1944: Kaj Munk, Danish pastor-poet

Add comment January 4th, 2017 Headsman

Danish “pastor-poet” Kaj Munk was kidnapped and extrajudicially executed by the German occupation on this date in 1944.

Named for the adoptive family who raised him on the Baltic island of Lolland, Munk (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) was one of his country’s most popular playwrights of the 1930s.

He felt then the era’s pull to the Führerprinzip, and expressed admiration for the fascist rulers emerging in Germany and Italy — and disdain for parliamentarian prattle. Mussolini, he wrote, “was the new man, the future of Europe.”

At the same time, Munk’s deep religiosity led him to condemn Nazi anti-Semitism, and fascist Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, and then later Germany’s seizure of Czechoslovakia — an expansion that would presage Germany’s easy conquest of Denmark in 1940. By now well past disillusionment with Hitler, the outspoken Munk did not shrink from denouncing the occupation, and the “cowardice” of Copenhagen in acceding to it just hours after German tanks rolled across the border. (See Resisters, Rescuers, and Refugees: Historical and Ethical Issues.)

He could scarcely have been ignorant of the danger this posture invited.

To this period dates Munk’s postwar fame, as well as his celebrated play Niels Ebbesen — which is all about a medieval Danish squire who assassinated a German tyrant. You can imagine how that went over in Berlin.

And as a working pastor, Munk had another platform, too.

“The pulpit has become for us a place of responsibility,” he wrote in 1941. “We tremble in our black garments when we ascend its stairs, because here, in God’s house, the Word is free … the Holy Ghost … forces us not to stay silent but to speak.”

And Munk was willing to do it, to exploit his position to oppose the cooperative stance his superiors were trying to promulgate; to preach against the occupation from the Copenhagen Cathedral in December of 1943; and to have subversive sermons illegally printed and promulgated — the last just days before his death.

Seized by the Gestapo on January 4, 1944, he was shot immediately after at Silkeborg. (The site is dignified by a a pious and understated memorial.) His abandoned corpse was discovered the next morning; consequently, January 5 is often the occasion for events marking the anniversary of Munk’s martyrdom.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Borderline "Executions",Denmark,Execution,Famous,Germany,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1936: Ramiro Ledesma Ramos, Falangist

Add comment October 29th, 2015 Headsman

Falangist politician Ramiro Ledesma Ramos was executed on this date in 1936, during the Spanish Civil War.

Ledesma (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) launched the first fascist publication in Spain as a perspicacious 25-year-old admirer of Mussolini and Hitler.*

La Conquista del Estado — the expressive title was cloned from Curzio Malaparte‘s Italian fascist magazine — positioned Ramos as one of the leading apostles of the right in early 1930s Spain. Despite his youth, he’s been credited by later observers as one of the clearest, earliest intellectual exponents of fascism in Spain. Ledesma affiliated from the start with the Falangist movement Jose Primo de Rivera, and personally signed off on the party’s yoke-and-arrows logo and its motto “¡Arriba España!”

Spain’s Republican government had him detained in Madrid with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. With the fascist armies closing in on Madrid in late October, Ledesma was among dozens of political prisoners taken out and shot without trial at the cemetery of Aravaca.

* His philo-Hitlerism allegedly led Ledesma to imitate the Fuhrer’s flopover coiffure.

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1938: Vladimir Kirshon, Bulgakov antagonist

Add comment July 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Soviet playwright Vladimir Kirshon was shot at the Kommunarka “special object” shooting range outside Moscow.

Kirshon (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), purged as a “Trotskyist counter-revolutionary” as one might assume from the date and place. And like many peers in those terrible years, it was Kirshon’s to suffer the martyr’s fate without the merit of the martyr’s service.

In his day — which ran up to the spring 1937 fall of his patron, NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda — Kirshon had distinguished himself with servility.

