On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.
Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.
Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.
Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.
Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.
The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.
Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.
A year ago today, Pakistan amid its ravenous 2015 execution binge hanged Aftab Bahadur Masih in Lahore for a 1992 murder.
Two faces of Aftab Bahadur Masih, separated by two decades on death row.
According to the anti-death penalty organization Reprieve, Masih was only 15 years old when he committed the crime. According to Masih himself, he never committed it at all — but instead was tortured into confession by the police.
Don’t take my word for it. Masih wrote a moving first-person essay for the Guardian that was published hours before his hanging.
I just received my Black Warrant. It says I will be hanged by the neck until dead on Wednesday, 10 June. I am innocent, but I do not know whether that will make any difference.
Containing many incidents of his life and conduct not before made public. Faithfully written from his own words, while under sentence of death in prison.
LIFE and CONFESSION &c.
In offering to the public the following narrative I feel no other interest than the good of mankind, nor have I any other object in view than to caution the careless and unwary against pursuing that vicious course which has been the means of plunging me at this early period of life into that dreadful dilemma in which I am now involved.
Altho nature had doomed me to a state of obscurity and degradation, I might have remained happy in this unenviable situation, had not the vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier stages of my youth driven me into excesses which have proved my ruin. Pursued by the hand of justice, I have thus early been arrested in my vicious career: drawn from the deep & solitary recesses of obscurity and debasement, to the bar of justice, I am condemned to recieve [sic] the punishment which my guilt has so justly merited, as a warning and example to those I leave behind. It may be somewhat interesting to those I am about to leave to be informed of the causes which have produced those (to me) dreadful effects.
The following pages contain a brief history of my short and wicked life, and such reflections as have been produced in my mind by a retrospective view of my conduct; they are submitted to the public as the last words of a dying sinner.
I am this day seventeen years and five weeks old. I was born of African parents; slaves to Mr. Benjamin Ward of Middlesex county State of New-Jersey, in whose family I lived until about four years ago, previous to which my parents purchased their freedom, and left my master’s family.
My master was a man of very corrupt and immoral habits, subject to habitual intoxication, and most of the vices which flow from that fertile scource [sic] of human depravity. Among other things he almost totally neglected his family concerns, the consequence was that I and my brothers and sisters were left to govern ourselves, and form such habits and principles as our inclinations led us to pursue.
We were not only neglected as to our morals and habits, but were badly provided for with the necessaries of life, our table was but illy supplyed [sic], our cloathing [sic] would scarcely cover our nakedness, much less protect us against the inclemency of the seasons. Thus were we permitted to spend our time in idleness and want, which produced in us an inclination, and afforded us liesure [sic] and opportunities to practise almost all kinds of evil.
I was thus in a manner abandoned by my master and only guardian, in a hopeless state of slavery, with no prospect before me to stimulate my ambition, or direct the youthful ardor that glowed in my breast to the pursuit of any laudable object, I sunk even below the degraded station which nature had assigned me.
I formed connection with such as were willing to associate with me, those were of course a motly tribe of the most abandoned of the human race, among whom it was my chief ambition to become famous, and it may readily be conjectured what was the measure of fame in a society where wickedness was the standard of merit, and lewdness and profanity esteemed the higest [sic] accomplishments of its members.
Hence I became extremely wicked, and subject to almost every vice my tender years were susceptable [sic] of, such as cursing, profane swearing, lying and sabath-breaking [sic; he will repeat this word several times more with the same spelling], with a number of other lewd practice, all which I indulged without restraint, and all my vicious habits increased with my age. My master occasionally chastised me, but this was generally so indiscreetly done, that, instead of a reformation it produced the contrary effect, and I became obstinate and headstrong.
In this situation I lived until I was about thirteen years of age, during which time tho’ I indulged in almost all kinds of wickedness which my tender age was capable of, I do not recollect of having committed any thing legally criminal, except, that I once stole a shilling out of a bakers drawer, with which I bought some cake and shared it with my companions, but being detected, I confessed the fact, and was severely chastised for it.
