Murder of the Romanovs

Anyone who has a soft spot in his heart for V.I. Lenin must overlook the man’s bloodthirsty nature and the cruelty of his followers. Revolutionaries  don’t mind breaking a lot of innocent eggs to get to that utopian omelette they are always prophesying.

One such example of Bolshevik psychopathy is the murder  of the deposed Tsar and his family on the night of July 16/17, 1918.

Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated early in 1917 in the February revolution which produced the first Russian democratic government. He and his family — wife, four daughters, and a son — were held under house arrest at first and were treated decently, but when Lenin’s Communists seized power they were moved to Yekaterinburg in central Russia and confined under harsher circumstances.

The Russian civil war that pitted Whites against Reds complicated matters. In July 1918, Bolshevik forces in Yekaterinburg grew alarmed at the approach of anti-Communist forces and decided to kill the Romanovs lest they be rescued. They were taken to the basement of the house and brutally shot, bayoneted, and clubbed to death, along with four of their servants who had elected to accompany them in their imprisonment. The bodies were then disfigured and hidden in a nearby mineshaft and forest.

Lenin’s government announced the death of Nicholas but continued for years to insist that the rest of the family was alive. The mystery of their disappearance allowed all sorts of imposters to claim that they were a missing princess or prince. 

Though Lenin accepted ultimate responsibility for the murders, historians still debate whether he gave the order or merely acquiesced in the actions taken by local Bolsheviks.

The bodies of Nicholas, his wife, and three daughters were recovered secretly during the communist era and only revealed after the Party’s downfall. Only later were the bodies of the boy and one of his sisters found in a different location — these remains have not been authenticated to the satisfaction of the Orthodox Church and remain in a vault. As of 2018, splendid tombs house the other bodies in the church of the Sts Peter and Paul Fortress in Leningrad.

The royal family and their servants have been canonized by the Orthodox Church, not as martyrs but as “passion bearers”.

July 21


The execution of anti-Hitler conspirators

On July 20, 1944, German military officers disenchanted with the rule of Adolf Hitler attempted to assassinate the Führer in his command post called the Wolf’s Lair. The plan was to place a bomb in a briefcase next to Hitler while he was in the map room, and then, after the explosion, to rally elements in the army, intelligence services and secret police to the plotters’ cause. They hoped that with Hitler out of the way they could negotiate a truce with the Allies on the Western Front and continue the war against the Red Army in eastern Europe. One of Hitler’s aides, the decorated hero Claus von Stauffenberg, placed the bomb and left the bunker; the briefcase was accidentally nudged by an onlooker farther under the heavy oak table which permitted Hitler to be only slightly wounded after the device exploded. Stauffenberg, however, was under the impression that Hitler and been killed and flew back to Berlin to take part in the expected coup. When the news of Hitler’s survival was announced, those officers high up in the plot arrested the lower-ranked conspirators, and executed them on the morning of July 21. Stauffenberg was among those shot.

He was among the lucky ones. 7,000 more suspects were arrested and almost 5,000 of these were executed, some by slow strangulation — filmed for the watching pleasure of Hitler and his inner circle. Among those garroted, revived, and strangled again and again was Claus von Stauffenberg’s brother; General Erwin Rommel was forced to commit suicide for his peripheral part in the plot.

July 13


The assassination of Jean-Paul Marat

The sanguinary fanaticism of the French Revolution has no representative of such odious and repulsive figure as Marat, the original self-styled ‘Friend of the People.’ By birth a Swiss, of Calvinistic parents, he had led a strange skulking life for five-and-forty years—latterly, a sort of quack mediciner—when the great national crisis brought him to the surface as a journalist and member of the Convention. Less than five feet high, with a frightful countenance, and maniacal eye, he was shrunk from by most people as men shrink from a toad; but he had frantic earnestness, and hesitated at no violence against the enemies of liberty, and so he came to possess the entire confidence and affection of the mob of Paris. His constant cry was for blood; he literally desired to see every well-dressed person put to death. Every day his paper, “L’Ami du Peuple”, was filled with clamorous demands for slaughter, and the wish of his heart was but too well fulfilled.

Such was the opinion of Robert Chambers, the 19th-century encyclopedist and its distaste for Marat has been widely shared by many English-language historians. Marat was not always the blood-thirsty newspaper editor, covered in sores and compelled to spend his days in a soothing tub; he was once a well-respected court physician, political theorist, and amateur scientist, involved in experiments on the nature of light and electricity.

