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Reichstag Fire, February 26 Incident, and National Kahlua Day

Been a rough week: dueling with the Banshee Two-Step since Monday night. But I had to make some decisions for the blog this week, so I soldiered on to weed out Henri V of France’s crowning in 1594, Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech in 1860, the first cigar-rolling machine patented in 1883, and the last day of the rum ration in the Royal New Zealand Navy in 1990.Today, we talk about regime change, or at least attempts at it. And coffee-flavored rum.

On 27 February 1933, a fire in the Reichstag building in Berlin gutted the structure, and whoever set the fires left several unburned bundles in the building.

The year 1933 was a raucous, tumultuous year for Germany.  After years of riots, street-brawling and economic shocks, the NSDAP finally became the largest minority in the Reichstag, and Adolf Hitler became Chancellor on 30 January. This was a time for marching and singing in the streets, but it was also a time for fear: fear that the Nazi’s hod on power, narrow as it was, could be lost as quickly as they took it. And, there was fear in the hearts of the many foes–internal and external–of the New Germany that they could be singled out for discrimination or even persecution. On 27 February 1933, a fire in the Reichstag building in Berlin gutted the structure, and whoever set the fires left several unburned bundles in the building. An unemployed Dutch bricklayer with communist sympathies named Marinus van der Lubbe was found in the building, and was quickly charged for the crime. Not to let a crisis go to waste, the Nazi propaganda machine was quick to call for a roundup of communists who could be blamed for the “infamous” crime of burning an empty building, while simultaneously “suspending” civil liberties (like, speech, association and privacy), which somehow never returned under the Nazis. Van der Lubbe was found guilty and beheaded in 1934, but four of the other communists tried with him were mysteriously acquitted–later to be liquidated.  While Van der Lubbe was pardoned in 2008 under a blanket law, some scholars doubt that he set the fires at all.

Since early in the 20th century, fervent imperial patriots and other “young men of purpose” known as Shishi, had dreamed of a “Restoration” that would eliminate the civil government of Japan and restore the Emperor to “direct rule,” aided by the Army and Navy, of course–the samurai of old.

By 1936, Japan was not quite as chaotic as Germany three years before on the surface, but simmering in the Imperial Japanese Army was a fervor for political reform that had burst to the surface several times already, and would once again. Since early in the 20th century, fervent imperial patriots and other “young men of purpose” known as Shishi, had dreamed of a “Restoration” that would eliminate the civil government of Japan and restore the Emperor to “direct rule,” aided by the Army and Navy, of course–the samurai of old.  Twice in a decade small groups tried to spark an insurrection, and each failed, resulting in PR-producing show trials and only minor punishments for most of the conspirators.  But on 26 February 1936, two regiments of the 1st (Imperial Guard) Infantry Division were heavily involved in the planned coup in Tokyo. The plan was to kill seven men, the Prime Minister Okada Keisuke and six others prominent in Japanese affairs, seize the Imperial Palace to “safeguard” the Emperor, grab the radio stations and other public buildings, and declare an end to democracy in Japan. As the “incident” started, it started to go wrong.  The conspirators were able to kill only two of their intended targets (a third victim was mistaken for one of them), failed to rally any more support to their cause, could not grab the Imperial Palace, and most of the conspirators became besieged in the War Ministry. An imperial appeal for their surrender was delivered on 27 February 1936, that would eventually be credited with breaking the deadlock on 29 February. Much to the surprise of the conspirators, their chance to voice their views was squelched when the trials were held in secret, and nineteen were condemned to death. The movement that many belonged to, Kodoha, was violently suppressed. Ironically, the 26 February Incident actually strengthened the military’s control of civil affairs: future Japanese civil governments had much to fear from the sympathizers of the Shishi who stalked the halls of power until 1945, and who were responsible for delaying and nearly derailing the peace that August.

The standard commercial product contains rum (distilled cane sugar), corn syrup, a coffee extract and vanilla: the higher-end Especial entering the market in 2002 contains a higher-end bean.

