Category Archives: History

How Did Black Friday Come to Be?

Black Friday
Image: Petr Kratochvil/publicdomainpictures.net

The day after Thanksgiving in the United States has been called Black Friday for quite a long time, yet its origins are somewhat confusing owing to some clever remaking of the day by the retailers.

Its historical origins had nothing to do with Thanksgiving but a financial crisis in 1869. On 23 September 1869 a crash occurred in the U.S gold markets that was likely triggered by the actions of Jim Fisk and Jay Gould who tried to buy up as much gold as they could. In doing so, it drove the price of gold sky-high allowing them to sell at a huge profit. When their actions became known, it sent the gold market crashing down but also spread to the stock market resulting in bankers and farmers losing substantial sums of money. Thus, that date on a Friday became known as Black Friday.

The link to retail appears to come from a story about making huge profits on the day after Thanksgiving. In origin story, retailers lived on or near the infamous red line. That red line means they are operating at a near loss or in fact “in the red” meaning they were not making profits. The day after Thanksgiving brought in so many shoppers that they went into the black (meaning making profits), so it became known a Black Friday. While this version is somewhat accurate in that many retailers looked forward to the start of the Christmas season to generate high revenues, it is not the origin of Black Friday either.  Shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, often considered the start of the Christmas season in the United States, does give an indicator as to what consumers are willing to spend If the economy is good. On the other hand, if the economy is not doing well people may not spend much and only buy things they need and items on sale.

There are some who believe it has ties to racism on Southern plantations in the 1800’s. According to this story, it is claimed that owners would buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving. This has led to some in the African American community to call for the boycott of stores on Back Friday. Except there appears to be no basis for this story. So far nothing has been found to show that slave auctions of this kind took place the day after Thanksgiving in that era. Like misinterpreting the word picnic as racist (picnic comes from a French word about eating outside and has nothing to do with race), this appears to have been created to fit someone’s perspective on the origins of the day.

The modern use of the term in fact comes from the 1950’s and from the city of Philadelphia. Police called it Black Friday to describe all the chaos that ensued from shoppers racing to shop before the Army-Navy game that was held on Saturday. The bedlam was so bad that no day off was granted to police on this day to deal with the hordes of cars and people in the city. Another factor was that criminals would take advantage of the large crowds to steal wallets, purses, and of course shoplift as well. Retailers were not happy with this connotation and tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday.” This was unsuccessful, so they tried to remake the day by saying this was the day retailers needed to make a profit. This appears to have worked and the darker roots from Philadelphia have been largely forgotten.

Black Friday Shopping
Photo: Public Domain

By remaking the day using sales to drive people into stores, it became an event on its own that spawned other major retails days. Black Friday was marketed as a day to get great bargains and all the major retailers jumped aboard. People began lining up early and some retailers decided to open on Thanksgiving (usually in the evening) to take advantage of the desire to buy discounted items. Ironically it then created things that harkened back to Philadelphia. In recent years when stores opened to the throngs waiting outside, chaos ensued when people raced into the store to grab what they wanted. People got trampled, fights broke out between adults bickering over who was entitled to the product. Many stores started to regulate the number of people in their store at any given time. This has been somewhat successful but when a surge of people all stampede at the door, the best the security guards can do is jump aside or be trampled on.

While Philadelphia is rarely mentioned, the chaos outside usually hearkens back to it. Mall parking lots are jammed, streets are full of cars trying to get in or out, and even freeways near those shopping malls are impacted as well. Up in the air, helicopters fly overhead filming the chaos below. And in major cities or areas where crowds are enormous, the police are often around to manage as best they can the traffic and crime that is going on. The Internet has made a dent, but you must wait for the product to arrive, so it is off to the store! In recent years retailers had started opening on Thanksgiving so people could get in early. Some like Target have rethought that and now are closed for Thanksgiving Day. And that is a good sign. Thanksgiving is a special holiday that should be treated on its own. And Black Friday is all about the shopping.

Sources

What’s the Real History of Black Friday? (History.com)
Black Friday History and Statistics  (BlackFriday.com)
Black Friday (Wikipedia)

 

Remembering Britannic (21 Nov 1916)

HMHS Britannic seen during World War I.
Image:public domain

On 21 November 1916, HMHS Britannic was sunk by mine near the island of Kea in the Aegean Sea. The ship sank in 55 minutes and 1,035 people were rescued, only 30 perished. Britannic was the third and last ship of the Olympic class liners built by White Star Line. The other two were Olympic and Titanic. Britannic was launched in February 1914. Many design changes were made prior to launch due to lessons learned from Titanic. Those changes were:

  • Double hull along the engine and boiler rooms raising six of the watertight bulkheads up to B deck.
  • More powerful turbine installed due to increase in hull width.
  • Watertight compartments were enhanced so that the ship can stay afloat with six compartments flooded.
  • Motorized davits to launch six lifeboats (only five out of eight were installed before war service). Manual operated davits were used for the remaining lifeboats. The new design also allowed all lifeboats to be launched even if the ship was listing. There were 55 lifeboats with capacity for 75 each so that 3,600 people could be carried.

