There are a lot of hated people in military history and no one is more hated than a turncoat. Even the troops on a traitor’s new side will never trust them entirely — after all, they turned their back on their own country for personal gain. How trustworthy can they be?
This list details the most notorious, most gut-wrenching, most fatal backstabs in military history. These are direct betrayals of historical figures, in alphabetical order.
There are no abstract judgement calls (like naming Judas Iscariot), no political statements (like calling out Nixon for extending the Vietnam War), and no traitors for good causes — Rommel tried to kill Hitler, but that’s hardly “notorious.”
1. Emilio Aguinaldo
Aguinaldo fought many foes to liberate the Philippines and its people, including the Spanish and the Americans. Once captured (he was actually betrayed by his own men) and released, he would wear black to mourn lost Philippine independence. When the Japanese brutally occupied the island, you’d think he’d go right back to fighting invaders killing Filipinos.
You’d be wrong.
He made radio addresses and speeches, imploring the Americans and Filipinos to surrender on Bataan in the hopes of getting the Japanese to make him President of their puppet government. The people ignored him.
When the U.S. retook the islands, he was jailed as a collaborator. Although remembered as the first President of the Philippines, “Japanese collaborator” is a huge stain on his anti-colonialist résumé.
2. Benedict Arnold
The name Americans love to hate. His name is so synonymous with the word “traitor” in the U.S., calling someone a “Benedict Arnold” can still cause fists to fly over 200 years later. Arnold wasn’t a bad general — his skills were critical to early American victories, especially at Saratoga. However, Arnold felt passed over and used.
Instead of pressing on and waiting for his day to come, he offered to surrender West Point to the British in exchange for money and a general’s commission in the British Army. The British didn’t get West Point, though, because Arnold’s plan was discovered and he escaped to British lines.
3. Ephialtes of Trachis
This is the guy who the historian Herodotus says betrayed the Greeks at Thermopylae. It was there the outnumbered Greeks formed a bottleneck in the pass between the Malian Gulf and the “impassable and precipitous” mountain to the west.
Herodotus’ account says Ephialtes showed the much-larger Persian army a “single-wheel track” that ran behind the Greek lines. Once surrounded, the Greeks were, of course, slaughtered.
4. Qin Hui
While Europe was busy obsessing with who was in charge of everyone else, in China, Jurchen raiders from the north were having their way with the Song Dynasty and running off with its emperor. That’s when a general named Yue Fei had enough. He crushed the Jurchens in fight after fight, trying to win back the emperor.
Then, Qin Hui convinced the replacement emperor that a Yue Fei victory meant a much shorter time on the throne. Yue is recalled and eventually executed for treason. Predictably, losing their best general also meant losing their dynasty.
Yue Fei was exonerated after death. These days, the region where Fei was buried houses statues of Qin and his wife, bound and on their knees, so people can throw things at them for eternity.
5. Mir Jafar
Britain ruled India for almost 200 years. How is it possible for such a small, far-away country to invade and conquer one of the richest, most populous places in the world? The answer is Mir Jafar.
At the Battle of Plassey, Robert Clive of the British East India Company bribed Mir Jafar to betray the Indians in Bengal in 1757. His mid-combat betrayal allowed 3000 British troops to best the Nawab of Bengal’s army of 50,000. The British captured Calcutta, then moved on to the rest of India.
Jafar was made the new Nawab. Today, Jafar’s name is equivalent to the American “Benedict Arnold” and the European “Quisling.”
6. Vidkun Quisling
Nothing makes a traitor more heinous than collaborating with the Nazis. Quisling was the President of Norway from 1942 until the end of WWII. While most presidents in Europe end their tenure with a wave and a smile, Quisling’s ended with a trial and execution for carrying out the “Final Solution” in Norway.
A former Norwegian Army officer, Quisling declared a coup during the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. Having already met with Hitler, he was reasonably sure this coup would put him in control. He was wrong. Eventually the Nazis made him “Minister President,” subordinate to a Nazi official.
7. Andrey Vlasov
Vlasov’s entire career in the Red Army was made by turning terrible units and armies into formidable fighting forces. He cut his military teeth in the Bolshevik Revolution and by the time WWII came around, he was the epitome of a combat-hardened veteran. So, when the Nazis invaded the USSR, Vlasov’s troops were the only ones seeing success.
It was arguably Vlasov’s direction that saved Moscow. But during his defense of Leningrad, Vlasov was captured by the Germans. It was while evading the Nazis that he realized that Bolshevism is the enemy of the Russian people.
After his capture, he detailed to the Germans how the Russians could be defeated. Using anti-Communist Soviet citizens, they created the Russian Liberation Movement, and later the Russian Liberation Army.
They were the only Eastern Front divisions with major successes against the Red Army in the closing days of WWII. If Nazis had not betrayed them over and over, they might have pushed the Red Army back.
Vlasov was eventually captured by the U.S. Army and handed over to the Russians. You can probably guess what happened after that.