Nikolai Bukharin – a brief summary

On 15 March 1938, Nikolai Bukharin, one of the leading members of the post-Russian Revolution politburo, was executed.

Nikolai BukharinBorn in Moscow on 9 October 1888 to two primary school teachers, the 17-year-old Bukharin joined the workers’ cause during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and, the following year, became a member of the Bolshevik Party. Like many of his radical colleagues, he was arrested at regular intervals to the point that, in 1910, he fled into exile.

At various times he lived in Vienna, Zurich, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Krakow, the latter where he met Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, and began working for the party newspaper, Pravda, ‘Truth’.  In 1916, he moved to New York where he met up with another leading revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.

‘Favourite of the whole party’

Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the tsar, Nicholas II, Bukharin returned to Moscow and was elected to the party’s central committee. Bukharin clashed with Lenin on the latter’s decision to surrender to Germany, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the First World War, believing that the Bolsheviks could transform the conflict into a pan-European communist revolution. Lenin got his way, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsky was duly signed in March 1918.

Bukharin was a thinker and produced several theoretical tracts, works that didn’t always meet with Lenin’s full approval. In Lenin’s Testament, in which he passed judgement on various members of his Central Committee, Lenin wrote that Bukharin was ‘rightly considered the favourite of the whole Party,’ but ‘his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with the great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him.’ (Lenin’s Testament was particularly damning of Joseph Stalin but, following Lenin’s death on 21 January 1924, was quietly suppressed).

‘Not a man, but a devil’

In 1924, Bukharin was appointed a full member of the Politburo. It was here, during the immediate post-Lenin years, that Bukharin became an unwitting pawn in Stalin’s deadly power games. Bukharin had opposed collectivization and believed agriculture was best served by encouraging the richer peasants, the kulaks, to produce more. In this he was supported by Stalin – but only in order for Stalin to marginalise then remove those he saw as threats, men such as Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. Kamenev and Zinoviev soon caved in to Stalin. Trotsky, who did not, was exiled, first within the Soviet Union, then to Turkey and ultimately to Mexico where, in August 1940, he was killed by a Stalinist agent. Having defeated his opponents, Stalin then took their ideas and advocated rapid collectivization and the liquidation of the kulaks, criticizing Bukharin for holding opposite views.

Bukharin realised what Stalin was doing: ‘He [Stalin] is an unprincipled intriguer who subordinates everything to his appetite for power. At any given moment he will change his theories in order to get rid of someone.’

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Nat Turner – the Slave Who Killed For God

There were as many as 250 slave revolts in the American South during the antebellum period before the American Civil War. But it was the uprising in Southampton County, Virginia, led by Nat Turner that, by the scale of its ferocity, caused the greatest shock.

Born a slave on 2 October 1800, the young Nat delighted and astounded his fellow slaves by describing events from before he was born. He was given the surname, Turner, from his original owner. The boy, his parents exclaimed, was a prophet. The son of Nat’s master taught the young Nat to read, and he grew up a pious, God-fearing man, influenced by visions or messages from God. He devoured the bible, prayed and fasted and became convinced that God had chosen him to lead his fellow slaves out of servitude.

Listening to God

Aged 21, Turner ran away from his master but voluntarily returned after a month having received God’s instruction to ‘return to the service of my earthly master’.

In 1830, Turner was sold to a new master, Joseph Travis, whom Turner described as a kind master. But however ‘kind’ he may have been, Travis would not survive the coming bloodbath that Turner, with God’s help, was now planning.

An eclipse of the sun in February 1831 was interpreted by Turner as the hand of a black man covering the sun, a sure sign that the time had come. Having enlisted the help of four fellow salves, Turner prepared, only to fall ill. His people would have to wait and endure a while longer.

Six months later, however, he received a second Holy prompt – another solar eclipse. Again, Turner confided in his most trusted companions and again he made his plans. This time there was to be no turning back.

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Mata Hari – a brief summary

She enticed audiences with her dancing, her exoticism and eroticism – and her bejewelled bra, but in 1917, Mata Hari, a Malayan term meaning ‘eye of the day’, was shot by firing squad.

Margaretha Zelle

Born 7 August 1876 to a wealthy Dutch family, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle responded to a newspaper advertisement from a Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch army officer of Scottish descent, seeking a wife. The pair married within three months of meeting each other and in 1895 and moved to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) where they had two children.

The marriage was doomed from the beginning – 22 years older, MacLeod was an abusive husband and Zelle was never going to play the part of the dutiful wife. Their son died aged 2 from syphilis, reputably inherited from his father (their daughter would die a similar death, aged 21) and in 1902, on their return to the Netherlands, they separated.

