Jirí Chmelnicek shot this footage in just-liberated Prague on May 10, 1945 of Czechs celebrating the end of World War II by doling out mistreatment — including a chilling mass-execution — to Sudeten Germans. It was the presence of that population, the reader will recall, that Berlin invoked to justify its occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Chmelnicek’s video only surfaced publicly in 2010: its images were far too sensitive to air closer to the Great War, especially while Czechoslovakia was under communist control. As Der Spiegel reported.
Chmelnicek’s film shows how the Germans were rounded up in a nearby movie theater, also called the Borislavka. The camera then pans to the side of the street, where 40 men and at least one woman stand with their backs to the lens. A meadow can be seen in the background. Shots ring out and, one after another, each person in the line slumps and falls forward over a low embankment. The injured lying on the ground beg for mercy. Then a Red Army truck rolls up, its tires crushing dead and wounded alike. Later other Germans can be seen, forced to dig a mass grave in the meadow.
We do not know who these people are. Considering the indiscriminate revenge visited on Sudeten Germans after the war, it is not likely that these several dozen souls were selected for their fate with care.
On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.
Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.
Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.
Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.
The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, bringing that longtime rival of Persia to the brink of outright destruction. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”
The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.
The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.
The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.
Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:
The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
The (defuunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.
* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.
On this date in 205, the Roman patrician Gaius Fulvius Plautianus was put to summary execution for aspiring to the purple.
Maternal cousin and longtime ally to Septimius Severus, Plautianus had helped himself to a generous slice of power and wealth when his friend became emperor. He got his bristly mug onto imperial coinage and even dynastically married his daughter to Severus’s nasty son and heir* Caracalla.
And so liberally did Plautianus wet his beak on the perquisites of this power that, Cassius Dio reports, “the populace in the Circus once exclaimed: ‘Why do you tremble? Why are you pale? You possess more than do the three.'” The three meant Severus himself and his two sons.
Severus for a time blithely ignored his friend’s aggrandizement, and Plautianus made the political personal by appropriating for himself the estates of numerous senators whose proscription he helped Severus implement.
But the enormous influence of his prefect soon began to present a threat that the emperor could not afford to ignore. In the coming years of the Third Century Crisis, this pattern would repeat itself with numbing regularity: the prestige of some figure would raise the prospect of his seizing the throne; the mere possibility would then thrust sovereign and potential usurper into a destructive mutual dash towards pre-emptive violence.
It’s anyone’s guess whether Plautianus was already contemplating a putsch as the natural progression of his authority, but the decision was made for him by the contempt with which Caracalla treated that daughter he’d been made to marry. The heir “was exceedingly hostile to the the girl, and to her father too,” and even “daily promised to kill her and her father as soon as he became sole ruler of the empire.” (Herodian of Antioch)
Resolving to strike before the young hothead was in a position to effect his threats, Plautianus allegedly engaged one of his loyal servants to assassinate the imperial family.**
The plot was instead betrayed, and Plautianus was produced before his former colleague to be handled as they had once handled those proscribed senators. After his immediate execution, his body was cast into the streets and Caracalla’s unwanted wife sent to a miserable exile.†
The History of Rome podcast covers the reign of Severus and the fate of Plautianus in episode 101, “And All Was of Little Value”.
* Co-heir, with his brother Geta — whom Caracalla murdered at the first opportunity after dear old dad died.
** The would-be assassin presented Severus with a written order for his death in the hand of his master. Cassius Dio quite justly suspects this a stitch-up: “These circumstances in particular betrayed the fraud; for Plautianus would never have dared to give such instructions either to ten centurions at once, or in Rome, or in the palace, or on that day, or at that hour, and especially not in writing.”
Displaced to Spain, Calderon had a meteoric rise as the trusted henchman of the Duke of Lerma — who was himself the trusted (some say over-trusted) favorite of the Spanish King Philip III from the moment the latter came to the throne at age 20 in 1598. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
Calderon’s who became perhaps Spain’s most powerful figure, and surely its most resented. By Philip’s own decree, nothing came to the royal quill but through his valido Lerma. Lerma dominated access to Philip and to a great extent, Calderon dominated access to Lerma. Both men prospered accordingly.
Calderon cut an operatic character — he’s one of those characters awaiting a suitably coruscating literary treatment, although Bulwer-Lytton gave it a shot — of zealotry mixed with greed. His family was the aristocratic equivalent of “new money”; his father had not been born to the nobility at all, and Calderon hustled to climb so high as he did. He did not mean to forego the emoluments of office, like the flattering Rubens portrait that illustrates this post.*
Inevitably, such a figure attracted the resentment of other courtiers, and not only courtiers.
Calderon almost fell in 1607 for extracting bribes far in excess of what acceptable corruption permitted. But he had by then the open enmity of the queen herself. It’s testimony to Lerma’s power that his patronage sufficed for Calderon to maintain his station in the face of such a powerful foe.
Queen Margaret died in 1611. The cause was complications from childbirth, but rumors, like this anonymous pamphlet, hinted at other hands in her death.
moved by the outcries of the people and the advice of wise and virtuous persons … felt obliged to confront the ill intentions of those who without doubt have caused her death. Her goal was to serve our Lord by promoting justice in the distribution of favors, appointments of good ministers, and the elimination of bribes, simonies, the sale of offices, and the promotion of unworthy and inept persons.