At length my master dying, his estate fell into the hands of his heirs, who found it so involved that they were under the necessity of selling the personal property. Among the rest I was sold to Mr. Elijah Mount, who then lived in New-Jersey, but afterwards moved to Charlestown, Montgomery county, state of New-York.
I now found my situation entirely changed, my new master was quite the reverse from my old one, he was moral, sober, industrious and frugal, paid great attention to the comfortable support and instruction of his family, nor did he neglect to extend his benevolence to me. He soon laid me under such restraints as in a great measure reformed my external deportment. He totally prohibited my profaneness and instructed me in the principles of christianity, [sic] but, alas! the inbred vicious habits I had contracted in the earlier part of my life, had made such a deep impression on my mind that, altho I found myself under the necessity of complying with his regulations in my conduct, they were far from producing a radical reformation in my principles. On the contrary, I found, that, tho I was constrained to abandon the vicious habits of cursing, profane swearing and sabath=breaking at least publicy, the corrupt principles I had imbibed daily acquired strength as I grew up and became capable of carrying them into effect.
I became lewd to that degree that my lasciviousness overleaped all bounds of discretion, and I indulged it in the most wanton and abominable excesses, so that not even the brutal part of the creation escaped the rage of my unruly passions, the innocent lamb and the loathsome swine indiscriminately became its victims.
I also extended my lewd desires, to those whom nature had placed above me, I however found the gratification of those desires so obstructed by my debased situation, that I could not flatter myself with a hope of indulging them as a favour. I was therefore impelled by their impetuosity to endeavour to obtain by violence what I could not effect by solicitation, I was rash and inconsiderate, destitute of fortitude and circumspection by which I was soon led into the error that now terminates my existence.
The first attempt I made to gratify these lewd desires, was on the body of a young woman in the town of Charlestown whose name for her sake I chuse to with-hold from the public. The circumstances of this nefarious attempt were as follows. It was on a sabath day. I together with some young men of the neighbourhood, who I likewise do not chuse to expose at this time, by publishing their names to the world, were together in an orchard, when this young woman came in. She had by some means or other become obnoxious to them, and soon after she appeared they proposed to me to make an attempt on her chastity, they offering me a small pecuniary compensation, and promised to withdraw to afford me an opportunity, which they accordingly did, while I made the attempt, but I did not succeed, for before I could effect my purpose two of her brothers (small boys) came in sight, and I fled.
This transaction was not disclosed, it is probable the young woman who was the subject of it, from motives of modestly declined complaining, or pursuing measures to bring me to justice; and those who were concerned with me and who ought rather to have protected her agianst any violence offered by me, than to have encouraged me in such an abominable attempt,) could have no motive in divulging a crime in which they themselves were so deeply implicated, and by these means I evaded the punishment which I so justly deserved.
Having thus escaped with impunity, I felt encouraged to pursue my wicked inclinations, my obscurity however prevented my having many opportunities of indulging my passions.
At length however, my attention was attracted by that unfortunate victim of my inordinate passion, who fell a sacrifice to my wantoness, [sic] and ferocity, for which I am now to suffer the just punishment of the law.
