May 5, 1945 Changing Sides

On this day in 1945, a motley group of civilians joined forces with American GIs and a handful of Wehrmacht soldiers to fight the fanatics, of the Nazi SS.

According to the CDC, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States second only, to heart disease. The #3 leading cancer afflicts the lungs, and bronchi.

In 1878 a scant 1 percent of all malignant tumors occurred in the lungs. Mass production and mass marketing of cigarettes, changed all that. By 1918, that number had increased to one in ten.

The American Cancer Society first published studies confirming the link between lung cancer and smoking nearly a decade after World War 2. British epidemiologist Sir Richard Doll was knighted in 1971 for similar research but the earliest such work, occurred in Nazi Germany.

German physician Fritz Lickint first wrote in 1929 of the connection between smoking, and lung cancer. Ten years later German scientist Franz Müller presented the first epidemiological study linking tobacco use, and cancer.

When Nazis came to power, the new government would tolerate no threat to the health of the Aryan “master race”. Hitler himself quit a two pack a day habit back in 1919. Benito Mussolini quit smoking and drinking, in his 20s. For the fascist states anti-smoking, became a crusade.  By the start of WWII der Führer had a standing offer of a gold watch to anyone among his inner circle, who quit the habit. 

“Brother national socialist, do you know that your Fuhrer is against smoking and thinks that every German is responsible to the whole people for all his deeds and omissions, and does not have the right to damage his body with drugs?”

Adolf Hitler

In 1942, Itter Castle became headquarters for the “German Association for Combating the Dangers of Tobacco”.

Schloss Itter (Itter Castle) in July 1979. Photo by S.J. Morgan.

Itter Castle appeared in the land records of the Austrian Tyrol as early as 1240.  When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Schloss Itter was first leased and later requisitioned outright by the German government for unspecified “Official use”.

Nazi anti-smoking Propaganda
Nazi anti-tobacco propaganda

By April 1943, Itter became a prison for individuals of value to the Reich.  Among these were the tennis player Jean Borotra and former French Prime Ministers Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud.  Former commanders-in-chief Maxime Weygand and Maurice Gamelin were interned in Schloss Itter as was Marie-Agnès Cailliau, the elder sister of Charles de Gaulle. 

A number of Eastern Europeans were likewise imprisoned at Itter, mostly employed in maintenance and other menial work around the castle.

In the early weeks of 1945, the 23rd Tank Battalion of the American 12th Armored Division fought its way across France, through Germany and into the Austrian Tyrol.  27 year-old 1st Lieutenant John “Jack” Lee Jr. was leading the three tank “Company B’, spearheading the drive into Kufstein and on to Munich.  The unit had just fought a pitched battle at a German roadblock before clearing the town.  With lead elements of the 36th Infantry moving in to take possession on May 4, Lee’s unit could finally take a rest.

3 May 45 French and Belgian soldiers as well as civilians shake the hands and greet Yanks entering Innsbruck 824th TD

Back at Itter, the last commander of the Dachau concentration camp, Eduard Weiter, had fled his command and made his way to the safety of Itter Castle.  Weiter was murderedon may 2 by an unnamed SS officer, for insufficient devotion to the cause.  Fearing for his own life, Itter commanding officer Sebastian Wimmer fled the Castle on May 4, followed by his guards.  The now-former prisoners of Schloss Itter were alone for now but the presence of SS units in the area made it imperative. They had to do…something. 

By this time, Wehrmacht Major Josef Gangl and a few of his soldiers had changed sides, joining the Austrian resistance in Wörgl against roving bands of SS fanatics, then in possession of the town.

While his fellow prisoners broke into the weapons room and armed themselves with pistols, rifles, and submachine guns, Zoonimir Cuckovic, AKA “André”, purloined a bicycle and went looking for help.

André’s mad bicycle ride resulted in the one of the strangest rescues in military history. Lieutenant Lee tapped eight volunteers and two tanks, his own “Besotten Jenny” and Lt. Wallace Holbrook’s “Boche Buster.”  Riding atop the two Shermans were six members of the all–black Company D, 17th Armored Infantry Battalion, a couple crews from the 142nd Infantry Regiment and the Wehrmacht’s own Josef Gangl with a Kübelwagen full of German soldiers, bringing up the rear.

Kübelwagen

It was late afternoon as the convoy left for Castle Itter.  Leaving Boche Buster and a few Infantry to guard the largest bridge into town, what remained of the convoy fought its way through its last SS roadblock in the early evening, roaring across the last bridge and lurching to a stop in front of Itter’s gate as night began to fall. 

Inside of Itter prisoners looked on, in dismay.  They had expected a column of American tanks and a heavily armed infantry force.  What they had here, was a single tank with seven Americans, and a truckload of armed Germans.

The castle’s defenders came under attack almost at once, by harrying forces sent to assess their strength and to probe the fortress for weakness.  Lee ordered French prisoners to hide inside but they refused, remaining outside and fighting alongside American and German soldiers.  Frantic calls for reinforcements resulted in two more German soldiers and a teenage Austrian resistance member arriving overnight, but that would be all.

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The Totenkopf, or “Death’s head” units was the SS organization responsible for concentration camp administration for the Third Reich and some of the most fanatical soldiers of WWII.  Even at this late date SS units were putting up fierce resistance across northern Austria.  On the morning of May 5 100 to150 of them, attacked Schloss Itter.   Fighting was furious around the castle, the one Sherman providing machine-gun fire support until being destroyed by a German 88mm gun.  By early afternoon Lee was able to get a desperate plea for reinforcements through to the 142nd Infantry, before being cut off. 

Aware that he’d been unable to give complete information on the enemy’s troop strength and disposition, Lee accepted a gallant offer of assistance from the resident tennis pro, Jean Borotra.

Jean_Borotra

Literally vaulting over the castle wall, the tennis star ran through a gauntlet of SS strongpoints and ambushes to deliver his message, before donning an American uniform to help fight through to the castle’s defenders.  The relief force arrived around 4pm, even as defenders were firing their last ammunition.

100 SS were captured.  Lee later received the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions.  Josef Gangl was killed by a sniper while attempting to move Prime Minister Reynaud, out of harm’s way. 

So ended the first and only battle in which Americans and Germans fought, side by side. Representatives of Nazi Germany signed the unconditional surrender, two days later. Today, there’s a street in Wörgl, which bears the name of Josef Gangl. 

Paul Reynaud didn’t like Jack Lee, remembering the American Lieutenant as “crude in both looks and manners”.  “If Lee is a reflection of America’s policies”, he sniffed, “Europe is in for a hard time”.  How very…French…of him.  All that and he never did get to learn the lyrics, of the Horst Wessel song.

May 4, 1838 King of Cons

“I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what.
This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us”

In January 1848, a carpenter and sawmill operator named James Marshall discovered gold on the American River near Coloma, California.  Some 300,000 flocked to the “Golden State” over the next few years from the United States and abroad, in search of fortune. For most, the “California Gold Rush” was tedious, dirty and difficult work.  For Jefferson Randolph “Soapy“ Smith and his merry  band of grifters, it was easier simply to fleece the miners out of their hard won gains through rigged poker games, scam three-card Monty and a catalog of petty deceits. 

Between 1869 and 1872, the German actress and amateur “banker” Adele Spitzeder became the wealthiest woman in Germany, handsomely rewarding suckers…err…investors, with cash derived from new marks. Sarah Emily Howe ran the same con throughout the 1870s and ’80s through the “Ladies Deposit Company”, of Boston.

In the 1920s, Italian swindler Carlo Ponzi elevated this “rob Peter to pay Paul” scheme to such heights as to have the scam, named after himself. In the classic Ponzi scheme, early investors are paid above-average returns with the proceeds coming from new investors.

The wisely skeptical among us may question the legitimacy of consistently spectacular returns on investment but the money is real. Until it isn’t, and then heaven help the person left without a chair, when the music stops. For investors with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities company, the music stopped in 2008 with early losses estimated at $18 billion dollars.

For New York’s Tammany Hall, the machinations of William Magear “Boss” Tweed elevated political corruption to such dizzying heights that the cost to taxpayers of building a single courthouse, nearly doubled that of the Alaska purchase.

Yet, in all the annals of humbuggery these are as nothing, a mere spark compared with the rising of a malign sun that was the “Cazique of Poyais”, Gregor MacGregor, the man who “sold” a continent. Or at least, part of one.

Between 1807 and 1814, a coalition of Spain, the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Portugal went to war with the French forces of Napoleon Bonaparte for control of the Iberian peninsula.

Gregor MacGregor of the clan Gregor was a Scottish soldier and adventurer, an officer of the Peninsular war at the ripe old age of 16, the youngest age it was permitted to do so.

Having little interest in working the seven years required to become Captain, MacGregor prevailed upon the substantial dowry of his wealthy wife Maria Bowater and purchased the rank of Ensign and finally, Captain.

In 1810, a running feud with a superior officer caused MacGregor to resign his commission and receive a refund of the £1,350 he’d paid to become an officer. In 1811, actions of 57th Foot soldiers at the Battle of Albuera earned considerable prestige for the regiment and the nickname, “Die-Hards”. MacGregor would make much of his association with his former unit even though the man had been gone by this time, for a year.

The now 23-year old MacGregor moved into a house rented by his mother in Edinburgh for a time where he adopted the title of “Colonel”, and took to referring to himself as “Sir Gregor MacGregor, Bart“.

The latter is a term of nobility equivalent to a Baronet, indicating chieftainship among the clan, Gregor.

Despite parading about in extravagant finery and a badge indicating membership in an elite order of Portuguese knights, Edinburgh society failed to take notice. So it was the MacGregors moved to London, where an entirely fanciful family tree filled with Dukes and Barons, had the desired affect.

Being the kept man of a wealthy wife has its advantages but disaster struck, in 1811.

Maria Bowater MacGregor died that December. With her went the income and the support of the influential Bowater family. Most especially Maria’s father the Admiral who wasted no time in punting his now-former son in law.

For Gregor MacGregor, options were limited. Too soon to announce an engagement with any sense of decency to another heiress, a return to soldiering made sense. But not with the home team. Not after that ignominious departure, back in 1809. So…what about South America?

Since Napoleon’s 1807 invasion, Spain was beset with problems, at home. Inspired by the United States’ recent independence from Great Britain, Spanish colonies from Peru to Mexico rose up.

Venezuela was embarked on a full scale revolution at this time when General Francisco de Miranda visited London. And didn’t the man cut a dashing figure through London society, with all that military finery.

It’s unclear whether the two met at this time but, for MacGregor, this was the answer. Gregor MacGregor arrived in Venezuela in April 1812 and headed directly for Caracas. There, Miranda was delighted to entertain such an accomplished British military officer…a member of the famous “Die hards”, no less.

With Maria dead a scant six months back at home, MacGregor married the heiress of a prominent Caracas family and a cousin of the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, Doña Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, that June.

Venezuelan independence was a forlorn hope. General Miranda was captured and carted off to Spain, destined to end his days in a prison cell, in Cádiz.

Now “Colonel” MacGregor skedaddled with Josefa to the Dutch island of Curacao and on to Jamaica before returning to South America and accepting the rank of Brigadier General in service to New Granada, Venezuela’s neighbor to the west.

MacGregor’s South American military career is best remembered for a 34-day nation-wide retreat pursued by two Royalist armies and a hare-brained invasion of Amelia Island in Florida, resulting in the short-lived “Republic of the Floridas”. Then there was that time under fire in Porto Bello Panama, when he paddled out to his ships on a log and sailed away, abandoning his men to a miserable life, in captivity.

“Part of the fort at Porto Bello, Panama, where MacGregor abandoned his troops led by Colonel William Rafter in April 1819” – H/T Wikipedia

Even then there were those who proclaimed the “New Xenophon”, a latter-day Hannibal come forth to liberate the new Carthage. One of the more perspicacious New Granadan officials took the opposite view: “I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us“.

