1937: Camillo Berneri, anarchist intellectual

Add comment May 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the Italian anarchist Camillo Berneri was kidnapped from his home by in Barcelona by armed paramilitaries. Berneri was shot that night.

Berneri (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish | timeline) had once been a University of Florence professor, but was forced into exile for opposing the fascist conquest of power in Italy.

When a coup threatened a similar right-wing conquest of power in Spain, Berneri organized the first column of Italian volunteers to oppose it.

International brigades poured into Spain to fight for the Republican government, but not everybody in the “popular front” was on the same side — a fact which became horrifyingly clear during Barcelona’s “May Days”, a week of internecine bloodletting in Republican Catalonia.

Anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT party and anti-Stalinist communists of POUM were the ones whose blood was mostly let; indeed, it might better be called a purge. The Moscow-backed Communist Party opposed the power of its putative comrades as much as or more than that of Franco. During the May Days, the Communists’ Catalan ally, a party called the PSUC, essentially took over Barcelona with the help of thousands of Assault Guards and killed, arrested, or dispersed the anarchists and Trotskyites.

Berneri clearly saw it coming, quoting Pravda in an April 1937 letter to the anarchist Health Minister criticizing his participation in the Popular Front government: “As for Catalonia, the purging of Trotskyist and anarcho-syndicalist elements has begun; this work will be carried out with the same energy with which it was done in the USSR.”

The British writer George Orwell served in a POUM unit, and the last third or so of his Spanish Civil War memoir Homage to Catalonia attempts to make sense of the chaotic scene.

Smitten when he arrived in Barcelona the previous December — “the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle”* — the writer scoffed at the Communists’ official justification that anarchists and friends were a “counter-revolutionary” element, or even in actual league with their nationalist enemies.

It seemed queer, in the barber’s shop, to see the Anarchist notice still on the wall, explaining that tips were prohibited. ‘The Revolution has struck off our chains,’ the notice said. I felt like telling the barbers that their chains would soon be back again if they didn’t look out.

I wandered back to the centre of the town. Over the P.O.U.M. buildings the red flags had been torn down, Republican flags were floating in their place, and knots of armed Civil Guards were lounging in the doorways. At the Red Aid centre on the corner of the Plaza de Cataluña the police had amused themselves by smashing most of the windows. The P.O.U.M. book-stalls had been emptied of books and the notice-board farther down the Ramblas had been plastered with an anti-P.O.U.M. cartoon — the one representing the mask and the Fascist face beneath.

Down at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks. I knew who they were — indeed, I recognized one of them. They were P.O.U.M. militiamen who had come down the line on the previous day to find that the P.O.U.M. had been suppressed, and had had to spend the night in the streets because their homes had been raided. Any P.O.U.M. militiaman who returned to Barcelona at this time had the choice of going straight into hiding or into jail — not a pleasant reception after three or four months in the line.

Also a fighter of the liquidated POUM, Orwell too was proscribed: he had a job to make it out of Barcelona without winding up in someone’s dungeon or firing range. His disgust with what revolutionary Barcelona had come to would help to inform his subsequent anti-Soviet literary efforts.

Berneri, too, was an outspoken anti-Communist. Long a major intellectual in the anarchist camp, he was clearly targeted by name, and hauled from his house along with his brother-in-law Francesco Barbieri by a death squad. Their bodies turned up riddled with bullet holes the next morning.

There’s a collection of Berneri’s writings in English translation here, including one piece dated to the very day of his disappearance; also see this pdf of Berneri’s work. He was survived by his daughter, Marie-Louise Berneri, who herself became a noted anarchist activist of the 1940s.

* Orwell on Barcelona circa December 1936: “Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt … Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’ … Tipping was forbidden by law … revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”

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1913: Bonnot Gang members, anarchist illegalists

2 comments April 21st, 2013 Headsman

A century ago today, Raymond Caillemin, Elie Monnier and André Soudy were guillotined in Paris for their exploits with Third Republic France’s most celebrated band of anarchist bank-robbers, the Bonnot Gang.

