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Biography of a Torturer

Anatole Deibler, France’s official executioner from 1899 to 1939, once remarked, “To kill in the name of one’s country is a glorious feat, one rewarded by medals. But to kill in the name of the law, that is a gruesome, horrible function, rewarded with scorn, contempt, and loathing.” Deibler not only knew his craft—he took part in 395 executions and trained his favorite nephew to follow in his footsteps—he also knew that modern society needed and even wanted torturers and executioners, but that it did not like to talk about them.

Talking about torture is not simply distasteful—it can be downright dangerous. In her 2002 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag expressed fear that photographs of atrocities would not turn society away from war, torture, and execution, but rather, give an impression of “consensus” that such acts were normal or necessary.1 She worried that cold snapshots of suffering could either “vivify the condemnation of war,” or give it an official, historical imprimatur, making it seem “just” and “inevitable.” We struggle with the same problem today: Kathryn Bigelow tried to justify her portrayal of torture in Zero Dark Thirty by saying it is an attempt to tell a story of torture “respectfully” and “honestly.” Is there a respectful way to tell the story of torture?

The historian Joel F. Harrington thinks the way to do so is to present a round portrait of the torturer. His book, The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, looks to understand “what was going through [the] … mind” of Meister Frantz Schmidt (1555–1634), the official executioner of the German city of Nuremberg.2 Most big early modern cities had executioners; it was a reviled profession handed down like a curse, from generation to generation. And most executioners worked by contract, but Schmidt was able to secure not only an official title, but also a steady salary. Among the hundreds of historical figures who played this role in various cities and countries, Schmidt is remembered today not only for his journal of tortures and executions, but also because of a series of ghastly illustrations in the sixteenth-century Nuremberg City Chronicle, which showed him hammering a stake into a woman’s heart, whipping condemned criminals, and even executing his own brother-in-law.

Schmidt might not seem a very sympathetic character, but Harrington wants explain his non-monstrous side, to understand how he “blossomed” into a “moralist” and “healer,” while being a “professional torturer and killer.” Between 1573 and 1618, Schmidt worked tirelessly, not only to torture and kill people, but also to find personal redemption through social respectability. “Establishing a good name … remained a lifelong endeavor,” says Harrington.

This endeavor, as Harrington shows, had many facets. “A man of responsibilities,” he had to maintain Nuremberg’s torture cells and various theaters of execution. Worse than an executioner was an incompetent executioner, and Schmidt knew that those who botched these public rituals of punishment and death could themselves be torn apart by an angry crowd. This meant familiarity with swords, tongs, shackles, rope, hemp bags, hammers, and wood stakes of various sorts—all of which had to be up to the task of pulling out eyes, dismembering, or cleanly shearing off heads.3

Schmidt also needed to develop not just torture and execution “expertise,” but the “psychological fortitude to look into the eyes of condemned criminals … before terminating their earthly existence.” Harrington claims Schmidt was a skilled judge of “torturability,” or Foltertauglichkeit, and that he focused both on his victim’s “emotional vulnerability” and their health, ensuring that they were healthy enough to stand on execution day. Schmidt’s skill as a healer apparently “mitigated the disdain normally reserved for executioners.”

Maintaining his name went beyond his gruesome professional duties. It was a lonely life in the hangman’s house (the Henkerhaus, paid for by the city). Schmidt struggled to meet women, and he had to be careful when frequenting prostitutes so as not to “undermine the very reputation he was seeking to establish.” Harrington commiserates about Schmidt’s rough lot in life: “We may hope that he enjoyed some of the joys of friendship.”

But could an executioner really ever enjoy such pleasures? Or was Schmidt’s fulfillment found in his work? Schmidt’s journal reveals impatience and disgust with those who threatened social propriety and an abiding belief that the condemned deserved their horrible fates. Not only a “willing executioner,” Harrington says Schmidt was “a passionate one.” He raged in his journal against impropriety—for example, an adulterer who “made a child with a poor maid who had no legs.” For Schmidt, clemency had no place in a “profoundly evil” world. Hence, he had little compunction for his brother-in-law, an infamous country burglar named Friedrich Werner, and hanged him with stones attached to his feet. The city magistrates wanted to make “a horrifying example” of “Potty Freddy,” so Schmidt was ordered to tear two pieces of his flesh out with hot tongs and then break him on the wheel.

