On this date in 1918, General Paul von Rennenkampf dug his own grave by the side of the railway tracks near Taganrog, then was shot by the Bolsheviks for declining a promotion.
The Baltic German with the glorious Hungarian had spent a career in the tsarist officer corps; he took part in the multinational suppression of China’s Boxer Rebellion, and then the entirely domestic suppression of the abortive 1905 revolution.
Less well did the motherland fare against the Japanese in 1904 (where Rennenkampf’s shin and Russia’s infantry were both shattered) or against history in the Great War (which saw Rennenkampf sacked for command failures in the Battle of Lodz).
Although it seems that the latter result was the consequence of political infighting moreso than verifiable incompetence, the man was still cooling his heels in forced retirement when the revolutions of 1917 arrived. Both the February and the October revolutionaries detained him for a time and then released him, finding insufficient interest in those weighty days in a cashiered sexagenarian no matter how backwards his political priors.
But the Bolsheviks found him interesting when they took over Taganrog, where Rennenkampf was parked. This was his wife’s home town, near the southern industrial center Rostov-on-Don — a place that would be intensely contested in the unfolding civil war between communist Red and tsarist White armies. Such moments entail a choice of sides, so when the Bolsheviks offered this veteran senior commander a role in the Red Army, it was understood to be an offer he couldn’t refuse. He refused it, with bold words that were patriotic but not prophetic.
I’m old. I have not much left to live, for the salvation of my life, I will not become a traitor and will not go against my own. Give me a well-armed army, and I will go against the Germans, but you have no army; to lead this army would mean leading people to slaughter, I will not take this responsibility on myself.
He was decorated for his service on the Axis’s Eastern Front during World War II, but this same credential got him expelled from the army in the postwar Red takeover.
Nothing daunted, Dabija and some like-minded comrades** formed an armed anti-communist militia a few dozen strong in Transylvania’s Apuseni Mountains named the National Defense Front, Haiducian Corps — a nod to the Balkans’ historical outlaws/rebels. The Securitate reduced them over the course of 1948-1949 months, culminating in a March 3-4, 1949 forest battle that brought Dabija et al into custody.
* Ioan Scridon, Traian Mihaltan, Titus Onea, Augustin Ratiu, Gheorghe Oprita, Silvestru Bolfea. (Source)
Anti-Communist resistance fighters Gerhard Benkowitz and Hans-Dietrich Kogel were executed by East Germany on this date in 1955.
The two Weimar civil servants — respectively a teacher and a municipal statistics analyst — Benkowitz and Kogel both affiliated with the Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (KgU) which you could translate as Combat Group Against Inhumanity, a western-backed spy/sabotage network harassing the Communist regime.
The KgU’s resistance ran more to the informational rather than the kinetic, but Benkowitz and Kogel both admitted to scouting a railroad bridge in Weimar for a potential bombing target. They were induced by the promise of sparing their lives to play the desired role of penitent auto-denunciator for their joint show trial; the promise, as will be inferred by their presence in these annals, was not honored.
Although the KgU’s West Berlin brain trust was safe from the vengeance of the Stasi, arrests and infiltration of its informer network in east put an end to this organization before the 1950s were out.
On this date in 1960, American adventurer Anthony “Tony” Zarba was shot after his capture in an ill-fated raid on Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
The Somerville, Mass. native had been shaken like many U.S. citizens by the recent Cuban Revolution; antagonism toward Castro featured prominently in the tight Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign that was nearing its climax during the events of this post, the backdrop for the world’s coming brush with nuclear apocalypse. Confrontation of some kind seemed a foregone conclusion, and in a tradition as old as filibustering, a private clique formed in the U.S. with the intention of hastening the day.
“Today I leave for the Cuban hills. I am going to fight against communism that has come so close to our American shores,” Zarba wrote a friend before launching in a PT boat from Miami with three other Americans, 22 Cuban exiles, and a stockpile of black market weapons that September of 1960.
All this could have been prevented by our government. Now the time has come when all this can be fixed only one way — fighting.
When my country is daily insulted and abused by the Commies of Cuba, I think that this is the opportunity I missed when I could not qualify physically as a U. S. soldier because of my asthma.
But where my generation is falling for its lack of political maturity and comprehension, I am going to do my duty regardless of any foolish considerations about legality, neutrality and other technicalities of which the diabolic Communist takes so much advantage …
I have confidence that God would give me the necessary strength and courage to die with honor and pride if this were necessary in the hills or in front of a Red firing squad.
I am sure many others will follow in my steps.
The intent of this operation was to rally anti-Castro disaffection believed to be burgeoning in Cuba and escape to the Sierra Maestra to build a guerrilla movement like Castro and Che had done in their own day.
But they were surprised by government soldiers shortly after their landing at Nibujon and shattered the foray right there on the beach, a preview of the more (in)famous Washington-backed Bay of Pigs disaster six months hence. Zabra was captured on the beach with a number of Cubans, still wet with sea salt from wading their ammunition ashore. Two other Americans, Allen Dale Thompson and Robert Fuller, escaped for the moment but would also be captured within days; they followed Zabra to the firing posts on Oct. 15. (Some others, including the fourth American, were aboard a fishing launch when the Cubans arrived and fled to open seas.)
Boats and guns don’t quite grow on trees even in Florida, so fiascos like this require moneymen to orchestrate the junction of enthusiasts and their Red firing squads. This particular operation was underwritten by former Communist turned Batista henchman Rolando Masferrer, a prominent mafioso whose 1960s pastime was extorting fellow Cuban exiles and plotting Castro’s assassination. (Castro put a price on Masferrer’s head in return.)
On this date in 1952, Johann Burianek became the first person executed by East Germany.
A machinist and a World War II Wehrmacht soldier, Burianek (English Wikipedia entry | German) caught a one-year sentence in the postwar Communist East Germany for having the misbegotten initiative in the dying days of the war to go out of his way to arrest a deserter who was nearly executed as a result.
From about 1950 he became affiliated with the western-backed anti-communist resistance network Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit (KgU) — Strike Force Against Inhumanity. Crossing liberally between East and West Berlin, which easy movement East German authorities were fretting, Burianek had a two-year stint irritating the German Democratic Republic with graffiti, subversive posters, and eventually, sabotage.
He was arrested in March 1952 shortly ahead of what would have been his derringest do, the bombing of a rail bridge; a judge named Hilde Benjamin, who in the course of 1950s show trials made her name synonymous with politically motivated severity,* hammered him with a demonstrative sentence** — the very first judicial execution meted out by the DDR, in fact. It was administered in Dresden by beheading with a fallbeil.
* Benjamin, who died on the eve of the Berlin Wall‘s fall, enjoys a poor reputation in the post-Cold War state with a variety of uncomplimentary sobriquets to prove it — such as the “Red Guillotine” and “Red Freisler“.
** She would also impose the death sentence against a fellow KgU operative, Wolfgang Kaiser, who went under the fallbeil five weeks after Burianek.
The small Baltic state had won a two-decade interwar independence rudely terminated by Soviet occupation in 1940 under the carving-up done by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Moscow did not have long to enjoy its mastery of the place before Germany’s invasion swapped one occupation for the other.
German mastery appeared the more congenial than Russian,* and vice versa: Tallinn-born Nazi race theorist Alfred Rosenberg celebrated “the true culture bearer for Europe … the Nordic race. Great heroes, artists and founders of states have grown from this blood. It built the massive fortresses and sacred cathedrals. Nordic blood composed and created those works of music which we revere as our greatest revelations. … Germany is Nordic, and the Nordic element has had an effect, type forming, also upon the western, Dinaric and east Baltic races.”**
Once Germany was pushed back out by the Red Army in 1944 there were thousands of far-right Estonian fighting-men prepared to bear arms against the new-old boss: one part a desperate hope of resuming the pre-war independence, two parts fatalistic principle. “We understood that it is better to die in the forest with a weapon in your hands than in a Soviet camp,” an ex-Forest Brother pensioner told the New York Times in 2003.
For a few years** after World War II, the harassment of Forest Brothers pricked Soviet authority, but as elsewhere in the Baltics the contest was impossibly unequal for guerrillas far from any hope of aid in a post-Yalta world. Ants the Terrible was captured in 1949 by which time the movement, ruthlessly hunted, was waning away. It was finally stamped out in the early 1950s, but in the post-Soviet Estonia — independent once again — these resisters have been belatedly celebrated as patriots.
