Saturday, October 19, 2013

Seven Men Who Paved the Way for Adolf Hitler

1 Napoleon Bonaparte

Today, as we of argue over whether it is fair or appropriate to compare current political figures to Hitler, it is instructive to realize that the last century’s version of this parlor game was comparing Hitler to a predecessor, Napoleon. Although he made himself an emperor, Napoleon was a common man who rose to power the hard way, much as Hitler later would.

It might seem a stretch to go back as far as Napoleon, who was not even German (although, neither was Hitler before 1932), but the two men were not that far apart in time. Hitler was born less than seventy years after Napoleon died. Also, neither man was born and raised in the heart of the nation he would one day rule with absolute authority. Napoleon was born an obscure Corsican—almost more Italian than French, and Hitler grew up an Austrian who wished he was a German.

Napoleon set a modern precedent for aggression and autocracy. At the height of his power, like Hitler, he ruled much of continental Europe. Also, both leaders wound up being beaten by a coalition that included the British, and both combined this with their own self-defeating invasions of Russia.

In the on-going tit for tat between France and Germany, Napoleon conquered and looted most of the separate German states at the beginning of the nineteenth century; this would be followed by the Prussian-led German states defeating and looting Francein the 1870s; and that was followed by France looting Germanywith the 1919 Versailles Treaty. This blood feud played a great role in Hitler’s rise to power. The German people were less moved to support Hitler because of his anti-Semitism than by his anti-Versailles-Treaty position, and Hitler would achieve brutal though short-lived revenge when he conquered France in 1940.

2 Klemens von Metternich

Austrian prince and foreign minister, Metternich organized against Napoleon but then worked feverishly to suppress any moves toward democracy and liberalism, not only in Austria but throughout the German states. His influence over other German states was so great that he was able to persuade them to pass anti-democratic measures, which were so harshly repressive that they might make one think of the Nazis’ night and fog campaign. Those legislative bodies that were established in some German states during this period were not really independent but merely rubber-stamps for repressive measures. Anyone who so much as spoke up for freedom and democracy was arrested, and their organization, if any, was outlawed. Metternich helped make repression of liberty seem almost like an attribute of being German.

3 Otto von Bismarck

Anyone who knows German history probably anticipated that Bismarck would be on this list. Although a petty nobleman, Bismarck, like many modern political strongmen, came to power seemingly out of nowhere. Elected to the Prussian legislature from the frontier of Prussia, he had a strike against him because he had prematurely tried to interject himself into the affairs of the nation and its royal family at the time of the abortive popular uprisings in 1848. That turmoil was resolved without his help, and his kibitzing offended some of the royals (particularly the future King Friedrich III and his wife). Nevertheless, the force of Bismarck’s personality and his snake-like craftiness in politics led him to hold the offices of Minister-President and Chancellor simultaneously. Essentially, he had the same titles that Hitler would later covet and seize, except that Bismarckwas still nominally subordinate to King Wilhelm I of Prussia, whereas Hitler would be subordinate to no one. Bismarck, nevertheless, became a virtual dictator through his uncanny ability to manipulate and even intimidate the king and members of his family.

Bismarck was largely responsible for two related shifts in the political status of Germany. First, he wrested control of the German states away from Austria, giving them instead to his own king and working to unify the German states into a single nation. After the defeat of France,in 1871, he had Wilhelm I re-coronated as Emperor of all Germany in addition to his previously held title, King of Prussia. Second, Bismarck used Germany’s new status to make her—along with himself—a major player on the international scene. He seems to have enjoyed manipulating both people and nations and accruing power for its own sake. Otherwise, some of his activities, such as making multiple, conflicting secret pacts with Russia, Austria-Hungary, Italy and other nations, made little sense, and would have proven extremely embarrassing if Germany had been forced to show her hand in a crisis. He was so highhanded in many of his dealings that anyone who is more familiar with Hitler is reminded of the later historical figure by Bismarck. One striking difference between Bismarck and Hitler, though, is that the former seems to have known, more or less, when to stop making war, whereas Hitler just kept making war until he lost.

While the last two decades of Bismarck’s long tenure were relatively peaceful internationally, domestically he instituted many repressive policies, not only outlawing socialism for a period of time but even throwing himself into a campaign of repression against the Catholic Church. Ameliorating his influence to a small extent was the fact that Germanyhad entered into a liberal phase following the revolutions of 1848; however, Bismarck only accepted this because he saw the way the wind was blowing. As soon as the economy of Germany turned sour during the 1870s, Bismarck abandoned Germany’s two-decade experiment with free trade and returned to protectionism. In connection with this development, the National Liberal Party splintered and never really regained its influence. Bismarcknever supported more liberalization than he had to and turned decisively against liberalism when it no longer suited his aims. The legacy of Metternich was kept alive by Bismarck: liberalism and German nationalism came to seem to be mutually exclusive, and rule by a strongman, a Fuhrer, seemed not only acceptable but desirable to some, perhaps to many.

