October 16, 1793 Let them eat Cake

Marie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold.  Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

Alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, and treaties were often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770 when Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife Maria Theresa, the formidable Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, married their daughter Maria Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France.

The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was performed by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna while the groom stayed in Paris. At 12 she was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

Marie_Antoinette_girlThere was a second, ceremonial wedding held in May, after which came the ritual bedding. This wasn’t the couple quietly retiring to their own private space.  This was the bizarre spectacle of a room full of courtiers, peering down at the proceedings, to make sure the marriage was consummated.

It was not, and that failure did damage to both of their reputations.

The people liked their new Dauphine at first, but the Royal Court was another story. They had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match, and called Marie Antoinette “The Austrian Woman”.  She would be called far worse.

The stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naive of the shark tank into which she’d been thrown. Relations were especially difficult with the King’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry, and Antoinette was somehow expected to work them out. The King’s daughters, on the other hand, didn’t care for du Barry’s unsavory relations with their father. Antoinette couldn’t win. The sisters complained of feeling “betrayed” one time, when Antoinette commented to the King’s mistress “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”.

Court intrigues were accompanied by reports to Antoinette’s mother in Vienna, the Empress responding with her own stream of criticism. The Dauphin was more interested in lock making and hunting, she wrote, because Antoinette had failed to “inspire passion” in her husband. The Empress even went so far as to tell her daughter that she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

Marie_Antoinette_by_Joseph_DucreuxLouis-Auguste was crowned Louis XVI, King of France, on June 11, 1775. Antoinette remained by his side, though she was never crowned Queen, instead remaining Louis’ “Queen Consort”.

With her marriage as yet unconsummated, Antoinette’s position became precarious when her sister in law gave birth to a son and possible heir to the throne. Antoinette spent her time gambling and shopping, while wild rumors and printed pamphlets described her supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

France had serious debt problems in the 1770s, the result of endless foreign wars, but Antoinette received more than her share of the blame. As first lady to the French court, Antoinette was expected to be a fashion trendsetter. Her shopping was in keeping with the role, but rumors wildly inflated her spending habits. Her lady-in-waiting protested that her habits were modest, visiting village workshops in a simple dress and straw hat. Nevertheless, Antoinette was rumored to have plastered the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds.

The difficult winter of 1788-89 produced bread shortages and rising prices as the King withdrew from public life. The marriage had produced children by this time, but the legend of the licentious spendthrift and empty headed foreign queen took root in French mythology, as government debt overwhelmed the economy.

French politics boiled over in June 1789, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Much of the French nobility fled as the newly formed National Constituent Assembly conscripted men to serve in the Garde Nationale, while the French Constitution of 1791 weakened the King’s authority.

Bastille

Food shortages magnified the unrest. In October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. In June they attempted to flee the escalating violence, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

marie-antoniette-french-historyUnrest turned to barbarity as Antoinette’s friend and supporter, the Princesse de Lamballe, was taken by the Paris Commune for interrogation. She was murdered at La Force prison, her head fixed on a pike and marched through the city.

Louis XVI was charged with undermining the First Republic in December 1792, found guilty and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793. He was 38.

Marie-Antoinette became prisoner #280, her health deteriorating in the following months. She suffered from tuberculosis by this time and was frequently bleeding, possibly from uterine cancer.

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14, subjected to a sham trial whose outcome was never in doubt. She was accused of molesting her own son, a charge so outrageous that even the market women who had stormed the palace demanding her entrails in 1789, spoke in her support. “If I have not replied”, she said, “it is because nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

marie-antoinette over the yearsMarie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold.  Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

“Let them eat cake” is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but there’s no evidence that she ever said it. The phrase appears in the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Les Confessions”, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which Marie Antoinette was subjected, it’s easy to believe that this was more of the same.

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October 9, 768 Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked that “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

In Medieval Europe, most of the government powers that mattered were exercised by a chief officer to the King, the “Mayor of the Palace”.  This Maior Domus, or “Majordomo” was created during the Merovingian Dynasty to manage the household of the Frankish King.  By the 7th century, the position had evolved into the power behind the throne of an all but ceremonial monarch.

