March 16, 1914 A Crime of Passion

Think of the OJ trial, only in this case, the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious detail anyone could ask for.  French public and media alike were riveted by the Caillaux affair, disinterested and unheeding of the European crisis barreling down on them, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

We hear a lot in election years, about “Left” and “Right”.  “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right.  Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. U5dtXeDhuSgqBYsRegyPZecZPy5MGQf_1680x8400By that time it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now, the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

200 years later, philosophical differences between the Left and Right of the period, would be recognizable to political observers today.

Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left-wing politician, appointed Prime Minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux had paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to other people. By 1911, both were divorced.  That October, Henriette Raynouard became the second Mrs. Cailloux.

The political right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many felt war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage conferred by France’s 40 million, compared with 70 million Germans.

Madame Cailloux

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time.

Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic.  Cailloux fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”.  No one realized it at the time, but Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Henriette_Caillaux (1)The July Crisis of 1914 was a series of diplomatic maneuverings, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, while Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

There is a common but mistaken notion that Imperial Germany “started” World War I, but it isn’t so.  Kaiser Wilhelm was a famous “saber rattler”, but actually going to war with the other major European powers, was another matter.

It was Germany’s weaker ally Austria-Hungary which, having received vague assurances of German support, pursued a policy of unreasoning belligerence against  Serbia.

German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow was away on honeymoon, during key periods of the July crisis.  The Kaiser himself was out of touch, cruising the Norwegian fjords.  That cruise has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in history.

On being informed of the decision to mobilize, the Kaiser told his General Staff “Gentlemen, you will regret this.”

SMY Hohenzollern II, which Emperor Wilhelm II used on annual extended Nordlandfahrt cruises to Norway. All told, he spent four years living on board.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.  Think of the OJ trial, only in this case, the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious detail anyone could ask for.  French public and media alike were riveted by the Caillaux affair, disinterested and unheeding of the European crisis barreling down on them, like the four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The trial ended in acquittal on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to have been a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

542375879In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines which would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which it sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75-year-old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats had dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

An event which could have resulted in little more that a policing action in the Balkans, was about to explode into the “War to End All Wars”.  Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon said “The lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were alive in July 1914, would not live to see the other side.


If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

February 16, 1804  The Most Daring Act of the Age

Even a former adversary couldn’t help but admire the feat.  Days later, British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called Decatur’s raid the “most bold and daring act of the age.”

Historic accounts differ as to the early success of the Islamic conquests.  Contemporary Christian sources saw them as God’s punishment for the sins of fellow Christians.  Early Muslim sources describe the rising empire as evidence of divine favor, reflections of the religious zeal of the conquerors.

Be that is it may, Islamic expansion enveloped the Arabian Peninsula in the last ten years of the life of Muhammad (622-632), at the expense of the Roman Byzantines and the Sassanid Empire of the Persians.  Syria fell in 634, followed by Egypt, Mesopotamia and Persia.  By 750, the Umayyad Caliphs had subjugated much of the Balkan states, part of the Indian sub-continent, all of North Africa, most of Spain, and parts of Southern France and Sicily.  By the age of Columbus, the Mediterranean was a place where you traveled at your own risk.

Those of us of European ancestry owe our heritage, if not our existence, to the Christian warriors who defeated the Jihadist time after time. There was Pelagius, who stopped a military force of the Umayyad Caliphate at Covadonga in 722, without which there would be no Reconquista, no Ferdinand and Isabella, and we wouldn’t know the name of Christopher Columbus.

The father of Charlemagne, Charles “The Hammer” Martel, blocked the Muslim advance into Western Europe at the Battle of Tours, in 732.


If Marcantonio Bragadin is remembered at all, it is for being betrayed, tortured and skinned alive by Lala Mustafa Pasha. Yet, it is Bragadin’s stubborn defense of the eastern Mediterranean outpost of Famagusta in 1571, which gave European principalities time to assemble naval forces in numbers sufficient to defend the European coast, near a place called Lepanto.