While not daring such an accusation, a friar preaching Margaret’s funeral sermon directly to Philip made bold that
a king has two wives, the queen and the community … the offspring of the first marrriage should be children. The offspring of the second marriage should be prudent laws, the appointment of good ministers, mercies to those who deserve them, the punishment of criminals, audiences to all your subjects, dedication to affairs of state, and the consolation of the afflicted. To repay God for the abundant offspring from the first marriage Your Majesty has to comply with your duties towards your second wife. (Both quotes via Kingship and Favoritism in the Spain of Philip III.)
Nothing troubled, Calderon had become a marquis by 1614.
But the rumor mill played the long game. Calderon’s patron Lerma was displaced by his son in 1618, leaving his longtime crony vulnerable to the next turn of fortune. That turn was the 1621 death of Philip III himself, leaving the kingdom to a 16-year-old son, Philip IV.
It is said that when Calderon heard the bells tolling the elder Philip’s passing he remarked, “the king is dead, and I am dead.”
Determined to rein in the perceived decadences of the last era — this period was the peak, and the very start of the decline, of Spain’s wealth and global power — Philip’s Lerma figure the Duke of Olivares had Calderon arrested. Regicide and witchcraft were right there on the charge sheet, but it was the murder of a different man in 1614 allegedly killed to keep him silent about Calderon’s misdeeds that sustained the sentence. A bit more exotic than regular beheading, Calderon had his throat slashed, then was left to bleed out on the scaffold.
As Calderon had come to personify courtly corruption, the new regime anticipated a salutary effect from making an example of him. To their surprise, the pitiless and obviously politically-motivated handling of the fellow — who bore his fate with lauded stoicism — made the late grasping aristocrat the subject of no small sympathy.
It was on this date in 610 that the Byzantine Emperor Phocas was overthrown and put to summary execution — by the very hand, legend says, of his successor Heraclius.*
Perhaps Byzantium’s most anathematized emperor — one Byzantine historian elided his whole 8-year reign because “speaking of suffering is itself suffering” — Phocas’s own rise to the purple owed itself to extrajudicial executions.
That gentleman was a mere army officer of no regal proximity during the previous emperor’s campaigns to ward off the incursions of the Slavs and Avars into the Balkans. While this campaign on the whole enjoyed its successes, Phocas enters the historical scene about 600 as the leader of a delegation sent from the legions to Constantinople to object when the cash-poor imperial court refused to pony up ransom money for comrade soldiers taken prisoner. Phocas was abused at court, and the Avars executed their hostages.
By 602 the policy of having the soldiery take it in the braccae (soldiers’ own allotments had also been pinched by the same budget strictures) blew back when the foul-tempered army was ordered to winter on the far side of the remote Danube. The government collapsed in the face of a military mutiny; Phocas was crowned emperor; and he executed the former emperor Maurice, plus Maurice’s six sons. Much as we are accustomed to think of the old Roman emperors ever on the edge of violentoverthrow, this event was for its contemporaries a great novelty and a dangerous precedent. There had not been a regime change by coup d’etat in Constantinople since that city’s namesake set it up as his capital nearly three centuries before.
This fact is a small part of Phocas’s vile reputation for later historians. But — and we will come to this — that reputation is also heavily colored by the perspective of the regime that would eventually overthrow Phocas himself. For Phocas’s subjects, while he had subjects, he was very far form universally hated. He found particular favor with the church, delivering the gorgeous pagan Pantheon to the pontiffs for use as a church. When touring Rome, you might learn that the very last imperial monument in the Forum is the Column of Phocas.**
Phocas’s reign, however, was defined by war with the Persians. And it was in the time of Phocas that King Khosrau, who actually owed his throne to previous Roman support, started breaking through the weakened Byzantine frontiers and tearing off huge pieces of territory.
By the last years of Phocas the Persians had taken Upper Mesopotamia and Armenia, and begun pressing into Anatolia where resistance collapsed with frightful ease. A Persian raid reached as far as Chalcedon in 608. There’s just something about having an enemy army in the suburbs of your capital that tends to overwhelm the value of any goodwill you got from cozying up to the pope.
In that same year (and this was surely a factor in the Persians’ shocking penetration into Anatolia) the Exarch of Africa began a revolt against the former centurion wearing the purple. From his position he was able to cut off grain shipments to the capital from the empire’s breadbasket, Egypt, which put Phocas in a truly desperate position. This exarch’s name was Heraclius but it was the man’s son, also named Heraclius, who would do the usurping.
Approaching the capital in 610, the Heraclii were able to quickly gather allies. Even the Excubitors, Constantinople’s Praetorian Guards under the leadership here of Phocas’s own son-in-law, saw where the winds were blowing and deserted immediately.
The rebels took Constantinople without a fight, and two patricians seized Phocas and presented him to the new sovereign.
“Is this how you have ruled, wretch?”
To which Phocas sneered,
“And will you rule better?”
