Archive for May, 2009

1076: Waltheof II, Earl of Northumbria

1 comment May 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this day in 1076, William the Conqueror had Northumbrian Earl Waltheof II beheaded for treachery — the only major noble executed by the Norman king.

Waltheof in the comics! (Or see him trade up to battle-axe here.) According to Reality Fiction, Waltheof had a colorful afterlife as a literary character whose reputed exploits grew more prolific with age; he was a popular saint in the next generations. Some also consider Waltheof a possible ancestor of Robin Hood.

When the Norman Conquest brought William the Conqueror to power, the nobles didn’t know the Normans would be able to keep what they’d won … and being nobles, they started plotting.

Multiple revolts shook the northern marches where Waltheof had his domain, and the burly Northumbrian, according to skald Thorkill Skallason, was a Norman-killing machine.

Waltheof burned a hundred
Of William’s Norman warriors
As the fiery flames raged;
What a burning there was that night!

Our day’s principal made nice with the Conqueror and even got dynastically wedded to William’s niece, Judith.

But his fame as a warrior and strategically positioned estates soon had conspirators wooing him for another run at rebellion — the Revolt of the Earls, which would turn out to be the last serious resistance to the last successful invasion of Britain.

Waltheof either (accounts are radically at odds) signed on and then got cold feet, or got entrapped into it, or didn’t join but also didn’t report it when he found out, or got shopped for political reasons by his Norman bride. (Judith, suspiciously, got to keep his huge tracts of land after Waltheof lost his head for the property-confiscating offense of treason.)

Whatever the case, he was soon obliged to throw himself on the mercy of the king. He got a royal wife as his first prize for a brush with treason. His second prize was, he was decapitated.

Waltheof is supposed to have made such a delay at the scaffold with the Lord’s Prayer that the headsman got impatient and lopped off his dome after the words “Lead us not into temptation.” Devotional legend says that the severed head completed the prayer.

Thorkill Skallason remembered the last English earl still keeping it real under William’s rule.

William crossed the cold channel
and reddened the bright swords,
and now he has betrayed
noble Earl Waltheof.
It is true that killing in England
will be a long time ending;
A braver lord than Waltheof
Will never be seen on earth.

Another quarter-millennium elapsed before another English earl — Thomas Plantagenet, Earl of Lancaster — was put to death in the realm.

Waltheof’s story is told in detail in the context of The history of the Norman conquest of England, available free from Google books, and directly from the relevant primary documents here.

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2000: Fu Xinrong, involuntary organ donor

4 comments May 30th, 2009 Headsman

One Fu Xinrong was shot in the back of the head this day in China’s Jiangxi province. The previous fall, he had raped his girlfriend, murdered their newborn son, and turned himself in to police.

His death, just one no-account criminal among China’s thousands of practically anonymous execution victims, attracted no particular notice.

But quite against all odds, Fu Xinrong posthumously became the subject of a scandal: the hook for a story in the Chinese press piquantly titled, “Where Did My Brother’s Body Go?”

For the answer — that Fu Xinrong’s corpse had been driven to a Nanchang hospital and its kidneys transplanted to unidentified recipients — unveiled the shadowy post-execution operations even more unseemly than China’s industrial-scale death penalty.

According to a Washington Post report of July 31, 2001,

After Fu was shot in the back of the head, four attendants got out of the van and picked up his corpse … A government prosecutor attempted to stop them, but they explained that they were from Nanchang and that they had a deal with the court …

“We found the hospital’s director and confronted him with the evidence,” one reporter said. “In the beginning, he refused to say anything about it, but when he saw what we had, he had to admit it on the condition that we did not release the hospital’s name in our report.”

Further investigation indicated that a senior court official, whose surname is Yang, had sold the body to the hospital, the report said.

Fu’s father committed suicide. The family sued the court in 2001; I have not been able to establish whether or how that suit was resolved. However, according to a 2003 U.S. Congress report (pdf) the editor who green-lighted the story’s publication was sacked.*

Fu’s case, in any event, is far from unusual.

On the contrary, his kidneys entered a veritable souk** of transplanted organs that’s been openly pitched at westerners willing to part with five figures and their decency in exchange for a life-giving replacement part from a shot-to-order prisoner.

