On this date in 1944, the Gestapo publicly hanged 13 men without trial at an S-Bahn station near Cologne.
Heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, the Rhineland industrial center had spawned two overlapping anti-Nazi movements both represented in this evil baker’s dozen. Their purchase on posterity’s laurels of anti-Nazi “resistance” has been debated ever since.
Often derogated as mere “delinquents”* — who failed to articulate “a positive view of goals”** — the heavily working-class Edelweißpiraten were expressly delinquent from the Third Reich’s project of youth indoctrination.
“Our banding together occurred primarily because the HJ was dominated by a certain compulsion to which we did not want to submit,” one “pirate” declared to Gestapo interrogators. Another said that his clique simply wanted “to spend our leisure time going on trips as free boys and to do and act as we pleased.”†
Many looked longingly back on the Bündische Jugend, romantic and far less authoritarian traditions of youth outdoorsmanship that the new regime had suppressed.‡ These pirates shirked their Hitler Youth “responsibilities” and did their rambling without odious political officers, repurposing old hiking tunes into confrontational subversive songs that they backed up with a penchant for fistfights with the HJ. A song of one band, the Navajos, ran:
Hitler’s power may lay us low,
And keep us locked in chains.
But we will smash the chains one day.
We’ll be free again.
For hard are our fists,
Yes! And knives at our wrists,
For the freedom of youth
The Navajos fight.
We march by the banks of the Ruhr and the Rhine
And smash the Hitler Youth in twain.
Our song is freedom, love, and life.
We’re Pirates of the Edelweiss.
The discourse parsing the degree of “criminality” in youth defying a criminal society strikes the author as an all too precious critique from the security of the postwar world. These pirates might make for less congenial martyr figures than the likes of Sophie Scholl but in the end, they took desperate risks to maintain a sphere of freedom in circumstances of inconceivable peril. Not much adult opposition to Hitlerism with proper manifestos did better than they.
And the Pirates had a handle on larger stakes than their own jollity. Many gangs listened to outlawed foreign broadcasts, committed acts of politically charged vandalism and sabotage, and hid army deserters or Jews. Certainly the authorities viewed them politically when they were subjected to Gestapo torture.
Some current and former Edelweiss Pirates were among the young people in increasingly war-ravaged Cologne who in 1943-44 came under the sway of an escaped concentration camp prisoner named Hans Steinbrück. His “Steinbrück Group” (or “Ehrenfeld Group”, for the suburb where they had their headquarters and, eventually, gallows), the second faction represented in the November 10 hangings, had a more distinctly criminal cast — stealing food and trading it on the black market.
Steinbrück, who claimed anti-fascist motives of his own, was also ready to ratchet up the associated violence past adolescent brawling. He stockpiled illegal weapons and had his gang shoot several actual or suspected gendarmes on a “Nazi hunt” shortly before their arrest. He would ultimately be accused of plotting with Eidelweiss Pirate Barthel Schink to blow up a Gestapo headquarters. The activities of the Ehrenfeld Group in particular have been controversial for many years: were they resisters, or merely gangsters who conveniently appropriated a patina of anti-fascist activism?
Under whatever label, their activities were far too much to fly as youthful transgression; Heinrich Himmler himself ordered the Ehrenfeld gang busted up in the autumn of 1944. Sixty-three in all were arrested of whom “only” the 13 were extrajudicially executed: Hans Steinbrück, Günther Schwarz, Gustav Bermel, Johann Müller, Franz Rheinberger, Adolf Schütz, Bartholomäus Schink, Roland Lorent, Peter Hüppeler, Josef Moll, Wilhelm Kratz, Heinrich Kratina, and Johann Krausen. (Via)
* They would survive the end of the war and prove defiant of the Allied occupation authorities too, which is one reason they had to fight until 2005 for political rehabilitation. Perry Biddiscombe explores this Pirates’ situation in occupied postwar Germany in “‘The Enemy of Our Enemy': A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives,” Journal of Contemporary History, January 1995.
(Thanks to Emma Goldman for the guest post on her anarchist contemporary; it originally appeared in her Anarchism and Other Essays -ed.)
Experience has come to be considered the best school of life. The man or woman who does not learn some vital lesson in that school is looked upon as a dunce indeed. Yet strange to say, that though organized institutions continue perpetuating errors, though they learn nothing from experience, we acquiesce, as a matter of course.
There lived and worked in Barcelona a man by the name of Francisco Ferrer. A teacher of children he was, known and loved by his people. Outside of Spain only the cultured few knew of Francisco Ferrer’s work. To the world at large this teacher was non-existent.
On the first of September, 1909, the Spanish government — at the behest of the Catholic Church — arrested Francisco Ferrer. On the thirteenth of October, after a mock trial, he was placed in the ditch at Montjuich prison, against the hideous wall of many sighs, and shot dead. Instantly Ferrer, the obscure teacher, became a universal figure, blazing forth the indignation and wrath of the whole civilized world against the wanton murder.
The killing of Francisco Ferrer was not the first crime committed by the Spanish government and the Catholic Church. The history of these institutions is one long stream of fire and blood. Still they have not learned through experience, nor yet come to realize that every frail being slain by Church and State grows and grows into a mighty giant, who will some day free humanity from their perilous hold.
