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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Terrorists,Treason

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1981: El Mozote Massacre

Add comment December 11th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1981, the El Salvador military perpetrated the El Mozote massacre.

It was conducted by the U.S.-trained and -armed death squad, the Atlacatl Battalion, which on December 10 of that year entered the northern village of El Mozote in search of FMLN* guerrillas.

There weren’t any there — just townsfolk whose numbers were swollen by peasant refugees from the brutal civil war. After ransacking the town and interrogating and robbing the residents, the Atlacatl Battalion sent everyone home and bivouaced down for the night in the town square.

Dawn’s light the next morning would bring the unspeakable horror.

The battalion forced the entire population to the town square, divided men from women, and set about murdering men with gunshot, machetes, and worse — and raping and murdering the women — and then slaughtering all the children, too.

More than 800 civilians died. The next month, a Washington Post journalist described “dozens of decomposing bodies still seen beneath the rubble and lying in nearby fields, despite the month that has passed since the incident … countless bits of bones — skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column — poked out of the rubble.”

A few survivors did manage to reach neighboring villages and the story of what had occurred at El Mozote worked its way out to the wider world over the days and weeks to come. It made little matter to the government in San Salvador where bloodbath was policy, openly espoused by the likes of the man who was about to be elected president of the Constituent Assembly.

In Washington, where the checks were written, destroying Latin American peasant guerrilla movements was a Cold War lodestar and so Orwellian denial of this atrocity soon became the virtual law of the land. After heroically risking his life venturing into the conflict zone to collect evidence, the New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner was tarred and feathered by America’s foreign policy apparatchiks and eventually driven off the Times foreign policy beat while the U.S. continued pumping money to the murderers. The Atlacatl Battalion in particular would author several more notorious atrocities in the course of the 1980s dirty war.

A U.N.-backed Truth Commission convened after the conflict finally ended in 1992, investigated the affair and agreed that

There is full proof that on December 11, 1981, in the village of El Mozote, units of the Atlacatl Battalion deliberately and systematically killed a group of more than 200 men, women and children, constituting the entire civilian population that they had found there the previous day and had since been holding prisoner… there is [also] sufficient evidence that in the days preceding and following the El Mozote massacre, troops participating in “Operation Rescue” massacred the non-combatant civilian population in La Joya canton, in the villages of La Rancheria, Jocote Amatillo y Los Toriles, and in Cerro Pando canton.

The El Salvador government officially apologized in 2011. Nobody has ever been prosecuted for the slaughter.


Memorial to the massacre. (cc) image by Amber.

* The Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional, named for a famous executed Salvadoran peasant rebel.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,El Salvador,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Put to the Sword,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women

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1986: Adolf Tolkachev, the Billion-Dollar Spy

Add comment September 24th, 2016 Headsman

The U.S.S.R. executed alleged* U.S. mole Adolf Tolkachev on this date in 1986.

Tolkachev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) had grown up during the Stalin years — background he would cite by way of explaining his subsequent actions against the Soviet state and its “impassable, hypocritical demagoguery.” (His wife had been orphaned by the purges of the 1930s.)

Inspired, he said, by the dissidence of writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974) and bomb engineer Andrei Sakharov (prevented from leaving the Soviet Union to collect his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize), Tolkachev in the late 1970s boldly made contact** with U.S. intelligence officers at the Moscow petrol station where they fueled their cars. He immediately became one of the Americans’ most valuable assets — literally so; the 2015 book about him is titled The Billion Dollar Spy.

Tolkachev’s day job for a top-secret aviation laboratory gave him access to priceless documents on the development of the Soviet aircraft, radar, and weapons guidance and using a James Bond-esque miniature Pentax supplied him by Langley, Tolkachev snapped photos of those secrets for delivery to the Americans. It’s claimed — this is the reason for the billion-dollar stuff — that Tolkachev’s tips drove research and development in American military technology in vastly more effective directions.

The spy himself was paid for his risks in rubles and in a U.S. escrow fund pending his eventual defection.

But his last payment turned out to be a bullet, courtesy of betrayal by CIA turncoat Edward Lee Howard and/or that bane of spies Aldrich Ames.

