Fist Of History

July, 2013Archive for

Odd Post World War I moments – the Italian Regency of Carnaro

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013


One of the particularly fascinating aspects of World War I is the immediate post-war situation in Europe (and other parts of the world) as well as the work of the Allies in negotiating a new settlement to some of the pressing questions of territory, nationality, and ethnic connections in post-war Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe.  The basic challenge was in 1919 Eastern Europe was composed of a potpourri of different ethnic groups that either at best tolerated each other to outright hating each other actively, combined with a heady brew of hope and nascent nationalistic fervor.  With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a vast number of these groups were suddenly struggling to both define new nations for themselves and grab the best bits of territory.  Into this mix strode romantic nationalists from other nations – which lead in one particularly fun case to the formation of a new quasi-nation-state, the Italian Regency of Carnaro.  This odd city-state came into temporary existence de facto on 12 September 1919 when a romantic intellectual, Gabriele d’Annunzio lead a body of 2,600 Italian soldiers, nationalists, and revolutionaries into the city of Fiume in the territory of (at the time soon to be) Yugoslavia, now Croatia, and drove the occupying Allied troops from the city.  In doing so d’Annunzio was able to enforce his declaration issued four days earlier proclaiming Fiume a new state under a constitution he had written.


On 12 September 1919 d’Annunzio (pictured above) also declared his new city-state to be part of the Kingdom of Italy, a gift Italy didn’t want at the moment, considering accepting it would have pissed off the United States, Britain, and France who were attempting to come to grips with a solution to the problem of Fiume.  The challenge was that the city was in territory that was supposed to go to the new Yugoslavian Kingdom but the population of much of the city itself was Italian, a population that wanted to remain part of Italy.  Add to that in World War I Italy had been promised, if it came into the war, territory along the Adriatic coast that was now supposed to go to Yugoslavia, and you have a problem.  D’Annunzio was able to exist as the ruler of his regency for a period of about a year, roughly, till the Treaty of Rapallo was signed in 1920 creating the Free City of Fiume, a new state that was a joint-rule entity that would stay in position till further diplomatic intrigues shifted its position again in 1924.  (It went to Italy sort-of, it was split up between Yugoslavia and Italy and ended up with an impressive new fortification system just in time for World War II.)  D”Annunzio didn’t accept the new state for his regency and refused to obey the treaty, it took Italian troops invading Fiume and forcing him out in December 1920 to finally bring the short-lived regency to an end.

During his time in power d’Annunzio had created a new constitution for his regency that was the first model Corporatist state, aspects of his model constitution were incorporated into the later Fascist state created by Mussolini for Italy.  The interesting core of d’Annunzio’s state was the idea that all aspects of the economy would be organized into nine mandatory membership corporations with a special tenth corporation set up to represent the needs of “superior individuals” – heroes, poets, and supermen.  The guiding principle of his new state was to be “music.”

Post World War I – a time when even dreamers and intellectuals could carve a new state out of nothing and actually rule people for a spell.

Sources:  Wikipedia on the Charter of Carnaro, Wikipedia on the Italian Regency of Carnaro

Lynchings and Racism in the United States

Saturday, July 20th, 2013


Whenever a case hits the news like Trayvon Martin occur what amazes me is the backlash of racism that rears its head among the American population, in particular the white population.  Said racism can take many forms, ranging from the highly overt (and if you want an example of this please head on over to any YouTube video talking about the case) to the more subtle forms of racism, in particular those white individuals who argue racism is dead in the United States.  But what really gets to me are those who like to whitewash over past racism with a simple hand wave and a statement “well that was then” and then talk about how today we need to be race neutral.  That the United States has evolved from its past roots and now we should all embrace a new state in which race doesn’t matter – so when cases like Travyvon Martin appear, cases solidly grounded in race, people get uncomfortable and defensive, trying to find some other causes to pin injustice upon so they can avoid discussing racism.  I understand it, for modern, especially liberal, whites racism is an ugly topic and one that people feel most comfortable just sweeping under the rug.

I, on the other hand, as a historian like to lift the rug back on occasion and pull out the nastier bits and remind people that not only did horrible things happen due to racism, but those cultural roots are still there, still built into the American experience, and when they rear their ugly heads you need to step back and look at them.  The only way to really understand them is to face what happened in the past because those past events, like it or not, have a major impact in defining our modern culture in the United States.

In particular I like to show images of modern lynchings, most of which date from the 1910s and 1920s, one of the high points in Ku Klux Klan membership and lynchings, lynchings that took place throughout the United States but in particular in the South and the Midwest.  The reason I like to roll these images out are the white people in them, stop and take a gander for a moment.


