12 of History's Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences

Khalid Elhassan - November 10, 2017

According to folk etymology, the term “double-cross”, as in deception by some kind of double-dealing, originated with the 18th century English master criminal Jonathan Wilde, who kept a ledger in which two crosses were literally placed next to the names of those who ran afoul of him. Wilde is also credited with giving the phrase its figurative meaning by pretending to reform and was then recruited by English magistrates to hunt down a criminal. Wilde hunted only criminals who competed against him, as he double-crossed the English authorities by using his connections to turn himself into the greatest English criminal kingpin to have ever lived, running an extensive underground empire that spanned the realm.

In more recent times, the term is most commonly used to refer to a trusted ally who turns against the team, such as with Hitler’s betrayal of Stalin after signing the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in 1939, or going back a few centuries, to the Bengal army commander, Mir Jafar, who betrayed his ruler during the 1757 Battle of Plassey by sitting out the fight and keeping most of Bengal’s army out of it, letting the remainder go down to defeat against British-led forced commanded by Robert Clive.

Following are 12 of the greatest double-crosses in history.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Harold Cole. The Daily Mail

Harold Cole and the French Resistance

Harold Cole (1906 – 1946) was an English jailbird who served during WWII in the British Army, the French Resistance – and double-crossed both by working for Germans. During his extraordinary wartime career, he lied and conned his way across France, joined the Nazis, and snitched on the Resistance, resulting in the arrest and execution of many.

By his teens, Cole was already a burglar, check forger and embezzler, and by 1939, he had served multiple stints in prison. When WWII began, he lied about his criminal history to enlist in the British Army and was sent to France. Promoted to sergeant, he was arrested for stealing money from the Sergeants’ Mess to spend on hookers and became a POW in May 1940 when the Germans captured the guardhouse where he was jailed.

He escaped and made his way to Lille, where he got in touch with the French Resistance, claiming to be a British intelligence agent sent to organize escape lines to get stranded and escaped British military personnel back home, and for some time, Cole actually did positive work, escorting escaped personnel across Nazi-occupied territory to the relative safety of Vichy France, from which they slipped into Spain and a ship back home.

However, he also embezzled from the funds intended to finance those operations to pay for a high society lifestyle of nightclubs, pricey restaurants, expensive champagne, fast cars, and faster girls. When his thefts came to light in 1941, the Resistance arrested and locked him up, but while they deliberated what to do about him, Cole escaped.

On the run from the Resistance, he turned himself into the Germans, gave them 30 pages of Resistance member names and addresses, and became an agent of the SS’ Sicherheitdienst, or SD. In the ensuing roundup, over 150 Resistance members were arrested, of whom at least 50 were executed, and Cole was present during the interrogation and torture of many of his former colleagues.

As Allied armies neared Paris in 1944, Cole fled in a Gestapo uniform. In June of 1945, he turned up in southern Germany, claiming to be a British undercover agent, and offered his services to the American occupation forces. Triple crossing, he turned against the Nazis, hunting and flushing them out of hiding, and murdering at least one of them.

The British discovered Cole whereabouts arrested him, but he escaped the prison where he was awaiting court-martial and headed to France. There, French police received a tip-off revealing his whereabouts in a central Paris apartment, and on January 8, 1946, they crept up a staircase to seize him. Their heavy tread gave them away, however, and he met them at the doorway, pistol in hand. In the ensuing shootout, the fugitive was struck multiple times and bled to death.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Eddie Chapman. Wikimedia

Eddie Chapman and the Germans

Eddie Chapman, AKA “Agent Zigzag” (1914 – 1997) was a safebreaker, thief, crook, and all-around career criminal, who became the only Englishman ever awarded a German Iron Cross. It was ironic on many levels because he was also one of history’s most colorful double-crossers, and the false information he fed the Germans derailed the effectiveness of their “Vengeance Weapons”, and likely saved the lives of thousands of Londoners.

Raised in a dysfunctional family, Chapman was a delinquent from early on. He enlisted at age 17, but within a few months grew bored and deserted. When the army caught up with him, he was sentenced to a prison stint and a dishonorable discharge. After his release, he turned to fraud and crime to support a gambling habit and a taste for fine drinks.

