History Archives

August 8, 2005

On treason, swans and brothels

I live for history lessons like this one:

Trying to destroy the country and its people would, in most people's books, count as treason, I'd imagine. But then again, it's a fairly tricky crime these days.

Until 1998, the penalty for treason was death. Under the Treason Act of 1351, anyone who "do violate the king's companion, or the king's eldest daughter unmarried, or the wife of the king's eldest son" is committing treason. So James Hewitt and Will Carling, plus whoever else got lucky with her, should have been burned at the stake (the required punishment) for shagging Princess Di.

It gets better.

January 11, 2006


Unbelievably useful although too many pages are still labeled "Under Construction": Website of De Liebaart, a Flemish foundation for historical reconstruction, with plenty of information and reference pictures on historical dress including peasant dress. The photo section is a bit disorganised but does a good job at showing what outfits and tents looked like in 14th-Century Flanders. The site is bilingual.

January 20, 2006

French military victories

Your history lesson for today: A thousand years' worth of French military history. Since right-wing hate-mongerers still keep trotting out the "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys" lie from time to time, and many others are gullible enough to buy it, having this article to refer to will come in handy.

Let's take the toughest case first: the German invasion, 1940, when the French Army supposedly disgraced itself against the Wehrmacht. This is the only real evidence you'll find to call the French cowards, and the more you know about it, the less it proves. Yeah, the French were scared of Hitler. Who wasn't? Chamberlain, the British prime minister, all but licked the Fuhrer's goosesteppers, basically let him have all of Central Europe, because Britain was terrified of war with Germany. Hell, Stalin signed a sweetheart deal with Hitler out of sheer terror, and Stalin wasn't a man who scared easy.

The French were scared, all right. But they had reason to be. For starters, they'd barely begun to recover from their last little scrap with the Germans: a little squabble you might've heard of, called WW I.

WW I was the worst war in history to be a soldier in. WW II was worse if you were a civilian, but the trenches of WW I were five years of Hell like General Sherman never dreamed of. At the end of it a big chunk of northern France looked like the surface of the moon, only bloodier, nothing but craters and rats and entrails.

Verdun. Just that name was enough to make Frenchmen and Germans, the few who survived it, wake up yelling for years afterward. The French lost 1.5 million men out of a total population of 40 million fighting the Germans from 1914-1918. A lot of those guys died charging German machine-gun nests with bayonets. I'd really like to see one of you office smartasses joke about "surrender monkeys" with a French soldier, 1914 vintage. You'd piss your dockers.

Shit, we strut around like we're so tough and we can't even handle a few uppity Iraqi villages. These guys faced the Germans head on for five years, and we call them cowards? And at the end, it was the Germans, not the French, who said "calf rope."

When the sequel war came, the French relied on their frontier fortifications and used their tanks (which were better than the Germans', one on one) defensively. The Germans had a newer, better offensive strategy. So they won. And the French surrendered. Which was damn sensible of them.

This was the WEHRMACHT. In two years, they conquered all of Western Europe and lost only 30,000 troops in the process. That's less than the casualties of Gettysburg. You get the picture? Nobody, no army on earth, could've held off the Germans under the conditions that the French faced them.

(Found as a result of a Google search suggested in an A Fistful of Euros comment)

July 24, 2006

Stabbed in the Back! The Dolchstosslegende explained

Stabbed in the Back! an article from the June issue of Harper's Magazine, was posted on the magazine's website earlier this month. I'd been waiting for it. Some key paragraphs:

The stab in the back first gained currency in Germany, as a means of explaining the nation's stunning defeat in World War I. It was Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg himself, the leading German hero of the war, who told the National Assembly, "As an English general has very truly said, the German army was 'stabbed in the back.'"

Like everything else associated with the stab-in-the-back myth, this claim was disingenuous. The "English general" in question was one Maj. Gen. Neill Malcolm, head of the British Military Mission in Berlin after the war, who put forward this suggestion merely to politely summarize how Field Marshal Erich von Ludendorff–the force behind Hindenburg–was characterizing the German army's alleged lack of support from its civilian government.

The full article traces the legend back to Old Norse folklore, discusses its adoption by the Nazis, and then tackles its use by the American right since the Second World War:

Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.

Read, and learn.

May 5, 2007

Happy Freedom day!

Today, the Dutch, like the Mexicans, celebrate their freedom - specifically we celebrate our liberation from Nazi Germany in 1945. The day before May 5 is Remembrance Day, marked by flying the flag at half-mast and having 2 minutes of silence at 8 o'clock in the evening.