Francisco Ferrer was born in 1859, of humble parents. They were Catholics, and therefore hoped to raise their son in the same faith. They did not know that the boy was to become the harbinger of a great truth, that his mind would refuse to travel in the old path. At an early age Ferrer began to question the faith of his fathers. He demanded to know how it is that the God who spoke to him of goodness and love would mar the sleep of the innocent child with dread and awe of tortures, of suffering, of hell. Alert and of a vivid and investigating mind, it did not take him long to discover the hideousness of that black monster, the Catholic Church. He would have none of it.
Francisco Ferrer was not only a doubter, a searcher for truth; he was also a rebel. His spirit would rise in just indignation against the iron régime of his country, and when a band of rebels, led by the brave patriot General Villacampa, under the banner of the Republican ideal, made an onslaught on that regime, none was more ardent a fighter than young Francisco Ferrer. The Republican ideal, — I hope no one will confound it with the Republicanism of this country. Whatever objection I, as an Anarchist, have to the Republicans of Latin countries, I know they tower high above that corrupt and reactionary party which, in America, is destroying every vestige of liberty and justice. One has but to think of the Mazzinis, the Garibaldis, the scores of others, to realize that their efforts were directed, not merely against the overthrow of despotism, but particularly against the Catholic Church, which from its very inception has been the enemy of all progress and liberalism.
In America it is just the reverse. Republicanism stands for vested rights, for imperialism, for graft, for the annihilation of every semblance of liberty. Its ideal is the oily, creepy respectability of a McKinley, and the brutal arrogance of a Roosevelt.
The Spanish republican rebels were subdued. It takes more than one brave effort to split the rock of ages, to cut off the head of that hydra monster, the Catholic Church and the Spanish throne. Arrest, persecution, and punishment followed the heroic attempt of the little band. Those who could escape the bloodhounds had to flee for safety to foreign shores. Francisco Ferrer was among the latter. He went to France.
How his soul must have expanded in the new land! France, the cradle of liberty, of ideas, of action. Paris, the ever young, intense Paris, with her pulsating life, after the gloom of his own belated country, — how she must have inspired him. What opportunities, what a glorious chance for a young idealist.
Francisco Ferrer lost no time. Like one famished he threw himself into the various liberal movements, met all kinds of people, learned, absorbed, and grew. While there, he also saw in operation the Modern School, which was to play such an important and fatal part in his life.
The Modern School in France was founded long before Ferrer’s time. Its originator, though on a small scale, was that sweet spirit Louise Michel. Whether consciously or unconsciously, our own great Louise felt long ago that the future belongs to the young generation; that unless the young be rescued from that mind and soul-destroying institution, the bourgeois school, social evils will continue to exist. Perhaps she thought, with Ibsen, that the atmosphere is saturated with ghosts, that the adult man and woman have so many superstitions to overcome. No sooner do they outgrow the deathlike grip of one spook, lo! they find themselves in the thraldom of ninety-nine other spooks. Thus but a few reach the mountain peak of complete regeneration.
The child, however, has no traditions to overcome. Its mind is not burdened with set ideas, its heart has not grown cold with class and caste distinctions. The child is to the teacher what clay is to the sculptor. Whether the world will receive a work of art or a wretched imitation, depends to a large extent on the creative power of the teacher.
Francisco Ferrer could not escape this great wave of Modern School attempts. He saw its possibilities, not merely in theoretic form, but in their practical application to every-day needs. He must have realized that Spain, more than any other country, stands in need of just such schools, if it is ever to throw off the double yoke of priest and soldier.
When we consider that the entire system of education in Spain is in the hands of the Catholic Church, and when we further remember the Catholic formula, “To inculcate Catholicism in the mind of the child until it is nine years of age is to ruin it forever for any other idea,” we will understand the tremendous task of Ferrer in bringing the new light to his people. Fate soon assisted him in realizing his great dream.
Mlle. Meunier, a pupil of Francisco Ferrer, and a lady of wealth, became interested in the Modern School project. When she died, she left Ferrer some valuable property and twelve thousand francs yearly income for the School.
It is said that mean souls can conceive of naught but mean ideas. If so, the contemptible methods of the Catholic Church to blackguard Ferrer’s character, in order to justify her own black crime, can readily be explained. Thus the lie was spread in American Catholic papers that Ferrer used his intimacy with Mlle. Meunier to get passession of her money.
Personally, I hold that the intimacy, of whatever nature, between a man and a woman, is their own affair, their sacred own. I would therefore not lose a word in referring to the matter, if it were not one of the many dastardly lies circulated about Ferrer. Of course, those who know the purity of the Catholic clergy will understand the insinuation. Have the Catholic priests ever looked upon woman as anything but a sex commodity? The historical data regarding the discoveries in the cloisters and monasteries will bear me out in that. How, then, are they to understand the co-operation of a man and a woman, except on a sex basis?
As a matter of fact, Mlle. Meunier was considerably Ferrer’s senior. Having spent her childhood and girlhood with a miserly father and a submissive mother, she could easily appreciate the necessity of love and joy in child life. She must have seen that Francisco Ferrer was a teacher, not college, machine, or diploma-made, but one endowed with genius for that calling.
