August 26th in German History: The Battle on the Marchfeld

Schnorr von Carolsfeld - Die Schlacht Rudolfs von Habsburg gegen Ottokar von Böhmen.jpg
Battle of Rudolph of Habsburg against Ottokar of Bohemia by Julius Schorr von Carolsfeld.

The Habsburg dynasty is commonly the object of ridicule and humor for their slow decline that began in the 17th century and ended with the destruction of Austria-Hungary at the end of WWI. However, for nearly a millennia they were the preeminent force in Central Europe and at times held sway over entire continents. The Battle on the Marchfeld, fought on August 26th, 1278, saw the beginning of the rise of the Habsburg dynasty and the weakening of its enemies.

The middle of the 12th century saw a succession crisis in the Holy Roman Empire. Ottokar II, King of Bohemia, had experienced a quick rise in power, acquiring numerous territories outside his homeland. The death of the emperor in 1250 had led to a series of powerless candidates. However, Ottokar’s rise frightened the German electors and in 1273 they made Rudolph of Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor. Ottokar did not accept this decision, as it had been made in his absence, and refused to appear at the Imperial Diet in 1275. In response, Rudolph confiscated his new territories and besieged Ottokar in Vienna. Ottokar was forced to surrender in 1276 and was left with only Bohemia and Moravia as fiefs. Ottokar looked to regaining his lost lands and allied with Brandenburg, Poland, and Lower Bavaria and invaded Habsburg territory. Rudolph marched out of Vienna and met with his Hungarian allies to give battle. Ottokar had 1,000 heavy cavalry and 5,000 light cavalry. Rudolph had 300 heavy and 4,000 light cavalry. In addition, he had 5,000 Cuman horse archers. The battle began with attacks by the Cumans on the heavy Bohemian horses. Despite initial losses, the Bohemians did well when the armies first collided. However, three hours of fighting on a hot summer day exhausted the heavily armored Bohemians. To make matters worse, Rudolph ordered a fresh unit of heavy cavalry that he had concealed to attack Ottokar’s flank. Ottokar tried to attack this unit in the rear, but the maneuver was interpreted as a rout by his men. The Bohemian lines collapsed and in the ensuing panic Ottokar was killed.

The destruction of the Bohemian Army and the death of Ottokar secured Rudolph’s position as Holy Roman Emperor. He was relatively merciful to his enemy. He displayed Ottokar’s body in Vienna, and he did allow the dead king’s son to rule Bohemia. He installed his sons as Austrian dukes and their descendants would control Austria until 1918. In one day, the Battle on the Marchfeld elevated a dynasty that would rule for the next seven centuries.

August 25th in German History: The Birth of Erich Honecker

Erich Honecker - Wikipedia
Erich Honecker.

Germany had more than its fair share of totalitarian leaders during the 20th century. While Adolf Hitler ruled the country for twelve years, for forty years the eastern half was controlled by a communist dictatorship. This regime, while not as brutal as that of the Nazis, maintained a repressive grip on the people of East Germany for the duration of its existence. Erich Honecker, the man who led that regime and failed to stop its downfall, was born on August 25th, 1912.

Erich was born in the industrial Saarland region, on the border with France. Honecker’s father was a coal miner and political activist. In 1922 Honecker joined the Spartacus League, a communist youth league, and four years later he joined the Young Communist League of Germany. In 1928 he left to study in Moscow and in 1930 joined the German Communist Party, or KPD. When the Nazis took power in 1933 they banned all communist activities, but the Saarland Region was still outside of Germany in a League of Nations mandate. Honecker campaigned against the region rejoining Germany, but the 1935 referendum voted overwhelmingly in favor of reuniting with Germany so Honecker was forced to flee to Paris. Later that year he traveled illegally to Berlin to engage in resistance activities. In late 1935 he was detained and remained in prison until he was released by the Soviets in 1945. There is some evidence that, while imprisoned, he offered to betray fellow communist inmates in exchange for release and was willing to join the German Army. During the late 1940s and 1950s he rose quickly through the ranks of the East German Communist Party, becoming a Politburo member in 1958. He formed ties with the Russian leadership and promised to overturn Chairman Walter Ulbricht’s economic reforms. Thus, in 1971 the USSR forced Ulbricht to retire and Honecker assumed power. As chairman, Honecker was able to improve East German living standards by focusing the economy more on consumerism. He normalized relations with West Germany by signing the Basic Treaty in 1972. Further, he improved relations with the West and was able to make East Germany a full member of the UN. However, he continued the repression of the East German people; 125 people were killed attempting to cross the border during his time as leader. While the 1970s went well for East Germany, the early 1980s saw economic stagnation and political unrest. Honecker refused to implement Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalizing economic and political reforms. He became one of the hard-liners who attempted to maintain socialist rule in Eastern Europe. However, unrest grew and the population began to call for his removal. He fell gravely ill in 1989 and so was unable to effectively respond to the protests against his rule. Thousands began to flee across the border into Hungary and then into Austria in order to reach West Germany. Gorbachev refused to send troops in to quell demonstrations, and it became clear that the party could not maintain its grip on power. The Central Committee removed him from power in October of 1989 and two months later communist rule ended.