When WW2 started, Chapman was hiding in Jersey in the Channel Islands from arrest warrants awaiting. A botched burglary earned him a two-year sentence in a Jersey prison, where the Germans found him when they captured the Channel Islands in 1940. He offered to work for them, so they freed and trained him in explosives, sabotage, and other clandestine skills, before parachuting him into Britain in 1942, tasked with destroying a bomber factory.

He was arrested soon after landing, however, and immediately accepted an offer to become a double agent – an easy choice, considering that the likeliest alternative would have been a hangman’s noose. Given the codename “Agent Zigzag“, a plan was concocted to fake the bomber factory’s destruction, which convinced the Germans and raised Chapman high in their esteem. From then on, his radio reports, carefully fed him by British intelligence, were treated as gospel by the Germans.

He was recalled and given a hero’s welcome by the Germans, and soon after D-Day, he was awarded an Iron Cross and sent back to Britain to report on the effectiveness of the German V1 and V2 rocket strikes on London. He set up shop, and under British control sent the Germans inflated figures about deaths from their rockets while deceiving them about their actual impact points, causing the Germans to shift their aim points, with the result that they tended to fall on lower population density parts of London, with correspondingly fewer casualties.

After the war, Chapman continued his colorful life, went into smuggling, moved to the colonies, started a farm, and in violation of the Official Secrets Act, got his exploits published in The Eddie Chapman Story (1953), Free Agent: Further Adventures of Eddie Chapman (1955), and The Real Eddie Chapman Story (1966), which collectively formed the basis of a 1967 movie, Triple Cross.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Hitler and Stalin. Renegade Tribune

Hitler and Stalin

On August 23rd, 1939, the world was stunned when Nazi Germany and the communist USSR, each avowedly dedicated to the other’s destruction, signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. The agreement was a benevolent neutrality treaty that effectively divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the USSR, and freed Hitler to kick off WWII a week later with an invasion of Poland, secure in the knowledge that he was free of the risk of a two-front war against Britain and France in the west, and the Soviets in the East.

Hitler, whose ultimate aim was an empire in the east necessarily at Soviet expense, intended the Pact as a temporary measure to free him to deal with Britain and France, before turning on the USSR. Stalin, however, was convinced that the Pact was more durable and that while war with Germany was inevitable, Hitler would not turn on the USSR until he settled the war with Britain.

Stalin was surrounded by yes men who dared not contradict him, and by 1939, was the center of a personality cult ascribing to his infallibility, and could not help believing 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 by signing the treaty with communism’s avowed enemy, and for war to break out before the USSR was ready would mean that Stalin was wrong, and saying Stalin could be wrong was unhealthy in the USSR.

Thus, when evidence began mounting of an impending German attack, Stalin adamantly refused to believe it, dismissing 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 German blow fell on June 22nd, 1941, the Soviets were caught off guard, surviving only by the skin of their teeth before the German advance finally ran out of steam that winter, literally within sight of the Kremlin.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Battle of Leipzig. Weapons and Warfare

Saxons and Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig

At the culmination of the 1813 German Campaign, 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 of that year, and decisively defeated the French emperor after he was double-crossed, mid-battle, by his Saxon allies.

Following 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, as client states and subject nations rushed to shake off French hegemony. Racing back to France, Napoleon 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.

Marching into Germany to reassert French dominance, Napoleon won some victories but was unable to follow them up with a decisive win because his enemies avoided battle with him, falling upon his subordinates instead, whom they defeated as often as not. By October 1813, the allies were confident enough to challenge Napoleon directly, and 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 envelop him, as 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. The battle’s first day, October 16th, ended in a hard-fought stalemate, as allied attacks were defeated, while Napoleon’s outnumbered forces were unable to achieve a breakthrough.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Battle of Leipzig positions on October 16th, 1813. Wikimedia, original work by Andrei Nacu

The 17th saw limited actions, and 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, who launched a massive attack all along the line that day, which steadily pushed Napoleon’s forces back into Leipzig, and only fierce resistance prevented a breakthrough.

