June 24th in German History: The Dancing Plague

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One of the more puzzling phenomenons in European History is the so-called dancing plague. This “plague” caused spontaneous outbreaks of mass dancing, ending only when the afflicted collapsed from exhaustion. The first recorded outbreak occurred in the 7th century, but one of the earliest major outbreaks began on June 24th, 1374, in the city of Aachen, Germany.

Without any apparent cause, thousands of people in Aachen, at the time a city of the Holy Roman Empire, began to dance uncontrollably. The incident spread to neighboring cities such as Cologne, Metz, and Strasbourg and dancing was also reported in Luxembourg and Italy. The following year there were outbreaks in France and the Netherlands. Accounts of the nature of the dancing and its causes vary. Some sources say that the dancers traveled between towns, and that outbreaks were usually caused by foreigners. Others dispute this. Most sources agree that dancers often collapsed of exhaustion, broke bones, and even died. Some say that dancers demanded onlookers join them. Interestingly, several accounts mention the dancers either being unable to see red, or else becoming enraged at the sight of it. In reaction to the Aachen outbreak, dancers were isolated from the population and often exorcisms were performed on them. As with most unexplained events in medieval Europe, the masses sought religious explanations and solutions.

We will probably never know what caused the outbreaks of dancing mania. Theories range from a population wanting to escape the drudgery of peasant life to various diseases to the idea that all the outbreaks were staged. Whatever the cause, the outbreaks of the dancing plague are fascinating for their nature and the mystery that surrounds them.

June 23rd in German History: The Death of Matthias Jakob Schleiden

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Matthias Jakob Schleiden

Germany has produced innumerable scientists during the course of its long and storied existence. Albert Einstein, Max Plank, and Werner Heisenberg alone revolutionized their fields and contributed greatly to human advancement. However, many more scientists are forgotten. One such person is Matthias Jakob Schleiden, a German biologist who was critical to the development of cell theory and was one of the first Darwinists in Germany. He died on June 23rd, 1881.

Schleiden was born on April 5th, 1804 in the city of Hamburg. His father was a physician, but he decided to study law, graduating from law school in 1827. Following a period of emotional profession, he changed professions and studied natural science and later plant embryology at university. He studied plants under a microscope, and in 1838 published a book in which he declared that all plants were composed of cells. He further theorized that all plant life arises from a single cell and that the nucleus played a role in cell division. He made a career as an academic, holding the position of professor of botany at the University of Dorpat in 1863. He endorsed and advocated for Darwinism, and was one of the first in Germany to do so.

Schleiden’s contributions to biology, both in his own discoveries and in his support of the discoveries of others, helped advance human understanding. He was one of many scientists who were critical to the development of the modern world, even if their names do not feature as often in textbooks or news articles.

June 22nd in German History: Operation Barbarossa

German troops at the Soviet Border, June 22nd, 1941.

The Second World War has no shortage of turning points. While many events were critical to the course of the war, Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, may be the most important of them. On June 22nd, 1941, Germany declared war on the USSR, and German soldiers entered the country.

Adolf Hitler advocated for the invasion of the USSR first during the 1920s, when he wrote Mein Kampf while in prison. He thought the destruction of that nation was necessary if Germany were to dominate the world. Russia would provide Lebensraum, or living space, on which German settlers could grow food and expand the Arayan population. However, the realities of the 1930s forced Hitler to make deals with the Soviet Union, purchasing natural resources to fuel the German war machine. Most notably, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the East as Germany invaded from the West. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact promised nonaggression between the two powers, and it seemed as though the Soviet Union might function as an ally to Germany. This, however, was never to last. Hitler’s anti-Slavic racism and wild desire to destroy Communism pushed him to turn German armies on Russia even as Britain remained undefeated. The invasion was delayed several times, but on June 22nd it finally began. Initially, German troops fared extremely well. Massive numbers of Soviet soldiers were encircled and annihilated around Minsk, Kiev, and other cities as the Soviet airforce, often caught unawares in its airbases, was destroyed from above. City after city fell in the first few months, and Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Premier, was pushed to desperation, ordering troops not to retreat even as German tanks outflanked their positions. As the Wehrmacht advanced, German soldiers massacred civilian populations and killed, either directly or through starvation and hard labor, millions of Soviet prisoners of war. However, the Soviet Union did not collapse as was expected. Although it suffered horrendous losses in men and equipment, the Red Army continued to put up stiff resistance and made Germany pay for the ground it took. German troops pushed all the way to the outskirts of Moscow, but could go no farther. They ran low on weapons and fuel, and were at the edge of their supply lines. As winter set in, soldiers suffered frostbite and found their weapons inoperable while their Russian opponents fared better in their heavier uniforms and wielding weapons designed for winter conditions. Further, the Soviet Union benefitted from massive quantities of lend-lease from Great Britain and the United States, allowing it to focus almost solely on weapons production. Operation Barbarossa would end on December 5ht, 1941, with German troops bogged down and the Red Army preparing for a counteroffensive.

