1937: Helmut Hirsch, secret bomber

Add comment June 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the German-American Jewish terrorist Helmut “Helle” Hirsch was decapitated at Plotzensee Prison.

Hirsch (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an architecture student who had been driven from Germany by anti-Semitic laws and studied, therefore, in Prague. (Before the Reich gobbled up Czechoslovakia, of course.)

There he became involved in the Strasserite anti-Hitler “Black Front”. To Hirsch’s grief, this organization had been thoroughly penetrated by pro-Hitler spies.

In December 1936, Hirsch embarked on a train. His mission was to bomb something in Germany. The details of the plan remain murky to this day; Hirsch’s subsequent trial was held in secret and his worried family only learned the whereabouts of their son three months missing when they heard a radio broadcast in March announcing his condemnation for “preparation of high treason and criminal use of explosives endangering the public.”

It seems that Hirsch was supposed to have disembarked in Nuremberg and there picked up some left luggage deposited by a fellow conspirator; he may have been meant to deliver this payload Nazi party headquarters in Nuremberg, or perhaps to the offices of Julius Streicher’s propaganda sheet Der Stürmer.

The young would-be terrorist would tell his family in prison letters that he had instead bypassed Nuremberg and kept going all the way to Stuttgart to meet a friend, hoping the latter would talk him out of his wavering commitment to the plot. Instead, he was arrested that night by the Gestapo.

This case made news in the United States during the spring of ’37 because Hirsch’s father, Siegfried, was a naturalized American. That made Helmut a U.S. citizen, too, even though the son had never set foot in the United States.* U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the American ambassador to Germany William Dodd lobbied the Nazi government to spare Hirsch** — but to no avail.

Hirsch’s sister Kaete Hirsch Sugarman later donated her brother’s papers — letters, photos, architectural drawings — to Brandeis University, which maintains them as the Helmut Hirsch Collection. They include this touching final letter the young man wrote to his family on the eve of his execution.

Dear Mother, dear Father,

I have just been told that my appeal for clemency was turned down. I must die then.

We need not say anything any more to each other. You know that in these last months I have really found the way to myself and to life. Real beauty must stand before unswerving honesty. You know that I have lived every moment fervently and that I have remained true to myself until the end. You must live on. There can be no giving up for you. No becoming soft or sentimental. In these days I have learned to say “yes” to life. Not only to endure it but to love life as it is. It is our own inner gravity, the force by which we have entered life.

It must help you in some way that I know I have finally reached my own inner image and feel complete. And in this feeling is much of our time and our world.

The only way I know how to thank you is by showing you until the last moment that I have used all your love and goodness towards becoming a whole being of my time and my heritage. Do not think of the unused possibilities, but take my life as a whole. A great search, a foolish error, but on its path to finding of final truth, final peace.

Please care for Vally [his girlfriend, Valerie Petrova] as for a child. I embrace you, dear mother and you, my father, once more for a long, long time. Only now have I realized how much I love you.

Yours forever,

Helmut.

* Siegfried Hirsch was a naturalized American who had lived in the U.S. for a decade prior to World War I. Siegfried’s U.S. citizenship had been revoked in 1926 because he had left to live abroad, but when the matter came to prominence in 1937 it was reinstated and Helmut Hirsch explicitly acknowledged as a U.S. national.

** The shoe has been on the other foot for death-sentenced German nationals in the present-day U.S.

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1882: Stepan Khalturin, Winter Palace bomber

Add comment April 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1882* Stepan Khalturin** was hanged in Odessa, Ukraine … but not for his most (in)famous crime.

Khalturin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) came from a well-off peasant family near the city of Vyatka (today, Kirov; it was renamed for an assassinated Bolshevik). As a young carpenter in 1870s St. Petersburg, he fell in with revolutionary circles and became a distinguished propagandist and organizer. Khalturin helped found the first political labor labor organization in Russia, the “Northern Russian Workers’ Union”.

He’s said by other leftist agitators who knew him to have “persuaded his student workers with tears in his eyes to continue propagandizing, but in no event go down the path of terror. From this, there is no return.”

If that used to be his sentiment, Khalturin’s thinking … evolved.

By February 1880, Khalturin was for all intents and purposes in on the terrorism strategy. He took advantage of a workman’s gig at the Winter Palace to pack the cellar full of dynamite,† two floors below the imperial dining room.

But Tsar Alexander II and party had not yet returned when it blew. Eleven people, mostly guardsmen in the intervening room below the dining hall, died in the blast; dozens of others were injured.

Khalturin watched in frustration from the iron gates of the Winter Palace, and slipped away — never detected. His co-conspirator Zhelyabov consoled him with the prospects of mass recruitment sure to be unleashed by this spectacular propaganda of the deed. “An explosion in the king’s lair — the first attack on the autocracy! Your deed will live forever.” (Russian source)

The tsar, at any rate, was running out of luck.

A year later, Narodnaya Volya finally succeeded in assassinating Alexander II in St. Petersburg. Zhelyabov and five others hanged for that.

Khalturin wasn’t involved in that plot: he had escaped to Odessa.

There, he shot a police officer named Strelnikov. He was captured and hanged under a bogus alias, nobody realizing that they were also executing the mysterious Winter Palace bomber.