Unable to find work and uncertain about her future, Zelle moved to Paris and there changed her name to Mata Hari, claiming she originated from India and was the daughter of a temple dancer. She started to earn a living by modelling and dancing, and found work in a cabaret. Exotically dressed, she became a huge success and was feted by the powerful and rich of Paris, taking on a number of influential lovers. She travelled numerous times between France and the Netherlands. But by now war had broken out and Mata Hari’s movements and high-ranking liaisons caused suspicion.


Arrested by the British, Hari was interrogated. She admitted to passing German information on to the French. In turn, the French discovered evidence, albeit of doubtful authenticity, that she was spying for the Germans under the codename ‘H21’. Hari had indeed been recruited by the Germans, given the name H21 and received 20,000 francs as a down payment. Never one to turn down money, she accepted it but did no spying in return nor ever felt obliged to.

Returning to Paris, Hari was then arrested by the French and accused of being a double agent. The evidence against her virtually non-existent, and the prosecution found not a single item or piece of information passed from Mata Hari to the Germans. The trial itself of dubious nature as her defence was prohibited from cross-examining witnesses. Her defence lawyer was a 74-year-old man, a former lover, and his association with Hari diminished his authority and the six-man jury had little hesitation in finding Mata Hari guilty.

And shot

At dawn on 15 October 1917, Mata Hari, wearing a three-cornered hat, was led out from her cell to face her death. She told an attendant nun, ‘Do not be afraid, sister, I know how to die.’ She refused to be tied to the stake or blindfolded, and waved at onlookers and blew kisses at the priest and her lawyer. She was shot by a 12-man firing squad, each wearing a red fez. The officer in charge ensured she was dead by firing a bullet into her head. She was 41.

Thirty years later, one of the prosecutors admitted that ‘there wasn’t enough evidence [against Mata Hari] to flog a cat.’

Rupert Colley.

The Night of the Long Knives – a brief outline

The Night of the Long Knives was Adolf Hitler’s great purge, ridding the Nazi Party of those he distrusted, together with anti-Nazi figures within Germany and members of his paramilitary wing, the SA. Its most notorious victim was Ernst Rohm, once his loyal friend and devotee. So what had brought Hitler to such a critical moment so early in his twelve-year reign?

Hitler had come to power in January 1933 and immediately started, piece by piece, tearing up the Weimar constitution, squashing opposition and ridding Germany of democracy.

The End of Democracy

In the last parliamentary elections of the Weimar Republic, in March 1933, the Nazis polled 44% of the vote – not enough for a majority but enough to squash any future political resistance. Within a fortnight Hitler proposed the Enabling Act, a temporary dissolution of the constitution whilst he dealt with the problems facing the nation. The Reichstag passed the proposal by 441 votes to 84. There would be no more elections nor a constitution to keep Hitler in check. The Reichstag had, in effect, voted away its own power.

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Imre Nagy – a brief biography

Imre Nagy is remembered with great affection in today’s Hungary. Although a communist leader during its years of one-party rule, Nagy was the voice of liberalism and reform, advocating national communism, free from the shackles of the Soviet Union. Following the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Nagy was arrested, tried in secret and executed. His rehabilitation and reburial in 1989 played a significant and symbolic role in ending communist rule in Hungary.

Imre Nagy plaqueImre Nagy was born 7 June 1896 in the town of Kaposvár in southern Hungary. He worked as a locksmith before joining the Austrian-Hungary army during the First World War. In 1915, he was captured and spent much of the war as a prisoner-of-war in Russia. He escaped and having converted to communism, joined the Red Army and fought alongside the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution of 1917.


In 1918, Nagy returned to Hungary as a committed communist and served the short-lived Soviet Republic established by Bela Kun in Hungary. Following its collapse in August 1919, after only five months, Nagy, as with other former members of Kun’s regime, lived underground, liable to arrest. Eventually, in 1928, he fled to Austria and from there, in 1930, to the Soviet Union, where he spent the next fourteen years studying agriculture.

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Tsar Nicholas II – a brief biography

On Sunday 13 March 1881, the 13-year-old Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov, the future tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, was accompanying his father and grandfather on a carriage through the streets of St Petersburg. His grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, had been to see his routine Sunday morning parade, despite advice that there were plots to have him assassinated. The tsar insisted on keeping to his routine but on this morning would pay for his obstinacy. A bomb thrown by a member of a terrorist group called the People’s Will killed the tsar. It was, for the young Nicholas, a terrible scene to have to witness.