Operation Barbarossa saw massive successes for the German Army. Ultameltey, however, the millions of prisoners captured, the industrial centers occupied, and the truly unbelievable quantities of equipment captured, were not nearly enough. Russia still had enough soldiers, population, and industry to rebuild its army, stop the German advance, and eventually push into Germany. Germany fell into the same trap that Napoleon and earlier Sweden fell into. Namely, the idea that Russia, or any nation with a large territory and population, can be destroyed simply by a few battles.

June 21st in German History: China Declares War on Germany and other European Nations in the Boxer Rebellion.

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Forces of the Eight Nation Alliance.

The 19th century saw a series of humiliations for China, then under the control of the Qing Empire. Britain first defeated China in the two Opium wars, taking islands and ports and forcing concessions on China. Other nations soon followed suit, fighting more wars and taking more port cities from China. The culmination of Western interference in China was the Boxer Rebellion, in which forces of eight nations put down an uprising of religious zealots known as the Boxers for their use of Chinese boxing rituals.

Baron von Ketteler. The German Imperial Envoy Killed by a Chinese Captain.

The final years of the 19th century saw the Chinese government lose authority over its own country. The Chinese people were angered by foreign encroachment, and looked to strengthen China and push Western powers out. Following severe drought and crop failure, a series of murders and attacks on Western missionaries and officials culminated in the Boxers, a religious militia that believed themselves impervious to Western weapons, marched on Beijing. Eight nations- Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Japan, the United States, Italy, and Rusia- sent troops to form an expeditions to relieve the Legation Quarter, where Christians and missionaries had fled. The siege of the Legations began after the German Imperial Envoy was killed while seeking to voice his complaints to the Empress Dowager Cixi. Cixi decided to support the Boxers after learning of the expedition into Chinese territory, declaring war on the Eight nations on June 21st, 1900. The first expedition, the Seymour expedition, was defeated by the Chinese Army, the Boxers fighting with great courage and stubbornness and vastly outnumbering the 2,000 men sent. The second expedition, the Gaslee Expedition, of 18,000 men succeeded in relieving Beijing. The European forces were armed with machine guns and bolt-action rifles which far outmatched the muskets and swords the Boxers used. The expedition plundered Beijing and forced Cixi to surrender.

After the surrender of the Qing government, Pro-Boxer Chinese officials were executed and the government was forced to pay the equivalent of $10 billion in silver. Major Chinese railroads and ports were occupied by European troops. However, the consequences of the Boxer Rebellion were far greater than the indemnity or the loss of a few rail junctions. The failure of the rebellion increased revolutionary sentiment, especially in Southern China. further, it forced the government to rely on European powers to run its economy and help prevent rebellion, as much of the Qing military was destroyed. TheBoxer Rebellion led to the near-total submission of China to outside powers, and was the low point fo the center of humiliation.

June 20th in German History: The Battle of Chalons.

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The Huns at the Battle of Chalons. Painting by Alphonse de Neuville.

In the waning days of the Western Roman Empire, Attila the Hun, the so-called scourge of god, invaded Gaul and Italy in search of wealth an conquest. He defeated Roman armies in battle, burned cities, and destroyed countryside. Further, he forced barbarian tribes to flee into Roman lands, sowing further chaos and destruction. However, by 450 CE Rome had reestablished sufficient control over Gaul, modern-day France, to lead a coalition of it allies against Attila. On June 20th, 451, Rome and her German allies would meet Attila on the field of battle. The Roman army, mostly made up of German allies, defeated Attila and frustrated his plans to establish control over Gaul.