When World War I broke out, the ship had to be retrofitted as a hospital ship. Most of the furnishings were stored in a warehouse to be placed back aboard after the war. The Britannic began service as a hospital ship on 12 December 1915. She was sent to the Aegean Sea to bring back sick and wounded soldiers. Her first tour of service was ended on 6 June 1916 and she was sent back to Belfast to be refitted back as a passenger liner. As this was underway, the ship was again recalled to military service on 26 August 1916 and was sent back to the Mediterranean Sea.

On the morning of 21 November 1916, the Britannic under the command of Captain Alfred Barnett was steaming into the Kea Channel when at 8:12 am a loud explosion shook the ship. The explosion, unknown at the time whether it was a torpedo or mine, damaged the first four watertight compartments and rapidly filled with water. Water was also flowing into the boiler room. Captain Bartlett ordered the watertight doors closed, sent a distress call, and ordered the lifeboats be prepared. Unfortunately, while they could send messages, damage to the antenna wires meant they could not hear the responses back from ships responding to their SOS.  Britannic was reaching her flooding limit and open portholes (opened by nurses to ventilate wards) were bringing more water in as well.

As the ship was still moving, Bartlett did not order lifeboats be lowered but two lifeboats were lowered anyway. They were sucked into the ships propellor and torn to bits killing everyone in those two lifeboats. Bartlett ordered the ship stopped to assess the damage. The ship was listing so badly that the gantry davits were inoperable. Thinking the sinking had slowed, he ordered the engines back on to try and beach the ship. The flooding increased as more water was coming in aided by the open portholes the nurses had opened to air out their wards early in the morning. Bartlett ordered the engines stopped and to abandon ship. She would sink at 9:07 am, 55 minutes after the explosion. Thankfully the water temperature was high (70 F), they had more lifeboats than Titanic, and rescue came less than two hours. Nearby fisherman were able to help and at 10:00 am, the HMS Scourge arrived and later the HMS Heroic and later the HMS Foxhound.

1,035 survived. Of the 30 lost, only five were buried as their bodies were not recovered. Memorials in Thessaloniki and London honor those lives lost. Survivors were housed on the warships and the nurses and officers were put into hotels. Most survivors were sent home, and some arrived in time for Christmas. Speculation about whether it was a torpedo or a mine was resolved when it was learned that a German submarine (SM U-73) had planted mines in the Kea Channel in October 1916. The loss of two Olympic class ships was a major blow to White Star Line. They would get, as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, the German ocean liner Bismarck (renamed Majestic), which replaced Britannic. They also got Columbus which was named Homeric.

Britannic has been largely forgotten except when news of expeditions were made to the wreck site over the years. The wreck itself was bought by noted author Simon Mills, who has written two books on the ship. An expedition in September 2003 located by sonar mine anchors confirming German records of U-73 that Britannic was sunk by a single mine. The expedition found several watertight doors open making it likely the mine strike was during a watch change on the ship. One notable survivor was Violet Jessop. She had been on Olympic as stewardess when it collided with the HMS Hawke, aboard Titanic in the same capacity when it sank, and then aboard Britannic as a stewardess with the Red Cross.

Sources:
Britannica
Thoughtco.com
Wikipedia

,

Remembering the Gettysburg Address

Photo: Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id# cph.3a53289)

On 19 November 1863 President Abraham Lincoln delivered what would be the most memorable speech given by a president in U.S. history. He was attending the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery (now called Gettysburg National Cemetery) in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Four and a half months prior the Battle of Gettysburg had taken place resulting in a major victory for the Union armies. The casualties to both sides were considerable. It also had the highest number of Confederate and Union generals who died in battle as well.

Edward Everett, the best orator of the time, delivered a two hour speech preceding Lincoln’s. When Lincoln spoke, it was only for a few minutes. His speech was only 271 words long after the long speech of Everett’s, so it could have been easily forgotten. People attending gave different accounts of how it was received. Some said a dignified silence, others polite applause. Edward Everett thought it was well done and said so to Lincoln in a letter. Once the text got out to the general public, Democrat leaning newspapers derided it while Republican ones praised. The Times of London thought it a ludicrous speech.

