Stjepan Filipovic was a Croatian born in 1916 in what became Yugoslavia after World War I. He left home at 16, became a metalworker, and in 1937, joined the local workers’ movement and became an activist member. Arrested for political activity, Filipovic was sentenced to a year in jail, and when released in 1940, joined the Communist Party.
In 1941, Germany invaded and overran Yugoslavia. Filipovic volunteered to join the partisan resistance against the Nazi occupiers and was posted to a guerrilla unit near Valjevo, in today’s Serbia. Given responsibility for recruitment and for securing arms, he excelled in his duties and showed considerable promise, such that by year’s end he had risen to command an entire partisan battalion.
He was captured by the Nazis in February, 1942, and sentenced to be publicly hanged in Valjevo’s town square. At death’s door, Stjepan Filipovic had the courage and presence of mind to seize the moment and defy his captors during his last seconds on earth. Mounting the gallows and with the hangman’s noose around his neck, he defiantly thrust his hands in the air and struck a dramatic pose that was captured on camera. Urging the gathered crowd to continue the struggle against the Nazi oppressors and their Yugoslav collaborators, he cried out just before he was hanged: “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” – a preexisting partisan slogan that Filipovic’s martyrdom helped popularize.
After the war, Filipovic was designated a national hero of Yugoslavia. A monumental statue was erected in Valjevo in his honor, replicating his Y-shaped pose in an artistically classic rendition reminiscent of a Goya painting.
“… we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God’s grace, shall never be put out.”
Hugh Latimer (circa 1487 – 1555) was an English Protestant bishop burned at the stake by Queen Mary during her campaign to restore England to Roman Catholicism. King Henry VIII had taken England out of the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce from Mary’s mother, and established the Church of England, appointing himself its head. However, he kept many doctrines and practices of Catholicism.
Hugh Latimer had graduated from Cambridge University, was elected a fellow of its Clare College in 1510, and became a Catholic priest in 1515, but switched to Protestantism in 1524, and became a zealous advocate and defender of his new faith. He gained renown as a Protestant preacher and was appointed a bishop by Henry VIII in his newly formed Church of England. However, Latimer resigned in protest when the king refused to adopt Protestant reforms.
Henry was succeeded by his underage son, Edward VI, who was more staunchly Protestant, and during the son’s reign, England became decidedly more Protestant, and Latimer regained royal favor, was appointed court preacher, and became the young king’s chaplain. However, Edward died young and without issue, and was succeeded by his sister Mary, a staunch Catholic who viewed Protestantism as a heresy, and was determined to restore England to Catholicism.
Mary ordered that prominent Protestants such as Latimer be imprisoned and tried for heresy. Latimer, along with fellow bishop Nicholas Ridley and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was tried for heresy in Oxford in 1555. Refusing to renounce his faith, he was convicted of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake.
Latimer was chained to the stake alongside Ridley. When the flames were lit, Ridley cried out in anguish, but Latimer sought to comfort him even as he himself was being consumed by fire, telling his colleague: “be of good cheer, master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God’s grace, shall never be put out.”
It could be argued that the candle still burns. Queen Mary’s efforts to restore Catholicism failed. When she died in 1558, she was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, and England has been Protestant ever since.
“Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!”
Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928 – 1967) was an Argentinean Marxist who rose to prominence during the Cuban Revolution, and gained international fame thereafter as a guerrilla warfare innovator, author, and diplomat. His image became a romantic icon of anti-imperialism, and after his death, he was regarded as a martyr by leftists worldwide.
Born in Argentina in 1928, Guevara was raised in a mainstream leftist environment. An asthmatic who nonetheless excelled in athletics, he studied medicine, and as a young man spent his holidays motorcycling through South America in the early 1950s. In his travels, he encountered conditions of dire poverty, inequality, and injustice, that radicalized and set him on the path to Marxism.
As he immersed himself in Marxism, he decided to abandon medicine, concluding that only revolution could alleviate the suffering of the masses. He moved to Guatemala in 1953, whose government under the progressive Jacobo Arbenz was attempting land reform and redistribution. The Arbenz government was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1954, which deepened Che Guevara’s radicalism, added anti-imperialism to his agenda, and laid the foundations for a theory he would later proselytize about achieving socialism via worldwide revolution.
By 1955, he had relocated to Mexico, where he met and befriended the Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, who was planning to overthrow the Cuban regime. Guevara accompanied Castro and a small force to Cuba in 1956 to launch a revolution. He became one of Castro’s main advisors, and commanded the revolutionary forces in guerrilla warfare, leading them to final victory and the seizure of the island in 1959.
