On This Day

How John Law Enriched Your Vocabulary and Bankrupted Everything Else

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

March 21, 1729:  Hell Gets a Chief Financial Officer

Mississippi Bubble finalWall Street did not pioneer the stock market crash.  No, that distinction belongs to France some 70 years before there was a New York Stock Exchange.  Yet, in a way the Crash of 1720 was America’s fault.   All those French investors were absolutely certain that there were gold mines in Louisiana, and that fortune was just waiting for them.  They had been assured of it by that widely-acknowledged financial genius John Law.

An economist by education, Law (1671-1729) actually earned his livelihood as a gambler; he may have been the pioneer of card-counting.  Law also was a convicted murderer; but since it involved a duel over a woman, the French only esteemed him the more.  The charismatic Scotsman managed to ingratiate himself with the Duke of Orleans and ended up as the comptroller of the French currency.

In that position, Law introduced the use of paper money in France.  The logic of the innovation was impeccable; paper money was easier to handle than bulky bullion and so would facilitate business. Of course, the paper money had to represent legitimate value and be redeemable for a guaranteed amount of gold or silver. However, the French government did not understand that specific principle; the printing presses of the Royal Mint produced reams of increasingly devalued paper.The notes were soon worth one-fifth of their face value.

But Law thought of a remedy for this: offering stock shares whose potential profits would more than compensate for the depreciating currency. At the time France claimed a vast tract of land in North America, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada: 828,000 square miles we know as the Louisiana Territory. Law persuaded the French government to grant him the exclusive mining and trading rights to the territory.  In so vast a territory, there had to be gold and silver mines.  Mexico had them, and the Louisiana Territory was almost next door.  The professional gambler thought he was playing the odds, and he managed to convince the French investors of a sure thing.  They would be fools not to invest in his venture, Compagnie d’Occident.

Their buying became a frenzy; the company’s shares went from 500 Livres in 1719 to 18,000 Livres in 1720.  Besides, as the French investors knew, their money was worthless so why not gamble with it.  The shares of Law’s company seemed preferable to the inflated currency.  However, even if Louisiana had gold mines, the price of the stock had become ridiculous.  And the tottering French economy would certainly not be saved by what Louisiana really had to offer:  crawfish.

The stock collapsed before the year was over, dropping to 300 Livres.  Bankrupt himself, Law found it wise to leave France.   Despite his notoriety–or because of it–he had no trouble finding sanctuary.  Any man who had done that much harm to France was always welcome in Britain.  (And in his flush days, Law  had “secured” a pardon for that murder charge.)  Law resumed his career as a gambler but could not resume his good luck;  he died in threadbare circumstances on this day in 1729.

The French monarchy itself had lost part of the Treasury in the market crash and would never regain solvency. Of course, it would continue to spend money as if Louisiana were made of gold.  (The monarchy’s IOUs finally came due in 1789.)  Historians refer to this scandal as the Mississippi Bubble.

Ironically, while the stock price was surging, the investors thought that they were rich–if only on paper. A term was coined to define the extent of their new wealth: millionaire.

A Wee Dram for a Wee Brain

Posted in On This Day on January 31st, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

January 31st

Bottle Prince CharlieBonnie Prince Charlie is the Scotch endearment for the drunken imbecile who led the Highlanders to disaster, ruin and Canada. He was the heir and last champion of the House of Stuart or, in his case, the Souse of Stupor. His grandfather was the obnoxious and stupid James II, king of Great Britain. The Stuarts, the rulers of Scotland, always had a poor working relationship with England. James IV was killed in battle with the English. His son James V died in flight after a lost battle with the English. His granddaughter Mary was executed by the English. Ironically, when Elizabeth I died and had no heirs (one of the side effects of being a Virgin Queen) the throne went to her distant cousin James VI of Scotland. Somehow, James avoided being killed by the English. However, his son Charles I didn’t.

Charles I had two sons who managed to avoid infant mortality, childhood diseases and 17th century medicine. Charles II was remarkably charming and bright for a Stuart (actually, he took after his French grandfather Henri IV). The Merry Monarch had 14 children but none were with his wife. Upon his death, the throne went to his legitimate heir: his brother James. James was a typical Stuart, and he managed to further alienate the Protestant Parliament by being a Catholic. However, his daughters and heirs Mary and Anne were Protestant; so Parliament was prepared to tolerate James as an aberration on the Anglican throne. The Protestant succession could end, however, if James’ second wife, a nice Italian girl, gave birth to a son. According to the sexist laws of succession, an infant Catholic son would take precedence over his teenage Protestant half-sisters.