In his capacity as a Soviet writer’s guild bigwig, the ideologically rigorous Kirshon had been a point man in the depressing 1929-1932 campaign against the early Soviet Union’s rich literary heterodoxy. (Sample slogan: “For the hegemony of Proletarian literature! Liquidate backwardness!”)

This chilly period drove dystopian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin to exile, and futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to suicide.* The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer whose manuscripts from the furnace of Stalinism were forged for immortality, was also long harried by Kirshon. Kirshon’s pull nearly ruined Bulgakov’s career at what should have been its peak.

Bulgakov returned the contempt of his persecutor from a position of considerable literary superiority. Kirshon’s own work tended to the glorification of doctrinaire communism — he produced a verse celebrating the Civil War’s martyred 26 Baku commissars; Bulgakov has on his c.v. perhaps the signal achievement of 20th century Russian letters, The Master and Margarita. Little wonder to find Bulgakov complaining in private correspondence of the waste Kirshon has made of a trip to Europe, churning out the sort of tendentious and formulaic Soviet-man-abroad literature that any loyal commissar could have written without setting foot from Moscow. But despite the very real injuries Kirshon had done to him, Bulgakov found the baying denunciation theater so distasteful that he declined to say a public word against Kirshon when the latter fell.

The diary of Bulgakov’s wife Elena is not quite so diplomatic.

21 April 1937

A rumour that Kirshon and [Alexander] Afinogenov are in trouble. They say that [Leopold] Averbakh has been arrested. Is it possible that Nemesis has been visited upon Kirshon?

23 April 1937

Yes, Nemesis has come. There are very bad stories in the press about Kirshon and Afinogenov.

(These entries, quoted via J.A.E. Curtis’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Michael Bulgakov: a Life in Letters and Diaries, refer only to Kirshon’s professional fall. He was not arrested until that August.)

Kirshon was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era and some of his work has even been performed in post-Communist Russia. But according to this Russian-language Bulgakov trove, that old foe made perhaps Kirshon’s lasting literary monument by using him as the model for the character Polievkt Eduardovich in Bulgakov’s short story “It Was May” (Russian link): it’s a story about a foppish critic who returns from abroad with specious critiques that force the narrator to ruin his own play by diverting the story to the arrest and purging of its principal character.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for translation and background.

* Mayakovsky shot himself at age 37; there’s also a popular hypothesis that he did this to check out at the same age as Pushkin.

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1794: Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, who defended Nero

1 comment June 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Simon-Nicholas Henry Linguet was guillotined during the French Revolution for having written praise of foreign tyrants.

Linguet (English Wikpiedia entry | French) was a brilliant lawyer and a prolific but prickly man of letters. Famous in his own day for his prose, he’s of less account to a modernity that’s long forgotten the various axes he had to grind.

The one sure constant in his life was a gift for making enemies.

Linguet was an Enlightenment philosophe at the start of his public life, and made an early name for himself when his forceful intervention in the case of the Chevalier de la Barre helped save La Barre’s friends from sharing his fate.

He soon apostatized from the Reason-worshipping “fanatical” philosophes, and eventually found himself disbarred for irritating too many fellow barristers. Turning instead to journalism, his Annales politiques, civiles et litteraires — published mostly in exile from 1777 to 1792 — became, as his biographer put it, “a quasi-independent force for molding opinion and policy in the power centers of Europe. Maneuvering among the great powers of Europe wielding the power of his public’s opinion, Linguet institutionalized political influence for himself, and liberty as well.” And of course the writing business really let Linguet’s native gift for pissing people off shine.

He scalded the French Academy and settled scores with rivals old and new. Eventually a suit by one of them landed Linguet in the Bastille when the latter tried to return to Paris in 1780.

Linguet got out (and left France again) in 1782, turning his spell in the Bourbon dungeons into a Memoirs of the Bastille,* which didn’t buy him as much sympathy as one might assume come revolutionary times since he had scarcely incurred his sufferings on behalf of the masses.