Her name was Mary Akins, daughter of Mr. Samuel Akins, of Charlestown, in the county of Montgomery. She was a girl of about twelve years of age, her father lived on a part of my master’s farm, she came to my master’s house on the morning of Sunday the thirteenth day of February last, for the purpose of attending public worship, having heard that a minister was to preach there that day, but being disappointed in her object, and the weather stormy, she remained there til the sun about half an hour high in the afternoon, her father lived about half a mile from my master’s, the road leading across the fields, I had formed a design of making an attempt on her chastity and watched an opportunity to follow her undiscovered, which soon offered, and I as readily embraced, I soon overtook her in an obscure place, where we could not be discovered from either house, with a determination of carrying my nefarious purpose into effect, I passed by her, she appearing offended at my presence, accosted me saying “who wants to keep your company you black devil” I replied I was not going to keep her company, upon which she again accosted me in the same manner adding “you black son of a bitch” to which I made the same reply as before and immediately assaulted her, threw her down, and attempted a violation of her chastity but not effecting it I permitted her to rise, as soon as she found herself disengaged she attempted to escape towards my master’s, threatening to have me brought to justice, upon which my guilt beginning to operate on my mind, and dreading the consequences of a discovery, I determined to prevent it by committing a crime still more heinous, and in an instant determined to deprive her of the power of exposing me, by depriving her of her life I had no sooner come to this resolution than I siezed [sic] a small stone which lay in my way, and I could conveniently hold in one hand, by this time she had advanced about ten or twelve yards from the place where I had made the first attempt upon her towards my master’s, I again assaulted and threw her down, struck her with the stone I held in my hand, on the crown of her head with such force as stunned her and blood issued from her mouth and [obscure], in this situation I again attempted to carry my first design into effect, but was again baffled by her incompetency, I then disengaged from her, blood on my feet and threw the same stone with which I had before struck her on the head, this I repeated twice, and then left her in the agonies of death, and expiring, finding some blood on my hands, I washed them and retired towards home, my conscience had however by this time awakened, and the horrors of my guilt began to agitate my mind, but I endeavoured to sooth my waring [sic] conscience with reflections that I had not been discovered, and that the only one privy to this horrid scene had been deprived of the power of discovering it by the very act that now filled my mind with remorse, under those reflections I had [obscure] some distance, when I began to apprehend, that she might perhaps recover, and have strength enough to reach home, or at least to communicate the transaction and discover its agent, to some one who might pass that way, I therefore returned to the place where I had been engaged in this sanguinary scene, and where its subject lay breathing her last (for she yet breathed.) to remove the apprehensions I had entertained of her revival, I placed two rails crosswise on her neck, and the one end of each under the fence by the side of which she lay, having thus secured her against all possibility of recovering, I retired a second time.
I now returned home, it being about sunset, and no one having noticed my absence, I went about my work as usual, and in about fifteen minutes her brother came in search of her, I heard him making enquiry for her, and passing by him into the house I familiarly asked him what he would think if he should find her dead? to which he replied that he would be much frightened, little thinking that those words carelessly spoken were to be the means of betraying me, they however made a deeper impression on the mind of the young man than I expected; & in searching for the author of this melancholy event, afforded a clue to discover its author, and fixed the suspicion on me.
Soon after the departure of the young man his mother came to my master’s, and informed him that she feared some misfortune had befallen her daughter as her bonnet had been found and she was missing; this excited great consternation, and my master and others went with her in search of her daughter; whom they soon found & carried home. The next morning Mr. Akins came to my master’s and charged me with the crime, informing my master of the grounds of his suspicion: I denied it, but by threats and promises was prevailed upon to confess it at last.
I was immediately bound and carried before Benjamin Van Veghten Esq. for examination, where I made the like confession; as I also did before the Coroner’s inquest. I was then committed to jail for my trial which I had on the 24th of March last, a conviction was a matter of course, my sentence was pathetically delivered by the presiding judge, during which awful scene I remained insensible.
I have since been benevolently attended by the reverend clergy of different denominations, who merit my warmest acknowledgments for their solicitude for my future happiness, I cannot however flatter myself with a hope of mercy; my approaching dissolution exites dreadful sensations in my mind, which I am unable to suppress; my sentence is just but [obscure] reconcile myself to my fate.
The foregoing narrative contains a faithful history of the chief incidents and material transactions of my life, as far as I recollect them; I have no motives to conceal anything; whatever else has been laid to my charge I deny.
Hence let masters learn the necessity of paying due attention to the instruction of their servants, had I not been neglected in my youth, I might have escaped this tragical end.
Let servants learn obedience and resignation, for had I paid due respect to the admonitions of my late master, and contented myself in my late situation, I might yet have been happy; let them also learn to shun the company of that worthless class of citizens, who being despised by their own society seek that of slaves, these are sure guides to destruction, such were those who offered me a reward to commit a rape.