It was actually not Bonnot but Octave Garnier who was the original moving spirit for the gang, which took shape in 1911 around a core of anarchist adherents to the philosophy of illegalism — criminality as resistance. The outlaws were revolutionaries, vegetarians, working-class. Though respectable anarchist communists fled from them, the philosophy bit wasn’t a pose.

“It’s because I didn’t want to live this life of present-day society, because I didn’t want to wait and maybe die before I’d lived, that I defended myself against the oppressors with all the means at my disposal,” Garnier wrote in a memoir discovered after he was killed in a police shootout.

To Garnier the gang owed its signature innovation of using automobiles: they were the first ever to use this novel machine to flee the scene of a crime after knocking over a Paris bank in December 1911. Between their internal combustion engine and their repeating rifles, they had a decided technological advantage on the police who pursued them.

For obvious reasons they were initially dubbed the “Auto Bandits.” But Jules Bonnot stole the marquee by marching into the office of La Petit Parisien in January 1912 to indignantly correct some of its reporting. The newspaper gave him an interview, and started branding the outlaws the “Bonnot Gang” (La bande a Bonnot), a name which has stuck for posterity and titles a 1968 film about them.

And the “Bonnot Gang” moved plenty of papers.

For the next three months, they would repeatedly crash the headlines on either side of the French-Belgian border by stealing cars to perpetrate new robberies, often shooting policemen and bank tellers into the bargain.

Meanwhile, they magnetized admirers and enemies alike with their Gallic intrepidity and self-confessedly impossible struggle. Garnier mailed his fingerprints to the police chief. Ground-down proletarians fell into their orbit, cracking bitter fatalistic jokes. Under the pen name La Retif, a young writer extolled the masculine, doomed outlaws: he was the Russian expatriate Victor Serge, at the start of a long revolutionary career.*

To shoot, in full daylight, a miserable bank clerk proved that some men have at least understood the virtues of audacity.

I am not afraid to own up to it: I am with the bandits. I find their role a fine one; I see the Men in them. Besides them I see only fools and nonentities.

Whatever may result, I like those who struggle. Perhaps it will make you die younger, or force you to experience the man-hunt and the penal colony; perhaps you will end up beneath the foul kiss of the guillotine. That may be! I like those who accept the risk of a great struggle. It is manly.

Besides, one’s destiny, whether as victor or vanquished, isn’t it preferable to sullen resignation and the slow interminable agony of the proletarian who will die in retirement, a fool who has gained nothing out of life?

The bandit, he gambles. He has therefore a few chances of winning. And that is enough.

The bandits show strength.

The bandits show audacity.

The bandits show their firm desire to live.

By April and May the authorities were finally overcoming the audacious bandits, though desires to live showed firm to the last: both Bonnot and Garnier were overcome and killed only after holding off protracted sieges against overwhelming numbers.

Although the headline attractions were gone, the ensuing massive trial soon fitted four for death:

  • Raymond Callemin, Serge’s own friend and reading-companion since childhood
  • Elie Monier (or Monnier), the onetime refugee draft-dodger whose will grandiloquently bequeathed to the Paris library his copy of Darwin, and to the Paris museum the pistol he was arrested with, provided it be engraved with the phrase “Thou Shalt Not Kill”
  • The sickly Andre Soudy, reckless in his outlaw adventure since tuberculosis that he was too poor to fend off already had him coughing his way to an earl grave
  • The joiner Eugene Dieudonne, a friend and compatriot of the gang members but not an actual bank-robber himself. Dieudonne was reprieved on April 20th and dispatched instead to the French penal colony at Devil’s Island

Other prison sentences from a few years up to a lifetime at hard labor were meted out to various other Bonnot gang members and fellow-travelers, several of whom showed themselves dedicated enough to their heroic fatalism to take their own lives. One who attempted an escape only to find himself stymied when he attained the roof of the prison worked fellow-inmates into a frenzied chant of Viva l’anarchie as he hurled slate shingles at the guards who treed him, then wrapped up the performance by hurling himself off the roof, too.

