Although it is most known as a symbol of the French Revolution (‘holy guillotine’), the guillotine was already used in the Middle Age and was at the time called ‘the board’ in Germany and Flanders, ‘mannaia’ in renaissance Italy, and ‘the Halifax Gibbet’ or ‘the Scottish Maiden’ in England. In 1792 the guillotine became the principal device by which death penalties by decapitation in France were carried out, after the physician J.I. Guillotin proposed to institute a quicker and less painful method to carry out capital punishment that would be of the same type for all offenders regardless of their status. The last guillotining took place in Paris in 1970. During the Reign of Terror, thousands of ‘enemies of the French Revolution’ were executed on the guillotine. With time the executions grew into a morbid form of popular public entertainment. It included programs listing the names of the people to be executed, a souvenir shop as well as the possibility to book ‘good’ places from which to observe the proceedings. Spectators would often sing songs and mock offenders, while famous figures sometimes undertook the role of executioner. The most famous offenders executed on the guillotine were Louis xiv, King of France, Queen Marie Antoinette and Maximilien Robespierre, one of the leaders of the French Revolution. By the end of the 18th century the public craze for attending executions abated, and yet public executions continued to be performed until 1939. Following Hitler’s regulation in 1930, the guillotine was also used by Nazi Germany: Nazi records indicate that 16 500 people were executed by this method in the period between 1933 and 1945. The youngest victim was Sophie Scholl, a student activist and member of the anti-fascist movement, executed in 1943 at the age of 21.
The guillotine was thus perceived to deliver an immediate death without risk of suffocation. Furthermore, having only one method of civil execution was seen as an expression of equality among citizens.