On this date in 1437, the Earl of Atholl finally reached the end of a three-day carnival of public tortures and lost bowels, heart, and head for assassinating the King of Scotland.
When Stewart’s grandson Robert exploited the family’s familiar proximity to the king to admit a team of assassins on the night of Feb. 20-21 1437, it ended a strange run for James I.* James had been melodramatically kidnapped by pirates at age 12 and sold to the English — who held the Scottish king** for ransom for 18 years.
By the time James returned to native soil in 1424, he had had quite enough of being some other lord’s shuttlecock and irritated Scotch magnates — who had formerly enjoyed the run of the place and therefore dragged their feet when it came to repatriating their hostage king — by his overweening grabs at land, money, and power. One prime example that would come back to haunt him in the events of this post was the 1425 destruction of the Albany Stewarts, which netted the crown the forfeiture of three earldoms. Clients of the Albany Stewarts, like Sir Robert Graham, delivered a fair fraction of the 28 stab wounds that shuffled King James off this mortal coil.
But even James’s allies had to look sharp when it came to any demesnes not nailed down.
Our principal for today’s post, Walter Stewart, was one of these. James’s uncle and supporter, and the son of King Robert II, Stewart/Atholl had pushed for the magnates to ransom James.
Putatively seen as the king’s ally, Atholl’s complicity in regicide made him a byword for treachery to outraged Scottish chroniclers; the apparent grab for the throne led his captors to put a “corone of papir … upon his hed, the which was all abowte depaynetid with jubettes, and for the more dispite and shame to hym was writyne with thes wordes, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR, TRAITOUR,” according to The Dethe and False Murdure of James Stewarde, Kyng of Scotys.
In a 1992 article on events&:dagger; historian Michael Brown noted that what Atholl had added to his holdings through his nephew the king was the earldom of Strathearn, and it was but tentatively held: granted for Walter Stewart’s lifetime only, it would revert to the king with the septaugenarian’s death, leaving his heirs no better off than Walter’s own efforts had made them circa 30 years before.
Brown depicts the aging lord as a savvy operator who “would increasingly have despaired of keeping the earldom of Strathearn in his family … [as] a consequence of James’s general opportunism when it came to increasing the revenues of the crown.” A couple of specific adverse interventions that trimmed Atholl’s estates might have presaged — in the earl’s mind, at least — a potential royal move against his position, a move that Atholl would be best advised to check preemptively or never at all. Who could say in February of 1437 whether the Stewarts would by March or April still be royal confidantes in any position to have “left the Kynges chamburs doore opyne; and … brussed and blundird the lokes of hem, yn such wise that no man myght shute hem”?
If we’re not sure of exactly why they did it, we do know very clearly that the plot failed as a coup attempt. Both the queen and the six-year-old heir James II survived that evil night, and James’s violent deposition met not support, but horror. Within weeks the conspirators were hunted to ground. Atholl, for his part, protested his innocence of the regicide all the way to the end, a protest that neither contemporaries nor historians have much credited.
And his death declar’d that there is nothing more popular than justice, for they who were wont to detract from him whilst he was alive, now he as dead had most flagrant desires after him, insomuch that the Nobles, as soon as they heard he was murder’d, came in of their own accord from their respective countries and before a tryal was appointed they voluntarily sent out into all parts to apprehend the murderers and bring them to justice.
Very many of them were taken. The principal of them was put to new and exquisite kinds of death. The rest were hang’d. The chief heads in perpetrating the wickedness were reckon’d to be Walter Earl of Athole, Robert his nephew by his son, and their kinsman Robert Graham.
