminded him. He should tell the judge about that treasonous lecture.

Clara Geyer laughed every time she thought about the sight of Karl Rieber in that Nazi courtroom. It was a beautiful, sunshiny day, yet he stood in court holding an umbrella under his arm. He could barely hear a single question the prosecutor posed. “How do you stand with regards to the Party?” Hohmann would ask. Party, party? And Rieber would cup his hands to his ears, straining to make out the words. “How do you stand with regards to the Party?” Hohmann would repeat. Finally Rieber grasped the question. “Loyal,” he said, following a tense pause.

Clara dug her fingernails into Josef Rieck’s arm to keep from laughing out loud in relief. She could not help but notice that even the judge fought back his own guffaws. “The pleased looks were contagious, starting behind the bench.”

Judge Schwingenschlögl read Clara Geyer’s letters to her husband into the court record. Her words sounded strange out there in public, unusually calm and trusting. This was not at all what she had expected. Things were going too smoothly. Well, hopefully not too smoothly.

Emboldened by the turn of events, Dr. Reisert petitioned the court for acquittal for all four men. They had surely done nothing to merit punishment. Their deeds were a far cry from anything deserving of the death penalty.

Around 4:30 pm – seven-and-one-half hours after the proceedings had gotten underway – Judge Schwingenschlögl called for a recess. Clara’s optimism and that of the four defendants rapidly dissipated with the words, “The verdict was to be handed down from Berlin by tele­phone.” So much for a human judge and hopes for a mild verdict.

However, the judge decreed that the prisoners were to be allowed to eat the food their families had provided, and indicated that they were to be taken to an adjoining room. “They were starving,” Clara recalled. Naturally, she had brought plenty to go around.

While they anxiously waited, hoping for an acquittal but ready for anything, the executions of Alexander Schmorell and Kurt Huber were just beginning. Alex went first. But not before spending a few moments with Dr. Deisinger, the attorney who was awed by the young man whose life he had been unable to spare.

“You may be surprised to find me so at peace at this hour,” Alex told Deisinger. “But I can tell you that even were they to tell me that another – say this prison guard here who has been assigned to guard me – if even he were to say that he would die in my stead, I would nev­er­the­less choose to die. I don’t know what else there could be for me to do on this earth were I to be released at this moment.”

Alex made Deisinger promise that when the war ended, if the Allies tried to prosecute Marie Luise for denouncing him, Deisinger must take her case. No harm should come to her. His attorney should make that clear to everyone.

Deisinger joined the others who had gathered to “witness” Alex’s execution on behalf of the State. Even the executioner was surprised when three SS officers appeared around 4:45 pm, bearing special permission to watch the prisoner die.

“I will never forget the conversation among these SS Officers and the magistrates,” said Deisinger. “They discussed when death occurred at a beheading and whether it were possible to make it happen slower or faster if they so desired. It was also noteworthy that the execution was delayed for a while because the three SS Officers and the executioner thought it necessary to discuss the age, set-up, and methodology of the guillotine.”

“These were terrible minutes for me,” he continued, “as well as for those sitting on death row. On the one hand, the idealism and moral greatness of a young person who was ready to die for that idealism in just a few minutes; and on the other hand, the ribald lust of subhumanity hungry for a glimpse of the death of a defenseless sacrifice.”

But the execution took place despite these morbid contemplations. Forty-six seconds after Alex left his cell, eight seconds from the time he was handed over to the executioner named Reichhart. “There are no incidents or other events of any significance to report,” Mr. Tiefenbacher would report to Berlin two days later.

Alex’s clear and loud “Yes” – when asked if he were the prisoner Alexander Schmorell – remained inside Dr. Deisinger’s head for a very long while. That room was so oppressive. His young client, so terribly free. “I left that room shaken to the very core of my being,” said Dr. Deisinger.

“When I entered the prison hallway, I passed Professor Huber’s cell. He was the next sacrifice who was to be presented to that Moloch Hitler. And he was also being led from his cell, as he called out a final farewell to the prison chaplain, an ‘I’ll see you in a better world.’"

