Korczak’s real name was Henryk Goldschmidt. He took the name Janusz Korczak (pronounced “ya-nish kor-chok”) for his writing and it wound up taking over his entire life, a la Mark Twain.
Born in an observant Jewish household in Warsaw (which was then Russian Territory) in either 1878 or 1879,* he became man of the house after his father suffered a nervous breakdown in 1889 and eventually had to be hospitalized.
By thirteen, bored by school, he was writing poetry and learning foreign languages by himself. He went to medical school and served as a military doctor with the Russian Army in the Sino-Japanese War of 1905-1906. Eventually he was promoted to the rank of major.
Korczak’s true calling wasn’t in medicine, however, but in writing and in working with children. He found himself drawn to neglected and abused youngsters, and believed in treating every child with honesty and respect.
While he was in China with the military, his first book, Child of the Drawing Room, became famous in Poland. He didn’t realize he was a celebrity until he returned home.
He tried to distance himself from his writing and his fame and be an ordinary pediatrician, but people wanted to see him, to the extent that they would pretend their children were sick in order to entice him to their homes.
Korczak wrote later that one woman claimed her sons had the flu and, when he made a house call, insisted on serving him tea.
“Have you been writing anything lately?” she asked.
“Prescriptions,” he replied, and left, realizing he’d been had.
In 1910, he gave up his medical practice to start an orphanage for Jewish children age seven to fourteen. His institution was very different from most of that time and place, for Korczak had very democratic ideas: the children wrote their own newspaper and had their own parliament and court system.
If one child had a falling-out with another, the urchin could “sue” and bring a case to be decided before the orphanage court, which met once a week. (Even teachers and other staff members could be sued.) The orphanage court also held trials for children accused of violating one of the home’s rules.
Children were rewarded for good behavior, and spanked only as a last resort. Every child had a private, lockable drawer to hold their most precious belongings. Korczak carefully monitored the children’s health and also acted as a sort of informal therapist, encouraging them — most of them orphans from backgrounds of desperate poverty and abuse — to talk about their feelings. The children called him Pan (“Mister”) Doctor.
When World War I broke out, Korczak left the orphanage to serve in the Army again. He left it in good hands, however, in the care of teachers and staff he had trained himself.
“All the world is submerged in blood and fire, in tears and mourning,” he wrote sadly of his war experiences.
It was while in the trenches on the Eastern Front that he began writing a book on child development, titled For The Love of a Child. In 1918, the war finally ended, Poland became a free and independent nation, and Korczak returned to his orphans in Warsaw.
He stayed busy, setting up a second orphanage in 1919, and afterwards writing King Matt the First. The novel, a children’s story about a young boy who becomes king and puts the country’s children in charge, became a bestseller throughout the country in the wake of the calamity lately unleashed by the grown-ups. The sequel, King Matt on the Desert Island, was also a commercial success.
Korczak continued to work for his children, however; he consulted at Warsaw’s juvenile court, and in 1928 founded third orphanage, called Our Home, which had attached dormitories for teachers-in-training and was intended for Catholic children.
In 1925, Korczak wrote another book called When I Am Little Again, told from the point of view of a middle-aged teacher and meant to be read by both children and adults.
He started a children’s newspaper, the Little Review, in 1926. Saying he wanted to “defend children” in his new paper, he invited children from all over Poland to write and tell him the stories of their lives. The newspaper lasted until 1939.
He also hosted a hugely popular radio show, using the name “Old Doctor.” The program was terminated in 1937, however, after only a couple of years; Korczak’s employers with the radio station were reluctant to keep a Jew on the air. When his identity became known, the right-wing press castigated him, saying that as Jew he could never be a real Pole and shouldn’t be allowed to educate Polish children.
Like any public figure, Korczak had his critics. Anti-Semites called Our Home “a new nest of Masonry and potential Communism erected in the heart of the capital.” Communists said his institutions weren’t Communist enough; Zionists criticized him for not directing the children towards a life in Palestine; religious Jews said there wasn’t enough religion in the orphanages while assimilationist Jews said there was too much.
Yet Korczak’s methods worked.
In a follow-up study he conducted of all the former residents 21 years after the first of his institutions was opened, he found that only a few had turned to crime or prostitution as adults. The same could not be said for children who graduated from other children’s homes in Poland.
During the 1930s, many of Korczak’s friends encouraged him to move to Palestine to escape the growing problems in Poland. He actually visited a kibbutz there, but he couldn’t make up his mind whether or to go; he had trouble leaning Hebrew and wasn’t sure a man of his age could start a whole new life.
“I don’t have forty years to spend in the desert,” he wrote to a friend.
Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 settled the question for him; leaving the country was no longer an option. Korczak volunteered for the Army again, but was turned down due to his age.
As the Nazis tightened their strangehold around Poland and Poland’s Jews, Korczak did the best he could to shied his orphans from the chaos, suffering and bigotry around them.
He turned his pen to appeals for funds for the children. As a protest against the occupation, he walked around the city openly in his old Polish Army uniform as well as the required Star of David armband.
The uniform proved surprisingly useful: he told a friend that when he went door to door asking for money for the children, “Some people are generous, but not everyone. If they’re difficult, I just undo my coat and reveal my Polish uniform. They get so nervous about having someone in uniform in their place that they give me something just to make me leave.”
The Warsaw Ghetto opened in 1940, and the orphanage was outside its boundaries, so they had to move. (Later, the Germans reduced the size of the ghetto, and Korczak’s orphanage had to relocate again.)
