1929: Yakov Blumkin, Trotskyist spy

Add comment November 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Yakov Blumkin was executed on this date in 1929.

It was a decade and more since he’d made his great historical mark, the July 1918 assassination of German diplomat Wilhelm von Mirbach.

Blumkin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) undertook this as a deadly — so he hoped — strike against Bolshevik power. In the aftermath of the fledgling Soviet government’s controversial peace treaty with Germany to exit World War I, the hit was ordered by Blumkin’s party, the Left SRs, as a means to instigate renewed hostilities. Simultaneous with the murder, Left SRs launched a failed coup in Moscow, again on the inspiring policy of resuming the horrible war.

But Bolshevik Cheka director Felix Dzerzhinsky didn’t take this sort of thing personally, and by 1919 he’d made this ruthless operative into Moscow’s own asset. The ensuing decade would feature James Bond-esque adventure in Persia, the Caucasus, Arabia, Mongolia, and beyond; he was Leon Trotsky’s friend and, for a time, his secretary, who helped edit Trotsky’s Military Writings.

Blumkin lived large, and was not above flaunting his terrorist’s notoriety — “always brandishing his revolver in public places,” in the disdainful recollection of Nadezhda Mandestam. Blumkin adored poetry and poets; Victor Serge, another of the many writers he knew, is full of Blumkin anecdotes in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, where he recalled him just back from Persia

more poised and virile than ever, his face solid and smooth-shaven, the haughty profile of an Israelite warrior. He stayed in a small apartment in the Arbat quarter, bare except for a rug and a splendid stool, a gift from some Mongol prince; and crooked sabres hung over his bottles of excellent wine.

Poets could be dangerous enough in the Stalinist nightmare years to come but it was that old Trotsky association that put him on the leading edge of the purges — especially since it wasn’t just ancient history. Blumkin apparently met with Trotsky secretly in Turkey after the latter was exiled, and even carried secret messages from him for friends still in the USSR. Reckless enough in retrospect but Blumkin was a veteran practitioner of the double game. Moreover, the judges were split on the penalty until Stalin personally weighed in — a reticence on recourse to this measure that purgees charged with personally conspiring with Trotsky would certainly not enjoy as the terror ripened in the 1930s.

Unlike many others who fell prey to political prosecutions in this period, Blumkin has never been rehabilitated by Russia/the USSR.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , ,

1937: Nikolai Nikolayevich Durnovo, Slavist

Add comment October 27th, 2020 Headsman

Russian linguist Nikolai Nikolayevich Durnovo was shot during Stalin’s purges on this date in 1937.

The man descended from tsarist nobility — not only the House of Durnovo but his mother’s House of Saltykov — and the Durnovo name might have been hateful to radicals from a key minister involved in the smashing-up of the 1905 revolution.*

Our Durnovo had more modest interests as “one of the pioneers of linguistic and geographical study of East Slavic languages” who did some of the foundational work sorting Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian linguistic features. He published a 1915 “Dialectological map of the Russian language in Europe with an essay on Russian dialectology” and (in 1924) the first Russian dictionary of linguistic terms. He had an appointment in Belarus and researched and lectured in Czechoslovakia as well, but was eventually denounced as a “bourgeois nationalist” and struggled for work with the pall of the 1930s.

In 1933-34 a number of Slavic studies intellectuals and especially linguists were arrested in an affair known as the Case of the Slavists — seemingly, as with a previous Case of the Academics, a campaign to enforce discipline upon a field of growing ideological importance to Moscow. Accused of suspect foreign contacts, convicts in this early purge received “mere” prison sentences, some eventually escaping to exile. But the scarlet letter upon them stood all in great danger as purges grew more deadly late in the 1930s, and our man Durnovo was not the only Slavist who was subsequently executed.**

He was shot at Sandarmokh in Karelia, a site with over 9,000 recorded executions from 1937 to 1938. His sons, Andrei and Yevgeny, were also both executed in 1938. All the convictions from the Slavists’ trials were overturned after Stalin’s death.


Memorial stone at Sandarmokh; the inscription implores “People! Do not kill one another!” (cc) image by Semenov.m7.

* That man, Pyotr Durnovo, is also famous for a 1914 memorandum acutely diagnosing the state of imperial rivalry between England and Germany and correctly forecasting that should Russia foolishly ally with England — he wrote in February, before the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand made the imminent onset of war obvious — it would court “social revolution in its most extreme form.”