“I would have liked to eat black bread with black hands,” that man’s last testament read. “But I was forced to eat white bread with red hands.”

* Serge got himself in some hot water as an anti-Stalinist in the Soviet Union. Serge’s mature (1945) appraisal of his youthful infatuation with the Bonnot gang, as well as his first-person recollections of the Bonnot gang trial (which got Serge himself a five-year sentence) can be read here

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1892: Four anarchists in Jerez

Add comment February 10th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1892, four anarchists named Burique, Lamela, Lebrijano and Zarzuela were publicly garroted on a large stage in front of the prison at the Andalusian city of Jerez (or Xeres).


Via

Spain, like many other European states, grappled with anarchists in the late years of the 19th century.

Revolutionary peasants made the rich agricultural lands of Andalusia among the anarchist strongholds: the shadowy La Mano Negra, the “Black Hand”, had been smashed up with a number of executions in the early 1880s. This was not the end of agitation, however: its successor movement, Los Desheredades, “the Disinherited,” continued to grow.

On the night of January 9, 1892, a band of several hundred agricultural workers boldly raided Jerez in an attempt to free some anarchist prisoners. They were driven off after a night’s fearful fighting — a prototype “anarchist outrage” for headlines the world over. It was, for Federico Urales, “an act of dreams. Sticks and sickles to beat the well-fed lords of Jerez, from the men who starved to keep to keep their lands.” (Source, in Spanish)


From the Melbourne, Australia Argus, Jan. 11, 1892

“We know what the workers are: wicked people! With them, one has the bread in one hand, and the garrote in the other.” -from Vicente Blasco Ibanez’s La Bodega, in which the Jerez mutiny is a central theme. It’s available in the public domain in the original Spanish

Dozens of “outragers” were captured in hot pursuit that next morning. The investigation quickly honed in on the four ringleaders, who were put to death this date. One allegedly left a written statement conveniently renouncing anarchy. Another spoke from the platform, and “declared that he died in the cause of the working classes, and he appealed to the crowd not to respond by expressing sympathy.”*

But many others would suffer lengthy, non-capital sentences on evidence perhaps more expedient than rigorous. The poet Fermin Salvochea spent most of his fifties in prison on a spurious accusation of having conspired in the Jerez attack.

And these executions scarcely quelled Spain’s unrest. Angry cadres demonstrated (or rioted) against the executions throughout Iberia, provoking the familiar cycle of more police raids, more outrages, more martyrs … for years to come, and culminating in the indiscriminate arrests and mass torture of Barcelona anarchists in that city’s Montjuic Castle in in 1896-97

* From the Feb. 11, 1892 New York Times, which proceeds to describe the distinctive execution method thus:

[The garrote] is a brass collar, which is contracted by means of a screw in the back. As the screw is turned the collar shuts upon the neck of the condemned, and at the same time the sharpened steel point of the screw enters the spinal marrow where it joins with the brain, causing instantaneous death.

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1897: Five Barcelona anarchists

2 comments May 4th, 2012 Headsman

THE BARCELONA ANARCHISTS.

(Through Reuter’s Agency.)

BARCELONA, May 4.

The five Anarchists sentenced to death for complicity in the dynamite outrages here during the Corpus Christi procession last year were shot at 5 o’clock this morning in the moat of Monjuich Castle. The troops intrusted with the carrying out of the sentence fired repeated volleys at the criminals, who all met their doom calmly, their eyes fixed on the public, who were kept at a distance by a large force of soldiers. The condemned men, who all had their hands tied behind them, bowed to the public as they arrived at the scene of execution. Mas asked the firing party to come nearer. Nogues, Molas, and Alsina exclaimed: — “We are innocent! This is murder!” Just before the first volley was fired all cried together: — “Long live Anarchy! Long live Revolution!” Molas then gave the word for the soldiers to fire. Four of the prisoners fell dead immediately, but Alsina remained on his knees not even wounded. At the second volley he fell, but was not killed outright, and it was not till a third volley had been fired that he was pronounced to be dead. (London Times, May 5, 1897)

The “outrage” that occasioned the executions this date in 1897 was the previous June’s bombing of a Catholic processional, attributed by police to an unidentified anarchist and by anarchists to a police agent provocateur.*

Whoever chucked that egalitarian explosive triggered an outrage of the law, els procesos de Montjuic — wherein the wholesale arrest of hundreds of accused “terrorists” under a general suspension of civil liberties resulted not only in this day’s five executions but in countless tortures courtesy of the Inquisitorial equipment still on hand in the venerable Montjuic dungeons.