Alexander II had been a reformer and a liberal, introducing 20 years earlier the emancipation of the serfs and keen to introduce a raft of new reforms. In consequence of the tsar’s violent end, his son and the new tsar, Alexander III, undid much of Alexander II’s reforms, suppressed liberalism and brought back the full force of autocracy.

The new tsar intended to start teaching his son the art of statesmanship once Nicholas had reached the age of 30. But on 1 November 1894, aged only 49, Alexander III died of kidney disease. His son was still only 26. Thus, following the death of his father, Nicholas (pictured) was thrust unprepared into the limelight. Fearful of the responsibility that was now his to bear, he reputedly asked, ‘What will become of me and all of Russia?’

The Khodynka Tragedy

From the start the omens were not good. Four days after his coronation on 26 May 1896, Nicholas II and his wife of 18 months, Alix of Hesse, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, attended the public celebration held in their honour in Khodynka Field, on the outskirts of Moscow. 100,000 people gathered to enjoy the coronation festivities but a stampede caused the death of 1,389. Many more were injured. In a state of shock, Nicholas wished to pray for the dead. But he was persuaded by his advisors to attend a planned gala at the French embassy, arguing that not insulting the ambassador was more important than praying for his subjects. His subsequent attendance may have soothed the ambassador’s vanity but it showed the new tsar in the worst possible light. He later visited the injured in hospital and donated vast sums to help the affected families. But the damage had been done.

Nicholas II ruled as his father had done. But whereas his father had been a physically domineering man, strong, brash and confident, Nicholas was slight, unsure of himself and prone to agree with whoever spoke to him last. Although aware of his own weakness, once describing himself as ‘without will and without character’, Nicholas II saw his rule as one sanctioned by God – ‘I regard Russia as one big estate, with the tsar as its owner’, he said in 1902. Nicholas could speak English with a refined accent and was known as the ‘most civil man in Europe’.

The Romanov dynasty had ruled Russia and its empire since 1613. Nicholas II would prove to be its last tsar. His wife, Alix of Hesse, was German, which caused considerable disquiet amongst his nationalistic subjects. Her attempts to become more Russian, changing her name to Alexandra and accepting the Russian Orthodox faith, did little to overturn their prejudice.

Bloody Sunday

The seeds of the tsar’s downfall began on 22 January 1905, ‘Bloody Sunday’, when he was held responsible for turning on his own people and gunning down unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. His half-hearted efforts to appease the masses by replacing his autocracy with a constitutional monarchy did little to ease the widening discontent throughout the empire. Nicholas, deeply anti-Semitic, was quick to blame Jews for the country’s discontent. During the strikes of 1905, he wrote to his mother, ‘Nine out of ten troublemakers were Jews’.

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The first British soldier executed during World War One – Thomas Highgate

On 5 September 1914, the first day of the Battle of Marne, Thomas Highgate, a 19-year-old British private, was found hiding in a barn dressed in civilian clothes. Highgate was tried by court martial, convicted of desertion and, in the early hours of 8 September, was executed by firing squad. His was the first of 306 executions carried out by the British during the First World War.

Thomas Highgate was born in Shoreham in Kent on 13 May 1895. In February 1913, aged 17, he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. Within months, Highgate fell foul of the military authorities – in 1913, he was upbraided for being late for Tattoo, and ‘exchanging duties without permission’. In early 1914, he was reprimanded for having a rusty rifle and deserting for which he received the punishment of forty-eight days detention.

First Battle of the Marne

On 5 September, the first day of the Battle of the Marne and the 35th day of the war, Private Highgate’s nerves got the better of him and he fled the battlefield. He hid in a barn in the village of Tournan, a few miles south of the river, and was discovered wearing civilian clothes by a gamekeeper who happened to be English and an ex-soldier. Quite where Highgate obtained his civilian clothes is not recorded but the gamekeeper spotted his uniform lying in a heap nearby. Highgate confessed, ‘I have had enough of it, I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it’.

Having been turned in, Highgate was tried by a court martial for desertion. The trial, presided over by three officers, was brief. Highgate did not speak and was not represented. He was found guilty. At 6.20 on the morning of 8 September, Highgate was informed that he would be executed. The execution was carried out fifty minutes later – at 7.07, he was shot by firing squad.

Highgate’s name is shown on the British memorial to the missing at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre on the south bank of the River Marne. The memorial features the names of over 3,000 British soldiers with no known grave.


By the time the war had ended, Highgate’s parents had moved away from Shoreham, settling in Crayford in south-east London. Highgate had four brothers, two of whom were also killed during the war. Their names, including that of Thomas, appear on the Sidcup war memorial.

