How were guillotines invented

History of the Guillotine: Razor of the Nation

Guillotine terminus

The fact that many innocent people died in the process was approved in the name of the common good. It is better, the troubled France shrugs its shoulders these days, to behead ten innocent people than to let one guilty go. In the heat of the moment, it can happen that a 17-year-old boy is executed for mistaking him for his 55-year-old father; or that a Madame de Maillé is only cut a head because the actual accused with a similar-sounding name is “not there at the moment”. The 80-year-old Abbé de Fenelon, who ran an aid organization for orphans in Paris and had little to do with politics, also found no mercy before the tribunal.

Even the blind, deaf and paralyzed are labeled traitors and dangerous enemies of the state in order to quench their thirst for blood: for example Auguste Couthon, a member of the welfare committee paralyzed from the waist down, whose crippled body is laboriously heaved onto the scaffold. "It was an excruciating procedure to execute him lying on his side," reports an eyewitness. Even the corpse of a convict who killed himself to avoid the guillotine is carted to the guillotine and beheaded there.

Above all, the representatives and symbols of the monarchy fall victim to the madness of the new era, which has come to an end with the past. His Majesty King Louis XVI rises to the cheering of the crowd. as a simple "Citizen Capet" up the steps of the place of execution, just like the former Paris Mayor Jean Sylvain Bailly. Foreigners are sometimes caught indiscriminately, for example the Prussian adventurer Friedrich Freiherr von der Trenck, whom Frederick the Great once kept in chains for nine years because of an alleged liaison with his favorite sister Amalie. 67 is the baron when he is accused of treasonous relations with foreign countries and executed.

The new age knows everything better, it no longer needs any science, at least not one that was allied with the old age. And so Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794), one of the most important chemists of the 18th century, dies on the guillotine - as a former general tax farmer one of the most hated men of the ancien régime. The researcher is tall, he asks for a four-day delay so that he can finish one more experiment. This is not granted to him. Court president Jean-Baptiste Coffinhal replied brusquely: "The republic needs neither scholars nor chemists."

Increasingly women are also falling victim to the guillotine, above all Marie Antoinette, "scourge and bloodsucker of the French", who was vilified by the people. As soon as her head is in the basket under the guillotine, Hébert drools after her in "Le Pere de Duchesne", the revolutionary newspaper he published: "Your damned head has finally been separated from the neck of your whore." (1748-1793), author of a "Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizens", ends with the guillotine. And so it happens to her what she has always denounced: women are not allowed to speak in the stands, but have "the right to climb the scaffold." Manon Roland (1754-1793), the wife of Interior Minister Jean-Marie Roland, who campaigned for the idea of ​​gender equality and was therefore reviled as a "hideous witch" by radical revolutionary pamphlets, suffers the same fate.

The revolution was increasingly devouring its own children. In the end, however, the "iron breeze" also brushes the necks of those who have fed the machine for months, the Dantons, Saint-Justs, Desmoulins and Robespierres. Some of the most fanatical zealots show a touch of humanity and love, at least in their last hours, such as Desmoulins: "My head still lets its dying eyes rest on you when it's separated from my torso," he wrote in his last letter to his wife Lucile . At the same time, this reflects a strange discussion that had developed around the instrument of terror: There was serious speculation that the head, separated from the torso, would remain conscious for up to 15 minutes, i.e. that it could witness its own execution.

Export hit of the revolution

With Robespierre's death on the 10th Thermidor of the year II, the revolution found its way back into its bourgeois path. The "Grande Terreur" was over, but the instrument with which the ideologues of horror ruled remained - and "became a fatal export hit of the French Revolution," according to journalist Florian Stark. During the Napoleonic Wars, the guillotine was exported to the occupied German territories as a guillotine. On November 21, 1803, the notorious robber captain Johannes Bückler, known as Schinderhannes, died under him in Mainz, France. Soon the "drop sword machine" will find its way into Europe everywhere. Even in the Vatican, people like the invention from France. Giovanni Battista Bugatti (1779-1869), executioner of the Papal States, who calls the condemned his patients, has carried out a total of 516 guillotine executions since 1816 with the blessing of the Holy Father.

In Germany the guillotine remained in use until the 20th century, in the Federal Republic until the introduction of the Basic Law in 1949, in the GDR until 1968 - mostly as a legal, sometimes also as a political instrument of punishment. Among other things, Sophie and Hans Scholl were beheaded on February 22, 1943 in the Munich Stadelheim prison.

Even France is no longer leaving the guillotine - only the public executions, staged like circus acts during the revolution, are increasingly being shut down. If death sentences were carried out on the so-called scaffold, an elevated platform, until 1870, the guillotine is now built at ground level. In 1939 the cabinet under Prime Minister Edouard Daladier (1884-1970) decided to move all executions behind the walls of the prisons. The last delinquent to die under the guillotine was the native Tunisian Hamida Djandoubi, who strangled his lover after hours of torture. After a long sip of rum, he was beheaded at dawn on September 10, 1977 in Les Baumettes prison in Marseille. It stayed that way until the death penalty was abolished in 1981.

Update 7/23/2019: In an earlier version of this article, there was talk of "dozens of" carts carrying people to be executed in Paris every day. This figure was overstated and more related to the total number of people executed in France, not just in the capital. We changed the passage. The editorial office