In 751, the Mayor of the Palace forced King Childeric III off the throne and into a monastery.  He was the younger son of Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his wife Rotrude, destined to become sire to the founding father of the European Middle Ages.  He was Pepin III, “The Short”.

The Hammer
Charles “The Hammer” Martel who Saved Europe from an Invasion by the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours

Pepin’s first act as King was to intercede with King Aistulf of the Lombards, on behalf of Pope Stephen II. Pepin wrested several cities away from the Lombards, forming a belt of central Italian territory which would later become the basis for the Papal States.  In the first crowning of a civil ruler by a Pope, Stephen anointed Pepin “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans) in 754, naming his sons Charlemagne and Carloman as his heirs.  This was the first vestige of a multi-ethnic union of European territories which would last until the age of Napoleon – the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin died on campaign at age 54, his sons crowned co-rulers of the Franks on October 9, 768. Three years later, Carloman’s unexpected and unexplained death left Charlemagne undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom.

images (3)Charlemagne led an incursion into Muslim Spain, continuing his father’s policy toward the Church when he cleared the Lombards out of Northern Italy.  He Christianized the Saxon tribes to his east, sometimes under pain of death.

Pope Leo III was attacked by Italian enemies in the streets of Rome, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue.  For the third time in a half-century, a Pope reached out to the Frankish Kingdom for help.

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor” on Christmas day in the year 800, in the old St. Peter’s Basilica. The honor may have been mostly diplomatic, as the seat of what remained of the Roman Empire remained in Constantinople.  Nevertheless, this alliance between a Pope and the leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, was nothing short of a tectonic shift in western political power.

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne was “Pater Europae”, the Father of Europe.  German and French monarchies alike have traced their roots to his empire, ever since.

The title fell into disuse with the end of the Carolingian dynasty, until Pope John XII once again came under attack by Italian enemies of the Papacy.  The crowning of Otto I began an unbroken line of succession, extending out eight centuries. Charlemagne had been the first to bear the title of Emperor.  Otto I is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, the date of his coronation in 962, as its founding.

Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000
Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000

Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.

Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection.  After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.

The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years.  Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities.  Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.

Schism and excommunication followed.  Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088.  The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.

The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties.  It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family.  Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.HRE 1500

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked that “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

The Holy Roman Empire became bogged down in struggles of succession in the 18th century. There was the War of Spanish Succession. The War of Polish Succession. The Wars of Austrian Succession and of German Dualism. The Holy Roman Empire peaked in 1050, becoming increasingly anachronistic by the period of the French Revolution. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Franz II, Emperor of Austria and Germany, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the 3rd Coalition by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz, in 1804.

Napoleon sarcastically commented that the German states were always “becoming, not being”. Ironically, the policies of “the little corporal” directly resulted in a rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870.  The polity which emerged would humble the French state in two World Wars.

September 17, 1940 Battle of Britain

Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period, as only he could. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. – Winston Churchill

When the allies invaded Europe in 1944, they had to land on the beach in order to get a foothold. At that point, they controlled none of the European continent. The Nazi war machine had been so successful, that a map of Europe at that time could have been drawn in only two colors. One for the occasional neutral nation, the other for Nazi controlled or occupied territory.

dunkirk2
Allied evacuation of Dunkirk, May 1940

Your eyes would have to cross the English Channel on that map to find a third color, that of Great Britain, which in June of 1940 stood defiant and alone in the face of the Nazi war machine.

Rooftop Observer

In his “Finest Hour” speech of June 18, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin“.

In Germany, street decorations were being prepared for the victory parades which were sure to come, as Hitler considered plans for his surprise attack on his ally to the East, the Soviet Union. After Great Britain and her allies had been hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”.

Battle of britain, children evacuatedGermany needed air supremacy before “Operation Sea Lion”, the amphibious invasion of England, could begin. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring said he would have it in four days.

