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”.
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.
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.
Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.
Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection. After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.
The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years. Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities. Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.
Schism and excommunication followed. Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088. The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.
The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties. It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family. Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire. The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.
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.
We’re two and one-half millennia down the road and we can still see who these people were, in our every-day lives.
Whether we think about it or not, western culture has one foot in religion and the other in the world of secular democratic thought. Athens, and Jerusalem.
Born in 150AD, the lawyer and philosopher Tertullian of Carthage converted to Christianity at age forty and spent the remainder of his life, defending the Christian faith.
“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
Tertullian of Carthage
The answer would shape the next 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian culture.
Six hundred years before his time that secular part, hung in the balance. It is hardly an exaggeration to say. The course of western thought and culture was set on this day, in 479BC.
A century before the age of classical Greece King Darius I, third King of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula.
Several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled in 499BC, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea. This “Ionian Revolt” lasted six years. While unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius. Herodotus records that, every night before dinner, Darius required one of his servants three times, to repeat: “Master, remember the Athenians“.
The Persian Shahanshah (‘King of Kings’) sent emissaries to the Greek city states, demanding gifts of earth and water signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them. Sparta didn’t bother. They threw Darius’ ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they called down. “There is your water”.
Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire. What happened over the next 20 years made us all who we are, today.
Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea. A massive force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ own brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica.
Nine thousand hoplites marched out of Athens to meet the threat joined by 1,000 heavily armored infantry, out of Plataea. The two sides met on the beach on a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.
On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line. “At them!”
Easily outnumbering the Greeks two to one the Persian force depended on massive flights of arrows, to decimate the foe. Greek tactics centered around a tight formation some eight men deep called a “phalanx”.
With each man burdened by 70-pounds of bronze and leather armor the hoplites likely marched to within arrow range, about two hundred meters, and then closed the distance at a dead run.
The Persian shafts rained down and yet had little effect, against the heavy armor of the Greeks. The bone crushing collision of bronze against the light quilted jerkins of the Persians, their wicker shields and small swords & axes no match against the wooden hoplon and ash wood shafts of the hoplite spear. The Battle of Marathon was a humiliating defeat for Darius with 6,400 Persians lying dead in the sand. Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.
Fun fact: We all know the legend of Pheidippides, dropping his shield and running the 25 miles to Athens to announce the victory and dropping dead with the word, “Nenikēkamen!” (We have won!) So, why would a trained Hemerodrome (Day Runner) die from a mere 25 miles? Folks do that all the time, I’ve done it twice, myself. The man had just run 150 miles round-trip to Lacedaemon to request Spartan assistance for the battle, before that last run to Athens. So. You ran a Marathon? Ppppppth. Talk to me after you’ve run a 153-mile Spartathlon.
Undeterred, Datis sailed for Athens now undefended with her entire army away, at Marathon. The exhausted Greeks trudged 25 miles back to face down the Persian fleet now anchored at Phaleron. Humiliated but as yet undefeated the Persian triremes, turned for home.
Back in Asia Minor the King of Kings spent three years preparing another invasion. One he would lead himself, and not Datis. It wasn’t meant to be. Darius had an Egyptian revolt to deal with first and died, in 486BC. Ten years after Marathon it was Darius’ son Xerxes who returned, to finish what his father had started.
In 480BC, news of a massive Persian army on the move reached Lacedaemonia, principal region of the Spartan state. Several Greek city states were technically at war with one another in 480BC but that was dropped, as preparations were made for a two-pronged defense. An allied Greek navy would meet the Persian triremes at the straits of Artemisium while an army of Hoplites, Greek heavy infantry, would meet the Persian army at the narrow pass known as the “Hot Gates”.
The story is familiar. The last stand at Thermopylae. The famed 300 led by Leonidas blocking the narrow pass at the head of an allied army of some 7,000 hoplites, It was a puny force compared with the 100,000 strong, commanded by Xerxes.
The standoff lasted for three days until a traitor arose from among the Greeks, Ephialtes of Trachis, who led the Persians through a narrow path to come around behind the Greek line.
Knowing himself betrayed Leonidas dismissed most of his soldiers, knowing they would be needed, for the battle yet to come. 300 Spartans, 700 Thespian allies and an unreliable contingent of 400 Thebans now faced the Persian hordes, in front and to the rear. True to form, the Theban band defected to the Persian side, at the earliest opportunity.
Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill on which the Greeks made their final stand. The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955 and remains, to this day: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”
As the battle unfolded at Thermopylae the vastly superior Persian fleet met that of the Greek allies, at a place called Artemisium.
The Greek triremes here hopelessly outnumbered with 271 ships manned by 4,065 marines rowed by 46,070 oarsman. The Persian fleet numbered 1,207 much larger vessels with 36,210 marines rowed by 205,190 oarsman. Even so, Artemisium was fought to a meaningless stalemate at a cost of 100 Greek ships and four times that, lost to Xerxes. The Greeks could scarcely afford such losses and retreated to a narrow strait between the mainland and the island of Salamis.
The battered Greek navy was as a cat up a tree while Persians on land went on to conquer Phocis, Boeotia, Attica, and Euboea. Using the cramped straits to his best advantage the General/Statesmen Themistocles persuaded the battered Greeks, to give battle. The vast Persian navy was of no advantage in the crowded straits of Salamis. It was a brilliant Greek victory with the loss of forty ships with Persian losses numbering 200 to 300. Xerxes himself retreated to Asia leaving General Mardonius to finish the Greeks, the following year.
The culminating battle happened on or about August 27-28, 479BC. It was a massive battle for antiquity, more like a Waterloo or a Gettysburg fought out on the slopes of Mount Mycale and the plains near the small town of Plataea.
The Battle of Plataea was a massive victory for the Greeks in this, the last land battle of the second Persian invasion of the Peloponnese. Minor skirmishes would continue for another 30 years but now began a flourishing of art, architecture and philosophy known as the Golden Age, of classical Greece. The future of western secular culture, was now assured.
Doubt me? Consider the idea that the common man has a say in important matters affecting his surroundings. Even the word democracy itself, comes from the Greek words demos meaning people, and kratia meaning power or rule. The student of Art and architecture need look no further than the Parthenon’s resemblance to any number of public buildings in cities from North America to western Europe. To look upon the sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite of Knidos is to see the human form itself and not the stiff, stylized artwork of the ancients. Draconian laws? Granted ancient Greek justice was harsh but the very notion that we’re all equal before the law, of written codes not subject to the whim of an aristocracy…thank the Athenian legislator Draco, for that one.