Castro appointed Guevara to a variety of security, economic, and diplomatic posts in the new revolutionary government, and Guevara played a significant role in Cuba’s transformation into a communist state. He was instrumental in defeating the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, was a key player during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, traveled the world as a diplomat to establish relations with other countries, and gave a notable speech before the UN in 1964, condemning US foreign policy, and apartheid in South Africa.
However, Guevara’s greatest passion was for revolutionary warfare, and in 1965 he left to fight in revolutions around the world, going first to the Congo, where he trained revolutionaries in guerrilla warfare, then to Bolivia in 1966 with a small rebel force to start a revolution there. Things did not go as well in Bolivia as they had in Cuba, and in 1967 Che Guevara was captured by the Bolivian army.
The Bolivian president that Guevara be executed. When his designated shooter entered the room where the prisoner was being held, Che Guevara noticed that he appeared jittery and nervous, and scornfully uttered what would be his last words: “I know you have come to kill me. Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!”
Nero (37 – 68 AD), the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, was among Rome’s worst rulers. He was born in 37, a nephew of the emperor Caligula, and grand-nephew of his successor, the emperor Claudius. Claudius grew infatuated with his niece and Nero’s mother, Agrippina. He married her and adopted Nero, naming him his heir and successor. Agrippina had Claudius poisoned in 54 AD, and a teenaged Nero succeeded him as emperor.
He was dominated by his mother during the first five years of his rule, so he sought to have her killed. He resorted to elaborate means to make her murder look accidental, such as a roof designed to collapse and crush her, and a pleasure barge designed to sink in the middle of a lake. Agrippina survived the collapsing roof, and swam from the sinking barge to shore. Exasperated, and fearing an awkward confrontation, Nero sent his henchmen to hack her to death with swords.
Once freed of his mother, Nero gave free rein to his impulses, and with the resources of an empire at his disposal, indulged himself to the fullest. Fancying himself a talented musician, he took to giving excessively long concerts in which he would recite songs while strumming a lyre. Few attendees dared leave before completion, or observe with less than rapt attention. Writers of the period record instances of women faking labor in order to leave, and men faking death so they could get carried out.
He had also dreamt since childhood of becoming an Olympics champion, so he arranged for the games to be delayed for two years until he could visit Greece. Once there, he competed in chariot racing, but didn’t complete the course when his chariot crashed. The judges, combining sycophancy with fear of an unstable man who could have them executed at whim, awarded him the victor’s wreath, on the theory that he would have won but for the crash. They also awarded him victor’s wreaths for every event in which he competed, for events in which he did not compete, and for events that were not part of the Olympic competition, such as singing and lyre playing.
He spent lavishly to satisfy his whims, until the treasury was emptied, even as he neglected government and entrusted its daily conduct to a corrupt entourage that drove it into the ground. By 68 AD, discontent reached the breaking point, and a number of generals and provincial governors rose up in rebellion. In Rome, the Senate officially declared Nero a public enemy, and his Praetorian Guard abandoned him.
Fleeing Rome, Nero toyed with impractical ideas, such as throwing himself upon the mercy of the public and begging its forgiveness, and playing them the lyre so as to “soften their hearts” and be allowed to retire to a province which he could govern. He composed a speech to that effect, but was dissuaded when it was pointed out that he would likely be torn apart by a mob if he was sighted in public.
While mulling alternatives, news came that he had been declared a public enemy by the Senate, had been sentenced to be beaten to death publicly, and that soldiers were on the way to arrest him and take him to the site of execution. With all options closed, Nero decided to end his life. He couldn’t do it himself, so he had a freedman run him through with a sword, crying out before he was stabbed: “Oh, what an artist dies in me!”
“Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something“.
Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878 – 1923) was born into a family of sharecroppers in the Mexican state of Durango and raised in poverty. He received some elementary schooling in early childhood, but had not progressed beyond basic literacy when his father died and he was forced to quit school and help his mother. He worked a variety of menial jobs, interspersed with stints of banditry with local gangs. At age 16, he reportedly killed his first man, a hacienda owner whom he accused of raping his sister. He then stole his victim’s horse and fled to the hills, which became his base for years to come as he turned to full-time banditry.
Captured in 1902, he was spared the death penalty, and inducted into the Mexican army instead. He deserted after killing an officer and stealing his horse and returned to banditry. In 1910, when the Mexican Revolution began, he was persuaded that he could fight for the people by directing his banditry against hacienda owners. Villa proved adept at the revolution’s style of warfare and was instrumental in defeating the government’s forces in northern Mexico.
After victory, the rebel alliance split when the new government failed to enact promised land reforms. Villa, appointed a brigadier general, supported the new government against his former comrades, but struck a superior general during a quarrel and was sentenced to death. He was saved from the firing squad at the last moment by the arrival of a telegram from the president ordering his imprisonment instead.
Villa escaped and fled to the US, but returned to Mexico in 1913, after securing American support, to fight against a new government that had seized power in a coup. In the second round of fighting, Villa again achieved considerable success, and local military commanders appointed him governor of the state of Chihuahua. As governor, he confiscated grand haciendas, and broke them up into smaller plots which he redistributed to the widows and families of fallen revolutionaries. It was during this period that Villa gained international fame, and was depicted in the press as a romantic bandit-warrior who took from the rich and gave to the poor.
The coup-installed government was overthrown, but the victorious allies again fell out. In this third round, Villa did poorly, and suffered repeated setbacks. By 1915, he was reduced to a small band hiding in the hills of Chihuahua, and the US shifted its backing from Villa to his opponents. Feeling betrayed, he began attacking American interests in northern Mexico, and in 1916, crossed the border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. The US responded with a military expedition to Mexico, to hunt down Villa. He eluded the Americans, and his popularity rose among Mexicans resentful of the intrusion.
Villa continued a low-scale guerrilla campaign until 1920, when he made peace and recognized the Mexican government in exchange for an amnesty and a 25,000-acre hacienda. In 1923, he announced plans to run for president, but soon thereafter, his car was ambushed and shot up, and he was fatally wounded. Aware that life as interesting as his should end with an interesting final statement, but unable to think of anything memorable, Pancho Villa’s last words as he lay dying were: “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something“.
“Go on! Get Out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) was the German philosopher and radical socialist whose Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital would form the basis of Marxism, and revolutionize the world for better and for worse. Born in Prussia, he experimented with sociopolitical theories in university, and by the 1840s had become a radical journalist. His writings were viewed as dangerous by the authorities, and in the span of a few years, he was expelled from Germany, France, Belgium, then Germany again, before finding refuge in London, where he settled and lived for the remainder of his life.
Karl Marx’s father was a successful lawyer, a man of the Enlightenment, and a passionate advocate for Prussian reform, who had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism to avoid legal restrictions that barred Jews from high society. Karl received a liberal education in a school whose enlightened leanings made it suspect in the eyes of the reactionary authority, who raided it in the 1830s, confiscated writings deemed subversive from its library, and forced changes in the teaching staff.
Marx’s early years of higher education were marked by poor grades, imprisonment for drunkenness, riotous behavior, and general rowdiness, before buckling down to serious study of the law and philosophy. He was strongly influenced by Hegel, and joined a radical student group known as the Young Hegelians, which marked the beginning of his transformation into a radical, and eventually revolutionary, thinker.
Marx received a doctorate in 1841, but his politics kept him from getting a teaching job, so he took to journalism. Within a year, however, his newspaper was suppressed, and he was forced to move to Paris and the relatively freer French environment. In Paris, he met Freidrich Engels, and the two developed a friendship and began a collaboration that would revolutionize the world.
In 1845, the Prussians pressured the French into expelling Marx, so he moved to Belgium, where he founded a correspondence committee to link European socialists. That inspired English socialists to form the Communist League, and ask Marx and Engels to write a platform for their party. The result was the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848.
Shortly thereafter, Marx was expelled from Belgium. He went to France, which also expelled him. He returned to Prussia, but by then he had been stripped of his citizenship, and the authorities refused to re-naturalize him, so he ended up in London in 1849. He spent the remainder of his life writing, and in 1867 published Das Kapital, which, twinned with the earlier Communist Manifesto, became the philosophical bedrock of Marxism and communist theory.
On his deathbed in 1883, as he lay expiring from pleurisy, he was solicited for final words, to which he replied before breathing his last: “Go on! Get Out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”
“Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit“.
Gaius Octavius, known to history as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), was Rome’s first emperor. He was born to an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand-uncle launched his grand-nephew into public life, and groomed him to be his heir. Octavius was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies, when his grand-uncle was assassinated in 44 BC.
Returning to Italy, he learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. He was advised to decline the dangerous inheritance, but he ignored the advice and went to Rome. There, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will. Caesar’s assassins ignored the teenager, and Cicero, one of Rome’s leading elder statesmen and a leading figure of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him, quipping that he would: “raise, praise, then erase” the young man.
All underestimated Octavius, who responded by paying for public games in honor of his adoptive father to gain recognition and popularity, and wooing Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side. With a military force at his command, Cicero’s faction sought his aid, bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his youth, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. The consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were killed, so Octavius compelled the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship despite his youth.