By the fifth century CE, Rome was an empire in decline. It could no longer muster sufficient forces to fight its battles, and so had to rely on barbarians that had settled inside its borders. In 451, Attila crossed the Rhine river and began sacking cities. General Flavius Aetius, one of the last skilled Western Roman commanders, met with the kings of various Germanic tribes, most notably Theodoric of the Visigoths, and convinced them to join his army. His coalition force chased Attila, who, having succeeded in destroyed population centers and gathering a wealth of plunder, was leaving Gaul. On June 20th, Attila decided to give battle, having arrived at a suitable location somewhere on the Cataluanian fields. The course of the battle is disputed, but most sources agree that the Romans and their allies were able to force the off of a ridge which dominated the battlefield, and then hold it against assaults by the Huns and their vassals. Some accounts say that the Visigoths attacked Attila’s personal guard after Theodoric was killed. Theodoric’s son, Thorismund, led the attack, forcing Attila to retreat from the field. After the battle, Aetius convinced Thorismund to journey home quickly in order to prevent his brothers from claiming the throne. This, while sound advice, also had the effect of allowing the Romans to claim the plunder that Attila had gathered.

While Attila survived the battle, his aura of invincibility was broken. He failed to establish a Hunnic empire in Gaul and would find his power diminished from then on. Attila invaded Rome in 452, but was forced to abandon that invasion due to disease and famine in his army. The Visigoth’s critical role in the battle is often cited as leading to their gaining the status of an independent kingdom int he following years. Rome would never again exercise lordship over the Germanic peoples, which would develop into the kingdoms and states that were the basis for modern nation-states.

June 19th in German History: The Death of Jewish Politician Otto Hirsch.

Otto Hirsch

Within Germany, there were many who opposed the antisemitic policies of the Nazi regime. One such figure was Otto Hirsch, a politician and activist who died in Mauthausen concentration camp on June 19th, 1941.

Otto Hirsch first entered political life in 1930 when he was elected president of the high council of the Jewish religious community in the city of Wurrtemberg. He protested against Hitler’s rise to power, and founded the Reich Representation of German Jews. This groups was meant to coordinate the political activities of the Jewish population and provide representation against growing anti-semetism. He was arrested in 1935, but was soon released. In 1938 he represented German Jews at the Evian Conference, which was organized by Franklin Roosevelt in order to convince European nations to accept more Jewish refugees. Following Kristellnacht, he was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp for two weeks. Following this he focused on helping Jews emigrate to other countries, although his efforts were frustrated by quotes in Western Europe and in the US. In 1939 the Nazi government forced the Reich Representation of German Jews to merge into the Reich Association of Jews in Germany and appointed Hirsch to it. He was arrested in February of 1941 and sent to Mauthausen concentration camp, where he died.

Otto Hirsch is an example of a fundamentally noble human being. Although he possessed the means to escape Germany, he stayed and did his best to help fellow German Jews survive and flee Nazism. He serves an example to follow, and reminds us that even evil nations have good people.

June 18th in German History: The Battle of Waterloo

Field Marshall Blucher, commander of the Prussian forces at Waterloo.

The Napoleonic Era was a grim period in history for Germany. Prussia and Austria were defeated in battle and forced to sign humiliating peace treaties with France. The Rhineland was subjugated, forced into a confederation that was little more than a French puppet. However, Austria and Prussia refused to accept their defeat, and so helped to end Napoleon’s supremacy in Europe after his failed invasion of Russia. Prussia would again stand against Napoleon when he returned in 1815. Along with Britain, Prussia defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th, 1815.

Napoleon returned to France in March of 1815, quickly taking power in the country as armies sent to stop him joined his cause. The Allied nations of the 7th coalition quickly mobilized their armies against him, Napoleon planned to attack these nations separately to preempt a united invasion of France. On June 16th, he drove the main Prussian army back at the battle of Ligny, although he had to send one third of his army to prevent the Prussians from joining the coming battle. The British under Sir Arthur Wellington withdrew to the town of Waterloo, in modern-day Belgium, in order to avoid a battle with the French. However, one he learned that the Prussians would be able to reinforce him, he decided to give battle on an escarpment, a series of slopes, at Mont-Saint-Jean. On June 18th, Napoleon attacked the British forces defending the slopes, but his men failed to make and breakthroughs for most of the day. Throughout the day, Prussian forces arrived and attacked Napoleon’s right flank forcing the Emperor to deploy much of his reserves to hold them off. Towards the end of the day, the French did capture the orchard of La Hay Sainte, a critical part of the British line. However, the French lacked the necessary reserves to force the breach in Wellington’s lines. Napoleon ordered his Imperial Guard to assault Wellington’s lines through the gap created. However, the Guard, never before defeated in battle, were met with withering gunfire and broke, fleeing back towards Napoleon’s lines. The French center, right and left flanks all broke under British and Prussian assault and were forced to flee. In all, Napoleon suffered 41,000 killed, wounded, and missing out of an original force of 73,000 while the Allies suffered 24,000 casualties out of a force of 118,000.

