On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.
The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.
As was thestyleatthetime, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.
And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.
This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.
For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.
Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.
Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:
On this date in 1942, leftist Czech novelist Vladislav Vancura was executed at Prague’s Kobylisy shooting range.
An “unsung giant” of European letters, the Bohemian doctor burst onto the literary scene in the 1920s with Peka? Jan Marhoul (Baker Jan Marhoul) and Pole orná a vále?ná (Fields to Plough, Fields of War). But he was notable for a remarkable perspicacity in style, genre, and artistic perspective throughout his career. He’s often referred to as a poet in prose, and maybe for this reason was equally keen on writing for and directing cinema.
Milan Kundera credited Vancura with “probably the richest vocabulary that any Czech writer has ever had; a vocabulary in which the language of every era is preserved, in which words from the Bible of Kralice [the first complete translation of the Bible into Czech] stand humbly side by side with modern argot.”
His greatest commercial success and possibly his crowning achievement was Marketa Lazarova, a short novel (120 pages in the original Czech) set amid a feud of nobles in he Middle Ages. Only tranlated into English in 2013, it “does for Czech literature something akin to what James Joyce did for English-language literature with Ulysses: breaking with the realism that previously dominated to open up a new frontier in the realm of style.”
Folly scatters without rhyme or reason. Lend an ear to this tale of a place in the county of Mladá Boleslav, in the time of the disturbances, when the king strove for the safety of the highways, having cruel troubles with the nobles, who conducted themselves downright thievishly, and what is worse, who shed blood practically laughing out loud. You have become truly too sensitive from musing upon our nation’s nobility and fair manners, and when you drink, you waste the cook’s water, spilling it ‘cross the table, but the men of whom I speak were an unruly and devilish lot. A rabble which I cannot compare to anything else than stallions. Precious little cared they of that which you account as important. Comb and soap! Why, they did not heed even the Lord’s commandments.
‘Tis said that there were countless such ruffians, but this story concerns itself with none save the family whose name most surely calls to mind Václav unjustly. Shifty nobles they were! The eldest amidst this bloody time was baptized with a graceful name, but forgot it and called himself Kozlík till the time of his beastly death.
Vancura’s death was plenty beastly too, albeit not particularly surprising: Communist avant-garde artists in German-occupied Slavic countries didn’t usually fare the best during the war years, and Vancura compounded his risk by taking active part in the resistance. He was among hundreds of Czechs arrested, tortured, and executed in the bloody German crackdown that followed the May 27, 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.
But he in 1959 he took over the Communists’ activities within Spain itself, and began living underground in his old homeland. The Franco regime dearly wanted to take him.
In November 1962, secret police arrested Grimau on a bus and hustled him to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, where within hours Grimau met with that classic 20th century dissident’s fate, the “unexplained” fall from a police headquarters window. No fuss, no –
Wait. Er … it seems he survived the fall.
That awkward circumstance — officially, Grimau hurled himself out the window for no discernible reason — tracked him into what passed for a regular judicial process. In practice, that meant a military tribunal which gave him, two days before his execution, a five-hour trial for his part in the Spanish Civil War. Specifically, Grimau was charged as a “Chekist” for torturing and executing prisoners while part of the civil administration of Republican Barcelona; the evidence submitted on this point was mere hearsay.
This charge put the fascists in the rather insincere position of avenging the Communist Party’s repression of its own civil war allies, the anarchists and the anti-Stalinist POUM party — an episode memorably recounted in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.
“I have never tortured anyone,” Grimau insisted to the court of the military dictatorship. “It is not my nature to do such things. I carried out the duties assigned to me by a legal government. I have been a communist for 25 years and I will die a communist.” (London Times, April 19, 1963)
Grimau’s prosecutor was a man who had made his legal bones in the immediate aftermath of the civil war as Franco’s Fouquier-Tinville, shuttling defeated Republicans into the hands of their executioners so lightly that he would joke, “bring in the accused’s widow!” with a laughing court.* This 1963 trip down nostalgia lane would prove to be the last ever occasion a Spaniard was prosecuted for the civil war; indeed, the Grimau backlash would help provide the impetus for Spain to finally scrap the military tribunals which dated to the aftermath of the civil war.
