Danish “pastor-poet” Kaj Munk was kidnapped and extrajudicially executed by the German occupation on this date in 1944.
Named for the adoptive family who raised him on the Baltic island of Lolland, Munk (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) was one of his country’s most popular playwrights of the 1930s.
He felt then the era’s pull to the Führerprinzip, and expressed admiration for the fascist rulers emerging in Germany and Italy — and disdain for parliamentarian prattle. Mussolini, he wrote, “was the new man, the future of Europe.”
He could scarcely have been ignorant of the danger this posture invited.
To this period dates Munk’s postwar fame, as well as his celebrated play Niels Ebbesen — which is all about a medieval Danish squire who assassinated a German tyrant. You can imagine how that went over in Berlin.
And as a working pastor, Munk had another platform, too.
“The pulpit has become for us a place of responsibility,” he wrote in 1941. “We tremble in our black garments when we ascend its stairs, because here, in God’s house, the Word is free … the Holy Ghost … forces us not to stay silent but to speak.”
And Munk was willing to do it, to exploit his position to oppose the cooperative stance his superiors were trying to promulgate; to preach against the occupation from the Copenhagen Cathedral in December of 1943; and to have subversive sermons illegally printed and promulgated — the last just days before his death.
Seized by the Gestapo on January 4, 1944, he was shot immediately after at Silkeborg. (The site is dignified by a a pious and understated memorial.) His abandoned corpse was discovered the next morning; consequently, January 5 is often the occasion for events marking the anniversary of Munk’s martyrdom.
On about the 18th December 1942 a group of about 6 prisoners intended to escape but were betrayed by somebody. All six prisoners were led out ofthe camp beyond the wire, taken about 20 metres to a pit and shot without any hearing. Before the execution the interpreter told the prisoners that the 6 men had wanted to escape from the camp and for that they would be executed. This would happen to anyone who tried to escape from the camp. The surnames of those who died are not known to me.
This is the testimony of Konstantin Krupachenko, a Red Army prisoner-of-war retrieved from the Germans’ “Dulag-205″ camp — a transit facility behind German lines at Stalingrad which was liberated as the Soviets overran the encircled German position.
Krupachenko’s testimony was part of the evidence prepared against six Wehrmacht officers taken prisoner at that camp and ultimately executed, men whose case we have previously detailed.
Though not well-known and hardly by scale a major contributor to the ghastly death toll among Soviet POWs, Dulag-205 was horror aplenty for those who survived it. Starvation rations gave way to no rations at all in the dead of winter, and the skeletal inmates cannibalized the dead. Harassment by guard-dogs, capricious beatings, and the usual regimen of dawn-to-dusk forced labor were the lot of the lucky ones.
The less fortunate, well …
On about the 25th November 1942 while working on a road which led to Gumrak three kilometres from the camp a group of prisoners of about 50-60 was levelling and clearing the road. One prisoner whose name I don’t know collapsed from tiredness and exhaustion and couldn’t work. The guard tried to force the exhausted man to stand and work but the prisoner couldn’t get up. Then the guard shot the prisoner dead with a sub-machine gun and ordered that he be buried in a ditch at the side ofthe road. (Krupachenko again)
There were public executions in the camp. In January 1943 on about the lOth-llth a former senior Lieutenant of the Red Army, his surname I don’t know, was executed for allegedly organising an escape attempt. (Anatoly Alexeev)
In all cases the Germans would shoot prisoners without any warnings at all. In the month of October 1942 I personally saw up to 30 prisoners shot. They shot people every day for falling behind to and from work, and sometimes for breaking ranks. I am unable to give the surnames of the prisoners shot by the Germans. Moreover, when we were herded from the Alekseevka camp to the area of Karpovka village, then several prisoners were shot dead by German officers for the fact that when we were working we were bombarded by Soviet troops and several prisoners took cover. After the firing had stopped the officers came out of their trench dug-outs and shot them on the spot. Three prisoners were shot dead for taking some tobacco while working on a dump. (Ivan Kosinov)
As one of the Germans on trial for these abuses agreed (Otto Mäder was trying to throw blame onto the camp commanders),
[t]here was no trial of any kind, they [prisoners] were shot without any trial on the order of [Dulag-205 commandant] Colonel Korpert. I am a lawyer by education and I understand perfectly that this these shootings were illegal, simply murder in fact.
All these quotations are via Frank Ellis’s “Dulag-205: The German Army’s Death Camp for Soviet Prisoners at Stalingrad” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2006),
On this date in 1946, Alawite prophet Sulaiman Murshid (German Wikipedia) was hanged by the newly independent state of Syria as a traitor and a blasphemer.
In the mid-1920s, this shepherd turned demigod* on the coast of French Mandate Syria began reporting mystical visions, and soon gathered a following — and then, a larger and larger following.
