September 18

1939 Germany calls

The Axis powers of World War II were famous for their use of English-speaking radio personalities such as Lord Haw-Haw and Tokyo Rose as disseminators of propaganda. What is less well-known is the use of jazz and swing music by the Nazis in attempts to demoralize Western troops and civilian audiences.

Joseph Goebbels used the radio programme “Germany Calling”, first broadcast on this day in 1939, as a means of mocking enemy leaders and sowing discontent. In order to attract listeners in America and Britain he sanctioned musical numbers that were otherwise banned in Germany as being “Negermusik”, “degenerate”, “African”, or “Jewish”. He hired jazz musicians who had performed in underground clubs to do their patriotic duty on radio as “Charlie and His Orchestra”.

Here are the lyrics of Charlie’s version of “You’re Driving Me Crazy”, 1940.

Here is Winston Churchill’s latest tearjerker:
Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy!
thought I had brains,
But they shattered my planes.
They built up a front against me,
It’s quite amazing,
Clouding the skies with their planes.

This first clip is an early broadcast. The second two date from 1944 as the invasion of western Europe drew closer.

Announcers like Lord Haw-Haw were treated harshly after the war because they tended to be citizens of Allied powers but the musicians of Charlie’s orchestra went on to have successful careers in post-Hitler Germany.

September 12

1683 The Siege of Vienna Reaches a Climax

For centuries the Ottoman Turks had wanted to penetrate deeper into Europe. In the 14th century they had crossed the Dardanelles, taken much of Greece, and beaten the Serbs; in 1453 they captured Constantinople, and in 1526 they smashed Hungarian resistance at Mohács. A failed siege of Vienna in 1529 was only a temporary setback. In the Mediterranean their navies terrified the coasts of Spain and Italy and sealed off the Levant.

In 1683 the Turks were at it again. During their 20-year truce with the Holy Roman Empire, they had been strengthening the infrastructure necessary for an invasion of central Europe, building bridges, roads, and fortresses, and encouraging dissident Christian ethnic groups who held grudges against the Catholic Church. Emperor Mehmet IV launched an army of 150,000 men against Vienna and by July his siege lines were circling the city. So dismal were the city’s chances thought that the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold fled Vienna along with tens of thousands of citizens.

The defenders of the imperial capital numbered only about 16,000 but they were led by Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg who had overseen strengthening the walls and torn down the suburbs to give his cannon clear lines of fire. Leading the motley army of Turks, subject Christians from Romania and Hungary, and wild Crimean Tatar horsemen was the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha.

By early September the Viennese garrison was starving, sections of the wall were crumbling and it was expected that defenders would soon have to retreat into the strongholds of the inner city. They were saved by the timely intervention of an imperial relief force of infantry and Polish heavy cavalry led by John Sobieski which caught the Turks off guard.

The largest cavalry charge in history threw the Polish “winged hussars” into the battle; the smashed the Ottoman army and looted their camp. The Turks fled in disarray. Their defeat at the gates of Vienna on September 12, 1683 was the first step in the disintegration of their European holdings: Hungary and parts of the Balkans were not long after yielded to the Holy Roman Empire. The 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz signalled the end of Turkish expansion and the beginning of an Ottoman decline into status as the Sick Man of Europe.

September 2

A great day for decisive battles.

31 BC Battle of Actium

After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the Roman world came to be divided between the forces of Caesar’s nephew Octavian (later Augustus Caesar) and Caesar’s right-hand man, Marc Antony. Antony had taken up Caesar’s old mistress Cleopatra and become ruler of Egypt and the Middle East.  Octavian feared that Antony had ambitions to seize all of the Roman empire and confronted him in a naval battle off the coast of Greece. When the Egyptian fleet abandoned Antony, the battle was lost. Antony and Cleopatra were soon to commit suicide and leave Octavian as unchallenged emperor.

1870 Battle of Sedan

Napoleon III, the incompetent nephew of the great Napoleon Bonaparte, was foolishly goaded into a war with the German military powerhouse Prussia and was soundly beaten in the Franco-Prussian War. At the Battle of Sedan Napoleon III was captured (he is pictured above sitting with the German Chancellor Bismarck), his Second Empire government collapsed, and Prussia dictated harsh terms for peace. The French resentment over this defeat and the peace treaty helped lead to World War I.