It was not only anarchists but liberals and republicans who felt the effects of this right-wing crackdown; 87 people were tried in camera by drumhead military tribunals under emergency antiterrorist legislation. Notary Salvador Dali Cusi, father of the famous painter, appeared as a defense witness in one trial, successfully persuading the court that one of his lefty friends nevertheless sported impeccable patriotic credentials and required “merely” exile.

The upshot of it all was to smash up the militant Catalan working class.

Said smashing notably failed to settle the small matter of who actually threw the bomb. As per their dying proclamations, it almost certainly had nothing to do with Lluís Mas, Josep Molas, Antoni Nogués and Joan Alsina — men who were alleged by the state to have been party to an ambitious bombing campaign all over the city. This campaign never went off and the only evidence supplied for its existence came from men tortured to describe it.

Tomas Ascheri, a militant anarchist whose confession helped get the others shot, has long been suspected a police plant, a hypothesis at odds with Ascheri’s shared presence at the wrong end of the firing squad this date. Occam’s Razor — and somebody probably used an Occam’s Razor on Ascheri in between the thumbscrews and the strappado — suggests that the guy’s betrayal was likewise nothing but an inability to withstand “enhanced interrogation.” (Nogues and Mas also signed “confessions” under torture. This public-domain Spanish text by another post-Corpus Christi torture victim denounces that nation’s methods both in Montjuic and in the Philippines.)

Torture in Spain, torture in Russia … the danse macabre proceeds in the dungeons of Mont-juich and St. Petersburg.

-Kropotkin, April 1897

Ongoing state violence in turn invited reciprocation.

Over in England, the Italian anarchist Michele Angiolillo was incensed by the executions, and the tortures suffered by Spanish refugees who had fled to England. “Angiolillo saw, and the effect surpassed a thousand theories,” wrote Emma Goldman. “The impetus was beyond words, beyond arguments, beyond himself even.”

Angiolillo made his way to Spain. On August 8, he joined the great tradition of anarchist avengers by assassinating the torture-happy Prime Minister, Antonio Canovas del Castillo.

* The argument for a false flag operation is a circumstantial one: the parade included a number of high muckity-mucks, like a right-wing general and the Bishop of Barcelona, detested by anarchists … and yet the bomber managed to let all the VIPs pass and attack only a knot of common people at the tail end of the train.

According to this book, a French journalist later reported that one of his countrymen by the name of Jean Girault, a genuine albeit “misguided” anarchist, did the deed. Girault fled to France and eventually to Argentina.

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1894: Six anarchists in Barcelona

1 comment May 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1894, on the very day that anarchist terrorist par excellence Emile Henry was guillotined in Paris, six more anarchists were executed by firing squad outside Barcelona’s Montjuich Fortress.

Mariano Cerezuela, Bernat Siveval, Jaime Sogas, Jose Codina, Villarubbia, and Manuel Archs were condemned just weeks prior by a military court for complicity in the attempted assassination earlier that year of Spanish Marshal Arsenio Martinez Campos. Some had originally been rounded up in the general anti-anarchist crackdown after the bombing of the Liceu theater … although another man would be put to death for authoring that crime later in 1894.

Only one of their number, Sogas, died penitent.

In the report of the London Times (May 22, 1894),

[t]he condemned men were conveyed from the chapel, where they had spent the night, to the place of execution by an underground passage, the first two to appear being Sogas and Cerezuela. The former, who confessed last night, joined in the prayers offered by the priest, and he and Cerezuela walked quietly to their doom. The other prisoners, however, shouted all kinds of revolutionary cries. The convicts were placed in line, and at the first shot they all fell to the ground. It was found, however, that in the case of Sogas and Codina the bullets had not taken effect, and a second shot was necessary.

