1916: Nazario Sauro, Italian patriot

3 comments August 10th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Italian nationalist and sailor Nazario Sauro was hanged by an Austro-Hungarian military court in Pula, Croatia.

Born in the Habsburg-controlled port of Koper at the crown of the Adriatic Sea,* young Sauro (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) evinced a much greater affinity for the seas than his schooling and had his first command — a merchant ship — by the tender age of 20.

Besides seamanship, his birthplace blessed or cursed him with the fin de siecle‘s ferment of Italian irredentism: his native Istria was one of those outlying lands with an ample Italian heritage laboring under the moldering Austrian boot. Patriots pined to append it to Mazzini’s energetic young state.

So, Sauro alongside his nautical career developed an avocation in remaking the map. He took pains to monitor harbor defenses during his shipping runs around the Adriatic; nor was his conviction in national self-determination confined to his own country, for he won admiration in Albania by smuggling supplies to anti-Ottoman rebels there.

With the outbreak of World War I, Sauro — then nearing 34 years of age — hopped a train over the border into his true nation and enlisted in Venice to fight against Austria. Considering that he was still a subject of Austria, this action invited a treason charge were he ever to be captured … and this finally occurred when now-Lt. Sauro ran aground in a submarine in the Austrian Bay of Kvarner on July 30, 1916. Once someone recognized him from his long prewar career at sea, his fate was sealed.


Lyrics here

Still a celebrated patriotic martyr to this day, number of cities around Italy host monuments to Sauro and streets named for Sauro; he’s also honored by the Italian navy’s Sauro-class submarine. Mussolini had a grand statue of the illustrious native son erected in Koper in 1935, when that city was under Italian control … but Nazi Germany tore it down in 1944 once relations between the former Axis partners went pear-shaped.

* Koper is in present-day Slovenia, but within literal (and littoral) walking distance of Italy.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Croatia,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Italy,Martyrs,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1949: Antoun Saadeh

1 comment July 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Lebanese writer and political leader Antoun Saadeh was shot following a failed coup by his Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Born to a globetrotting journalist, the young polyglot Saadeh was living abroad in Brazil when his native Lebanon fell from the collapsing Ottoman Empire into French hands.

He returned in 1930 to Lebanon an irredentist on the make and churned out a prodigious literary output: fiction, newspaper stories, political pamphlets.

It was his vision for a “Greater Syria” that would define the man’s legacy, and cause his death. In 1932 he secretly founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party to advocate for a vast Syrian state encompassing what now comprise Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. At its most ambitious this prospective state dreamt itself inscribed upon the whole Fertile Crescent from the Tauras Mountains to the Persian Gulf.

The SSNP still exists in Syria and Lebanon to this day, but it was a big cheese in the French Mandate by the late 1930s — when the imminent end of colonialism put the future shape of the entire region into question. Saadeh, harried by French authorities who had clapped him in prison a couple of times, emigrated to Argentina and carried on the struggle through exile publications.

In 1947, Saadeh returned to a rapturous reception in now-independent Lebanon:

But his pan-Syria idea was distinctly at odds with what had happened on the ground. Whatever the colonial roots of the borders that had been set down, they defined not only zones on a map but elites with an interest in their maintenance. Lebanon’s founding “National Pact” arrangement among Christians and Muslims also committed all involved to Lebanon as an independent state not to merge with Syria.

So despite (or rather because of) Saadeh’s popularity, the SSNP faced renewed crackdowns in 1948. Revolutionaries, reformers, and pan-Arabist types were surging throughout the region thanks to the distressingly shabby performance of Arab armies in their 1948 war to strangle Israel in its crib. (Lebanon fielded only a tiny force in this fight which also won no laurels; instead, Israel began its long tradition of occupying southern Lebanon.) Saadeh was certainly alarmed by the birth of a Zionist state so inimical to his own programme; “Our struggle with the enemy is not a struggle for borders but for existence,” he declared in 1948.

On July 4, 1949, the SSNP put its muscle to the test by attempting to seize state power in Lebanon — and disastrously failed. Saadeh had traveled to Damascus hoping to gain the support of the Syrian military dictator Husni al-Za’im;* instead, al-Za’im simply handed Saadeh right back to Lebanese authorities who had him tried in secret and swiftly executed.

* A gentleman who would himself be overthrown and executed just a few weeks hence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Lebanon,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Syria,Treason

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1916: Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi

5 comments July 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1916, the Austro-Hungarian empire executed Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi for treasonous Italian nationalism.

It was the multiethnic Habsburg state that was itself dying of its constituents’ national aspirations; in little more than two years, the state entity that carried out this day’s sentences would no longer exist at all.

