Friday, January 3, 2014

Prosit Neujahr! The Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Army railroad engineers wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

As I pondered which historical Christmas or New Year's artifact to share this year, I managed to settle on a modest one that addresses both holidays and moreover anticipates the course on twentieth-century Europe that I am teaching this spring.

It is a combined Christmas and New Year's military Field Post greeting card from the 11th Railroad Company of the Imperial and Royal (k.u.k.) Austro-Hungarian army, from 1915. An elf, using the railroad emblem as his wheelbarrow, trundles a tiny snow-covered sign denoting the Company down the track.

The address side depicts the leader of the chief allied state, a fiercely martial German Emperor Wilhelm II.

The card thus seems to differ from the typical commercial card of the era in that it has prominent graphic content on both sides. Early postcards reserved one side for the image and the other exclusively for the address. Senders therefore scribbled any message on the image side, which seems strange to modern sensibilities. After the advent of the "divided back" postcard in 1907, senders could use one side for both address and message, in the manner familiar to us (or which was familiar, until the rise of mobile electronic communication), although some of the more verbose correspondents allowed their prose to overflow onto the "picture" side.

The card, dated Christmas Eve, 1915, and postmarked 26 December, is from one Lieutenant Hugo Mischek to his wife Bertha in "Ober Erlitz," a small town (1930 population: 374) within the larger precincts of Grulich, Bohemia: today, Olomoucký Kraj in the Pardubice region of the Czech Republic. (The mixture of German personal names and Slavic family name—though in Germanized spelling—reminds us that the relation between nominal ethnic ancestry and personal identity was often complex in the multiethnic Danube Monarchy.)

The address and inscription are written in the purplish indelible pencil typical of the era: in that context, a sort of "predecessor to the ball-point pen", very useful in the field. Lt. Mischek wishes his wife "a most lovely Christmas celebration," with "warmest greetings." Immediately beneath this, a comrade adds, "Hugo is doing quite well" and the Austrian salutation, "I kiss your hand!" while other members of the unit simply add their signatures. Presumably, the men came from the same region. The intimacy suggested by the use of the first name may also be in part a matter of cultural style. The Berlin-born historian Felix Gilbert recalled being "highly astonished," "almost shocked" to hear Austrian officers, upon meeting one another for the first time, promptly slip into the informal address, "Du," which the reserved and punctilious Prussians would never countenance.

The modest artifact is noteworthy in at least two ways.

First, it reminds us that this was a new kind of war. Almost since the inception of the railroad, governments sensed its military usefulness, but it took them some time to put this insight into practical effect. The success of the Prussian army in rapidly bringing 370,00 troops to bear against the 240,000 of France in 1870 was a wake-up call. "Build no more fortresses, build railways," was the advice of General von Moltke, and other nations began to heed the lesson. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Austro-Hungarian army, which had itself fared poorly against the more mobile Prussians in 1866, had 12 Railroad Companies, a number that would soon increase.

More than any other conflict, the Great War has come to be associated with the railroad. Historians have long noted that the mobilization of the immense new mass armies raised logistics and timing to an unprecedented level of importance (a policy that reached its logical conclusion—or reductio ad absurdum—in the "launch on warning" stance during the thermonuclear doomsday scenarios of the Cold War). The late great military historian John Keegan, taking as his point of departure Wellington's observation that "In military operations, time is everything," wrote that space as well as time played a crucial role in the German and Austrian calculations involving railroads and mobilization schedules vis-à-vis Russia. And Stephen Kern devotes an entire chapter of his provocative The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 to "The Temporality of the July Crisis," in which both the railroad and the telegraph, as well as more psychological or metaphysical notions of "national" time play a prominent role.

Second, we are reminded that the Great War did not take place only on the Western Front, whose static "war of position" epitomized by trench warfare has come to define our image of the entire conflict. The fighting in the east, by contrast, was a traditional "war of movement," made possible in part by the bungling as much as the successes of the two sides. The city of Czernowitz, capital of the Bukovina, the easternmost district of Galicia, is said to have changed hands 15 times in the course of the war. The German forces scored great initial successes against the Russians in the north, establishing the fame of Hindenburg. To the south, the Austrians did not fare as well: by the fall of 1914, the Russians had advanced to the hinterlands of Kraków. In December, the Austrians turned the tide, and none too soon. They had lost 1,268,000 killed, wounded, or captured. A year later, at the end of 1915, the combined German and Austrian forces, supported by the Bulgarians, took Belgrade and pushed the Serbs into Albania, but none of the great powers had lost its fighting capacity, and victory was in sight on neither front. As Keegan writes, "The coming year of 1916, all parties recognised, would bring crisis on land, east and west, and at sea also. It would be a year of great battles between armies and fleets."

The elf on the postcard looks businesslike rather than particularly cheerful, for which he might be excused, given the circumstances.


A website devoted to the history of a local Austrian railway station lists a certain Hugo Mischek who was involved with railway administration in the vicinity of Olomouc (thus, the home region of the sender of this postcard) but who is then described as having been sent through retirement relocation to Vienna in 1915-15 and in retirement there, 1915-1918. This does not seem to fit the description of a Lieutenant apparently in active service, but one wonders whether there might not be some family connection. A later Hugo Mischek was a leading builder and developer in post-World War II Vienna. The full history behind our little postcard remains to be explored.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Happy New Year!

Prague Castle & St. Vitus Cathedral viewed from the southwest: New Year's card, c. 1930

šťastný Nový rok!
Boldog Új Évet!
Prosit Neujahr!
Happy New Year!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why the lack of recent posts: I needed this like a hole in the head

I must apologize for the recent lack of communication here: to be clear, for my sake, rather than yours (after all, it's not as if I imagine anyone worries or withers away when the posts become fewer and further between).

It can be difficult to stick to a regular schedule under the best of circumstances, but at the beginning of November (in fact, in the early hours of the first day), I had a little accident. It was just a fluke of a domestic accident, but bad enough to injure my back (that went away after a few days) and bang up my head, fracturing my upper jaw and doing assorted other damage, short- and long-term.

Of course, my basic cheerful-pessimistic philosophy is: it could always be worse, so: no biggie. I didn't want this, but it's nothing compared with a bullet in the lower jaw during the night, followed by the guillotine in the morning (above). That sort of puts things in perspective.

My much less serious little episode put me out of commission, in the serious sense, only for a few days, but it has been something of a nuisance, and it will take several months before I can return to full normal. (Not a good thing for a guy who has to speak all the time for his day job, and then again on occasional evenings for our elected political amateur hour.)

It's hard to say what was the most freakish thing about the accident: the thing itself, or the spooky minor parallels to another one. It was just over a year earlier that our newly appointed Town Manager, John Musante, suffered a (far more serious) head injury while walking his dog, not long before the Snowtober/Snowpocalypse hit. Barely had we dodged the proverbial bullet from Hurricane Sandy this fall when I had my accident, likewise involving a good and innocent dog (though mine was a good deal larger: in fact, weighs more than his veterinarian). Sort of makes you wonder.

Again, I went into more detail than I cared, only in order to explain the silence.

Now it's back to normal soon. I hope to have a bunch of Christmas/holiday/New Year posts ready to go in the new future. You have been warned.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

22 December 1620: Pilgrims Land at Plymouth Rock (and post-Thanksgiving postprandial link dump)

Well, that's the traditional date, anyway: not necessarily the correct one, and to complicate matters, they were in any case of course still using the Julian ("Old Style") rather than the Gregorian calendar, adopted in Catholic states in 1582 but introduced in Britain and its colonies only in 1752 (don't ask).

A traditional image of the arrival of the Pilgrims.

"The First Landing of the Pilgrims, 1620"

Charles Lucy (1814-73), "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in America, a.d., 1620" (1848): 
here rendered in an engraving by T. Phillibrown (New York: Martin, Johnson & Co., 1856)

Lucy's painting has so many historical inaccuracies that it's hard to know where to begin—so I won't. From the costumes, to the numbers and types of persons depicted, and the arrival on Plymouth Rock, it's all just so wrong.

Only sixteen persons—six crew, 10 passengers—disembarked that day, and all were male. Historians thus reject the tradition according to which thirteen-year-old Mary Chilton was the first to do so. And the dog in the picture? Close, but no cigar. Records indicate that two representatives of the noble species—a mastiff and a spaniel—indeed made the trip aboard the "Mayflower" but were involved in the explorations of the coast only after this now-famous landing.  It is by moreover by no means certain that the "Pilgrims" (who did not call themselves such; they used the term only in the generic sense of the word, for the uppercase appellation did not arise until the 1790s) landed at the site now designated as "Plymouth Rock." No contemporaneous document mentions the (or even a) rock; that derives from third-hand testimony over a century later. And indeed, no one paid much attention to the "Rock" until the eve of the Revolution, when it began a peripatetic career (more like the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert than a pilgrimage): moved around the town, divided into pieces, and eventually returned, at least in part, to the shore, and graced (?) with a late 19th-century classical architectural umbrella).

About the only thing Lucy got close to right (besides the fact of a landing on the Massachusetts shore) was the color of the clothing. As the painting shows far more clearly than the engraving, he did not depict the Pilgrims clad only in black. Probate inventories show that the Pilgrims had generous and varied wardrobes and had no objection to colored or even decorated clothing. They often favored what were called "sad" colors—meaning deep hues, and not, as a modern reader might erroneously conclude, black and gray. The men here wear shades of brown and russet, and the women, in particular, are depicted as wearing various shades of red and green.

Okay, I guess I just did begin, but I'll stop. Instead, a retrospective smorgasbord of Thanksgiving stories from around the Web.

Thanksgiving link dump

• The usual and obligatory seasonal debunkery (not bad as a popularization) from Buzzfeed

CNN Thanksgiving by the numbers: lots of them having to do with turkeys: how long it takes to raise, defrost and cook them, how much of one makes a good serving . . . more


-Langston Hughes (not one of his greats)

-New Yorker

Bad Thanksgiving advice columns

Bad time having Bob Dylan over the Thanksgiving


-Stars' recipes (what did Marilyn Monroe make?)

-William Shatner in Deep-Fryer PSA warning (truly bizarre)

-Two (count 'em!) pieces on the turkey genome:
  -Genome of your turkey
  -Pass the Turkey Genome: Researchers are using genomics to breed a better Thanksgiving bird

-Why we don't eat turkey eggs

-Where your turkey comes from (map)

-Western Massachusetts Turkey Farms

-Don't Forget The Music: A Well-Seasoned Thanksgiving Soundtrack, from NPR

-White House menu

-Dining alone

A miscellany from the Library of Congress:

-Washington's Proclamation of October 3, 1789

-Other Thankgiving  proclamations

 -Vintage photos from LOC (via Mental Floss)

-Thanksgiving and football

• And of course, one could not conclude without Art Buchwald's famous attempt to explain Thanksgiving to our French friends (yes, the "Jour de Merci Donnant")

Art Buchwald, Why We Eat Turkey

* * *

This year's previous Thanksgiving stories:

From the Vaults: Thanksgiving Retrospective (socialists, eels, eating pregnant insects, a shot and a brew, more)

Those Darned Illegal Immigrants (the Pilgrims)
Pardon Me! Another Thanksgiving Piece

Friday, November 23, 2012

From the Vaults: Thanksgiving Retrospective (socialists, eels, eating pregnant insects, a shot and a brew, more)

Most years, I've offered some little posts about Thanksgiving and history. This year, rather than scribbling together a new one, I'll just offer a roundup of past musings and amusements.

• from 2010: "13 December 1621: The 'Fortune' Sails from Plymouth to England (and why the Pilgrims were neither 'socialists' nor 'capitalists')"

• from 2010: "Thanksgiving Miscellany": mini link dump of music, food, activities

•  from 2010: "The Annual Thanksgiving History Buffet": What's for dinner: eels and sweet potatoes. And were the Pilgrims dangerous socialists? Come on!

• from 2009: "Thanksgiving Day": brief note on teaching students about Thanksgiving, and how to contextualize the original event in the larger flow of Colonial history. Plus: links! on holiday traditions, myth and fact.

• from 2008: "The Inevitable Thanksgiving Piece": food, facts, myths. "The only demonstrably present meats . . .were 'ducks, geese, and venison.'" What Europeans called cranberries were pregnant insects. A shot and a brew: Pilgrims and Native Americans drank a lot and fired guns (not recommended today).