In 1820, MacGregor happened upon the Mosquito Coast (aka “Miskito), a swampy and inhospitable wilderness spanning the coasts of modern day Nicaragua, and Honduras. There, MacGregor persuaded a leader of the indigenous tribes to grant him land, to found a colony.

Woodcut depicting the non-existent “Black River Port”, of Poyais

Besotted with dreams of empire, MacGregor told tales back on British soil, of the independent Kingdom of “Poyais”. A land of vast wealth and welcoming natives where a man might work for a day and provide for his family, for a week. A land where he himself was “Cazique” or Royal Prince, a prestigious honor bestowed by none other than King George Frederic Augustus himself, of the Mosquito Coast.

The Cazique of Poyais set about recruiting settlers and investors, raising a dizzying £200,000, a sum equivalent to nearly 12 million, today. Settlers were invited to exchange their pounds sterling for Poyais dollars, the notes conveniently printed by none other, than Gregor MacGregor.

Seventy settlers departed England in the Autumn of 1822 bound for the tropical paradise, of Poyais. Another 200 followed a few months later only to be met by desperately poor natives, the bedraggled survivors of the earlier expedition and two American hermits.

Some evacuated to Honduras while fifty returned to England arriving in October, 1823. Inexplicably, most refused to blame MacGregor for the disaster. Even so, with Poyais dominating the headlines, the Cazique wisely performed a disappearing act. Across the channel to France where he ran the very same scam, this time raising £300,000.

French authorities got wind of the racket, impounding the ship and trying MacGregor, for fraud. Still unrepentant, the man was acquitted while an “associate” was convicted, in his stead.

“La Force Prison in Paris, where MacGregor was detained from December 1825 to July 1826, before his trial and acquittal” H/T Wikipedia

Back in England, MacGregor was re-arrested but released in a week, without charges. He persuaded the firm of Thomas Jenkins & Company to issue a new bond in the amount of £300,000, many believing the earlier debacle to be the result of someone else’s embezzlement. There followed another bond issue, this time amounting to £800,000. It was generally regarded as a humbug by this time, not that anyone ever thought to doubt the existence of Poyais itself. It’s just that those previous bonds, had failed to generate a profit.

Gregor MacGregor continued to dine out on the same sting but, by this time, the Poyais fix had seen its best days. An attempted sale of a few land certificates in 1837 marks the final appearance of the Poyais con.

Left: Poyais stock certificate, part of an £800,000 loan package, 1827

Josefa died on this day in 1838 in Burghmuirhead near Edinburgh. MacGregor immediately departed for Venezuela where he applied for reinstatement of his former rank, complete with back pay and a pension, of course. With MacGregor’s contributions to the Venezuelan Republic having been “heroic with immense results”, the Scotsman’s petition was approved in March, 1839. He settled in Caracas and died peacefully at home in December, 1845. The Cazique of Poyais was buried with full military honors at Caracas Cathedral with Presidente Carlos Soublette leading the procession, marching behind MacGregor’s coffin followed by a phalanx of cabinet ministers and military chiefs.

Back in Scotland, the Glenorchy Kirkyard near Loch Katrine has served as the ancestral burial ground for the Gregor clan, since 1390. There you will find an “octagonal-shaped Gothic church with its square tower and pointed stained-glass windows [set] in a peaceful graveyard on top of a knoll” according to find-a-grave.com. There is no mention of Gregor MacGregor nor of the tropical paradise, of his invention.

May 3, 1915 Lest we Forget

“We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields”. – John McCrae

800px-Lieut.-Col._John_McCrae,_M.D.
Dr. John McCrae

John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of the “Great War” in 1914, he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41. Based on his age and training, McCrae could have joined the medical corps, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This was to be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. McCrae fought one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic bloodletting that lasted more than two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

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Stop and imagine for a moment, please, what this looked like, what this smelled like, in color.

On May 3, Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. He performed the burial service himself, when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. Sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance the following day, just north of Ypres, he composed this verse.  He called the poem, “We Shall Not Sleep”. 

Today we remember John McCrae’s composition as:

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen and, over a long career, worked in nearly every part of the peach state’s education system.

