Posts Tagged ‘Lusitania’

The Prime Minister Primer

Posted in General, On This Day on May 7th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – 6 Comments

I. Party Labels and Libels

God, at least the English speaking one, must believe in a two-party system.  So, in the political Genesis of late 17th century, one party was a gang of curmudgeons who hated Catholics, distrusted kings and liked business.   They were known by their opponents as the Whigs, a Scottish term for bumpkin.  The other party was a pack  of squires who loved themselves–frequently to the point of syphilis, revered hunting, hangovers and the monarchy, and considered religion merely a matter of etiquette.  They were known by their rivals as the Tories, an Irish term for robber.  For some reason, both factions accepted these libels as their formal names.

Bumpkins or robbers:  it wasn’t much of a choice for the English voter but then there weren’t many English voters either.  The franchise–with its convoluted medieval property requirements–was largely limited to the candidates themselves and their male relatives.  In a contested borough, the candidate with the most dependable sons-in-law won.  Even after the first electoral reform bill of 1832 created a lower and more uniform property requirement–only one in six men was eligible to vote.

Nonetheless, with this somewhat enlarged franchise, the two political parties reconciled themselves to change–particularly their names.  Whig and Tory sounded too much like private clubs. The usually hidebound Tories took the initiative by test-marketing the name Conservative.  In 1834 Prime Minister Robert Peel started alluding to his Conservative philosophy, Conservative program, Conservative administration, etc.  But many Tories were not thrilled with the new name–or with Robert Peel for that matter.   It took about 25 years before the party was officially renamed the Conservatives.  Of course, in response to the ballyhooed “new and improved” Conservatives, the Whigs now chose a more coherent and preferably accurate name: the Liberals.  And so, throughout the 19th century, these two parties remained the either-or of British politics.

The British franchise was gradually expanding and by 1900 it encompassed most British males.  Of course, the workin’ man had nay fondness for the Tories, but he also felt little affinity with the middle-class Liberals.  Some labor unions decided to form a political party–and since British politics somehow can’t maintain more than two viable parties at a time, it wasn’t good news for the Liberals.

II. Who’s Who

My idea of casual conversation would include an allusion to Benjamin Disraeli. My acquaintance’s idea of a response was “Who?”  I hoped that I maintained a stoic mien but my eyebrows might have been doing the semaphores of  “How can you be so stupid?” The lady, a friend of a neighbor, is Gentile; so she would have been indifferent to the most interesting feature of Disraeli. I just provided her with a brief description of a “British prime minister of the 19th century and a man of extraordinary charm and wit.”

Now, I don’t want to seem like a pedantic bully  (even if I really am) but I think that a middle-aged college graduate should have heard of Benjamin Disraeli. He is not obscure. It is not as if I had belabored the poor woman with such prime ministerial ciphers as Henry Campbell-Bannerman or James Callahan. (And if I had mentioned Andrew Bonar Law, she might have slapped me.)

I realized that Americans’ criterion for historical significance is whether or not it was made into a movie. But Disraeli has been, and he has been portrayed by George Arliss, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Ian McShane. Given Disraeli’s origins, Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller may feel entitled to play him! No, that woman should have heard of Disraeli.

In fact, I think that a number of British prime ministers merit at least a minimum of recognition.

Robert Walpole (1721-1741), a $2,000 question on Jeopardy but he was the first prime minister.

Lord North (1770-1782), the idiot during the American Revolution.

William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801, 1804-1806) if only because Pittsburgh was named for his father.

Earl Grey (1830-1834) because he had such great taste in tea. Yes, really.

Benjamin Disraeli (1868, 1874-1880): He needs no introduction.

William Gladstone (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894): Disraeli’s rival. If Disraeli was Groucho, Gladstone was Margaret Dumont.

David Lloyd George (1916-1922) in case you were wondering who was standing next to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles.

Neville Chamberlain (1937-1940) who is now remembered as an insult and an accusation.

Winston Churchill (1940-45, 1951-1955), the man George Bush claimed to be–give or take the eloquence.

Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990): Disraeli’s politics with Gladstone’s charm.

Tony Blair (1997-2007) if only to prove that you were not completely oblivious.

Boris Johnson…oh maybe not.

On This Day in 1915

Posted in General, On This Day on May 7th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 2 Comments

May 7th

LusitaniaOn May 7, 1915, U-boat Kommandant Walther Schwieger had to make a difficult choice.  Would he want 4,200,000 rifle bullets  to reach his English enemies or would he prefer 100,000,000  Americans to join the war against Germany.  Deciding that the bullets were a more immediate danger, Schwieger sank the ocean liner transporting the bullets–along with 1900 passengers and crew.  The ship was the Lusitania.

One torpedo was sufficient to sink the British ship.  Even Schwieger admitted that it was a lucky shot.   The Lusitania sank in only 18 minutes.  It took even less time for 1198 people to drown.  The victims included 128 Americans.  Schwieger also succeeded in sinking any neutrality in American public opinion.

Up until that time the Americans dismissed the Great War as just as another elaborate, convoluted European opera except that the main characters really were trying to kill each other.  The public consensus had no preferences.  Yes, Kaiser Wilhelm did seem repellent but so did the British Empire.  Just ask the large number of Irish-Americans.  Among the growing Jewish population in America, Tsar Nicholas II was not fondly remembered; pogroms rarely are.   Furthermore, many Americans were of German descent and felt a certain nostalgia for the Vaterland; they had no wish to see their new country fight their old one.

The sinking of the Lusitania ended America’s indifference.  Popular sympathy was now with the Allies, and many were ready to act on that sentiment: fight the Hun!  Responding to America’s outrage, the Germans attempted to justify the sinking of Lusitania by offering desiccated legalese.  The German government had publicly announced its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against any enemy shipping; it had placed ads in American newspapers!  Obviously, the passengers of the Lusitania should have known better.  The Teutonic jurisprudence did not satisfy the public outrage.  Indeed, within a few months the German government decided to refrain from sinking passenger ships.  (In the meantime, Lieutenant Schwieger sank the R.M.S. Hesperian–a hospital ship; the Second Reich did have some standards and apologized for that.)

America was ready for war, but President Wilson was not.  He had two reservations.  The first was political:  he wanted to be reelected in 1916 and he couldn’t be sure how all those Irish-American Democrats would feel about a military alliance with Britain.  (The American Jews would be placated and gratified by the appointment of Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, and the German-Americans tended to vote Republican anyway.)  His second reservation was philosophical, and our only Ph.D. President took his philosophy very seriously.  If America was to go to war, there had to be a nobler reason than revenge for the Lusitania or a visceral dislike of the Kaiser and German brutality.  America needed an aspiration to justify war.  If this were a war between democracy and autocracy, then Wilson would have committed our nation to the fight.  But the Allies included Tsarist Russia–a tyranny far more repressive than Germany.  While the Tsar reigned, President Wilson would maintain America’s neutrality.

But the Tsar fell in March, 1917 and Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany the next month.  The American victims on the Lusitania at last would be avenged.

As for Lieutenant Schwieger, in 1917 he finally had the misfortune to confront an armed ship.  Attempting to flee, he piloted his U-boat into a minefield.  In his last moments, he knew what it was like to be on the Lusitania.