The bottom fell out, however, when Napoleon’s Saxon allies pulled off a well-timed double-cross on the afternoon of the 18th. With Napoleon’s forces already stretched to their limit, a Saxon corps of about 10,000 men occupying a sector of the French line suddenly abandoned their positions, and deserting Napoleon, marched out to meet the allies.

With a gaping hole now suddenly appearing in their lines, Napoleon’s forces had to abandon that entire sector, and that night, with their positions untenable, began a retreat. It went smoothly at first, but the following day, incompetence led to the premature blowing up of a bridge while it was still crowded with retreating Frenchmen, resulting in a panicked rout in which thousands were killed, while tens of thousands more were stranded on the wrong side of the destroyed bridge and captured, transforming the battle from an arguable tactical draw into a catastrophic French defeat.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Juan Pujol Garcia. National Archives Blog

Juan Pujol Garcia and the German Abwehr

Juan Pujol Garcia (1912 – 1988) was an eccentric Spaniard who, out of a sheer desire for adventure and excitement, hoaxed the Nazis with fictional spying during WWII. The hoax grew into the greatest double-cross operation of the conflict and played a significant role in ensuring Allied victory on D-Day and in the subsequent Normandy Campaign.

Pujol hated fascists, and when WWII began, he decided to help the Allies “for the good of humanity”. However, when he offered his services to British intelligence, he was rejected. Undeterred, he posed as a Nazi-sympathizing, Spanish government officer, and offered his services to the Germans, who accepted and ordered him to Britain, where he was to recruit a spy network.

Instead, he went to Lisbon, and from there, made up reports about Britain with content culled from public sources, embellished and seasoned with his own active imagination, then sent them to his German handlers as if he was writing from Britain. The Germans swallowed it and begged for more, so Pujol invented fictional sub-agents and used them as sources for additional fictional reports.

Intercepting and decoding secret German messages, the British realized that somebody was hoaxing the Germans, and upon discovering it was Pujol acting on his own, they belatedly accepted his offer of services. Giving him the codename GARBO, they whisked him to Britain, where they built upon his imaginary network, transforming it into an elaborate double cross operation that carefully fed the Germans a massive amount of often true but useless information, mixed in with half-truths and falsities.

The flood of reports from Pujol and his steadily growing network of fictional sub-agents transformed him, in German eyes, into their most successful spy in Britain. The moment for cashing in on that trust came during the buildup to D-Day and the subsequent Normandy campaign, as the ultimate aim was to convince the Germans that the Normandy landings were but the first in a series of planned invasions, with an even bigger one planned against the Pas de Calais.

To cement Pujol’s credibility with the Germans, British intelligence had him send a message alerting the Germans to the invasion a few hours before its commencement, knowing that by the time it worked its way from German intelligence to commanders in the field, the invasion would have already taken place and the warning would have done the Germans no good, and served only to enhance Pujol’s reputation.

They then went in for the kill: building upon the years of trust, Pujol informed the Germans that the Normandy landings were diversionary, and the real blow would fall upon the Pas de Calais a few weeks later. That, coupled with other measures whereby a fictional First US Army Group, under the command of George Patton, was massed across the English Channel opposite the Pas de Calais, convinced the Germans during crucial weeks in June of 1944 to keep powerful formations in that region, rather than rush them to Normandy to help destroy the vulnerable Allied beachhead. By the time the Pas de Calais formations were finally released, the Allies had amassed sufficient forces in Normandy to not only defeat German attacks, but to then go on the offensive, and breaking out of the beachhead, sweep across and liberate France within a few months.

As to Pujol, he gained the distinction of earning an Iron Cross from Germany, plus a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) from Britain. After the war, fearing reprisals from the Nazis, he faked his death in Angola in 1949, then moved to Venezuela, where he ran a gift shop and bookstore. He led an anonymous life until 1984, when he agreed to be interviewed for a book about agent GARBO, after which he was received at Buckingham Palace, was lionized in Britain, and on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, traveled to Normandy to pay his respects to the dead. He died in Caracas 4 years later.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Jonathan Wilde. National Portrait Gallery

Jonathan Wilde and London’s Magistrates

Jonathan Wilde (1682 – 1725) was an 18th-century English master criminal who reigned over an underground kingdom of thieves and highwaymen, ran far-flung extortion racked, and was Britain’s biggest fence for stolen goods. After he feigned reform, the authorities turned to Wilde, gave him the title “Thief-Taker”, and set him loose on the criminals running amok and terrorizing London.

