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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1938: Nikolai Bryukhanov, hung by his balls

Add comment September 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1938, former Soviet Finance Commissar Nikolai Bryukhanov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was shot during Stalin’s purges.

Bryukhanov — no apparent relationship to Chernobyl nuclear plant director Viktor Bryukhanov — was a Bolshevik agitator going back to his days as a student radical in the first years of the 20th century.

In 1926, he became head of the powerful People’s Commissariat for Finance (NarKomFin) replacing another future purge victim, Grigori Sokolnikov — which meant that he was there at the helm at the moment that Stalin executed his 1928-1929 Great Turn towards Five-Year Plans and forced industrialization.

This pivot also entailed the bureaucratic sidelining of NarKomFin, thanks in part to Bryukhanov’s affiliation with Stalin’s so-called “Rightist Opposition”. (Who were, no surprise, also future purge victims.) This pornographic cartoon circulated among Bryukhanov’s political rivals, the author says with understatement, “illustrates the fragility of Bryukhanov’s position.”

Stalin himself, who in 1930 was not yet in a position to simply murder foes on his say-so, commended the caricature in the spirit of a witch-dunking:

To the members of the Politburo. Hang Bryukhanov by his balls for all of his sins present and future. If his balls hold, consider him acquitted by the tribunal. If not, drown him in the river. J. St.

Deposed here in 1930 from his acme, Bryukhanov nevertheless continued over the succeeding years in several lesser posts relating to administration of the Soviet economy. As with many Old Bolsheviks who had at some point in time resisted Stalin in a large way or a small one, that former enmity lived long in Koba’s mind … and come the era of the purges, what the old man had once scribbled in jest was visited on Bryukhanov’s flesh. (Metaphorically.)

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1918: Paul von Rennenkampf, tsarist general

Add comment April 1st, 2020 Headsman

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.

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1938: Herman Hurmevaara, Finnish Social Democrat

Add comment February 16th, 2020 Headsman

Finnish parliamentarian Herman Hurmevaara was shot during Stalin’s purges on this date in 1938.

Hurmevaara (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Finnish) sat in parliament for the Social Democrats from 1917 to 1919, which was also the period when long-restive Finland broke away from Russia’s grasp while the latter was preoccupied with deposing its tsar.

This rupture brought Finland into a nasty Whites-versus-Reds civil war. The Whites won, and Hurmevaara ended up knocking about in exile in Sweden and (after expulsion in 1930) the USSR. There, he worked in publishing.

Shot as a spy in the capital of Russia’s Finland-adjacent Karelian Republic, he was among numerous emigre Finns destroyed during the late 1930s nadir of Stalinism. Hurmevaara was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era.

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1946: Maliq Bushati, Lef Nosi, and Anton Harapi, of Balli Kombëtar

Add comment February 15th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1946,* communist Albania executed three former officials of its deposed wartime government.

Fascist Italy occupied Albania during World War II.

In a situation mirroring that of neighboring Yugoslavia, there were two resistance movements that sometimes maintained an uneasy truce and other times went straight at one another’s throats: the communist National Liberation Movement (LNC or LANC), and the nationalist National Front (“Balli Kombëtar”).

In 1943, when Mussolini’s government collapsed, Nazi Germany took over control of Albania. Wary of postwar domination by communists — and the likelihood that this party would not cede bordering “Greater Albania” regions like the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo — Balli Kombëtar cut a deal with Berlin to run a collaborationist government.

Our principals for this date were all prominent figures in that government: Maliq Bushati, the prime minister; Lef Nosi, a member of the High Regency Council, and Anton Harapi, a Franciscan friar who consented to be the Catholic community’s representative in the governing council.

Needless to say, Balli Kombëtar did not long benefit from German support, and succumbed to the partisan movement — both the domestic LNC, and the allied Yugoslavian partisans under Tito. Its adherents faced the fury of their conquerors.


From left: Maliq Bushati, Lef Nosi, and Anton Harapi.

Those who could, fled to the west to enroll as exile auxilia for the coming Cold War: the attempted 1949 Albanian Subversion was one of the CIA’s earliest regime change attempts — notable in that the covert operation was betrayed to Moscow by the Kremlin’s British intelligence mole Kim Philby, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

* The Internet brings some citations for February 20 instead of February 15; I have not been able to locate the source of the discrepancy. The British diplomatic communique reporting on the trial is my authoritative primary source here: “The trial took place, in eight sessions, in a squalid cinema in Tirana before a house packed by Party members who constantly interrupted and jeered, while three military judges on the stage kept hurling accusations and abuse at the defendants, jointly and severally. All three were held responsible for, among other things, Albania’s entire war losses … Defendant’s counsel was howled down as a ‘fascist’ and never succeeded in making himself heard … The three accused were shot two days afterwards, on 15 February.”

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1957: József Dudás, Hungarian Revolution wild card

Add comment January 19th, 2020 Headsman

Hungarian politician József Dudás was hanged on this date in 1957, for participation in the previous year’s abortive Hungarian Revolution.

Although he’d been a Communist in his prewar youth, Dudás won election to the postwar government on the Independent Smallholders line. This agrarian opposition party was gradually pushed out of power and eventually suppressed over the course of the late 1940s; Dudás himself ended up getting arrested and detailed for a long visit to the feared Romanian Securitate.

He’d long since been repatriated as a non-political engineer when the Hungarian Revolution briefly cracked open the horizon of possibilities in the autumn of 1956.

