1947: Nikola Petkov, “a dog’s death”

Add comment September 23rd, 2010 Headsman

At midnight as the calendar turned over to this date in 1947, anti-communist Bulgarian politician Nikola Petkov was hanged in Sofia’s central prison.

Petkov was a principal in a still-extant peasant party that briefly held state power in Bulgaria in the early 1920s.

His anti-fascist activities did him no favors as Bulgaria’s aligned with the Axis, and he spent the war touring his country’s internment camps.

The anti-fascist Fatherland Front that Petkov co-founded — allying with the Communist party in what would prove to be a Faustian bargain — had become the government by the end of the war, with Petkov in a ministerial role.

Unfortunately for Petkov, greater ministers of greater states were even then carving up spheres of influence in the postwar world. In the process, the Bulgarian statesman would get carved right out.

Here’s the blog of this critically acclaimed novel’s author.

With Bulgaria slated for the Soviet bloc and all its scary political purges, the Fatherland Front was soon controlled by the Communists. Petkov mounted brave but futile opposition as a Member of Parliament — until he was arrested in the parliament building itself, an apt image for Bulgaria’s entrance onto the Cold War chessboard as a red pawn.

The show trial and resultant death sentence “for having tried to overthrow the legal authority and restore Fascism in the country by conspiring with military organisations” briefly exercised western diplomats filing appeals and high-minded talk about justice during the summer of 1947.

Which stuff earned the derision of Bulgarian Premier Georgi Dimitrov, so Soviet-aligned that he was a Soviet citizen.

In this menacing speech to the Social Democrats the next January, his Don’t-Mess-With-TexasBulgaria umbrage at outside actors for having the temerity to object stands in ironic contrast to Dimitrov’s own history as a prewar international cause celebreback when he was unjustly accused in Nazi Germany for the Reichstag Fire.

So sauce for the goose-stepper is sauce for the dialectical materialist?

Negatory.

As you remember from this rostrum I many times warned your political allies from Nikola Petkov’s group. They did not listen to me. They took no notice of all my warnings. They broke their heads, and their leader is now under the ground. You should now think it over, lest you share their fate … When the trial against Nikola Petkov began you said “The court will not dare to sentence him to death. It would be too horrible. Both Washington and London will rise against it in order to stop it.” I said then: “Nobody can stop it. Those who may try to intervene from abroad will only worsen the position of the accused and his friends.’ What happened? What I said would happen. The court fulfilled its role, fulfilled the will of the people and sentenced the traitor to death.

Then you said: “If they execute the death sentence, the glass of patience will overflow. The whole world will rise against it, and all its wrath will fall on the back of the Bulgarian people.”

Of course, if there had been no interference from abroad, if they had not tried to dictate to the sovereign court, the head of Petkov could have been saved Yes, it could have been saved. His death sentence could have been commuted to another sentence. But when they tried to blackmail the Bulgarian people and question the authority of a sovereign court, it became necessary for the death sentence to be executed. And it was executed.

What happened then? Who rose against it in the country? Where were the demonstrations, the mutinies with which we were threatened? Nothing like that happened.

And what happened abroad? Not even decent diplomatic notes were delivered, which could have been expected. No one raised a hand in defense of Petkov. Some people in the West shouted for a while, but soon quietened (sic) down … The whole incident was soon forgotten.

The Balkans In Our Time

Hard to say Dimitrov was wrong about that: just one week after Petkov’s execution, the United States officially recognized a Bulgarian state dedicated (so the U.S. State Department had only just declared) “to remov[ing] all save a purely nominal opposition and to consolidat[ing], despite its professions to the contrary, a totalitarian form of government.”

“To a dog, a dog’s death,” sneered the official trade union council about Petkov — a taunt liberally repeated by Radio Sofia.

The “dog” was posthumously rehabilitated in 1990, and now has the requisite post-Soviet public monuments.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Treason

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1864: Six of Mosby’s Rangers

4 comments September 23rd, 2009 Headsman

It was on this date in 1864* that an infamous Union war crime took place in Front Royal, Virginia.

Union forces in the Old Dominion were bedeviled by John Singleton Mosby, whose bold and legendary guerrilla tactics are commemorated in Herman Melville’s “The Scout Toward Aldie”:

All spake of him, but few had seen
Except the maimed ones or the low;
Yet rumor made him every thing–
A farmer–woodman–refugee–
The man who crossed the field but now;
A spell about his life did cling —
Who to the ground shall Mosby bring?

In 1864, the “Gray Ghost” haunted the Shenandoah Valley, and his spooky brand of warfare eventually goaded the Union into crossing the streams.

Allegedly raging from the murder by Mosby’s troops of a surrendering northern cavalryman, the blues rounded up six captured Mosby men — actually only five, plus one 17-year-old civilian who had opportunistically joined the fray — and summarily executed them.

David Jones, Lucien Love and Thomas Anderson were shot. So was the aforementioned civilian, Henry Rhodes, under the eyes of his shrieking mother.

Then, two last unfortunates were hanged. William Thomas Overton spurned an offer of clemency in exchange for information on Mosby’s hideouts with the memorable parting, “Mosby will hang 10 of you for every one of us.”

Not quite so … but not an empty threat, either. Weeks later, Mosby would order the retaliatory executions of a like number** of randomly-selected Union prisoners of war, and communicate this intelligence to his foes along with his (successful) suit to resume more gentlemanly methods of killing one another.

* Some sources (including some cited in this post) claim September 22nd. The consensus of authoritative sources appears to be clearly September 23rd. The Gray Ghost himself may be one source of the confusion; according to Custer and the Front Royal Executions, “In his memoirs, which were published over 50 years after the event, Mosby got the date wrong, apparently based upon one of the newspaper accounts … [which] stated that the Front Royal incident occurred on September 22, not September 23, the date upon which it actually did occur.”

** Seven were condemned in retaliation, for these six plus a separate execution that occurred Oct. 13.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Power,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1994: Johannes van Damme, heroin smuggler

10 comments September 23rd, 2008 Headsman

At dawn this date in 1994, Dutch citizen Johannes van Damme was hanged at Singapore’s Changi Prison for drug trafficking.

The first westerner hanged under Singapore’s draconian anti-drug law, the engineer had been nabbed at the airport with 4.32 kilos of heroin.

Van Damme, 59 at his death, claimed ignorance of the illicit contents and his case drew appeals from the Dutch government — to no avail.

The city-state’s severe criminal code and comprehensively ordered society — “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” in cyberpunk author William Gibson’s formulation — is somewhat notorious at this point.

But while foreign migrants and guest workers had regularly faced the gallows for similar offenses, van Damme’s hanging marked a significant ramping-up of enforcement. According to Amnesty International, Singapore carried out 54 drug-related hangings in 1994 and another 52 in 1995, after an early-90’s pace of under ten per year. It’s maintained rates in the dozens of executions per annum since then, making it the heaviest per-capita user of the death penalty in the world.

And it doesn’t mind making its visitors sweat about it.

Welcome to Singapore. You’ll also see the warning on your embarkation card.

An intensified pace perhaps came with a new resolve on the part of the former British colony to forswear juridical perks to European offenders — at least to some extent. Van Damme’s fate makes an interesting contrast with that of his countrywoman, Maria Krol-Hmelak (the link is to her scanty Dutch Wikipedia page). Krol-Hmelak had been arrested a few months before van Damme also for possessing enough heroin to be presumed a smuggler and incur an automatic death sentence; at her trial a few months after van Damme’s, she received a surprise acquittal.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Netherlands,Singapore

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