Soccer fans: Always up for a good brawl, anywhere, anytime

Among the more interesting aspects of the World Cup is the fanaticism it invokes.

As the world’s most popular sporting event – 3.2 billion people watched the last World Cup, in 2014 – it’s bound to attract a number of zealots. But often the circumstances of such passion prove more than slightly curious.

Take yesterday’s match between Poland and Senegal. One wouldn’t expect there to be too much conflict between fans of countries more than 3,000 miles apart, but, then again, this is the World Cup.

Which is why approximately four dozen Polish and Senegalese soccer fans brawled while watching a live screening of the game – in Antwerp, Belgium!

Benches and fists were thrown in the donnybrook, which occurred after an argument started.

“It got out of hand and people started throwing chairs,” bar manager Johan Peeraer told local paper Gazet van Antwerpen.

While disturbances have been rare during this year’s World Cup, certainly rarer than in past Cups, the fact that fans from an Eastern European country and an African country brawled while in a North Sea city watching a game played in Moscow is fascinating.

I suppose it’s the equivalent of me and two dozen buddies brawling with the same number of angry Uruguayans in a cantina in Baja California while watching a Formula 1 race in San Marino. Except, this only seems to happen in soccer.

It’s almost enough to make up for the deadly boredom of the sport.

(Top: Poland and Senegal locking horns Tuesday in World Cup action.)

Romania: Trying to recover from bad luck, bad choices

antonescu and hitler

The 20th century was, to be blunt, pretty crappy for citizens of many countries. Those of the Soviet Union, who were forced to endure two world wars, civil war, the onset of communism and Stalin’s murderous regime, had it particularly bad, for example.

Other nations that had a rather rough go of it during the 20th century include:

  • Poland (the loss of 450,000 men in World War I even though it was not independent at that point, a war with the Soviets from 1918-1921, invaded and decimated by Nazi Germany with a huge loss of life – estimated at more than 6 million, including 3 million Jews – then placed under Soviet hegemony for 45 years);
  • Korea (annexed and brutally subjugated by Japan from 1910 to 1945, divided and then involved in a ruthless civil war from 1950-53, and both North Korea and South Korea still at daggers with one another); and
  • The former Yugoslav republics (cobbled together in part through Woodrow Wilson’s machinations after World War I, invaded by the Nazis – who set up a brutal puppet state – commandeered by Tito after the war, and finally rent asunder by brutal internecine conflict in the 1990s).

Another country that would probably like a do-over for the 20th century is Romania, which didn’t acquit itself very well in either world war and suffered under the whip of two particularly odious dictators during the Cold War.

Romania chose to remain neutral for the first two years of World War I before joining with the Entente Powers in the summer of 1916. Unfortunately,  Romania then quickly found itself overwhelmed by the Central Powers, which occupied two-thirds of the country.

When Russia capitulated to Germany following the Russian Revolution, Romania found itself surrounded and was forced to sign a harsh peace treaty. Although it was ultimately able to acquire territory under the Treaties of Saint Germain, Trianon and Paris, total Romanian military and civilian losses between 1916 and 1918 were estimated at nearly 750,000.

Things turned out even worse in the Second World War for Romania. Originally loosely affiliated with Great Britain and France, Romania opted to align itself with Nazi Germany after the start of World War II when the Nazis made quick work of most of Western Europe.

Seventy-five years ago this week, the Romanian government, under the control of fascist Ion Antonescu, officially threw its lot in with the Axis Powers, signing the Tripartite Pact.

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Reports of Nazi train buried in southern Poland appear true

gold train map

It now appears that, unlike many other accounts of Nazi-era loot uncovered inside mountains or deep in alpine lakes, last month’s report about the discovery of a World War II German military train, possibly buried with gold, gems and guns, may be true.

A Polish official said recently that ground-penetrating radar images have left him “99 percent convinced” that a World War II German military train is buried near the southwestern city of Walbrzych.

According to local legend, a Nazi train filled with gold, gems and guns went missing near the city in 1945, the BBC reports.

Poland’s Deputy Culture Minister Piotr Zuchowski said radar images appeared to show a train equipped with gun turrets.

In addition, specialists at the Ksiaz castle, the nearby Polish fortress that Hitler intended to become his base of operations in Eastern Europe, believe at least two further undiscovered Nazi trains were in the area carrying unknown treasures.

Zuchowski did not reveal the location of the find but reiterated warnings to treasure hunters that the site may be booby-trapped.

Last month, a Pole and a German told authorities in Walbrzych that they knew the location of the armored train.

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Stupidity: A never-changing constant throughout history

southern 2-8-2 Mikado Locomotive

Among history’s reassuring staples is man’s ability to act like an idiot.