[this one somehow got put back in the drafts folder]

Those Darned Illegal Immigrants (the Pilgrims)

From the office door.

The traditional tale of the Pilgrims (a name by which they did not refer to themselves) and their arrival in America was a simple one. Nowadays, we would probably start by asking, "what were they thinking?!" i.e. what made them think that they could sail across the ocean and just establish themselves on a distant land to which they had no historical connection and that was already inhabited by others? The answer from their point of view was at the time just as simple and self-evident as ours. The historian's craft (to cite the title of Marc Bloch's classic work) consists in attempting to bring the two together.

Since the issue of immigration and immigration reform remains topical (not least in light of the apparent coalescence of a new Democratic coalition), here is a selection of cartoons chronicling the appearance of this theme in Thanksgiving and related humor of recent years.

it all started with Columbus

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Pardon Me! Another Thanksgiving Piece

The eternal question: what to write about for this year's Thanksgiving piece?

I haven't systematically scanned the news yet, but so far, no distinctive stories or memes seem to be rising to the surface: just the perennial banalities, with the admixture of the topical pieties, from surviving Hurricane Sandy to the welcome end of fighting between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza. The ever sardonic former-punk-turned-White-House-reporter Julie Mason wisely called for a moratorium on such crap (at least on social media) but she knew she was just spitting in the wind. (This embarrassing piece of pablum by Jody Rudoren of the New York Times can serve as a cautionary example to those who refuse to heed Julie's sage advice.)

President Obama duly pardoned the White House Turkey (after predictably making social-media history in a predictably trivial way by allowing the public to decide—by means of a Facebook poll—which turkey to save); yes, apparently that's what all the new media are good for. As Mason observed on satellite radio a few days ago, the President is not really a man of the people, and has little sense of humor and much less interest in the turkey pardon than his dim-witted but more jocular predecessor. Can't believe that anyone thought this was worth six minutes' of the President's or the nation's time. It's just painful to watch. Do so at your peril: You'd be better off smoking a cigarette.

Given that TV and video watching shortens your life more than smoking does: For sheer perverse delight, I far prefer this infamous train wreck of a ritual from 2008 involving the inimitable Sarah Palin. There are some surprises for her.  Just watch. Slate has the backgrounder. Their video source has vanished, but you can see the footage here. Now there's a turkey.

(Although the distant origins of the turkey-pardoning practice date back to Lincoln, it was Truman who formalized it.) In any case, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) were not amused.

And finally, there is this "Hipster Thanksgiving." It seems disturbingly realistic in many ways. In fact, only the urban architectural setting in the outdoor shot convinced me that it had not been shot right here in the Happy Valley.


If all this drives you to drink as well as overeat, I note that the neo-cocktail craze, which shows no signs of abating, has answers. Along with the usual advice—which can be summarized as: drink what you like rather than what you think you are supposed to drink, and remembering that some white wines, such as Rieslings, go with everything, and, given the robustness of the overall Thanksgiving menu, a hearty archetypically American red Zinfandel is perfectly appropriate with the "white meat" of a turkey—we thus find interesting suggestions for mixed drinks appropriate to the season.

This year, some holiday cocktail recipes go fairly far toward not just matching tastes of drink and food, but actually incorporating elements of the food into the drink mixture. "Pilgrim Punch" includes honey, spices, cranberries, and Belgian wheat beer. "Pilgrim's Pumpkin," as the name implies, contains pumpkin purée, along with the liquors, spices, and fruit juices. "Cranberry Thanksgiving Pie" mixes Cruzan rum, Curaçao, and egg white along with spices, maple syrup, and juices (including cranberry; but no whole berries). Another selection of American inventions recommended by our Canadian neighbors includes "Pumpkin Egg Nog" and "Pumpkin Spice Margarita."

Like President Obama's turkey ceremony: not my taste, but if you enjoy it, more power to you. I'll stick with a basic couple of wines and a re-viewing of that Palin video.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Electoral Collage (and a big block of cheese)

The Amherst presidential election results were not surprising:
  • Obama: 83%
  • Romney: 13%
  • Stein (Green): 3%
  • Johnson (Libertarian): 2%
Our presidential vote was very similar to that of Northampton (82-14) and Pelham (82-15), though noticeably more lopsided than Hadley's (69-29). All of these western Massachusetts towns, though, tilted more decisively toward the President than did the Commonwealth as a whole (61-38).

It was a similar story in the Senate race, in which we opted for Elizabeth Warren over Scott Brown (80-20 % vs. statewide: 54-46).

Indeed, the presidential results were similar to those of 2008, when Amherst tilted for Obama vs. McCain by 87 to 10 percent.

All this would seem to fit our image (caricature?) and self-understanding as the hyperliberal "People's Republic of Amherst." It is true that we, like many of our neighboring towns, opposed the War of 1812, whose 200th anniversary we are (sort of) marking this year. Governor Strong (a Northampton man) rejected the initial presidential request for troops to serve outside the boundaries of the Commonwealth and called up the militia only in 1814, when the threat of British invasion became acute. Indeed, there was fear that New England might secede over the War (sort of puts our current radical activism to shame, doesn't it?).

However, this antiwar movement had little if anything in common with the modern spirit of pacifism, protest, and resistance that prompts residents to proffer resolutions on world affairs at Town Meeting. Rather, although the Governor's reluctance derived at least in part from a constitutional argument about war-making powers, the heart of the issue was material interest. New Englanders were not enthusiastic about British policy, but they soon proved to be even less enthusiastic about  President Jefferson's anti-British embargo on foreign trade, which, as they saw it, threatened to devastate their businesses. Economic interests diverged along lines of region as well as class. (Then, as later, it was "the economy, stupid!")

It is thus easy to forget that our reputation as a bastion of leftist "progressivism" is, historically speaking, a rather recent phenomenon, which began only with the massive growth of the University in the 1960s.  In 1956, we liked Ike much better than Stevenson (3154 to 1071 votes). And during roughly the first half of the century, when even local candidates ran as representatives of formal political parties rather than as individuals, Democrats were a distinct minority. The 1958 rolls listed:
  • Independents 2091
  • Republicans 1753
  • Democrats 642
In the 1960 presidential election, in which turnout reached 92 percent, Nixon bested Kennedy by 2716 to 1789 votes. All members of the Select Board belonged to the Republican Party. Clearly, it's not your grandfather's Select Board anymore.

When, soon after this year's presidential election, a spoof Twitter account referencing President Bartlet of the "West Wing" television series, suggested sending a "big block of cheese" to President Obama and his staff, I could not help but think of the historical antecedents.

The West Wing incident in turn alluded to the giant, 1,400-pound cheese that admirers sent to President Andrew Jackson, who finally managed to dispose of it by giving it to 10,000 representatives of the common people at a public reception in 1837. There was, however, an even earlier precedent.

As MassMoments, the daily historical feature of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, reminds us, back in July 1801:
the Berkshire County town of Cheshire made a 1235-pound ball of cheese and shipped it to Washington, D.C. as a gift for the newly-elected President, Thomas Jefferson, who was a popular figure in western Massachusetts. When news of the "mammoth cheese" reached the eastern part of the state, it caused consternation. Jefferson had won the presidency by defeating John Adams, Massachusetts' native son. Westerners were more in sympathy with Jefferson's vision of a nation of independent yeoman farmers than they were with the strong central government advocated by Adams and his supporters in the Federalist Party.
In 1800, it seemed, Jefferson, the advocate of a traditional economy and small government, was the favorite of western Massachusetts. The Embargo and War of 1812 made some rethink that choice. In 2012, Barack Obama, the advocate of a more robust and activist government, won the votes of the Commonwealth. In 2012 as in 1800, however, Massachusetts residents rejected their (in the present case: quasi- or pseudo-) native son and voted for the presidential candidate who, they thought, best represented their interests.

The recent campaign was singularly unedifying on an intellectual, moral, and political level, the more so when one considers how the six billion dollars spent to sway, in essence, a handful of cantankerous, self-absorbed, passive-aggressive voters in a handful of swing states, could have been better spent. And so we have come full circle. It seems safe to conclude: Politics in America has long been and probably always will be (sorry, can't help myself) irredeemably cheesy.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Weird Wild Weather Redux

I was going to mention the following item earlier anyway, but now I have a new and unwelcome reason to do so.  While sorting through some of my old Select Board papers this summer, I came across the October 2011 issue of The Beacon, the monthly publication of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

A piece by Robert Marinelli of the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association warning of "Dangers associated with storm cleanup" began: "Massachusetts has endured a number of significant storms in 2011 and will certainly see more adverse weather conditions before the year is over. "

Little did we know.

