1982: Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, revolutionary foreign minister

Add comment September 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1982, Iranian revolutionary politician Sadegh Ghotbzadeh was shot in Tehran’s Evin Prison for supposedly plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

Ghotbzadeh had come by his revolutionary aspirations back in the 1950s and 1960s, after radicalizing as a teenager with the ouster of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh; he’d be kicked out of Georgetown University for neglecting his studies in favor of protesting the U.S.-backed Shah and enter a twilight world of professional revolutionary exiles.


In Paris with the Ayatollah Khomeini.

He eventually joined the circle orbiting the Ayatollah Khomenei, returning to Iran with him on the famous Air France flight of February 1, 1979. Ghotbzadeh would serve as the frequent translator and spokesman of Khomeini, eventually becoming Foreign Minister amid the tumult of the Iranian students’ seizure of U.S. embassy hostages in late 1979.

In those fraught months, the urbane Ghotbzadeh became a familiar face on American televisions. He was notable advocate within Iran for quickly ending the hostage standoff, and spoke openly about Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ronald Reagan‘s ongoing behind-the-scenes project to prevent a hostage deal that might redound to his opponent’s electoral advantage.* His distaste for the hostage confrontation, as well as his westernized accoutrements, quickly set him at loggerheads with the revolution’s growing fundamentalist faction, and he was forced out of the foreign ministry in August 1980.

He was destined for the tragedy of revolutions devouring their own: arrested in April of 1982, his former associations with Khomeini availed him nothing in the face of a revolutionary tribunal that condemned him for “masterminding a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic” and to assassinate Khomeini himself. Under torture, Ghotbzadeh confessed to planning a coup in a script right out of show trial central casting: “I am shamed before the nation. Free me or execute me.”

* This project succeeded so spectacularly that it’s still officially a kooky conspiracy theory in American political culture.

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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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1929: Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck, wrecker

Add comment May 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On or about this date in 1929, Russian railway magnate Nikolaus (Nikolai) Karlovich von Meck was shot as a saboteur.

Von Meck (Russian link) had the iron horse in his blood: his father Karl was among Russia’s first railroad-builders after the Crimean War clock-cleaning motivated the tsar to make with the modernizing.

While von Meck pere was busy laying crossties in the 1860s, the St. Petersburg Conservatory was germinating the young composer Tchaikovsky. In time, the two men would be linked by the union of their kin: our man Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck married Tchaikovsky’s niece, Anna.

It wasn’t just a glancing association with the musical colossus for the von Mecks. Karl’s widow — Nikolaus’s mother — Nadezhda was Tchaikovsky’s main financial patron for 13 years. They weren’t lovers: Tchaikovsky was gay, and the reclusive Nadezhda von Meck demanded as a condition of her patronage that they never meet. But they kept up a voluminous correspondence, and Tchaikovsksy dedicated several works to her — like this Sympohony No. 4 in F minor.

So Nikolaus von Meck was the genius’s patron’s son as well as the genius’s niece’s husband.

He was also a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur in his own right; over the 26 years preceding the Russian Revolution, he chaired the Moscow-Kazan Railway firm that his father had begun back in the 1860s. Under the son’s leadership its rail-mileage multiplied more than tenfold. He was also one of Russia’s first motorists.

Von Meck remained in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, continuing to work on developing the now-Soviet state’s rail infrastructure — his means reduced, he remained no less the conscientious and patriotic artificer. That held even after the man was arrested as a counter-revolutionary a few different times in the revolution’s early years; each time he was soon released.

But by the late 1920s, Stalin was in full control and the industrialist would become the first subject of a new Soviet law against “wreckers”.

Ostensibly designed to target the saboteurs that were supposedly retarding economic growth, it would prove its utility in the frightful years ahead as a first-rate instrument of the Terror. The prospect that any economic setback, inefficiency or controversy could be lethally attributed to a cabal of global capitalists intent on strangling communism in the crib made “wrecking” as flexible and as devastating a charge as witchcraft had once been. How do you even begin to rebut that? Wrecking would in time be attributed to innumerable purge victims, great and small, and an implied whip against every worker who might be slacking on his production quota.

This potent juridical apparatus went for its first spin in the North Caucuses city of Shakhty in 1928-29. The Shakhty Trial of 53 engineers and technicians as “wreckers” also has the distinction of being Stalin’s first show trial. Von Meck and four other men* were condemned to die, a comparatively modest harvest of blood next to what was to come; 44 others went to prison.

“What accomplished villains these old engineers were! What diabolical ways to sabotage they found!” Solzhenitsyn mused of those luckless souls in The Gulag Archipelago.

