On This Day

How The East Was Lost

Posted in General, On This Day on August 20th, 2016 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Byzantine EagleOn this day in A.D. 636 (if you lost) or A.H. 15 (if you didn’t)

In the news reports from Iraq, if you still bother to pay attention, you would have heard of the Yarmouk Hospital. It is that dilapidated, pathetic locale for hapless Iraqi civilians to get some facsimile of healthcare. So, who was this namesake Yarmouk? An outstanding physician? A generous (or guilt-ridden) philanthropist?

In fact, Yarmouk was a battle. (So much for Iraqi charm. Wouldn’t you want to go to a hospital named for Iwo Jima?) Of course, Yarmuk was an Arab victory and–however obscure it may be to you–it was one of the most significant battles in history. But for Yarmouk, the Middle East might still be Christian.

Until 636, Islam was still confined to Arabia. The Caliph of the new religion had sent large raiding parties to plunder the infidel neighbors; and the affluent Byzantines certainly had lots worth stealing. In fact, given the lethargic Byzantine defenses, the Arabs burglarized the entire city of Damascus. That heist finally got Constantinople’s attention. (We’ll have to postpone this theological debate over whether or not the Christ child was born potty-trained.) The Emperor Heraclius ordered the army to stop the Arab incursions.

The approach of perhaps 80,000 Byzantines convinced the Arab expeditions to make a prudent exit from Syria. Having one third as many men, the Arab forces retreated as far south as the Yarmouk River valley, which forms the border of modern Syria and Jordan. There they took up defensive positions and awaited the Byzantine attack. And waited and waited and waited. The Byzantines had stopped on the other side of the valley, and began a three-month-long staring contest.

During that three months, the Byzantines made several attempts to negotiate. Considering the Imperial forces’ numerical superiority, the Arab Commander must have been impressed with the Byzantines’ generosity or stupidity. Had the situation been reversed, he would not have hesitated to attack. However, under the circumstances, he was willing to negotiate if only to stall for reinforcements. They arrived, but he still had half as many men as the Byzantines. So the staring contest continued until the Byzantines blinked.

They had no choice in the matter; they were downwind of a sandstorm. And they soon found themselves downwind and under the Arab cavalry. Taking advantage of Allah’s gift of weather, the Arabs attacked. At least half of the Byzantine army was annihilated, the survivors were in disorganized flight. Syria and Palestine were defenseless; the Arabs’ strategy was no longer smash and grab. They were there to stay, and they soon found that Egypt and North Africa were easy pickings as well.

So on this day in 636, Byzantine incompetence lost half of an empire, gave the Arabs the Middle East and left us with the consequences.

Machiavelli’s Role Model

Posted in General, On This Day on August 11th, 2016 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Pope_Alexander_VIDonald Trump could have warned the College of Cardinals about cheap Hispanic labor. However, on this day in 1492, the College elected Roderigo Borja as Pope. Obviously, the Italian boys were not so eager to have the job. Their bribes were only half as much as Roderigo’s, and Roderigo was willing to assimilate. His mistresses were Italian, and he even adopted a more Italian pronunciation of his surname: Borgia. (But his green card would have identified him as Pope Alexander VI.)

But as Donald Trump could have warned them, you let one of them in….Yes, Roderigo had a big family; and with six children, a Pope can’t get by just from skimming the profits of bingo nights. His daughter Lucretia was attractive, so he had no trouble arranging three lucrative marriages for her–and he oversaw her becoming a widow in time for the next marriage. (Annulments took too long, even for a Pope’s daughter.) Then, there was the irrepressible Cesare. Dad made him a cardinal when Cesare was 17, but the boy showed secular interests: murder, pillage and conquering all of Italy. Well, Roderigo could hardly refuse his son (especially if the son might kill him), and the Pope actually liked the idea of Italy as a family heirloom.

Such a conquest was, however, a rather daunting goal. The Italian city states were always at war, but the wars barely amounted to misdemeanors. Ferrara would seize an acre from Rimini, and Rimini might retaliate by defacing a fresco. And the Papal States definitely were not supposed to attack anyone. But Roderigo was not much for etiquette. (For instance, he referred to his children as his children; every other pope pretended that his spawn were only nephews and nieces.) He invested Cesare with the full military resources of the Papal States (Stop laughing; you could buy a lot of mercenaries with purloined Church funds.) But, yes, that would not be enough to quickly conquer the peninsula.

