Treason is an act of betraying one’s friend, a cause, a trust, or a country. In legal contexts, treason is any form of action that helps a foreign country attack, make war, overthrow, or otherwise injure the traitor’s own country.
People have been committing treason since the beginning of time and these betrayals come in many different forms. Traitors have different motives, different intended consequences, and they can range from forgivable to the notoriously nefarious. Here are some of the great acts of treason in history.
1. Judas Iscariot
Judas Iscariot is undeniably the worst of all the apostles and considered as one of the most controversial figures in Christian history.
According to traditional accounts, Jesus had been the target of arrest by the high priests, and Judas led Jesus to the garden where he betrayed him to the awaiting soldiers with a kiss. Jesus was then charged and later found guilty with blasphemy. He then was brought to Pontius Pilate who meted Jesus a death sentence. As we all know, that led to his crucifixion and death. Later, Judas was so full of remorse that he decided to return the money (however, the priests refused to accept it) and then killed himself by hanging. In the present time, the word “Judas” means a traitor, and “kiss of Judas” (or “kiss of death”) refers to an act of betrayal.
Roman general and senator Julius Caesar appointed himself as Rome’s “dictator for life” which didn’t appeal to fellow general and senator Cassius.
Eventually, Cassius had to persuade his friend Brutus, who was also a general and senator, to conspire in one of the most (in)famous assassinations in history. Caesar was also Brutus’ best friend. However, Brutus’ sense of duty and honor prevailed so on the Ides of March, he led a group of senators and stabbed Caesar to death.
The famous quote “Et tu, Brutus?” which means “You too, Brutus?”, may be fictional as it was thought up by Shakespeare, but it otherwise conveyed Caesar’s emotion quite well. According to Greek historian Plutarch, Caesar pulled his toga over his face when he saw Brutus among the senators who attacked him. Caesar never uttered a single word before dying.
3. Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes was an English soldier and a devout Catholic. He was also known as Guido Fawkes, a name he adopted when he fought with the Spanish Catholics against the Protestant Dutch during the Eighty Years’ War.
His name is synonymous with the botched Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605. Following his return from Spain, Fawkes encountered Robert Catesby and Thomas Wintour who were making plans to assassinate King James I who was a Protestant, by blowing up Westminster Palace. Catesby and his group secured a lease to a storage room where they stashed some gunpowder. Fawkes was in charge of guarding the storage room.
However, the plot was soon discovered, leading to Fawkes’ arrest when he was caught guarding the storage room. He was then tortured and sentenced to death. He was supposed to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. But just before being executed, Fawkes, with his neck tied, leapt off from the scaffolding and hanged himself.
4. Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold was a successful merchant when the Revolutionary War broke out. Following his enlistment in the army, he went on to become a successful commander. He was behind the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and became a major force behind the victory at the Battle of Saratoga, one of the most crucial battles during the war.
Despite his heroism, Arnold was passed over for promotion in favor of other officers who claimed credit for his military achievements. Furthermore, he was humiliated by his rivals. Frustrated and disillusioned, Arnold decided to change sides and started negotiating with the British. In 1780, Arnold was appointed to head West Point, one of the most important forts during the war. He had made a deal with the British where he promised he would sell the fort to them. However, the plot was soon exposed and Arnold was eventually convicted of treason. Not surprisingly, he later swore allegiance to Great Britain and fought against the Americans. He spent the remainder of his life in London, and died in 1801.
5. Wang Jingwei
Chinese politician Wang Jingwei was initially a left-wing member of the Kuomintang Party (Chinese Nationalist Party) when China was still a Republic. He was a close ally of Sun Yat-Sen who had been his longtime mentor.
Following Sun’s death in 1925, Wang struggled with Chiang Kai-shek for control in the Kuomintang, but lost. Despite his disagreements with Chiang, Wang remained in the party. When the Japanese forces invaded China in 1937 (sparking the Sino-Japanese War), this was where Wang’s treacherous motives arose. He made a deal with the Japanese where he agreed to establish a Japanese-supported puppet government in Nanjing. Wang became its leader until he died in 1944, just a year before the Japanese surrendered to the Allied forces. Wang Jingwei’s name has been synonymous as a traitor in China since then.
6. Vidkun Quisling
Now you will know where the word “quisling” came from. Norwegian bureaucrat Vidkun Quisling first served as the country’s Minister of Defense. In 1933 he resigned from his post to establish a fascist party known as the National Union Party.
In 1940, Nazi Germany invaded Norway and handily toppled the Kingdom. Quisling made a deal with Hitler by making sure that the latter would conquer Norway while at the same time he appointed himself as the country’s leader. But Quisling was eventually relegated into a puppet, while the Nazis went on to rule Norway in absolute authority. However, that didn’t prevent Quisling from sentencing nearly a thousand Jews to death.
Quisling was perceived as a power-hungry but otherwise weak leader who made a fool of himself, even in front of his Nazi cohorts. When Germany surrendered in 1945, Quisling was arrested, tried, found guilty of his war crimes, and eventually executed by a firing squad on October 24.
7. The Rosenbergs
Husband-and-wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the first Americans to be executed on grounds of espionage. Both Communist sympathizers, the Rosenbergs joined forces with Soviet spy Alexander Feklisov. They were involved in espionage against the American government, acting as moles by providing top-secret information to the Soviet Union.