* The date is supplied courtesy of a September 25, 1986 Politburo document referring to Tolkachev’s execution “yesterday”.

Note however that the prevailing Tolkachev story as presented in this post is disputed by CIA historian Benjamin Fischer, who has argued that “Adolf Tolkachev” was a KGB prank on its opposite number in the Cold War’s Spy vs. Spy game.

** Tolkachev really had to insist upon himself to his American handlers: the first four times he approached US embassy personnel with overtures he was rebuffed or ignored as a probable Soviet plant.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Spies,USSR

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1979: Nur Muhammad Taraki, grandfather of the Afghan War

Add comment September 14th, 2016 Headsman

When our party took over political power, the exploiting classes and reactionary forces went into action. The only rusty and antiquated tool that they use against us is preaching in the name of faith and religion against the progressive movement of our homeland.

-Nur Muhammad Taraki (via)

On this date in 1979, Afghanistan’s Communist ruler Nur Muhammad Taraki was deposed and summarily executed (or just murdered, if you like: he was held down and suffocated with pillows) by his defense minister.

The writer whom the Soviets had once hailed as “Afghanistan’s Maxim Gorky” had been one of the most prominent Communist leaders in Afghanistan for a generation by the time he led a coup against Mohammad Daoud Khan in 1978. It was Taraki who inaugurated the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and so came to number among the USSR’s accidental gravediggers.

Like any proper Red he dreamt a far grander legacy: his program for Afghanistan featured wide-ranging land reform, education, and women’s rights. But he would quickly discover that the resistance to these aggressive changes wielded tools far less antiquated than expected.*

The rebellion that broke out against Taraki in 1978 — joining rural magnates, religious traditionalists, ideological anti-Communists, and people pissed off about the new government’s egregious human rights abuses — is basically the same war that’s still raging there today.

To Moscow’s credit, the morass-detector went to high alert when Taraki first began soliciting Kremlin aid. Soviet Foreign Minister Alexei Kosygin gave a sharp and apt refusal when Taraki first invited his Russian allies to come visit that graveyard of empires:

It would be a fatal mistake to commit ground troops. … If our troops went in, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a significant part of your own people. And the people would never forgive such things.

You know how they say you should usually obey your first instinct?

Taraki in the end wheedled very little by way of Russian props for his regime. It was only with his downfall that events took a different turn — for the aide who overthrew and then killed Taraki, Hafizullah Amin, was not half so trusted in the USSR as his predecessor. Before the year was out, Moscow had worriedly (and somewhat impulsively) begun committing its divisions into that self-destructive struggle Kosygin had warned about, vainly trying to manage the deteriorating situation. (Russia also overthrew and executed Amin into the bargain.)

* It also didn’t help Taraki that his own Communist movement was sharply divided. Members of the rival faction were widely purged or driven to exile in 1978-79; a notable exemplar of the exiled group was Mohammad Najibullah, who became president in the late 1980s and ended up being lynched when the Taliban took over in 1996.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Afghanistan,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Strangled,Summary Executions

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1952: Wolfgang Kaiser

Add comment September 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1952, chemistry student Wolfgang Kaiser was guillotined at Dresden as a saboteur.

Back in the years before the Berlin Wall closed East Berlin the Communist half-city’s accessibility to its NATO-aligned western half constantly nettled the security state.

Our man Wolfgang Kaiser (English Wikipedia entry | German) lived in West Berlin but studied in East Berlin — or he did until he lost the spot when trying and failing to transfer to a West Berlin university.

That left Kaiser plenty of time on his hand to vent his political disaffection by working for the anti-communist resistance organization Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit — the “Combat Group Against Inhumanity”. When all was said and done, inhumanity got the best of its combat with Kaiser.

His chemistry background was a welcome skill set for the KgU activists, who put Kaiser to work building fuses for balloons that rained anti-Soviet propaganda leaflets in the east, as well as putting together incendiaries and the like with which to perpetrate nuisance-level harassment. The Stasi had him under surveillance immediately, although his old college buddy was such an amateurish snoop that he flat-out told Kaiser that he was watching him for the East Germans.