* This would have been around the same time that a similar fate befell journalists indiscreet enough to explore the unflattering-to-the-People’s-Republic social environment of an executed gangster.

** Finally officially acknowledged in 2005.

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1962: Gheorghe Arsenescu, Romanian partisan

Add comment May 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1962, partisan Gheorghe Arsenescu was put to death at Bucharest’s Jilava Prison.

Arsenescu was a leader and co-founder of one of Romania’s several bands of anti-communist resistance units. Arsenescu’s Haiducii Muscelului — the Muscel Outlaws — were a band of 30 to 40 in the Carpathian fooothills who scarcely posed a serious threat to the Romanian state, but who nevertheless managed to elude capture for nine solid years in the 1950’s.

(More about the Haiducii in this Romanian pdf.)

Arsenescu was finally nabbed in 1960, a few months after his former comrades Toma and Petre Arnautoiu had themselves been executed. According to Revolution and Resistance in Eastern Europe, Arsenescu’s wife and father were also given long prison sentences for aiding him.

This band was perhaps most especially notable for one of its members who not only survived capture, but outlived the Communist regime: Elisabeta Rizea.

Crippled by torture, Rizea became a potent symbol in post-Communist Romania of the resistance of Arsenescu and others.

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1871: The Paris Commune falls

15 comments May 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1871, the last barricade of the Paris Commune fell to the onslaught of the army — and a legion of Parisians fell to the army’s firing squads.

On the evening of that bright Sunday when the insurrection finally collapsed, a Sunday when the streets of central Paris were crowded with returning bourgeois, all expressing their satisfaction that the struggle was at last over, the city’s walls were placarded with a proclamation emanating from MacMahon. “Inhabitants of Paris,” said he, “the Army of France has come to save you. Paris is delivered. At four o’clock our soldiers carried the last position occupied by the insurgents. Today the struggle is over, order, work and security will now revive.

I read that announcement in the Rue de Rivoli, not far from the Hotel-de-Ville. A moment later, however, I heard a discharge of musketry … Several insurgents who had been taken fighting were being shot. (My Adventures in the Commune, Paris, 1871, an anti-Commune source)

The day was climax and curtains for the first working-class seizure of power in industrial Europe, but in truth indiscriminate reprisal executions had been underway since troops of the conservative Versailles government first breached rebellious Paris on May 21.

What followed was semaine sanglante, the “bloody week” — each barricade’s surviving defenders executed summarily, and anyone in the city liable to a similar fate if the nearest French officer disliked the cut of his or her jib. Rumors swept the city that women of the Commune were torching buildings, for instance, and suddenly any woman in the street could be killed as an arsonist; some firefighters were shot as saboteurs when the “water” they threw on such flames failed to speedily quench them,* and was consequently adjudged to be kerosone.

And heaven help he who should chance to resemble one of the wanted Communard leaders!

Any passer-by calling a man by a revolutionary name caused him to be shot by soldiers eager to get the premium … Members and functionaries of the Commune were thus shot, and often several times over, in the persons of individuals who resembled them more or less.


Un rue de Paris en 1871, by Maximilien Luce.

The total body counts are guesswork: the killing ran far ahead of the record-keeping. Twenty thousand, or thirty, or more are thought to perished by summary execution. Even the press of the bourgeoisie, whose sword arm the Versailles men comprised, was aghast. London’s Times filled its broadsheets with calumnies upon the Commune, but noted on May 29:

“The Revolution is crushed;” but at what a cost, and amid what horrors! … the Communists seem not very much worse than their antagonists. It sounds like trifling for M. Thiers to be denouncing the Insurgents for having shot a captive officer “without respect for the laws of war.” The laws of war! They are mild and Christian compared with the inhuman laws of revenge under which the Versailles troops have been shooting, bayoneting, ripping up prisoners, women and children, during the last six days.

Whatever the true death toll, it massively surpassed that of the much more eagerly commemorated Revolutionary Terror.

