Living in a world shaped by World War I and its aftermath

verdun cemetery

As the centennial marking the beginning of the Great War nears, we would do well to remember the sea change brought about by the 1914-18 conflict.

Beyond the more than 10 million killed, the onslaught of the Spanish influenza in 1918 which claimed an additional 50 million lives worldwide and the collapse of four major empires, World War I reshaped the world, and continues to impact us today.

The seeds for a second, much great world clash a generation later were planted in the peace treaties following the Great War; boundaries were drawn that still exist today, with countries created along arbitrary lines that served as catalysts for future tension and strife; and government control over areas such as trade and travel were forever altered and often restricted.

As Margaret MacMillan of Oxford College, the author of The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, writes in the Wall Street Journal, the conflict not only changed the course of history but sent the world down a dispiriting path that likely didn’t have to happen.

Before 1914, Russia was a backward autocracy but was changing fast. Its growth rate was as high as any of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s; it was Europe’s major exporter of food grains and, as it industrialized, was importing machinery on a massive scale. Russia also was developing the institutions of civil society, including the rule of law and representative government. Without the war, it might have evolved into a modern democratic state; instead, it got the sudden collapse of the old order and a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks. Soviet communism exacted a dreadful toll on the Russian people and indeed the world—and its remnants are still painfully visible in the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

The war also destroyed other options for Europe’s political development. The old multinational empires had their faults, to be sure, but they enabled the diverse peoples within their boundaries to live in relative harmony. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were trying to work out ways of encompassing the demands of different groups for greater autonomy. Might they have succeeded if the war had not exhausted them to the point of collapse? We will never know, but since then, the world has suffered the violence and horrors of ethnic nationalism.

The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones – the “wars of the pygmies,” as Winston Churchill once described them. Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other. Thirty-seven thousand Finns (out of some 3 million) died in a civil war in the first months of 1918, while in Russia, as many as a million soldiers and many more civilians may have died by the time the Bolsheviks finally defeated their many opponents.

The war had brutalized European society, which had grown accustomed during the largely peaceful 19th century to think that peace was the normal state of affairs. After 1918, Europeans were increasingly willing to resort to other sorts of force, from political assassinations to street violence, and to seek radical solutions to their problems. The seeds of the political movements on the extremes of both the right and the left – of fascism and communism – were sown in the years before 1914, but it took World War I to fertilize them.

The war aided the rise of extremism by weakening Europe’s confidence in the existing order. Many Europeans no longer trusted the establishments that had got them into the catastrophe. The German and Austrian monarchies were also overthrown, to be succeeded by shaky republics. The new orders might have succeeded in gaining legitimacy in time, but that was the one thing that Europe and the world didn’t have. The Great Depression at the end of the 1920s swept the new regimes away and undermined even the strongest democracies.

The death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, was, sadly, just one of a number of high-profile assassinations that had taken place in the previous few decades, including those of US President William McKinley, Czar Alexander II of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy.

But by the time Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a street in Sarajevo, the world was, quite simply, bound on a course for destruction.

One hundred years later we would do well to study the Great War and the world it made.

(Top: Cemetery at Verdun, France, scene of some of the worst fighting of World War I.)

College 200 years ago was for the few, the erudite

South_Carolina_College_Horseshoe_1850

Few will question that college has changed dramatically over the past two centuries. Today, post-secondary education is often geared toward preparing an individual for employment, where 200 years ago the goal was to provide a classical education.

In the early 19th century, very few people went to college, but it would appear that those who did were extremely well educated.

Consider this description, taken from The Life and Times of C.G. Memminger (1893), a biography of the Confederacy’s Secretary of the Treasury, of the knowledge necessary to gain admittance to South Carolina College (today’s University of South Carolina) in 1819:

“A candidate must be able to sustain a satisfactory examination upon Arithmetic and Elementary Algebra and English Grammar; upon Cornelius Nepos, Caesar, Sallust, and the whole of Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin; and in Greek upon the Gospels of Sts. John and Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Greek Grammar.”

And that was just to get into the school!

The description goes on to add that “The studies to be pursued in the Freshman year are Cicero’s Orations and Odes of Horace in Latin, Xenophon’s Cyropaedia and Memorabilia in Greek, Adam’s Roman Antiquities, Vulgar and Decimal Fractions, the Equations and Extractions of Roots, English Grammar and Rhetoric.”

