1952: Johann Burianek, East German saboteur

Add comment August 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1952, Johann Burianek became the first person executed by East Germany.

A machinist and a World War II Wehrmacht soldier, Burianek (English Wikipedia entry | German) caught a one-year sentence in the postwar Communist East Germany for having the misbegotten initiative in the dying days of the war to go out of his way to arrest a deserter who was nearly executed as a result.

From about 1950 he became affiliated with the western-back anti-communist resistance network Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (KgU) — Strike Force Against Inhumanity. Crossing liberally between East and West Berlin, which easy movement East German authorities were fretting, Burianek had a two-year stint irritating the German Democratic Republic with graffiti, subversive posters, and eventually, sabotage.

He was arrested in March 1952 shortly ahead of what would have been his derringest do, the bombing of a rail bridge; a judge named Hilde Benjamin, who in the course of 1950s show trials made her name synonymous with politically motivated severity,* hammered him with a demonstrative sentence** — the very first judicial execution meted out by the DDR, in fact. It was administered in Dresden by beheading with a fallbeil.

* Benjamin, who died on the eve of the Berlin Wall‘s fall, enjoys a poor reputation in the post-Cold War state with a variety of uncomplimentary sobriquets to prove it — such as the “Red Guillotine” and “Red Freisler“.

** She would also impose the death sentence against a fellow KgU operative, Wolfgang Kaiser, who went under the fallbeil five weeks after Burianek.

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1951: Ants Kaljurand, Estonian Forest Brother

Add comment March 13th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1951, the Estonian anti-Soviet partisan Ants Kaljurand was executed by the NKVD with comrades Arved Pildin and Juhan Metsäären.

Renowned for his ferocity and derring-do, “Ants the Terrible” was among 12,000 to 15,000 or so Estonian “Forest Brothers” who organized armed resistance to the Soviet Union.

The small Baltic state had won a two-decade interwar independence rudely terminated by Soviet occupation in 1940 under the carving-up done by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moscow did not have long to enjoy its mastery of the place before Germany’s invasion swapped one occupation for the other.

German mastery appeared the more congenial than Russian,* and vice versa: Tallinn-born Nazi race theorist Alfred Rosenberg celebrated “the true culture bearer for Europe … the Nordic race. Great heroes, artists and founders of states have grown from this blood. It built the massive fortresses and sacred cathedrals. Nordic blood composed and created those works of music which we revere as our greatest revelations. … Germany is Nordic, and the Nordic element has had an effect, type forming, also upon the western, Dinaric and east Baltic races.”**

Germany had some traction recruiting SS volunteers locally, and Estonia’s small Jewish population was exterminated so efficiently with the aid of right-wing militias that the country was officially Judenfrei by the time of the Wannsee Conference. (Kaljurand himself was an Omakaitse paramilitary.)

Once Germany was pushed back out by the Red Army in 1944 there were thousands of Estonian fighting-men prepared to bear arms against the new-old boss: one part a desperate hope of resuming the pre-war independence, two parts fatalistic principle. “We understood that it is better to die in the forest with a weapon in your hands than in a Soviet camp,” an ex-Forest Brother pensioner told the New York Times in 2003.

For a few years** after World War II, the harassment of Forest Brothers pricked Soviet authority, but as elsewhere in the Baltics the contest was impossibly unequal for guerrillas far from any hope of aid in a post-Yalta world. Ants the Terrible was captured in 1949 by which time the movement, ruthlessly hunted, was waning away. It was finally stamped out in the early 1950s, but in the post-Soviet Estonia — independent once again — these resisters have been belatedly celebrated as patriots.

* “In Estonia it was hard for us to live, much less operate,” a Soviet partisan in Estonia reported. “At partisan training, they told us that the people were waiting for us to drive out the Germans … But we were never told that we’d be assaulted by the Estonians themselves.” (From War in the Woods: Estonia’s Struggle for Survival 1944-1956, a source extremely laudatory of the Forest Brothers.)

** From Rosenberg’s magnum opus, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. It’s not all sunshine for the eastern Baltic race in Rosenberg’s cosmology; “mixed as it is with a Mongol element,” these types are “pliant clay either in the hands of Nordic leadership or under Jewish and Mongol tyrants. [The eastern Baltic] sings and dances, but as easily murders and ravages.”