Wilde took to his new job and title with a passion, forming highly effective teams of thief catchers who fell upon the criminals with a will, breaking up gangs and sending criminals to the gallows by the dozen: during his thief-catching career, at least 120 were executed based on Wilde’s testimony and information he furnished the authorities.

He also set up a side business as a private detective, recovering stolen goods for a fee. He failed to inform his clients that it was his thieves who had stolen their goods in the first place, and “recovery” simply came down to Wilde sifting through his warehouses of stolen property. Far from having gone legit, Wilde had hoodwinked everybody, and the Thief Catcher became an even bigger kingpin, ridding himself of competitors by delivering them to the authorities.

As noted in this article’s beginning, the very term “double-cross” owes its origins to Wilde. He was finally brought down when a criminal double-crossed by Wilde accused him of fencing stolen goods. An investigation confirmed the malfeasance, and Wilde was arrested, at which point many of his underlings turned crown evidence against him until his whole scheme of simultaneously being England’s greatest crime fighter and greatest criminal came out. He was swiftly tried, convicted, and hanged at Tyburn, where he had sent so many others to their doom.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Mir Jafar (left) and his son. Wikimedia

Mir Jafar and Siraj al Dawlah

An Arab by birth, Mir Jafar (1691 – 1765) had arrived in India as an adventurer and rose high at the side of his father-in-law, general Ali Vardi Khan, whom Jafar assisted in a conspiracy that seized Bengal from Moghul control in 1740. He then double-crossed 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 double-cross his ruler. On June 23, 1757, a Company force of about 3000 men under the command of Robert Clive confronted a 65,000 strong native force, commanded by Siraj al Dawlah.

Notwithstanding 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 cavalries 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.

Jafar was appointed to replace Siraj al Dawlah as Bengal’s ruler, under British auspices. A born intriguer, however, he could not resist betraying the British and entered secret negotiations with their Dutch rivals. That, 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, his 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.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Montezuma meeting Hernan Cortes in Tenochtitlan, by unknown Tlaxcalan artist. Wikimedia

Hernan Cortes and Montezuma II

Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes (1485 – 1547) pulled off one of history’s most momentous double-crosses against 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.

In February 1519, Cortes had landed with a small force on Mexico’s eastern coast, and after subduing the region surrounding today’s Vera Cruz, proceeded to march inland towards the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, defeating and allying with the natives en route. By the time he reached Tenochtitlan, Cortes had a large native army, surrounding a core of Spaniards.

Montezuma, indecisive since hearing the first reports of the Spaniards’ landing, invited Cortes and his Spaniards into Tenochtitlan in November 1519, in the hopes of better understanding them and their weaknesses. Foolishly, he plied his guests with lavish gifts of gold, which excited their lust for plunder. Cortes treacherously seized Montezuma in his own palace and keeping him a hostage, ruled Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire through the captive emperor.

In April 1520, Cortes had to speed back to Mexico’s east coast in order to ward off another Spanish expedition sent to oust him, leaving behind a Spanish garrison of 200 men under a trusted deputy. In Cortes absence, however, his deputy massacred hundreds, or thousands, of Aztecs in Tenochtitlan’s Great Temple, triggering an uprising.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Montezuma in the Codex Mendoza, an Aztec artifact created in 1534 as a present to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. Mexilore

Cortes rushed back to Tenochtitlan and trotted out the captive Montezuma in hopes that he would placate the natives, only for the livid Aztecs to stone the Spaniards’ puppet ruler to death. Cortes fled Tenochtitlan, and returning with a powerful native army, finally subdued the city, whose population had been decimated with plagues of Old World diseases against which the natives had no immunity.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Pizarro Seizing the Inca of Pero, by John Everett Millais. Fine Art America

Francisco Pizarro and Atahualpa

Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (circa 1471 – 1541) managed to pull off a double cross against the Incan emperor Atahualpa (circa 1502 – 1533) that was even more dramatic and venal 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 the Incan Empire would prove brief, however, for Pizarro showed up soon thereafter.