Not for Executed Today to number what the butchers themselves could not. In a city turned charnel house in the midst of a Week of Blood, a few scenes of mortality from the day the Commune fell. (Heavily sourced to the very pro-Commune — hence potentially sensational — History of the Commune of 1871)

This people, heroes in the face of the foreigner, must therefore by called assassins, criminals, wretches, because they died for the Universal Republic, because in defense of their beliefs, their conscience, their idea, they preferred, in their fierce enthusiasm, to bury themselves in the ruins of Paris rather than abandon it to the coalition of despots a thousand times more cruel and more lasting than any foreigner.

-Lissagaray

The 147 Fédérés at Communards’ Wall

At a wall still consecrated to leftists in the Pere Lachaise cemetery of Belleville, 147 were summarily shot.

The 147 are acclaimed as the last defenders of the Commune.

the Commune is in its death throes. Like the dragon of fairy lore, it dies, vomiting flames … What must these men feel who are killing and being killed in the cemetery! To die among the dead seems horrible. But they never give it a thought; the bloody thirst for destruction which possesses them allows them only to think of one thing, of killing! Some of them are gay, they are brave, these men. That makes it only the more dreadful; these wretches are heroic! Behind the barricades there have been instances of the most splendid valour. A man at the Porte Saint-Martin, holding a red flag in his hand, was standing, heedless of danger, on a pile of stones. The balls showered around him, while he leant carelessly against an empty barrel which stood behind. — “Lazy fellow,” cried a comrade. ‘”No,” said he, “I am only leaning that I may not fall when I die.”

-Paris Under the Commune, an anti-Commune source

Communard Eugene Varlin

Varlin, alas! was not to escape. On Sunday the 28th May he was recognized in the Rue Lafayette, and led, or rather dragged, to the foot of the Buttes Montmartre before the commanding general. The Versaillese sent him to be shot in the Rue des Rosiers. For an hour, a mortal hour, Varlin was dragged through the streets of Montmartre, his hands tied behind his back, under a shower of blows and insults. His young, thoughtful head, that had never harboured other thoughts than of fraternity, slashed open by the sabres, was soon but one mass of blood, of mangled flesh, the eye protruding from the orbit. On reaching the Rue des Rosiers, he no longer walked; he was carried. They set him down to shoot him. The wretches dismembered his corpse with blows of the butt-ends of their muskets.

Varlin was shot along with a nameless batch of others to whom the March 18 execution of Generals Lecomte and Thomas had been hastily imputed (they were held at the generals’ execution site, to contemplate their sin). A pro-government paper allowed that Varlin “died game.”


L’execution de Varlin, another Maximilien Luce scene.

Many at the stock exchange

According to the Paris Francais as quoted by this Marxist review of the events

It is at the Bourse that there was to-day the largest number of executions. The doomed men who attempted to resist were bound to the iron railing.

The stock exchange is “a fit place, to be sure, for this sort of business,” observes our interlocutor.

Eighty-plus defenders of Belleville, at the Arc de Triomphe

The London Times editorialized on May 31 upon this incident when the Marquis de Gallifet plucked from the mass of Belleville’s May 28 captives “eighty prisoners, principally soldiers of every arm, linesmen, artillerymen, and Zouaves, [who] were set apart and afterwards led to the right of the rampart to be shot.”

The French are filling up the darkest page in the book of their own or the world’s history. The charge of ruthless cruelty is no longer limited to one party or to one class of persons. The Versailles troops seem inclined to outdo the Communists in their lavishness of human blood. The Marquis de Gallifet is escorting a column of prisoners to Versailles or Satory. He “picks out eighty-two of them, and shoots them at the Arc de Triomphe.” Next came a lot of 20 firemen, then a dozen women, one aged 70. On another spot our Correspondent came upon “80 corpses, piled upon each other, a mass of arms and legs and distorted faces, while the roads and gutter literally flowed with blood.” About 1,000 are said to have thus suffered. By this wholesale and summary execution of prisoners in batches of 50 and 100, not only must the innocent perish with the guilty, but many must bear the penalty of imaginary guilt.