† One of the last Forest Brothers in the field, August Sabbe, was only caught in 1978 at the age of 69. He died in the arrest, either murdered by his KGB pursuers or resolutely quick-witted enough to drown himself to escape interrogation.

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1946: Public Execution in Debica

1 comment July 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1946, market day in the southeastern Polish town of Debica, three captured fighters* from the anti-communist Freedom and Independence (WiN) movement were publicly hanged.

This salutary, and surprise, hanging was a nasty public message during the dirty post-war war to consolidate communist authority in Poland.

The message, however, was not exactly meant for a world wider than Poland itself, so the fact that it was captured in a grainy photograph snapped by WiN agent Józef Stec and subsequently smuggled out to the West was not at all to the liking of Polish authorities.

According to a WiN eyewitness report also presumed to have been filed by Stec,

First the MO [local militia], the UB, and the military occupied the execution square holding their machine guns ready to fire. Then, a car came with uniformed individuals who placed the noose on the hook. After a short time the same car brought three condemned men in white shirts. Their hands and legs were tied with barbed wire. A Jewish prosecutor read the sentence and passed the condemned into the hands of the executioner. Before the execution, one of the condemned yelled: “Long live the Home Army. Long live General Anders and General Bor-Komorowski. Down with the commies. Brothers persevere or you’ll die like us. I swear before God that I have never been a bandit [as communist authorities designated them]. I am dying for the Motherland. Lord forgive them [the executioners] because they know not what they are doing.

* The victims were Józef Grebosz, Józef Kozlowski, and Franciszek Noster, according to the 2003 monograph After the Holocaust: Polish-Jewish conflict in the wake of World War II, by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. This monograph is also the source for Stec’s quoted report on the hanging.

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1946: Andrei Vlasov, turncoat Soviet general

3 comments August 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Soviet Gen. Andrei Vlasov and 11 fellow members of the Russian Liberation Army were condemned to death in Moscow for German collaboration, and immediately hanged.*

Vlasov was at the peak of his career at the outset of World War II, and earned a decoration for his part in defending Moscow against the Nazi invasion.

So far fortunate, the Red Army ran him out at the head of an army mounting an ill-fated attempt to lift the withering Siege of Leningrad.

Vlasov was encircled and captured.

And then, as a German prisoner, he switched sides.

The conversion of a top Soviet general, who now professed anti-bolshevism, was a stupefying propaganda coup for Germany, and the recent hero of Moscow was quickly employed authoring anti-Soviet leaflets and persuading POWs of the virtues of working for Berlin.

Somewhat more guarded were the Germans when it came to forming up the military unit our defector was supposed to be head of, the Russian Liberation Army, a phantom force of patriotic anti-communist Russians fighting for their country’s self-determination free of Uncle Joe.


By hanging other Russians from trees.

In reality, this “army” didn’t exist beyond the patches slapped onto the various anti-Soviet Russians who signed up to fight against the motherland. And it’s not too hard to reckon why.

Though Russian nationalism might be an expedient club to beat the Red Army with, it was just as liable to boomerang on a Reich itself bent on eastward expansion. A German interrogator of Vlasov in 1942 writing of the captive officer’s notions of national renewal concluded his report editorially (Russian link), “Russia for hundreds of years has constantly threatened Germany, regardless of whether it was the tsarist or the Bolshevik regime. Germany is not interested in reviving the Russian state.”

Besides, given the Nazis’ racial ideology, could these Slavs be trusted in a pinch? Enough to hand them their own command structure? The thousands of eastern front POWs who volunteered to serve Berlin could be suspected of having made the devil’s choice due less to principled anti-Stalinism than the fearful privations of a German camp. (Vlasov himself is often accused of changing teams for some venal reason of cowardice or greed.)

Only late in 1944, when the prospective long-term problems of Russian nationalism had been rendered academic to Berlin by the progress of the war, did the scattered collaborator units get organized into an actual army under Vlasov’s command.

The ineffectual ROA only got into one real scrap with the Red Army, and confirmed German suspicions about Slavic reliability in the last days of the war by turning its German guns against the SS in support of the Czechs’ Prague Uprising.

