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)

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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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1966: Sayyid Qutb

1 comment August 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1966, author and intellectual Sayyid Qutb was hanged for plotting to overthrow the Egyptian state.

Qutb — whose names can be transliterated many ways (Saïd, Syed, Seyyid, Sayid, or Sayed; Koteb, Kotb, Qutub or Kutb) — was one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the 20th century, and helped shape the ideas of Osama bin Laden.

A traditionally-minded Muslim civil servant in a westernizing Egypt, Qutb’s journey to radicalism is traditionally dated to his late 1940’s study abroad in the U.S. at what is now the University of Northern Colorado, where the decadence, materialism, and lax morality of the global hegemon saw him seeing existential evil in the everyday all around him:

The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it.

Qutb left Greeley, Colo., in 1950 with a master’s degree and an intention to mount an Islamic revolution in his home country that would implement sharia and keep shapely thighs safely under wraps. (Qutb never married, bemoaning the scanty pickings of pure fish in the sea. He may have faced the gallows a virgin.)

He hooked up with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, landed in Egypt’s famously savage prisons (future president Anwar Sadat was one of his judges), and the experience of torture hardened his commitment to a vanguard-led revolution. He kept up his prolific writing output, penning perhaps his most notable work, Milestones (the text was later used against him at his capital trial).

Qutb’s release in 1964 was only for a few months, before Egyptian security got wind of a new Muslim Brotherhood plot to overthrow the government and rounded up Qutb as the supposed ringleader — or just railroaded him because it didn’t like where he was going with passages like

there are many practical obstacles in establishing God’s rule on earth, such as the power of the state, the social system and traditions and, in general, the whole human environment. Islam uses force only to remove these obstacles so that there may not remain any wall between Islam and individual human beings.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can readily imagine that his martyr’s death did not squelch his movement, but greatened his stature to admiring eyes.

But it was hardly a direct path into an un-critiqued hall of martyrs in an undifferentiated “radical Islam”. While Qutb had his own influence in Egypt, Cairo has managed to keep the lid on the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutbism, however, was exported to Saudi Arabia — which intentionally imported it for various practical and geopolitical reasons — where it flourished, often in a fractious relationship with official Saudi Wahhabism.

One of Qutb’s students was the uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the hanged intellectual greatly influenced Zawahiri’s own path into radicalism and to al-Qaeda. Since September 11, of course, the path Qutb himself followed has become of much more pressing interest to the West as well as within the Muslim world.

Some noteworthy works by Sayyid Qutb

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1966: Evariste Kimba and three other “plotters” against Mobutu

1 comment June 2nd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1966, the Congo’s last civilian Prime Minister and three former cabinet officials “walked unfalteringly to the gallows in the main square”* of Kinshasa and were hanged before a crowd a hundred thousand strong as Lt. Gen. Joseph-Desire Mobutu consolidated his ruinous Zairian dictatorship.

A cycle of weak governments and nationwide chaos had befallen the resource-rich former Belgian Congo in the early 1960’s after the CIA eliminated the leftist Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Evariste Kimba was, when the cycle ended in the fall of 1965, the most recent man to succeed to Lumumba’s title — though hardly his stature — in the tottering government of Joseph Kasavubu (or Kasa-Vubu).

Acting once again with western support, the general later to rename himself Mobutu Sese-Seko overthrew civilian rule on November 25, 1965.

To judge by either tenure (he ruled for more than 31 years) or personal enrichment (rumored to be $5 billion sapped from the poverty-ridden country during that time), Mobutu would rate as one of the 20th century’s most successful evil dictators.

But nobody knew at first that he wouldn’t be another forgettable here-today, shot-tomorrow general. And to see that didn’t happen, Mobutu showed the iron fist early, and made clear that he would brook no resistance, especially not from the old regime’s politicos. A true post-partisan, he declared in 1966 a five-year ban on party activity.

That formed the backdrop, or the pretext, or both, for squelching the “Pentecost Plot”, a supposed attempt by Kimba, along with former ministers Jérôme Anany, Emmanuel Bamba and André Mahamba, to mount a coup of their own.

Pentecost was Sunday, May 29 that year. The four were arrested on May 30 — “[o]n the morning of their arrest the Information Service of the Congo announced, in the name of the government, that they would ‘now appear before a military tribunal which will condemn them to death and they will be hanged.'” (source) When you know the result already, there’s no sense dragging things out: the Pentecost Plotters were tried, convicted and sentenced on June 1 (they denied the charges and received a six-minute deliberation), and hanged on June 2.

Kinshasa’s major football arena, Kamanyola Stadium, was renamed Stade des Martyrs de la Pentecôte in honor of this day’s victims shortly after Mobutu was ousted by guerrilla commander Laurent Kabila in 1997.

* New York Times

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Congo (Kinshasa),Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1952: Rudolf Slansky and 10 “conspirators”

6 comments December 3rd, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1952, eleven high-ranking Czechoslovakian politicians were hanged at Prague’s Pankrac Prison two weeks after a show trial purging unreliable elements from the Communist party.

One of the most infamous show trials in Czechoslovakia saw 14 high-ranking Communists — eleven of them Jews — railroaded for a “Trotskyite-Titoist-Zionist activities in the service of American imperialism”. Three received life sentences. The other eleven went to the gallows.

While the roots of the persecution, especially the undertones of anti-Semitism, sink into the id of the Stalinist Eastern bloc, the most evident proximate cause was the USSR’s assertion of control over its satellite states at a time when Josip Tito was successfully charting a course of independent communism. Purges in Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary had taken place in the years before.

The Soviet agents rounding up suspects for Stalin did not trifle with small game. Rudolf Slansky was General Secretary of the Communist Party and therefore the second-most powerful man in the country; by the time he was tried, after a year in prison under torture, he was publicly denouncing himself.

Otto Sling, whose name became synonymous with forbidden heterodoxy, did likewise — “I was a treacherous enemy within the Communist Party … I am justly an object of contempt and deserve the maximum and the hardest punishment.”

And Vladimir Clementis, the Slovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, was erased from a photo taken with the Czechoslovakian President, a circumstance Milan Kundera reflected upon in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square … Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history and, of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall.

The hanged were rehabilitated in 1963.

Artur London, who received a life sentence and was released after rehabilitation, wrote about his experiences in The Confession, subsequently a 1970 Costa-Gavras film. The wife and son of Deputy Minister of Foreign Trade (and Auschwitz survivor) Rudolf Margolius have also both written memoirs covering the trial.

The younger Margolius in particular, who has staunchly defended his father as an essentially apolitical man and not a Communist apparatchik, has been in the thick of present-day disputes in Czechoslovakia’s successor states over whom is due sympathy and recognition for bygone political crimes.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Russia,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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