Yet this speech would become famous. It would become oft quoted and praised by many as time went on. Far from being ludicrous, as the Times of London thought it was, it became a standard for other orators to try and emulate. And his eloquent words: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, shall not perish from the earth,” are still stirring to this day.

The Gettysburg Address

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
19 November 1863

Sources:
Abraham Lincoln Online
Britannica
Wikipedia


Goebbels Blames the Jews for World War II (16 Nov 1941)

Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda
Heinrich Hoffmann (1885-1957)
German Federal Archives via Wikimedia

On 16 November 1941, Joseph Goebbels publishes in the German magazine Das Reich that the “Jews wanted the war, and now they have it.” This was part of the Nazi propaganda scheme to shift blame for the war to Jews and thus rationalizing  the Final Solution–the elimination of Jews.  German soldiers and the SS were infused with this propaganda and anti-Communist rhetoric to carry out their task of eliminating the Jews with enthusiasm.

[T]he prophecy which the Fuhrer made…that should international finance Jewry succeed in plunging the nations into a world war once again, the result would not be the Bolshevization of the world…but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe. We are in the midst of that process…Compassion or regret are entirely out of place here.

Sources:

This Day in History (History.com)
Joseph Goebbels (Holocaust Encyclopedia-United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Veterans Day

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Public Domain

Veterans Day is a day set aside to thank and honor military personnel who have served in peace and war. The day originally began as Armistice Day to celebrate the end of World War I. It was first officially celebrated on 11 November 1919 and was originally the celebrate veterans who served in that war. In 1954 after many Americans served in both World War II and Korea, veterans organizations petitioned the name be changed from Armistice to Veterans Day to celebrate all who served in the military. Congress approved this change on 1 June 1954 and has been known as Veterans Day since then.

In 1968 as a result of the Uniform Holiday Bill, Veterans Day was shifted to the third Monday in October. Since this law allowed more three day weekends for federal workers (and states that followed the federal holiday calendar) and would allow more people to travel and spend money, this was thought good. The writers of the law never bothered to check and see if people wanted Veterans Day on the third Monday in October. And they were surprised when many states refused to honor the new date and stuck with November 11 for Veterans Day.

The reason is not hard to understand. This patriotic holiday had been celebrated since 1919 and many generations had grown up with with it. In 1975 President Gerald Ford signed into law specifying that Veterans Day would always be celebrated on November 11 no matter what day of the week it falls on. Currently most federal holidays, if they fall on a non-working day (Saturday or Sunday), the nearest working day is the holiday. Meaning if it falls on a Saturday, Friday is a federal holiday. If the holiday falls on a Sunday, the official holiday is Monday. And if it falls into the middle of the week, Monday is when the holiday is observed. Thanksgiving and Fourth of July are two other holidays where they are observed on a specific day every year.

The day is marked with important ceremonies such as the national ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. It starts at precisely 11:00 a.m. with a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is followed by a parade of colors by veterans’ organizations and then speeches and remarks from important dignitaries. Almost always the sitting president will attend though on occasion the Vice President will act in his place should he not be in attendance.

Veterans Day is to honor those who have chosen to serve our country, past or present. We honor and thank them for their service and remember as well that some gave all as well. They give up a lot so that we are protected. And this day is a big Thank You to all of them.

Remembering the Edmund Fitzgerald

Edmund Fitzgerald(1971) Photo: Greenmars(Wikipedia)
Edmund Fitzgerald(1971)
Photo: Greenmars(Wikipedia)

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior on 10 Nov 1975 taking with her a crew of 29. The ship was launched in 1958 and was owned by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. As a freighter, the ship primarily carried taconite iron ore to iron works in various Great Lake ports. The ship set records for hauling ore during its career.

On 9 Nov 1975, the Fitzgerald under the command of Captain Ernest McSorley, embarked on her final voyage of the season fron Superior, Wisconsin to a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan. She met up with another freighter, SS Arthur Anderson, while enroute. The next day a severe winter storm hit with near hurricane force winds and waves that reached 35 feet in height. Sometime around or after 7:11 p.m., the Fitzgerald sank in Canadian waters approximately 17 miles from Whitefish Bay near the cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. While McSorley had reported difficulty earlier, his last message was “We are holding our own.”

