Treason is defined as the act of betraying one’s friend, a cause, a trust, or a country. In legal contexts, treason means the crime of betraying one’s country; it may include trying to kill the supreme leader or attempting to overthrow the government. People have been committing treason since the beginning of time. Here are some of the most notorious traitors in history and their infamous acts:
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. Nowadays, 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 Cassisus.
Eventually, Cassius had to persuade his friend Brutus, 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?” (translated to mean “You too, Brutus?”) may be fictional as it was thought up by Shakespeare, but it otherwise conveys 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, a Protestant, by blowing up Westminster Palace. Catesby and his group secured a lease to a storage room where they stashed 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 – where he would 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, where he died in 1801.
Some of the most famous traitors from the 20th century up to present:
1. 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.
Now you will know where the word “quisling” comes 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.
3. 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. He, instead, served 9 ½ years in prison.
4. Jane Fonda
Sometimes people are being branded as a traitor not for their outright treacherous actions, but for their sentiments. The best example here is the Academy Award-winning actress Jane Fonda, who is also a political activist. During the heat of the Vietnam War in 1972, Fonda sympathized with North Vietnam and its government. She posed with Vietnamese soldiers with their guns, and “questioned” American POW’s regarding the “humane” treatment they were getting from their captors.
She then went on to denounce that all American soldiers were “liars.” Naturally, Fonda’s remarks met with outrage back home, and no less than Gen. John McCain accused her of being a traitor. Fonda wasn’t charged with any crimes upon her return to the US, but she claimed to be regretful over her actions.
5. 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 – 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.
6. 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 imprisoned at a federal prison in Pennsylvania.