1954: Ernst Jennrich, for 17 June 1953

Add comment March 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1954, East Germany beheaded Ernst Jennrich for the previous June’s short-lived popular protests.

A Magdeburg gardener of socialist proclivities, Jennrich was nothing more than an enthusiast who got swept up in events when metalworkers at the Ernst-Thälmann factory struck for better pay and lower food prices — a protest that quickly metastasized into what looked to the Communist authorities like a treasonable movement calling for liberalization, a release of political prisoners, and reunification with West Germany.

The movement was crushed within a day by Russian tanks — although some Soviet soldiers notably (and sacrificially) refused to fire on protesting workers. But before events played out, Jennrich had disarmed a guard at the prison in nearby Sudenburg. He fired the guard’s carbine twice, then destroyed the weapon.

It’s not certain how many people lost their lives in the suppression of this affair — hostile western estimates ran into the thousands — but two policemen were killed at Sudenburg prison, and in a cruel show of official impunity Jennrich got tapped to answer for their deaths. He said he’d just fired the carbine into a wall or the air in order to empty it … but the state said he’d emptied it into those two luckless officers.

On scant evidence, Jennrich harshly received a life sentence that August. But even this did not suffice for officials racing to manifest their righteous indignation against the late subversion. “The protection of our peaceful state requires the death penalty for the crimes committed by the defendant,” huffed the prosecutor, and appealed the sentence to Germany’s high court … which accordingly upgraded the sentence to “the extermination of the defendant from our society, and therefore the death penalty.”

Jennrich was beheaded on the fallbeil at Dresden still protesting his innocence. A post-unification court finally vindicated that protest in 1991, posthumously rehabilitating Jennrich as having been condemned without evidence even by the terms of East Germany’s 1950s laws.

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1984: Ten members of the Tudeh party

Add comment February 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the Islamic Republic of Iran completed its destruction of the Tudeh party with ten executions.

In the 1940s, the Tudeh was Iran’s largest mass party and a fair bet to take power in the near future but state repression after Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 had largely driven the Communist movement to the skulking margins.

Its fragments hung on underground, preparing and organizing for the proletarian revolution — an orientation that would leave the Tudeh entirely unprepared for the Iranian Revolution that really occurred. In fairness, few from Tehran to Moscow to Washington could read those tea leaves: who in the winter of the Cold War anticipated a great regional prize like Iran being captured by … the mullahs?

The Revolution released the once-banned party onto terra incognita as a minor outlet for leftward sentiment and perhaps a show of democratic good faith. But from the start it awkwardly existed on sufferance of an entirely incompatible regime. The venerable English journalist Robert Fisk, who covered the Iranian Revolution, filed a wry dispatch for the Times (Nov. 26, 1979) from the Tehran offices of Tudeh leader Nouredin Kianouri — unconvincingly trying to position his own movement within the events sweeping everyone along.

Tudeh is involved in “the radical struggle against imperialism”, and “the struggle for the reorganization of social life, especially for the oppressed strata of society” … and in so far as it is possible, Tudeh — Iran’s oldest political party — stands for the same things as Ayatollah Khomeini.

That, at least, is the theory: and Mr Kianouri holds to it bravely.

Tudeh demands a “popular front” government in Iran and Mr Kianouri professes to see little difference between this and Ayatollah Khomeini’s desire for national unity. “Popular Front”, however, is not an expression that has ever crossed the Imam’s lips and it is difficult to see how Iran’s new fundamentalist religious administration could form any cohesion with the materialist aims of Mr Kianouri’s scientific Marxism.

The article’s headline was “Ayatollah tolerates Communists until they become too popular,” but Tudeh never fulfilled its clause: it was blown out in the 1980 election, failing to win even a single seat, and maneuvered ineffectually for two years until a crackdown shattered its remnants with over 1,000 arrests early in 1983,* heavily targeting Tudeh-sympathizing army officers.** (The aforesaid Mr. Kianouri was forced to make a humiliating televised self-denunciation in 1983, although he surprisingly avoided execution.)

Those arrests culminated in a large show trial of 101 Tudeh principals in December 1983-January 1984, followed by smaller trials of lesser Tudeh figures in several cities over the months to come.