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1931: Severino Di Giovanni, anarchist

1 comment February 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Italian anarchist Severino di Giovanni was shot in Buenos Aires for a terroristic bombing campaign.

Having just cracked his twenties, the young Abruzzo native fled to Argentina with the rise of Benito Mussolini.

Argentina was a popular destination for Italian emigrants, so Giovanni landed right in a yeasty community of emigre anarchists. And Argentine anarchists, for that matter: anarchism burgeoned in early 20th century Buenos Aires.

Giovanni was among the most active — and most vocal. He founded his own paper, Culmine, to advocate his brand of propaganda of the deed.

Its pages summoned comrades to arms in support of those worldwide icons condemned in Massachusetts, Sacco and Vanzetti.

Iconoclasts! Rebels against all oppression and injustice! Young temperaments uncowed by all the storms of life, the time has come when we must COOPERATE with all our powers in order to save the lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the revolutionary dignity which moves us. Let us light the fuse on the dynamite of vengeance! Let us destroy the obscene caste of slavers and let us commit ourselves to the most desperate struggle for the complete liberty of the two inmates of the jail at Charlestown!”

And Giovanni wasn’t just messing around.

Though little-known to present day Anglophones, Severino Di Giovanni was one of the most energetically committed anarchist terrorists in history, and a giant (and controversial, among his comrades) on the Argentine anarchist scene.

Further to Sacco and Vanzetti’s cause, Giovanni bombed the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires (withstanding police torture upon his subsequent arrest), a George Washington statue, a Ford Motor Company concession, a tobacco firm attempting to commercialize the Sacco and Vanzetti name, and U.S. banks as part of his campaign. After Sacco and Vanzetti’s execution, Giovanni attempted to orchestrate a strike on the American President-elect Herbert Hoover during his state visit to the southern cone.

The Braintree martyrs were far from Giovanni’s sole concern, however; late in the 1920s his circle authored a number of bombing attacks on various targets of reactionary violence and bourgeois complacency, including the Italian embassy, locally-based fascists, and possibly even the editor of one of the rival anarchist journals that opposed his dynamite-oriented politics.

Spending monotonous hours among the common people, the resigned ones, the collaborators, the conformists; that isn’t living, that’s a vegetative existence, simply the transport, in ambulatory form, of a mass of flesh and bones. Life needs the exquisite sublimity experienced by rebellion of mind and arm.

Haters gonna hate, and collaborators gonna collabor-ate.

The anarchists who’d been complaining that Giovanni’s bomb-chucking would only make a right-wing coup more likely must have been in full I-told-you-so mode when a right-wing coup happened in 1930. Weeks later, Giovanni was finally taken in a firefight, along with his comrade Paulino Scarfo.

In a drumhead military tribunal, their lawyer was so impolitic in his advocacy that he himself was arrested after the sham proceedings, and eventually deported.

Giovanni met his firing squad fusillade with an energetic “Evviva l’Anarchia!” Scarfo shared his fate a few hours later.

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1911: Sugako Kanno, radical feminist

Add comment January 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1911, Japanese anarchist writer Sugako (“Suga”) Kanno was executed for the High Treason Incident — the only woman ever hanged for treason in Japan.

Radicalized by suffering rape in her teens, Kanno was known for her discomfiting engagement with Japan’s unsettled “woman question.”

More to the point, she was one of the handful of the treason trial subjects who was directly involved in the actual plot to assassinate the emperor. (Her diaries are full of anguish for those tried with her who were merely guiltly by association.)

Kanno is often subsumed in retrospective accounts by Shusui Kotoku, the more famous male anarchist who was also her lover.

But Kanno was also one of her country’s first female journalists, first notable feminists … a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, and a radical intellectual in her own right.

Her voluminous diaries in the run-up to her hanging are reprinted in Reflections on the Way to the Gallows: Rebel Women in Prewar Japan.

