You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

How 'head hunter' executed 3,000 for Hitler then hanged Nazi war criminals for the Allies

Mirror logo Mirror 14/06/2017
Johann Reichhart was born into a family of executioners. © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Johann Reichhart was born into a family of executioners.

The young girl moved impassively into the shadow of the guillotine which would end her life. It was 5pm on February 22, 1943, and darkness was already falling outside.

In the death chamber at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison, 21-year-old Sophie Scholl would pay with her life for distributing leaflets decrying Adolf Hitler.

“Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?” said Sophie as her executioner looked on.

In a long black coat, white shirt, black bow tie and top hat, Johann Reichhart was just three years older than the girl whose life he was about to end.

Reichhart took 3,165 lives during his time as Germany’s chief executioner. Ironically, after the collapse of the Third Reich, he would hang some of those he once served, Nazi war criminals, on behalf of the victorious Allies.

The beheadings of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and a third member of The White Rose, their student resistance group, were among 2,873 executions he carried out in the Second World War.

“Head Hunter” Reichhart’s extraordinary life is the subject of The Curse Of Hitler’s Executioner, the first episode of a new series of Forbidden History, on the Yesterday channel tonight.

Marc von Luke, a journalist who has written about Reichhart, said: “He killed quickly, efficiently and without remorse. Under the Nazi regime, Johann Reichhart despatched criminals and resistance fighters, and after the end of the war he hung up Nazis for the Allies. Until the end of his life, he believed in the benefits of the death penalty.

“Reichhart had the ambition to become the best hangman in Germany, sure that he was a master of his art. No one was going to kill faster than he did.

“He served the Nazis, but he served the Weimar Republic and the Allies too. It was the profession which was important, not the government of the day. He was simply good at his job.”

Reichhart was born on April 29, 1893, in Wichenbach into a family of executioners going back eight generations.

In the First World War, he served in the trenches. In peacetime he was a driver, butcher and pub landlord.

On March 23, 1924, he applied to the Bavarian State Ministry of Justice in Munich for the position of executioner after the retirement of his uncle Xavier.

The administration promised him 150 Goldmarks for each execution, and announced: “From April 1, 1924, Reichhart takes over the execution of all death sentences coming in the Free State of Bavaria to the execution by beheading with the guillotine.”

Sophie Scholl was just 21 when Johann Reichhart executed her. © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Sophie Scholl was just 21 when Johann Reichhart executed her.

His career began on July 4, 1924, when he beheaded Rupert Fischer and Andreas Hutterer for murder.

He had practised with mannequins and a corpse but now was the real thing.

Reichhart positioned Fischer exactly beneath the guillotine blade hanging eight feet above him.

He released the locking lever and the blade whooshed down, severing Fischer’s head, which rolled into a basket as Reichhart pronounced the words he would recite over and over in the coming years: “The verdict is executed.”

A series of life imprisonments and pardons towards the end of the 1920s caused him to write to bosses in 1929: “My last execution was in Kempten on January 20, 1928. Since all the murderers condemned to death had been pardoned, I was so hindered in my business journeys that I did not earned a penny for a week.”

He gave it up that year and went to Holland, where he became a fruit and veg salesman. But he returned to his true calling after Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933.

He joined several Nazi organisations, such as the party’s motoring corps, but did not become a party member until 1937.

He was soon an integral cog in the state machinery of terror and death, and was given an Opel Blitz to get to execution sites as the Nazis despatched their enemies one by one.

Reichhart invented a device called the “double detective tongs” – a metal clamp which held the prisoner beneath the guillotine instead of rope. He got an execution down to four seconds flat.

During the war his record for the most executions in one day was 32. He was so determined to be punctual at all his “appointments” he asked the transport ministry if he could be spared speeding tickets. His request was denied.

In 1943, he performed 764 decapitations as one of three executioners employed in the Third Reich. Southern Germany, Austria, and the Bohemia region of the Czech Republic were his domain.

After the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944, the bloodlust of the Nazis increased. Reichhart was ordered to Berlin as the officers and intellectuals bound up in Operation Valkyrie – the plot to overthrow of the Nazi state – were snuffed out.

Reichhart was married and had three children. One of his sons, Hans, would commit suicide in 1950 because of the “taint” of his father’s profession, and the siblings recalled the taunts of other children at school: “Headcutter, headcutter, your dad’s a headcutter!”

Reichhart's workload increased as Adolf Hitler got more and more bloodthirsty. © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Reichhart's workload increased as Adolf Hitler got more and more bloodthirsty.

Traitors, defeatists, those who listened to the BBC on the radio – all fell victim to the man dubbed “Head Hunter”.

But when the Reich collapsed in 1945, new masters came for him. In May that year, American soldiers, calling him a “Nazi b------,” took him into custody.

He was not behind bars for long. His unique skill made him useful to the Allies and, in their service, he ended the lives of 156 low-rank Nazi war criminals.

The first of these to die by hanging were three German civilians, executed in November 1945 for killing downed American pilots.

Later Reichhart had to justify himself at a de-Nazification court, where he said: “I have carried out death sentences in the firm conviction that I should serve the state with my work, and to comply with lawfully enacted laws. I never doubted the legality of what I was doing.”

Jamie Theakston, who presents Forbidden History, believes Riechhart embodied the dark side of German efficiency. He says: “Reichhart developed his own guillotine modelled on the traditional French guillotine, but lighter and more mobile. It’s horrific to think of it.

“He was very proud of what he did. He felt he was doing an important service.

“One of the reasons he ended up working for the Allies was that there were not a lot of people prepared to do that kind of thing.”

The death penalty was outlawed in West Germany’s constitution in 1949, but Reichhart supported its reintroduction in the 1960s after a series of taxi driver murders.

Reichhart ended his days alone and lonvely, first breeding dogs and making perfume, and later being looked after in a care home near Munich, where he died in 1972.

More from The Mirror

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon