Heligoland

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Heligoland coat of arms. Wikipedia.

From the National Post:

‘Blow the bloody place up’: Why, 70 years ago, Britain blew up an entire German island

In 1947, Britain had a problem. It had thousands of tonnes of explosives left over from the Second World War. And it also had a German island in the North Sea that it hated.

So, 70 years ago this week, the Royal Navy enacted an elegant solution: Use the explosives to blow the island to hell.

“Blow the bloody place up,” was reportedly the instructions given to F.T. Woosnam, the British naval engineer tasked with making the island of Heligoland disappear.

The preparation wasn’t overly technical.

For nearly a year, crews had simply stacked up more than 7,000 tonnes of old munitions and wired them together: Depth charges, old torpedoes, boxes of grenades and stacks of aerial bombs.

Photos from the era show crews nonchalantly kicking dismantled torpedoes into large heaps.

The resulting April 19 explosion, triggered with the push of a button by a sharply dressed naval commander, not only shattered every vestige of human habitation on the island — but permanently altered the topography of the place.

The United Kingdom had plenty of reasons to hate Heligoland. For starters, the island had once been part of the British Empire after it was captured during the Napoleonic Wars.

But finding no use for a windy outcrop filled with vacationers, in 1890 London handed it over to the newly formed German Empire in exchange for the African island of Zanzibar.

To the Brits’ chagrin, the Germans then proceeded to spend two world wars using Heligoland as a fortress from which to attack the U.K.

The island was the site of the first naval battle of the First World War, and the first major aerial battle of the Second World War. In both conflicts, it was a key forward base for submarines looking to starve the U.K. into submission.

After the first war in 1918, the victorious Allies had simply ordered the island to be demilitarized.

But when that clearly hadn’t worked, the victors of another war settled on a backup plan: Detonate the place so severely that it could never again be used for military purposes.

“A very reasonable way of celebrating Hitler’s birthday,” proclaimed the narrator of British newsreel documenting the destruction.

Then, just for good measure, the Royal Air Force spent the rest of the 1940s using Heligoland as a target site for their bombers.

Only in 1952 were Heligolanders allowed to move back.

Why the Brits didn’t just keep it I do not know. I seem to remember that the place played a role in the John Malkovich movie Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Click on the link to read more and to see newsreel footage of the explosion.

Vimy Ridge

The Battle of Vimy Ridge, which took place 100 years ago this coming week, represented an allied victory over the Germans during the First World War. In particular, according to Canadian historian Pierre Berton, it marked the moment when Canada “truly emerged as a nation” – the four Canadian divisions coming together to take a fortified knoll outside Givenchy-en-Gohell and capture some 4000 prisoners. Wikipedia suggests that the nation-building story only came about during the latter part of the twentieth century (i.e. during the 1960s, when the Liberals were trying to downplay Canada’s British connection). Be that as it may, it is clear that the battle, as a rare victory in an otherwise disastrous and pointless war, has become important to Canada’s psyche. The British commanding officer, Field Marshall Julian Byng (elevated to the peerage in 1919 as Baron Byng of Vimy) was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1921, and Vimy Ridge was one of the eight sites granted to Canada for the construction of memorials; Walter Seymour Allward’s winning design was opened by King Edward VIII in 1936.

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Wikipedia.

And check out the Vimy 100 page at the National Post, whose current top story relates the news that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and 25,000 other Canadians are headed to France for ceremonies marking the centenary.

UPDATE: Dartblog covers Vimy Ridge also. Check out the photo of the current $20 bill and the link to Coach’s Corner.

UPDATE: This morning I discovered my Vimy pin. These appeared in the wake of the refurbishment of the monument in 2007.

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Gift of Ron Good.

I also noticed that Mike Babcock was wearing one last night as his team made the playoffs for the first time since 2013. (I don’t know why he wasn’t smiling more).

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Apparently the Vimy pin is now “April’s poppy,” according to the Vimy Foundation website. It proceeds to explain that:

The four coloured boxes represent the four Canadian divisions which fought together for the first time on April 9, 1917 at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The red represents the First Division, the dark blue the Second Division, the grey-blue the Third Division, and the green the Fourth Division. The order of the ribbon’s colours (left to right) reflects the positioning of the four Canadian Divisions facing the German defences on the day of the battle.