[E]ven among anarchists I was among the more radical thinkers [she told her interrogators]. When I was imprisoned in June 1908 in connection with the Red Flag incident I was outraged at the brutal behavior of the police. I concluded that a peaceful propagation of our principles could not be conducted under these circumstances. It was necessary to arouse the people’s awareness by staging riots or a revolution or by undertaking assassinations … Emperor Mutsuhito, compared with other emperors in history, seems to be popular with the people and is a good individual. Although I feel sorry for him personally, he is, as emperor, the chief person responsible for the exploitation of the people economically. Politically he is at the root of all the crimes being committed, and intellectually he is the fundamental cause of superstitious belief. A person in such a position, I concluded, must be killed.

Succinct. Little wonder she admired Russian assassin Sophia Perovskaya … and that she shared Perovskaya’s fate.

She mounted the scaffold escorted by guards on both sides. Her face was covered quickly by a white cloth … She was then ordered to sit upright on the floor. Two thin cords were placed around her neck. The floor-board was removed. In twelve minutes she was dead.

-newspaper account

Sugako Kanno is profiled more extensively in Treacherous Women of Imperial Japan: Patriarchal Fictions, Patricidal Fantasies.

She was back in the news in 2010 when a long-hidden secret message of hers surfaced, corroborating the orthodox historical take that while Kanno was up to her eyeballs in a real plot to murder the emperor, Shusui Kotoku was not part of it.

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1911: Shusui Kotoku and ten other anarchists

4 comments January 24th, 2011 Headsman

A century ago today, eleven Japanese anarchists were hanged for plotting the assassination of the Emperor.

Radical journalist Shusui Kotoku challenged Meiji Japan from the insurrectionary anarchist left.

A socialist early on — he helped translate The Communist Manifesto into Japanese — Kotoku turned towards anarchism when he read Kropotkin while serving time for opposing the Russo-Japanese War. He “had gone [to jail] as a Marxian Socialist,” he said, “and returned as a radical Anarchist.”

After his release, and a trip to America which had just birthed the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, Kotoku returned to Japan as his nation’s patriarch of anarchism.*

All of this, naturally, drew a Sarah Palin-sized targetsurveyors’ symbol on Kotoku’s back.

So, when police uncovered an apparent plot by other radicals to off Emperor Meiji, and opportunistically used it to sweep up as fellow-travelers a nationwide “conspiracy” of twenty-plus alleged plotters, Kotoku was naturally one of the bad apples they were pleased to indict.**

The twelve ultimately doomed to death were slated to receive their judicially appointed sanctions on this occasion, just six days after conviction. (The rest of the anarchist movement was harshly suppressed in the years ahead.)

Among the most noteworthy of these Japanese Saccos and Vanzettis:

The first eleven (all men) took so long that the twelfth doomed soul, Suga Kanno — Kotoku’s lover and a genuine bomb-plot participant, who enjoys the distinction of being the only woman her country ever hanged for treason — had her execution put off to the 25th for want of daylight.

Though he’s never been officially [judicially] exonerated, Kotoku’s native Nakamura voted in 2000 to declare his rehabilitation. A secret letter that surfaced only in 2010 appears to support that position.

* Shusui Kotoku in turn greatly influenced Chinese anarchism.

Some of Kotoku’s writing is available online in Japanese here.

** George Elison translated a Kotoku Shusui letter denying any interest in the anarchist assassination racket. It appears as “Discussion of Violent Revolution, From a Jail Cell,” in the Vol. 22, No. 3/4 (1967) Monumenta Nipponica.

How is the anarchist revolution to be brought about if not by bomb-throwing attempts upon the life of the sovereign? The Japanese word for “revolution” — kakumei — is Chinese in origin. In China, the term was used to describe the process in which the emperor of dynasty A, receiving the Mandate of Heaven, replaced the emperor of dynasty B; so it signified mainly the change of emperors, the change of sovereigns. Our “revolution” has quite a different meaning. We do not place much value upon the mere transfer of power between potentates; we do not use the word “revolution” except to mean a fundamental change in the governmental system and in the organization of society.