** From Rosenberg’s magnum opus, The Myth of the Twentieth Century. It’s not all sunshine for the eastern Baltic race in Rosenberg’s cosmology; “mixed as it is with a Mongol element,” these types are “pliant clay either in the hands of Nordic leadership or under Jewish and Mongol tyrants. [The eastern Baltic] sings and dances, but as easily murders and ravages.”
† One of the last Forest Brothers in the field, August Sabbe, was only caught in 1978 at the age of 69. He died in the arrest, either murdered by his KGB pursuers or resolutely quick-witted enough to drown himself to escape interrogation.
This salutary, and surprise, hanging was a nasty public message during the dirty post-war war to consolidate communist authority in Poland.
The message, however, was not exactly meant for a world wider than Poland itself, so the fact that it was captured in a grainy photograph snapped by WiN agent Józef Stec and subsequently smuggled out to the West was not at all to the liking of Polish authorities.
According to a WiN eyewitness report also presumed to have been filed by Stec,
First the MO [local militia], the UB, and the military occupied the execution square holding their machine guns ready to fire. Then, a car came with uniformed individuals who placed the noose on the hook. After a short time the same car brought three condemned men in white shirts. Their hands and legs were tied with barbed wire. A Jewish prosecutor read the sentence and passed the condemned into the hands of the executioner. Before the execution, one of the condemned yelled: “Long live the Home Army. Long live General Anders and General Bor-Komorowski. Down with the commies. Brothers persevere or you’ll die like us. I swear before God that I have never been a bandit [as communist authorities designated them]. I am dying for the Motherland. Lord forgive them [the executioners] because they know not what they are doing.
* The victims were Józef Grebosz, Józef Kozlowski, and Franciszek Noster, according to the 2003 monograph After the Holocaust: Polish-Jewish conflict in the wake of World War II, by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. This monograph is also the source for Stec’s quoted report on the hanging.
And then, as a German prisoner, he switched sides.
The conversion of a top Soviet general, who now professed anti-bolshevism, was a stupefying propaganda coup for Germany, and the recent hero of Moscow was quickly employed authoring anti-Soviet leaflets and persuading POWs of the virtues of working for Berlin.
Somewhat more guarded were the Germans when it came to forming up the military unit our defector was supposed to be head of, the Russian Liberation Army, a phantom force of patriotic anti-communist Russians fighting for their country’s self-determination free of Uncle Joe.
In reality, this “army” didn’t exist beyond the patches slapped onto the various anti-Soviet Russians who signed up to fight against the motherland. And it’s not too hard to reckon why.
Though Russian nationalism might be an expedient club to beat the Red Army with, it was just as liable to boomerang on a Reich itself bent on eastward expansion. A German interrogator of Vlasov in 1942 writing of the captive officer’s notions of national renewal concluded his report editorially (Russian link), “Russia for hundreds of years has constantly threatened Germany, regardless of whether it was the tsarist or the Bolshevik regime. Germany is not interested in reviving the Russian state.”
Besides, given the Nazis’ racial ideology, could these Slavs be trusted in a pinch? Enough to hand them their own command structure? The thousands of eastern front POWs who volunteered to serve Berlin could be suspected of having made the devil’s choice due less to principled anti-Stalinism than the fearful privations of a German camp. (Vlasov himself is often accused of changing teams for some venal reason of cowardice or greed.)
Only late in 1944, when the prospective long-term problems of Russian nationalism had been rendered academic to Berlin by the progress of the war, did the scattered collaborator units get organized into an actual army under Vlasov’s command.
The ineffectual ROA only got into one real scrap with the Red Army, and confirmed German suspicions about Slavic reliability in the last days of the war by turning its German guns against the SS in support of the Czechs’ Prague Uprising.
But surely nobody counted on returning to Stalin’s good graces with this last-second conversion.
From that successful engagement, Vlasov’s men fled out of Prague towards the American occupation zone, desperate not to be taken by the Red Army.
They made it. But after just a few days in American hands, Vlasov was turned over at a Russian checkpoint.
Though structured by the Allied powers’ Yalta accords, which stipulated repatriation into Stalin’s hands of any Soviet citizens held in the West, Vlasov’s handover might at the moment have been part of what must have been innumerable quid pro quo arrangements to sort out command and control in the disaster area late dignified as the Third Reich.