Nikolai Karlovich von Meck of the People’s Commissariat of Railroads, pretended to be terribly devoted to the development of the new economy, and would hold forth for hours on end about the economic problems involved in the construction of socialism, and he loved to give advice. One such pernicious piece of advice was to increase the size of freight trains and not worry about heavier than average loads. The GPU [forerunner of the NKVD, which in turn became the KGB -ed.] exposed von Meck, and he was shot: his objective had been to wear out rails and roadbeds, freight cars and locomotives, so as to leave the Republic without railroads in case of foreign military intervention! When, not long afterward, the new People’s Commissar of Railroads, Comrade Kaganovich, ordered that average loads should be increased, and even doubled and tripled them (and for this discovery received the Order of Lenin along with others of our leaders) — the malicious engineers who protested became known as limiters. They raised the outcry that this was too much, and would result in the breakdown of the rolling stock, and they were rightly shot for their lack of faith in the possibilities of socialist transport.

Nikolaus and Anna’s daughter Galina Nikolayevna von Meck — who did time in Siberian exile herself in the 1930s — wrote a memoir of her famous family in 1973, As I Remember Them.

* Notably Peter Palchinsky, whose life is dealt with in some detail in Loren Graham’s The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union.

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1954: Lucretiu Patrascanu, purged Romanian

Add comment April 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1954, Lucretiu Patrascanu was shot in Jilava Prison outside Bucharest.

The widow’s-peaked longtime pol was one of the first inductees of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) after its 1921 founding. Patrascanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was 21 years old then: the spirited politicking within the Communist movement would define the whole of his adult life.

By the 1930s, he held a position of national leadership. Patrascanu served in the Romanian legislature, and became a party representative to the Comintern.

It might have been at a Comintern road trip to Moscow in the 1930s that Patrascanu’s disillusionment with Stalin began. If so, it was beside the point: leftists in Romania (like everywhere else) had the more immediate threat of fascism to contend with.

After spending most of the war years under arrest, Patrascanu re-emerged as a state minister. He personally helped to author the August 23, 1944 coup that flipped Romania out of the Axis camp. But by the very next year he was under police surveillance.

He fell in the Soviet-driven late 1940s purge of Eastern European Titoists, for having such insufficiently internationalist notions as “before we are Communists, we are Romanians.” His time in prison was long enough for authorities to model his show trial on the 1952 Czechoslovakian Slansky trial, though Patrascanu himself disdained to denounce himself, or even to dignify the proceedings with a defense.

I have nothing to say, except [that I] spit on the charges brought against me.

He was posthumously rehabilitated in 1968 by Nicolae Ceausescu.

* Poignantly, Patrascanu was said to have read Koestler’s dystopian novel of the Soviet purges, Darkness at Noon, while an envoy to the 1946 Paris Peace Conference.

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1949: Traycho Kostov, Bulgarian purgee

Add comment December 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1949, leading Bulgarian communist Traycho (Traitcho, Traicho) Kostov was hanged in Sofia.

A journalist and agitator from way back, Kostov was a casualty of the postwar political chasm between east and west.

He’d been the number three man in Bulgaria’s communist hierarchy at the time of his fall in January of 1949, but had also been considered close to Yugoslavia’s independent socialist leader Josip Broz Tito. Like Tito, Kostov was a little too into his own country’s national economic sovereignty as against the purported greater good of a Soviet-dominated eastern bloc.

Stalin had overtly split with Tito in 1948. Over the next few years, Soviet satellites in eastern Europe would systematically eliminate perceived Titoist elements — and submit to economic integration on Moscow’s terms.

So a propagandist could write, comparing Kostov to the Hungarian minister who had swung for Titoism just weeks before, that

[i]f Laszlo Rajk could be regarded as the right arm of Tito’s plans for Eastern Europe, Traicho Kostov, member of the Bulgarian Politburo and Deputy Premier, was certainly his left arm. I sat in a crowded court in Sofia in December, 1949, heard and watched Traicho Kostov and ten other accused and dozens of witnesses testify to a Yugoslav plan for Bulgaria every whit as diabolical and bloodthirsty as that for Hungary. In reality there was only one overall strategic plan with “Operation Rajk” and “Operation Kostov” as tactical moves.

Specifically, “Operation Kostov” entailed spying for western (plus Yugoslavian) powers and plotting to overthrow the People’s Republic.

Although his enemies had browbeaten Kostov into political self-denunciation at party summits, the man stoutly repudiated guilt at trial — which was not necessarily the norm in the show trial genre.