The Warsaw Ghetto was a kind of hell for Jews; allotted rations of only 800 calories a day — if they could get that — people died in droves of starvation and related diseases, including typhus and tuberculosis, as well as deliberate murder by the Nazis and their collaborators.
As recorded in Betty Lifton’s biography, a gentile friend, Igor Newerly, offered to help Korczak escape this fate:
“Everyone’s worried about your going into the ghetto with the children,” Newerly told him. “Just say the word and we’ll get you false identity papers to live on our side.”
“And the children?”
“We’ll try to hide as many as we can in monasteries and private homes.”
Korczak put down his cigarette, took off his glasses in their cheap round metal frames, and began wiping them with his handkerchief as he always did when he was stalling for time.
Finally, he asked: “Do you realize how difficult it would be to hide one hundred and seventy Jewish children — that’s that’s how many we have now.”
“We’d try,” Newerlv repeated.
“But can you guarantee me that every child will be safe?”
Newerly shook his head sadly: “I’m afraid that’s impossible. We can’t guarantee anything” — he
paused — “even for ourselves.”
Korczak thanked his friend, but turned him down. He would take his chances in the ghetto. His decision was sensible for the time — the “Final Solution” had not been conceived of, and no one knew what the eventual fate of the ghetto residents would be.
On the day they were scheduled to depart, November 29, the children lined up in the courtyard as rehearsed, while Korczak made a final inspection of the wagons filled with the coal and potatoes that he had so arduously procured on his daily rounds. The children waved goodbye sadly to the Polish janitor, Piotr Zalewski, who was staying behind to care for the house. His face was swollen almost beyond recognition from the beating he had received the day before when he and the laundress had applied to the Nazi police for permission to go into the ghetto with the orphans. The Germans had thrown the laundress out, but detained Zalewski for questioning. Didn’t he know that Aryans were no longer allowed to work for Jews? When the janitor replied that after twenty years of service he considered the orphanage his home, the Germans thrashed him with whips and rifle butts.
The orphans tried to sing as they marched out of the courtyard and into the street, clutching their few possessions. The green flag of King Matt, with a Jewish star on one side, flew over the little parade as it made its way through the teeming streets the short distance to 33 Chlodna Street. When they reached the place where the wall cut along Chlodna, slicing its “Aryan” half off from the ghetto, they found German and Polish police at the gate demanding identification, as if they were crossing a foreign border.
Within the ghetto, Korczak continued his activities for children’s welfare.
He tirelessly solicited aid for the orphanage to keep the children clothed and fed. He and others held benefit concerts and poetry readings, and put posters all around the ghetto saying “OUR CHILDREN MUST LIVE” and “A CHILD IS THE HOLIEST OF BEINGS.”
He took the job as director of a hopelessly underfunded shelter that housed a thousand children; in spite of his efforts, the mortality rate there was sixty percent.
Everywhere children were dying of starvation and disease on the streets or in filthy, overcrowded hovels; Korczak lobbied for the creation of a sort of hospice where they could at least breathe their last in clean, quiet surroundings.
For himself he functioned mostly on pure willpower. It was hard for him to eat when he knew the children were hungry. Five shots of pure alcohol a day, mixed with water, provided precious calories.
Yet his health was failing. His friends noticed how emaciated he had become: “ill, wasted and stooped.” He had a persistent cough and a doctor who examined him diagnosed him with pulmonary edema. Nightmares interrupted his sleep. “How hard it is to live,” he wrote, “how easy to die!”
Yet he carried on.
In the summer of 1942, it became increasingly apparent that the ghetto would be liquidated. Igor Newerly approached Korczak again and offered to help save whoever he could.
Korczak declined his offer again, but gave him his diary for safekeeping — a sign that Korczak, too, knew the end was coming. He had decided to throw his lot in with the children.
In July, the Nazis announced that there were “too many Jews” and they were sending away the children, the old, the sick and anyone else who could not work. Orphans, of course, would be at the top of the list. Resettlement meant death, and many of the ghetto residents knew it, although a substantial number clung to the hope that they would be placed in work camps and find someway of surviving a little longer.
Adam Czerniaków, the Warsaw Ghetto Chairman and Korczak’s personal friend, took his own life rather than supervise the deportations.
For the next few weeks, people were marched or dragged to the death trains, packed inside and driven off to the Treblinka Extermination Camp for gassing.
Many people tried to hide, for the most part unsuccessfully, to escape being deported. Some of the ghetto residents were so hungry that they volunteered to go, because the Nazis promised bread and marmalade to anyone who reported of their own accord.
Korczak’s orphanage’s turn came on August 6. He and the staff had made up their minds earlier: all of them would go together. And they would go quietly, in an orderly fashion, so as not to frighten the children.
Their walk to the death trains, witnessed by thousands, has passed into Holocaust legend.
The Germans had taken a roll call: one hundred and ninety-two children and ten adults. Korczak was at the head of this little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children’s republic. He held five-year-old Romcia in one arm, and perhaps Szymonek Jakubowicz…
Stefa followed a little way back with the nine- to twelve year-olds. There were Giena, with sad, dark eyes like her mother’s; Eva Mandelblatt, whose brother had been in the orphanage before her. Halinka Pinchonson, who chose to go with Korczak rather than stay behind with her mother. There were Jakub, who wrote the poem about Moses; Leon with his polished box; Mietek with his dead brother’s prayer book; and Abus, who had stayed too long on the toilet.
