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.

 

Custer and Gall, Jellicoe and Heisenberg and the Monkey Wrench

This week’s musings are a little more esoteric than usual, but there it is.  While we note the birth of Martin Van Buren on 5 December 1782, of Clyde Cessna in 1879, of Walt Disney in 1901, the patenting of nitrocellulose in 1846, and the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933, today your intrepid researcher chooses some more closely related persons to expound upon…and things like pipe wrenches that your intrepid researcher and consistently failed plumber owns but cannot use.

By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army.

On 5 December 1839 George A. Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio.  Known variously as Armstrong, Ringlets (for his hair, about which he was quite vain) and Iron Butt (for his stamina in the saddle), Custer graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point (albeit a year earlier than scheduled) and was commissioned a lieutenant in the cavalry in 1861. He distinguished himself with dash and initiative in the Peninsula Campaign in 1862 enough to be brevetted to lieutenant colonel dating from Antietam, and was made a brigadier general of volunteers just before Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, where he led the Michigan cavalry to stop JEB Stuart’s flanking maneuver on 3 July. By the end of the Civil War he was a major general of Volunteers (a strictly wartime rank) and a reputation as one of the boldest cavalry leaders in the Army. After his mustering out, Custer returned to the regular Army at his permanent rank, lieutenant colonel.  For the next decade Custer led the 7th Cavalry on long marches, campaigns and battles primarily with the Sioux in the northern Plains.  His death, with some 200-odd of his troopers at the Little Bighorn on 25 June 1876 has overshadowed the rest of his accomplishments.

After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.

Very little is known for certain about the early life of Hunkpapa Lakota/Sioux leader known as Chief Gall–who got his name, it is said, after he ate the gall bladder of an animal.  Born around 1840, almost certainly in modern South Dakota, Gall was a war chief by the time he was in his twenties, and was present at the Little Bighorn when Custer met his end.  After fleeing to Canada for a few years, Gall brought his people back to the United States, surrendered and was sent to the Standing Rock Reservation on the Dakota border.  Gall encouraged his people to assimilate to their lot in the white man’s life, and apparently they did for a time. Gall himself converted to Christianity, served as a tribal judge, and died peacefully in his sleep on 5 December, 1894 in Wakpala, South Dakota.  Gall was one of the only Native American chiefs of the Little Bighorn battle to die of natural causes, and ironically on Custer’s birthday.

Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.

On 5 December 1859, John Jellicoe was born in Southhampton, England.  At the age of thirteen Jellicoe entered the Royal Navy, and was in that service for the rest of his adult life.  He was best known as an early advocate of Fisher’s “big gun” battleship and “large cruiser” ideas, resulting in the Dreadnaughts and the Invincible battlecruisers. He was also something of an innovator of naval gunnery, testing early central gun directors. Jellicoe was also the commander of the Grand Fleet, the renamed Home Fleet, at the beginning of World War I and was in charge at the largest naval clash of the Great War, the ambiguous Jutland/Skagerrak battle in late May 1916.  Depending on point of view, Jutland resulted in either a tactical draw, an operational defeat for Britain (who lost more ships), a strategic defeat for Germany (who never sortied the fleet again), and a grand strategic defeat for Tsarist Russia (who was completely cut off from any assistance from her allies).  Jellicoe, called “the only man who could lose a war in an afternoon” because of Jutland, was appointed First Sea Lord after Jutland, and after the war was Governor-General of New Zealand.   Jellicoe died 20 November 1935 in Kensington.

In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 5 December 1901 at Wurzburg, which was then a part of Bavaria.  In 1919, though he managed to avoid military service in WWI, he was a member of the Freikorps fighting the Bavarian Socialist Republic. This didn’t seem to have affected his studies: he studied physics in Munich and Gottingen, and met Niels Bohr in June 1922. His work on matrix and quantum mechanics earned him notoriety in the theoretical physics community, earning him a Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. In the early days of the Nazi government, Heisenberg was under examination for his work in “Jewish” (theoretical) physics, but was eventually rehabilitated into the fold of academics on the cutting edge of science. In 1939, Heisenberg was a part of the “Uranium Club,” the German effort to build nuclear weapons. By 1942, Heisenberg told his Nazi masters that 1) nuclear weapons were not possible to produce within the expected timeframe of the war, and 2) they were probably not within Germany’s industrial capacity within that timeframe.  Nuclear research in Germany thereupon switched priorities to energy extraction, which proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the war.  According to postwar interrogations of the leading German nuclear physicists in Allied hands, it seems clear that Heisenberg had miscalculated uranium decay by orders of magnitude, and likely would not have resulted in any practical applications.  Heisenberg died 1 February, 1976, in Munich.  His lasting legacy, it is said, is the “uncertainty principle” which says that a measurement affects the phenomenon.

His 5 December 1876 patent, one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first.  

