Posts filed under 'Freethinkers'

1766: Jean-François de la Barre, freethinker martyr

3 comments July 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1766, a 20-year-old French chevalier’s freethinking proclivities got him beheaded and burned for impiety in one of Bourbon France’s most notorious episodes of religious chauvanism.

Check that date again. This is 69 years after the British Isles’ last execution for blasphemy; Voltaire was alive, and already in his dotage — and the fact that young Chevalier de la Barre was reading him was proclaimed as evidence. Such a benighted proceeding with the French Revolution on the horizon calls Dickens to mind:

it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness

The luckless youth and a couple of friends had pissed off a local judge, which got ugly for them when the unexplained vandalism of a town crucifix availed the opportunity for the magistrate to wield a sledgehammer against a fly.

De la Barre’s volume of Voltaire was tossed onto the pyre with him. That Enlightenment colossus made a measured posthumous effort at having the boy rehabilitated* — primarily for the benefit of his more judicious friend, who had fled the country and required his death sentence in absentia be lifted in order to inherit the family estate — but the verdict was not set aside until the French Revolution, a few months after the end of the Terror.

France’s overall secular trajectory since has rendered this date a sort of national freethinkers’ holiday, Chevalier de la Barre Day. A statue of its namesake stands in Paris’ Montmarte:

* Voltaire’s writings on the case in the original French are collected by the Association Le Chevalier de la Barre here.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,God,History,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1820: Karl Ludwig Sand, a curious strand of German history

2 comments May 20th, 2008 dogboy

Alexandre Dumas recognized the name of Karl Ludwig Sand, who lost his head on this date in 1820 in Mannheim, Germany, for the murder of the dramatist and humorist August von Kotzebue.

The assassination of von Kotzebue* worried the Prussian monarchy — then headed by Friederich Wilhelm III — and precipitated a series of proclamations, reforms, and internal struggles that finally led to a full-scale rebellion 30 years later.

A print showing Sand stabbing August von Koetzebue. Sand is reported to have shouted, “Here, you traitor to the fatherland!”

Sand was a member of a Burschenschaft,** a liberal student fraternity organization which appealed to nationalist Germans seeking a unified German nation-state, and he and others in his group regarded von Kotzebue as a plague on their cause. Von Kotzebue was then Councillor of the Russian Legation, the culmination of over a decade in the Russian civil service, and a spinmeister for the Russian regime. In 1816, while Sand was in college, von Kotzebue was tasked with managing the flow of information into the Prussian state in an effort to increase the monarch’s popularity in Germany.

At the very least, then, von Kotzebue had no love for the Burschenshaft movement from the start, which originated in the university town of Jena, and he did not hold back his criticisms in his weekly literature newpaper Literatische Wochenblatt. He casually disparaged the Burschenschaften, as this stab in the review of a novel in one of the earlier editions evidences:

Longing and love in the work is described in a way which, in the judgment of the Jenaer Recensenten, resembles a light Spring rain that is at least refreshing. That is more than one can say of the Jenaer Literature-Zeitung, which roughly resembles an autumnal rain that simply makes one wet without refreshing at all.

But the student organizations were on the rise during Sand’s time at university as a theology student, and the turbulent events in France during his final days in school were having ripple effects across the German populace. It was in this climate that a young man who was “distinguished at once by the gifts of the mind and the faculties of the soul” (as his Gymnasium rector put it) and who sought to become a pastor was drawn to the nationalistic movement. Sand’s opposition to the imperial rule of Prussia became increasingly more urgent after his studies, and he was determined to make a statement through action, eschewing what he called “simply writing and talking.” On March 23, 1819, the 22-year old found von Kotzebue in his house and stabbed him in front of several witnesses. Sand was quickly arrested and sentenced to death.†

A print depicting the Wartburg Festival of 1817, Burschenschaft colors prominently displayed. (Click for larger image.)

As a result of von Kotzebue’s murder, Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich set down a series of decrees, known as the Karlsbad Decrees, which sought to quell any thoughts of rebellion before they could fully ferment. The decrees limited both university activity and press activity, constraining the actions of university employees and setting down harsh restrictions on anyone who might dare question the monarch’s authority.