Eventually, however, that buddy persuaded Kaiser to turn himself in and become a collaborator himself — with a chance to resume his university career as one of the plums. Instead Kaiser found himself charged up as a saboteur “endangering the peace of the world.” The young man’s fighting spirit was also sabotaged by some sort of misleading representations made to him in his detention, because he entered the show trial believing it to be exactly that: just a show. So mistakenly confident was he that his death sentence was strictly ceremonial that he reportedly bragged about his penthouse accommodations behind bars.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Terrorists

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1988: Dmitri Polyakov, Cold War spy

Add comment March 15th, 2016 Headsman

Although it would not be publicly known until two years later, the retired Soviet Gen. Dmitri Polyakov was on March 15, 1988 executed for treason.

A World War II artillerist, Polyakov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a military intelligence officer working as an embassy attache when he made contact with American agents in New York in 1961. For the next quarter-century — across assignments to Burma, India, the U.S., and back in Moscow — he would ship to the CIA and FBI some of its choicest morsels of the Cold War.

“Polyakov was the jewel in the crown,” former CIA chief James Woolsey lamented of his loss. Polyakov-supplied documents underscoring the extent of Russia’s split with China have been credited with spurring Richard Nixon’s overtures to Beijing.

The spy code-named Bourbon, Roam, and Top Hat had idiosyncratic motivations; he was not an ideological true believer like a Sorge nor a man afflicted by demons like a Vetrov. He accepted only a little bit of money from his handlers, mostly to support an innocuous wordworking hobby.

This Russian article indulges a variety of hypotheses — contempt for Khrushchev, the death of a son, an appetite for risk-taking — but nothing his U.S. contacts could learn of him rebutted the presentation he made of himself as a Russian patriot chagrined at the prospect that the corrupt Communist state could win the Cold War.

His revelations did much to check that possibility.

Polyakov retired as a general in 1980, having operated under the Kremlin’s nose for a phenomenally long period of time. (His U.S. contacts made sure to feed him some career-advancing secrets, too.) But he was betrayed in the 1980s by the USSR’s own moles, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames and arrested in 1986.

His fate, imposed by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court, thereafter was a mystery to his former handlers. Two months after his secret execution, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sought Polyakov’s pardon or his exchange for a captured Soviet mole at his May-June 1988 arms control summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. The solicitation was politely deferred.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Treason,USA,USSR

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1954: Karli Bandelow and Ewald Misera, in the Gehlen-Prozess

Add comment November 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1954, railway official Ewald Misera and civil engineer Karli Bandelow were beheaded in Dresden as West German spies.

They had been recruited to inform for the West German Gehlen Organization, an intelligence apparatus directed, as its name implied, by former Third Reich spymaster Reinhard Gehlen.

Gehlen had the honor to be dismissed by Hitler in the war’s closing days for his accurately defeatist reports on the overwhelming strength of the advancing Red Army, but for the western Allies — to whom he savvily surrendered — his expertise on and contacts in eastern Europe were very well worth having as the Cold War took shape.

His organization, the precursor to Germany’s present-day intelligence service, naturally set about penetrating East Germany — which was far simpler to do in those early years, before the East all but sealed the border.

East Germany, of course, was equally keen to undermine the Gehlen network’s moles and after the alarm of the June 17, 1953 rising it implemented a concerted effort to bring root out western spies known as Operation Arrow (Pfeil). Mass arrests beginning in October of 1953 swept up hundreds of suspected agents not only for Gehlen but for British, French, and American intelligence.

The consequent trials, or more particularly those targeting West German assets, are collectively known as the Gehlen-Prozess. We have indeed encountered some of its victims already: Elli Barczatis and Karl Laurenz, who would be executed a year after the principals in this post for their own work in Gehlen’s service.

Barczatis and Laurenz had alarmingly close access to the Prime Minister himself, and their trial was a secret one. Bandelow and Misera, by contrast, were civil servants fit for the sort of show trial that the Communist bloc was in these years raising to an art form.

In an orchestrated juridical performance piece from November 1 through 9, Communist Germany aimed “to expose the Gehlen organization as a gang of war criminals, fascists and revenge-seekers that threaten the peace of Germany and the world.”* Five other Gehlen informants besides Bandelow and Misera were convicted at the same proceedings, and sentenced to various prison terms.