The cause of the sinking has stirred debate and controversy with competing theories and books on the issue. The various theories are:

(1) Inaccurate weather forecasting. The National Weather Service forecast had said the storm would pass south of Lake Superior but instead it tracked across the eastern part, exactly where the Edmund Fitzgerald and Arthur Anderson were. So they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

(2) Inaccurate navigational charts. The Canadian charts in use came from 1916 and 1919 surveys and did not include more updated information that Six Fathom Shoal was about 1 mile further east than shown.

(3)No Watertight Bulkheads
The ship did not have watertight bulkheads and more like barges rather than freighters. So a serious puncture could sink a vessel like Fitzgerald while ships that had such bulkheads, even if seriously damaged, had a better chance of survival.

(4)Lack of Sounding and Other Safety Instruments
Fitzgerald lacked the ability to monitor water depth using a fathometer( a device that uses echo sounding to determine water depth). The only way the Fitz could do soundings was using a hand line and counting the knots to measure water depth. Nor was there any way to monitor if water was in the hold or not (some was always present reports suggest)unless it got high enough to be noticed by the crew. However on that night, the severity of the storm made it difficult to access the hatches from the spar deck. And if the hold was full of bulk cargo, it was virtually impossible to pump out the water.

(5)Increased Cargo Loads Meant Ship Was Sitting Lower In Water
The load line had been changed in 1969, 1971, and 1973 with U.S. Coast Guard approval. This resulted in Fitzgerald’s deck being only 11.5 feet above the water when she faced massive 35 foot waves on that day. She was carrying 4,0000 more tons than what she was designed to carry. Which meant the buoyancy of the ship was an issue who fully loaded resulting in reports the ship was sluggish, slower, and reduced recovery time.

(6)Maintenance
The US National Transportation and Safety Board believes that prior groundings caused undetected damage that led to major structural failure during the storm. Since most Great Lakes vessels were only inspected in drydock once every five years, such damage would not have been easily detected otherwise. Concerns have also been raised that Captain McSorley did not keep up with routine maintenance. Photographic evidence indicates the hull was patched in places and the failure of the U.S. Coast Guard to take corrective action is also an issue considering that various things were not properly maintained.

(7)Complacency
Captain McSorley rarely pulled his ship into a safer harbor to ride out a storm. Nor did he heed a warning from the U.S. Coast Guard issued at 3:35 p.m. to seek safe anchorage. Possible pressure from ship owners to deliver cargo on time is considered a factor for some captains like McSorley to ride out storms rather seek safe anchorages. The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board concluded that complacency is a major factor in what happened to Fitzgerald and generally a problem for Great Lakes shipping. Critics point out the Coast Guard failed in its own tasks of properly requiring those repairs and lacked the means to rescue ships in distress on the Great Lakes.

The wreck was found on 14 Nov 1975 using technology to find sunken submarines. The U.S. Navy dived to the wreck in 1976 using an unmanned submersible. The wreck was found to be in two pieces with taconite pellets in the debris field. Jacques Cousteau dived to it in 1980 and speculated it had broken up on the surface. A three day survey dive in 1989 organized by the Michigan Sea Grant Program was done to record the wreck for use in museum educational programs. It drew no conclusions as to the cause of the sinking. Canadian explorer Joseph MacInnis led six publicly funded dives over three days in 1994 to take pictures. Also that year sport diver Fred Shannon and his Deepquest Ltd did a serious of dives and took more than 42 hours of underwater video. Shannon discovered when studying the navigational charts that the international boundary had changed three times. GPS coordinates showed the wreck was actually in Canadian waters because of an error in the boundary line shown on official lake charts. MacInnis went back to the wreck in 1995 to salvage the bell and it was financed by the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians. A replica bell and a beer can were put on Fitzgerald. Scuba divers Terrence Tysall and Mike Zee used trimix gas to dive to the wreck and set records for deepest scuba dive on Great Lakes. They were the only divers to get to the wreck without a submersible.

The wreck is now restricted under the Ontario Heritage Act and has been further amended that a license is required for dives, submersibles, side scan sonar surveys and even using underwater cameras in the designated protected area. And they added a steep fine of 1 million Canadian dollars for violating the act.

Fitzgerald was valued at $24 million. Two widows filed suit seeking $1.5 million from the owners and operators of the ship. The owners filed suit to reduce to limit their liability. However the claims never went to trial as the company paid compensation to the surviving families who signed confidentiality agreements. It is believed the owners and operator wanted to avoid a court case where McSorley was found negligent as well as the operator and owner. Changes to Great Lakes shipping did occur such as requiring fathometers in ships above a certain tonnage, survival suits, locating systems for ships (LORAN originally now GPS), emergency beacons, better wave predictions, and annual inspections of ships in the fall to inspect hatch and vent closures.

