Hitler at Vimy Ridge

What do you do with the graves and memorials of your enemies? That is a question that has faced conquerors for thousands of  years.

When Alexander the Great had captured Thebes in 338 BC, he murdered all the males, sold the women into slavery, and ordered the city razed to the ground — with the exception of one house. The home he ordered spared was that of the dead poet Pindar, a favourite of Alexander who liked the fact that Pindar had spoken well of Macedonians.

When a Roman emperor had been overthrown by his rivals, his works and statues were obliterated in what they called a damnatio memoriae. A similar fate has now overtaken Canadian politicians like John A Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson, or Lord Cornwallis, who in their time were not nice enough to aboriginals in the eyes of 21st-century critics.

In 1547, when the Catholic emperor Charles V had taken the town of Wittenberg where Martin Luther was buried, he was asked whether he wanted the arch-heretic’s grave dug up and his remains burnt or hung from a gallows. Much to his credit, Charles replied, “I make war on the living, not on the dead.” Luther’s resting place was left undisturbed.

A similar attitude seems to have been held by Adolf Hitler in 1940. Hitler had been a soldier in the German army during World War I and had suffered in the trenches, ending the war in a military hospital recovering from a poisonous gas attack he endured at the Ypres salient in Belgium. What would he do then when he returned to that site as a conqueror 22 years later and found an enormous Canadian war memorial (picture above)?

Unlike many other Allied graves from the Great War, the Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge was not vandalized by the Nazis. Apparently, Hitler appreciated the fact that our memorial was not glorifying war but mourning our dead. He ordered an SS guard mounted at the site and protected the monument from any damage.

March 22

1933

The Nazi dictatorship begins

After long years of campaigning against the democratic Weimar Republic in general and the German Communist Party (KPD) and Social Democratic Party (SPD) in particular, Hitler’s National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP or “Nazis) received the majority of seats in the March 1933 general election. The arson attack on the Reichstag (Parliament building) a few days before the vote had been attributed to Communist sympathizers and greatly aided Hitler’s victory.

Hitler used his electoral success to immediately put forward legislation that would effectively end democratic rule in Germany and transfer all power to the Chancellor and his cabinet. The “Reichstag Fire Decree” suspended civil liberties and provided cover for the outlawing of the KPD and the arrest of Communists. The Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich (“Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich”) or “Enabling Act” passed on this day removed all effective power from the legislature and allowed direct rule by Hitler. The only party to oppose it was the Social Democratic Party, many of whose members soon found themselves, on the run, unemployed, or in jail. Within a few months all political parties but the Nazis had been outlawed and the Thousand Year Reich well established.

July 14

1789

Paris mob attacks the Bastille prison

The French Revolution had begun. The king Louis XVI had summoned the nation’s political classes to meet at Versailles in the form of the antique Estates-General (which had not met since 1610). There, the Third Estate, representing all Frenchmen not in either the clergy or the nobility, had declared itself the true national assembly and compelled the other two estates to join them. The possibility of true reform had Paris in a frenzy of excitement but the king’s dismissal of the Finance Minister Jacques Necker was seen as a conservative counter-coup. Rumours of the use of mercenary troops to crush the new Assembly were rife. Camille Desmoulins, a young radical lawyer, pistol in hand, declared to a crowd: “Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the  Champs de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!'”

On July 13, various Parisian mobs broke into royal armouries and seized weapons; local militias now had muskets and cannons at their disposal. The next day the target was the Bastille, the medieval prison which dominated central Paris. The fortress had a grim reputation; it often housed those enemies of the crown who had been whisked away behind its walls never to be seen again. On July 14, however, its inmates only numbered seven: 4 forgers, two lunatics and the Comte de Lorges, an aristocrat accused of incest, but who may have been sent there by relatives as part of a property dispute. The expenses of the latter three were all paid by their families. The real target of the rebels may have been the gunpowder housed in the fortress.