Equipped with knowledge, with experience, and with the necessary means; above all, imbued with the divine fire of his mission, our Comrade came back to Spain, and there began his life’s work. On the ninth of September, 1901, the first Modern School was opened. It was enthusiastically received by the people of Barcelona, who pledged their support. In a short address at the opening of the School, Ferrer submitted his program to his friends. He said: “I am not a speaker, not a propagandist, not a fighter. I am a teacher; I love children above everything. I think I understand them. I want my contribution to the cause of liberty to be a young generation ready to meet a new era.” He was cautioned by his friends to be careful in his opposition to the Catholic Church. They knew to what lengths she would go to dispose of an enemy. Ferrer, too, knew. But, like Brand, he believed in all or nothing. He would not erect the Modern School on the same old lie. He would be frank and honest and open with the children.
Francisco Ferrer became a marked man. From the very first day of the opening of the School, he was shadowed. The school building was watched his little home in Mangat was watched. He was followed every step, even when he went to France or England to confer with his colleagues. He was a marked man, and it was only a question of time when the lurking enemy would tighten the noose.
It succeeded, almost, in 1906, when Ferrer was implicated in the attempt on the life of Alfonso. The evidence exonerating him was too strong even for the black crows; they had to let him go — not for good, however. They waited. Oh, they can wait, when they have set themselves to trap a victim.
The moment came at last, during the anti-military uprising in Spain, in July, 1909. One will have to search in vain the annals of revolutionary history to find a more remarkable protest against militarism. Having been soldier-ridden for centuries, the people of Spain could stand the yoke no longer. They would refuse to participate in useless slaughter. They saw no reason for aiding a despotic government in subduing and oppressing a small people fighting for their independence, as did the brave Riffs. No, they would not bear arms against them.
For eighteen hundred years the Catholic Church has preached the gospel of peace. Yet, when the people actually wanted to make this gospel a living reality, she urged the authorities to force them to bear arms. Thus the dynasty of Spain followed the murderous methods of the Russian dynasty, — the people were forced to the battlefield.
Then, and not until then, was their power of endurance at an end. Then, and not until then, did the workers of Spain turn against their masters, against those who, like leeches, had drained their strength, their very life — blood. Yes, they attacked the churches and the priests, but if the latter had a thousand lives, they could not possibly pay for the terrible outrages and crimes perpetrated upon the Spanish people.
Francisco Ferrer was arrested on the first of September, 1909. Until October first his friends and comrades did not even know what had become of him. On that day a letter was received by L’Humanité from which can be learned the whole mockery of the trial. And the next day his companion, Soledad Villafranca, received the following letter:
No reason to worry; you know I am absolutely innocent. Today I am particularly hopeful and joyous. It is the first time I can write to you, and the first time since my arrest that I can bathe in the rays of the sun, streaming generously through my cell window. You, too, must be joyous.
How pathetic that Ferrer should have believed, as late as October fourth, that he would not be condemned to death. Even more pathetic that his friends and comrades should once more have made the blunder in crediting the enemy with a sense of justice. Time and again they had placed faith in the judicial powers, only to see their brothers killed before their very eyes. They made no preparation to rescue Ferrer, not even a protest of any extent; nothing. “Why, it is impossible to condemn Ferrer; he is innocent.” But everything is possible with the Catholic Church. Is she not a practiced henchman, whose trials of her enemies are the worst mockery of justice?
My dear Friends — Notwithstanding most absolute innocence, the prosecutor demands the death penalty, based on denunciations of the police, representing me as the chief of the world’s Anarchists, directing the labor syndicates of France, and guilty of conspiracies and insurrections everywhere, and declaring that my voyages to London and Paris were undertaken with no other object.
With such infamous lies they are trying to kill me.
The messenger is about to depart and I have not time for more. All the evidence presented to the investigating judge by the police is nothing but a tissue of lies and calumnious insinuations. But no proofs against me, having done nothing at all.
October thirteenth, 1909, Ferrer’s heart, so brave, so staunch, so loyal, was stilled. Poor fools! The last agonized throb of that heart had barely died away when it began to beat a hundredfold in the hearts of the civilized world, until it grew into terrific thunder, hurling forth its malediction upon the instigators of the black crime. Murderers of black garb and pious mien, to the bar of justice!
Did Francisco Ferrer participate in the anti-military uprising? According to the first indictment, which appeared in a Catholic paper in Madrid, signed by the Bishop and all the prelates of Barcelona, he was not even accused of participation. The indictment was to the effect that Francisco Ferrer was guilty of having organized godless schools, and having circulated godless literature. But in the twentieth century men can not be burned merely for their godless beliefs. Something else had to be devised; hence the charge of instigating the uprising.
In no authentic source so far investigated could a single proof be found to connect Ferrer with the uprising. But then, no proofs were wanted, or accepted, by the authorities. There were seventy-two witnesses, to be sure, but their testimony was taken on paper. They never were confronted with Ferrer, or he with them.