Heraclius wasn’t in in the mood to be upstaged by his doomed predecessor, and got the latter’s execution, together with his own immediate coronation, enacted straighaway.
his right arm was removed from the shoulder, as well as his head, his hand was impaled on a sword, and thus it was paraded along the Mese, starting from the Forum. His head was put on a pole, and thus it too was paraded around. The rest of the body was dragged along on the belly, and was brought in the direction of the Chalce of the Hippodrome … And about the ninth hour of the same Monday, heraclius was crowned emperor in the most holy Great Church by Sergius patriarch of Constantinople. And on the following day, Tuesday … the head of Leontius the syrian [the former finance minister] was brought in and burnt in the Hippodrome, along with the image of Phocas which during his lifetime, foolish men wearing white robes had conducted into the Hippodrome with lighted candles. (Chronicon Paschale, as quoted here)
As if in retort to Phocas’s dying taunt, Heraclius held power for 30 distinguished years — “the brightness of the meridian sun,” in the estimation of Gibbon, for “the honor of Rome and Heraclius was gloriously retrieved by the exploits and trophies of six adventurous campaigns” that rescued Byzantium from the brink of destruction, drove back the Persians, enlarged the empire, and even returned the True Cross to Jerusalem. Heraclius himself commanded the army in the field, a practice long out of fashion for emperors. “Since the days of Scipio and Hannibal, no bolder enterprise has been attempted than that which Heraclius achieved for the deliverance of the empire.”
Phocas’s reputation did not profit from the comparison, and for Heraclius the last guy made a convenient foil to whom every evil of the realm could be attributed. We know Phocas almost exclusively through the accounts of later historians dating to this period, which is undoubtedly a factor in the black name our principal enjoys all the way to the present. The excellent History of Byzantium podcast attempts a balanced portrait of this era in an episode aptly named “In Fairness to Phocas”. The subsequent episode, “Heraclius to the Rescue”, deals with Phocas’s unpleasant exit from the scene.
At some point around August 476 — the exact date(s) lost to history — the deposed Eastern Roman Emperor Basiliscus was executed most cruelly with his family.
But having himself played for power with ruthlessness to equal his rivals, Basiliscus was hardly in a position to complain about the treatment. Besides, his killers were just playing by the rules.
The mid-470s saw a confused succession of countercoups toppling short-lived successors to the able Leo I.
The succession went initially to a a 7-year-old grandson whose father, an Isaurian warrior, was proclaimed co-emperor to give the state adult supervision. When the kid died mysteriously (or “mysteriously”) months into his reign, the dad became Emperor Zeno.
As a “barbarian” who had married into the imperial family, Zeno couldn’t catch a break from the capital. He was run out of town in January 475 by a conspiracy of grandees, who elevated our man Basiliscus to power. (Basilicus nailed down the throne by executing his chief rival among the plotters for Big Man in Constantinople.) Basiliscus had been a general in his own right with a somewhat mixed track record; the highlight entry on his c.v. was a gigantic 468 invasion of Carthage that came to such catastrophic grief tht Basiliscus upon his return had to hide out in the basilica of Hagia Sophia claiming sanctuary to protect himself from popular fury.* Eventually the lynch mob died down and Basiliscus copped a pardon from Emperor Leo and returned to prominence in time to be a leading player in the putsch.
Demonstrating his customary aptitude for great undertakings, Basiliscus immediately busted as emperor. A huge fire ravaged Constantinople under his watch. He recalled exiled Monophysite clergy, leading the patriarch of Constantinople to drape icons in the Hagia Sophia in black.
It wasn’t long before daggers were drawn for Basiliscus in his scheming court, just as they had been for Zeno.
In fact, it was Zeno himself who would be the instrument of his successor’s destruction.
A general dispatched to Isauria to take care of the absconded Zeno got word of the gathering discontent and switched to backing the former and now future emperor. As they marched together on Constantinople, a second general sent to stop them also backstabbed Basiliscus by making an arrangement with Zeno to march his defending army down the wrong road. The barbarian warlord looked pretty good to the Senate by now, and it threw open the gates of Constantinople to welcome back its former master in August of 476. Basiliscus for the second time in his life made tracks for the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.
It’s said that the restored Zeno got rid of Basiliscus without violating the church via a nasty little ruse: he got the former emperor to abandon sanctuary with a promise never to spill his blood, then promptly had Basiliscus together with his wife and his son thrown into a dry cistern at some Cappadocian fortress to desiccate from exposure. Zeno would have made a great lawyer.
Basiliscus forced into the cistern.
The restored Emperor Zeno reigned for 15 more years, during which he caused a schism in the church and played a lot of backgammon. Legend has it that he too met a horrific end by deprivation when he drank himself into such a stupor** that he was buried as dead, and finally awoke to find himself entombed. By now quite unpopular himself, he was roundly ignored as he pounded on the inside of his sarcophagus shouting for aid.
Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium podcast handles this period in episodes 2 and 3.
* Procopius accuses Basiliscus of negligence verging on treason in this operation by accepting a plea (and a bribe) by the defending Vandals to defer the attack for a few days on some pretext. “If he had not purposely played the coward and hesitated, but had undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset.”
** Or alternatively (but less expressively, in moral terms), fell very ill — an epileptic coma, perhaps.
On this date in 1388, James Berners, John Beauchamp, and John Salisbury were convicted by the “Merciless Parliament” of treason, and put to immediate death.
You could say that relations between the branches of government were a bit on the frayed side, since crown and parliament had civil war for political primacy. Parliament won.
It just wasn’t quite one of those all-out, kill-you-when-we’re-done wars to depose the king outright. (That would come later.) “We do not rebel or arm ourselves against the King except in order to instruct him,” one of the rebelling Lord Appellant told His Majesty.