Shia Alawites are a small minority in Syria, maybe 12% of the present-day population, so it might have been key to Murshid’s success that he so happened to begin his mission in a short-lived Alawite State created within the French Mandate. (Neither keen on his movement nor inspired to arrest it, the colonial French dismissed him as la Thaumaturge de Jobet Burghal.) It was a cradle in which a peasant obscurity grew into a political as well as a prophetic power — a tribal chief who could command armed men and rents.
Come 1936, the Alawite State folded into the Syrian Republic, and by that time Murshid’s adherents were so numerous that they promptly elected him to parliament.
Although this arrangement offered Murshid new vectors of ascent, the environment turned speedily hostile after France withdrew and Syria gained independence in 1946. Murshid’s entity was intrinsically inimical to a centralizing nation-state, and his lowly origins, suspect ethnicity, and half-heretical messianism all tended to set him at odds with Damascus. He was arrested for subversion by Syria’s nationalist first president Shukri al-Quwatli and hanged on Merdsche Square.
Murshid’s sons carried on the movement, whose followers, the al-Murshidun, were persecuted in the years after his death until fellow Alawite Hafez al-Assad ascended to the presidency in 1970. Today their sect numbers in the six figures.
* For more on Murshid’s background and the initial growth of his movement, see “Suleiman al-Murshid: Beginnings of an Alawi Leader” by Gitta Yaffe and Uriel Dann in Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Oct., 1993).
On this date in 1943, German troops occupying Greece massacred the entire male population of the town Kalavryta.
Memorial to the December 13, 1943 massacre.
Weeks earlier, resistance partisans had waylaid a German patrol in the vicinity, taking about 80 German soldiers prisoner and subsequently executing them.
A bestial Lidice-like mass reprisal, Unternehmen Kalavryta, commenced in December with German columns descending on the small Peloponnesian town — murdering civilians at nearby towns and firing the historic Agia Lavra monastery in the process.
Once they reached their target, the women and children of Kalavryta were locked in a school that was put to the torch, while men and older boys were marched to the outskirts and machine-gunned en masse, killing at least 500. (About thirteen are known to have survived this mitraillade and its ensuing finishing-off with axes.) The total death toll in Kalavryta was near 700, significantly mitigated by the women eventually forcing their way out of their burning tomb. Those survivors faced immediate winter privation to go with the horror of the massacre, for the Germans also destroyed homes and drove off the livestock.
A memorial at Kalavryta today* records some 1,300 names including villagers from the surrounding towns slain during the course of the operation — and the church clock is permanently fixed to 14.34, the moment on that awful December 13 that the massacre in Kalavryta began.
On this date in 1944, the Irish Free State hanged Irish Republican Army Chief of Staff Charlie Kerins.
The IRA had been sorely pressed in these war years by the Special Branch, and the inroads of counterintelligence help explain why Kerins himself took such a prominent position in the IRA at the tender age of 24.
And it also explains how he ended up on the gallows at Mountjoy Prison.
Key to the Special Branch’s campaign was the recruitment of Irish republicans — men like Denis O’Brien, a veteran of the Civil War turned police spy whom Kerins and two mates ambushed and shot to death in his driveway on the morning of September 9, 1942.
As one might expect, this incendiary assassination redoubled state pressure against the IRA. Living on the run under assumed names, Kerins managed to dodge arrest until June 1944. But when captured, he knew how to comport himself from implacable precedent of forerunners like Kevin Barry.
Kerins refused to recognize with a defense the legitimacy of the court that tried him; indeed, so reluctant were the authorities to make a martyr of Kerins that they paused proceedings for six hours with his conviction cinched to give Kerins the opportunity to save his neck by applying to submit to mercy. Kerins wasn’t the submitting type.
“You could have adjourned for six years as far as I am concerned,” Kerins sneered when the session reconvened. “My attitude to this court will always be the same.”
In the words of a verse he wrote to a friend just before his hanging —
What, said Cathal Brugha, if our last man’s on the ground.
When he hears the ringing challenge if his enemies ring him round.
If he’d reached his final cartridge — if he fired his final shot.
Will you come into the empire? He would answer, I will not.
On this date in 1944, British Capt. Victor Gough was shot at Ehrlich Forest as a German POW.
Gough had been parachuted into occupied France a few months before as part of Operation Jedburgh — a campaign to grow internal anti-German resistance to complement the Allied push via Normandy.*
Unfortunately as Colin Burbidge details in Preserving the Flame, Gough’s destignated stomping-grounds — the Vosges Mountains on the eastern borderlands — had some of France’s most pro-German populace. (Burbidge is Gough’s nephew.)
His complications were exacerbated when his wireless operator was injured — and the wireless set wrecked — in the parachute jump. The British wireless man was soon captured and their third, a French officer, killed in a gunfight, leaving Gough on his own. “Great difficulty working alone,” he managed to report to SOE headquarters. He was finally captured in October of that year, tortured by the Gestapo, and eventually shipped to the labor camp at Gaggenau.
