1940: Julien Vervaecke, Tour de France cyclist

Add comment May 25th, 2017 Headsman

On or around this date — exactly when is forever obscure* — the former Tour de France cyclist Julien Vervaecke was summarily executed by Polish and British soldiers in German-occupied Belgium.

The Belgian velocipeddler raced professionally from 1924 to 1936 and reached the top ten of cycling’s signature event four times — capped by a third-place ride in 1927.

He’s most famous in the annals of his sport for his controversial victory in the 1930 Paris-Roubaix race, when he crossed the finish line second after getting the worst of a late collision with French cyclist Jean Marechal, but was awarded the win by judges who faulted Marechal for the incident. (Vervaecke got the medal but not the branding: it’s known as l’affaire Marechal.)

By the time war clouds had gathered anew, Vervaecke (English Wikipedia entry | German | French) had retired to proprietorship of a restaurant in Menen, on the French border.

As the Wehrmacht blitz overran Belgium, Vervaecke’s home chanced to fall within the British pocket pinned to Dunkirk, 70 kilometers away away. The famous evacuation would commence on May 26.

On May 24, scrambling soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, apparently including some officers of the exiled Polish army,* tried to ransack Vervaecke’s place for supplies, and the ex-cyclist resisted. As with Marechal all those years ago, Vervaecke had the worst of this collision, and the tetchy troopers led him away.

Nobody witnessed what happened to him; his body only turned up weeks later, over the border in France. It’s guessed that he might have been detained and then shot out of hand hours later — more prey to the fog of war.


At least he didn’t die of lung cancer: In a different era for athletics, Vervaecke and Maurice Geldhof take a trip to flavor country during the Tour de France.

* Poland had already been occupied by Germany and the USSR, in September 1939.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,England,Entertainers,Execution,France,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1940: Peter Barnes and James McCormack, the last IRA men hanged

Add comment February 7th, 2017 Headsman

“The two that swung in Birmingham, with ordered step
From off the gallows floor.”

-Brendan Behan

On February 7, 1940 — Ash Wednesday, as it happened to be — Peter Barnes and James McCormack became the last Irish Republican Army men executed by the British

They were condemned by the outraged British after a then-shocking terrorist bombing that has largely vanished from the historical memory, subsumed by the simultaneous outbreak of World War II.

Although it was neither the first nor the last strike in the 1939-1940 campaign of Irish Republican attacks on English soil aimed at forcing London to relinquish control of Northern Ireland, the five-pound bicycle-mounted bomb that ripped apart Broadgate on August 25, 1939, might have been the one that most hardened British hearts against the authors.* Five people were killed in the explosion and some 70 injured; the scene resembled a war zone.**

The resulting investigation — explored in great detail here — never laid hands on the man who actually planted this bomb, eventually revealed to be Joby O’Sullivan.

Many years later and near his death, O’Sullivan claimed that the bomb was supposed to be parked at the Coventry police station; other reports have it destined for an electrical station, and the decision to abandon the ticking bicycle in a crowded street a freelance cock-up by O’Sullivan. Maybe. What is known is that on August 24, London police had busted an IRA plot to place explosives at Westminster Abbey, Scotland Yard, and the Bank of England — all timed to explode at the very same moment as the Coventry package, 2:30 the next afternoon. Had that coordinated fourfold bombing occurred, it would have rated one of the bloodiest and most spectacular terrorist events in history.

But the single blast that did take place was more than enough to bring down the crown’s fury.

Five faced trial for their lives, even though no hand among them had actually set the Coventry bomb. In Ireland and many other places, this latter stipulation made the entire affair an outrageous injustice, especially if one takes as a given that the bomb was not meant to hit civilians. We leave that interesting question of justice to the reader’s consideration, but it must be understood that our hanged men were certainly party to the IRA’s bombing project. The accused, for a trial that December, were:

  • Barnes, an IRA operative in London who had delivered bomb components to Coventry
  • McCormack, part of an IRA cell in Coventry who had rented the house where the bomb was constructed
  • Joseph and Mary Hewitt, and Mary’s mother Brigid O’Hara, Irish immigrants who had taken on McCormack as a lodger

Little evidence could be produced against Hewitt family, who appeared to be quite innocent of their tenant’s intentions. The latter three were cleared of all charges, and then vengefully deported.

McCormack kept stoically silent during the trial, rising only at his sentencing to announce “that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause. I say in conclusion, God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”

Barnes, whose role on the far end of the supply was even more remote from the final detonation, said as he would maintain to the end, “I am innocent and later I am sure it will all come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it.”

The pair hanged together in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison. The return of Barnes and McCormack’s remains from that gaol’s unmourned yards to Irish soil soon became a running national demand; the remains were finally repatriated (to great fanfare) in 1969.