Hence also let parents who profess christianity, (as the parents of these young men did) learn the danger of letting their children stroll about in idleness in such company, especially on sabbath days; and let profaners of that day remark that my worst crimes have been the effects of that sin.
In short let every description of sinners learn the danger of deferring repentance to the cross, if they have one favourable instance, they have a cloud of melancholy examples. I feel the necessity of a Saviour, but my heart is a rock at the door of the sepulcher which I am not able to remove, and I stand on the brink of eternity under the gloomy apprehensions of everlasting misery and despair.
Johnston Jail, April 22d 1803.
Although it sounds as if Cato (or the confessor who obviously composed his testimonial) was pessimistic about the prospects for his everlasting soul, we have firmer information on the unedifying disposition of the youth’s mortal flesh: a Dr. John Ball of Franklinton, Ohio (a settlement today absorbed into the city of Columbus) secured it and kept it in his closet “in order to keep his personal effects secure from the prying eyes of servants. The skeleton was so suspended that should the closet door be opened by one not acquainted with the secret, Cato’s jaws would gnash together and his head would wag in a manner calculated to strike terror into inquisitive female hearts.”
We’ve recently featured in these pages the very last hanging at Edinburgh’s old Grassmarket, scene of innumerable executions potent in Scottish history.
Beginning in 1785, public hangings were relocated to the Tolbooth, a medieval civic building that had been converted into a notorious prison — an era that was officially christened on this date in 1785 with the sacrifice of a juvenile delinquent.
the first person executed at the west end of the old city gaol, was Alexander Stewart, a youth of only fifteen, who had committed many depredations, and at last had been convicted of breaking into the house of Captain Hugh Dalrymple, of Fordell in the Potterrow, and Neidpath Castle, the seat of the Duke of Queensberry, from which he carried off many articles of value. It was expressly mentioned by the judge in his sentence that he was to be hanged in the Grassmarket, “or any other place the magistrates might appoint,” thus indicating that a change was in contemplation; and accordingly, the west end of the old Tolbooth was fitted up for his execution, which took place on the 20th of April, 1785.
Demolished in 1817, the Tolbooth survives today as a much-spat-upon heart design in the cobblestones marking the gaol’s former location.
On this date in 1546, one Alice Glaston was hanged in the town of Much Wenlock in Shopshire, England together with two other prisoners.
The court records for that time and place have been lost, so so the crime for which Alice was hanged is not known. We do know one thing about her, though: she was, at eleven years old, the youngest girl to be executed in England’s history. (But not the youngest person. That honor goes to eight-year-old John Dean, who was hanged for arson in Abingdon in 1629.)
In 2014, Paul Evans released a radio play about Alice’s death titled The Spirit Child.
One century ago today, a Polish Jew from east London named Aby Bevistein was shot for cowardice in Calais — four weeks shy of his 18th birthday.
Abraham Bevistein was among an estimated quarter-million Brits who bore arms as minors in World War I. Fired by patriotism, these boys dodged the military’s 18-year-old minimum by … telling their recruiters they were 18. No documentation necessary.
Bevistein, whose family had moved to London from Warsaw when he was a small child, was British through and through enough to surge into the army with the first wave of pie-eyed volunteers in September 1914. He had 16 years and four months, and if he was like many of his new comrades in arms he probably reckoned on being back home by 17 — a bonny hero of a speedy war.
Instead, he spent most of 1915 navigating the labyrinth of trenches in France, and all their attendant horrors. He was wounded in December of that year but soon passed fit for duty again. On February 12-13, 1916, shellshocked and deafened by German grenades, he again sought medical help but was directed back to the lines by a harried medical officer. Instead, Bevistein wandered away to the rear, and took temporary refuge at a French farm.*
“We were in the trenches and I was ill so I went out,” he wrote to his mother by way of all-too-nonchalant explanation. “They’ve taken me to prison and I’m in a bit of trouble now.”
