tvSmarter – Life in a TV Nation

A Short History of Torture

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The uses of Torture in:

Tribal Societies,

Feudal Societies,

Democratic Societies,

and Modern Dictatorships


In inter-tribal warfare, some war-like tribes (like the Iroquois) were known for torturing to death any captured warriors. This was done to inspire fear in their enemies and for entertainment purposes. Other, more peaceful tribes rarely engaged in torture.


Under feudalism, the use of torture expanded, to become not just a tool of warfare, but also an important way for rulers to keep their subjects under control.

The Middle Ages were a brutal, violent time, during which most people felt that torture was necessary for maintaining order. Torture was also considered a form of entertainment with torture and executions often being done in public to an appreciative audience.

In classical feudalism, the majority of people were extremely poor and powerless, controlled and exploited by a small minority of royalty and nobles (with knights used as enforcers). To keep in power, brutal practices were essential.

From the biography Peter the Great (page 262):

The seventeenth century, like all the centuries before and since was a time of hideous cruelty. Torture was practiced in all countries and for a variety of crimes, particularly those against the sovereign or the state. Usually, since the sovereign was the state, any form of opposition from assassination down to the mildest grumbling against him was classified as treason and punished accordingly. But a man could also be tortured and killed for attending the wrong church or for picking a pocket.

Throughout Europe, those who touched the person or the dignity of the king suffered the full fury of the law. In France, in 1613, the assassin of Henri IV was torn to pieces by four horses in the Place de l’Hotel de Ville in front of a huge crowd of Parisians who brought their children and their picnic lunches. A sixty-year-old Frenchman had his tongue torn out and sent to the galleys for insulting the Sun King. Ordinary criminals in France were beheaded, burned or broken alive on the wheel. In Italy, travelers complained of the public gallows: “we see so much human flesh along the highways that trips are disagreeable.”

In 1698 in Russia, a coup was attempted, but was stopped by Peter the Great’s supporters. Afterwords, Peter had the traitors executed, and those he suspected of being part of the conspiracy were tortured horribly for months, until he finally decided that they were, in fact, completely innocent.

This demonstrates two things about torture. Number one, this mass display of brutality, cemented his power, no one dared to go against him ever again. Number two, that by 1699 torture was starting to be considered barbaric:

In the West from which Peter had so recently returned and where he hoped to build a new image of his country, the news was shocking. Even the common understanding that a sovereign could not tolerate treason was swept away by reports of the scale of Preobrazhenskoe tortures and executions. Everywhere it seemed to confirm the beliefs of those who had said that Muscovy was an incorrigibly barbarous nation and its ruler a cruel Oriental tyrant.

That Peter was aware of how the West would regard his actions was shown by his desire to conceal the tortures, if not the executions, from the foreign diplomats in Moscow.

The Enlightenment

The invention of the Printing Press in 1440 slowly transformed Europe, paving the way for the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century. According to Wikipedia: “The Enlightenment is held to be the source of critical ideas, such as the centrality of freedom, democracy, and reason as primary values of society.”


Democracy is a very important outcome of the Enlightenment. And appropriately, the United States Constitution specifically bans “cruel and unusual punishment”.

Even when the United States was under real threat from England during the War of Independence, and during WWI and WWII, torture was not sanctioned by the government or by the public.

John Adams argued that humane treatment of prisoners and deep concern for civilian populations not only reflected the American Revolution’s highest ideals, they were a moral and strategic requirement. His thoughts on the subject, expressed in a 1777 letter to his wife, might make a profitable read for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as we endeavor to win hearts and minds in Iraq. Adams wrote: “I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this — Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won’t prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed.”

Even British military leaders involved in the atrocities recognized their negative effects on the overall war effort. In 1778, Col. Charles Stuart wrote to his father, the Earl of Bute: “Wherever our armies have marched, wherever they have encamped, every species of barbarity has been executed. We planted an irrevocable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measure will be able to eradicate.”

Modern Dictatorships

Modern dictatorships are very similar to feudal societies in the sense that a small minority controls and exploits the large majority using extremely brutal means. For example:

– Chile under Pinochet

What followed was violent repression on a massive scale: Pinochet’s regime defined elements of the Chilean population as an ideological enemy—the “subversive”—and targeted individuals who fit this profile. According to the Valech Report on Political Imprisonment and Torture (2004), at least 27,255 people were tortured from 1973-1990. Approximately 2,603 people were killed or “disappeared”, although an additional 1,000 still remain unaccounted for.

– Burma under Military Regime

Torture techniques used by Burma’s security services to terrorize the regime’s opponents are revealed in unprecedented detail in a report released today. Based on the testimony of 35 former political prisoners, it describes beatings, electric shocks, burning with lighters, water tortures and attempts to use dogs to rape male prisoners.

Telegraph – Prisoners Reveal Horror of Torture in Burma

– Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc show trials

The article describes basic Soviet N.K.V.D. (later K.G.B.) methods: isolation in a small cell; constant light; sleep deprivation; cold or heat; reduced food rations. Soviets denied such treatment was torture, just as American officials have in recent years:

Interrogators looked for ways to increase the pressure, including “stress positions”: Another [technique] widely used is that of requiring the prisoner to stand throughout the interrogation session or to maintain some other physical position which becomes painful. This, like other features of the KGB procedure, is a form of physical torture, in spite of the fact that the prisoners and KGB officers alike do not ordinarily perceive it as such. Any fixed position which is maintained over a long period of time ultimately produces excruciating pain.

It is no coincidence that liberal democracies have, in no uncertain terms, repudiated and banned torture for being very much against the values of the Enlightenment, and a threat to Democracy.

And it is no coincidence that repressive regimes throughout history have embraced torture. Torture is an essential tool that no dictatorship can do without.

For more on torture in history see:

Torture… An Unnecessary Post, Part Two (or was Isaac Newton a torturer?)

Rumsfield, torture and Wistleblowers


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