On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.
Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.
A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”
But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**
Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.
His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.
* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.
** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.
† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.
The latter had proven deeply unresponsive to the complaints of farmers and peasants while also harrowing the countryside for recruits to die in the Hats’ insane war of choice against Russia.
Andersson tore into the war policy at a public meeting in July of 1742, demanding punishment for the politicians who had launched it; he found himself elected to the Riksdag for his trouble.
That’s just fine, but the anger of his neighbors was outrunning Andersson’s personal capacity to act as one legislator in a chamber. A peasant revolt against continued military recruitment, the Dalecarlian Rebellion, broke out among Dalarna farmers in 1743 — and though the enterprise was much against Andersson’s own urging toward moderation, he thought himself duty-bound to adhere to it when commenced.
As is usual with peasant rebellions, it did not last long, and the Hats who had somehow retained control of government despite their self-inflicted catastrophe had Andersson arrested and executed along with other leaders of the rising.
On this date in 1318, for kidnapping and robbing some churchmen, the Northumberland knight Sir Gilbert Middleton was condemned to be “hanged and drawn in the site of the cardinals which he had robbed” — the sentence thought to have been executed immediately.
Thus is the ordre of kniht turned up-so-doun,
Also wel can a kniht chide as any skolde of a toun.
Hii sholde ben also hende as any levedi in londe,
And for to speke alle vilanie nel nu no kniht wonde
And thus knihtshipe is acloied and waxen al fot-lame.
Knihtshipe is acloied and deolfulliche i-diht;
Kunne a boy nu breke a spere, he shal be mad a kniht.
And thus ben knihtes gadered of unkinde blod,
And envenimeth that ordre that shold be so god
Ac o shrewe in a court many man may shende.
The author of this verse would have recognized Gilbert Middleton for sure, but before we come to the unkinde blod, appreciate the dastard’s situation. Post-Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce raided into Northumberland with impunity. Estates in that zone could suffer the pillage or pay the Scots off, but in either event they had no protection from the crown … since King Edward had his hands full in a virtual civil cold war against the powerful Earl of Lancaster.
In this tense situation, Middleton shockingly attacked the king’s cousin Lewis de Beaumont on September 1, 1317 while the latter was en route to be consecrated Bishop of Durham. Seized in the same party were Beaumont’s brother Henry, plus two Italian cardinals they had escorted back as emissaries to hammer out a truce between England and Scotland. (The papacy’s interest here was to redeploy Britain’s armed men to Crusading.)
The reasons for this attack have always been mysterious: the Pope blamed those marauding Scots for putting Middleton up to it, but Lancaster was also an ally of the errant knight as well as the promoter of a candidate for bishop rival to Lewis de Beaumont.
However it was intended to play out, the ambush quickly went pear-shaped. Perhaps raiding and holding for ransom was the sort of elbow one could throw in intra-elite politicking of the 14th century, but the presence of the cardinals changed everything.
Middleton might even have been unaware such august dignitaries were in the party when he first attacked it, and one chronicler reports that his party “at first spared the cardinals and their men, for they were not seeking to injure them” until this clemency started leading Beaumont’s retainers too to assert “themselves to be servants of the cardinals, and neither the cardinals nor others were spared, but all were despoiled.”** Regardless of how they came to do it, the sacrilegious rapine of holy cardinals and their retinue was the shocking crime that would thrust Middleton beyond the pale, either of friendship in his rebellion or of reconciliation afterwards. (Beaumont had not yet been consecrated, so the indignities he suffered were all in a day’s work.)
The Beaumonts became Middleton’s unwilling guests at Mitford Castle.† The cardinals had their effects restored and, after enduring their now-excommunicate captors’ unavailing petition for a suitable penance, were given over to Lancaster; they returned all the way to London under his safe conduct … and as they went they “published a terrible sentence upon their assailant and upon all in any way adhering to them … demand[ing] execution of this sentence through all England.” Before September was out, there was a royal proclamation against Middleton’s “sons of iniquity.”
This rebellion, whatever its dimensions, lasted for a vague span over the autumn and winter months. Sir Gilbert and his too-few friends held some fortifications in Northumberland and Yorkshire; where possible they added more noble types to his collection in Mitford but in spite of the tense situation in England no wider rising materialized.
