Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World

Khalid Elhassan - January 12, 2023

Betrayal is one thing that history, alas, has no shortage of. Take the Black Dinner and the Glencoe Massacre, infamous real life incidents from Scottish history, in which the rules of hospitality were violated and hosts murdered their guests. They inspired the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones. Below are twenty five things about those betrayals and other notorious treacheries from history.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
The Red Wedding from Game of Thrones. HBO

The Real Life Scottish Treacheries that Inspired the Fictional Red Wedding

In centuries past, politics in Scotland were a toxic mix of shifting alliances between the country’s elites, marked by rebellions, murders, assassinations, and betrayal piled atop betrayal. In a way, Scotland’s kaleidoscope of chaotic violence was a bit like Game of Thrones, minus the magic and dragons. Or, to be more accurate, Game of Thrones was in some ways a bit like medieval Scotland. Indeed, George R. R. Martin, author of A Song of Ice and Fire upon which the HBO hit series is based, borrowed from real life Scottish history for some of his story’s more dramatic and memorable moments.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
The Glencoe Massacre. The Book Palace

One such is the Red Wedding (Spoiler Alert), to which the Starks were invited, only to be slaughtered by their hosts at the height of the festivities and merrymaking. Martin based that upon two events from Scottish history: the Glencoe Massacre, which occurred in 1692, and the Black Dinner, which took place in 1440. In the Glencoe Massacre, Clan MacDonald were hosted by Clan Campbell overnight. In violation of the rules of hospitality, the Campbells suddenly got up, fell upon their unsuspecting guests, and slaughtered them. The Black dinner, as seen below, was just as dramatic a betrayal.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
James II of Scotland. Wikimedia

A Medieval Dinner Betrayal

The Black Dinner featured another murderous betrayal of guests by their hosts. While not as bloody as the Glencoe Massacre in that it had fewer victims, it was just as dramatic. In 1437, King James I of Scotland was assassinated, and was succeeded by his six-year-old son, James II. Scotland was governed by a regent, Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Douglas, until his death in 1439. The regency was then split between three noblemen, William Crichton, 1st Lord Crichton, Sir Alexander Livingston, and James Douglas, Earl of Avondale and a kinsman of the Earl of Douglas. All three resented the Earls of Douglas, Scotland’s most powerful aristocrats at the time, and conspired to bring them low.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Betrayal at the Black Dinner. The Society of John de Graeme

So in 1440, Crichton, Livingston, and James Douglas, invited the late earl’s son, sixteen-year-old William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas, and his younger brother to dine with the ten-year-old King James I at Edinburgh Castle. In the middle of the dinner, a black bull’s head – which symbolized death back then – was placed in front of the young earl. In a betrayal of the rules of hospitality, William Douglas and his younger brother were then seized and dragged outside. There, they were accused of treason, given a mock trial, and beheaded. As George R. R. Martin put it when he discussed how the real life Black Dinner and Glencoe Massacre inspired the fictional Red Wedding: “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse“.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Stalin oversees the signing of the German-Soviet Non Aggression Treaty, commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Euro Maidan

The True Intentions Behind the Hitler-Stalin Pact

The world was stunned on August 23rd, 1939, when Nazi Germany and the communist USSR, each avowedly dedicated to the other’s destruction, signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Treaty. Commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact after the Soviet and German foreign ministers, it was a benevolent neutrality treaty that effectively divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the USSR. It also freed Hitler to kick off World War II a week later with an invasion of Poland. The Nazi dictator had secured himself from the risk of a two front war against Britain and France in the west, and the Soviets in the East.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s division of territory between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s USSR. Wikimedia

Hitler, whose ultimate aim was an empire in the east that would by necessity be seized from the Soviet Union, simply wanted to buy time. He intended the Pact as a temporary measure to free him to deal with Britain and France, before he turned his attention to his real target: the USSR. Stalin, however, was convinced that the Pact was more durable. The Soviet dictator believed that while war with Germany was inevitable, Hitler would not turn on the USSR before he finished the war with Britain. He turned out to be very, very, wrong.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
German tanks roll into the USSR at the start a surprise invasion in 1941. Military Education