The siege of the Bastille lasted all afternoon. The defending troops resisted the attackers, killing 98 of them for the loss of one of their own, but having no supplies to endure a long conflict, the governor, the Marquis de Launay, surrendered at 5:30 pm. He and five of his men were lynched by the mob and their heads paraded about on pikes by capering rebels. The seven released inmates were also paraded about for a time and made much of, until it was realized just what kind of men they were. The forgers were soon returned to prison, the madmen were found asylums, and the aristocrat alone was allowed to go free.

Quite why the French should treat this bizarre incident as the occasion for annual national rejoicing remains a mystery.

January 17

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395 A bad day for the Roman Empire

The death of the Roman emperor Theodosius I (347-395) meant the permanent separation of the eastern and western halves of the realm and his succession by a pair of nitwit sons unable to deal with the barbarian incursions.

Theodosius was a general and politician who emerged as emperor out of the civil wars that followed the death of Valens who died in 378 battling the Visigoths. His reign was extremely consequential. On the positive side he summoned the First Council of Constantinople which established Trinitarian orthodoxy; he suppressed pagan sacrifices, gladiatorial games, child slavery, and the Olympic Games. His massacre of civilians in Thessalonika led to his excommunication by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Theodosius was forced (above) to repent and beg forgiveness before being allowed the sacraments, an act which clergy over the centuries used as an example of the supremacy of the Church over the State.

His death in 395 led to the empire being split between incompetent sons, Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East.

December 27

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1911 The first performance of the Indian national anthem

Written in Bengali by Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, the song  “Jana Gana Mana” was first sung at a meeting of the Indian National Congress. After independence, it was adopted as the Indian national anthem. In English the first verse proclaims:

Thou art the rulers of the minds of all people,

Dispenser of India’s destiny.

Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sindh , Gujarat and Maratha,

Of the Dravida and Orissa and Bengal;

It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,

mingles in the music of Yamuna and Ganga and is chanted by

the waves of the Indian Sea.

They pray for the blessing and sing thy praise.

The saving of all people waits in the hand,

thou dispenser of India’s destiny,

Victory, victory, victory to thee.

December 25

Some interesting folk beliefs about Christmas:

From a curious old song preserved in the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, we learn that it was thought peculiarly lucky when Christmas-day fell on a Sunday, and the reverse when it occurred on a Saturday. 

Lordinges, I warne you al beforne,
Yef that day that Cryste was borne,
Falle uppon a Sunday;
That wynter shall be good par fay,
But grete wyndes alofte shalbe,
The somer shall be fayre and drye;
By kynde skylle, wythowtyn lesse,
Throw all londes shalbe peas,
And good tyme all thyngs to don,
But he that stelyth he shalbe fownde sone;
Whate chylde that day borne be,
A great lord he shalbe.

If Crystmas on the Saterday falle,
That wynter ys to be dredden alle,
Hyt shalbe so fulle of grete tempeste
That hyt shall sle bothe man and beste,
Frute and corn shal fayle grete won,
And olde folke dyen many on;

Whate woman that day of chylde travayle
They shalbe borne in grete perelle
And chyldren that be borne that day,
Within half a yere they shall dye par fay,
The summer then shall wete ryghte ylle:
If thou awght stele, hyt shel the spylle;
Thou dyest, yf sekenes take the.’

December 19

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1675 The Great Swamp Fight

It was inevitable that the arrival of European colonists on the shores of North America would result in warfare. Though relations between natives and colonists could be peaceful and local treaties made, the expansive nature of European settlement would assuredly pit the peoples against each other in violence.

In 1675, a vicious conflict known as King Philip’s War was raging in New England. King Philip was the English name given Metacomet, the chief of the Pokanoket tribe, who had built a coalition of various native tribes, who began attacking settlements in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The war would prove the deadliest threat ever faced by colonies on the eastern seaboard. Twelve towns would be over-run by the tribesmen and a tenth of the male population killed in battle.