Amid the patriotic encomia, civil war veteran Jimmy Steele gave an address on the occasion of the republicans’ reburial critical of the Sinn Fein leadership — an address that is often considered a milepost en route to the imminent (December 1969) splitting-away of the Provisional IRA.

* And in a less justifiable expression, against the Irish generally; Coventry’s Irish immigrant populace faced an immediate racist backlash.

** A chilling preview, for the next year Coventry was devastated by German planes — one of the cities hardest hit by the Reich’s bombing campaign.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Ireland,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists

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1940: Julian Zugazagoitia, Minister of the Interior to republican Spain

Add comment November 9th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the late Spanish Republic’s former Interior Minister was shot by Franco’s dictatorship, having received him from the hands of the Gestapo who arrested the man in exile.

A socialist journalist, Julian Zugazagoitia (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Spanish) was tapped for the ministry gig by Prime Minister Juan Negrin — a man to whom history appointed the distasteful destiny of trying to turn the Republic away from the abyss that gaped for it.

Negrin’s major resource in this doomed project was Russian aid* — aid conditioned on Kremlin internal control within Spain, against the other factional groups (anarchists, social democrats, and so forth) that comprised the Republic’s “popular front”. Indeed, Negrin himself came to power thanks to a bloody internal coup against anarchists and anti-Soviet communists. Zugazagoitia found this distasteful but for his year in the government he had to toe the line on it: pressed by a British delegation over the political arrests — and sometimes murders — of pro-Republic dissidents like Andres Nin, Zugazagoitia allowed that “We have received aid from Russia and have had to permit certain actions which we did not like.” (quoted (p. 86) in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia)

Though he managed to escape abroad as the Republic fell to Franco’s armies, Zugazagoitia was caught by the Gestapo in France; as they had done with his fellow politician Lluis Companys in a similar spot, the Germans deported the former Minister of the Interior to certain execution in Spain.

Zugazagoitia’s grandson, also named Julian Zugazagoitia, directs the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, USA.

* An embargo on arms shipments by most western countries all but forced Spain to buy Russian arms, on Russian terms.

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1940: Three saboteurs and a spy, “Fusilles et oublies”

Add comment June 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.

Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.

Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.

Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.

Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.

The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.

Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.

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1940: Mikhail Koltsov, Soviet journalist

Add comment February 2nd, 2016 Headsman

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.”

Be that as it may, Koltsov as Kremlin vizier to a dirty war was on the other end of the death warrant often enough; he also cultivated Ernest Hemingway, and was rewarded with a thinly veiled role in For Whom The Bell Tolls (the character Karkov). His memoir Spanish Diary is a sort of team-Soviet counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

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.

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1940: 32 innocent Poles

1 comment June 6th, 2015 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1940, in the tiny village of Celiny in Nazi-occupied Poland, German soldiers and gendarmes stood 32 Polish citizens against the wall of a house and shot them all to death.

The victims of the shooting had, by the Germans’ own admission, done nothing to deserve their fate. They were killed in reprisal for crimes committed by others: namely, the murder of a German gendarme the previous day.

Seventy years later, the inhabitants of Celiny shared their memories of the incident with British historian Mary Fulbrook:*

Two Poles had apparently become involved in a dispute with the gendarme, provoked by a disagreement over the legality of ordering a certain dish in a local hostelry: that particular cut of meat was not supposed to be available to Poles under the rationing system introduced by the German administration. The Poles initially succeeded in escaping from the fracas by bicycle, but were caught up by the gendarme, on a motorbike, in Celiny; here, a further scuffle had ensued, in the course of which the gendarme was fatally wounded.

In a slightly different version of the story, the German gendarme had not even been killed by the Poles but had died as a result of crashing when, somewhat inebriated as well as angry, he took a corner too fast in pursuit of the two Poles. Whatever the truth of the matter, the latter knew they were in for trouble and rapidly escaped; they were nowhere to be tracked down.

The Germans had previously registered prominent local citizens to serve as hostages for just this sort of situation. But everyone on the registration list was forewarned by their friends and family and went into hiding to avoid arrest.

The next morning, unable to find any of their hostages, the local German authorities got together and argued for a full three hours over what to do. In the end they settled on a plan: They went to the prison in the nearby city of Sosnowiec and grabbed 32 inmates who had been “incarcerated for all the manner of reasons, including minor infringements of the most trivial of the new rules imposed by the German occupation, political resistance, and sheer bad luck.”

The men’s bad luck got even worse: the 32 men (29 Catholics and three Jews) were trucked fifteen miles back to Celiny, taken to the scene of the fight from the night before, stood in a row against the wall and shot dead at point-blank range.

