La muerte del verdugo; Reflexiones interdisciplinarias sobre el cadáver de los criminales de masa [The Death of the Executioner; interdisciplinary reflections on the dead body of mass criminals]. Edited by Sévane Garibian. Buenos Aires: Míño y Davíla, 2016. Paperback, 268 pp. ISBN 978-84-16467-63-1.

In 1980, a couple went on holiday to Spain with their two girls, ages three and five. They went to a site popular among tourists and locals alike, but it was a cool, vast, inanimate place and the girls were not quite sure why people would visit such an austere site. At one point in their visit, the father instructed his young girls to walk across a concrete surface with words cut into it. Bored with their tour and wanting to please their father, the girls danced and giggled across the decorated ground.

Leaving the site, the father told the girls the story of the Spanish Civil War and the dictator Francisco Franco – only recently deceased. The girls were surprised and a bit frightened to learn about the cruelty of the dictator. “It is for that reason”, explained the father, “that I instructed you to walk across the top of his grave.” My wife told me this story. She was the five-year-old girl.

La muerte del verdugo is a collection of essays about the deaths and postmortem “lives” of mass killers: dictators and tyrants who commanded the disappearance and deaths of many of those under their rule. The book is a Spanish translation of the original French, and is divided into three sections according to the mode of death of the verdugo (lit. executioner): natural or suspicious death (Pol Pot; Idi Amin and Jean-Bedel Bokassa; Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet; Slobodan Milosević); judicial execution (Nazi leaders; Saddam Hussein); and extrajudicial execution (Talaat Pashá; Benito Mussolini; Osama Bin Laden; Muammar Gaddafi).

The subject is fascinating; the title somewhat problematic. “Mass criminals” is a vague and uncommon term (in the original French, Spanish or English). Given the subject, “criminals” is probably better expressed as “killers” (asesinos). More specifically, though, the subjects under study in the book were sociopolitical leaders, and not just any “criminals”. Mass criminals could include the mass shooters or so-called lone-wolf terrorists in the United States who are responsible for dozens, or even hundreds, of deaths, usually during a single moment (in contrast with serial criminals, who repeatedly commit crimes over a longer period, which also reflects the acts of those profiled in the book). Further, the Spanish translation “criminales en masa” is understood by the context, but immediately and involuntarily brought to my mind the insensitive – considering the topic – image of crooks implicated in the theft of corn flour (masa in Spanish). This problem is less one of translation than one of language in general, because of the new terrain that the book explores, following the relatively young yet rapidly developing international criminal law, and the lagging social, legal and scientific treatments (and experimental translations) of the complex subject. I spent a lot of time thinking about the title, speaking to native speakers of French and Spanish (including some who work on investigations of murderous tyrants), as well as a professional translator,1 coming up with only the slightly more specific, though still imprecise “mass killers” (asesinos masivos) instead of “mass criminals” (criminales de masa).

La Muerte del Verdugo is a timely publication with popularity surrounding investigations of death, and some chapters are a compelling sort-of forensic investigation of historic documentation and testimony on the deaths and postmortem treatment of political mass killers (e.g., Didier Musliedlak on Benito Mussolini). The preface for the Spanish version, written by lawyer, activist, and Human Rights scholar Juan Méndez, is distinct from that of the French version, though the chapters are the same in both language editions.

In general, the book fulfils its subtitle’s namesake as “multidisciplinary”. However, the book is dominated by questions of law, as demonstrated by the prologue and by chapters such as the one by Frédéric Mégret on Osama bin Laden. Some chapters, however, are much more anthropological explorations of responses to the death and postmortem treatment of notorious leaders (e.g., Anne Yvonne Guillou on Pol Pot, which is a tremendous example of the vagaries and multiplicities of culture, contrasting the physical juxtaposition of a casino on the border with Thailand with the tomb of the Cambodian genocidaire).