1898 Battle of Omdurman

In the 1880s a Muslim prophet, Muhammad Ahmad, styled himself the Mahdi, a Messiah-like figure whom many Muslims believe is to rule on earth before the Final Judgement. The Mahdi drove the British and Egyptians out of the Sudan in 1885, killed General Gordon, the British governor, and set up a fundamentalist state. In 1898 an Anglo-Egyptian army, accompanied by gunboats and Canadian voyageurs, marched up the Nile to confront the Mahdi’s successor, the Khalifa, at Omdurman (near present-day Khartoum). The Mahdists greatly outnumbered the invaders but the British were much more heavily armed, equipped with machine-guns and heavy artillery. The effect of modern weaponry was devastating on the Sudanese spearman and cavalry. One observer noted: “They could never get near and they refused to hold back. … It was not a battle but an execution. … The bodies were not in heaps—bodies hardly ever are; but they spread evenly over acres and acres. Some lay very composedly with their slippers placed under their heads for a last pillow; some knelt, cut short in the middle of a last prayer. Others were torn to pieces.” Winston Churchill was present at the battle and took part in the cavalry charge depicted above. The Mahdists suffered 10,000 dead while the British lost 42 men.

August 31


The death of Princess Diana

By 1997, the life of Diana, Princess of Wales and ex-wife of the heir to the British throne, was a soap-opera nightmare. Her marriage had collapsed under the weight of mutual infidelity — Charles had taken up with an old mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles, and Diana conducted a series of affairs with her bodyguard, a polo playing soldier, a rugby player, a Canadian rock star, a Pakistani heart surgeon and, lastly, Egyptian-born playboy Dodi Fayed, whose father owned Harrod’s department store and Fulham soccer team. Diana was a psychological mess, bulimic, depressive, self-harming, and manipulative, carrying an enormous grudge against her ex-husband whom she accused of plotting her death in a car crash that would be made to look accidental.

What she saw in Dodi Fayed remains a mystery, though some say his Muslim religion was a factor — supposedly it would outrage the Royal Family. Dodi was in every way a lightweight, scarcely employable and a connoisseur of American models, one of whom he had married, another of whom he had dumped for Diana, but his family fortune was clearly not a barrier to romance. In August 1997 the couple spent six days on his yacht in the Mediterranean and then flew from Corsica to Paris where they stayed at the Ritz Hotel, owned by Dodi’s father. In the early hours of August 31, while a decoy car attempted to lure away journalists, Diana and Dodi entered a Mercedes Limo driven by Ritz head of security Henri Paul and accompanied by a Fayed family guard. Chased by paparazzi, the limo entered the Place de l’Alma tunnel at a high rate of speed and crashed. Paul and Dodi died immediately, Diana expired from massive internal injuries a few hours later in hospital. The only survivor, bodyguard Trevor-Rees Jones, was severely injured and spent a month in hospital recuperating. His face was reconstructed using family photographs as a guide and held together with 150 pieces of titanium.

Controversy continued to dog the dead princess. As Britain mourned in spectacular fashion, rumours spread of the limo being struck from behind by a white Fiat which then sped off, never to be seen again. Others spoke of an assassination of the lovers by British intelligence services at the behest of the Royal Family — a view that Dodi’s father clings to. The driver Henri Paul was found to have been intoxicated and no one in the car was wearing seat belts.

August 26


Jaycee Dugard is rescued

On June 10, 1991 eleven-year-old Jaycee Dugard was walking to school in South Lake Tahoe, California when she was approached by two strangers in a grey mid-size car. One knocked her down with a bolt from a taser gun and placed her in his car which then drove off. This abduction was witnessed by several other children and her stepfather who vainly tried to pursue the car on his mountain bike.

Jaycee’s kidnappers were convicted rapist Philip Garrido and his wife Nancy who took her to their property and locked her in a shed. For the next eighteen years she was repeatedly raped and abused, bearing Garrido two daughters, forbidden from receiving any medical care and threatened with death. She was forbidden to use her real name, told to treat Nancy as her mother, and to tell her children that she was their older sister. After a time she was allowed out to work in Garrido’s print shop. Neighbours tried to alert police to the strange goings-on behind the 8-foot-high fence at the Garrido household but no action was taken.