When the French Revolution broke out, Marat attached himself to the more radical elements, using his newspaper L’Ami du Peuple to attack a wide range of conservative and moderate policies and politicians and call for the death of his opponents. He made enemies very easily and was often forced into hiding; his time lurking in Paris sewers may well have aggravated his serious case of dermatitis. By the summer of 1793 the royal family and hundreds of other enemies of the new regime had been sent to the guillotine; Marat clamoured for more executions. On July 13 while soaking in his bath, he was assassinated by Charlotte Corday, a young woman from the provinces and a supporter of a moderate wing of the Revolution which Marat had attacked. She plunged a dagger into his chest — the above painting by is Jacques-Louis David who was called upon to stage the dead man’s lying in state. Radicals expressed their grief by becoming more violent in speech and action; the Terror was not long in coming.

The unrepentant Corday was herself guillotined a few days later.



July 8


The North-West Mounted Police Head West

Fancy a historical cocktail. Why not try Whoop-Up Bug Juice — alcohol spiked with ginger, molasses and red pepper, coloured with back chewing tobacco, watered down and boiled. It was the sale of this delightful beverage that was one of the motives behind the 1874 March West of the newly-formed North-West Mounted Police.

When Canada assumed sovereignty over the vast western territories, it was an area largely without law or government presence. An observer noted “the region of the Saskatchewan is without law, order, or security for life or property; robbery and murder for years have gone unpunished; Indian massacres are unchecked even in the close vicinity of the Hudson Bay Company’s posts, and all civil and legal institutions are entirely unknown.” Twenty thousand natives still occupied the plains, and their plight in the wake of the buffalo hunt’s decline caused security concerns in Ottawa. The news of the 1873 Cypress Hills Massacre in which 30 Assiniboine were killed by American and Canadian wolf-hunters and whiskey traders who suspected them of horse theft, led to the recruitment of a mounted gendarmerie, the NWMP.

On this day in 1874  a procession of over 200 men with oxen and cattle, weaponry, 310 horses, and a three month supply of provisions advanced west with the intent of reaching southern Alberta, particularly Fort Whoop-Up, one of the earliest, largest, and best known American whisky trading posts. At La Roche Percée, Saskatchewan the force split in half, with some diverting north to settle at a NWMP post there. The rest continued on to Fort Whoop-Up, which they reached in October, establishing their presence and pacifying the area.

July 1


The Regina Riot

Canadians are a pretty peaceful folk; it takes a lot to get them upset, and even when they burst into riot or rebellion, it’s usually pretty small potatoes compared to disorders in the rest of the world. Take for example the “Regina Riot.”

In 1935, Canada was in the midst of the Great Depression, with the west of the country particularly hard hit as the economic downturn coincided with a dustbowl drought and a grasshopper plague. Tens of thousands of men were unemployed and living in remote government camps where they were  set to useful labour such as building roads for the princely sum of 20 cents a day. By the spring of 1935, labour organizers had convinced many of these men to embark on protests to win a series of ambitious improvements in their pay and conditions. To emphasize these demands 1,000 men left the camps to ride freight cars heading east in what was known as the “On to Ottawa Trek.”

Unwilling to see the national capital invaded by an army of angry workers, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett agreed to meet a delegation of trekkers in Ottawa, on the condition that the remainder of the men go no farther than Regina, Saskatchewan, where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had a significant presence.

The meeting in Ottawa went very badly with both sides using intemperate language and no settlement reached. Some of the strike leaders were genuine radicals, ex-Wobblies or members of the Canadian Communist Party, which gave Bennett a chance to denigrate them. When the leaders returned to Regina, they held an open-air meeting at Market Square. There they were attacked by truckloads of RCMP. Fighting broke out; as the crowd dispersed, running battles were held in the streets: tear-gas was used, shots were fired, shops were vandalized. After the smoke cleared, two men — a Mountie and a striker — lay dead. The police arrested over 100 people but public sympathy lay with the strikers. An angry Saskatchewan Premier Jimmy Gardiner denounced the federal government (which believed it had crushed a communist conspiracy)  for having provoked the ruckus and proposed that the remaining strikers be returned to their homes.