An utterly disconnected Englishman, according to the paper’s correspondent, was accidentally among the four score at the Arc, and only saved by the fortuitous intervention of a Belgian attache.

an English officer somehow got mixed up in the procession, and was forced to keep in it by the escort, who, out of 5,000 prisoners, could not, of course, be expected to recognize one innocent man … it so happened that some of the prisoners tried to escape, and to make an example the leader of the cavalry escort, the Marquis de Gallifet, a man who is not prone to err on the side of mercy, had then and there 81 shot, and the English officer was all but one of them, his explanations being at first refused the slightest attention. Human life has, in fact, become so cheap that a man is shot more readily than a dog.

Socialist physician Tony Moilin

One single fact was Tony Moilin reproached with: that of having on the 18th March taken possession of the mairie of his arrondissement, and having thus had a share in giving the signal for the insurrection …

The court-martial condescended to tell him that the fact of the mairie, the only one he could be reproached with, had in itself not much importance, and did not merit death, but that he was one of the chiefs of the Socialist party, dangerous through his talents, his character, and his influence over the masses; one of those men, in short, of whom a prudent and wise Government must rid itself when it finds a legitimate occasion to do so

[A] respite of twelve hours was granted him in order that he might make his testament, write a few words of farewell to his father, and finally [marry his pregnant lover] … on the 28th May, in the morning, Tony Moilin was led into the garden a few steps from the palace and shot. His body, which his widow claimed, the surrender of which had been at first promised, was refused her. (History of the Commune of 1871)

The unnumbered dead of Lobau Barracks

Since morning a strong cordon is being formed round the theatre (Châtelet); where a court-martial is permanently established. From time to time one sees a band of fifteen to twenty individuals coming out, composed of National Guards, civilians, women and children fifteen to sixteen years old.

These individuals are condemned to death. They march two by two, escorted by a platoon of chasseurs, who lead and bring up the rear. This cortege goes up the Quai de Gevres and enters the Republican Barracks in the Place Lobau. A minute after one hears from within the fire of platoons and successive musketry discharges; it is the sentence of the court-martial which has just been executed.

The detachment of chasseurs returns to the Chatelet to fetch other prisoners. The crowd seems deeply impressed on hearing the noise of the shootings.

This is another publication’s story cited in the History of the Commune of 1871, which itself also details the court-martial procedures of this drumhead tribunal:

Thousands of prisoners who were led there were first of all penned in upon the stage and in the auditorium, under the guns of the soldiers placed in the boxes; then, little by little, like sheep driven to the door of the slaughter-house, from wing to wing they were pushed to the saloon, where, round a large table, officers of the army and the honest National Guard were seated, their sabres between their legs, cigars in their mouths. The examination lasted a quarter of a minute. ‘Did you take arms? Did you serve the Commune? Show your hands.’ If the resolute attitude of a prisoner betrayed a combatant, if his face was unpleasant, without asking for his name, his profession, without entering any note upon any register, he was classed. ‘You?’ was said to the next one, and so on to the end of the file, without excepting the women, children, and old men. When by a caprice a prisoner was spared, he was said to be ordinary, and reserved for Versailles. No one was liberated.

The classed ones were at once delivered to the executioners, who led them into the nearest garden or court. From the Châtelet, for instance, they were taken to the Lebau Barracks. There the doors were no sooner closed than the gendarmes fired, without even grouping their victims before a platoon. Some, only wounded, ran along by the walls, the gendarmes chasing and shooting at them till they fell dead. … There were so many victims, that the soldiers, tired out, were obliged to rest their guns actually against the sufferers. The wall of the terrace was covered with brains; the executioners waded through pools of blood.


Summary executions — death squads — continued for days or weeks afterwards in Paris; martial law throttled left organizing in the city; and those “fortunate” enough to have been captured alive were processed in a steady stream of judicial executions over the months yet to come.

The Commune, a palpably subversive example even in the present day, was destroyed in every way possible for the Versailles government. But its example could hardly be forgotten.

Marx would write The Civil War in France of the only proletarian revolution he would actually witness in his lifetime.

