Saturday, July 18, 2009

18 July 1863: 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Launches Assault on Battery Wagner

On this day in 1863, African-American members of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry took part in the bloody assault on Fort Wagner (also, or more strictly, known as Battery Wagner) outside Charleston.
Just as darkness began to close in upon the scene of the afternoon and the evening, General Strong rode to the front and ordered his brigade, consisting of the 54th Massachusetts, Colonel Shaw (colored regiment); the 6th Connecticut, Colonel Chatfield; the 48th New York, Colonel Barton; the 3d New Hampshire, Colonel Jackson; the 76th Pennsylvania, and the 9th Maine, Colonel Emery, to advance to the assault. At the instant the line was seen slowly advancing in the dusk toward the fort, and before a double-quick had been ordered, a tremendous fire from the barbette guns on Fort Sumter, from the batteries on Cummings’ Point, and from all the guns on Fort Wagner, opened upon it. The guns from Wagner swept the beach, and those from Sumter and Cummings’ Point enfiladed it on the left. In the midst of this terrible shower of shot and shell they pushed their way, reached the fort, portions of the 54th Massachusetts, the 6th Connecticut, and the 48th New York dashed through the ditches, gained the parapet, and engaged in a hand-to-hand fight with the enemy, and for nearly half an hour held their ground, and did not fall back until nearly every commissioned officer was shot down. As on the morning of the assault of the 11th inst., these brave men were exposed to a most galling fire of grape and canister, from howitzers, raking the ditches from the bastions of the fort, from hand-grenades and from almost every other modern implement of warfare. The rebels fought with the utmost desperation, and so did the larger portion of General Strong’s brigade, as long as there was an officer to command it.

When the brigade made the assault General Strong gallantly rode at its head. When it fell back, broken, torn, and bleeding, Major Plimpton of the 3d New Hampshire was the highest commissioned officer to command it. General Strong, Colonel Shaw, Colonel Chatfield, Colonel Barton, Colonel Green, Colonel Jackson, all had fallen. The 54th Massachusetts (negro), whom Copperhead officers would have called cowardly if they had stormed and carried the gates of hell, went boldly into battle, for the second time, commanded by their brave Colonel, but came out of it led by no higher officer than the boy, Lieutenant Higginson. (Harper's Weekly)
As noted in earlier postings, the 54th is very much present in our thoughts this year above all: Members of the current 54th, as well as re-enactors, marched in the inaugural parade of Barack Obama in January. Amherst residents fought and died with the Mass 54th. Some of these veterans are buried in the African-American section of West Cemetery. A soldier of the 54th is depicted on the Community History Mural, by artist David Fichter, in the Cemetery. And, finally, Amherst resident Sanford Jackson, who died of wounds suffered in the assault on Fort Wagner, was among the figures portrayed in "Conversations with the Past: The West Cemetery Walk," as part of our 250th anniversary celebrations in early May. A few days later, Town Meeting voted to appropriate Community Preservation Act funds to begin the restoration and installation in Town Hall of the antique marble tablets commemorating our Civil War veterans.

Further resources:

From the Civil War @ Charleston website:

"The Attack on Fort Wagner," Harper's Weekly, August 8 1863, p. 510 (from the American Antiquarian Society)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

14 July 1789: The Storming of the Bastille

14 July, or "Bastille Day," is probably, along with the Fourth of July, the best-known national holiday in the world (come on: how many of you can name another?), yet its history is little known. For example, few of us realize that it was not always, even under republican governments, a French national holiday. It assumed its modern form only in 1880, nearly a decade after the creation of the Third Republic.

official military celebration of Bastille Day, 1880:
distribution of flags to the army (Épinal print)