So…yeah. We’re now two and one-half millennia down the road and we still see who these people were, in our every-day lives.
“Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens. He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.”
Soghomon Tehlirian studied his quarry, for weeks. He even took an apartment near the man’s home at #4 Hardenbergstraße, to shadow the hated Talaat Pasha and learn his daily routine.
Then came the day. March 15, 1921. Tehlirian waited with his unsuspecting victim at a crosswalk, hurrying across only to turn and cross, once more. To look into the man’s eyes. Identity thus confirmed, the assassin wheeled on passing his victim, and raised the Luger. A single bullet in the nape of the neck.
The hated architect of the deportation and murder of so many of his people, of the extermination of 85 members of the assassin‘s own family, was dead before he hit the street. Tehlirian did not run. He waited patiently for the Polizei and surrendered, upon their arrival.
12 jurors of a Weimar Court pronounced Tehlirian not guilty of this, his second assassination. The first was that of Harutian Mgrditichian, that Judas to his own people who fed the Ottoman overlord the names and addresses, of its victims.
There was no term in 1921, for the Armenian genocide. International law was ambivalent, as to whether there was even a crime. When the Jewish/Polish law student Rafael Lemkin asked his professor why there was no law under which to prosecute Talaat, the professor replied “Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens. He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.”
On November 26, 1935, the anti-Semitic and racist Nuremberg Laws added the Romani people as “enemies of the race-based state”, of Nazi Germany. Over the next ten years as many as three-quarters of the itinerant Indo-Aryan Roma and Sinti people, were wiped from the face of the earth. Two-thirds of all the Jews in Europe were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime along with untold numbers of smaller “undesirable” groups such as Jehova’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Germans with mental and physical disabilities and others. Six to ten percent of all the Polish gentiles in Nazi occupied Europe were destroyed along with three million Polish Jews.
Genocide was a crime without a name at this time. Germans called it Völkermord, (‘murder of a people’). Poles called it ludobójstwo, (‘killing of a people or nation’) and Winston Churchill, referring to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, spoke of “a crime without a name”. It was Rafael Lemkin in 1944 who coined the term ‘genocide’, from the Ancient Greek word génos (γένος, meaning “race” or “people”) and the Latin suffix caedere, meaning, “to kill”.
The term came into common usage during the Nuremberg trials but only as a descriptive. It wasn’t until the 1946 Polish Genocide trials of Arthur Greiser and Amon Leopold Goth that the term took on formal, legal meaning.
In 1996, research professor and founding Genocide Watch President Gregory Stanton presented a briefing paper to the United States Department of State, describing the “8 Stages of Genocide”. That was amended in 2012 to add two more, resulting in ten identifiable stages, of genocide:
Classification: People are divided into “them and us”. Between 1949 and 1961, Mao’s purges of China and Tibet killed an estimated 49 to 78 million souls
Symbolization: “When combined with hatred, symbols may be forced upon unwilling members of pariah groups…” On this day in 1933 the government of Iraq slaughtered over 3,000 Assyrians in the village of Sumail. To this day August 7 is known as, Assyrian Martyrs Day.
Discrimination: “Law or cultural power excludes groups from full civil rights: segregation or apartheid laws, denial of voting rights”. Josef Stalin killed 23 million between 1932 and 1939 in various purges and the politically orchestrated ‘famine’ called the Holodomor.
Dehumanization: “One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases.” The Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler was responsible for 12 million civilian deaths in the concentration camps and pogroms of 1935 through 1945.
Organization: “Genocide is always organized… Special army units or militias are often trained and armed…” Leopold II of Belgium was responsible for the death of 8,000,000 between 1886 and 1908, in the Belgian Congo.
Polarization: “Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda…” Hideki Tojo is credited with the death of five million civilians, during World War 2
Preparation: “Mass killing is planned. Victims are identified and separated because of their ethnic or religious identity…” The genocide carried out by Ismail Enver of Turkey killed 1,200,000 Armenians, 350,000 Greek Pontians, 480,000 Anatolian Greeks and a half-million Assyrians between 1915 and 1920.
Persecution: “Expropriation, forced displacement, ghettos, concentration camps”. Between 1975 and 1979 the agrarian utopia of the Khmer Rouge led by a revolutionary cadre of 9 intellectuals called the Ang-ka murdered between a quarter and a third of their fellow Cambodians.
Extermination: “It is ‘extermination’ to the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human”. The worst genocides of the 20th century killed something like 160 million souls. A closer accounting is impossible when even the counters, are killed.
Denial: “The perpetrators… deny that they committed any crimes…” Pol Pot, a self-described peaceful man who had done no wrong, died peacefully, in his sleep, in 1998.
Stanton’s ten steps may be taken in linear fashion, in any combination or all at once.
Here’s an interesting exercise. Keyword-search the term ‘country of poets and thinkers’ in the search engine, of your choice. They will all yield the same answer. Germany.
So, how does a culture known for all that, produce the Nazi Holocaust? How for that matter does the everyday Rwandan take up a machete and hack his countryman to bloody bits? How does the Cambodian farmer don the red & white scarf of the Khmer Rouge and bash in the skulls, of his neighbors? Off-duty photographs of SS officers depict not slavering monsters but smiling, everyday family members and neighbors, enjoying a pleasant outing with family, pets and friends.
The way it begins is that particular form of idiocy of which we are all guilty, every day. The classification of our fellow man not as individuals but as members, of a group.
Today, Google Translate supports 108 languages serving over 200 million users, daily. Esperanto became number 64 on February 22, 2012.
In the first book of the Hebrew Bible known to Christians as the Old Testament, Genesis 11:1-9 explains the origin story, of the world’s many languages. A veritable Tower of Babel.
In the late 19th century Russian town of Białystok, in what is now Poland, a Yiddish speaking majority lived side-by-side with Poles, Belarusians, Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others. Relations were anything but harmonious between groups. Leyzer Leyvi Zamenhov was part of that Yiddish speaking majority and believed many of the differences, were linguistic.