The punishment of Walter (because he was the chief author and instigator of the whole plot) was divided into three days suffering. In the 1st he was put on a cart wherein a stork-like swipe [crane] or engine was erected, and by ropes let through pullies was hoisted up on high and then, the ropes being suddainly loos’d, he was let down again almost to the ground with grievous pains by reason of the luxation [stretching] of the joints of his body. Then he was set on a pillory that all might see him, and a red-hot iron crown set on his head with this inscription, that he should be called King of all Traitors. They say the cause of this punishment was that Walter had been sometimes told by some female witches (as Athole was always noted to have such) that he should be crown’d king in a mighty concourse of people. For by this means that prophecy was either fulfill’d or eluded, as indeed such kind of predictions do commonly meet with no other events. The day after, he was bound upon a hurdle and drawn at an horse-tail thro’ the greatest street in Edinburgh. The 3rd day he was laid along upon a plank in a conspicuous place and his bowels were cut out whilst he was alive, cast into the fire, and burnt before his face. Afterwards his heart was pulled out and cast into the same fire. Then his head was cut off and expos’d to the view of all, being set upon a poll in the highest place of the city. His body was divided into four quarters and sent to be hang’d up in the most noted places of the best cities of the kingdom.
After him, his nephew was brought forth to suffer, but because of his age they would not put him to so much pain; and besides, he was not the author, but only an accomplice in another man’s wicked design, as having obey’d his grandfather therein, so that he was only hang’d and quarter’d.
But Robert Graham, who did the deed with his own hand, was carried in a cart thro’ the city, and his right hand was nail’d to a gallows which was set up in the cart, and then came executioners which did continually run red-hot iron spikes into his thighs, shoulders, and those parts of his body which were most remote from the vitals, and then he was quarter’d, as the former. After this manner was the death of James vindicated.
‘Tis true, ’twas a cruel one, but ’twas reveng’d by punishments so cruel that they seem’d to exceed the very bounds of humanity. For such extreme kinds of punishment do not so much restrain the minds of the vulgar by the severity as they do make them wild to do or suffer any thing; neither do they so much deter wicked men from committing offences by their acerbity as they lessen their terror by often beholding them, especially if the spirits of the criminals be so hardened that they flinch not at their punishment. For among the unskilful vulgar a stubborn confidence is sometimes prais’d for a firm and stable constancy.
* James’s successors handed down the throne, father James to son James, right down into the Stuart dynasty that came to rule England as well. This makes our James I an ancestor of such scaffold worthies as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I.
** James was kidnapped in March 1406. His father Robert III died in April of the same year.
† “‘That Old Serpent and Ancient of Evil Days': Walter, Earl of Atholl and the Death of James I,” The Scottish Historical Review, Vol. 71, No. 191/192, Parts 1 & 2 (Apr. – Oct., 1992).
On this date in 1563, Jean de Poltrot de Méré was ripped apart in the streets of Paris for assassinating the Duke of Guise.
The opening act of the civil war between Catholics and Huguenots that would devour France in the late 16th century was but a year old at this moment, and Guise was the very man who had set off the powderkeg with a notorious massacre of Huguenots the previous March that had sent agitated confessional armies into the fields.
During the ensuing months, Guise stood at the fore of Catholic forces, opposite the Huguenot commander Conde.
Come early 1563, Guise was besieging the Huguenot-held city of Orleans when Poltrot (English Wikipedia page | French) contrived to ambush him on a nearby road. Poltrot shot Guise with a pistol* and fled; he’d be arrested a day later.
In the Wars of Religion, each previous atrocity justified the revenge that followed it; Guise’s death — and Poltrot’s confession under torture** that it was the Huguenot Admiral Coligny who directed his hand — would help to set the scene for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre visited by Catholics on the Huguenots nine years later. (In fairness we ought also to add that this was not Guise’s first brush with Protestant assassins.) And heavily Catholic Paris was even before the Guise murder violently agitated against Huguenots. During the fighting in 1562,
Reputed Huguenots were struck down in the streets. Sometimes mock trials were held; the attackers grilled the captives on their religious beliefs and, when not satisfied with the answers, killed them on the spot. Officials who tried to intervene were themselves in danger, and edicts against violence were bitterly protested. As one anonymous memoirist described it, “The people wanted nothing less than permission to kill and exterminate the Huguenots without any form of trial; but the consequences were too dangerous.” He implied that permission might have been given, had it been possible to contain the violence.†
All this rage, when focused on the assassin of the Catholic party’s champion, was enough to tear a man limb from limb.