Well, guess what happened in 1688? The announcements in the Times would have read:

“James and Mary Stuart are pleased to announced the birth of their son Junior.”

“Parliament has an opening for a senior executive position in the British civil service. Protestants only.”

William, Prince of the Netherlands, evidently had the most promising resume. His wife was Mary the daughter of James II, and he was impeccably Protestant. Parliament invited him and Mary to take control of the throne. Although James II still had the loyalty of most of the army, the king’s nerves failed him and he fled, with his Catholic family, to France. Having faltered when he had the most advantageous position, James would later incite a slipshod rebellion in Ireland. The Orangemen are still gloating about the results. William and Mary had no children. (His fondness for pugs should have been a hint.) After their deaths Anne succeeded. The Stuarts usually were stupid but attractive: imagine a dynasty cast by Aaron Spelling. Anne, however, was begrudged the good looks and cheated in every other way too. The dull, miserable woman outlived her children, was exploited by politicians and betrayed by every friend but her brandy. When she died of alcohol and dropsy, Parliament had to choose her successor. Her half-brother James was the nearest heir, and he did have supporters in England. The Tory Party was founded by Stuart partisans. The alternative was her second cousin George: an elderly, repulsive German princeling who couldn’t speak English. However, he was a Protestant while James was a Catholic. With the Whig Party in control of Parliament, Britain soon had King George I.

The rejected James attempted a coup in England but, being a Stuart, he managed to doing everything wrong. This was known as the first Jacobite Rebellion. In time, the son of this prince–Bonny Prince Charlie–would incite the Second Jacobite Rebellion. Charles’ chief adviser was his brandy flask. Drambuie still advertises his enthusiastic patronage.

Attempting to restore the Stuarts to the British throne, Charles landed in Northern Scotland in 1745 and incited the Highlanders to rebellion. In some ways, the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-46 seems like one of those recent British comedies that require subtitles to understand. We could call this saga: “The Full Montebank.” A drunken, aristocratic twit, trying to pose as ‘just a working fella’ runs for president…no that’s the reincarnation…Anyway, this sotted fop rallies the Highland rowdies who–despite their inept leader–manage to conquer Scotland and invade England. The English are caught completely unprepared; London is in a panic. Charlie’s army of Highlanders is only 100 miles away. The rebellion actually has a chance of succeeding; the Tory Party in England is sympathetic. Then, in an untimely moment of sobriety, Charlie gets cold feet and retreats back to Scotland.

Unfortunately, the end is no comedy. The English army has a chance to organize and begins a vengeful pursuit. At the last battle, Culloden in 1746, the Scots are back where they started: in the Highlands. They have swords and an idiot commander; the English have cannons, muskets and a sadistic commander. Actually, Culloden is a massacre rather than a battle. Charlie manages to escapes and gets to France. Most of his soldiers are either killed at the battle or hunted down and slaughtered as they attempt to flee.

The English began a period of brutal repression in the Highlands. Their policy basically gave the Scots three choices: would you like to hang, starve or go to Canada?

However, Bonnie Prince Charlie was not reduced to drinking Molson’s. He managed to escape to France and spent his remaining forty-two years plotting against his liver. On January 31, 1788, he finally succeeded.

A Compassionate Alternative to Hanging

Posted in General, On This Day on January 25th, 2015 by Eugene Finerman – 1 Comment

January 26, 1788:  Once You’ve Lost America, Where Do You Dump Your Petty Criminals?

AustraliaIn 1606, Dutch explorer Willem Jansz discovered a large land mass south of New Guinea.  From his tentative exploration, he found nothing to merit further interest.  The land was swampy, and the natives poor and hostile.  It would be another 36 years before the Dutch ventured a second expedition to this land.  Abel Tasman sailed along the western and southern coasts of what proved to be a very large island.  He found the lands there to be arid and uninhabitable.  Yet, however dismal, this territory required some designation on maps.  So cartographers gave it the generic name of Australis, the Latin for southern. 

Not until 1770 did anyone bother to explore the east coast of Australis.  British explorer James Cook found its land to be surprisingly habitable.  The climate was temperate and the soil seemed arable.  Eastern Australis could provide the basic requirements of a European colony.  Claiming the land for Great Britain, Cook named the territory New South Wales.  So Britain now had a distant island that offered a meager sustenance–and that proved exactly what Britain wanted.