Is it psychologically possible that Ferrer should have participated? I do not believe it is, and here are my reasons. Francisco Ferrer was not only a great teacher, but he was also undoubtedly a marvelous organizer. In eight years, between 1901–1909, he had organized in Spain one hundred and nine schools, besides inducing the liberal element of his country to organize three hundred and eight other schools. In connection with his own school work, Ferrer had equipped a modern printing plant, organized a staff of translators, and spread broadcast one hundred and fifty thousand copies of modern scientific and sociologic works, not to forget the large quantity of rationalist text books. Surely none but the most methodical and efficient organizer could have accomplished such a feat.
On the other hand, it was absolutely proven that the anti-military uprising was not at all organized; that it came as a surprise to the people themselves, like a great many revolutionary waves on previous occasions. The people of Barcelona, for instance, had the city in their control for four days, and, according to the statement of tourists, greater order and peace never prevailed. Of course, the people were so little prepared that when the time came, they did not know what to do. In this regard they were like the people of Paris during the Commune of 1871. They, too, were unprepared. While they were starving, they protected the warehouses filled to the brim with provisions. They placed sentinels to guard the Bank of France, where the bourgeoisie kept the stolen money. The workers of Barcelona, too, watched over the spoils of their masters.
How pathetic is the stupidity of the underdog; how terribly tragic! But, then, have not his fetters been forged so deeply into his flesh, that he would not, even if he could, break them? The awe of authority, of law, of private property, hundredfold burned into his soul, — how is he to throw it off unprepared, unexpectedly?
Can anyone assume for a moment that a man like Ferrer would affiliate himself with such a spontaneous, unorganized effort? Would he not have known that it would result in a defeat, a disastrous defeat for the people? And is it not more likely that if he would have taken part, he, the experienced entrepreneur, would have thoroughly organized the attempt? If all other proofs were lacking, that one factor would be sufficient to exonerate Francisco Ferrer. But there are others equally convincing.
For the very date of the outbreak, July twenty-fifth, Ferrer had called a conference of his teachers and members of the League of Rational Education. It was to consider the autumn work, and particularly the publication of Elisée Reclus‘ great book, L’Homme et la Terre, and Peter Kropotkin‘s Great French Revolution. Is it at all likely, is it at all plausible that Ferrer, knowing of the uprising, being a party to it, would in cold blood invite his friends and colleagues to Barcelona for the day on which he realized their lives would be endangered? Surely, only the criminal, vicious mind of a Jesuit could credit such deliberate murder.
Francisco Ferrer had his life-work mapped out; he had everything to lose and nothing to gain, except ruin and disaster, were he to lend assistance to the outbreak. Not that he doubted the justice of the people’s wrath; but his work, his hope, his very nature was directed toward another goal.
In vain are the frantic efforts of the Catholic Church, her lies, falsehoods, calumnies. She stands condemned by the awakened human conscience of having once more repeated the foul crimes of the past.
Francisco Ferrer is accused of teaching the children the most blood-curdling ideas, — to hate God, for instance. Horrors! Francisco Ferrer did not believe in the existence of a God. Why teach the child to hate something which does not exist? Is it not more likely that he took the children out into the open, that he showed them the splendor of the sunset, the brilliancy of the starry heavens, the awe-inspiring wonder of the mountains and seas; that he explained to them in his simple, direct way the law of growth, of development, of the interrelation of all life? In so doing he made it forever impossible for the poisonous weeds of the Catholic Church to take root in the child’s mind.
It has been stated that Ferrer prepared the children to destroy the rich. Ghost stories of old maids. Is it not more likely that he prepared them to succor the poor? That he taught them the humiliation, the degradation, the awfulness of poverty, which is a vice and not a virtue; that he taught the dignity and importance of all creative efforts, which alone sustain life and build character. Is it not the best and most effective way of bringing into the proper light the absolute uselessness and injury of parasitism?
Last, but not least, Ferrer is charged with undermining the army by inculcating anti-military ideas. Indeed? He must have believed with Tolstoy that war is legalized slaughter, that it perpetuates hatred and arrogance, that it eats away the heart of nations, and turns them into raving maniacs.
However, we have Ferrer’s own word regarding his ideas of modern education:
I would like to call the attention of my readers to this idea: All the value of education rests in the respect for the physical, intellectual, and moral will of the child. Just as in science no demonstration is possible save by facts, just so there is no real education save that which is exempt from all dogmatism, which leaves to the child itself the direction of its effort, and confines itself to the seconding of its effort. Now, there is nothing easier than to alter this purpose, and nothing harder than to respect it. Education is always imposing, violating, constraining; the real educator is he who can best protect the child against his (the teacher’s) own ideas, his peculiar whims; he who can best appeal to the child’s own energies.
We are convinced that the education of the future will be of an entirely spontaneous nature; certainly we can not as yet realize it, but the evolution of methods in the direction of a wider comprehension of the phenomena of life, and the fact that all advances toward perfection mean the overcoming of restraint, — all this indicates that we are in the right when we hope for the deliverance of the child through science.
Let us not fear to say that we want men capable of evolving without stopping, capable of destroying and renewing their environments without cessation, of renewing themselves also; men, whose intellectual independence will be their greatest force, who will attach themselves to nothing, always ready to accept what is best, happy in the triumph of new ideas, aspiring to live multiple lives in one life. Society fears such men; we therefore must not hope that it will ever want an education able to give them to us.
