October 9, 768 The Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “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, called 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”.

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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. It 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.

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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 had reached out to the Frankish Kingdom, for assistance.

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 now remained of the Roman Empire, was 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 from that day, to this.

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 the 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.

HRE 1500

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.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “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 that “little corporal” directly resulted in the rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870, a polity which would go on humble the French state, in two world wars.

July 30, 1916 Sabotage

[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”

In the early months of the Great War, Britain’s Royal Navy swept the high seas of the Kaiser’s surface ships and blockaded ports in Germany. The United States was neutral at this time, when over a hundred German ships sought refuge in American harbors.

The blockade made it impossible for the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary to import war materiel from overseas while Great Britain, France, and Russia continued to buy products from US farms and factories. American businessmen were happy to sell to any foreign customer who had the cash but, for all intents and purposes, such trade was limited to the allies.

British-blockadeTo the Central Powers, such trade had the sole purpose of killing their boys, fighting for the Fatherland on the battlefields of Europe.

The first and most overt reaction from the Kaiser came in the form of unrestrained submarine warfare, when even vessels flying the flags of neutral nations came under attack. Less apparent at that time was the covert campaign of sabotage carried out by German, agents on US soil.

“Black Tom” was originally an island in New York Harbor, next to Liberty Island. So called after a former resident, by WWI, landfill had expanded the island to become part of Jersey City. The area contained a mile-long pier with warehouses and rail lines operated by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and served as a major hub in the trade of war materiel to the allies.

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Black Tom Island, 1880

On July 30, 1916, the Black Tom terminal had over two million pounds of small arms and artillery ammunition in freight cars, and one hundred thousand pounds of TNT on a nearby Barge.

In the small hours of the morning, around 2:00am, guards discovered a series of small fires. Some tried to put them out while others fled, fearing an explosion. The first and loudest blast took place at 2:08am, a detonation so massive as to be estimated at 5.5, on the Richter scale. People were awakened from Maryland to Connecticut in what many thought was an earthquake. The Brooklyn Bridge shook. The walls of Jersey City’s municipal building were cracked as shrapnel flew through the air. Windows broke as far as 25 miles away, while fragments embedded themselves in the clock tower at the Jersey Journal building in Journal Square, over a mile away. The clock stopped at 2:12 am.

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Firefighters were unable to fight the fires until the bullets and shrapnel stopped flying. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Stained Glass windows were shattered at St. Patrick’s Church, and Ellis Island was evacuated to Manhattan. Damage to the skirt and torch carried by the Statue of Liberty alone, came to over $2¼ million in 2017 dollars. To this day the ladder to “Lady Liberty’s” torch remains off limits, to visitors.

The enormous vaulted ceiling of Ellis Island’s main hall, collapsed.  According to one Park officer, damage to the Ellis Island complex came to $500,000 “half the one million dollars it cost the government to build the facility.”

Wrecked_warehouses_and_scattered_debris_after_the_Black_Tom_Explosion,_1916Known fatalities in the explosion included a Jersey City police officer, a Lehigh Valley Railroad Chief of Police, a ten week old infant, and the barge captain.

The explosion at Black Tom nearly brought the US into the war against Germany, but that would wait for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. That, and a telegram from German Secretary for Foreign Affairs Arthur Zimmermann, promising US territories to Mexico, in exchange for a declaration of war against the US.

Black Tom was the most spectacular, but by no means the only such act of sabotage. The archive at cia.gov states that “[B]etween 1915 and spring 1917, 43 American factories suffered explosions or fires of mysterious origin, in addition to the bombs set on some four dozen ships carrying war supplies to the Allies”.

Responsibility for the Black Tom explosion was never proven, conclusively. Early suspicions centered on accidental causes. Legal wrangling would climb the judicial ladder all the way to the United States Supreme Court and continue well into the second World War. Anna Rushnak, an elderly Czech immigrant who ran a four-bits-a-night boarding house in Bayonne was thrown from her bed by the explosion, to find then-23-year-old Michael Kristoff sitting on the edge of his bed, mumbling “What I do? What I do?”

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Lehigh Valley Railroad pier, after the explosion

Kristoff, a Slovakian subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany’s principle ally in World War 1, was arrested by Bayonne Police, interrogated, and judged to be “insane but harmless.”

In 1922, the Lehigh Valley Railroad was buried in lawsuits, and looking to fix blame on a German act of sabotage. Located in an Albany jail where he was serving time for theft Kristoff came to the judicial spotlight, once again. He admitted working for the Germans “for a few weeks” back in 1916, but was released before the claim could be investigated. Kristoff was finally traced to a pauper’s grave in 1928 and there ends his story, yet that ‘insane but harmless’ label remains open to question. Papers carried on the body exhumed from that potter’s field were indeed those of Michael Kristoff, but the dental records, didn’t match.

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“German Master Spy Franz Von Rintelen and his “pencil bomb” were responsible for acts of sabotage in the United States during World War I”. H/T Smithsonian

Meanwhile, suspicion fell on the German-born naturalized citizen Kurt Jahnke who ran sabotage operations for the German Admiralty out of bases in San Francisco and Mexico City with his assistant, Imperial German Navy Lieutenant Lothar Witzke. Witzke was arrested on February 1, 1918 in Nogales, Arizona and convicted by court martial. He was sentenced to death, though the war was over before sentence could be carried out. President Wilson later commuted the sentence, to life.

By 1923, most nations were releasing POWs from the “Great War”, including spies. A report from Leavenworth prison shows Witzke heroically risking his life, entering a boiler room after an explosion and probably averting disaster. It may be on that basis that he was finally released. Lieutenant Lothar Witzke was pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge on November 22, 1923 and deported to Berlin, where a grateful nation awarded him the Iron Cross, 1st and 2nd Class.

