December 15

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1961

Adolf Eichmann verdict delivered

Otto Adolf Eichmann was born in Germany in 1906 but grew up in Austria where he attended the same high school that Adolf Hitler had attended 17 years before. He never graduated and worked in a series of undistinguished jobs until in 1932 he joined the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party and was assigned to the paramilitary Schützstaffel or SS. He returned to Germany in 1933 and was transferred to the SD, the Security Service; here he was sent to Berlin and worked for the Jewish Department, studying Zionist organizations and learning Yiddish and Hebrew.

By this time, the Nazis had achieved power and were using strong-arm methods to encourage the country’s Jewish population to emigrate; over half of Germany’s Jews would do so before 1939. As part of his duties Eichmann travelled to British-mandated Palestine (much of which is now Israel) to see if that territory would be suitable for the reception of those leaving Europe. He spoke with local Jewish authorities and expressed the fear that sending too many German Jews to Palestine would result in them forming an independent state.

When war began in 1939, Nazi policy shifted to the mass deportation of Jews to the east into territory Germany had conquered. Eichmann was placed in charge of the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, transporting of Czech, Austrian and German Jews into what had been Poland, a task which brought him into conflict with other Nazi officials who thought that the rail system could be put to better use or who wished to relocate ethnic Germans into that area. Some Jews were being forced into overcrowded and unsanitary ghettos while farther east tens of thousands of others were being murdered out of hand. After the 1942 Wannsee Conference in which Eichmann took part, it was decided to exterminate the Jewish population of Nazi-dominated Europe. This required massive construction of a constellation of death camps and coordination of the transport system. Eichmann seems to have had little influence on policy but played a key administrative role in facilitating the destruction of European Jewry.

With the defeat of Germany in 1945, things became dangerous for former SS officers but Eichmann remained safe under a series of false identities. In 1950, with the help of Catholic priests with Nazi sympathies, he obtained papers and transportation that allowed him to emigrate to Argentina under the name of Ricardo Klement. There his family joined him and he prospered in Buenos Aires as an employee of the local Mercedes-Benz firm. By 1957 the Israeli government began to be aware that Eichmann might be in Argentina, whose government was reluctant to extradite German war criminals. In 1960 a team of Israeli agents kidnapped Eichmann on his way home from work and flew him to Israel for trial.

Despite Eichmann’s argument that he was not morally responsible for the death of those in his charge and that he was merely following orders, he was found guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and membership in illegal organizations. He was hanged in 1942.

December 14

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2012

The Sandy Hook massacre

On the morning of December 14, 2012 in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, Adam Lanza killed his mother, shooting her to death with a .22 rifle, one of the many guns she owned. He then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School where he shot his way through the glass doors. In the next five minutes he fired 156 shots, killing 20 small children, none older than 7, six school staff and, finally, himself. Police were on the scene almost immediately but by the time they entered the building, the shooting had stopped. Two teachers survived their wounds.

Lanza was a mentally ill young man, probably schizophrenic as well as suffering from other disorders including a serious case of anorexia that may have affected his cognition. There were neither drugs nor alcohol in his system, and his brain was free of physical abnormality. He had briefly attended the school years before but no other link to the killings was found. He was obsessed with mass murder, downloading videos about the killings in Columbine, Norway and the Amish school in Pennsylvania. Lanza seems to have spent years compiling a spreadsheet listing around 500 mass murderers and the weapons they used.

The Sandy Hook School was demolished and a new one built; his house was deemed unsaleable because of the notoriety and was acquired by the city. Calls for gun control intensified after the shooting and unsuccessful lawsuits were launched against the gun’s manufacturer and merchandiser.

December 13

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1972 The last men on the moon

In 1957 the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, and in 1961 sent the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into space. These developments spurred the United States into plans to further develop its missile capabilities and, in the words of President John Kennedy: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

The Space Race was on.

The American’s Vanguard, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs honed the American drive toward the moon while the Soviets pursued their Vostok, Voshkod and Soyuz plans. The Russians again were first to put a woman in space and to conduct activities outside of a space craft. Both sides suffered casualties in launch and voyage accidents; at least 14 astronauts and cosmonauts died in the race to the moon.

