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Because he could not kill Hitler, he shot Wilhelm Gustloff

Shortly before 8 p.

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Because he could not kill Hitler, he shot Wilhelm Gustloff

Shortly before 8 p.m. on February 4, 1936, an ice-cold, foggy Tuesday evening, the doorbell of Wilhelm Gustloff rang in the elegant Swiss spa town of Davos. The lady of the house opened the door and, after a moment's hesitation, invited the friendly, well-dressed visitor into the house.

The 26-year-old explained that he wanted to personally hand over some important papers to the leader of the small “Swiss National Group” of the NSDAP on behalf of the German student body. But when Gustloff appeared, David Frankfurter (1909-1982) drew a gun, fired four times and hit three bullets. Mortally wounded, Gustloff fell to the ground.

The perpetrator initially fled immediately after the crime, but soon turned himself in to the police. Because David Frankfurter did not want his act to be judged as a crime, but as a political beacon, as an act of protest against Germany's anti-Semitic policies under the "Führer and Reich Chancellor" Adolf Hitler.

The assassination caused great excitement in Europe. The medical student Frankfurter justified himself, the crimes of the NS regime against German Jews had almost forced him to shake up the world public with a violent act.

However, the judiciary in Chur saw things differently: they rejected the defense's attempt to bring the situation of Jews in Germany into the murder trial. On the other hand, she allowed the joint plaintiffs to spread Nazi hate speech in the courtroom.

Both hostile sides, joint prosecutor and defense, considered the proceedings against Frankfurter to be a model case. The perpetrator, born in Slavonia in 1909, came from a conservative Jewish family. His relatives were respected citizens, his uncle and his brother had doctorates in medicine, another uncle was chief rabbi in Berlin.

David Frankfurter began studying medicine, first in Leipzig, then in Frankfurt am Main and from the winter semester of 1933/34 in Bern. Disturbed by the anti-Semitic riots after the NSDAP took power, he had left Germany.

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The trial against Frankfurter suffered from enormous politicization. The defense tried to alleviate the perpetrator's poor health, while the co-prosecutor recognized the assassination as a typical "sneaky act by an Eastern Jew" on behalf of the "Jewish world conspiracy".

The sentence against David Frankfurter was ultimately 18 years in prison for murder and expulsion from Switzerland after serving his sentence. The Nazi regime repeatedly demanded that Frankfurter be extradited, but the Swiss government in Bern steadfastly refused. Unlike Herschel Grynszpan, who shot the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris in 1938, Frankfurter did not fall into the hands of the Gestapo even during the war.

David Frankfurter was even luckier: he only had to serve half of his sentence. On February 27, 1945, he applied for pardon. His request was granted on June 1, 1945, three weeks after the unconditional surrender of the German Reich. He was allowed to go to prison at the end of August, but had to leave Switzerland a few days later. The convicted murderer emigrated to Israel, where he died in July 1982.

After his release, he came up with surprising information. Actually, he didn't want to kill Gustloff, but Adolf Hitler: "That was my first plan, but it remained unattainable."

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This article was first published in February 2021.

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