Pre-World War I, Battisti (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was actually a Socialist representative in the Austrian parliament.

When the unpleasantness broke out, though, he made a break for the peninsula where he agitated* (successfully) for Italian entry into the fray against Austria-Hungary. Irredentists had long coveted Habsburg properties with a heavy Italian population, like the Adriatic port of Trieste and Battisti’s own native Trento; the war offered an opportunity to swipe those territories, notwithstanding Italy’s putative prewar alliance with the Austrians.

Although already 40 years of age when Italy entered the war, the intrepid Battisti enlisted to fight. He was captured along with an otherwise obscure subaltern, Fabio Filzi, on the Alpine slope of Monte Corno (now known as Monte Corno Battisti) repelling the Austrian Strafexpedition.**

Austria did not stand on ceremony with these men; their capture took place on July 10, their trial on July 12, and their executions at the Castello del Buon Consiglio — an ironic Calvary, for a parliamentarian — later that same day. (To complete the scene, the strangulation-hanging was botched when Battisti’s first rope broke.)

The Austrian writer Karl Kraus would observe that “they thought they were hanging Italy, but it was really Austria on the gallows.”

Whichever one it was, they took a lot of pictures.


Battisti and Filzi as prisoners.


Battisti leaving the courtroom en route to his execution.


Battisti approaches the scaffold.


Battisti waiting at the scaffold as the sentence is read.


The Austrian army offers a prayer and salute to the shrouded body of Cesare Battisti.

* As a socialist who broke against the internationalist position and in favor of violent nationalism, Battisti was an ally of Benito Mussolini. It was Battisti, actually, who pioneered the socialist-nationalist-newspaperman act upon which Mussolini would later raise is own star, to such an extent that Battisti’s paper, Il Popolo — the apparent inspiration behind Mussolini’s own subsequent paper, Il Popolo d’Italia — gave the still-obscure future Duce some of his earliest gigs.

A martyr’s death during World War I fortuitously spares Battisti’s legacy the unpleasant association with his friend’s postwar turn towards fascism, so there are many streets and plazas named for Battisti, as well as a memorial in Trento. He’s also honored by name in the 1918 patriotic tune La Leggenda del Piave (lyrics).

** “Punitive expedition”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1939: The 18 corpses of the rebellion

Add comment December 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1939, 18 junior officers of the Thai military were shot in Bangkok.

Ostensibly condemned for being part of a coup plot to depose the adolescent King Ananda Mahidol in favor of his abdicated predecessor Prajadhipok, they were in reality the casualties of a purge by the Field Marshal-turned-Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram.

It’s alternatively transliterated “Phibun Songkhram” or “Pibunsonggram”, and familiarly abbreviated to “Por”, but by any name he dominated Thai politics for a generation.

One of the military leaders of the bloodless 1932 Siamese Revolution that made the country a constitutional rather than an absolute monarchy, Phibun had in 1938 muscled his way to the Prime Ministership.

Beset by assassination attempts linked to royal revanchists to whose purposes the young turk’s programme was deeply inimical, Phibun determined to break the back of monarchism en route to a modernized, militaristic nationalism (pdf) that would be right at home in the imminent world war.*

As 1939 opens, we join the narrative of Paul Handley’s The King Never Smiles:

Phibun swept the capital and arrested 50 royals, nobles, and soldiers in the clique of his People’s Party rival Colonel Song Suradej for plotting his overthrow …

Whatever the truth behind the cabal, its quashing came to represent the final victory of the 1932 revolutionists and the constitutionalists over the monarchists. To mark it, Phibun commissioned a huge monument to the constitution, later called Democracy Monument, in the middle of the city’s main thoroughfare, Rajadamnoen (“royal progress”) Avenue.


The Democracy Monument in Bangkok.

The eighteen officers who took it in the shorts on this date were not joined by condemned VIPs like royal blood Prince Rangsit, who copped a commutation. It’s widely thought now that the “Songsuradet Rebellion” — or aptly-named “Rebellion of 18 Corpses” — was trumped-up, if not an phantasm altogether.

The Democracy Monument was not the only bulwark of Thai nationalism thrown up by Phibun in the year between the “conspirators'” January arrest and their deaths this day.**

He dropped the old absolutist name “Siam” in favor of the more nationalistic “Thailand” in June of that year; made the date of the 1932 revolution a national holiday; stripped the language of class-distinctive structures; and pressed irredentist claims against neighboring French colonies.