The 1683 Siege of Vienna, at the crossroads of eastern and western Europe, was a hard fought contest which could have gone either way, until the arrival of a Polish army under King Jan Sobieski. The Ottomans were defeated and turned back from the conquest of Eastern Europe by the largest cavalry charge in all of history, 18,000 horsemen of the Polish King and the Holy Roman Emperor, thundering down the hill and into the lines of Mustafa Pasha.


Throughout the period, “Saracens” plundered everything that could be carried away: animals, provisions, fabrics, precious metals and money:  especially men, women and children who could be sold for a good price at the slave markets.  Redemption of captives being among the corporal works of mercy, the “Mathurins” Order of the Holy Trinity was founded in 1198 for the purpose of paying the ransom of Christians held captive by non-Christians, as a consequence of crusading and pirating along the southern European coastline.

Even Ireland, with its northern latitude, wasn’t immune to such raids. The renegade Dutchman-turned Barbary pirate Murat Reis attacked the village of Baltimore in County Cork, in 1631. With him were pirates from Algiers and armed troops of the Ottoman Empire, who captured all the villagers they could find, taking 107 away to the slave markets of North Africa.  Years later, three women were ransomed and returned to Ireland.  The rest lived out their lives as slaves, or locked away in harems or inside the walls of the sultan’s palace.

“Engraving of a Moorish slave auction from Pierre Dan’s Historie van Barbaryan en des zelfs Zee-Roovers (Amsterdam, 1684). There they were paraded, chained and nearly naked, while prospective buyers inspected the merchandise”. H/T

Sidi Muhammad ibn Abdallah, Sultan of Morocco, opened his ports to trade with the fledgling United States in 1777, making Morocco the first country whose head of state publicly recognized the United States.  Abdallah saw the future for his country in foreign trade, and actively sought a treaty relationship with the US, well before war ended with Great Britain.  The treaty signed by Thomas Barclay and Sultan Muhammad III in 1786 and ratified by the Confederation Congress the following July is still in effect today, the longest continuous treaty relationship in United States history.

Diplomacy had succeeded with Morocco, but not with Algiers, Tunis or Tripoli, each of which demanded $660,000 in tribute.

Algeria captured the schooners Maria and Dauphin in 1785, the captured crews held in conditions of slavery for over a decade. The sum negotiated for their release exceeded $1 million, more than 1/6th the entire budget of the United States.  Eleven American ships were captured in 1793 alone, their crews and stores held for ransom.

Yusuf Karamanli, Pasha of Tripoli, demanded $225,000 in tribute on President Jefferson’s inauguration, in 1801.  At this time, Federal revenues were barely over $10 million.  Jefferson refused, resulting in the first Barbary War, a conflict memorialized in a line from the Marine Corps Hymn “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli”.

USS Enterprise, Barbary war

Limited to small confrontations for the first two years, more sustained combat began in June 1803 when a small American force attacked Tripoli Harbor in modern Libya.

While giving chase and firing on a pirate vessel, USS Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef, two miles outside of Tripoli.  Fearing the 1,240 ton, 36-gun frigate would be captured and added to the Tripolitan navy, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a daring expedition into Tripoli harbor to destroy the captured vessel.

hqdefaultOn the evening of February 16, 1804, Decatur entered Tripoli Harbor with a force of 74 Marines.  With them were five Sicilian volunteers, including pilot Salvador Catalano, who spoke fluent Arabic.  Disguised as Maltese sailors and careful not to draw fire from shore batteries, Decatur’s force boarded the frigate, killing or capturing all but two of its Tripolitan crew.  Decatur and his marines had hoped to sail Philadelphia out of harbor, but soon found she was in no condition to leave.  Setting combustibles about the deck, they set the frigate ablaze.  Ropes burned off, setting the Philadelphia adrift in the harbor.  Loaded cannon cooked off as the blaze spread, firing random balls into the town. It must have been a sight, when gunpowder stores ignited and the entire ship exploded.

By that time Decatur and his men had slipped away, without the loss of a single man.  Even a former adversary couldn’t help but admire the feat.  Days later, British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson called Decatur’s raid the “most bold and daring act of the age.”