Sand’s contemporaries outside of Germany were hardly pleased with the death of von Kotzebue, which they saw as the precursor to a greater turmoil, and two decades of removal from the event proved a powerful force. By the time Dumas visited the site of Sand’s beheading and penned his own biography of the man, a thorough rendering of Sand’s brief life — much of it reconstructed from Sand’s writings and the memories of those who knew him — the rebellion of the Burschenschaften was once again afoot, this time with permanent consequences for the German people.

In the end, nationalism and constitutionalism were not the panaceas Sand and other Burschenschaefter may have liked. While Sand would hardly have counted as a Nazi (his Puritanical theology would have fallen on deaf ears in that regime), he would have recognized that group’s near-religious fervor of the public book burnings anti pro-German sentiments as a distant echo of the Burschenschaft’s Wartburg Festival.†† Indeed, the so-called Third Reich could never have existed without the Second Reich, whose seeds Sand and his fellow nationalists were sowing a half century early when his fateful date with the axe arrived.

* The name is also spelled “Kozebue” by some sources.

** The Burschenschaften were roughly based on the Lützow Free Corps, an academic paramilitary group which fought during the Napoleonic Wars. During their height of popularity, the Burschenschaften adopted the black-red-gold flag that was reclaimed by the Frankfurt Parliament in 1949 to be the official German flag.

† In the end, Sand and von Kotzebue were buried at the same cemetery.

†† The Wartburg Festival, held in 1817, was a celebration of Martin Luther’s proclamation against the church. An interesting discussion of the appeal of such festivals to the students of the day is given in The Course of German Nationalism: From Frederick the Great to Bismarck.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Crime,Freethinkers,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Infamous,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Other Voices,Scandal

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1916: James Connolly, socialist revolutionary

9 comments May 12th, 2008 Sem

On this date in 1916, James Connolly was tied to a chair and executed by firing squad along with Sean Mac Diarmada.

James Connolly: Irish revolutionary.

Connolly was born to Irish immigrant parents in Scotland. His first experience in his ancestral home of Ireland was during his stint in the British Army where, stationed in and around Cork, he had the opportunity to witness firsthand both the poor treatment of the native Irish by the British forces as well as the grave disparities between the landowning and peasant classes. When he returned home to Scotland, he fell in with the socialist crowd and quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the movement’s leaders. He actively participated in socialist organizations in several countries and joined the ranks of the Industrial Workers of the World.

A variety of circumstances brought him back to Ireland, where he led Irish socialists in seeking rights for the working class, joining the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union in 1912. He went on to head the union two years later when the General Secretary, “Big” Jim Larkin, left for a speaking tour. In this capacity, he found a crowd for his increasingly open talks of revolution. Frustrated by what he saw as the unwillingness of the bourgeois Irish Volunteers, Connolly spoke persistently about sacrificing his own life in the name of economic freedom for Ireland, starting The Workers’ Republic journal, then printing his treatise The Re-Conquest of Ireland in 1915. Connolly headed just one revolutionary faction in Ireland at the time. Not wishing to have their festivities spoiled by Connolly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, another revolutionary paramilitary group, decided to invite him to their Easter party.

The General Post Office in Dublin after the uprising.

The Easter Rising, which had little support from the Irish public at the time, began on April 24, 1916. Connolly led the Dublin Brigrade, which held the Dublin General Post Office, and so was in essence a sort of Commander-in-Chief during the uprising. Six days later, the Easter Rising came to a close with a surrender to British troops; its leaders, who had issued a proclamation of Irish freedom, were quickly sentenced to death by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.

Injured during the fighting, Connolly had only been given a few more days to live by the doctors that attended him at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. Unable to stand on his own due to his injuries, he was tied to a chair in order to face the firing squad.

The rapidity and brutality of the executions shocked the Irish public and the conditions of Connolly’s death were most shocking of all. After the executions, the corpses of the 15 put to death (killed between May 3 and May 12) were placed into an unmarked mass grave. The Irish people, previously largely indifferent to the republican rantings of the revolutionaries, angrily regarded British action against the leaders of the Easter Rising, granting legitimacy to the rebellion.