As the son of a German language teacher, Zamenhof was fluent in many languages including Russian, German, French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish and English. He was reasonably proficient in Italian, Spanish and Lithuanian, as well. Zamenhof came to believe that poor relations between Białystok’s many minorities stemmed from the lack of a common language, so it was he set out to create an “auxiliary language”. An international second language to foster communications, between people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.
Writing under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto”, Zamenhov published the “Unua Libro” (First Book) on July 26, 1887, setting forth the rules for the new tongue.
The goal was to create an easily learned, politically neutral language transcending nationality, fostering peace and international understanding between people with different regional and/or national languages.
The Esperanto alphabet includes 28 letters. There are 23 consonants, 5 cardinal vowels, and 2 semivowels which combine with vowels to form 6 diphthongs. Esperanto words are derived by stringing together prefixes, roots, and suffixes. The process is regular, so that people may create new words as they speak and still be understood.
The original core vocabulary included 900 such roots, which are combined in a regular manner so that they might be better used by international speakers.
For example, the adjective “BONA” means “GOOD”. The suffix “UL” indicates a person having a given trait, and “O” designates the ending of a noun. Therefore, the Esperanto word “BONULO” translates as “A good person”. The title of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 movie “The Godfather”, translates as “La Baptopatro”. “Esperanto” itself translates as “one who hopes”.
Some useful English words and phrases include the following, along with Esperanto translation and International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions:
○ Do you speak Esperanto? Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? [ˈtʃu vi pa.ˈro.las ˌes.pe.ˈran.ton] ○ Thank you. Dankon [ˈdan.kon] ○ You’re welcome. Ne dankinde [ˌne.dan.ˈkin.de] ○ One beer, please. Unu bieron, mi petas [ˈu.nu bi.ˈe.ron, mi ˈpe.tas] ○ Where is the toilet? Kie estas la necesejo? [ˈki.e ˈes.tas ˈla ˌne.tse.ˈse.jo]
Today, Google Translate supports 108 languages serving over 200 million users, daily. Esperanto became number 64 on February 22, 2012.
Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.
Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values. Often such parents, usually women, are shunned by neighbors and even family. “War children” may experience even worse subjected to ostracism, bullying, and more.
Much is written of what takes place, when politicians send nations to war. Few take note of the innocents. The proverbial mice wishing only to go about their business while all about them, is chaos.
“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.
On the Eastern Front of World War 2, combat between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union rose to proportions of apocalyptic race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of that war. Four out of every five German soldiers who died in all World War 2, died on the ‘Ostfront’.
While precise numbers are impossible to ascertain, an estimated several hundred thousand to as many as 2 million German females from 8 to 80 were raped by Red Army soldiers. Some, as many as 60 or 70 times according to historian, William Hitchcock.. Austrian women were no different nor even Soviet women, released from work camps.
“The front-line Russian troops who did the fighting – as a woman, you didn’t have to be afraid of them. They shot every man they saw, even old men and young boys, but they left the women alone. It was the ones who came afterwards, the second echelon, who were the worst. They did all the raping and plundering. They stripped homes of every single possession, right down to the toilets”.
Anonymous German woman, living in Berlin
British military historian Antony Beevor concludes that 1.4 million women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, alone. Female deaths in connection with such rapes in Germany and the butchered abortion attempts which followed, are estimated at 240,000. 4,148 Red Army soldiers were punished for such atrocities.
When Yugoslav politician Milovan Djilas complained about rapes in Yugoslavia, Stalin replied that he should “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.”
Small surprise when Stalin’s own Chief of the Secret Police Lavrentiy Beria, was a serial rapist.
In his 2007 book Taken by Force: Rape and American GIs in Europe in World War II, Northern Kentucky University sociology and criminology professor J. Robert Lilly reports that 11,040 rapes were carried out by US servicemen.
In 1959, journalist Marta Hillers wrote what was then an anonymous memoir of the weeks between April 22 and June, 1945. In it, Hillers describes being gang raped by Red Army soldiers before forming a relationship with a Soviet officer, for her own protection. Marta Hillers died in 2001. Seven years later, her account was retold in the German feature film, Eine Frau in Berlin. (A Woman in Berlin).
Propaganda banners and posters appeared all over the Soviet-occupation zone and later East Germany, proclaiming the heroism of those who had smashed the Nazi war machine and paved the way to Soviet-German friendship. The plight of tens of thousands of “Russian children”, mostly fatherless, was taboo.
All these decades later, former East German Jan Gregor can still remember the day his mother told him that she was “made pregnant by force”.
An estimated 100,000 “Amerasian” children were born to Asian mothers and U.S. servicemen during WWII, the Korean War, and war in Vietnam.
Some 37,000 children were fathered by American soldiers with German and Austrian women in the 10 years following the German surrender. Locals disapproved of such relations, not only because these Americans had recently been their enemies, but also because such children often became “wards of the state” in local economies already impoverished, by war. The “brown children” of black GIs and German mothers were particularly difficult to adopt out in what was heretofore a racially homogeneous culture. Many were adopted by American couples and families of African ancestry, back in the States.
Military forces of Nazi Germany invaded the neutral Scandinavian Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940. Denmark fell in a day. Norwegian armed resistance ceased within two months, when civil rule passed to the Reichskommissariat Norwegen (Reich Commissariat of Norway). The neutral Scandinavian countries remained under Wehrmacht occupation, for the next five years.
Sometimes, relationships formed between German occupying troops and native women. The racially obsessed Nazi regime was happy to encourage such relations, particularly in Norway, where local women were considered to be of pure, “Aryan” ancestry. Some such relationships were consensual. Many were anything but. Some 10,000 to 12,000 children were born to Norwegian women and German fathers, the most famous being Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad of the Swedish pop group ABBA, who fled Norway after the war for fear of reprisals.
For nearly a thousand years, the administration of Iceland was all but indistinguishable from that of Denmark and Norway. The Act of Union established Iceland as a fully sovereign state in 1918, an independent country in a personal union through a common monarch, with the Kingdom of Denmark.
Following the allied withdrawal from Dunkirk, every nation on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. Alarmed at the possibility of German military presence to their north, British authorities invited the neutral nation Iceland to join the war as “as a belligerent and an ally,” following the collapse of Denmark. That invitation, was rejected.
On this day in 1940, the United Kingdom invaded Iceland, an initial force of 746 British Royal Marines disembarking at the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík.
