1942: Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon, academics in resistance

Add comment May 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Left-wing intellectuals Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon were shot at Fort Mont-Valerien on this date in 1942 for their exertions in the French Resistance.

Both numbered among interwar France’s great radical intellectuals: Politzer, a Hungarian Jew nicknamed the “red-headed philosopher” and and Solomon, a Parisian physicist, both numbered among interwar France’s great radical scholars.

The red-headed philosopher hung with the likes of Sartre, taught Marxism at the Workers University of Paris, and critiqued psychology. (A few of his works can be perused here.) Solomon, son-in-law of physicist Paul Langevin, made early contributions to the emerging field of quantum mechanics.

Politically both were Communists and supporters of the anti-fascist Popular Front; with the onset of German occupation, they carried their activism into the French Resistance.

They were arrested (separately) in March 1942 and executed (together) with other Resistance hostages on the outskirts of Paris.

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1943: Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American in the German Resistance

1 comment February 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the Milwaukee-born translator and historian Mildred Fish-Harnack was beheaded at Plotzensee Prison — the only American woman executed by Hitler’s order.

A graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,* she met German jurist Arvid Harnack when the latter was a visiting scholar at the university’s sister campus in Madison.

In 1929, the couple moved to Germany where they worked as academics: Mildred, a teacher of language and literature; Arvid, of economics and foreign policy.

Both watched the rise of Third Reich with growing horror, and soon began converting their circles of academics, artists, and expats into a hive of opposition doing what they could to aid the many classes of excommunicate humans Berlin was busily proscribing. As the Nazi enterprise intensified, that opposition demanded ever more dangerous — more treasonable — extremities.

Good friends with American diplomats, the Harnacks for a time used Arvid’s placement in the Reich economic ministry to pass information to the United States. In 1940, they made contact with Soviet intelligence and from that time until the Gestapo snatched them in September 1942 the so-called** Red Orchestra sent furtive coded radio transmissions to Moscow reporting war preparations, economic data, and whatever else their circle could lay hands on among their various posts.

We have treated the fate of the Red Orchestra elsewhere in these pages; Mildred Harnack did not go to the meathook-nooses with her husband Arvid and others on December 22 because she was sentenced initially only to a term of years. These judgments came down at just the same time as the USSR was drowning the Wehrmacht in blood at Stalingrad, so there might have been a bit of personal pique when the Fuhrer personally quashed Mildred’s lenient sentence and demanded a, ah, reconsideration.

“And I have loved Germany so much,” she murmured as she was thrown under the fallbeil.

There’s a Mildred-Harnack-Schule in Berlin (also a Mildred-Harnack-Straße); her birthday, September 16, is observed every year in Wisconsin schools — although Mildred’s red associations meant that widespread recognition in her native country had to await the end of the Cold War.


Trailer for a Wisconsin Public Television documentary that can be viewed in full here.

* Then known as the Milwaukee State Normal School.

** Though this is the name history remembers them by, Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) was conferred by the German intelligence working to stop them. Confusingly, the name was applied to multiple different, and unrelated, spy networks.

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1209: The Oxford clerks

Add comment December 6th, 2010 Headsman

On an uncertain date speculatively identified with December 6, in either 1208 or (more usually attributed) 1209, the near-riotous townspeople of Oxford hanged two or three student “clerks” at that settlement’s famous university.

About this time, a certain clerk engaged in the liberal arts at Oxford killed a certain woman by accident and when he found that she was dead he decided to flee.

But when the mayor of the city and many others who had gathered found the dead woman they began to search for the killer in his house which he had rented together with three of his fellow clerks.

Not finding the man accused of the deed they seized his three fellow clerks who said they were wholly ignorant of the murder and threw them into prison; then a few days later they were, by order of the King of the English, in contempt of the rights of the church, taken outside the city and hanged.

When the deed had been done, both masters and pupils, to the number of three thousand clerks, left Oxford so that not one remained out of the whole university; they left Oxford empty, some engaging in liberal studies at Cambridge and some at Reading.

The Flowers of History, as translated for the Beeb

This ugly affair rooted in the ancient conflict between university and town caused much of the ancient academy‘s student population to flee town — some proceeding to found Oxford’s rival institution Cambridge. (This pdf short story on the Cambridge site dramatizes events.)


(cc) image from James Gibson.

The conflict between the town and university at Oxford over this bloodletting persisted until 1214 when a Papal legate settled the dispute in favor of the university.

