Both the methods used and the range of crimes 'meriting' execution changed under the Nazis. Dark History says:

When Hitler came to total power, he decided that criminals and enemies of the state should be executed by either guillotining [or hanging from 1942] and he ordered the construction of 20 guillotines.

Plotzensee Prison execution room The guillotine in the Plotzensee Prison execution room. Source: https://ghb67.wordpress.com/2012/04/29/the-guillotine-in-nazi-germany/

Several other sites (here's one) mention the methods used for capital punishment in Nazi Germany. In summary, the three main methods of execution were generally:

  • Guillotine, used for criminals (replaced the axe which had been used before Hitler came to power)
  • Hanging, used for political enemies
  • Shooting, used for political enemies and by the military

Among the crimes which could or did carry the death penalty were

...grave arson,[14] aiding and abetting treason, betraying a secret (mandatorily), procuring a secret for the sake of betraying it, insidious publishing or rhetoric, failure to denounce a capital crime, destroying means for military use, sabotage(mandatorily for soldiers), kidnapping (mandatorily).... a "dangerous habitual criminal" or one convicted of rape...

and so on.

What I can’t find out is why the guillotine was used for criminals and (usually) hanging or shooting for political enemies. The guillotine seems more merciful than hanging, so it seems the Nazis regarded political enemies as worse than murderers, rapists, e.t.c. – but this is just a guess based on little evidence.

Are there any documents, or were any statements made, explaining the reasons for the methods of capital punishment used for different kinds of prisoners? Wikipedia quotes Hitler saying capital punishment is a deterrence, but there is nothing on the methods.


An exception was made for the six members of the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance organization, who were beheaded in 1943.

Why was this exception made for the White Rose movement?

  • 1
    I read a comment made by a trusty at a Nazi prison that people sent to the guillotine were placed face up so they could see the blade coming, so I'm not sure how much better that was.
    – tj1000
    Commented Aug 18, 2019 at 13:51

5 Answers 5


The key distinction was not between beheading and hanging, but rather "good" and "bad" beheading and "good" and "bad" hanging. Which in turn depended on the skill of the executioner. More highly regarded people got the more skillful executioners and the "better" forms of execution.

During the Middle Ages, using an axe was a "good" beheading (for its time). That's because it required a skilled executioner to chop off the head with one blow. Anne Boleyn was executed by swordsman for this reason, and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, which required two strokes. was considered a "botched" execution. But queens were given the highest consideration for their time.

Contemporaneously, hanging was a "bad" form of execution conducted under what I call the "choke" method. This required (typically) 10-20 minutes of agony. And it takes less skill for a hangman to tie a rope around someone's neck and suspend them from a cross bar than an axeman to chop off someone's head with one blow. More on this at the very end. People who don't want the gory details should note the tl;dr.

The Nazis at Nuremburg were executed under the "long drop" method, a "good" form of hanging that would knock out the victim immediately and cause death a few minutes later. That is, a victim would be dropped several feet, depending on his size, so that his neck would be broken. (Japan's General Tojo, a small man, required a drop of 7 feet 7 inches; things could be calculated that precisely.) Executioners who could calculate such (optimal) drops were highly skilled. This was probably more humane than the "good" beheading discussed above.

But the Nazis practiced both "bad" beheading and "bad" hanging.

The use of the guillotine by the Nazis was a "bad" beheading, even though it was "faster" than the axe beheading. That's because it originated with, and was associated with the French Revolution, to the point where even Hitler was somewhat wary of using it. It required less skill on the part of executioner, basically to lift and drop the knife in the slot, and to stuff the victim into the machine, which would do most of the work. Unlike an "axe" beheader, a guillotine was a "weapon of mass destruction" in a way that the axe was not. The White Rose people were regarded as "criminals," but not the worst of the worst, see the next section.

Back to "bad" hanging. tl, dr.

Victims had ropes tied to their necks, were dropped a few inches to "set" the rope, and choked to death, typically over a period of about 10-20 minutes.

The Nazi hangings, after the botched attempt on Hitler's life, were the worst sort of "bad" hanging. People were "strung up" in mid-air with no drop. Piano wire was used instead of rope to minimize the grip on the neck. Thus, the "killing" didn't start right away. It took some time for the force of gravity to establish a "choke," and then additional time for the choke to kill. A process that historically took a few minutes was prolonged for multiple hours.