First these aren’t fringe people you are looking at, note the clothing they are wearing, these are well-dressed white people, middle class white people, the kind of people that make for decent neighbors and decent neighborhoods, at least to their fellow white people.  Look at their postures, look at their faces, notice how they are all relaxed in how they are standing, often smiling, these are the good times for them.  Justice has been served, rough justice but justice, and their morality is untroubled by what they are doing.  In fact what strikes me most is that in these pictures the people seem post emotional high, this is the aftermath, post group psychological climax, time to break out the picnic basket and relax.


This one is one of my personal favorites, you’ll notice the man is on fire on a pile of wood and rubble, naked, badly charred, you know he died in absolute agony.  This comes from Omaha, 1919, the man was Will Brown who was being held because he might have “assaulted a white woman.”  That shit does not play in 1919 White America so the citizens, when denied by the town authorities the “right” to punish him, rioted, nearly killed their mayor, dragged him out of prison, hung him, shot his body, and burned him.  Post this picture they polished off the days events by tying the body to a car and dragging it around town to show off what they had done.  Apparently pieces of the rope used to hang him sold for $0.10 a pop, and did well as commemorative items.  Of course no one was punished for this in any meaningful way, the most a few ringleaders got were sentences for damaging public property.  But I can hear people already saying “but that was 1919 and things are so much different now.”  You are, of course, correct, today it is not legally acceptable for a crowd to roam around in town, drag a black man vaguely accused of “assaulting a white woman” from the city jail, and killing him in the streets.  But there is a link between that happy crowd of the past and those today who defend the shooting of individuals like Trayvon Martin in my humble opinion.


That link?  Every single one of the smiling white people in these horrifying photographs, every single one of them, would have been happy to explain to you in no uncertain terms why what you are seeing was justified.  Now the spooky part for me is that, historically speaking, most of them would have probably not mentioned the fact these are black men they are lynching.  See if you actually read the writings from the period you’ll notice that people writing to justify these actions often avoided focusing on the fact that they were lynching black people, no they were lynching “troublemakers”, people who “didn’t know their place”, or “known criminals and miscreants”.  These good solid white people would have happily explained to you, in rational calm tones, why what they did was justified.  The man killed in Omaha, well the citizens felt that the legal system might let him off and they couldn’t have a “raping crazy man” let loose on the good people of Omaha.

These black men who died, they should have known better you see, they shouldn’t have acted in an aggressive manner, they shouldn’t have been forward with white women, they shouldn’t have disrespected a white man, they shouldn’t have acted in a criminal manner, shouldn’t have hung around a house owned by good, God-Fearing White folk like thieves, they only got what was coming to them, they only got what was necessary to protect decent folks from them.

Read the words of the 1910s and the 1920s, racists who hung people and burned them alive are always written by incredibly rational, reasonable people speaking as though this sort of thing made the most sense in the universe.  Keep that in mind when you read comments about how when a young black man got shot in a hoodie because he was acting suspiciously, because he looked like a criminal, because the white guy firing on him had a right to protect himself, how the law permitted this, how justice has been served and the verdict is fair because we live in a society that’s moved beyond the mistakes of the past, just remember that the nice people who did the horrible things you see in the photos above felt the same way, said the same things, and sounded just as reasonable and fair.

Which is why I occasionally like to put pictures like this out when cases like this appear in the public eye – I like to remind people there is a reason race is still an ugly legacy we have to deal with.

Hitler Leaves the League of Nations – 1933 – an alternative view

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Adolf Hitler in 1933 rose to power over Germany with his appointment as Chancellor, one of his first major foreign policy decisions was to withdraw Germany from the, at the time, on-going World Disarmament Conference and also tender Germany’s resignation from the League of Nations.  After this action Hitler began rearming Germany rapidly but secretly and by 1935 he felt comfortable enough to publicly declare Germany’s intention to fully rearm in violation of the terms of the Versailles Treaty of 1919.  The modern examination of these events see in them a sinister plan by Germany to rebuild its army, under Hitler’s guidance, to reach a point in which Germany could unleash a new, far more powerful army, upon Europe and begin his plans for German expansion and conquest.  Which might be partially true however this version of events misses some of the key nuance to the events that lead to Germany rearming in from 1933 onwards, including the not-improper argument by Hitler that Germany needed to rearm since its neighboring nations had not disarmed to the same levels as Germany.