“Instructing” Richard II meant politically isolating him and then mercilessly — hence the resulting parliament’s name — attainting his aides and allies for treason.
So all that spring, young Richard II helplessly “presided” over a parliament where his supporters were condemned on trumped-up charges.
This date was the turn for Sir John Beauchamp of Holt and Sir James Berners (or Barnes), two guys noble enough to suffer “merely” beheading, plus Sir John Salisbury, who was far enough down England’s class hierarchy that he got to endure the full drawing and quartering treatment.
Berners may have been the father of a 15th century prioress and author, Juliana Berners.
This woman wasn’t the type to keep to her cloister and meditate: Berners wrote books on her vigorous pastimes of heraldry, hunting, and hawking. Her Treatise of Fishing with an Angle remains one of the seminal books for the sport of angling.
On this date in 1474, Peter von Hagenbach was tried in a remarkable judicial proceeding in the Rhine city of Breisach, found guilty, and publicly beheaded by the end of the day.
This Alsatian knight in the train of Charles the Bold had been installed by that Burgundian duke as his satrap in in the Upper Rhine, in lands that Burgundy held on lease from the Habsburgs.
He made a legendary villain of himself in the early 1470s:
His regime of arbitrariness and terror extended to murder, rape, illegal taxation and wanton confiscation of pivate property, and the victim[s] of his depredations included inhabitants of neighbouring territories as well as Swiss merchants on their way to and from the Frankfurt fair … the outrages of Hagenbach, remarkable even by the standards of the late fifteenth century, greatly contributed to forging what, until then, had been considered impossible, that is, alliances against Burgundy by all her neighbours: Austria, Berne, France, and the towns and knights of the Upper Rhine, all formerly at loggerheads with one another.
After overturning Burgundian authority in the Upper Rhine, that unique alliance aired its many grievances with Hagenbach at a unique tribunal. There, the ex-knight was prosecuted before judges drawn from the several Germanic and Swiss principalities who had allied against him.
Breisach: seems like a nice place to oppress. (cc) image from Routard5.
This unusual procedure gained a special prominence in the 20th century postwar era as historical precedent for “war crimes” prosecutions. Since that time, there’s been a going debate over just what kind of precedent it really makes.
Gordon wrote a 2012 paper re-examining the Hagenbach case attempting to reconcile both the legal and historiographical perspectives on Peter von Hagenbach.
ET: You characterize the present-day understanding of the Hagenbach case as proceeding from Georg Schwarzenberger‘s recovery of the incident further to providing legitimizing precedent for the Nuremberg tribunals. Between 1474 and World War II, did anyone think of this case as one with a wider import for jurisprudence? (And if not, do we know anything about how Schwarzenberger unearthed it?)
GG: To the extent anyone did, from my research, it would have been historians, not jurists per se. Hagenbach was the object of a fair amount of historical scholarship but that had evolved over the years. In the initial period after the trial, Hagenbach was portrayed as the quintessential bogeyman. But over the centuries, historians began to view him in a different light. By 1945, a more nuanced view of Hagenbach had been established. I have not researched Schwarzenberger’s biography in great detail. So I’m not sure how his eureka moment arose. What is clear is that the Nuremberg trial caused him to focus on Hagenbach (my sense is that Hagenbach was fairly well known in Europe — his supposed mummified head was on display in an Upper Alsace museum, for example — but given the absence of anything resembling Nuremberg before Nuremberg, people tended to ignore the details of the Hagenbach legal proceedings).
And my sense is that Schwarzenberger had an agenda — he realized the case could help legitimize what many would claim to be illegitimate ex post facto law at Nuremberg. So he relied on the earlier historical accounts of the Hagenbach case (it seems he based his seminal Manchester Guardian article primarily on the account of French historian Prosper de Barante). And thus he created a fissure between legal scholars and contemporary historians.
Who tried Hagenbach, under what authority, and how were the different interested parties formally represented? Whose idea was all this? What can we tell of the public atmosphere surrounding the trial — was there bottom-up pressure to do this?
After the League of Constance (consisting of various regional polities fed up with Hagenbach) paid off his debt for him, Archduke Sigismund of Austria resumed control over the Upper Alsace territory mortgaged to Charles the Bold. And thus Sigismund made the decision to have Hagenbach tried by the international ad hoc tribunal (another inexplicable link in the chain: Hagenbach escaped lynch-mob justice on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1474 — only thanks to Breisach resident Friedrich Kappelar’s decision to arrest him and await instructions from Sigismund).
Sigismund’s decision to convene an ad hoc international tribunal was utterly remarkable for the time. And it is not clear how or why Sigismund came up with it (although historians suggest it had something to do with the prominent position Hagenbach held as representative of the Duke of Burgundy).
Numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights, sat as part of this international ad hoc tribunal.
Eight of the judges were nominated by Breisach, and two by each of the other allied Alsatian and Upper Rhenanian towns [Strasbourg, Sélestat, Colmar, Basel, Thann, Kenzingen, Neuburg am Rhein, and Freiburg im Breisgau] as well as by Berne, a member of the Swiss Confederation, and Solothurn, allied with Berne.
In fact, each sovereign represented a member of the League of Constance (Berne being the only representative of the Swiss cantons).