It is telling that my recently retired UMass colleague, Charles Rearick, chose to make Bastille Day of 1880 the literal and symbolic starting point of his Pleasures of the Belle Époque:
A warm, sunny day, it was a holiday unlike any other. Not even a rainstorm in the evening could spoil it. In Paris it had begun with a volley of cannon shots at 8 A.M.; in the country, several hours earlier, villagers had awakened to fanfares of rifle fire and ringing church bells; firecrackers and band music followed. Streets were bedecked with flags and bunting, and in some places banners, garlands, and triumphal arches as well. Parts of central Paris became a gala stage et, a sparkling mosaic of red, white, and blue. t night, gas lamps and electric lights and Venetian lanterns brought a rare cheering radiance to main streets and squares. Fireworks from six locations emblazoned and bombarded the night sky. No one could take July 14, 1880, as just another day.
. . . . . . . . . .
That fête of 1880 was special in a way that no later Bastille Day could be. It was the first time since the French Revolution that all France could legally celebrate the most stirring and epoch-making event of the Revolution: the storming of the Bastille. The story of July 14, 1789, remained vivid in French memories through oral tradition, popular prints, a commercial panorama in Paris, and dramatic histories by Jules Michelet and Louis Blanc, as well as a press campaign by the popular republican leader Léon Gambetta and his associates. Yet through the nineteenth century successive governments had opposed any public demonstration of enthusiasm for the day. Why would rulers anxious about public order want to encourage a memory of bloody revolt? Like its monarchist and Bonapartist predecessors, the government of the Third Republic feared renewed crowd risings, and for almost a decade it too rejected the Bastille commemoration. After less conservative leadership took over in the late 1870s, it adopted the Bastille fête only with reluctance, as a token concession to the strengthening left.
Rearick quotes the mayor of one southern republican stronghold as declaring, "Joy was in all hearts, the enthusiasm was indescribable. The oldest inhabitants of the city do not ever recall having seen a similar fête, so brilliant and complete."

Medal commemorating the first modern Bastille Day festivities:
Obverse: the Bastille, with date, 14 July 1789
Reverse: "Souvenir of the National Holiday and the Distribution of Flags,
14 July 1880"

Read last year's post.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

11 July 1995: Srebrenica Massacre by Serbian Forces, UN Indifference to Butchery

Although the United Nations, in the course of the Yugoslav Civil War, declared the Bosnian town of Srebrenica a UN safe area under its protection (the first such in history, it should be noted), the small force of UNPROFOR troops shamefully took no measures to protect the residents when Serb forces captured the area. The Serbs proceeded to deport some 25,000 women, old men, and young boys, slaughtering the over 8,000 remaining males.

The military and moral failure of the United Nations and world community on this occasion was stunning.

The standard designation of the event is: the worst massacre or war crime in Europe since the end of World War II (or words to that effect). We pronounce the phrase with clinical accuracy, yet scarcely bother to ponder the chilling meaning of those words—above all, the very fact that "massacres" and "war crimes" took place at all in the late twentieth century, and especially in a continent that should have learned its lessons.

Fourteen years after the traumatic events, much of the world shows little interest in the slaughter of those innocent Muslim civilians. The New York Times (our "newspaper of record"), which found plenty of space for Michael Jackson, had no time for Srebrenica, except in a passing mention in a piece about the trial of Serb leader Radovan Karadžić.

To be sure, newspapers focus more on current news than historical anniversaries, but in this case, the two coincided:
  1. In January, the European Parliament declared July 11 a time for commemoration throughout the EU, as "a symbol of the impotence of the international community to intervene in the conflict and protect the civilian population."
  2. On this anniversary, some 30,000 people gathered to witness the reburial of some of the dead. Some news outlets, such as AP (on which so many others rely), world newspapers, and various television networks, found time and space for the story.
Almost as tragic as the massacre itself are the consequences. The lesson of "the impotence of the international community" remains unlearned, or misunderstood with a vengeance: managing to combine overgeneralization from the principle (so that protection of civilians overrides all other values, even to the exclusion of legitimate military action) with application in a manner that betrays inconsistency, a short attention span, or both.

The tragedy in Darfur has generated considerable attention, though far less action. Even those who do not accept all of Mahmoud Mandani's provocative analyses of western human-rights perspectives on Darfur and mass violence in Africa will agree that the abysmal ignorance of or indifference to the carnage in the Congo is shocking: intrinsically (5.4 million from 1998-2008, and 45,000 every month even after the nominal end of the conflict), and in comparison with the treatment of other cases. And, most recently, we have seen how the world virtually ignored wholesale slaughter in South Asia.

This spring, as many greeted the victory of the Sri Lankan government over the Tamil Tiger rebellion with a sigh of relief, the Times of London reported that the civilian death toll in the final months of the campaign alone exceeded 20,000 (in part because, as Robert Kaplan reports, the Tigers used thousands of human shields, which the government did not scruple to kill). Although this figure was three times higher than the previous official figure, some anonymous UN sources said that the actual total was instead far higher. The New York Times coverage (and only in a blog, at that) focused on denial of the figures by the Sri Lankan government and other journalists but did in passing (its favorite mode) cite UN officials as calling the civilian toll "unacceptably high."

Once again, we await United Nations action. Perhaps one day someone will get tired of waiting.


11 July 1947: The "Exodus" Sails for Mandatory Palestine (with a little excursus on the evolution of anti-Zionist discourse)

Two ships and their passengers embodied the fate of European Jews in the middle of the twentieth century. If the story of the St. Louis, denied entry to Cuba in 1939, encapsulates the plight of those trying to flee Nazi persecution, that of the Exodus serves likewise for the survivors of the Holocaust that the Nazis perpetrated.

the ship under British control in Haifa harbor, 20 July 1947

On 11 July, 1947, 4,515 Displaced Persons (DPs) who had survived the Holocaust set sail from France for British Mandatory Palestine on the former Chesapeake Bay steamer, President Warfield, now renamed the Exodus-1947. The Jewish Agency had been bringing refugee ships to Palestine, in violation of the British restrictions on immigration, as soon as postwar conditions allowed. The British intercepted 58 out of the total of 63 ships from 1945 to 1948, interning the passengers, usually on Cyprus. In this case, the Royal Navy, which had tracked the large ship since its departure from France, exercised more force than usual when it made its intercept off the coast of Palestine. The attack, which included machine-gun fire, killed three on board and wounded a hundred, over two dozen of them seriously. Finally, after the British rammed the Exodus, it surrendered.

Reporter Ruth Gruber described the scene:
The ship looked like a matchbox that had been splintered by a nutcracker. In the torn, square hole, as big as an open, blitzed barn, we could see a muddle of bedding, possessions, plumbing, broken pipes, overflowing toilets, half-naked men, women looking for children. Cabins were bashed in; railings were ripped off; the lifesaving rafts were dangling at crazy angles.
Infuriated at French support for the Zionist cause, the British shipped the passengers back to France, where they refused to disembark, and the French declined to force them to do so. Finally, after three weeks, the British sent the refugees to Hamburg. The irony of Jews being forced off the ship by club-wielding troops and forcibly sent in trains to DP camps in Germany, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, was not lost on the public.

The fate of the St. Louis arguably had little effect at the time: whatever sympathies it may have aroused, it did not change western immigration policies. The Exodus, by contrast, arguably did have a major impact on public opinion and policy alike. The crew of the ship radioed an account of the attack as it was in progress, and both the seizure of the ship and the subsequent peregrinations of its passengers made international headlines and sparked protests. The incident occurred just as the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was investigating the increasingly tense situation in the final era of the Mandate, after the British government had rather disingenuously tossed the issue into the lap of the General Assembly. The opposition of the Arab states notwithstanding, UNSCOP insisted on considering the fate of the DPs and the question of Palestine together (nowadays we would call that: linkage). Concerning the Exodus case, the Yugoslav member of UNSCOP said, "It is the best possible evidence we can have."

For good reason, then, a recent award-winning documentary on the Exodus was subtitled, "The Ship That Launched a Nation." The saga epitomized David Ben-Gurion's message to inhabitants of the DP camps in Germany, "You are not only needy persons, you are a political force."

As the late Irish historian and diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien explains, the practice of bringing in illegal refugees in this manner was a win-win strategy: "Where the passengers got through, it was a gain for the Yishuv [Jewish community in Palestine; JW], in people. Where they were apprehended, it was a gain for the Zionist cause, in propaganda terms." There was of course no greater public-relations trump card than the spectacle of Holocaust survivors being forcibly sent back to camps in Germany. "If Whitehall had been working in collusion with the Zionist propaganda machine, it could not have contrived a more telling conclusion to the two-month saga of the passengers of the Exodus."

In a sense, the Zionist propaganda effort was perhaps too effective, and not simply because the Palestinians have at every possible turn appropriated its references and tactics, beginning with the focus on refugees.

Although the "Free Gaza" movement has been trying to replicate the success of the "Exodus" episode, no one really takes seriously the spectacle of the occasional boat setting sail from Cyprus and attempting to land supplies in Gaza, because it is just that: a spectacle. The comfortable celebrities and professional activists are not starved and stateless survivors of genocide, and their little nautical journey represents an outing rather than an odyssey, a destination rather than a destiny.

The "Free Gaza" movement is intimately related to the odious and increasingly successful attempt to re-figure Israelis as Nazis and Palestinians as their Jewish victims (which features prominently in these pages). Still, that rhetorical strategy, by virtue of its extreme nature and the dictates of Godwin's Law, will necessarily run up against certain limits in mainstream discourse.

No, the irony is related but different. The Zionist strategy had unforeseen consequences because, in the aftermath of the War, it so successfully called upon the moral conscience of the world that it made the linkage between the Holocaust and Israel virtually inseparable. (In some ways, it's the mirror image of the consequences of the Palestinian national liberation strategy: justifying terrorism as the only available means of "calling attention" to one's cause and then finding that people tend to identify one's cause with terrorism.)