We shall follow the labors of the scientists who study the child with the greatest attention, and we shall eagerly seek for means of applying their experience to the education which we want to build up, in the direction of an ever fuller liberation of the individual. But how can we attain our end? Shall it not be by putting ourselves directly to the work favoring the foundation of new schools, which shall be ruled as much as possible by this spirit of liberty, which we forefeel will dominate the entire work of education in the future?
A trial has been made, which, for the present, has already given excellent results. We can destroy all which in the present school answers to the organization of constraint, the artificial surroundings by which children are separated from nature and life, the intellectual and moral discipline made use of to impose ready-made ideas upon them, beliefs which deprave and annihilate natural bent. Without fear of deceiving ourselves, we can restore the child to the environment which entices it, the environment of nature in which he will be in contact with all that he loves, and in which impressions of life will replace fastidious book-learning. If we did no more than that, we should already have prepared in great part the deliverance of the child.
In such conditions we might already freely apply the data of science and labor most fruitfully.
I know very well we could not thus realize all our hopes, that we should often be forced, for lack of knowledge, to employ undesirable methods; but a certitude would sustain us in our efforts — namely, that even without reaching our aim completely we should do more and better in our still imperfect work than the present school accomplishes. I like the free spontaneity of a child who knows nothing, better than the world-knowledge and intellectual deformity of a child who has been subjected to our present education.
Had Ferrer actually organized the riots, had he fought on the barricades, had he hurled a hundred bombs, he could not have been so dangerous to the Catholic Church and to despotism, as with his opposition to discipline and restraint. Discipline and restraint — are they not back of all the evils in the world? Slavery, submission, poverty, all misery, all social iniquities result from discipline and restraint. Indeed, Ferrer was dangerous. Therefore he had to die, October thirteenth, 1909, in the ditch of Montjuich. Yet who dare say his death was in vain? In view of the tempestuous rise of universal indignation: Italy naming streets in memory of Francisco Ferrer, Belgium inaugurating a movement to erect a memorial; France calling to the front her most illustrious men to resume the heritage of the martyr; England being the first to issue a biography; all countries uniting in perpetuating the great work of Francisco Ferrer; America, even, tardy always in progressive ideas, giving birth to a Francisco Ferrer Association, its aim being to publish a complete life of Ferrer and to organize Modern Schools all over the country, — in the face of this international revolutionary wave, who is there to say Ferrer died in vain?
That death at Montjuich, — how wonderful, how dramatic it was, how it stirs the human soul. Proud and erect, the inner eye turned toward the light, Francisco Ferrer needed no lying priests to give him courage, nor did he upbraid a phantom for forsaking him. The consciousness that his executioners represented a dying age, and that his was the living truth, sustained him in the last heroic moments.
Born to a globetrotting journalist, the young polyglot Saadeh was living abroad in Brazil when his native Lebanon fell from the collapsing Ottoman Empire into French hands.
He returned in 1930 to Lebanon an irredentist on the make and churned out a prodigious literary output: fiction, newspaper stories, political pamphlets.
It was his vision for a “Greater Syria” that would define the man’s legacy, and cause his death. In 1932 he secretly founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party to advocate for a vast Syrian state encompassing what now comprise Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. At its most ambitious this prospective state dreamt itself inscribed upon the whole Fertile Crescent from the Tauras Mountains to the Persian Gulf.
The SSNP still exists in Syria and Lebanon to this day, but it was a big cheese in the French Mandate by the late 1930s — when the imminent end of colonialism put the future shape of the entire region into question. Saadeh, harried by French authorities who had clapped him in prison a couple of times, emigrated to Argentina and carried on the struggle through exile publications.
In 1947, Saadeh returned to a rapturous reception in now-independent Lebanon:
But his pan-Syria idea was distinctly at odds with what had happened on the ground. Whatever the colonial roots of the borders that had been set down, they defined not only zones on a map but elites with an interest in their maintenance. Lebanon’s founding “National Pact” arrangement among Christians and Muslims also committed all involved to Lebanon as an independent state not to merge with Syria.
So despite (or rather because of) Saadeh’s popularity, the SSNP faced renewed crackdowns in 1948. Revolutionaries, reformers, and pan-Arabist types were surging throughout the region thanks to the distressingly shabby performance of Arab armies in their 1948 war to strangle Israel in its crib. (Lebanon fielded only a tiny force in this fight which also won no laurels; instead, Israel began its long tradition of occupying southern Lebanon.) Saadeh was certainly alarmed by the birth of a Zionist state so inimical to his own programme; “Our struggle with the enemy is not a struggle for borders but for existence,” he declared in 1948.
On July 4, 1949, the SSNP put its muscle to the test by attempting to seize state power in Lebanon — and disastrously failed. Saadeh had traveled to Damascus hoping to gain the support of the Syrian military dictator Husni al-Za’im;* instead, al-Za’im simply handed Saadeh right back to Lebanese authorities who had him tried in secret and swiftly executed.
This date in 1865 was the originally scheduled hanging of Indiana pro-slavery gadfly Lambdin P. Milligan — a sentence respited two days prior by President Andrew Johnson, and then subsequently commuted, for which reason Milligan survived to attach his surname to a landmark Supreme Court decision the following year.