The British invasion of Iceland never resembled the “shooting war” in Europe. The government complained that its neutrality had been “flagrantly violated” and demanded compensation, but principle opposition took the form of hordes of civilians, who crowded in to see what was happening. Icelandic public opinion was sharply divided at the invasion and subsequent occupation. Many described it all as the “blessað stríðið“, the “Lovely War”, the building of a roads, hospitals, harbors, airfields and bridges across the nation a boon to the Icelandic economy. Others resented the occupation, which rose to half the native male population.
Sexual relationships between foreign troops and local women were severely frowned upon. Such women often accused of being traitors, even prostitutes.
In 1941, the Icelandic Minister of the Judiciary investigated “The Situation”. Upset that foreign troops were “taking away” women from friends and family, police investigated over 500 women for sexual with soldiers and determined, most had been consensual. Two facilities opened to house such women in 1942 but both closed, within a year. Two-hundred fifty-five ástandsbörn (‘children of the situation’) were born of such relationships. 332 Icelandic women married foreign soldiers.
It has been said that, when governments make war, it’s the everyday Joe and the Nigel, the Fritz, Pierre and the Ivan down the street, who must do the fighting, the bleeding, and the dying. It may well be added. It’s usually left to the mice, to pick up the pieces.
In recent months we have learned from our “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.
The news this morning spoke of an “elite” private school in New York, and the 12-page memorandum sent home to Moms and Dads. Turns out the Grace Church School doesn’t like the terms, “Mom” and “Dad”. Kids aren’t allowed to use them anymore. Even at home.
Leaving a reasonable person to wonder, what exactly renders these people, “elite”? And why would such a thing warrant any response at all, save for a one-finger salute?
In recent months we have learned from such “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.
Scores of millions of women and men of all persuasions and all political stripes quietly shake their heads in hopes that this too, shall pass. And not for the first time. In 1688, no fewer than 19 counties in England and Wales mobilized to defend against armed and rampaging bands of non-existent Irishmen. In 1954, widespread observation of previously unnoticed pits and dings in windshields caused residents of Washington state to believe there was an epidemic of windshield pitting, attributed to everything from sand flea eggs, to nuclear testing.
History abounds with episodes of mass hysteria. The Dancing plague of 1518. The Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and the granddaddy of them all la Grande Peur, the Great Fear sweeping across 1789 France culminating in the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and an estimated 3.1 million dead Frenchmen.
All that to return back to the status quo, in 1815.
Imagine you were there, from the beginning. August 1789. Your personal politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left but in all respects, “Moderate”. Now imagine your nation’s politics have shifted so radically in the space of two short years, you find yourself on the “reactionary right”. You are hounded, subject to persecution, even execution, at the hands of your own government. And your personal convictions haven’t changed.
In early modern France, society broke into “three estates”: the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men. The estates-general was a legislative body comprising three assemblies representing each of the three estates.
French society found itself at a crossroads in the late 18th century. Politically, the “commons” had become a caste of its own with a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates. Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition and with it, a diminution of the Monarchy and the Church.
Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution a decade earlier. (Did we really just blow another two Trillion on a “Covid relief” package, with 7% actually going to Covid relief?)
The straw to break the camel’s back came in the form of successive crop failures. Across Europe, peasants tilled the lands of the manor houses of minor Lords who themselves owed fealty, to the higher nobility. The system had been around since Roman times. In 1789 France, successive crop failures spawned rumors of an aristocratic plot to wipe out the working classes. Peasants rose up to take action, against the seigneurs.
The fiscal and agricultural crises of 1789 pushed the nation over the edge. The “tennis court oath” that May asserted the autonomy of the third estate, a direct affront to the hereditary rights of Kings. The beast was unleashed. The mob stormed the Bastille that July leading to bread riots in the streets and a march on the King’s residence, at Versailles.
In three short months, King Louis XVI was stripped of executive authority.
On this day in 1790, the national Assembly decreed the sale of church-owned lands by municipalities, an affront to church authority unimaginable, in earlier ages.
King Louis XVI fled with his family in June 1791 only to be captured, returned to Paris and placed under guard. Even then the first French constitution approved that September, reflected the voices of moderation. While sharply limiting monarchical power the King still kept his head, still GOT to be King while enjoying veto power and the authority to appoint ministers.
Radical elements were inflamed, led by the likes of Maximilien de Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton. The King must be put on trial. Louis XVI was deposed in August 1792 and thrown in prison, followed by an orgy of violence against suspected “counter-revolutionaries”.
Once absolute monarch of France, “Citizen Louis Capet” was executed by guillotine in January 1793 in front of a crowd of 100,000. Bloodthirsty sans culottes rejoiced, wrote The London Times, while “honest citizens… could not suppress their heartfelt grief and mourned in private”. Queen Marie-Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine, nine months later. The son of the royal couple, Louis-Charles, was thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8. The boy was dead at ten. The physician who performed his autopsy expressed shock and dismay at the scars, covering his little body.
The Jacobins, the most radically leftist in a kaleidoscopic mélange of competing factions, were now in power. These people went so far as to abolish history itself, creating a new calendar with themselves at the beginning. Year one. Just like that proclaimed by Pol Pot in April, 1975.
“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.
The revolution turned on itself and ate its own young in 1793-’94, a period described as the “reign of terror”. Victims by the tens of thousands walked their final steps to the guillotine, while equal numbers stood to face firing squads.
Robespierre, once the thought leader behind this whole mess, came to be seen as an enemy of the Revolution. Knowing all too well what would happen next Robespierre shot himself in the face, to prevent his own arrest. The suicide attempt succeeded only in destroying the man’s lower jaw, and several teeth. That visage, once the face of Revolution itself and now wrapped in blood soaked bandages, was separated from the rest of him the following day.
Fun fact: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin had nothing to do with the contraption, that bears his name. He didn’t even approve of capital punishment. As a physician, the torture inflicted by breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, death by boiling and dismemberment was repugnant. To be hacked at by axe or sword was hardly any better. If capital punishment was to be carried out at all he believed, the quick, impersonal and painless death afforded by a decapitation machine might just be the first step toward abolishing the death penalty, altogether.
It was Tobias Schmidt who actually invented the thing.The association with the guillotine so embarrassed the doctor’s family they changed their name. One J.M.V. Guillotin, an unrelated physician practicing in Lyons, met his end on the guillotine, giving rise to the myth that the inventor was killed by his own machine. Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin died at home of natural causes, in 1814.
