Leon Trotsky – a brief outline

Born Lev Bronshtein on 7 November 1879 in the village of Yanovka in the Ukraine, Leon Trotsky, the son of a prosperous Jewish farmer, became involved in politics from a young age. Arrested in 1898, Trotsky was exiled to Siberia where he married and had two daughters, both of whom predeceased him. In 1902, he escaped exile using a forged passport bearing the name Trotsky, the name, he later claimed, of a prison guard he had met in Odessa. He made his way to London where, for the first time, he met Vladimir Lenin and joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Following the split of the RSDLP, Trotsky’s loyalty floated between the two factions, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, often repudiating any party ties and holding a stance of non-allegiance. He opposed Lenin on many issues, a stance that was later held against him.

Following the outbreak of disturbances throughout Russia in 1905, Leon Trotsky arrived in St Petersburg and there joined its council of workers, or ‘Soviet’, becoming its chair until its forced break-up by tsarist troops in December. Trotsky, along with other leaders, was arrested and again sentenced to exile in Siberia. But en route, he escaped and made his way to London before settling in Vienna where he founded and wrote a newspaper for Russia’s workers, Pravda, ‘Truth’, earning the nickname, ‘the Pen’, for his writing. With the outbreak of war in 1914, Trotsky, as a Russian, was forced to leave Austria. He lived in Paris until, expelled for his anti-war writings, he emigrated to Spain and then New York, arriving in January 1917.


Trotsky returned to Russia and Petrograd (as St Petersburg was now known) in March 1917 and became, in effect, Lenin’s second-in-command as the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government and set up a new socialist order. (Trotsky turned 38 the day of the October Revolution.)

In forming the Council of People’s Commissars, Russia’s new government, Lenin initially offered the post of chair, in effect head of state, to Leon Trotsky but Trotsky declined the offer, fearing being a Jew could cause difficulties in a country that was still strongly anti-Semitic. Instead, Trotsky was appointed the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

Following Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War, Trotsky was appointed War Commissariat, responsible for strengthening and injecting much-needed discipline into the Red Army. His use of former officers of the tsar’s imperial army caused much disquiet within the party, Joseph Stalin being particularly critical, and was another tool later used against him.

‘The most capable man’

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The 20 July Bomb Plot – an outline

The attempt on Hitler’s life on 20 July 1944 was the seventeenth known occasion that someone had tried to kill Hitler. Unlike other attempts however this, the 20 July Bomb Plot, was the most intricate, and involved plans for a new Germany following the successful accomplishment of the mission.

Count Stauffenberg loses faith

A fervent supporter of Hitler, 36-year-old Count Claus von Stauffenberg had fought bravely during the Second World War for the Fuhrer. Fighting in Tunisia in 1943, Stauffenberg was badly wounded, losing his left eye, his right hand and two fingers of his left. Once recovered, Stauffenberg was transferred to the Eastern Front where he witnessed the atrocities firsthand which made him question his loyalty. As it became increasingly apparent that Germany would not win the war, Stauffenberg lost faith in Hitler and the Nazi cause.

At some point in early 1944, Stauffenberg joined a group of German officers intent on bringing the war to a quick end and negotiating a peace with the Allies. Their biggest obstacle was of course Hitler.

But the plotters received a bit of luck when Stauffenberg was appointed onto the staff of the Reserve Army, reporting directly to General Friedrich Fromm, another officer who had lost faith in the Nazi cause. When Stauffenberg was invited to a meeting in Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, East Prussia, for 20 July, the opportunity seemed perfect.

The conspirators hatched their plan, codenamed Valkyrie, and crucial to its success was Stauffenberg’s proximity to Hitler.

‘I Am Alive, I Am Alive’ Continue reading

Osama bin Laden – a brief biography


Born 10 March 1957, Osama bin Laden was one of 52 (or more) siblings born to his billionaire father, Mohammed, and his 22 wives. Osama’s mother, Alia, was 14 when she married Mohammed, his tenth wife, and 15 when she gave birth to Osama (‘young lion’ in Arabic). Osama was the only product of this union. His parents divorced soon after his birth.

Mohammed bin Laden had built from scratch a large building empire in Saudi Arabia and when, in 1968, he died in a helicopter crash – his vast fortune was distributed amongst all his children.

Osama bin Laden stood 6ft 5in tall and married the first of his four wives, a 14-year-old, when he was 17. He had 19 children, of whom his 22-year-old son, Khalid, was killed in the US attack that killed Osama in May 2011.

The Mujahideen

Bin Laden first visited Afghanistan during the early weeks of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-89) and helped organise the supply of men, arms and money for the Mujahideen fighting the Soviet invaders.

Following the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in February 1989, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia a hero for having contributed to the Soviets’ defeat. During the late eighties, possibly 1988, bin Laden formed Al-Qaeda, meaning ‘the base’.

Following the outbreak of the First Gulf War in 1990 the threat to Saudi Arabia seemed real. Bin Laden offered the Saudi king Mujahideen fighters to help defend the country but the king declined the offer and instead allowed 300,000 US troops onto Saudi soil from where they could attack Iraq. Bin Laden heavily criticised the Saudi king to the point his country of birth revoked his citizenship and had him banished.


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Alexander II of Russia – a brief biography

Born 29 April 1818, Alexander II came to the Russian throne, aged 36, following the death of his father, Tsar Nicholas I, in February 1855. Although a believer in autocracy, the reign of Alexander saw a number of fundamental reforms. Russia’s disastrous performance during the Crimean War of 1853-56, in which Russia’s military inferiority, weak infrastructure and a backward economy based on serfdom, was exposed, confirmed for the new tsar the need to modernize his empire.

Alexander IIAlexander instigated a vast improvement in communication, namely expanding Russia’s rail network from just 660 miles of track (linking Moscow and St Petersburg) in the 1850s to over 14,000 miles within thirty years, which, in turn, aided Russia’s industrial and economic expansion.

Alexander’s reformist zeal restructured the judicial system which included the introduction of trial by jury. Military reform saw the introduction of conscription, the reduction of military service from 25 years to six, and the establishment of military schools. He expanded Russia’s territory in Central Asia, up to the borders of Afghanistan, much to the worry of the British government.

Emancipation of the Serfs

But reform only opened the eyes of what could be, thus came the demand for more, which brought about a number of active groups demanding greater reform and revolution. Thus, on 3 March 1861, Alexander II issued what seemed on the face of it the most revolutionary reform in Russia’s history – his Manifesto on the Emancipation of the Serfs. The edict freed 23 million serfs from their bondage to landowners, and the ownership of 85 per cent of Russia’s land was wrestled from private landowners and given to the peasants. The landlords, understandably, opposed such a sweeping change but were told by the tsar, ‘It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below’.

But the high ideals of Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs fell very short of its ambition. The 15 per cent of land the landowners held onto was, invariably, the best, most sought-after, and the peasants had to buy back their land from the nobles, usually at an inflated price. Those unable to afford the cost, which was virtually all, were given a loan by the government, repayable at 6 per cent over 49 years. The peasant, freed from serfdom, was no better off and no happier. Continue reading

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln – a summary

On 15 April 1865, in Washington DC, Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, died, having been shot in the back of the head the night before by John Wilkes Booth.

Only six days before, Confederate forces under General Robert E Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S Grant, effectively bringing to an end the American Civil War.

John Wilkes Booth

John Wilkes BoothJohn Wilkes Booth (pictured), who originated from a famous family of actors and was himself regarded a fine actor, had lived in the North throughout the war but, a great believer in the institution of slavery, his loyalties lay firmly with the Confederate South.

In March 1865 Booth had hatched a plan to kidnap the president but the plan came to nothing. However, following Lee’s surrender, Booth’s determination to punish the man he saw as responsible for the war and the ending of slavery hardened.

On hearing that on the evening of April 14, Good Friday, Lincoln would be at the Ford’s Theatre watching a performance of the farce, Our American Cousin by British playwright Tom Taylor, Booth quickly devised a new plan. Together with two companions, Lewis Powell and George Atzerodt, Booth planned a triple assassination – of the president, the Vice-President, Andrew Johnston, and Secretary of State, William Seward.

Come 10 pm, the agreed time, the three men went to work. Atzerodt, however, backed out whilst Powell broke into the home of Seward and attacked the Secretary of State with a knife. Seward survived but bore the facial scars for the rest of his life.

Ford’s Theatre

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Reinhard Heydrich – a brief biography

On 4 June 1942, the Nazi wartime leader of occupied Czechoslovakia, Reinhard Heydrich, died. He had been the victim of an assassination attempt a week earlier. Aged 38, the ‘Butcher of Prague’ was dead.

Six months earlier, on 28 December 1941, two Free Czech agents, Jan Kubis and Jozef Gabčík, trained by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (the SOE), had parachuted into Czechoslovakia. Their objective, almost certain to end in their deaths, was to assassinate the ‘Deputy Reich Protector of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia’, to give Reinhard Heydrich his full title.

Assassination attempt

HeydrichOn the 27 May 1942, the agents, on learning of Heydrich’s movements that day, went into action. As the car taking Heydrich to a meeting slowed to navigate a hairpin bend, the two men attacked. Heydrich, as was his routine, was without an armed escort. Gabčík tried to shoot Heydrich but his submachine gun jammed at the fatal moment. Instead of ordering his chauffeur to drive off, Heydrich chose to fight. He attempted to fire back but a small bomb, thrown by Kubis, exploded, injuring him. Heydrich and his driver gave chase on foot, but the two agents escaped before Heydrich, bleeding profusely, collapsed from his injuries. He was rushed to hospital. Surgeons operated and initially it seemed the stricken Nazi was recovering.

On 2 June, a week after the attack, he received a visit from his superior and mentor, Heinrich Himmler. Following Himmler’s visit, Heydrich slipped into a coma and died on 4 June. He was given a sumptuous funeral in Prague followed by a second ceremony in Berlin.

Meanwhile, Heydrich’s assassins, Kubis and Gabčík, hid in the crypt of a Prague church. Three-weeks later they were betrayed and the church was surrounded by 800 members of the SS. The men held out for as long as possible before turning their guns on themselves.

Young Heydrich

Reinhard Heydrich was born in the eastern German town of Halle on 7 March 1904. His mother was an actress and his father, Richard, a music teacher and occasional opera composer inducing in his sons (Reinhard and his younger brother, Heinz) a love of the operas of Richard Wagner. Reinhard became an accomplished violinist. Heydrich’s father, a fervent German nationalist, was sometimes known as Heydrich-Süss.  Süss having a Jewish ring to it, fuelled rumours that that the family had Jewish blood. Later, Reinhard Heydrich was so haunted by the thought, he ordered an SS investigation into his family ancestry. The report concluded, unsurprisingly, that Reinhard Heydrich’s family contained no trace of Jewish descent. Continue reading

Malcolm X: a brief biography

Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little on 19 May 1925, the fourth of eight children. The family lived in Omaha in Nebraska where his father, a Baptist minister, Earl Little, was a prominent member of the local branch of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and an ardent supporter of Marcus Garvey. Rev Little’s prominence brought the unwanted attention of the local Ku Klux Klan. Such was the level of harassment, the family moved to the town of East Lansing in the state of Michigan. It was 1929; Malcolm was four years old. There, unfortunately, the harassment was, if anything, worse. Soon after moving into their new home, the house was set on fire. Malcolm later recalled, bitterly, how fire fighters arrived on the scene but, on seeing that it was a black family, refused to help.

Malcolm XIn 1931, Malcolm’s father died in mysterious circumstances, run over by a streetcar. Although it was never proved, the suspicion remained that he had been killed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. The police recorded the death as suicide, thereby annulling Earl Little’s life insurance.

Malcolm Little

Left poverty-stricken, Malcolm’s mother struggled to make ends meet for her large family. The pressure took its toll and in 1937, six years after her husband’s death, she was committed to an asylum. The children were farmed out to various foster parents and homes. Malcolm went to school where a teacher asked the vulnerable Malcolm what he wanted to be. Malcolm answered, a lawyer. The teacher scoffed, told him to be realistic and recommended, instead, he become a carpenter. Disillusioned, he dropped out of school at the age of 15 and went to Boston to live with his older half-sister, Ella.

Detroit Red

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Grigori Rasputin – a brief biography

When Prince Felix Yusupov offered his guest, Grigori Rasputin, refreshments at his palace in St Petersburg on the evening of 29 December 1916, the glass of red wine and Rasputin’s favourite cakes were laced with enough poison to kill five men. Rasputin, however, seemed totally unaffected as he gulped back the wine and wolfed down the cakes.

RasputinDespairing, Yusupov shot Rasputin in the back and then, satisfied, left to join his fellow conspirators. Returning a little later to check on the body, Rasputin sat up and lunged at the prince. The prince’s friends came to his rescue, shooting the ‘mad monk’ a further three times, once in the forehead. But still refusing to die, Rasputin’s attackers resorted to clubbing him senseless then wrapping his body in a blue rug and throwing him in the icy waters of the River Neva.

The subsequent autopsy found that Rasputin had died by drowning, implying he had survived the huge dose of poison, four bullets, and the severe clubbing.

At least, this is the story that has filtered down through the decades.

The Russian people will be cursed

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Franz Ferdinand – a summary

On Sunday, 28 June 1914, the 50-year-old heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Countess Sophie, paid an official visit to Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, to inspect troops of the Austrian-Hungarian army. And it was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife on this day in this city that would unleash a chain of events that rapidly escalated into the most devastating war the world had seen – the First World War.

Archduke in love

The Emperor of the Austrian-Hungarian (Habsburg) Empire, Franz Joseph, had ruled since 1848, and was to do so until his death in 1916, aged 86, a rule of 68 years. When his nephew and heir presumptive, Archduke Franz Ferdinand announced his desire to marry Sophie Chotek it sent shockwaves through the royal family. For Sophie, although a countess, was a commoner. But the archduke was in love and no amount of family pressure would dissuade him from taking her hand. They married on 28 June 1900. Sophie, as a non-royal, would never become queen, and the archduke had to sign away the right of his future children to succeed him. To add to the indignity, Sophie was barred from attending royal occasions, the only exception was in regard to the archduke’s position of field marshal when, acting under his military capacity, he was allowed to have his wife at his side. (Pictured the archduke and Countess Sophie moments before their assassination).

The Black Hand

Bosnia had been a recent and unwilling addition to the Habsburg Empire. Resentful Bosnian Serbs dreamt of freedom and incorporation into the nation of Serbia. The 28 June was also a significant day for Serbia – it was their national holiday. Only in 1878, after five hundred years of Turkish rule, had Serbia gained its independence – but not the Bosnian Serbs who remained first under Turkish rule, then, from 1908, Austrian-Hungarian rule. Nationalistic groups formed, determined to use violence to strike terror at the heart of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. One such group, the sinisterly named Black Hand, included among its number a nineteen-year-old named Gavrilo Princip. And it was in Sarajevo that Princip would change the world.

Each armed with a revolver, a hand grenade and, in the event of failure, a vial of cyanide, the would-be assassins joined, at various intervals, the mass of spectators lined along a six-kilometre route and waited for the six-car motorcade to come into view. The first lost his nerve, whilst the second, Nedeljko Čabrinović, managed to throw his bomb causing injury to a driver and a few spectators but leaving the Archduke and his wife unharmed. Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide and jumped into the River Miljacka behind. But the poison, so old, failed to work and the river only came up to his ankles. Arrested, he was attacked by several bystanders. Meanwhile, Princip, witnessing the failure of the mission, traipsed to a local inn.

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Sergei Kirov – a brief biography

One bullet that killed a million people. As the assassination of John F Kennedy is to the US, so the assassination, 29 years earlier, of Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s number two, was to the Soviet Union. Everyone in the Soviet Union remembered where they were when they heard of the assassination of Kirov. Millions would die as a direct consequence of that single bullet as Stalin sought to unmask the perpetrators.

Sergei Kirov, a dashing forty-seven-year-old and the rising star of the Bolshevik party, was killed on 1 December 1934 in a corridor outside his offices of the Smolny Institute in Leningrad. His assassin, 30-year-old Leonid Nikolaev, had acted alone. Kirov’s death threw the nation into a state of shock. Joseph Stalin, who rarely left the Kremlin, made an exception and caught the overnight train to Leningrad specifically to interview Nikolaev. Upon arriving in the city, Stalin was greeted by the local secret police chief and slapped the man across the face. On 29 December, Leonid Nikolaev was executed, soon followed by his wife (spuriously suspected of having had an affair with Kirov, thereby providing the motive), and his 85-year-old mother.

Stalin’s Purge Continue reading