When Hitler took power in 1933 the Germany army, navy, and air force were operating under the limitations set in 1919 by the Versailles Treaty, however the sticking point was the opening phrase in that treaty included to justify disarming Germany, “In order to render possible the initiation of a general limitation of the armaments of all nations, Germany undertakes strictly to observe the military, naval and air clauses which follow.”  You’ll notice that these terms were supposed to be part of a broader plan by the other nations on Earth to reduce their armaments to a point where every nation would be as militarily stripped as Germany.  The first steps in this regard were undertaken in 1922 with the Washington Naval Treaty, which reduced the naval forces of the key powers on the globe to levels deemed low enough naval war was thought impossible in the 1920s.  The next step was to reduce the land forces of the major powers to the same “defensive only” levels that the Washington Naval Treaty had created for sea power.  The only problem was that when it came to land forces none of the major governments really wanted to actually reduce their armies.  Calls to have a World Disarmament Treaty were made throughout the 1920s and it was only when pressure from pacifists in several European nations demanded it did several reluctant world governments call for a World Disarmament Conference to take place in Geneva in 1932.

Attending this conference were all the major powers, including Germany, who had joined the League of Nations in 1926 (a separate story in and of itself) – and although the conference met for many months it failed due to a basic disagreement between the attending major powers.  Great Britain argued its tiny army at the time was only good for defense, confident in its vast navy as a source of defense, a navy not up for any further reductions.  France, on the other hand, argued that its current massive army was at just the absolutely critical size to allow it to defend France from any threats – aka Germany trying to regain an army.  Germany argued its tiny army, as specified in the Versailles Treaty, was the officially approved micro-army the world said was all it needed and it didn’t need to make any further cuts.  Other smaller European nations in turn also argued their armies were just as tiny as they needed to be for defense.

Hitler in 1933 struck upon Germany’s tiny army compared to the other European powers as a reason to leave the World Disarmament Conference in 1933, he argued that since the other powers had not also disarmed to levels similar to those currently held by Germany, Germany had done its part and had no further reason to attend.  Leaving the League of Nations in 1933 hinged on this as well, Hitler argued that the League had taken no steps to end the sharp limitations on Germany imposed by the 1919 Versailles Treaty and, because of that, Germany was not a full or trusted member of the League.  (On a technical point, Hitler in 1933 announced Germany’s intention to leave the League by 1936, giving the legally required three years notice, and until then although Germany did not participate in League meetings or events, it did pay its dues to the organization on time.)  Hitler’s announcing in 1935 that Germany needed to rearm was coached on the argument that, despite it being three years after the World Disarmament Conference had met, Germany was still the most disarmed European power and due to that the limitations on it were unfair, Germany had to rearm to match the power of its neighbors.

Which is part of the reason France and Great Britain didn’t respond to Germany rearming, matters of realpolitik were part of it – the Great Depression had lowered government revenues enough that a major war was an unpleasant prospect, Germany announcing this and popping out a secret bonus sized army meant a war would be bloodier than either power wanted, but it also involved a reaction by members of both nation’s populations agreeing with Hitler’s announcement.  Their nation’s hadn’t disarmed and if other European powers were not willing to disarm, the feeling was Germany was being forced to increase its military might.

Sources:  The Avalon Project Treaty of Versailles database

Happy Birthday America – no matter how old you are!

Friday, July 5th, 2013

So recently my dear wife pointed out to me the short lived meme floating around the internet where people wished the United States (“America”) a happy 2,013 birthday.  Even today I am not personally sure if this was a massive sarcastic joke that spread across the internet, a genuine error understanding the events that lead to the calendar being reset over two thousand years ago, or a mix of the two.  What I found hilarious was the number of responses that flowed out to correct the error though, usually either “America was discovered in 1492” or more commonly, “America was founded in 1776.”  The reason I find this personally hilarious is because it assumes that the founding date of America is a cut and dried date, 4 July 1776, when in reality picking the “founding date” for the United States, and hence the age of this nation and its birthday, is actually just a matter of agreement among historians and the public on a “founding myth” when the reality is a bit less firm.  So let us dig a bit into the history of the founding of the United States and show that picking the “date” this nation actually was successfully founded is a bit of a tricky problem.

First off, the Continental Congress of the United States declared the independence of “these United States” in 2 July 1776 and ratified the text of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, John Adams wanted 2 July 1776 to be celebrated as the official date of independence but others at the convention decided that was annoying and the 4 July was good enough.  To understand why this matters think of it this way – on 2 July the action was approved, on 4 July the text of the memo informing King George III about what had happened was approved.  (Although the text of the memo was awesome as a literary achievement and political statement the record still shows actual independence was approved on 2 July, a huge step in and of itself.)  But two days, that is just a fine point, because declaring something, and then having it actually mean something, are two very different things.  Although the Continental Congress declared on 2 July 1776 that “these United States” were independent the British were still around, with a whole army controlling chunks of American territory and political control of the newly independent territory remained divided between the various American revolutionary councils, governments, and the Continental Congress and the British Empire.  Plus no one else had actually recognized the United States as independent and, by today’s standards, one of the key rules to becoming your own nation is other nations have to agree you are independent, preferably other nations with some military, political, and economic “oomph.”  But not to worry, foreign recognition was on the way!

