5 Famous Traitors Who Define the Word “Treason”

January 7, 2010

Treason is a very serious crime, which is often punishable by death. In fact, it is so serious that it is the only crime which is defined in the U.S. Consitution. However, the definition of treason does vary from country to country, and has changed over time. For example, back in the 14th century, it was considered an act of treason to “imagine the death of our lord the King, or of our lady his Queen or of their eldest son and heir.” In modern-day Palestine, it is considered an act of treason to sell land to Jews, even if they’re not Israeli citizens. Hell, I’ve even been called a traitor for switching to a Mac despite the fact that all of my training is in Windows. With such varied definitions of treason, this list could have reached into the thousands, but I want to focus on people whose actions are treasonous without question. Thus, individuals like Nathan Hale and Gavrilo Princip were left off the list. Here’s my list of 5 famous traitors.

Philippe Pétain: Pétain’s is a story of a fall from grace. The French hero of World War I, he achieved the rank of Marshal of France between the World Wars. This is similar to the ceremonial rank that Gen. John Pershing received in the U.S. With his success and popularity, Pétain was encouraged to enter politics, but initially was not interested. However, by 1940, the French were waging a war against Nazi Germany, and Pétain was elected Chief of the French State, with the hope that his military background would help France prevail. With high hopes, Pétain took office in the summer of 1940, and proceeded to surrender to Germany a few weeks later. Pétain then moved the capital to Vichy, rolled back many of the liberal reforms of the French Third Republic, and assisted Nazi Germany throughout World War II. After the war, Pétain was convicted of treason, stripped of his military rank, and sentenced to death. However, due to Pétain’s advanced age and role in World War I, French President Charles de Gaulle commuted his sentence to life in prison. Pétain died in 1951, at the age of 95.

Vidkun Quisling: This was another World War II Nazi collaborator, although this time, the story takes place in Norway. Unlike Pétain, though, Quisling’s role should come as no surprise as he was the founder of the fascist political party, Nasjonal Samling (National Gathering), which was modeled after Hitler’s Nazi party. When Germany invaded Norway in April 1940, Quisling attempted a coup to overthrow the Norwegian government. The coup failed, and Quisling had to wait until the German occupation, which began in 1942, to take power. However, that power was in name alone, as Quisling’s government was only a puppet government of the Nazis, and very unpopular with the Norwegian people. Quisling was eventually captured on May 9, 1945, and executed on October 24, 1945. Today, Quisling’s name is synonymous with treason and collaboration, as illustrated in Max Brooks’ zombie novel World War Z, in which human survivors who went insane and behaved like zombies were called “quislinqs.”

Marcus Junius Brutus: Before the rise of the Roman Empire, there was the Roman Republic, whose principles are the basis of almost every republic that has followed, including the United States. The Roman Republic was based on the separation of powers, checks and balances, and had a decentralized form of government. However, Julius Caesar put an end to this with his reign, as he aimed to centralize the government, by proclaiming himself dictator for life. The Senate, alarmed at the turn of events, formed a conspiracy led by Brutus in which they would assassinate Caesar in order to protect the republic. Despite the fact that Caesar and Brutus were friends, Brutus led the attack, which culminated in Julius Caesar’s assassination on March 15, 44 B.C. Although Caesar’s actual last words are unknown, an often quoted line from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is, “Et tu, Brute? (even you, Brutus?). The Roman Republic subsequently sank into a series of civil wars, which actually hastened the formation of the Roman Empire (talk about the law of unintended consequences!) “What happened to Brutus,” you ask? During one of the civil wars, Brutus raised an army to capture Rome but was defeated. Knowing his fate, Brutus committed suicide in October 42 B.C.

Judas Iscariot: Although Judas Iscariot did not actually betray a head of state or his country, the term Judas has come to be synonymous with traitor. Judas was friend of Jesus, and one of his twelve disciples. As Jesus spread his message, he lost favor with the Jewish high priests, who considered his teachings blasphemous. When they finally decided to arrest him, it was nearly Passover, which the high priests decided would be incredibly unpopular, so they decided he should be arrested the night before Passover. The priests, knowing Judas’ love of money, approached him and offered 30 pieces of silver if he would deliver Jesus to them. Judas obliged, and led the arresting soldiers to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus and the rest of the disciples were camped out. After the arrest, Judas was so riddled with guilt that he returned the money and then hanged himself. Judas’ legacy would live forever, though, as the word traitor literally means “one who delivers,” as Judas delivered Jesus.

Benedict Arnold: What discussion of traitors would be complete without a mention of Benedict Arnold? The most notorious of American traitors, Arnold’s story actually begins with him as a Revolutionary War hero. As a colonel, he led the Connecticut militia, alongside Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, to the capture of Fort Ticonderoga. Eventually, Arnold achieved the rank of general and had a series of successes on the battlefield including the Battle of Saratoga. Unfortunately, he felt his accomplishments were overlooked by the Continental Congress, and that his contemporaries stole credit for his achievements. Fed up with how things were going, Arnold agreed to surrender West Point to the British in 1780, but the plot was exposed before it could be carried out. Arnold managed to elude capture, and was welcomed with open arms and given a commission of brigadier general by the British. He subsequently fought against the revolutionaries, and even had some successes against them, but his military career was cut short after the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781. After the war, Arnold moved to Canada, and later to London. When he died in 1801, Arnold was given a state funeral without military honors. For this reason, Arnold’s place in history is somewhat ambiguous; he is considered a hero in Britain, and the vilest of all traitors in America.

“I recognize in thieves, traitors and murderers, in the ruthless and the cunning, a deep beauty – a sunken beauty.” -Jean Genet