Garrido was quite insane. He was convinced that he could control sound with his mind and that he had developed a method to cure sexual urges. He visited the FBI to inform them of his discoveries and in August, 2009 went to the University of California at Berkeley trying to book a space to announce his program; he was accompanied by his two daughters. Their appearance and Garrido’s strangeness aroused the suspicions of officials there who learned that he was wanted for parole violations. The police were informed and when Garrido appeared at the parole office, this time with Jaycee and the girls, officers quizzed the young woman who insisted that her name was Alissa and that she was a battered wife from Minnesota, fleeing an abusive husband. Only after Garrido confessed to kidnapping and raping her did Jaycee, clearly a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, admit to her true identity.

Jaycee and her children were released to her mother and began trying to rebuild their lives. She wrote two books about her experience, A Stolen Life: A Memoir, and Freedom: My Book of Firsts. Phillip Garrido was sentenced to 431 years to life imprisonment; Nancy received 36 years to life imprisonment.

August 25

Birthdays of Sort-of Canadian Entertainers

Every Canadian knows that Hollywood and the American music industry would collapse without the contribution of artists from the Great White North. Every schoolboy knows that actors from Montreal and Vancouver ran the bridge and engineering deck of the starship Enterprise. What would New Year’s Eve be without “Auld Lang Syne” by Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians? How could the Ponderosa have survived without Lorne Green as Pa Cartwright? 

But even savvy Canadians may not be aware that August 25 is the birthday of three such expatriate stars of popular culture.

Cute-as-lace-pants hoofer Ruby Keeler first saw the light of day in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia in 1909. Her family soon moved to New York where by the age of 14 she was working as a dancer, graduating from speakeasies to Broadway. She appeared in numerous films and was married to Al Jolson.

Born in 1921 as Monte Halperin, Monty Hall came out of Winnipeg’s Jewish North End to make it big as an announcer and game show host.

For years Graham Jarvis played hapless figures of authority who never got the girl. Born in Toronto in 1930, his forgettable features appeared in All in the Family, M*A*S*H, Mork & Mindy, Starsky and Hutch, Cagney and Lacey, Married… with Children, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

August 23


The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

By the summer of 1939 it was clear that Adolf Hitler had no intention of keeping the peace in Europe; all of his previous promises had been broken and the German army was being put on a war footing. In order to head off more German aggression, the British and French had guaranteed their military support to Poland and sought to involve the Soviet Union in an anti-German alliance. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin feared the western nations as much as he did the Germans. He demanded as a price for allying against Germany the right of the Red Army to enter Poland; the Poles, quite rightly, feared that once the Russians were in their country there would be no getting them out. Stalin, therefore, entered secret negotiations with his arch-enemies in Nazi Germany and received the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop for talks with Vyacheslav Molotov, the People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. The result, which staggered the world, was the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

On the surface, the treaty was a pledge of neutrality should either country go to war against another country, and a ten-year pledge of peace between the signatories. It was seen, at once, as a carte blanche for Hitler to go to war against Poland, secure that the USSR would not intervene. As such, it made World War II inevitable. Around the world, it also shocked Communist supporters  who had been told that Nazi German was the supreme enemy; the Soviet excuse that the two countries shared a common anti-capitalist stance was met with derision. Many western intellectuals and artists who had seen Stalin as the bulwark against fascism never got over their disillusionment and abandoned Communism; others continued to toe the Party line and to oppose war with Germany until 1941 when Hitler broke the pact and invaded the Soviet Union. The folk-singer Woodie Guthrie was in the latter camp, making a mockery of the motto on his guitar which read “This Machine Kills Fascists”.

What the world did not know in August of 1939 was that there were secret articles of the treaty that were even more sinister. In return for its acquiescence in the invasion of Poland, Germany would allow the Soviet Union to occupy Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bessarabia and the eastern part of Poland. Once war started in September, the two tyrannies cooperated in massacres of Poles, Jews, and prisoners of war.