On July 21, 1969, after a three-day voyage, Apollo XI sent down its Lunar Excursion Module piloted by Neil Armstrong who became the first man on the moon. Five more successful flights were made before the attention of the Americans and Russians turned to orbiting platforms — space stations. The last men on the surface of the moon to date were Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17 in 1972.

December 12

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2000 Bush v. Gore is settled

What appears to outsiders to be a single election for the presidency of the United States is in a fact of a collection of over 50 state and district votes, each conducted with different rules and different forms of balloting. Nowhere was this more evident, or more controversial, than in the state of Florida during the 2000 election that pitted Republican George W. Bush against Democratic Albert Gore.

On election night, November 8, it appeared that Bush had prevailed and Gore made the customary telephone call of concession. Furious discussions among Democratic partisans reversed directions and Gore phoned a befuddled Bush to withdraw his concession. Gore had appeared to win the popular vote and some states, particularly Florida, might produce recounts in the balloting. A mandatory recount in that state confirmed a Bush victory but Gore’s people appealed in court.

The recount in Florida would be the subject of intense litigation with much of the uncertainty due to the nature of the voting machines Florida used, devices in which voters were to punch holes beside the candidates of their choice. But such machines often produced debatable results with the ‘chads’ often hanging from the holes. Scrutineers had to somehow divine the intention of the voter in such cases as

  • Hanging chads — attached to the ballot at only one corner.
  • Swinging chads — attached to the ballot at two corners.
  • Tri-chads — attached to the ballot at three corners.
  • Pregnant or dimpled chads — attached to the ballot at all four corners, but bearing an indentation indicating the voter may have intended to mark the ballot. (Sometimes “pregnant” is used to indicate a greater mark than “dimpled”.)

On this date in 2000 the Supreme Court 5-4 (the usual suspects in their respective places) ruled that no recount was necessary and that Bush had won Florida’s electoral votes, making him the President.

December 9

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1956 Trans-Canada Airlines flight 810 crashes

Before there was Air Canada there was TCA, Trans-Canada Airlines. On this date in 1956 a TCA Canadair North Star (a four-engine propeller-driven craft) from Vancouver to Calgary ploughed into “the Fang”, a peak of Mount Slesse near Chilliwack, B.C. Shortly after takeoff the crew reported a fire in one engine and turned back toward Vancouver but the flight path they chose drove them into the mountain where all 62 people aboard died. Investigators blamed a faulty engine and ice on the wings.

The flight is still remembered as the one that took the lives of a number of CFL football stars returning from the East-West All-Star Game. Lost were Saskatchewan Roughrider stalwarts Mel Becket, Mario DeMarco, Ray Syrnyk and Gordon Sturtridge, and Winnipeg Blue Bomber Calvin Jones, the first black player to win the Outland Trophy as the top lineman in U.S. college football and who was the first African American on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Scheduled to be on that flight, but missing it for various reasons, were defensive back and later Winnipeg (and even later Minnesota Viking) coach Bud Grant, and Edmonton Eskimo stars Jackie “Spaghetti Legs” Parker and Normie “the China Clipper” Kwong, later the lieutenant-governor of Alberta.

Today the Roughriders honour their lost with flags bearing their numbers above their Regina stadium. The families of Mel Becket and Mario DeMarco donated a commemorative trophy to recognize the Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in the West.

December 8

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877 Louis the Stammerer is crowned King of the West Franks

Louis the Stammerer was the son of Charles the Bald, the brother of Louis the Child, the father of Charles the Simple. In the Middle Ages before kings got publicity agents and all ended up with nicknames like “the Great” or “the Just”, royal labels were colourful and, presumably, accurate. Take, for example, Constantine V of the Byzantine Emperor who crapped in the baptismal font as a baby. He was henceforth dubbed “Copronymus” or “the Poop-Named”.

Let us take this opportunity, therefore, to salute those in history who ended up saddled with less-than-attractive sobriquets. Hats off to

Wilfred the Hairy of Barcelona,  Alfonso the Slobberer of Leon,   Arnulf the Unlucky of Flanders,  Harald Blue-Tooth of Norway

Charles the Fat, Holy Roman Emperor,   Sigurd the Slimy of Norway,    Sviatopolk the Accursed of Kiev,  Catherine the Sad of Bosnia

Gleb the Damned of Riazan,  Gothelo the Sluggard of Lorraine, Guy de Beauchamp the Black Cur of Arden,   Maria Isabel the Ugly of Aragon

What recent leader has had more ill nicknames than Margaret Thatcher? Attila the Hen, She Who Must be Obeyed, TBW (That Bloody Woman), the Great She-Elephant, the Iron Lady, the Iron Maiden, the la Passionara of Privilege, the Milk Snatcher.

Lately, Justin Trudeau has been termed the “Prime Minstrel” after his habit of blacking-up, also Mr Dress-Up, Prime Minister Zoolander, and (in China) Little Potato.

The View From Tokyo

December 7 is the anniversary of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as well as on British and American installations in Asia.  For the Japanese, across the International Date Line, it was December 8 as the English-language Tokyo paper above shows.

Here is the imperial rescript (decree) which is printed in that paper giving the Japanese reasons for war:

We, by grace of heaven, Emperor of Japan, seated on the Throne of a line unbroken for ages eternal, enjoin upon ye, Our loyal and brave subjects:

We hereby declare War on the United States of America and the British Empire. The men and officers of Our Army and Navy shall do their utmost in prosecuting the war. Our public servants of various departments shall perform faithfully and diligently their respective duties; the entire nation with a united will shall mobilize their total strength so that nothing will miscarry in the attainment of Our war aims.

To insure the stability of East Asia and to contribute to world peace is the far-sighted policy which was formulated by Our Great Illustrious Imperial Grandsire [Meiji emperor] and Our Great Imperial Sire succeeding Him, and which We lay constantly to heart. To cultivate friendship among nations and to enjoy prosperity in common with all nations, has always been the guiding principle of Our Empire’s foreign policy. It has been truly unavoidable and far from Our wishes that Our Empire has been brought to cross swords with America and Britain. More than four years have passed since China, failing to comprehend the true intentions of Our Empire, and recklessly courting trouble, disturbed the peace of East Asia and compelled Our Empire to take up arms. Although there has been reestablished the National Government of China, with which Japan had effected neighborly intercourse and cooperation, the regime which has survived in Chungking, relying upon American and British protection, still continues its fratricidal opposition. Eager for the realization of their inordinate ambition to dominate the Orient, both America and Britain, giving support to the Chungking regime, have aggravated the disturbances in East Asia. Moreover these two Powers, inducing other countries to follow suit, increased military preparations on all sides of Our Empire to challenge Us. They have obstructed by every means Our peaceful commerce and finally resorted to a direct severance of economic relations, menacing gravely the existence of Our Empire. Patiently have We waited and long have We endured, in the hope that Our government might retrieve the situation in peace. But Our adversaries, showing not the least spirit of conciliation, have unduly delayed a settlement; and in the meantime they have intensified the economic and political pressure to compel thereby Our Empire to submission. This trend of affairs, would, if left unchecked, not only nullify Our Empire’s efforts of many years for the sake of the stabilization of East Asia, but also endanger the very existence of Our nation. The situation being such as it is, Our Empire, for its existence and self-defense has no other recourse but to appeal to arms and to crush every obstacle in its path.

The hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors guarding Us from above, We rely upon the loyalty and courage of Our subjects in Our confident expectation that the task bequeathed by Our forefathers will be carried forward and that the sources of evil will be speedily eradicated and an enduring peace immutably established in East Asia, preserving thereby the glory of Our Empire.

 

December 6

1917 The Halifax Explosion

In the midst of World War I, Halifax harbour was an important shipping point for materiel headed to the Western Front. On December 6, 1917 two ships collided in that harbour, setting off the largest man-made explosion in history before the advent of the atomic bomb.

The two ships were the Norwegian merchant vessel Imo, en route to New York to pick up relief supplies for war-torn Belgium, and the other was the French ship Mont-Blanc, filled with tons of benzol, picric acid, TNT and gun cotton, set to join a convoy across the Atlantic. The Imo, steaming on the wrong side of the channel struck the Mont-Blanc, setting it ablaze. The French vessel’s crew abandoned ship leaving Mont-Blanc to drift closer to the populated shore. At 9:05 in the morning it exploded, destroying much of Halifax and damaging buildings 100 km away.