Fortunately, the Pope was a man of faith: he fervently believed in his own craftiness and everyone else’s gullibility. So, Roderigo encouraged the King of France to invade Italy. Once the French invaded in 1494, the Pope then began encouraging Spain to defend its possessions in Southern Italy. Roderigo was even negotiating with the Ottoman Empire. Somehow, he expected to play everyone off against each other and end up with all of Italy. He might have even succeeded but for one miscalculation. Seventy-year-old men have a tendency to die, and in 1503 men usually died at 45. Roderigo had beaten the actuarial table but he couldn’t do it indefinitely. Without Dad, Cesare was without an empire and Lucretia was stuck in her third marriage.

Nonetheless, Roderigo definitely left an legacy. The name Borgia is still remembered. And Spain, allied with the Holy Roman Empire, would be fighting France over the control of Italy for another 30 years. In fact, the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire were so preoccupied with Italian politics that when a German theology professor complained about the Church’s corruption, no one paid any attention to Martin Luther (except the population of Northern Europe).

Pure Italian

Posted in General, On This Day on July 23rd, 2016 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

benito-mussoliniOn this day in 1929, Fascist Italy made a stand for linguistic purity and banned the use of foreign words.

However, if Il Duce wanted to be consistent he would have had to change his name to Guido Mussolini.  Benito is embarrassingly Spanish.  Worse, he could not have his rebaptism at St. Peter’s Church–at least until the Church changed its name.  Peter is a Greek word, you know.  In fact, so are Catholic, Jesus and Christ.  (Fortunately, the word Pope would be acceptably kosher in Italian.)  The Church might have agreed to being Mondo instead of Cattolico, but it likely would have objected to renaming the focus of its worship.  Divo Carpentiere?

There also would need be new nomenclature throughout Italy.  Sicily and Naples are Greek names.  Tuscany is Etruscan.  Lombardy is named for the long beards on the German barbarians who seized the region.  In fact, even the name Italia might not have passed the purity test.  Those big mouth Greeks were the first to use that term, applying it to the southern part of the peninsula which they colonized.  If Italy were named after the legendary Sicilian ruler  Italos, then the derivation would have been unpatriotically Greek.  However, some etymologists believe that the Greeks took (and mispronounced) the indigenous people’s word for their major occupation–raising cattle.

So, going back to the word’s pure roots, Mussolini should have changed the country’s name to Vitalia–land of veal.

 

On This Day in 1403: Treason Can Be Hazardous

Posted in General, On This Day on July 21st, 2016 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Henry IV was very disappointed in the Percy clan. It was a powerful family in Northern England and very useful to a conniving usurper. After helping him seize the English throne and kill the rightful (if preposterously incompetent) King Richard II in 1399, however, it turned out that the Percys could not be trusted. The rapacious family actually expected every title and estate that Henry had promised them. Didn’t they understand politics? Apparently not. The Percys rose in rebellion, having suddenly realized that Henry was an usurper. The now legitimist nobles were supporting the royal claims of the Earl of March–who happened to be related to the Percys by marriage.

Of course, Shakespeare covered this topic–in iambic pentameter–in Henry IV, part I. So you know that the rebels were led by the dashing teenage jock, “Hotspur” Percy but he was killed at the battle of Shrewsbury in a climactic duel with that reprobate teenager Prince Hal. Well, not quite….

Hotspur once had been a teenager; it is a prerequisite when you are 38 years old. That was his age at the battle of Shrewsbury. In fact, he was two years older than Henry IV. Prince Hal actually was a teenager–16–but he did not kill Hotspur. That deed was accomplished by an anonymous archer whose arrow determined the outcome of the battle. Up to Hotspur’s unlucky catch, his forces seemed to be winning; not a knockout decision but ahead on corpse totals. However with the death of their leader, the rebels abandoned the field and Henry IV retained the throne.