The next generation’s subversives also took inspiration from the Parisian example … and lessons from its mistakes. Lenin — a fond student of the Commune, who was eventually buried wrapped in a Communard banner — said that

two mistakes destroyed the fruits of the splendid victory. The proletariat stopped half-way: instead of setting about “expropriating the expropriators”, it allowed itself to be led astray by dreams of establishing a higher justice in the country united by a common national task; such institutions as the banks, for example, were not taken over … The second mistake was excessive magnanimity on the part of the proletariat: instead of destroying its enemies it sought to exert moral influence on them; it underestimated the significance of direct military operations in civil war, and instead of launching a resolute offensive against Versailles that would have crowned its victory in Paris, it tarried and gave the Versailles government time to gather the dark forces and prepare for the blood-soaked week of May.

“The lesson learnt by the proletariat will not be forgotten,” Lenin vowed, and his own revolution gained a vital object lesson in the Bloody Week of Paris, and an anthem besides: Communard Eugene Pottier, fleeing the Versailles army’s slaughter, wrote the verses that have been sung ever since by millions dreaming of a better world — the Internationale.

* Water can accelerate a fire, under the right circumstances.

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1525: Thomas Müntzer, prophet of the Peasants’ War

9 comments May 27th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1525, radical religious reformer and Peasants’ War leader Thomas Müntzer lost his head in the town of Mühlhausen.

Müntzer, a university-educated theologian, caught the whiff of Lutheranism in the Zeitgeist; following Luther’s call to study the Biblical text directly without the intervention of the doctors of Rome, Müntzer swiftly discerned a heavenly admonition to set to rights the many wrongs of an unjust world.

Luther had not had in mind dispossessing the haves, particularly not when imperial electors defended him from the Pope’s inquisitors.

When in 1517 opposition against the dogmas and the organisation of the Catholic church was first raised by Luther, it still had no definite character. Not exceeding the demands of the earlier middle-class heresy, it did not exclude any trend of opinion which went further. It could not do so because the first moment of the struggle demanded that all opposing elements be united, … Luther’s sturdy peasant nature asserted itself in the stormiest fashion in the first period of his activities. “If the raging madness [of the Roman churchmen] were to continue, it seems to me no better counsel and remedy could be found against it than that kings and princes apply force, arm themselves, attack those evil people who have poisoned the entire world, and once and for all make an end to this game, with arms, not with words. If thieves are being punished with swords, murderers with ropes, and heretics with fire, why do we not seize, with arms in hand, all those evil teachers of perdition, those popes, bishops, cardinals, and the entire crew of Roman Sodom? Why do we not wash our hands in their blood?”

This revolutionary ardour did not last long. The lightning thrust by Luther caused a conflagration. A movement started among the entire German people. In his appeals against the clergy, in his preaching of Christian freedom, peasants and plebeians perceived the signal for insurrection. Likewise, the moderate middle-class and a large section of the lower nobility joined him, and even princes were drawn into the torrent. While the former believed the day had come in which to wreak vengeance upon all their oppressors, the latter only wished to break the power of the clergy, the dependence upon Rome, the Catholic hierarchy, and to enrich themselves through the confiscation of church property. The parties became separated from each other, and each found a different spokesman. Luther had to choose between the two. Luther, the protégé of the Elector of Saxony, the respected professor of Wittenberg who had become powerful and famous overnight, the great man who was surrounded by a coterie of servile creatures and flatterers, did not hesitate a moment. He dropped the popular elements of the movement, and joined the train of the middle-class, the nobility and the princes. Appeals to war of extermination against Rome were heard no more. Luther was now preaching peaceful progress and passive resistance.

Muntzer became adopted into the Marxist pantheon sufficiently to grace East Germany’s five-mark bill.

That’s Engels in The Peasant War in Germany, revisiting the theological conflicts at the birth of the Protestant Reformation from the perspective of 19th century Marxism.

Projecting backwards, Engels saw in Müntzer a distant forerunner of their own day’s class conflicts — the man whose language was Biblical and apocalyptic but whose subject matter was the peasantry’s demand for material justice.

