1943: The officers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar, during the Villefranche-de-Rouergue mutiny

Add comment September 17th, 2020 Headsman


Inscription: ICI REPOSANT LES COMBATTANTS YOUGOSLAVES QUI TOMBERENT LOIN DE LEUR PATRIE SOUS LES BALS DE L’ENNEMI NAXI A LA SUITE DE L’INSURRECTION DE VILLEFRANCHE DE ROUERGUE DU 17 SEPTEMBRE 1943

The monument pictured above in the southern France commune of Villefranche-de-Rouergue honors a group of Balkan soldiers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar who attempted a bold mutiny on the night of September 16-17, 1943 … which began with the arrest and execution of their German commanders.

The mutineers were ethnic Bosniaks recruited and/or conscripted via the Third Reich’s fascist Croatian puppet state. Many were unenthusiastic about their situation, whether due to bigotry from their German officers, rumors of a redeployment to the frightful eastern front, or prior left-wing ideological commitments. Pressed by desperate manpower needs, Berlin could not be so choosy about the political orientations of its cannon-meat.

Some like Ferid Dzanic, actually volunteered out of captivity still in a prisoner of war camp. In Dresden, during the summer of 1943, he met Bozo Jelenek (under the pseudonym Eduard Matutinovic) and Nikola Vukelic at the pionir leaders course. Their plans were to “either desert or organize an uprising against the Germans” Another lesser known ring leader was Luftija Dizdarevic.

The ambitious plan was to have all of the German officers in the town arrested and executed, disarm all of the remaining Bosnians and Germans, assemble them and depart towards the town of Rodez (1st Regt garrison) with the sympathetic French police and deal with the rest in a similar manner. Further plans called for the liquidation of the entire divisional staff. Dzanic spoke of two options following the success of the mutiny, sailing to Northern Africa and putting themselves at the disposal of the western Allies or crossing the Alps and liberating Croatia. (Source)

Shortly after midnight on the big night, the mutineers seized and disarmed German non-commissioned officers, and arrested higher-ranking Germans. Five officers, including SS-Obersturmbannführer Oskar Kirchbaum, were executed within hours, but a deficiency of ruthlessness hamstrung the operation by sparing two men who would be key organizers of the German rally as that morning unfolded: a junior medical officer who was able to talk his way out of their clutches, and the unit’s chaplain-imam* who shammed sympathy long enough to release the NCOs. There was a fearsome firefight through the streets of Villefranche as that bloody Friday unfolded.

Soon reinforced from without, the Germans overwhelmingly prevailed; in the week or so that followed some uncertain number of them — thought to range well over 100 — were hunted to ground and killed in no-hope fight-to-the-death shootouts, or captured and executed in their own turn. But not all of the mutineers. A few managed, with the aid of the sympathetic French civilians, to escape the manhunt; one of the mutiny’s leaders, Božo Jelenek, even reached the French Resistance and earned the Croix de Guerre for his service in that cause over the balance of the war.

After Allied forces liberated the town, Villefranche named a street the Avenue des Croates — the mutineers being perceived by the French as “Muslim Croats” rather than distinctly Bosnian — and marked the 17th of September for annual commemoration of the “revolt of the Croats”. The postwar Yugoslavian government vainly implored Villefranche to recategorize both street and celebration to the honor of “Yugoslavs”.

* After making his way to a company of confused or wavering Bosniak soldiers, Halim Malkoč said, “All of the men looked at me as if they were praying for my help, or hoping that I would protect them. They wanted to hear my word. I stood before them, explained the entire situation, and demanded that they follow me. At this time I took command. I then freed the German men, who were being held in a room. They looked at me with astonished eyes and apparently had little faith in me. I called out to them “Heil Hitler! Long Live the Poglavnik!” and told them that all weapons were to be turned against the communists. They then followed me.” He was executed by the communist Yugoslavian government on March 7, 1947.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bosnia and Herzegovina,Croatia,Execution,France,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1943: Julius Fučík, Notes from the Gallows

Add comment September 8th, 2020 Headsman

Czechoslovakian journalist Julius Fučík was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1943.

Nephew of a great composer of the same name, our Julius Fučík was an 18-year-old left-wing activist when the Social Democrat party he was a part of founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Fučík and his pen grew up in this world, together generating a substantial corpus of essays and analysis on pregnant years.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia drove his party and his work underground, which eventually resulted in his arrest.