And if the royal house was efficiently marginalized by Phibun, it would yet develop in the latter part of the century into one of the region’s weightiest political entities† … intertwined with the Thai military Phibun helped hoist to pride of place, a formula that has left coups and unstable governments a presistent feature of the political landscape down to the present day.

* And subsequently, too. Despite aligning with the Axis powers during World War II, Phibun was a feted anti-Communist dictator as Washington started counting dominoes in Southeast Asia in the 1950’s.

** The Wikipedia page for the rebellion claims that the executions were carried out in batches of four per day. A New York Times report of December 6, 1939 said that all 18 had been executed the previous day.

† The current King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who coincidentally turns 81 today, is the world’s longest-reigning monarch as of this writing … with no shortage of concern about the conflict his passing may unstop.

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1922: Six Greek former ministers of state

11 comments November 28th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1922,* on the morning after a revolutionary tribunal held them liable for treason in the catastrophic Greek loss of Smyrna, six former high-ranking political and military officials of the Greek government were shot in Athens.

The long-running national conflict between liberals and monarchists had boiled over during World War I, setting the stage for increasingly bitter internecine conflict played out against the backdrop of a misbegotten foreign adventure.

Greece’s territorial aspirations after World War I.

As the Ottoman Empire — Greece’s neighbor and historical rival — collapsed in the aftermath of the world war, Athens under liberal colossus Eleftherios Venizelos set her sights on a vast pan-Hellenic domain spanning Constantinople, western Anatolia, and the Black Sea coast.

In 1919, backed — even pushed — by the British, Greece occupied Smyrna, a multiethnic economic hub in Asia Minor. But cruelty towards the Turkish population sparked immediate resistance which soon blended insensibly into the burgeoning Turkish National Movement, already on the path towards its destiny of forging the modern state of Turkey.

As the Greek army pressed outwards from Smyrna, it became drawn into full-fledged war. In 1920, the Greek government turned over (as it was often wont to do) and under the ascendant monarchists whose irredentism was not to be upstaged “fantasy began to direct Greek policy” — like a quixotic scheme to march on Constantinople rather than hold a defensible position. Greece’s European allies and sponsors began to cut bait.

September 14, 1922: Smyrna burns.

Far from threatening Constantinople, the Greeks suffered one of their greatest disasters — the “Catastrophe of Asia Minor”, when Ataturk drove them back to, and then out of, Smyrna, emptying the once-cosmopolitan city of thousands of Greek (and Armenian) refugees fleeing a sectarian carnage. Some swam out of the burning city only to be refused aid by ships of nations unwilling to be drawn into the affair politically.

In the dismayed Greek capital, anti-monarchist officers who had been purged by the new government revolted and rounded up the opposition’s leadership. “The Six” who faced public trial for treason included three former Prime Ministers:

With two other ministers of state and a general, they comprised all but one member of the offending monarchist government, a bloody thoroughness the New York Times compared to Robespierre. Western governments temporarily broke off relations.

After the day’s bloody deeds, Venizelos returned from exile to conclude the war on Turkish terms, including “population exchange” — fragrant euphemism — to solidify each government’s demarcation as a nation-state and ratify the destruction of Smyrna (renamed Izmir) as a multiconfessional melting pot.

Today, Smyrna is largely forgotten by those to whom it is not intensely remembered — and among the latter, its meaning is ferociously contested. To Turks, a chapter in their founding expulsion of foreign occupation; to Greeks, the calamitous end of the ancient Hellenic presence in Asia Minor; to each, a touchstone for one another’s atrocities; to others of a less parochial frame of mind, a parable of the perfidy of an entire enemy faith, or a subplot in the great game for Ottoman oil, or as Henry Miller conceived it writing in the antechamber of the second World War, the avatar of a stunted and cynical moral sense among European powers that would lead them to their next great reckoning:

Even the most ignorant yokel knows that the name Attila is associated with untold horrors and vandalism. But the Smyrna affair, which far outweighs the horrors of the first World War or even the present one, has been somehow soft-pedalled and almost expunged from the memory of present day man. The peculiar horror which clings to this catastrophe is due not alone to the savagery and barbarism of the Turks but to the disgraceful, supine acquiescence of the big powers.

Smyrna, like the Boxer Rebellion and other incidents too numerous to mention, was a premonitory example of the fate which lay in store for European nations, the fate which they were slowly accumulating by their diplomatic intrigues, their petty horse-trading, their cultivated neutrality and indifference in the face of obvious wrongs and injustices.

*Greece did not adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1923, the last European country to do so — so the date in Greece on the day of the execution was actually November 15.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Greece,Heads of State,Mass Executions,Notable Jurisprudence,Politicians,Power,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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