Thomas Schutz, the chief magistrate of Ensisheim, was designated as the tribunal’s presiding judge. The nominal trial prosecutuor was the new Alsatian bailiff chosen by Sigismund to replace Hagenbach — Hermann von Eptingen. Eptingen, for his part, chose Heinrich Iselin, one of the commissioners from Basel (one of the League of Constance’s members), to present the prosecution’s case to the court. The other representative from Basel, Hans Irmy, took on Hagenbach’s representation. At some point later in the trial, Iselin resigned because, as the evidence came in, he felt the case lacked merit (and even made a motion to withdraw the charges). He was then replaced by Hildebrand Rasp. Hagenbach also requested additional attorneys and the tribunal assigned him two attorneys — one from Colmar and one from Selestat.
The trial was held in open air before the Breisach mayor’s residence and was attended by “a multitude” of people from Breisach and surrounding towns. It appears as if it were somewhat of a circus atmosphere.
Is there a degree to which the pre-modern characteristics of the belligerents — Burgundian duchies, Swiss cantons, the Holy Roman Empire patchwork — set a contradictory precedent for the postwar world?
Let me quote my paper:
Nothing in history leading up to that moment in 1474 would have suggested the remarkable course of action taken by Sigismund. It is tempting to see that decision as an historic anomaly that would not be repeated for centuries to come. But on closer inspection, Sigismund’s choice to hold a trial before an international court fits well within the historical narrative of that era.
It was a time of religious and political disintegration. The Holy Roman Empire was fading into irrelevance and the Catholic Church was on the verge of losing its European hegemony. It was the eve of the nation-state — a unique moment when the old collective structures were dying and the new ones had yet to be born. Given the interstitial political turbulence, the time was ripe for a plural approach to law enforcement in the cosmopolitan geographic center of Europe. Hagenbach’s inter-regional depredations, which helped forge a rare pan-Germanic consensus, provided the perfect forum to experiment with international justice during that fragmented time. The Westphalian order, already on the horizon, would foreclose any such future experiments until Nazi brutality put a chink in the Westphalian armor and inspired an unprecedented transnational justice operation in the wake of a truly global war. In that sense, although on much different scales, Breisach and Nuremberg have much in common. And should the nation-state ever manage to reassert its absolute supremacy again, Breisach will undoubtedly be on the lips of future international jurists seeking, as before, to end impunity at the expense of sovereignty.
You discuss a revisionist thesis about Hagenbach that essentially says he wasn’t a monster, and even that he was a forward-thinking but star-crossed reformer. Why do you think that we can, in fact, conclude that there’s something to the claim that Hagenbach was tyrannous or criminal? What do you consider the most credible charges, and the ones that to his judges would have distinguished Hagenbach from a run-of-the-mill brutal lord or military commander?
What evidence supports the view that the good burghers of Alsace were the victims of Sir Peter’s violence? Their treatment of the wayward knight after his arrest is most revealing in this regard.
While torture may have been commonplace in ordinary criminal inquisitions of the time, the severity of torment inflicted leads one to believe it was inspired by and directed at the kind of mass, depraved criminality of which Hagenbach has traditionally been accused. Significantly, in this regard, in addition to enduring horrific torture, he was stripped of his knighthood. Degradation of knighthood was exceedingly rare in the Middle Ages and reserved only for the most extreme and infamous crimes.
And there is other evidence to suggest Hagenbach’s culpability for atrocities. Most telling perhaps is the trial record itself.
Hans Irmy, it must be remembered, mounted a valiant and spirited defense to the very end. And yet the record does not reveal his even attempting to refute the charge that Hagenbach planned to exterminate the citizens of Breisach or that he murdered the four petitioning residents of Thann. At most, he offered the rejected defense of superior orders. Nor did Irmy (or Hagenbach, for that matter), directly deny the rape charges (merely objecting that taking women in this fashion was common practice and/or he had paid for services rendered). Rape, as opposed to murder, appears to have been Hagenbach’s preferred weapon of terror and atrocity.
And there is a plausible explanation for why Hagenbach would have wanted to murder the citizens of Breisach.
Hagenbach was aware of other towns that had plotted to kill him during the previous year and, when requesting entry to create defensive fortifications in anticipation of an attack by the League of Constance, he had already been denied admittance with his troops into Thann and Ensisheim. He was only able to gain entry into Breisach because his mercenaries were already present there. Given the animosity shown him in these other towns and the previous conspiracy to kill him, Hagenbach did not want to take any chances. Killing Breisach’s citizens would have permitted him to use the town as a defensive fortification without the risk of an uprising from its citizens.
Did Hagenbach slaughter thousands of innocent civilians in concentrated liquidation campaigns? There is no evidence to suggest he did — he was not a fifteenth century proto-Nazi. But the record suggests that he terrorized the local population by murdering civilians, raping numerous women and conspiring to commit a large-scale massacre in Breisach. It should be noted that the rape charges are the most persuasive as there are numerous examples and they were never directly refuted.
And Hagenbach’s back story further validates this view of him. He was the product of a Burgundian ducal culture that was steeped in and glorified violence — the reflection of its bellicose chief, Charles the Bold (known to his enemies as Charles the Terrible). The duchy was in almost a permanent state of war with one enemy or another during Charles’s reign. Charles the Bold’s Burgundy was in the practice of laying siege to towns and routinely killing civilians who resisted — Liege, Dinant, Neuss — all were subjected to horrific violence by Burgundian troops, and Hagenbach played a leading role in the first two. And within that violent culture, Hagenbach was Charles’s fiercest, most loyal lieutenant. In that regard, Sir Peter’s steadfast reliance on superior orders at trial speaks volumes.