[Luther] says in his booklet on commerce that the princes should make common cause with thieves and robbers. But in this same writing he is silent about the source of all theft … Behold, the basic source of usury, theft, and robbery is our lords and princes, who take all creatures for their private property. The fish in the water, the birds in the air, the animals of the arth must all be their property, Isaiah 5[:8]. And then they let God’s commandment go forth among the poor and they say, “God has commanded, ‘Thou shalt not steal’.” But this commandment does not apply to them since they oppress all men — the poor peasant, the artisan, and all who live are flayed and sheared, Micah 3[:2f]. But, as soon as anyone steals the smallest thing, he must hang. And to this Doctor Liar says, “Amen.” The lords themselves are responsible for making the poor people their enemy. They do not want to remove the cause of insurrection, so how, in the long run, can things improve? I say this openly, so Luther asserts I must be rebellious. So be it!*

In this detail view of East German artist Werner Tübke’s weird panorama of the Battle of Frankenhausen, a crestfallen Müntzer realizes divine aid is not forthcoming.

Müntzer embraced the cause of a massive peasant revolt in central Europe in 1524-25. Luther said God wanted them “knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog!”

So it was with Müntzer, who was captured in the decisive Battle of Frankenhausen, tortured into recanting his heretical doctrines,** and beheaded.

Whether one thinks of politics leading Müntzer’s theology or theology leading his politics† or some sort of dialectic between them, we see Müntzer latterly through a glass darkly — the wasted root of a lost Reformation.

* From a 1524 pamphlet vituperatively entitled “Highly provoked defense and answer to the spiritless, soft-living flesh at Wittenberg, who has most lamentably befouled pitiable Christianity in a perverted way by his theft of holy Scripture,” reprinted in Revelation and Revolution.

** Müntzer’s theology included rejection of infant baptism, which ranks him as an early anabaptist.

† “I have done nothing but say that a Christian should not so wretchedly sacrifice someone else on the butcher’s table. And if the political bigwigs do not cease to do so, the government should be taken from them. Whenever I have seriously proclaimed this to Christendom, it either refused to act or was too scared to do so. What more shall I do? Should I perhaps be silent, like a dumb dog? Why should I then make a living off the altar?”

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1831: Mariana de Pineda Muñoz, Spanish liberal

2 comments May 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1831, Mariana Pineda died for her flag.

The problem, in the eyes of feckless royal troglodyte Ferdinand VII, was that Pineda’s flag stood for “Equality, Freedom and Law.”

The widowed 27-year-old (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Spanish) had become a devotee of the liberal Zeitgeist that contended in post-Napoleonic Europe with absolutism.

Spain had had the briefest of flings with liberal government in 1812, only to have Ferdinand reverse Spain from one of the most progressive governments in Europe to one of its most backward. The man even reintroduced the Spanish Inquisition.

By the 1830’s, tensions between constitutional liberals and unreconstructed royalists had Spain on the point of civil war, which would in fact erupt upon Ferdinand’s death two years hence.

Mariana Pineda swam with liberal circles, even helping a death-sentenced cousin escape prison. In 1831, the authorities found a flag in her home embroidered with the “Equality, Freedom and Law” slogan.

Pineda refused to name accomplices, and Ferdinand threw the book at her. Pineda remained adamant.

Before suffering public garrotting in her native Granada (while the offending flag was burnt before her), Pineda declared,

“The memory of my ordeal will do more for our cause than all the flags in the world.”

Her prediction wasn’t so far off.

Pineda’s posthumous repute as heroine has migrated from the particular cause of her day to the general pantheon of Spain. These days, a Granada public holiday (festivities held in the square named in Pineda’s honor) commemorates her sacrifice. Her name is also a byword for the struggle of women to win full political participation (there’s a Centro Europeo de Las Mujeres “Mariana de Pineda”). And martyred playwright Federico García Lorca turned her story into a theatrical classic — his first successful play.

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1948: Witold Pilecki, Auschwitz infiltrator

4 comments May 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1948, Polish resistance hero Witold Pilecki was shot by Poland’s Communist government for a variety of subversions.



Witold Pilecki as an officer (top), imprisoned in Auschwitz (middle), and at his fatal trial (bottom).

A former cavalry officer turned Home Army figure,* Pilecki authored one of the Great War’s most daring (and oddly obscure) covert escapades. In 1940, he volunteered to infiltrate Auschwitz — whose operations were then largely opaque to the Polish resistance — and allowed himself to be rounded up by the Gestapo.