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Fulbrook visited the site of the massacre:

The wall against which the thirty-two people were shot remains pockmarked by the bullet holes, daubed now with dashes of red paint to intimate their bloody origins; there is a memorial stone, for which money had arduously to be raised among the local community; and fresh flowers were often laid there, to keep the memory of former compatriots and relatives alive.

The memorial stone lists the names of the 29 Catholic victims, but not the names of the Jews, apparently because the townspeople didn’t know who they were.

Fulbrook notes that this incident seems insignificant when put into context of the “enormity of other crimes that were soon to engulf the area.” Indeed, she says, “This incident would scarcely bear mention in comparison with the crimes committed on an infinitely larger scale at Auschwitz.”

But to the tiny village it was devastating and not easily forgotten — a small emblem of the countless nameless Poles casually put to execution in those years.

Andrzej Wróblewski

The Polish artist Andrzej Wróblewski created this series of eight paintings titled Rozstrzelania (Executions) in 1949, the year he turned 22. (They have no specific connection to the Celiny executions.)

* Mary Fulbrook was interviewed about her Holocaust research in this New Books In History podcast.

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1944: Durga Malla

Add comment August 25th, 2014 Headsman

Seventy years ago today, the British in Delhi hanged Gurkha soldier Durga Malla for spying against them — and on behalf of the army of the Japanese-backed nationalist provisional government, the Azad Hind.

World War II catalyzed India’s long-running national movement and helped lead directly to postwar independence. But during the war itself, it was a delicate relationship with the British Empire that still ruled the Raj.

Activists at the time took different views of how to proceed in wartime. For Gandhi, and this was also the predominant position of his Congress Party, India’s national rights overrode the mother country’s wartime exigencies: India must be free to choose her own part in the affair, as a coequal nation.

Unsurprisingly, London saw it differently. (The Raj sent over two million soldiers into the British ranks in these years.)

This led in August of 1942 to the Quit India movement, an attempted civil disobedience campaign against continued British rule. It was suppressed with difficulty — and with mass detentions, including of Gandhi himself. But hours before the arrest that would land him in British custody for the balance of the war, he delivered his Quit India speech, which warned in part against

hatred towards the British among the people. The people say they are disgusted with their behaviour. The people make no distinction between British imperialism and the British people. To them, the two are one. This hatred would even make them welcome the Japanese. It is most dangerous. It means that they will exchange one slavery for another.

Which brings us to Durga Malla.

For Gandhi himself, there was no question of going so far as to collaborate with Britain’s wartime enemies to force the issue. But not everyone eschewed the “enemy of my enemy” line, and behavior at once treasonable and intensely patriotic has excited controversy from the moment the guns stilled down to the present day. Azad Hind established itself as a government-in-exile in Japanese-occupied Singapore, making plans to invade British India. The fervidly patriotic Durga Malla joined that exile government’s army, and was eventually caught reconnoitering British deployments, then given a military tribunal and hanged. His last words on the gallows affirmed his purpose, and would be vindicated with the passage of just a few years.

“I am sacrificing my life for the freedom of my motherland … The Sacrifice I am offering shall not go in vain. India shall be free. I am confident, this is only a matter of time.”

There are public monuments in present-day India to Durga Malla.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Spies,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1940: Hans Vollenweider, the last guillotined in Switzerland

1 comment October 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Hans Vollenweider became the last person executed in Switzerland.

The Swiss had long experience with executions by beheading and, of course, with mechanical refinements, so adoption of the guillotine was a natural fit … especially after Napoleon overran Switzerland.

Actually, Switzerland had experimented with guillotine-like machines centuries before the French introduced the device, but in the 19th century its Jacobin associations led to a running tug-of-war that saw some cantons abolish the guillotine (German link) in favor of a return to public beheading with a sword. At the same time, the pan-European move away from capital punishment saw a precipitous decline in actual executions, culminating with outright abolition in Switzerland’s 1874 constitution.

Although the death penalty was narrowly reinstated by referendum* (more German) in 1879, its use thereafter was sparing and often contested. In 1938, Switzerland adopted by referendum a new, federal criminal code abolishing the death penalty.

But that code did not take legal effect until January 1, 1942 … and in the intervening years, two people would be controversially guillotined under the outgoing statutes.

Hans Vollenweider (German link) “enjoys” the distinction of being the last of these.

He was a triple murderer, although formally condemned only for one of these homicides — and condemned by an Obwalden court not even a month before, on September 19. Vollenweider’s last legal appeal and his application mercy were disposed of in the week before he lost his head.