Hitler’s Betrayal of Stalin Nearly Ended the Soviet Union

Stalin was surrounded by yes men who dared not contradict him. By 1939, he was the center of a personality cult that ascribed to him infallibility. The Soviet dictator believed some of the hype about his supposed omniscience, and that omniscience told him that Hitler would not attack anytime soon. A further incentive for the self-delusion was that Stalin had gone far out on an ideological limb to sign a treaty with communism’s avowed enemy. For war to break out before the USSR was ready would mean that Stalin was wrong, and to say that Stalin could be wrong was unhealthy in the USSR.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Contemporary editorial cartoon’s depiction of Hitler’s betrayal of Stalin in 1941. Pinterest

Thus, when evidence mounted that the Germans were about to attack, Stalin adamantly refused to believe it. He dismissed it as fake news, incompetence on the part of Soviet agents, or part of a sinister plot by British intelligence to instigate a war with Germany in order to use the Soviets “as a cat’s paw to pull the capitalists’ chestnuts out of the fire“. When the Germans attacked on June 22nd, 1941, the Soviets were caught off guard. They survived only by the skin of their teeth before the German advance finally ran out of steam that winter, literally within sight of the Kremlin.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Marshal Bernadotte in 1804. National Museum of Sweden

The Complicated Friendship of Bernadotte and Napoleon

Jean-Baptiste Jules Bernadotte (1763 – 1844), the son of a prosecutor, enlisted in the French army at age seventeen. In the French Revolution, he rose to general. When Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power, he granted Bernadotte high rank and honors. Bernadotte returned the favor with betrayal. At the head of a Swedish army, he helped defeat Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the Napoleonic Wars’ largest and bloodiest single engagement. That defeat effectively sealed Napoleon’s fate. Years earlier, when the French Revolution erupted, Bernadotte had been an ardent supporter. Within two years, from 1792 and 1794, he was rapidly promoted from sub-lieutenant to brigadier general in the Revolutionary armies.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
‘Bernadotte and Napoleon’, by Chevalier Fortunino Matania. University of Michigan

As he campaigned in the Low Countries, Germany, and Italy, Bernadotte developed a reputation as a disciplinarian who kept his troops under tight control. In 1796, he played a key role in the rescue of a French army in Germany from destruction after it was defeated by the Austrians, and ensured its safe retreat across the Rhine. Bernadotte first came in contact with Napoleon in 1797. The duo developed an early friendship, which eventually frayed and broke because of rivalries and misunderstandings. While relations between the two were still good, however, Napoleon recognized Bernadotte’s talents. In 1804, after his declaration of empire and Bernadotte’s declaration of loyalty to him, Napoleon appointed him a Marshall of France.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Swedish troops attack Leipzig. Imgur

Napoleon’s Fallen Star: Bernadotte’s Rise to the Swedish Throne

After his successful 1805 Ulm Campaign and victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon further rewarded Bernadotte and made him Prince of Ponto Corvo in Italy. Things began to sour between the two during the Prussian campaign in 1806. Napoleon severely criticized Bernadotte for his failure to bring his corps to the fight at the hard-fought battles of Jena and Auerstadt, and barely refrained from court-martialing him for dereliction of duty. The relationship was sundered at the 1809 Battle of Wagram, after which Napoleon relieved Bernadotte of command for his poor handling of his troops during the fight. Bernadotte was sent back to Paris under the face-saving guise of “health reasons”. Things soon looked up for Bernadotte, however. The childless and unwell King Charles XIII of Sweden, a French ally and client state, adopted him in 1810 and made him Crown Prince and heir to the throne.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Bernadotte, now King Charles XIV John of Sweden, in 1843. Wikimedia

Bernadotte assumed the regency and governance of Sweden, and cast about for an accomplishment to solidify his authority and future dynasty. The opportunity came when Napoleon was weakened after the destruction of his Grande Armee in his catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812. In 1813, in a betrayal of his former country and patron, Bernadotte switched sides, signed a treaty with Britain, and declared war on France. He landed a Swedish army in northern Germany, and in alliance with the Austrians, Russians, and Prussians, got his payback against Napoleon. He helped defeat the French emperor in the war’s biggest and bloodiest battle, at Leipzig, in 1813. After the war, he returned to Sweden, where he became King Charles XIV John, and established the Bernadotte Dynasty, which reigns to this day.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
A young Alfred Redl. Wikimedia