There were Zygmus, Sami, Hanka, and Aronek, who had signed the petition to play in the church garden; Hella, who was always restless; big Hanna, who had asthma; and little Hanna with her pale, tubercular smile; Mendelek, who had the bad dream; and the agitated boy who had not wanted to leave his dying mother. There were Abrasha, who had played Amal, with his violin; Jerzyk, the fakir. Chaimek, the doctor; Adek, the lord mayor. , and the rest of the cast of The Post Office, all following their own Pan Doctor on their way to meet the Messiah King. One of the older boys carried the green flag of King Matt, the blue Star of David set against a field of white on one side. The older children took turns carrying the flag during the course of their two-mile walk…
The young protagonist of Jerry Spinelli’s novel Milkweed described it this way:
The orphans were going by. They were marching. Their heads were high and they were singing the song I had learned. I sang along with them. Not one was dressed in rags. Everyone wore shoes. Doctor Korczak lead the way…
“The very stones of the street,” wrote Yehoshue Perle, another chronicler, “wept at the sight of the procession.”
As the group waited for the trains to leave, Korczak’s many friends were seeking out anyone with influence, desperately trying to get them out of Umschlagplatz and back to the orphanage to die another day.
It was said that a German officer, who had been a fan Korczak’s King Matt books as a child, offered him the chance to leave — without the children. Korczak refused.
His presence kept the children calm; if he left them they might panic. He knew what was coming, and he knew he could not force the children to face death alone. The fact that he was in such poor health and probably would not have survived the war in any case does not make his sacrifice any less.
Eventually the orphans and the staff boarded the train and were hauled away. There were no survivors. His name is listed on a memorial stone at the site where Treblinka once stood — the only such stone with a name on it.
On this date in 1992, 42* Baghdad merchants who were among several hundred rounded up over the preceding 48 hours were executed at Saddam Hussein‘s command at Abu Ghraib prison and the Interior Ministry compound.
The merchants were accused of profiteering by manipulating food prices — a chilling threat to businessmen, but one that had little power to arrest the wreck of Iraq’s economy. Prices for food, and everything else, were spiking under the blockade.
“Hardly any Iraqi trader sent anything to his country from our warehouse” after the executions, according to a Jordanian exporter quoted by Reuters.** “They tell us even if the goods are given to them for free, they are not ready to risk their lives.”
These executions have put some former Iraqi officials at risk of their lives in American-occupied Iraq.
The country’s longtime Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, was tried for his life in 2008-2009 for ordering these executions; Aziz received a 15-year sentence.†
Just days ago as of this writing, those two gentlemen were transferred from American to Iraqi custody, where they figure to be put to death very soon — though this is a matter of ongoing political wrangling.
* It’s not completely unambiguous to me that the “42 merchants” at issue in several post-Saddam trials were all executed on July 26 (though Amnesty International seems to think so); the roundup and execution process was less than orderly. But it’s certainly the case that at least many died this date.
Some testimony and trial documents related to the incident are available in pdf form here.
This Northumberland lord, whose name hints at his reputation for for ferocity and impetuousness, was not necessarily incensed in principle at Henry Bolingbroke‘s usurpation of the English crown as Henry IV. In fact, he took an appointment to put down the anti-Lancastrian rebellion of Welsh troublemakerOwain Glyndwr. (Percy didn’t succeed.)
But this royal imposter didn’t pay off Percy richly enough in either coin or respect.
Hotspur left Wales to whomp the Scots at the Battle of Humbleton Hill, but King Henry’s demand that he turn over the big-name prisoners taken in that battle (instead of ransoming them for profit) — coupled with Henry’s own refusal to ransom Hotspur’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer from Welsh captivity — provoked a furious row between “king” and “subject”. Henry IV is supposed to have denounced Henry Percy a traitor and drawn a blade on him.
Alas: the field wasn’t kind to the Percies this time.
A revolt raised by a guy named Hotspur should hardly fail for want of ambition, and this one was the hottest of spurs: the Percies (with our day’s principal, Uncle Worcester) made a pact with Glyndwr (still going strong in Wales) and Glyndwr’s hostage-turned-son-in-law Edmund Mortimer (who was the uncle of the kid who should have been king) to give Bolingbroke the boot and carve up the realm between them.
Shakespeare represents this argument at the start of Henry IV, Part 1, and the conflict it engenders will drive that play’s story. This is Hotspur privately fuming after Henry has refused to help Mortimer (Act I, Scene 3):
let my soul
Want mercy, if I do not join with him: [i.e., Mortimer]
Yea, on his part I’ll empty all these veins,
And shed my dear blood drop by drop in the dust,
But I will lift the down-trod Mortimer
As high in the air as this unthankful king,
As this ingrate and canker’d Bolingbroke.
Shrewbury was the result, a battle that up to the moment it commenced seemed amenable to mediation. Worcester himself negotiated face to face with King Henry, but refused to submit himself trusting the sovereign’s mercy. “On you must rest the blood shed this day,” Henry told him.
Some of that blood was Hotspur’s, as a result of a freak combat injury: he took a fatal arrow to the face when he raised his armor’s visor to get some air.**
Worcester didn’t outlive him by much — as depicted in Act V, Scene 4, he was summarily executed shortly after the battle:
KING HENRY IV
Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke.