The authors of the hanging were required to carry the bodies to an honorable resting place, and the town was required to host a dinner for poor students once every year — on St. Nicholas‘s day, Dec. 6, which on that basis has become associated with the otherwise never-specified date of the unfortunate clerks’ demise.

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1865: Not George S.E. Vaughn

11 comments April 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln had a date for Ford’s Theater — and with John Wilkes Booth’s single-shot Derringer pistol.

Abraham Lincoln was famous for his clemencies.

But Honest Abe had one last order of business to attend to before his carriage called him away to destiny: the pardon of a convicted Confederate spy due to be shot in St. Louis two days hence. Lincoln’s handwritten clemency for George Vaughn was the last official act of his presidency.

Lincoln in Story (“The Life of the Martyr-President told in Authenticated Anecdotes,” a light 1901 volume for popular consumption) relates:

Before the war Vaughn, with his wife and children, lived in Canton, Mo. He was a friend of Martin E. Green, a brother of United States Senator James S. Green, both strong pro-slavery men. At the opening of the war Martin E. Green recruited a regiment and received a colonel’s commission from the Confederate Government. George Vaughn enlisted under Green’s command and fought through the war.

After a period of fighting, Green and Vaughn crossed into Mississippi from Tennessee, camping at Tupelo, Miss. Not having heard from his family, Green was anxious to hear from his old home, so he delegated Vaughn to go on the mission of delivering letters to his wife.

Vaughn had almost completed his trip, having reached La Grange, six miles south of Canton, when he was captured by a squad of Federal troops.

They searched his person, and, finding letters and papers concealed about him, he was tried as a spy and sentenced to be shot. John B. Henderson, Senator from Missouri, finally succeeded in getting an order from the President for a retrial, but the verdict remained as hitherto. Again Henderson appealed to Lincoln, who granted a third trial, with the same result.

Henderson was not disconcerted, and again went to Lincoln. It was on the afternoon of April 14, 1865 — a melancholy date — that the Senator called at the White House. He called the attention of Lincoln to the fact that the war was practically closed, and said: “Mr. Lincoln, this pardon should be granted in the interest of peace and conciliation.”

This story gravitates naturally to the clemency of “the Great Heart” (as, for instance, D.W. Griffith called Lincoln). Far be it from us to say otherwise, but this is also self-evidently a story of the unusual prerogatives of the well-connected: not just any accused spy could get two trial do-overs and then a pardon free and clear ordered straight from the White House.

Mr. Lincoln replied: “Senator, I agree with you. Go to Stanton and tell him this man must be released.”

Henderson went to the office of the Secretary of War. Stanton* became violently angry, and swore that he would permit no such procedure.

Vaughn had but two days to live, and Henderson hastened to make one more stand. After supper he went to the White House. The President was in his office, dressed to go to Ford’s Theatre, when the Senator entered and told of the meeting he had had with Stanton.

Lincoln turned to his desk and wrote a few lines on an official sheet of paper. As he handed it to Senator Henderson he remarked: “I think that will have precedence over Stanton.”

It was an order for an unconditional release and pardon — the last official paper ever signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln was dead within hours. Vaughn passed away in 1899 in Maryville, Mo.

* Stanton is supposed to have delivered the remark as Lincoln’s deathbed, “now he belongs to the ages” … an alleged epitaph whose actual content is subject, like all biography, to textual uncertainty and ideological redefinition.


Update: The excellent tale of a different soldier pardoned on this same date has recently been debunked by the National Archives in an academic scandal: in January 2011, researcher Thomas Lowry confessed to altering the pardon order for one Patrick Murphy from the true (and much less dramatic) date of April 14, 1864 to April 14, 1865.

Vaughn was actually pardoned just before Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater; Murphy (totally unconnected to Vaughn) was pardoned 365 days prior.

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1850: Prof. John Webster, for the timeless conflict between donors and academics

2 comments August 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1850, a 57-year-old Harvard professor expiated upon a gallows at Boston’s Leverett Square the murder of one of the university’s donors.

The buzz of Boston in 1849-50, the Parkman-Webster murder case began with the disappearance of one of the crimson’s great benefactors, George Parkman, a Boston Brahmin known for his Ministry of Silly Walks gait about town (see right). According to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (who appeared as a witness at the trial of Parkman’s accused murderer), “he abstained while others indulged, he walked while others rode, he worked while others slept.”