[T]he trouble will start with the blaming of the Government for all disasters. In the legislative institutions a bitter campaign against the Government will begin, followed by revolutionary agitations throughout the country, with Socialist slogans, capable of arousing and rallying the masses, beginning with the division of the land and succeeded by a division of all valuables and property. The defeated army, having lost its most dependable men, and carried away by the tide of primitive peasant desire for land, will find itself too demoralized to serve as a bulwark of law and order. The legislative institutions and the intellectual opposition parties, lacking real authority in the eyes of the people, will be powerless to stem the popular tide, aroused by themselves, and Russia will be flung into hopeless anarchy, the issue of which cannot be foreseen.

Nicholas II should have listened to him.

** Not all were so unfortunate. Victor Vladimirovich Vinogradov was actually reinstated to the summit of the academy during Stalin’s life (and received the Stalin Prize in 1951). He’s still widely known in his field to this day as one of the seminal Russian linguists.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1953: Erna Dorn, June 17 rising patsy

Add comment October 1st, 2020 Headsman

Erna Dorn was executed in secret in Dresden, East Germany on this date in 1953.

Dorn (English Wikipedia entry | German) had been a typist in Gestapo headquarters — real banality of evil stuff — before going to work at Ravensbruck, which was a bit less banal. This is the setup to a fair few executions of Nazi personnel but Frau Dorn got there by a very unusual path.

After the war she was able to pass for several years as a concentration camp survivor rather than a camp staffer, but her cover persona fell apart by the end of the 1940s resulting in her divorce, her expulsion from the Communist party, and her prosecution — first for theft and eventually for the Nazi stuff. However, her sentence was a term of years, not death.

Virtually everything known about her comes from her interrogations over this period and Erna Dorn was your basic unreliable narrator. You’ve got her opportunistically evolving cover stories, and then her swinging into possibly exaggerated claims of responsibility for great abuses, all intermediated by the Stasi with its own interests. “It turns out that everything from Dorn is a fabrication, with zero correlation to truth,” a frustrated interrogator noted after following her tales down one too many blind alleys.

Dorn might have served out her 15 years and been released to take her shifting secrets to an obscure grave. But the June 17, 1953 protests against the East German government threw open the doors of the Halle detention center where she was held, allowing some 250 prisoners a very brief escape (in Dorn’s case, she was out for a single day) before Soviet intervention crushed the rebellion.

As goes the June 17 uprising Dorn was merely a bystander swept into events: it might as well have been the weather that popped open her cell door, and what would anyone do but walk right out?

Save that in the crackdown that followed there was a keen interest in painting the whole embarrassing affair in the scarlet colors of Hitlerism. The camp guard liberated by anti-government protesters made a perfect foil and the unbalanced Dorn was entirely willing to play along at her subsequent snap show trial by doubtfully claiming to have addressed the Halle protesters with an anti-German Democratic Republic harangue.

Dorn was condemned to death as a fascist ringleader by June 22, just five days after her unexpected furlough. The sentence was overturned in the 1990s by the post-GDR, reunified Germany.

* She had to carefully duck a summons to testify at trials of Ravensbruck guards, lest her true role at the camp be dramatically unveiled.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason,Women,Wrongful Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1943: Julius Fučík, Notes from the Gallows

1 comment September 8th, 2020 Headsman

Czechoslovakian journalist Julius Fučík was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1943.

Nephew of a great composer of the same name, our Julius Fučík was an 18-year-old left-wing activist when the Social Democrat party he was a part of founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Fučík and his pen grew up in this world, together generating a substantial corpus of essays and analysis on pregnant years.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia drove his party and his work underground, which eventually resulted in his arrest.

He’d eventually be deported to Germany and hanged at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison, but Fučík made his lasting fame to posterity through the clandestine diary notes, bursting with anticipation for a bright Communist future, that he scribbled during his initial detention at Prague’s Pankrác Prison from 1942-1943.

After the war, these would be published as Notes from the Gallows — a text so scriptural in Communist Czechoslovakia that it weighed like manacles.

In Milan Kundera‘s The Joke, one of the characters standing trial is browbeaten by a prosecutor using Fučík’s words, while Fučík’s “fervent, pure” portrait gazes in judgment. (Consonant with the stature of Notes from the Gallows, its author was saluted via many street names, public monuments, and so forth. Quite few still remain today, in Germany as well as the former Czechoslovakia.)

“‘Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over …'” I recognized Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows.

“‘I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me …'”

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

“‘Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved …'” The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky’s sublime drawing to their memories of the living face.

Fučík, and the idealized Max Švabinský portrait of him — one of several times it’s been used on postage stamps.

Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: “‘And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions … He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them …'” Fucik’s handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: “‘They can take our lives, can’t they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we’ve longed for and fought for and I now die for?'” After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

In the post-Communist era Fučík has had a critical re-examination, with an updated version of Notes published now including for the first time the bits his widow had judiciously excised, wherein Fučík admits to breaking under torture — although he also records that he “confessed” only inaccurate information that would not endanger comrades. He’s also been knocked for failing to use his firearms on either his captors or himself at the time of his arrest.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Torture,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1938: Nikolai Bryukhanov, hung by his balls

Add comment September 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1938, former Soviet Finance Commissar Nikolai Bryukhanov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was shot during Stalin’s purges.

Bryukhanov — no apparent relationship to Chernobyl nuclear plant director Viktor Bryukhanov — was a Bolshevik agitator going back to his days as a student radical in the first years of the 20th century.

In 1926, he became head of the powerful People’s Commissariat for Finance (NarKomFin) replacing another future purge victim, Grigori Sokolnikov — which meant that he was there at the helm at the moment that Stalin executed his 1928-1929 Great Turn towards Five-Year Plans and forced industrialization.

This pivot also entailed the bureaucratic sidelining of NarKomFin, thanks in part to Bryukhanov’s affiliation with Stalin’s so-called “Rightist Opposition”. (Who were, no surprise, also future purge victims.) This pornographic cartoon circulated among Bryukhanov’s political rivals, the author says with understatement, “illustrates the fragility of Bryukhanov’s position.”

Stalin himself, who in 1930 was not yet in a position to simply murder foes on his say-so, commended the caricature in the spirit of a witch-dunking:

To the members of the Politburo. Hang Bryukhanov by his balls for all of his sins present and future. If his balls hold, consider him acquitted by the tribunal. If not, drown him in the river. J. St.

Deposed here in 1930 from his acme, Bryukhanov nevertheless continued over the succeeding years in several lesser posts relating to administration of the Soviet economy. As with many Old Bolsheviks who had at some point in time resisted Stalin in a large way or a small one, that former enmity lived long in Koba’s mind … and come the era of the purges, what the old man had once scribbled in jest was visited on Bryukhanov’s flesh. (Metaphorically.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason,USSR

Tags: , , , , , ,

1918: Paul von Rennenkampf, tsarist general

Add comment April 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1918, General Paul von Rennenkampf dug his own grave by the side of the railway tracks near Taganrog, then was shot by the Bolsheviks for declining a promotion.

The Baltic German with the glorious Hungarian had spent a career in the tsarist officer corps; he took part in the multinational suppression of China’s Boxer Rebellion, and then the entirely domestic suppression of the abortive 1905 revolution.

Less well did the motherland fare against the Japanese in 1904 (where Rennenkampf’s shin and Russia’s infantry were both shattered) or against history in the Great War (which saw Rennenkampf sacked for command failures in the Battle of Lodz).

Although it seems that the latter result was the consequence of political infighting moreso than verifiable incompetence, the man was still cooling his heels in forced retirement when the revolutions of 1917 arrived. Both the February and the October revolutionaries detained him for a time and then released him, finding insufficient interest in those weighty days in a cashiered sexagenarian no matter how backwards his political priors.

But the Bolsheviks found him interesting when they took over Taganrog, where Rennenkampf was parked. This was his wife’s home town, near the southern industrial center Rostov-on-Don — a place that would be intensely contested in the unfolding civil war between communist Red and tsarist White armies. Such moments entail a choice of sides, so when the Bolsheviks offered this veteran senior commander a role in the Red Army, it was understood to be an offer he couldn’t refuse. He refused it, with bold words that were patriotic but not prophetic.

I’m old. I have not much left to live, for the salvation of my life, I will not become a traitor and will not go against my own. Give me a well-armed army, and I will go against the Germans, but you have no army; to lead this army would mean leading people to slaughter, I will not take this responsibility on myself.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1938: Herman Hurmevaara, Finnish Social Democrat

Add comment February 16th, 2020 Headsman

Finnish parliamentarian Herman Hurmevaara was shot during Stalin’s purges on this date in 1938.

Hurmevaara (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Finnish) sat in parliament for the Social Democrats from 1917 to 1919, which was also the period when long-restive Finland broke away from Russia’s grasp while the latter was preoccupied with deposing its tsar.

This rupture brought Finland into a nasty Whites-versus-Reds civil war. The Whites won, and Hurmevaara ended up knocking about in exile in Sweden and (after expulsion in 1930) the USSR. There, he worked in publishing.