The U.S.–German Peace Treaty of 1921 established the German-American Mixed Claims Commission, which declared in 1939 that Imperial Germany had, in fact been responsible and awarded a judgement of $50 million.  The Nazi government refused to pay and the matter was finally settled in 1953, with a judgement of $95 million (including interest) against the Federal Republic of Germany. The final payment was made in 1979.

Shrapnel damage may be see to this day, on the statue of Liberty

The Black Tom explosion and related acts of pro-German espionage resulted in the Federal Espionage Act signed into law in June 1917, creating, among its other provisions, a “Bureau of Investigation” under the United States Department of Justice. 

Nothing remains today of the Black Tom terminal or the largest foreign terrorist attack on American soil until 9/11, save for a plaque, as seen in the photograph below.  That, and a new law enforcement bureaucracy, called the FBI.

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View of the Statue of Liberty from the site of the Black Tom explosion

June 24, 1535 Doctrinal Differences

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations.


A popular legend depicts the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailing a parchment to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church in 1517, his “ninety five theses” a direct challenge to the authority of the pope, and the Catholic church. It likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church. Subsequent events would harden Luther’s attitudes toward the Church but for now, this was but ninety-five propositions, framed and submitted for scholarly disputation.

Luther enclosed his “ninety five theses” in a letter to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, the date now considered to be the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Major Christian Denominations

H/T Wikipedia

To the modern reader, theological issues such as the “moral bank account” of saints or the transubstantiation of the body and blood of Christ, may seem mere doctrinal interpretations. In the late middle and early modern ages, such issues were matters of life and death. The Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake for such heresy, in 1415. The English philosopher John Wycliffe, dead some forty-four years by this time, was dug up and burned, his ashes cast upon the waters of the River Swift.

The European Reformation exploded with startling intensity, spawning a “peasant rebellion” in 1524 in which about a third of 300,000 poorly armed farmers, were slaughtered.  There were any number of reformers, few more radical than the baker turned Anabaptist prophet, Jan Matthias.

Münster was a divided city in 1530, made even more so when the evangelical Lutheran minister Bernard Rothmann, began preaching against Catholic doctrine.  Rothmann was tireless, vitriolic, a relentless stream of anti-Catholic invective both from the pulpit, and from a series of pamphlets financed and printed by his ally, the wealthy wool merchant Bernard Knipperdolling.

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Alarmed at the preacher’s growing influence, church authorities banned Rothmann from the pulpit.  A mob of supporters stormed St. Lambert’s church in February 1532 and installed Rothmann, as its preacher. Conflict escalated and took the form of armed rebellion that December, between nine-hundred armed townspeople and the highest ranking Church official in town, prince-bishop Franz von Waldeck. This time, the conflict was settled peaceably. Waldeck signed a treaty of religious toleration on February 14, 1533, allowing Protestant pastors to preach from the parish churches of Münster.

The next time would be very different.

Word got back to Matthias and his followers, who came to see Münster as the “New Jerusalem”.  Jan Matthias and his Anabaptist followers were radicals even among their fellow “protestants”, and Rothmann was happy to come along.  Theirs was an extreme, radical egalitarian ideology with no use for childhood baptism.  They believed that Jesus Christ would descend to earth that Easter and bring about the End of Time.  The Apocalypse was nigh. All good Christians needed to prepare, and only adult baptism held the key to salvation.

Four years earlier, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V ordered that every Anabaptist “shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like.”  Now Anabaptists poured into Münster, baptizing some 1,400 adults in the first week after their arrival, about 20 percent of the adult population.

Equal numbers fled the city, amid “share-the-wealth” economic policies that would make the most fervent communist, blush.  Armed city employees warned those who refused adult baptism to flee:  “Get out of here, you godless. God will punish you!

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Matthias demanded the execution of all Catholics and Lutherans, warning that “Everywhere we are surrounded by dogs and sorcerers and whores and killers and the godless and all who love lies and commit them!”  That was a bit too much even for the crazies, so Catholics and moderate Protestants were expelled from the city.  About 2,000 of them, as equal numbers of Anabaptist radicals, poured in from the countryside.

Matthias ordered every contract, account and ledger in town destroyed, in a vain attempt to abolish all debt.  Rothmann preached from the pulpit of St. Lambert’s: “Everything that Christian brothers and sisters have belongs to the one as well as to the other.”

Waldeck looked on with increasing alarm and before long, a mercenary army was assembled outside the city walls of Münster.  The place was now under siege.

Easter Sunday arrived, April 5, 1534. Jesus, did not. With his apocalyptic prophesy thus shattered, Matthias claimed to have a new, divine vision. He would ride forth from the city walls, and personally break von Waldeck’s siege of the city. So it was that the Anabaptist prophet saddled up and rode forth with an entourage of twelve, only to be run through with a spear, his head mounted on a spike, for all the town to see.

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Up stepped the dead prophet’s right-hand man, the charismatic twenty-five year old tailor Jan van Leiden, who delivered a speech reinterpreting the day’s events, and postponing doomsday.

Münster became heavily militarized as Waldeck’s besieging force cut off all access to the city.  Jan van Leiden ruled over the city as the new King David, according to his own prophesy.  He seemed to think he had a direct line “upstairs” and could conjure up fresh prophesy at a moment’s notice.  The seventy-five hundred inhabitants of Münster, believed so as well.

The siege dragged on through 1534 and into the following year.  In May 1535, the Anabaptist carpenter Heinrich Gresbeck attempted to escape, only to be caught.  In exchange for his life, Gresbeck agreed to show Waldeck a lightly defended gate.