Historian Patricia Wadley has hypothesized that Vlasov’s detention by the Soviets conditioned the landing just an hour later of an airlift to evacuate the airman’s POW camp Stalag Luft I from behind Soviet lines.
However they got their hands on him, the Soviets made no mistake once they had him. Most of Vlasov’s junior officers were executed, and his rank and file dispatched to Siberia. The brass got a three-day trial — in camera, not a show trial; they were still defiant — from July 30 to August 1, with the inescapable result.
Vlasov’s legacy after the fact remains debatable. In the official Soviet story, of course, he’s a Nazi collaborator and that’s that. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn attempted to vindicate Vlasov in The Gulag Archipelago, and one can find pro-Vlasov posts and tributes — but post-Communist Russia has shown no interest in overturning the verdicts against the ROA.
One might allow him sincerity in his convictions, but only at the cost of allowing that his movement had no independent force in the war save what Germany breathed into it for Germany’s own reasons. Something like that holds true for nearly every human being caught up in the eastern front in those terrible years.
Some have characterized Vlasov a vile collaborator; others have seen him as a Russian national hero. Neither description quite fits. Andrei Andreevich Vlasov, given to drink and fits of fatalism and inertia in captivity, lacked the sterling character deemed essential for a martyr. On the other hand, the ROA chief was anything but a Nazi — he caused his German supporters discomfort with his strong Russian nationalism and his personal refusal to lend his voice to the prevailing, official anti-semitism. He possessed neither a Quisling‘s moral blindness to questions of patriotism nor a Joan of Arc‘s penchant for self-immolation. He came closer to the mean of most humans, aptly personifying the nightmarish predicament which confronted millions of the Eastern Front’s victims. Vlasov, like multitudes of other helpless Soviet citizens, was cruelly pulverized between the enormous and unfeeling millstones of Nazism and Communism. Shuffled about Europe’s wargame board, first by Stalin, then by Hitler, Vlasov was a pawn in the epic struggle just like the lowliest POW or forced laborer. He fantasized a Russia minus Marx, and though his failure was complete, he still came closer than any other Russian since the Civil War to fulfilling that dream.
-Mark Elliott, “Andrei Vlasov: Red Army General in Hitler’s Service,” Military Affairs, Apr. 1982
* Vlasov’s execution was announced in Pravda on Aug. 2, but with no reference to the precise time. (The sentence was certainly issued in the very early morning of Aug. 1.) Though some sources continue to list Aug. 2 as Vlasov’s execution date, Aug. 1 seems much better attested.
On this date in 1963, the Cuban government shot four of its citizens as “counterrevolutionaries” and CIA spies — capping a week that had seen 13 such executions in all at Havana’s Cabana Fortress.
This date’s batch consisted of (per the Nov. 15, 1963 New York Times) Argimiro Fonseca Fernandez, Wilfredo Alfonso Ibanez, Israel Rodriguez Lima and Erasmo Machin Garcia; they were supposed to have scouted spots around the island for a potential landing of invading exiles. For some reason, Cuba was paranoid about the possibility.
Four others — Antonio Cobelas Rodriguez, Orlando Sanchez Saraza, Juan M. Milian Rodriguez and Jose S. Bolanos Morales, according to the Nov. 13 New York Times — had been shot on Nov. 12 for similar crimes; they had supposedly attempted to make an armed landing on a boat out of Florida. Five others (whose names I have not located) were reported executed on Nov. 8.
(Thanks to Michael Baney for the guest post. -ed.)
On this date in 1991, a Peruvian death squad showed up at the wrong party, and altered its country’s history.
In 1980 the Communist Party of Peru, better known as the Shining Path, launched its “People’s War,” which was never actually supported by the majority of Peruvians. Latin America had had its share of Marxist revolts, but this one was different from the others. There was nothing romantic about the revolutionaries, who wore plain clothes rather than uniforms, attacked the civilian population rather than invest significant capital to win them over to the Shining Path cause, and rose up in an effort to overthrow a democracy rather than a dictatorship.
The Shining Path was based mainly in Andean villages, but once they began to take serious losses in their own territory, they made a concerted effort to accelerate the war by pushing into the capital city, Lima. Both the Shining Path and the Peruvian military were committing deplorable human rights violations by the time Alberto Fujimori was elected president in 1990, although the vast majority of the violence had been confined to the hinterlands of the country up until then.