Military planners of the 1930s believed that “The Bomber will always get through”, and Luftwaffe strategy was based on that assumption. Air Chief Marshal Sir H.C.T. “Stuffy” Dowding, leader of RAF Fighter Command, had other ideas. Dangerously low on aircraft and the pilots to fly them, the “Dowding System” employed a complex network of detection, command, and control to run the battle. The RAF hadn’t the faintest prayer of defending their entire coast, but Dowding’s system allowed them to dispatch individual squadrons to intercept each German air raid.

Battle of Britain, cleaning up
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN 1940 (HU 104718) Workmen carry part of the bullet-riddled fuselage of a Dornier Do 17, alongside the wreckage of other crashed German aircraft at a scrapyard in Britain, August 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205227877

The “Channel battles” beginning on July 10 were followed by a month of Luftwaffe attacks on English air fields. Losses were catastrophic for the RAF, but worse for the Luftwaffe. On only one day during this period, September 1, did the Germans succeed in destroying more aircraft than they lost.

German tactics changed on September 7. For almost two months, Luftwaffe attacks concentrated on cities and towns.

battleofbritain2

The Imperial War Museum online library (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search?query=battle+of+britain&items_per_page=10) overflows with images of every day English life, set against a backdrop of catastrophic destruction. Children climbing over piles of rubble on their way to school. A milk man on his rounds, picking his way through shattered streets.  Adults browsing through stacks of library books, the ceilings open to the sky, great beams and rubble littering the aisles between the stacks.

23,002 English civilians died in the raids.  Another 32,138 were injured.

Battle of Britain, score
BATTLE OF BRITAIN (HU 810) A newspaper seller in the street watching a dog-fight during the Battle of Britain. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205226579

Interestingly, the most successful RAF squadrons to fight in the Battle of Britain weren’t British at all, but Polish.

battle of britain, kidsCzechoslovakia fell to the Nazis on the Ides of March, 1939, Czech armed forces having been ordered to offer no resistance. Some 4,000 Czech soldiers and airmen managed to get out, most escaping to neighboring Poland.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Nazi invasion of September 1 are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of Polish horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Little Poland never had a chance, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on two weeks later. Poland capitulated in a month, but the German victory was more costly than expected. Much more.  It’s estimated that the Wehrmacht expended twice as much ammunition defeating Poland as they did France the following Spring.  A country with a third larger population.

Battle of Britain, where from

The combined fighting forces of the two nations wound up in France in accordance with the Franco-Polish Military Alliance of 1921, thence to Great Britain following the French capitulation of June, 1940.

Battle of Britain, MilkmanBritish military authorities were slow to recognize the flying skills of the Polskie Siły Powietrzne (Polish Air Forces), the first fighter squadrons only seeing action in the third phase of the Battle of Britain. Despite the late start, Polish flying skills proved superior to those of less-experienced Commonwealth pilots. The 303rd Polish fighter squadron became the most successful RAF fighter unit of the period, its most prolific flying ace being Czech Sergeant Josef František.  He was killed in action in the last phase of the Battle of Britain, the day after his 26th birthday.

145 Polish aircrew served with the RAF during this period, making up the largest non-British contribution to the Battle of Britain.  The smallest is a two-way tie at one each, between Barbados and Jamaica.

Polish_airforce_memorial,_St_Clements
Polish Air Force memorial, St Clement Danes, London

In the end, Great Britain could not be defeated. German resources greatly outnumbered those of the English, but the ratio was reversed when it came to losses. The two nations were at a stalemate and none but a Pyrrhic victory was possible for either. Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sea Lion on September 17. By the end of October, the air raids had come to an end.

In the end, the Battle of Britain remains a story we remain free to tell, in English.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period, as only he could.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

 

September 1 (est.), 911 A Different Normandy Story

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal UK and northwestern Europe, ever since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

These “Norsemen” (“Normans”), attacked Paris early in 911. By July they were holding Rollothe nearby town of Chartres under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres on July 20.

