1900: En Hai, the murderer of von Ketteler

On the last day of the 19th century, a Chinese officer was beheaded on the public street where he had precipitated western* military intervention in the Boxer Rebellion by killing a German diplomat.

Foreign commercial penetration — and domination — was generating domestic turmoil in China. As liberal reforms foundered in the late 1890’s, a more radical anti-foreigner movement blending spiritualism and martial arts launched the Boxer Rebellion (or Yihetuan Qiyi, in the local coinage).

In addition to massacring hated missionaries, the Boxers besieged foreign diplomatic missions in Peking … and veteran German ambassador Klemens von Ketteler was killed in a firefight on a crowded street. (The particular circumstances of the killing seem highly confused, and were immediately colored by the various interested parties’ axe-grinding; it’s sometimes called an “assassination,” but there’s no proof von Ketteler was specifically targeted, and the ambassador himself managed to get a shot off in the fray.)

Given the financial interests at stake, it would be far too much to say that von Ketteler’s death caused the military intervention that ensued, but it certainly catalyzed the conflict. The next day, China’s Dowager Empress declared war against the Eight-Nation Alliance. Within two months, Peking (Beijing) was under foreign occupation.

The man detained as von Ketteler’s murderer — En Hai, or Enhai, or Su-Hai — was proud to claim the act himself, and intimations of the Chinese government’s official blessing for anti-foreigner activities were carefully massaged since the Eight-Nation powers would have need of the Qing dynasty to keep order locally.


On the afternoon of this day in 1900, En Hai was brought out from German custody to the street where von Ketteler had met his end and handed over to the Chinese for beheading. Notice the substantial foreign attendance in both the photograph and the drawing. A German officer’s diary entry cited in The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study recounted the scene.

Ketteler’s murderer was executed at last — for months past the unfortunate wretch has been begging for his execution. It took place in one of the busiest thoroughfares but there were only a few curious onlookers. Scarcely fifty yards away the usual business was being quietly transacted in the streets, people who were eating did not suffer themselves to be interrupted, and a teller of fairy-tales who was recounting his absurd stories had interested his numerous audience much more than the execution.

And to see that the lesson would not be lost on future generations of Chinese, the humiliating peace imposed upon China that December (and formally signed the following year) required China to expiate its guilt by

erect[ing] on the spot of the assassination of his Excellency the late Baron von Ketteler, commemorative monument worthy of the rank of the deceased, and bearing an inscription in the Latin, German, and Chinese languages which shall express the regrets of His Majesty the Emperor of China for the murder committed

Having been made an offer it couldn’t refuse, China honored the intersection (German link) where both the victim and his killer had died in their turns with a massive pailou archway, inscribed

This monument has been erected by order of His Majesty the Emperor of China for the Imperial German Minister Baron von Ketteler, who fell on this spot by heinous murder on the 20th of June, 1900, in everlasting commemoration of his name, as an eternal token of the Emperor’s wrath about this crime, as a warning to all.


A historical postcard of Ketteler monument.

“Everlasting commemoration,” in this case, lasted 15 years.

The national aspirations that had fired the Boxers reared up again in 1911-12 to topple the Qing. Days after Germany’s surrender in World War I, the Chinese Republic began removing the von Ketteler monument.

Visitors will need to look sharp to catch it now, in Zhongshan Park (aka Sun Yat-Sen Park or Central Park), where it has been rededicated to abstractions that age a little better than our German civil servant.

But this was still not quite the last the name von Ketteler was heard in the consular world. A relative (German link) of the man slain in Peking was a conservative diplomat of the Weimar and early Nazi period who opposed the national socialist government. Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler was abducted by the Gestapo in 1938 and murdered thereafter in unclear circumstances, possibly for involvement in a very early plot to kill Hitler.

* “Western” in this case includes Japan, the regional industrial power that also flanked the Russian Empire to the east — very much a player on the European balance-of-power chessboard. Germany (obviously), France, Italy, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.A. were the other nations involved in the intervention, along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose naval deployment to China included future Sound of Music character Georg Ritter von Trapp.

A fair amount of detail on China’s foreign relations during this period is available free in the (dry, and sometimes dated) public-domain 1918 work The International Relations of the Chinese Empire.

1896: Dr. Jose Rizal, father of the independent Philippines

December 30 is Rizal Day (Araw ng Kabayanihan ni Dr. Jose Rizal in Tagalog) in the Philippines, for the execution that date in 1896 of the great martyr of Philippine independence.

Also available free at gutenberg.org (the HTML version is very well-illustrated).

At Jose Rizal’s birth in 1861, it had been 340 years since Magellan had reached (and died at) the Philippines under the Spanish flag.

