Beheadings–Then and Now

beheading Louis xvi

Should we not be used to sight of rolling heads? There is nothing new about beheadings.  Greek culture, the Bible and the historical record all affirm the severing of heads as a death sentence.

Perseus solved  the danger of the Gorgon Medusa by severing her head. He offered Medusa’s image to the goddess Athena whose shield protected the Athenians. The Renaissance painter Caravaggio was intrigued by severed heads:  he painted not only Medusa, snakes dancing, but also went to the Old Testament to record Judith beheading Holofernes.  Artemesia Gentileschi’s version of the same scene shows the labor involved in a beheading. August the 29th is the feast day of John, the Baptist, whose beheading is mentioned in the New Testament.

English history is rife with scenes of beheadings:  Henry VIII ordered the death by beheading not only of his queen, Anne Boleyn (1536) but, in the next decade, consigned at least another twenty-five notables to the same fate.  Kings themselves were not immune:  Charles I was beheaded by order of Cromwellians in Parliament in 1649.  Charles II avenged this death by exhuming Cromwell’s remains and beheading them in 1661.

We comfortably consign these to some ancient period, certainly a pre-modern time.  Unfortunately the French Revolution is part of our modern world.  Dr. Joseph Guillotin proposed a modern, pain-free and class neutral device.  His letter to the French National Assembly in 1792 declared modern beheadings as the last word in rational, unprejudiced punishment. The Reign of Terror (13 months in 1793-4) produced some 40,000 victims.  Olympe de Gouges was killed in 1793; the great chemist Antoine Lavoisier, in 1794.  One of the last victims was the author of so many death sentences, the grand revolutionary Maximillian Robespierre, himself.

Adolf Hitler introduced the guillotine to Nazi Germany in 1933.  The White Rose anti-Nazi youngsters were beheaded by the guillotine in 1943 and were among the approximately 16,500 regime resisters whose beheadings are an obscure footnote in a murderous regime. We are now seventy years removed from the last governmental use of beheadings as an instrument of regime terror.

What are we seeing today? The horrific image is of a hooded man, holding a knife, slitting his victim’s throat in the process of severing the victim’s head.  Severing a hostage’s head is irremediably personal. It is repellent and has been called “barbaric,” that is, uncivilized. We have seen a number of beheadings carried out by radical Islamists. Shockingly, we have seen social media used to broadcast the atrocity. The twenty-first century meets a profoundly ancient act of violence.

It is not only the innocence of the victims, caught in war, which appalls.  It is also the blackmail demanded, the as well as the lack of process.  It harkens back to the Greek myth and the Biblical tales, ancient parts of our culture.  The hand of the ISIS executioner reminds us of the gulf in time and values between him and us.  Even Anne Boleyn had the semblance of a trial.  Judges presided at the death of Charles I. A legal assembly sanctioned the Reign of Terror. The Nazis were punctilious about their show trials.

But the bare hand and hidden face of the killer standing in the bright sun is not mediated in any fashion.  These beheadings denote the forces of anarchy.  The atrocity of a man soaked in gasoline and burned to death in a cage consign the killers as enemies of Islam, enemies of society, and some dreaded vestige of ages we had hoped were past.

The killers are murderers, not executioners.



About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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