Annual memorials take place though the one made famous by Gordon Lightfoot, the Mariners Church in Detroit, now honors all who perished on the Great Lakes.

Sources:
1. SS Edmund Fitzgerald(Wikipedia)
2. Mariners Church, Detroit, Michigan
3. Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum
4. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
5. The sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald – November 10, 1975 (University of Wisconsin)
6. National Transportation Safety Board:Marine Accident Report
SS Edmund Fitzgerald-Sinking In Lake Superior (4 May 1978)
7. Marine Historical Society of Detroit

Remembering History-Kristallnacht (9 Nov 1938)

Kristallnacht, 1938, Magdeburg
German Federal Archives

On November 9-10 1938, a violent wave of anti-Jewish pograms broke out in Germany, Austria and Sudetanland. Called Kristallnacht (means literally Night of Crystal but commonly called Night of Broken Glass) violent mobs destroyed synagogues, looted Jewish owned businesses, homes and schools, and arrested 30,000 Jewish men who were sent to concentration camps. Police and fire were ordered to stand down and only act to prevent damage to German buildings. Nearly all the Jewish synagogues were torched, except those close to historical sites or buildings.

Thanks to the presence of foreign reporters in Germany at the time, this event became known to the world changing perceptions about the Nazi regime.

Nazi officials depicted the event as a genuine response of the people to the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by Herschel Grynszpan on 7 Nov 1938, Grynszpan, a 17-year old boy, was distraught over his family’s deportation from Germany to Poland. Vom Rath’s death two days later coincided with the anniversary of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. The Nazi Party leadership assembled in Munich used the occasion to push for demonstrations against the Jews arguing that “World Jewry” had conspired to commit the assassination. However, Hitler ordered that the demonstrations should not look they were prepared or organized by the Nazis’. They had to look spontaneous. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was the chief instigator following Hitler’s orders in his speech to the assembled party officials.

The regional Nazi party leaders issued instructions to their local offices about how to proceed. Reinhard Heydrich, as head of the Security Police, send instructions to headquarters and stations of the State Police and SA leaders about the upcoming riots. The SA, Hitler Youth and others were ordered to wear civilian clothes so it would like genuine public reaction. Heydrich ordered the rioters to not endanger non-Jewish German life or property.  The rioters were also ordered to remove all synagogue archives prior to vandalizing and destroying them. Police were ordered to arrest as many young Jewish men their jails would hold.

Violence began to erupt in the late evening of 9 November and in the early morning hours of 10 November. The two largest Jewish communities, Berlin and Vienna, would see massive destruction. Mobs of SA and Hitler Youth shattered store windows. They attacked Jews in their homes and looted. They publicly humiliated Jews in the streets. Many Jews were killed as well though numbers vary but likely in the hundreds. Jewish cemeteries were desecrated. Those who were arrested by the SS and Gestapo ended up in Buchenwald, Dachau and Sachsenhausen and other camps as well.  Many would die in the camps and many who were released had promised to leave Germany. Kristallnacht would spur Jews to emigrate from Germany.

Aftermath

German leaders blamed Jews for the riots and fined the Jewish community one billion Reich Marks. To pay the fine, Germany seized property and insurance money. This left Jewish owners personally responsible for repair costs. Kristallnacht accelerated more laws and decrees to deprive Jews of the property and their ability to make a living. The Aryanization of businesses required many Jewish owned businesses and property to be transferred to non-Jews. Usually they got paid a fraction of the true value of the business or property. By this time, Jews could not be government workers or in any aspect of the public sector. Now many professions in the private sector were unavailable as well (doctors, lawyers, accountants etc.). Jews were no longer allowed to have a driver’s license, expelled from any German school they were still attending, be admitted to German theaters (movies and stage) or concert halls.

Kristallnacht was covered by newspapers in the United State and elsewhere. It was front page news in the United States in large banner headlines and perhaps the largest story of Jewish persecution to be reported during the Nazi years. Despite attempts by German censors to prevent images from getting to newspapers in the United States, pictures got out and got printed in the 28 November 1938 issue of Life magazine. A telling heading published on the front page of the Los Angeles Examiner says it all:

Nazis Warn World Jews Will Be Wiped Out Unless Evacuated By Democracies (23 Nov 1938)

President Roosevelt denounced the attack on Jews at a press conference on 15 November 1938 and recalled the US ambassador to Germany (the US was the only one to do this) and not replaced till 1945. A chargé d’affaires would handle diplomatic relations with Germany until war was declared in 1941. The US and other countries had restrictive immigration quotas in place at the time. However, 12,000 German Jews already in the United States were allowed to stay and not be sent back to Germany. Attempts to allow refuge for children under 14 were introduced in Congress but despite widespread support did not get voted into law.