Vainly playing for the mercy of the court, Bandelow offered to the spectacle that classic Stalinist flourish, the auto-denunciation of the doomed.

My Judge! I do not wish to speak a last word on my behalf … only to remark that I deeply regret my actions and I am ready for the harshest punishment. …

I call upon all those who like me have betrayed the nation and state to put an end to their criminal activity which threatens to unleash an insane war — call upon them to accept the leniency offered by the government and turn themselves in at once. I wish to cry out to them, take this generous offer so it does not go for you like has gone for me! (Source, in German)

Having done their last duty by the state, Bandelow’s frightened, penitent lips were closed by the fallbeil within 48 hours.

* The words of Anton Plenikowski.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Spies

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1975: Isobel Lobato, wife of East Timor’s Prime Minister

2 comments December 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1975, the wife of East Timor’s Prime Minister was publicly executed on the docks of her conquered country’s capital.

By the happenstances of colonial expansion, East Timor, a 15,000-square kilometer half-island in the Lesser Sundas, chanced to have the Portuguese flag planted on its soil instead of (as characterized the rest of its surrounding Indonesian archipelago) the Dutch.

Because of this, Timor-Leste did not walk the same path trod by Indonesia: it did not share in Indonesia’s 1945 revolution breaking away from the Netherlands, nor in the 1965 coup d’etat that put the Suharto military dictatorship in charge of that country.

While these years of living dangerously played out throughout the vast island chains, and even in West Timor, little East Timor remained Portuguese property into the 1970s.

But by that time, colonialism was wearing out its welcome in that onetime maritime empire. A long-running, and ever more unpopular, war against independence fighters in Portugal’s African colonies finally helped to trigger the mother country’s 1974-75 Carnation Revolution and a new regime interested in immediate decolonization.

Abruptly — arguably, too abruptly — Portugal began divesting herself of her onetime empire’s onetime jewels, including not only East Timor but Goa on the coast of India (oops), and the African states of Guinea, Mozambique, and Angola. These would immediately become contested violently by proxies backed by the United States and the Soviet Union.

Though easily the least lucrative and strategically essential of these forsaken colonies, Timor too felt the the Cold War’s hand.

Western-allied Suharto eyed warily the Timorese left-wing insurgent movement turned political party that went so far as to declared Timorese independence in November of 1975. In response, Indonesia gathered the main opposition parties under its own umbrella and had them produce a declaration calling for — wouldn’t you know it? — unification with Indonesia.

By that time, the fall of 1975, it was becoming apparent that such a unification would soon be a fait accompli. Indonesian commandos were penetrating East Timor, even making bold enough to murder western journalists. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor with the blessing of Washington, D.C.*

The ensuing 24-year occupation was a notorious bloodbath, and Indonesian troops set the standard right from day one … or, in this case, day two.

On December 8, in the now-occupied capital city of Dili, dozens of Timorese elites were marched to the quay under the frightened gaze of their countrymen and -women, and there publicly shot into the harbor. Notable among them was Isobel Lobato, the wife of Nicolau Lobato, who had been the prime minister of Timor’s brief moment of independence in 1975.

Nicolau Lobato himself did not share his wife’s fate, however. He escaped into the bush where he helped lead a remarkably persistent anti-occupation guerrilla movement until he was finally killed in a firefight in 1978. Post-independence, Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport was re-named in his honor.

* President Gerald Ford and his fell henchman Henry Kissinger flew out of Jakarta hours before the invasion, arriving in Hawaii where they would demur on reporters’ inquiries as to whether they had green-lighted the unfolding incursion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was at that time America’s U.N. envoy, boasted in his memoirs that “The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,East Timor,Execution,History,Indonesia,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1947: Gyorgy Donath, Hungarian anti-communist

1 comment October 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Hungarian politician Gyorgy Donath was executed for treason as the Hungarian state came into the hands of the Communists.


Gyorgy Donath awaits hanging in the courtyard of a Budapest prison on October 23, 1947. (Source)

Donath (Hungarian Wikipedia link) stood among the ranks of Eastern European politicians purged by Soviet-directed Communist parties behind the Iron Curtain in the first years of the Cold War — years when Stalin still called the shots for the Communist bloc.