In 1918, Michael was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal she came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918.  Two days before the armistice.

49a1160c9141869ce025a820a599ef56--flanders-field-lest-we-forget

John McCrae was in a grave of his own by this time having succumbed to pneumonia, while serving the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, in Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat due to the sandy, unstable soil.

Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part:

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response, a poem, on the back of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life brought about by the Great War, the “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, this was a war where the death toll from many single day’s fighting exceeded that of every war of the preceding century, military and civilian, combined.

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Since that time, the red poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance, lest we neglect to remember the lives lost in all wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. A reminder that no free citizen of a self-governing Republic should ever forget where we come from. Nor the price paid by our ancestors, to get us to this place.

May 2, 1536 Anne of a Thousand Days

Henry VIII went on to have four more wives after Anne Boleyn, none of whom, bore the coveted male heir. Ironically, Henry himself may have been the problem.

Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, came to England in 1501 to marry Arthur, heir to the British throne and eldest son of Henry VII. The future King died the following year leaving his younger brother to take the throne and ask for the hand of his brother’s widow, in 1509.

The Spanish princess-turned Queen Consort of England was by all accounts a devoted wife, but the marriage bore no sons. Catherine had borne six children by this time including one surviving daughter, Mary Tudor, but there was no male heir. Henry came to believe, or said he believed, it was God’s punishment for marrying his brother’s wife.

Henry VIII

The King carried on for a time with a succession of mistresses. Elizabeth Blount bore Henry the coveted male heir in the person of Henry Fitzroy, the only child born out of wedlock his father, acknowledged. Next came Margaret (Madge) Shelton and later her 1st cousin Mary Boleyn, who is reputed to have borne the King two children though Henry acknowledged, neither.

By late winter 1526, Henry had cast his eye on the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, Anne. Henry in a pickle. Catherine considered her marriage to the King to be legitimate, and indissoluble. Anne Boleyn was not about to give it up as a mere mistress, as her sister had. She was going to be the King’s wife, or remain a Lady in Waiting.

Anne Boleyn

Henry had written a book back in 1521, allegedly with the assistance of Sir Thomas More, a future saint of the Catholic church. The Book, Defence of the Seven Sacraments, attacked Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, then going on in Europe. The book earned Henry VIII the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, bestowed by Pope Leo X.

Half a decade later Pope Clement VII refused to grant, Henry’s annulment. Henry retaliated closing monasteries and nunneries, in England.

Henry and Anne were secretly wed in November 1532 and formally married on January, 25. The newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine null and void to which the Pope responded, with excommunication. The break with the church of Rome was now complete as Henry VIII became head, of the Church of England.

Later writers would label Anne Boleyn “the most influential and important queen consort England has ever had” but, the label would do her little good. In three short years of marriage, Anne bore King Henry a daughter who would live to adulthood to become Queen Elizabeth I, and three miscarriages.

Left: 20th century painting depicting Anne Boleyn deer hunting, with Henry VIII

Henry lost interest by 1534 following the birth of a stillborn male child. He began having affairs with other women. By April 1836 Henry had his sights on Jane Seymour while having Anne “investigated” for adultery, incest and plotting to kill the King.

Anne Boleyn was arrested on this day in 1536 and brought, to the tower of London.

In Tudor courts the accused were required to prove their own innocence, 180° opposite what we now regard as a system of “justice”.  With no defense council nor even a clear idea of the charges laid against them, the defendant was made to provide their own defense in a spectacle before a crowd, numbering in the thousands.

Scene from the British period drama, Anne of a Thousand Days

Four supposed co-conspirators were tried before a special court of oyer and terminer.  As members of the aristocracy Anne herself and her brother George were tried separately.  

Even her detractors spoke well of Anne’s appearance in court.  George’s openly speculating about Henry’s virility and questioning paternity of the baby Elizabeth, did little to help the defense.  

A jury hand selected by the prosecution, each of whom had reason to favor conviction, delivered the verdict.  Guilty on all charges.  The sentence, death at the time, place and manner, of the King’s choosing.