The Battle of Waterloo ended forever Napoleon’s dream of a Europe dominated by France. However, it did not undo the changes Napoleon brought to all parts of the continent. Napoleon spread the liberal ideas of the revolution to the areas he conquered, and so created a desire for independence and self-government among many ethnic groups. Against these ideas would rise a reactionary movement that would try to stop the advance of liberalism. While Napoleon was in the end defeated in battle the ideas he spread would be victorious.

June 17th in German History: The Birth of Heinz Guderian.

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Heinz Guderian

Germany has no shortage of famous generals in its history. During the Second World War, numerous Germans became famous for their victories against the Allied powers. While perhaps not as famous as Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian was probably the most skilled of the German tank commanders. His innovative tactics and strategic insight were fundamental to the development of modern warfare.

Guderian was born on June 17th, 1888, into a military family. He became an officer cadet in 1907 and served in signal units and on the General Staff during World War I. Due to his aptitude, he was one of the 4,000 officers selected to remain in the German Army after the reductions forced upon it by the Treaty of Versailles. During the 1920s he became involved in the development of armored warfare, writing papers on the subject. In 1931 he became the Chief of Staff of the Inspectorate of Motorized Troops. Throughout the rest of the 1930s he developed theories of armored warfare that would influence Blitzkrieg tactics. Under his superior Oswald Lutz he wrote Achtung-Panzer!, a book which outlined armored warfare theory. In 1938 he commanded armored forces that took part in the occupation of Austria and the Sudetenland. He became friends with Adolf Hitler, further advancing his career. During the invasion of Poland he led the XIX Corps in successful operations against the Polish Army, for which he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Guderian developed the plan for the armored invasion through the Ardennes, a forest which was thought impassable for armored units. His successful push through the Ardennes and race to the channel coast cut off the British and French forces in Belgium and ensured the fall of France. During the invasion of the Soviet Union Guderian’s units encircled and destroyed huge concentrations of Soviet troops, most notable around Kiev. However, he failed to capture Moscow and because of that was relieved of command of Army Group Center. In 1943 he was appointed Inspector General of Armored Troops and was charged with rebuilding the German Panzer forces. He was successful in correcting flaws with some of the newer tanks and introducing tank destroyers, but mounting losses and the destruction of German industry by Allied bombing prevented any expansion of the armored force. Following the failed plot to assassinate Hitler, Guderian was appointed Acting Chief of General Staff in 1944. In this position he Nazified the army, expelling many officers whose political views were opposed to those of Hitler. He also may have been involved in the ordering of reprisals after the Warsaw Uprising. He surrendered to the Americans on May 10th, 1945.

Heinz Guderian was interned for three years following the war. However, he was never convicted of war crimes due to a lack of evidence. He remained a German nationalist and never criticized Nazism. He wrote several successful books and memoirs before his death in 1954. His stubborn defense of Nazism tarnishes his image. Like most WWII German generals, they cannot only be remembered for their accomplishments. Their adherence to an evil ideology must be remembered as well. They may have been good tacticians, but they certainly were not good people.

June 16th in German History: The East German Uprising of 1953

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A Soviet tank enters East Berlin.

During its existence, the Eastern Bloc saw any uprisings against the Soviet Union and their puppet governments. The Hungarian and Czechoslovakian and probably the two most famous of the ultimately failed rebellions. However, Germany also saw massed protests against its communist government. On June 16th, 1953, East German workers began protests and strikes in response to recent increases in work quotas and preferential treatment of farmers.