Poltrot’s sentence was to be publicly ripped apart by horses straining his limbs to the four points of the compass. It didn’t quite work: sinew and muscle is too dense and tough to shred by main force, even for a horse; it was only by dint of the the executioner’s helpful hacking that the beasts could dismember their prey.
Quartering by horses is a punishment so preposterously horrific that it could only belong to an age of intentional spectacle.
Indeed, Florike Egmond and Peter Mason argue‡ that until the 16th century such a theatrical execution “was a purely fictional punishment in Europe, which ever since Roman times emerged occasionally in literature, legend and folk-tales as an outrageous form of retribution for (high) treason and related offences” — such as Livy’s mythic rendering of the end given faithless ex-ally Mettius Fufetius, the treatment of St. Hippolytus, and foggy distant Frankish legends.
Although the concept might have existed in imaginations for centuries before, equine execution was at best a vanishingly rare event in reality; certainly when Poltrot was butchered, nobody present had ever before beheld such a sight. For Egmond and Mason, this was an innovation of his judges who “jumped the gap between fiction and historical records” in pursuit of ever “more expressive forms of punishment in order to emphasize the outrageousness of the offense.”
It was an outrage whose time had come, however, for quartering by horses was employed several times more for regicidal offenses in the ensuing decades — including for the Catholic militant who assassinated the Huguenot King Henri IV.
* This event would appear to dislodge the 1570 murder of Scotland’s Regent Moray from its popular acclamation as history’s earliest firearm assassination. As Guise lingered for six days and finally succumbed to effects of his doctor’s own bloodletting, perhaps the view is that Poltrot’s pistol only earned half-credit.
** Poltrot would later retract the claim, when not under torture.
† Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review, Dec. 1985.
‡ “Domestic and Exotic Cruelties: Extravagance and Punishment,” The Irish Review, Autumn 1999
On this date in 1946, the Dutch journalist/propagandist Max Blokzijl was shot at Scheveningen for wartime Nazi collaboration.
Blokzijl (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch), who had a Jewish grandmother, fought in World War I but had become a war correspondent at Berlin by the end of it, reprising his prewar career.*
From 1918 to 1940 he worked from Germany, and Germany worked on him; in 1935, with National Socialism ascending its zenith in Germany, Blokzijl joined Anton Mussert‘s Dutch knockoff, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging party. He also wrote anonymously for the fascist newspaper De Waag.
When Germany occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Blokzijl decloaked as a fascist and accepted a gig as Berlin’s hand for the Dutch press. He was noted for the wartime radio show Brandende kwesties (Burning Issues) which helped make his the calm and measured voice of Dutch national socialism — an identification which soon proved to be a great liability.
The last Nazi redoubts in the Netherlands didn’t surrender until the very end in May, 1945, and that’s when Blokzijl was arrested, too. He stood a half-day trial on September 11, 1945 for his media campaign “aimed at breaking the spiritual resistance of the Dutch people are against the enemy and infidelity of the people to his government and the Allied cause.”
One could argue that the firing squad was a harsh penalty for a guy who had no direct hand in any atrocities. As with the French propagandist Robert Brasillach, the circumstance of facing the nation’s judgment so directly after the war contributed to the severity of Blokzijl’s punishment: indeed, Blokzijl was the very first Dutchman tried for his World War II behavior, which made a death sentence virtually de rigueur. As he wrote to his lawyers in the end, “I fall as the first sacrifice for a political reckoning.”
* One of his prewar careers: he was also a professional singer.
On this date in 1718,* the vengeful tsar Peter the Great staged a horrible execution on Moscow’s Red Square.
Stepan Glebov was the collateral damage of Peter’s ferocious conflict with his ill-favored crown prince Tsarevich Alexei — the whelp who had only recently been repatriated to his glowering father after fleeing Russia altogether, to cap a lifetime of letting dad down. Alexei was back in Peter’s clutches, and a few months from the events in this post would be shockingly knouted to death at Peter’s orders.