Robespierre was barely in the ground when a certain Corsican corporal was thrown in prison, a suspected supporter of Robespierre. Napoleon Buonaparte would earn a place with the regime in October 1796, 13 Vendémiaire according to the new calendar, by putting down a royalist revolt in the streets.
The Napoleonic era had begun, fifteen years of violence pitting no fewer than 7 international coalitions, against the French war machine. French historian Hippolyte Taine has claimed the Revolution and Napoleonic wars took the lives of 3.1 million Frenchmen, alone. Precise numbers are impossible to determine.
Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Following a year-long government lockdown and four years of the most divisive politics in American history – even Civil War soldiers from the north and south agreed about 80% of the time – we find ourselves in a period of national hysteria. The capital is surrounded by armed troops, and razor wire. Social media billionaires with funny haircuts and weird beards arrogate to themselves who gets to say what, and when. 1st Amendment be damned.
The wealthiest man on the planet shuts down whole social media channels while #2 rains down cash on racists, claiming to root the racists out of math.
Or maybe men really can give birth and math really is, racist. Who knows, maybe everything will turn out right, after all. Now that we’ve unsexed Mr. Potato Head.
For Japan the Kamikaze of the 13th century became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.
Sometime around the year 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, described the nature of peace, Roman style. The Pax Romana. “They make a desert and call it peace“.
So it was with the Pax Mongolica, a time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute.
Never mind the pyramid of skulls over there. The Mongol conquests lasted 199 years and killed an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population, of the entire planet.
Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, capable of hitting a bird in flight.
The Mongol bow was a laminate of horn and tendon around a bamboo core, the “push/pull” of the two materials producing draw weights of 80 to 160 pounds depending on the physical strength of its user. Deadly accurate aimed shots were possible at 200 meters, over twice the length of an NFL football field. Ballistic fire rained down at 500 meters, equivalent to the height of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, plus another football field. Stirrups allowed riders to fire in any direction including to the rear. The feigned retreat was a favored tactic. God help anyone rash enough, to pursue.
The warrior Esungge was the Jim Thorpe or the Michael Jordan of his day, this nephew of Genghis Khan possessed of legendary strength and skill, as an archer. In a 1225 gathering of Mongol dignitaries, Esungge struck a target at 400 meters.
Riders had a minimum of 3-4 small, fast horses, able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep them fresh.
In a day and age when the movement of armies was limited to +/- 30 miles per day, Mongol warriors could cover 100 miles and more. Even as the first rumors arrived concerning the approach of this horde, there in the distance appeared the guidons of the lead riders. The apocalypse was right outside your door.
First came Börte, the first and favorite wife of Temüjin, kidnapped when her husband was only 19. By raising a force sufficient to enforce his will and accomplishing her rescue, Temüjin proved his military mettle. Next came the civil war which he won, based on two innovations. First, Temüjin promoted people based on merit, rather than family connections. The great Mongol general Jebe steps onto the pages of history not as a favorite, but as the enemy who put an arrow in Temüjin’s neck, at the Battle of the 13 Sides.
Next, the leader of the Mongols welcomed the lower classes among conquered peoples while the wealthy and powerful among them ended up destitute, or dead.
After founding an empire, Temüjin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, an honorary title possible ascending from the Turkic “tengiz” or sea, and Khan, meaning “Supreme Leader”. Genghis Khan, his sons and grandsons went to war on a scale never before seen in human history.
Genghis, went after the dynasty of the western Xia first and then the Jin dynasty, in the north of China. Once considered little more than a nuisance on the outskirts of civilization, the Mongol horde had now subjugated a nation of 25 million.
In 25 years the Mongols conquered more territory than Rome had managed to conquer, in 400 years. By the time of Genghis’ death in 1227, the Mongol empire stretched from the Pacific ocean to the Caspian sea. Ten million square miles, equal to the entire African continent. More than all of North America, Central America and all the islands of the Caribbean, combined.
Before he died, Genghis instructed his empire be divided into four Khanates, each to be ruled by one of his four sons: Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei and Tolui. Genghis was buried in a secret location near the sacred mountain at Burkan Kuldun. Ögedei sacrificed 40 slave girls and 40 horses to lead his father into the next world. In 1228 the kurultai, the political and military council governing ancient Mongol and Turkic politics, elected Ögedei Supreme Leader.
Fun fact: Ögedei was the third son of Genghis, hand selected by the Great Khan to be his successor and Supreme Leader of the Mongol empire. He was also, a drunk. Chastised for his drinking by his brother Chagatai, Ögedei offered to have a supervisor keep an eye on how much he drank, and agreed to keep his consumption to a specified number of cups per day. After that the Great Khan would always drink his favorite sauce, from a very large cup.
Ögedei is credited with creating a system of taxation of the peoples conquered by his father, and establishing the first capital of the Mongol empire, at Karakorum. Later capital cities would include Daidu (Beijing) and Xanadu, whose name would live on in a mediocre 1980 film by the same name, starring Olivia Newton-John.
Somehow I wonder if Kublai Khan would have recognized his summer capital in that film, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.
In 1231, Ögedei launched the first of what would be seven invasions of Goryeo, the ancient proto-state we now know as Korea.
Mongol armies under the Great Khan Ögedei raided west from Afghanistan to Iran, sacking the great cities of the Bulgars and the Rus and reaching as far as Hungary and Poland. Kiev, Krakow, Buda and Pest were all sacked, and looted. The first scouts reached as far as Bohemia and Vienna. The horde was poised to sweep through all Europe when the Great Khan died in 1241, most likely during one of the drinking binges for which the Great Khan was famous.
According to the Law of Yassa, they all turned back for Karakorum and the selection, of a new Khan.
Fun fact: Georgia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world converting to Christianity in the 4th century following the death of Christ. At the time of the apocalyptic 12th century invasion by Mongols, Georgia was preparing to join the 5th Crusade to retake Jerusalem. Census numbers taken by the Mongols themselves indicated Georgia’s ability to raise 4½ tumens, or 45,000 troops. Today we can only guess at how 45,000 troops may have affected the outcome.
There followed a period of short-lived Khans followed by regents, usually the wives or mothers of past or future khans. The tale of female domination in this world run by men is a story in itself, but now I’m getting ahead of the story. Again.