2007 has so far been the sort of year that sneaks up on you, or at least it's been for me. So despite seeing the flags and hearing it mentioned in the media, I forgot to commemorate the dead. Sorry, the dead!

Actually, for people my age and younger, it's pretty hard to put any concrete face on the dead of World War II. There is some public debate on whether Remembrance Day should continue. An overwhelming majority seem to think it should, which puzzles me a bit. Once everyone who knew someone who died in WW II is him/herself dead, it's going to be an empty sort of ritual, which I don't think is what the body politic needs.

Oddly, there doesn't seem to be an overwhelming majority for keeping the May 5 celebration, which is even stranger. The results of our liberation are with us every day and the benefits of not living in a fascist state can be explained to and understood by a small child. Even now, it's a far more relevant occasion than Remembrance. But as early as the 1980s, the celebration was downgraded to a lustral feast instead of an annual one. Luckily, that has been reversed, but the debate over it comes up every once in a while. I didn't hear it this year, but that was because I haven't been paying much attention to the media lately.

Maybe it's because Liberation Day celebrations are fun, and the Netherlands have for most of the post-war years been cursed with Christian-Democrat led governments (or their predecessors - the current CDA was formed, or rather congealed, in the late 1970s) run by people who don't like fun, or at least find it somewhat unseemly to enjoy oneself in public. In the past few decades, the most visible form of Liberation Day Celebration has been the Bevrijdingsfestivals, free music festivals in city parks. In other words, loud noises, drinks, greasy food and alternative/charity-oriented stalls selling or promoting stuff.

Personally, I'm not a big festival fan. I prefer seeing bands indoors, in some smelly den, in the dark, with good beer on tap. But today, it looks like it's gonna be nice weather outside, and there are some bands I'd like to see. If you're going to the Bevrijdingsfestival in Groningen, I'll be seeing Johan on the main stage at quarter past five, Planet Orange on the Local Heroes stage at half past seven, and Cochon Bleu on the northern stage at eight (schedules are approximate and subject to change at the last minute, though festivals these days do run a tighter ship than they used to). Meet me there over a watery festival beer!

May 10, 2007

Beer and morons - Two items worth reading

First: Beer! Crooked Timber's pet contrarian, Daniel Davies, writes In Praise of Budweiser in which he argues that the much-reviled American beer is a perfectly tasty product, not a ripoff of Budvar beer and by any criteria every bit as good as any British Real Ale. He discusses its history, its recipe, the merits of using rice as a brewing grain, and beer as an industrial product. Of all the evidence he mentions, taste is the one that is the most subjective and contentious, but on this issue, he backs up his argument with science:

Budweiser does not taste like piss. Normal urine has a pH of 4.6 to 8.0. Budweiser, like most lagers, has a pH of around 4.0. Therefore, Budweiser is definitely more acidic than piss. It’s also just the ticket if you happen to be drinking beer for breakfast, as the fresh taste of the rice content goes particularly well with most cereals (it is not coincidental that nobody has yet marketed Barley Krispies).

Read the rest.

Second: Morons! P.Z. Myers has something to say about March of the Morons and the familiar underlying argument that stupid people will outbreed smart ones:

The most troubling part of it all is the attempt to root the distinction in biology—it's intrinsic. "They" are lesser beings than "us" because, while their gonads work marvelously well, their brains are inherently less capacious and their children are born with less ability. It's the kind of unwarranted labeling of people that leads to decisions like "three generations of imbeciles are enough"—bigotry built on bad biology to justify suppression by class.

People, they are us.

There are no grounds to argue that there are distinct subpopulations of people with different potentials for intelligence. Genes flow fluidly — if you sneer at the underclass and think your line is superior, I suspect you won't have to go back very many generations to find your stock comes out of that same seething mob. Do you have any Irish, or Jewish, or Italian, or Native American, or Asian, or whatever (literally—it's hard to find any ethnic origin that wasn't despised at some time) in your ancestry? Go back a hundred years or so, and your great- or great-great-grandparents were regarded as apes or subhumans or mentally deficient lackeys suitable only for menial labor.

Are you staring aghast at the latest cluster of immigrants in this country, are you fretting that they're breeding like rabbits? That generation of children will be the people your kids grow up with, go to school with, date, and marry. It may take a while, but eventually, your line will merge with theirs. Presuming you propagate at all, your genes are destined to disperse into that great living pool of humanity. Get used to it.

Again, read the whole thing and might I add that if I'm ever stuck out at sea in a small lifeboat with a Young Earth Creationist Jesus-Zombie type of person and a Social Darwinist, I will conspire with the Jesus Zombie to eat the Social Darwinist first. They're just about the one group of people that get my hackles up more than outright evolution-deniers.

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