Unusually considering Lenin’s distaste for terrorism and Narodnaya Volya, Khalturin was elevated in post-Soviet times into an officially-approved revolutionary exemplar. The street Millionnaya running to the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg was cheekily renamed for him (it’s subsequently been changed back). Public monuments went up for the bomber, especially in the environs of his native soil around Kirov.


(cc) image from Zeder.

* April 3 by the Gregorian calendar; March 22 by the Julian calendar still in use in 19th century Russia.

** Appropriately given Khalturin’s Winter Palace work, khaltura is Russian for an item of shoddy construction. The word has no etymological connection to our man, however. (Linguistic tip courtesy of Sonechka.)

† He was able to manage the feat by bringing in explosives little by little and secreting them in the room where he bunked on-site.

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1777: James Aitken, aka John the Painter, terrorist of the American Revolution

Add comment March 10th, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1777 saw the public execution of “John the Painter” — a Scotsman who had been christened “James Aitken” at his birth less than 25 years before, but who had run through countless aliases in his adult life as a (mostly) petty thief.

But this man was not a hapless victim of England’s Bloody Code, although he often enough offended the capital statutes against petty property crime.

Rather, the scraggly redhead with the thick Scottish brogue was the author of a stunning act of domestic terrorism, in England, in freelance support of the rebellious American colonies an ocean away.

“So dangerous an individual to the kingdom as this man perhaps never existed,” in the judgment of the Newgate Calendar, who knew him as “John Hill” — just one of Aitken’s many aliases. “and whose confession and repentence can hardly soften the abhorrence felt on the contemplation of the extent of his crimes.”

James Aitken, aka John Hill, aka John the Painter — for this last was, unfortunately, the unprofitable occupation of his apprenticeship training — fired the Portsmouth dockyards on December 7, 1776, then followed that up with an attack on the Bristol dock and city shortly after the New Year, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to ignite the Plymouth quay.

There are ready reasons we imagine men to undertake terrorist activities. James Aitken did not have them, according to Jessica Warner’s John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution (review).

Although he was well-read for his class, he was not ideological, not a zealot of any creed religious or secular.

He was not American himself even in the loose sense that term could hold for the immigrant proto-nation. His only brush with that land was brief and unedifying: fearing his many thefts had made London a bit too hot for him, he signed on as an indentured servant and shipped out to the colonies in 1773 and slave-like labor in the fields. He escaped his master in 1775 and immediately shipped back to Europe, leaving no evidence of any revolutionary contacts.

And he wasn’t a madman. Just lonely, as evidenced, Warner says, by the “sad and always desperate invitations” to drink with which he plied the newest of acquaintances, to their discomfort. “He asked complete strangers to drink with him because he was lonely, and loneliness overrode his reason. His invitations always came too quickly, and his conversation and his manner always just a little off.” He even invited this indiscreet attention when on the incendiary job.

James Aitken reads like an Enlightenment version of the disaffected loser “going postal” on a world that could barely see him to tread upon him. His fondest desire from childhood was that classic Scots aspiration, the army commission. The closest he came was a series of short-term army enlistments to pocket the enrollment bonus, each of which he deserted as soon as practicable. (He did dream that his terrorism spree would earn him an appointment in the Americans’ Continental Army.)


Back in Britain after his unsuccessful foray in the colonies, Aitken conceived a disordered affinity for the burgeoning patriotic cause of the colonies he had recently fled. (Warner thinks he read Thomas Paine‘s Common Sense.) Only accidentally, when he overheard boozers at an Oxford pub chatting about the importance of the dockyards to the British Navy, did the heretofore aimless Aitken animate his wanderings with a new revolutionary purpose: he, scorned nobody, could win the War of Independence by crippling these facilities.

I spent two days in the contemplation of this malicious design, and promised myself immortal honour in the accomplishment of it. I beheld it in the light of a truly heroic enterprise, such as never would have been equalled to the end of time. I was persuaded it would entitle me to the first rank in America, and flattered myself with the ambition of becoming the admiration of the world! (Source)

Aitken was not a criminal mastermind, but there was a plausibility to the plot that fluttered the Admiralty’s heart once the details emerged. The dockyards were critical. They were also — Aitken readily perceived this as he began to case them — scarcely guarded; at Portsmouth, Aitken came and went as he pleased, freely schlepping his materiel in and out. (His attempt at Portsmouth set the subsequent facilities more on guard; the man’s initial plan to hit five different dockyards in sequence would ultimately have been as self-defeating as the 9/11 hijackers planning to commandeer a different plane on five consecutive days … but this was the way Aitken had to conceive it since he lacked the charisma or leadership aptitude to form a cell of fellow-travelers for a coordinated attack.)

Before launching himself into history, Aitken made an autumn 1776 visit to Paris to call upon the American representative there, Silas Deane.

Deane’s own recounting says he was struck by the wildness of Aitken’s scheme. But he was sufficiently taken with the prospective payoff to lend it his blessing, and “sponsor” it to the extent of giving the Scotsman a little pocket money to make his way back to England. He would later defend himself against “respectable persons,” presumably British ones, who “[regard] me equally criminal with the actor.”