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The prince-bishop’s forces fought their way through the streets of Münster on June 25, 1535, killing some 600 Anabaptists before the city surrendered.

Jan van Leiden, “viceroy” Bernhard Knipperdolling and Anabaptist leader Bernhard Krechting were taken to the public square six months later, chained to posts and literally torn to pieces, with white-hot pliers.

Imagine the scene. The sentences encompassed precisely sixty minutes of such treatment. Two executioners and four sets of tongs lest the other two, be out of the coals for too long. Leiden endured an hour of such treatment as first his flesh and then sinew, was torn from his frame. He never made a sound.

Knipperdolling struggled frantically against the spiked collar which held him fast for he knew, he was next. Finally it was Krechting’s turn. Should a man pass out from the agony the clock would be stopped and the prisoner, revived. Then the process would begin, anew. Sixty minutes with those white-hot tongs and not a moment, less.

Finally a dagger was thrust into each man’s heart to end his appointed hour. Their hideously mutilated corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, as a warning to others.

Some fifty years later their bones were removed, but not those cages.  In 1880 the old steeple was torn down and a new one built in its place. The cages, were reinstalled.

On November 18, 1944, British bombs hit St. Lambert’s church, knocking the highest cage, van Leiden’s, to the ground. Another fell into the organ loft, leaving the third hanging only, by a thread. The church rebuilt the tower, four years later.  Workers repaired and replaced the cages, commenting favorably on their sturdy construction.

Three decades ago, St. Lambert’s church installed a small yellow bulb in each of those cages, a small concession “in memory of their departed souls.”  The cages of Münster remain there, to this day.

June 10, 1944 Village of the Damned

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It was D+4 following the invasion of Normandy, when the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen SS passed through the Limousin region, in west-central France.  “Das Reich” carried orders to help stop the Allied advance, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance fighters in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off nearby Oradour-sur-Glane, seemingly oblivious to their own confusion between two different villages.

Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square, for examination of identity papers. The entire population was there plus another half-dozen unfortunates, caught riding bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane were locked in a church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a half-dozen barns and sheds where machine guns were already set up.

SS soldiers aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before Nazis lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church and gunned down 247 women and 205 children, as they fled for their lives.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche escaped out a back window, followed by a young woman and child.  All three were shot.  Rouffanche alone escaped alive, crawling to some bushes where she managed to hide, until the next morning.

Oradour-sur-Glane-Hardware

642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, aged one week to 90 years, were shot to death, burned alive or some combination of the two, in just a few hours.  The village was then razed to the ground.

Raymond J. Murphy, a 20-year-old American B-17 navigator shot down over France and hidden by the French Resistance, reported seeing a baby. The child had been crucified.

After the war, a new village was built on a nearby site.  French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the old village remain as it stood,  a monument for all time to criminally insane governing ideologies, and the malign influence of collectivist thinking.

Generals Erwin Rommel and Walter Gleiniger, German commander in Limoges, protested the senseless act of brutality.  Even the SS Regimental commander agreed and began an investigation, but it didn’t matter.  Diekmann and most of the men who had carried out the massacre were themselves dead within the next few days, killed in combat.

The ghost village at the old Oradour-sur-Glane stands mute witness to this day, to the savagery committed by black-clad Schutzstaffel units in countless places like the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages of Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki and the city of Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

And on.  And on.  And on.

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The story was featured on the 1974 British television series “The World at War” narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, who intones these words for the first and final episodes of the program: 

“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

Sir Laurence Olivier

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

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.

February 22, 1943 The White Rose

White Rose survivor Jürgen Wittenstein described what it was like for ordinary Germans to live in Nazi Germany:

The government—or rather, the party—controlled everything: the news media, arms, police, the armed forces, the judiciary system, communications, travel, all levels of education from kindergarten to universities, all cultural and religious institutions. Political indoctrination started at a very early age, and continued by means of the Hitler Youth with the ultimate goal of complete mind control. Children were exhorted in school to denounce even their own parents for derogatory remarks about Hitler or Nazi ideology.

— George J. Wittenstein, M.D., “Memories of the White Rose”, 1979

With Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, the National Socialist Worker’s Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP) lost no time in consolidating power. Two days later, the 876-member democratically elected deliberative body, the “Reichstag”, was dissolved.

The National Socialists never did call themselves “Nazis”. That was a derogatory term coined by opponents, long before the party came to power. Throughout the 1930s, it became increasingly dangerous to speak ill of the Nazi party. One such was the Württemberg politician Robert Scholl who criticised the ruling party before, during and after World War 2. Scholl was one of the lucky ones, he lived to tell the story, but not without spending some of that time, behind bars.

Robert and Magdalena (Müller) Scholl had six children together, four girls and two boys. The older of the two brothers, Hans Fritz joined the Hitler youth, against the express will of his father.

He even held a leadership position in the Deutsches Jungvolk in der Hitler Jugend (“German Youngsters in the Hitler Youth”), a section of the Hitler Youth aimed at indoctrinating boys, 10-14.

In 1935, Hans was selected to carry the flag at the 1935 Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, one of three standard-bearers, from Ulm.

He joined the Reich Labor Service for two years before beginning medical school, in Munich. During a semester break, Scholl was drafted as a medic in the French campaign. Back at school, Scholl began to meet teachers and students, critical of the regime. Theirs was a Christian-ethical world view. One of them was Alexander Schmorrell.

Hugo Schmorell was a German-born doctor, living and working in Russia. He married Natalia Vedenskaya, the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest. Alexander Schmorell was born to the couple in Orenberg Russia and baptised, in the Russian Orthodox church.

Hugo remarried after Natalia died of typhus, this time to a German woman who, like himself, grew up in Russia. Alexander grew up bilingual, able to speak German and Russian, as a native.