Even in defeat, these people presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of loyalty to Charles.

Rollo the WalkerThe deal made sense for the King, because he had already bankrupted his treasury paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the channel, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

And so the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia. Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, The Walker was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Eptethe symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation himself. The chieftain motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as huge as himself, to kiss the king’s foot. The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

August 5, 1305 William Wallace

The Mel Gibson film “Braveheart” has it mostly right as they depict Wallace’s betrayal by Scottish Nobles. Wallace had evaded capture until August 5, 1305, when a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, John de Menteith, turned him over to English soldiers at Robroyston, near Glasgow.

Following the death of King Alexander in 1286, there were several weak claimants to the Scottish throne. Thousands of nobles met in the great feudal court held at the castle Berwick upon Tweed, for the purpose of selecting their new King.  In the end, the nobles selected John Balliol.

John was a weak king, known as “Toom Tabard”.  Empty Coat. Factions quickly coalesced around rival claimants.  Scotland was descending into civil war when nobles called on English King Edward I “Longshanks”, to arbitrate.

Edward could have entered this story as a benevolent and wise ruler, or he could have been a tyrant. He chose the latter course, passing into history as “The Hammer of the Scots”. Edward summoned King John to stand before the English Court as a common plaintiff.  Thousands of Scottish nobles were arrested as John was forced to abdicate.

william-wallace-1-728

It’s uncertain where William Wallace came from, but later events indicate that he had military training. Specifically, he was an archer. He must have been an imposing physical specimen, as the first class long bow of the era had a draw weight of 170lbs.

Rebellion arose across Scotland as Wallace assassinated William de Heselrig, the English High Sheriff of Lanark, in May 1297. He became involved with raids happening all over Scotland, joining forces with Andrew Moray on September 11, 1297 to defeat a vastly superior English army at Stirling Bridge.

After the battle, Moray and Wallace assumed the title of “Guardians of the Kingdom of Scotland”, though Moray would soon die of injuries suffered at Stirling Bridge. They were sworn to restore the reign of King John Balliol, and Wallace was knighted as he led a large scale raid into northern England in November of 1297.

Edward ordered a second invasion of Scotland in April, 1298.  Wallace was defeated at the battle Falkirk later that year. He managed to escape capture, resigning as Guardian of Scotland and traveling to the French court of King Philip IV to plead the case for assistance in the Scottish struggle for independence.

melThe Mel Gibson film “Braveheart” has it mostly right as it depicts Wallace’s betrayal by Scottish Nobles. Wallace had evaded capture until August 5, 1305, when a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, John de Menteith, turned him over to English soldiers at Robroyston, near Glasgow.

Wallace was transported to London and tried for treason and “atrocities against civilians in war.” He was crowned with a garland of oak, suggesting that he was “king of outlaws”. Responding to the treason charge, Wallace said “I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject.” Wallace was found guilty on August 23, stripped naked, and dragged through the city by a horse to the Elms at Smithfield.

This is where the Braveheart film gets it wrong. I’m not going to dwell on the brutality which passes for medieval “justice”.  Suffice it to say that the film’s portrayal of Wallace’s execution could have been a Disney production, compared with what was dealt him. When it was over, Wallace’s head sat atop a pike on London Bridge, dipped in tar, next to the heads of the brothers John and Simon Fraser.

Scotland never did gain independence from England, though the subject has never entirely been put to rest. Last June, the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the European Union, even should the rest of the UK vote to “Brexit”. William Wallace was looking down on the proceedings with great interest.  I’m sure.

July 14, 1789 Storming the Bastille

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” when the crowd converged on the Bastille on the morning of July 14, 1789. It was guarded by 82 invalides (veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field) and 32 Swiss grenadiers.
The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954.

In most of medieval France, the major constituent parts of French society were the “Three Estates”:  the Clergy, the Nobility and the Commons.