On this date in 1986, during the opening months of a guerrilla war that would last until 1992, a 70-man detachment of Suriname soldiers raided the village of Moiwana, home of the rebel leader Ronnie Brunswijk, and massacred dozens of people.
Drawing made c. 1990 by an eight-year-old refugee of Moiwana. Image from Richard Price’s “The Killings in Suriname”, Cultural Anthropology, November 1995.
Sealing the roads, the team went house to house for four hours, torching houses and slaughtering any of the Ndyuka civilians who couldn’t escape into the surrounding jungle.
“Everyone was shot — the unarmed women, pregnant women, a baby barely seven months old,” goes the account in Memre Moiwana, a publication of the NGO Moiwana ’86. “No distinctions were made.” Some were mowed down with automatic weapons; others slashed to death with machetes. At least 38 people died, though various sources posit estimates running to upwards of 50.
In the weeks following, nearby Ndjuka villages in eastern Suriname shared a like fate, often bombarded by helicopters and finished off with bulldozers while death squads hunted suspected guerrillas. The U.S. State Department reported 244 Ndyuka people killed that December. A United Nations investigator entering the area months later reported that “no human being or living creature was seen apart from starving dogs in [one such town] Albina. The jungle vegetation had taken over the destroyed buildings.”
A police inspector named Herman Eddy Gooding who had the temerity to investigate these massacres while the guerrilla war was still ongoing was found mysteriously shot dead in 1990. (See Rainforest Warriors: Human Rights on Trial) In 2005, however, survivors of Moiwana won a suit against the army of Suriname before the Inter American Court of Human Rights.
For many generations from the 14th to 17th centuries, new Ottoman heirs maintained themselves by the cruel practice of preventive fratricide.
Enforced at varying levels of systematicity, the destruction of the men best positioned to assert a claim of bloodline legitimacy against the new sultan might arguably have been one of the bulwarks of the empire’s prosperity. It insulated the Sultanate from protracted succession crises, civil war, and political fragmentation. With each generation’s passing, power coalesced into one man.
The sagacity, if not the humanity, of Bayezid’s action was underscored in 1402 when Bayezid was captured in battle by the Timurids and the ensuing 11-year “Ottoman Interregnum” saw the empire strained near to breaking as brother fought brother for succession until Mehmed I emerged victorious in 1413. Having attained power by killing off three siblings, he got the nickname “Mehmed Kirisci” — “Bowstring Mehmed”, after the implement by which the mighty were strangled out of the Turkish game of thrones.
And whoever of my children manages to reach the throne, it is fitting that he should kill his brothers, for the sake of the order of the world. Most of the ulema permit that. Let them act on that. (Source)
In Mehmed the Conqueror’s day, the child “managing to reach the throne” was the winner among the sons, who were posted to various regional outposts to earn their spurs in governance, in a scramble back to the Porte upon word of the old man’s death. This meant that in life, the boys were in a constant struggle for the privilege of central assignments and to nurture their own palace networks who when the day came could provide speedy notification of the impending succession and smooth recognition of a claim by the state apparatus. “The first son to reach the capital and win recognition by the court and the imperial troops became the new ruler,” Donald Quataert writes. “This was not a very pretty method; nonetheless it did promote the accession of experienced, well-connected, and capable individuals to the throne, persons who had been able to win support from the power brokers of the system.” The sitting sultans naturally put their own thumbs on the scale, too.
We are arriving, ever so circuitously, to the date’s honorees, and as one might suppose they were princes of the blood.
Come 1512, we find Mehmed the Conqueror’s son Bayezid II forcibly deposed by his son Selim. All those incentives favoring experienced, well-connected and capable individuals could also induce such a figure to take his advantage when it presented itself rather than awaiting the mischance of racing messengers. In Selim’s case, the father openly favored a different brother, Ahmet, so Selim and Ahmet were at each other’s throats (and dad’s too) well before Bayezid departed the scene.