The family moved to Weimar Germany following the Russian Revolution. In later interrogations by the Gestapo, Alexander described himself as a German-Russian Tsarist who hated Bolsheviks.

In the Nazi mindset, slavs are part of the great horde of Untermenschen, people considered racially or socially, inferior. Alexander believed no such thing about himself. He was proud of both his German and his Russian sides.

In religion class, Schmorell displayed a stubborn refusal to bend to the will of others, crossing himself right-to-left in the manner of the Russian church, and not left to right. Alexander joined the Scharnhorst youth as a boy, mostly for the love of horseback riding. Once the organization was absorbed into the Hitler Youth movement he gradually stopped attending. Like Scholl, Schmorell joined the Wehrmacht, participating in the Anschluss and eventual invasion, of Czechoslovakia.

In 1941, Scholl and Schmorrell were drafted as medical auxiliaries, for service in the east. There the two witnessed the dark underbelly of the regime in whose service, they risked their lives. The Warsaw ghetto. The savage treatment of Russian prisoners. The deportations and dark rumors of extermination centers.

With the naivety of youth, Scholl and Schmorrell wanted better. Back in school the pair discussed this with Kurt Huber, professor of music and a vocal anti-Nazi. By June 1942, the pair started to write pamphlets, calling themselves, the “White Rose”.

“Isn’t it true that every honest German is ashamed of his government these days? Who among us has any conception of the dimensions of shame that will befall us and our children when one day the veil has fallen from our eyes and the most horrible of crimes—crimes that infinitely outdistance every human measure—reach the light of day?”— 1st leaflet of the White Rose

During later gestapo interrogations, Scholl gave differing stories as to the origin of the name. A poem of the same name by the German poet, Clemens Brentano. A work by the Cuban poet, José Martí. Perhaps it was nothing more than the purity of the white rose, in the face of evil. Or maybe Scholl meant to throw his tormenters off the scent of Josef Söhngen, the anti-Nazi bookseller who had helped them, in so many ways.

Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way … The German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the fascist criminals. Each wants to be exonerated of guilt, each one continues on his way with the most placid, calm conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”— 2nd leaflet of the White Rose.

The group added members and supporters. Willi Graf who, unlike the founding members hated the Hitler Youth movement, from the beginning. Christoph Probst whose step-mother was Jewish and considered the Nuremberg laws an affront to human dignity. Hans’ sister Sophie who joined, despite her older brother’s protests. Like her brother, Sophie detested what the Nazis stood for.

“Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right—or rather, your moral duty—to eliminate this system?”— 3rd leaflet of the White Rose

Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen was critical of the Nazi movement from the beginning, denouncing Hitler’s “Worship of Race” as early as 1934.

Galen excoriated the Nazi euthanization program from the Catholic pulpits of Münster and across the German empire, condemning “the innocent and defenceless mentally handicapped and mentally ill, the incurably infirm and fatally wounded, innocent hostages and disarmed prisoners of war and criminal offenders, people of a foreign race or descent”.

Bishop Galen’s sermons were seminal in the formation of the White Rose. One of his sermons formed the basis for the first pamphlet.

Hand copied leaflets were inserted into phone books or mailed directly, to teachers and students.

The grotesque sham trials conducted by Hitler’s “Blood Judge” Roland Feisler made short work of any who would oppose “Der Fuhrer”. Today, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany is best remembered in the wake of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In reality, this perversion of justice had been around for ten years, handing out death sentences, in the hundreds. This video gives a pretty good idea of “justice” meted out, in Roland Feisler’s court.

There were Germans throughout the war who objected to the murder of millions, but theirs was a forlorn hope. Clergymen Dietrich Bonhoeffer would state “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” For his opposition to the Reich, Bonhoeffer would pay with his life.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, great grand-nephew of the famous Helmut von Moltke would lead 28 dissidents of the “Kreisau Circle”, against this “outrage of the Christian conscience.” These too would pay with their lives.

The most successful German opposition party came from the universities of Munich, with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna, including the White Rose. These were a surprise to Nazi leaders as Universities had long been stalwart supporters of Nazi ideology.

On February 18, Hans and Sophie Scholl arrived on campus with a suitcase full of pamphlets. This was their 6th. Hurriedly moving through the campus the Scholls left stacks of leaflets, outside full lecture halls:

Memorial to the “Weiße Rose” in front of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

“…Fellow Fighters in the Resistance! Shaken and broken, our people behold the loss of the men of Stalingrad. Three hundred and thirty thousand German men have been senselessly and irresponsibly driven to death and destruction by the inspired strategy of our World War I Private First Class. Fuhrer, we thank you!…”Excerpt from pamphlet 6

Their task complete, the pair realized they still had a few. From the upper floor of the atrium, Sophie tossed them into the air and watched them flutter to the ground. It was reckless and stupid, an action witnessed by custodian Jakob Schmid who promptly called the police.

The Scholl siblings were quickly arrested. Hans had on his person the draft, of another pamphlet: #7, written by Christoph Probst. He tried to eat it but the Gestapo was too fast. Probst was arrested within hours, eighty more over the following days. On February 22, 1943, all three were tried before judge Feisler’s People’s Court. All three were sentenced to death and executed by guillotine, the same day.

Es lebe die Freiheit! (Let Freedom live!)— Hans Scholl’s last words before his execution

Graf, Schmorrell, Huber and 11 others were tried on April 13. All three received the same sentence: death by decapitation. All but one of the others received prison sentences, between 6 months and 10 years.

The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on January 29, 1945.

Despite the execution of the group’s leaders, the White Rose had the last word. That last pamphlet was smuggled out of Germany and copied, by the allies. Millions of copies rained down from the sky, dropped, by allied bombers.