January 28, 1521 A Scholarly Debate

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing his “95 theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting Church authorities. This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate. 

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497, where the boy learned the so-called “trivium” – grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at age 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505. The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer, but the boy wanted none of it.

Hans & Margarethe Luder by Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, and his University as a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.  Martin Luther was cut out for different things.

Luther entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out, almost immediately.  His father was furious over what he saw as a wasted education. Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

16th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built up a surplus of good deeds, over a lifetime.  Sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin. Monetary contributions to the church could, it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.

Luther came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity. The Grace of God wasn’t a medium to be exchanged, he believed.  Rather, such grace was attained through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.

Papal “Commissioner for Indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. A saying attributed to the Dominican friar went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

0531f24949Martin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences. He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church.  This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate.

Martin Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.

Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Martin Luther.  In 1520, the Papal Bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded the Professor of Theology to recant under pain of excommunication.

Luther stood on dangerous ground. In 1415, the Czech priest Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for such heresy.  Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against his followers, the “Hussieten”, five years later.


King Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was still years in the future in 1521, the year Pope Leo X named Henry “Fidei Defensor”.  “Defender of the Faith”. Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin was forced to flee for his life, from a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians.

Anabaptists Jan van Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling and Bernhard Krechting were tortured in the public square for their heresies, with white-hot pliers.  Their corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, in Münster. The bones were removed some fifty years later, but those three cages remain there, to this day.


The Papal edict had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions, and he publicly burned the document. Twenty-four days later, Martin Luther was excommunicated.

On this day in 1521, Emperor Charles V convened the Diet, the deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms.  Luther was summoned to defend himself in April.

With copies of his writings laid before him on a table, Luther was asked if the books were his, and if he stood by their contents.  He affirmed that yes, they were his, but asked time to consider his second answer.

The following day, Luther gave his response.  “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”.

Martin Luther testifies before the Diet of Worms, 1521

The “Edict of Worms” of the following month declared Luther an outlaw, ordering that he “be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”.  Anyone who wished to do so was now permitted to kill the monk, without legal consequence.

Five years earlier, Erasmus of Rotterdam had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”.  Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle.  It was there that he translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.

Radical sects took Luther’s teachings far beyond his intentions, and Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers. The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, sounding very much like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.


The Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther plunged Europe into a series of wars. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution. The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.

On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-century old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it too. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 5, 1709 Frost Fair

The science is politicized. Vast sums of public largesse and political capital are lavished on the climate.  We are told to expect global warming, and warned of a coming ice age. The skeptical taxpayer who has to pay for it all is forced to wade through competing narratives, in an exercise not unlike taking a sip from a fire hose. 

Over the past two weeks, temperatures have dipped near 0° Fahrenheit, as far south as Alabama.  The capital of Florida awoke only yesterday to snow in the palm trees, as frozen iguanas fell to the ground.    Ice hangs from the Spanish mosses of Savannah, as something called a “bomb cyclone” worked its way toward the New England coast.


In July 1983, temperatures of -129° were recorded at the Soviet Vostok Station in Antarctica, the coldest temperature ever measured by ground instruments. NASA satellite data recorded a low temperature of -135.8°F in August, 2010.

Four years later, a Russian research ship full of environmental, scientific and activist types, the Akademik Shokalskiy, got stuck in Antarctic ice, as did the Chinese icebreaker Xue Long, which had come to their rescue.

Very few media outlets got around to reporting that they were there to study “global warming”.

The environmental activist types would object to my use of the term, preferring what they feel to be the more descriptive “climate change”.  They’re right to prefer the term. We can all agree that climate is changing, five ice ages demonstrate that much, but it does beg the question.  How, exactly, will we know we’ve reached climate optimum?

In England, accounts of the River Thames freezing over date back as early as 250AD. The river was open to wheeled traffic for 13 weeks in 923 and again in 1410.  That time, the freeze lasted for 14 weeks. By the early 17th century, the Thames became a place of “Frost Fairs”.