Mr. Tiefenbacher may have reported that nothing of significance happened, but the Catholic prison chaplain told a different story. When the executioner’s assistant asked Huber if he were the prisoner Kurt Huber, he said yes, and “Shame on you!” Deisinger recalled what happened next.

The chaplain stood at a window in the hallway from which you could see over to the exe­cution room. Shortly thereafter, a hollow thud. We knew that Professor Huber had also sacrificed his life for freedom. The chaplain made the sign of the cross in the direction of that room of death. We silently shook hands and I left that terrible house of horror, left to tell the parents of Alexander Schmorell about the death of their son.

The news caught Hugo Schmorell and his wife completely off guard. No one had told them – or Klara Huber – about the July 13 date. In fact, Klara still waited for a response to her request for a visitor’s pass, received in Berlin only three days earlier.

At 5:20 pm, the Executive District Attorney sent a telegram to Berlin. “With regard to 6I (sic) 24/43G, matter taken care of today without incident.”

About thirty minutes later, close to 6 pm, “Eickemeyer et al” were re-called to the court­room. Clara said that Eickemeyer was still chewing his food. The judge did not make them wait long. Manfred Eickemeyer, Wilhelm Geyer, and Harald Dohrn were acquitted. There sim­ply was no credible evidence to show that they knew anything about Hans Scholl’s activities.

Josef Söhngen received six months in prison for failure to report the leaflets he had received – a crime that had even gotten the “girls” a full year in prison, and seven years in the peniten­tiary for Helmut Bauer and Heinrich Bollinger. Judge Schwingenschlögl ruled that Söhngen’s guilt could be mitigated because his failure to report had been due to negligence, not a conscious decision to hide evidence from the authorities.

Schwingenschlögl found it completely believable that “even Wilhelm Geyer” had not been initiated into Hans Scholl’s intrigues. The judge had developed a curious thesis, allegedly based on Gisela Schertling’s testimony that day in court.

All of the accused have been brought to trial because of their relationship to the traitor Scholl. According to their descriptions, Scholl was a person of above-average abilities, who was interested in all realms of intellectual life. Though he was only twenty-four years old, he was easily able to strike up an acquaintance with all kinds of people. He had a large circle of friends, which included older people as well. Scholl, however, appears to have been more reserved when it came to his treasonous activities. The circle of participants and confidants who have been arrested is relatively small.

The witness Schertling – though she was his lover – was not initiated into his treasonous activity at all. She stumbled onto it shortly before his arrest when she came across a large inventory of leaflets while visiting him in his room.

Except for Professor Huber, to whom Scholl was close, Scholl and Schmorell recruited and initiated only young people. This is possibly because they had hopes of greater activity from young people, or because they were afraid that older people would wrestle leadership away from them. It therefore cannot be assumed that Scholl initiated every acquaintance into his activities.

When court was adjourned, the party began in earnest. Fortunately, Wilhelm Geyer had warned his wife that they would have to spend one more night in prison. She therefore was not worried when they led him and his three friends away. Clara Geyer did not think it was possible to be this happy.

Nor were Clara and the Riecks the only ones celebrating that night. “Fellow prisoners romped,” her husband said later. It was unbelievable, simply unbelievable. Four men on death row, and three had been acquitted! (Dr. Reisert, who one year later was sentenced to five years in prison for his role in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt, told Wilhelm Geyer after the war, “You all obviously had a better attorney than I did.”)

Their outrageously high spirits were dampened, however, when someone said: Did you hear? Professor Huber and another fellow were executed today. While you were in court.

Wilhelm Geyer harbored no illusions about the outcome of the day’s trial. If he had not gotten the key and cigarette ration coupons back… If Gisela Schertling had not recanted her testimony… If the files had not gotten so screwed up… If Freisler had presided… All these “If’s,” and things could have ended differently for him as well.

For now, he could not figure out why things had gone so agreeably. He could not lose sleep over the reasons fate had dealt him one hand and Professor Huber another.

The only thing he knew, the only thing that mattered? Tomorrow he would hold his babies for the first time in one-hundred-and-one days.

(c) Ruth Hanna Sachs.

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