This Freudian clash also mapped sharply onto Russia’s political schisms (and many of the links in this post are to Russian pages). Alexei was the son of Peter’s first wife, Eudoxia [or Evdokia] Feodorovna Lopukhina, a princess whom the teenage Peter had been required to wed as part of the political logrolling involved in overcoming the 1680s regency of his sister Sofia.
Peter had achieved that victory, definitively, and once it was secured it didn’t take him long to tire of both Eudoxia and of the stagnant boyar class she represented. Peter was all about westernizing the motherland; what better way to start than by immuring his Russian bride in a monastery** and grabbing a German merchant’s daughter for a mistress?
The blows were borne together by Eudoxia, by her devout son Alexei, and by that part of traditional and Orthodox Russia horrified by Peter’s innovations. Resentments ran along the familiar channels, here to an immoderate fantasy of deliverance come Peter’s death and there to dangerous plans to immanentize same.
When exposed by to Peter’s hostile gaze little distance would there seem between these varietals.
When Alexei returned to face Peter’s investigation, the old man turned his harsh scrutiny on the ex, knowing her to be a locus of opposition. She was found living outside the monastery in secular garb, having taken an officer named Stepan Glebov as her lover. Their correspondence was ransacked by persecutors determined to discover indicia of treasonable scheming therein. Dozens of associates and monastery monks and nuns would be caught up in the affair, damned for anything from failing to prevent the former queen’s dalliance to plotting against the life of Tsar Peter. Most were stripped of rank and sent to exile with various forms of corporal punishment — whipping, severed nostrils, tongues sliced out — but several would be tortured to death or executed on the breaking-wheel including Dositheus, Bishop of Rostov, a confidante of Eudoxia who had allegedly prophesied Alexei’s triumph over his father, and Alexander Kikin, a mentor of Alexei’s who had helped to arrange his escape from Russia.
But upon Glebov, miserable man, Peter would give free rein to his amazing talent for cruelty: the lover to be impaled alive on a stake artfully inserted to miss all vital organs so as to maximize his suffering; some accounts even give it out that the naked Glebov was bundled in furs for the freezing winter’s execution, that he might endure his pains the longer.
Glebov survived impalement for over 14 hours, only dying after 7 a.m. on the morning of March 16. Folklore (it’s probably just that) has it that, importuned on that stake by the tsar to admit to the treasonable conspiracy, Glebov justifiably retorted that he had refused such a confession under unspeakable torment in Peter’s dungeons, so why would he break now? “Depart, and let me die in peace so that you may live without peace.”
Eudoxia’s brother Avram was also put to death in December 1718. She herself was shut up in Shlisselburg fortress for the balance of Peter’s life, but she would survive to see her grandson (Alexei’s son) take the throne in 1727 as Peter II.
* Julian date: it was March 26 on the Gregorian calendar.
When Francis Osborne mused “mingle not your interest with a great one’s,” in Advice to a Son, the counsel was suggested by surveying the life of Henry Cuffe, a retainer of the disgraced Earl of Essex who, “tho’ of excellent Parts,” hanged at Tyburn on this date in 1601 on account of his late master’s rebellion. (With him hanged Essex’s stewart, Gilly Merrick.)
A child of the gentry, Cuffe’s academic brilliance landed him a (still-extant) professorship at Oxford. The vain Lord Essex, who prided himself a patron of scholarship, hired him into his retinue in the mid-1590s. Cuffe would prove to be a loyal companion. Too loyal.
He accompanied Essex on the latter’s great foreign adventures, the triumphant raid on Cadiz and the disastrous expedition to Ireland, and was entrusted as the earl’s messenger to Queen Elizabeth when the latter project began to founder. Essex was one of the great men of state and it was through him that Cuffe came in sight of those zeniths of power only dreamt by Oxford dons. But he could only scale them if Essex kept his own footing, too.