[S]upposing me to be the liege subject, not of Great Brittain, but of a foreign independant Nation, at the Time at War with Great Brittain, and that imagining that I had found a favorable opportunity, & met with a proper Agent to destroy, at one blow, the Fleet & armaments preparing to carry, and to spread devastation, and bloodshed in my Country, and that I improved the favorable moment, and attempted through this agency, to effect this great object; on this view of the case I am confident that every one of common sense & impartiality must acquit me, nay more though they rejoice at the defeat of the enterprize they must approve of the motives, which influenced me to engage in it, motives no less than a desire to weaken a declared Enemy, and to preserve my Country, by every means in my power, from the horrors, and distress of Fire and desolation.

… if it was a noble, and most honorable Action in Lord Rodney to defeat the Count de Grasse, would not the Man who at equal hazard of his Life, had set fire to the Count’s Squadron in Brest, & thereby have equally defeated his expedition, been entitled (at least in the Court of Common sense) to the same Honors?

This was certainly good enough to convince Aitken that he torched in the name of Liberty, and he made his way back to set his plan in motion.


After botching his first attempt at Portsmouth and getting locked in the rope house — he pounded on the door until he got someone to open up, then bluffed his way out of the situation — Aitken got the least mileage possible from a superficially successful attack.

At about 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 7, Aitken fired three homemade incendiaries in the rope house and slipped away in what witnesses would later reconstruct as an evident state of agitation. The flames soon gutted the brick building (the damage would eventually reckon to £20,000) but he was this close to an exponentially more impressive bit of sabotage.

To begin with, many of his matches failed to start up Aitken’s jerry-built fuses. (This is also what caused his initial arson attempt to abort.) Having been once bitten by finding himself locked into the rope house at night, Aitken made his next trip earlier in the afternoon: that ensured that plenty of dockhands would still be in the vicinity to contain the fire to the one building. It also meant that the tide was in, and the nearby brig swollen with two thousand pounds of gunpowder could be easily put out to sea and away from danger as soon as the alarm went up.*

Admiralty investigators weren’t even sure at first that it was arson. Yards in the era of wood ships and wood buildings had a lot of flammable materials lying around. Fires happened.

Aitken soon dispelled any possible confusion.

Finding the Royal Navy dockyards at Plymouth too vigilant for his machinations, Aitken settled on an ambitious, and again somewhat plausible, scheme to engulf the densely-populated port of Bristol — dockyard and city alike. Repeatedly his blazes petered out or were suppressed. They did little consequential damage, but raised a rapidly-escalating panic at revolutionary incendiaries abroad, and it did not take long to link them to Portsmouth. (Copycat attempts and crackpot anonymous letters threatening same also started popping up elsewhere in the realm.)

I have not the least doubt that the late fires have been the effects of premeditated malice,” wrote Bristol’s M.P. — the political philosopher Edmund Burke. Naturally this only had the effect of silencing potentially considerable pro-American sentiment in Bristol and throughout the realm. Lord Germain exploited the terrorist panic to push through a February 1777 Treason Act aimed at the American colonies. It authorized detention of suspected rebels without habeas corpus protection at His Majesty’s pleasure.

Aitken himself, though, was at the end of his own fuse. At Sir John Fielding‘s urging, the Admiralty posted an eye-popping £1,000 reward for the terrorists’ (multiple attackers were presumed, owing to the quantity of fires) capture. The arsonist was in irons with a week; a gaoler had noticed him and recognized Aitken’s fit to the description of the unknown Scotsman who had been seen in the vicinity of some of these blazes which Fielding had published in his crime clearinghouse periodical, Hue and Cry.** That man rode off after the suspect and overtook him in the village of Odiham,† where an exhausted and by now fatalistic Aitken surrendered without a fight.


The mizzenmast of the docked HMS Arethusa was removed and set up on land to hang this enemy of the navy outside the walls of the damaged Portsmouth dockyard.

Upon it, they would hang their man as high as Haman: after being turned off, a team of workmen hoisted Aitken’s still-strangling body 60 feet into the air. It’s reportedly the highest gallows ever known to be erected in England, and for the benefit of anyone who didn’t get a good enough look at the spectacle, his body remained conspicuously suspended in chains for years thereafter at Fort Blockhouse, overlooking the Portsmouth harbor as it rotted away.

One might expect that a man who had turned his face against king and country to such an extent would make his end defiantly. James Aitken, once again, defies expectations here, sounding submissive and contrite in the officially reported last words.

I asked John the Painter author Jessica Warner what it was that the state hoped a prisoner like Aitken would say from the scaffold. How did condemned prisoners typically come to shape their last words in (usual) conformity to the expected models? Was it usually necessary for somebody to convince them to do so?

JW: I can only speak for eighteenth-century England. The so-called “dying speeches” of the condemned follow a pretty predictable pattern: the condemned man expresses contrition for his crime, warns others against following his example, and says, in so many words, that he is reconciled with his Creator. That’s the official version, and really two things are going on here: the prisoner is in effect upholding the state’s right to take his life while also upholding the moral order of the Ancien Regime, its laws as much as its religious teachings. I say “official” because just about all dying speeches were penned by other people, the most notorious being the succession of chaplains (ordinaries) who presided over the condemned prisoners at Newgate. It was a bit of a standing joke that dying speeches were printed before they were delivered. The irony is that shorthand was used in the eighteenth century, and so theoretically it was possible to take down exactly what prisoners said.

