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
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:
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 Pekar Jan Marhoul (Baker Jan Marhoul) and Pole orná a válecná (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.