And living by plunder quickly caught up with Gilbert Middleton.
certain nobles of the countryside … went to him under safe conduct, as if for their [the hostages] deliverance, and after many words and quibblings, a certain price for them being settled, they set free certain ones and left certain ones as hostages until full payment of the money. Thereupon, the day of the final payment arriving, and the appointed time, when the attendants of the same Gilbert were roaming in various places, in order to plunder and pillage, those who ought to have made the payment came to speak with him, saying that they had the money secretly in the town, and asked that free exit and entrance might be granted to them to fetch it. This granted, when they came to the gate of the castle as if to go out, the porters’ throats being cut in a moment, they led in a multitude of armed men hiding outside, who suddenly, rushing with blows upon him [Gilbert], who was thinking of no such thing, bound him tightly with iron chains.
The captive Middleton was shipped to London and there condemned to “be dragged through the city to the gallows and there be hanged alive, and alive be torn apart and afterwards be beheaded … heart and organs to be burnt beneath the aforesaid gallows, also the body of the same Gilbert be divided into four parts, so that one quarter of his body be sent to Newcastle, another to York, the third to Bristol, and the fourth to Dover, there to remain.”
** Quoted (as are many other period citations) in this useful public domain biography of Middleton. This author’s take was that Lancaster was behind the affair, believing “that it would be popular in the North of England, and would make a signal for a general rebellion throughout the country. The presence of the cardinals ruined the scheme” — and Lancaster himself had the wit and the pull to dissociate himself before it all came down on Middleton’s head.
One last coda to our recent Iraqi coup series occurred after a day’s pause in the hecatombs, as reported by the New York Times on Jan. 25, 1970:
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 24 — Three more men were executed in Baghdad at dawn today bringing to 44 the number shot or hanged since the leftist Baath Government in Iraq headed off a rightist plot on Tuesday.
The three-man special court that has sentenced 37 conspirators said the three were the last of those apprehended. Others, it added, are still at large.
An Iraqi military aircraft landed here this afternoon with a token gift of 30 submachine guns confiscated from the plotters. Iraq has promised to turn over all 3,000 submachine guns captured to the Palestinian commandos.
More blood was spilled in Baghdad this week than after any comparable attempted coup since World War II, and many Arab commentators expressed dismay and horror.
OTHER MASSACRES RECALLED
The nearest approach was 18, shot after a Nasserite rising against a Baathist Government in Syria in July, 1963.
The Baghdad executions fitted the context of Iraq’s violent history, which has led some historians to compare the current regime with that of the eighth-century Abbasid governor Al Hajjaj Ben Yussef, who declared, when he took office, that the Iraqis were a mean people and he was “going to wring their necks.” Great numbers of executions followed.
In more recent times the Iraqis in 1933 killed several thousand Assyrians who had volunteered for armed service with the British. In 1941 several hundred Jews were killed in a major pogrom in Baghdad.
In contrast to Egypt’s bloodless overthrow of King Farouk, the Iraqis in 1958 shot King Faisal and his family in the garden of their palace and went on to drag the bodies of Prince Abdul Illah and Premier Nuri al Said through the streets.
Iraq’s execution mill worked without let-up today with 36 people put to death in 24 hours — all but seven of them accused of plotting to overthrow the Government.
Seven of the men, not connected with the plot, were convicted in November of spying for the U.S., Radio Baghdad said.
It identified one of them, Albert Nounou, as a Jew.
The 29 people who were accused of trying to overthrow the leftist regime of President Ahmed Hassan al Bakr on Tuesday night and early yesterday faced firing squads or hangmen.
Mr. Bakr addressed crowds outside the Presidential palace, saying that any plot against his Government would “only lead to the cutting of the plotters’ throats,” Radio Baghdad said.
The executioners worked past midnight yesterday, carrying out death sentences given to 22 persons convicted of the coup attempt.
Then at dawn, the seven people convicted in November were put to death. A few hours later, Radio Baghdad said six Army officers and a civilian were doomed by a special court for taking part in the attempted coup. Shortly thereafter, the military men were shot by firing squad and the civilian was hanged.
The Government newspaper, “Al Thawra,” said firing squads were using the plotters’ own weapons for the executions.
The Baghdad broadcast said that in addition to the six military men and civilians executed this morning, the court had sentenced three other people to life imprisonment. –U.N.I.