Shot as a spy in the capital of Russia’s Finland-adjacent Karelian Republic, he was among numerous emigre Finns destroyed during the late 1930s nadir of Stalinism. Hurmevaara was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1946: Maliq Bushati, Lef Nosi, and Anton Harapi, of Balli Kombëtar

Add comment February 15th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1946,* communist Albania executed three former officials of its deposed wartime government.

Fascist Italy occupied Albania during World War II.

In a situation mirroring that of neighboring Yugoslavia, there were two resistance movements that sometimes maintained an uneasy truce and other times went straight at one another’s throats: the communist National Liberation Movement (LNC or LANC), and the nationalist National Front (“Balli Kombëtar”).

In 1943, when Mussolini’s government collapsed, Nazi Germany took over control of Albania. Wary of postwar domination by communists — and the likelihood that this party would not cede bordering “Greater Albania” regions like the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo — Balli Kombëtar cut a deal with Berlin to run a collaborationist government.

Our principals for this date were all prominent figures in that government: Maliq Bushati, the prime minister; Lef Nosi, a member of the High Regency Council, and Anton Harapi, a Franciscan friar who consented to be the Catholic community’s representative in the governing council.

Needless to say, Balli Kombëtar did not long benefit from German support, and succumbed to the partisan movement — both the domestic LNC, and the allied Yugoslavian partisans under Tito. Its adherents faced the fury of their conquerors.


From left: Maliq Bushati, Lef Nosi, and Anton Harapi.

Those who could, fled to the west to enroll as exile auxilia for the coming Cold War: the attempted 1949 Albanian Subversion was one of the CIA’s earliest regime change attempts — notable in that the covert operation was betrayed to Moscow by the Kremlin’s British intelligence mole Kim Philby, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

* The Internet brings some citations for February 20 instead of February 15; I have not been able to locate the source of the discrepancy. The British diplomatic communique reporting on the trial is my authoritative primary source here: “The trial took place, in eight sessions, in a squalid cinema in Tirana before a house packed by Party members who constantly interrupted and jeered, while three military judges on the stage kept hurling accusations and abuse at the defendants, jointly and severally. All three were held responsible for, among other things, Albania’s entire war losses … Defendant’s counsel was howled down as a ‘fascist’ and never succeeded in making himself heard … The three accused were shot two days afterwards, on 15 February.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Albania,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Shot,Treason

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1957: József Dudás, Hungarian Revolution wild card

Add comment January 19th, 2020 Headsman

Hungarian politician József Dudás was hanged on this date in 1957, for participation in the previous year’s abortive Hungarian Revolution.

Although he’d been a Communist in his prewar youth, Dudás won election to the postwar government on the Independent Smallholders line. This agrarian opposition party was gradually pushed out of power and eventually suppressed over the course of the late 1940s; Dudás himself ended up getting arrested and detailed for a long visit to the feared Romanian Securitate.

He’d long since been repatriated as a non-political engineer when the Hungarian Revolution briefly cracked open the horizon of possibilities in the autumn of 1956.

Dudás immediately proved himself not so non-political — and a distinct thorn in the side of the Imre Nagy government. He advocated not only for Hungarian Independence (which was also the title of his newspaper) but also for a multiparty reformulation of the Hungarian state, which was a bit much for Nagy to process during the revolution’s two-week lease on life. Dudás’s penchant for off-script revolutionary improvisations, such as putting out feelers to Soviet commanders and also having his militia lynch agents of the temporarily disempowered secret police, made him an unwelcome wild card and Nagy had him arrested shortly before Soviet tanks re-established control.

The Soviets, of course, also had no use themselves for the peasants’ party deputy who’d been trying to subvert Nagy from the right.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Treason,USSR

Tags: , , , , , ,

1959: Col. Cornelio Rojas

Add comment January 7th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1959, in the city of Santa Clara lately captured by Cuban revolutionaries, Col. Cornelio Rojas Fernández, commander of the city’s defeated government garrison, was shot without trial by the order of Che Guevara.

It was just one among hundreds of vengeful executions being visited in those weeks upon authorities of the deposed Batista regime.

Viewers of the televised public shooting saw the stocky commander — the grandson of a hero of the 19th century Cuban War of Independence — walk unafraid to his death in an armed escort, where he exhorted his onlookers until the firing detail sent his fedora flying.

Rojas’s granddaughter Barbara Rangel remains an energetic advocate of her father’s innocence, from Florida. A kinsman named Pedro Rojas Mir was among those killed in the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle when anti-Castro exiles mounted a failed invasion of Cuba.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Previous Posts


Calendar

November 2020
M T W T F S S
« Oct    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!