The piece was of course published in September, as a guide to the coming month. The destruction it referred to was thus from the summer tornadoes and Hurricane Irene. Little did we know what we would experience when "Snowtober" hit and crippled the region, leaving many of us without utilities for a week.

At the end of September 2011, I myself was still looking backward (particularly from the standpoint of historic preservation) to the summer emergencies, as well as to the so-called Great Hurricane of '38, the first major tropical cyclone to strike New England since 1869. It even (somewhat perversely, it always seemed to me) lent its name to our local high school sports teams. (I don't think we'll find any Louisiana, New York, or New Jersey varsity teams calling themselves "The Katrinas" or "The Sandys.")

But there was an earlier and even closer precedent. On 10 October 1804, a so-called "Snow Hurricane" struck the Commonwealth. It caused such widespread damage that it rendered parts of the landscape unrecognizable and, by destroying the forests, set back the shipbuilding industry by decades.)

I thought it would be interesting to mention the Beacon piece this year as a way of recalling last year's experience, but as warnings of Hurricane/Tropical Storm Sandy mounted, it came to seem even more eerily and ironically prophetic.
 Fortunately, we in the event dodged a bullet. Damage and disruption from the storm in the town, and in our area in general (vs. even other parts of Massachusetts or Connecticut), were minimal. Still, the fact that my fellow Select Board member Diana Stein lost a tree, which, in falling, in turn caused her to lose a car, reminds us that it doesn't take much to shatter our world of comfort and complacency. And it was in large measure luck as well as geography that spared us from the fate of New York and New Jersey.

The other good news was that the Town demonstrated it had learned from last year's experience. We handled last year's emergencies relatively well but in the process also discovered areas for possible improvement. To be sure, we were not ready to install a new generator at Town Hall this October, but the emergency response team was otherwise fully prepared. Communication, including use of social media and cell phone alerts, was improved. The Department of Public Works promptly cleared roads of fallen trees. And although over 1000 customers lost power, Western Massachusetts Electric Company restored it in all cases by the next morning.

Disaster preparedness remains among the highest priorities for Town administration and government, and we were glad to be able to use this year's scare as a chance to improve response techniques in principle without having to test them in practice as people suffered.

Friday, October 19, 2012

History: It's What's For Lunch (new Amherst History Museum lunchtime lecture series)

As last spring: lame name, decent content. The Amherst Historical Society and Museum (full disclosure: I am a member of the Board) offers a lecture series on topics of local and other historical interest. All talks take place in the Museum (Strong House, 67Amity Street, Amherst).

From the official announcement:

The Amherst History Museum presents “History Bites”, a brown bag lecture series at the Simeon Strong House, 67 Amity Street.

Short, informative and entertaining–these lunchtime presentations will provide just the break you need. These lectures are scheduled every other Friday at 12:15 throughout the fall. Mark your calendars for these upcoming “History Bites” presentations:

  • Sept. 21, 2012 – James Freeman: “Clarence Hawkes (1869-1954), the Most Widely Read Author from the Pioneer Valley” 
  • Oct. 5, 2012 – Marla Miller: “My Part Alone: The World of Hatfield’s Rebecca Dickinson” 
  • Oct. 19, 2012 – Alice Nash: “Thinking About ‘Indian Deeds’ in Local History” 
  • Nov. 2, 2012 – Cliff McCarthy: “The Amherst Area and the California Gold Rush” 
  • Nov. 16, 2012 – Else Hambleton: “The Puritans and Sex” 
  • Nov. 30, 2012 – Arthur Kinney: “Taking Renaissance Plays on the Road” 
Join us with your lunch in hand. We will provide coffee, tea or cider for you as you listen to the presentations. The 30-minute program will begin promptly at 12:15 with seating and beverages ready just before noon. The lectures are free and everyone is welcome to attend.