There’s a 2004 German-language documentary film about this milestone execution, Vollenweider – Die Geschichte eines Mörders (Vollenweider – The Story of a Murderer).

Vollenweider was the last person executed in Switzerland for an “ordinary” crime, but the death penalty did remain on the books for treason until 1992. Seventeen additional people were executed for that crime during World War II — executed by shooting, not beheading.

Switzerland today has abolished the death penalty at the constitutional level for all crimes. It does retain one single guillotine left in a warehouse somewhere as its last keepsake from an increasingly distant era.

* More precisely, the individual cantons were granted the right to introduce the death penalty in their own territories.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Switzerland

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1940: Lluis Companys, Catalan president

2 comments October 15th, 2013 Headsman

“Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.

-George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

On this date in 1940, Catalan president Lluis Companys was shot by the Spanish fascists.

Companys had held that notional office for mere hours six years before — but he’s still the last to hold it in any form at all.

Political exile was no unfamiliar terrain for Companys. As a young lawyer, his activism in the first two decades of the century had seen him incarcerated over a dozen times; in fact, his path to political respectability had entailed getting out of a Menorca prison in 1920 courtesy of the parliamentary immunity conferred by winning an election.

And he’d drawn a long sentence for an attempted 1934 rising against a center-right government — the occasion when he had become the President of the Catalan Republic on October 6, and been dispossessed of both office and state by the very next day.

That prison sentence’s reversal by the new republican government in 1936 was a bit of Pyrrhic victory for Companys’s left-wing politics — inasmuch as said republicans’ ascent was also the trigger for the nationalist revolt that resulted in the Spanish Civil War and a military dictatorship lasting until the 1970s.

As the virtual personification of Catalan national aspirations, Companys remained head of the Generalitat de Catalunya from 1933 until his death — in prison, in exile, wherever Companys went he bore along the Catalan cause.

As such, he was in the thick of the civil war’s scrap for control of Barcelona: not only against the fascists but among the left parties whose fractious alliance tore apart in 1937.

It was truly a case of riding the tiger. Companys struggled to maintain the cooperation of his alliance even while the republicans’ Soviet sponsors excommunicated anarchist and anti-Stalinist elements internally. The dreadful spectacle of internecine street fighting among the anti-fascists in May 1937 fills the final tragic pages of Orwell’s Homage, decided by the inescapable materialist circumstances: “the Government could not afford to offend the Communist Party while the Russians were supplying arms.”

Few sources direct much personal blame at Companys for what followed. Under Soviet pressure, he accepted the Communist police raids that had set off the street fighting, accepted the purges and the press censorsip, sacked anti-Stalinist minister Andres Nin from the government. (Nin was later “disappeared” and murdered.)

Who knows but that even these evil days were not still the best that could be made of a bad circumstance: whatever they were, they were not enough for republican Spain or for Catalonia.

When those dreams fell under the fascist advance little more than a year later, Companys couldn’t flee Franco far enough for safety. Soon after his 1939 escape to France, that country was overrun by militaristic rightists from the other direction — and the German occupiers happily handed Companys back to Spain as soon as they got their hands on him.

Condemned after the formality of a perfunctory trial for “military rebellion” conducted on October 14, 1940, Companys was shot the very next morning Montjuic Castle. (See Franco: A Biography)

Spain, where questions of Catalan sovereignty and the Franco years are both sensitive subjects, has never reversed the judgment (Spanish link) against Companys. However, a Barcelona promenade is named in Companys’s honor, as is a major stadium — actually the arena where the anti-fascist 1936 People’s Olympiad in opposition to the notorious master race spectacle of Berlin was to have taken place, before that whole Civil War unpleasantness.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Shot,Spain,Treason

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1940: Cayetano Redondo, former mayor of Madrid

Add comment May 21st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Cayetano Redondo was shot at Madrid’s largest cemetery.

Cayetano Redondo (English Wikipedia page | Spanish | Esperanto), a former journalist and editor, was the socialist onetime mayor of Madrid — having ascended that position during the Spanish Civil War when the previous mayor fled for Valencia as Franco attacked Madrid. Redondo was the guy with his name on the letterhead during the bloody November 1936 Battle of Madrid, when the Luftwaffe tried out terror bombing (Guernica followed in April 1937).

This “hombre de una bondad inagotable” (Manuel Albar, quoted here) was also a leading esperantist — an advocate of building international solidarity through the extension of the constructed language Esperanto.

Disdaining escape as the war ended, he was arrested when Franco’s forces finally took Madrid in 1939 and shot a year later as a rebel. (His tombstone evidently records the wrong date.)

Though Redondo was long a neglected figure, the Madrid city council recently named a street for him. So he’s got that going for him.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Power,Shot,Spain

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