4 Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany

When Wilhelm I died in 1888, the year before Hitler was born, his son Friedrich became Emperor Friedrich III, but he only lived three more months after his father. His own son thus became Wilhelm II. Bismarckhad helped shape young Wilhelm by coming between him and his father, but after a couple of years of his reign, Wilhelm II decided to fire the aging Bismarck. The new emperor was notably aggressive and impolitic. He made many embarrassing remarks in public and generated even more embarrassing rumors. He could be petty and unreasonable with his subordinates. After joining Austria-Hungaryin declaring war on much of the rest of Europein 1914, however, Wilhelm found himself increasingly pushed aside by his generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. Nevertheless, Wilhelm II set an example for Hitler as an aggressive and impulsive autocrat.
5 Benito Mussolini
Hitler directly modeled much of his organization, program and aims after Mussolini's Italian Fascist movement. After he joined the German Workers Party and rose to positions of authority within it, he changed the party to reflect the kind of discipline and goals that the Italian Fascists had. When Hitler decided on the disastrous Beer Hall Putsch, it was because he wanted to imitate Mussolini's March on Rome, which had worked for Mussolini far better than Hitler's Putsch did.
The personal as well as the political relationship between the two leaders did not work smoothly when Hitler came to national power. First, Mussolini delighted in snubbing Hitler. Later he resented Hitler's dragging Italy into a world war for which she was not prepared. Then he tried to invade Greece, which annoyed Hitler because it did not help Germany's war aims. Finally, after Italy collapsed under Allied pressure, Hitler had to rescue his old ally.

6 and 7 Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff

The two generals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, became the “war dictators” of Germanyduring the latter part of World War I. They ran the war, and—because this was the world’s first total war—they also determined domestic policies in the service of the war effort. It is ironic, historians have argued, that in World War I the more democratic Allies that were engaged against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary were, in the end, more efficient war machines than the nominally autocratic states, but that was not how many Germans saw it, with some almost romanticizing the way that Germany was intentionally organized as a collective during the war.

Ludendorff played a more personal role in paving the way for Hitler. For one thing, he permitted Hitler to join the German Workers Party even though soldiers were not supposed to join parties. Moreover, Ludendorff introduced Hitler, a nobody in German high society, to many useful people, from the revolutionary Strasser brothers to the widow of composer Richard Wagner. Ludendorff, himself, marched with Hitler in the botched Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.

Hindenburg, as president of WeimarGermany, did not care much for Hitler; yet after defeating Hitler in the 1932 presidential election, he was persuaded to appoint "the Little Czech Corporal" as Chancellor of Germany. One observer described the appointment as “unnecessary.” Indeed, Hitler had had no position or power in the government up until then. Why give him the very position that, within the year, when Hindenburg died, Hitler would use to enhance and consolidate power in himself? Whatever Hindenburg was thinking might just have to remain a mystery, but certainly he underestimated Hitler. Everyone who has studied Hitler thinks that was true of most of Hitler’s opponents, and this was why he got the better of a great many of them.

Hitler’s path to power seems to have been made possible by several men who came before him and who accustomed Germans, in particular, and Europeans, in general, to accepting the near inevitability that someone as repressive and brutal as Hitler would one day come to power.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Presidential Firsts

The crossword puzzle clue was “Pres. first name.” Part of the clue is that “president” or “presidential” has been abbreviated, creating the likelihood that the answer is an abbreviation, too. Indeed, the answer is “JAS,” for “James.” The first president of the United States named James was James Madison, who presided during the War of 1812. But there have been six presidents named James. (That does not even count the vice-presidents with this name, who include James Schoolcraft Sherman, who died in office shortly before the election of 1912, leaving no time to have him removed from the ballot; consequently, many American voters knowingly cast their ballots for a dead man.)

This made me wonder how many presidents have shared the same first names. Answer: Twenty-three presidents (that’s more than half) have shared the same first name with at least one other president. Aside from the six Jameses, there have been four Johns, four Williams, three Georges, two Andrews, two Franklins, and two Thomases. Here they are in order of service within each name group:


George Washington, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush.


John Adams, John Q. Adams, John Tyler, John Kennedy.


Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Woodrow Wilson (That, perhaps, is debatable since Wilsondropped his first name).

James Madison, James Monroe, James Polk, James Buchanan, James Garfield, and James E. “Jimmy” Carter.

Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson.


William Harrison, William McKinley, William Taft, William J. “Bill” Clinton.


Franklin Pierce, Franklin Roosevelt (What are the odds?).