Kostov’s ten fellow defendants received prison terms rather than the rope, and some of them were alive to enjoy the official rehabilitation that followed Stalin’s death.

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1936: Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, Old Bolsheviks

4 comments August 25th, 2011 Headsman

During the purges of the 1930s, Josef Stalin showed a particular relish for eliminating the Old Bolsheviks whose red credentials predated the revolution. (And potentially, outshone his own.)

Zinoviev

On this date in 1936, one of the oldest of them, Grigory Zinoviev, was shot with his longtime ally Lev Kamenev.

These guys had been major movers and shakers among the early Bolsheviki, adherents of Lenin during the first decade of the century when the aspiration for a Communist Russia seemed hopelessly far-fetched. Zinoviev rode with Lenin from Switzerland to Petrograd in the famous sealed train after the February Revolution toppled the tsar. (Not so Kamenev: he was serving time in Siberia, but was freed by the revolution.)

In the years that followed, both played leading roles in the Soviet government despite their impolitic opposition to the Bolshevik coup in October.

Kamenev was briefly head of state in 1917, and he married Leon Trotsky’s sister. Zinoviev was the longtime head of the Communist International, in which capacity he showed Moscow’s public face for communist movements in other countries. Bela Kun was another ally of Zinoviev’s.)

In this capacity, he’s known in British history for the “Zinoviev letter”, a purported summons to Anglo agitation that was actually a dirty trick dropped before an election to help the Tories sweep to power.*

Those were the good old days — when Lenin was fading away and Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Stalin were the “troika” running things. They should have checked with the Romans how triumvirates work out.

Because of their alliance, Zinoviev and Kamenev provided the decisive support that enabled Stalin to remain General Secretary of the party after the public airing of Lenin’s Testament warning against him. Without Zinoviev and Kamenev at this crucial moment, Stalin probably could not have survived politically; the name Koba might have gone into history books as little more than a terror to the paperwork of some forgotten bureau. (And the pre-revolutionary Caucasus!)

Talk about hoisted by your own petard.

Having been helpfully maintained in his position against Lenin’s dying wish, Stalin soon marginalized these formerly useful creatures. Their last decade was doomed to a spiral of failing power struggles, sinking rank, furtive dissension, and craven submission to party discipline.

Stalin at length destroyed them at the first great Moscow show trial, the Trial of the Sixteen — which hyped a “Trotskyite-Zinovievite” plot in a nicely Orwellian twist. (Despite Kamenev’s marital connection, Trotsky was actually a political rival.) The charge sheet must have reminded the defendants on every one of their dwindling days of the alliance with Trotsky they could have made back when they mattered.

The Trial of the 16 defendants would help to write the script for succeeding acts of this awful theater: after fighting the allegations, Zinoviev and Kamenev agreed to plead guilty on private assurances that their lives would be spared.

But once he had their “admissions” on the record, Stalin altered the deal.

Not only Zinoviev and Kamenev, but all 16 from the trial of the 16 were shot shortly after midnight this date.

From exile, their “conspirator” Trotsky called it the “end of an epoch”.

His obituary for Zinoviev and Kamenev minces no words about the men’s personal shortcomings (“they lacked sufficient character”), but still achieves a certain elegaic sympathy for these former fellow-travelers and their shared movement, now swallowed by Stalinism.

I have had the occasion to hear tranquil petty bourgeois tell me in the days between the beginnings of the trial and my internment: “It’s impossible to understand Zinoviev … He is so lacking in character!” And I would reply: “Have you yourselves experienced the full weight of the pressure to which he has been subjected for a number of years?” Unintelligent in the extreme are the comparisons, so widespread in intellectual circles, of the conduct in court of Danton, Robespierre and others. These were the instances of revolutionary tribunes who found the knife of justice suspended over them, directly in the midst of the arena of struggle; at a time when they were in the full flower of their strength, with their nervous system almost untouched and, at the same time, when they despaired of all hope of salvation.

[By contrast] For ten years they [Zinoviev and Kamenev] had been enveloped by clouds of slander paid for in heavy gold. For ten years they had swayed between life and death, first in a political sense, then in a moral sense, and lastly in a physical sense. Can one find in all past history examples of such systematic, refined and fiendish destruction of spines, nerves and all the fibers of the soul? Zinoviev or Kamenev would have had more than ample character for a tranquil period. But the epoch of grandiose social and political convulsions demanded an extraordinary firmness of these men, whose abilities secured them a leading place in the revolution. The disproportion between their abilities and their wills led to tragic results.

* There are numerous theories of the Zinoviev Letter’s origin; one has it that spy Sidney Reilly had a hand in it.