And on to flavored rum. Kahlua means “house of the Acolhua people” in pre-Columbian Nahuatl. First sold in 1936, Kahlua reached the US from Mexico in 1940. The White Russian, the first and best known Kahlua combination, was invented in 1955 in Oakland, California. The standard commercial product contains rum (distilled cane sugar), corn syrup, a coffee extract and vanilla: the higher-end Especial entering the market in 2002 contains a higher-end bean.  Anyone who knows me personally (you know who you are) knows I never acquired a taste for hard liquor, and I don’t take anything in my coffee but coffee.  So, it eludes me why anyone would make booze that tastes like coffee.  And, furthermore, why anyone would declare any day of the year to be a National Kahlua Day must remain one of the mysteries of the universe.  But, it’s also National Polar Bear Day and National Strawberry Day, so…who knows.  Maybe Kahlua’s got better marketing.

 

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Pierre Boullet, Evgeny Dragunov, Joseph Walker and Louis Riel Day

Some days, this blog writes itself (don’t I wish).  This 20 February has a breathtaking array of events to choose from: the enthronement of Edward VI in 1547; the beginning of the US Post Office in 1792; the death of WIllie Lincoln in 1862; the orbiting of John Glenn in 1962; the election of Margaret Thatcher to lead the Conservatives in Britain in 1975.  But today, we’re going to note the birthdays of three rather notable people, and an ambiguous Canadian.

Boullet’s ninth book, Monkey Planet, was turned into a different story on film–Planet of the Apes, which became a cult/franchise all in itself.

Pierre François Marie Louis Boulle was born on 20 February 1912 in Avignon, France, and trained as an electrical engineer.  He was working in Malaya when WWII started, and joined the French Army in Indochina.  When Germany occupied France he joined the Free French in Singapore. Working as a secret agent, Boullet was captured by the Vichy in the Mekong Delta region and put in a forced labor camp for the rest of the war. After his return to France in 1949, he began to write.  Drawing on his own war experiences and those of some of his fellow prisoners, Boullet’s third book was the semi-fictional novel known in English as The Bridge Over the River Kwai, an international best-seller made into a film by Sir David Lean in 1957, which also won awards and popular acclaim (and the shortest Academy Award acceptance speech in history–Merci).  Boullet’s ninth book, Monkey Planet, was turned into a different story on film–Planet of the Apes, which became a cult/franchise all in itself. In all Boullet wrote 24 books, seven short story collections, and five nonfiction books (including one on his experiences in labor camps in the Mekong: My Own River Kwai).  Boullet died 30 January 1994, at age 81, in Paris.

In 1959, Dragunov’s legendary semi-automatic sniper rifle, the SVD, was adopted for Soviet service.

Evgeny (or Yevgeny) Fyodorovich Dragunov was born 20 February 1920 at Izhevsk, Russia, into a family of gunsmiths.  By the time of the Great Fatherland War in 1941 (what the Russians call their part of WWII) Dragunov was a senior armorer in the Red Army, known for adapting non-Soviet weapons to Soviet needs and ammunition. After the war, he went back to gunsmithing in the civilian world,  building an Olympic gold-winning rifle for the biathlon in 1950. In 1959, Dragunov’s legendary semi-automatic sniper rifle, the SVD, was adopted for Soviet service. In 1973 his design for the update of the venerable AK-74, which was not adopted for that weapon, but the trigger mechanism inspired the one in the PP-71 submachine gun.  Dragunov died 4 August 1991 at age 71 in Izhevsk.

In the X-15, Walker was the first to fly above the Kármán line, and thus technically became the first American to enter outer space (as long as that 100 kilometer/62 mile altitude is accepted) on 19 July 1963.

Joseph Albert Walker was born on 20 February 1921 in Washington, Pennsylvania. Walker earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1942 before joining the Army Air Forces.  He flew P-38 Lightnings and the reconnaissance version, the F-5, in the Pacific during WWII, joining the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) as a physicist.  It wasn’t long before Walker was back in the cockpit, the first to fly the Bell X-1 and a number of other rocket fuel tanks with controls. When NACA became NASA, Walker was the first test pilot, and the first NASA pilot to fly the X-15. In the X-15, Walker was the first to fly above the Kármán line, and thus technically became the first American to enter outer space (as long as that 100 kilometer/62 mile altitude is accepted) on 19 July 1963. Walker was killed on 8 June 1966, flying an F-104 chase plane that collided with one of the only two XB-70 Valkyrie bombers ever built over Barstow, California.