Linguet was finally able to return to his country with the Austrian embassy courtesy of ennoblement conferred by Marie Antoinette‘s brother Emperor Joseph II. His restored relations with Europe’s crowned heads, however, did not prevent him taking up the cause of Belgium’s Brabant Revolution as well as the Haitian Revolution.

An early member of the Cordeliers and temporary enthusiast of the Revolution, Linguet would later be bold enough to write Louis XVI offering to defend him. He was easy pickings in the end for a revolutionary tribunal that accused him of prostituting his literary gifts to Europes various ancien regimes: Linguet had taken refuge in his time with all of revolutionary France’s principal enemies, and had flattered their princes for his trouble; his provocative pen had set his name to a defense of slavery; and he’d even mounted an attack on Alexander the Great which in the great tradition of contrarian provocateurs compared the legendary conquerer unfavorably (on the body count metric) with the Emperor Nero. Literally defended Nero was the epitaph his prosecutors pinned to him, and it’s never fully come unstuck. It’s unfair, sure … but Linguet was the last man in a position to complain, and not just because he’d had his head cut off.

A manuscript of a history of France Linguet was working on was found among his papers after his visit to the guillotine. It made fine cartridge paper for France’s muskets.

* At one point in this text — an overwrought rant against the rigors of his imprisonment from the pen of a man whose previous treatises had scornfully defended absolutism against his former buddies among the philosophes — he mounts a defense of executioners, who “ought to be much less ignominious in the public opinion.” After all, they

are only the ministers of an indispensible severity: they are officers, and necessary officers, of a lawful power they may sometimes execute unjust orders; but they act constantly in obedience to justice and the laws. They are certain that the unfortunate being who is delivered to them, either has had, or will have, the means of defending himself: they are sure, or at least must believe, that an equitable and impartial enquiry has preceded the rigorous decision under which they act. They are authorized to think that none but the guilty, or at least men justly suspected, have ever been the objects of them.

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1942: Irene Nemirovsky, Catholic Jewish writer

1 comment August 17th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1942, 39-year-old French/Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky was gassed at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.

She was a victim of the Nazis’ racial laws: anyone with even one Jewish grandparent, even if they themselves did not practice the Jewish religion, could be considered a Jew. Nemirovsky, born to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family in what is now the Ukraine, had converted to Catholicism in 1939 — sincerely, insofar as anyone can discern.

Irene Nemirovsky fled Russian territory after the Bolshevik Revolution and spent a short time in exile in Finland and Sweden before eventually settling in France. There she married a banker, had two daughters, and published her first novel in 1930.

The book, called David Golder, was about a ruthless businessman (described by modern readers as “a Bernie Madoff of her time”) who in old age and poor health begins to regret the way he lived his life. It was a success and was made into a 1930 film.

Her second novel, Le Bal, also hit the silver screen. She penned several other books as well: Dimanche and Other Stories, Jezebel, The Dogs and the Wolves, The Courilof Affair, and more.

Although she was widely acclaimed as a writer in France, even by anti-Semites, she was denied citizenship in 1938. By then she had lived in the country for twenty years.

Following the German invasion of France in 1940, Nemirovsky’s books were pulled off the presses and she was required to wear the yellow star. If she and her family had succeeded in obtaining French citizenship, this would have provided some protection; the French were reluctant to deport their own Jews, filling the cattle cars with foreigners instead. Irene was instead classified as a “stateless person of Jewish descent” and the high-ranking Nazi official Ernst Kaltenbrunner called her a “degenerate artist of deluded Jewish hegemony.”

The “stateless” Irene was arrested on July 13, 1942. She had time to write a letter to her family, asking them not to worry about her, before she was deported to Auschwitz four days later.

Although she survived the initial selection and was tattooed with a prisoner number, it was reported a month later that she had died of typhus, a common and deadly disease in the concentration camps. However, later investigation showed she had in fact been sent to the gas chamber. Her husband was also gassed in Auschwitz in November of that year, but their two children survived the war.