During the Civil War, the state of Kentucky was a borderlands claimed by, and viciously fought over, by both North and South. “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky,” Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1861.
Kentucky’s northern neighbor, the Union breadbasket Indiana, had little fighting and no hint of Confederate power — but it was a hotbed of so-called “Copperheads”, northern Democrats who opposed Lincoln’s willingness to prosecute the civil war. So fraught was the Hoosier political situation that in 1862, Indiana’s Republican governor refused to call the Democrat-dominated legislature for fear that it might vote a secession bill or attempt to withdraw Indiana from the war.
The inevitable existence of northern domestic opposition to the war came joined at the hip to impossible statecraft conundrums. Just how much wartime dissent and/or resistance could be countenanced — as a legal matter, and a practical one? President Lincoln would not have received an A+ from the American Civil Liberties Union; he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the Union and resorted to military tribunals and martial law in some places.
Our man Milligan was one of these Copperhead Indiana Democrats born to test Washington’s elasticity. He was an exponent of the Knights of the Golden Circle,* a pro-slavery secret society whose name denoted their aspiration to the antebellum filibusters‘ dream of a human-bondage empire to ring the Caribbean basin.
An attorney,** Milligan briefly became the toast of Democrats nationwide (whatever was left of the nation) for his robust defense of Clement Vallandigham when the former Congressman was prosecuted under the anti-Copperhead General Order 38.
At this point, Milligan was very well-known in what was then called the Northwest, and he was a major political player in Indiana — a pivotal state in the 1864 election.
But according to federal spies who tailed him in 1863-64, his interests in governance ran to more illicit grants of state power. Milligan was arrested in October 1864 as a principal in what was dubbed the “Northwestern Conspiracy”: a plot to mobilize the antiwar factions in that part of the country. This was no mere matter of pamphleteering; the “visionary and desperate” scheme aimed to prolong the hopes of the now-fading South by instigating an armed uprising in the Northwest that would relieve Union pressure on Dixie and perhaps turn the tide of the war.
Milligan was among several of the conspirators swept up in arrests in the following weeks, then tried by military tribunal for treason and sedition. It’s hard to argue that the plot was anything but.
But why a military court? This is the question in Milligan’s great legacy to posterity, the Supreme Court ruling Ex Parte Milligan.†
Milligan himself was not a soldier, and had not been in a war zone. He was a civilian, and Indiana’s regular civilian courts had never ceased to function. The question at stake in Milligan’s appeal to the Supreme Court was whether there was any legitimate recourse to a military tribunal under such conditions — well behind the lines, as it were.
On the morning of March 5, 1866, 34-year-old Republican U.S. Representative James Garfield — the future president whose assassin would command contentious caselaw all his own — strode into the U.S. Supreme Court to eloquently argue Milligan’s side.
“Such a doctrine,” Garfield intoned of the civilian courts’ being intentionally bypassed on national security grounds, “is too monstrous to be tolerated for a moment; and I trust and believe that … it will receive its just and final condemnation. Your decision will mark an era in American history. the just and final settlement of this great question will take a high place among the great achievements which have immortalized this decade. It will establish forever this truth, of inestimable value to us and to mankind, that a republic can wield the vast enginery of war without breaking down the safeguards of liberty; can suppress insurrection, and put down rebellion, however formidable, without destroying the bulwarks of law; can, by the might of its armed millions, preserve and defend both nationality and liberty … if the protection of the law shall, by your decision, be extended over every acre of our peaceful territory, you will have rendered the great decision of the century.
The high court found for Milligan unanimously, establishing as a constitutional bedrock Garfield’s proffered principle that civilian courts must try civilians wherever those courts are open, and ordered Milligan’s release. Although re-indicted by a civilian grand jury, Milligan was not re-prosecuted; he resumed his law practice and died near Fort Wayne, Indiana on December 21, 1899.
** Milligan studied law in Ohio, his native soil; his class of nine also included Edwin M. Stanton — Lincoln’s War Secretary during the events of this post. Milligan himself reflected that “I should have probably been hung” but for his fortuitous ancient friendship with Stanton.
† Court precedents with names like Furman v. Georgia are most familiar to us, signifying two disputing parties; by contrast, the phrase ex parte (by/for the party) theoretically indicates a decision issued on behalf of the named party, without need of any opposing party’s intervention. (Ex parte Quirin is another notable death penalty case using this terminology.)
While the ex parte locution was once a common one for habeas corpus appeals, such cases were in practice almost invariably contested by some organ of the state — as Milligan’s was.
The ferocious commitment of the Third Reich to fight to the last man even when World War II provided the occasion (or the pretext) for many of that bloody conflict’s most poignant and pointless deaths.
In these execution-focused pages we have seen the death penalty meted out to ideological enemies whom the Nazis hastened to dispose of in their last hours; almost infinitely more numerous were everyday people who by Berlin’s Götterdämmerung were made so much meat for the ordnance of the advancing Allies.
On this date in 1945, Robert Limpert’s effort to avoid the latter fate for his native Ansbach caused him to suffer the pangs of an entirely gratuitous execution.
Only 19 years old, Limpert had been disqualified from even desperate war’s-end military conscription by a severe heart problem.