Ill-spirited Worcester! did not we send grace,
Pardon and terms of love to all of you?
And wouldst thou turn our offers contrary?
Misuse the tenor of thy kinsman’s trust?
Three knights upon our party slain to-day,
A noble earl and many a creature else
Had been alive this hour,
If like a Christian thou hadst truly borne
Betwixt our armies true intelligence.
EARL OF WORCESTER
What I have done my safety urged me to;
And I embrace this fortune patiently,
Since not to be avoided it falls on me.
KING HENRY IV
Bear Worcester to the death and Vernon too:
Other offenders we will pause upon.
(Vernon was one of two knights executed with Worcester in Shrewsbury.)
* Yes, the English football club Tottenham Hotspur is named for the dashing Henry Percy. “Audere Est Facere” is the team’s motto, “to dare is to do” … even though that totally didn’t work out for Hotspur himself.
** Oddly enough, Hotspur’s opposite number Prince Henry (the future victor of Agincourt, Henry V), also got shot in the face in this batt
But after rounding up a volunteer militia and helping repel Dutch incursions in 1630 and 1632, Calabar switched sides and joined Holland.
Why he switched sides remains permanently obscure. Popular explanations include: the seductions of Netherlander lucre (Calabar’s detractors like this one); a politically mature calculation that the Dutch would make more progressive colonizers than the Portuguese (this was Calabar’s own defense: “I spilled my blood for … the slavery of my homeland … With its actions, the Dutch have proven better than the Portuguese and Spanish”);* or … somewhere in between
He was rewarded for his devotion [to the Portuguese] by the contempt of his countrymen, who were envious of his prowess. Wounded by this conduct, he left the Portuguese and joined the Dutch.
Whatever the reason(s) for it, Calabar’s switch was efficacious: he knew the lay of the land, and he was vigorous in helping the Dutch foothold of “New Holland” expand. The Dutch commissioned him a Major, and he gained a reputation for his ambushes.
I never met a man so well-adapted to our purposes … the greatest damage he could cause to his countrymen, was his greatest joy.
-English mercenary in the Dutch service
The Portuguese official Matias de Albuquerque eventually turned the tables and captured Calabar in a Portuguese ambush. He not only had the disloyal subject strangled, but quartered the body for public display.
This gruesome warning against collaboration did not prevent New Holland from growing to around half the Brazilian territory … but since Brazilians don’t speak Dutch today, you might have an idea how this is going to end.
As the (eventual) winners of this imperial affray, the Portuguese wrote a distinctly unflattering history of Domingos Fernandes Calabar, the disreputable traitor. He’s a sort of Benedict Arnold character synonymous with disloyalty for any Brazilian schoolchild.
But other interpretations are available.
During Brazil’s Cold War military dictatorship, when traitorousness might seem downright reputable after all, the “official version” was slyly subverted in several different stage productions, the best-known of which is a musical called Calabar: In Praise of Treason.**
Most of the information about Calabar online is in Portuguese; for instance, biographies here and here.
* Let it not be implied that the Dutch were out for anything other than the plunder of empire themselves: Calabar’s own home region of Pernambuco was desirable precisely because of its sugar cane cultivation.
Incidentally, the vicissitudes of war enabled many African slaves to escape to Maroon communities like Palmares — just a few miles away from Porto Calvo.
** See Severino Jaão Albuquerque, “In Praise of Treason: Three Contemporary Versions of Calabar,” Hispania, Sept. 1991. “Less interested in settling the issue of Calabar’s martyrdom than in provoking serious debate about the meaning of loyalty and national identity in times of political repression and in the context of a dependent culture, these plays … bring to the fore the manifold ambiguities the colonized face reacting to the hegemonic rule of the colonizer.”
Jensen’s counterattack [during the Battle of Chochiwon in the opening days of the Korean War] in the afternoon [of July 10] uncovered the first known North Korean mass atrocity perpetrated on captured American soldiers. The bodies of six Americans, jeep drivers and mortar-men of the Heavy Mortar Company, were found with hands tied in back and shot through the back of the head. Infiltrating enemy soldiers had captured them in the morning when they were on their way to the mortar position with a resupply of ammunition. An American officer farther back witnessed the capture. One of the jeep drivers managed to escape when the others surrendered. (Source, specifically)
On this date in 1934, in the coda to Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives purge of the Nazi party, the emerging dictator had his longtime ally shot.
Bavarian World War I veteran Ernst Röhm (Roehm) had been a National Socialist brawler of the earliest vintage: after the armistice, he was among the Freikorps paramilitaries to topple the short-lived Munich Soviet. He joined the NSDAP’s predecessor, the German Workers’ Party, before Hitler himself, and he stood trial with the future Fuhrer after helping Hitler attempt the Beer Hall Putsch. They were so tight, Hitler politely ignored Röhm’s open homosexuality.
But most importantly, Röhm was the energetic organizer of the Sturmabteilung, or SA — the party’s private army ready at arms for street battles with Communists, roughing up Jews, Praetorian Guard duty for party brass, and various and sundry other unpleasantries.
An SA brownshirt tosses a book on the pyre at a May 10, 1933 book burning.
Röhm grew the SA like a weed. At well over 4 million men by the time of Hitler’s Chancellorship, it greatly outnumbered the army itself.
This gave Röhm personal designs on absorbing the army into his paramilitary instead of the other way around, and it gave Röhm the literal boots on the ground to manifest his own commitment to the “Socialist” bits of the “National Socialist” project. His noises about the “second revolution” to come after the Nazis had already obtained state power were most unwelcome.
