In 2016 ninety countries and two territories retain the death penalty for certain crimes, with retentionist countries spread across the globe in Europe, Africa, North and South America, and Asia. Amnesty International claims that roughly two thirds of the world’s countries have abolished capital punishment, stating that in the course of the last decade an average of three countries a year “abolished the death penalty in law or, having done so for ordinary offences, have gone on to abolish it for all offences.”
Undoubtedly the trend seems to be that capital punishment is in decline. Exactly when and where this trend started however, is perhaps a surprise.
Since ancient times the death penalty has been a punishment for certain crimes. In the eighteenth century BCE the Code of Babylonian king Hammurabi listed the death penalty as punishment for twenty five different offences, although not for murder. Capital punishment was used in Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, and by the medieval period it was well established in European, African and Asian societies. The execution methods themselves took on a variety of ghastly forms, from drowning to being hanged, drawn and quartered.
30th November 1786 marked the first time in European history that a country permanently abolished the death penalty. At a time just a few years before Europe was changed irrevocably by the explosion of the French Revolution and other popular uprisings in the name of progress, it is perhaps surprising that this groundbreaking reform actually came from a member of the Habsburg Dynasty.
Leopold II served as Grand Duke of Tuscany from 1765 to 1790, before inheriting the title of Holy Roman Emperor following the death of his brother: Joseph II. His time as ruler of Tuscany saw him implement a host of changes, removing restrictions on personal freedoms that had been put in place by his predecessors: the Medici, and lowering the rates of taxation to a fairer, rational system. Most shocking of his reforms however, was the abolition of capital punishment.
Prior to 1786, Leopold had blocked any executions in Tuscany, meaning the death penalty hadn’t been exercised there since 1769, the year before he took power. In 1786 he moved to make the change permanent, reforming the penal code to see capital punishment abolished and having all equipment that could be used for execution destroyed. Torture was also outlawed in one of the most striking examples of enlightened absolutism – a period in European history when rulers from Charles III of Spain to Catherine the Great of Russia attempted to govern with the inspiration of the Enlightenment.
Tuscany proved to be the exception rather than the rule. The French Revolution and its aftermath saw a massive upsurge in executions as the Guillotine went to work. In Britain meanwhile, some two hundred and twenty crimes were punishable by death by the late 1700s, although the severity of the punishment meant juries would often acquit if they felt it excessive for the crime. In 1823, five laws were passed to exempt roughly a hundred crimes from the death penalty. Between 1832 and 1837 further reforms saw capital punishment removed as the punishment from more crimes, though in 1840 an attempt to completely abolish the death penalty was blocked.
Throughout Europe campaigns continued for the abolition of capital punishment, yet change was slow to come about. Britain, France and Germany all retained the death sentence until long after the Second World War. In the case of Britain, although 1965 legislation saw capital punishment no longer applied in murder trials, one could officially be executed for treason as late as 1998. West Germany officially abolished capital punishment in 1987 (although the last execution had taken place in 1949). In France, the last execution took place in 1977, the death penalty itself abolished in 1981.
Capital punishment is now exceedingly rare in Europe. In Russia the death penalty has been indefinitely suspended, meaning the country is abolitionist in practice. As such, Belarus is the only country on the continent that still practices it.