My first thought is one would be hard pressed to find a college student today proficient in the above in their mother tongue, never mind in Latin and Greek.

Some of the names listed above are familiar, others not so much.

Cornelius Nepos was a Roman biographer whose simple writing style made his passages a standard choice for translation on Latin exams.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus, often known simply as Sullust, was a Roman historian and politician whose works include The Conspiracy of Catiline.

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Local TV news: Exploiting the exploitable since 1955

suspicious flashlight

It has been said that television news is for crabby old white people who are afraid of everything outside their yards, but that’s likely too narrow a definition. TV news instead appears to be geared toward the easily scared of all ages and races, with its ultimate goal being to so paralyze viewers with fear that they’ll be afraid to move and change the channel.

Take a news story from Savannah, Ga., television station WTOC which detailed a Georgia man’s battle with Necrotizing Fasciitis, or, as the station hypes repeatedly, the dreaded “flesh-eating bacteria.”

According to the story, Joseph Allen was fishing in the Ogeechee River last week when he had to get into the water to fix a problem with his boat. He apparently had a sore on his arm and it became infected with Necrotizing Fasciitis. Allen is now in critical condition.

After describing Allen’s symptoms – “The arm that had the little cut on it was now purple from the wrist to the shoulder” – and including a plea from his wife to “try to get the Savannah Riverkeeper, the EPA, and government; someone involved that will clear up this river,” WTOC reported in the third-to-last paragraph that this is “at least the third case (of Necrotizing Fasciitis) reported in Georgia in the last few years.”

Wow: The third case in the entire state of Georgia – 59,425 square miles – in the past few years. And neither of the previous two cases occurred in the Ogeechee River, which stretches nearly 300 miles. I’m surprised the World Health Organization hasn’t quarantined all of North America.

Television news is great for a couple of things: Exploiting tragedies and throwing in quotes from the suffering, even if their comments add no context or visible value to the story.

If this is, as it appears, the first recorded case of Necrotizing Fasciitis in the Ogeechee River, it doesn’t necessarily indicate that there’s a major problem with that body of water. One can’t blame the anguished wife for her comments; she’s upset, is likely no expert on the ecology of the river and probably felt compelled in her time of sorrow to say something.

It’s the media’s job, however, to edit stories so the information provides value to consumers, instead of gratuitously manipulating the suffering.

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Bidding adieu to the last of the original Ramones

It was rocker Neil Young who sang the lyric “it’s better to burn out than to fade away,” but few groups embodied that concept better than the Ramones.

They played fast – very fast, almost too fast – and eschewed musical luxuries for the basics of two guitars, drums and a vocalist.

The last original member of the Ramones, Tommy Ramone, died Friday at age 65, essentially closing the book on a remarkable bit of rock history.

Despite their stripped-down style, anti-establishment look and the fact that to the untrained ear the Ramones’ sound, described as a “wall of noise,” could come across as little more than a jumble of yelling and musical anarchy, they influenced not only a generation of musicians, but of music aficionados, even as mainstream radio ignored them for decades.

The group was formed in the New York City neighborhood of Forest Hills, Queens, in 1974. All four members adopted pseudonyms ending with the surname “Ramone,” although none were related. They took the name Ramone from an alias Paul McCartney used to check into hotels.

They group wore ripped jeans, black leather and bad haircuts, and came to embody American punk rock with tunes such as “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “The KKK Took My Baby Away” and “Blitzkrieg Bop.”

Tommy Ramone, 65, was born Thomas Erdelyi in Budapest, Hungary, to Jewish parents who had survived the Holocaust by being hidden by neighbors. He died of bile duct cancer.

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Srebrenica’s dead still being recovered, two decades later

srebrenica cemetery

The efficacy of the United Nations has long been a hot-button issue, particularly among US conservatives, but the entity’s shortcomings haven’t helped its cause.

Take the conflict in Bosnia in early- to mid-1990s: Srebrenica was a UN-protected area, but United Nations troops offered no resistance when Serbs overran the Muslim-majority town on this date 19 years ago, then rounded up and killed approximately 8,000 men and boys.

