1421: The last Viennese Jews

1 comment March 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1421, a months-long campaign to purge Vienna of her Jews culminated with over 200 burned — and the rest of the once-thriving community either driven into exile or forced to convert.

Vienna had had a Jewish presence for centuries, centered on the Judenplatz.

The religious wars unleashed between Catholics and followers of the Czech reformer Jan Hus complicated the Jewish position. While not an unblemished relationship, Hussites were generally seen to be more sympathetic to Jews, and vice versa. Fellow-victims of Catholic persecution, Hussites recast the Biblical Antichrist with Papist rather than Jewish associations. Hussites openly looked to the Torah and Jewish divines like Rabbi Avigdor Kara for inspiration.*

That’s all well and good, but Vienna was emerging as one of the principal cities of the very Catholic Habsburg empire. (It was not yet the official seat: that would come later in the 15th century.)

To the perceived Hussite-Jewish alliance one must add consideration of Duke Albert V — later the Holy Roman Emperor Albert II — and his considerable debts, no small part of them held by Vienna’s Jewish moneylenders.

On Easter 1420, Albert pumped up a rumor that Jews had desecrated the Eucharist and ordered mass-arrests and -expulsions of Jews, complete with handy asset forfeiture. This was the onset of the Wiener Gesera, the Viennese persecution — as it was remembered later by remnants of the shattered Jewish community scattered abroad.

Pogroms attacking the Jews in Vienna (and elsewhere in Austria) ensued, culminating with the dramatic three-day siege of Vienna’s Or-Saura synagogue. That ended Masada-style when 300 trapped denizens committed suicide to escape forced baptism, and the last living among them torched the building from the inside. Its blasted remains were razed to the ground by the besiegers.**

Albert at that point finished off Vienna’s Jews by sending its final hardy (or foolhardy) members — 120 men and 92 women, it says here; different figures in the same neighborhood can be had elsewhere — to the stake.

“As the waters of the River Jordan cleansed the souls of the baptized, so did the flames which rose up in the year 1421 rid the city of all injustice,” read a Latin plaque erected on the site.

Jews were not permitted to return to Austria for centuries.

* “The Hussites pioneered a uniquely Czech form of philo-Semitism … the fascination, among a persecuted, dissident group, with the Jewish people and religion,” writes Eli Valley. “The Hussites were perhaps the first religious group in Christian European history to argue against the ban on Jews in craftsmaking and farming” and “unlike Martin Luther’s similar program in the sixteenth century, the Hussite movement did not predicate its kindness to Jews on the condition that they would be baptized.”

** The synagogue’s foundations have been only recently rediscovered, as part of the excavation for a Museum Judenplatz at the site. That museum has not necessarily been welcomed by the Viennese Jewish community it’s supposed to represent.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions

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1848: Robert Blum, German democrat

Add comment November 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1848, a day short of his forty-second birthday, the German revolutionist Robert Blum was summarily shot in Vienna — a tragic victim of Germany’s Revolutions of 1848.

Marker at Robert Blum’s birthplace in Cologne reads “I die for the German liberty that I fought for. May the fatherland remember me.” (cc) image from Elke Wetzig.

Blum grew up in a penniless proletarian family but drifted into the literary set. He spent the 1830s penning liberal-minded plays, poetry, newspaper correspondence. He uncovered a magnetic personality and a gift for organization.

By the 1840s he was a — maybe the — preeminent left-liberal in the Kingdom of Saxony: pro-parliamentary democracy, anti-violence, for a wide grant of civil liberties and mass education.

The pressures, both liberal and radical, pushed to the brink the small realms in the German Confederation, as well as the neighboring Austrian Empire. Both struggled to handle even the liberals’ demands like expanding the franchise and freedom of the press, with old hereditary polities that might not be up to changing times. Germany, Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto (1847), “is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution.”

Right on cue…

That pregnant year of 1848 found Blum in the Frankfurt parliament, and his neither-fish-nor-fowl leftism — a little too out there for mainstream liberals; a little too bourgeois for real radicals — made Blum the perfect pick for a solidarity mission.

When in September 1848 the Austrian army was defeated trying to crush a Hungarian rebellion, the Habsburg capital of Vienna took the example and mounted a revolution of its own, putting the government to flight.

Blum was sent as sympathetic delegate to this abortive Viennese commune, but found himself trapped in the city when the Austrian army encircled it in late October.

The Austrians, when they caught him, sent their own message back by denying him any form of deference for his parliamentary rank. Blum’s direct condemnation was a stark warning by the Habsburg state to agitators, but also to their putative brethren dreaming of a Greater Germany. Austria wasn’t buying what the Großdeutsche people were selling.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Carl Steffeck’s painting of Robert Blum’s execution. Here’s a YouTube recreation (in German).

Blum went on to a posthumous career as a star liberal martyr among the German circles who had use for such a character.

Blum’s seven-year-old son Hans grew up to follow his father’s literary footsteps … but from quite the other side of the aisle. He was a pro-Bismarck nationalist.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Artists,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions

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1683: Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha, for the Battle of Vienna

4 comments December 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1683, the commander who just months before had brought the Turkish army to the gates of Vienna was executed in Belgrade for losing one of the pivotal battles in European history.

The Battle of Vienna saw the Ottoman Empire’s high tide and its last great bid to capture control of the strategic Danube city.

Despite an army of well over 100,000 that had besieged a frightened garrison numbering fewer than 20,000 soldiers and civilians, Kara Mustafa Pasha had been unable to reduce the city, and then decisively beaten after the timely arrival of a 70,000-strong relief force under the command of the Polish monarch Jan Sobieski. Here’s a great Italian map of the battle, with Mustafa himself hanging out in the lower corner; apparently, you can buy the original.

For both contemporaries and posterity, the “miraculous” defeat of an overwhelming Turkish threat by a coalition of Christian forces — a sort of earthbound equivalent to the previous century’s Battle of Lepanto — has appeared as a signal clash-of-civilizations event. In the right audience, a knowing 1683 reference is a sort of dominionist gang handshake.

So, anyway: big win.

If the blame for the defeat — Sobieski’s intervention apart — lay at Kara Mustafa’s door, it was due less to his decision to march straight for Vienna than to a number of technical miscalculations on his part, such as failing to bring heavy artillery to the siege but relying instead on light guns … inadequate to breach Vienna’s strongly fortified walls …

Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha had long been a close adviser of the Sultan, but any doubts Mehmed IV might have harboured about him were given substance during his absence on campaign as plotters fabricated reports of disorder in the empire. On hearing of the defeat at Vienna, one of the plotters … announced, in the words of Silahdar Findiklih Mehmed Agha, that ‘our enemy is finished with; the time is ripe for revenge’ …

Mehmed succumbed to the pressure from Kara Mustafa’s detractors, and the Grand Vezir was executed in Belgrade on Christmas Day 1683 while engaged in planning a new advance for the following spring … a skull in Vienna’s city museum is commonly believed to be his.

The Austrian victory at Vienna cost the Turks more than Mustafa’s service, which was quite a lot in itself. (Twelve different viziers held the post in the two decades after Kara Mustafa Pasha was strangled.)

The empire’s longstanding (and to Christendom, terrifying) expansionist posture towards Europe was at an end; in the future, the Musulman would have to ward off the Christian.

Ensuing Holy League victories wrested central Europe away from Constantinople, inaugurating a long Ottoman stagnation that would culminate in the empire’s destruction after World War I.

The Hapsburgs — though likewise marked for calamity in the War to End All Wars — for their part won hegemony in central Europe … and, it is said, the literal coffee beans captured as war booty with which to brew the famous Viennese cafe scene.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,No Formal Charge,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Serbia,Strangled,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Turkey,Wartime Executions

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1798: Rigas Feraios, Greek poet

Add comment June 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1798, the Greek revolutionary Rigas Feraios and five co-conspirators were strangled by their Ottoman captors on the Danube River en route to Constantinople to prevent their rescue.

A Vlach by blood, Feraios was a hero — and ultimately a martyr — of Greek independence years before the revolution against Ottoman rule that would deliver it.

A Renaissance man for the Greek Enlightenment, Feraios had a variegated youthful career knocking about the Ottomans’ Balkan possessions and absorbing the revolutionary Zeitgeist abroad in Europe.

Settling in Vienna in his mid-thirties, he brandished his pen in the service of an imagined pan-Balkan, pan-Hellenic uprising to shake off the Turkish yoke. He edited the first Greek newspaper, published a map* and constitution for the imagined realm of the “Inhabitants of Rumeli, Asia Minor, the Islands of the Aegean, and the principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia”, and churned out blood-stirring poetry in Demotic, the vernacular tongue — most memorably, the Thourio, i.e., “War Hymn”.

… and a little taste of the gist, in English:

How long, my heroes, shall we live in bondage,
alone,like lions on ridges, on peaks?
Living in caves, seeing our children turned
from the land to bitter enslavement?
Losing our land, brothers, and parents,
our friends, our children, and all our relations?
Better an hour of life that is free
than forty years in slavery.

This sort of fire-breather is not the sort of man the Ottomans were keen on seeing involve himself with Bonaparte, most especially now that the French kingpin had started outfitting Oriental adventures. The Turks’ Austrian allies nabbed Feraios in Trieste en route to confer with Napoleon’s Italian subalterns about interfering in the Balkans.

Shipped to the governor of Belgrade, Feraios was to be sent to Constantinople for adjudication by Sultan Selim III. A Turkish buddy of the poet’s, however, happened to be blocking the way with a sizable force of his own who’d been administering a rebel statelet carved out of Ottoman territory. Tipped that this gentleman was keen to liberate the Turks’ unwelcome prisoners if they tried to pass, the local authorities had them summarily strangled and their bodies dumped in the Danube.


A Rigas Feraois monument in Belgrade. (Author’s photograph, in terrible light.)

* Including Constantinople. The dream of “Greater Greece” would persist long, and die hard.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Greece,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Strangled,Summary Executions,Torture,Treason

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1853: János Libényi, who stabbed an emperor and built a church

7 comments February 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1853, eight days after attempting to assassinate Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, Hungarian nationalist János Libényi was hanged on Vienna’s Simmeringer Haide (the link is in German).

Libenyi was hardly the only one who designed on the life of one of the world’s longest-serving rulers of one of the world’s least cohesive polities. On February 18, Libenyi stabbed the emperor in the neck — a part of the anatomy fortuitously protected by a very sturdy military collar the (at this time) 23-year-old monarch wore habitually.

The would-be assassin was immediately subdued by an Irish count and a nearby butcher, both of whom received Austrian ennoblement for their trouble.

An emotive outpouring of official thanksgiving commensurate with an age of political reaction greeted Franz’s survival. His brother — yet many years and many miles from his own rendezvous with the executioner — took up donations for Vienna’s spectacular Votivkirche, a literal votive offering to God for Franz Joseph’s deliverance:

Image via flickr, (cc) lionscavern.com.

The future Elvis of the Austrian waltz scene, Johann Strauss, then a 27-year-old cranking out career-enhancing patriotic fare, said symphonically what the Votivkirche said architecturally with this “Rescue Jubilation March” (op. 126):

[audio:Rettungs_Jubel_Marsch.mp3]

This short entry on the German wikipedia — in German, of course — further outlines the affair.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Austria,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,Notable for their Victims,Treason

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