In politics and science, 18th century Britain certainly was in the forefront of the Enlightenment.  But that energetic progress did not extend to British justice.  There the gallows was the usual recourse, dispatching thieves as well as murderers.  Still, there was some leniency in the system.  Shoplifters, poachers, prostitutes and debtors really did not deserve to hang.  For stealing food, seven years in prison was sufficient retribution.  The problem was that the prisons were teeming with these petty criminals.  Britain could make better use of them by transporting them to its far-flung colonies.  There, the felons could labor on government projects or be sold as indentured servants, working as slave labor for the length of their prison sentence.  The American colonies had served as a useful dumping ground for these criminals.  Indeed, Georgia had been founded expressly as a penal colony.  However, since 1775, those colonies proved completely uncooperative with any British policies.  With America lost, Britain found a use for New South Wales. 

In December1786, the British government authorized an expedition to establish a penal colony in Australis. Eleven ships–known in Australian history as the “First Fleet”– departed from Britain in 1787.  On board were 772 prisoners, of whom 189 were women, 247 marines as guards, and supplies to sustain the colony for its first year.  Sailing around Cape Horn and through the Indian Ocean, the Fleet reached New South Wales on January 18, 1788.  They first landed at an inlet called Botany Bay but the site lacked a source of fresh water.  Sailing a short distance north, the Fleet found a more promising site for settlement on January 26th.  It would be named for Britain’s Home Secretary:  Lord Sydney.  

The First Fleet would be followed by a Second Fleet, a Third Fleet and eventually no one bothered counting.  Each fleet had a cargo of criminals.  Over the next 80 years 162,000 shackled men and women would be transported to Australia.  Today, the Commonwealth has a population of 22 million.  Four million of them are descended from those convicts,  and January 26th is remembered as Australia Day.

Simon Says

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

January 20, 1265:  The First Meeting of “Talking Place” (You know it might sound better in French)

MonfortIn 1215, rebelling against the repressive rule of King John, the barons of England forced the cowed monarch to sign the Magna Carta, a charter of concessions defining and restricting his power. Henceforth, the King could no longer arbitrarily arrest an Englishman or seize his property. Neither John nor any other English king would again be a tyrant. However, the Magna Carta did not guarantee the king’s competence. The monarch was still free to be weak, inept and reckless; and Henry III–the son of John–fully exercised those dubious prerogatives. In 1264, the barons rebelled again, now to impose some restraining responsibilities on the bankrupt Crown. And the rebels’ leader Simon de Montfort had a remarkable idea to accomplish that: a governing council with elected representatives.

Ironically, the pioneer of parliamentary government had nothing liberal in his pedigree or upbringing. Simon de Montfort was an aristocrat, the son of a warlord who had made a fortune in the Crusades. Nor was Simon even English, but French. France, however, afforded him few opportunities; his older brother would inherit the family estates. But he did have a tenuous claim to an English title. The last Earl of Leicester had died childless, and Simon was his great-nephew. So in 1230 the 22 year-old Frenchman travelled to England to become an Earl.

Thirteenth century England was a feudal society. The King and two hundred nobles ruled four million people. There were some 80 boroughs, their term for cities and towns; London was the largest–with a population of approximately 30,000. Most of the English–at least 80 percent–were peasants. Half of that number were serfs, little more than human livestock. The ruling class and their subjects barely spoke the same language. The French of the aristocracy and the Angle-Saxon of the commoners were gradually evolving into a mutually understood language: Middle English. And on the English throne was the affable catastrophe Henry III.

Simon de Montfort was not the only fortune-hunter at the English court, and most of them were French, too. The king had many Gallic relatives and they all made themselves his guests. But Simon, with his soldier’s bearing, stood apart from the fawning courtiers. Henry was impressed and so granted Simon part of the Leicester inheritance. Montfort could have the lands and income of the earldom but not the actual title. That would have to be earned. The King expected military service, but Simon chose a different type of campaign. Eleanor Plantagenet was an attractive, young woman; she was also the king’s sister. Simon married her, and Henry’s wedding present was the Earldom.

In his rise to prominence and power, the Earl of Leicester earned the envy and enmity of other courtiers. The King could be easily swayed by malicious reports, and so Simon often found himself the victim of the royal whimsy. Although he had certainly proved himself adept at court politics, Simon loathed it. He fled the sordid intrigues by going on a crusade in 1240. At least in the Middle East, his enemies were clearly defined and usually more honorable than English courtiers. He returned to England and the politics a year later, but would always speak longingly of the Crusades and their moral clarity.