“One often hears voices in the bourgeois camp to the effect that the SA have lost any reason for existence, but I will tell these gentlemen that the old bureaucratic spirit must yet be changed in a gentle or, if need be, an ungentle manner.”
Well, those gentlemen weren’t about to wait around to be changed in an ungentle manner. Hitler was induced to sacrifice the man who raised him to power in favor of those who could keep him there, personally arrested his old friend and aide-de-camp as the June 30 purge got underway.
A sucker for nostalgia, Hitler didn’t have Röhm killed outright — the fate of many others in those terrible hours — but instead shipped him to Stadelheim Prison in Munich.* After due consideration, though, the treacherous chancellor did what he was always going to do.
Hitler ordered a revolver to be left in his cell, but Röhm refused to use it: “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself.” According to an eyewitness at the 1957 Munich trial of those involved, he was shot by two S.S. officers who emptied their revolvers into him at point blank range. “Röhm wanted to say something but the S.S. officer told him to shut up. Then Röhm stood at attention — he was stripped to the waist — with his face full of contempt.”
A nice twist of the Long Knife by its wielders: they justified the purge on the grounds of an imminent coup attempt by the dead SA boss,** branding the murders of Röhm and his comrades … the Röhm-putsch.
In the dark hours this date in 1934, a bargain with the devil was sealed in blood.
Months before, even mere hours before, it was still possible for longstanding adherents of the National Socialist Workers’ Party to demand the “Socialist” part of the program.
The SA and the SS will not tolerate the German revolution going to sleep and being betrayed at the half-way stage by non-combatants. … It is in fact high time the national revolution stopped and became the National Socialist one. Whether [the bourgeoisie] like it or not, we will continue our struggle — if they understand at last what it is about — with them; if they are unwilling — without them; and if necessary — against them.
Populist, not Bolshevik. (In fact, stridently anti-communist.) Nevertheless, a distinct menace by the have-nots against the haves.*
Especially so because they were the words not of some impotent scribbler but of Ernst Roehm, commander of the the Nazis’ paramilitary brownshirts. And threatening, too, for Adolf Hitler for this same reason: his ascension the previous year to the Chancellorship had entailed terms with a German elite who needed but mistrusted the man’s mass party. Something was going to have to give.
The Communist exile Leon Trotsky’s 1933 analysis of the infant Nazi Germany’s dynamics proved prescient.
The banner of National Socialism was raised by upstarts from the lower and middle commanding ranks of the old army. Decorated with medals for distinguished service, commissioned and noncommissioned officers could not believe that their heroism and sufferings for the Fatherland had not only come to naught, but also gave them no special claims to gratitude. Hence their hatred of the revolution and the proletariat. At the same time, they did not want to reconcile themselves to being sent by the bankers, industrialists, and ministers back to the modest posts of bookkeepers, engineers, postal clerks, and schoolteachers. Hence their “socialism.”
German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. … The “socialist” revolution pictured by the petty-bourgeois masses as a necessary supplement to the national revolution is officially liquidated and condemned.
The Night of the Long Knives this date took those blades to the “socialists”, to the men like Roehm whose dreams of redistribution were reckless enough to picture his working-class militia supplanting the German army proper.
As its price of power, the Nazi leadership purged these dangerous elements.
At 2 a.m. this date, Hitler flew to Munich to personally arrest Roehm on the pretext of averting an imminent coup by Roehm’s SA.** Elsewhere in the Reich, coordinated arrests and summary executions destroyed the Nazi party’s “left”, and throughout this date, and continuing into the next, did not scruple to sweep up whatever other conservative elements Hitler considered unreliable.
Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. … Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: “I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else!”
The final death toll is uncertain. Hitler copped to 77 in a speech to the Reichstag two weeks later which chillingly claimed that “in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge”; it is likely that the true number is much higher. But its effect went far beyond those immediately killed: it tamed the SA’s independence, and permanently subordinated it to the military; and, it brought Adolf Hitler the dictatorial power that would make the succeeding years so fruitful for this blog.
Roehm himself died on July 2, initially spared for his many good offices for the Nazi cause before Hitler realized he could not leave him alive.
The armed forces, apparently the day’s big winner, would pay a price of their own for the arrangement.
“In making common cause with” the murderous purge, observed William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “the generals were putting themselves in a position in which they could never oppose future acts of Nazi terrorism.” As the quid for the quo, soldiers were soon required to swear “unconditional obedience” to Adolf Hitler, and this oath would give countless Wehrmacht officers sufficient reason or excuse to eschew resistance to their leader until much too late.
Barely a month after the Night of the Long Knives, the ancient German President Hindenburg died in office. Hitler, who now commanded the clear allegiance of his nation’s elites and had savagely mastered his own party besides, succeeded the powers of Hindenburg’s vacant office along with those of his own Chancellorship and became the German Fuehrer.
* When the Nazis were knee high to the Weimar Republic, their party program sought such radical stuff as abolition of rentier income, generous old-age pensions, and nationalizing trusts.
** The historicity of any actual coup plot is generally dismissed, although the event is still known in German by the expedient sobriquet the Nazi leadership gave it, Roehm-putsch.
We have received from Constantinople the following further particulars of the revolt of the Janissaries: –
“June 16, 3 o’clock p.m.