He’d eventually be deported to Germany and hanged at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison, but Fučík made his lasting fame to posterity through the clandestine diary notes, bursting with anticipation for a bright Communist future, that he scribbled during his initial detention at Prague’s Pankrác Prison from 1942-1943.

After the war, these would be published as Notes from the Gallows — a text so scriptural in Communist Czechoslovakia that it weighed like manacles.

In Milan Kundera‘s The Joke, one of the characters standing trial is browbeaten by a prosecutor using Fučík’s words, while Fučík’s “fervent, pure” portrait gazes in judgment. (Consonant with the stature of Notes from the Gallows, its author was saluted via many street names, public monuments, and so forth. Quite few still remain today, in Germany as well as the former Czechoslovakia.)

“‘Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over …'” I recognized Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows.

“‘I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me …'”

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

“‘Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved …'” The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky’s sublime drawing to their memories of the living face.

Fučík, and the idealized Max Švabinský portrait of him — one of several times it’s been used on postage stamps.

Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: “‘And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions … He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them …'” Fucik’s handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: “‘They can take our lives, can’t they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we’ve longed for and fought for and I now die for?'” After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

In the post-Communist era Fučík has had a critical re-examination, with an updated version of Notes published now including for the first time the bits his widow had judiciously excised, wherein Fučík admits to breaking under torture — although he also records that he “confessed” only inaccurate information that would not endanger comrades. He’s also been knocked for failing to use his firearms on either his captors or himself at the time of his arrest.

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1946: Döme Sztójay, former Prime Minister

Add comment August 22nd, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1946, the former wartime fascist Prime Minister of Hungary was shot for being the former wartime fascist Prime Minister of Hungary.

Dimitrije Stojakovic by birth, the Vojvodina-born ethnic Serb Magyarized his name to Döme Sztójay as he rose up the ranks in the intelligence services in independent, post-Habsburg Hungary.

He had for many years been the Hungarian ambassador to Berlin and a noted pro-Third Reich figure when in 1944 Nazi Germany took over its erstwhile Axis junior partner upon catching wind of Budapest’s interest in cutting a peace deal with the Allies to exit a fast-deteriorating war. Given a choice between outright German occupation and selecting a suitable local quisling, Regent Miklos Horthy appointed our guy Döme Sztójay.

He only held the office for five months before ill health and shifting political tectonics pushed him out, but he made his sinister mark in that time as an instrument of the Holocaust in Hungary. Hungarian Jewry had of course been afflicted prior to then by anti-Semitic laws and various outrages, but it had been spared wholesale deportation and extermination thanks to the resistance of Regent Horthy and others — the very domestic elite strata which Germany was here sidelining.

Now that the place was under Berlin’s management, Adolf Eichmann arrived to coordinate a terrifyingly swift mass slaughter, which in the span of a few months in the spring-summer 1944 took over 400,000 Hungarian Jews (from a prewar population of about 825,000) off to death camps. The special effort given to this particular extermination at a juncture in the war when the men and materiel involved were so obviously needed elsewhere has made it an event of special interest to Holocaust scholars.

As hostilities wrapped up, Sztójay managed a preferential-to-war-criminals surrender to the American army instead of the Red Army, but he had nothing of any unique value to offer the West that would have entitled him to special consideration — and so he was extradited back to Hungary to face the music.

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1942: Valentin Feldman, “Imbeciles, it is for you that I die!”

Add comment July 27th, 2020 Headsman

Marxist philosopher and French Resistance figure Valentin Feldman was shot on this date in 1942, but he went out with an epic own of his firing squad: “Imbéciles, c’est pour vous que je meurs!” (“Imbeciles, it is for you that I die!”).

A Jewish emigre from the Soviet Union, Feldman (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed French) matriculated at Paris’s prestigious Lycee Henri-IV alongside such luminaries as Simone Weil and Maurice Schumann. He mobilized during the “Phoney War” run-up ahead of Germany’s blitz on France, publishing a short Journal de guerre about his experiences.

He was excluded from his teaching work by anti-Semitic laws, leaving him plenty of time for anti-occupation subversion until he was caught sabotaging a factory.

Feldman’s last words were so unsurpassably revolutionary and modern and French that Jean-Luc Godard built a 1988 short film, Le Dernier Mot, around them.

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1943: The hanging of the twelve

Add comment July 19th, 2020 Headsman

This testimonial refers to an incident at the Auschwitz concentration camp.

Those hanged were Poles from a forced-labor detail suffering collective punishment for the escape of other inmates from the same group; Janusz Skrzetuski was the man who kicked out his own stool.