Donath had been a wartime parliamentarian under the banner of Bela Imredy‘s right-wing Party of Hungarian Life.

Had Hungary’s postwar direction been determined by orderly ballot-boxing rather than great power machinations, Donath would have had a voice in it — for it was a conservative party, the Independent Smallholders Party, who won a big hold on government with 57% of the votes in the 1945 elections.

Though the Communists polled just 17% (with a similar tally for the Social Democrats), the General Secretary of the postwar party, Matyas Rakosi,* predicted that the putative defeat would “not play an important role in Communist plans.” And he was right.

Rakosi named his policy in response to the Smallholders “salami tactics” — as in slicing down the opposition piece by piece.

1947 was the knife’s edge.

From their post within the ensuing governing coalition — an outsized foothold relative to their electoral returns, as compelled by the presence of the still-occupying Red Army — the minority Communists in January 1947 announced the discovery of a conspiracy of “small agrarians,” and set about reducing the Smallholders and allies through a series of police raids and show trials.** Donath’s prominence in an irredentist fraternity, the Hungarian Community organization, was denounced the ringleader of the treasonable conspiracy.

He was hanged on October 23 — just eight weeks after a heavily rigged 1947 election put Hungary formally into the Communist camp.

Over the subsequent two years, independent and opposition parties were generally reduced to irrelevance, forced to take the Communist line, or dissolved entirely.

* Rakosi was the man whom Imre Nagy would eventually displace. The more moderate Nagy willingly swept himself up in Hungary’s abortive 1956 revolution against Communist domination. Soviet tanks crushed that revolution; Nagy hanged.

** In neighboring Romania and Bulgaria, similar tragedies were unfolding.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Politicians,Power,Treason

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1962: Gottfried Strympe, purported terrorist

Add comment June 21st, 2014 Headsman

The novel East German polity was coming in the late 1950s to a crossroads that saw security paranoia ratchet up dramatically.

Emigration to West Germany accelerated considerably as the 1960s began, eventually giving rise to the infamous Berlin Wall.

In the countryside, forced collectivization implemented in 1960 produced resistance all its own. Agricultural output plummeted (the knock-on effects of a 1959 drought helped too); according to Patrick Major’s Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power, groceries and everyday household items became markedly more difficult to procure in the early 1960s, sapping productivity throughout the economy as city workers queued for hours and black-market exchanges proliferated.

Following the Soviet Union’s great tradition of attributing economic trouble to running-dog wreckers, East Germany introduced the death penalty for politically motivated economic sabotage* — for example, the 206 cases of arson it attributed among 862 rural fires in 1960. (Figures as per Major.)

Our figure today, Gottfried Strympe, fell foul of these laws. In reality, he was no cackling secret agent but a disturbed loner.

He lurked about the eastern city of Bautzen opportunistically by turns the petty thief or the peeping tom.

Unfortunately for Strympe, who did some spells in psychiatric wards, his deviance extended past the titillation of spying a Hausfrau in her bustier to the much more menacing diversions of pyromania.

The poor man needed a social worker; what he got was the executioner. The charge sheet dramatically attributed his 28 acts of arson (crimes that each caused only minor property damage, and no human casualties) to the inspiration of “West German and American imperialists.”

Strympe, you see, had often visited a father (deceased in 1958) in West Berlin, back before the Wall sealed that city. Of course on those trips, Strympe picked over a Whitman’s sampler of western decadences, from pornography to Social Democracy. On this basis, the Stasi attributed his incendiarism to “terrorism” rooted in “an antisocial attitude strengthened by his stays in West Berlin.”

Strympe had a public show trial, the better that “the population of Bautzen will recognize the danger of communication and travel to West Berlin” (with props of said population — workers’ and civic groups — obligingly supplying the requisite demands for the traitor’s execution).

He was beheaded by Fallbeil at Leipzig on June 21, 1962.

* See Politische Strafjustiz in der Ära Ulbricht: Vom bekennenden Terror zur verdeckten Repression by Falco Werkentin.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason

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