The Rosenbergs were arrested and charged with treason for selling nuclear secrets to Soviet agents during the Cold War. They were executed on June 19, 1953.
It turned out that Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass (a member of the team who worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos), supplied information to Julius. Greenglass was also caught as a spy by the FBI, but was not executed. Instead, he served nine and a half years in prison.
8. Robert Hanssen
Robert Hanssen started his career as an FBI agent in 1976. Three years later, he became a Soviet (later Russian) spy which lasted until his arrest in 2001. With his vast knowledge of the ins and outs of the FBI, Hanssen began selling US secrets to Soviet (Russian) intelligence agents which is clearly an act of treason. Hanssen was finally turned in to the FBI by fellow employee Mark Wauck, who also happened to be his brother-in-law.
Hanssen is presently serving 15 consecutive terms of life imprisonment at ADX Florence, a federal supermax prison in Colorado. He remains in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.
9. Aldrich Ames
Aldrich Ames is a former CIA agent who was charged and convicted of espionage against the US in 1994. He was a heavy drinker with a materialistic second wife who longed for a lavish lifestyle. So in order to give his wife that lifestyle, he did the unthinkable: he became a Soviet spy.
Ames revealed the identities of over 100 CIA agents and provided other counterintelligence information to the Russian agents, for vast sums of money. He earned approximately $4.6 million from his acts of betrayal. He is known to be responsible for the deaths of 10 CIA assets. He and his wife’s excessive lifestyle led the CIA to suspect him. He was later arrested and convicted of treason. He currently serves a life sentence and is imprisoned at a federal prison in Pennsylvania.
10. Doña Marina
Doña Marina or also known as La Malinche, was a Nahua woman from the Mexican Gulf Coast who was sold into slavery at a young age. She worked as a courtesan to Hernan Cortes as he and the Spaniards started their conquest of the Aztecs in 1519. In a few weeks, Cortes found out that Marina had the linguistic skills necessary to serve as a translator. She was familiar with the Aztec language, as well as Mayan and Spanish which made her an essential and valuable asset to Cortes. Eventually, Cortes fathered a son with her.
To a lot of indigenous tribes and some Mexican people, Marina was considered as the ultimate traitor. They saw her as a woman who betrayed her own people and used her unique position to inform Cortes’ decision and make his conquest possible.
11. Mir Jafar
Mir Jafar was an aspiring leader from the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-Ud-Dalah. Robert Clive from the British East India Company made a deal with Mir Jafar in 1757 and agreed to hand over the Bengali army at the Battle of Plassey. That was in exchange for control of the new puppet state.
The new puppet state paid large bribes to the Company and its official with Mir Jafar as its Nawab. After a couple of years, Mir Jafar realized that the British were also after the total control of the Indian subcontinent. With this, he attempted to ally with the Danish to stop them. However, that only resulted in defeat and Mir Jafar was replaced.
The replacement of Mir Jafar also attempted to stop British domination but it failed and was overthrown. In 1765, Mir Jafar was placed back on the thrown, having regained the graces of the British until his death in 1765.
He was considered as a disgrace to the faith, to humanity, and to the nation. Mir Jafar and treason against Bengal began the British rule in India. That’s why he was known as Gaddar-e-Abrar, or Betrayer of the True Faith. His name is still synonymous with treason in Bengali as well as in Urdu.
12. Mordechai Vanunu
Mordechai Vanunu was a nuclear technician in the 1980’s for the state of Israel who claimed to pursue nuclear power for civilian purposes only. In 1986, he leaked details of the Israeli nuclear weapons program to the British press and confirmed the world’s fear that Israel possessed nuclear weapons.
After that, he was lured to Italy by Mossad, drugged him, and abducted him. Vanunu was whisked away from Israel and there, he was tried and convicted behind closed doors. He spent a total of eighteen years in prison, eleven of which in solitary confinement. When he was released, he has been subject to a plethora of strict regulations. This led him to proclaim to the Nobel Peace Prize committee regarding his nomination.
Even though he was considered a traitor, he is internationally regarded as a hero of the nuclear proliferation age. He received a lot of accolades which includes a Nobel Prize nomination.
13. Marshal Pétain
Marshal Pétain or also known as Philippe Pétain, was a French general officer. At the end of the First World War, he attained the position of Marshal of France. But after France’s defeat in World War II, he was convicted as a traitor for heading the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.
After the German Invasion of France, Pétain took over as premier from Paul Reynaud. He proceeded to sign an armistice with Germany. With the support of Germany, he was able to establish a Fascist-oriented government in Vichy, central France which started some of the darkest chapters in French history.
The collaboration of Vichy with the Nazis extended to every aspect of life from the political to the cultural and most notoriously, in the passing of anti-Semitic laws. In this law, the French, Spanish, and Eastern European Jews were rounded up and deported to German concentration camps. Pétain fled to Germany with the Allied victory. However, he later returned to France to stand trial for treason. He was found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment to Ile d’Yeu which is an island off the coast of Brittany. It was also where he died.
Human history indeed has been dotted with self-serving traitors as well as collaborators who have betrayed their people and nations. But in the end, majority of them were not able to enjoy the fruits of their betrayal for long.