He then double-crossed the Senate, reached an agreement with Mark Antony, and joined him in a power-sharing dictatorship that launched a massive purge that executed thousands of suspected opponents, including Cicero, before going after Julius Caesar’s assassins, defeating them, and exacting revenge. Octavius and Antony then swore friendship, sealing the bargain with Antony wedding Octavius’ sister, then divided the Roman empire, with Antony ruling the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west.
The duo fell out when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra in Egypt, and married her, abandoning Octavius’ sister. Octavius used that as a pretext to attack Antony, whom he defeated decisively in 31 BC, then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, finally bringing the entire Roman Empire under his control.
He then set about reorganizing the state. He ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city-state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire and resulted in a century of chaos and bloodshed until the reins were taken by Octavius, whom the Senate granted the honorific “Augustus” by which he would be known to history. In the Republic’s place, Augustus established a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy, inaugurating a period known as the Pax Romana, that brought to the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity
He held supreme power in the Roman world from 43 BC, first in conjunction with Mark Antony until 31 BC, and thereafter alone, until his death in 14 AD. Comparing the role he had to play as emperor to the theater, Augustus’ last words to those gathered around his deathbed were: “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit“.
Considered by many to be the greatest Briton to have ever lived, few led a life as varied and eventful, and as replete with accomplishments and failures, as did Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965). He is best known for his leadership during WWII, particularly during the stretch when Britain stood alone and defiant against the Nazi juggernaut. But even before that supreme moment, Churchill had led a full life that would have exhausted most.
His father was a British lord and prominent Conservative Party politician, his mother was a wealthy American heiress, and neither had time to see him as often as Churchill would have liked. Sent to a boarding school, he did poorly, showing little of the brilliance that would mark his later life, so his father sent him to the army, whose officer ranks at the time were a convenient dumping ground for the dimmer scions of the British aristocracy.
It took Churchill three tries to pass the entrance exams into Sandhurst (Britain’s West Point) in 1893, and enroll as an officer cadet. Once in, he took to military life and began to blossom. Commissioned a cavalry officer in 1895, he took a side job as a war reporter, filing his first stories from Cuba. The following year he accompanied his regiment to India, and in 1898 participated in the Nile campaign that conquered Sudan, both as a soldier and reporter. During the climactic battle of that campaign, Churchill took part in the last cavalry charge in British Army history. A year later, he was in South Africa, as a war correspondent covering the Boer War. Captured and imprisoned by the Boers, he made a dramatic escape, and eluding a massive manhunt, made it back to British lines.
Only 25 when he returned to Britain, Churchill was already a celebrity, known for both his reporting and his personal exploits. Determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, he parlayed that celebrity into a political career. He won the election to Parliament in 1900 as a Conservative MP, but increasing conflicts with his party’s platform led him to switch and join the Liberals in 1903. He rose in Liberal ranks, and by 1908 was in the government as a cabinet minister – the youngest in half a century – who, alongside Lloyd George, laid the foundations for the welfare state.
In 1911, he became First Lord of the Admiralty, and oversaw the Royal Navy’s rapid expansion in an arms race with Germany. However, when WWI broke out Churchill was criticized for a series of naval failures early in the war, culminating in the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 that had been his brainchild, and whose humiliating collapse forced him to resign in disgrace, sending him into the first of many recurring bouts of depression. Gallipoli remained a stain on Churchill until it was washed out and redeemed by his WWII leadership.
After WWI, he regained office, and in 1924 switched back to the Conservatives, whose government he joined as Chancellor of the Exchequer, quipping: “anyone can rat. It takes genius, however, to re-rat“. His stint as Chancellor proved disastrous: he restored the gold standard, which resulted in an overvalued British pound and a consequent collapse in British exports, leading to massive layoffs, labor turmoil, a general strike that paralyzed Britain, and Churchill’s being out of a job when the Conservatives were defeated in 1929 and Labor took over the government.
Between the disasters of Gallipoli and his Chancellorship, Churchill entered the 1930s with a poor political reputation. When Conservatives regained office, he was not invited to join the Cabinet, and spent the decade in political isolation that he described as his “wilderness years”. He devoted his time to writing, and to issue warnings about the gathering Nazi menace that were ignored. He was vindicated when war broke out in 1939. Appointed Prime Minister in 1940, in his country’s darkest hour, he cemented his place in history as Britain’s wartime leader.
Booted out of office by British voters within weeks of final victory in Europe, he returned to writing, winning a Nobel Prize in Literature for his WWII memoirs. He returned for another stint as Prime Minister in 1951, before finally retiring in 1955. After such an eventful life, it was perhaps understandable that his final words before dying in 1965 were “I’m bored with it all“.