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Friday, October 19, 2018

Political Murders in Changing Times

Last week, it seems, Saudi officials murdered the exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  Press reports have now identified one of the killers as a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the effective ruler of the Kingdom.  The world community in general and the government of the United States in particular are deciding what to do.  Kashoggi's death is more than a single international crime or an episode in the relations between the US and an important ally; it is another big step towards a world of authoritarian dictators who show no respect for established norms.  As such, it recalls another big step towards such a world in the early stages of the last great world crisis in the first half of the twentieth century: the murder of the Italian deputy Giacomo Matteotti by Fascist terrorists in June 1924.

European democracy began to die in the 1920s in Italy.  United by a series of small wars from 1859 through 1871, Italy had been a functioning constitutional monarchy from 1871 until 1922.  Its government and traditional elites had lost the confidence of the people, however, after a costly, disastrous decision to enter the First World War in 1915.  Although Italy was among the victors, the war brought less than no benefit to its people, and both left- and right-wing revolutionary movements arose in its wake.  Benito Mussolini, a former socialist, emerged in the early 1920s as the leader of the new Fascist Party.  Terrorism helped bring that party to power.  Fascist militias called Squadristi, for which there is at present no parallel in any western nation, terrorized large parts of Italy, driving socialists and liberals into exile in major cities.  In 1922 they escalated their revolution, marching into major cities, and later in that year Mussolini led them in a March on Rome. Mussolini was however in many ways a traditional politician, and he did not attempt to overthrow the established order. Instead he became head of the government within its own framework, appointed Prime Minister by the King—rather like Recep Erdogan in Turkey, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, or, in his own way, Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh.  Mussolini initially formed a coalition government with other right wing elements, and during the first two years of his rule, political violence ebbed within Italy and the country seemed to have stabilized.  Parliament, complete with opposition deputies, continued to function.  Similar situations prevail in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, where the new leaders have carried out extensive purges but the framework they have inherited remains, today.

The turning point in the history of Mussolini’s regime came in July 1924, when Squadristi kidnapped and murdered the socialist deputy and opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti,  To many Italians Matteotti symbolized honesty and rectitude in politics, and although Mussolini muzzled the Italian press, he suddenly became massively unpopular.  In January 1925, in an extraordinary parallel with current events, an Italian journalist named Camille Cianfarra obtained a confession from one of Matteotti’s murderers, the head of the press bureau of the foreign office.  Cianfarra was now the correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, and after the Tribune published the confession, the Italian government arrested him and tortured him. The American Embassy did secure his release, but he died shortly thereafter.  Meanwhile, Mussolini in January 1925 had proclaimed a totalitarian regime, the beginnings of the establishment of dictatorship.  Nonetheless, the British, French and German governments treated him as a fully equal power in the critical Locarno negotiations later that summer, which reached new agreements on the Franco-German frontiers.  The Matteotti murder started a long term trend.  In 1932, Japanese naval officers assassinated several leading politicians, including Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, and effectively brought civilian politicians under control for the next 13 years.  Then on June 30, 1934, a year and a half after taking power, Adolf Hitler sent SS men to murder a number of key dissident Nazis and other political opponents in the Night of the Long Knives.  The era of Fascist dictatorship was in full swing.  Three years later, in 1937, Stalin began large-scale executions of leading generals and Communists.

Both President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un of North Korea have apparently ordered assassinations of political opponents in foreign countries over the last few years.  President Trump has continued to heap praise upon them both, and he has not yet criticized Mohammed Bin Salman for Kashoggi’s death.  While there are no totalitarian movements comparable to Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism in power anywhere today, authoritarian rule has become a normal feature of our landscape.  While the western nations still must maintain some kind of relations with authoritarian states, they must also find ways to hold them accountable for acts on foreign soil, if not at home, and to make it clear that advanced democratic nations stand for something very different.  That is what Franklin Roosevelt managed to do in the 1930s.  As yet we have no FDR on the horizon this time around.


Bozon said...


Very interesting and informative post. Absorbing comparisons and relations among states and events.

I will mention another comparison, re when European democracy began to die...
"European democracy began to die in the 1920s in Italy."

My own view of the beginning of the death of European democracy is virtually at its beginning, which to me seems quite fitting and proper in its way, with the Democratic French Revolution, and then with the rise, hard on its heels, of Napoleon.

All the best

Paul Warfield said...

I've been reading your blog for years, and am better informed as a result. However, your comment about Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un is troubling on at least three fronts.