In 1952 the East German government embarked on an ambitious plan to socialize East Germany. This plan included the heavy taxing of private enterprise, investment in heavy industry, limiting of consumer goods, price increases, collectivization of farms, and raises in work quotas. Most notably, the government decided to increase work quotas by 10% while limiting overtime and raising prices. These measures had the effect of a 33% wage decrease. The rest was worker unrest and a mass exodus of people from East Germany. In the first four months of 1953, 122,000 people fled to the West. The Soviet Union was alarmed by these numbers, and so ordered the East German government to slow down the aggressive socialization programs and end attacks on private enterprise and religious institutions. In response, the East German Politburo issued a statement on June 11th that collectivization would end along with attacks on small-scale private business. However, the 10% work quote increase would remain. The statement admitted mistakes made by the government, which many East Germans saw as a sign of weakness. Further, the end of forced collectivization and attacks on private business benefited farmers and the upper middle class, but the workers were still hurt by the quota increases. The following days saw demonstrations and marches against the regime. On June 16th these protests began to expand into an uprising. At 9am 300 workers went on strike and marched to government offices. More workers joined them and protests spread to other East German cities. The Politburo decided to revoke the quota increase, but it was too late. The demonstrators now called for civil liberties and free elections. The West German radio broadcast channel, RIAS, communicated news of the protests and encouraged further demonstrations. Almost all significant East German population centers saw demonstrations. On June 17th , Soviet troops entered East Germany to put down the protests which had turned to riots as police were attached and government buildings stormed. In East Berlin, Soviet tanks fired on protesters while in other cities the response was generally more restrained. By June 24th, the situation had generally calmed down. Up to 125 protesters were killed in total along with five police.

The 1953 uprising failed to overthrow the East German government or even force meaningful reforms tot he political system. It, however, did result in significant changes withing the country. The regime became far less popular with the workers and was seen as generally weak, as it had needed Soviet troops to stay in power. The regime, in turn, introduced new measures, like factory floor supervision unit, to monitor workers and prevent uprising before they could spread. Further, it never again embarked on aggressive socialization campaigns and further abandoned the practice of unilateral quota increases or wage cuts. Communist Party chairman Walter Ubricht managed to stay in power because of Moscow’s reluctance to initiate major leadership changes in the wake of the death of Stalin. While the Soviet Union maintained its control over Germany, it lost much of the goodwill it had in East Germany that remained from the overthrow of Nazism.

June 15th in German History: Crown Prince Wilhelm Becomes Kaiser

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Kaiser Wilhelm II

The German Empire had three leaders in the course of its rather short existence. All were titled Kaiser, the German spelling of Cesar, and were, at least in name, absolute rulers of Germany. On June 15th, 1888, Wilhelm became Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. He succeeded Frederick III, who had led Germany for ninety-nine days before his death, who himself succeeded Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Once he became Kaiser, Wilhelm quickly set about changing the direction of German foreign policy. He soon forced Otto von Bismarck, the Chancellor of Germany, to resign after Bismarck’s coalition in the Reichstag had fractured over the issues of socialism and labor protections. Wilhelm appointed Chancellors loyal to him and weakened the office, securing control over foreign policy and the state as a whole. Wilhelm replaced Realpolitik with Weltpolitik, an expansionist stance that saw Germany exert greater influence and pressure on neighboring European powers. In doing so, he destroyed the diplomatic balance that Bismarck had worked to build. His rhetoric against the French and Russians alienated both nations and so pushed them closer together. Further, he initiated several diplomatic incidents in France’s African colonies, which further damaged Germany’s image worldwide. Worst of all, he began a massive naval buildup that challenged Britain, the most powerful nation in the world into the arms of Germany’s enemies. In Asia, his racially tinged proclamations against Japan pushed that nations to form closer ties with Britain. The two nations with which he enjoyed successful diplomacy were Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, two of the most unstable Great Powers. Thus, Germany faced off against three Great Powers in the early years of the Frist World War, with only Austria as its ally. The entry of the Ottomans into the war barley compensated for Italy’s entrance on the side of the Allies. During the war, Wilhelm lost political influence as Germany came under the effective control, of Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenberg. Wilhelm abdicated the throne in 1918 following mutinies and revolutions. He spent the rest of his life in exile in the Netherlands. For a time he was hopeful that the rise of the Nazi Party would lead to the restoration of the Monarchy. This, however, would never come to pass. Although antisemitic himself, he was disgusted by Nazi atrocities against German Jews. He was overjoyed at Germany’s victories in the early years of World War II. He died in 1941, before he could see Germany defeated by its enemies a second time.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was, if not the most incompetent German ruler in history, certainly made the worst of the situation he was given. In 1888, he became king of the most powerful nation in Europe. Germany had the largest land army outside of Russia and the largest economy with the exception of the United States. Further, Germany had only one enemy, France, and allies in Italy and Austria. Thirty years later, the monarchy that had ruled Prussia for 400 years had fallen and Wilhelm as forced to flee to the Netherlands to escape an angry populace. In every way, Kaiser Wilhelm II failed as a national leader.