From the Jan. 23, 1970 London Times, under the headline “Toll of executions in Iraq reaches 41″:
Baghdad, Jan. 22. — The abortive coup d’etat in Iraq on Tuesday was engineered with the assistance of the Israel, American, and Iranian secret services, the Iraq news agency said tonight. It made the accusation after the executions of two more soldiers and three civilians, bringing to 41 the total number of alleged plotters executed in Baghdad either by firing squads or hanging since yesterday morning.
Two more men were waiting execution after sentence.
Some 3,000 sub-machineguns, 650,000 rounds of ammunition, and a mobile radio transmitted had been seized, the agency stated.
Earlier today Iraq accused the Iranian Ambassador and four members of his Embassy staff of being implicated in the coup attempt, and ordered them to leave the country within 24 hours.
In Teheran, Iran retaliated by giving the Iraq Ambassador, the military attache, and his three assistants 24 hours to leave Iranian soil. It also ordered the closure of all Iraq consulates in Iran. — Agence France Presse and Reuter
Baghdad, Jan 21. — Twenty-two people were executed in Baghdad today for plotting to overthrow the Iraq Government.
First of all three retired Army men and two serving officers were executed by firing squad. Seventeen more executions were carried out tonight and Baghdad radio said a special three-man tribunal set up to try the plotters was still meeting.
The radio had interrupted its programmes to announce the discovery of a plot, crushed by tanks last night, against the ruling Baath Party. All the plotters were arrested, it said.
Two Government soldiers had died in putting down the conspiracy, the radio said. An official funeral for them will be held in Baghdad tomorrow, and the radio called on the people to attend in thousands.
Although there were no details of how many plotters were arrested, the fact that clashes occurred suggested to observers that an actual attempt had been made against the Government when the Army moved in. Tanks from Rashid Army camp, on the fringes of the capital’s suburbs, foiled the plot, according to the official Iraq news agency.
The radio claimed that the United States, Britain and West Germany were behind the attempted coup.
The Middle East News Agency said some Army officers pretended to join the conspirators and then reported them to the authorities.
The executed men were accused of plotting against the socialist regime of President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in the interests of “imperialism and Zionism”. –Reuter, A.P. and U.P.I.
On this date in 1794, Nicolas Luckner was guillotined in Paris.
A count with his own manor on the German-Danish frontier, Luckner (English Wikipedia entry | German, where he’s Nikolaus von Luckner) made the sort of cross-national career pivot that was still possible in the pre-revolutionary world by going from commanding hussars against France in the Seven Years’ War to serving in the Bourbon army.
He was the very commander of the Army of the Rhine to whom Rouget de Lisle dedicated the 1792 Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin … the marchable tune which later became the Marseillaise. (Luckner’s name also appears on the Arc de Triomphe.)
Things did not go as swimmingly with the Army of the North, where he bogged down in the Low Countries — and the incriminating defection of the Marquis de Lafayette to France’s royalist enemies did him no favors in the court of Jacobin opinion. Luckner was relieved of his command by the impatient National Convention.*
This septuagenarian foreign count showed a lordly blindness to his adoptive country’s situation both fiscal and political by journeying to Paris later in 1793 to complain that his pension was not being funded in full. Otherofficers had already fallen under the Terror’s blade for command failure, where any shortcoming in the field could be readily conflated with treachery — and Luckner, no surprise, was soon denounced as a royalist.
City hall in the small Bavarian town of Cham, where Luckner was born in 1722, still chimes the Marseillaise every day to honor its native son … whose name also associates with Germany’s World War I naval hero Felix von Luckner, the great grandson of our man Nicolas.
Somehow a year passed before Stone was brought to trial at Canterbury as a traitor. The execution of the inevitable sentence might then have been held up to coincide with the arrival to Canterbury of Anne of Cleves, the German Protestant princess who was (ever so briefly) Henry VIII’s fourth wife. Welcome to England, honey! It’s a great scene to imagine, but obviously the story — and hence this date — smacks of propaganda.
Whatever the true date of execution was, what we do have for certain is the butcher’s bill — itemizing the operation of tearing apart a religious dissident into rigorous accounting straight from your corporate expense report.