And it is not to be overlooked that a criminal disposition was apparent even before Hagenbach cast his lot with Charles the Bold. The reported kidnapping of Marquard Baldeck, the Swiss banker for whom Hagenbach demanded ransom, is telling in that regard. As noted previously, Hagenbach supposedly demanded ransom from Baldeck’s family and the scheme was scuttled only when Philip the Good ordered Baldeck released without any extortion payment. Hagenbach also seems to have fabricated a murder plot against Charles the Bold, which he falsely pinned on a court rival to have him eliminated.
Add to this Hagenbach’s contempt for the emerging bourgeoisie and townspeople, as well as a deep animosity toward the Swiss, and his stewardship of the Upper Rhine represented the perfect storm. By 1474, he had indeed become the scourge of the Sundgau. In this regard, it is interesting to note Burgundy expert Richard Vaughan’s insight that, in fact, it may have been Hagenbach driving policy and tactics in Charles’s Alsatian territory, not the other way around:
Many of Hagenbach’s activities were undertaken at [Charles’s] express command, though often as a result of representations made to him by Hagenbach in the first place. It is possible, for example, that Charles only agreed to sign the treaty of St. Omer on Hagenbach’s persuasion. In the duke’s letters to Hagenbach of 8 August 1470 he orders him to undertake the siege and conquest of Ortenberg castle, ‘in accordance with your memorandum (advertissement)’, which seems to imply that Charles was here acting on detailed advice to take Ortenberg sent him by Hagenbach. As to other mortgaged places, the bailiff wrote to Charles describing how he had seized possession of Landser and seeking the duke’s approval, which was given on 6 January 1474. . . . On 26 December 1470 he wrote congratulating Hagenbach on taking Ortenberg . . .”
Finally, it should be pointed out that Hagenbach may be responsible for atrocities in the region, even if he personally did not commit or order or was unaware of all of them. In particular, the Picard and Wallon mercenaries he hired toward the end of his reign had a well-known reputation for being unruly, violent and hostile toward the local Alsatian population. French historian Emile Paul Toutey, for example, describes Picard soldiers engaging in mass rape of Breisach’s women toward the very end of 1473. These troops may have acted on their own initiative but Hagenbach was their superior and, at the very least, he bore command responsibility. And this may also have contributed toward the writing of Hagenbach’s black legend.
Did the Hagenbach case, in your opinion, actually break new legal ground relative to what had occurred up through 1473? Does it have any analogues you’re aware of over the next century or two, prior to the advent of the Westphalian system?
In my opinion, nothing in the historical record up through 1473 suggests the possibility (certainly not the likelihood!) of what actually took place in 1474.
Eminent German historian Hermann Heimpel does note that the contemplated trial was consistent with other legal actions in late fifteenth century Swabia. What must have seemed entirely unprecedented, though, was the make-up of the court that would sit in judgment of Peter von Hagenbach. He was not to be tried by a local judge. Instead, numerous representatives of sovereigns from around the region, twenty-eight in all — including sixteen knights — would sit as part of an international ad hoc tribunal. Nothing after this, until the Versailles Treaty’s Article 227 contemplated international ad hoc tribunal trial of Kaiser Wilhelm II post-World War I (which never took place since the Dutch refused to extradite), even suggested such a procedure.
Hagenbach tried to raise a “superior orders” type of defense, claiming that Charles the Bold had ordered him to do the nasty things that were imputed to him. The dismissal of this defense does sound pretty modern, but was it mere expedience on the part of the court since it had no way to compel evidence from Charles the Bold?
That’s a great question! I don’t think so. Why? Because Hans Irmy asked for a trial continuance to contact Charles the Bold to appear before the tribunal and corroborate Hagenbach’s claims of superior orders. The tribunal flatly denied the motion for continuance. There was not even an attempt to contact the Duke of Burgundy. Like the decision to try Hagenbach before an ad hoc international tribunal, the decision to deny the motion (and flatly reject the defense) seems nothing other than ground-breaking. In short, it was an epochal precedent.
What interpretive conflicts does this case raise for you when considering it as a legal scholar, versus as a historian? How do you think people today should understand Peter von Hagenbach’s prosecution?
Again, I quote from my paper:
My piece attempts to identify and resolve certain vertical and horizontal dissonances in Hagenbach scholarship. With respect to the former, this has amounted to an exercise in historiographic and historical archeology. The recent attention lavished on the case by international criminal law (ICL) experts is informed by a cartoonish conception of the defendant — an ultra-violent, sexually depraved monster who ran amok for years along the Upper Rhine and terrorized its population. Consistent with that interpretation, the authorities who captured and tried him engaged in a righteous and visionary justice enterprise. They came out on the winning side of a Manichean struggle that gave birth to ICL and ennobled its pedigree.