The 4th Khagan (Supreme ruler) of the Mongol Empire Möngke conquered Iraq and Syria, putting an end to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The death of Möngke Khan in 1259 set off a civil war between two brothers, grandsons of Genghis Khan. Kublai emerged victorious in 1264 over his younger brother Ariq Böke. He went on to subjugate the Song of the south of China, unifying that nation under one rule for the first time since the 9th century.
Korea, ravaged by 39 years of the Mongolian menace with barely a wooden structure left standing, capitulated and became a tributary state. It was the apex of the Mongol empire, a landmass now extending from the Sea of Japan to the shores of Turkmenistan.
In three generations the Mongols now ran the second largest empire in history, second only to that of Great Britain. Nearly 18% of dry land on the entire planet was under Mongol rule when Kublai, the self-styled Yuan emperor, set his sights on Japan.
In 1266 Kublai demanded that Japan too, become a vassal state. He sent emissaries with a letter. It is hard to find more entitlement, more arrogance and more menace, in so few words.
“Cherished by the Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol Emperor sends this letter to the King of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly… Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne. Our relation is feudatory like a father and son. We think you already know this…Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”
The overture was ignored by Shogun Shikken (regent) Hōjō Tokimune and by Emperor Kameyama as was a second, two years later. Subsequent Korean emissaries and Mongol ambassadors weren’t even allowed to land.
The first invasion fleet arrived on Tsushima Island on November 4, 1274. Both sides wildly overestimated the strength of the other. Modern estimates put Japanese defenders at 4,000 to 6,000 over the next few days, the Yuan invading force at roughly 22,000 Mongol, Han, Jurchen and Korean soldiers and another 8,000 Korean sailors.
80 mounted samurai and their retinues stood in the way of that initial landing. The outcome was never in doubt but the small garrison sold their lives dearly. one samurai called Sukesada is said to have cut down 25 invaders in single combat. Results were much the same at Iki Island and Hakata Bay. Gunpowder bombs were hurled at defenders confusing samurai and terrifying horses. Such weapons had never before been seen outside of China but modern shipwreck excavations, have confirmed their existence. Stoneware bombs stuffed with gunpowder and scrap iron.
Defenders retreated to Mizuki, the ancient earthwork moat fort where all expected a final stand, but it never happened.
Back on the ships, three Yuan generals discussed what to do next. Liu Fuxiang, shot in the face by the samurai Shōni Kagesuke, believed the troops were exhausted, and needed to rest. Holdon wanted to press the attack but Hong Dagu agreed with Liu. Most of the invaders left that night, and then it happened. The Divine Wind of Retribution. The Kamikaze.
The typhoon rising out of the east drove the Yuan fleet, dashing some onto the rocks and sinking others to the bottom. Anyone caught on the beach was executed on the spot save for Song Chinese who were believed to be there, against their will. The Mongol vessels, river craft without keel, struggled to make way. In the end some 200 ships were lost. 14,000 men departing with the invading force, never came home.
The power of the Khan depended on legends of invincibility. Such a defeat could be easily afforded, but not tolerated. There followed a period of intense diplomacy as the Khagan dealt with the troublesome Song. On September 1275, Kublai Khan sent five more emissaries to Kyūshū. These weren’t about to be sent home without an answer and so they received their response. Tokimune had them all beheaded, by sword. Five more came in 1279, with the same result.
Then came the ultimatum from the Great Khan himself. A letter. On February 20, 1281, the Japanese Imperial Court ordered all temples and shrines to pray for victory, in the second Mongol invasion.
It was the largest amphibious invasion in history until the 20th century assault on Normandy. Miles of defensive wall had been built in places, over 9-feet tall. Spikes (left) prevented Mongol vessels from approaching the shore.
A northern fleet departed Korea with 900 ships and 40,000 soldiers. The southern fleet sailed from China with an overwhelming force of 3,500 ships and 100,000 soldiers. The onslaught from Korea arrived in June, once again overwhelming the mid-channel islands at Tsushima and Iki.
This time, the formidable defenses along the shore at Hakata Bay held the invader. Invader and defender fought along the waterline, sometimes In the surf but defenses, held. Fleets of small vessels with a dozen warriors apiece swarmed among the Mongol fleet, setting fires and bringing the fight, to the enemy. These small boats accomplished little militarily but Mongol captains responded, chaining their ships together to better defend themselves.
The southern fleet arrived in August, the combined forces moving east to attack Takashima. For weeks, defenders kept the invader from getting a foothold, but no one can resist such overwhelming numbers. Not for long.
Then as before, came the Divine Wind. The Kamikaze. Unexpected in this early season and shocking in its intensity, the typhoon lashed the western shores of the home islands on August 15. Small Japanese vessels were able to seek shelter. Sturdier Korean ships were able to shelter in open water but, the makeshift Chinese fleet, never had a chance. A third of the northern fleet and over half of the southern, was destroyed. Those lucky enough to make it to land were executed, on the beach. A carpet of bodies and wreckage floated so densely on the surf, it seemed one could walk on water.
Kublai Khan never recovered. Nor did the Mongol empire. With all that manpower, all that wealth at the bottom of the ocean, the Great Khan turned first to corrupt financial advisors and later to gluttony, and alcohol. Military orders became increasingly irrational. Orders for a third invasion of Japan, that never materialized. Invasions of Vietnam and Java turned to debacle. With the deaths of his favorite wife and heir apparent, Kublai withdrew from affairs of government and died in 1294, fat, alcoholic and afflicted by gout.
For Japan the Kamikaze became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.
Only 4kg of mercury are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. The Nazi submarine sank this day in 1945 carrying 67 tons.
A light rain fell on Heston Aerodrome in London, as thousands thronged the tarmac awaiting the return of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Searing memories of the Great War only 20 years in the past, hung over London like some black and malevolent cloud.
Emerging from the door of the aircraft that evening in September, 1938, the Prime minister began to speak. The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to her east, were sated. It was peace in our time.
With the March invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, Hitler demonstrated even to Neville Chamberlain that the so-called Munich agreement, meant nothing. That Poland was next was an open secret. Polish-British mutual aid talks began that April. Two days after Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance. Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene. That same month the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North Atlantic.
The German invasion of Poland began on September 1, the same day the British passenger liner SS Athenia departed Glasgow for Montreal with 1,418 passengers and crew. Two days later Great Britain and France declared war, on Germany. With the declaration only hours old, Athenia was seating her second round of dinner guests, for the evening.