Also, he inherited a ridiculous sum of money, and was tight with the debtors to whom he lent it.

Back before collection agencies, Parkman disappeared in November 1849 while making the rounds to shake down his borrowers. Within days, suspicion settled on Harvard anatomy and geology professor John Webster, who had squandered his own pile of money buying rock collections and maintaining appearances and such, and sank into desperate hock to the jutting-chinned ambulator who had helped him land the Ivy League appointment in the first place.

A weighty circumstantial case soon formed against Webster, with the invaluable aid of a snoopy janitor who turned up human remains in the office and testified to incriminating-sounding conversations.

Elites-on-elite crime epidemics always churn the scandal mills. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife Fanny wrote a friend,

You will see by the papers what dark horror overshadows us like an eclipse. Of course we cannot believe Dr. Webster guilty, bad as the evidence looks. … Many suspect the janitor, who is known to be a bad man and to have wished for the reward offered for Dr. Parkman’s body. … I trust our minds will be soon relieved, but, meanwhile, they are soiled by new details continually.

“Harvard professors do not often commit murder,” or so they say. (This was still a century before Robert McNamara.)

Boston high society was about to see a whole different side of Harvard.

Although perhaps individually explicable — anatomists had plausible reasons to have human remains at work, and other anatomists than Webster could have had access to his office — the cumulative weight of Webster’s ham-handed attempts to declare that he had paid up his debts to Parkman just before the latter’s mysterious disappearance, of the discovery of what (disputed) dental forensics declared to be Parkman’s dentures, of the ghastly appearance of a torso (disputedly) declared to be Parkman’s stuffed in a tea chest at Webster’s offices started to really make the man look guilty.

In view of a mediocre defense, the jury convicted Webster of whacking his own professional benefactor, in the university building erected on said benefactor’s donated plot of land.

Talk about donor recognition.

While the prof’s seeming post-conviction acceptance of guilt — in a plain strategem to secure clemency — and generally shifty demeanor have cemented him as the definitive perpetrator in the standard historical reading,* Fanny’s snobbish take on the “bad man,” janitor (and moonlight body-snatcher) Ephraim Littlefield, has not been entirely lost to the tradition.

At the end of the day, everything about the case is circumstantial — indeed, besides being historically noteworthy for the first use of dental forensic evidence in a murder trial (forensics we might find rather speculative and unconvincing today), Webster’s case generated a landmark ruling from the judge’s jury instruction establishing “reasonable doubt” as the threshold for criminal conviction rather than the “absolute certainty” Webster’s prosecutors had no hope of attaining; that ruling influences American jurisprudence down to the present day.

And one cannot but notice how many of the circumstances — creepily playing Sherlock Holmes with a freelance dig into the professor’s furnace to discover charred bones, for instance — were provided by the fellow-suspect-turned-star-witness Littlefield, who niftily reaped the $3,000 reward for his offices in substituting Webster for himself under the pall of suspicion.

According to peripatetic crime blogger Laura James, a forthcoming (2009) book promises to revisit the sensational trial, “to examine all the intricacies for ourselves — not aided by the eager voice of the janitor.”

* Bemis, one of the prosecutors, wrote the go-to source on the Webster trial, available from Google Books; another contemporaneous account is here.

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1822: The audacious Denmark Vesey

5 comments July 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1822, white South Carolinians hanged the most terrifying slave insurrectionary who never rose — and breathed a sigh of relief as they clamped the shackles ever tighter upon their groaning servile class.

Inspired by slave revolts shaking the Caribbean, the Denmark Vesey plot was the South’s worst nightmare: Nat Turner, multiplied by about nine thousand.

That’s the size of the slave and free black network Vesey is said to have recruited — ready to undertake a coordinated uprising to seize Charleston, slaughter the white populace, and possibly then to sail for a Haiti whose own slave revolt had recently established it a black-governed republic. The mind boggles at such a scheme’s bravado … but in an age when horseshoes and mizzenmasts could outrun information, Vesey’s plot could have been past any prospect of obstruction before anyone in a position to obstruct it even knew what happened. Had they not flown but defended Charleston, the event would have ignited a conflagration to outshine every other slave uprising.

The weak point, of course, were those 9,000 — or however many — slaves who had to act ruthlessly and in unison, and keep their peace until they struck. It is incredible enough that such a secret kept among so many for up to four years.

