Category Archives: History

What’s a Molotov Cocktail?

The term “Molotov cocktail” came from the Russian invasion of Finland in 1939. Finnish soldiers and civilians resisted the numerically far bigger, communist Red Army with home made fire grenades named after Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, Molotovin koktaili.

The term’s origin was a response to Russian propaganda. Molotov was claiming on Soviet state radio that bombing missions over Finland were actually airborne humanitarian food deliveries for their starving neighbors. This was, of course, a blatant lie.

Vyacheslav Molotov, 1945

The outraged Finnish population sarcastically dubbed the Soviet cluster bombs “Molotov bread baskets” in reference to Molotov’s propaganda broadcasts. And when they began using hand-held bottle firebombs to destroy Soviet tanks, they called them “a drink to go with his food parcels”.

When skillfully thrown against vulnerable points on vehicles (such as trucks, armored personnel carriers or tanks), the little fire grenades were surprisingly successful at the time. So successful indeed that the Finns commissioned the distillery company Oy Alkoholiliike Ab to manufacture Molotov cocktails industrially. It is said that the company made 450,000 of them.

A Finnish soldier with a Molotov cocktail in the 1939–1940 Winter War

Finland’s fierce resistance and the fighting spirit of its population succeeded in preserving the country’s independence. But it came at a cost of at least 70,000 Finnish lives and large territories, which were ceded to the Soviet Union during the peace negotiations.

Since then, the Molotov cocktail has been a weapon of choice in many conflicts involving civilians against an overwhelming force. For instance, during the Hungarian uprising against Soviet control in 1956, Molotov cocktails thrown by Hungarian street fighters destroyed as many as 400 tanks before the Soviet military crushed the rebellion. Similar fighting occurred in 1968, during the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia.

Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning Soviet tank in Prague, 1968.

In essence, a Molotov cocktail is a primitive incendiary weapon. It consists of a breakable glass bottle filled with a flammable liquid. A fuse of some sort is attached to the outside and lit before throwing the bottle, which shatters upon impact and spreads the flammable liquid. Various kinds of liquids, fuses and added chemicals have been used, and there are some versions that produce the ignition by a chemical reaction rather than by manually lighting a fuse.

How effective these devices still are against modern military vehicles is highly questionable. Over time, military vehicles have been hardened against this sort of attack. Vulnerable points (such as tires, the cogs on which tank tracks run, air intakes and radiators) have been improved, and there are often fire suppression systems on board. And an effective counter tactic is for convoys to move very rapidly. At the same time, the delivery of a Molotov cocktail (usually by direct throwing from very close range, or by dropping from buildings, bridges or other structures) subjects the combatant to great risk. As in any form of combat, the risk-benefit assessment is very tricky and comes down to probabilities.

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Who Discovered Jupiter’s Moons?

Usually, Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti de’ Galilei [1564 to 1642] gets the credit for discovering the largest four moons of Jupiter – a most controversial scientific sensation at the time.

But not so fast! As usual, the truth is a little more nuanced.

Today happens to be the birthday of the German astronomer Simon Mayr [1573 to 1624 or 1625], better known under his Latin name, Simon Marius. In Mundus lovialis, his book from 1614, Marius describes Jupiter and claims that he discovered four moons in 1611. According to his claims, he would have made his discovery about a month earlier than Galileo Galilei.

Of course, Galileo was a famous celebrity and well known among Europe’s intellectuals and clergy. He appears to have been unimpressed by Marius and swiftly accused him of plagiarism, causing Marius’ reputation to suffer greatly.

It took 289 years to exonerate Marius. In 1903, a scientific jury in the Netherlands examined the evidence extensively. Its findings, published in 1907 were: Marius discovered the moons independently, but he did not start keeping notes until 29 December, 29, 1609 on the Julian calendar. This date corresponds to January 8, 1610 on the Gregorian calendar used by Galileo and falls on the day after the famous letter in which Galileo first described the moons. Moreover, Marius’ description of the moons’ orbits is superior to Gelileo’s.