Digging deeper, though, one finds a very different narrative developed initially by nineteenth century historians and embraced by most of their twentieth century confreres. They saw Hagenbach as a would-be administrative reformer whose efforts were thwarted by xenophobic subjects and a parsimonious superior. In trying to transform a fragmented archipelago of city-states into a cohesive governmental entity, Hagenbach was despised because he threatened an ingrained culture of seigneurial privilege and parochial complacency. In his efforts to redeem property put in hock by Sigismund, he likely reinforced views of Burgundy as excessively acquisitive and bent on conquest (this was exacerbated by Charles’s own efforts to accede to the imperial throne). And in levying taxes to pay for good government, Hagenbach stoked local fears of financial servitude and ruin. But in doing the Duke’s bidding, he did not have the Duke’s support. And so he was left to flounder, his undoing hastened by his admitted crass and prurient behavior. They point out that his trial, a marketplace spectacle based on torture-extracted confessions, was little more than drumhead justice. It was akin to executing Charles the Bold in effigy. Peter von Hagenbach may not have been the most adroit governor and perhaps he did manifest contempt for the rising merchant and urban classes. But, the revisionists would contend, his final deserts were not just at all.
Digging deeper still, the bottom layer of historiography consists of the journalistic rough draft and the first generations of historians that followed. It is largely consistent with the modern ICL expert view but without the larger historical perspective and legal focus. And it is more regionally tinged and archaic. This layer is at once more reliable, given its comtemporaneity or relative proximity, and less reliable, given the inherent biases of its initial chroniclers and the disproportionate influence they exerted on sixteenth through eighteenth century historians.
But my piece demonstrates that each layer is not necessarily inconsistent with the others. In fact, there are many points of convergence. And it is there that a unified, coherent narrative can be stitched together. Hagenbach was coarse and confrontational. But he was also hardworking and loyal and wanted to do right by his master. His entire career had been built on pleasing Charles the Bold. He undoubtedly meant to reform and upgrade the administration of his Alsatian fiefdom. And consequently resentment of the bailiff grew over the years as he pushed while the Alsatians pulled. Hostilities boiled over in 1473 and matters came to a head in 1474. Charles’s loyal lieutenant with a criminal past and odd sexual predilections felt increasingly boxed in and he eventually lashed out. The almost exclusive procedural focus of his defense at trial strongly supports accounts of the resulting crime spree.
It should also be noted that modern Hagenbach scholarship is characterized by a certain horizontal dissonance as well — between jurists and historians. Given the historical points of convergence just noted, however, these two schools ought to find common ground too. Certain views of the revisionist historians concerning the Hagenbach judicial proceedings are not without merit. The Breisach ad hoc tribunal may not have been a kangaroo court but it bears no resemblance to the well-oiled machine of modern international criminal justice administration. The defendant was hideously tortured for days before the trial. He was given no notice of the charges or allegations against him in advance of the hearing. He had no time to speak with a lawyer before standing in front of the judges. The proceeding itself was held on a market square in a circus atmosphere and concluded within a matter of hours. He was not able to call his most important (and only) witness to the stand – Charles the Bold. And there is no indication of a high burden of proof or that any such burden even rested with the prosecution. The Breisach Trial was certainly not the paragon of due process.
On the other hand, this was the late Middle Ages — centuries removed from our modern notions of due process. Torture was part of standard pre-trial procedure at that time. And the trial itself seems relatively fair for that era. Hagenbach was represented by a zealous advocate in Hans Irmy and he was given two additional lawyers of his choice. There is as well a flip side to the “public spectacle” aspect of his trial — transparency. Hagenbach could have been summarily condemned in front of a secretive Star Chamber but his trial was held in public (and that was consistent with local custom). He was able to confront witnesses called against him. He had twenty-eight finders of fact (compared to twelve in the modern jury system). And Charles the Bold, his sole designated witness, was not allowed to testify because the defense of superior orders was rejected ab initio. As well, the proceedings lasted from early in the morning until late at night — which could equate to two or three modern court days. There seems to have been significant deliberation among the twenty-eight judges suggesting that a consensus was cobbled together after carefully sifting through the evidence. In an age of witch-hunts, trials by ordeal, the Star Chamber, and the Inquisition, this was an exceedingly fair trial.
And in many ways it seems inappropriate to use twenty-first century ICL terminology to analyze a fifteenth century judicial proceeding. But if that terminology is used, this piece has demonstrated that the Breisach Trial has many of the hallmarks of a modern international atrocity adjudication. As a threshold matter, regardless of anything else, it is the first recorded case in history to reject the defense of superior orders. In itself, that distinction invests the trial with universal historic importance in the development of atrocity law.
On this date* in 1561, the once-powerful Cardinal Carlo Carafa was put to death by strangulation in Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo — victim of deadly Vatican politics.
Fruit of a powerful Neapolitan noble house — it was a Carafa who stuck fig leafs on Michelangelo nudes — Carlo Carafa went out on campaign in the dynastic wars chewing up the peninsula in the 16th century. In some outlandish vindictive pique, he elevated an offense from a Spaniard into not only a reason to switch sides to the French, but a reason to do stuff like massacre Spaniards in a captured hospital. Class act all the way.
In this capacity, he had the whip hand in Vatican foreign policy in the late 1550’s … until the growing reports of his reprobate lifestyle led Paul IV to demote him. Virulently anti-Protestant, the obnoxiously upright Paul had been preoccupied intensifying the Inquisition. He took personal umbrage once convinced of his relative’s unworthiness: “He had planned to make his reign the period of great reforms,” writes Kenneth Meyer Setton. “The corruption of Cardinal Carlo Carafa had made a travesty of his efforts.”
now you should mourn
handsome Ascanio himself, Ascanio, O pity!