But that was Percy luck. Even the competent commanders in the family tended to get killed; and you can imagine the actuarial tables for the inept ones. Here is a brief recitation. Hotspur’s father was killed fighting against the Lancastrians. Hotspur’s son was killed fighting for the Lancastrians. (Changing sides did not improve the family luck.) Hotspur’s grandson was killed fighting for the Lancastrians. Hotspur’s great-grandson was killed in a rent riot. (Now that has to be embarrassing, killed by your disgruntled tenants.)

By some fluke, Hotspur’s great-great grandson died of natural causes at the age of 50. (16th century medicine was as deadly as the warfare.) Of the great-great-great grandsons, one may have died of natural causes; but being a Catholic once engaged to Anne Boleyn, he was definitely on Henry VIII’s “To-Do List.” And his brother was decapitated–as was his son! The 8th Earl of Northumberland–the great-great-great-great-great grandson–was mysteriously shot while in the Tower of London. (It must have been a suicide!)

You have to wonder why the British royals did not simply strip the Percys of their titles and properties, reducing them to fishmongers in Newcastle. Perhaps the Percys offered the Renaissance equivalent of a fox hunt: just catch and kill them. You could also wonder why the Percys did not choose a safer social niche. They must have felt a certain glamour to it all. Whether riddled with arrows or in the midst of their decapitation, they would have gasped “What, and give up show business?”

A year or so ago, the  New York Times had an article on the Duchess of Northumberland. Being egaliterian/vulgar Americans, we would call her Mrs. Percy. After six hundred years, that is definitely job security.

Remembering John Garfield

Posted in General, On This Day on March 4th, 2016 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

John GarfieldMarch 4th

If you have noticed the schedule on Turner Classic Movies, this is the birthday of John Garfield. Although Garfield is now barely remembered, he was the first of the tough, chip-on-the-shoulder, punk leading men. He was the brooding young rebel when James Dean was only alienated from his kindergarten.

Furthermore, Garfield was conspicuously ethnic; his stage name may have seemed homogenized but he still obviously was Jules Garfinkel of the Lower East Side. He appeared at a time when the Hollywood barrier for acceptable ethnicity was James Cagney’s engaging if feisty Irishman. But Garfield’s English was very first-generation and, by the standards of the times, far more New York than American. His compelling presence breached that barrier as well, creating the way for Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.

Garfield was never a star of the first magnitude: no Gable, Flynn or Cooper. He certainly would have been out of place in most costume epics. Cecil B. DeMille would never have known what to do with him. Yet, if Garfield was not the essence of Hollywood glamour, he was the world-weary everyman whose bitter wisdom and bad luck resonated with an audience that knew the deprivations and losses of the real world. Since he did not fit the Hollywood mold, the studios made films to fit him. “Humoresque”, “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Body and Soul” and “Force of Evil” are his best films.

You might also be interested in his first film, “Four Daughters.” By today’s standards, the movie is hokey. We would dismiss it as a “B” feature; but it wasn’t. In fact, the film was considered sensational, “The Last Tango in Paris” by the standards of 1938. John Garfield’s alienated, nihilistic, self-destructive character was unprecedented in Hollywood films. Such a character could be a gangster but NOT the romantic lead.

Unfortunately, John Garfield didn’t live to become an older actor. The pressure of the Hollywood Blacklist and the effects of his childhood’s rheumatic fever led to his early death. “Force of Evil” might describe his encounter with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Jules Garfinkel of New York knew too many Leftists for his own–and America’s–good. Garfield admitted his support of the Spanish Republic and other liberal causes; if any of them had been Communist fronts, he was unaware of that. He apologized for his political naivete but he also refused to divulge the names of other people involved in these organizations. His characters never squealed, and neither did he. So John Garfield ended up being blacklisted by the studios. Once again, he was the kid from New York scrounging for work. His characters usually ran out of luck; so did he.

He died at the age of 39, leaving behind a wife, two young children and the next generation of actors.

The Kreme de la Kremlin

Posted in General, On This Day on December 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

Vladimir Putin is feeling sentimental today. It is the 98th anniversary of the founding of the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police. In honor of this special day, 98 journalists will be assassinated. (To make that quota, the corpse pile will have to include four movie critics and seven cooking columnists; Russia is running out of journalists.)