Today, the “People’s Court” of the schweinhund Feisler is a district court, in Munich. That’s it, at the top of this page.

LLieselotte ″Lilo″ Fürst-Ramdohr

Lieselotte ″Lilo″ Fürst-Ramdohr was a war widow at 29 when she joined the White Rose, hiding pamphlets in an apartment closet and helping to make stencils, for graffiti. In 2013 she gave an interview for BBC Worldwide, three months before she died. She was 99.

Lieselotte was arrested and interrogated for a month by the Gestapo, and released. She thinks they’d hoped she would lead them, to fellow conspirators.

In 2012, Lilo’s friend Alexander Schmorell was awarded sainthood by the Russian Orthodox church.

She thinks it’s all too amusing. “He would have laughed out loud” she said, “if he had known. He wasn’t a saint. He was just a normal person.”

May 26, 1941 Avenging Brother

On this day in 1941, Sergeant Clive Hulme learned of the death of his brother Harold, also fighting in the battle for Crete.  The life expectancy for German snipers was about to become noticeably shorter. 

Throughout the history of armed conflict, men who have endured combat together have formed a special bond.  Prior to the David vs. Goliath battle at Agincourt, Henry V spoke of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers“.   The men who fought the “War to end all wars” spoke not of God and Country, but of the man to his left and right.  What then does it look like, when the man you’re fighting for is literally your own brother?

Hellenic forces enjoyed early success when fascist Italy invaded Greece on October 28, 1940, the Greek army driving the intruder into neighboring Albania in the first Allied land victory of the second World War.

Until the intervention of Nazi Germany and her Bulgarian ally.

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German occupation of Greece

British commonwealth troops moved from Libya on orders from Winston Churchill proved too little, too late. The Greek capital at Athens fell on April, 27. Greece suffered axis occupation for the rest of the war, with devastating results. Some 80% of Greek industry was destroyed along with 90 percent of ports, roads, bridges and other infrastructure. 40,000 civilians died of starvation, in Athens alone. Tens of thousands more died in Nazi reprisals, or at the hands of Nazi collaborators.

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Airborne invasion of Crete

Fearful of losing the strategically important island of Crete, Prime minister Winston Churchill sent a telegram to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff General Sir John Dill: “To lose Crete because we had not sufficient bulk of forces there would be a crime.”

By the end of April, the Royal Navy evacuated 57,000 troops to Crete, largest of the islands comprising the modern Greek state.   They’d been sent to bolster the Cretan garrison until the arrival of fresh forces, but this was a spent force.  Most had lost heavy equipment in the hasty evacuation.  Many were unarmed, altogether.

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German mountain troops board a Junkers Ju 52 for Crete, 20 May 1941, H/T Wikipedia

Occupied at this time with operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s surprise invasion of his erstwhile Soviet ally, German Army command had little desire to go after Crete.   Eager to redeem themselves following the failure to destroy an all-but prostrate adversary during the Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe High Command was a different story.

Hitler recognized the strategic importance of Crete, both to the air war in the eastern Mediterranean and for the protection of the Axis southern flank.

By the time of the German invasion, Allied forces were reduced to 42,000 on Crete of which only 15,000, were combat ready.  New Zealand Army Major-General Bernard Freyberg in command of these troops, requested evacuation of 10,000 who had “little or no employment other than getting into trouble with the civil population“.

Once again it was too little, to late.  The first mainly airborne invasion in military history and the only such German operation of WW2 began on May 20, 1941.

The Luftwaffe sent 280 long-range bombers, 150 dive-bombers, 180 fighters and 40 reconnaissance aircraft into the attack, along with 530 transport aircraft and 100 gliders.

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Sgt. Clive Hulme

The allied garrison was soon outnumbered and fighting for their lives.  Recognizing that the battle was lost, leadership in London instructed Freyberg to abandon the island, on May 27.

The “Victoria Cross” is the highest accolade in the British system of military honors, equivalent to the American Medal of Honor.  Sergeant Clive Hulme of the New Zealand 2nd Division was part of that fighting withdrawal.  He was 30 years old at the time of the battle for Crete where his actions, earned him the Victoria Cross.  Let Sergeant Hulme’s citation, tell his story:

“On ground overlooking Malene Aerodrome on 20th and 21st May [Sergeant Hulme] personally led parties of his men from the area held by the forward position and destroyed enemy organised parties who had established themselves out in front of our position, from which they brought heavy rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire to bear on our defensive posts. Numerous snipers in the area were dealt with by Serjeant Hulme personally; 130 dead were counted here. On 22nd, 23rd and 24th May, Serjeant Hulme was continuously going out alone or with one or two men and destroying enemy snipers. On 25th May, when Serjeant Hulme had rejoined his Battalion, this unit counter-attacked Galatas Village. The attack was partially held up by a large party of the enemy holding the school, from which they were inflicting heavy casualties on our troops. Serjeant Hulme went forward alone, threw grenades into the school and so disorganised the defence, that the counter-attack was able to proceed successfully.”

On this day in 1941, Sergeant Clive Hulme learned of the death of his brother Harold, also fighting in the battle for Crete.  The life expectancy for German snipers was about to become noticeably shorter.  Again, from Hulme’s VC citation:

On Tuesday, 27th May, when our troops were holding a defensive line in Suda Bay during the final retirement, five enemy snipers had worked into position on the hillside overlooking the flank of the Battalion line. Serjeant Hulme volunteered to deal with the situation, and stalked and killed the snipers in turn. He continued similar work successfully through the day.  On 28th May at Stylos, when an enemy heavy mortar was severely bombing a very important ridge held by the Battalion rearguard troops, inflicting severe casualties, Serjeant Hulme, on his own initiative, penetrated the enemy lines, killed the mortar crew of four…From the enemy mortar position he then worked to the left flank and killed three snipers who were causing concern to the rearguard. This made his score of enemy snipers 33 stalked and shot.  Shortly afterwards Serjeant Hulme was severely wounded in the shoulder while stalking another sniper. When ordered to the rear, in spite of his wound, he directed traffic under fire and organised stragglers of various units into section groups.”