Kristallnacht is rightly seen as the turning point in Nazi policy and world-wide opinion of the regime. The Nazi’s began concentrating their pogroms into the hands of the SS and more restrictive policies on the Jews. They radicalized and expanded the measures to remove Jews from the economic and social life of Germany. It would lead to policies of forced emigration and deportations to the East and the goal of Judenrein-a Germany free of Jews.

Sources:

This Day in History (History.com)
Kristallnacht (Brittanica.com)
Kristallnacht (Holocaust Encyclopedia-US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

,

Remembering History: The Bolsheviks Seize Power in Russia (7 Nov 1917)

Lenin making a speech in the Red Square, May 1919
Public Domain (Wikipedia)

On 6 November 1917*, the Bolshevik Party led by Vladimir Lenin (real name Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov) launched a coup d’ Etat against the Russian provisional government. With their allies, the Bolsheviks occupied key government buildings in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) and formed a new government within two days with Lenin heading the new state. Bolshevik Russia, later to be formally called Union of Soviet Socialist States, was the first Marxist state in history.

Russia had allied with Britain and France in fighting Germany and the Central Powers in World War I. The war had gone very badly for Russia. They had sustained massive casualties and the economy had been devastated by the war effort. Food and other necessities had become scarce leading to unrest. Troops had been demoralized by defeats and ineffective military leadership. With riots breaking out and unrest spreading, trust in Tsar Nicholas II had evaporated even among the ruling class. He was forced to abdicate on 15 March 1917 (called the February Revolution since it took place in February under the Julian calendar). A Provisional Government was put in place which shared power with councils of soldiers and workers committees. However, the new government choose to keep Russia in the war setting the state for the next phase.

Russia in the 19th and early 2oth centuries tried to portray itself as emulating Europe with its art, science, and music. However, this culture represented a small fraction of Russian society at the time. Three quarters of the population were agrarian and lived in a whole different world that had little or no contact with Western civilization. They were not all farmers, but land was important to each of the communities. They were tied to the Russian Orthodox Church and to the monarchy. Nor did they believe they were oppressed. They were not fertile ground for revolution as the they wanted to be like their wealthy neighbors.

Industrialization began late in Russia in the 1890’s. This helped form the social democracy movements that would arise the address this issue. Russia was moving fast and would soon acquire capitalism. Violence had failed to topple the regime (it actually made people turn against them) so the movements focused on peaceful and focusing on industrial workers. The goal was to first get rid of the aristocracy and create a weak government. Then the second goal was to overthrow this government and implement a socialist regime. The movement split into two factions: the Mensheviks who believed this could be achieved without violence and the Bolsheviks (Lenin’s group) who believed in revolution. The two factions would never reconcile.

Lenin was born in 1870 to a conservative family. His father was devout Orthodox and a school inspector. The high rank of his father qualified both him and his offspring for membership in hereditary nobility (this was not uncommon in old Russia). Many children during this time felt guilt over their status and became radical in college. Lenin’s brother Alexander was executed in 1887 for his involvement to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Lenin’s sisters got into trouble as well and went to prison. As the brother of an executed terrorist, Lenin was expelled from the University of Kazan. His anger and hatred at the regime that had executed his brother and imprisoned his sisters would drive him to want to bring it down.

He was able to attend school again in 1890 and obtained a law degree. Moving to Petrograd, he associated himself with revolutionary Marxist circles. He worked to organize Marxist groups and enlist workers. But in December 1895, he and other leaders were arrested and jailed. And then he was exiled to Siberia for three years. After that between 1900-1917, he would spend most of his time abroad working further develop his revolutionary ideals and fight those internally who opposed his goals.

One hurdle that Lenin had to overcome was standard Marxist doctrine that mandated stages in which the final revolution would take place. Russia was barely an industrial state compared to the West. Marx argued that you needed a “bourgeois” stage in order for the revolution to occur. Lenin argued this was unnecessary and that Russia was already in the throes of capitalism. This change would encourage revolutions much later in countries that had little or no industrial sector. He also formed alliances with groups he would not normally align with to bring about the revolution in Russia.