The death of Connolly and the other leaders of the six-day siege presaged the final revolution that led to a free Irish state. Two of Connolly’s cohorts in the Easter campaign were Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins; within a half dozen years, the two* expanded revolutionary tactics through Sinn Fein that forced the British to the bargaining table, meetings that would give rise to the bitterly partitioned Ireland of today. Connolly is still regarded as one of the greatest Britons, though he spent his life fighting the British, and the Irish have celebrated his memory through several songs.

* While de Valera and Collins were regarded as the primary players in Irish statehood, the Easter Rising included dozens of revolutionaries who would spend their lives fighting for Irish independence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Freethinkers,Guest Writers,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Politicians,Popular Culture,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1689: Kazimierz Lyszczynski, the first Polish atheist

3 comments March 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1689, in a Warsaw marketplace, Kazimierz Lyszczynski had his tongue torn out, his head struck off and his body burned to ashes which were shot from a cannon — all for scratching a few words with the whiff of atheism.

Lyszczynski — less dauntingly rendered “Cazimir Liszinski” — was convicted of holding such heretical doctrines as:

God is not the creator of man; but man is the creator of a God gathered together from nothing.

His actual writings are not known directly — his books were burned along with his flesh — but only from the transcripts of his rather hysterical trial, so it’s uncertain what he actually believed; for that matter, he vigorously (albeit unsuccessfully) abjured atheism. Some sources say that he was nailed for as little as irreverent marginal notations in a theological tract he found unconvincing; others report that he actually wrote a heretical text.

According to Valerian Krasinski’s Historical Sketch Of The Rise, Progress And Decline Of The Reformation In Poland V1 (available free from Google books)

Cazimir Lyszczynski, a noble and landowner of Lithuania, a man of a very respectable character, was perusing a book entitled Theologia Naturalis, by Henry Aldsted, a Protestant divine, and finding that the arguments which the author employed in order to prove the existence of divinity, were so confused that it was possible to deduce from them quite contrary consequences, he added on the margin the following words — “ergo non est Deus,” evidently ridiculing the arguments of the author. This circumstance was found out by Brzoska, nuncio of Brest in Lithuania, a debtor of Lyszczynski, who denouned him as an atheist, delivering, as evidence of his accusation, a copy of the work with the above-mentioned annotation to Witwicki, bishop of Posnania, who took up this affair with the greatest violence … nothing could shelter the unfortunate man against the fanatical rage of the clergy … On the simple accusation of his debtor, supported by the bishops, the affair was brought before the diet of 1689, before which the clergy, and particularly the bishop Zaluski, accused Lyszczynski of having denied the existence of God, and uttered blasphemies against the blessed Virgin and the saints. The unfortunate victim, terrified by his perilous situation, acknowledged all that was imputed to him, made a full recantation of all he might have said and written against the doctrine of the Roman Catholic church, and declared his entire submission to its authority. This was, however, of no avail to him, and his accusers were even scandalized that the diet permitted him to make a defence, and granted the term of three days for collecting evidence of his innocence, as the accusation of the clergy ought, in their judgment, to be sufficient evidence on which to condemn the culprit.

Pope Innocent XI at least salvaged the performance of the Catholic hierarchy in the affair by condemning, rather than promoting, the ambitious bishops.

Whatever the doomed man’s actual doctrines and writings, it is likely not coincidence that one finds this atrocious affair during at the moment of his country’s political collapse. The heretical knight’s 55 years corresponded to Poland’s fall from central Europe’s dominant power into the plaything of neighboring hegemons. The Polish-Lithuanian Empire stood at its maximum extent at his birth; during Lyszczynski’s boyhood, the Zaporozhian Cossacks broke free of Warsaw; as a young man, he saw the Swedes, the Russians, and Poland’s former vassal Prussia strip the empire of peoples and land.

By the time of Lyszczynski’s misfortunate death, Poland was a second-rate power on the brink of irrelevance — an abyss into which it would plunge in the century to come. Corwin’s Political History of Poland (another Google Books freebie) lays the scene:

The constant internal dissensions caused and nourished by foreign intrigues were in no mean measure responsible for the King’s failures in his final campaigns and in his diplomacy. They resulted in the loss of territory and the decline of Poland’s position as a great European power. French and Austrian money supported Polish anarchy. Diets were constantly torn up some even before the presiding officer could be elected. No law could be enacted. Corruption was rampant. Several attempts were made to depose the King. Religious intolerance became intensified and the first and last auto da fe in Poland was executed in 1689, on one Casimir Lyszczynski for his atheistic proclivities. The country became a theatre of constant strife between the various magnate families. At times the clashes resulted in formal civil wars.