When the King summoned the Royal Council, an assembly of England’s leading nobles and prelates, it was sometimes for their advice but usually for their money. The Magna Carta forbid the King from raising taxes without the Council’s consent. Of course, the Earl of Leicester was a member of the Royal Council. He had first been a staunch supporter of the King; that might be expected of a rising courtier and a brother-in-law. Overtime, however, experience and disillusionment turned him into a critic of the King. Henry’s rule was an appalling farce. Royal offices were doled out to corrupt, incompetent favorites. Wars were lost through cowardice and mismanagement. The King bankrupted the treasury pursuing ridiculous schemes; one was a campaign to win the crown of Sicily. And, in 1258, when the King wanted more money for this Sicilian fiasco, the Council not only refused but, led by Simon de Montfort, demanded constraints upon Henry and the reform of the government.

The outraged nobles could not be ignored. Each one had a personal army and their combined might could overwhelm the King’s forces. Intimidated, Henry agreed to abide by whatever reforms would be determined by a special session of the Royal Council. Representatives of the King and the Barons met at Oxford to create a program of reforms. They intended to limit the king’s power and to impose on government officials a standard of ethics and competence. Their proposals are now remembered as the “Provisions of Oxford.”

According to the Provisions, the King would be under the supervision of a 15- member governing council called a “parliament.” “There are to be three parliaments a year…To these three parliaments the chosen counselors of the King shall come, even if they are not summoned, in order to examine the state of the kingdom and to consider the commons needs of the kingdom and likewise of the King.” Note that the parliament would meet, regardless of Henry’s approval. The Provisions also imposed term limits of one year on all royal appointees, and these appointees would have to report to the parliament.

Henry agreed to the Provisions in October, 1158 and then spent the next two years stalling on their implementation. All the while, Henry was corresponding with the Pope, pleading for the Church to absolve him from his pledge. In April, 1261, the Pope did, and now Henry could sanctimoniously reject the reforms. However, the Church had not threatened to excommunicate Simon de Montfort and the Barons; so they could still demand the Provisions. With England verging on Civil War, Henry offered another proposal. King Louis IX of France was renowned for his sense of justice; why not let him arbitrate the dispute. Montfort agreed, putting his faith in the eventual Saint Louis. On this earth, however, Louis was still very much a king, and he was not going to undermine the principles of monarchy. In January, 1264 he decided in Henry’s favor.

The nobles had been outmanuevered but not pacified. They had no alternative but war; but they had no better leader than Simon de Montfort. He was 56 years old, an old man in those times, but still eager to lead this crusade. King Henry and his son Edward were gathering their forces at Lewes, in Southeastern England. Montfort had a smaller army but he knew Henry’s incompetence and Edward’s inexperience. The Earl attacked; by the end of the day, Henry and Edward were prisoners and Simon de Montfort was “the uncrowned king of England.” Henry would remain king, if only in name. The actual power would be in the hands of a triumvirate of regents: Montfort, of course, and his allies the Bishop of Chicester and the Earl of Gloucester.

But Montfort knew that this arrangement was expedient and temporary. There had to be a sound and lasting basis for responsible government. Both the Provisions’ proposed parliament and the Royal Council had been an assembly of aristocrats. Montfort wanted a parliament that drew upon the advice and consent of the commoners. So, he would convene a parliament in January 1265, and he ordered the 37 counties and some 80 towns of England to send elected representatives. It was unprecedented, and many of Montfort’s fellow barons were appalled. Some, including the Earl of Gloucester, would now conspire to restore the King. What happened at Montfort’s parliament? Ironically, we do not know the details of this momentous event. No records have survived. Montfort’s enemies might have destroyed them.

Those enemies were gathering strength. With the help of the treacherous Gloucester, Prince Edward had escaped and now was rallying an army in the west of England. Montfort led an army in pursuit, bringing along Henry as hostage. The Earl camped at Evesham and awaited reinforcements. They never came. Prince Edward, proving himself a bold and capable commander, had destroyed that force and now would surprise Montfort. The Earl was killed, and his body mutilated, its parts sent throughout the kingdom as trophies. King Henry was released from one captivity but placed in another. The real ruler would be Prince Edward. Ironically, Edward was exactly what the defeated Barons had wanted in a king: strong, efficient, and responsible.