One reason is that hanging is regarded to be one of the more disgraceful ways to kill a person, normally reserved for petty criminals, while beheading or shooting was regarded to be more 'honorable'. In a notable case, Admiral John Byng was executed by firing squad, after having been judged guilty of 'not having done his utmost' in the Battle of Minorca. This stands in contrast to the ordinary seamen of the same time period, who were hung when found guilty of a capital crime: desertion, striking a superior officer.

In the aftermath of Operation Valkyrie, the July 20 plot against the Nazis, Hitler ordered that the conspirators be 'hanged like cattle'. Many of the more prominent conspirators weren't just hanged, they were hanged with piano wire and no drop, to increase the agony. This resulted in slow strangulation, supposedly taking a few hours.

Ironically, the Nazis who were given the death penalty at the Nuremburg trials were all hung, even after the military members specifically requested a firing squad. It was a final, contemptuous gesture.

  • 4
    True, but the real (or official) reason was that they weren't tried as military men for military crimes, but as senior members of a government having committed genocide.
    – Jos
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 2:27
  • The metaphor * 'hanged like cattle'* sounds weird to me: I've never heard about cattle being hanged.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Nov 23, 2017 at 10:52
  • 2
    @Evargalo: never seen photos of a slaughterhouse? Commented Dec 5, 2017 at 9:39
  • 3
    @DenisdeBernardy : sure. But cattle is "hanged by the feet" but given your description of "slow strangulation", it seems Hitler still wanted the plotters hanged by the neck...
    – Evargalo
    Commented Dec 5, 2017 at 9:45
  • 1
    You say, "even after military members specifically requested a firing squad. "Is it s usual for the condemned to be able to choose their method of execution? I think it happens in the USA sometimes, but I would have guessed that most of the time, it is not up to the person being executed at all.
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 5, 2017 at 11:11

I know a lot about this subject so if I may, I will share it:

  1. Hitler decreed that the uniform execution method throughout German and the "Greater Reich" would be beheading by fallbeil (guillotine). He never specified a number to be constructed. The rest would be up to the RMJ...Reich Ministry of Justice.1
  2. An inventory of fallbeille was conducted. Some dated to Napoleanic times and were unusaable. Six, constructed by the precision engineering firm Jos Mannhardt, were all functional.3 They were the "standard" (and used in Bavaria) but in some landers, the Richtbeil (axe) and even the "Richschwert" (sword) still were used.5
  3. After the RMJ finished its inventory, 11 prisons were identified as Central Execution Sites. Some needed new guillotines. Some of the six Mannhardts went to others.2
  4. A prominent Technical Institute in Berlin then was charged with designing a better guillotine. Today we call these "the Tegels" because initially some were built at Tegel Prison, Berlin.1
  5. Finally, the intial 12 execution sites expanded to many more.2 Many "Tegels" were built and many still exist today as do some of the Mannhardts... all historic artifacts but not recognized by the German Government. Some are displayed. Many are dismantled and in storage. The first (1854) which was used up to 1946, was found in storage at a prominent Munich museum.4



  • Hinrichtung – Wikipedia: Because the killing by the guillotine involved a lot of blood and clean-up work, it was largely replaced by hanging from around 1941. (no source for this statement is given) Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 6:50

"Dark History" doesn't give a source for this supposed order from Hitler. I don't think the site is credible by itself, since it's just a blog.

From what I've read and heard about the topic (I can't give references either, since I didn't write the books and tv shows down), the Nazis just used the means of execution that had already been in place at these prisons before during the Weimar Republic. I'm not aware that the courts gave verdicts specifying the means of execution.

  • Wikipedia says the guillotine was used in Weimar Germany, and before that either ax or guillotine, with neither regime executing many people (only for premeditated murder and treason), although it's not well-referenced. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capital_punishment_in_Germany
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 31, 2021 at 14:11

It takes a lot of force to close up the air supply to the longs. Short drop hanging mainly restricts the blood flow between the head and the body. Usually you won't find someone 'choking' for minutes. Usually someone loses consciousness pretty quickly. You can verify that by watching hanging videos from countries that still use the method.

So I doubt that the amount of suffering was the main reason. One other reason for hanging might be that it is less bloody/messy, and rope is cheap

  • 2
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