We’re not talking about odious acts or abhorrent misconduct – though there has been that aplenty over the millenia. I’m referring to the garden-variety foolishness that seems rampant today thanks to the Internet and social media. We may be better able to track today’s idiocy than in the past, but it’s unlikely the spirit behind such inanity is different from that of yesteryear.

Consider a story that appeared in the Spartanburg (SC) Herald in the late summer of 1939.

Under the headline “’Borrowed’ Locomotive Wrecks and Two Union Men Land in Jail Cells,” the paper detailed an incident in which a couple of (figurative) clowns went for a joyride on a 284,000-pound steam engine, with the locomotive ending up in a ravine in Union, SC.

The unnamed pair – it doesn’t mention just how liquored up they might have been – were walking across the Upstate South Carolina town at night looking for something to do when they noticed a Southern Railway locomotive sitting on a track at the rear of a water works plant.

One of the two decided he wanted to blow the train’s horn.

The duo climbed into the engine’s cab and pulled a lever, but instead of sounding the horn, the train, which likely had been left idling so that it would be ready to go the following morning, began moving backward.

The pair, unable to stop the locomotive, jumped from engine, which continued moving backward, picking up speed. It eventually travelled 600 yards to the end of the spur, near the old Union Mills warehouse.

It then left the tracks and plunged into an earthen embankment.

It took approximately 24 hours for railroad workers to get the engine up and back on the tracks.

The two men were confined to the hoosegow – one in the county jail, the other in the city jail – while Union police officers conferred with railway police to determine what charges to lodge against the duo.

They were eventually fined an undisclosed amount.

What may have helped lessen the severity of their penalty was that the incident took place on Aug. 31, 1939, and made the papers the following day. Attention was likely drawn away from the two knuckleheads shortly thereafter by events in Europe, as Nazi Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, officially initiating World War II.

(Top: A Southern Railway 2-8-2 locomotive, likely similar to what a pair of lugnuts inadvertently drove off the rails in the late summer of 1939 in Union, SC.)

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.)

Last survivor of Polish-Soviet War dies at 113

Polish Uhlans

Among the multitude of conflicts that erupted during 20th century, the Polish-Soviet War is all but forgotten.

The 1919-1921 confrontation featured the newly formed Soviet Russia and Soviet Ukraine against the Poland and the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

Poland, which had just been re-established by the Treaty of Versailles after spending nearly 125 years under the rule of various other countries, including Russia, wanted to secure its borders and independence.

Soviet forces were seeking to spread revolution into other parts of Europe.

Ultimately, the Soviets were defeated, but Polish efforts at an eastward invasion of Ukraine and Belarus were equally unsuccessful.

“The Polish-Soviet conflict is famous for decisively thwarting a Russian advance into the West and Central Europe following the Polish victory at the Battle of Warsaw (Vistula River) in August of 1920,” according to the Warfare History Blog.

The war resulted in the deaths of approximately 110,000 soldiers, according to historians.

Although the conflict ended 93 years ago – fighting concluded in October 1920 but a peace treaty wasn’t signed until March 1921 – its final survivor died only last week.

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The bear who served in World War II

Wojtek the bear

History is replete with examples of animals serving as military mascots.

The fictional bear Winnie the Pooh is based on “Winnipeg,” or “Winnie,” a black bear that was the mascot for a Canadian cavalry regiment during the early part of World War I; “Tirpitz,” was a pig captured from the German Navy following the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914 and ended up as the mascot of the cruiser HMS Glasgow; and “Old Douglas” was a camel that served as part of the 43rd Mississippi Infantry Regiment during the War Between the States until he was killed by a Union sharpshooter at Vicksburg.

However all of the above take a back seat to Wojtek, a bear who was not only the mascot of a Polish artillery supply unit, but actually was given a rank and perform duties while in service during World War II.

Wojtek was happened upon by a group of Polish soldiers in the spring of 1942 after they had landed in Persia and began moving toward Egypt in an effort to re-group under the direction of the British Army, according to the website Today I Found Out.

The Poles had originally been taken prisoners by the Soviets following the invasion of Poland by German and Soviet forces in 1939.

When Germany turned on the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviets, in dire need of troops, decided to release their Polish prisoners of war, who started re-forming into a fighting force.

As the Polish troops made their way through the mountains of Persia, the story goes that a group of soldiers happened upon an Iranian shepherd boy who had found an orphaned Syrian brown bear cub. With food scarce, the boy agreed to trade the cub to the soldiers for some canned meat.

The soldiers named the cub Wojtek, pronounced “Voytek,” meaning “he who enjoys war” or “smiling warrior,” according to Today I Found Out.

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