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Famous or infamous traitors or, perhaps patriots?

Updated on February 14, 2016

The most famous traitor ever?

When Jesus Christ was hanged on the cross in 33 A.D., the people who hammered in the nails and the authorities who sentenced him to death believed they were executing a vicious traitor. The Romans had sentenced him for threatening to set up a rival kingdom to that of Caesar. The Jewish Sanhedrin believed he was a blasphemer and a traitor against their religion and their God. Christians have a different belief. To them, He is the Saviour of the World and the foundation of their faith. Jesus is actually the most famous example of a person who can be regarded as, either a great benefactor to humanity, or a dangerous and treacherous criminal. It all depends on whether you are looking at Him from the point of view of the legitimate authorities in His day, or His followers, who worship Him in our day.

There have been many more such people throughout history. I thought it might be interesting to list a few of them and give short sketches on why they are famous or infamous. Each of them will point out the truism, that one person's traitor is another person's Patriot. I'm leaving it to the reader to decide which they individually are.

Execution of a famous traitor?


Was Jesus a traitor?

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Brutus was the Roman who stuck the final knife into Julius Caesar. To Republicans in Rome, he was a great hero and the bloody trust of the dagger was a strike for freedom. But Caesar was the legitimately appointed dictator for life. His death led to a succession of vicious civil wars and Rome still ended up being ruled by emperors. So was the assassination of Julius Caesar a body blow against dictatorship, or was it just a futile last attempt by political dinosaurs to turn back the inevitable evolution of governance in the Roman Empire? You decide.

Brutus, murdering traitor or patriot?

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King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell

King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland was beheaded on a scaffold outside his own Palace of Whitehall in the year 1649. He had been tried for and convicted of making war on his own people. King Charles, however, believed that he was standing up for the principal of legitimate authority in the state, as represented by himself as King. Up until Parliament challenged that belief, by putting him on trial, it was the bedrock on which all authority in the country rested.

The forces that were arraigned against King Charles during the English Civil War were led by General Oliver Cromwell. He was also one of the principal movers in pushing for the trial of the King. During the 1650s Cromwell ruled the Commonwealth of England as Lord Protector, until his death in 1658. He believed he was standing up for the rights of Parliament and the people but when the monarchy was restored in 1660 his body was disinterred and hanged as a traitor.

So who was the traitor here? King Charles was standing up for the principles of government that had been accepted until his time. Oliver Cromwell was rebelling in order to establish something resembling the systems of being ruled that we live under now. Each of them was a traitor. It just depended on which political system you believed in.

Oliver Cromwell and Charles I. Which one was the traitor?


Who was the traitor, Charles I or Cromwell?

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George Washington

George Washington was the general who led the colonial forces in British North America when they fought a successful war of independence against the forces of the British government. He subsequently became the first President of the United States and the capital city of that country bears his name. To patriotic Americans, he undoubtedly is a great hero. He fought for the rights of people to govern themselves and for “no taxation without representation”. But if you were a British administrator trying to collect taxes from the colonists, to pay for the expenses of the Seven Years War, which was largely fought for the defence of the same colonists, you might think differently. Equally, if you were one of the 70,000 Unionist refugees who were forced to flee to Canada after the United States was set up, you might not have thought too highly of George Washington either.

So which was he, a great Liberator or a treacherous rebel?

Washington crossing the Delaware. Traitor or Liberator?


Was George Washington a great patriot or a treacherous rebel?

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Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, 1st Prince de Bénévent is one of the more controversial figures in history. He was very prominent in France around the end of the 18th and for the first few decades of the 19th century. He served in succession, Louis XVI, the Directorate, the Empire under Napoleon I, the restored Bourbon monarchy and the monarchy of Louis Philippe, which followed it. He had also been a bishop in the Catholic Church and he turned against that religion during the French Revolution. He betrayed each of his political masters in turn, except for Louis Philippe and it is arguable that he would have betrayed him also, if he had lived to do so.