Six years or so into their association, Cuffe was all-in on restoring his patron’s favor (and with it, his own) once Essex returned from the Ireland debacle to find himself on the outs. The treason trial against Cuffe would slate him as one of the chief spirits agitating the earl, imprisoned then in Essex House, to break out with his foolhardy rebellion or coup in February 1601.
“Ere long you shall see a change: my lord is like to come in favour again, and be restored to his greatness,” recalled one Essex rebel of Cuffe’s recruitment pitch to him. Once their seizure of power got underway, “We having the face of the state, all will follow and take with us.” It was alleged that Cuffe inveigled Essex against more cautious counselors, arguing that the lord’s charisma was sure to carry the day could he but secure some personal face time with the queen — and that Cuffe stood in line to become the next Speaker of the Parliament, should the wager pay off.
Cuffe’s best argument in defense was that he, bookish lad, had never left Essex House at all on the fatal day when other conspirators attempted to march through London, and what treason was that?
“I must confess, as a servant that longed for the honour of his master, I have often wished to see his recalling to the court, and restored to her majesty’s former favour” Cuffe allowed — “but beyond the limits of these desires, my thoughts never carried me, nor aspired to other greatness than to see him again in place of a servant and worthy subject, as before he had been.”
The volume of accusations otherwise from within Essex’s inner circle overwhelmed this defense — most especially so the accusation of the very lord with whom Cuffe had so carelessly mingled his own fortunes. For, four days before Essex lost his own head, that doomed magnate had summoned his prosecutors to the Tower and bid them bring Cuffe to his chamber.
This request being granted him, and Cuffe brought before him, he [Essex] there directly and vehemently charged him; and among other speeches used these words:
Henry Cuffe, call to God for mercy, and to the queen, and deserve it by declaring truth. For I, that must now prepare for another world, have resolved to deal clearly with God and the world: and must needs say this to you; You have been one of the chiefest instigators of me to all these my disloyal courses into which I have fallen.
This is a very fine parting kick in the teeth for a devoted lickspittle. Maybe Osborne’s advice should have been to mingle not your interest with an asshole’s.
On this date in 1785, two of the three leaders of Transylvania’s great peasant uprising were broken on the wheel in the city of Alba Iulia — the third having cheated the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.
Left to right: Vasile Ursu Nicola, known as Horea; Ion Oarga (Closca); and, the suicide, Marcu Giurgiu (Crisan).
The Revolt of Horea, Closca and Crisan (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Romanian) featured the usual grievances of feudal serfs, who in this case were Orthodox Christians governed by a Hungarian Catholic nobility. The heavier exactions of the region’s magnates in this period had led to several peasant delegations petitioning for relief from the Habsburg crown, among whose rosters appear this day’s eventual executees, Horea and Closca.
Those grievances were transmuted into rebellion, paradoxically as it might seem, by the 1780 death of Maria Theresa and the consequent ascent to sole rulership of Emperor Joseph II. Remembered as one of history’s great progressive “enlightened despots,” Joseph would surely have thought himself a friend to the peasantry with measures like rolling back serfdom and a broadened mandate for education.*
But the careless injuries his modernizing edicts visited on a precarious dominion of his polyglot empire would help beat ploughshares into swords in the regions of present-day Romania.
Imperial demands for fresh (rationalized, as the empire saw it) cash taxation had excited the countryside’s nobility and peasantry alike, since little specie flowed through their traditional agrarian arrangements, and an attempted census had met widespread resistance as a likely harbinger of the revenue man; but, these rebels from the soil still mostly hated their traditional local overlords and in due course would direct their blades and torches accordingly. Demands they presented to a besieged city on November 11 of 1784 underscore their perspective:
The nobility should be abolished; each noblemen, if he could get a job in the imperial administration, should live on that income.
The noble landlords should leave once for all their nobiliary estates.
The noblemen should pay taxes like any common taxpayer.