“The Sultan was at his summer palace of Bschektash. The Aga Pacha, and the Pacha commanding on the Asiatic bank of the Bosphorus, repaired to Constantinople with their troops: 8,000 topschis, or artillery, also went thither. At length, his Sublimity being resolved to quell the rebellion, caused the standard of the Prophet to be displayed, and proclamations to be made in all the quarters of the city, that all men of honour — that is to say, true believers — had immediately to rally round this standard. The Ulemas met in the Seraglio. The appearance of the Snadgiak Sherif caused some hesitation among the rebels; their numbers were reduced by desertion, while, on the other hand, all the people hastened to assemble round the sacred standard. The energy of the Aga Pacha did the rest; he has crushed the rebles with grape-shot, burnt their barracks in the Ahnudan, and pursued them without mercy.
“The Grand Vizier is in the Court of the Mosque of Sultan Achmet, in the Hippodrome, with the Sandgiak Sherif still displayed; the chiefs of the corps of the Ulemas are met there in council; the Sultan is at the Seraglio, with the great men of the empire. Every moment persons are brought into the Hippodrome, and executed on the spot. Above 100 Oustas have already suffered this fate. This morning all the gates of Constantinople, except one, are shut or guarded by topschis and citizens. The remainder of the rebels have taken refuge in some khans built of stone, where they are invested, and where, to all appearance, famine will soon deliver them to the mercy of the Aga Pacha.
-London Times, July 15, 1826 (translating July 11 reports published in the French papers)
This date in 1826 finds Constantinople in the midst of what history will remember as the Auspicious Incident — an attempted revolt by the Ottoman Empire’s elite Janissary corps that was not at all auspicious for the Janissaries.
Jealous of their material privileges and political prerogatives even as the dawn of industry and conscript armies undermined their combat utility, the Janissaries had become much more trouble than they were worth.†
They had “begun to present a serious threat to the Empire,” wrote Lord Kinross in Ottoman Centuries. “On the battlefield they were gaining a reputation among the modern foreign armies for ineptitude and even cowardice under arms … In the capital … they came to be a dominant power and a focus of sedition.”
Kinross wrote that about the Janissaries of the early 17th century, in the reign of Osman II. (Osman tried to curtail the troop’s power, and was executed by his bodyguards for his trouble.)
A couple of centuries on from that moment, and the Janissaries are still skulking about the Seraglio, still keeping their supposed masters in mortal terror, still arbitrating the succession.
For a generation, Mahmud had waited and readied himself for the opportunity to sweep this piece off the chessboard. This would be a most Auspicious Incident indeed.
Kinross and many other historians suspect that Mahmud intentionally baited the Janissaries to revolt in 1826, but whether or not that is so, they did revolt — in response to a decree reorganizing the corps.
Mahmud was ready for them. He repelled the Janissary mutiny on June 15, and as described by our third-hand correspondent above, proceeded to slaughter them without mercy: under artillery barrage in the barracks they retreated to, or by the summary execution of all who surrendered — not just on this date, but throughout the Incident and extending to the further reaches of the empire where Mahmud’s agents carried his decree abolishing the Janissaries forever.
* Culled from children taken from non-Muslim families and raised as Islamic converts.
† There’s a competing historiography contending (pdf) that, contrary to the corrupt-backwards-military-caste story, it was the Janissaries’ economic and social links that brought on their destruction: they became the entity representing the autonomous Ottoman classes, such as artisans and guilds, who had the most to lose from the elites’ state modernization project.
the fundamental grievance was the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights. Villeins could not plead in court against their lord, no one spoke for them in Parliament, they were bound by duties of servitude which they had no way to break except by forcibly obtaining a change of the rules. That was the object of the insurrection, and of the march on the capital that began from Canterbury.
Late medieval England was in the throes of economic, and therefore social transformation.
There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. … The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved… more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.
Rentiers put a forceful kibosh on “sinfulness” like rising wages and labor mobility, legislating backwards feudal rights and pre-plague wage levels.
Who Then Was The Gentleman?
It was a ground fertile for insurrectionary sentiment, like the class-warfare sermon of subversive Lollard preacher John Ball:
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
This cry for justice anticipated the Levellers by almost three centuries.
But these 14th century downtrodden had some rough levelling of their own in mind, and when the poll tax set spark to tinder, the conflagration spread with terrifying rapidity.
[T]here were some that desired nothing but riches and the utter destruction of the noblemen and to have London robbed and pilled; that was the principal matter of their beginning, the which they well shewed; for as soon as the Tower gate opened and that the king was issued out with his two brethren and the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford, sir Robert of Namur, the lord of Vertaing, the lord Gommegnies and divers other, then Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball and more than four hundred entered into the Tower and brake up chamber after chamber …
These guys were after, above all, John of Gaunt,* the Dick Cheney of 14th century England right down to the malevolent name and underwhelming military achievements: the throne at this time held the posterior of 14-year-old (in 1381) Richard II, and the widely reviled uncle John ran (and freely looted) the realm with a council of loathsome optimates.
Luckily for John, he happened to be off at the Scottish frontier when the Peasants’ Revolt rolled into London; the mob settled for destroying his opulent Savoy Palace on June 13.