Ides of March

An amusing bit of fake news from Tom MacMaster on this day:

Despite Melania’s wish, Trump is currently en route to an emergency meeting in the Senate and has dispensed with his security detail…

Zimmerman Telegram

Notice of a significant anniversary from the BBC:

Why was the Zimmermann Telegram so important?

By Gordon Corera
Security correspondent

Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of a remarkable success for British intelligence: but one that involved spying on the United States and then conspiring with its senior officials to manipulate public opinion in America.

On the morning of 17 January 1917, Nigel de Grey walked into his boss’s office in Room 40 of the Admiralty, home of British code-breakers.
It was obvious to Reginald “Blinker” Hall that his subordinate was excited.

“Do you want to bring America into the war?” de Grey asked.

The answer was obvious. Everyone knew that America entering World War One to fight the Germans would help break the stalemate.

“Yes, my boy. Why?” Hall answered.

“I’ve got something here which – well, it’s a rather astonishing message which might do the trick if we could use it,” de Grey said.

The previous day, the German foreign minister, Arthur Zimmermann, had sent a message to the German ambassador to Washington.

The message used a code that had been largely cracked by British code-breakers, the forerunners of those who would later work at Bletchley Park.

Zimmermann had sent instructions to approach the Mexican government with what seems an extraordinary deal: if it was to join any war against America, it would be rewarded with the territories of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

“This may be a very big thing, possibly the biggest thing in the war. For the present, not a soul outside this room is to be told anything at all,” Hall said after reading it.

Part of the problem was how the message had been obtained.

German telegraph cables passing through the English Channel had been cut at the start of the War by a British ship.

So Germany often sent its messages in code via neutral countries.

Germany had convinced President Wilson in the US that keeping channels of communication open would help end the War, and so the US agreed to pass on German diplomatic messages from Berlin to its embassy in Washington.

The message – which would become known as the Zimmermann Telegram – had been handed, in code, to the American Embassy in Berlin at 15:00 on Tuesday 16 January.

The American ambassador had queried the content of such a long message and been reassured it related to peace proposals.

By that evening, it was passing through another European country and then London before being relayed to the State Department in Washington.

From there, it would eventually arrive at the German embassy on 19 January to be decoded and then recoded and sent on via a commercial Western Union telegraphic office to Mexico, arriving the same day.

Thanks to their interception capability process, Britain’s code-breakers were reading the message two days before the intended recipients (although they initially could not read all of it).

A coded message about attacking the US was actually passed along US diplomatic channels.

And Britain was spying on the US and its diplomatic traffic (something it would continue to do for another quarter of a century).

The cable was intelligence gold-dust and could be used to persuade America to join the War.

But how could Britain use it – when to do so would reveal both that they were breaking German codes and that they had obtained the message by spying on the very country it was hoping to become its ally?

Find out at the link.

Martin Luther

From the Economist, via Tim Furnish:

How Martin Luther has shaped Germany for half a millennium

The 500th anniversary of the 95 theses finds a country as moralistic as ever

SET foot in Germany this year and you are likely to encounter the jowly, dour portrait of Martin Luther. With more than 1,000 events in 100 locations, the whole nation is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the monk issuing his 95 theses and (perhaps apocryphally) pinning them to the church door at Wittenberg. He set in motion a split in Christianity that would forever change not just Germany, but the world.

At home, Luther’s significance is no longer primarily theological. After generations of secularisation, not to mention decades of official atheism in the formerly communist east (which includes Wittenberg), Germans are not particularly religious. But the Reformation was not just about God. It shaped the German language, mentality and way of life. For centuries the country was riven by bloody confessional strife; today Protestants and Catholics are each about 30% of the population. But after German unification in the 19th century, Lutheranism won the culture wars. “Much of what used to be typically Protestant we today perceive as typically German,” says Christine Eichel, author of “Deutschland, Lutherland”, a book about Luther’s influence.

Click on the link to see if you agree.