The noblemen’s estates should be divided among the common people
The most immediate spark to set all this tinder ablaze would be the apparent prospect of widespread military recruitment — a desideratum for the peasantry, as it offered the prospect of social mobility and an escape from the magnate’s lash — which was then apparently withdrawn or blocked, a cruel trick to put the servile class in mind of its many abuses. In early November, beginning in Zarand, thousands of peasants Romanian, Saxon, and Hungarian alike rose in arms and began putting manors and churches to the sack.
“Letters from Transylvania continue to talk of excesses committed by rebels there,” one bulletin reported.
Not content to kill the feudal lords, they set fire to the habitations of their vassals if these refuse to embrace the party of the insurgents. At Kerespaya they broke into the coffers of the royal treasury and took away all the money. The evangelical pastor of that place, after having seen the throats of his wife and children cut, was taken to the church and decapitated at the foot of the altar. Some Franciscans met the same fate, those who had taken refuge in the bell towers were strangled and thrown into the streets. But they respect the officials of the emperor, as long as they are not nobles … Major Schultz asked one of them the motives for their cruel conduct, he answered: “Do not believe, Sir, that we have joined this party without reason; we were forced into it by the most pressing necessity. Here are authentic copies of several royal orders given out for our benefit that have not been carried out. All our remonstrances in this matter have been useless, and we have been sent away without receiving justice. It is thus only to break the yoke of the most insufferable slavery that we have resolved to vindicate ourselves. We know well that our conduct will be disapproved of, but we pride ourselves at the same time that it will serve to force examination of the conduct of those who have so cruelly deceived us. At any event, we prefer death to a miserable life, and will die content so that our example might guarantee the rights of humanity to our descendants and give the state contented subjects.”
The tragic aspirations of this rebellion — which lasted only two months, but had managed to assume a proto-national character** — were amply fulfilled once it was crushed and its three principal leaders betrayed to the government. The two who faced the horrors of the breaking-wheel, and Crisan as well, had their corpses quartered and their limbs distributed to the major thoroughfares by way of intimidation. Dozens of others of less eternal fame were also put to death during this period, to add to the innumerable killings in the course of suppressing the rebels.†
Above: detail view (click for the full image) of an 18th century print illustrating the execution. Below: another take on the scene.
But there was, too, that examination they desired forced upon the emperor, who promulgated a decree abolishing serfdom in 1785, eliminated noble control over marriages, and expanded the peasantry’s grazing rights. These reforms were at best only partially successful (the true end of serfdom still lay decades in the future) but they betokened on parchment just as the rebels had done in fire and blood the crisis striking at the ancien regime — for, alongside condemnations of the peasantry, there were during those revolutionary years also vindications of them, written in the language of the Enlightenment:
The Walachian uprising is an important lesson for sovereigns. It confirms the observation that the human spirit is mature for a general ferment, that it yearns for laws that respect equality, justice, and the order corresponding to its nature. How could it have been that under the most beneficent and mild government in the world, that of Joseph II, such an event could occur? It is because the principles of liberty, justice, and equality are woven into our hearts; they are a part of our natural destiny.
† “I will leave you to judge the excesses they committed. Among others twenty-seven peasants were arrested, whose heads were cut off by nobles in one day without any kind of procedure.” One reported decree — we hope never effected in reality — threatened to impale a random citizen of any town that gave sanctuary to the “villainous low people.” (Both nuggets from Venturi, op. cit.)
Maniram was a young man going on 20 when the British wrested control from Burma of the eastern province Assam, and he carved himself a successful career in the empire.
But without doubt his lasting service to the Union Jack and the world was discovering to the British the existence of a theretofore unknown varietal of the tea plant, cultivated in Assam’s monsoon-drenched jungles by the Singhpo people* — a fact of geopolitical significance since it augured a means to crack the Chinese stranglehold on tea supply so taxing to the current accounts.** Today, rich Assam tea is one of the world’s largest tea crops, yielding 1.5 million pounds annually.