Pizarro had landed in Peru in 1532, and after establishing a small colony set off to conquer with a small force of about 200 men. En route, he was met by an envoy from Atahualpa, inviting him 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 and reunification of the Incan Empire.

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, and on the night of the 15th, Pizarro outlined to his men an audacious plan to seize Atahualpa, in emulation of Cortes’ seizure of Montezuma.

On the appointed day, Atahualpa, failing to take precautions for his own security, left his army camped outside Cajamarca, and arrived at the town’s plaza on a fine litter carried by 80 high ranking courtiers, and trailed by about 5000 nobles and other courtiers, richly dressed in ceremonial garments and unarmed except for small ceremonial stone axes.

The Spaniards, concealed in buildings surrounding the plaza, with cavalry hidden in alleys leading to the open square, fell upon Atahualpa and his party at a signal from Pizarro. The result was a massacre, as the unarmored natives proved no match for the Spaniards’ steel swords, pikes, bullets, or crossbow bolts, while the Indians’ ceremonial stone axes proved useless against Spanish plate armor. Thousands of natives were killed, with the remainder fleeing in panic, while not a single Spaniard lost his life.

Captured, Atahualpa sought to buy his life by offering to fill a room measuring 22 by 17 feet, up to a height of eight feet with gold, and twice with silver. After the payments were made, Pizarro again double-crossed Atahualpa, and reneging on the deal, put him through a staged trial that convicted him of rebellion, idolatry, and murdering his brother, Huascar. Sentenced to death by burning, Atahualpa was spared that fate by agreeing to get baptized as a Catholi and was executed by strangulation instead.

Treachery paid off for Pizarro, who amassed considerable wealth and power after his double cross of Atahualpa until some measure of karmic justice 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, and in the ensuing struggle, Pizarro was stabbed in the throat. Falling to the ground, he made a cross with his own blood while gurgling cries for help from Jesus to no avail, and bled to death.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby. Encyclopedia Britannica

Thomas Stanley and Richard III

Thomas Stanley, First Earl of Derby (1435 – 1504) was an English magnate with extensive landholdings in northwest England, which he dominated almost as an independent ruler. As such, his support was sought after by both the Lancastrian and Yorkist branches of the Plantagenet dynasty during the Wars of Roses (1455 – 1487), which he effectively brought to an end with a timely double-cross.

Richard III of York was the reigning king, having been crowned in 1483, following the death of his brother, Edward IV, who named Richard guardian and regent during the minority of Edward’s son and successor, 12-year-old Edward V. Richard, however, declared Edward’s sons illegitimate, and imprisoned his nephews in the Tower of London, where they disappeared and were likely murdered, and crowned himself king.

Richard was challenged for the throne by Henry Tudor, the last viable male descendant of the competing Lancastrian line, who landed in England in 1485, after years of exile. Richard gathered his forces, which included a big contingent commanded by Thomas Stanley, a major Yorkist loyalist, and supporter, and marched out to meet his challenger.

Stanley was conflicted, however: his family had been Lancastrians, but he had defected to the Yorkists. He was handsomely rewarded for that betrayal with lands and estates, and appointed to powerful positions in the royal government, and was thus indebted to the Yorkists. However, he also happened to be married to Henry Tudor’s mother, so he was the challenger’s stepfather.

Stuck between the rock of loyalty and the hard place of peace and tranquility in his own house, Stanley decided to play both sides and secretly contacted his stepson to explore defection. King Richard, however, found out, and seized Stanley’s son as a hostage for the Earls good behavior and insurance against treachery, then ordered him to join the Yorkist army with his contingent, which Stanley reluctantly did.

The antagonists met at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22nd, 1485, but Stanley was still undecided, and kept his contingent to one side of the field while waiting to see which side looked like a winner. A livid Richard III sent Stanley a message, threatening to execute his son unless he immediately attacked the Lancastrians, only for the Earl to reply: “Sire, I have other sons“.