He would also prove a statesman. When King Edward I summoned a parliament in 1275, he ordered the counties and towns of England to send elected representatives. A wise king would want the support and the advice of the commoners. So Montfort’s radical idea became the precedent of parliament, and the basis of representative government. Today, a descendant of Edward sits on the British throne, but the heirs of Simon de Montfort–the elected members of Parliament –rule Britain.

Fools and Their Money

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

January 6, 1721:  The First Government Report on a Stock Market Scandal

South Sea BubbleGreed knows no borders, and 1720 was a vintage year for it.  French investors had succumbed to the prospect of gold mines in Louisiana; for a short while, they had even become rich–on paper.  English investors were envious and eagerly sought a stock that would make them all rich, too.  So they placed their hopes and Pounds in the South Sea Company, a British business that could claim a lucrative privilege.  The Crown had granted the Company a monopoly on trade with South America.  The gold and gems, the spices, even the parrots–all the treasures of a continent–were ceded to the South Sea Company.  Its investors were certain of a fortune.

There was only one drawback to this wonderful monopoly; the wrong Crown had granted it.  Spain controlled most of South America.  The British did not even have Guyana at the time.  So the South Sea Company had to convince Spain to honor the British monopoly, and its timing was not opportune.  Britain and Spain had just recently ended an 11 year-long war;  England’s express aim had been to oust the Bourbon King from his throne.  The South Sea Company evidently hoped that Felipe V had either a good nature or a bad memory.  He had neither.  In fact, Spain restricted the Company’s trade in South America to one ship a year.

Even worse for the Company, the trade proved disappointing.  The British had hoped that the South Americans would want African slaves, but there really was not much of a market for them.  The Spanish already had the entire population of Latin America for serfs.

Those were the dismal facts and mediocre returns on the Company’s ledgers, but the Stock Market could ignore such minor details.  In  January the company’s stock was trading at 128 Pounds, but investors began bidding it up.  In March the stock’s price rose to 330 Pounds.  There was no real reason for that increase, but the gain only incited further demand for the stock.  The other investors couldn’t be wrong, and no one wanted to be the last to buy the stock.  The buying frenzy continued.  By August, the stock price was 1000 Pounds.

Of course, very few people actually had that kind of money; they were buying on credit–which is effortless until you have to pay it back.  Some creditor must have tactlessly asked for repayment, and suddenly no one wanted to pay 1000 Pounds for a 100 Pound stock.  That set off a cascade of selling.  By December the stock price was 124 Pounds.  Reality had its belated say in the market.

Parliament, especially the members who had lost money, insisted on an investigation. The government report was presented this day:  January 6, 1721.  As it turned out, the Company had bribed a number of government officials; apparently Crown monopolies are not granted solely on merit.  The directors of the Company had their estates confiscated; one government official went to prison.  Of course, the Prime Minister promised further reforms.  And with that stern retribution, nothing like this has ever happened again.

Reflecting on the market scandal, Isaac Newton said, “I can calculate the motion of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”  Having lost 20,000 Pounds, he was speaking from experience.

The absurdity inspired Jonathan Swift to write:

The Nation too, too late will find

Computing all their Cost and Trouble

Directors Promises but Wind

South Sea at best a mighty Bubble.


And, thanks to Swift, we now describe such financial lunacy as a bubble.

Misery Chord

Posted in General, On This Day on November 21st, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

November 22nd:  St. Cecilia’s Day

St Cecilia's jukeboxOn this day in either A.D. 170 or 223 St. Cecilia died; even the Church can’t keep track of all its virgin martyrs. However, St. Cecilia’s death should have been memorable. She died three days after her decapitation. The patron saint of music evidently had mastered breath control. (A Wagnerian soprano might last two weeks after a decapitation.) And Cecilia really gave a farewell performance, spending much of her last three days in song. You or I might use our miraculous powers to regenerate a neck, but that is why we are not saints.

If Cecilia was a virgin martyr, at the very least her husband was a saint, too. His name was Valerian. On their wedding night, Cecilia told him that she had a wonderful surprise for him if he converted to Christianity. The young patrician promptly did, and an angel then appeared to explain the bliss of chastity. Valerian apparently never convinced Cecilia of the need for charity. The Church records Valerian as a saint and martyr–but not as a virgin. There may be limits to what you can ask of an Italian man.

Cecilia turned their home into a church and that certainly violated Roman zoning ordinances. Of course, the law blamed Valerian; the husband is supposed to be responsible. When Valerian refused to make a sacrifice to the Gods, he became the sacrifice. The matter might have ended there. Roman authorities were not really interested in prosecuting aristocratic women for their religious eccentricities. In fact, the government regarded Christianity as a females’ religion; good works and virtue were perfectly compatible with a woman’s domestic role in Roman society. The danger of Christianity was if the men became less bloodthirsty or if the slaves demanded justice.