In the mid-19th century, indoor plumbing was beginning to matter a lot more than it had before.  Cities were growing; the flush toilet made buildings over three stories practical; sanitation was becoming a growing concern.  Threaded pipe, developed sometime between 1850 and 1860, wasn’t easy to tighten and was the only practical way to plumb in tall buildings.  A number of inventors tackled the problem of tightening pipe, but Daniel Stillson, working at the Walworth Company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, came up with an innovative idea that took advantage of the relatively soft outside of a steel pipe by gripping it with angled teeth.  Stillson’s first wrench patent, issued 12 October, 1869, shows the familiar outlines of what we have come to call the monkey (for “monkey paw,” an appellation from South African plumbers), pipe, or Stillson wrench ever since.  His 5 December 1876 patent (above), one of many follow-ons, was for a wrench suitable for both pipe and flat-sided fasteners.  This one wasn’t near as successful, nor near as popular or emulated as his first, which made him well-off on royalties.  Stillson was granted a number of other patents over the years, nearly all for something related to pipes or plumbing, including fire apparatus. Stillson died in Somerville, Massachusetts on 21 August 1899. The original Stillson wrench still exists, is said to still work, and its parts are said to be interchangeable with a wrench of similar size manufactured yesterday.  Be that as it may, my wife still won’t let me touch water or gas-carrying pipes with tools, regardless of how much I know about my wrenches. Smart woman.

 

Thanksgiving and Unity

Since this blog is published on Monday (for the moment), Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday it talks a great deal about.  But this year, it happens that discussions of Thanksgiving Day (American, not Canadian, nor Australian, nor Liberian, nor Dutch) has links to 3 October, and to a most miraculous Thanksgiving event in Germany.

Proclamations of “thanksgiving” were common in Britain for survival from floods, wars, famines, larger fires, plagues or invasions. In the American colonies, there are well-known stories of a “first Thanksgiving” being celebrated by the Pilgrim Fathers and their Native American neighbors (surely at least some of my readers were turkeys or lobsters or something in at least one school pageant).  Records are scarce, but most historians agree that as early as 1621 there was a feast in October or November where much food was consumed in company with some of the locals.  No record, however, of football being played, or of Uncle Absalom imbibing in too much porter and trying to dunk Aunt Prudence in the river. As early as 1631 some fall day was declared a holiday somewhere in America, mostly in New England.  On 3 October 1789, George Washington (who had become president just that February) proclaimed that Thursday, 26 November should be “a day of public thanksgiving.”  There is some speculation about why a Thursday was chosen (to be exclusively a day of thanks separate from a day of worship) and why November (harvest in some parts of the new republic could last, in good years, at late as mid-November), but no one thought too much of it at the time.

No record, however, of football being played, or of Uncle Absalom imbibing in too much porter and trying to dunk Aunt Prudence in the river. 

By the American Civil War generations later, the Thanksgiving tradition had died out in parts of the country, or had been moved from November to as early as October (following several of the Canadian provinces, which had different dates). On 3 October 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that fixed Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November.  This was an attempt to unify the states in at least something, but the Confederates weren’t interested.  Most southern states paid no attention until after Reconstruction in the 1870s, but as early as the 1880s Thanksgiving had become the beginning of the Christmas shopping season (yes, Virginia, that insanity really did start that early in history).  The holiday remained there until 1941, when Franklin Roosevelt, after much lobbying by the larger commercial outlets and the labor unions, fixed the day as the fourth Thursday as a goad to the economy, and as a tool to manage factory scheduling,.  Factory tooling improvements are traditionally performed during a “holiday shutdown” between Christmas and New Year’s.  Moving the Thanksgiving holiday earlier for most years allows for vacations before the shutdown for maintenance crews, adds as much as another week of “shopping days” till Christmas, and even more time for the mass media to saturate their audiences with ads for the same thing.

… as early as the 1880s Thanksgiving had become the beginning of the Christmas shopping season (yes, Virginia, that insanity really did start that early in history)

In 1989, mass migrations across the Hungarian frontier into Austria were not opposed. When this part of the Iron Curtain was drawn back, East Germans trickled through Czechoslovakia and into Austria and on to West Germany. Germans, like Israelis, have the “right of return” from anywhere.  Soon, as the news spread, the trickle became a flood, and in October 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn open by mobs of civilians and border guards.  This triggered the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe by the end of the year, the eventual breaking of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the end of that entity in 1991, and the traditional end of the Cold War. On 3 October 1990, one of the largest symbols of the Cold War was eliminated when East and West Germany were officially rejoined after more than half a century of separation.  The date is celebrated as Day of German Unity (Tag der Deutschen Einheit) in Germany, a national holiday.  Though “Germany” has existed as a vague geographic idea, customs union, kingdom and empire off and on since anyone can remember, this was the first time it could have been called a “modern” state since 1945.

…as the news spread, the trickle became a flood, and in October 1989 the Berlin Wall was torn down.

Though Thanksgiving is a time for feasting and ODing on TV, for this family German Unity Day a month and a half earlier has a different meaning.  The wife was one of the Germans that the Americans and Soviets was willing to fight over, and many family members were still in Berlin when the Wall came down. The above image of the Brandenburg Gate is much different from this writer’s memory of Berlin when he was last there in 1976.  Besides, Uncle Absalom always made such a fool of himself on Thanksgiving it’s become a family embarrassment.  But that’s what family is for.