… they who for the sake of universal peace and liberty participate in this revolution must endeavor as best they can to avoid violence, to avoid producing victims to the revolution. For it seems that the great revolutions of the past were accompanied by much violence and required a great number of victims … I only hope for the disappearance of the misconception that the anarchist revolution has as its objective the assassination of the sovereign …

the prosecution and the examiners first put the title “Violent Revolution” to what I had said and contrived the stern-sounding phrase “death-defying band,” with other similar phrases. And I believe they condemned us under this syllogism: “The anarchist revolution is concerned with the destruction of the Imperial Family. But Kotoku’s plan was to carry out a revolution by violence. Therefore, all who were party to this plot planned to commit the crime of High Treason.” So the fact that these people used to discuss such things as direct action and the revolutionary movement has now served to get them into trouble! This I deeply regret.

On the other hand, Kotoku openly celebrated the assassination of Ito Hirobumi by a Korean nationalist.

Part of the Daily Double: The High Treason Incident.

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1927: Sacco and Vanzetti (and Celestino Madeiros)

10 comments August 23rd, 2010 Headsman

America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die

-Allen Ginsberg, “America” (mp3)

We have now reached a stage of the case the details of which shake one’s confidence in the whole course of the proceedings and reveal a situation which undermines the respect usually to be accorded to a jury’s verdict.

-Felix Frankfurter in The Atlantic

America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul

their hired men sit on the judge`s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants

they have built the electricchair and hired the executioner to throw the switch

all right we are two nations

. . .

but do they know the old words of the immigrants are being renewed in blood and agony tonight do they know the old American speech of the haters of oppression is new tonight in the mouth of an old woman from Pittsburgh of a husky boilermaker from Frisco who hopped freights clear from the Coast to come here …

the men in the deathhouse made the old words new before they died.

John Dos Passos, The Big Money (part of the U.S.A. trilogy)

Let us abandon then our gardens and go home
And sit in the sitting room.
Shall the larkspur blossom or the corn grow under this cloud?
Sour to the fruitful seed
Is the cold earth under this cloud,
Fostering quack and weed, we have marched upon but cannot conquer;
We have bent the blades of our hoes against the stalks of them.

Let us go home, and sit in the sitting room.
Not in our day
Shall the cloud go over and the sun rise as before,
Beneficent upon us
Out of the glittering bay,
And the warm winds be blown inward from the sea
Moving the blades of corn
With a peaceful sound.
Forlorn, forlorn,
Stands the blue hay-rack by the empty mow.
And the petals drop to the ground,
Leaving the tree unfruited.
The sun that warmed our stooping backs and withered the weed uprooted
We shall not feel it again.
We shall die in darkness, and be buried in the rain.

What from the splendid dead
We have inherited —
Furrows sweet to the grain, and the weed subdued —
See now the slug and the mildew plunder.
Evil does overwhelm
The larkspur and the corn;
We have seen them go under.

Let us sit here, sit still,
Here is the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children`s children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.

-Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Justice Denied in Massachusetts”

If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph.

-Bartolomeo Vanzetti


Ben Shahn, The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti

A recently discovered letter indicates that Upton Sinclair was convinced of his subjects’ guilt.

“Alone in a hotel room with Fred [Moore], I begged him to tell me the full truth … He then told me that the men were guilty, and he told me in every detail how he had framed a set of alibis for them … I faced the most difficult ethical problem of my life at that point … I had come to Boston with the announcement that I was going to write the truth about the case.”

But Sinclair had reasons beyond the “ethical” to tell what he saw as the larger truth. From a different letter:

“My wife is absolutely certain that if I tell what I believe, I will be called a traitor to the movement and may not live to finish the book … Of course, the next big case may be a frame-up, and my telling the truth about the Sacco-Vanzetti case will make things harder for the victims … It is much better copy as a naïve defense of Sacco and Vanzetti because this is what all my foreign readers expect, and they are 90% of my public.”