Long story short, Selim got the kingmaking Janissaries on his side and lodged himself in the palace but his brother fought on against him. Selim would have to secure his power in 1512-1513 by an unusually thorough purge that set him up to earn the nickname “Selim the Grim”.*
Selim had seven brothers, five of whom were fortunate enough to predecease their father, and these seven brothers had collectively fathered nine sons of their own. Selim had quite a number possible rivals to dispose of.
In the months after his conquest of power, Selim wintered in Bursa, where he had interred five of his young nephews. (The other four nephews were all Ahmet’s sons, and still at large.) Some bout of fresh resistance by Ahmet induced Selim, on November 27, 1512, to do the grim thing:
The eldest of them, Osman, son of Prince Alemshah, was twenty years old; the youngest, Mahomet, son of Prince Schehinshah, was only seven. Selim sent Janissaries to apprehend them, and they were shut up by his orders in one apartment of the palace. On the next morning, the Sultan’s mutes entered to put them to death. A fearful scene ensued, which Selim witnessed from an adjoining chamber. The youngest of the captive princes fell on their knees before the grim executioners, and with tears and childish prayers and promises begged hard for mercy. The little Prince Mahomet implored that his uncle would spare him, and offered to serve him all the days of his life for an aspre (the lowest of all coins) a day. The elder of the victims, Prince Osman, who knew that there was no hope of mercy, rushed fiercely upon the murderers, and fought hard for a time against them. One of the mutes was struck dead, and another had his arm broken. Selim ordered his personal attendants to run in and assist in the execution; and at length the unhappy princes were overpowered by numbers, and strangled. Their bodies were deposited with all display of royal pomp near the sepulchre of Amurath II. (Source)
Six months later, Ahmet — defeated and in his own turn throttled with a bowstring — joined them in the same tomb.
* All told, Selim the Grim ordered something like 30,000 executions in his eight-year reign.
On this day in 1800,* a seventeen-year-old mail sorter named Thomas Chalfont was hanged at Newgate for theft.
Chalfont “feloniously did secrete a letter, or packet, directed to Messrs. Bedwells, St. John’s-street.” Said letter, or packet, had contained three £10 notes; it arrived to Messrs. Bedwells late and containing only two such notes. The accompanying letter had also been altered to correspond to the diminished enclosure.
The recipient complained to the post office, and Chalfont was found out.
He was the second post office employee to be executed for the same offense; almost a year earlier, John Williams had faced the hangman for taking money — it was even the same amount, £10 — out of a letter in his charge.
According to Susan Whyman, the royal mail was a frequent locus of property crime throughout the 18th century: “armed robbery, overcharging for postage, forging franks, wilful destruction of letters, and embezzlement of enclosed bills or money.” Chalfont’s variant here seems downright banal, but it was commonplace enough that one correspondent Whyman cites in 1787 defeated sticky-fingered mail sorters by tearing a £10 Bank of England note in half and mailing the two halves to his wife separately.
We greatly lament to find young men gratuitously placed in trust in the Post-office, frequently abusing the confidence reposed in them, disgracing their friends, who necessarily must have used much interest in obtaining such places for them, and then bringing themselves to an ignominious fate.
Four others died alongside Chalfont: Thomas Douglas, a horse-thief; John Price and John Robinson, burglars; and William Hatton, who took a shot at a watchman.
In the Derby Mercury edition (Nov. 13, 1800) reporting the quintuple execution, the very next news item underscored the post’s continuing security problems:
A singular attempt to intercept the passage of the letters into the Post Office, at Durham, was fortunately discovered on Sunday evening last, before any mischief had been effected by the stratagem. A piece of sheet iron, so modelled as to fit the entrance of the box, had been introduced, so as that it could be withdrawn with any letter that might be put into it.
* The Newgate Calendar supplies the date of November 11; this appears to be erroneous, as the period’s reporting confirms a Wednesday, Nov. 12 execution.
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.