The 20 presidents with unique given names, presidentially speaking, are:


Martin van Buren, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant (real name: Hiram Ulysses Grant), Rutherford Hayes, Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland (Stephen Grover Cleveland), Benjamin Harrison (grandson of William Harrison), Theodore Roosevelt, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Fart is Forever

OK, I stole that title from one of my poet girlfriend's funnier poems.

But it apparently is true in that, in the Indo-European family of languages, which stretch geographically from Indian to Spain and England, the word for "fart" has a similar and virtually predictable set of sounds in all of the Indo-European languages.

The verb form of "fart" is "perdomai" in Greek, "pardate" in Sanskrit, "furzan" in Old German ("furzen" in modern German) and "feortan" in Old English. It's also "perdet(s)" in Russian and "pierdziec" in Polish. In Latin it is "pedere" and in French it is "peter." (Pronounced "pay-tay.) Italian, however, has gotten away from using the noun "peto" and now uses "scoreggia" instead.

The pattern here is that languages of the Romance, Slavic, Greek and Satem (eastern Indo-European languages such as Sanskrit) lineages tend to form their word for "fart" from the sounds P-R-D while the northern European languages--German, English and Scandinavian--use F-R-T. Obviously these sounds shift and change, but the basic pattern has been kept for thousands of years. (In German, "z" is pronounced "ts," so that is consistent with the F-R-T pattern.)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Joel Cairo's Gun

In the great film noir classic "The Maltese Falcon," Joel Cairo comes into Sam Spade's office and pulls a gun on him. After asking Spade to clasp his hands behind his neck, Cairo motions for Spade to come to the center of the room and turn around, facing away from Cairo. Cairo then places the muzzle of the pistol in the small of Spade's back, intending to search the detective; however, this is a mistake because now, despite not being able to see behind him, Spade knows exactly where the pistol is. Using a simple jujitsu move, Spade turns and both knocks Cairo's gun arm aside and grasps it by the wrist. In the struggle, Cairo drops the gun.

Why Spade doesn't use both hands to take control and transfer the pistol directly to his own hand, I don't know; that is what one is supposed to do with this technique, but cinematically, the result is more dramatic. The fallen gun lands next to someone's shoe. Whose, we don't know, but the pistol is clear to see just for a second.

Actually, this is not a frame from the movie, but rather my own restaging of the shot, because I happen to own exactly the same type of pistol that Joel Cairo used in the movie.

The gun is a Colt 1908 "Vest Pocket" semi-automatic pistol. Mine was manufactured in 1927 and was shipped to a hardware store in Tennessee as part of a small lot. It had not been fired much if at all until coming into my possession. I fired fifty rounds at a shooting range and found that it works but occasionally jams. Not bad for an old gun that is primarily a collectors' item. It was intended, of course, only for close range use, but I am embarrassed to say that at twenty-five yards distance I only hit my target four times out of fifty. That is called accidental.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Making Rhymes, Reasons and Ides of the Months

The old rhyme goes

Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November.
When short February's done,
All the rest have thirty-one.

So there are five months that have 30 days or fewer:

February (28 days for three years in a row, then 29 days in the fourth year), April, June, September and November.

There are seven months that have 31 days:

January, March, May, July, August, October and December.

This means that there is almost a pattern of the months with 31 days alternating with the months with 30, but it doesn't hold up in the summer when you have two months in a row with 31 days: July and August. The story I heard is that August once had 30 days and a different name, but when it was renamed in honor of Caesar Augustus, it was given an extra day. I do not know where that day is stolen from. (February is my guess.) In any case, if August were not allowed an extra day, we would have two short months in a row because September has only 30 days.

Another calendrical custom handed down to us by the Romans--though more honored today in the breach rather than in the observance--is the "ides." The ides (the same whether singular or plural) is the approximate middle of the month. A lower case "i" is used when the month is not specified, but it is capitalized for a given month, especially in the case of the Ides of March, which remain memorable because Shakespeare made much ado about this ides in his play "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar," in which Caesar is murdered on the Ides of March. (Shakespeare also gave us--in "The Tragedy of Hamlet"--the otherwise now inscrutable phrase in the first sentence of this paragraph, "more honored in the breach than in the observance," which basically means that people usually don't observe it.)

For my purpose here, an interesting thing about the ides stems from its usually falling on the thirteenth of the month. The Ides of March, however, always falls on the fifteenth. In fact, in only four months does it fall on the fifteenth: March, May, July and October. You will note that all four are months with 31 days. This means that all of the short months celebrate--whether in the breach or the observance--their ides on the thirteenth. This leaves only January, August and December as months with 31 days but with the ides on the thirteenth instead of the fifteenth. Once we note that August originally had only 30 days, we might have an explanation for why its ides falls on the thirteenth, but I do not know why the ides of January and December fall on the thirteenth; although, it is true that these are the first and last months of our calendar. (The Romans did establish January 1 as New Year's Day, but other societies have celebrated the new year on other dates.)