Professor Buzzkill

In honor of the feast of St. Francis, a podcast debunking several myths about him, by my friend Bill Campbell. The teaser:

St. Francis of Assisi is one of the most popular saints in the Christian religion. He’s known as a lover of animals, the first eco-warrior, and a peace-negotiator during the crusades. How much of this is true, and how much is myth? “Make me the instrument of your buzzkilling!”

Le Sacre du Printemps

It’s over three years old now, but I missed it at the time: a significant anniversary noticed in The Verge:

100 years ago today, ‘The Rite of Spring’ incited a riot in a Paris theater

It began with a bassoon and ended in a brawl.

One hundred years ago today, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted The Rite of Spring before a packed theater in Paris, with a ballet performance that would go down as one of the most important — and violent — in modern history.

Today, The Rite is widely regarded as a seminal work of modernism — a frenetic, jagged orchestral ballet that boldly rejected the ordered harmonies and comfort of traditional composition. The piece would go on to leave an indelible mark on jazz, minimalism, and other contemporary movements, but to many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.

Details surrounding the events of May 29th, 1913 remain hazy. Official records are scarce, and most of what is known is based on eyewitness accounts or newspaper reports. To this day, experts debate over what exactly sparked the incident — was it music or dance? publicity stunt or social warfare? — though most agree on at least one thing: Stravinsky’s grand debut ended in mayhem and chaos.

The tumult began not long after the ballet’s opening notes — a meandering and eerily high-pitched bassoon solo that elicited laughter and derision from many in the audience. The jeers became louder as the orchestra progressed into more cacophonous territory, with its pounding percussion and jarring rhythms escalating in tandem with the tensions inside the recently opened Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Things reached a near-fever pitch by the time the dancers took the stage, under the direction of famed choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky of the Ballets Russes. Dressed in whimsical costumes, the dancers performed bizarre and violent moves, eschewing grace and fluidity for convulsive jerks that mirrored the work’s strange narrative of pagan sacrifice. Onstage in Paris, the crowd’s catcalls became so loud that the ballerinas could no longer hear the orchestra, forcing Nijinsky to shout out commands from backstage.

A scuffle eventually broke out between two factions in the audience, and the orchestra soon found itself under siege, as angry Parisians hurled vegetables and other objects toward the stage. It’s not clear whether the police were ever dispatched to the theater, though 40 people were reportedly ejected. Remarkably, the performance continued to completion, though the fallout was swift and brutal.

More at the link and, if you’re interested, in Modris Eksteins’s wonderful book Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (1989).

From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station

From the Financial Times, an interesting review of four books dealing with Russia’s October Revolution, whose centennial will be observed next year:

Next April will mark the 100th anniversary of what was surely the most consequential train journey in history. Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik revolutionary and future founder of the Soviet state, travelled from Zurich through Germany to Petrograd, the Russian capital, on a journey that the government in Berlin set up in a bid to destabilise Russia and win the first world war. In Winston Churchill’s inimitable words: “They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

From Lenin’s train ride, and from the Bolshevik seizure of power to which it led in October 1917 (November 1917 by the western calendar that Russia adopted in 1918), flowed the 20th century’s most important military and political events. “The Revolution put in power the totalitarian communism that eventually ruled one third of the human race, stimulated the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, and thus the Second World War, and created the great antagonist the West faced for the forty years Cold War balance of terror,” Tony Brenton says in his introduction to Historically Inevitable?

More at the link. (Title is a lyrical reference.)

Book Review

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens. I wrote a blog post about it at the time which I reprint below.

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God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is the latest from Christopher Hitchens, and one of the more popular of the recent spate of atheist bestsellers. “That’s ridiculous,” says my wife. “Everything poisons religion!” The voice of a believer, to be sure, but she has a point. The main flaw of this book is that Hitchens creates a category called “religion” into which he dumps everything he doesn’t like, and a category called “humanism” to encompass everything he does like. So Martin Luther King was not actually inspired by his faith, but Hitler was supported by the Church, and Stalinism was its own religion.* Ergo, religion is bad. Nice! Hitchens constantly refers to Ockham’s Razor, apparently unaware that William of Ockham was a fourteenth-century English Franciscan who was an important scholastic theologian. Peter and Rosemary Grant spent thirty years on the Galapagos Islands observing finch beak evolution; “who could wish that they had mortified themselves in a holy cave or on top of a sacred pillar instead?” Not I – but I will say that I’m also glad that armies of anonymous medieval monks patiently copied out manuscripts, as a service to the Lord, so that we could read them today, and I’m also glad that Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk, did his pea-plant experiments so that we could know learn about genetics. Do they get credit for what they’ve done? Or were they just humanists without knowing it?

That’s not to say that the book is a bad read. For every solecism (The Passion of the Christ did not seek “tirelessly to lay the blame for the Crucifixion upon the Jews,” “Vulgate” does not mean “vernacular”; Wyclif and Coverdale were not killed for translating the Bible [nor was Tyndale, for that matter – it was his marginal notes that were found heretical]; etc.), there are ten clever, witty turns of phrase, all strung together in that lucid, vituperative Hitchens style. It’s just, as I say, there are some fundamental problems with the whole thing. Hitchens claims that he had been writing the book “all his life,” and indeed much of it reads like an essay by a very smart high school student. He has a chapter debunking the creation myth of Genesis, and another excoriating the Gospels for not agreeing with each other. (You don’t say! Well, there goes my faith.) He also goes on and on about religion’s repression of sexuality, making me wonder just what sort of upbringing Hitchens had. If only religion didn’t lay guilt trips on us about our sexual desires, then we would all be so much happier! But who even takes such instruction to heart anymore? And surely even he recognizes that sex is dangerous? Do what comes naturally and cheat on your girlfriend – even if she’s an atheist, chances are she’ll be upset. Hit on your atheist students and your atheist self might still get fired by your secular college administration. We don’t need religion to be moral, as he constantly tells us – but we don’t need religion to have good reasons for repressing our sexuality either.

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the gauntlet that Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and now Hitchens have thrown down to religion as such. The first of these authors is very keen on the idea that religion is an evolutionary social adaptation shared by all members of Homo sapiens, and closely allied to our capacity for language.** I am prepared to believe this, although I don’t draw the same conclusion from it that he does. Dennett would have the exposure of this fact be enough to condemn religion for all time – we have now “broken the spell.” But if it is so intrinsically a part of us (on a macro scale, of course – individual “capacity” for religion varies by individual) then can we just dismiss it out of hand? Not that I’m obsessed with sex or anything, but: I can surmise that female attractiveness is just a trick that nature is playing on me in order to get me to procreate. I don’t think it’s entirely a social construction that young women at the height of their fertility also tend to be the most sexually desirable. Does this mean that we are to give up sex, except for procreative purposes, because we “know better”? Or do we simply try to tame the excesses of sexual desire, hem it in with social custom – by encouraging monogamy, proscribing relationships between adults and children, and banning public courtship beyond a certain stage of undress, but by otherwise leaving consenting adults to act as they wish in private? The latter is of course the more practical (and humane) avenue to take… and I would also apply the principle to religion. Western society is significantly less religious now than it ever has been, and who knows, maybe rising standards of living and increasing discoveries about our evolutionary makeup will cause it to die out eventually. It seems though that religion keeps showing a remarkable tenacity and longevity. This is why I can’t accept Hitchens’s claim that it “poisons everything” or Dawkins’s that it constitutes child abuse. It seems to me that the best thing is to try and channel it in constructive ways, encouraging forbearance, loving your neighbor, community service, and good music, and discouraging self-righteousness, exclusivity, meddling in public school curricula, etc.

* It seems to me that Hitchens has turned Marxism on its head. Rather than religion being a (false-conscious) mask for economic conflict, now economic (and other) conflict is at base religious.

** Although a biologist colleague of mine (a secularist as far as I can tell) says that evolutionary “storytelling” is now much out of fashion among serious evolutionary biologists – unless you have proper data, you can’t just say that “x” is a product of natural selection for “y” reason. It could be just “random crap,” the result of random but harmless mutation or genetic drift – the source, current thinking holds, for many observable characteristics of a given species.