The plot finally leaked mere days before it was to have been attempted when a middling player attempted the unnecessary freelance recruitment of a house slave — a class Vesey had intentionally (and rightly, events would prove) excluded for dangerously excessive personal loyalty to their masters’ families.*

Melancholy Dane

A well-educated and well-traveled man on account of his years as the personal property of a slaver — Joseph Vesey, who bequeathed his purchase both a surname and the given name Telemaque, subsequently corrupted into “Denmark” by Charlestonians — the plot’s signature hero/villain had managed to purchase his freedom and establish himself in the anomalous position of free black artisan/entrepreneur in the slaveholding South.

His successful carpentry business (apt choice, for a martyr) had given him the prestige and the werewithal to start an independent African Methodist Episcopal church where he poured out a hatred of chattel slavery undiminished by his own liberty.

For several years before he disclosed his intentions to any one, he appears to have been constantly and assiduously engaged in endeavoring to imbitter [sic] the minds of the colored population against the whites. He rendered himself perfectly familiar with those parts of the Scriptures which he could use to show that slavery was contrary to the laws of God; that slaves were bound to attempt their emancipation, however shocking and bloody might be the consequences … (Source)

His judges were later incredulous that he’d be so hung up about it:

It is difficult to imagine, what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary. You were a free man, comely, wealthy, and enjoyed every comfort compatible with your situation. You had, therefore, much to risk and little to gain.

An American Spartacus?

Denmark Vesey blurs into myth as he approaches his end, together with lieutenants: among them, Peter Poyas, the organizational maven of the operation who was hanged along with Vesey and four others; and Gullah Jack, an African priest among the 29 more who would die in the weeks ahead.

Most of the principals held their tongues before interrogators; the tribunals were held secretly; their records were censored against the apprehension by other slaves of the potential for such designs as “a bottle with poison to put into my master’s pump & into as many pumps he could about town.”

But there was enough known to shatter forever any illusion of paternal congeniality more liberal masters might have fancied. One planter was incredulous that his agreeable charge might be involved in such nefarious doings until he asked the man directly and was astonished to hear from his trusted coachman’s lips the frank intention “to kill you, rip open your belly and throw your guts in your face.” (Both quotes are from this book review.)

Whites were scared. “I have never heard in my life, of more deep laid plots or plots more likely to succeed,” wrote Anna Haynes Johnson, niece to Gov. Thomas Bennett. (Source) Another concluded that “our NEGROES are truly the Jacobins of the country.” (Source)

But as initial panic (and federal troop deployments) gave way to a more pervasive undertow of security paranoia, the affair was self-consciously downplayed and records intentionally destroyed for fear that too-careful documentation of its particulars could map the way for a revival. An 1861 piece in The Atlantic — an excellent read on the progress of the conspiracy — grapples with what was even then a gaping evidentiary vacuum.

The intense avidity which at first grasped at every incident of the great insurrectionary plot was succeeded by a distaste for the memory of the tale; and the official reports which told what slaves had once planned and dared have now come to be among the rarest of American historical documents. In 1841, a friend of the writer, then visiting South Carolina, heard from her hostess for the first time the events which are recounted here. On asking to see the reports of the trials, she was cautiously told that the only copy in the house, after being carefully kept for years under lock and key, had been burnt at last, lest it should reach the dangerous eyes of the slaves. The same thing had happened, it was added, in many other families. This partially accounts for the great difficulty now to be found in obtaining a single copy of either publication; and this is why, to the readers of American history, Denmark Vesey and Peter Poyas have been heretofore but the shadows of names.

Antebellum September 11

Even as a nonstarter, the insurrection was an antebellum 9/11 that spurred a reactionary crackdown on perceived liberalities in the system — most vividly symbolized by the construction of the fortress that became the still-extant military academy The Citadel, but more systematically impinging blacks’ everyday freedom to assemble and worship, and even requiring (until the Supreme Court overruled the law) free black sailors be detained whenever a northern ship called at port. Pro-slavery southerners blamed open disapprobation for slavery voiced in Congress during the recent Missouri Compromise wrangling, and even similar sentiments expressed in the British parliament, for emboldening the terrorists.

All this yielded a rich political harvest from the fruit of the gallows — like Charleston mayor James “there is nothing they are bad enough to do, that we are not powerful enough to punish” Hamilton, who rode his timely suppression of the plot to Congress later that year.