Though the Narragansett tribe had declared themselves neutral and retreated to a fort in the middle of a swamp near Kingston, Rhode Island, their warriors had attacked a nearby colonial garrison, killing at least 15 people. On December 19th, a colonial army and its native allies attacked the over 1,000 Narragansetts at the fort. Over 300 were killed  and over 150 militia men were killed or wounded. The Great Swamp Battle was a crucial turning point in the war. Before too long the chief of the Narragansetts and King Philip himself had been killed. The war lasted until 1678, after which tribal threats to the colonies severely diminished.

December 4

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1783 George Washington bids farewell to his officers

By 1783 the American War of Independence had been won and the military services of George Washington were no longer required. There was talk of him seizing power in a coup but he put down an army plot and resolved to return to civilian life.

After a seafood dinner in Fraunces Tavern in New York, Washington took his parting from the men he had served with. Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge wrote his account in 1830:

The time now drew near when General Washington intended to leave this part of the country for his beloved retreat at Mt. Vernon. On Tuesday the 4th of December it was made known to the officers then in New York that General Washington intended to commence his journey on that day. 

At 12 o’clock the officers repaired to Fraunces Tavern in Pearl Street where General Washington had appointed to meet them and to take his final leave of them. We had been assembled but a few moments when his Excellency entered the room. His emotions were too strong to be concealed which seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. 

After partaking of a slight refreshment in almost breathless silence the General filled his glass with wine and turning to the officers said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

After the officers had taken a glass of wine General Washington said, ‘”I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”

General Knox being nearest to him turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.

November 8

vlad-the-impaler

1431

The birth of Vlad III, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Drakul, aka Dracula, prince of Wallachia. Though known in folklore for his extreme cruelty and for his inspiration for Bram Stoker’s literary villain, Vlad is renowned in the Balkans for his defence of Christian lands against Turkish Islamic expansion. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman emperor Mehmet the Conqueror attempted to complete the Muslim conquest of southeastern Europe. Vlad refused to acknowledge Turkish overlordship or pay the jizya tax imposed on Christian subjects. His armies inflicted a number of defeats on the Turks before he died in battle in 1476.

October 27

constantine

312 Constantine has a vision

The chaos in Roman politics that weakened the empire in the 3rd century was ended by reforms put in place by Diocletian (r. 284-305), particularly his institution of the Tetrarchy. Henceforth there would be four emperors: a senior Augustus in the East and in the West, each with a junior Caesar. There would be four capitals, each close to strategic border areas to allow rapid response to barbarian incursion. The plan was that when the senior rulers stepped down they would be replaced by their Caesars and the usual unseemly battles for power would be avoided. Alas, the scheme did not work in practice. After the retirement of Diocletian in 305, fighting broke out in the western part of the empire between rival generals who each thought they should be next in line. In the fall of 312, Constantine brought his army into Italy to contest the throne with Maxentius; they would meet outside Rome at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

According to Lactantius, on the evening of October 27 Constantine saw a vision:

Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of CHRIST. Having this sign (ΧР ), his troops stood to arms. The enemies advanced, but without their emperor, and they crossed the bridge. The armies met, and fought with the utmost exertions of valour, and firmly maintained their ground. In the meantime a sedition arose at Rome, and Maxentius was reviled as one who had abandoned all concern for the safety of the commonweal; and suddenly, while he exhibited the Circensian games on the anniversary of his reign, the people cried with one voice, “Constantine cannot be overcome!” 

Dismayed at this, Maxentius burst from the assembly, and having called some senators together, ordered the Sibylline books to be searched. In them it was found that:— “On the same day the enemy of the Romans should perish.”
Led by this response to the hopes of victory, he went to the field. The bridge in his rear was broken down. At sight of that the battle grew hotter. The hand of the Lord prevailed, and the forces of Maxentius were routed. He fled towards the broken bridge; but the multitude pressing on him, he was driven headlong into the Tiber. This destructive war being ended, Constantine was acknowledged as emperor, with great rejoicings, by the senate and people of Rome. 

Eusebius has another, more detailed account of the vision, which in his version seems to have taken place somewhat earlier. There is no doubt, however, that the triumph of Constantine led to the legal recognition of Christianity and its eventual conversion of the Roman Empire.