The Guillotine: On display or not?

The newspaper “Sueddeutsche Zeitung” recently reported about the discovery of a guillotine in the museum depot of the “Bayerisches Nationalmuseum”. Since then a controversial discussion has emerged, not only among the experts. This guillotine is not just any killing machine, it is without much doubt the device that was used to execute Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst on February 22, 1943. Should an object like this be put on display at all?

One group is working hard on defining what belongs to the core functions of a museum in general (“[…] education, […] documentation, edification, […]” Sueddeutsche Zeitung Nr 10, January 14, 2014, p. 37) and is coming to the conclusion that these purposes are not served with an exhibition of this object (Why not?). At the same time others are nicely discussing the question of an appropriate institution for an exhibition of this object (“As a part of the history of our city it would be appropriate for the Munich City Museum.” Quote as above). The responsible minister, Mr. Spaenle, a historian himself, wants to set up a round table, which is always a good idea if you don´t want to have an own opinion or if you can´t allow yourself to have one. And the last survivors of this discussion are divided: some want to exhibit, some don´t.

In my opinion this controversy is not about the actual questions and I therefore definitely say: Yes, especially this object is suited perfectly for an exhibition! Why? Because even today it still transports multiple significant values:

General historical value: The executioner Reichhart decapitated 2805 people with this guillotine between 1940 and 1945. The death penalty was abolished in Germany after the Second World War, on the contrary to many other countries, where executions can still be performed by the state today. I think this abolishment was an outstanding achievement of the creators of our German Constitution. A guillotine in an exhibition shows directly how the killing business works. This can and must be shown to the public. Are panels and photos more suitable than this gruesome and mechanically perfect killing machine? Of course not.

Memorable value: This guillotine only came into the focus of public interest because who was killed with it: The executioner Reichhart drove to execution sites with this mobile guillotine using his Opel Blitz, killing thousands of people, among them resistance fighters like the members of “The White Rose” (German: die Weiße Rose): Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst and other members. Anybody who has seen the most successful German movie from 1982 by Michael Verhoeven remembers the power of these scenes, especially at the end. The movie shows the outstanding courage of Sophie Scholl (played by Lena Stolze). The executioner Reichhart said about her, that he had never seen anybody die so bravely. We can and must remember this courage. If this special guillotine has now been rediscovered, it is of significant historical value and must be used to show the courage of the German resistance during the war, especially of the “White Rose”. What are abstract numbers about war crimes of the Nazi regime compared to the visual evidence of a real object? The aura of the authentic object – you may think of it what you like – is one of the most important tools of any museum exhibition. This is another reason why this guillotine must be shown to the public.

Identification value: Memory works better with identification. You have to recognize the people and their stories hidden behind abstract historical science preparations. The best museum education service is useless if it doesn´t touch the visitor´s feelings. Probably all museum visitors need this identification with displayed objects in order to deal with more than just the facts in an exhibition.

There are many examples for this. Identification is used at the scene of information at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Photos of victims and their families are shown intentionally. The letters explaining the individual fate of a person touches the readers. The victims have a name, you compare their biographies with your own (“Just as old as I am!”) or you start putting yourself in their place (“My god… a child threw this note out of a deportation wagon…”).

Watch: Catalogue of the Hiroshima Collection, momentarily not available (Photograph by Kornelius Goetz).

Watch: Catalogue of the Hiroshima Collection, momentarily not available (Photograph by Kornelius Goetz).

In the exhibition of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum all objects are personified whenever possible: There are not only the famous wrist watches with molten glass and timing pointers all stuck on 8:15. Many objects of everyday use are also on display. They have been deformed absurdly by the immense power of the bomb. Even more impressing are the pieces of clothing, all are labeled with the names of their owners. We see the shadow of a burned person who waited in front of a bank building in the centre of Hiroshima on the morning the bomb exploded. Fingernails and skin tissue of radiation-contaminated children are on display, which were kept in metal boxes by their parents as a last memory. Should these objects be exhibited? Yes, in fact they have to be!

The same arguments apply to the exhibition in Auschwitz, where they have hair of the victims, their suitcases and even their false teeth on display.

Prosthesis and crutches in the exhibition of the Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph by Kornelius Goetz).

Prosthesis and crutches in the exhibition of the Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph by Kornelius Goetz).


And these arguments also apply to the plaster casts of the victims of the volcano eruption in Pompeii, whose bodies were conserved in hot ashes in the moment of their death. Momentarily they can be seen in Munich in the “Kunsthalle der Hypo-Stiftung” in the exhibition “Pompeji – Leben auf dem Vulkan”.

Plaster cast of a man with child, current Pompeii exhibition of the “Kunsthalle der Hypo-Stiftung”, Munich (Photograph by Kornelius Goetz).

Plaster cast of a man with child, current Pompeii exhibition of the “Kunsthalle der Hypo-Stiftung”, Munich (Photograph by Kornelius Goetz).

It is notable that all these examples are exhibited very puristic without any detailed explanation or context. And they take effect on us although or maybe because they appeal directly to our senses.

All mentioned examples work in the same way: These objects force us to identify with the people who were linked to them. They give often anonymous victims an identity and hereby reach the emotions of the visitors. The more we know about the fate of the people behind these objects, the more we are touched. When objects like these are shown we start to compare and evaluate. Und we say to ourselves: “Not like this!” This is the most important argument for the exhibition of this guillotine, especially if Hans and Sophie Scholl were executed with it.

Kornelius Götz, conservator, obtained a M.A. in history and studied politics and law at the Open University Hagen. From 1984 to 1996 he worked as a conservator for industrial objects at Landesmuseum für Technik und Arbeit (Provincial Museum of Technology and Labour) in Mannheim, Germany. Since 1996 he is CEO of an Office for Conservation Consultancy active as a planner of conservational works, specialising in conservation consultancy in the field of industrial heritage.

Translation by Karolin Rapp. A German version of this article is available at:

, ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: