1653: Six beheaded and one hanged for the Swiss Peasant War

5 comments July 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.


Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).

Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.

Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.

In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.

To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.


(cc) image by Lupo.

Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in the League of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.

In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.

And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.

Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.

Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.

How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War

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1749: Samuel Henzi, excluded

1 comment July 17th, 2010 Headsman

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes

Those lines, written for 20th century America’s struggle with racism, are rooted in the timeless conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and those “exploding” dreams deferred have provided more than a few subjects for these morbid pages.

This date in 1749 saw the beheading of writer and reluctant revolutionary Samuel Henzi (German Wikipedia page), along with two fellow-conspirators in a plot to overthrow the aristocratic government of Bern(e).

Still operating off a 13th century constitution, Berne had ossified into an oligarchic society with privilege derived from heredity and the capable but low-born frustratingly locked out. This arrangement had provoked intermittent uprisings and challenges, but as of the mid-18th century, it was still going strong, and “patricians mockingly observed that the citizens must be stripped of their feathers, that they might not want to fly.” (Source)

Henzi was a man with the ambition and the talent to soar above his place.

Eloquent, cultured, a guy to bang out some French poetry on the side, Henzi had been among a group of lower gentry who in 1744 petitioned for a change to Bern’s governing council, which at that time had become a privately held dynastic trust among a few top burghers.

For a suggestion as incendiary as allocating council seats by lot the better to represent the class, Henzi was treated as a rebel and exiled to Neuchatel.

dass ein eingewurzelter Staatskrebs mit Demuth nicht geheilt werden kann; nein! man muss den Degen in die Faust nehmen, wenn man die verlorne Freiheit wieder erobern will.*

Returning on a pardon, he found that not much had changed. The doors to employment in the civil administration shut tight against him, and not being bought off with a minor sinecure he fell in with a circle of malcontents dreamily conspiring to blow the whole thing up.

These plotters were exposed and three considered ringleaders — merchant Samuel Niklaus Wernier, Stadtlieutenant Emanuel Fueter, and Henzi — were beheaded on this date, each reputedly requiring more than one stroke of the sword.

On embarking with their two sons to quit the Helvetic territory, the wife of Henzi exclaimed, “I would rather see these children sink in the Rhine-stream than they should not one day learn to avenge the murder of their father.” However, when the sons came to manhood, they displayed more magnanimity than their mother; and one of them, who rose to distinction in the service of the Netherlands, requited with good offices to the burghers of his native town the unmerited misfortunes which they had brought upon his family. (Source)


Henzi’s fate greatly excited German dramaturg (and original Conehead) Gotthold Lessing — indeed, he would remark that no other event moved him so deeply.

Almost immediately after Henzi’s decapitation, Lessing wrote his first tragedy, the never-finished but aptly-titled Samuel Henzi, which is available in the original German here.**

Wann man des Staates Flehn, der sie aus Gunst erkoren,
Der nur aus Nachsicht fleht, empfängt mit tauben Ohren;
Wann wer der Freiheit sich das Wort zu reden traut,
Zum Lohn für seine Müh ein schimpflich Elend baut;
Freiheit! wann uns von dir, du aller Tugend Same,
Du aller Laster Gift, nichts bleibet als der Name:
Und dann mein weichlich Herz gerechten Zorn nicht hört,
So bin ich meines Bluts –– ich bin des Tags nicht wert.

* That is, “humility cannot cure the cancer of the state; one must take the sword in fist.” The comment is cited in Edward M. Batley, “‘Tu executes comme tes maitres jugent!’ – The Henzi Affair and the question of Lessing’s political judgment”, German Life and Letters, July 1984.

** Lessing’s next stab at stagecraft in the key of seria produced what’s generally described as the German theater’s first domestic or bourgeois tragedy, Miss Sara Sampson (German Wikipedia entry).

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1723: Major Jean Abram Davel

2 comments April 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1723, Major Jean Davel was beheaded for an abortive separatist bid in Vaud.

The French-speaking Swiss Canton was at this time under the heavy-handed domination of neighboring Bern(e), part of an oligarchic arrangement of power in Switzerland that would provoke regular unrest.

Davel (German Wikipedia page), a notary turned soldier who had fought at Villmergen, identified with the underdog.

On March 31, 1723, Davel took advantage of a general absence of bailiffs gone to Berne for government sinecures, and marched 600 men to the Vaud capital of Lausanne to pitch the town on breaking away from its Teutonic overlords.

Instead, the city worthies paid him lip service just long enough to betray him.*

“I see well enough,” Davel observed, “I will be the first victim in this affair.”

Yup.

But he held firm under torture to his insistence that the revolt was his doing alone (well, his and God’s), and perhaps thereby saved others from sharing his fate.


The Execution of Major Davel, by Charles Gleyre. A very in-depth analysis of this work by Michel Thevoz titled “Painting and Ideology: A Commentary on a Painting by Charles Gleyre” is available in pdf form here.

Davel is noted for checking out with a unique scaffold speech, discoursing on a topic rarely explored on that platform: the role of music in worship.**

As concerns the praise of God, in what manner is it sung? Is there any sense of orderliness, any real music, anything whatever calculated to excite and sustain the devotion? Yet this part of divine service is one of the most considerable and the one by which is the most effectively demonstrated the lifting up of our hearts to God … Such being the importance of this part of Christian worship, I cannot too much emphasize my exhortation to you to give it a new and serious attention, in order to correct the faults of which you are at present guilty in connection with it.

In a similar vein, the 52-year-old groused at the kids these days, to wit, young divinity students in attendance who, in the immortal tradition of kids these days throughout all days,

neglect your studies for worldly pleasure. You take no pains to learn music, which is so necessary for the singing of God’s praises. The songs of the church form an essential part of divine worship, and have an infinite value in helping us to lift our hearts to God. I pray you, then, to apply yourselves with all possible zeal to your preparation for the holy ministry.

Music in worship was in the Zeitgeist, and 1723 in liturgical composition suggests the (otherwise wholly unrelated to Davel) move by Johann Sebastian Bach that very year to Leipzig. Bach took up his post there just weeks after Davel lost his head, and would spend the remaining 27 years of his life in Leipzig. But it only took him until the very next Easter to lift up his congregation’s heart to God with the Johannes-Passion.

* Better late than never, Lausanne gave Davel a statue.

** According to Percy A. Scholes, “Church Music: A Plea from the Scaffold,” The Musical Times, vol. 78, no. 1136 (Oct. 1937).

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1960: Oliviu Beldeanu, for the Berne incident

Add comment February 18th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1960, Romanian anti-communist Oliviu Beldeanu was executed at Jilava prison for a headline-grabbing protest he’d orchestrated in Switzerland five years before.

Beldeanu (here‘s his Romanian Wikipedia page) was the ringleader of a group of Romanian exiles who’d commandeered the Romanian embassy in Bern(e) in February 1955.

The aptly-named Berne Incident was meant to be a symbolic protest — Communist symbols smashed, damaging secret correspondence released, that sort of thing — but it did also result in an embassy driver being shot to death.

These “legionary fascist groups”* and “traitors abroad,” (pdf) (in the official lexicology of Bucharest) were handled fairly gently by Switzerland, predictably keen to stay clear of diplomatic incidents.

Beldeanu et al drew lenient prison sentences from which they were released early.

And that would have been the end of it … but a Communist cloak-and-dagger operation after the ex-cons were freed lured Beldeanu to Berlin. He was kidnapped by the East German Stasi and flown to Romania, there to be subject to a perfunctory trial and speedy execution.

* “Legionary fascist” denunciations — associating the Switzerland activists with Romania’s notorious Iron Guard — cited by Paul Nistor, “The five who scared … America, too. The immediate effects of the attempt in Bern (1955) over the Romanian diplomacy”, Valahian Journal of Historical Studies, Dec. 2009.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Power,Romania,Shot,Treason

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