Paid for half a ton of timber to make a pair of gallows to hang Friar Stone, 2s. 6d.; to a labourer that digged the holes, 3d.; to four men that helped set up the gallows for drink to them, for carriage of the timber from Stablegate to Dongeon, 1s.; for a hurdle, 6d.; for a load of wood and for a horse to draw him to the Dongeon, 2s. 3d.; paid two men that set the kettle and parboiled him, 1s.; to two men that carried his quarters to the gates and set them up, 1s.; for halters to hang him and Sandwich cord and for straw, 1s.; to a woman that scoured the kettle, 2d.; to him that did the execution, 3s. 8d.
On this date in 1889, the Germans hanged Abushiri as a rebel.
European empires arriving to East Africa naturally entered a going history of local conflicts and accommodations. In the case of the region at hand, the archipelago of Zanzibar lying just off the coast had been absorbed by, and then spun off from, the domain of the sultan of Oman. As we lay our scene in the late 19th century, it is an independent Sultanate of Zanzibar whose dominion extended to the adjacent Swahili coast and inland, an area also known as the Zanj.
Zanzibar was a British interest here, but the islands themselves do not quite enter this fray directly; the sultanate based there actually survived until 1964.
But in the 1880s, Germans scrambling for Africa arrived to gobble up the sultanate’s mainland possessions. Germany, truth be told, was a little bit late to this game, and although it secured some noteworthy footholds like Cameroon and Namibia, the Second Reich suffered a distinct little imperial brother complex vis-a-vis the British and the French — both of whom had more extensive holdings in Africa, to say nothing of everywhere else in the world.
Certainly the German public, flush with the boom of industrialization and having only just shown the French what-for on the battlefield, clamored for its rightful share of overseas acquisition. The popular thirst for expansion dragged along reluctant chancellor Otto von Bismarck into an adventure so inimical to the good order he prized.
One such German dreaming big dreams of bigger maps was a cocksure 29-year-old doctor of history, Carl Peters. Fresh off a few post-academic years knocking about in a London astir with the white man’s burden, Peters co-founded the German East Africa Company and then put that colonial corporation literally on the map with a bold expedition to Zanzibar. Within a few weeks of arriving in November 1884, and despite the explicit dissuasion of the German consulate there, Peters had obtained via just the right mixture of largesse and menace treaty rights to 155,400 square kilometers conferred by a number of coastal chiefs in the mainland ambit of the Sultan of Zanzibar.
When Peters returned in glory to Germany brandishing these concessions, Chancellor Bismarck was practically forced to accept them as a German protectorate … and charter Peters’s corporation to start exploiting it. The mid-1880s saw a minor local race between Peters and rival British explorers to establish their respective colonial presences on the Swahili coast,* resulting in an 1886 Anglo-German agreement formally dividing the region’s spheres of influence: British to the north, German to the south. Today this line, shooting near-straight to the southeast from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean with a slight bend round Mount Kilimanjaro, forms the border between Kenya and Tanzania.
We are, at length, arriving at the unfortunate party whose execution occasions this post.
The problem for young Master Peters with his personal agglomeration of the fatherland was nothing but that familiar difficulty for invaders from time immemorial — and Peters was ultimately an invader, no matter what treaties he could wrangle. For his short spell as the commercial governor of this distant land, Peters earned of his Bantu subjects the sobriquet Milkono wa Damu: the man with blood on his hands.
Diplomats could partition the land in Berlin, and could even compel the supine sultan to acknowledge their arrangements. But no edict could command legitimacy for the man with blood on his hands.
Beginning in September 1888, rebels comprising both Arabs and Swahili tribesmen sacked German East Africa Company assets up and down the coast Peters had so diligently won for Germany. Rousted from most of its towns and trading posts, the Company hunkered down in its territorial capital of Bagamoyo and cabled Berlin for help. Bismarck paternally relieved the in-over-its-head company with the aid of mercenaries hired from Egypt and Mozambique, crushed the uprising with customary roughness, and ushered Peters’s firm out of the colonial administration business in favor of adult supervision. The little protectorate soon became German East Africa, administered as a proper colonial appendage of the German Empire.
This Abushiri revolt (English Wikipedia entry | German) is named for its most prominent leader, a mixed-race Arab-Oromo coastal planter named Abushiri ibh Salim al-Harthi (English Wikipedia entry | German). He would be betrayed to German hands trying to escape and promptly executed; however, resistance by others continued to 1890.
They struck down
The flag of Islam
And now proposed
To raise their own.
They came to Pangani
Full of wrath,
They fitted up the house
And laid cannon.