On 16 November 1776 the United States got its first recognition from the Netherlands, which acknowledged the flag of the United States.  Boom!  The Netherlands were a powerful state and they had recognized the United States, so at least 1776 is still a good year and we can quibble about the date later.  Except…we can’t, because that recognition from the Netherlands was very unofficial in nature and the Netherlands actually didn’t formally recognize the United States till 1782 when it accepted our ambassador, also known as “by the time we’d effectively kicked the British out of the contested North American territories, mostly.”  Actual official foreign recognition didn’t occur until 6 February 1778 when the sovereign nation of France recognized the United States as an independent nation and signed a treaty with us.  Other nations joined in as well after that, with the other big diplomatic success being Spain joining in the recognition parade.  So you could claim 6 February 1778 is the official date the United States came into being, when a big foreign power recognized the nation, but that still leaves the problem of the British being in the contest territory, fighting the claims of the United States, and generally not recognizing the awesome independence of the United States.

In fact it was not until 3 September 1783 that Great Britain finally gave up all its claims to the disputed territories (mostly) with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  In that treaty Great Britain accepted the independence of the United States and granted it most of the territory the newly formed nation demanded – the U.S. did not get Quebec which it had really wanted but it did get most of what the British held south of Canada.  (Except Florida, which went back to Spain as its reward for joining Team U.S.A. in its war for independence.  France didn’t really get much in the way of territorial gains out of this war but it got at least a warm fuzzy feeling for successfully messing with the British and that is good enough.)  But for even the most nitpicking sort of historian 1783 has to be an acceptable date for the independence of the United States, by that point there was effective control of the contested territory by the government of “these United States” and recognition by all the major powers of the world.

I would agree with that assessment, if the marker for the birthday of the United States was solely independence, 1783 would be the last date one could consider as marking the independence of “these United States.”  Now you’ll have noticed I keep using that specific phrase, “these United States” rather than the more traditional “the United States” and the reason for that is that in 1783 the US was not “the” it was “these” – a coalition of semi-sovereign states with far broader powers than states hold today, bound together under the “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union.”  This initial attempt at a “national” government, in summary, proved far too weak to actually complete the tasks necessary to turn “these United States” into a successful nation and was eventually replaced by national government system number two, the current Constitution of the United States.  Now formally the new government was a modification of the earlier entity created by the Articles of Confederation but in reality they were two very different beasts.  Besides a few minor holdovers from the Articles in the powers delegated to the new government and assuming the debts of the earlier incarnation, our current federal system is vastly different from that which came before it.  Which, to my eye, makes the date of formal ratification of the new Constitution, 17 September 1787, a viable contender for a “Birthday for the United States” as the other dates listed above.

In the end though my views on the founding date of the nation don’t really matter, nor does any “reality” about the founding date matter, the founding date of the United States, 4 July 1776, is a national origin myth, a date agreed upon by its citizens as the origin point of the United States.  It is a moment for the citizens to rally around the flag, to enjoy a day to celebrate the founding of a new nation on the planet, and to join together in a shared moment of national self-recognition.  As an agreed upon myth it holds power over those who believe in it and I, as a historian, respect that.

Just don’t pretend that it is a cut and dried fact that is when the United States was “born” – myths are what appears to cover over the messy nasty questionable bits of history.

The Eastland Disaster – 1915

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Meet the SS Eastland, originally owned at the turn of the 2oth century by the Michigan Steamship Company and responsible for running passengers between the west coast of Michigan and Chicago.  It was a fast passenger steamer designed to haul around 2,500 passengers on pleasure trips on the Great Lakes.  It was built in 1903 and had a semi-successful career as a steamship from its launch date until 1915, ferrying passengers and earning itself a reputation as the fastest ship on the Great Lakes.  In fact it only had one significant drawback, it combined being a top-heavy design with a very high center of gravity for a ship of its size, making it highly susceptible to tipping under certain conditions.  There were a few incidents of it listing heavily in its career but the owners felt there were no serious problems with the ships design and kept it in service.  It traded ownership a few times, moving from company to company operating in Lake Michigan, until a fateful chartered trip on 24 July 1915, departing Chicago to haul a large number of workers for the Western Electric Company for a corporate-sponsored day long picnic in Indiana.

