BERLIN — A guillotine used to execute thousands of people during the Nazi era, including a brother and sister who led a group of Munich students known as the White Rose in resistance to Hitler, has been provisionally identified in a storage area belonging to the Bavarian National Museum, museum officials said Friday.
Sophie and Hans Scholl and another member of their White Rose group, Christoph Probst, were executed on Feb. 22, 1943, just four days after they were spotted by a guard at the University of Munich as they distributed the sixth edition of their fliers, which from the summer of 1942 had reported intermittently on Nazi crimes, including the mass killing of Eastern Europe’s Jews.
In all, at least 14 members of the group, which historians say comprised 30 to 35 people, were executed by guillotine in Munich and Hamburg. This was in keeping with a revival of beheading under Hitler, who “personally ordered a good number of guillotines to be built,” said Jud Newborn, the co-author of a 2006 book about Sophie Scholl.
The guillotine used to behead the Scholls was for decades considered to be lost. But museum officials said Friday, in response to a report on Bavarian radio, that a recent examination of items stored by the Munich museum suggested that they had found the device.
Ludwig Spaenle, culture minister in Bavaria, said he was startled by a find of “singular significance for German history.” Historians, political experts and the White Rose Foundation, named after the student resistance, should decide what to do with it, Mr. Spaenle said.
Helga Puhlmann, a spokeswoman for the Bavarian National Museum, said the guillotine was among five wooden benches and one metal guillotine mechanism that had landed in the museum’s collection after being handed over by Bavarian justice authorities in the early 1970s.
In a statement sent to The New York Times, Ms. Puhlmann said earlier rumors that the guillotine had been dumped in the Danube toward the end of World War II were not true. Instead, the guillotine — of a type used in Germany in the 19th century and revived for broader use under the Nazis — was taken from the Munich jail where the Scholls and hundreds of others were executed and taken first to nearby Straubing, she said.
The exact origin of the guillotine is “not totally clear, but there are several indications” that it was the instrument used to behead the Scholls, including modifications that were the hallmark of Johann Reichhart, a public executioner in the Nazi era, she said.
How the “historically significant” instrument is now treated, and whether it can be exhibited at all to the public, is a matter “for the utmost sensitivity and reverence,” she added.
Sybe Wartena, a senior curator at the Bavarian National Museum, was quoted as telling the German news agency DPA that rumors about the guillotine had circulated for years. When he took up his post 18 months ago, Mr. Wartena said, he urged a hasty examination. “We are now pretty certain that it is the guillotine used to kill Hans and Sophie Scholl,” he told DPA, discounting the rumors that the guillotine had been thrown in the Danube.
Ulrich Chaussy, an expert on the White Rose group and an adviser on a recent German film about Sophie Scholl, said the idea that Bavarian justice authorities simply handed over the historic object to a museum “is part of a policy of dealing with the past that actually did not want to discuss it,” DPA reported.
Dr. Newborn, the American expert on White Rose, called the find “really remarkable” and of great significance in modern Germany, where the story of the Scholls is widely known and used to reinforce the message that Nazi crimes should never be repeated and that civil courage and resistance are important.
Dr. Newborn, who was founding historian for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, said more than 5,000 people were beheaded under the Nazis, including about 3,000 by Reichhart, who, he said, served as public executioner in Munich from 1924 through the Nazi era and later hanged some of the Nazis condemned to death by the war crimes tribunal in Nuremberg.