In the end, Schmidt realized the lifelong dream of a second-generation executioner who had inherited his profession when the emperor and city council declared “his honorable status among other reputable people declared and restored.” With a mix of self-discipline, self-righteousness, and subservience to his municipal masters, Schmidt managed the seemingly impossible feat of escaping his family’s dishonor. Schmidt, Harrington triumphantly states, “defied his fate.”

Harrington’s conclusion that this counts as a victory over social exclusion, however, is troubling. In the quest to enter into Schmidt’s world, Harrington gets too close to his subject. Throughout the book, he roots for Schmidt—familiarly calling him “Meister Frantz.” Torture and execution were and still are complex subjects, and for Harrington to concede that Schmidt’s life provides “no straightforward moral for our time,” is to willfully ignore the acts of violence he committed. Harrington concludes, “we are limited to sharing the joys and disappointments of one man within the context of his own world.” Are we? Torture is torture. One would have felt more sympathy for Schmidt had he been a less faithful executioner.

Without doubt, Schmidt deftly played the perverse hand fate dealt him. But the idea that the reader should “share” in Schmidt’s “joys” is an unappealing thought. First, Harrington gives no real evidence of Schmidt’s “joy,” aside from his official release from dishonor. Instead, there’s a marathon of daily horror from Schmidt’s perspective with not a single scene that gives a sense of the feelings or experiences of Schmidt’s victims. Surely there were many innocents among them.

Harrington’s lack of interest in Schmidt’s victims is a troubling undercurrent to the book. When Harrington describes Schmidt’s unbending respect for social hierarchy and political power, his willingness and passion for his job, and the methodical and bureaucratic way he fed the hunger of the people of Nuremberg for the “carnival” of human suffering, one cannot help but think of Nazi Germany. Harrington is not a modern historian, but when he calls his book The Faithful Executioner, and refers to Schmidt as a “willing executioner,” Daniel Goldhagen’s much-debated Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996)—an anthropological study of ordinary Germans’ participation in Nazi atrocities—comes to mind. With a long history of pogroms against Jews, Nuremberg has long had a central place in the history of torture, execution, and the problem of how to judge such acts. Its infamous Nuremburg Rally of 1935, immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl in The Triumph of the Will, and the Nuremberg trials that followed the defeat of the Nazis all feel like distant echoes of Schmidt’s world of torture, execution, social order, and law. We are left wondering if Schmidt’s devotion, expertise, and complete willingness as an executioner are indicative of a deeper tradition in Nuremberg culture.

The historical study of torture, execution, murder, atrocities and genocides is distinct from other historical endeavors. It takes a grim fortitude to sit in archives for days and months (if not years), noting, analyzing, and verifying atrocities. That Harrington tries to illuminate the dark, complicated world of an ambitious sixteenth-century German executioner is a worthy historical goal. However, the writing of the history of atrocities can either expose what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” or it can fall into a dangerous complicity. This is the fear critics expressed about Zero Dark Thirty. It should also be a concern in telling the story of Frantz Schmidt, a faithful man who tortured and killed hundreds and managed to make a good name for himself in the city of Nuremberg.

Jacob Soll is Professor of History at the University of Southern California and author of the forthcoming The Reckoning: Lessons From the Perilous History of Finance, Politics and Accountability—From the Ancient World to Modern Wall Street (Basic Books). Follow @jakesoll.

  1. Sontag is discussing Virginia Woolf's thoughts about war photography, not simply her own ideas.

  2. With a population of 40,000, sixteenth-century Nuremberg was home to Renaissance patrons and artists like Willibald Pirckheimer and Albrecht Dürer. The French humanist philosopher Jean Bodin called Nuremberg “the greatest, most famous, and best ordered of the imperial cities."

  3. Since they were seen as tools of manual labor (and therefore, unworthy of imperial justice), executioners did not use axes.