Popular expectations, to the extent that they can be penetrated, also expected the condemned to make a good end, a good end being measured in terms of bravery bordering on contemptuous indifference to one’s fate. It’s hard to reconcile this indifference with the regret the prisoner was supposed to express.

ET: Did the fact that Aitken was a hated state criminal, rather than an everyday felon, alter anything about the role he was expected to play in the execution ritual?

JW: I don’t think so. The various accounts of his last moments read suspiciously like those you find in other dying speeches. Given the fact that he was a Scot who had poor social skills and who was also more than a little off his head, it beggars belief that he would have performed his part so well and in so conventional a fashion. I don’t doubt, though, that he made a brave end of it.

* The original Portsmouth plan was to start with a diversionary fire in the city itself, and then burn the dockyard while fire engines were occupied with the previous blaze. Again, his imagination outstripped his reach as a lone wolf: the attempt to kindle this preliminary fire just got him run out of his boarding-house and made the landlady a later witness against him.

** For more on Fielding’s criminal investigation reforms, see this post.

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2012: Three drone strike spies in Yemen

1 comment February 12th, 2013 Headsman

It was reported that a year ago today, Islamic militants beheaded three in the South Yemen towns of Ja’ar (in the Abyan Governorate) and ‘Azzan (in the adjacent Shabwa Governorate) on charges of providing intelligence to help the U.S. to conduct drone strikes.

The executions were announced to the media by text message.

The ongoing shadow drone war in Yemen has steadily drummed that fractious Arabian peninsula state with missiles from flying death robots, piloted from afar (under separate command structures, little difference though that makes to those on the receiving end) by the CIA or the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command.

The deaths one year ago took place in the sunset of President Ali Abdullah Saleh‘s government, when much of southern Yemen was functionally controlled by militants for several months. The Obama administration significantly ramped up drone strikes in south Yemen from late 2011, and kept right on ramping throughout 2012.

The stated target of all this remote-controlled ordnance is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, but it’s more than clear that many of the nameless casualties are not militants.

For instance (and this was obviously not the strike being avenged by our February 12 execution in that same city), a May 2012 drone raid on Ja’ar was decried by locals who insisted that not one militant was among the dead.* “Our lives are valueless in the eyes of our government, and that is why civilians are being killed without a crime,” one man told CNN.

Then again, as this post goes to press, Americans have themselves had a bracing reminder of their own killability, courtesy of a leaked memo giving a partial glimpse of the Obama administration’s startlingly expansive assertion of the right to murder American citizens or whomever else on the unilateral say-so of somebody sufficiently senior.

A generation ago, the U.S. had explicit state policies abjuring assassination. Today, there are routine “Terror Tuesdays” at which the chief executive reviews proposed additions to an official kill list.** All of this is claimed as a power of a planetwide war that can never end, but in practice bears an uncomfortable resemblance to something our militants in Ja’ar and ‘Azzan would surely appreciate — extrajudicial execution.†

* Official story: two terrorists dead, “only” eight civilians; locals said around 17 to 26 killed, none of whom were terrorists. The U.S. has been accused of using Vietnam-era “body count” rules and claiming every military-aged male killed by a drone counts as a “militant.” (Contra Vietnam, Washington depresses rather than exaggerates the overall casualty counts.)

** Many drone attacks target not named individuals, but unknown people whose activities from drone or satellite surveillance are held to match a terrorist’s pattern.

† There’s even been a Congressional proposal for a secret court to decide who goes on the secret kill list.

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2013: Afzal Guru, India parliament attack terrorist

3 comments February 9th, 2013 Headsman

This morning at New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, India hanged the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist Mohammad Afzal Guru for the deadly attack on India’s parliament building eleven-plus years before.

In that December 13, 2001 strike, a team of five gunmen infiltrated the New Delhi government building and went to work. No government ministers were killed, but several police officers and a gardener died in the ensuing shootout before the militants were themselves shot dead. Some eighteen others were wounded.

The subsequent investigation led back to Kashmiri separatists, coordinating with the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Afzal Guru, a fruit seller and Jammu and Kashmir native, had found his way into that struggle years before via the Liberation Front founded by Kashmir separatist martyr Maqbool Bhat.

He was condemned for having conspired in the attacks, arranging the attackers’ weapons, and procuring the New Delhi safehouse where the gunmen organized.* (When searched, the place was found stocked with explosives.) Afzal Guru claimed that he was tortured into confessing and denied taking part in the conspiracy.

Though there’s been criticism of the trial’s fairness given the raw aftermath of the shocking attack, India’s Supreme Court confirmed the death sentence years ago:

The incident, which resulted in heavy casualties, has shaken the entire nation and the collective conscience of the society will be satisfied if the capital punishment is awarded to the offender. The challenge to the unity, integrity and sovereignty of India by these acts of terrorists and conspirators can only be compensated by giving the maximum punishment to the person who is proved to be a conspirator in this treacherous act. The appellant, who is a surrendered militant and who was bent upon repeating the acts of treason against the nation, is a menace to the society should become extinct. Accordingly we uphold the death sentence. (from the judgment upholding Guru’s hanging, via this anti-execution pdf pamphlet)

However, actual execution of the death sentence stalled out during the condemned man’s post-appeals clemency petition. It was a sensitive political case, for Kashmir itself (whose towns are reported today to be fortified with added security details), and as a potential irritant to Hindu-Muslim relations and India’s own tense border with Pakistan. (In the weeks following the parliament attack, India and Pakistan had a dangerous military standoff which could easily have become a nuclear war.)

Plus, at the time, actual executions were an extreme rarity in India.

Those times might be changing. While it’s conceivable that Afzal Guru might have lived out his natural life in prison under an empty death sentence, the even more devastating “26/11″ plot in Mumbai in 2008 advanced an even more notorious Pakistan-backed terrorist incident to the front pages — and the front of the hanging queue. India broke an eight-year death penalty moratorium on November 21, 2012 when it hanged the Mumbai plot’s lone survivor, Ajmal Kasab.

To judge by nothing but the visible public clues, that execution might have pulled Afzal Guru to the gallows in its train, inasmuch as it ratcheted up the profile, and the perceived stakes, of Islamic terrorism in India. Guru’s hanging was being publicly demanded almost as a logical consequence as soon as Ajmal Kasab’s execution went public.

Kasab’s death also provided a logistical game plan for this date’s hanging: the entire operation arranged in secret, set up to go into immediate motion upon rejection of that long-neglected clemency brief, and the wider public to find out only after the fact.

Kasab and Guru were implicated in extraordinary crimes; it will be interesting to discover whether either the fact of their actual executions or the stealth with which they were conducted will pattern to the more humdrum common-criminal murderers and rapists also lying under sentences of death.

* Three others, SAR Geelani, Shaukat Hussain, and Afsan Guru (no relation), also stood trial for the conspiracy; the former two were condemned, but the sentences vacated on appeal, while Afsan Guru was acquitted outright. All three are free today, or at least are free of of legal jeopardy in this case.

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1934: Leonid Nikolaev, Kirov’s assassin

3 comments December 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Leonid Nikolaev was convicted and (an hour later) shot for the murder of Leningrad communist leader Sergei Kirov.

Nikolaev was a disaffected young man who’d come of age during the Revolution and latterly been expelled from the Party for his bad attitude. He took his frustration out on December 1, 1934, when he stalked into the (suspiciously unguarded) office of Kirov and shot him dead.

The victim was much the more consequential figure in this transaction — both in life, and in death. Kirov’s murder would stand as a Reichstag fire moment unleashing the darkest years of Stalinist purges.

Kirov was an old Bolshevik agitator from way back. Widely respected, he’d been the party boss of Leningrad for nearly a decade, and a few months before his murder was overwhelmingly elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee at the party Congress.

He was also, perhaps, seen by anti-Stalin factions within the party as a potential pole of resistance to Stalin* — though his weight as an “opposition” figure has also grown with the hindsight knowledge of what came next.

Kirov’s assassination was a double gift to the Kremlin, for not only did it remove the impediment himself, it licensed a furious security crackdown against the “terrorists” who orchestrated it. Said terrorists conveniently turned out to be dozens upon dozens (and indirectly, thousands upon thousands) of officials whom Stalin found convenient to destroy. “Kirov was killed in Leningrad,” Bukharin remarked upon hearing the news. “Now Koba [Stalin] will shoot us all.”

Within weeks of the murder, the exiled Trotsky was coming to the same conclusion, and charged that the Kirov investigation’s purposes was

to terrorize completely all critics and oppositionists, and this time not by expulsion from the party, nor by depriving them of their daily bread, nor even by imprisonment or exile, but by the firing squad. To the terrorist act of Nikolaev, Stalin replies by redoubling the terror against the party.

Stalin personally oversaw the investigation, even personally interrogated Nikolaev. And no surprise: the investigation’s casualties multiplied with alacrity.

The first commissar who made it to the murder scene “fell out of a truck” the very next day. Nikolaev’s mother, wife, siblings, and other associates were all disappeared and executed. 104 prisoners already under lock and key at the time of Kirov’s murder were judged guilty of conspiring with the assassin and shot out of hand. (Source)

In January 1935, Stalin had his long-neutered old rivals Zinoviev and Kamenev** preposterously convicted for “moral responsibility” for Kirov’s murder. Though they weren’t death-sentenced directly for this “responsibility” their condemnation set them up for their fatal show trial the following year. (Which included public confessions of involvement in the Kirov affair.) Guilt in Kirov’s death would be routinely bolted onto the show trials of political opponents for the remainder of the 1930s.

Stalin mined this terrorism panic so nakedly and purged so widely that the belief that Stalin himself ordered Kirov’s murder has long predominated. This theory of Stalin’s master orchestration also happened to be very convenient (pdf) for the post-Stalin party; Khrushchev directly hinted at his predecessor’s complicity in the secret speech.

That theory remains highly contestable. Matthew Lenoe in particular has vigorously disputed the idea that Stalin ordered everything in his acclaimed The Kirov Murder and Soviet History; there’s an informative interview with Lenoe on the invaluable Sean’s Russia Blog here, and a bit of background on Lenoe’s research here.

* Foreshadowing the unwelcome independence Leningraders enjoyed post-World War II … until Stalin smashed it.

** Nikolaev, the disaffected party member, was a Leningrader himself. That meant that when he was still in the party, it was in Zinoviev’s Leningrad party, since that city happened to be Zinoviev’s base and stomping-ground. And that meant that he must ipso facto have been part of the “Zinovievite Opposition”.

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2012: Ajmal Kasab, 26/11 Mumbai terrorist

November 21st, 2012 Headsman

At 7:30 this morning at Yerwada jail in Pune, Maharashtra, the sole surviving author of 21st century India’s most notorious terrorist plot was put to death.

Ajmal Kasab was captured alive after the deadly November 26, 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. The “26/11″ date will live quite a while in infamy on the subcontinent … as will the chilling CCTV images of the armed and armored Kasab prowling the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Kasab and his partner in the rail station attack slew more than 50 people that evening, and another dozen-plus policemen in running gun battles as they fled the scene.

This was only one of a multitude of Mumbai targets hit in an audacious attack on that 26/11 by a ten-man team of Lashkar-e-Taiba* Islamic militants, trained in Pakistan. They had sailed in from Karachi (murdering the crew of a small fishing boat they hijacked) just for the occasion.

Kasab’s confederates elsewhere in town achieved a similar body count hitting a pair of five-star hotels, the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi Trident, each of which turned into a multi-day hostage standoff only resolved by a bloody to-the-death shootout with paramilitaries.

Attacks on a cafe and a Jewish center, as well as several timed bombs, also took place. In all, some 166 people — plus nine of the ten terrorists responsible — died, with hundreds more wounded and a nation of more than a billion shaken and angry. It’s one of those cases that make people say, “if ever there was a death penalty case …” Kasab’s speedy dispatch has been a hot political topic since he was first handed a death sentence on May 6, 2010, and the whole affair has not done any favors for the ever-touchy India-Pakistan relationship.

The (usually) sluggish India death penalty process requires that cases cleared by the judiciary receive executive clemency consideration — a stage of the process that often takes years. Recent presidents have tended to stand on only considering such applications in the order they are submitted, and then either granting those clemencies after ponderous review, or scarcely prioritizing any review at all, with further judicial interventions and a shrinking pool of trained hangmen also gumming up the works.

It’s been a recipe for virtual death penalty abolition: the last hanging prior to Kasab’s was in 2004, India’s only other execution this century. This is in a country with one-sixth of the world’s population.

Pranab Mukherjee, India’s new president, took office with a number of presidential clemency applications still pending, some dating back to the late Nineties. While there’s no guarantee that he’ll break with the glacial pattern established by his predecessors when it comes to backlogged everyday criminals, Mukherjee advanced this exceptional petition right to the front of the line and turned it down flat even as Kasab was secretly transferred from his unusual egg-shaped bombproof Mumbai cell to the hanging facility at Yerwada.

“His execution,” said Maharashta Home Minister R.R. Patil, “is a tribute to the victims.”

* Lashkar-e-Taiba also masterminded a 2001 massacre at the Indian Parliament, which brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

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1866: Dmitry Karakozov

Add comment September 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1866 (September 3 O.S.; September 15 N.S.), Russian revolutionary Dmitry Karakozov was hanged in Peter and Paul Fortress for attempting to assassinate Tsar Alexander II.

Karakozov was a son of noble stock — the self-hating variety, obviously, and suicidally disturbed into the bargain. He supposedly hailed from a terrorism cell branding itself “Hell”, although this was bandied about by the police afterwards and conveniently supported a hunt for radicals.

Karakozov, at least, considered the state of tsarist Russia positively infernal, and on April 4, 1866, he went to scourge it — firing a shot at the monarch at St. Petersburg’s Summer Garden. He missed.

The tsar’s guards tackled him as he fled, and the unharmed Alexander walked up to the gunman and asked him, “What do you want?” He may have been genuinely bewildered: Alexander was the guy trying to liberalize Russia. Just a few years before, he had freed the serfs.

“Nothing,” Karakazov replied. “Nothing.”

A statement of implacability: no progress would be bargained with even the most progressive despot. The despotism itself must go. A manifesto addressed to “Friends-Workers” was found in his pocket underscoring the point; it read in part (translated from p. 21 of this Russian pdf):

I have decided to destroy the wicked Tsar, and to die for my beloved people…

If I accomplish this deed, I will die with the thought that in death I did something good for my dear friend, the Russian peasant.

If I do not accomplish it, then others will follow my path. Where I fail, they will succeed, and my death will be their example and inspiration.

Others would follow him, and in time successfully murder Alexander II after all.

Karakozov himself, the first Russian revolutionary to attempt regicide, didn’t seem to have revolutionary satisfaction on his mind at the end. He converted to Orthodox Christianity in prison, sought “as a Christian, of a Christian” his prospective victim’s clemency … and multiple newspaper accounts report him kneeling to kiss a cross presented to him on the scaffold by the priest. (All via Odd Man Karakozov, which argues that all this need not imply such a reversal of conscience as it might appear.)

What certainly did happen — more immediately than those copycat assassinations — was a reactionary wave of national chauvinism, whose more wretched manifestations will not be unfamiliar to the present day. The patriotic Glinka opera Ivan Susanin was staged a few days later at the Bolshoi in Moscow. According to an eyewitness account of Tchaikovsky quoted in Romanov Riches: Russian Writers and Artists Under the Tsars, this salute to a Russian peasant’s sacrifice for the Romanov dynasty went a little bit off-script.

I think the Moscow audience went beyond the bounds of sense in their outburst of enthusiasm. The opera was not really performed, for as soon as the Poles appeared onstage, the whole theater shouted, “Down with the Poles!” and so on. In the last scene of Act 4, when the Poles are supposed to kill Susanin …

… the actor playing him started fighting the chorus members who played Poles, and being very strong, knocked down several of them, while the rest of the extras, seeing that the audience approved this mockery of art, truth, and decency, fell down, and the triumphant Susanin left unharmed, brandishing his arms, to the deafening applause of the Muscovites.

If true, that is little short of fantastic.

The apparatus of state went so far as to build up a new Susanin for the occasion at hand, hyping a questionable story that a young peasant named Osip Komissarov — who was from Susanin’s own province of Kostroma — had jostled Karakozov just as he took the shot, causing it to go awry. The good-natured bumpkin was rewarded with summary ennoblement as “Komissarov-Kostromskoy” and eye-rollingly terrible poetic tributes from the likes of Vyazemsky and Nekrasov. However, Komissarov’s embarrassing stupidity and want of manners would eventually necessitate Komissarov-Kostromskoy’s being packed out of polite society to country estates on a generous pension to bankroll his ample appetite for liquor.

So Dmitry Karakozov did do something for the Russian peasant after all.

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1916: Captain Charles Fryatt, illegal combatant

Add comment July 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Captain Charles Fryatt was shot at Bruges, Belgium as an illegal combatant.

Fryatt was a 42-year-old civilian mariner captaining the SS Brussels on the Harwick-Hook of Holland route when, in March 1915, a German U-Boat ordered him to heave to.

Fryatt wheeled the Brussels around on the submarine and attempted to ram it. The German ship escaped by a whisker only by scrambling an emergency dive. The Admiralty gave Fryatt a gold watch and a pat on the head for bravery.

It was not until the following year that the Germans captured that same vessel with that same captain on board. When they realized who they had, they subjected him to a snap tribunal for violating the laws of war: he’d participated in combat (by trying to ram the U-Boat) whilst being not a member of his country’s armed forces. That made him an illegal combatant, a franc-tireur in the still-current term for a civilian partisan left over from the Franco-Prussian War.

The Germans mightily loathed such terrorists, feared they would bedevil their steps in Belgium and France: people not sporting enough to stay beaten, people with the effrontery to fight back without being a duly enrolled member of a nation-state’s standing army. They did not scruple to push an expansive line on the definition of civilian non-participation.

“Every non-uniformed person,” read the a Moltke directive to the army, “if he is not designated as being justified in participating in fighting by clearly recognizable insignia, is to be treated as someone standing outside international law, if he takes part in the fighting … [or] participates in any way in the act of war without permission. He will be treated as a franc-tireur and immediately shot according to martial law.” (Source.)

So … that’s exactly what happened to Captain Fryatt.

This shooting set off a flurry of international recriminations and rebuttals.

People of normal moral sense can see readily enough that a merchant captain who scares off a submarine has not committed a grave crime any more than has a teen who chucks a grenade at commando firing at his home. The legal question for deliberation in Fryatt’s case was all about whether the merchant mariner had or had not committed an impermissible belligerent act by charging* … and as always, the definition of a war crime turned out to mirror precisely the political interest of the definer.

The British at this point had the Germans handily bottled up in a naval blockade that even seized food as “contraband”. (A tactic angrily denounced as a war crime in Berlin.) The Germans needed to get out of this stranglehold, and lacking anything approaching parity on the high seas, they staked their hopes on the U-boat. So the German interest was for maximum latitude for submarine activity; in fact, early in 1915, it was just in the process of rolling out its unrestricted submarine warfare policy of unannounced attacks on civilian freighters carrying war materiel. This does not seem to be what the U-boat stopping the Brussels did, but it gives you an idea of the scene. German military judges naturally said that German submarines who stopped a British merchant ship were not to be defied.

And the British interest, and by wonderous coincidence also its policy and legal position, naturally maintained maximum restrictions on a U-Boat’s potential targets, and maximum rights for the realm’s Captain Fryatts to resist.**

Fryatt, indeed, had followed the directives laid down by that Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Churchill threatened to prosecute any ship captain who surrendered his vessel to a U-boat without opposing it “either with their armament if they possess it, or by ramming”: the theory was that routine resistance would maximize costs to the German navy, and maybe lead slow and vulnerable U-boats to skip the parley stage in favor of sneak attacks on unflagged steamers, which would sooner or later sink an American ship, which would help pull the U.S. into the war. (In May 1915, making no mistake at all about its target, a German U-boat intentionally torpedoed the Lusitania, generating a helpful stateside scandal also attended by dickering over the legality of the attack.)

So, the initial German announcement tersely reported that Fryatt

was condemned to death because, although he was not a member of a combatant force, he made an attempt on the afternoon of March 20, 1915, to ram the German submarine U-33 … One of the many nefarious franc-tireur proceedings of the British merchant marine against our war vessels has thus found a belated but merited expiation.

Britain replied that the captain had exercised only his “undoubted right of resistance,” and pointed out that a different merchant vessel that did obey such an order on the very same day had been sunk before it could evacuate — drowning 104 souls.

[T]he experience of German methods of warfare warned him that surrender would be no guarantee that the lives of his crew would be spared.

He determined therefore to take the best chance of saving his ship, and to steer for the submarine in order to force her to dive, and, if she were not quick enough in diving, to ram her.

This was his undoubted right under international law – to disregard her summons and resist her attack to the best of his power. It was a contest of skill and courage in which each side took their chance.

This led Germany to reiterate, on August 10, its view that Fryatt’s

act was not an act of self-defence, but a cunning attack by hired assassins …

The German War Tribunal sentenced him to death because he had performed an act of war against the German sea forces, although he did not belong to the armed forces of his country. He was not deliberately shot in cold blood without due consideration, as the British Government asserts, but he was shot as a franc-tireur, after calm consideration and thorough investigation …

Germany will continue to use this law of warfare in order to save her submarine crews from becoming the victims of francs-tireurs at sea.

There’s a 1917 monument to Captain Fryatt still displayed at London’s Liverpool Street Station, as well as a mountain in Alberta named in his honor.

Nobody was ever prosecuted for Fryatt’s execution.

* The distinction as parsed by Germany hung on whether the intended merchant prize was armed (allowed to resist) or unarmed (not).

** U-boats were new legal territory in 1915. The 1930 London Naval Treaty — although Germany was not party to it — attempted to clarify the status of these machines.

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1897: Five Barcelona anarchists

2 comments May 4th, 2012 Headsman

THE BARCELONA ANARCHISTS.

(Through Reuter’s Agency.)

BARCELONA, May 4.

The five Anarchists sentenced to death for complicity in the dynamite outrages here during the Corpus Christi procession last year were shot at 5 o’clock this morning in the moat of Monjuich Castle. The troops intrusted with the carrying out of the sentence fired repeated volleys at the criminals, who all met their doom calmly, their eyes fixed on the public, who were kept at a distance by a large force of soldiers. The condemned men, who all had their hands tied behind them, bowed to the public as they arrived at the scene of execution. Mas asked the firing party to come nearer. Nogues, Molas, and Alsina exclaimed: — “We are innocent! This is murder!” Just before the first volley was fired all cried together: — “Long live Anarchy! Long live Revolution!” Molas then gave the word for the soldiers to fire. Four of the prisoners fell dead immediately, but Alsina remained on his knees not even wounded. At the second volley he fell, but was not killed outright, and it was not till a third volley had been fired that he was pronounced to be dead. (London Times, May 5, 1897)

The “outrage” that occasioned the executions this date in 1897 was the previous June’s bombing of a Catholic processional, attributed by police to an unidentified anarchist and by anarchists to a police agent provocateur.*

Whoever chucked that egalitarian explosive triggered an outrage of the law, els procesos de Montjuic — wherein the wholesale arrest of hundreds of accused “terrorists” under a general suspension of civil liberties resulted not only in this day’s five executions but in countless tortures courtesy of the Inquisitorial equipment still on hand in the venerable Montjuic dungeons.

It was not only anarchists but liberals and republicans who felt the effects of this right-wing crackdown; 87 people were tried in camera by drumhead military tribunals under emergency antiterrorist legislation. Notary Salvador Dali Cusi, father of the famous painter, appeared as a defense witness in one trial, successfully persuading the court that one of his lefty friends nevertheless sported impeccable patriotic credentials and required “merely” exile.

The upshot of it all was to smash up the militant Catalan working class.

Said smashing notably failed to settle the small matter of who actually threw the bomb. As per their dying proclamations, it almost certainly had nothing to do with Lluís Mas, Josep Molas, Antoni Nogués and Joan Alsina — men who were alleged by the state to have been party to an ambitious bombing campaign all over the city. This campaign never went off and the only evidence supplied for its existence came from men tortured to describe it.

Tomas Ascheri, a militant anarchist whose confession helped get the others shot, has long been suspected a police plant, a hypothesis at odds with Ascheri’s shared presence at the wrong end of the firing squad this date. Occam’s Razor — and somebody probably used an Occam’s Razor on Ascheri in between the thumbscrews and the strappado — suggests that the guy’s betrayal was likewise nothing but an inability to withstand “enhanced interrogation.” (Nogues and Mas also signed “confessions” under torture. This public-domain Spanish text by another post-Corpus Christi torture victim denounces that nation’s methods both in Montjuic and in the Philippines.)

Torture in Spain, torture in Russia … the danse macabre proceeds in the dungeons of Mont-juich and St. Petersburg.

-Kropotkin, April 1897

Ongoing state violence in turn invited reciprocation.

Over in England, the Italian anarchist Michele Angiolillo was incensed by the executions, and the tortures suffered by Spanish refugees who had fled to England. “Angiolillo saw, and the effect surpassed a thousand theories,” wrote Emma Goldman. “The impetus was beyond words, beyond arguments, beyond himself even.”

Angiolillo made his way to Spain. On August 8, he joined the great tradition of anarchist avengers by assassinating the torture-happy right-wing Prime Minister, Antonio Canovas del Castillo.

* The argument for a false flag operation is a circumstantial one: the parade included a number of high muckity-mucks, like a right-wing general and the Bishop of Barcelona, detested by anarchists … and yet the bomber managed to let all the VIPs pass and attack only a knot of common people at the tail end of the train.

According to this book, a French journalist later reported that one of his countrymen by the name of Jean Girault, a genuine albeit “misguided” anarchist, did the deed. Girault fled to France and eventually to Argentina.

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