But Cecilia would not let herself be ignored. She continued to preach and sing. In planning her execution, the authorities first showed her the consideration due an aristocratic lady. Being sealed in a steam bath was said to be painless and therapeutic; you suffocated while enjoying all the benefits of a facial. (This particular form of execution was even considered Christian; the Emperor Constantine applied it to an unfaithful wife. It only fell out of use when bathing did in the sixth century.) However, as seems to be the rule with all of these martyrdoms, the first attempt always fails. Cecilia survived the steam treatment, and Romans then tried decapitation. That eventually worked.

You now may see St. Cecilia’s head in Rome, Italy. Unfortunately, it no longer takes musical requests.

Veterans’ Day at the Movies

Posted in General, On This Day on November 11th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

November 11, 1918:  Western Civilization gave itself a slight respite from self-destruction.

Poppy Projector FinishedThe Armistice lasted 20 years, allowing sufficient time for the toddlers of 1918 to grow into their boots and helmets. (And during that respite, corporals and sergeants promoted themselves to Fuhrers and Duces.)

We Americans did actually win the First World War simply because we still had a breathing generation of draft age men and we showed up in France at the right moment. Had the Chinese sent one million men to France in 1918, they could have won the war, too. Timing is everything.

America was barely involved in World War I. We entered the War in 1917, missing all the excitement of Gallipoli, the Somme and Verdun. More doughboys died from influenza than Krupp munitions. Our chief casualties may have been Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, who were constantly escaping “a fate worse than death” from the Hunnish clutches (or whatever the pertinent organ) of Erich von Stroheim in Hollywood’s depictions of the War. (It should be noted that in her long film career Miss Gish was also nearly raped during the French Revolution and the American Civil War.) Given our limited participation in the Great War, we commemorate November 11 as a catch-all day for all of our Veterans.

However if you really want to honor the veterans of the most futile war in history, you can do so any day on Turner Classic Movies. Just turn on a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood and look at the British actors. To a man, they served in a far more harrowing theater than all the terrors of working with Bette Davis. Many of them were left scarred. Herbert Marshall had the unique distinction of being a leading man with a wooden leg. Claude Raines was blind in one eye. When you see Ronald Colman’s fencing in “The Prisoner of Zenda” you wouldn’t know that he had a kneecap shot off. Lieutenant Nigel Bruce was machine-gunned in the buttocks; that is not the kind of wound that gets the Victoria Cross. If Leslie Howard seemed introspective and other-worldly, shellshock can do that. In fact, to save time, let me recite the British actors who somehow avoided being maimed in France. Well, Leo G. Carroll was wounded in the Middle East; at least, he had that originality.

The most veteran of the British veterans was Donald Crisp, the kindly father figure in so many films of the Thirties and Forties. (He did have an incestuous interest in Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms”; but you know, I am starting to have my suspicions about Miss Gish. Did the woman gargle pheromones?) Crisp fought in the Boer War and then served again in the Great War.

If you want to see a microcosm of British history, watch the 1940 production of “Pride and Prejudice.” The middle-aged actors–Edmund Gwenn and Melville Cooper– had served in the Great War. The younger members of the cast–Laurence Olivier and Bruce Lester–were to have their turn. The Armistice was about to end.

And Erich von Stroheim would threaten a new generation of actresses.

Fool Russians Where Engels Feared To Tread

Posted in General, On This Day on November 7th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

November 7, 1917:  One Day That Shook the World (John Reed padded the rest)

Lenin dice Russia darkUnder the tsars, the Russian people were oppressed by good-looking imbeciles with flawless table manners. Vladimir Lenin envisioned a new world in which tyranny would be based on pathology rather than pedigree. However, Russia was not ready for communism during the first decade of the century.

According to Karl Marx, the Revolution would occur in an advanced industrialized society in which the workers starved but read Hegel. In the early 20th century, Russia was still perfecting feudalism. Lenin became resigned to a life in exile, playing chess in Switzerland.

In 1914, after decades of extravagant militarism, the European powers surprised themselves by having a war. To protect Serbia from Austria, Russia went to war with Germany. (To protect Austria, Germany attacked Belgium. If anyone had possessed a sense of direction, it wouldn’t have been a world war.)