So who was really first? We’ll never know for sure, simply because there is no record of the date on which Marius made his initial observation. We only know when he recorded it, and when Galileo recorded his own observation.

It may seem ironic that the names under which the “Galilean” moons are known today are those given to them by Marius: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. (Galileo had named them after one of Europes most powerful and wealthiest families at the time, “the Medici Stars”).

So what can we learn from this story?

  1. Keep good notes.
  2. Know what calendar to use.
  3. It helps to be famous.
Engraving in Mundus Iovialis anno MDCIX Detectus Ope Perspicilli Belgici, 1614. Image: Houghton Library, Harvard University

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German Unity Day

by Reinhard Kargl

Today is the 30th anniversary of an event that I once thought would never, ever happen: the unification of the two postwar Germanies: West Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or BRD) and East Germany (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or DDR). What surprised me even more was that the East German government allowed itself to be dissolved peacefully, and that the whole transition, although certainly fraught with many problems, was successfully carried out with little violence.

To this day, I continue to be surprised by aspects I had not considered realistic. For example, I recently learned that there are some fascinating legal questions and unsettled arguments about the legal status and nature of the German nation-state.

The whole subject is highly contentious and complicated. At its roots are the complex problems with defining what “Germany” is supposed to be, and specifically, what the “German Reich” is. Students of history understand that this has been one of Europe’s fundamental problems for many centuries, and a reoccurring cause of wars between the European powers. This, and World War II, have made the whole issue a taboo subject in today’s Germany.

Complicating things is that historically, several imperial lines, such as the Habsburgs, have laid claim to the title of “German Emperor”, and all sought different solutions to the fragmentation of the German people across Europe. The circumstances leading to the collapse of the German monarchies after World War II, the establishment of the short-lived Weimar Republic, followed by its economic demise, and the subsequent rise of the “Third Reich”, are well documented.

What is less well known and discussed is what happened to Germany, or to the concept of the German Reich, after World War II.

After the war, the governments of each East and West Germany considered themselves the legitimate German governments of the legitimate successor states of the German Reich. This is not trivial, because being defined as “successor state” carries important consequences in international law.

But this is already where the agreements come to an end.

There are experts in international law, and circles, who call into question whether especially West Germany was, or is truly a successor state at all. These arguments are based on two different, competing lines of reasoning. One is that when the Third Reich was defeated, the whole German Reich, as a construct, became extinct. Consequently it cannot have a successor. The other line of reasoning asserts the opposite. It claims that since the German Reich was never formally dissolved, it still exists. However, the argument goes, West Germany could not be be a legitimate successor, because it was just an occupied territory, with a constitutional structure, a legal framework, and a government imposed by foreign governments, namely Britain, the U.S.A. and France. Even the borders of this brand new nation state were drawn by foreign powers. Furthermore, the people living in the western occupied zone were never consulted about the form of state that would govern them, it being a union of states governed by a federal republic. What is more, the people living in these territories didn’t consent, but were compelled to become citizens of this so-constructed nation state.

According to this line of reasoning, East Germany would have a more legitimate claim to be a successor state, and of being “the real Germany”. This theory was certainly maintained by the DDR’s government and used in Soviet propaganda, according to which the USSR was the only power that had first defeated, and then mercifully “liberated” Germany. Reorganized under socialist rules, of course, and arguably also without properly consulting the people living in the eastern occupied zone – at least after the border was sealed. At which point people who didn’t consent to become citizens of the socialist DDR had no alternatives, and thus were also compelled to become subjects of the socialist state, whether they wanted to or not.

The unification of the two Germanies 30 years ago has complicated matters even more. The treaty clearly specifies that the DDR ceased to exist. But then, according to one of the theories above, wouldn’t this mean that any legitimate successor state status would be extinguished?

There is also the argument that neither one of the two Germanies were legitimate successors of the German Reich. So is it in fact extinct? No so, some argue, pointing to interpretations of international law which seem to establish that a nation-state’s defeat in war does not obliterate the right of its people, which continues to have the right to exist and collectively choose whatever form of government it wants.

Today there are groups in modern day Germany which reject the unified federal republic’s claim of being the “the one and only real Germany”, unified or not. Some hardliners even claim that they therefore have the right to “opt out” and not be subject to laws of a nation they never consented to be citizens of. As a consequence, some of these groups refuse to pay taxes and fines, create what they claim to be institutions of the “German Reich” and issue their own, so-called “official documents” – none of which is recognized by the German Republic, any of its member states, the European Union, or the United Nations.

While these are certainly fringe groups who routinely (and not surprisingly) get slapped down by the courts of the new Germany, it appears that they might carry the age old “German question” into the 21st Century:

What and where is Germany?

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Memorial Day And Love Lost

by Reinhard Kargl

Peggy S. Harris and 1st Lt. Billie D. Harris were married for just six weeks before Harris deployed in World War II. His wife never saw him again. His plane was shot down and crashed into the woods near a small town in Normandy. It took Peggy 60 years to find his grave.

For many of us, the coronavirus shutdowns mean being separated from loved ones, and most of us are longing for a return to the social activities we once enjoyed.

But our inconveniences and hardships pale by comparison to the ordeals faced by those whose relationships were torn apart by war. Since 1775, the U.S. has lost 1.36 million of its people to warfare. And while the vast majority were young men, most of them left behind family, a lover, a fiancé, or a wife and children.

Here are a few snippets of wartime correspondence bearing testimony of the sacrifices made.

At the age of 23, Frank M. Elliott left Georgetown University to join the U.S. Army in 1943. From England, he writes to his wife: 

May 6, 1944

Dearest Darling,

All day I have been fighting the feeling which has been dominating me of late. I keep continually thinking of home and longing for home in the worst way. All your letters of how beautiful my daughter is becoming by the day. The realization that I am missing all these months and years of her formative growth is actually gnawing at my heart. ...

I love you, Frank

Pauline “Polly” Elliott, 24, answers from the couple’s home in New Castle, Pennsylvania. They had a little daughter, DeRonda “Dee”.

May 28, 1944

Darling—

Here it is Sunday again — Sunday night. I think this is the most lonely time of the whole week for me. I am so darn lonesome for you, Frank darling. Oh I’m not the only one and I know it — there are millions just like me, wishing with all the strength of their hearts and minds for the return of peace and loved ones. — Dee is sleeping on this Sunday night, and the radio is playing old and beautiful music — and I am thinking of the Sunday nights to come when you will be listening to such music with me. — Took Dad to a ball game today — Dee went along — maybe she’ll learn to like baseball as well as her Daddy does — I’ll bet that she will.

I adore you, Polly

A week later, she writes to him:

June 5, 1944

Darling,


 . . This is a beautiful summer evening, darling. I am sitting at the kitchen table (and not even noticing the noise of the refrigerator) from which place by merely lifting my head and looking out the window I can gaze upon a truly silvery, full moon. It’s beautiful, dear — really beautiful, and it has succeeded in making me very sentimental. I had begun to think that I was becoming immune to the moon’s enchantment — so often I have looked at it without you and to keep myself from going mad told myself “It’s pretty, yes — but, so what?”. . . That’s not the way it really is though, darling — the sight of that shining moon up there — the moon that shines on you, too — fills me with romance — ; and even though it’s just a dream now, it’s a promise of a glorious future with one I love more than life. The darned old moon keeps shining for us, darling — and even as it now increases that inescapable loneliness, it also increases my confidence in the future. I truly love you . . .

Frank M. Elliott was killed the next day, June 6, 1944 (D-Day). 

Here’s a letter written by a girl from Boston:

A letter from Barth, Germany, dated May 10, 1945:

Sweetheart,

At last I can write you and say just what I please.  I don’t know whether this will reach you before I get home, but it’s worth taking the chance.  You cannot realize the joy I have experienced at being liberated, and the prospects of being with you soon.  The Germans pulled out of here on April 30th, and we took over.  The Russians arrived on May 2.  Since then we have been impatiently waiting to get out of here…

…It has been a long time and you have not been out of my thoughts for one minute.  I’ll close now, sweetheart, hoping and praying that we will be together very soon for all time.  I love you with all my heart.

Your loving husband,

Arnold

Lieutenant Arnold L. Gray and Hazel J. Gray were reunited and lived a happy life after the war.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter written by 23-year-old Lt. Richard G. Fowler, a U.S. Army Air Forces navigator from Minnesota, to his wife Cornelia.

May 25, 1944

My darling Cornie —

This is my first letter to you in almost five weeks! And I’m writing it not knowing when I’ll be able to mail it, since believe it or not, I’m behind enemy lines.

Fowler’s B-24 bomber had been shot down over the Balkans. 8 crewmen where killed, but Fowler and another man were able to bail out on parachutes.

When I was certain the chute was open, I looked up and saw the white silk billowing and swaying in the wind. It was very quiet and you have no sensation of falling until you near the ground—just floating in space. My face and right hand had been burned quite badly and hurt like the very devil. A thousand thoughts ran through my head as I was falling. It took about ten minutes before I hit the ground so I did have time to think. First of all I wondered what you would think not hearing from me for a long time—I was quite certain I would be captured by the Germans and taken to a prison camp in Germany.

Lt. Fowler survived the war and was eventually reunited with his wife. Many other families were not so lucky:

This Memorial Day, let’s also consider those whose hopes for love and happiness were crushed and destroyed when war took the love of their life, never to return, leaving behind a void never to be filled.

– 30 –

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Halley's Comet May 29, 1910

110 Years Ago: Earth’s Passage Through Comet Halley’s Tail Mesmerizes The Public

by Reinhard Kargl

On May 19 / May 20, 1910, Earth passed through the tail of Halley’s Comet with great fanfare.

The event is meaningful to me for two reasons. First, my grandmother told me about it when I was little. She herself was a little girl in 1910, and her memories were not very detailed. But she recalled, as her strongest memory, the general feeling of excitement among the adults around her. Some must have been genuinely panicked, others were probably nervous, and yet others were mocking those who suffered from vivid superstitions.

From German: “Old woman, close the umbrella. When the comet sees you, it’ll tun around and Earth is saved.”

Today, few people know that there was actually another comet visible in the sky earlier that year of 1910. The “Great January Comet of 1910”, officially designated “C/1910 A1” was a surprise visitor in the sky. Already visible to the naked eye when it was first reported on January 12, it brightened very suddenly, to the point where it eventually became brighter than Venus, and was visible during the day.

First spotted in the southern hemisphere, it reached perihelion on January 17 with a magnitude of –5. It then declined in brightness but became a spectacular sight from the northern hemisphere in the evening twilight. By early February, its curved tail reached 50 degrees into the sky.

There were of course plenty of newspaper accounts. The public, not yet accustomed to front page astronomical news, became highly interested in comets, and in what the experts had to say — especially at a time when superstitions and the belief in metaphysics was much more widespread than today.

At the time, Halley’s Comet, which had been known since ancient times, had been calculated to reach its perihelion on April 20, based on Newtonian physics and the work of Edmond Halley.

Illustration from the January 1910 issue of Popular Science Monthly magazine, showing how Halley’s tail points away from the Sun as it passes through the inner Solar System

Astrophotography and astrospectography were new fields, they were used to detect toxic gas cyanogen gas in the comet’s tail. The highly famous French astronomer and author Nicolas Camille Flammarion speculated that, when Earth passed through the tail, the poison gas “would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.”

Flammarion was not only a genius scientist and author, but also a man with rather esoteric beliefs. He believed not only in the transmigration of souls, but also in telepathy, apparitions, hauntings, and “psychic forces”.

Very quickly, all manner of profiteers, charlatans, mystics, and those purporting to possess special astrological insights, seized on the opportunity, and soon, the panicked public was buying up quack “anti-comet pills”, “anti-comet umbrellas” and gas masks. Sadly, we even find newspaper accounts of people committing suicide because they didn’t want to see the catastrophe.

Considering the nature of what left the strongest impression in my grandmother’s memories, I wonder what today’s small children will remember, many decades from now, about the current COVID-19 crisis. Surely, it will be memories about how we adults reacted, which should also give us reason for contemplation.

The other reason why Halley’s Comet interests me is its association with one of my favorite authors and personalities. Mark Twain was born November 30, 1835, exactly two weeks after the comet’s previous perihelion. In his autobiography of 1908, he writes:

I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’

Twain died on 21 April 1910, the day following the comet’s subsequent perihelion. This is how the comet looked that day:

Portion of Plate b41215 of Halley’s comet taken on April 21, 1910 from Arequipa, Peru with the 8-inch Bache Doublet, Voigtlander. The exposure was 30 minutes centered on 23h41m29s R.A. and +07d21m09s Declination.

– 30 –

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What Is Novichok?

by Reinhard Kargl

On March 4, 2018, former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the English city of Salisbury. Since then, journalists have been scrambling to find out more about the alleged poison, a mysterious substance identified by British authorities as “Novichok”.

First off, it isn’t just one chemical, but appears to be a whole new class of nerve agents, a type of chemical weapons which disrupt the mechanisms by which nerves control vital body functions.

So far, we are familiar with two main classes of nerve agents. The “G-series” was first synthesized by German scientists during World War II. Among this group are tabun, also known as “GA” (invented in 1936), sarin, also known as “GB” (invented in 1939) and soman, also known as “GD” (invented in 1944). (Interesting detail: the Third Reich’s military refused to deploy nerve agents as weapons even though by the end of the war, between 500 kg to 10 tons had been produced. But that’s another story). After the war, GF (cyclosarin) was added to this group in 1949.

The second group, the V-series agents, go back to mostly British development, which was continued with work done the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Members of this class are VE, VG, VM, VR, and VX.

Novichok (Russian: Новичо́к, “newcomer”) seems to be a class of nerve agents different from the two above. It was developed by the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s as part of a secret weapons program reportedly named “Foliant”. The specific intent was to be undetectable by standard NATO methods at the time, to defeat NATO protective gear, and to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention list of controlled precursors and classes of chemicals. All in all, over 100 chemical variants were developed and tested.

Most of what little is in the public domain about this can be traced to publications by two Russian chemists, Lev Fedorov and Vil Mirzayanov, writing for the Moskovskiye Novosti weekly in 1992. Mirzayanov claimed he made his disclosure out of environmental concerns, after measuring levels of deadly substances 80 times greater than the maximum safe concentration in the vicinity of Russian chemical weapons facilities. Mirzayanov was arrested in October 1992 and charged with high treason. He served some time in prison, and subsequent to his release, left Russia to live in the U.S. However, during Mirzayanov’s trial, some more details about the Novichok program emerged, and the Russian military was forced to acknowledge the existence of this group of chemicals.

According to Mirzayanov, the most potent compounds from this family, Novichok-5 and Novichok-7, are supposedly around five to eight times more potent than VX. The agents are reportedly capable of being delivered as a liquid, aerosol or gas via a variety of delivery systems, including bombs, missiles, artillery shells and spraying devices.

The absorption of nerve agents into the human body can be by skin contact, ingestion, inhalation or injection. Generally speaking, these chemicals were conceptualized as weapons of mass destruction and for wide dispersement. The pin-point use as murder weapons in targeted assassinations appears to have been an afterthought. But it is now well documented in several instances, such as the murders of Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary Zara Ismailov in 1995, or the killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia on February 13, 2017. (The U.S. Department of State has claimed the assassination was a plot conducted by agents of North Korea, using VX).

And here it gets extremely troubling. It would appear that nerve agents, due to their rapid effectiveness in extremely small doses, make ideal weapons for assassinations. However, these chemicals require highly specialized skills and facilities to develop, manufacture and deploy – all of which is difficult to conduct except in the presence of state-sponsored weapons programs. Even where chemical weapons treaties led to the controlled and audited destruction of chemical weapons of mass destruction, there can be no doubt that small batches of all these substances were retained, and that of course, the process of making them (even in very small quantities) is well understood by those who were involved in these military weapons programs.

So are we looking at a coming new era of silent state-sponsored assassinations? Could this become a method for governments or institutions to get rid of regime critics, political dissenters or opponents, alleged traitors, whistleblowers and others deemed a threat, on a large scale?

It could well be. The other options – an illicit trade of these substances, or the possibility that criminal organizations, terrorist groups or rogue individuals may have found ways to cook them up in hidden labs – are equally scary.

Either way this will play out, the future on this issue looks gloomy.

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Nuclear Detonations From 1945 to 1998



Created by artist Isao Hashimoto.

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A New Year’s Toast To Pope Gregory XIII

by Tim Thompson

Today, most of the world celebrates New Year. But that has been the case only since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, which began to replace the older Julian calendar in 1582. The process lasted from 1582 until 1929, when the Soviet Union became the last country to abandon the Julian calendar (Greece switched in 1923). Most of the Catholic countries reformed their calendars quickly, in 1582-1583, while the non-Catholic countries followed rather slowly.

The British Empire and its colonies did not switch until 1752, well after most of the Founding Fathers of the USA were born, so it is necessary to distinguish between “old style” (Julian) and “new style” (Gregorian) dates in American history. For instance, we recognize George Washington’s birthday as 22 February 1732, but he was born on 11 February 1732, when the Julian calendar was in place; 22 February is the translation of the Julian date into the Gregorian date, pretending that the Gregorian calendar had been in force even in 1732.

Gregory_XIII

The Gregorian calendar was adopted on the authority of Pope Gregory XIII [1502-1585], in order to fix the date for Easter, and return it to a date near the spring equinox (northern hemisphere), as it had been set in the First Council of Nicaea (20 May – 19 June, 325). The need to move Easter back to the right place in the calendar meant that when the new Gregorian calendar was adopted, 11 days were dropped, so that the day after Julian Thursday 4 October 1582 was Gregorian 15 october 1582 (5-14 October vanished).

Another big change was that the beginning of the new year moved from 1 March to 1 January. Leap day at the end of February was the last day of the year on the Julian calendar; leap day remained at the end of February, but now it seems incongruous, since there is nothing otherwise special about the end of February in the Gregorian calendar.

First page of the papal bull Inter Gravissimas. Click to enlarge.

First page of the papal bull Inter Gravissimas. Click to enlarge.

The old Julian calendar had been established in 46 BC under the authority of legendary Roman Emperor Julius Caesar [100-44 BC]. It was a modification of the older (and already many times reformed) Roman calendar. In even older, ancient civil calendars, the seasons were not fixed (i.e., the equinox and solstice dates drifted from year to year). The Roman calendar had already fixed that problem, but in a very cumbersome way. The old Roman calendar had 12 months, but only 355 days, so the Romans adopted leap months instead of leap days, and some years were as long as 378 days, just to keep the seasons in line. The Julian calendar fixed that, and fixed the length of the average year at 365.25 days.

But the real year is about 365.2425 days (a fact already known to ancient Greeks, but ignored by Caesar). So the seasons slowly slipped, and by 1582, had drifted about 11 days out of sync. Hence, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar included slipping the calendar back to compensate. Also, the Gregorian calendar changes the rule for leap years, so that century years are leap years only if they are evenly divisible by 400. So, 1700, 1800 and 1900 are not leap years, but 2000 is (and 2100 will not be). This small difference is enough to keep the civil calendar in sync with the seasons for about 10,000 years.

The Julian calendar and the older Roman calendars all started the new year in 1 January beginning about 153 BC. But in post-Roman Europe, the new year was usually moved to a date of Christian importance, such as Easter, the date of Annunciation (25 March) or the Nativity (25 December).

In post-Roman Anglo-Saxon England, the new year commonly began on 25 December, to align with both the pagan Winter Solstice and the Christian Nativity. When the Normans took over, they moved the new year to 1 January (1087-1155), then moved it to 25 March (1155-1751). In 1752, when the British Empire finally adopted the Gregorian calendar, New Year once again moved to 1 January.

So you can thank Pope Gregory XIII (and the British Empire) for today being New Year.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julian_calendar
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_calendar
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calendar

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100 Years Ago, Europe (And The World) Went Mad

100 years ago today, the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire declared war on Serbia. Russia sided with Serbia; the German Empire sided with the Habsburgs. France was requested to remain neutral but refused a clear reply, thereby leaving the German command unable to set up its deployment strategy. As a consequence, a declaration of war was propounded on France. And German troops marched into Luxembourg. Belgium also refused German troops to cross its territory on the path to France, and was served a declaration of war as well. The British Empire, irate that Belgian neutrality had been violated, declared war on the German Empire.

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And thus, what began as miscalculation and miscommunication all of a sudden turned into a global hellfire which consumed at least 17 million people and destroyed the British, German and Habsburg (Austrian) Empires. Almost nobody had seen it coming.

It was more than one “Great War” (as it was known then). Long after the guns fell silent four years later, a freshly divided and chopped up Europe lay in turmoil. The new nation states, artificially decreed, and haphazardly concocted from the rubble of former aristocratic empires, soon turned into uncoordinated, unsustainable economies and failed states. This in turn set the stage for economic despair, political division and the rise of anti-semitism, totalitarianism, communism and fascism.

Today, not enough time has passed to easily see the big picture. Many still view World War I, World War II, the Cold War and their multitude of ugly side shows of human perversion as separate events. But I believe all of this was part of an interconnected, complex greater picture — a dark era consuming much of 20th Century Europe.

Sadly, I know only little of the fate of my own ancestors in WW-1. What I do know is that my grandmother had eight male siblings, all of whom were mobilized and sent to war. Those who returned came back traumatized, injured, sick, and suffering for the remainder of their lives. All had departed thinking that it would just be a matter of weeks. Nobody expected what it would turn into.

My grandmother was still a minor, yet she was sent to work in a military hospital, while also taking care of  brothers home from the front on medical leave, and doing much of the household.

There was little talk about it, as the older generation believed that children should be spared the stories of war and destruction. And I was too young to ask the right questions while my grandparents were still alive.

Perhaps one day I will take time off to look through family archives and try to learn and reconstruct some of what has been lost.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_war_i
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I_casualties

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Young Johannes Brahms in 1853

I came across this somewhat rare picture of the German computer Johnannes Brahms (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897), taken in 1853.

Johannes Brahms, 1853

Johannes Brahms, 1853

Brahms was 20 years old at the time the picture was taken. Photographer and location are unknown, but 1853 turned out to be the year of fate for Brahms. All in that same year, he went on his first musical tour as accompanist for the Hungarian violinist  Eduard Reményi. In Weimar, one of the cultural capitals of Europe at the time, Brahms met  Franz LisztPeter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff. Falling asleep during a Liszt concert, young Brahms caused ill feelings and was fired as a result.

After a foot journey through the Rhineland, Brahms took the train to Düsseldorf to meet  Robert Schumann, at whose house he showed up unannounced. Schumann recognized his talent and invited the youngster to stay for a while. Brahms proceeded to fall madly in love with Schumann’s wife, Clara who was 14 years older than him and had 7 kids, with one more on the way.

A few months later, in early 1854 Schumann became mentally ill. After a suicide attempt in February, he was taken to a mental institution in Bonn, where he was confined for the two remaining years of his life. Torn between loyalty for Schumann and his feelings for Clara, Brahms continued to live in their house in Düsseldorf until shortly after Schumann’s death on July 29, 1856 at the age of 46.

Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms carried on a very extensive correspondence over the years. Although Brahms asked for the letters to be destroyed, quite a few have survived and have been published, though they represent only a fragmented account of the complex relationship between Clara and Johannes.

Johannes Brahms went on to become one of the the world’s most famous and influential composers.

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