Richard ordered Stanley’s son executed, but the order was not immediately carried out, and before long it was too late, when at made up his mind that King Richard was losing the battle, and ordered an attack – against Richard and the Yorkist forces. That double cross decisively tipped the scales in favor of Henry Tudor, and against Richard III, who launched a final desperate attack seeking to reach and cut down his challenger, only to get cut down himself.

Following Richard’s death, Stanley found his fallen crown in some shrubs, and personally placed it on the head of Henry Tudor. Henceforth Henry VII, Stanley’s stepson and the new king of England, who brought the Plantagenet dynasty to an end after centuries of rule and replaced it with his own Tudor dynasty, generously rewarded the treacherous earl for his double cross.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Arminius statue, photo by Rouven Kegel. Pintrest

Arminius and the Romans

Arminius (circa 18 BC – 19 AD) was a German leader of the Cherusci tribe who committed one of history’s most momentous double-crosses, transforming him into a Roman villain and a German national hero. His gigantic statue and memorial, the Hermannsdenkmal, stands today near Detmold in Westphalia, close to the site of his double-cross.

Arminius was a Romanized German who rose to command an auxiliary cohort. He won the admiration and confidence of the Romans, who granted him their citizenship and high social status, enrolling him in the equestrian, or knightly, class. He was posted to the Rhine, where he served under Publius Quinctilius Varus, a Roman general related by marriage to emperor Augustus, who tasked Varus with completing the conquest of Germania up to the Elbe river.

Varus’ approach was heavy-handed, however, worsened by the imposition of onerous taxes on the German tribes, which incited them to revolt. That was when Arminius realized he was more loyal to his fellow Germans than to his Roman employers. In 9 AD, acting as Varus’ guide, he lured him and his army into an ambush, known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, in which three legions were annihilated, and Varus was forced to commit suicide to escape the ignominy of capture.

The catastrophe shocked Rome, and in its aftermath, Augustus took to roaming his palace, banging his head against the wall and wailing “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” Aside from ruining the tranquility of Rome’s greatest emperor in his twilight years, the disaster halted Roman plans for expansion into Germania and deep into Central Europe.

The impact of Germania’s remaining outside the Roman empire went beyond its becoming a future springboard and highway for the waves of barbarians who eventually destroyed the empire: the region was not Latinized in the way Gaul was, and the resultant cultural and political differences were reflected in the centuries of antagonistic relations between the French and Germans, which played a significant role in shaping Europe.

12 of History’s Greatest Back Stabbers and their Dramatic Consequences
Bust of Marcus Junius Brutus. Livius

Marcus Junius Brutus and Julius Caesar

Perhaps best known as the addressee of Julius Caesar‘s final words and lines, “Et tu, Brute?” from Shakespeare’s play, Marcus Junius Brutus (85 – 42 BC) was the Roman dictator’s friend, son of his longtime mistress, and the most famous of his assassins. Incongruously, Brutus’ father had been betrayed and murdered by Pompey the Great, yet he ended up fighting under Pompey’s command against Caesar.

Following his father’s murder, Brutus was raised by his uncle Cato the Younger, a conservative reactionary who became an avowed enemy of Caesar, whom Brutus initially supported, only to turn against him when he started viewing him as a would-be king. When Caesar invaded Italy in 49 BC, Brutus went against him and joined the ranks of his enemies, fighting under Pompey.

However, Cesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, after which Brutus surrendered, and was pardoned and restored to favor. Brutus’ resentment against the dictator and his mother’s lover remained, however, and when a faction of Roman Senators formed to do Caesar in, Brutus eagerly accepted their invitation to join their secret group, which styled itself “The Liberators”. Brutus was a great symbolic catch, because he was a descendant of Lucius Licinius Brutus, the Roman Republic’s founder who had chased the last king out of Rome.

On the Ides of March in 44 BC, Brutus delivered a stab wound to Caesar during his assassination that day. The assassins were pardoned by the Senate, but a riot soon thereafter forced Brutus and his coconspirators to flee Rome. The following year, Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew and heir, Octavius, got that amnesty revoked, and had the Senate declare the dictator’s assassins murderers. Civil war erupted again and ended with the assassins defeated at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, after which Brutus committed suicide rather than fall in Octavius’ clutches.

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