France was in a state of economic crisis in the late 18th century. The Nobility refused to accede to the tax demands of King Louis XVI. The Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” in June 1789, demanding an audience with the King for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was either hysterical or duplicitous, because the King and his family were still mourning the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent.  It was customary at that time to hold political matters, until the King came out of mourning.

Tennis Court Oath
Tennis Court Oath

Be that as it may, the entire National Assembly, all 577 members, converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn oath, the famous “The Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

The oath itself was a revolutionary act, asserting that political authority came from the people and their representatives, not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared themselves to be supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as the left and reformist factions moved from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French right.

Built in 1309, the fortress and medieval prison of the Bastille had long been a focal point of the insurrection, representing royal authority in the center of the city. Donatien Alphonse François, better known as the Marquis de Sade, was one of the few remaining prisoners in the Bastille by this time. He was transferred to an insane asylum after attempting to incite a crowd outside his window, yelling: “They are massacring the prisoners; you must come and free them.”

Prise_de_la_Bastille

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” when French revolutionaries converged on the Bastille on the morning of July 14, 1789. The fortress was guarded by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, the son of the previous governor, actually born in the Bastille.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain that held the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur, while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting.  The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

The successful insurrection at Paris raced across all of France, as the “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over within three years, when Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine in 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine under “the Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre. Among them was Queen Marie Antoinette, who never did say “let them eat cake”.  Her last words were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it, on stepping on her executioner’s toes.

Exécution_de_Marie_Antoinette_le_16_octobre_1793
Execution of Marie Antoinette

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trials before the hysteria died down.  Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the great, and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of the whole sad story, may be the son of Louis and Antoinette, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy. He was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8. He would die there, at the age of 10. Miserable, sick and alone.  It all seems pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within twenty years.

July 10, 1946 Ruined

Paper money crashed in the post-Revolutionary Articles of Confederation period, when you could buy a sheep for two silver dollars, or 150 paper “Continental” dollars. Creditors hid from debtors, not wanting to be repaid in worthless paper currency. For generations after our founding, a thing could be described as worthless, as “not worth a Continental”.

You’ve worked all your life.  You’ve supported your family, paid your taxes, and paid your bills. You’ve even managed to put a few bucks aside, in hopes of a long and happy retirement.  “Inflation” is such a bloodless term.  What if you hadn’t touched that “nest egg”, and its purchasing power was suddenly diminished…by 10%…40%…70%.

Throughout Roman antiquity, coinage retained a high silver content as a matter of law.  Precious metal made the coins themselves objects of value and, for 500 years, the Roman economy remained relatively stable. Republic morphed into Empire over the 1st century BC, leading to a conga line of Emperors minting mountains of coins in their own likenesses. Slaves were worked to death in Spanish silver mines, to satisfy an endless need for the metal. Birds fell from the sky over vast smelting fires, yet there was never enough silver.  Silver content was inexorably reduced, until the currency itself became worthless.  Roman currency collapsed in the 3rd century reign of Diocletian. An Empire and its citizens were left to barter as best they could, in a world where money no longer had any value.

Weimar+Germany+(1918-1933)+Hyperinflation+(1923)+German+children+playing+with+worthless+money
German children playing with worthless currency, 1923.

In the waning days of the Civil War, the Confederate dollar wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. Paper money crashed in the post-Revolutionary Articles of Confederation period as well, when you could buy a sheep for two silver dollars, or 150 paper “Continentals”. Creditors hid from debtors, not wanting to be repaid in worthless paper currency. Generations after our founding, the worthlessness of a thing could be described as “not worth a Continental”.

The assistance of French King Louis XVI was invaluable to Revolutionary era Americans, but French state income was only about 357 million livres at the time, with expenses of over half-billion. France descended into its own Revolution, as the government printed “assignat”, notes purportedly backed by 4 billion livres in property expropriated from the church. 912 million livres in circulation in 1791 rose to almost 46 billion in 1796, of a note whose purchasing power had diminished by 99%.