We tend to think of Lenin as a misunderstood old dear, just a badly tailored Edmund Gwenn. Of course, that is only because we are comparing him to Stalin. In fact, Lenin wasn’t that old, a mere 47 at the time of the November Revolution. (Now, don’t you feel like an under-achiever.) Nor was he remotely lovable. Although he was not a Stalinoid monster, Lenin was a certifiable creep. He was an obsessed, remorseless tyrant who actually read calculus books for fun. Would you be any less dead if Lenin shot you for the sake of dialectic materialism than if Stalin shot you because it was his hobby?

So, it was not surprising that Lenin would establish a secret police just six weeks after the November Revolution. (So much for the honeymoon.) The first head of the Cheka was Felix Dzerzhinsky who was unique among the Bolshevik aristocracy in that he really was an aristocrat. Anyone who slighted him at a soiree or beat him at tennis probably did not live to regret it. Dzerzhinsky may have betrayed his class but not his tastes. In the midst of revolution and civil war, Dzerzhinsky requisitioned a Rolls-Royce for his personal use. It should be noted that his timing was as impeccable as his style. He died of heart attack in 1926, and so avoided a less natural cause of death from Stalin.

In organizing the Cheka, Lenin was just observiing a hallowed Russian tradition. Since Ivan the Terrible, the Tsars had relied on secret police as well. Indeed, Ivan set the standard. His death squads, the Oprichniki, had a very distinctive insignia: the severed head of a dog on their saddles. The dog’s head presumably would sniff out treason. Ivan distrusted his nobles, and the Oprichniki eliminated the causes of his anxiety. Of course, even the Oprichniki found that Ivan could be a little too whimsical. There is a story of a father-and-son team who had risen high in the Oprichniki hierarchy. While at a feast, Ivan thought of a test of loyalty for entertainment. The son was ordered to strangle the father. Before the guests, the son did as he was ordered. Then Ivan ordered the son to be executed; after all, how could Ivan trust anyone who would kill his father?

At least, subsequent Tsars and their secret police refrained from decapitating dogs for decor. (However, Faberge could have made some wonderful facsimiles.) In the last decades of the Russian Empire, the secret police was known as the Okhrana. Their chief concern was suppressing the growing radical movement. They proved so successful at infiltrating revolutionaries groups that Okhrana agents actually were managing many of the revolutionary plots. In 1911, Okhrana oversaw the assassination of the Russian Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin. A political moderate, at least by Russian standards, Stolypin’s attempts at reforms outraged the conservatives. So, Okhrana manipulated a thoroughly infiltrated radical group to kill him. The actual assassin was a genuine revolutionary but his supervisor and his supervisor’s supervisor were all on the Okhrana payroll. It was a perfect Okhrana coup: the reactionaries kill the moderate and frame the radicals.

Yes, the Okhrana even infiltrated the Bolsheviks. One of their double agents was a young Georgian who called himself Stalin. We can surmise that Stalin only gave up the names of the people he didn’t like. Of course, that could have been enough to crowd Siberia.

Oprichniki, Okrana, Cheka, KGB…These are the happy memories that Vladimir Putin is enjoying today. And who says that you can’t bring back the good old days?

L’Affaire and Balanced

Posted in General, On This Day on October 15th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

October 15, 1894: France Needs a Scapegoat

On this day in 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for espionage, accused of giving France’s military secrets to Germany. The charge itself seems incredible. What would the vastly superior German army learn from spying on the French.  Souffle recipes?  The Germans would have ruined them anyway by adding sausage and potatoes.

Dreyfus also happened to be innocent. However, the Army had reached its verdict before the court-martial, and any inconvenient contradictions–such as the evidence–were considered an insult to the image of the army.  Dreyfus had to be guilty, and the facts were irrelevant.   The Conservatives of the time were indignant that anyone would weight the innocence of one man (and a circumcised bourgeois at that) against the honor of the Army.

Here is the updated version of the reactionaries’ reactions:

Michael Medved: The skewed liberal perspective is missing the real story. This situation really is a compliment to the French Army. A Jew can be an officer! I am thrilled to know that. What a tribute to this country! Every Jewish boy in France can grow up to be a Captain Dreyfus!