First, can you provide compelling evidence that Putin has ordered assassinations?

Secondly, whether intentional or not, lumping those two leaders together in that context helps to fuel the outrageous and insidious anti-Russian hysteria that is ubiquitous in the U.S. today.

Thirdly, in my view it is deeply disingenuous to hold those two up as repugnant examples of world leaders while failing to at least note the recent American presidents who have been largely responsible for the deaths of countless innocent, foreign civilians.



Ed Boyle said...

Interesting historical examples. The holding accountable part belongs to the exceptional nation naturally after a few more drone bombings, color revolutions, regime change operations, renditionings. Sarcasm aside. High level murders, very openly of political opponents at same level, not the typical mass carnage we facilitate in 3rd world, is a sign our system is collapsing in upon itself. I read that Hillary was advocating violence if the mid terms are lost and there is already russia interference scapegoating. At the highest level our state structures are at odds on how our future should look. This, as it would seem to me, woud be due to the fact that the DNC , academia, mainstream media and entrenched bureaucracy and corporate power all support the consensus, decried by you in academic circles, of cultural marxism and globalism based on USA military, financial and cultural primacy. Trump seems to be a maverick who saw a chance to gain power by supporting the rabble who lost out dut to just such policies. Of course the economy is booming. Why fix something something that ain't broken? Perhaps when the house of cards behind the facade falls apart such high level political murders and general chaos will ensue in the West. Market collapse, state bankruptcies, mass factory closures would have been bad enough awhile back. Now however a generational point has come where interpersonal sensitivity, triggering, is so high for eveyone, and lines are being drawn in the sand, that scapegoating could stretch beyond single victims to whole classes, regions, etc. made to blame for the difficulties. Better to give the people soma, pain relievers, info-tainment. As long as bread is still cheap and the young men can be sent to war perhaps power structures will remain intact. MBS seems to be quite a hothead. Kashoggi knew too much as double agent for decades. MBS just kills, bombs, kidnaps where he pleases. 30 year old dictator is usually reserved for small African countries where life is truly cheap. No noise in the press about mass starvation imminent in Yemen or our staunch support of MBS' slaughter there. O the hypocrisy. Don't kill a journalist, even the worst of secret agents, but helpless women and children can be bombed into oblivion using our tax dollars by the worst dicatorship, our best ally. We really should impose democracy on those arab tyrants in syria, egypt, saudia arabia. But no we only pick out one. Why? Are they allied to Russia? But russians are now god fearing christians. Communism is dead. They believe in capitalism as well. Common ground. Elected parliament even. There must be a deeper reason behind all of this. Globa hegemony perhaps. Naah, that would be a conspiracy theory. America promotes democracy, freedom of markets, religion, not dictators in the name of mammon?

David Kaiser said...

To Paul Warfield:

See https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/03/09/a-brief-history-of-attempted-russian-assassinations-by-poison/ for a good survey of Russian assassination attempts. If you insist on believing that Putin doesn't know about them, I can't stop you.
I can well imagine that certain people in the US in 1924-5 would have complained that publicizing the Matteotti murder was fanning anti-Italian hysteria. I would not have shared that view.
Civilian casualties in American wars--or any other wars--was not the subject of the post.

David Kaiser said...

Paul Warfield submitted a second comment going much further in his defense of Putin in defiance of obvious fact. Whatever his motives may be, I regard this as pro-Russian propaganda. Sir, your right of free speech remains undiminished, but that doesn't mean I have to post comments like that here. You can do so on a blog of your own. I am not going to be a party to a disinformation campaign. Best of luck to you.

Bozon said...

I noted the discussions above.

I have privately speculated that the execution or attempted exwcution of declared traitors, or enemies of a state, using something like poison or recording an execution, smack much more of terror than mere execution.

It can even serve, perversely, to make a public martyr of a mere secret traitor!

I am guessing that Skripal deeply disappointed Russia in recent years, even after his conviction.

Similarly I am guessing, without any information, that Ghashoggi, not an agent but placed to disappoint, also did so re The House of Saud.

I have no problem with executing traitors.

What is objectionable, among other things, is using their execution for what appear to be terrorist reasons.

If you want to be a terrorist, there are better ways, in my judgment, than confusing an execution with an act of terror.

Moreover, failed terrorist executions tell especially badly on any regime it seems to me.

They ruin the country's own spook morale, for one thing if nothing else.

All the best