Russia couldn’t even supply all of its soldiers with rifles. In 1915, 25% of the Russian troops at the front were unarmed; they had to wait to inherit the guns of dead soldiers. At least the tsarist government demonstrated even-handed incompetence by neglecting civilians. The transportation system broke down, and the cities went without food and fuel.

By March 1917, the civilians were rioting and the soldiers mutinying.  Tsar Nicholas II was at the front “inspiring” the troops. His imperious majesty would have been safer with the Germans. He found himself under arrest and confronted with a delegation of government officials demanding his abdication.

Thus, a new and liberal government came to power in Russia. All those cultured, sensitive souls from Chekhov plays were running the country. This provisional government commanded the fervent support of millions; unfortunately, none of them were in Russia. What is freedom of the press to a nation of illiterates? The provisional government inherited chaos and chose to perpetuate it. Although the world war had toppled the monarchy, the new government intended to keep Russia in the carnage. The Russian masses were ready for any leader or ideology that ended the war, and Lenin took this as his opportunity.

In late March 1917, Lenin walked into the German consulate in Zurich and offered to overthrow the Russian government. He must have learned the word “chutzpah” from Leon Trotsky. Lenin peddled the Bolshevik Revolution essentially as an initial public offering. If Germany provided him with the start-up capital for his venture, he would seize control of Russia and withdraw it from the war. Germany could then shift its eastern army to France and, with that additional million men, bludgeon its way to Paris and victory.

Though Lenin’s scheme was preposterous, the Germans were receptive to gruesome ideas. The Second Reich had already pioneered submarine warfare and poison gas, so it was willing to invest in proletarian uprisings. Germany provided the train and traveling expenses for Lenin and his cadre of Bolshevik exiles. They arrived in Russia in April 1917; they were in control by November.  Today is the anniversary of their coup.

There was no one to defend democracy in Russia. Russian liberals made excellent novelists, but their idea of defense against a Bolshevik onslaught was to make a sarcastic remark in French.   The Bolsheviks’ seizure of Petrograd was so boringly bloodless that Soviet film makers had to concoct battle scenes for the sake of drama.  Most of the liberals survived the revolution (even Lenin thought that they were too amusing to kill) and ended up as tenured professors at Ivy League schools.

Lenin had promised peace to Russia. Indeed, the Russian army assumed that a promise was as good as a treaty; the soldiers began an impromptu retreat home. Germany, however, was not ready for peace. While it had achieved victory in the East for the price of Lenin’s train fare, Germany now wanted more for its investment. The Second Reich demanded control of Poland, the Baltic States, Finland and the Ukraine. Russia would lose 27% of her arable land and 73% of her coal fields. For all practical purposes, the Baltic Sea now would be a tributary of the Rhine. Lenin had no choice but to capitulate. An unopposed German army can be very persuasive.

Fortunately for Lenin, Germany never collected on the debt. There still was a Western Front, and Germany’s first encounter with Captain George Patton and an American army would be the precursor for the main event. While Germany was whimpering about the Treaty of Versailles, it was in no position to enforce its juice loan to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Germany might have taken some satisfaction from subsidizing the Bolshevik state. After all, someone had to threaten Western civilization, and if it couldn’t be Germany, why not the Soviet Union?


Comicsar Yevgeny

Queer Eye for the Strait Cathedral

Posted in General, On This Day on October 31st, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

October 31, 1517:   Professor Luther Defaces a Church Door

With all his Teutonic subtlety, Professor Martin Luther hammered on the doors of Wittenburg Cathedral his challenge to the Church.  His “95 Theses” was a list of questions on the issue of Indulgences.  The list could be summarized:   Is the Pope a complete moron or just a shameless thief? For some reason, the Church declined the debate.

Why was the Church selling Indulgences? It wanted the money, of course. You can’t have a Renaissance on a medieval budget. Michelangelo was not cheap, and Raphael could charge even more because he was likable. The Church was undergoing a major redecorating binge….

And now from the video archives: here is “This Old Basilica”:old st teeters finished c

Julius II: I think that this 1200 year-old church needs some work. I am asking the best artists of the Renaissance for their advice.

Leonardo: It is a camp pastiche. A little Byzantine here, a dab Gothic there, a soupcon Romanesque and mustn’t ignore the retro classic.

Bramante: It is also collapsing.

Julius: All right. Let’s build a new one.

Michelangelo: If you want any sculpting done, fine. Otherwise, I might beat you to death.

Julius: That is a fine way to talk to the Vicar of Christ, especially when I am dying of syphilis.