In Rizal’s century of romantic nationalism, independence movements stirred abroad in the Spanish Empire … too weak yet in the Philippines and elsewhere during the mid-1800s, but unmistakably prefiguring those national destinies that this day’s victim would come to embody.

Oddly, Jose Rizal was not even the most “revolutionary” of his farming family’s 11 children. That distinction went to older brother Paciano, who was under an official cloud before Jose hit adolescence for his relationship with the Gomburza priests, and would later serve as a brigadier general in the revolutionary army of Emilio Aguinaldo.

Jose was less strident — and more brilliant.

Though reputedly an adept fencer and crack shot with a pistol, the renaissance man’s gifts ran more to the life of the mind.

At the Universidad Central de Madrid, the University of Paris, and the University of Heidelberg, Jose Rizal studied ophthalmology and anthropology, and pursued the variegated artistic interests of his youth.

His two novels published from Europe, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo*, both criticized colonial authorities and their Vatican adjutants and struck nationalist chords that put him on the Spanish government’s watch list.

“I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my native land! You, who have it to see, welcome it — and forget not those who have fallen during the night!” -From Noli Me Tangere

Rizal also penned essays and editorials in a less symbolic vein, like this one skewering the stereotype of the lazy native by turning the mirror upon colonial agents who were waiting to prey on the fruit of native labor:

How is it strange, then, that discouragement may have been infused into the spirit of the inhabitants of the Philippines, when … they did not know whether they would see sprout the seed they were planting, whether their field was going to be their grave or their crop would go to feed their executioner? What is there strange in it, when we see the pious but impotent friars of that time trying to free their poor parishioners from the tyranny of the encomenderos by advising them to stop work in the mines, to abandon their commerce, to break up their looms, pointing out to them heaven for their whole hope, preparing them for death as their only consolation?

Man works for an object. Remove the object and you reduce him to inaction The most active man in the world will fold his arms from the instant he understands that it is madness to bestir himself, that this work will be the cause of his trouble, that for him it will be the cause of vexations at home and of the pirate’s greed abroad. It seems that these thoughts have never entered the minds of those who cry out against the indolence of the Filipinos.

(This essay and both novels are available in the original Spanish and in English at gutenberg.org, along with various translations of Rizal’s various fiction and non-fiction work.)

Fire-eating stuff in the eyes of the Spanish crown, but Rizal wasn’t the bomb-throwing type himself.

As the Philippine Revolution that would break the Spanish yoke on the islands took shape in the summer of 1896, Rizal applied to go to Spanish Cuba to treat victims of the yellow fever, and even explicitly disavowed the revolution.

Countrymen: I have given proofs, as well as the best of you, of desiring liberty for our country, and I continue to desire it. But I place as a premise the education of the people, so that by means of instruction and work they may have a personality of their own and that they may make themselves worthy of that same liberty. In my writings I have recommended the study of the civic virtues, without which there can be no redemption. I have also written (and my words have been repeated) that reforms, to be fruitful, must come from _above_, that those which spring from _below_ are uncertain and insecure movements. Imbued with these ideas, I cannot do less than condemn, and I do condemn, this absurd, savage rebellion, planned behind my back, which dishonors the Filipinos and discredits those who can speak for us. I abominate all criminal actions and refuse any kind of participation in them, pitying with all my heart the dupes who have allowed themselves to be deceived. Go back, then, to your homes, and may God forgive those who have acted in bad faith.

This stance on the revolution — the fact that he thought and wrote but never struck a blow — has engendered some controversy over the rightfulness of Rizal’s place in the national pantheon, as has his anti-clericalism and a disputed Vatican claim that Rizal retracted his criticisms of the Church before his death. One Spanish contemporary called Rizal “the Tagalog Hamlet.”

But mostly he is seen as the Spanish government at the time saw him, and as many revolutionaries did as well: as the lodestar of the Philippines’ national aspirations.

Rizal was arrested en route to his humanitarian assignment in Cuba and returned to Manila to face trial for sedition, rebellion and conspiracy, by which point, of course, the verdict was quite preordained. He was shot in the back by a firing squad, uttering the Christ-like last words “consummatum est” — “it is finished.”

Rizal’s execution, and the events preceding it, are depicted in this long excerpt of a 1998 film:


Jose Rizal’s execution.


Near the spot Rizal was actually executed, his martyrdom depicted in statuary.

There are any number of Jose Rizal tribute sites online. JoseRizal.ph and JoseRizal.info are two good places to delve deeper.

* A filibuster is a private military expedition, and more typically associated with Anglo American campaigns against the Spanish-speaking lands to the south, like those of William Walker.