August 21


Barry McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction” released

No song captures the political vibrations of an era as well as “Eve of Destruction” sung by folk-rock singer Barry McGuire and written by P.F. Sloan, who also wrote hits for The Turtles, Herman’s Hermits and Johnny Rivers. Its burning topicality made it a controversial song for pop radio stations; many banned it. It called forth several reply songs, as was typical of the period: “The Dawn of Correction” offered a much more optimistic view of the 1960s; Sgt Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Beret” and Johnny Seay’s 5 ½-minute “Day of Decision” were also considered rebuttals.


The eastern world, it is explodin’,
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’,
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’,
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’,
And even the Jordan river has bodies floatin’,
But you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away,
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave,
Take a look around you, boy, it’s bound to scare you, boy,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

Yeah, my blood’s so mad, feels like coagulatin’,
I’m sittin’ here, just contemplatin’,
I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation,
Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation,
And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’,
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
Ah, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.


August 20

A particularly grim day in history


The murder of Jan de Witt

Jan de Witt was the leading Dutch politician of his age, known for his opposition to the Orange family’s dynasty in his country. After a series of military defeats Jan and his brother Cornelis were set upon by a well-organized mob in The Hague, tortured, murdered, and, then cannibalized. De Witt’s supporters and most historians blame William of Orange for instigating the violence. William later assumed the throne of the Netherlands and England.


The attack on Leon Trotsky

The creator of the Red Army, the instigator of the Red Terror, and brilliant Marxist theoretician, Leon Trotsky was one of the chief architects of the Bolshevik success in the Russian Revolution. He fell out, however, with Joseph Stalin and was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. Stalin’s wrath was not pacified by Trotsky’s absence and the dictator continued to seek his rival’s destruction, condemning him in absentia to death in a show trial. A couple of murderous attempts on his life during Trotsky’s exile in Mexico had failed but in August, 1940 Ramón Mercader, a KGB agent, struck him with an ice axe, causing his death the next day.


The end of the Prague Spring

Under Premier Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovakian Communist party had attempted a policy of relaxing controls on freedom of expression, producing more consumer goods, and hinting at multi-party democracy. This “socialism with a human face” aroused fears among Party hardliners and their masters in Moscow. Fearing lest Dubcek’s ideas spread, Soviet leader Brezhnev ordered an invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces. Under the pretext of foiling a pro-Western coup, 20,000 troops and 2,000 tanks from the USSR, Poland, and East Germany crossed the borders and took control of the country. Dubček was deposed, replaced by a hard-liner, expelled from the Communist Party and given a job as a forestry official. His reforms were undone but his example seems to have inspired Soviet thinkers 20 years later in the period of glasnost.


August 12


Night of the Murdered Poets

On August 12, 1952, thirteen major Soviet Jewish figures were executed. Their alleged crimes included espionage, bourgeois nationalism, “lack of true Soviet spirit,” and treason, including a plot to hand the Crimea over to American and Zionist imperialists.  In the group were famous writers such as Peretz Markish (above, winner of the Stalin Prize) , David Bergelson, and Itsik Fefer—which is why the date has come to be marked annually as the Night of the Murdered Poets—but the murdered also included an actor, a former deputy foreign minister, a scientist, and a general.  A fourteenth defendant died during the four years the group suffered in Moscow’s dreaded Lubyanka prison, and a fifteenth was merely sentenced to exile.

Though Jews such as Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had featured prominently in the leadership of the Bolshevik Revolution, the fate of Judaism in the Soviet Union was not a happy one, especially during the Purges of the 1930s. During World War II when Stalin needed the help of the West, members of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, were sent to the United States to raise money and awareness. After the war this connection to international Judaism was perceived as a threat. In 1948 a series of murders and arrests by the secret police took a toll among the Jewish intelligentsia. In the grim cells of the Lubyanka Prison went former artistic luminaries, including men like Fefer who had loyally toed the Party line and informed on his fellows. They suffered years of torture to produce false confessions and were finally put on trial in 1952 when Stalin’s anti-Semitism was increasingly unchecked.

Following a cursory, secret trial, the thirteen were executed. After Stalin’s death in 1953 the new Soviet government reexamined their cases and declared them posthumously rehabilitated.