Leonardo: I think that the new cathedral should fly–a transfiguration motif. I will need at least six years to come up with the right shade for the blueprints.

Julius: Leonardo, the word genius doesn’t do you justice. I believe that the Greek words schizo and phrenia might be apt.

And now that we have torn down the old basilica, I have a little surprise: we can’t afford to build a new one! Maybe you should elect some rich idiot to succeed me….

Cardinal Giovanni de Medici: Hi, I was strolling by, trying to pick up altar boys, when I noticed a job posting for Pope. Let’s see the requirements: Catholics preferred and must be willing to bribe the College of Cardinals. I think that can be arranged. So now I am—

Pope Leo X: Bramante, love your plans. I still am not sure how we can afford it.

Bramante: You’re a de Medici. God borrows money from you.

Leo: Buying a Papal election is more expensive than you’d think. I guess that I could raise money by selling indulgences. No problem there. And I suppose that I could be polite to those pyromaniac lunatics in Spain–just in case they conquer any fabulously rich civilizations in the New World. On second thought, couldn’t you guys work in wood and wallpaper?

Turban Decay

Posted in General, On This Day on September 12th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 3 Comments

September 12th, 1683:  The Ottoman Empire Begins Its Retreat to Oblivion

Turks in Vienna finishedFirst, the official version: Vienna is besieged by the Ottomans but an army led by Poland’s King Jan Sobieski routs the Moslem horde and saves Western Civilization.

Once you have dispensed with the grateful tears and a few bars of Chopin (how else do you thank Poland), I will give you the actual history.

Yes, the Ottomans did besiege Vienna in 1683.  However, this was not the Ottoman Empire of 1483 or 1583, but the bloated parody of its martial glory. Uma Thurman had become Shelley Winters. This Ottoman army was no longer led by warrior kings; the Sultans–now cretins by birth or choice–rarely could find their way out of their harem. The army was now led by whichever courtier had bribed or connived the command.

The commanding pasha at Vienna was Kara Mustafa. He had an army of 140,000 men, but only a third of them were actual soldiers and their weapons were outdated. The other 90,000 men were basically support staff–and the pasha was enjoying the best coffee and cushions. Setting off from Constantinople in April, the Ottoman army lumbered upon Vienna in mid-July. Since an Ottoman horde was hard to ignore, Vienna had ample time to evacuated the civilian population. There was only a garrison of 18,000 left behind the walls of Vienna.

Even with their geriatric armaments, by sheer force the Ottomans could have taken the city. However, that would have been unprofitable for the Pasha. If Vienna were taken by storm, the Turkish soldiers would be entitled to whatever they could loot. On the other hand, if the city were besieged and starved into submission, then the Pasha would receive Vienna’s treasures. Guess which strategy Kara Mustafa preferred?

There are worse places to siege than Vienna in the summer. The Ottoman army enjoyed a pleasant two months of pillaging the Austrian countryside. However, their vacation ended rather abruptly–on this day in 1683–with the arrival of an allied army led by Jan Sobieski. The Pasha evidently had overlooked that possibility. Worse, although Sobieski’s force was half the size of the Pasha’s, the Christian army was composed of soldiers rather than servants. It turned out that the Turkish army was much faster when retreating than advancing. And, indeed, the Ottoman Empire now would be retreating for the next 250 years.

(Yes, in their haste, the Turks left behind sacks of coffee beans.  The Poles were entitled to the pick of the loot but were not interested in a sober beverage; so they gave the Turks’ caffeine to the Viennese who made it into an art.)

For his role in the debacle, Kara Mustafa did not receive the Medal of Freedom. He was strangled and then beheaded. So the Sultan was not a complete cretin.

And was Christendom saved? Well, it never was in danger. The Ottoman Empire had no plans for mosques in Moscow or Turkish baths in Bath. This was simply a turf war between Turkey and Austria, and the winner would get Hungary. Furthermore, if this had been a clash between Islam and Christendom, then Turkey had a very strange ally: the leading power of Western Civilization. You see, the Hapsburgs were fighting on two fronts: in the East against the Turks, and in the West against France. Yes, France and Turkey were allies of long-standing, with over a century of coordinated attacks against the Hapsburgs.

Indeed, while Austria was marshalling and mortgaging its resources against Turkey, there was little left to defend the west bank of the Rhine from Louis XIV. Perhaps the French victories offered some solace to the Turkish Sultan. He may have lost Vienna and then Hungary, but his French buddy now owned Alsace and Lorraine.