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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.

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1989: Arnaldo Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia

2 comments July 13th, 2010 Headsman

In the predawn hours this date in 1989, Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa was shot in a pasture at a West Havana military base along with Col. Antonio “Tony” de la Guardia and Captains Antonio Padrón and Jorge Martinez — all convicted of treason against the Cuban Revolution because of drug trafficking.

Before his abrupt fall just weeks before this date, Arnaldo Ochoa was one of the shining stars of Castro’s Cuba.

One of the Sierra Maestre guerrillas, Ochoa had fought with Che Guevara in the Battle of Santa Clara that toppled the Batista regime.

In the decades that followed, he rose to become one of the most powerful officers in Cuba, serving in Venezuela, Angola, Ethiopia.

But in early June 1989, and shortly after a Mikhail Gorbachev state visit to Cuba delivered the bad news that the crumbling Soviet Union would be withdrawing its subsidies to Havana, Ochoa and State Security officer Tony de la Guardia* were suddenly busted for running a drug-smuggling operation — essentially conspiring with the Colombian Medellion cartel to exploit Cuba’s position on the most direct routes to Florida, and corruptly skimming the proceeds in the process.

There seems to be little doubt among those in the know that they were doing exactly that, but endless speculation about what else they were up to — what the executions were really about.

There is the year, to begin with, which is why we’ve mentioned Gorbachev; Castro was hostile to the Soviet leader’s glasnost reforms, and could read well enough the dangerous direction of change in eastern Europe. He wanted Gorbachev to put the brakes on.

Ochoa was seen as a charismatic figure of a more liberal outlook and close to Russian officers to boot, and one school of thought has it that he therefore looked like the sort of man who might be able to mount a coup or serve as the KGB’s catspaw if it came to regime change.

Whether or not Ochoa was targeted on that basis, Castro surely did not regret during those dangerous transitional years as Russian patronage slipped away the salutary effect this day’s doings would have had on any other potential aspirants for his job.

That consideration, whether it was primary or tertiary, probably helps explain the purge’s old-school show trial vibe. On television, Ochoa confessed to it all, and assured the court,

If I receive this sentence, which might be execution … my last thought will be of Fidel, for the great revolution he has given our people.

(Although what that thought would have been is a different matter. After falling out with Ochoa over military operations in Angola, the Cuban dictator had bugged his general’s environs and thereby eavesdropped on numerous of caustic remarks about himself.)

The drug charges, too, point the way towards plausible hidden agendas.

Fidel and Raul generally took a cautious approach to the drug business — hardly virginal, but reputedly avoiding particularly egregious entanglements lest they gift-wrap the hostile Yankees a pretext for invading. (Given what happened to Panama later in this eventful year, that would have been a reasonable concern.)

At the same time, it’s all but inconceivable that they were taken completely unawares by “revelations” that their aides were up to something shady.

So the hypotheses in this area run the gamut from: Ochoa and de la Guardia taking an authorized but circumscribed covert operation and avariciously expanding it beyond any possible license; to, everyone at the top being up to his eyeballs and Ochoa and de la Guardia eliminated when it became expedient to bury their firsthand knowledge of Fidel’s firsthand knowledge. Timing, again, is suggestive; with the coming withdrawal of Soviet protection, this might have been seen in Havana a prudent moment to trim sails on narcotics transshipment.

Whatever Arnaldo Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia may have known or sensed about the wheels-within-wheels of Havana politics, they took it to their grave 21 years ago today. Perennial declarations of the Castros’ imminent fall have made the rounds ever since, but until that old stopped clock manages to tell the right time, it’s likely that the rest of us will have to content ourselves with guesswork.

* De la Guardia was a friend of the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In this very year, Marquez dedicated The General in his Labyrinth to the soon-to-be-disgraced colonel.

Speaking of de la Guardia literary connections: Tony’s daughter, Ileana, has also published a book.

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1952: Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan, the first corruption executions in Red China

1 comment February 10th, 2010 Headsman

China has been clamping down on official malfeasance lately, but corruption trials have a long and storied vintage in the realm.

The very oldest casket in the cellar has stamped upon it this date in 1952, when Maoist China carried out its first corruption executions.


The public trial of Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan. (Source.)

“Faithful and unyielding” during wartime, Liu Qingshan and Zhang Zishan exploited their resulting positions of authority to plunder economic development money.

Theirs was the signal case in an anti-corruption “campaign against three evils” that ended late in 1952, with the announcement that 196,000 party members and cadres had been convicted of something. (Cited here.)