Maniram himself was among its earliest commercial cultivators (in fact, the first native Indian cultivator), setting up with an estate at the village of Chenimora in the 1840s, but the next decade found him increasingly irritated by the injuries British avarice to the extent that he began intriguing to restore the lately dispossessed kings.
With the outbreak of rebellion in 1857, Maniram and the like-minded made their move to restore the Ahom heir Kandarpeswar Singha but the plot was betrayed and landed its authors in irons.
Although he suffered the law’s last extremity for his plot, Maniram’s name lives on in honor in modern India. A trade center in Assam’s largest city bears his name, for instance; and, when India declared tea its official drink in 2013, it timed the announcement to fall on Maniram’s birthday (April 17, 1806).
* It goes without saying that imperial recognition of their secret produce did not redound to the benefit of the Singhpo. Although Singhpo assembled the very first export crop, much of their land was soon gobbled up by tea plantations, and when they rebelled in 1843 the East India Company annexed it outright. “Now it is said that where the tea grows, that is yours, but when we make sacrifices we require tea for our funerals,” a Singhpo chief wrote the Company, mournfully. “We therefore perceive that you have taken all the country, and we, the old and respectable, cannot get tea to drink.” (Source)
** China required payments in specie for tea, an imbalance which London tried to redress by foisting an undesirable import upon China — resulting in the Opium War.
On this date in 1984, the Islamic Republic of Iran completed its destruction of the Tudeh party with ten executions.
In the 1940s, the Tudeh was Iran’s largest mass party and a fair bet to take power in the near future but state repression after Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 had largely driven the Communist movement to the skulking margins.
Its fragments hung on underground, preparing and organizing for the proletarian revolution — an orientation that would leave the Tudeh entirely unprepared for the Iranian Revolution that really occurred. In fairness, few from Tehran to Moscow to Washington could read those tea leaves: who in the winter of the Cold War anticipated a great regional prize like Iran being captured by … the mullahs?
The Revolution released the once-banned party onto terra incognita as a minor outlet for leftward sentiment and perhaps a show of democratic good faith. But from the start it awkwardly existed on sufferance of an entirely incompatible regime. The venerable English journalist Robert Fisk, who covered the Iranian Revolution, filed a wry dispatch for the Times (Nov. 26, 1979) from the Tehran offices of Tudeh leader Nouredin Kianouri — unconvincingly trying to position his own movement within the events sweeping everyone along.
Tudeh is involved in “the radical struggle against imperialism”, and “the struggle for the reorganization of social life, especially for the oppressed strata of society” … and in so far as it is possible, Tudeh — Iran’s oldest political party — stands for the same things as Ayatollah Khomeini.
That, at least, is the theory: and Mr Kianouri holds to it bravely.
Tudeh demands a “popular front” government in Iran and Mr Kianouri professes to see little difference between this and Ayatollah Khomeini’s desire for national unity. “Popular Front”, however, is not an expression that has ever crossed the Imam’s lips and it is difficult to see how Iran’s new fundamentalist religious administration could form any cohesion with the materialist aims of Mr Kianouri’s scientific Marxism.
The article’s headline was “Ayatollah tolerates Communists until they become too popular,” but Tudeh never fulfilled its clause: it was blown out in the 1980 election, failing to win even a single seat, and maneuvered ineffectually for two years until a crackdown shattered its remnants with over 1,000 arrests early in 1983,* heavily targeting Tudeh-sympathizing army officers.** (The aforesaid Mr. Kianouri was forced to make a humiliating televised self-denunciation in 1983, although he surprisingly avoided execution.)
Those arrests culminated in a large show trial of 101 Tudeh principals in December 1983-January 1984, followed by smaller trials of lesser Tudeh figures in several cities over the months to come.
Eighty-seven Tudeh officials caught prison sentences ranging from eight months to life; these “lucky” ones, along with hundreds of other Tudeh adherents arrested in the years to come, would later be well-represented among the victims of Iran’s 1988 slaughter of political prisoners.