At 19:40, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired two torpedos, one striking the liner’s port side engine room. 14 hours later, Athenia sank stern first with the loss of 98 passengers and 19 crew. The Battle of the Atlantic, had begun.
In a repeat of WWI, both England and Germany implemented blockades on one another. And for good reason. At the height of the war England alone required over a million tons a week of imported goods, to survive and to stay in the fight.
The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean.
New weapons and tactics would shift the balance first in favor of one side, and then to the other. Before it was over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships were sunk to the bottom. 500,000 tons of allied shipping was sunk in June 1941, alone.
Nazi Germany lost 783 U-boats.
Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space but their most effective weapon, does not. The torpedo is a surface weapon operating in two-dimensional space: left, right and forward. Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy. The complexity of firing calculations are all but insurmountable.
The most unusual underwater action of the war occurred on February 9, 1945 in the form of a combat between two submerged submarines.
The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes. Any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was sure to be detected and destroyed. The maiden voyage of the 287-foot, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems and 67 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.
The mission was a failure, from the start. U-864 ran aground in the Kiel Canal and had to retreat to Bergen, Norway, for repairs. The submarine was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6. By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code and were well aware, of Operation Caesar.
The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands to intercept and destroy U-864.
ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been helpful in locating U-864, but at a price. That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander he was being hunted. Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises. Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC but the need for stealth, won out.
U-864 developed an engine noise and commander Ralf-Reimar Wolfram feared it might give him away. The submarine returned to Bergen for repairs. German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged. Venturer was on batteries when those first sounds were detected.
The British sub had the advantage in stealth but only a short time frame, in which act.
A four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions. Unknown factors could only be guessed at.
A fast attack sub Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary. Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair. With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react. Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck. U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.
So, what about all that mercury?
In our time, authorities recommend consumption limits of certain fish species. Sharp limitations are recommended for pregnant women and nursing mothers.
Fish and shellfish have a natural tendency to concentrate or bioaccumulate mercury in body tissues in the form of methylmercury, a highly toxic organic compound of mercury. Concentrations increase as you move up the underwater food chain. In a process called biomagnification, apex predators such as tuna, swordfish and king mackerel may develop mercury concentrations up to ten times higher than prey species.
The toxic effects of mercury include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs and long term neurological damage, particularly in children.
Exposures lead to disorders ranging from numbness in the hands and feet, muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision and damage to hearing and speech.
In extreme cases, symptoms include insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. The range of symptoms was first identified in the city of Minamata, Japan in 1956 and results from high concentrations of methylmercury.
In the case of Minamata, methylmercury originated in industrial wastewater from a chemical factory, bioaccumulated and biomagnified in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea. Deaths from Minamata disease continued some 36 years among humans, dogs and pigs. The problem was so severe among cats as to spawn a feline veterinary condition known as “dancing cat fever”.
Today, 67 tons of mercury lie under 490-feet of water at the bottom of the north sea, in the broken hull of Adolf Hitler’s last best chance. Rusting containers have already begun to leach toxic mercury into surrounding waters.
The wreck has been called an “underwater Chernobyl”.
Only 4kg are estimated to have leaked so far, about nine pounds, and surrounding waters are already off limits, to fishing. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children are advised not to eat fish caught near the wreck.
The wreck was located in 2003. Discussions began almost immediately to retrieve the deadly cargo from what Oslo’s newspaper Dagbladet called, “Hitler’s secret poison bomb.”
Now, 76 years to the day from the last dive of the U-864, the submarine’s hull and mercury containment vessels are believed too fragile to be brought to the surface.
In the fall of 2018, the Norwegian government decided to bury the thing under a great sarcophagus, of concrete and sand. Much the same technique as that used in Chernobyl to sea off contaminated reactors. The work was projected to cost $32 million (US) with completion date, of late 2020. The work was was delayed and once again, the government is now examining the possibility of retrieving the cargo.
In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw. The United States entered the Great War about a month later.
On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand began a cascade of events which would change the course of the 20th century. Entangling alliances and mutual suspicion led to the mobilization and counter-mobilization of armies. No one wanted to show up late in the event of war. And so there was war. By October, the “Great War” had devolved into the trench-bound hell which would characterize the next four years.
The German and British economies were heavily dependent on imports to feed their populations and prosecute the war effort. By February 1915, both powers were attempting to throttle the other through naval blockade.
Great Britain’s Royal Navy had superior numbers, while the Imperial German Navy’s surface fleet was restricted to an area of the North Sea called the German Bight. In other theaters, Germans augmented their small navy with commerce raiders and “unterseeboots”. More than any other cause it was the German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which would bring the United States into the war, two years later.
On February 4, 1915, Imperial Germany declared a naval blockade against shipping to Britain, stating that “On and after February 18th every enemy merchant vessel found in this region will be destroyed, without its always being possible to warn the crews or passengers of the dangers threatening”. “Neutral ships” it continued, “will also incur danger in the war region”.
As the war unfolded, German U-boats sank nearly 5,000 ships, close to 13 million gross register ton including the Cunard Liner Lusitania, torpedoed and sunk off Kinsale, Ireland, on May 7, 1915. 1,198 were drowned, including 128 Americans. 100 of the dead, were children. .
The reaction in the US and UK was immediate and vehement. The sinking was portrayed as the act of barbarians and Huns. Imperial Germany maintained that Lusitania was illegally transporting munitions intended to kill German boys on European battlefields. Furthermore, the embassy pointed out that ads had been taken out in the New York Times and other newspapers, specifically warning that the liner was subject to attack.
Unrestricted submarine warfare was suspended for a time, for fear of bringing the US into the war. The policy was reinstated in January 1917 prompting then-Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg to say, “Germany is finished”. He was right.
SS Housatonic was stopped off the southwest coast of England and boarded by German submarine U-53. American Captain Thomas Ensor was interviewed by Kapitänleutnant Hans Rose, who said he was sorry. Housatonic was “carrying food supplies to the enemy of my country”, and would be destroyed. The American Captain and crew were allowed to launch lifeboats and abandon ship, while German sailors raided the American submarine, for soap supplies.
Apparently, WWI vintage German subs were short on soap.