It might be small consolation for having one’s head chopped off, but Lyszczynski’s reputation has far outrun his persecutors’, and in the lands of the old Polish-Lithuanian Empire, he cuts a pathbreaking figure for secularists and freethinkers.

There’s a substantial article about Lyszczynski on a Polish freethinkers’ site. As his hometown Brest lies in modern Belarus, he also enjoys a monumental biography on a Belarussian atheism site (and even favorite-son treatment on the city of Brest’s own page).

Lyszczynski’s gravestone — image (c) Irina Shvets and used with permission. The inscription reads, “Oh, travelers! Do not pass these stones. You will not stumble upon them if you don’t stumble upon the truth. Recognize the truth: for even those who know that it is the truth teach that it is a lie. The teachings of the wise are bound by deceit.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Auto de Fe,Beheaded,Belarus,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Freethinkers,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Lithuania,Milestones,Nobility,Poland,Public Executions,Soldiers

1902: Harry “Breaker” Morant and Peter Handcock, “scapegoats for Empire”

15 comments February 27th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1902, two Australian officers were shot in virtual secrecy at Pretoria for atrocities they committed in service of the crown during the Second Boer War.

Harry “Breaker” Morant — he got the nickname from his aptitude with horses — was the famous one of the pair and the reason the date is so well-known to posterity as to merit its own cinematic treatment (review):

A colorful son of the Commonwealth’s hardscrabble strata, Breaker Morant led a life that has been improved into mythology, not least by his own efforts. Impoverished but educated, he migrated in 1883 from England to Australia where he carved out a larger-than-life profile as a bush poet, married the (subsequently) famous anthropologist Daisy Bates and eventually — fatefully — volunteered for service in South Africa.

The Second Boer War, Britain’s (ultimately successful) fight to corral the Dutch-descended Boer republics into the empire, started sunnily enough for the English, but as the Boers abandoned a conventional war they could not win and adopted guerrilla tactics, it descended into an exceedingly dirty conflict — notable for Britain’s pioneering use of concentration camps.

It was also notable for savagery between combatants. When Morant’s best friend in the unit was tortured and mutilated by Boer guerrillas, the poet went on a rampage, ordering a number of prisoners’ summary executions over a period of weeks. It was for this that he and his confederate were shot this day. The fact of his confinement was not communicated to the Australian government; Peter Handcock’s wife only learned of his execution weeks later, from press reports.

The defendants maintained that there was a standing order from the top to kill any Boer caught wearing British khaki, a tactic the Boers were known to employ, and that the order was frequently enforced. Though the prosecution strenuously maintained otherwise at trial, the existence of that (unwritten) directive has become accepted to posterity.

What remains murky is the matter of why — why these two, why now? And is Breaker Morant a hero or a villain? Those questions are also prisms for the many currents of Morant’s case so strikingly prescient for the century that lay ahead.*

Asymmetric warfare and the legal status of guerrillas. Human rights and war crimes. Corruption and plausible deniability. The moral culpability of subordinates for the orders of the brass. And certainly all the contradictory forces of empire and resistance entailed by an Australian adventurer shot by a Scottish detachment for killing Dutchmen in Africa at the behest of London.** It was an old-time colonial war in a world becoming, for we of the early 21st century, recognizably modern.

Hard-living to his dying breath, Morant stayed up the night before he was shot scribbling his last poem — piquantly titled “Butchered to Make a Dutchman’s Holiday”.

In prison cell I sadly sit,
A d__d crest-fallen chappie!
And own to you I feel a bit-
A little bit – unhappy!

It really ain’t the place nor time
To reel off rhyming diction –
But yet we’ll write a final rhyme
Whilst waiting cru-ci-fixion!

No matter what “end” they decide –
Quick-lime or “b’iling ile,” sir?
We’ll do our best when crucified
To finish off in style, sir!

But we bequeath a parting tip
For sound advice of such men,
Who come across in transport ship
To polish off the Dutchmen!

If you encounter any Boers
You really must not loot ’em!
And if you wish to leave these shores,
For pity’s sake, DON’T SHOOT ‘EM!!