In her  Curse of the Narrows Laura MacDonald describes the effect of the explosion:

The air blast blew through the narrow streets, toppling buildings and crashing through windows, doors, walls, and chimneys until it slowed to 756 miles an hour, five miles below the speed of sound. The blast crushed internal organs, exploding lungs and eardrums of those standing closest to the ship, most of whom died instantly. It picked up others, only to thrash them against trees, walls, and lamp posts with enough force to kill them. Roofs and ceilings collapsed on top of their owners. Floors dropped into the basement and trapped families under timber, beams and furniture. This was particularly dangerous for those close to the harbour because a fireball, which was invisible in the daylight, shot out over a 1–4 mile area surrounding the Mont-Blanc. Richmond houses caught fire like so much kindling. In houses able to withstand the blast, windows stretched inward until the glass shattered around its weakest point, sending out a shower of arrow-shaped slivers that cut their way through curtains, wallpaper and walls. The glass spared no one. Some people were beheaded where they stood; others were saved by a falling bed or bookshelf. . . . Many others who had watched the fire seconds before awoke to find themselves unable to see.

The north end of the city was wiped out by the blast and subsequent tsunami. Nearly 2,000 people died, another 9,000 were maimed or blinded, and more than 25,000 were left homeless. An international rescue effort was put in place, one which is still recognized by Haligonians who every year send a giant Christmas tree to Boston to acknowledge the aid that city sent.

November 26

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1942 The premiere of the world’s greatest movie

The movie Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, and starring Humphrey Bogart, opens in New York. Released to take advantage of the invasion of North Africa and buoyed by the Casablanca Conference of 1943, the film did well at the box office but it was not a smashing success. Only after the Second World War did it become a cult hit and a critical success.

The film, based on the unproduced play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, charts the dilemma of night-club owner Rick Blaine in French Morocco; he claims to stick his neck out for no one but will his good instincts and chivalry trump his love for another man’s wife?

The cast was superb. Everyone remembers the luminous Ingrid Bergman but there were two other radiant beauties involved with Rick, the lovely Yvonne (played by 19-year old French refugee Madeleine Lebeau) and Annina, the Bulgarian newlywed (Joy Page). Claude Rains was never better than as corrupt Captain Louis Renault; Peter Lorre oiled his way on screen as the odious Ugarte (“You despise me, don’t you Rick?”); and Conrad Veidt (the highest-paid member of the cast) sneered as German Major Heinrich Strasser. Only Paul Henried underperformed as the wooden resistance leader Victor Lazlo. Dooley Wilson enchanted as the piano player Sam, singing “As Time Goes By” and “Knock on Wood”.

Consider these great lines:

Rick: Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine.

Yvonne: Where were you last night?  RickThat’s so long ago, I don’t remember.  Yvonne: Will I see you tonight?  Rick: I never make plans that far ahead.

Strasser: You give him credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he’s just another blundering AmericanRenault: We musn’t underestimate “American blundering”. I was with them when they “blundered” into Berlin in 1918.

Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a Senator’s wife? I like to think that you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me.
RickIt’s a combination of all three.
Renault: And what in Heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?
RickMy health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
RenaultThe waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.
RickI was misinformed.

Renault: Major Strasser has been shot… round up the usual suspects.

Roger Ebert claimed Casablanca was “probably on more lists of the greatest films of all time than any other single title, including Citizen Kane“. Leonard Maltin said it was the best loved of all Hollywood films. But clever people who talk loudly in restaurants had other ideas. Pauline Kael thought it was far from great, Umberto Eco thought it was mediocre, a “a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility, and with little continuity in its dramatic effects” while the New Yorker deemed the film “pretty tolerable”.  Ha!

November 24

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1859 Darwin publishes The Origin of Species

In 1831 Charles Darwin boarded the survey vessel HMS Beagle for a trip to chart the coast of South America. A well-to-do young layabout with a passion for collecting bugs, Darwin joined the ship as a companion to the captain Robert Fitzroy. In the end the voyage of  the Beagle lasted five years taking him around the world, during which time he amassed a collection of specimens and fossils and a trove of observational data. The fruit of his labour was, first, The Voyage of the Beagle, and a series of books and papers on coral reefs, fossils and barnacles. His growing belief in biological and geological evolution over time did not see book form until he was jarred by similar findings by Alfred Russell Wallace. On this date in 1859 he published his masterwork On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Darwin’s work revolutionized science, and though many of his findings are now considered obsolete or incomplete, Darwin maintains an honoured place in the history of intellectual life.