In this case decapitation by sword, the sentence carried out on May 19. The following day, Henry VIII was engaged to Jane Seymour.

Henry would go on to have four more wives none of whom, bore the coveted male heir. Ironically, Henry himself may have been the problem. Researchers revealed in 2011 that Henry’s blood group may have been “Kell positive”, referring to the Kell antigen on the red blood cell of approximately 9% of all Europeans.

The presence of the Kell antigen would have initiated an auto-immune response in the mother’s body, targeting the blood of the baby inside of her. First pregnancies are unlikely to be affected but the mother’s antibodies would attack second and subsequent Kell-positive pregnancies, as foreign objects.

The science to prove or disprove the theory didn’t exist in the Tudor era, but it may not matter. Anyone attempting to bring such news to Henry VIII, very likely would have paid for it, with his head.

May 1, 1852 An Awful Language

“In early times some sufferer had to sit up with a toothache, and he put in the time inventing the German language”. – Mark Twain

Planning a business trip from Sunny Cape Cod™ to Presque Isle Maine I found myself pondering. What shall I do with the eternity it will take me to get there or six hours, fifty minutes, whichever comes first. I hit upon the idea of learning German, and why not? Books on Tape are free at my local library. I shall arrive at my meeting with mind fresh and horizons expanded by new adventures, in learning.

Right.

I emerged from my rolling dungeon some seven hours later, blinking like a marmot, flummoxed, exhausted and thoroughly convinced, of my own inadequacy. How the hell is anyone supposed to learn that stuff?

Turns out, I was not alone. No less a giant of the literary world than Mark Twain once said a person of modest gift could learn English in 30 hours, French in thirty days and German, in thirty years.

“I would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.”

Mark Twain

Consider for example, verb separation. The German verb ankommen is a separable verb, a trait wisely shunned by the rest of the world’s 6,500 languages save for Dutch, Afrikaans and Hungarian:

a. Sie kommt sofort an. she comes immediately at – ‘She is arriving immediately.’
b. Sie kam sofort an. she came immediately at – ‘She arrived immediately.’
c. Sie wird sofort ankommen. she will immediately at.come – ‘She will arrive immediately.’
d. Sie ist sofort angekommen. she is immediately at.come – ‘She arrived immediately.’

Hat tip Wikipedia for that one

And forget about Gender. Every noun has a gender in German for which there are no means save brute memorization, to learn. Then it turns out, a young lady has no gender at all while a turnip, does. A fish scale has a gender but a fishwife, an actual female, does not.

Illustration by Max Kellerer from German edition of Die Million Pfund-Note from the Dave Thomson collection

“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech, he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make careful note of the following exceptions.” He runs his eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it”.

Mark Twain, a Tramp Abroad

Take an art class sometime and the first thing you’ll learn about, is perspective. In the German language whole sentences run together into single words so long as themselves, to have perspective. Consider, “Generalstaatsverordnetenversammlungen“. For the German as a second language learner, what does that even mean!?

It’s all in the perspective

‘Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German.’

Mark Twain

Today we remember Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm for their collection of folklore and fairy tales, first published in 1812 and expanded seven times, by 1857. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel. There are few among us not steeped in their work but, did you know. They also wrote the dictionary of the German language? Sort of.

Jacob and Wilhelm, the Brothers Grimm

In 1837, the Brothers Grimm needed to pay the rent. Taking a local publisher up on their offer the first part was released on this day, in 1852. Two years later, the project included ‘A’ through “Biermolke”. (Beer whey). “Biermolke” through E came about in 1860, the year after Wilhelm, died. Jacob died three years later with the last entry, “Frucht,” “Fruit”.

The Grimm brothers project outlived the formation of the German state and two world wars at last coming to completion, in 1961.

The “Deutsches Wörterbuch“, the dictionary of the German language fills a whopping 330,000 headwords in 32 volumes. By way of comparison, the Oxford English Dictionary is enough to make a bookshelf groan, with 20 bound volumes.

124 years in compiling and THAT was all, by native speakers. So, about that 30 years thing, to learn the German language. Sure thing, Mark ol’ pal. Sure thing.