Housatonic was sunk with a single torpedo, U-53 towing the now-stranded Americans toward the English coast. Sighting the trawler Salvator, Rose fired his deck guns to be sure they’d been seen, and then slipped away. It was February 3, 1917.
President Woodrow Wilson retaliated, breaking off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. Three days later, on February 7, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes at the SS California, off the Irish coast. One missed but the second tore into the port side of the 470-foot, 9,000-ton steamer. California sank in nine minutes, killing 43 of her 205 passengers and crew.
Two weeks later, British Intelligence divulged the Zimmermann note to Edward Bell, secretary to the United States Embassy in Britain. This was an overture from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the Mexican government, promising American territories in exchange for a Mexican declaration of war against the US.
Zimmermann’s note read, in part, as follows:
“We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona…”
In the United States, the political tide was turning. Unrestricted submarine warfare…the Housatonic…the California…the Zimmermann telegram…the combination of events became the last straw. The United States entered the Great War about a month later.
At the time, the German claim that Lusitania carried contraband munitions seemed to be supported by survivors’ reports of secondary explosions within the stricken liner’s hull. In 2008, the UK Daily Mail reported that dive teams had reached the wreck, lying at a depth of 300′. Divers reported finding tons of US manufactured Remington .303 ammunition, about 4 million rounds, stored in unrefrigerated cargo holds in cases marked “Cheese”, “Butter”, and “Oysters”.
“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still…
“What if” counterfactuals can be slippery. We can’t know how a story will end only by starting it out… “if only”. But still. How might the 20th century have played out, for example, had it not been for that day in Sarajevo, in 1914.
Perhaps the tinderbox already building by 1914 would have been lit, on some other day. But what if? Maybe two World Wars never happened, after all. Adolf Hitler remained a mediocre artist living in a flop house, in Vienna. All China became a free market, and not just Taiwan. What if the cold war, communism and everything that stemmed from that malevolent ideology was nothing more than the unpublished, nightmare imaginings of some crazy novelist?
In the wake of World War 2, a bipolar structure emerged in the world political order and remained so, for 40 years.
America was a minor player in pre-WW1 affairs, a period about which Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck once explained: “All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers.”
After the downfall of French Emperor Napoleon I, 1814-’15, the Great Powers of Austria, Britain, France, Russia and Prussia met in Vienna to settle old issues and rebalance national boundaries in order to bring long-term peace, to Europe.
Austria declined over the next half-century leading to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, an accord between the Empire of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. Ostensibly a constitutional union, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a kaleidoscope of fifteen distinct ethnic groups speaking at least as many languages and divided, along no fewer than six religious lines.
After the 1889 suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf, the only son of Franz Josef, the emperor’s younger brother Karl Ludwig became heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Ludwig’s death in 1896 left his eldest son, Franz Ferdinand, the new heir presumptive.
Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.
There followed a series of diplomatic missteps, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August there was no turning back. The “War to End all Wars” would shatter a generation, lay waste to a continent and erect the foundation, for the rest of the 20th century.
So, what about Rudolf and that “suicide”, in 1889. He was supposed to succeed Ludwig, not Ferdinand. What if the Emperor’s only son, had lived?
Political alliances came and went among the dynastic families of Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages. On May 10, 1881, Crown Prince Rudolf married Princess Stéphanie, daughter of King Leopold, of Belgium.
A child was born in 1883, Archduchess Elisabeth, but the union soon soured. Rudolf began to drink and pursue women, not his wife. He wanted to write to Pope Leo XIII to annul the marriage. The formidable Franz Josef, would have none of that.
Three years later, Rudolf bought a hunting lodge in the Austrian village of Mayerling. In 1888, the 30-year old crown Prince met and began an affair with 17-year-old Marie Freiin (Baroness) von Vetsera.
On January 30, 1889, the bodies of the Crown Prince and the Baroness were discovered in the Mayerling hunting lodge, victims of an apparent suicide pact.
Emperor Franz Josef went on to reign until 1916, one of the longest-serving monarchs of the 19th century.
Now without male heir, succession to the imperial throne passed first to the emperor’s younger brother Ludwig and later to Franz Ferdinand, best remembered for his assassination, in 1914.
Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria, Rudolf’s mother, went into deep mourning.
She wore the colors of her grief, pearl gray and black, every day until her assassination at the hands of 25-year-old Italian anarchist Luigi Lucheni, in 1898.
132 years later we can only ponder. It may be the ultimate counterfactual. What if Crown Prince Rudolf had lived to succeed Franz Josef. Politically, the son was far more liberal, than his father. Rudolf would surely have held more conciliatory views toward the forces, tearing at the empire. The same could be said of Franz Ferdinand, so who knows. Perhaps a rock in a stream once moved, alters not the flow of events yet to come.
But maybe that fork in the road met on June 28, 1914, would have led to a road less traveled and perhaps, the history of the last century, never happened.
By special dispensation, the Vatican declared Rudolf to be in a state of “mental imbalance” as suicide would have precluded church burial. The Emperor ordered Mayerling transformed into a penitential convent and endowed a chantry ensuring that prayers would rise up daily, for the eternal rest of his only son.
Vetsera’s body was smuggled out in the dark of night and quietly buried in the village cemetery at Heiligenkreuz, her funeral so secret even her mother was forbidden to attend.
Stories of poison gave way to reports of murder-suicide. Rumors have surrounded the Mayerling incident, for 100 years. Such stories went unchallenged until 1946 when occupying Red Army troops dislodged the stone covering the crypt and opened Vetsera’s coffin, looking for jewels. Repairing the damage some nine years later the fathers of the monastery observed the small skull and noticed, the absence of bullet holes. Physician Gerd Holler examined the remains in 1959 and concurred. No bullet hole.
But Maria von Vetsera was shot by the Crown Prince who later took his own life. That was the story, right?
Stories came to life of defensive wounds. Of evidence the pair had been murdered, after all.
Obsessed with the tale, Linz furniture store owner Helmut Flatzelsteiner disturbed the remains yet again, in 1991. Rumors went wild but in the end, results were inconclusive. Flatzelsteiner paid the abbey €2,000, in restitution.
In 2015 a letter was found in a safe deposit box, in an Austrian bank. A suicide note from a young girl, to her mother
“Dear Mother Please forgive me for what I’ve done I could not resist love In accordance with Him, I want to be buried next to Him in the Cemetery of Alland I am happier in death than life”.