The “Medieval Warm Period” lasting from 950 to 1250 was followed by the “Little Ice Age”, a 300-year period beginning in the 16th century.  King Henry VIII rode a sleigh down the Thames from London to Greenwich in 1536.  Elizabeth I was out on the ice shooting at archery targets, in 1564.

English writer John Evelyn describes the famous “Frost Fair” of the winter of 1683-’84:  “Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other stairs too and fro, as in the streets; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet plays and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places, so that it seemed to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”.

The Great Frost of the winter of 1708-09 was held in the coldest winter Europe had seen in 500 years.  William Derham, an English clergyman and natural philosopher best known for calculating a reasonably accurate estimate of the speed of sound, recorded a low of −12°C (10 °F) on the night of January 5, 1709.  It was the lowest he’d measured since beginning readings in 1697, prompting the comment that “I believe the Frost was greater than any other within the Memory of Man”.

24,000 Parisians died of cold in the next two weeks.  Animals froze in their stalls and crops planted the prior year, failed.  The resulting famine killed an estimated 600,000 in France alone while, in Italy, the lagoons and canals of Venice, froze solid.

clip_image0026Breaks in cold weather inevitably marked the end of the frost fairs, sometimes all of a sudden.  In January 1789, melting ice dragged a ship with it, while tied to a riverside tavern, in Rotherhite.  Five people were killed when the building was pulled down on their heads.

The last Thames River frost fair took place in 1814, the year someone led an elephant across the ice, below Blackfriar’s Bridge.  Structural changes in river embankments and the demolition of the medieval London Bridge have increased water flow in the Thames, making it possible that the river will never freeze again.

Today, many blame weather extremes on “anthropogenic” (human) causes, associating what used to be called global warming”, with CO2. Others contend the reverse: that historic increases in carbon do not precede but rather result from, climate extremes. A third group associates the sun with climate change (imagine that), linking an extended period of low solar activity called the “Maunder Minimum”, with the brutal cold of 1645-1715.

The science is politicized. Vast sums of public largesse and political capital are lavished on the climate.  We are told to expect global warming, and warned of a coming ice age. The skeptical taxpayer who has to pay for it all is forced to wade through competing narratives, in an exercise not unlike taking a sip from a fire hose.

Meanwhile, the sun is going to do what the sun is going to do, which at the moment appears to be another quiet period in solar activity.  Very quiet. Before it’s over, we may find ourselves wishing for a little Global Warming.

Feature image, top:  The Battery, Charleston SC, January 2, 2018

December 15, 1979 Iranian Revolution

Aside from some of the most dismal economic conditions in American history, the Iranian hostage crisis did more than anything else to doom Jimmy Carter, to a single term.

Ruhollah Mousavi, the name translates as “inspired of God”, was born in the Iranian village of Khomein, on September 24, 1902.  Born into a family of Shi’ite religious scholars, Mousavi was raised by his mother and aunt after his father was murdered while the boy was still an infant.  The mother and the aunt died in a cholera outbreak when he was 16. After that he was raised by his brother, Seyed Mourteza.

The family claimed to be directly descended from Muhammad, and both brothers were avid religious scholars, attaining the status of Ayatollah: Shi’ite scholars of the highest knowledge.

As King of Persia (Iran) since the 1920s, Rezā Shāh Pahlavi weakened the powers of religious leaders and pushed for a more secularized country.  Pahlavi’s reign was largely a force for modernization, but was often despotic, and failure to modernize a large peasant population paved the way to the Iranian Revolution.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi came to power in 1941, following the Commonwealth/Soviet invasion of the Empire of Iran which forced the abdication of his father.

The years following WW2 saw a “growing nationalist mobilization against foreign domination” across the Middle East.  In Iran, increasingly politicized Shiʿite “Islamic Fundamentalist” sentiment took the form of the Fadā’iyān-e Islam, literally “Self-Sacrificers of Islam”, an activist organization founded by theology student Navvab Safavi and dedicated to “purifying” Islam through the assassinations of leading intellectual and political leaders.

Prime Minister Haj Ali Razmara was assassinated by Fadā’iyān-e Islam radicals in 1951, the organization’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Kashani becoming Speaker of the National Parliament.