A positive artefact of the original French and now Spanish translation is that the authors have accessed sources that are in many cases more directly connected to their subjects than we find with Anglophone treatments (e.g. French interest in Pol Pot, Jean-Bedel Bokassa and Muammar Gaddafi; Spanish interest in Francisco Franco and Augusto Pinochet). This is similar to the rich and stimulating work in funerary bioarchaeology (archéothanatologie) by Henri Duday, only some of which, unfortunately, has been translated into English.

Some questions of language are not a problem of translation, but rather conscious or unconscious decisions about how the authors chose to describe the deaths of their subjects and those who they killed. Clearly the jurists among them recognise the importance of choosing words according to precedent and context: “the death of Bin Laden” versus the killing of Bin Laden, the latter term used by Frédéric Mégret. In my own research on killings and exhumations of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, I have been exposed to great debate on the use of language: the ambiguous and passive “death”, as opposed to the actor-implicated “shooting” and the more accusatory “summary execution”, “extrajudicial execution” and “assassination”. In one case, a colleague pointed out the deliberate use of a lower case “f” when referring to “franquistas” (francoists, those who followed Francisco Franco) as a way of trying to reduce them from their status as proper nouns. Journalist Robert Fisk, who as a foreign correspondent for the British daily The Independent interviewed one of the verdugos featured in the book (Osama Bin Laden) repeatedly (three times), reminds his readers of the politics of language in killings and justice (e.g., who is considered a terrorist and who a freedom fighter – Fisk 2007, 2017). Muriel Montagut’s chapter on Muhammar Gaddafi also emphasises this. She recounts Gaddafi’s extrajudicial execution, facilitated by French (and other foreign) military intervention, highlighting the tremendous contrasts in reactions of political leaders and newspapers in many different countries.

Two early, consecutive chapters are comparative studies, each looking at the leaders of two countries: in one instance, Uganda’s Idi Amín Dada and the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bedel Bokassa; and in the other, Augusto Pinochet and Francisco Franco. The comparison of two different leaders in the same chapter is useful and interesting, and the latter explores the stark contrast in the postmortem treatment of the bodies of the deceased dictators. Here, as much as from any other chapter, the reader benefits from the legal expertise of the author, who carefully lays out the influence of national and international movements and legislation that impact how each of the countries memorialise leaders with such controversial legacies.

The following chapter examines the death of Slobodan Milosevic. The author, Florence Hartmann, laments that Milosevic “evades” judgement as an executioner (141 – se deshace de su estatus de verdugo), by dying a “natural” death (some allege that he provoked his own death by misusing heart medication) before a verdict was delivered in court. She does, however, note that some sense of justice was served through the enumerating and documenting of his crimes in over one million pages while he was on trial. The feeling of justice evaded is understandable coming from someone who worked as the spokesperson for the UN tribunal’s Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who brought Milosevic to court. However, despite the absence of a conviction due to a “premature” death, I wonder how many celebrated what could be seen as a sort of expedited Socratic and just death. For those who favour corporal and capital punishment, it might have been a more satisfactory result than life in a Dutch prison.

Nicolas Patin’s chapter about Nazi leaders is thorough and, frankly, jarring. He recounts name after name of those hanged, many publicly (though not the 12 sentenced during the Nuremberg trials) and sometimes in front of thousands of spectators. Göring objected to the punishment of hanging, preferring to be put before a firing squad. After his objection was dismissed, he was found dead in his cell, having committed suicide with a potassium cyanide capsule. If we needed a reminder of why studying the past matters, we witnessed it in November of this year as former Bosnian Croat Slobodan Praljak publicly poisoned himself upon the confirmation of his sentence of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (Garibian 2017). Patin briefly discusses the fascinating debate among allied forces about trial and punishment (hanging or guillotine were the established methods for those sentenced to death). When else do we hear about the bureaucratic debates that shape such dramatic ends? The question of what to do with the bodies of those executed after the Nuremberg trials was not settled until a week before their hangings, the allied forces deciding to incinerate the bodies and dump them in a river to avoid pilgrimages of followers, as had happened with Mussolini (and what enabled the clandestine exhumation and transfer of Il Duce’s body by followers, as detailed by Musiedlak). There is also a jolting revelation that connects with another of the verdugos: Phalangists (fascist followers of Francisco Franco) in Madrid arranged a religious mass for the “martyrs” of Nuremberg on 26 October 1946 (162). This serves as a comparative parable about how the treatment and perception of the dead (or how they “live after death”), can be impacted by events elsewhere. These connections help us understand the Spanish government’s hesitation to remove a funerary monument in a Madrid cemetery that honoured Nazi combatants who died fighting for the Francoists during the Spanish Civil War, even despite repeated calls by the Germany Embassy in Spain to remove the monument (Jones 2017).