The money in their pockets was literally, not worth the paper it was printed on.  One historian described the economic policy of the Jacobins, the leftist radicals behind the reign of terror, as:  “[A]n utter exhaustion of the present at the expense of the future”.

In each of these historic cases, nothing defined and established the value a currency, except what a willing buyer and a willing seller agreed it was worth.  There was no “there”, there.  It all sounds depressingly familiar.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was on the losing side of WW1, and broken up after the war.  Lacking the governmental structures of established states, the newly independent nation of Hungary began to experience inflation.  Before the war, a US Dollar would have bought you 5 Kronen.  In 1924, it was 70,000.

10Hungary replaced the Kronen with the Pengö in 1926, pegged to a rate of 12,500 to one.

Hungary became a battleground in the latter stages of WW2, between the military forces of Nazi Germany and the USSR. 90% of Hungarian industrial capacity was damaged, half of it destroyed altogether.  Transportation became difficult, with most of the nation’s rail capacity damaged or destroyed.  What remained was either carted off to Germany, or seized by the Soviets, as reparations.

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The loss of all that productive capacity led to scarcity of goods, and prices began to rise.  The government responded by printing money.  Total currency in circulation in July 1945 stood at 25 billion Pengö.  Money supply rose to 1.65 trillion by January, 65 quadrillion in April and 47 septillion in July.  That’s a Trillion Trillion.  Twenty-four zeroes.

Banks received low rate loans, so that money could be loaned to companies to rebuild. The government hired workers directly, giving out loans to others and in many cases, outright grants.  The country was flooded with money, the stuff virtually grew on trees, but there was nothing to back it up.10000

Inflation took a straight line into the stratosphere.  The item that cost you 379 Pengö in September 1945, cost 1,872,910 by March, 35,790,276 in April, and 862 billion in June.  Inflation neared 150,000% per day, as the currency became all but worthless.  Massive printing of money had accomplished the cube root of zero.  The worst hyperinflation in history peaked on July 10, 1946, when that 379 Pengö item from September, cost you 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

The government responded by changing the name, and the color, of the currency.  The Pengö was replaced by the Milpengö (1,000,000 Pengö), which was replaced by the Bilpengö (1,000,000,000,000 Pengö), and finally by the (supposedly) inflation-indexed Adopengö.  This spiral resulted in the largest denomination common currency note ever printed, the Milliard Bilpengö.  A Billion Trillion Pengö.

The thing was worth twelve cents.

100000One more currency replacement and all that Keynesian largesse would finally stabilize the currency, but at what cost?  Real wages were reduced by 80% and creditors wiped out.  The fate of the nation was sealed when communists seized power in 1949.  Hungarians could now share in that old Soviet joke: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.

The ten worst hyperinflations in history occurred during the 20th century, including Zimbabwe in 2008, Yugoslavia 1994, Germany 1923, Greece 1944, Poland 1921, Mexico 1982, Brazil 1994, Argentina 1981, and Taiwan 1949.  The common denominator in all ten were massive amounts of government debt, and a currency with no intrinsic worth.

Hungary-Milliard-Bilpengo
A Billion Trillion Pengö. The largest denomination common currency note ever printed. It was worth about twelve cents.

In 2015, Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff testified before the Senate Budget Committee.  “The first point I want to get across” he said, “is that our nation is broke.  Our nation’s broke, and it’s not broke in 75 years or 50 years or 25 years or 10 years. It’s broke today”.

Kotlikoff went on to describe the “fiscal gap”, the difference between US’ projected revenue, and the obligations with which our government has saddled the taxpayer.  “We have a $210 trillion fiscal gap at this point”, Kotlikoff testified.  11.6 times GDP, the total of all goods and services produced in the United States.

On top of that, the United States owes something close to twenty trillion dollars, in fiscal operating debt, and our currency is unmoored from anything of inherent value.   We spend a lot of time, talking about politics.  Perhaps we should be talking about math, instead.