Pilecki spent 31 months in the notorious concentration camp, organizing an inmate resistance network and shipping intelligence about the camp’s operations to the Polish resistance and (through them) the western Allies.

Though his pleas for a raid to liberate Auschwitz were in vain, Pilecki’s report catalogued the today-familiar horrors of the camp.

One bit, as it turned out, was a bit of foreshadowing.

The fourth and most heavy kind of punishment was an execution by shooting: death effected quickly, how much more humane and desired by those undergoing torture. “Execution” is not the right term; the right one would be “shooting dead,” or just “killing.” … The butcher Palitsch** — a handsome boy, who did not used to beat anybody in the camp, as it was not his style, was the main author of macabre scenes in the courtyard. Those doomed stood naked in a row against the Black Wall, and he put a small calibre rifle under the skull in the back of their heads, and put an end to their lives.†

Pilecki escaped Auschwitz in 1943, rejoined the Home Army, and had the good fortune to wind up in Italy at war’s end.

Instead of retiring to write his memoirs, he slipped back into Poland to spy on the postwar Communist government … but the man who had lived through Nazi internment couldn’t pull the same trick on the reds, who were in the process of rooting out anti-Communist resistance elements.

Polish Prime Minister (and fellow Auschwitz survivor) Jozef Cyrankiewicz provided testimony against Pilecki in his show trial (Polish link) on espionage and arms charges.

Pilecki was executed May 25, 1948, at Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison just as he had seen so many killed at the Black Wall — with a single shot to the back of the head.

Pilecki was posthumously rehabilitated by the post-Cold War Polish government, and honored with the country’s highest decoration

* Pilecki co-founded an early resistance organization, the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, or TAP), subsequently absorbed by the Home Army.

** Gerhard Palitsch — or Palitzsch — was a notorious SS roll-call man thought to have personally executed some 20,000 people in the manner described by Pilecki.


An illustration of Gerhard Palitsch executing prisoners at the Black Wall, by Polish inmate Jan Komski

Disliked by camp commandant Rudolph Hoess, Palitsch’s proclivity for taking inmate mistresses eventually got him busted for race defilement, whereupon he himself landed in the camp’s confinement, obliged to “[beg] inmates who used to tremble before him for bread.” (People In Auschwitz)

He was not for the ovens or the Nuremberg trials, however, and instead found himself mustered to the eastern front, eventually dying in action against the Red Army in Hungary. This page (in Polish) assembles various inmate recollections of Gerhard Palitsch.

† As the translation in the cited source is a tad uneven, I’ve taken the liberty of cleaning it up a bit.

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1980: Kim Jaegyu, intelligence chief

2 comments May 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1980, the former intelligence chief of South Korea was hanged for assassinating President Park Chung-hee.*

In this surreal affair — known after its date as the “10.26 incident” in South Korea — the head of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency popped the autocratic head of state during a private dinner party at a secret KCIA compound.

He then returned to another dinner party at the compound and, without disclosing what he had done, reported an “accident” and started dropping suggestions to a general that this might be an opportune moment to arrange martial law. Instead, the two repaired to a bunker. There, several hours’ confused wind-gauging by a hastily assembled cross-section of the country’s power brokers (not knowing their own chief spook had pulled the trigger) gave illustration to the Ovid maxim that “treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? If it prosper, none dare call it treason.”

Only two participants, Kim Chae Kyu and Kim Kye Won, had witnessed the assassination, and neither disclosed the killer … Without an explanation from these two, the others present were left to speculate whether the killings were truly accidental, organized by North Koreans, or perpetrated as part of a South Korean conspiracy, large or small. They could not rule out the possibility that some among them … were part of a plot. Without knowing the balance of power, both civilian ministers and military officers worried about making a wrong move … (Source)

The truth, eventually, would out. But the reason for this shocking internecine turn by a supposed confidante of the president? The murder was too well-planned to square with initial reports of an argument gone out of control. It seems a coup, but if so, our assassin disastrously — almost delusionally — miscalculated the post-Park lay of the land. Maybe we have to entertain the defendant’s own far-out claim to have struck against the authoritarian concentration of presidential power.

I shot the heart of Yusin Constitution like a beast. I did that for democracy of this country. Nothing more nothing less.