There are those, however, who regard Talleyrand as a great French patriot. They say he always stood for the interests of France first and his duty to his political employers second. For instance, he betrayed Napoleon when that Emperor invaded Russia. Undoubtedly, that invasion was a step too far and it brought destruction and annihilation on the French Empire. After the Imperial period Talleyrand served Louis XVIII and Charles X until he “jumped ship” to Louis Philippe in 1830. Charles X had been making himself unpopular by becoming increasingly autocratic.

The question is, was Talleyrand truly devoted to the best interests of the French people, or was he just an opportunistic serial traitor? History has been divided on the subject ever since.

What was Talleyrand, a lover of his country or a serial traitor?

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Patrick Pearse

In the year 1916 Ireland was politically an integral part of Great Britain and Great Britain was fighting in World War I in a desperate conflict against Imperial Germany. Thousands of Irish men were fighting in the British Army at the time. But there had also always been a strong element of Irish nationalism, which regarded the connection with Britain as an enforced union with the oppressor. The great majority of Irish nationalists supported the United Kingdom at the start of the Great War. In April 1916 a breakaway faction of militant nationalists, led by Patrick Pearse, occupied buildings in the centre of Dublin and proclaimed the Irish Republic. They fought for a week and large areas of the centre of the city were in ruins, when they surrendered. The rank and file were jeered by the populace when they were been marched off to prison.

The British authorities executed almost all the leaders of the rebellion, including Patrick Pearse, within a few weeks. This had the effect of turning them from being traitors in the public mind, to great patriots. Support for Irish independence rocketed within the country and was largely achieved within six years. An Irish Unionist will regard Patrick Pearse as a fanatical traitor. A nationalist will consider him almost a saint. Which is he?

Patrick Pearse. Did he try to save his country or stab it in the back?


Did Patrick Pearse save his country or stab it in the back?

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Vidkun Quisling.

Vidkun Quisling is the most notorious person in the whole of the history of Norway. He was the leader of a very small right-wing party in that country during the 1930s. He had hardly any representation in the Norwegian Parliament. But he went to Germany and was made much of by Hitler and his Nazi colleagues. Quisling became a great supporter of the German dictatorship. When Germany invaded Norway in 1941, Quisling was the first choice of the aggressors, to form a puppet Norwegian government. When King Haakon VII refused to appoint him Prime Minister, the Germans installed him anyway and the Norwegian King and government had to go into exile for the duration of the war. When freedom was restored in Norway, Quisling was tried and executed as a traitor and a murderer. His name has become so notorious now, that “Quisling” is the term applied to anyone who collaborates with the aggressor when a country is invaded.

Apologists for Quisling still maintain that, in subordinating the government of Norway to the invaders, he was saving many Norwegian lives. I don't feel I can agree with these people. Do you?

Was Quisling a traitor or was he trying to save his country?

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Claus von Stauffenberg

On July 20, 1944, the German leader, Adolf Hitler, was holding a meeting of his advisers his field headquarters at Rustenburg East Prussia. A trusted army officer called Claus von Stauffenberg placed a bomb in a briefcase, underneath the table and then he quickly left the room. The device exploded but Hitler only suffered some cuts and bruises. In the meantime some top officers in the German Army tried to stage a coup d'état. The attempt failed and all the conspirators, including von Stauffenberg, were executed; some are in a very cruel manner. Claus von Stauffenberg has been held up, ever since, as an example of great bravery and patriotism. Technically, though, he did try to assassinate his legitimate commander-in-chief. Hitler had actually been appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg. Adolf Hitler regarded von Stauffenberg as a traitor to his country. Was he right to do so?

A slightly harder one here.

Is it right to murder someone for your, percieved, good of your country?

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Marshal Petain

Philippe Pétain was a famous general in the French army during World War I. When Germany invaded France in the Second World War, he was Prime Minister of the country. He quickly made peace with the invader and remained as head of state of France for the duration of the conflict. The French people who opposed the occupation of the country were led by Gen Charles de Gaulle. After the war, Marshal Petain was tried as a traitor and sentenced to life imprisonment. But was he really a traitor? He had been appointed to his position legitimately by President Lebrun. He wasn't the only French person to collaborate with the Germans during the war either. Opinion remains divided very much in France, on Marshal Petain.

Should Marshal Petain be honoured as a great general, or decried as a traitor?

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