And the ship at Maziwe
The whole town was humbled
And the Europeans
Strode about the streets.
The town was silent,
No one spoke,
Not a free man
Said a word.
-Swahili poet Hemedi al-Buhriy†
This new disturbance, whose suppression Britain also aided, helped lead London and Berlin back to the negotiating table for the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 — a comprehensive African arrangement to settle up spheres of influence not only on the Swahili coast but touching Namibia and Togoland, too. Meanwhile, Germany gave up remaining claims north of the Swahili coast dividing line and ceded Zanzibar itself to British authority; in exchange, she obtained the islands of Heligoland off her northwest shoulder — closing a potential security vulnerability.**
Among the many curiosities of the years to follow for the great imperial powers concerned, few are more vexing than just why it was that England and Germany went to war in 1914. Profitable as that bloody effusion has been for these grim annals, it posed as antagonists two countries that had long been thought by keen observers to be natural allies — a belief shared by numerous British and German statesmen. Otto von Bismarck was certainly one of these; his desire for an English alliance (against France and Russia) was a pole star of the Iron Chancellor’s foreign policy. Indeed, he worked amicably with his British opposite number Lord Salisbury; Bismarck once opined of his unwillingly adopted East African holdings that they were “admirably suited to become the sacrificial ram on the altar of friendship” with Great Britain.
But that isn’t what happened.
The failure of these great powers’ flirtation with one another, and the arrangements they ultimately made with other powers instead, defined the belligerents of the Great War. And while we would scarcely propose to lay the charnel houses of Verdun and Gallipoli at the shores of Zanzibar, it has sometimes been postulated that the fatal obstacle to Britain’s arrangement with Germany might have been the paucity of horses to swap.
Thanks to far-flung colonial expansion, Britain had many borders with France all over the globe, and accordingly had frequent need to collaborate and an ample store of chips to trade. With Germany, she had but a few intersections, in Africa — and these were settled almost too comprehensively (pdf) after the Abushiri revolt.
* It goes without saying that the sultan was none too happy about this development, but he was made to get used to the idea. (Germany sent warships, and Great Britain declined to back the sultan.)
The Anglo-German agreement accordingly limited the sultan’s authority on the coast to a 10-mile strip. Although the European powers commanded whatever leases they desired from this zone, Zanzibar’s anomalous territorial claims on the mainland would not be extinguished until the post-colonial era. When that day came, the 10-mile strip made for quite a sticky wicket during negotiations for Kenyan independence in the 1960s. The whole situation lies very far from the scope of this post, but the connosseur of diplomatic Gordian knots should pause to enjoy this pdf exploring the whole mess.
** Each party valued the thing it received quite a bit more than the thing it traded away in this treaty. From Britain’s perspective, Heligoland would be nigh-indefensible in the event of war with Germany; from Germany’s perspective, the claims it gave up outside of German East Africa were little better than phantasmal.
† via Charles Pike’s “History and Imagination: Swahili Literature and Resistance to German Language Imperialism in Tanzania, 1885-1910,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986)
Days earlier, Jang Sung-taek (alternatively, Song-taek, Sung-thaek, and various similar transliterations) had suffered an extremely visible fall when, in a Saddam-like twist, he was arrested on live television in the midst of a politburo meeting.
Image from KCTV (North Korea) shows Jang Sung-taek being arrested during a politburo meeting in Pyongyang.
Even so, the severity of his treatment was a surprise given his family tie to the supreme leader (he was the husband of Kim Jong-il‘s sister).
Long one of the secretive state’s top officials — his prestige recovered from two previous falls from favor in the late 1980s and early 2000s — Jang was among the officials involved in the transfer of power from the late Kim Jong-il to the young dictator Kim Jong-un. Though it is uncertain exactly what brought about his destruction — speculation ran to differing philosophies of economic development and/or raw power rivalry — a denounced by North Korea as “despicable human scum … worse than a dog” for his “thrice-cursed acts of treachery” and “decadent capitalist lifestyle.”
Jang was executed by shooting: machine gun fire in the “normal” version, or the more spectacular novelty of anti-aircraft fire by some accounts. (Reports to the effect that Jang was executed by being fed to a pack of wild dogs can still be found, but this story was fabricated by a satirist and its subsequent circulation cautions against a propensity to give credence to every lurid rumor about North Korea.)