In the early 50’s, secular Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh enjoyed an alliance of convenience with the hard-liner Kashani, mentor to the future Ayatollah Khomeini, at the same time seeking to blunt the political power of the Shah, believing that the Persian King should “reign, but not rule” in the manner of the constitutional monarchies of Europe.

In 1901, Mozzafar al-Din Shah Qajar, King of Persia, granted a 60-year petroleum search concession to British investor William Knox D’Arcy for £20,000, equivalent to $166 million in 2016.  By the WW2 period, support was building for state control of foreign-owned oil assets, many believing such policies to be the way forward to greater wealth and self-determination. Mossadegh attempted to negotiate a 50/50 split of oil profits, but the British controlled Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) balked.

Mohammad Mossadegh

Contrary to the American position at that time, the UK government began plans to undermine and overthrow the Iranian government.

AIOC refusal to submit to audit of its books led to the “Nationalization Crisis” of 1951, and the near-unanimous vote in the majlis to nationalize Iranian oil assets. Foreign-owned oil executives were expelled from the country, the British government enforcing an Iranian oil embargo while Prime Minister Mossadegh talked of a “cruel and imperialistic country” stealing from a “needy and naked people.”

With the United States fighting a war in Korea, the American government was deeply entrenched in a cold war mindset. Mossadegh had lost the support of Islamist hardliners by this time, for his failure to move the nation toward sharia-based theocratic government.

The communist-supporting Tudeh party began to infiltrate the Iranian military, persuading American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that the Iranian government was “falling” to the Soviet Union.

Iranian Revolution 5
Tehran University students, in the time of the shah

Before long, economic and political isolation severely weakened the Mossadegh government, as the American government switched sides on the question of Iranian overthrow.  Two UK/US-backed coup attempts followed in 1953, along with the temporary expulsion of the Shah. The government was done for good that August. Mohammad Mossadegh would spend the rest of his life under house arrest.

Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini

Ayatollah Khomeini had formed very different views by this time from those of his teachers, concerning the separation of church and state.  Khomeini dedicated himself to teaching, cultivating a group of dedicated students who would one day become his staunchest supporters.  By the time of JFK’s election to the Presidency, Shi’ite Iranians regarded Khomeini as “Marja-e Taqlid”.  A person to be imitated.

Khomeini gained prominence in 1962, opposing a law which would remove the requirement that elected officials be sworn in on the Qu’ran. In 1963, he gave a speech suggesting the Shah could leave if he didn’t like the political direction of the country, a speech which earned him a stay in prison.

Khomeini was arrested again in 1964, after pronouncing his belief that Jews would take over Iran, and that the US considered all Iranians to be little more than slaves.  Khomeini was deported to Turkey, later taking up residence in Iraq because Turkish law prevented him from wearing the traditional clothes of a Shi’ite cleric and scholar.

During his years in exile, Khomeini developed his ideas on the structure of an Islamic state, which he called “Velayat-e faqeeh”.  He would lecture on his religious theories, videotapes of which were smuggled into Iran and sold at bazaars, making Khomeini the leader of Iranian opposition to the Shah’s government.

Iranian Revolution 4Military force had to be called out in 1975, to dispel crowds at a religious school in Qom.  Khomeini declared it the beginning of “Freedom and liberation from the bonds of imperialism”.  By this time Khomeini was too hot to handle even for the Iraqis, and he moved to Paris.  It was only a few short months before his triumphant return.

Thousands were killed in riots and demonstrations throughout 1978, which the Shah first tried to quell, and later to embrace.  “As Shah of Iran as well as an Iranian citizen”, Pahlavi said on November 5, “I cannot but approve your revolution”.

It was too little, too late.  Weeks later the Shāhanshāh, the “King of Kings”, left his country for good.

Iranian Revolution 2Khomeini re-entered Iran in February, as the Shah went from country to country, looking for a place to stay.  With the now-former King of Kings suffering from a form of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, President Jimmy Carter reluctantly allowed the Shah into the US for surgery. Pahlavi left on December 15, 1979 for Panama.