Editor and author Sévane Garibian delivers a great, far less familiar story about the assassination of Talaat Pachá and the trial of his killer. Perhaps the lack of familiarity is due to the time passed since the death – this being the earliest of the verdugos examined – but it might also be on account of the debate around how to remember the Armenian genocide (which might not be a debate save for the Turkish state’s vigorous efforts to deny the genocide, in contrast to French criminalisation of denial).

Returning to the chapter on Mussolini, we are reminded of the political uses of dead bodies (a term wonderfully explored by Catherine Verdery way back in 2000 and referenced by Garibian in her introduction to the book). This was a significant concern of the partisans after they had executed the Duce and his lover Clara Petacci. The doubt cast by the communist telling of the death of Mussolini provoked, in the 1980s, 1990s and again in 2006, reviews of the photographs from the original autopsy. The repeated reviews of the deaths contradicted the “official story” about the circumstances of Mussolini’s execution and remind us of the dangers of historical documentation and political influence over thereof. The chapter, full of intrigue, culminates with a 2010 auction in Texas, where the wife of an American army captain sold a suitcase with the clothing of Mussolini and Petacci, which the dictator and his lover had allegedly packed while fleeing the partisans.

On the back cover of the book, the editor Garibian asks: “When and how did these criminals die?” Each of the chapters answers these questions. She then asks: “What to do with their bodies? How do we understand their legacy (herencia), our memory of them and of their crimes?” Several chapters give only a light treatment of these issues, and I wonder if this is because of the legal orientation of the book: is it because once the sentence has been delivered and you are dead, the case is closed? If so, this stands in contrast to archaeological orientations focused on postmortem evidence. In some ways this is understandable given that some of the deaths are very recent (e.g., Gaddafi, Bin Laden). That the editor has posed the questions, however, leads us to consider our interpretations of past leaders as seen through historic and archaeological evidence. In one thousand years from now, inferences that might be made about some of the verdugos will only be evidenced by the bodies of their victims – those they tried to make disappear – preserved in mass graves, because their own bodies have been made to disappear through the judgement of those who survived them. La muerte del verdugo is a pleasure to read. Just as the subjects and authors are interdisciplinary, the book will be of great interest and a valuable resource to readers of various disciplines.


1          Thanks to Jarrah Strunin of Business English Consultants in Bogotá for insight on the subject.


Fisk, R. 2007. “Robert Fisk: Please Spare me the Word ‘Terrorist’”. The Independent, 3 February. Available online:

Fisk, R. 2017. “I’m All for War Crimes Trials in The Hague – So Long as We Agree to Prosecute Every Possible War Criminal.” The Independent, 28 September. Accessed at:

Garibian, S. (ed.) 2016. La muerte del verdugo; Reflexiones interdisciplinarias sobre el cadáver de los criminales de masa. Buenos Aires: Míño y Davíla.

Garibian, S. 2017. “Le suicide de Praljak, ou les limites de la justice international.” Le Temps, 11 December. Available at:

Jones, S. 2017. “Guernica Massacre: Madrid Removes Facade that Glorified Nazi Role.” The Guardian, 26 April. Available at:

Verdery, K. 2005. The Political Lives of Dead Bodies. New York: Colombia University Press.

Derek Congram
University of Toronto