Those laws, and that war, had passed a quarter-century before. Their nakedly political requisition here triggered international outrage. Eight hundred thousand people and a litany of world leaders implored Gen. Franco to exercise his prerogative to block the execution; when Franco refused, protests livened the Spanish embassies of many a city across the globe. In Buenos Aires, someone chucked a bomb at the the embassy.
None of it availed Julian Grimau. Grimau’s lawyer, who witnessed the dawn execution illuminated by the headlights of military trucks, reported that the soldiers detailed to form the firing squad were very nervous and badly botched the shooting.
There’s more about Julian Grimau in Spanish than in English; see in particular JulianGrimau.org, a site commemorating the 50th anniversary of his execution.
* The prosecutor, Manuel Martin Fernandez, didn’t even have a law degree: he had entered the profession by falsely claiming that his credentials were destroyed during the civil war. In 1964 this became publicly exposed and Fernandez himself went to prison for his decades-long imposture.
On this date in 1908, the octogenarian Haitian president Pierre Nord Alexis had a number of political opponents arrested and, that very night, summarily executed.
Nord Alexis, a career officer risen to the post of Minister of War in a provisional 1902 government* when the previous president Tiresias Simon Sam* resigned to avert a constitutional crisis.
That was a strange affair: a misreading of the constitution had Sam set to rule until 1903, until someone caught the mistake. Sam’s diligently on-time resignation proved not the Rule of Law victory he might have hoped when the resulting power vacuum brought civil war.
As one can see, Nord Alexis won it — but the conflict flared again in 1908, with the exiled Fermin making an attempt to return to Haiti. Nord Alexis’s response was ruthless and, for now, effective. (Nord Alexis was ousted later in 1908, however.)
Prominent among the victims of the crackdown this date was the novelist and poet Massillon Coicou (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed French).
Coicou and his two brothers Horace and Pierre-Louis, staunch Firminists all, were shot together with a several others at the walls of the Port-au-Prince cemetery on the night of March 14-15. (The exact number of others seems a little hard to come by; there are different counts from around 10-15 ranging up to 27+ total people executed in this incident, although the larger count may encompass executions other than those at the cemetery.)
On this date in 1931, the Chinese nationalists executed 23 Communists at Longhua, including five members of the League of Left-Wing Writers.
Early in what would prove to be the very long Chinese Civil War, the Koumintang government in 1930 mounted a suppression* of Communist outposts. That included military campaigns attempting to encircle communist-held regions, as well as an internal crackdown. It’s the latter that concerns us here.
A Communist-founded League of Left-Wing Writers operating in Shanghai was formally banned by the Koumintang in September 1930. Threatened with arrest, the writers struggled to stay underground but at a January 17 meeting in the British concession area,** British police arrested Li Weisen, Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Yin Fu, and Feng Keng. They were handed over to the Chinese authorities.
The Five Martyrs: From left: Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Feng Keng, Yin Fu, Li Weisen (Li Qiushi)
They became the Five Martyrs of the League when they were shot this date in 1931 along with 18 other Communist prisoners, one of them a pregnant woman.
Among the five martyrs, Rou Shi† was particularly close to the great writer Lu Xun, who was heartbroken when he received word of his young protege’s untimely end — “one of China’s best youths,” in his estimation. In hiding himself, Lu Xun composed a “Lament for Rou Shi”:
To long and sleepless nights I’ve grown
accustomed in the spring;
Fled with a wife and babe in arms,
my temples are graying.
‘Mid dream there comes an image faint –
a loving mother’s tear;
On city walls the overlords’
e’er-changing banners rear.
I can but stand by looking on
as friends become new ghosts,
In anger face bayonet thickets
and search for verse ripostes.
The poem intoned, my gaze turns low –
one cannot write such down.