Iranian Revolution 1Meanwhile, now “Grand Ayatollah” Khomeini was denouncing what he saw as an American plot.  Revolutionaries stormed the American embassy and seized 66 hostages.  13 women and black Americans were released.  Richard Queen, a white man sick with Multiple Sclerosis, was released nine months later.  The remaining 52 hostages would be 444 days in captivity, paraded before television cameras in blindfolds as Khomeini denounced “The Great Satan”.

The US attempted a rescue on April 24, 1980.  “Operation Eagle Claw” ended in collision between aircraft and the death of eight American servicemen, an Iranian civilian, and the destruction of two aircraft.

Iran-hostagesAside from some of the most dismal economic conditions in American history, the Iranian hostage crisis did more than anything else to doom Jimmy Carter, to a single term.

Iranian revolutionaries wanted the Shah to stand trial for atrocities committed by his secret police, the SAVAK, but the Islamic Republic of Iran would easily match the worst of the Shah’s reign when it came to brutality.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is gone now, but his influence is very much alive.  If you want a fun read sometime, download the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Khomeini is personally named in the document.  Three times.

There is a quote, attributed to the Ayatollah, which says “We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world”.

A 2007 article in the Economist calls the authenticity of this quote into question, noting that the Mullahs like to build up bank accounts in Dubai and Switzerland, behavior hardly consistent with such an apocalyptic world view.

As South Korean intelligence officials warn of a madman neighbor to the north “bartering” nuclear weapons for oil, the previous administration concluded a comprehensive “Nuclear Agreement” with Iran, replete with secret side deals, including $400 billion in cash flown into Tehran in the middle of the night.

While the current administration mulls over the re-certification of that deal, it would be nice to settle the authenticity question on that Khomeini quote, once and for all.

December 6, 1240 Golden Horde

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many of its inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

Mongol Golden Horde

Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader. By 1197, the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe.  One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet.

His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

NatGeo Cover, Afghan girlThe Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History does not record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features.  There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were the “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.

The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words “Horse Archer”.  Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

Horse Archer

The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with the stretching of animal sinews, glued to the exterior.  The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of a football field.  Ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw weight of a first-class English longbow is 70-80 lbs.  The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs, depending upon the physical strength of its user.

After the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Khan (Chief of State) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 of these circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.

Mongol Invasion of the Rus

13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than it was a single nation. One by one these city-states fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.  Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake along with its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde.  On this day, December 6, 1240, Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev, following several days’ struggle.

By the end of 1241, Mongol armies had crushed opposing forces from the Plains of Hungary, to Eastern Persia, to the outskirts of Austria. That December, plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy, when news arrived informing the Mongol host of the death of the Great Khan, Ögödei.  Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required that all Princes of the Blood return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad. Centered in Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, during what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Since 1241, the Abbassids paid tribute to the Khanate in the form of gold, military support, and, according to rumors, Christian captives of the Crusades. That came to a halt in 1258, when Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to continue the practice. The Abbassid Caliphate ceased to exist on February 10, following a twelve-day siege by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan, brother of the Khagan (great kahn) Möngke.


The Mongols first looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals.  The “House of Wisdom”, the grand library of Baghdad, compiled over generations and  comparable in size and scope to the modern-day Library of Congress, the British Library in London or the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris, was utterly destroyed.  Survivors said that the muddy waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of the books hurled into its waters, and red from the blood of the slain.

Estimates of the number killed in the fall of Baghdad, range from 90,000 to one million.  Hulagu needed to move his camp to get upwind, so overwhelming was the stench of the dead.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.


In 1281, a massive Mongol fleet of some 4,000 ships and 140,000 men set out under Kublai Khan, to invade Japan. This was the second such attempt, the largest naval invasion in history and not to be eclipsed until the 20th century D-Day invasion, of Normandy. As with the previous attempt, a great typhoon came up and destroyed the Mongol fleet. As many as 70,000 men were captured.  The Golden Horde never again attempted the invasion of Japan. To this day, we know this “Divine Wind”, as “Kamikaze”.


Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan.

Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day.  Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more he destroyed.  Many, have never entirely recovered.  Best known for the pyramids of skulls he left behind, as many as 19 million fell to the murderous regime, of Tamerlane.