And if you’d earn a D.S.O.,
Why every British sinner
Should know the proper way to go
Is: “ASK THE BOER TO DINNER!”

Let’s toss a bumper down our throat, –
Before we pass to Heaven,
And toast: “The trim-set petticoat
We leave behind in Devon.”

His last words were hurled at his firing squad: “Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”

* It is no coincidence that the Australian film excerpted in this post was released while the Vietnam War was still a fresh memory.

** Breaker Morant’s memory would develop into a point of Australian suspicion towards the British military, especially after Morant’s persecutor helped author World War I’s infamous hecatomb of Australian (and New Zealand) troops at Gallipoli. Morant and Handcock turned out to be the last Australians executed by the British military.

Update: Via Airminded, an Australian history program took a skeptical look at the Breaker Morant myth a few years ago.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Australia,Cycle of Violence,England,Famous,Famous Last Words,Freethinkers,Gallows Humor,Martyrs,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Shot,Soldiers,South Africa,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1463: Not François Villon

4 comments January 5th, 2008 Ksenia Zanon

Je suis François, dont ce me poise,
Né de Paris emprès Ponthoise.
Or d’une corde d’une toise
Saura mon col que mon cul poise.*

-F. Villon, LE QUATRAIN
“Que feit Villon quand il fut jugé à mourir.”

On this day in 1463 François Villon vanished into thin air — along with his mastery for words and for mischief.

Posterity is left to write blog entries about his miraculous deliverance from the gallows; to credit him with influence on Fin de siècle poets, contemporary cinema and god knows what else; to speculate about his destiny; to explain the motives for his disreputable lifestyle (oh, why, my dear reader, are we so presumptuous?); and, well, to read his verse.

[audio:Villon_ballade_du_concours_de_Blois.mp3]

The epithets “thief” and “rogue” are de rigueur when a discourse demands an allusion to his name. The man was a villain, all right. Villon’s official criminal career started with a drunken brawl murder. He got entangled with a gang. He stole, imbibed and rollicked. He was banished, imprisoned and tortured.

One prim Scotsman, a trained lawyer and a beloved writer, wields rather harsh albeit stunningly eloquent prose to depict our pauvre Villon. To Stevenson, Villon was “the first wicked sansculotte”, a “sinister dog”, “the sorriest figure on the rolls of fame”, whose “pathos is that of a professional mendicant who should happen to be a man of genius”.

Incidentally (I hope the reader will forgive this digression given the general topicality of the issue), Stevenson, a harsh judge of Villon’s ignoble nature, says this about waterboarding:

[Villon] was put to the question by water. He who had tossed off so many cups of white Baigneux or red Beaune, now drank water through linen folds, until his bowels were flooded and his heart stood still. After so much raising of the elbow, so much outcry of fictitious thirst, here at last was enough drinking for a lifetime. Truly, of our pleasant vices, the gods make whips to scourge us …

A different take on Villon’s despicable life is voiced by another poet, Osip Mandelstam:

Villon’s sympathy to the society’s scumbags, to everything that is vile and criminal is not demonism. The nefarious company, to which he was so quickly and intimately drawn, captivated his feminine nature with great temperament and powerful rhythm of life, which he could not find elsewhere in the society.

… With odd brutality and rhythmic ardor, he depicts in his ballad [The Ballad of the Hanged], how wind swings the bodies of the wretched, to and fro, as it will … Even death he endows with dynamic qualities, and here manages to manifest his love to rhythm and movement … I think that Villon was allured not by demonism, but by the dynamics of crime …

(Mandelstam’s original is in Russian; this translation is mine)

In the autumn of 1462 François Villon was arrested. He expected to be hanged. Instead, on this date, parliament granted him a pardon and banished him from Paris (for the third time, no less).

What happened to the poor vagabond, medieval Parisian desperado, that troubadour of the rascals?

The trail goes cold — the yellowed parchments fall silent. He vanished into thin air …

* Below is a rather unsatisfactory and uncredited translation found here, which nevertheless conveys the idea:

Surname? Villon, just my luck.
Born? In Paris, near Pontoise.
You wonder what my backside weighs?
Ask my neck when they string me up.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Freethinkers,Gallows Humor,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Theft,Torture

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