Dudás immediately proved himself not so non-political — and a distinct thorn in the side of the Imre Nagy government. He advocated not only for Hungarian Independence (which was also the title of his newspaper) but also for a multiparty reformulation of the Hungarian state, which was a bit much for Nagy to process during the revolution’s two-week lease on life. Dudás’s penchant for off-script revolutionary improvisations, such as putting out feelers to Soviet commanders and also having his militia lynch agents of the temporarily disempowered secret police, made him an unwelcome wild card and Nagy had him arrested shortly before Soviet tanks re-established control.

The Soviets, of course, also had no use themselves for the peasants’ party deputy who’d been trying to subvert Nagy from the right.

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1959: Col. Cornelio Rojas

Add comment January 7th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1959, in the city of Santa Clara lately captured by Cuban revolutionaries, Col. Cornelio Rojas Fernández, commander of the city’s defeated government garrison, was shot without trial by the order of Che Guevara.

It was just one among hundreds of vengeful executions being visited in those weeks upon authorities of the deposed Batista regime.

Viewers of the televised public shooting saw the stocky commander — the grandson of a hero of the 19th century Cuban War of Independence — walk unafraid to his death in an armed escort, where he exhorted his onlookers until the firing detail sent his fedora flying.

Rojas’s granddaughter Barbara Rangel remains an energetic advocate of her father’s innocence, from Florida. A kinsman named Pedro Rojas Mir was among those killed in the 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle when anti-Castro exiles mounted a failed invasion of Cuba.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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1958: Sass Kalman and Istvan Hollos

Add comment December 2nd, 2019 Headsman

Ethnic Hungarians Sass Kálmán and Istvan Hollos were shot in Romania on this date in 1958. Links in this post are in Hungarian.

Both were condemned — along with a third man, Vilmos Balasko, his sentence subsequently commuted — as the result of a mass trial earlier that year of alleged traitors and saboteurs.

The trial targeted the large ethnic Hungarian population in Transylvania, bordering Hungary, in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. There the feared Romanian secret police rolled up culprits for offenses ranging from subversive leaflets in simpatico with failed revolution, to a general penumbra of perceived unreliable loyalty.

Istvan Hollos, a lawyer and teacher, had fought in the German-allied Hungarian army during World War II and unsuccessfully attempted to flee to Switzerland afterwards. Sass Kálmán was a Calvinist pastor once close to anticommunist peasant party leader Ferenc Nagy; a previous brush with political scrutiny had been shielded by towering general Pal Maleter, but Maleter’s participation in (and execution for) the 1956 revolution played against Kálmán too. (A third man, pastor Vilmos Balasko, was condemned to death in the same mass trial but he received clemency and was released a few years later in a general amnesty. He lived until 2004 and published a memoir after the fall of the Iron Curtain.)

Kálmán’s Reformed Church, whose adherents are predominantly ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania, treat Kálmán as a martyr and have pressed hard for his official rehabilitation — thus far, to no avail.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Hungary,Lawyers,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Religious Figures,Romania,Shot

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1974: Walkiria Afonso da Costa, the last Araguaia guerrilla

Add comment October 25th, 2019 Headsman

Walkiria (or Walquiria) Afonso Costa was summarily executed on this date in 1974.

Sickly and emaciated, the 27-year-old was the last guerrilla left in the field after the two-year campaign of the Brazilian dictatorship to suppress the Communist insurgency in Araguaia — or at least she was the last who was taken into custody.

A pedagogy student at the University of Minas Gerais, she had learned to shoot on forest rambles with her father and so perhaps came better prepared for the wilderness life than some comrades.

According to her sister, the sociology professor Valéria Costa Couto, the military had all but wiped out the guerrillas in a Christmas 1973 ambush, with only Walkiria and a couple of others managing to escape and hold out a few months longer.

There is a street named for her in her home city of Belo Horizonte, and an epigraph from her deceased father awaits if her remains are ever located for proper burial: “Do you think they killed me? They raised an ideal. Do you think they buried me? They planted a seed.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Brazil,Execution,Guerrillas,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1928: Chen Jue

Add comment October 14th, 2019 Headsman

China Communist revolutionary hero Chen Jue was executed on this date in 1928 by the nationalist Kuomintang.

Chen Jue with his wife Zhao Yunxiao or Yunqi are celebrated revolutionary martyrs for their respective sacrifices of life for the cause in Changsha.

They met pursuing studies of revolutionary praxis in Moscow in the mid-1920s, and returned as revolutionary cadres at just the moment that China fell to open civil war.

In April 1928 both were betrayed to the KMT. Zhao Yunxiao was pregnant; she would be suffered to carry her daughter Qiming to term before quaffing the same cup as her husband. The two swapped red tear-jerking missives before their death, that are preserved at an exhibit at the People’s Revolutionary Military Museum.

“We didn’t believe in ghosts before. Now I am willing to become a ghost,” the man wrote the wife before his execution. “We are here to save the parents, wives and children of the entire Chinese people, so we sacrificed everything. Although we die, our spirits remain with the comrades who yet live.”

“Little baby, your mother will be taken from you when you have no more than a month and a dozen days,” the wife wrote the child months later. “Little baby, I tell you very clearly that your parents were Communists … I hope that when you grow up, you read well and know how your parents died.”*

Their cause, of course, was destined for victory. If history records the destiny of their child, I have not located it.

* Both of these are my amateur-hour translations via online tours, unaided by any actual expertise in Chinese. Caveat emptor.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot

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