One of Nemirovsky’s books, All Our Worldly Goods, was posthumously published in France in 1947. However, for sixty years following the war this once-famous author was largely forgotten.

In 2004, however, she became a literary sensation when a previously undiscovered manuscript, Suite Francaise, hit the press. The “suite” consisted of two books out of a projected five, titled “Storm in June” and “Dolce”. Irene had written them while in hiding in 1940. When she was arrested she gave the manuscripts in a suitcase to her daughter Denise, who safeguarded them all those years.

The book was received to great acclaim and became a bestseller, and publishers blew the dust off her novels from the 1930s and brought them back into print. In 2007, another of Nemirovsky’s works, Fire in the Blood, was published. The book was a companion to Suite Francaise — and like Suite, Nemirovsky had worked on it while in hiding during the Nazi occupation.

Nemirovsky never escaped controversy, in her life or after her death. Several critics and scholars have accused her of being an anti-Semite, a “self-hating Jew,” as detailed in this article from the Australian publication The Age.

Novelist Paul LaFarge charged her as “a Jew who disliked other Jews.” Primo Levi‘s biographer wrote of her, “She has taken on board the idea that Jews belong to a different, less worthy ‘race’, and that their exterior signs are easily recognizable: frizzy hair, hooked noses, moist palms, swarthy complexions, thick black ringlets, crooked teeth…”

There is evidence to support this assertion.

Some of her books were serialized in anti-Semitic magazines, and during the occupation Irene also wrote a letter to Marshal Petain, head of France’s collaborationist Vichy government, to say she disliked Jews and shouldn’t be classified as a Jew, racial laws notwithstanding. Her husband wrote a similar letter to the German ambassador after her arrest, saying his wife “did not speak of the Jews with any affection whatsoever.” The ambassador never bothered to reply.

Irene, however, also has her defenders in this matter: “She didn’t dislike Jews,” said one. “She disliked some Jews. Big difference.” Patrick Marnham, who wrote the introduction to the reprinted David Golder, argued that, “Her choice of an unsympathetic Jewish character [in the book] does not make Nemirovsky anti-Semitic; any more than Robert Louis Stevenson was anti-Scottish because he created the diabolical figure of Ebenezer in Kidnapped.”

You could argue that if she appeared to be anti-Semitic it was because she was trying to conceal her own Jewish origins and thereby protect her family from the deadly consequences. Her daughters believed this was the reason for her assertions that she hated Jews.

In any case, whatever Irene may have said or thought about her religious origin did not save her life. She was just one of many thousands of Christian converts who fell victim to Nazi Germany’s madness.

Irene’s younger daughter, Elisabeth Gille, who died in 1996, wrote a novel titled Shadows of a Childhood which was based on her parents’ disappearance. She had only been five years old when Irene was arrested. In 2010, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt published the first major biography of Irene, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, 1903-1942.

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1999: James Beathard, on the word of a known liar

Add comment December 9th, 2011 Mary OGrady

(Thanks to Mary O’Grady for the guest post. -ed.)

Murder is not a common occurrence in Trinity County, Texas. The shotgunning of three members of the Hathorn family in their trailer home on the evening of October 9, 1984 remains notorious, even among locals who were not yet born on the date of the crime.

Clues scattered at the crime scene, African-American human hairs and Kool cigarette butts, were supposed to convince authorities that a certain sort of suspect had killed Gene Hathorn, Sr., his wife Linda Hathorn, and their teenaged son Marcus Hathorn. Mr. Hathorn’s recent receipt of a $150,000 property settlement and his recent disputes with his elder son, Gene Hathorn, Jr., led law enforcement in a different direction. Less than one month after the bodies were found, Gene Hathorn, Jr., and his running buddy James Lee Beathard faced charges of capital murder.

Prosecutors developed evidence that Gene Hathorn, Jr., hatched the plot to kill his family in order to inherit his father’s new wealth. It seems he was unaware that his father had formally disinherited him three weeks before he was murdered.

James Beathard was first to stand trial.

Called to the witness stand by District Attorney Joe Price, Gene Hathorn, Jr., testified against Beathard, to devastating effect. Hathorn claimed that Beathard entered the trailer, killed all three victims, and planted the false clues, while he himself fired only one shot through a window. Beathard was sent to death row.

When the younger Hathorn was brought to trial, District Attorney Price reversed his theory from Beathard’s trial, depicting Hathorn as the “inside man” and the strategist who believed he had concocted the perfect crime. Gene Hathorn, Jr., joined James Lee Beathard on Texas’s death row. Hathorn recanted his testimony against Beathard. No appeals court took notice.

In the mid-1980s, Texas’s male death row occupied part of the aging, red brick and steel Ellis I prison unit outside Huntsville. For prisoners such as James Beathard and Gene Hathorn who conformed themselves to the rules, a considerable amount of communication with other prisoners and with the outside world remained possible. Each of these sons of East Texas soon found himself editor of a death row periodical, the Lamp of Hope in Hathorn’s case and the Texas Death Row Journal for Beathard. Over the years, Beathard emerged as a prolific letter-writer and essayist, publishing a brief nonfiction piece describing life on death row in the British Guardian Weekly in August, 1996.

Beathard’s talent as a correspondent won him considerable sympathy during his fourteen years on death row. As they exchanged letters, American playwright Bruce Graham fictionalized Beathard in his short play, Coyote on a Fence.

James Beathard’s intelligence and powers of articulation were unusual among death row prisoners. Since he could be trusted to exit and re-enter his cell with no fuss and to refrain from blithering forth psychotic delusions, he was sometimes trotted out when prison authorities needed a condemned man to meet the press.

James Beathard’s appeals ran out at last in 1999. He was executed, still protesting his innocence, on December 9th of that year.

His partner in crime, Gene Hathorn, Jr., won an appeal in 2009 based on his trial attorney’s failure to introduce evidence of his father’s abuse of him in childhood. He is now serving consecutive life sentences, reportedly working as a prison cook in general population.

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1907: Qiu Jin, Chinese feminist and revolutionary

4 comments July 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1907, Chinese poet, intellectual and activist Qiu Jin (Ch’iu Chin) was beheaded for plotting an anti-Qing rising.

The daughter of a well-to-do gentry family, Qiu was shunted into the arranged marriage that would have been usual for her milieu.

It did not suit her.

Hers had been an active mind from youth, and after several years of domestic misery, resolved to make her own way in the world, separated herself from her husband, and headed for Japan.

She prepared herself for this journey by an act taxing symbolism as heavily as physique: painfully un-binding her feet. “Unbinding my own feet to undo the poisoned years / Arousing the souls of a hundred flowers to passionate movement,” she wrote in verse while en route to Japan.*

She would later issue a plea for women to emancipate themselves by doing likewise.

[W]e women, who have had our feet bound from early childhood, have suffered untold pain and misery, for which our parents showed no pity. Under this treatment our faces grew pinched and thin, and our muscles and bones were cramped and distorted. The consequence is that our bodies are weak and incapable of vigorous activity, and in everything we do we are obliged to lean on others.

Being thus necessarily dependent on external aid, we find ourselves, after marriage, subjected to the domination of men, just as though we were their household slaves. All our energies are confined to the home, where we are occupied in cutting out clothes, cooking and preparing food, making tea and boiling rice, sprinkling and sweeping, waiting on our husbands, and handing them basin and towel.

In any important business we are prevented from taking the least part. Should a guest arrive, we are obliged to make ourselves scarce and hide in our private apartments. We are not allowed to inquire deeply into any subject, and should we venture to speak at any length in reply to some argument, we are told that our sex is volatile and shallow.

My sisters, do you know where the fault lies that has brought us to this pass? It is all due to women’s lack of energy and spirit. We ourselves drew back in the first instance, and by-and-by that came to be regarded as an immutable rule of conduct.

Sisters, let us today investigate the causes which have led to this want of spirit and energy among women. May it not be because we insist on binding up our girls’ feet at an early age, speaking of their “three-inch golden lilies” and their “captivating little steps”? May it not be, I say, that this process of foot-binding is what has sapped and destroyed all our energy and spirit?

Today my blood is up, and I want to stir your blood as well, my sisters, and rouse you to a sense of your degradation. All women should, in the first place, refuse to adorn themselves with paint and powder, or trick themselves out in seductive guise, realizing that every human being has his own natural countenance given to him by God … In bringing forward this question of unbound feet, my sisters, I want you to realize that the result of having feet of the natural size will be to abolish the evils attendant on injured bones and muscles and an enfeebled constitution — surely a cause for unbounded rejoicing. …

If one day we succeed in wiping out this horrible blot on our civilization, our bodies will begin to grow stronger, and the steps we take in walking will become a pleasure instead of a pain. Having thus regained their natural energy, the whole sex will progress without difficulty, and an endless store of happiness will be built up for thousands of generations of women yet unborn.

But if you shrink from this reform, and wish to retain the pretty sight of small feet beneath your petticoats, you will remain imprisoned to the end of the chapter in the seclusion of your inner apartments, quite devoid of any strength of character, and it will be impossible to manifest the native brilliancy of the female sex. … Let there be thorough enlightenment on the subject of foot-binding, and progress in the matter of equal rights for men and women will surely follow.

That’s being on the right side of history.

In these last days of the decrepit Qing, prophets and revolutionaries with visions of a better tomorrow grew thick on the ground.

Qiu distinguished herself by her eloquence among Tokyo’s Chinese expatriates. Her powerful vision of women reborn as equals, and China reborn as independent and strong, must have had a bit of that personal-is-political vibe.

We sisters must learn to put aside everything we have preoccupied ourselves with before and focus on what we must do for our future — as if our former selves are dead and we have returned to this world in other forms of humanity.

-Qiu Jin in Tokyo, 1904 (Source)

Returning to her homeland, she found wage work as a teacher and her life’s work as her era’s most famous female activist: she artfully combined vocation and avocation by using her school as a cover to train revolutionary fighters.

And if contemporaries had been shocked by her foot un-binding and marriage un-doing, they hadn’t seen anything when it came to gender transgression. Qiu dressed in men’s clothes, rode horseback astride, trained in swordplay, and put out China’s first women’s journal. Her intimate friend — and possibly her lesbian lover — Wu Zhiying, whose biographical essays helped cement Qiu’s posthumous fame, remembered her friend as

forthright. When she happened to meet benighted ones, she would confront them head-on, leaving little room for compromise. People often held this against her. Some even compared her to Sophia [Perekovskaya] and Madame Roland. She would answer [to such appellations] without much thought.

(Quoted in Hu Ying, “Writing Qiu Jin’s Life: Wu Zhiying and Her Family Learning,” Late Imperial China, December 2004)

How it would have crowned the character arc for this once-hobbled housewife had the insurrectionary plot she masterminded with her cousin Xu Xilin succeeded! Maybe it was a little too operatic even for the fates to swallow.

In the event, the hour of the Manchus’ destruction would not arrive for another four years, although it would come at the hands of another secret-society plot.

But Qiu Jin’s got sniffed out by the authorities and busted pre-emptively; our day’s hero made a brave but only symbolic last stand at her school, then was taken into custody and tortured. She yielded a line of poetry, but would not implicate comrades.

“Autumn wind, autumn rain — they make one die of sorrow.”

Qiu Jin was publicly beheaded at Shaoxing. Within five years (and the realization of that revolution she had lost her life pursuing), memorial sites and statues were going up to her memory around China.


Shaoxing statue of Qiu Jin. (cc) image from jensimon7.

* She wrote poetry throughout her life; there are some selections of Qiu Jin poetry translated to English here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Women

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1943: Elise and Otto Hampel, postcard writers

32 comments April 8th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1943, a working-class German couple were executed for treason and sedition in Berlin, Germany: Otto and Elise Hampel’s reign of postcard-writing terror had finally come to its conclusion.

On the surface, the Hampels seemed like two very ordinary people. Elise had an elementary school education and worked as a domestic servant before she married Otto in 1935. Otto, a World War I veteran six years older than Elise, was a factory laborer.


Two of the treasonous postcards.

They lived modest, anonymous lives in Berlin and doubtless would have continued to do so if Elise’s brother, a soldier in the German Army, had not been killed in action in France in 1940.

Elise’s brother’s death was the catalyst for the Hampels’ tragically brave and utterly ineffectual two-year campaign of resistance against Hitler’s Germany.

Together the couple hand-wrote over 200 postcards and leaflets speaking out against the Nazi regime. The postcards urged people not to serve in the German Army, to refuse to donate to Nazi organizations, and generally do everything they could to resist the government. Otto and Elise scattered the cards in mailboxes, stairwells and other locations all over Berlin. The idea was that people would find the cards, read them and show them others, and thus the seed of rebellion would take root.

What actually happened was that almost all the cards were delivered to the authorities immediately. Nobody wanted to be caught in possession of such dangerous words.

Because of the sheer number of postcards and the long duration of their distribution, the Gestapo at first thought they were dealing with a much larger group of traitors. Doubtless they were frustrated that this riffraff, who couldn’t even write properly (the postcards were full of grammatical errors and misspellings), were able to evade them for so long. But the Hampels’ resistance activities eventually caught up with them.

They were unrepentant after their arrests in October 1942, and had little to say for themselves, beyond Otto’s statement that he was “happy” about protesting against Hitler. Roland Freisler‘s People’s Court duly condemned them to die for “preparation for high treason” and “demoralizing the troops.” They were executed by guillotine in the Plötzensee Prison.

For some reason, unlike their equally courageous, foolish and doomed counterparts in the White Rose, the Hampels’ story didn’t really catch on with historians.

They were saved from oblivion by the dangerously unstable, drug-addicted author Rudolf Ditzen, aka Hans Fallada, who came upon their Gestapo file after the war.

His 1947 novel, Every Man Dies Alone, written in just 24 days, is closely based on Elise and Otto’s story. This book was Fallada’s swan song; he died weeks before its publication. Titled Jeder stirbt für sich allein in Germany, it was not translated into English until 2009 — but it then became a runaway bestseller in the United States and (under the title Alone in Berlin) in Great Britain.

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1772: The Marquis de Sade and his servant, in effigy

2 comments September 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, straw effigies of the (in)famous French libertine Marquis de Sade and his servant Latour were executed in Marseilles for sodomy.

“It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.”

The aristocrat christened Donatien Alphonse François (even the name would become taboo for later use among his family) was at this point just 32 years old, but already cultivating the reputation that would make his name a byword for violent sex. He had in 1768 got the boot from Paris in view of the many courtesans who complained of his mistreatment.

Five more would do so for the incident that triggered his “execution”: de Sade took his baroque pleasure from these “very young girls” obtained by his manservant Latour (who also took part in the bisexual debauch). The whole scene was spiced with liberal dosage of the poison/aphrodisiac* spanish fly.

“Cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all.”

One of these working girls seriously overindulged on the the love potion and spent the next week puking up “a black and fetid substance.” The authorities got interested, and de Sade and Latour bolted to Italy.**

Back in Marseilles, proceedings against the fugitives saw them sentenced for (non-fatal) poisoning and sodomy

for the said Sade to be decapitated … and the said Latour to be hanged by the neck and strangled … then the body of the said Sade and that of the said Latour to be burned and their ashes strewn to the wind.

This was duly carried out against straw effigies of de Sade and Latour on September 12, 1772.

“Lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all: ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust.”

Although the Marquis eventually got this sentence overturned, it did in a sense mark an end to his life as it had been. Later in 1772, he’d be arrested in Italy; though he escaped and went back on the orgy circuit, most of the four-plus decades left to his life would be spent imprisoned or on the run — an ironic situation for the man Guillaume Apollinaire would celebrate as “the freest spirit that has yet existed.”

(Astonishingly, de Sade also avoided execution during the French Revolution: he was supposed to have been in the last batch guillotined before Robespierre fell; either through bureaucratic bungling or efficacious bribery, he avoided the tumbril.† De Sade also cheated death when a man whose daughter the marquis had outraged attempted to shoot him point-blank … only to have the gun misfire.)

“My manner of thinking, so you say, cannot be approved. Do you suppose I care? A poor fool indeed is he who adopts a manner of thinking for others!”

From this latter half of the infamous satyr’s life — when he often had time on his hands not available to dispose in more corporal pursuits — date the pornographic/philosophic writings that would stake de Sade’s disputed reputation for posterity.

* Alleged aphrodisiac.

** With another lover, his sister-in-law Anne … who was also a Benedictine canoness.

† It was on some firsthand authority, then, that de Sade took a dim view of capital punishment: “‘Til the infallibility of human judgements shall have been proved to me, I shall demand the abolition of the penalty of death.” This and other pithy de Sade quotes in this entry are from here.

Part of the Themed Set: Executions in Effigy.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Executed in Effigy,Execution,Famous,France,Freethinkers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Language,Mature Content,Nobility,Not Executed,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex

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1916: Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi

5 comments July 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1916, the Austro-Hungarian empire executed Cesare Battisti and Fabio Filzi for treasonous Italian nationalism.

It was the multiethnic Habsburg state that was itself dying of its constituents’ national aspirations; in little more than two years, the state entity that carried out this day’s sentences would no longer exist at all.

Pre-World War I, Battisti (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was actually a Socialist representative in the Austrian parliament.

When the unpleasantness broke out, though, he made a break for the peninsula where he agitated* (successfully) for Italian entry into the fray against Austria-Hungary. Irredentists had long coveted Habsburg properties with a heavy Italian population, like the Adriatic port of Trieste and Battisti’s own native Trento; the war offered an opportunity to swipe those territories, notwithstanding Italy’s putative prewar alliance with the Austrians.

Although already 40 years of age when Italy entered the war, the intrepid Battisti enlisted to fight. He was captured along with an otherwise obscure subaltern, Fabio Filzi, on the Alpine slope of Monte Corno (now known as Monte Corno Battisti) repelling the Austrian Strafexpedition.**

Austria did not stand on ceremony with these men; their capture took place on July 10, their trial on July 12, and their executions at the Castello del Buon Consiglio — an ironic Calvary, for a parliamentarian — later that same day. (To complete the scene, the strangulation-hanging was botched when Battisti’s first rope broke.)

The Austrian writer Karl Kraus would observe that “they thought they were hanging Italy, but it was really Austria on the gallows.”

Whichever one it was, they took a lot of pictures.


Battisti and Filzi as prisoners.


Battisti leaving the courtroom en route to his execution.


Battisti approaches the scaffold.


Battisti waiting at the scaffold as the sentence is read.


The Austrian army offers a prayer and salute to the shrouded body of Cesare Battisti.

* As a socialist who broke against the internationalist position and in favor of violent nationalism, Battisti was an ally of Benito Mussolini. It was Battisti, actually, who pioneered the socialist-nationalist-newspaperman act upon which Mussolini would later raise is own star, to such an extent that Battisti’s paper, Il Popolo — the apparent inspiration behind Mussolini’s own subsequent paper, Il Popolo d’Italia — gave the still-obscure future Duce some of his earliest gigs.

A martyr’s death during World War I fortuitously spares Battisti’s legacy the unpleasant association with his friend’s postwar turn towards fascism, so there are many streets and plazas named for Battisti, as well as a memorial in Trento. He’s also honored by name in the 1918 patriotic tune La Leggenda del Piave (lyrics).

** “Punitive expedition”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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