The next day, it rampaged through the Tower of London
… and at last found the archbishop of Canterbury, called Simon, a valiant man and a wise, and chief chancellor of England, and a little before he had said mass before the king. These gluttons took him and strake off his head, and also they beheaded the lord of Saint John’s and a friar minor, master in medicine, pertaining to the duke of Lancaster, they slew him in despite of his master, and a sergeant at arms called John Leg; and these four heads were set on four long spears and they made them to be borne before them through the streets of London and at last set them a-high on London bridge, as though they had been traitors to the king and to the realm.
Simon’s severed, and incredibly well-preserved, skull has been resident in a cubby at St. Gregory’s Church of Sudbury for lo these six hundred years. It made news recently when it was retrieved for a CT scan to (among other things) reconstruct Simon’s real-life appearance.
Right, these executed-today guys.
Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and Robert Hailes, Lord High Treasurer, neatly concentrated in their persons the political, financial, and religious power exercised by “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”
Still better, they were the advisors most directly connected to the poll tax. As a reward, they got their polls axed.
This was no mere provincial riot. A lower-class revolt had massed an overwhelming force in the very capital of the kingdom, with most of the main government ministers trapped therein — holed up and inconclusively debating one another about how to get out of this jam. And the movement aimed itself at the conquest of power: Tuchman (citing Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham) says that rebel leader Wat Tyler was anticipated that “in four days’ time all the laws of England would be issuing from his mouth.”
In the end, the last thing between history and King Wat — and, if you’re willing to dream an anachronistic dream, a Commune of London — was the peasantry’s foolhardy reverence for the person of the pimply king.
Foreshadowing a later era’s “if only the tsar knew” naivete, the rebels who thirsted for the blood of Richard’s advisors fancied the king their champion. Young and handsome; regal; charismatic; and plausibly not implicated in the villeins’ grievances … you can understand why they thought that. But disarmed thereby of the ruthlessness necessary to strike him, Wat Tyler’s band instead went the way of the typical peasant rising.
Richard the Lionheart
The king’s own nerves were steel in this moment, when a lesser adolescent would have quailed from the perilous task of safeguarding the divinely ordained oligarchy with his own person. Richard was, at this point, still in his minority: other men took the country’s decisions in their own hands. Richard would one day have to fight them for his own kingly rights; but, on the evidence of this crisis, he had already grown up, and fast.
Perhaps reasoning that royalty is the best shroud, Richard invited the rebels out to Smithfield the very next day, June 15. When the royal teenager was in personal parley with Tyler, the king’s buddy William Walworth got into a scrape with the peasant and
gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. …
when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds.
(This source says that Tyler was retrieved from hospital for a summary execution of his own that same day. Others, such as Froissart, indicate that he died straightway from the wounds he suffered in the fray.)
Brazenly wielding the dread sovereign power over the minds of his subjects, Richard braved death by riding unprotected towards their lines, styling himself their “captain,” commanding their obedience. Peasant archers and pikemen who on that day might have turned English history on its head instead lowered their weapons and submitted themselves.
Though the ensuing bloodbath was a bit less wholesale than the one attending France’s recent Jacquerie, it went rough for the leaders, and concessions the king had made the rank and file vanished along with the danger to his crown. “Villeins ye are,” he would later tell a delegation of petitioners imploring him to effect his pledge to abolish serfdom, “and villeins ye shall remain.”
* John of Gaunt also kind of got the last laugh out of those tumultuous years: though John brokered compromises between the king and his rival nobles, John’s son was one of those rival nobles. After dad’s death, that young man overthrew Richard and established the Lancastrian dynasty as King Henry IV.
Yes, Mirjam was Jewish. This certainly could not have helped her case, but she was actually killed as part of another genocide: the T4 program, the Nazi policy of involuntary euthanasia on people suffering from deformities, incurable illness, mental illness or anything else that made them into “useless eaters.”
Begun in 1939 with the killing of five-month-old Gerhard Kretschmar, who’d been born blind and missing two or three limbs, the T4 program would end the lives of over 200,000 people, about two-thirds of them after the program officially ended in 1941.
T4 had six death institutions, called “state nursing homes,” which were equipped with gas chambers. The operation was supposed to be a secret, but it was too big to be concealed and before long the German people thought they had a pretty good idea what was happening to their disabled loved ones.
Opencriticism of a fascist government is not advisable if you like your life, so the families were limited to publishing heavy hints in their relatives’ newspaper obituaries.
Perhaps the saddest part of Mirjam’s story is that she should have survived. Of course, none of the T4 victims should have been killed, but Mirjam had excellent odds of surviving the Nazi era … until a particularly boneheaded decision by Child Welfare Services and the immigration authorities in Palestine in October 1936.
What’s Palestine got to do with it, you ask? Mirjam P.’s story is told in Tom Lampert’s documentary history, One Life, and it begins in 1933:
This Adolf Hitler guy made Mirjam’s mother uneasy, and she decided to get her family to safety as soon as possible. Mirjam, fifteen years old, long considered a “difficult child,” had been staying in a juvenile reformatory school and sanitorium for the past eighteen months when her mother called her home. She had been sent there after she stole money from her mother and ran away from home.
Mirjam, her mother and her stepfather emigrated to the city of Tel Aviv in Palestine in September 1933, nine months after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany.
Palestine didn’t agree with Mirjam; she hated the weather and had trouble learning Hebrew and Arabic. A year after her arrival, she went to live with her father in Haifa. She left after only a couple of days, however, returned to Tel Aviv and embarked on a spree of petty crimes. Her mother asked for help from Child and Welfare Services, who had two doctors examine Mirjam.