Bill O’Reilly: What is Dreyfus’ problem? If he didn’t want to be a scapegoat, why is he Jewish? It is what these people are good at, that and violins. Talk about an easy job, for doing nothing, he is going to spend a few years at a tropical resort. You and I should be so lucky, but we have to work for a living.

Ann Coulter: Of course, Dreyfus is guilty. The army ordered him to be guilty and he refused. That is the definition of treason.

Donald Trump:  You can see the pattern.  Alfred, Alsace, alien, Allemagne, allied to the Ottoman Empire which worships Allah.  And what kind of name is Ottoman?  Otto is definitely German.  So Germany and the Ottoman Empire are actually the same country, and Alfred Dreyfus is really a Moslem.

The 2015 Underture

Posted in General, On This Day on August 20th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

On this day in 1882, “The 1812 Overture” premiered. So I asked the leading presidential candidates their opinions of the music and the history it commemorates.

Donald Trump: “I would have known how to conquer Russia. But I am not going to give you the details. Do you think that I want Putin to know?”

Jeb Bush: “So your smug older brother blithely invades a country for no good reason and without the least strategy…and you spend the rest of your life living it down. I know how exactly how Louis Bonaparte felt.”

Scott Walker: “We were fighting Britain, right?”

Ben Carson: “You can get AIDs from listening to Tchaikovsky, especially if you share phonograph needles.”

Hillary Clinton: “If you would like my critique of nineteenth century  international diplomacy, press 1. If you would like my assessment of Napoleon, press 2. If you want my fun perspective of Russian music, press 3.”

Bernie Sanders: “You know, my family was in Russia at the time. But we weren’t exactly hobnobbing with the Russian aristocracy at the premiere. The Tsar was more likely to invite us to a pogrom.”

Cohenquistador?

Posted in General, On This Day on August 6th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

August 6th: Feast Day of the Transfiguration. This has nothing to do with Caitlin Jenner.

However, on this day in 1538, the town of Bogota was founded without first being named Santiago. This unprecedented originality should have gotten Conquistador Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada burned at the stake. Upon retiring as a conquistador, he resumed his former career of treachery and pillaging: law. A none-too-Catholic attorney…the Inquisition sometimes missed the obvious.

Son of Obituary

Posted in General, On This Day on July 28th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

On this day in 1540, Thomas Cromwell was beheaded.  It is gratifying when bad things happen to bad people.  Ironically, the ruthless politician was condemned for one of the few times when he was not thoroughly reprehensible.  Cromwell had connived the condemnation and death of Thomas More.  Technically, disagreeing with the King could be construed as treason; building a case based on rhetorical quibbles, Cromwell destroyed More.  Henry VIII was impressed with this peasant-stock lawyer and Cromwell rose in the bureaucratic firmament.

Ever obliging to the King’s desires, Cromwell then arranged a quick end to Henry’s second marriage.  Anne Boleyn was an ambitious shrew but being obnoxious was not a capital crime.  Cheating on the King was, and Cromwell had five men–including the queen’s brother– seized and tortured until one of them confessed to orgies with Mrs. Tudor.  All five were condemned to death and so was Anne Boleyn.  For his crimes, Cromwell became the King’s chief minister.

Unfortunately, in that capacity Cromwell started acting like a statesman instead of a hatchetman.  Envisioning an alliance of the Protestant princes of Europe, Cromwell encouraged the marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves, a duchess of northern Germany.  Henry agreed–until he saw Anne.  Diplomacy made a marriage unavoidable, but Henry was furious and you know whom he blamed.  Cromwell was a dead man, but Henry–in his sociopathic way–had a code of honor.  He did not want to feel like an ingrate for Cromwell’s past services.  So he first elevated the minister to an earldom–and then had Cromwell condemned to death.

But good toadies are hard to find, and Henry began to miss Cromwell.  As a hint of apology, King allowed the Cromwell family to have some estates and granted the title of baron to his late minister’s son.  The fourth Baron Cromwell (the great-great grandson of Thomas) would fight for Charles I and be elevated to the Earldom of Ardglass.  Of course, the war did not end well for King Charles,  and the Earl of Ardglass had to make peace with the Parliamentary forces.    He got off with a fine;  having the last name of Cromwell did no harm.  Apparently Cousin Oliver had some influence.