This date’s incident occurred when members of Grupo Colina (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), a death squad that was part of the Army Intelligence Service, believed that they had identified a group of Shining Path militants having a pollada, which is a traditional fundraiser in Peru where a party is held so that chicken and beer can be sold to the neighbors. (Here’s a description, in Spanish)
A Grupo Colina squad drove to the building where this terrorist pollada was supposed to be taking place, lined the partygoers up, and extrajudicially executed them with submachine guns with silencers that the army had provided the group for the operation. Then the leader of the group, Santiago Martin Rivas, shot a young child who came running over to the body of his father. The troops got back into their vehicles, turned on their sirens to appear like they were the police in an effort to shift blame over the killings, and got drunk at the beach to celebrate.
Almost immediately it became clear that the death squad members had completely screwed up their hit.
The people who had been murdered were indeed having a pollada … not to fund the Shining Path’s Maoist agrarian war, but to fix the pipes in their building
And it transpired that that fateful night of Nov. 3, there was a differentpollada being held on a different floor in the very same building. The participants of that other party fled the building, never to return. There were reports that upon searching the rooms of those who fled, police uncovered many issues of El Dario, the Shining Path newspaper.
If Grupo Colina indeed crashed the wrong party, then it not only slaughtered a bunch of innocent people — it helpfully tipped the Shining Path to the fact that the army was onto them.
In any event, the executions became a media spectacle and the police had to at least go through the motions of investigating them. At first, the government suggested that the murders might have been actually carried out by the Shining Path, and as evidence of this theory they showed that one of the people who had been killed was previously a member of a Ronda, which is a peasant patrol group that fought against cattle rustling and, in some cases, the Shining Path. But it later turned out that the man had been a member of the Rondas many years before and hundred of miles away from the killings, and it seemed extremely improbable that the Shining Path would even bother to target him.
By December 4, 1991, the US embassy in Lima was informing the Secretary of State that the Peruvian government lacked the political will to investigate the murders, and had lied about whether or not the guns used in the extrajudicial executions were equipped with silencers in “an apparently deliberate attempt to obfuscate the situation.”
The Congress created a committee to investigate the crimes, which was a real threat to the Fujimori government because the Fujimoristas did not have a majority in Congress.
This ceased to be a problem on April 5, 1992, when Fujimori suspended the Congress, permanently disbanded the Senate, and fired a good number of the judges in the country, all in total violation of the Constitution. That ended the investigation.
Under pressure from the international community, a new Congress stacked with Fujimoristas was convened to write a new Constitution, and the investigation of the Barrios Altos killing nominally restarted. When the Congress called Nicolas Hermoza Rios de Bari, the Chairman of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces to testify, he took the oppotunity to remind the Congress that the military would never tolerate being “insulted.” When hearings continued, Hermoza Rios held an impromptu tank parade directly in front of the Congress. The few brave Congressmen and women who actually desired to expose the truth about the killings got the message loud and clear: the case would never go anywhere as long as Fujimori remained president.
When it finally looked like the perpetrators might be punished, for example, Fujimori rammed a law through the Congress that provided a general amnesty to everyone who had violated human rights “in defense of the fatherland.” When a judge ruled the amnesty law unconstitutional, Fujimori’s Congress stripped the power of judicial review from the courts in cases of amnesty laws.
In a very real sense, the Peruvian government had legalized illegality. Fujimori created a system in which there was no way to punish — or even investigate — murder so long as someone, somewhere considered the crime to have been committed for patriotic reasons.
All that changed in 2000, however, when Fujimori’s government collapsed amid scandal.
In 2007, Alberto Fujimori was extradited from Chile, where he had traveled, to Peru. In 2009, the Peruvian courts convicted Fujimori of a number of human rights abuses, including ordering the Barrios Altos murders. Just last month, justice was finally served when the members of Grupo Colina were convicted of murder, kidnapping, forced disappearance, and conspiracy, and were given various sentences ranging up to 25 years of prison. After 19 years, the Peruvian government has finally acknowledged that the extrajudicial executions that took place during that country’s cold war were crimes that must not go unpunished.