But surely nobody counted on returning to Stalin’s good graces with this last-second conversion.

From that successful engagement, Vlasov’s men fled out of Prague towards the American occupation zone, desperate not to be taken by the Red Army.

They made it. But after just a few days in American hands, Vlasov was turned over at a Russian checkpoint.

Though structured by the Allied powers’ Yalta accords, which stipulated repatriation into Stalin’s hands of any Soviet citizens held in the West, Vlasov’s handover might at the moment have been part of what must have been innumerable quid pro quo arrangements to sort out command and control in the disaster area late dignified as the Third Reich.

Historian Patricia Wadley has hypothesized that Vlasov’s detention by the Soviets conditioned the landing just an hour later of an airlift to evacuate the airman’s POW camp Stalag Luft I from behind Soviet lines.

However they got their hands on him, the Soviets made no mistake once they had him. Most of Vlasov’s junior officers were executed, and his rank and file dispatched to Siberia. The brass got a three-day trial — in camera, not a show trial; they were still defiant — from July 30 to August 1, with the inescapable result.

Vlasov’s legacy after the fact remains debatable. In the official Soviet story, of course, he’s a Nazi collaborator and that’s that. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attempted to vindicate Vlasov in The Gulag Archipelago, and one can find pro-Vlasov posts and tributes — but post-Communist Russia has shown no interest in overturning the verdicts against the ROA.

One might allow him sincerity in his convictions, but only at the cost of allowing that his movement had no independent force in the war save what Germany breathed into it for Germany’s own reasons. Something like that holds true for nearly every human being caught up in the eastern front in those terrible years.

Some have characterized Vlasov a vile collaborator; others have seen him as a Russian national hero. Neither description quite fits. Andrei Andreevich Vlasov, given to drink and fits of fatalism and inertia in captivity, lacked the sterling character deemed essential for a martyr. On the other hand, the ROA chief was anything but a Nazi — he caused his German supporters discomfort with his strong Russian nationalism and his personal refusal to lend his voice to the prevailing, official anti-semitism. He possessed neither a Quisling‘s moral blindness to questions of patriotism nor a Joan of Arc‘s penchant for self-immolation. He came closer to the mean of most humans, aptly personifying the nightmarish predicament which confronted millions of the Eastern Front’s victims. Vlasov, like multitudes of other helpless Soviet citizens, was cruelly pulverized between the enormous and unfeeling millstones of Nazism and Communism. Shuffled about Europe’s wargame board, first by Stalin, then by Hitler, Vlasov was a pawn in the epic struggle just like the lowliest POW or forced laborer. He fantasized a Russia minus Marx, and though his failure was complete, he still came closer than any other Russian since the Civil War to fulfilling that dream.

-Mark Elliott, “Andrei Vlasov: Red Army General in Hitler’s Service,” Military Affairs, Apr. 1982

* Vlasov’s execution was announced in Pravda on Aug. 2, but with no reference to the precise time. (The sentence was certainly issued in the very early morning of Aug. 1.) Though some sources continue to list Aug. 2 as Vlasov’s execution date, Aug. 1 seems much better attested.

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1963: Four Cubans as CIA spies

Add comment November 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1963, the Cuban government shot four of its citizens as “counterrevolutionaries” and CIA spies — capping a week that had seen 13 such executions in all at Havana’s Cabana Fortress.

This date’s batch consisted of (per the Nov. 15, 1963 New York Times) Argimiro Fonseca Fernandez, Wilfredo Alfonso Ibanez, Israel Rodriguez Lima and Erasmo Machin Garcia; they were supposed to have scouted spots around the island for a potential landing of invading exiles. For some reason, Cuba was paranoid about the possibility.

Four others — Antonio Cobelas Rodriguez, Orlando Sanchez Saraza, Juan M. Milian Rodriguez and Jose S. Bolanos Morales, according to the Nov. 13 New York Times — had been shot on Nov. 12 for similar crimes; they had supposedly attempted to make an armed landing on a boat out of Florida. Five others (whose names I have not located) were reported executed on Nov. 8.

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1991: Barrios Altos massacre

3 comments November 3rd, 2010 Michael Baney

(Thanks to Michael Baney for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1991, a Peruvian death squad showed up at the wrong party, and altered its country’s history.

In 1980 the Communist Party of Peru, better known as the Shining Path, launched its “People’s War,” which was never actually supported by the majority of Peruvians. Latin America had had its share of Marxist revolts, but this one was different from the others. There was nothing romantic about the revolutionaries, who wore plain clothes rather than uniforms, attacked the civilian population rather than invest significant capital to win them over to the Shining Path cause, and rose up in an effort to overthrow a democracy rather than a dictatorship.

The Shining Path was based mainly in Andean villages, but once they began to take serious losses in their own territory, they made a concerted effort to accelerate the war by pushing into the capital city, Lima. Both the Shining Path and the Peruvian military were committing deplorable human rights violations by the time Alberto Fujimori was elected president in 1990, although the vast majority of the violence had been confined to the hinterlands of the country up until then.

With Fujimori’s election, more urban-based death squad activities began. Perhaps the most famous was the November 3, 1991 massacre in the Barrios Altos neighborhood of Lima, a poor barrio only a few minutes’ drive away from the Congress and the Presidential Palace.

The murders are described in great detail in this old US government document (pdf) once classified as secret, but since declassified thanks to the efforts of expert Tamara Feinstein of the National Security Archive.

This date’s incident occurred when members of Grupo Colina (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a death squad that was part of the Army Intelligence Service, believed that they had identified a group of Shining Path militants having a pollada, which is a traditional fundraiser in Peru where a party is held so that chicken and beer can be sold to the neighbors. (Here’s a description, in Spanish)

A Grupo Colina squad drove to the building where this terrorist pollada was supposed to be taking place, lined the partygoers up, and extrajudicially executed them with submachine guns with silencers that the army had provided the group for the operation. Then the leader of the group, Santiago Martin Rivas, shot a young child who came running over to the body of his father. The troops got back into their vehicles, turned on their sirens to appear like they were the police in an effort to shift blame over the killings, and got drunk at the beach to celebrate.

Almost immediately it became clear that the death squad members had completely screwed up their hit.

The people who had been murdered were indeed having a pollada … not to fund the Shining Path’s Maoist agrarian war, but to fix the pipes in their building

And it transpired that that fateful night of Nov. 3, there was a different pollada being held on a different floor in the very same building. The participants of that other party fled the building, never to return. There were reports that upon searching the rooms of those who fled, police uncovered many issues of El Dario, the Shining Path newspaper.

If Grupo Colina indeed crashed the wrong party, then it not only slaughtered a bunch of innocent people — it helpfully tipped the Shining Path to the fact that the army was onto them.

In any event, the executions became a media spectacle and the police had to at least go through the motions of investigating them. At first, the government suggested that the murders might have been actually carried out by the Shining Path, and as evidence of this theory they showed that one of the people who had been killed was previously a member of a Ronda, which is a peasant patrol group that fought against cattle rustling and, in some cases, the Shining Path. But it later turned out that the man had been a member of the Rondas many years before and hundred of miles away from the killings, and it seemed extremely improbable that the Shining Path would even bother to target him.

By December 4, 1991, the US embassy in Lima was informing the Secretary of State that the Peruvian government lacked the political will to investigate the murders, and had lied about whether or not the guns used in the extrajudicial executions were equipped with silencers in “an apparently deliberate attempt to obfuscate the situation.”

The Congress created a committee to investigate the crimes, which was a real threat to the Fujimori government because the Fujimoristas did not have a majority in Congress.

This ceased to be a problem on April 5, 1992, when Fujimori suspended the Congress, permanently disbanded the Senate, and fired a good number of the judges in the country, all in total violation of the Constitution. That ended the investigation.

Under pressure from the international community, a new Congress stacked with Fujimoristas was convened to write a new Constitution, and the investigation of the Barrios Altos killing nominally restarted. When the Congress called Nicolas Hermoza Rios de Bari, the Chairman of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces to testify, he took the oppotunity to remind the Congress that the military would never tolerate being “insulted.” When hearings continued, Hermoza Rios held an impromptu tank parade directly in front of the Congress. The few brave Congressmen and women who actually desired to expose the truth about the killings got the message loud and clear: the case would never go anywhere as long as Fujimori remained president.

When it finally looked like the perpetrators might be punished, for example, Fujimori rammed a law through the Congress that provided a general amnesty to everyone who had violated human rights “in defense of the fatherland.” When a judge ruled the amnesty law unconstitutional, Fujimori’s Congress stripped the power of judicial review from the courts in cases of amnesty laws.

In a very real sense, the Peruvian government had legalized illegality. Fujimori created a system in which there was no way to punish — or even investigate — murder so long as someone, somewhere considered the crime to have been committed for patriotic reasons.

All that changed in 2000, however, when Fujimori’s government collapsed amid scandal.

An opposition figure who vowed to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was sworn in as into office, and Peru reaffirmed its commitment to the American Convention on Human Rights. In 2001, in a groundbreaking decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in its Barrios Altos case that countries cannot issue an amnesty for “serious human rights violations.” The amnesty was thrown out and Grupo Colina members were arrested.

In 2007, Alberto Fujimori was extradited from Chile, where he had traveled, to Peru. In 2009, the Peruvian courts convicted Fujimori of a number of human rights abuses, including ordering the Barrios Altos murders. Just last month, justice was finally served when the members of Grupo Colina were convicted of murder, kidnapping, forced disappearance, and conspiracy, and were given various sentences ranging up to 25 years of prison. After 19 years, the Peruvian government has finally acknowledged that the extrajudicial executions that took place during that country’s cold war were crimes that must not go unpunished.

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1983: Maurice Bishop, Prime Minister of Grenada

Add comment October 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1983, Grenadian Prime Minister Maurice Bishop was shot with seven supporters during the chaotic struggle of power that precipitated a U.S. invasion.

The charismatic Bishop grew up on the small British Commonwealth island in the south Caribbean, attended the London School of Economics, and became the leader of the Marxist New Jewel Movement.

In 1979, Bishop and the NJM overthrew the paranormal government of Eric Gairy (he’s famous for his controversial judging in the wild 1970 Miss World pageant).

Leftist governments in the hemisphere were just the sort of thing to irk the Yankee hegemon. Collaboration with Cuba and Nicaragua to build an airstrip on Grenada … could that open the door for Soviet air support when the Sandinistas invaded Harlingen, Texas?

Ironically, it would be an intra-party Communist coup against the fellow-Communist Bishop that provided the pretext for said hegemon to stanch this existential threat.

A deputy, one Bernard Coard, ousted Bishop in October 1983, apparently a factional dispute in the NJM along ideological lines. Bishop broke out of house arrest and led a march on Coard’s position on this date, contesting his control of the government; the march was broken up and its leadership collared — and, later that day, disposed of.

The Reagan administration didn’t care two figs about Maurice Bishop, but a scene of general chaos offered it all the pretext necessary* to invade on Oct. 25. To save from the red menace, oh, let’s say, a few American med students, plus a little thing called the free world.

Whew!

Years later, that provocative airstrip bears Maurice Bishop’s name.

Audio of several Bishop speeches can be had here; others can be found on YouTube.

* Another possible precipitating factor: a U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon was spectacularly bombed by terrorists on Oct. 23, 1983, forcing (eventually) American withdrawal. The New Jewel Movement turned out to be an opponent more in Washington’s wheelhouse.

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1947: Nikola Petkov, “a dog’s death”

Add comment September 23rd, 2010 Headsman

At midnight as the calendar turned over to this date in 1947, anti-communist Bulgarian politician Nikola Petkov was hanged in Sofia’s central prison.

Petkov was a principal in a still-extant peasant party that briefly held state power in Bulgaria in the early 1920s.

His anti-fascist activities did him no favors as Bulgaria’s aligned with the Axis, and he spent the war touring his country’s internment camps.

The anti-fascist Fatherland Front that Petkov co-founded — allying with the Communist party in what would prove to be a Faustian bargain — had become the government by the end of the war, with Petkov in a ministerial role.

Unfortunately for Petkov, greater ministers of greater states were even then carving up spheres of influence in the postwar world. In the process, the Bulgarian statesman would get carved right out.

Here’s the blog of this critically acclaimed novel’s author.

With Bulgaria slated for the Soviet bloc and all its scary political purges, the Fatherland Front was soon controlled by the Communists. Petkov mounted brave but futile opposition as a Member of Parliament — until he was arrested in the parliament building itself, an apt image for Bulgaria’s entrance onto the Cold War chessboard as a red pawn.

The show trial and resultant death sentence “for having tried to overthrow the legal authority and restore Fascism in the country by conspiring with military organisations” briefly exercised western diplomats filing appeals and high-minded talk about justice during the summer of 1947.

Which stuff earned the derision of Bulgarian Premier Georgi Dimitrov, so Soviet-aligned that he was a Soviet citizen.

In this menacing speech to the Social Democrats the next January, his Don’t-Mess-With-TexasBulgaria umbrage at outside actors for having the temerity to object stands in ironic contrast to Dimitrov’s own history as a prewar international cause celebreback when he was unjustly accused in Nazi Germany for the Reichstag Fire.

So sauce for the goose-stepper is sauce for the dialectical materialist?

Negatory.

As you remember from this rostrum I many times warned your political allies from Nikola Petkov’s group. They did not listen to me. They took no notice of all my warnings. They broke their heads, and their leader is now under the ground. You should now think it over, lest you share their fate … When the trial against Nikola Petkov began you said “The court will not dare to sentence him to death. It would be too horrible. Both Washington and London will rise against it in order to stop it.” I said then: “Nobody can stop it. Those who may try to intervene from abroad will only worsen the position of the accused and his friends.’ What happened? What I said would happen. The court fulfilled its role, fulfilled the will of the people and sentenced the traitor to death.

Then you said: “If they execute the death sentence, the glass of patience will overflow. The whole world will rise against it, and all its wrath will fall on the back of the Bulgarian people.”

Of course, if there had been no interference from abroad, if they had not tried to dictate to the sovereign court, the head of Petkov could have been saved Yes, it could have been saved. His death sentence could have been commuted to another sentence. But when they tried to blackmail the Bulgarian people and question the authority of a sovereign court, it became necessary for the death sentence to be executed. And it was executed.

What happened then? Who rose against it in the country? Where were the demonstrations, the mutinies with which we were threatened? Nothing like that happened.

And what happened abroad? Not even decent diplomatic notes were delivered, which could have been expected. No one raised a hand in defense of Petkov. Some people in the West shouted for a while, but soon quietened (sic) down … The whole incident was soon forgotten.

-The Balkans In Our Time

Hard to say Dimitrov was wrong about that: just one week after Petkov’s execution, the United States officially recognized a Bulgarian state dedicated (so the U.S. State Department had only just declared) “to remov[ing] all save a purely nominal opposition and to consolidat[ing], despite its professions to the contrary, a totalitarian form of government.”

“To a dog, a dog’s death,” sneered the official trade union council about Petkov — a taunt liberally repeated by Radio Sofia.

The “dog” was posthumously rehabilitated in 1990, and now has the requisite post-Soviet public monuments.

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1938: Arkadi Berdichevsky, Jon Utley’s father

7 comments March 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Arkadi (or Arcadi) Berdichevsky, a Russian Jew run afoul of the (pre-KGB) NKVD, was executed in the Arctic Circle prison town of Vorkuta for leading a prisoners’ hunger strike.

Though the powerful whom Stalin purged are well-known to the student of Russian history, Berdichevsky is just one of the countless obscure Soviet citizens who disappeared into the gulag never to emerge again.

Berdichevsky had something most of his fellow-victims did not: an English wife.

Freda Utley and her son Jon Utley — the couple cannily gave the boy his mother’s foreign last name to make it easier to emigrate if it should come to that, as indeed it did — left the USSR and Freda’s communist youth for fame as (paleo)conservative giants.

While young Jon — just two years old when his father was whisked out of their Moscow flat by the spooks — came of age, Freda Utley naturalized as an American and turned against her former ideology with the zeal of the converted.

Berdichevsky’s widow, Freda Utley, published this book in 1940 about her disillusionment with communism. This work and many others by Utley are also available as free pdfs from FredaUtley.com.

She savaged the U.S. government officials who “lost China”, and testified at Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s behest in the latter’s 1950’s red-hunt. (Utley also supplied McCarthy some research. She defended Tailgunner Joe until her death in 1978.)

Along the way, Freda Utley learned the date of her husband’s death, but never the circumstances.

That discovery fell to Jon Utley, who made his own fortune in business and became a conservative activist/intellectual himself, notable for his anti-imperialist position. (Utley writes regularly for antiwar.com, and opposed the recent Iraq blunder.)

In 2004, Jon Utley finally obtained the remarkably detailed records revealing that it was a firing squad rather than cold or malnutrition that took his father’s life. Utley then personally visited the sites of that Calvary in the Komi region of Russia.

Jon Utley gives a video interview about the experience and about his own path as an anti-communist here, but most especially recommended for our purposes is his written account of finding his father: HTML form here; pdf here.

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1961: William Morgan, the Americano

6 comments March 11th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1961, American William Morgan — once an anti-Batista rebel — was shot in Havana’s La Cabana fortress for counter-revolutionary activity against the Castro government.

The high school dropout and army washout went to Cuba around late 1957 or early 1958.

He’d had an unsettled life, this Morgan. He’d been a convict, a circus sideshow, a wanderer. But he was about to make his name.

This strange gringo soon to be nicknamed “El Americano” walked into the Escambray Mountains and joined a group of anti-Batista rebels that was unaffiliated with Castro’s 26th of July Movement. Morgan won the respect of Cubans for his courage and his evidently un-mercenary commitment to the cause.

Fatally for him, that cause was a constitutional-democracy take on opposing the Batista dictatorship.

Morgan was stridently anti-Communist and not shy about saying so.

“There isn’t anyone in Cuba who doesn’t know where I stand-Fidel, Raul, or anyone. I am anticommunist. I don’t like them.”

That attitude would put him on a collision course with the only other foreigner to hold a comandante rank among the anti-Batista guerrillas: Argentinian Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Those two men’s columns nearly exchanged shots when Guevara was dispatched by Castro to reach an understanding with Morgan. Morgan and Guevara came to terms that day — there was a revolution to be won, after all — but animosity would remain between these two impassioned freedom-fighters whose visions of freedom could never be reconciled.

They personify the competing choices before post-Batista Cuba, in those first years when Cuba kept to a tenuous hold on non-alignment.

Morgan supported that revolution; he even made the headlines for dramatically foiling a Dominican-backed plot to topple Castro in 1959.

But it was Guevara who was the future. More radical July 26th members won senior spots in the new administration, while outsiders like Morgan got assignments like frog-farming. Geopolitical events saw Cuba sliding into the Soviet camp.

Disenchanted, Morgan started plotting for real.* It didn’t work.

He was caught in late 1960, held incommunicado for a period, then tried, convicted and condemned two days before his execution (along with fellow-traveler and -plotter Jesus Carreras Zayas (Spanish link)) after nightfall March 11, 1961.

Morgan’s execution was carried out by a fellow Yanqui, Herman Marks — himself destined to run afoul of the Castro regime down the road. (Marks fled back to the U.S.) The sympathetic account of el Americano‘s death is quite the flowery affair, with the Cubans kneecapping Morgan when he defiantly refuses to kneel.

Castro himself is sometimes said to be present, the shadowy observer issuing the fatal commands to which Morgan will not bow, like the insouciant silhouette of Stalin behind a screen at trials where his former henchmen were purged.

A poetic touch, though one would think a head of state might have more pressing business than personally orchestrating executions: and indeed, it seems that Fidel actually spent that evening at a diplomatic reception with Soviet and Chinese ambassadors. Two months later, Castro officially declared Cuba a socialist state.

And as with Morgan, so with many of his brethren-in-arms from the Escambray Mountains. It took Havana the better part of the 1960s to suppress anti-communist “bandits” in Morgan’s old stomping-grounds — Cuba’s (successful) War Against the Bandits.

* There’s more skullduggery in Morgan’s shadowy life than this post has space for, but theories exist that the Dominican plot he “foiled” was actually one he had been an earnest participant in before it was sniffed out by Cuban security, with the war hero Morgan forced to betray it.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Power,Revolutionaries,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,USA

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