Winter Palace in Petrograd after Bolshevik Seizure of Power in 1917
Public Domain

With the outbreak of World War I, Lenin opposed citing it as an imperialistic war. The abdication of Tsar Nicholas II opened the opportunity to take Russia out of the war. Germany allowed Lenin and his lieutenants passage through Germany in a sealed railway car from Switzerland to Sweden. The thinking was by allowing anti-war Socialists to Russia would help undermine the Russian war effort. Lenin immediately called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government and was called a German agent. He had to flee to Finland but the call for “peace, land, and bread” was very popular. And it resulted in the Bolsheviks getting more support and a majority in the Petrograd council (called soviet). He returned secretly to Petrograd on 6 November led the coup that overthrew the Provisional Government.

Aftermath

Lenin would the supreme leader of the first Marxist state in the world. Russia, despite objections from Britain and France, made peace with Germany. The new state would nationalize all industry and seized all land (the peasants had everything seized, including farming tools, and had to get permission from the commissar to do anything on their former farms). Civil war erupted in 1918 against Tsarist forces that ended in 1920 with their defeat. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was proclaimed in 1922. The USSR did promote revolution activity in India and Afghanistan but were thwarted by British agents. Russia suffered a devastating famine from 1921-22 due to the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Russia had to accept help from European and American relief efforts to help alleviate the severe conditions the famine caused. When Lenin died in 1925, Stalin became leader and would remain so until 1953. The Communist regime did not fulfill the Marxian hope of government withering away to allow people the fullest possible freedom. Instead it became an oppressive totalitarian society complete with massive internal police to monitor its citizens. During Stalin’s tenure, the infamous purges and show trials took place. It was no joke to wonder if you might be picked up and never return home at the end of the day.

*Russia was still using the Julian calendar at this time, so it took place on October 25, 1917 in Russia. That is why it is also called the October Revolution.

Sources:
This Day in History (History.com)
Russian Revolution (Brittanica.com)

 

,

Remembering History: Balfour Declaration (2 Nov 1917)

A letter written by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour on 2 Nov 1917 to Baron Walter Rothschild expressing Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine would lead to the Balfour Declaration and setting the stage for the eventual creation of the state of Israel. World War 1 was in a stalemate and disagreements between the allies over the course of the war were growing. Efforts to defeat Turkey had also failed thus far. Russia was a big issue as well with the Czar being toppled. The current leadership kept the war against Germany against growing opposition to it. The revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram in March 1917 finally prompted the United States to declare war on Germany but their troops were still very far off.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George publicly supported Zionism (a movement to support the creation of a Jewish state). Lloyd George was supported by other leaders and hoped that such a formal declaration would gain support from Jewish supporters in neutral countries. And it was hoped gain support both in Russia and the United States. Lloyd George also knew that after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the British would dominate Palestine and that was crucial to Britain. It was an important land bridge between India and Egypt, a post-war goal they wanted to control. So, establishing a Zionist state there under their protection would accomplish this goal.

It was not without opposition that held it up. Obviously, anti-Semites opposed it because they hated the Jews and had no desire to give them any state of their own. Some Jews opposed it as threatening the status of Jews in both Europe and the United States. There were also fears of violence against the Jews being encouraged by this declaration. However, the declaration did get the approval for France, Italy, the United States, and even the Vatican. The letter sent to Baron Rothschild stated:

His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

Aftermath

The Treaty of Versailles (1919) established a mandate system. Britain was temporarily given administration of Palestine and to work with both Jewish and Arab inhabitants in that area. Many Arabs there and elsewhere were not happy with the idea of a Jewish state and felt cheated by the British who had promised them their own nations. As the Jewish population increased, violence between Jews and Arabs increased. This led to instability and delays in establishing a Jewish state. In the aftermath of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust revealed, international support for Zionism led to the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. However, there are those that oppose the Balfour Declaration to this day and seek its recission.

Sources:

Balfour Declaration (History.com)

Balfour Declaration: Text of the Declaration (Jewish Virtual Library)

Reflections on the Balfour Declaration (JewishPress.com)

 

 

Remembering History: How Nazi Germany Destroyed The Free Press

Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda
Heinrich Hoffmann (1885-1957)
German Federal Archives via Wikimedia

Totalitarian regimes are known for many things but one of the first things they will do is control or limit access to information. The Soviet Union did this by taking total control of the media in Russia. All newspapers and publications had to conform to state guidelines and could only report what they were authorized to print. When the Nazi Party got control of Germany in 1933, they quickly instituted sweeping changes. Eliminating political opposition was a top priority as was controlling the information German citizens received on a daily or weekly basis.