The tragic irony is that many people therefore consider the Holocaust to have been the raison d'être for Zionism and the State of Israel, which is an altogether different matter. It is in fact a canard (need we recite the basics?): Jewish longing for the historic homeland was both ancient and enduring. Zionism, which gave expression to that longing in new practical and political form in the era of modern antisemitism, was an established movement when Hitler was still in short pants. The Balfour Declaration (1917) came at the end of World War I, not World War II. The Holocaust simply rendered the Zionist argument more clear and compelling, and the wartime and postwar refugee crisis added a new practical urgency to the existing logic.

Nowadays, however, not just the President of Iran and the most radical opponents of Israel's existence, but also growing numbers of mainstream politicians and commentators can be heard to say that the Palestinians "paid the price" (or words to that effect) for the Holocaust and what Europeans did. Ergo, the creation of the State of Israel—which is to say, the UN Partition vote (which, as many on both sides conveniently forget, also mandated the creation of a Palestinian state)—was illegitimate or at any rate the wrong answer to the problem. Ergo, the overzealous attempt to right one wrong back then calls for corrective measures today.

What is most intriguing and disturbing about what we might call this new discourse of regret (it deserves fuller treatment later) is that it is in essence just the "kinder, gentler" version of the Nazi analogy. It still delegitimizes Israel morally if not existentially and accords prime victim status to the Palestinians, with the key difference that it allows one to blame without really seeming to blame.

It would be a shame if these attempts to revisit the original "two-state solution" were to impede efforts to craft a new one today. Solving the Arab-Iaraeli conflict in the near future will be immensely difficult if not impossible, and the effort will not be helped by exercises in competitive victimhood or continuing attempts to delegitimize the one side or the other by refighting old battles. Here again, history has some lessons. Partition came about not because of the historical claims of the one side or the other, but instead because of a pressing contemporary crisis. To be sure, in order to make real and lasting peace, each side needs to understand the other's "narrative" of the past, but the task at hand involves the present and the future. Actually, the Zionists always understood that—and this in large part accounts for their greater success.


• Journalist Ruth Gruber's classic 1948 account, originally entitled Destination Palestine, now reissued under the same title as the recent documentary film:
• "Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation" (Cicada Films and Maryland Public Television)
Exodus 1947 (includes textual and audio-visual documents)
Ruth Gruber interview (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
The Haganah Ship "Exodus 1947" (University of Hamburg)
• Julie Fax, "Holocaust remembrance—Exodus redux" (Jewish Journal, 2007)

[updated images and links]

11 July 1940: Vichy Collaborationist Regime Established in France

Following the defeat under the Nazi onslaught, the rump National Assembly of France on 10 July granted World War I hero Philippe Pétain, then-Prime Minister of the Third Republic, extraordinary powers to create a new government. It became a collaborationist one, exercising not only direct control over the southern, unoccupied portion of the nation, but also civil administrative control over the area under German occupation.

The entire Vichy system, growing out of a conservative "national revolution" that had been percolating for decades, was conceived as a negation of republicanism and the tradition of the great Revolution. Although the flag remained the tricolor, France acquired a new coat of arms featuring a Gallic double-headed axe resembling the Italian fasces. The official name of the country was changed from République Française to État Français: French Republic to French State. The old radical motto of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," was transformed into a reactionary one that stressed traditions and collective duties over individual rights: "Work, Family, Fatherland."

Thus ended the turbulent and much-maligned Third Republic (1870-1940).

11 July 1789: Dismissal of French Finance Minister Jacques Necker

Imagine that the President of the United States dismisses Federal Reserve Chief Alan Greenspan, whereupon 5,000 to 6,000 people take to the streets of Washington in protest, bearing busts of Greenspan draped in black mourning, and then imagine that revolution breaks out but days later. Okay, that's hard to believe, though stupid people and some intelligent ones have been willing to believe far more preposterous things (as the Stephen Glass scandal showed). The more appropriate parallel, in political significance if not branch of government, would be the "Saturday Night Massacre" under the Nixon administration. Still, you get the point.

July 11, 1789: Dismissal of the popular Finance Minister Jacques Necker, along with the massing of army troops (mostly of foreign origin) near Paris, contributes to the fears of a royal coup and the rise of rebellious sentiment that culminates in the attack on the Bastille three days later.

The Swiss Protestant banker enjoyed power and prestige that can be hard for us to imagine. With equal parts genius, self-promotion, and sheer charlatanism, he managed to achieve a reputation for almost supernatural financial expertise.