Eighty-seven Tudeh officials caught prison sentences ranging from eight months to life; these “lucky” ones, along with hundreds of other Tudeh adherents arrested in the years to come, would later be well-represented among the victims of Iran’s 1988 slaughter of political prisoners.

That left ten† reserved for execution on February 25 on charges compassing espionage, treason, and the weapons they had once naively stockpiled to fight against a monarchist coup. Notable among them were four high-ranking military officers: Col. Houshang Attarian, Col. Bezhan Kabiri, Col. Hassan Azarfar, and the chief catch, former Navy Commander Admiral Bahram Afzali.

Formally banned in Iran, the Tudeh party does still exists to this day, an exile shadow of its former glory.

* The U.S., officially abhorred of Iran, was in this period covertly aiding Tehran to raise funds to illegally bankroll Central American death squads — the Iran-Contra scandal. According to the American Tower Commission investigation of those events, the Tudeh were one of the lesser casualties this foreign policy misadventure when U.S. intelligence about the Tudeh network, largely obtained via a KGB defector, was passed to Tehran as a pot-sweetener: “In 1983, the United States helped bring to the attention of Tehran the threat inherent in the extensive infiltration of the government by the communist Tudeh Party and Soviet or pro-Soviet cadres in the country. Using this information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran.” (See Appendix B here.)

** Iran at this moment was two years deep into its war with Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, having in 1982 stalled out with a bloody and ineffectual offensive.

Other background of note: a different, Maoist party had in early 1982 launched a failed rising against the Islamic Republic.

† This doesn’t add up to 101. According to Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, “when a Japanese correspondent asked why the numbers of those sentenced did not tally with those originally brought to trial, he [Mohammed Reyshahri] hedged, it was rumoured some had died during their interrogation.”

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1963: Stanislaw Jaros, twice-failed assassin

Add comment January 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Polish electrician Stanislaw Jaros (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) hanged for two assassination attempts on Polish premier Wladyslaw Gomulka.

A figure nearly forgotten outside of Poland and not well-known within, Jaros is mostly written about in Polish as the links in this post will attest. His affair was quietly handled at the time, and that has sufficed to consign him to obscurity even in the post-Communist Poland.

On December 3, 1961, with the First Secretary in the mining town of Zagorze for a St. Barbara’s Day coal mine ribbon-cutter, Jaros set off a homemade bomb concealed in a roadside pole or tree. Gomulka’s motorcade had already passed the spot, but the blast mortally injured one adult bystander, and wounded a child.

A rigorous police investigation captured him, and soon determined that Jaros had been bombing away in merry anonymity for many years — including a 1959 device placed to target Gomulka and visiting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, which had failed to detonate. (That incident had been discovered, but hushed up to avoid antagonizing Moscow.)

Jaros professed an inchoate ideological motivation in the form of bitterness against the state police after he’d been brutalized when caught stealing bullets from a factory in the postwar years, but it is difficult to tell where principled anticommunism ends and pyromania begins.

After his release from prison, he returned to live with his mother, never marrying or holding steady employment. His occasional hobby was sabotaging state economic assets with his home-brew explosives. No person was ever injured by one of his mines until the second Gomulka bomb, but he did acknowledge that he certainly was trying to kill the head of state — inspired, he said, by reading about the plots to kill Hitler.

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1936: Vladimir Mutnykh, Bolshoi director

Add comment November 26th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the director of Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater was shot in the Gulag … even as Uncle Joe mangled his greatest commission.

Vladimir Ivanovich Mutnykh is the man whose suffering occasions this post but as with the Terror itself he will for us be a footnote to a different story.

Mutnykh ultimately fell prey to the chill that Stalin cast over Soviet arts — where come the 1930s the only fare liable to pass muster with the censors (or indeed, with the executioners) were creations of turgid doctrinal correctness or cautious revivals from the pre-Revolutionary literary canon.

The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.

Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*

In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.

Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.

Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.

Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.

Nor was this the end of the meddling.

In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.

For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”

“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”

In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.

“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”

A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world

* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.

** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.

He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.

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1921: Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg

Add comment September 15th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1921, the Mad Baron* of the Russian Civil War was shot in Novosibirsk.


“Before fleeing the Red Army, Whites torch the grain”: civil war propaganda poster from this spellbinding collection.

Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)

A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.

Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.

The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between two revolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.

Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.

Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.

The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.

After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:

“Now God help you! Go!”

It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.

“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.

At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.

“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.

“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.

He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”

Ossendowski would describe the Baron’s savagery in lurid reverence in his Beasts, Men and Gods

Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.

— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:

“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”

Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.

“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡

as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.

* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.


“Vrangel is coming!” (same site)

** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.

† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.

‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mongolia,Nobility,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR,Wartime Executions

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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.

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1940: Three saboteurs and a spy, “Fusilles et oublies”

Add comment June 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the collapsing French state “shot and forgot” four subversives at Pessac. These cases are heavily covered by the French-language blog Histoire penitentiaire et Justice militaire; many links in this post point to well-illustrated articles on that site, which make recommended reading for those inclined to delve deeper.

Late June finds France in the dark weeks after Dunkirk — the very day, in fact, when Marshall Petain’s government formally surrendered to the German blitz.

Elsewhere, the remains of the Third Republic had fled west to Bourdeaux, taking along its death row prisoners. The state that condemned them did not mean to let its imminent disappearance cheat it of their blood.

Jean Amourelle, a stenographer in the French Senate whose duties included shorthanding the secret proceedings of its military commissions, was caught routing intelligence to Germany.

Set to join him for this date’s execution were two pairs of brothers: Roger and Marcel Rambaud, and Leon and Maurice Lebeau. Seventeen-year-old Maurice Lebeau had his sentence commuted to hard labor, however, and was spared from the firing detail.

The Rambauds and Lebeaus were factory workers sentenced as saboteurs for compromising the engine of a French military plane, causing it to explode mid-flight: strange behavior for Communist proletarians explained by the temporary peace between Germany and the Soviet Union that (for the moment) positioned the Comintern-directed French Communist Party as an opponent of the war.

Despite the sacrifice of the Rambauds and Lebeaus, this posture was short-lived. Just one year later — June 22, 1941, in fact — Germany’s invasion of the USSR thrust Europe’s Communist movements into common fronts with anti-fascist parties, and France’s Communists into the forefront of French Resistance martyrs.

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1940: Mikhail Koltsov, Soviet journalist

Add comment February 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.

Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.

A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”

Be that as it may, Koltsov as Kremlin vizier to a dirty war was on the other end of the death warrant often enough; he also cultivated Ernest Hemingway, and was rewarded with a thinly veiled role in For Whom The Bell Tolls (the character Karkov). His memoir Spanish Diary is a sort of team-Soviet counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**

Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.

His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.

* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.

** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1953: Istvan Sandor, underground Catholic

1 comment June 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Istvan Sandor was hanged in Communist Hungary

Sandor was a printer noted as a mentor to younger Catholics — including the orphanage that shared his print-shop’s building.

When his Salesian order was suppressed in 1950, Sandor had to continue this work underground, practically but inviting martyrdom. At one point his superiors in the order urged him to flee Hungary; Sandor stubbornly stuck around under an alias.

This shadow existence was bound to be a fleeting one. The Hungarian secret police kept close tabs on him, and when it found that he was in contact with a guard close to the party leadership, it made a national security case out of the affair — arresting nine of its own spooks, five priests, and several civilians.

In a secret military trial, Sandor and three others were condemned to death by hanging for plotting against the state. One of those sentences was modified to life imprisonment, but the other three hanged on June 8th. Their families only got definitive word of their fate in 1955.

Sandor was officially rehabilitated by the post-Communist government in 1994. In 2013, Pope Francis beatified him.

“We celebrate in him the hero who was true to his calling as a Salesian brother, even at the cost of his life,” Cardinal Peter Erdo said at a mass on that occasion. “We respect in him the exceptional labourer who taught youth the love of work. We stand deeply moved before the victim of a show trial who was tortured, sentenced to death and executed based on false testimony.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Religious Figures

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