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1942: Wenceslao Vinzons

Add comment July 15th, 2020 Headsman

Filipino politician/guerrilla/national hero Wenceslao Vinzons was executed by the occupying Japanese on this date in 1942.

He gained prominence as a Manila university activist under U.S. administration for Malaysian-Indonesian-Philippines unification, then went on to co-found the Young Philippines party and become a delegate – at the tender age of 24 — to the 1935 Constitutional Convention that set the framework for his homeland’s independence. He’s the youngest signer of that constitution.

Subsequently governor of Camarines Norte and then a legislator in the National Assembly, Vinzons found his political trajectory interrupted by Japan’s December 1941-January 1942 takeover. Vinzons wasted no time trying to work within the system: he immediately began organizing armed resistance, building a guerrilla army some 2,800 strong over the course of the next months.

An informer betrayed him to the occupiers and after refusing every blandishment to collaborate, Vinzons was bayoneted to death at a Japanese garrison at Daet on July 15, 1942. Several of his family members also executed afterwards, although other surviving descendants have remained fixtures of public life down to the present day.

His hometown — formerly “Indan” — is now named “Vinzons” in his honor, and he’s renowned as the “Father of Student Activism in the Philippines”. A number of buildings and institutions connected to education are named for him.

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1945: Harold Pringle, the last Canadian military execution

Add comment July 5th, 2020 Headsman

The only Canadian soldier to be executed during (… actually well after!) World War II, Harold Pringle, caught a fusillade in Italy on this date in 1945.

A 16-year-old — he fibbed about his age — enlistee from small-town Ontario, Pringle joined the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment.

Pringle and a mate in the Hasty P’s name of “Lucky” MacGillivray linked up with some British deserters to form a black market outfit in conquered Rome. The “Sailor Gang”* enjoyed several weeks of picaresque living in the lawless city. Unsurprisingly, as Allied military authorities got control of the place they were eager to make examples of these minor gangsters. (Major gangsters were a different matter.)

The shooting death of that mate MacGillivray gave military prosecutors the means to sink the Sailors. One of their number was induced by a sweetheart deal to finger Pringle as for murdering him. Pringle and his comrades all contended that “Lucky” had been shot by mischance during one of the outlaws’ frequent drunken bouts, and having died en route to the hospital, Pringle shot him up posthumously in hopes of making the body look like it had been prey to a gang hit.

Despite all the trouble taken to secure a very dubious conviction, the execution itself was carried out in great secrecy by a tiny rump contingent of Canadians — all their fellows had already been withdrawn from Italy — who were not to speak of it afterwards.

According to Andrew Clark, the author whose research revealed the event to the wider public in A Keen Soldier: The Execution of Second World War Private Harold Pringle, it all came down a political balancing act. Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King faced a June 1945 election (followed by formation of a coalition government) that a controversial execution might complicate.

However, the British had executed two of their guys in the Sailor Gang case, and reciprocity was expected on a diplomatic level. So the solution was to do it as quietly as possible, and cover it with an official secret designation. Even Pringle himself didn’t find out his sentence was confirmed until the morning of the execution.

Book CoverBook Cover
Left: The classic antiwar novel inspired by the Pringle case, which was the only novel published by Colin McDougall. Right: The 2002 nonfiction treatment that brought the affair to the public eye. Below: A 1955 episode of Four Star Playhouse also seems to be based on the Pringle case, and Colin McDougall is credited with the story.**

There’s a riveting audio interview here with a member of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment who had guard duty on the condemned youth on the last night of his life. “Just as brave as could be,” Orville Marshall reports.

* There’s another infamous troupe of deserter-gangsters operating in Rome in this same period, the Lane Gang. The said “Lane” — whose real name was Werner Schmiedel — was hanged by American authorities in June 1945.

** McDougall served in Italy up to the end of Canada’s involvement there, and that is surely how he came to know about the secret execution in a general sense; any more specific vector of information appears to be unknown. However discovered, Pringle clearly haunted McDougall: he took several years to write his magnum opus, and also published a short story in McLean’s in the early 1950s called “The Firing Squad”.

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1944: Oskar Kusch, Wehrkraftzersetzung U-boat commander

Add comment May 12th, 2020 Headsman

No assignment in the Third Reich’s war machine, nay not even the fearful eastern front, was as dangerous as service in the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat fleet.

Terrors of English shipping in the early war years, these submersible predators became prey once overwhelming U.S. materiel poured into the theater, and Allied intelligence started cracking German signals. By war’s end, fully three-quarters of the wartime U-boat personnel had sunk into watery graves.