In 2000, the parish council in Highgate’s home village of Shoreham replaced its war memorial plaque bearing the names of those who had fallen during the war of 1914-1918 as the original had become worn. The original did not include Highgate’s name simply because, as mentioned, the family had moved away. Nonetheless, in 2000, after some debate, the council voted not to include Highgate’s name on the replacement plaque. However, a space was left should, at some point in the future, the people of Shoreham want his name added.

In November 2006, the UK government pardoned all 306 servicemen executed in the First World War but, to this day, the name Thomas Highgate still does not feature on Shoreham’s war memorial.

This Time TomorrowRupert Colley.

Rupert Colley’s gripping novel, set during World War One, This Time Tomorrow, is now available.


The Execution of Mussolini – an outline

The execution of Mussolini: on 28 April 1945, Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were executed by partisans as they tried to flee Italy.

The war was going badly for Italy, the Allies had landed in Sicily and the future looked bleak.

Mussolini’s last plea

Benito MussoliniOn July 24, 1943, at a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council, Benito Mussolini delivered an impassioned two-hour speech, exhorting his fellow fascists to put up a fight. His plea fell on deaf ears, the Council instead voting to propose peace with the Allies.


The following day the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, dismissed Mussolini, remarking, “At this moment you are the most hated man in Italy.” Mussolini was immediately arrested and imprisoned. The Italian population rejoiced.
On September 8, Italy swapped sides and joined the Allies. Italy’s wish to remain neutral was vetoed by Churchill who demanded Italy’s cooperation against the Germans as the price for the “passage back.” On October 13, 1943, Italy reluctantly declared war on Germany. Immediately, the Germans started capturing Italians as prisoners of war, shipping them to internment camps and began the targeting of Italian Jews.

The daring rescue

On September 12, 1943 on Hitler’s orders, Mussolini was rescued from his mountainside captivity by SS paratroopers and whisked away to Germany in a glider. Having met with Hitler, Mussolini was returned to Italy and set up as the head of a Fascist republic in German-occupied northern Italy. Continue reading

Gavrilo Princip – a brief biography

In the annals of notoriety, the name Gavrilo Princip should perhaps rank higher than it does. For this 19-year-old Serb committed a crime that, without overestimating the fact, set the agenda for the whole of the twentieth century. Princip was the man who shot and killed the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Exactly one month after the assassination, Europe was at war, a war that quickly spread and became the Great War, or, as we know it, the First World War. And from the post-war seeds of discontent came the rise of Nazism and the road to the Second World War.

Born to an impoverished family in Bosnia on 25 July 1894, Gavrilo Princip was one of nine children, six of whom died during infancy. Suffering from tuberculosis, the frail and slight Princip learnt to read, the first in his family to do so, and devoured the histories of the Serbs and their oppression at the hands of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires.

The Black Hand

In 1911, a friend of Gavrilo Princip’s, Bogdan Zerajic, had tried to assassinate the Austrian-Hungarian governor of Bosnia. He failed and ended up shooting himself. But it provided the young Princip with an inspiration. He tried to enlist in various terrorist groups but was turned down due to his short stature

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Mangal Pandey – a brief biography

The events that led to India’s ‘First War of Independence’, or to use its Eurocentric name, the ‘Indian Mutiny’, stemmed from decades of grievances and unrest but it was something quite mundane that sparked the rebellion and it was a single man, Mangal Pandey, that fired the first shots.

The sepoys had been issued with a new Enfield rifle. In order to use the rifle, the soldier had to bite off the end of a lubricated cartridge before inserting the powder into the weapon. The problem was that the grease used to seal the cartridge was made from animal fat – both cow, a sacred beast to Hindus, and pork, an insult to the Muslim soldiers.

The East India Company, the monolithic, monopolising commercial company that conducted trade in India and had become the de facto rulers of India acting on behalf of the British government, made amends by substituting the forbidden fats with that of sheep or beeswax. Too late. The sepoys saw it as a deliberate ploy to undermine their respective religions and to convert them, through this perfidious route, to Christianity. The fact this was not the case did nothing to squash the rumour.

The first symptom of unrest came in January 1857, when the recently-opened telegraph office in Barrackpore (now Barrackpur, about 15 miles from Kolkata, or Calcutta) was burned down as a protest against the march of Westernization.

Two months later, on 29 March 1857, also at Barrackpore, a 29-year-old sepoy called Mangal Pandey, staged, in effect, a one-man rebellion. Born 19 July 1827, Mangal Pandey had joined the 34th Bengal Native Infantry regiment of the British East India Company, aged 22, in 1849. Continue reading