The first doctor pronounced that Mirjam had
… an advanced case of severe psychopathy with pronounced ethical defects. She lies, incurs debts, and has stolen repeatedly from her mother and her friends. She has run away from home multiple times … She roams the streets and is in danger of becoming morally depraved as a result of her strong sexual drives. In order to avoid further violations of the law, she must be admitted to a mental institution as quickly as possible. Since such an institution does not exist here, it is absolutely essential that she be sent back to Germany immediately.
The second doctor agreed:
P. is a psychopath with severe ethical defects and insufficiently developed powers of judgement. She tends to thievery and vagabonding, incurs debts, and has already developed the traits of a swindler … In order to avoid the threat of moral depravity, it is urgent that she be admitted to a remedial educational home … I know that no such institution exists in Palestine or in the neighboring countries. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the patient be sent back to Europe without delay …
Child Welfare Services provided a private tutor for Mirjam, then sent her to a group home for girls, but she didn’t fit in there and was sent back to her mother. Very quickly she fell back into her old habits. She was arrested and put on probation, but she just got arrested again. In a remarkably stupid move by the authorities, she was expelled from the country and sent back to Germany in October 1936. Perhaps Palestine thought they’d given her enough chances.
Back to Germany.
The same country she had fled from to escape Hitler. The same country where by now, under Hitler’s regime, Jews had been banned from public high schools, universities, the civil service, the army and the medical field, where Jews had been deprived of their citizenship and the rights that went with it, where Jewish-owned businesses were boycotted, where things showed every sign of becoming worse and did.
To Germany Mirjam had been sent, to prevent “serious damage to … herself, to her family, and to society as a whole.” She was eighteen years old.
Mirjam spent a few weeks with her grandmother in Berlin, but she left because she was afraid (justifiably so) that the Nazis would put her in an “education camp.”
For the next several weeks she traveled around Europe, going to Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. She tried to find a job but she lacked the necessary papers. In March 1937, she was arrested in Zurich for borrowing money under false pretenses and not repaying it. After twelve days in jail, the Swiss dropped her off at the German border.
Back at square one, Mirjam got into trouble again for petty crimes and served eight months in prison. Then she confessed to having sex with a German boyfriend, in violation of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Mirjam’s boyfriend was prosecuted and claimed he hadn’t known she was Jewish; Mirjam stated she had told him shortly after she met him. He was acquitted in December 1937.
After her release from jail, Mirjam was admitted to the Heckscher Psychiatric Hospital and Research Institute in Munich. She had her intelligence tested and performed poorly. Nurses at the hospital stated Mirjam was a demanding patient, she was lazy, she left her room a mess, she would not take responsibility for her mistakes, and she didn’t have realistic expectations for the future.
After three weeks there, the hospital sent a report to the Jewish welfare office in Munich, which indicated she hadn’t changed much since she was evaluated in Palestine:
In our judgment, P. is a mediocre but normally endowed, weak-willed, unrestrained, and asocial psychopath. Predominant are her physical urges, her limited powers of judgment and insight, and above all her lack of ethical and moral inhibitions. She is incapable of leading a responsible and purposeful life … External compulsion might gradually teach her the value of regular, long-term work and an orderly, honest life.
The evaluator suggested Mirjam be sent to the work unit of the State Mental Institution and Nursing Home.
A 21st-century reading of these evaluations suggests Mirjam was suffering first from Conduct Disorder and then its adult equivalent, Antisocial Personality Disorder. Conduct Disorder is noted “by a pattern of repetitive behavior wherein the rights of others or social norms are violated. Symptoms include verbal and physical aggression, cruel behavior toward people and pets, destructive behavior, lying, truancy, vandalism, and stealing.”
Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed only in adults and is defined as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”
Both disorders are marked by impulsivity, recurring trouble with the law, persistent stealing and lying, and lack of empathy for other people, all traits Mirjam had. These conditions, while serious, would not by themselves merit inpatient psychiatric treatment today — although, in these days of managed care, almost nothing does.
In April 1938, Mirjam escaped from the psychiatric hospital and quickly found herself in jail — petty theft again. Writing from jail during her pretrial detention in May, she asked to be expelled from Germany so she could go live with her father in Palestine, because “as a Jew it is impossible for me to amount to anything here.”
Instead she was sentenced to fourteen months in prison. After her release, in mid-June 1939, the court committed her to the Philippshospital in Goddelau. It was her next-to-last stop on the road
On February 1, 1941, the Charitable Ambulance Service (a tool of T4) picked up 29 Jewish patients from Philippshospital. On February 4, 67 Jews, including the 29 Philippshospital patients, were registered in the logbook at the T4 death institution Hadamar.
Their names were not recorded, but chances are Mirjam was among the group. At Hadamar,
Up to 100 victims arrived in post buses every day. They were falsely told to disrobe for a medical examination. Sent before a physician, instead of examining them he assigned one of a list of 60 fatal diseases to every victim, then marked them with different-colored band-aids for one of three categories: Kill; kill and remove brain for research; kill and break out gold teeth.
Ten thousand people would die there before the end of the war, through gassing, starvation and deliberate drug overdoses.
The district attorney’s office inquired as to her whereabouts and received a death notice from Cholm Insane Asylum: “We wish to inform you that the patient Mirjam Sara P. died here on May 27, 1941. Heil Hitler!”
In fact, she was probably killed earlier than this; the death dates of T4 patients were often pushed forward so the institutions could continue to charge fees for their care.