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Clive Hulme’s medals

The man took out 33 German snipers by himself in 8 days and still assisted in the withdrawal, after being shot badly enough to put him out for the rest of the war.

Some guys are not to be trifled with.

 

April 1, 1961 Wonder Drug

Despite documented cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, scientists believed no drug could pass the placental barrier, passing from mother to unborn child. Within three years, the new compound was licensed to 14 pharmaceutical companies under 37 different trade names and sold in 46 countries.

In 380BC, Plato described a system of state-controlled human breeding in the Socratic dialogue “The Republic”, introducing a “guardian class” to watch over over his ideal society.

In the 19th century, the British statistician Francis Galton studied the theories of his cousin Charles Darwin on the evolution of species, applying them to a system of selective breeding intended to bring “better” human beings into the world.  He called this his theory of “Eugenics”.

Eugenics gained worldwide respectability in the early 20th century, when countries from Brazil to Japan adopted policies regarding the involuntary sterilization of certain mental patients.

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1935 Sterilization map. H/T PBS.org

In the United States, 30 states passed legislation at the height of the movement, legalizing the involuntary sterilization of individuals considered “unfit” for reproduction. All told, some 60,000 individuals were forcibly sterilized in state-sanctioned procedures.

The race to perfect worldwide “genetic hygiene” reached its zenith with the “sterilization law” enacted in Nazi Germany on July 14, 1933. The German measure borrowed heavily from the statutes of American educator and Eugenics Record Office (ERO) Director Harry H. Laughlin, taking such measures a step further by allowing compulsory sterilization of any citizen displaying one of a long list of supposed genetic disorders, not just those confined to institutions.

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Two-Step Thalidomide Synthesis

In the wake of World War II, West German authorities were loath to apply such strict congenital examination. Pathologist Franz Büchner would go on to propagate his theories of Teratology, stating that healthy nutrition and behavior of expecting mothers was more important for the health of the child, than genetic considerations. The idea would prove to be a disastrous oversight.

The German company Chemie Grünenthal (now Grünenthal GmbH) was established to address the urgent need for antibiotics. and other pharmaceuticals. In 1953, company scientists developed a two-step procedure for synthesizing a new molecule. The compound underwent rodent testing and further revision, the new drug “Thalidomide” introduced in 1956, as a sedative.

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Life Magazine

Researchers at Chemie Grünenthal found the drug an effective remedy for vomiting and nausea, an important remedy for morning sickness in expectant mothers. It was a “wonder drug”, a cure for ailments from insomnia to coughs and colds, claiming to cure “anxiety…gastritis, and tension”.

Despite documented cases of fetal alcohol syndrome, scientists believed no drug could pass the placental barrier, passing from mother to unborn child. Within three years, the new compound was licensed to 14 pharmaceutical companies under 37 different trade names and sold in 46 countries.

Thalidomide acceptance was far from universal. Regulatory authorities in East Germany refused approval. In the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) denied widespread marketing and distribution though large quantities were released, for testing.  Approximately 875 people were involved in such trials, including a number of pregnant women.

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Phillipa Bradbourne, a Thalidomide baby born without arms. 1963. H/T allthatsinteresting.com

The drug first arrived in Canada on this day in 1961. Several variants entered the Canadian market, the most common sold under the name, Talimol. Within two months, pharmaceutical companies were warning physicians of the risk of birth defects. Canadian authorities banned all variants within a year, instructing physicians to destroy stockpiles.

The first birth defects began to appear around 1958, peripheral nerve palsies or Phocomelia, a malformation or entire absence of arms and/or legs, hands & feet.  Some cases showed malformation of eyes, ears and internal organs, others born with no anus and no genitals and doomed to die.  Some five to seven thousand children were born with such birth defects in West Germany alone, four-in-ten of whom, survived.  Worldwide, some 10,000 “Thalidomide babies” were born with such defects, half of whom survived infancy.  An estimated 123,000 others miscarried, or were stillborn.

“Today, fewer than 3,000 are still alive. In Britain, it’s about 470. Among the nearly 50 countries affected are Japan (approximately 300 survivors), Canada and Sweden (both more than 100), and Australia (45). Spain’s government only recently acknowledged the drug was ever distributed there. No-one knows how many Spanish survivors there are. It could be hundreds”. H/T BBC

Despite such egregious side effects, Thalidomide remains in use today, albeit under conditions of strict birth control.  Thalidomide is in fact a “wonder drug” for the treatment of certain skin conditions related to leprosy, and is useful for treatments relating to HIV, Crohn’s Disease and certain cancers.

Sadly, Brazilian strictures are not so severe, leading to the birth of a whole new generation of “thalidomiders”, as adult survivors call themselves.  Research has uncovered circumstantial evidence connecting Thalidomide’s origins to Dr. Otto Ambros, the “Devil’s Chemist”,  alleging Dr. Ambros helped develop the nerve agent sarin, while experimenting on thalidomide as an antidote on concentration camp inmates.

Eight years ago, German survivors’ marked the fifty-year mark, in the Thalidomide debacle. Spokesman Gernot Stracke quipped:

“On 26 November – 50 years on – we, the German survivors, will march, waddle, limp or roll in wheelchairs from the Brandenburg Gate to the Federal Chancellery in Berlin.  To celebrate that we are still alive, and to remember those who never lived”.