An Enterprising Intelligence Star

Alfred Redl (1864 – 1913) was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army, who headed that empire’s counterintelligence from 1900 to 1912, in charge of rooting out traitors and spies. All the while, he was himself a traitor. Redl betrayed his country and sold its secrets to its main rival and likeliest future enemy, tsarist Russia, whose chief spy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire he became. His betrayal was not limited to espionage on behalf of the Russians: it is suspected that he also spied for both the French and Italians in exchange for money. The son of a railway clerk, Redl was born into a poor family in the Galician province of Austria-Hungary, in what is now Ukraine. Redl wanted to join the military, but he faced a serious handicap. He lacked wealth and family connections, the usual prerequisites in those days for admission into the Austro-Hungarian Army’s officer ranks and advancement.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Alfred Redl. Flickr

Fortunately for Redl, he had been precocious from an early age and was highly intelligent. That enabled him to secure a commission. He had a talent for languages, and his facility with Russian got him assigned to the intelligence branch. There, he impressed its chief, a General von Geisl, whose protege Redl quickly became. In 1900, Geisl promoted Redl, made him his deputy, and placed him in charge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s counterintelligence corps. Redl quickly gained a reputation for innovation in what had been a disorganized and backwards branch. He streamlined the system, and introduced new technologies such as the use of recording devices and cameras. Redl however was gay, at a time when homosexuality was a taboo fatal to both social standing and career prospects. As seen below, that left him vulnerable to blackmail.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Alfred Redl. Wyborzca

Betrayal by a Spy Catcher Turned Spy

Russian intelligence learned of Redl’s homosexuality, entrapped him in a compromising position, caught it on camera, and blackmailed him into betrayal of his country. The extortion was sweetened with the offer of money in exchange for secrets. Redl accepted, and in his first major act of treason, he gave the Russians Austria-Hungary’s war plans in 1902. When word reached the Austrians that the Russians had a copy of their war plans, General von Geisl ordered Redl to find the traitor. To cover his tracks, Redl unmasked minor Russian agents who were fed him by his tsarist sypmasters. He also framed innocent Austro-Hungarian officers with falsified evidence. That enhanced his reputation within the Austro-Hungarian establishment as a brilliant head of counterintelligence. Over the next 11 years, he sold the Russians Austria-Hungary’s ciphers, codes, army orders, mobilization plans, maps, reports on road and rail conditions, and other secrets.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Alfred Redl’s suicide. Le Petite Journal

Redl’s career of betrayal finally came to an end because of sloppiness by his Russian handlers. In 1912, Redl’s mentor, von Geisl, was promoted to head an army corps and took Redl with him as his chief of staff. Postal censors employed by Redl’s successor in counterintelligence intercepted envelopes stuffed with cash. They had registration receipts that were traced back to foreign addresses known to be used by Russian and French intelligence. A sting operation was set up, the envelopes were delivered under surveillance, and Redl eventually showed up to claim them. Arrested, he confessed to treason, and requested that he be left alone with a revolver. His request was granted, and after writing brief letters to his brother and to von Geisl, he committed suicide.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Positions at the start of the Battle of Leipzig. The Map Archive

The Battle of Leipzig and the Betrayal that Decided the Fate of Europe

In 1813, a coalition of armies, led by Russian Tsar Alexander I and Austrian field marshal Karl Philipp, fought Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Leipzig, from October 16th to 19th. They decisively defeated the French emperor after a mid-battle betrayal by his Saxon allies. After Napoleon’s catastrophic invasion of Russia in 1812, which he entered with 685,000 men, only to come out with 120,000 cold and hungry survivors, France’s dominance of Europe was shattered. Client states and subject nations rushed to shake off French hegemony. Napoleon raced back to France, and managed to raise an army equivalent in size to the one recently lost, but of lower quality and experience than the veteran force destroyed in Russia.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
The Battle of Leipzig. Weapons and Warfare

Napoleon marched into Germany to reassert French dominance. He won some victories, but was unable to follow them up with a decisive win because his enemies avoided battle with him. Instead, they fell upon his subordinates, whom they defeated as often as not. By October, 1813, the allies were confident enough to challenge Napoleon directly. The showdown took place at Leipzig between Napoleon’s forces of 225,000, and a 380,000 strong coalition of his enemies. Although outnumbered, Napoleon planned to take the offensive against the allies who sought to envelope him. He operated along interior lines, allowing him to concentrate against enemy sectors faster than they could be reinforced by his foes, who operated on exterior lines. Little did he know that a massive betrayal would decide the battle against him.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Betrayal in the Battle of Leipzig secured Napoleon’s defeat. Napoleonic Impressions

A Mid-Battle Betrayal

The Battle of Leipzig’s first day, October 16th, 1813, ended in a hard-fought stalemate. Allied attacks were defeated, while Napoleon’s outnumbered forces were unable to achieve a breakthrough. The 17th saw limited actions. By the 18th, Napoleon was running low on supplies and munitions, and prepared to withdraw. An attempt to negotiate an exit was rejected by the coalition. Instead, they launched a massive attack all along the line that day, which steadily pushed Napoleon’s forces back into Leipzig. Only fierce resistance prevented a breakthrough. The bottom fell out, however, when Napoleon’s Saxon allies pulled off a well-timed betrayal on the afternoon of the 18th.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Napoleon’s forces retreat from Leipzig, with the premature detonation of the bridge in the background. Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast

Napoleon’s forces were already stretched to their limit. That was when a Saxon corps of about 10,000 men who occupied sector of the French line suddenly abandoned their positions, deserted Napoleon, and marched out to meet the allies. They left a huge hole in Napoleon’s lines. Le Empereur’s forces had to abandon that entire sector, and that night, with their positions untenable, began a retreat. It went smoothly at first. However, the following day, incompetence led to the premature blowing up of a bridge while it was still crowded with retreating Frenchmen. A panicked rout ensued, in which thousands were killed. Tens of thousands more were stranded on the wrong side of the destroyed bridge and captured. That transformed the battle from an arguable tactical draw, into a catastrophic French defeat.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Wang Jingwei in his twenties. Wikimedia

The Betrayal of a Nation: The Tragic Story of Wang Jingwei’s Turn Against China

Wang Zhaoming, better known by his pen name Wang Jingwei (1883 – 1944), was a Chinese politician and associate of the revolutionary nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen. After Sun Yat-sen’s demise, Jingwei became a prominent leader in the left wing of the Chinese ruling party, the Koumintang (KMT). From that flank, he contested leadership of the KMT with its leader, Chiang Kai-shek. A failed collaboration with the communists weakened Jingwei politically. It embittered him so much that he abandoned the left altogether, and became a rabid right winger.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Wang Jingwei and Chiang Kai-shek in 1926. Imgur

He went further, turned traitor, and in shocking betrayal of his country, collaborated with the invading Japanese against his own people. Jingwei had been among the bright Chinese students sent by the dying Qing dynasty to study abroad, and he attended university in Japan. There, he joined radical nationalist Chinese student circles, self-identified as an anarchist, and became a disciple of Sun Yat-sen. When he returned to China, he became a prominent speaker on behalf of Chinese nationalism, and was jailed for conspiracy to assassinate the Qing regent. Freed in the Chinese Revolution of 1911 which did away with the Qing dynasty, Jingwei emerged from jail a national hero.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Wang Jingwei, as head of a puppet state, receives Nazi diplomats in 1941. Pinterest

A Chinese Hero’s Betrayal of China

The 1911 Revolution and overthrow of the imperial system led to a chaotic period of warlord rule. A nationalist party, the Koumintang, was formed to restore order. In 1925, it sent what was known as the Great Northern Expedition to bring the warlords to heel and restore the central government’s authority. Jingwei became chairman of the national government. However, Chiang Kai-shek, the successful general who led the campaign against the warlords, formed a rival government in southern China. Jingwei formed a government in northern China in collaboration with the communists, but fell out with and purged them. At that point, his government collapsed and his supporters flocked to Chiang Kai-shek.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Wang Jingwei, Indian nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose, and Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo in 1943. Pinterest

Bitter, Jingwei became an extreme right winger. When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, he flew to meet their representatives in Hanoi, and issued a declaration that called for peaceful negotiation with the invaders. In 1939, he flew to Japan for negotiations. While there, he betrayed China and negotiated a deal on his own behalf. In 1940, he defected and was appointed by the Japanese to head a puppet regime, based in Japanese-occupied Nanking. Jingwei’s government nominally “governed” the Japanese-conquered territories in China. He remained Japan’s Chinese puppet ruler until his death in 1944.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
The Battle of Plassey. India Today

The Betrayal that Led to British Rule in India

At the Battle of Plassey on June 23rd, 1757, an East India Company army led by Robert Clive defeated Siraj al Dawlah, the Nawab or royal ruler of Bengal. That kicked off nearly two centuries of British rule in India. However, for something so momentous, the battle was an unimpressive affair militarily. Its outcome had been determined in advance by deceit and betrayal. Clive struck a deal with the Nawab’s main generals, key among them Mir Jafar, to simply stay put and do nothing.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Robert Clive at the Siege of Arcot, 1751. Wikimedia

An Arab by birth, Mir Jafar (1691 – 1765) had arrived in India as an adventurer. He rose high at the side of his father in law, general Ali Vardi Khan, whom Jafar assisted in a conspiracy that seized Bengal in 1740. He eventually betrayed Ali Vardi’s grandson and successor, Siraj al Dawlah, to bring Bengal under British control, with himself installed as a British puppet ruler. Jafar was the commander of Bengal’s army when the British East India Company warred against Siraj al Dawlah, and he entered into secret negotiations with the British to betray his ruler.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Mir Jafar meeting Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey. Pinterest

The Battle That Decided India’s Fate for Centuries

On June 23rd, 1757, about 3000 East India Company soldiers led by Robert Clive confronted a 65,000 strong native force, commanded by Siraj al Dawlah. Despite the odds, Clive was confident of victory. Aside from the higher training standards and morale of his force, he had cut a deal with Siraj al Dawlah’s commanders. At the battle, Mir Jafar and others defected with 15,000 cavalry and 35,000 infantry. The demoralized rump of the Bengal army was defeated, and their ruler fled the field, only to be captured later and executed. As reward for his betrayal of Siraj al Dawlah, Jafar was appointed as his replacement to rule Bengal under British auspices.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Mir Jafar and his son. Wikimedia

A born intriguer, however, Jafar eventually betrayed the British, and entered secret negotiations with their Dutch rivals. That deceit, and his failure to pay the British as much as he had promised he would, led to his removal and replacement by his son in law in 1760. However, the son in law turned out to be worse from a British perspective, with an independent streak and a desire to oust the British from Bengal. So he was overthrown in 1763, and Jafar was recalled to replace him as Bengal’s puppet ruler, a position he held until his death in 1765.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Vidkun Quisling and his second wife, Maria. National Archives of Norway

History’s Most Notorious Traitor?

Vidkun Quisling (1887 – 1945) was a Norwegian army officer and right wing politician who led a fascist party in the 1930s that met with little success. He betrayed his country to the Nazis during WWII and collaborated with its German conquerors. The Nazis had rejected him early in their occupation as too seedy even for them. They finally relented to his entreaties and placed him in charge of a puppet government. Born to a pastor, Quisling’s life and career began well, with little hint of coming ignominy. He did well in school, and graduated from the Norwegian Military College with the highest ever score. He was sent to the USSR as military attache in 1918, and became Norway’s military expert on all things Russian.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Quisling, second from right, with some of his Norwegian fascist supporters. National Archives of Norway

In 1922, Quiisling worked on League of Nations humanitarian relief efforts in the Ukraine, and exhibited considerable administrative talent and skill. While there, he also met and married two Russian women in quick succession, the second marriage, which lasted until his death, either bigamous or unofficial. Discharged from the army during a period of cutbacks, Quisling travelled throughout Europe for much of the 1920s. He returned to Norway in 1929, and launched a political career marked by anti-Semitic, anticommunist, and anti-liberal positions. Quisling joined a movement called “Rise of the Nordic People”, and became Norway’s defense minister from 1931-1933. In 1933, inspired by the Nazis’ victory in Germany, he launched a fascist party, and appointed himself its Fuhrer.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Quisling and Hitler. Uazam

Vidkun Quisling: The Name Forever Synonymous with Treason and Betrayal

Quisling’s party never won more than 2% of the vote. That made him increasingly bitter and frustrated with his countrymen. In late 1939, he flew to Berlin, met with Hitler, and offered to assist the Germans if they invaded Norway. The Nazis, aware of his lack of support, were noncommittal. When the Germany invaded Norway in 1940 and its government fled into exile, Quisling opportunistically tried to set up a collaborationist government. He was ignored by all, including the German occupiers. It took two years of wheedling before the Nazis finally recognized him in 1942 as Norway’s “Minister-President” of a puppet regime.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Quisling in Norwegian custody, 1945. National Archives of Norway

Quisling did all he could to please his German masters. That included eager cooperation in their deportation of Norway’s Jews to death camps. He was captured after the war, and tried by his countrymen. He was convicted of treason, murder, and embezzlement, and executed in October, 1945. His name became synonymous with collaboration, treason, and betrayal. To this day, a “Quisling” is used as an epithet to denote not a run of the mill traitor, such as, e.g.; calling somebody a “Benedict Arnold”. Instead, a Quisling is a traitor of the lowest, grubbiest, and most despicable kind. One who represses his own people on behalf of foreign conquerors, and is eager to please them with shameless displays of boot-licking obsequiousness.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Hernan Cortes in 1525. Mexican National History Museum

The Betrayal of Montezuma: How Hernan Cortes Conquered Mexico

Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes (1485 – 1547) used betrayal to pull off one of history’s unlikeliest conquests with his seizure of Mexico. His victim was Emperor Montezuma II (circa 1469 – 1520), ruler of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire from 1502 to 1520. The result was the native empire’s destruction and replacement by a vast Spanish domain in Mexico, while Cortes amassed extraordinary wealth and power. It began in February, 1519, when Cortes landed with a small force on Mexico’s eastern coast near today’s Vera Cruz, and subdued that region.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Montezuma welcoming Cortes to Tenochtitlan. Ancient Origins

He then marched inland towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, and defeated or allied with the natives he encountered en route. By the time he reached Tenochtitlan, Cortes had a large native army, around a core of Spaniards. Montezuma, indecisive since he heard the first reports of Cortes’ arrival, invited him and his Spaniards into Tenochtitlan in November, 1519. He hoped to better understand them and their weaknesses. Foolishly, he plied his guests with lavish gifts of gold. That only served to excite their lust for plunder.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Hernan Cortes and Montezuma. National Post

History’s Most Momentous Betrayal of a Host by His Guest

In a betrayal of the rules of hospitality while a guest in Montezuma’s palace, Hernan Cortes treacherously seized his host, and held him hostage. He then proceeded to rule Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire through the captive emperor. In April, 1520, Cortes had to race back to Mexico’s east coast in order to ward off another Spanish expedition sent to oust him. He left behind a Spanish garrison of 200 men under a trusted deputy. In Cortes’ absence, his deputy massacred thousands, of Aztecs in Tenochtitlan’s Great Temple.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Hernan Cortes. Wikimedia

That triggered a massive revolt against the Spaniards. Cortes rushed back to Tenochtitlan, and trotted out the captive Montezuma in hopes that it would placate the natives. It did not work as well as expected. The livid Aztecs proceeded to stone the Spaniards’ puppet ruler to death. Cortes fled Tenochtitlan, and assembled a powerful native army. With it, he finally subdued the city, whose population had been decimated with plagues of Old World diseases against which the natives had no immunity.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Petain in World War I, 1915. Pinterest

The Tragic Fall of a French Hero: Marshal Petain’s Betrayal of France

Henri Philippe Petain, commonly known as Marshal Petain (1856 – 1951), was once a highly respected French national hero. He was acclaimed for his World War I role in holding back the Germans in the 1916 Battle of Verdun, which earned him the nickname “The Lion of Verdun“. He later sullied his reputation with a betrayal of France. In his twilight years, after France’s defeat in 1940, Petain headed the collaborationist Vichy Regime, a German puppet government. Since his earliest days as an officer, Petain had a rapport with and understanding of common soldiers that made him immensely popular with his men. His rise until WWI was slow, however.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
1926 portrait of Petain, before his fall from grace. History Network

Petain’s emphasis on defense in modern war, which proved correct in WWI, challenged the French Army’s orthodoxy that an attack could overcome any obstacles if the men had sufficient elan, or spirit. He rose quickly through the ranks during the war, and in 1916 was appointed to command the defense of Verdun in the war’s bloodiest battle. Verdun was retained by the French, in the face of fierce German attacks. The following year, an incompetently planned attack failed and led to widespread mutinies throughout the French Army. Petain, the general most trusted and beloved by common soldiers, was sent to restore the situation. He did so with a carrots-and-sticks mix of reforms to improve the soldiers’ lives, combined with the execution of the mutiny’s ringleaders. By war’s end, Petain was a beloved national hero.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Petain, left, shaking Hitler’s hand. History in an Hour

The Marshal’s Betrayal of France

France emerged victorious in WWI, but things went different two decades later, in WWII. After the French debacle and collapse in 1940, an 84-year-old Petain was dragged out of retirement by the French president and asked to form a new government. He accepted that France had been defeated, and declined to continue the fight from overseas as urged by a junior minister, Charles de Gaulle. Instead, the aged marshal sought an armistice. The French legislature dissolved itself and ceded its powers to Petain. Thus was born the collaborationist Vichy Regime.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Petain on trial after the war. Wikimedia