The violence of the age was so vast and horrific that it’s hard to get your head around. WWII, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter.  From the battlefields to the death camps, WWII ended the lives of 40 to 72 million souls, killed in a few short years.  Roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth.  By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one-by-one with edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests that “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. It was likewise for the Mongol Empire; a time of peace for those who would submit and pay tribute.  A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

The Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East during the ‘Pax Mongolica’.

This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000-mile long “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished throughout the 14th and 15th centuries under Mongol control.

In the 14th century, the “Black Death” began to change the balance of power on the Eurasian steppe. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.

Black DeathThe Mongols would never regain the lost high ground of December 1241, as chieftains fell to squabbling over bloodlines.

The Golden Horde ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible), in the 1550s.

The Mongol hordes never went away, not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals that up to 8% of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about one-half of one per cent of the world’s population, descends directly from that baby with the blood clot, grasped in his fist.  Genghis Khan.


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November 27, 1942 Scuttled

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it, even if they had to sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzers had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people in shock in the wake of their June surrender.  All those years their government had told them, that the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot line, was more than enough to counter German aggression.

France had fallen in six weeks.

Vichy-FranceGermany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of France, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Though mostly toothless, the self-described “French state” in Vichy was left relatively free to run its own affairs, compared with the Nazi occupied regions to the west and north.

That changed in November 1942, with the joint British/American invasion of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.  At the time, the north African provinces were nominally under the control of the Vichy regime.  Hitler gave orders for the immediate occupation of all of France.

Scuttled, 2With the armistice of June 1940, much of the French naval fleet was confined to the Mediterranean port of Toulon.  Confined but not disarmed, and the French fleet possessed some of the most advanced naval technologies of the age, enough to shift the balance of military power in the Mediterranean.

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it, even if they had to sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

Scuttled, 1In November 1942, the Nazi government came to take control of that fleet. The motorized 7th Panzer column of German tanks, armored cars and armored personnel carriers descended on Toulon with an SS motorcycle battalion, taking over port defenses to either side of the harbor. German officers entered fleet headquarters and arrested French officers, but not before word of what was happening was relayed to French Admiral Jean de Laborde, aboard the flagship Strasbourg.

The order went out across the base at Toulon.  Prepare to scuttle the fleet, and resist the advance of German troops, by any means necessary.

The German column approached the main gate to the harbor facility in the small hours of November 27, demanding access.  ‘Of course,’ smiled the French guard. ‘Do you have your access paperwork?’

Toulon, französisches KriegsschiffUnder orders to take the harbor without bloodshed, the Nazi commander was dismayed. Was he being denied access by this, his defeated adversary?  Minutes seemed like hours in the tense wrangling which followed.  Germans gesticulated and argued with French guards, who stalled and prevaricated at the closed gate.

The Germans produced documentation, only to be thanked, asked to wait, and left standing at the gate.

Meanwhile, thousands of French seamen worked in grim silence throughout the early morning hours, preparing to scuttle their own fleet.  Valves and watertight doors were opened, incendiary and demolition charges were prepared and placed.

27_toulonFinally, the Panzer column could be stalled no more.  German tanks rumbled through the main gate at 5:25am, even as the order to scuttle passed throughout the fleet.  Dull explosions sounded across the harbor, as fighting broke out between the German column, and French sailors pouring out of their ships in the early dawn light.  Lead German tanks broke for the Strasbourg, even now pouring greasy, black smoke from its superstructure, as she settled to the bottom.

The Germans could only look on, helpless, as a dying fleet escaped their grasp.  In the end, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 28 tugs, 4 cranes and a school ship, were destroyed.  39 smaller vessels of negligible military value fell into German hands along with twelve fleet vessels, all of them damaged.

The fires would burn, for weeks.  The harbor at Toulon would remain fouled and polluted, for years.

The French Navy lost 12 men killed and 26 wounded on that day, 75 years ago, today.  The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable.  How many lives could have been lost can never be known, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power.  But for the bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten, foe.

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