Riel’s father was a Metis-of French and Native Canadian heritage; his mother a French colonist.  Riel took up the priesthood early in life but lost interest when his father died before young Louis finished his schooling.

The third Monday in February, for some inexplicable reason, is Louis Riel Day in Manitoba. Louis Davis Riel is traditionally viewed as the founder of Manitoba, and his ambiguous legacy is shrouded in legend. Riel was born near modern Winnipeg in what was then the Red River Colony of Rupert’s Land –the Hudson Bay drainage of Canada–in 1844.  Riel’s father was a Metis-of French and Native Canadian heritage; his mother a French colonist.  Riel took up the priesthood early in life but lost interest when his father died before young Louis finished his schooling. He drifted around Canada and the United States as far south as Chicago before returning to the Red River Colony in 1868.  Timing is everything: in October of that year he led a group of Metis that disrupted an English survey party.  Emerging as a leader not only of the French-speaking Metis (descendants of an admixture of Native Canadian and  European immigrants) but of Francophones in general, Riel led the first “rebellion” from 1868, not only disrupting the survey but claiming that the dissolution of the seigneurial land-holding system they had known for centuries would not be tolerated. After seizing Fort Garry, then losing it again, the rebellion’s leaders were arrested, tried and punished–except for Riel, who managed to escape to the US. After several years in exile, Riel returned, served briefly as a Member of Parliament, formed the Provisional Government of Saskatchewan with himself as president, and led yet another rebellion in 1885. He was captured after the second rising collapsed, tried and sentenced to hang for treason, and was hanged  16 November 1885.

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Budapest, Dresden, Hal Moore, and National Clean Out Your Computer Day

 

Mid-February, and even though tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day, we’re talking about WWII because this is the 13th of February.  Oh, there was Galileo before the Inquisition in 1633, and William and Mary of Nassau being proclaimed joint sovereigns of England in 1689, and the beginning of ASCAP in 1914, and the birth of Chuck Yeager in 1923, and Andrey Chernienko was named Premier of the Soviet Union in 1984.  But today we talk about massacres in war, and brave men, and clean computers.

The Germans managed to cobble together some 180,000 men under Karl Pfeffer Wildenbruch, a competent policeman untested in heavy combat against the Soviets.

By late 1945, the German Army was entirely on the defensive.  In an effort to slow the Soviet drives into Germany, and above all to prevent them from linking with the Anglo-Americans, the Germans planned to hold several urban areas in Eastern Europe and to knock the Soviet mobile offensives off-balance.  One of these cities was Budapest, the capital city of Hungary that had been a German ally until October 1944. The Germans managed to cobble together some 180,000 men under Karl Pfeffer Wildenbruch, a competent policeman untested in heavy combat against the Soviets. The Soviets, on the other hand, were to capture Budapest quickly before Stalin met with Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta.  To do this, Rodion Malinovski commanded something over half a million men. The fighting over Budapest started in October, 1944.  The last road out was cut on 26 December. The remnants of the German Luftwaffe could barely support itself, but tried valiantly to supply Budapest until the last airfield fell 27 December.  The Germans tried three separate offensives in January 1945 to break out or relieve the siege, and all failed.  On 11 February a last breakout attempt resulted in tens of thousands of German and Hungarian casualties and the capture of Wildenbruch.  On 13 February, the last of the German garrison in Budapest surrendered about 60,000 or so German and Hungarian troops (with an unknown number of civilians added as padding).  Predictably, while the German/Hungarian casualties amounted to 130,000 in the fifty-day siege, the Soviet/Romanian casualties were somewhat more.

Official German casualty figures for Dresden at the time add up to somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000, but the Germans purposely inflated the numbers to 200,000 for propaganda purposes…

While the siege of Budapest is not well known in the West, the bombing campaign of Dresden is.  Starting on 13 February 1945, the RAF and the USAAF struck the “Florence of the Elbe” three times in three days.  In all over 1,300 heavy bombers dropped some 3,900 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the city, destroying 2 and a half square miles of the city (in contrast, the March 9-10 1945 firebombing of Tokyo destroyed a little over 15 square miles in a single raid).  Official German casualty figures for Dresden at the time add up to somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000, but the Germans purposely inflated the numbers to 200,000 for propaganda purposes, and Holocaust-denier David Irving has put them as high as 500,000 in his 1963 book The Destruction of Dresden.  American author Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the bombing and wrote about his experience in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five, declared that 130,000 casualties were either buried or incinerated. However, a 2010 study commissioned by the Dresden city council found that no more than 25,000 people were killed in the three raids.

Though I never met Moore, I did meet a survivor of the Ia Drang fight who was hurt and had to be evacuated.  As he remembered it, Moore personally carried one leg of his litter.  Sometimes, that’s as close as we can come to greatness.  

Not every general gets to be better known for what he did as a colonel.  Custer was one of that exclusive club; Hal Moore was another.  Moore died last Friday, 10 April 2017 at the age of 94. Moore’s career before and after Ia Drang was notable only for its relative routine: he had no one of influence to help his career, and as a Kentuckian no particular hindrances, either.  He graduated West Point a year early in 1945 because the Army needed replacement officers.  Branched to the Infantry, he served in the 11th Airborne and 82nd Airborne divisions, and the 7th Infantry in Korea.  In 1965, Moore was in command of the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. In November of that year, 2/7th Cav was in the Ia Drang valley of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, short-stopping two North Vietnamese Army regiments in a long fight over Pleiku, operating out of a place called Drop Zone X-Ray.  While Moore and his men were credited with “winning” the fight at the time and Moore won a DSC, the fight convinced Ho Chi Minh that he could win. After Ia Drang and a series of career progressions, Moore retired from the Army a Lieutenant General in 1977.  He wrote three books, the best known being We Were Soldiers Once, and Young with Joseph Galloway published in 1992.  The 2002 Mel Gibson film We Were Soldiers was based on the book.  Though I never met Moore, I did meet a survivor of the Ia Drang fight who was hurt and had to be evacuated.  As he remembered it, Moore personally carried one leg of his litter.  Sometimes, that’s as close as we can come to greatness.

Nonetheless, a clean computer is a laudable, if relatively unachievable, goal.  

Then, there’s Clean Your Computer Day, which is the second Monday in February.  The day was originally sponsored in 2000 by the Institute for Business Technology, a for-profit trade school in Santa Clara, California. IBT probably once had some computer training, but at this writing they concentrate on other skilled trades, including HVAC technician, massage therapy, and various medical office jobs.  Nonetheless, a clean computer is a laudable, if relatively unachievable, goal.  I have two computers that I have to keep clean, and all that scrubbing and dusting does get tedious…and that bitbucket…always full.  Does anyone know of a way to keep the RAM from getting so dirty and full of fleas…wait…there it is again…come back here, you ignorant herbivore…there’s no ewes over there…!

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Fort Henry, Ronald Reagan, Death of George VI, and National Lame Ducks

There’s a bit of research that goes into these blogs; some weeks more than others.  This week I could have talked about a lot of things maybe more important (to you) than others, like the Franco-American Alliance signed 6 February 1778, the Dalton Gang trying their first (unsucessful) train robbery in 1891, the arrival in New York of someone calling herself Anastasia Romanov in 1928 (whoever she was, she wasn’t the youngest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra), or the ascension of Elizabeth II to the English throne in 1952. But today we’re talking about the Civil War in the Ohio Country, future presidents, dead kings, and officeholders no longer beholding to the voters known in the vernacular as lame ducks.

Taking 15,000 troops and seven gunboats … under Andrew Foote, Grant actually arrived after the fort had fallen to the Navy after a short bombardment: with the magazine underwater, it was hard to fight for more than a few minutes.

One of the more remarkable things about Fort Henry on the Tennessee River in the winter of 1862 was that Confederacy didn’t want it, and the builders had been warned against putting it there, but their enemy found it a valuable target.  They were there because the Confederacy, against common sense, had violated the neutrality of Kentucky and sent troops as far north as Columbus. Situated on a low, flat shingle that flooded regularly but nonetheless had a clear field of fire for about two miles, Fort Henry was manned by as many as 3,4000 raw flintlock armed Confederate troops commanded by Lloyd Tilghman, an engineer with little military experience.  Fort Henry also a 10 inch Columbiad and a 24-pounder rifle, in addition to a number of 32-pounder smoothbores.  Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Federal troops in the area, decided on a deep thrust up the Tennessee (the river flowed south to north there) to Fort Henry to avoid having to storm the Columbus bastion. Taking 15,000 troops and seven gunboats (four ironclads and three timberclads) under Andrew Foote, Grant actually arrived after the fort had fallen to the Navy after a short bombardment: with the magazine underwater, it was hard to fight for more than a few minutes. Grant’s and Foote’s relatively bloodless victory on 6 February 1862 (there were less than fifty Union casualties, less than a hundred Confederate) was hailed in the Northern press as a signal victory when there had been very few, and was a surprise to nearly everyone in the North.  It opened the river to the Navy, that raided as far south as Muscle Shoals, Alabama. It also enabled Grant to attack Fort Donelson on the Cumberland, which fell ten days later. The fall of Henry and Donelson completely undermined the Confederate position in Kentucky, and compelled its evacuation, setting the scene for the battle at Pittsburg Landing in April.

Reagan’s political life included two terms as president of SAG, a term as Governor of California, and two as President of the United States.  

A week’s march away and two generations later, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois on 6 February 1911. Growing up in small, hardscrabble towns throughout Illinois, Reagan graduated from Eureka College, a tiny liberal arts school where he studied economics and sociology, receiving a BA with a C average in economics.  A radio announcer and sportscaster early in his career, he traveled to California as an announcer for the Chicago Cubs and got a contract to make movies in 1937, the same year he got a reserve commission in the cavalry branch of the US Army (it could be done by correspondence then). Called to active duty in 1942, Reagan transferred to the Army Air Forces and the First Motion Picture Unit, where he made training and indoctrination films for most of the rest of the war (a personal note: I saw one of his films in basic training in 1973: can’t remember what it was about, but I did remember it was him). After the war his career in labor and politics began with his election as SAG president in 1947.  Reagan’s political life included two terms as president of SAG, a term as Governor of California, and two as President of the United States. Known by intimates as “Dutch” and “the Gipper,” Reagan’s remarkable career ended in 1989 when he left the White House.  He died in Bel Air, California on 5 June, 2004.

Though he publicly supported Neville Chamberlain, privately George VI felt the government’s appeasement of Hitler would only lead to disaster, which it did in 1939.

There was once a king who wasn’t supposed to be, but then became one of the best rulers his country ever knew.  Albert Frederick Arthur George of Windsor was the second son of George V, and wasn’t supposed to be a king at all.  His brother, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, was fourteen months older and indeed became king on the death of their father.  Bertie (his family nickname) had a famous stammer, and was not groomed for the responsibility of being, among other things, Emperor of India, even though he was the heir presumptive before then because Edward would not find a suitable wife.  Then Edward fell hopelessly in love an American…a double divorcee no less, and abdicated because he could not marry Wallis Simpson and remain king. (It’s complicated, but it was legally true.) So Albert became King George VI on 11 December 1936. Though he publicly supported Neville Chamberlain, privately George VI felt the government’s appeasement of Hitler would only lead to disaster, which it did in 1939. Though he sent the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret away briefly, the King and Queen stayed in London during the worst of the Blitz, becoming symbols of national defiance and earning the endearment of many.  After the war he saw the Empire dissolve into constituent Commonwealth states, and was the last Emperor of India.  Ravaged by lung cancer, George VI died on 6 February 1952.

The expression “lame duck” originates not with politicians, but with 18th century English businessmen who couldn’t pay their debts.

And then, of course, 6 February is commemorated as National Lame Duck Day, the day that Amendment XX of the Constitution was ratified and became law in 1933.  The expression “lame duck” originates not with politicians, but with 18th century English businessmen who couldn’t pay their debts. The modern usage, which dates from the 19th century, refers to elected officials who, for whatever reason, are no longer accountable to their constituents because they can’t be reelected, or lost their last election and are still sitting in office.  Until Amendment XX became law, members of Congress who were lame ducks sometimes had over a year (it’s complicated: look it up) to do whatever mischief they wanted to do (mostly paying political debts that were unpopular back home).  After it, they had three months.  It also fixed the presidential inaugural date from 4 March to 20 January, and the swearing in of Congress from 4 March to 3 January.  At least, it was an attempt to survey the swamp.