That left ten† reserved for execution on February 25 on charges compassing espionage, treason, and the weapons they had once naively stockpiled to fight against a monarchist coup. Notable among them were four high-ranking military officers: Col. Houshang Attarian, Col. Bezhan Kabiri, Col. Hassan Azarfar, and the chief catch, former Navy Commander Admiral Bahram Afzali.
* The U.S., officially abhorred of Iran, was in this period covertly aiding Tehran to raise funds to illegally bankroll Central American death squads — the Iran-Contra scandal. According to the American Tower Commission investigation of those events, the Tudeh were one of the lesser casualties this foreign policy misadventure when U.S. intelligence about the Tudeh network, largely obtained via a KGB defector, was passed to Tehran as a pot-sweetener: “In 1983, the United States helped bring to the attention of Tehran the threat inherent in the extensive infiltration of the government by the communist Tudeh Party and Soviet or pro-Soviet cadres in the country. Using this information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran.” (See Appendix B here.)
Comprised of foreign communists whose backgrounds amply motivated them to desperate resistance, FTP-MOI was a notably aggressive partisan unit; a few months before this date’s executions, it had stunningly assassinated SS Col. Julius Ritter on the streets of Paris. Risky tactics, including larger-scale operations like the one that claimed Ritter (these required more partisans to know each other) entailed greater risk of penetration, and the November 1943 arrest of the Armenian commander Missak Manouchian and his group devastated FTP-MOI. After the customary interlude of torture, these were subjected to a show trial with 23 condemned to execution.*
As a gaggle of foreign terrorists, heavily Semitic, this clique looked to the occupation like a marvelous tar with which to blacken the Resistance. To that end the Germans produced a scarlet poster denouncing the Resistance as an “Army of Crime,” its soldiery labeled with strange names and alien nationalities converging on the swarthy Manouchian.**
Soon known as l’Affiche Rouge, the poster instead apotheosized its subjects. In the postwar period it became an emblem of the best of the Resistance — its multinational unity, France as an idea powerful enough that men and women of distant birth would give their lives for her. (Not to mention the postwar French Communists’ claim on le parti des fusillés.)
To this day in France, the backfiring propaganda sheet is one of the best-recognized artifacts of the Resistance.
The executions were naturally conducted quietly; the Germans strictly forbade public access to or photography of Resistance heroes in their martyrdoms for obvious reasons.
That made it especially surprising when a few pictures of this execution surfaced recently, surreptitiously snapped from an overlooking vantage by German motorbike officer Clemens Rüter, who kept them hidden for decades. They are to date the only known World War II photos of French Resistance members being executed.
* The 23rd, and the only woman in the group, was Romanian Olga Bancic, also known by the nom de guerre Pierrette; she was not shot on this date but deported to Stuttgart and beheaded there on May 10, 1944. There was also a 24th, a man named Migatulski, who was initially part of the same trial; he was instead remanded to French custody. (See coverage in the collaborationist La Matin from Feb. 19, 1944 and Feb. 22, 1944.)
** We’ve noted before that a Polish Jew named Joseph Epstein who was part of the same cell (and a prime candidate for racist demagoguing) avoided a place on l’Affiche Rouge thanks to his preternatural talent for remaining mum under interrogation.
Ottoman politician Tabaniyassi (“Flat-Footed”) Mehmed Pasha was executed by drowning on this date in 1637, having fallen foul of the tyrannous Sultan Murat IV.
It hadn’t been long since Mehmed Pasha (English Wikipedia entry | Turkish) was the one inflicting the sultan’s chastisements instead of receiving them; he was appointed Grand Vizier in 1632 to crush a Janissary revolt* in Egypt, and did so with brutal aplomb.
His career thereafter saw him carry Turkish arms to Persia and Armenia, and bully client princes in the Porte’s European sphere. Murat eventually grew suspicious that his aide might be conspiring against him and had him imprisoned at the capital’s imposing Yedikule Fortress.
* The sultan had reason to fear these mercurial praetorians; he had the throne thanks to that same clique’s 1622 murder of a predecessor.