Though the Trek was dispersed, Bennett’s popularity sunk even lower and he was shortly to be voted out of office. Today the “Regina Riot” is the name given to the local women’s football team.

June 28


A dreadful moment

It’s one of those great turning points in history. A young terrorist, disappointed at missing his target earlier in the day, is astonished to see the man appear, being driven slowly toward him again in an open car. He steps forward, aims at the middle-aged couple in the back seat and fires his pistol …

Had Gavrilo Princip missed; had the driver taken the correct route; had the Archduke not insisted on seeing the victims wounded in the previous attack, would Austria and Serbia have fought anyway? Would World War I still have broken out? Would 20,000,000 have died? Would my great-uncle Bill still have suffered shell-shock on the Western Front and wandered away to be lost forever to his family?

The slow collapse of the Turkish Empire meant that it was withdrawing from parts of southeastern Europe it had ruled for centuries, leaving a political vacuum that both the Kingdom of the Serbs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire wished to fill. A particularly contentious area was Bosnia, with its mixed population of Orthodox Serbs, Muslims and Catholic Croats. It was ruled by Austria but coveted by Serbia who wished to build a pan-Slavic state in the region. A teen-age Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, wished to see his nation join Serbia and associated himself with the Black Hand, a terrorist group linked to the Serbian secret police. When the Black Hand learned that the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Ferdinand, would be visiting Sarajevo they saw an excellent opportunity to create an outrage that would lead to a war of liberation. They trained and supplied Princip and five others for a murderous attack on the royal procession.

However, on the day, things did not work out as planned. The first two would-be killers, armed with pistols and bombs, froze as the Archduke and his wife Sophie drove by. Farther on, the third threw his bomb but it bounced off the royal car and exploded on the street injuring 16 people. The bomber atttempted to commit suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill but it was old and had lost its potency – he then leapt into the river but discovered it was only knee-deep. He was arrested and beaten up by the crowd as the motorcade proceeded on. The Archduke reached the safety of the town hall but then insisted on being taken to the hospital to visit those wounded by the bomb. The route — which was the wrong one — took the car to the spot where Princip was standing. He took out his Belgian semi-automatic FN .38 and fired the shots that would start World War I.

Princip was too young to be executed so he was imprisoned and died of tuberculosis in 1918. Three of his co-conspirators were executed and a dozen others involved in the plot were imprisoned. But what of the Serbian masterminds of the plot who were safe inside their borders? In 1916 when secret talks were carried out between Austria and Serbia about a possible peace, the Austrians demanded an end to such plots and the Serbian Regent, who was himself concerned about the power wielded by his military and intelligence agencies, obliged by arresting those who had planned the assassination. Three of his officers were executed on trumped-up charges and others thrown in jail.

Despite the horrific results of Princip’s actions, the killer is still a hero in Serbia. In 2015 that country’s president attended the unveiling of a statue in Belgrade to the terrorist and proclaimed: “Princip was a hero, a symbol of liberation ideas, tyrant-murderer, idea-holder of liberation from slavery, which spanned through Europe”.

June 26


Suleiman the Magnificent attacks the Knights of St John on Rhodes

With the fall of Acre in 1291 the orders of crusading monks, the Knights of St John, the Templars and the Teutonic Knights, would be based in the Holy Land no more. The Teutonic Knights would concentrate on crusading against pagans in northern Europe, the Templars would be destroyed by the papacy and the King of France, and the Knights of St John (aka the Hospitallers) moved temporarily to Cyprus.  In 1309 the Knights of St John seized territory from their fellow (albeit Byzantine Orthodox) Christians — the island of Rhodes just off the coast of what is now Turkey and the port of Halicarnassus (now the resort town of Bodrum) on the nearby mainland.  The Knights built powerful fortifications in both sites (sadly the ruins of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, were dismantled and used in building towers) and from there they fought against Islamic armies and navies, making themselves a considerable thorn in the side of the powerful Turkish sultanates in the eastern Mediterranean. As such they became the target of Muslim attempts to drive them away. In 1444 the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt mounted an expedition against them. The siege lasted 40 days but with the help of a Burgundian fleet, the Mamelukes were defeated. Mehmet the Conqueror, the Ottoman Turk who took Constantinople in 1453 and destroyed the Byzantine Empire, was determined to take Rhodes but his attempt in 1480 failed.