The controversial 2005 flick The President’s Last Bang offers a darkly comic look at the twisted mise en scene in the intelligence compound that fateful 10.26 … and doesn’t find a lot of participants worth admiring.

Whatever its cause, South Korea’s unanticipated transition was a wobbly one. Even as the spymaster who had set it in motion was hanged this date with some of his conspiring security men, successor dictator Chun Dwoo-hwan was crushing a student uprising in Gwangju.**

* Park had survived previous assassination attempts, often authored by North Korea — including one that slew his wife in 1974.

** This uprising resulted in a death sentence against future South Korean president Kim Dae-jung — obviously not carried out. Under Kim’s administration years later, Chun was himself condemned to die for the massacre; Kim returned the gesture of clemency.

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1832: Samuel Sharpe, “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery”

3 comments May 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1832, Jamaican national hero Samuel Sharpe died upon the gallows for instigating the slave revolt that would (help to) end slavery.

Samuel Sharpe, an educated slave who was also a Baptist deacon, was the moving spirit behind the attempted general strike that became the Christmas Rebellion.

That time of year was less than festive for Jamaica’s enormous slave population, for Saint Nick opened the short window for harvesting the island’s sugar cane.

Samuel Sharpe and collaborators had the wit to realize that being depended upon to bring in the cash crop that made life comfortable for their owners put the slaves’ hands upon a potent economic lever. In the last few days of 1831, they pressed it.

The “passive resistance” thing didn’t last long, however, and the “strike” transmuted into a rebellion — the cause swiftly taken up by thousands of slaves around the island who torched crops. Given the small (less than 20) white body count,* the “violence” appears to have been directed against the instruments, rather than the perpetrators, of their enslavement.

Not so the reprisals.

The rebellion was suppressed within days, and over 300 put to death for it (in addition to 200 slave casualties during the pacification itself). There’s an absorbing BBC Witness episode about this affair available as a podcast here.

Sharpe was the last of those executed.

But his revolt is widely thought to have given impetus to the British parliament’s deliberations over the ensuing months that ultimately led to the Slavery Abolition Act (1833).

Sharpe, today, is an official national hero of Jamaica. The place in Montego Bay that he hanged is known as Sam Sharpe Square, and his face adorns the currency.

* Contrast with the much smaller, much bloodier rebellion of Nat Turner in the U.S., which preceded the Christmas Rebellion by a few months.

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1946: Karl Hermann Frank

33 comments May 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1946, the Sudeten German whose fifth column had paved the way for the Nazi conquest of Czechoslovakia expiated his war crimes at Prague’s Pankrac Prison.

Karl Hermann Frank (English Wikipedia page | German) had been a prewar mover and shaker in the Sudeten German Party, increasingly the Reich’s stalking-horse as it bluffed European rivals into acceding to Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment.

The onetime Czechoslovakian MP did well by the Anschluss, gaining the rank of Obergruppenführer and becoming one Bohemia and Moravia’s top evildoers.

Notably, he helped orchestrate (though the orders for it came from above) the notorious massacre of Lidice in revenge for the assassination of Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich.

The Lidice operation formed a war crimes charge against Herr Frank after the war, and Frank’s own lasting badge of infamy: the systematic destruction of the entire male population of an arbitrarily chosen village remains the emblematic crime of the Nazi occupation to this day.

(Source of the video)

Thousands of spectators came to see the former “Protector of Bohemia and Moravia” executed in Prague’s Pankrac Prison by the Austro-Hungarian “pole hanging” method, as depicted in the film above.

Those of Lidice’s widows who were able to come — and widows of some of the 30,000 other Czechs for whose executions Frank had been adjudged indirectly responsible — occupied the second row of seats. …

Not the slightest gleam of compassion could be seen in that long row of unforgiving eyes as Frank, garbed in a ragged Nazi Elite Guard uniform, walked quietly between two guards. …

As the noose was adjusted about his neck, Frank muttered: “Deutschland wird leben auch wenn wir nicht leben” (“Germany will live even if we do not live.”)

The spectators, admitted by special cards, watched quietly in the bright sunshine. (New York Times)

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