Such political profiteering, combined with the sketchiness of primary sources, has licensed a revisionist take on the orthodox history — that there was never any conspiracy, but that reactionary white elites concocted the plot from a tissue of loose liberation talk, false confessions, and latent white fear in order to win political power. This contested minority interpretation has been a recent topic of academic dispute, since Michael P. Johnson floated it in 2001 (an account is required to read Johnson’s original essay; here’s a synoptic article that appeared subsequently in The Nation).

Markers of historiography around these competing versions of Vesey, bearing directly on the question current in today’s Charleston of whether and how to memorialize this episode, are ripe with controversial modern-day implications.

Consider: if Vesey is a rebel indeed, the silence of (most of) the plotters is a noble acceptance of torture to protect their confederates; if they’re framed, they’re silent because there’s nothing to confess. Either way, the modern reader’s sympathies are likely to lie with the blacks, but Johnson’s interpretation removes the locus of action from them to white elites. If he’s right, would that derogate an entire narrative of black resistance to slavery, drain the martyrdom from their deaths? Or would it correct an overstated romantic mythology of armed resistance, and color this day’s hanging with a different heroism: refusing to purchase their lives with a false accusation?

* For his timely betrayal, Peter Desverneys received his liberty and a state pension; he later became a slaveholder himself. See Black Slaveowners.

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1945: Albrecht Haushofer, German Resistance intellectual

3 comments April 23rd, 2008 Sarah Owocki

On April 23, 1945, in Nazi Germany’s Berlin-Moabit prison, with the Red Army fast approaching, the SS executed Albrecht Haushofer for his part in the previous year’s July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

A social and political conservative and driving force behind the nascent field of “geopolitics,” which held views of the State “as a geographic organism or a spatial phenomenon” that were incorporated into the National Socialist ideology of “Lebensraum,” Haushofer was an early darling of the drive to find academic and scientific justification for Nazi beliefs and ideals — this despite his own part-Jewish parentage.

Haushofer had reservations about the intentions of the Nazi party following its rise to power in the 1930s, but he nonetheless consented to represent it in foreign affairs, having spent significant time abroad as a geopolitics student in the 1920s. Acting as chief foreign affairs adviser to Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s chief deputy, Haushofer traveled widely to promote German foreign policy. During this time, he wrote a series of historical dramas — Scipio (1934), Sulla (1938), and Augustus (1939) — containing progressively more strident symbolic criticisms of his age.

Believing that Germany must not get involved in another disastrous foreign war, Haushofer was a significant force in negotiating for peace with Britain and France. “The peoples of Europe are in a position in which they have to get on together lest they all perish,” he wrote; “and although one realises that it is not common sense but emotional urges which govern the world, one must try to control such urges.” As Hitler’s desire for war became ever more paramount, however, Haushofer lost his position with the government and returned to Germany, remaining active in secret talks to persuade the British to accept a new peace agreement.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Haushofer remained a professor of geopolitics at the University of Berlin, but distanced himself from his Nazi past and began associating with elements of the German resistance. As the war wore on, he consistently opposed any attempt on Hitler’s life, but finally agreed to join the July plot as the only way to end the war without bringing further disaster upon Germany. With the plot’s failure, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and executed just days before the Red Army liberated Berlin.

Haushofer composed the Moabiter Sonette (pdf) while in prison, a series of poems posthumously published in 1946 regarded as among the most powerful documents of the German antiwar movement. One of his most well-known sonnets, “Schuld,” attemps to express — in sad retrospect — the weight of his moral guilt in the face of impending death:

“Schuld”

…schuldig bin ich
Anders als Ihr denkt.
Ich musste früher meine Pflicht erkennen;
Ich musste schärfer Unheil Unheil nennen;
Mein Urteil habe ich zu lang gelenkt…
Ich habe gewarnt,
Aber nicht genug, und klar;
Und heute weiß ich, was ich schuldig war.

“Guilt”

I am guilty,
But not in the way you think.
I should have earlier recognized my duty;
I should have more sharply called evil evil;
I reined in my judgment too long.
I did warn,
But not enough, and clear;
And today I know what I was guilty of.

The poem’s last line can be variously translated as “And today I know what I was guilty of” or “And today I know what my obligation had been.” Through this subtle play on words, Haushofer created a powerful poetic link between his failure to act decisively and the supposed “guilt” — “not in the way you think” — for which he had been condemned. His poems remain a testament to the power as well as the responsiblities of the individual under dictatorship, and have earned their writer a place in the annals of history as well as modern-day memorials to the German resistance movement.

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