Feature image, top of page:  Survivors tell tales of frequent falls leading to scores of stitches as the armless and legless attempt navigation with contraptions like the British prosthesis, on the left.  Right, young German girl uses crude boxing glove-like prostheses, in place of hands.  H/T Life Magazine.

 

A Trivial Matter
In the United States, federal regulator Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey denied no fewer than six applications to bring Thalidomide to market, on the basis of insufficient testing.  Thanks to her stubborn refusal, such cases were held to seventeen in this country, a fact which earned Dr. Kelsey a Presidential award for distinguished service from the federal government.

March 20 1870 The Lion of Africa

The Lion of Africa, the German officer and conquering hero of WW1, who once told the upstart Adolf Hitler to perform an anatomically improbable act.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck was born into minor Prussian Nobility on this day in 1870. Joining the Corps of Cadets as a teenager, Lettow-Vorbeck worked his way up the German Imperial Army chain of command, becoming a general by 1914.

general-paul-von-lettow-vorbeckAt the outset of the “Great War”, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain.  All administered parts of the African continent.

Stationed in German East Africa and knowing that his sector would be little more than a side show in the greater war effort, Lettow-Vorbeck determined to tie up as many of his adversaries as possible.

With a force never exceeding 14,000 (3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askari warriors), “Der Löwe von Afrika” tied up as many as 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops, who wore themselves out in the pursuit.

Like the famous Lawrence of Arabia, Lettow-Vorbeck became a master of guerrilla warfare. He never lost a single battle, though it was not unheard of for combatants to break and flee a charging elephant or rhinoceros.

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To his adversaries, disease and parasites were often more dangerous than enemy soldiers. In one month (July, 1916) Allied non-battle casualties ran 31 to 1 compared with combat-related injuries.

In 1956, Brazilian scientists attempted to cross African honey bees with indigenous varieties, to produce an insect better suited to the South American tropics.  Today, we call the results of these failed experiments “Africanized” or “killer” bees.

Askari-on-MarchAt one point in the battle for Tanga (November 7-8, 1914), a British landing force and their Sepoy allies were routed and driven back to the sea by millions of African bees, disturbed by rifle and machine gun fire. There’s a story about a British radioman, I don’t know if it’s true.  This guy held his station, directing the evacuation from the beach while being stung to death by thousands of angry bees. He would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for “gallantry under aerial attack”.

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Lettow-Vorbeck surrendering his forces to the British at Abercorn, as drawn by an African artist. H/T Wikipedia

Returning home after the war, Vorbeck was greeted as a conquering hero.  Of all German commanders in World War One, “der Löwe von Afrika” (the Lion of Africa) alone remained undefeated in the field.  The only German commander to successfully invade imperial British soil during the Great War.

General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Lettow-Vorbeck developed a deep distrust of the upstart Adolf Hitler. When then-Chancellor Hitler offered him an ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, Lettow-Vorbeck told Hitler to go “f**k yourself.” Describing the interview afterward, Lettow’s nephew explained “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.

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Following such a blunt refusal, Lettow-Vorbeck was kept under continual surveillance by the Nazi regime. His home and office were searched, his person subject to constant harassment. The Lion of Africa was destitute by the end of WWII. His two sons killed in service to the Wehrmacht, his home in Bremen destroyed by Allied bombs.

For a time, Vorbeck lived on food packages from British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, two of his former adversaries in the East Africa campaign.  It was a token of the respect these two had, for a man who had once been their enemy.

letvorIn 1964, the year Lettow-Vorbeck died, the Bundestag voted to give back pay to former African warriors who had fought with German forces in WWI. Some 350 elderly Ascaris showed up. A few could produce certificates given them back in 1918, some had scraps of old uniforms.  Precious few could prove their former service to the German Empire.

The German banker who had brought the money had an idea. As each man stepped forward, he was handed a broom and ordered to perform the German manual of arms. Not one man failed the test.

Lettow-Vorbeck formed a lifelong friendship during his time in Africa, with the Danish author Karen Blixen, best known by her pen name Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa”. Years later, Blixen recalled, “He belonged to the olden days, and I have never met another German who has given me so strong an impression of what Imperial Germany was and stood for”.

 

massaquoiA Trivial Matter
Following years of colonial, military and diplomatic interaction, romantic relationships between Germans and Africans, were inevitable. Though rare as hen’s teeth, Adolf Hitler’s Reich included the children of such relationships. One such was Hans J. Massaquoi, a self-described “kinky-haired, brown-skinned, eight-year-old boy amid a sea of blonde and blue-eyed kids filled with patriotism”. Though prohibited from joining by racial “purity” laws, the eight-year-old Hans was entirely caught up in the excitement of the Hitler Youth.
Mr. Massaquoi tells his unusual and fascinating story in Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany.

February 22, 1943 The Mighty Atom

With eighteen in the plaintiffs dock and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

Yosselle “Joseph” Greenstein was born on January 2, 1893, the son of the poorest family in Suvalk, Poland. A small, sickly child with chronic asthma, doctors believed he suffered from the same tuberculosis, which had killed his father.

“Joe” tried sneaking into the Issakoff Brother’s Circus at fourteen, receiving a savage beating for his trouble, left bleeding and barely conscious in a muddy alley.

The circus’ strongman “Champion Volanko” saw the poor, scrawny kid trying to crawl home, and took pity.  Volanko brought the boy into his trailer and, as the two talked, became impressed with his determination. This was an old-school strength athlete, capable of performing a military press with baskets full of women, in each hand. He offered to teach the boy his techniques.  So it was that Joe Greenstein ran away with a traveling circus.