The slaughter was described as the worst crime on European soil since World War II.

Srebrenica had been attacked and besieged off and on for three years by the summer of 1995, as chaos reigned in many parts of the former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War.

Although the UN had declared the enclave of Srebrenica in northeastern Bosnia a “safe area,” a United Nations Protection Force of 400 Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent the Bosnian Serb army from attacking the town on July 6, 1995.

Three days later, emboldened in part by early successes and the absence of any significant reaction from the international community, the Serbs decided to press forward and take Srebrenica.

With the town’s residents weakened by siege, starvation and short on tools of resistance, Srebrenica fell quickly. Within a couple of days, the mass killings began.

Almost to a man, the thousands of Bosnian Muslims prisoners captured following the fall of Srebrenica were executed, according to the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia: Continue reading

Woman passes counterfeit Confederate bill in Utah

fake confederate money

It’s one thing to be duped by someone passing counterfeit legal tender, but it’s hard to have much sympathy for someone who takes fake Confederate currency in exchange for goods or services.

That’s what happened recently in Salina, Utah, where a woman paid for fuel at a gas station with fake $50 Confederate bill in late June.

According to Salina Police, an unidentified female driving a gold ’90s model Ford F-150 with California license plates convinced the attendant at a Premium Oil station to allow her to use the bill to purchase approximately $45 worth of gas, according to the delightfully named Richfield Reaper newspaper.

“After the employee turned on the pump, he was suspicious, so he took the bill to a local bank,” said Police Chief Eric Pratt. “They verified it was not legitimate.”

When the attendant returned to the station, the woman, not surprisingly, had already high-tailed it out of the central Utah town.

And because the $50 bill wasn’t even a real Confederate note, it’s worthless.

“I can tell you it feels like coloring book paper,” Pratt said. “I don’t recommend anyone accepting nonstandard bills like this one as an acceptable form of payment.”

Of course, even if one was somehow taken in by the front of the bill, which has “The Confederate States of America” written in large letters, one might be tipped off that something was amiss by the reverse, which is more akin to monopoly money than legal tender.

Places in the US where fake Confederate currency is accepted.

Places in the US where fake Confederate currency is accepted.

It features the word “Fifty” written large once, smaller two more times, and in numerical form four times, but features no design other than a few geometric patterns.

Not that it’s dissimilar to money printed by the Confederacy 150 years ago, but one would imagine most anyone today would think twice before accepting it.

If the unnamed attendant still has a job, one can’t help but imagine that there are a passel of talented counterfeiters flocking to central Utah for easy pickings.

(Top: The fake $50 Confederate bill accepted by a gas station attendant in Salina, Utah, recently. Photo credit: The Richfield Reaper.)

Beware of Random Burials in Northwest South Carolina

50th Birthday weekend 273My first thought when I saw the above sign at a county church cemetery in Oconee County, S.C., was that this couldn’t be a real issue.

But then I came across a similar sign at a larger church in the same area, and given the fact that it’s printed and of reasonably high quality, I have to suspect there are others out there, as well.

Normally, unless one lives in an area where the mob is particularly prevalent, one wouldn’t think ad hoc burials would be a problem. This, at least to the best of my knowledge, is typically the sort of thing most folks like to nail down before they shuffle off this mortal coil.

Some questions that come to mind:

  • Do survivors cart around the deceased until they find a graveyard they like, than start digging?
  • Don’t most churches have folks who keep an eye on things, just to keep odd occurrences like, oh, say, random burials, or maybe grave-robbing, from happening?
  • Digging a grave, at least from what I can discern, is difficult work unless one has some heavy machinery on hand. Even two men digging a 3-foot by 8-foot hole four to six feet deep is going to take some time, especially if the ground has clay or a good bit of rock.

Clearly, I was missing some clue or clues to solving this puzzle.

Map showing Oconee County, S.C., in red.

Map showing Oconee County, S.C., in red.

Part of me wanted to call the numbers listed, just to ask what they heck was going on.

But I decided no, I’d rather harbor notions that there’d been a rash of indiscriminate interments and that folks just buried loved ones wherever was convenient in this neck of the woods.

It made for a much better story.

(Top: Sign seen at Damascus Baptist Church, Long Creek, Oconee County, S.C.)