He had made little secret of his antiwar views in the earlier years of the war. Even so, it was a deep shock while he was studying at the University of Wurzburg to see that ancient city devastated by a March 16 bombing raid that claimed 5,000 lives and destroyed most of its historic center.
He wandered back to Ansbach horrified, and sure that this city ought not share Wurzburg’s ordeal.
By April 18, American troops were just a few kilometers from the town. Limpert had spent the night before surreptitiously distributing pamphlets calling for a bloodless surrender, as he had on several earlier days. (Sample rhetoric: “Death to the Nazi hangmen.”)
According to Stephen Fritz, who describes this story in detail in his Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, Ansbach was in a state of near-collapse that Wednesday. Party officials were discreetly discarding their soon-to-be-incriminating insignia, and crowds jostled each other to loot canned goods for the prospective months of want ahead.
Though the Ansbach populace was violently hostile to the idea of inviting bombardment by fighting the Americans, word was that the rigorous commandant, Col. Ernst Meyer, did indeed mean to do so. Trying to prevent a disaster from befalling his city, Limpert that morning cut the telephone wires from the Col. Meyer’s command post to the nearby troops at the front — an act observed and reported by two diligent Hitler Youth.
What followed was a cruel exertion of a military machine aggrieved by Limpert’s entirely well-founded lese-majeste. The cut wire didn’t matter at all because the command post had already been abandoned. But it was reported, and policemen and bureaucrats began mindlessly following procedures. “In the chaos, nothing would have been easier than to drop the matter quietly and let Limpert go,” Fritz observes.
Meyer was frenetically trying to organize defenses that did not want to be organized and by the time he caught wind of of the Limpert investigation he was fit to be tied.
“For me,” he said later, “there was no doubt that I had found the man who had already engaged in treason for the past eight days [pamphleting against the war] … While forward in the front lines … brave soldiers risked their lives to defend the homeland, a coward attacked them in the back. I now had to act. I said, ‘Gentlemen, we’ll now immediately form a court-martial …’ Silence everywhere. I had the impression of a certain helplessness.” (Fritz, again)
Meyer’s aides were reluctant to speak. It was obvious that the Americans would occupy Ansbach with hours, but also obvious that an insufficiency of zeal could have any one of them shot on the spot. One or two of them hesitatingly suggested further investigation — an overtly correct notion that would be tantamount to dropping the case under the circumstances.
Meyer brusquely announced, “I sentence Limpert to death by hanging; the sentence will be carried out immediately.” According to Zippold [a constable], Meyer also declared that the entire Limpert family would be executed, whereupon both policem[e]n rushed to their defense. Unwilling to press the issue, Meyer said curtly, “We don’t have any time, let’s get going.”
In NS-Offizier war ich nicht, Col. Meyer’s daughter, Ute Althaus, grapples with his perspective on Limpert’s hanging — which Meyer always felt was justified.
It was past 1 in the afternoon when Meyer stalked out to the entrance of the city hall to conduct the execution personally. While all of Ansbach, all of the western front, sabotaged his frenzied defense of the Reich, Meyer had this boy at his mercy. The colonel poured all of his rectitude and despair into taking away at least this one life.
Nevertheless, Meyer was not an executioner. Nothing was ready for his improvised hanging, and while the colonel tied up the nearest rope he could get someone to fetch him, Robert Limpert twisted away and escaped. He made it maybe 100 yards: no bystander dared to answer his pleas for help as he was tackled, kicked, and dragged back to his gallows.
The story has it that Meyer, after hanging Limpert twice — the noose broke the first time — pinned some of the treasonable pamphlets to the body, then immediately hopped on a bicycle and fled directly out of town. Maybe the folklore has become a bit exaggerated on that point … but he can’t have stayed much longer. The Americans were there by supper time to cut Robert Limpert’s body down.
As a Shia religious party, Al-Dawa stood starkly at odds with the Sunni-based and secular Ba’ath dictatorship — and Sadr faced state harassment throughout the 1970s. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, whose leadership explicitly took inspiration from Sadr, Baghdad eliminated Sadr fearing he might lead a similar uprising in Iraq’s Shia south. (Sadr’s sister Amina al-Sadr — known as Bint al-Huda — was also arrested and executed around the same time.)
And Saddam Hussein may have been quite right to fear this. The name Sadr, of course, will be familiar to any observer of contemporary Iraq — for Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr’s son-in-law Muqtada al-Sadr today holds sway in the south and in Baghdad’s Shia stronghold, Sadr City.
* Iraq’s president from 2006 to 2014, Nouri al-Maliki, represented the Dawa Party. He was known to show off to guests the ring that Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr attained his martyrdom.
On this date in 1964, anti-apartheid fighters Vuyisile Mini, Zinakile Mkaba and Wilson Khayingo went to the gallows of Pretoria Central Prison — the first three members of the African National Congress’s military arm to be executed by apartheid South Africa.
In 1960, on the 21st of March — a date still kept as South Africa’s Human Rights Day, and worldwide as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — white police gunned down 69 black civilians protesting the color line.
Shortly thereafter, on December 16, Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation” in Zulu, but better known simply as “MK”) announced its advent with placards in city streets.