In accordance with Hitler’s anti-saboteur Commando Order Gough was shot at a nearby forest in a gaggle of 14 POWs — six British special forces, four American airmen, and four French civilians. Their fate was discovered in part thanks to a German fellow-prisoner, a former officer in the Wehrmacht who had been sent to the camps for refusing orders to issue his men sawed-off shotguns, a weapon prohibited by the Hague Convention, who escaped shortly before the executions using a British map that Gough gifted him. That Captain Werner Helfen survived the war and gave evidence to a British war crimes investigation.
Many years later, Helfen gave something else too: according to Burbidge, his mother — Gough’s sister — in 1991 received a package from Germany containing a photo of Werner Helfen by Victor Gough’s grave, and the escape map that Gough had given to Helfen.
* Future CIA director William Colby was a notable Jedburgh alumnus.
On November 22, 1946, American executioners recorded a double-double with twin killings in both North Carolina and Georgia.
Charles Primus, Jr., and Wilbert Johnson carjacked a couple in Raleigh, forced them to drive six miles into the country,
got out and ordered the occupants to do likewise, demanded their pocketbooks, commanded them to go down a road in the woods; the defendants then held a whispered conversation, after which Johnson, with gun in hand, directed Miss Lipscomb to “stay there,” with Primus and marched Guignard approximately 200 feet down a path and demanded to know where his money was. While the parties were thus separated, Primus had intercourse with the prosecutrix after threatening to kill her if she did not submit. She says, “I submitted to Primus on account of fear.” The defendants were over 18 years of age; and the prosecutrix was 25 years old at the time of the assault.
Soon after the rape was accomplished the defendants freed the prosecutrix and her companion and allowed them to make their way to a house in the neighborhood.
The defendants admitted in statements in the nature of confessions that they obtained $650 from Guignard and $38 from Miss Lipscomb. Each originally claimed the other committed the rape, but finally Primus admitted he was the one who actually assaulted the prosecutrix. Johnson was tried on the theory of an accessory, being present, aiding and abetting in the perpetration of the capital offense. He was referred to by Primus as “the boss” of the hold-up conspiracy.
The specification abut “submitt[ing] on account of fear” — obviously, right? — mattered because Primus and Johnson took an appeal all the way to the state Supreme Court that this submission made intercourse no longer legally “forcible.”
Johnnie Burns and Willie Stevenson were both electrocuted at Georgia State Prison November 22, 1946 for the ax murder of a man named Lucius Thomas, a crime that netted the pair $27.14.
Stevenson was only 16 years old at the time of the murder, and 17 when he was executed.
There was also a fifth, singleton execution on the same day in Arkansas: Elton Chitwood was electrocuted for murdering Mena pharmacist Raymond Morris during an armed robbery.
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.
On this date in 1941, “the Romanian Einstein” Francisc Panet was shot with his wife Lili and three other Communists at a forest near Jilava.
A chemical engineer by training, Panet or Paneth (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was fascinated by the theoretical research then revolutionizing physics.
While studying in Czechoslovakia, his work on elementary particles brought him to Einstein’s attention, and the two met in 1932 and corresponded thereafter. Panet’s advocates claim that Einstein foresaw for him a brilliant future.
But back in a Romania dominated by fascism, his scientific gifts would be required for more urgent and less exalted purposes: cooking homemade explosives in his bathroom for Communist saboteurs.
Eventually the secret police traced the munitions back to Panet, and he and his wife were arrested in a Halloween raid. Condemned to death in a two-hour court martial on November 5, they allegedly went before the fascists’ guns with the Internationale on their lips.
Sakai’s forces committed numerous summary executions and other cruelties on troops captured from the overwhelmed garrison before Hong Kong finally surrendered on Christmas Day.
The whole operation was much more protracted and difficult than Japan had anticipated and perhaps as a result Sakai was relieved of responsibility for the (similarly brutal) occupation of Hong Kong, and eased into retirement back on the mainland.
His next visit to China would occur under very different circumstances — where he would find himself obliged to dissociate himself from the atrocities that his men had authored in the capture of the city. His war crimes tribunal was not impressed.
The Tribunal dismissed the accused’s plea that he could not be held responsible for the above violations because they were perpetrated by his subordinates and he had no knowledge of them. The Tribunal’s findings were as follows:
That a field Commander must hold himself responsible for the discipline of his subordinates, is an accepted principle. It is inconceivable that he should not have been aware of the acts of atrocities committed by his subordinates … All the evidence goes to show that the defendant knew of the atrocities committed by his subordinates and deliberately let loose savagery upon civilians and prisoners of war.
The principle that a commander is responsible for the discipline of his subordinates, and that consequently he may be held responsible for their criminal acts if he neglects to undertake appropriate measures or knowingly tolerates the perpetration of offences on their part, is a rule generally accepted by nations and their courts of law in the sphere of the laws and customs of war.
(Conversely, Sakai’s attempt to cite superior orders as defense against charges for his part in initiating the war also got short shrift. So in terms of the chain of command, he got it coming and going.)