And on top of all the intrinsic perils of fighting a losing war from the inside of a submerged tin of beans, you’d better do it with enthusiasm or you’ve got the prospect of going up against the wall like Oskar Kusch did on May 12, 1944.

A submariner since 1937, Kusch come 1943 stood in command of U-154.

He fulfilled his office creditably — that’s what the official history has come to reflect via a postwar rehabilitation — but was ratted out for Wehrkraftzersetzung, a lethal polysyllable meaning “subversion of the war effort”. This capital crime classed as sedition a wide range of utterances that showed their speaker anything other than relentlessly positive about the war effort: spreading skepticism in official propaganda, showing distaste for Naziism, and most certainly entertaining doubt as to the Reich’s manifestly fading prospects for victory.

In practice, of course, not everybody who cast a gimlet eye on Berlin’s war pronouncements was so handled, but it’s the sort of law to keep everyone nervous. And if, say, one has torpedoed the promotion prospects of one’s second-in-command with a lukewarm performance evaluation, then it’s the sort of thing that First Watch Officer Ulrich Abel can wield for revenge.

Soon enough, Kusch was being informed upon for candidly assessing the Germans’ dire strategic prospects and for seditiously removing the mandatory picture of Hitler to a place less likely to oblige a lot of gratuitous obeisance. He was moreover found to have tuned into foreign radio stations, which was also a crime. The brass decided to make an example of him, overriding an initial prison sentence so that they could stand him in front of a firing squad near the Baltic Sea juncture of the Kiel Canal.


Marker honoring Oskar Kusch, on the present-day street Oskar-Kusch-Straße, near the place Kusch was executed.

For all the mean absurdity of his death, Kusch’s shit luck lay not in being denounced to a kangaroo court but in the mere fact of his enrollment in the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat service. After all, seven weeks after his own execution, his former vessel was sunk off Madeira with all hands lost. And for that matter Kusch’s enemy, Ulrich Abel, predeceased his own victim, having attained through his complaints command of a vessel of his own, his great desideratum which Executed Today hopes that he enjoyed with urgency — for Abel and his own ship were likewise sent to the bottom in April 1944.

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1945: Theo van Gogh, famous name

Add comment March 8th, 2020 Headsman

Theo van Gogh, a Dutch resistance fighter of portentous lineage, was executed by the German occupation on this date in 1945.

This man was the grandson of the famous Theo van Gogh, art dealer and brother to troubled, brilliant painter Vincent van Gogh.

Our Theo was a 23-year-old university student in Amsterdam pulled into anti-Nazi resistance by the imposition of a hated loyalty oath on university personnel and was arrested several times, repeatedly tolling his father for bribes to extract him.

The arrest he couldn’t buy his way out of was a home raid on March 1, 1945 — the very last weeks of the war, while these Germans were in the process of being stranded in the Low Countries. Evidently the collapse of the Reich didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the cause, because on March 8 the Germans imposed a collective punishment of 100+ executions in revenge for the Dutch resistance’s attempt to assassinate a prominent SS officer.* Theo van Gogh was one of them.

Besides his name-brand ancestry, Theo the World War II resistance figure is also the uncle (quite posthumously — this man wasn’t born until 1957) of film director Theo van Gogh, who’s a far-right martyr in his own right thanks to the vociferous anti-Islamic work that resulted in his 2004 assassination.


Prisoners’ Round (after Gustave Doré) (1890), by Vincent van Gogh.

* That officer, Hanns Albin Rauter, was executed for war crimes in 1949.

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1944: Osmund Brønnum

Add comment March 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Osmund Brønnum — boxer, Communist, and anti-Nazi Resistance martyr — was executed in Quisling Norway on this date in 1944.

Brønnum (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) practice the sweet science for still-extant Oslo club Vika IF and later progressed into a municipal sports administrator.

A committed Popular Front advocate who had also studied in Moscow, Brønnum greeted the German occupation of his native soil with a turn to printing underground propaganda for the Norwegian Resistance — until, sensing danger, he attempted to escape to Sweden only to be arrested at the border.

He was shot with six other men (notably ichthyologist Iacob Dybwad Sømme) at the Trandumskogen forest execution site (and, a natural enough double role, mass grave). A granite marker unveiled there in 1954 pays tribute to “173 Norwegians, 15 Soviet subjects, and 6 Britons” executed in the forest over the course of the war.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Norway,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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