The time comes in the life of any people when there remain two choices: to submit or fight. That time has now come to South Africa. We will not submit but will fight back with all means at our disposal in defence of our rights, our people and our freedom.
MK conducted its first dynamite attacks that very evening in Port Elizabeth; over the ensuing 18 months, it carried out more than 200 bombings and other acts of sabotage against the facilities of the apartheid state: train tracks, power stations, telephone wires, offices.
A security crackdown naturally ensued.* By 1963, the white government had managed to expose and arrest three-quarters of MK’s regional Eastern Cape High Command. Vuyisile Mini, Wilson Khayingo, and Zinakile Mkaba were all swiftly condemned on multiple counts of sabotage plus one of murdering a police informant. International appeals for clemency fell on deaf ears; one fellow-traveler later remembered the men taking leave of their fellow-prisoners in a haunting song.**
“The last evening was devastatingly sad as the heroic occupants of the death cells communicated to the prison in gentle melancholy song that their end was near … It was late at night when the singing ceased, and the prison fell into uneasy silence. I was already awake when the singing began again in the early morning. Once again the excruciatingly beautiful music floated through the barred windows, echoing round the brick exercise yard, losing itself in the vast prison yards. And then, unexpectedly, the voice of Vuyisile Mini came roaring down the hushed passages. Evidently standing on a stool, with his face reaching up to a barred vent in his cell, his unmistakable bass voice was enunciating his final message in Xhosa to the world he was leaving. In a voice charged with emotion but stubbornly defiant he spoke of the struggle waged by the African National Congress and of his absolute conviction of the victory to come. And then it was Khayinga’s turn, followed by Mkaba, as they too defied all prison rules to shout out their valedictions. Soon after, I heard the door of their cell being opened. Murmuring voices reached my straining ears, and then the three martyrs broke into a final poignant melody which seemed to fill the whole prison with sound and then gradually faded away into the distant depths of the condemned section.
* It was during this crackdown that future president Nelson Mandela was rolled up. Mandela had helped to found MK.
As a Communist himself — Laiho had been imprisoned in the 1930s for his labor agitation — Laiho inclined better to the cause of the other side, and fled to the woodlands near Turku where he gathered intelligence to pass to the Soviets and aided other war deserters. He spent the best part of two years winding towards his date with a military police firing detail after being arrested in December 1942.
While Olavi Laiho was the last Finn executed in Finland, on September 2, 1944, a trio of Soviet paratroopers caught behind Finnish lines were shot as spies on September 3, 1944. Those three men are the last ever put to death in Finland.
Laiho doesn’t technically have the distinction of being the last in all of Finnish history, but he’s the one remembered as the milestone moreso than the Russian paratroopers. Laiho is the last one of the Finns’ own, the last who emerges as an individual with a fate that speaks to the fate of his countrymen in those times. “Through Olavi Laiho, we empathize with the with the story of the first half of the 20th century,” this dissertation put it.
From 7 to 8 p.m. on the evening of August 5, 1943 the Fallbeil at Plotzensee Prison destroyed 17 members of the Berlin Red Orchestra resistance circle.
We have touched previously on Die Rote Kapelle in the context of the first 11 executions that claimed its leadership on December 22, 1942.
But the Gestapo had a much wider network than that to break up; ultimately, there would be nearly 50 death sentences associated with Red Orchestra, for activities ranging from outright espionage to merely dissident leafletting, and other rounds of executions had taken place over the preceding months.
The executions this date were more of the sad same, and noteworthy for some sincere and ordinary citizens so sympathetic that even the Reich Military Court recommended mercy for some. Adolf Hitler refused it across the board. The victims, predominantly women who had been moved to Plotzensee for execution that very morning, included —
Cato Bontjes van Beek, an idealistic 22-year-old ceramicist.
Liane Berkowitz. Two days short of her 20th birthday when she was beheaded, Berkowitz had given birth to a child while awaiting execution.
Eva-Maria Buch, who translated propaganda leaflets destined for illicit distribution to the forced laborers employed in German munitions factories.
Else Imme, an anti-fascist whose sister had emigrated to the Soviet Union.
Anna Krauss, a 58-year-old businesswoman.
Klara Schabbel, a Comintern agent who in her youth had fought against the French occupation of the Ruhr after World War I.
Oda Schottmuller, a dancer and sculptor who used her arts-related trips to act as a courier.
Writer Adam Kuckhoff. His widow Greta would go on to head the East German central bank.
Emil Hubner, an 81-year-old retiree, along with his daughter Frida Wesolek and her husband Stanislaus.
Besides the above, at least three others among the condemned in this group paid with their lives for an arts activism attack on Das Sowjetparadies (The Soviet Paradise), a Reich exhibition in May-June 1942 that used photographs and captured artifacts from the war’s eastern front to depict “poverty, squalor and misery” in the USSR. This associated propaganda film gives a taste of the vibe:
The Orchestra orchestrated an “attack” littering the exhibition with counter-propaganda
The NAZI PARADISE
War Hunger Lies Gestapo
How much longer?”
Hilde Coppi, one of the circle’s principal members and the wife of the previously executed Hans Coppi. Like Liane Berkowitz, she was spared the first rounds of executions to bear and nurse her child.
Maria Terwiel, a Catholic barrister with a Jewish mother.
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: