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Declarations of War and Labor Day 2018

So, summer’s gone now (unofficially: the eggheads wait until 22 September to declare it officially over), the kids are back in school–or soon will be, and the air conditioners in the Great Lakes can start to slow down…any day now…OK…steady now…

3 September finds a lot happening. On 3 September 1189 Richard I was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey–probably one of the only times he was in England. Known as Richard the Lion-Hearted by the poets and other things by his contemporaries; his reign was principally marked by his absence on the Second Crusade and by the ransom demanded by the Germans for his safe return, which bankrupted England for five hundred years. And on 3 September 1868, the little Japanese village of Edo–“estuary” in Japanese– on the edge of the Kanto plain on the island of Honshu became the capital city of Tokyo–“east capital”–with the arrival of the Meiji Emperor. The imperial capital had been Kyoto since time immemorial, but the new “direct” rule system (which was about as direct as it is now) required a civil government that was fully defined with the Meiji Constitution that would follow in 1889. And on this day in 1935, Malcomb Campbell became the first person to drive an automobile at over 300 miles an hour at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, averaging 301.33 mph in two runs. Campbell set three land speed records in his lifetime, and four water speed records, and was one of the few speed demons in his era to die of natural causes. Today is also National Welch Rarebit Day for unknown reasons, and US Bowling League Day also because someone said so. But today we talk briefly about the beginning of the second round of the German Wars and holidays with lots of origins.

Europe had been going at this since the fall of Rome, and this latest round of bloodletting was going to go global. 

On 3 September 1939 Great Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany. This much is entirely sure but, like many such momentous events, the reasons why can be somewhat confused. The proximate cause–the one closest to the fact–was because Germany had invaded Poland and wouldn’t leave. But before that, as we talked about last week, the Danzig corridor and the East Prussian rump were thorns in the German side. But since they were imposed on a prostrate Germany in 1919, Britain and France felt compelled to enforce the territorial integrity of this incarnation of Poland. And so they declared war. This has always been the conventional explanation, and it fits all the evidence. But, it’s way too simple. Europe had been going at this since the fall of Rome, and this latest round of bloodletting was going to go global.

This time, when the war spread across the oceans and the Japanese decided to take advantage of Europe’s distraction, the Americans undertook to make sure that it never happened again…not like this.

The origins of the periodic madness in Europe go back even further than the British and French desire to curb German ambitions in 1939, but this result was much different. For ages, the term “peace” for most European conflicts meant some negotiated settlement, the exchange of a few acres here and there, and a return to the status quo after some reparations were made. But Versailles was different: it was much more onerous on Germany than any other imposed peace. And, for the first time, this European peace included input from those upstart Americans, who insisted on a lot of things, then refused to participate in the administration or enforcement of the peace. This time, when the war spread across the oceans and the Japanese decided to take advantage of Europe’s distraction, the Americans undertook to make sure that it never happened again…not like this.

The depths of their miscalculations were only obvious in early 1943, after the collapse of the Stalingrad defense, the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, and the final campaigns in North Africa began showed that there would be no negotiated European peace this time. 

This time there were demands for unconditional surrender of all belligerents, and this time something called the United Nations signed off on it. The members of this new outfit included the most powerful and productive industrial states in human history which had the capability to literally drown their enemies in oil, then bury them in the dunnage used to pack their war material. None of the Axis powers had the capacity to fight a prolonged global war, yet all gambled that their enemies lacked the guts for one. The depths of their miscalculations were only obvious in early 1943, after the collapse of the Stalingrad defense, the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, and the final campaigns in North Africa began showed that there would be no negotiated European peace this time.

And all of this because a Bohemian corporal gambled with someone else’s money…and blood.

Italy would be the first to give up in 1943. Germany would hold out until annihilation in the spring of 1945; Japan in late summer of the same year. This time, the Americans and Soviets imposed not just a harsh peace on Germany, but its dismemberment. Prussia would become extinct; Germany itself divided for half a century and occupied for a decade and more. And all of this because a Bohemian corporal gambled with someone else’s money…and blood.


Labor Day in the US has somewhat confused origins. International Workers’ Day has been observed in Europe on 1 May since the 19th century. Since the 1950s May Day has been thought of as celebrating the “worker’s paradise” found in Cuba and the former Soviet Union. But May Day is indeed as American as baseball and apple pie, originating with the pre-Christian holiday of Beltane, a celebration of rebirth and fertility.

The September Labor Day started in the 1880s when the clandestine General Assembly of the Knights of Labor organized a parade in New York on 5 September 1882 under the auspices of the Central Labor Union. Now is where the story gets confusing. The CLU’s secretary was Matthew Mcguire. An alternative theory for Labor Day’s origins holds that the American Federation of Labor’s vice president PJ McGuire first suggested the first Monday in September as a holiday for working people. To make it worse, the CLU eventually joined the AFL-CIO, meaning that the same organization has two Mcguire’s with different spellings claiming that they both originated Labor Day. No wonder they strike so much.

In 1894, the first Monday in September (unless it falls on 1 September) was declared a Federal holiday in the US, and all the states now recognize it. We now celebrate labor by not working. It’s the American way.

 

 

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