One then-youthful man remembered that

in the winter of 1951, Mao launched a national campaign against what he called the three evils — corruption, waste, and bureaucracy. Taking advantage of the winter holidays, students were sent to various places as members of so called Tiger Hunting Teams. With six other students I was sent to the Art Supply Service then attached to our school. It was housed two miles from the campus. I worked there under the office of the Campaign Against the Three Evils. The entire staff and all the workers were organized to study Party policies attached to this campaign. The staff was then called upon to make a clean breast of their crimes and accuse others they knew to be criminals as well. These crimes included embezzling, forgery, theft, bribery and other white collar crimes. Some suspects were already being locked up in isolated rooms within the offices. Most of those locked up were directors on various levels. Some were even old Party members from the early Yanan days. We had no mercy on those we saw to be “criminals.”

I learned from the newspaper that corruption and waste had become very serious problems indeed. It also revealed how Party cadres had degenerated from revolutionary heroes into grafters. The best example we were told of was two senior cadres, the secretaries of the Tianjin Prefectural Party Committee, Liu Qing-san and Zhang Zi-shan, who were even sentenced to death for their crimes. The Party wanted to show that its own members were not exempt from justice. In showing this, they concurred with the old Chinese belief that it was best to execute one as a warning to a hundred.

Took the words right out of Mao’s mouth.

Only if we execute the two of them, can we prevent 20, 200, 2,000 or 20,000 corrupt officials from committing various crimes.

… although of course, that was a primitive age; one could hardly expect that sort of startling yield on investment in today’s on-the-go China. “[T]he effect would not be so great. To show our determination, we would have to execute several more than two.”

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1959: 71 after the Cuban Revolution

7 comments January 12th, 2010 Headsman

From the dark pre-dawn hours through to the middle of the day this date in 1959, Cuba’s fledgling revolutionary government shot over 70* “police officials, soldiers, and others described as spies and informers”** into a pit near Santiago de Cuba.

Enrique Despaigne is the gentleman shown being shot from 1:02 to 1:09 of this period newsreel.

Just days past their New Year’s triumph over the Batista dictatorship, the Sierra Maestra guerrillas were indulging a little out-with-the-old bloodletting. Well, more than a little.

Others had already been shot, and (many) others would follow that fate in the time to come, but this day’s mass execution was the largest and eventually most emblematic of those days. It was ordered by present-day Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother.

The biographies of the day’s (nearly literal) hecatomb were largely eclipsed by their deaths as theater, as symbolism, as diplomacy. The man most individually distinctive to many observers was Lt. Enrique Despaigne, whose fusillade for killing 53 people was delayed three hours (pdf) at the camera crew’s behest for the better dawn lighting.

This day’s sentences specifically and the post-revolution executions generally were widely deplored abroad. Liberal Oregon Senator Wayne Morse called it a “bloodbath” on the Senate floor, and implored the Cubans to “withhold executions until emotions cool.”

Cuba rejected the criticism.

One could say that, like Lenin, Castro had taken warning from the Paris Commune‘s self-defeating example of excess leniency.

But the case for that interpretation looks much stronger in retrospect than it did to those living the actual events.† Foreign criticism for Cuba’s 1959 execution binge, though strong, was also strongly colored by an expectation that western powers would soon come to an arrangement with Castro — an anti-imperialist, but not yet a publicly committed Communist.

So the purge of Batista elements generally played as an ugly but fundamentally unworrisome effusion of popular vengeance an unsettled political situation.

As the London Times mildly editorialized, “youthful excesses” notwithstanding, “much of what is being said in Cuba can be put down to the exaltation of victory. When the provisional Government settles down, more realistic appraisals are likely.” (Jan. 13, 1959)

* 71 is the figure most generally reported, and the number given by the contemporary Associated Press reports, but slightly different numbers around that total are sometimes cited (the New York Times reported 75 on Jan. 13, 1959). Whatever their number, some of their names are given here and here; this Spanish-language forum page has victims of the revolution on this date and throughout the month, sourced to the stridently anti-Revolutionary Cuban American National Foundation.

** Quote from the A.P. report as published in the London Times Jan. 13, 1959.

† Castro defended the executions in terms of Nazis, not Communards. Many of those condemned either to death or imprisonment by the revolutionary government were (show) tried for war crimes.

And not without reason:

Santiagans say the series of decrees by former President Fulgencio Batista suspending constitutional guarantees and civil liberties covered a reign of terror in which 500 to 1,000 persons were murdered in Santiago alone. To Santiagans, the firing squads represent justice. (New York Times, Jan. 21, 1959)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable Participants,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,War Crimes,Wrongful Executions

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