Petain’s government aligned itself with the Germans and against the French Resistance and Free French who continued the fight inside occupied France and abroad. After the war, Petain was tried on charges of high treason alongside Pierre Laval, the other main collaborationist of the Vichy Regime. Their betrayal of France earned both of them a conviction and death sentence in 1945. Petain was spared execution, however. In recognition of his WWI services, Charles de Gaulle, as head of the French government, commuted the former hero’s sentence to solitary life imprisonment. He was jailed in a fortress on a small island off France’s Atlantic coast until his death in 1951.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
The Battle of Thermopylae. Flickr

The Most Notorious Betrayal of Ancient Greece

Ephialtes of Trachis became infamous for carrying out the most notorious betrayal of Ancient Greece. When the Persians invaded Greece in the fifth century BC, Ephialtes betrayed the resisting Greeks and showed the Persians a path that allowed them to bypass and surround a Spartan-led force that had halted the invaders at Thermopylae. The Persians had invaded after Athens supported a failed rebellion by the Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor against their Persian rulers. In response, the Persians launched an abortive punitive expedition against Athens. It was defeated at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.

The Persians licked their wounds, and prepared for a rematch. In 480 BC, Persia’s King Xerxes gathered forces for a massive campaign to conquer and subdue Greece once and for all. Ephialtes was a Malian, from a region at the northeastern juncture of the Greek Peninsula with the rest of the Balkans. The Malians were among many Greeks in the Persian army’s path who chose discretion over valor and “Medised”. That is, they submitted to and collaborated with the Persians against their fellow Greeks. Along the Persian army’s route through Malian lands was a narrow pass known as Thermopylae, or “hot gates”, situated between mountains to the south and the cliff-lined shore of the Malian Gulf to the north.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
The Battle of Thermopylae. Livius

Ephialtes’ Betrayal: The Fall of Thermopylae and the Greek-Persian Wars

A small Spartan-led Greek force, under the command of Sparta’s King Leonidas, occupied and fortified the pass at Thermopylae. The Persians, forced to attack directly up the pass on a narrow front, were unable to use their advantages in numbers and cavalry. They were repeatedly bested by the more heavily armed and armored Greeks, especially the elite core of superbly trained Spartans. For three days, the Persians launched futile attacks, but could not make the Greeks budge. The Persians were stuck. Then Ephialtes told Xerxes that he knew a track through the mountains that bypassed Thermopylae, and reemerged to join the road behind the Greek position.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
After his position was betrayed by Ephialtes, Leonidas sends away the other Greeks to save themselves. Greece in High Definition

In exchange for the promise of rich rewards, Ephialtes showed the Persians the way. Alerted that he was about to be outflanked, Leonidas sent the rest of the Greeks away. He stayed behind with what remained of a 300-strong contingent of Spartans, who fought to the death until they were wiped out. Ephialtes’ was reviled, and his name came to mean “nightmare” in Greek. He never collected his reward. The Persians were defeated at Salamis later that year, at Platea the following year, and their invasion of Greece collapsed. Ephialtes fled, with a reward on his head. He was killed ten years later over an unrelated matter, but the Spartans rewarded his killer anyhow.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
Francisco Pizarro. Wikimedia

Hernan Cortes’ Most Successful Copycat

Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (circa 1471 – 1541) pulled off a betrayal of the Incan Emperor Atahualpa (circa 1502 – 1533) that was even more dramatic than that pulled off by Hernan Cortes against Montezuma a decade earlier. It also resulted in the destruction of a native empire, and its replacement by a vast Spanish domain. In 1525, Atahualpa had inherited the northern half of the Incan Empire from his father, while the southern half went to his brother Huascar.

Five years later, Atahualpa attacked his brother, and by 1532, had defeated Huascar and reunited the empire. His reign over a united Incan Empire proved brief, however, for Pizarro showed up soon thereafter. Pizarro had landed in Peru in 1532, established a small colony, then set off to conquer with a small force of about 200 men. En route, he was met by an envoy from Atahualpa. The Inca ruler invited Pizarro to visit him at his camp, where he was resting with his army of about 100,000 men after his recent victory over his brother.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
‘Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Peru’, by John Everett Mills. Fine Art America

From Peace Parley to Massacre

Pizarro set off to meet Atahualpa with 110 infantry and 67 cavalry, armed and armored with steel, plus three arquebuses and two small cannon. A meeting was arranged for November 16th, 1532, in a plaza in the town of Cajamarca. On the night of the 15th, Pizarro outlined to his men an audacious plan to seize Atahualpa via a sneaky betrayal, in emulation of Cortes’ seizure of Montezuma. On the appointed day, Atahualpa, who failed to take precautions for his own security, left his army camped outside Cajamarca. That turned out to be a huge mistake.