Well, the dying time came, the legal midnight hour,
The moment set by law for the Chair to be at work,
To substantiate the majesty of the State of Massachusetts
That hour was at hand, had arrived, was struck by the clocks,
The time for two men to be carried cool on a cooling board
Beyond the immeasurably thin walls between day and night,
Beyond the reach of airmail, telegrams, radiophones,
Beyond the brotherhoods of blood into the fraternities
Of mist and foggy dew, of stars and ice.
 The time was on for two men
 To march beyond blood into dust —
 A time that comes to all men,
 Some with a few loved ones at a bedside,
 Some alone in the wilderness or the wide sea,
 Some before a vast audience of all manking.

 Now Sacco saw the witnesses
 As the straps were fitted on
 Tying him down in the Chair —
 And seeing the witnesses were
Respectable men and responsible citizens
And even though there had been no introductions,
 Sacco said, “Good-evening, gentlemen.”
And before the last of the straps was fastened so to hold
Sacco murmured, “Farewell, mother.”

Then came Vanzetti.
He wished the vast audience of all mankind
To know something he carried in his breast.
This was the time to tell it.
He had to speak now or hold his peace forever.
The headgear was being clamped on.
The straps muffling his mouth were going on.
He shouted, “I wish to forgive some people
  for what they are now doing.”
 And so now
 the dead are dead????

-Carl Sandburg, “Legal Midnight Hour”


(The executions took place just after midnight Aug. 22-23)

THE names of the “good shoe-maker and poor fish-peddler” have ceased to represent merely two Italian workingmen. Throughout the civilised world Sacco and Vanzetti have become a symbol, the shibboleth of Justice crushed by Might. That is the great historic significance of this twentieth century crucifixion, and truly prophetic, were the words of Vanzetti when he declared, “The last moment belongs to us–that agony is our triumph.”

Vanzetti was right when he declared that his execution was his greatest triumph, for all through history it has been the martyrs of progress that have ultimately triumphed. Where are the Caesars and Torquemadas of yesterday? Who remembers the names of the judges who condemned Giordano Bruno and John Brown? The Parsons and the Ferrers, the Saccos and Vanzettis live eternal and their spirits still march on.

-Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, “Sacco and Vanzetti”

Starting points for the many Sacco and Vanzetti resources online: Famous American Trials | Wikipedia | Massachusetts Supreme Court virtual tour | American Writers and the Sacco-Vanzetti Case

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Massachusetts,Murder,Myths,Pelf,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1878: Max Hödel

4 comments August 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1878, journeyman tinsmith Max Hödel was beheaded in Berlin’s New Prison for taking a potshot at Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Nothing daunted by the prospect of trading his life for an 81-year-old* man’s, this propagandist of the deed tried to kill the conservative German emperor in May of 1878. He missed his target, but killed a bystander.

(Hodel’s cover story that he was just trying to blow his own brains out, not shoot the emperor, was belied by a number of hints he had given to others prior to the attack — e.g., telling a photographer who took his picture that the photo would soon be worth thousands.)

Just weeks after Hodel’s miss, another unsuccessful attempt to kill the emperor was undertaken by Karl Nobiling. Though Nobiling died of self-inflicted injuries, Hodel had to make do with decapitation.

Reichstag fire-like, these two outrages provided the Reich sufficient pretext to outlaw the Social Democratic Party** — even though the gunmen were much more radical types than this. (Hodel himself had previously been booted from the SDP.)

Germans having taken a front-row seat to the Paris Commune just a few years before, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had no intention of allowing radical organizing of any variety to pick up any steam.

Coincidentally, our day’s protagonist shares an execution date with the next generation’s (better) anarchist assassin, Sante Geronimo Caserio — guillotined 16 Aug. 1894 for killing the French president.

* And he was right: nature didn’t take its course with Kaiser Wilhelm for nine more years; he missed outliving his own son and heir by a mere three months.

** Engels — writing polemically, of course — reckons over 11,000 political prisoners arrested from 1879 to 1880 alone.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Notable for their Victims,Power,Revolutionaries,Treason

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