Moonlight shimmers with watery sheen
upon my jet-black gown.
On this date in 1944, German freethinker Max Sievers was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison for “conspiracy to commit high treason along with favouring the enemy.”
A working-class Berliner, Sievers (English Wikipedia entry | German) became a prominent communist and atheist writer in the interwar years. He directed the Association of Freethinkers for Cremation from the early 1920s, and in 1927 became the chair of the German Freethinkers League.
This was not a demographic Adolph Hitler was courting. In the wake of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the Nazis stamped out atheistic movements, even converting the Freethinkers’ building into a Protestant recruitment venue.
After a decade of bloody left-right civil strife, the Turkish generals toppled the civilian government on that date. Hundreds of thousands of arrests with rampant torture marked the period, but it did quell the endemic street fighting and terrorism of the 1970s.
Erdal Eren was actually arrested during the chaotic pre-coup period. February 1980 student protests after the murder of Sinan Suner, an activist of the communist Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Association, turned into a melee that resulted in an officer shot dead under confused circumstances. Eren was among 24 students rounded up.
Despite his youth, Eren was sentenced to die in a March 19 trial — but his appeals had legs until the post-coup military junta abruptly sent him to the gallows on December 13.
Eren went to his death with a brave step, gamely writing his family that he had witnessed so much torture in prison that death was a relief and not a terror.
He’s very warmly remembered today. A number of cultural artifacts pay tribute to the young martyr, including two different songs (“Two Children”, “Seventeen”) by Teoman, a relative of Erdal Eren’s.
JOHANNESBURG, Oct. 28. The Rand Daily Mail, in an article dealing with the economic situation of the Union, gives striking figures illustrating the steady advance of the gold industry on the march towards prosperity.
Profits for the July-September quarter show an increase of £1,136,000 over the previous quarter. This has been accomplihed not only by lowering wages, but by all-round improvement in efficiency per unit, mining costs having fallen from 25s. 8d. in 1921 to 20s. 5d. in September, 1922 …
[T]he Rand Daily Mail says that these facts “represent unmistakable omens of coming prosperity which should steel the downhearted farmer to greater effort and encourage the suffering industrialist throughout the Union, and transform the pessimism of the merchant into healthy confident and hope.” (London Times, Oct. 30, 1922)
THREE RAND EXECUTIONS.
(From our correspondent.)
JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 17. The bitterest feeling prevails among the workers over the refusal to reprieve the three men, Long, Hull, and Lewis, who were condemned to death for murder in connexion with the Rand revolt, and were executed at Pretoria to-day.
Appeals for mercy poured in till almost the last moment, and an open-air mass meeting was held, in which prominent Communists took part. At this meeting angry and threatening speeches were made; the names of General Smuts and Sir Lionel Phillips were boohed, and the crowd attempted to break into the Town Hall, severely injured a detective, and was finally dispersed by armed police. The public generally approves the Government’s firmness. The condemned men sang the Red Flag on the scaffold. (London Times, Nov. 18, 1922)
“Come dungeons dark or gallows grim the sun will be our parting hymn.”
FUNERAL OF RAND MURDERERS.
COMMUNIST APPEAL TO CHILDREN.
(From our correspondent.)
JOHANNESBURG, Nov. 19. Remarkable scenes recalling the funeral of the victims of the great strike of 1913 were witnessed at the burial of the remains of Long, Lewis, and Hull, who were executed on Friday. The coffins, in separate hearses, were followed by thousands of workers, with banners and regalia, representing every trade union. “The Red Flag” was sung at the graveside and addresses were delivered, in which members of Parliament, of the Provincial Council, and Town Councils participated.
The latest development of Communist propaganda in Johannesburg is the distribution broadcast among children and students as they are leaving their schools and colleges of a pamphlet denouncing as “legalized murder and a blot on history” the execution of the men convicted of murder at special treason courts. (London Times, Nov. 20, 1922)
“Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.
On this date in 1940, Catalan president Lluis Companys was shot by the Spanish fascists.