Eighteen months later, he was a changed man.  Greenstein took up wrestling and married, while still a teenager.

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“Home at last by Moshe Maimon. The house’s occupants return when it is safe, to find the house thoroughly looted. A rabbi is saying Kaddish for a member of the household who was killed”. H/T Wikipedia

In those days, Poland was a nation in name only, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Russian Empire.  Tsarist Russia was engulfed in a paroxysm of anti-Jewish violence in the pre-war years, riots resulting in death and injury, by the tens of thousands.  The New York Times reported on one such “pogrom”, in 1903:

The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia [modern Moldova], are worse than the censor will permit to publish…The cry “Kill the Jews”, was taken up all over the city…Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.

This place had nothing for a young Jewish family.  Joseph and Leah Greenstein emigrated to the United States and made a home in Galveston Texas.

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Jack Johnson

Joe worked on the docks and oil fields of Galveston, or  laying railroad tracks and pounding spikes, by hand.  He was wrestling professionally by this time under the name “Kid Greenstein”, and good at it, too.  He met Jack Johnson who taught him some fighting techniques, the first black athlete to break the color barrier to become the heavyweight champion of the world, in 1908.

A local Texas man became obsessed with Leah Greenstein in 1914 and shot her husband, between the eyes.  The bullet struck with enough force to flatten against his forehead, but did not penetrate.  Joe left the hospital that same day, convinced his physical conditioning and mental discipline, had saved his life.

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Joseph Greenstein, the Mighty Atom

Thus began the career of one of the greatest strongmen, in history.  He was “The Mighty Atom”, able to break up to three chains, by expanding his chest.  Only 5’4″-inches tall, he could bend horseshoes and drive nails with his bare hands.  He could pull a fire truck with his hair, and change a tire with no tools. Not even a jack.

On September 29, 1928 the headlines read “The Mighty Atom – Super Strong Man Pits Brawn Against Plane, Wins!” He had held an aircraft on the ground with his hair – the feat was documented by Ripley’s “Believe it or Not”.

In 1936, a dispute with six dock workers, led to a brawl.  The story ran in all the New York papers – “Little Giant Knocks Out Six’

Following the rise of Adolf Hitler’s “National Socialist” party in 1933, some German Americans formed groups, patterned after the Nazi Party in Germany.  These people had few connections to the “Thousand-Year Reich” and received little support from the broader German American community, yet they wore uniforms and toted swastikas and preached the same hate for the Jews, as the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”.  The most notorious of these, was the “German American Bund”.

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“German American Bund Camp youth salute Hindenburg in Griggstown, New Jersey”. H/T rarehistoricphotos.com

Though the claim was believed to be exaggerated, Congressman Martin Dies, Jr. of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) estimated German-American Bund membership, at 430,000, in 1938.

The Mighty Atom was in New York that year when he passed a building, about to host a Nazi rally.  One sign high on the wall read “No Jews or Dogs Allowed”.  Yosselle Greenstein had left that garbage behind in the old country.  He wasn’t about to tolerate it here.

He bought a ladder, and climbed up and tore the thing down.  Twenty streamed out of the building, bent on beating the man into giblets.  When it was over, eighteen had been sent to the hospital.

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Pulling a fire truck, Mighty Atom style

A few weeks later, the combatants were in court.  Eighteen in the plaintiffs dock, and one small defendant.  The judge asked Greenstein about the fight.  “It wasn’t a fight” he said, “It was a  pleasure”.  The case was dismissed.

War descended over Europe and with it the systematic extermination of the infirm.  The Jew.  The Roma.  The “Untermenschen“.

The grotesque sham trials conducted by Judge-President Roland Feisler made short work of any who would oppose “Der Fuhrer”.  Today, the “People’s Court” of Nazi Germany is best remembered in the wake of the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler.  In reality, this mockery of justice had been around for ten years, handing out death sentences, by the hundreds.

There were Germans throughout the war who objected to the murder of millions, but theirs was a forlorn hope.  Clergymen Dietrich Bonhoeffer would state “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.” For his opposition to the Reich, Bonhoeffer would pay with his life.

This video give a good idea about “justice” in Roland Feisler’s court.

Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, great grand-nephew of the famous Helmut von Moltke would lead 28 dissidents of the “Kreisau Circle”, against this “outrage of the Christian conscience.” These too would pay with their lives.

The most successful opposition came from the universities of Munich, with connections in Berlin, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Vienna. These were a surprise to Nazi leaders, as Universities had been stalwart supporters of Nazi ideology. The “White Rose” would rise in the wake of the disastrous Battle of Stalingrad, producing leaflets, handbills and anti-Nazi graffiti from the earliest days of 1943.

These too were found out, Hans Scholl, Sophie Scholl, and Christoph Probst made to stand trial before judge Feisler’s Court on February 22, 1943. All were sentenced to death and guillotined the same day. The last member to be executed was Hans Conrad Leipelt on January 29, 1945.

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Back at home, Joseph Greenstein performed for war bond drives, always without compensation.  The Mighty Atom continued to perform feats of strength well into his eighties, and taught fighting techniques to the New York Police department, Israeli Defence Force and others.

The Mighty Atom portraitDuring his last public performance given before a sell-out crowd at Madison Square Garden on May 11, 1977, the Mighty Atom wore a leather vest, emblazoned with a golden star of David.

When he was through, Greenstein took a moment to wish his great-grandchild a happy first birthday.

The man could still bend horseshoes and drive nails with his hands.

The mighty Atom succumbed to cancer on October 8, 1977.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.  In 2014, Joe’s son Mike appeared on America’s Got Talent. pulling a 3500-pound car with his teeth and wearing a T-shirt promoting “Mighty Atom & Sons (1940).  He was 93.

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