The name Johann Reichhart might not be one synonymous with Nazi Germany but his ruthless killing streak made him one of the most feared members of the regime.
Reichhart was born into a line of German executioners dating back eight generations. He got his start as a judicial executioner in 1928.
Johann 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.
His career in killing began in earnest with the execution by guillotine of Rupert Fischer and Andreas Hutterer for murder.
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.
A lull in executions forced Reichhart to become a green grocer in neighbouring Holland but he was back in action after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and soon became a vital clog in the Nazi killing machine.
Despite the enormous workload he was asked to complete, Reichhart was very strict in his execution protocol, wearing the traditional German executioners’ attire of black coat, white shirt and gloves, black bow-tie and top-hat. His work took him to many parts of occupied Europe including Poland and Austria. 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.
Reichhart immersed himself in his role and even invented a device called the ‘double detective tongs’ that kept prisoners pinned down without the need to tie them with rope.
The metal clamp held the prisoner beneath the guillotine instead of rope meaning execution time was reduced to four seconds flat.
Cruelly, the Nazis even charged the families of those they had imprisoned and beheaded. For every day that a prisoner was held, a fee of 1.50 Reichsmarks was charged. The executions cost 300 Reichsmarks.
Even the 12 pfennig cost of posting the invoice was demanded back by the Nazi state.
Married dad-of-three Reichhart had gained such notoriety that his children were taunted at school with chants such as ‘headcutter, headcutter, your dad’s a headcutter!’
The reputation of their father even drove one of his sons to suicide.
Following VE Day, Reichhart, who was a member of the Nazi Party, was arrested and imprisoned in Landsberg Prison for the purposes of de-nazification but not tried for carrying out his duty of judicial executioner.
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.”
He was subsequently employed by the Occupation Authorities until the end of May 1946 to help execute 156 Nazi war criminals at Landsberg am Lech by hanging.
He cooperated with Allied chief executioner Master Sergeant John C. Woods
in the preparations for further executions of those found guilty and sentenced to death at the Nuremberg Trials,but refused to carry out any further executions himself following two cases of mistaken identity.
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.’
Reichhart ended his days alone and lonely, first breeding dogs and making perfume, and later being looked after in a care home near Munich, where he died in 1972