He opposed the free market in grain advocated by the Physiocrats and other reformers or advocates of what would in our time be called deregulation or shock therapy, believing instead that problems could be solved by economies—budget cuts. Ironically, however, Necker achieved his greatest successes by borrowing. The problem was, first, that there was no easy way to pay the money back, and second, that he cooked the books. French support for the American revolutionaries (the real aim was less to support democracy than to stick it to arch-enemy England) nearly bankrupted the government, for the royal debt mushroomed from 93 million in 1774 to more than 300 million in 1789. His infamous Compte-rendu of 1781 purported to share with the public for the first time the financial state of the nation. The only problem was that he lied, and that the false picture of balanced books boxed in his successors by depriving them of a justification for either cutting budgets or raising taxes. Dismissed from office (scholars disagree as to whether he miscalculated or deliberately invited this fate) in 1781, he was called back in 1788, when Louis XVI found himself forced to convene the Estates-General in order to confront the fiscal crisis of the state. Whereas each of the three Estates—clergy, nobility, and commoners—by tradition had only one vote, Necker in 1789 joined other reformers in advocating the new proposals to increase the votes of the Third Estates—which accounted for some 98 percent of the population—and moreover proposed a reform program of his own. When the aristocratic reaction regained the upper hand a few days later, Necker and his allies were dismissed.

One's first thought at turning to the case of Necker is to say to oneself that it was a very strange and different time. On second thought, however, as one considers the current financial crisis, the hopes and fears of the people, and the proposed solutions of the politicians, not only the desire for social justice, but also the faith in simple solutions and longing for a financial savior become much more comprehensible.

11 July 1346: Charles IV elected Holy Roman Emperor

monument to Charles IV erected near the Old Town
entrance to the Stone Bridge (Charles Bridge), 1848
And thus when we arrived in Bohemia, we found neither father nor mother nor brother, nor sisters nor anyone else we knew . . . we had completely forgotten the Czech language, which we have since relearned so that we speak it and understood it like any other Bohemian. By divine grace therefore we know how to speak, write and read not only Czech, but French, Italian. German and Latin, so that we are able to write, read, speak, and understand any one of these languages as well as another. (from his Autobiography)
Thus did Charles of Luxembourg describe his return home, a cultural as well as geographic stranger, to take his place as Margrave of Moravia (the title of heir to the throne, akin to Prince of Wales) in 1333. In 1346, he succeeded his father, an absentee ruler, as Czech king, and became the only Czech also to be elected Holy Roman Emperor.

At the time of his death in 1378, Charles was given the title, Otec vlasti, or Father of the Homeland, and for good reason: He rebuilt the Prague Castle (Hradčany), expanded and beautified St. Vitus Cathedral on the castle hill (including the lavish chapel of St. Václav [Wenceslas]), and founded the New Town of Prague, as well as Charles University (the first university in Central Europe): "in order that faithful subjects of our kingdom, who ceaselessly hunger for the fruits of knowledge, should not be forced to beg for foreign help . . . [and] seek out alien nations or plead for the satisfaction of their longings in unknown lands." Under his reign, Prague became a political and cultural center of Europe. In addition to patronizing architectural projects and painting, he lent his support to early humanism and hosted Petrarch in Prague.

The famed "Charles Bridge" (often virtually empty during the communist years, but nowadays one of the most unpleasantly overcrowded tourist spots in the city) was another of his projects: he had it built to replace an earlier structure destroyed in a flood. However, when it was the only bridge in the city, it was known simply as the Prague Bridge, and when other bridges followed, it became the "Stone Bridge" (which lent its name to a marvelous novelistic cycle of stories by the brilliant but underappreciated Leo Perutz). Only in 1870 was it renamed after its imperial patron, as Czech nationalists began to highlight his reign as a national golden age, and to construct a coherent patriotic history that could span the intervening centuries of submersion and subjugation.

Historians would cite, in addition to these cultural and visible accomplishments, the political and administrative: He pursued policies that strengthened the dynastic power of Bohemia even as he reorganized the Empire—notably in the Golden Bull of 1356—streamlining and formalizing electoral procedures and in the process promoting the development of large states over regional leagues. Among subsidiary clauses of the Bull were the requirements that the sons of electors learn Czech and Italian as well as German.

In 2005, Czechs elected Charles "Greatest Czech of all time," who (justifiably, we might suggest) outpolled even the founder of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, and Václav Havel. Had Charles been American, his foreign—French—education, multicultural endeavors, and long absence from the country might have rendered him suspect, and skeptics would no doubt have clamored to see his birth certificate.