Atahualpa arrived at the town’s plaza on a fine litter carried by 80 high-ranking courtiers, trailed by about 5000 Incan notables. All were richly dressed in ceremonial garments and unarmed, except for small ceremonial stone axes. The Spaniards were concealed in buildings that ringed the plaza, with cavalry hidden in alleys that led to the open square. They fell upon Atahualpa and his party at a signal from Pizarro. The result was a massacre. The unarmored natives proved no match for the Spaniards’ steel swords, pikes, bullets, or crossbow bolts, and their ceremonial stone axes were useless against Spanish plate armor.

Historic Betrayals that Shocked the World
The execution of Atahualpa. Ensinar Historia

Another Conquistador, Another Ruthless Betrayal

Pizarro and his men slaughtered thousands of natives at Cajamarca, and the survivors fled in panic. Not a single Spaniard was killed. Captured, Atahualpa sought to buy his life with an offer to fill a room 22 feet by 17 feet, up to a height of 8 feet with gold, and twice with silver. After the payments were made, Pizarro once again betrayed Atahualpa. He reneged on the deal, and put the former Inca ruler through a staged trial that convicted him of rebellion, idolatry, and the murder of his brother, Huascar.

Atahualpa was sentenced to be burned to death, but was spared that fate when he agreed to get baptized as a Catholic. He was strangled to death, instead. Betrayal paid off for Pizarro, who amassed considerable wealth and power after his treachery at Cajamarca. Some measure of karmic justice finally caught up with him in 1541. On June 26th of that year, a group of heavily armed supporters of a rival stormed Pizarro’s palace. In a violent struggle, Pizarro was stabbed in the throat. He fell to the ground, made a cross with his own blood as he gurgled cries for help from Jesus to no avail, and bled to death.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Atkin, Nicholas – Petain (1997)

Barrett, David P., and Shyu, Larry N. (Editors) – Chinese Collaboration With Japan, 1932-1945: The Limits of Accommodation (2002)

Barton, Sir Dunbar Plunkett – The Amazing Career of Bernadotte, 1763 to 1844 (1930)

Centre for Scottish Culture, University of Dundee – Scottish History at a Glance: The Black Dinner of 1440

Chaudhury, Sushil – The Prelude to Empire: Plassey Revolution of 1757 (2000)

Chi, Hsi-Sheng – Nationalist China at War: Military Defeats and Political Collapse, 1937-1945 (1982)

CNN – ‘Game of Thrones’ Author George R.R. Martin: Why He Wrote the Red Wedding

Dahl, Hans Frederik – Quisling: A Study in Treachery (1999)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ephialtes, Greek Traitor

Encyclopedia Britannica – Montezuma II

Griffiths, Richard – Marshal Petain (1970)

Hayes, Paul M. – Quisling: The Career and Political Ideas of Vidkun Quisling (1971)

Hemming, John – The Conquest of the Incas (1970)

Heritage Daily – The Black Dinner: An Event that Inspired the ‘Red Wedding’ in Game of Thrones

Herodotus – The Histories, Book 7, Battle of Thermopylae

History Collection – Operation Fortitude: 5 Things You Didn’t Know About the Great D-Day Deception

International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Volume 18, 2005, Issue 3 – Redl: Spy of the Century?

Levy, Buddy – Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (2008)

Lord Russell of Liverpool – Bernadotte, King of Sweden (1981)

Moorhouse, Roger – The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-1941 (2014)

Napolun – Battle of Leipzig, 1813

Prescott, William H. – The History of the Conquest of Peru (1874)

Read, Anthony, and Fisher, David – The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact, 1939-1941 (1988)

Sadler, John, and Fisch, Silvie – Spy of the Century: Alfred Redl and the Betrayal of Austria-Hungary (2016)

Smith, Digby – 1813, Leipzig: Napoleon and the Battle of the Nations (2001)

Spear, Thomas George Percival – Master of Bengal: Clive and His India (1975)

Stewart Society – The Black Dinner

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