On June 26, 1522 the newly-crowned Ottoman emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent, arrived off the coast of Rhodes with 400 ships and an army of 100,000 men to attack the 7,000 men defending Rhodes under the Grand-Master, Philippe Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. Over the course of months a steady artillery bombardment and a series of underground mine explosions opened gaps in the walls. On December 22, both sides agreed to an honourable surrender. The Knights would leave Rhodes with their weapons and wealth and as many civilians as wished to accompany them. The Turks promised those Christians who stayed that they could keep their churches and pay no taxes for five years.

The fall of Rhodes tightened the Turkish hold on the Levantine coast but the Knights of St John would resume their war against them after they accepted a new base of operations on the island of Malta, donated by its overlord, the king of Spain. The annual rent for this island would be a single falcon payable on All Saints’ Day.

June 22


Operation Barbarossa

Invading the Russian heartland from the west seems to be a bad idea. The Teutonic Knights tried it and lost the Battle of the Ice in 1242; the Swedes tried it and were thrashed at Poltava in 1709; Napoleon tried it and never recovered from the retreat from Moscow in 1812; and Hitler tried it in 1941 with Operation Barbarossa, the largest military action in world history. The result: close but no cigar.

Adolf Hitler’s political testament My Struggle, written in the 1920s, made his intentions clear. The future of Germany lay in expanding into eastern Europe, cleansing it of its Slavic population, and making living space for a racially-pure Aryan race. We completely break our past colonial and trade policy and deliberately turn to acquiring new lands in Europe. We can only consider Russia and its neighboring countries. After Hitler’s election in 1933, the relations between Germany and the USSR were hostile; the Spanish Civil War was a proxy conflict with both nations pouring arms and men into the opposing sides. Stalin watched in alarm as Hitler swallowed up Austria and Czechoslovakia and turned his eyes on Poland but could not bring himself to ally with other German foes such as Britain and France.

The world was astonished, therefore, to learn that in August 1939, these antagonists had signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which set out a 10-year peace treaty (and which, in secret clauses, vowed cooperation in an invasion of Poland). Scarcely more than a week later, Germany invaded Poland and soon after, Soviet forces occupied the east of the country and would go on to extinguish the independence of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

The German Reich and the Soviet Union now shared a long common border. No one expected their peace to last the full 10 years but, despite numerous warnings from spies and western powers, Stalin was taken by surprise when, less than two years after the pact, millions of German troops swarmed into the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, named for a medieval Holy Roman Emperor. Joined with allies from Finland, Slovakia, Italy, Hungary and Romania, German divisions pressed deep into the USSR, taking millions of Red Army soldiers prisoner. But despite overrunning vast Russian territory and sweeping aside a number of armies, the German did not achieve their goals: the front stalled in front of Leningrad and Moscow as winter set in. A desperate gamble had failed.

June 20


Birth of a romantic legend

Though this daily blog charts history’s more momentous events — battles, treaties, catastrophes, and atrocities — there can still be time to celebrate one who, in the words of Dr Johnson’s praise of David Garrick, added to the “the public stock of harmless pleasure”.

Errol Flynn was born in Tasmania and educated in Australia and England. Expelled from school for having sex with the laundry lady and fired from his first job for theft, he gave early signs of a life spent in ignoring conventional morality.  By the age of 24 he had been bitten by the acting bug and started appearing on stage in Britain and in lightweight films. Though dramatic depth was never his strongpoint, his easygoing charm and swashbuckling manner soon saw him starring in roles that featured his lithe form and skill with a blade, such as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Charge of the Light Brigade. He was equally at home twirling a six-gun in Dodge City, They Died With Their Boots On, Santa Fe Trail and Virginia City.

Flynn could not resist the bottle or women, especially young (very young) women and scandal dogged his career. He died dissolute and puffy at the age of 50 but will always be remembered for his way with romantic lines that no present-day actor could get away with. Heed the following.

From The Adventures of Don Juan

Don Juan: I have loved you since the beginning of time.

Catherine: But you only met me yesterday…

Don Juan: Why, that was when time began!


Catherine: But you’ve made love to so many women.

Don JuanCatherine, an artist may paint a thousand canvasses before achieving one work of art, would you deny a lover the same practice?