Companys had held that notional office for mere hours six years before — but he’s still the last to hold it in any form at all.
Political exile was no unfamiliar terrain for Companys. As a young lawyer, his activism in the first two decades of the century had seen him incarcerated over a dozen times; in fact, his path to political respectability had entailed getting out of a Menorca prison in 1920 courtesy of the parliamentary immunity conferred by winning an election.
And he’d drawn a long sentence for an attempted 1934 rising against a center-right government — the occasion when he had become the President of the Catalan Republic on October 6, and been dispossessed of both office and state by the very next day.
That prison sentence’s reversal by the new republican government in 1936 was a bit of Pyrrhic victory for Companys’s left-wing politics — inasmuch as said republicans’ ascent was also the trigger for the nationalist revolt that resulted in the Spanish Civil War and a military dictatorship lasting until the 1970s.
As the virtual personification of Catalan national aspirations, Companys remained head of the Generalitat de Catalunya from 1933 until his death — in prison, in exile, wherever Companys went he bore along the Catalan cause.
As such, he was in the thick of the civil war’s scrap for control of Barcelona: not only against the fascists but among the left parties whose fractious alliance tore apart in 1937.
It was truly a case of riding the tiger. Companys struggled to maintain the cooperation of his alliance even while the republicans’ Soviet sponsors excommunicated anarchist and anti-Stalinist elements internally. The dreadful spectacle of internecine street fighting among the anti-fascists in May 1937 fills the final tragic pages of Orwell’s Homage, decided by the inescapable materialist circumstances: “the Government could not afford to offend the Communist Party while the Russians were supplying arms.”
Few sources direct much personal blame at Companys for what followed. Under Soviet pressure, he accepted the Communist police raids that had set off the street fighting, accepted the purges and the press censorsip, sacked anti-Stalinist minister Andres Nin from the government. (Nin was later “disappeared” and murdered.)
Who knows but that even these evil days were not still the best that could be made of a bad circumstance: whatever they were, they were not enough for republican Spain or for Catalonia.
When those dreams fell under the fascist advance little more than a year later, Companys couldn’t flee Franco far enough for safety. Soon after his 1939 escape to France, that country was overrun by militaristic rightists from the other direction — and the German occupiers happily handed Companys back to Spain as soon as they got their hands on him.
Spain, where questions of Catalan sovereignty and the Franco years are both sensitive subjects, has never reversed the judgment (Spanish link) against Companys. However, a Barcelona promenade is named in Companys’s honor, as is a major stadium — actually the arena where the anti-fascist 1936 People’s Olympiad in opposition to the notorious master race spectacle of Berlin was to have taken place, before that whole Civil War unpleasantness.
The Corsican had fallen back following the debacle of occupying Moscow, but the attempts of Napoleon-allied forces to recoup dwindling numbers by conscription provoked fierce resistance in Solingen — where the draft board was driven out and recruiting materials destroyed.
This little flare-up goes by the excellent title of the “Russian Truncheon Insurgency,” but it soon ran into the bayonets of Napoleon’s German partners. On January 30, 1813, a week after draft riots first erupted, troops began suppressing it. Devaranne, a 29-year-old father of five, was seen as a leader in the resistance and a price put out on his head … a price his own maid collected when the fugitive innkeeper was reckless enough to sleep at home one night.
He was tried and shot at Dusseldorf months later, during a lull in the year’s bloody campaign season.
For the 120th anniversary of Devaranne’s execution — which was also six months into Adolf Hitler’s Chancellorship — Solingen dedicated a memorial plaque to Devaranne, claiming his nationalist martyrdom as its own.
“It is no accident that precisely the Third Reich celebrates the memory of this hero. The same spirit which animated Devaranne, animates our SA as well,” said the city’s Lord Mayor. (There was an SA honor guard on hand for the occasion.) “Then as now, we revolt against repression, then against the Corsican, today the SA’s revolution against the Marxists. We need the memory of our heroes to redirect us to their spirit in dark hours.”