The Reich Ministry of Propaganda began using print, radio, and newsreels to convince people about a Communist uprising. They had won seats in the last general election in 1932 (and the Nazi’s lost seats). It was this fear that Hitler used to create the votes needed for a majority to bring the Nazi’s to power in 1933. Thus, it would justify what would happen next. Having both legislative and executive powers thanks to the Enabling Act, Hitler could quickly create and implement new laws and regulations. Also having both the SA (Brown Shirts) and the SS on their side meant they had a ready-made method of dealing with opponents and dissidents.

Opponents such as Communists, trade unionists and others found their stores, offices, and homes targeted. With the police having been nullified due to mass firings and replaced by Nazi Party members, the former street thugs were now the law in Germany. Opposition press were specifically targeted with their printing presses destroyed. Independent newspapers found they were also targeted. The faced competition from the Nazi publishing house Franz Eher or a front for them that undercut with their own newspapers driving the independent into bankruptcy.

Franz Eher then would buy them up for almost nothing. Jewish owned media would be targeted as well. Its owners would be forced out and replaced by non-Jews. Ultimately, they would sell out at a very low price. The Mosse family, whose company was a world-wide advertising company that owned many liberal newspapers, fled Germany when Hitler came to power as did many of its journalists.

The only independent newspapers that would survive were ones owned by conservatives and non-political weeklies. They simply self-censored and complied with directives issued by the Propaganda Ministry. Nazi Germany tightened the screws with Editors Law of 4 Oct 1933. The Reich Association of German Press was put under the Reich Press Chamber, a part of the Propaganda Ministry. Members which were both journalists and editors, not only had to be racially pure but also abide by all mandates issued by the ministry.

They were required by law to not report anything that would weaken the Reich at home or abroad. Detailed guidelines were issued and failure to follow them meant, at the very least, you would be fired. If they believed you were acting contrary to Germany, you would be arrested and may end up in a concentration camp. Even listening to a foreign radio broadcasting classical music would get a visit from the Gestapo.

Under these conditions, there was no way for independent journalism to exist under Nazi rule.

Foreign Press in Nazi Party

The Nazi regime tolerated the foreign press but had conditions. If you wanted access to events and government officials, you had to be careful not to write news critical of Hitler and Third Reich. Otherwise you would be denied access, or expelled. So many journalists learned to live with this and allowed others back home to write pieces criticizing the regime. Generally, though they did not impose a lot of restrictions before war started in 1939. The Associated Press has been accused of going much further and collaborated with the regime by allowing them to select what pictures were to be used, and they used photographers acceptable to the Propaganda Ministry.

William Shirer was one the best-known correspondents from Germany during the 1930’s. He started in print and then later CBS radio. He witnessed and reported on many of the key events during this period. Once war began though, restrictions were placed on reporters on what they could report on (such as the British bombing of German cities). They were guidelines issued as what words to avoid when describing Germany, and you had to avoid news critical of the regime. To be fair, nearly all countries imposed media censorship during this time so Germany was not alone.

Shirer and other reporters usually submitted their written or recorded pieces to the Propaganda Ministry for approval. They would edit out anything that did not conform with policy before it could be sent out or broadcast from Germany. Which is what made what happened at the French surrender at Compiègne in 1940 so remarkable. William Shirer called up CBS in New York hoping the broadcast would go through. Now in Berlin the German engineers heard the call and assumed he had permission from the Propaganda Ministry and put it on shortwave. It was a coup for both Shirer and CBS. For six hours he was the sole reporter on the scene reporting to the world about the French surrender. Normally it would be recorded and then checked for errors by the Propaganda Ministry, where they could edit out anything they did not want to go out. Then it would be broadcast via shortwave to the world.

Germany during wartime wanted foreign journalists to often report official accounts they knew were incomplete or false. Shirer got wind he was under investigation for espionage and left Germany in December 1940. Most news organizations would leave as well except for the Associated Press which stayed until all foreign news organizations were expelled in 1941. That left the Propaganda Ministry in total control of reporting to the world news from Germany and countries they occupied.

Nazi Germany showed how a free press could be destroyed and turned into a vehicle for government policies. In many ways, they mimicked what the Soviet Union did. The free press was shut down and could only report what the government permitted. Both Communists and Fascists followed the same path towards controlling information when they are in charge. Neither believes in freedom, a free press, or individual liberties. They crush opponents ruthlessly, destroy all personal liberties, and attempt to control all aspects of their lives. We see that today with certain countries that restrict access to the Internet. And sadly, some Internet companies, in order to do business, agree to controls over the information access. We have yet to learn that aiding regimes in this manner only helps and emboldens them.

Sources
The Press in the Third Reich (Holocaust Encyclopedia-United States Holocaust Museum)
Third Reich (Britannica)
Censorship in Nazi Germany (Wikipedia)

,,