Ascanio, whom Carafa loved more than his own eyes:
Ascanio, whose face was handsomer
than that of the Trojan cupbearer, who pours for the gods
(Carafa had a plentiful menu of heterosexual scandals attributed, too. And other good stuff like starting an idiotic war of choice — with Spain, of course — that despoiled Church coffers and reversed the Vatican’s strategic interests.)
In such a state of disgrace — and more importantly, having been stymied in their anti-Spanish foreign policy — the Carafa house and faction was in line for something more serious than public humiliation when the disappointed octogenarian pontiff passed away later in 1559.
Upon the succession of a rival Medici pope, Pius IV, Carlo Carafa was hailed before a kangaroo court with his brother and partner-in-dissipation Giovanni on a rap sheet with every real and imagined indiscretion of their wild years.† Carlo was strangled and Giovanni Carafa beheaded.
Despite the nephews’ undoubted viciousness, their executions were basically about power and policy.
And though they had also screwed up policy, the next pope decided to look forward-backward, not backward-backward. In 1567, Pius V posthumously rehabilitated the naughty dead Carlo; today, you’ll find his now-vindicated remains interred at the family chapel in Rome’s Santa Maria sopra Minerva cathedral.
“The people wish to be deceived; let them be deceived.”
In the terrible years of the Yezhovshchina, I spent seventeen months in lines outside the prison in Leningrad [queuing to deliver food to or get news of imprisoned loved ones: in her case, her son Lev]. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
‘And can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.
On this date in 1940, the first name in Stalin’s terror got his just deserts.
Well. The first name after Stalin’s own, a point energetically made by Nikolai Yezhov’s daughter* in her fruitless post-Soviet attempts to rehabilitate the man.
But clearing a fellow’s name is a tough task when that name is the mother tongue’s very metonym for political persecution: the Soviet Union’s mind-bending late-1930s witch hunt for internal enemies, known as the Yezhovshchina.
From late 1936, when he eliminated his predecessor Genrikh Yagoda (later executed, of course), until his own fall from power in at the end of 1938, Yezhov presided over the apex of Stalinist terror, averaging hundreds of political killings daily — perhaps north of 600,000 for the two-year period, plus a like number disappeared into the Gulag’s freezers. (Just browse this here site’s ‘1937’ tag for a taste.)
Departments and regions received quotas for executions as if they were tractor factories. Security officials well understood that their own heads would be next on the block for any perceived shortcoming; Yezhov had thousands of them arrested, too. (pdf)**
We are launching a major attack on the Enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.
The “Bloody Dwarf” — surely there is some of Yezhov in the Master and Margarita character Azazello, the Satan/Stalin figure’s murderous and diminutive attendant — rode this tiger unto his own destruction.
Stalin and other Soviet VIPs with (front right) Nikolai Yezhov.
The same photo ‘updated’ after Yezhov’s fall. (For a similarly chilling photographic disappearance, see Vladimir Clementis.)
As Yezhov had once displaced and killed his mentor Yagoda, so Yezhov’s own nominal underling Beria would displace Yezhov.
Power in the NKVD shifted towards Beria over the course of 1938 until Yezhov’s own resignation that November. The former boss was quietly arrested the next April and barely troubled his skilled torturers before copping to the usual litany of official self-denunciations: corruption, economic sabotage and “wrecking”, treasonable collaboration with the Germans, plus a bisexual personal life. (That last one was true.)
Bound for historical infamy, Yezhov salvaged a shred of dignity in the last, when he was “tried” a few hours before death and renounced those confessions — albeit from the twisted standpoint of a man still unquestioningly committed to the man and the system that had destroyed him.
It is better to die, but to leave this earth as an honorable man and to tell nothing but the truth at the trial. At the preliminary investigation I said that I was not a spy, that I was not a terrorist, but they didn’t believe me and applied to me the strongest beating. During the 25 years of my party work I have fought honorably against enemies and have exterminated them. I have committed crimes for which I might well be executed … But those crimes which are imputed to me by the indictment in my case I did not commit …
My fate is obvious. My life, naturally, will not be spared since I myself have contributed to this at my preliminary investigation. I ask only one thing: shoot me quietly, without tortures …Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name on my lips.
And indeed, Yezhov knew from plenty of personal experience how this script ended. It was called the Yezhovshchina for a reason.
The judges pretended to deliberate for half an hour. Ezhov fainted at the verdict, then scrawled a petition for mecy; it was read out over the telephone to the Kremlin and rejected. Ezhov was taken in the dead of night to a slaughterhouse he himself had built near the Lubianka. Dragged screaming to a special room with a sloping cement floor and a log-lined wall, he was shot by the NKVD’s chief executioner, Vasili Blokhin. Beria gave Stalin a list of 346 of Ezhov’s associates to be shot. Sixty of them were NKVD officers, another fifty were relatives and sexual partners. (From Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him
* Natalia Khayutina is actually Yezhov’s adoptive daughter. Her birth parents were killed … in the Yezhovschina.
** “I purged 14,000 chekists,” Yezhov later said. “But my guilt lies in the fact that I did not purge enough of them.”