Unfortunately the Eastland had recently had some changes made to its design, specifically the addition of more lifeboats on the top deck, to comply with new tougher regulations on lifeboat numbers written after the Titanic disaster of 1912.  Due to this the Eastland was even more top-heavy as a ship and on that fateful day it was loaded to its maximum possible passenger capacity with 2,572 aboard.  At 7:28 AM something, and no one is quite sure what it was, caught the attention of the masses of passengers on the deck of the ship and they rushed to the port side to get a better look.  The Eastland in that moment leaned heavily over to port and flipped onto its side, flooding the interior of the ship and coming to rest in twenty feet of water at the dockside.  The ship had been tied in place, the water was calm, just everyone on deck shifted over and the ship flipped.

A total of 844 passengers and crew died in that incident, many had retreated to the below decks area to avoid the heat of the early morning, it took a considerable length of time to get the survivors off who were standing on the ships hull and begin to pull the dead from the wreck.  Witnesses at the time were shocked at how quickly the disaster had occurred and also how the ship had just rolled over quietly while tied to the dock.  The Eastland did see another period of service though, it was raised after the disaster and sold the Illinois Naval Reserve were it was rechristened the USS Wilmette.  It served as a training vessel through World War I and also saw service in World War II as a training ship.

Oh, and those running the ship were completely cleared of all wrong-doing in the disaster, the ship was felt to have been “safe” and that no one could have foreseen the disaster.

Despite it being a ship known for being top-heavy when it was constructed, and evidence indicating the inspectors for steamboats had recently boosted its capacity rating to allow it to carry more passengers on this cruise to make up for lost revenue from a bad summer tourist season, no-one could have foreseen this disaster coming.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on the SS Eastland, WTTW website on the Eastland Disaster

The American Army…in SIBERIA!

Monday, July 1st, 2013

The Russian Revolution, stretching from 1917 to 1922, was probably one of the most complex conflicts of the twentieth century, based upon how many different countries ended up getting mixed up in the conflict.  At its core the Russian Civil War was a three way fight between the “Reds” [Bolsheviks or Communists], the “Whites” [Pro-Monarchy or Republic forces, a mix of Russians, Cossacks, and other ethnic groups], and the “Greens” [Anarchist Peasant groups, mainly in the Ukraine.]  The White forces controlled chunks of territory scattered throughout Russia while the Red forces, initially, were concentrated in a core section of Russia around the major eastern cities and Moscow.  The civil war tipped back and forth but the Red forces had superior resources to draw upon for their efforts to win the conflict, the White forces generally had more veteran troops but lacked the logistical and operational support to ensure a victory in a long struggle.  One of the unusual factors of the war though were how many different forces made up the White forces in Russia, including over 12,000 American soldiers sent to occupy and hold Vladivostok in Siberia and Archangel in northern Russia.  (The second expedition to the north being called the Polar Bear Expedition adorably enough.)

Ostensibly the American military was in Russia for two purposes – to help a large military formation of Czechoslovakian soldiers, known as the Czech Legion, escape from Russia via Siberia (it was a very complex war) and also to protect large stockpiles of military supplies located in Archangel and Vladivostok from falling into Communist hands.  The reason for that was, legally, the supplies had been given to the Czarist Russian government to assist them in fighting World War I and since Russia under the new Bolshevik government had dropped out of the war, they had no more need for the supplies.  Pragmatically it was because the United States government, along with the governments of Great Britain, France, and Japan had no interest in Communism taking root in Russia.  The US Army stayed in both cities for an extended period, from 1918 to 1920, in conditions described at the time as “horrible.”  Of particular strain was the deployment of US military forces to guard Archangel, by the time they arrived the supplies there had been taken by the Bolshevik forces and they ended up guarding the port, facing horrible winter conditions, and actual combat with Bolshevik forces for little reason.

By 1920 the American mission, and the White military cause, was seen universally as a failure and most of the foreign troops were removed from Russian soil.  Although it garnered no real political gains for the United States the deployment of troops did cost it considerable political capital with the new Bolshevik state, helping to feed an attitude of paranoia that the “Imperialist Capitalist” powers of the world were out to destroy Russia.  (The real problem in that regard was Japan, which deployed 70,000 troops into Russia, far more than any other nation, and stayed in place till 1922 when the Russian Civil War came to an end.  It was that or actual war with the now firmly in place Soviet government of the USSR.)  At an odd local note, most of the troops that made up the Polar Bear Expedition came from Michigan.

Sources:  Wikipedia Entry on the American Expeditionary Force and the Russian Civil War, the Army Sustainment Page on the Polar Bear Expedition