Although he was not as brutal as earlier German leaders, Erich Honecker was none the less a totalitarian ruler who tried to maintain complete control of East Germany. He did not believe in freedom of speech or even of movement, and was willing to kill those who attempted to leave his country. The reunited German nation did not, however, punish Honecker for his crimes. He was put on trial but released and he died of cancer in 1994. Honecker, I think, is one of the better examples of bureaucratic evil. He did not kill those he believed were racially inferior, but rather those who challenged the ordered system he controlled. He believed that his system was superior, and that the cogs that made it work had little inherent value except in their usefulness in maintaining the system’s functionality.

August 24th in German History: Adolf Hitler Orders the End of the T4 Killings

Erlass von Hitler - Nürnberger Dokument PS-630 - datiert 1. September 1939.jpg
Hitler’s order to begin carrying out T4.

The T4 killings were the systematic mass murder of much of the elderly, critically ill and disabled population of Germany. T4 is an abbreviation of the address of a government building which recruited and organised those involved in the program. On August 24th, 1941, Adolf Hitler ordered that the systematic killings stop. However, they continued to be carried out by hospitals and old-age homes throughout the remainder of the war.

The sterilization of the disabled was a normalized practice during the first half of the 20th century. In most western nations, the practice was legal and even encouraged. In 1933, the Nazi government made sterilization for the mentally ill mandatory. Those with physical disabilities were also subjected until 1937, when the labor shortage forced the government to declare all those who could work useful and thus exempt. In 1939, the government began the killing of children with hereditary disabilities and later that year the program expanded to adults in occupied Poland and Eastern Germany. Gassing began in 1940 and that year over 35,000 people were killed. Although many individual church hospitals allowed their patients to be euthanized, the Catholic Church issued condemnations of the practice and German church officials began protesting. Many families attempted to take their relatives out of sanitariums and hospitals, but too often they were prevented from doing so. By August of 1941 the planned 70,000 deaths had been reached and Hitler ordered that the program be suspended so that the resources could be used on the Eastern Front. However, local Nazi Party officials and directors of mental institutions continued to kill disabled adults and children until the war’s end. An estimated 200,000 people were killed during the war in Germany and Austria.

The T4 program was the logical conclusion of the ablest beliefs of the first half of the 20th century. The belief that the disabled are inherently less valuable and damaging to society leads to their dehumanization. Especially during times of crises, such as wartime, those who society views as less are subjected to persecution and attack.

August 23rd in German History: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is Signed

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H27337, Moskau, Stalin und Ribbentrop im Kreml.jpg
Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the treaty. The former would have the latter executed after the war.

The Soviet Union was the nation that sacrificed the most in the defeat of Germany. As such, we often forget that it also was crucial to enabling Germany to invade and take over much of Europe. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a non aggression pact signed by the USSR and Nazi Germany which gave Germany a free hand in expanding into Poland and invading France the following year. It was signed on August 23rd, 1939.

The pact’s main component was a treaty of non aggression between the two nations. Both promised not to attack each other. This agreement was surprising not least because of Hitler’s well-known hatred of communism and of the Slavic peoples. However, there were strategic reasons for his decision. He did not want to fight a two front war in 1939 and so desired to pacify the east so that he could focus on France and the UK in the west. Further, the Soviet Union was a crucial supplier of raw materials for the German war machine. Stalin, for his part, wanted the Democratic and Fascist countries to exhaust each other, which would allow the USSR to sweep in and create a communist Europe. He was thus happy to sell oil to Germany if that oil would be expended against French tanks. The pact also divided Eastern Europe up between the two nations. Germany was to get Western Poland while the Soviet Union would take the rest along with the Baltic States, parts of Finland, and the Romanian territories of Besserabia and Bukovina. Polish diplomacy in the 1930s was focused on playing Germany and the USSR off each other, but this treaty ensured that the two would be partners in the carving up of nations instead of rivals. In accordance with the pact, the Soviet Union invaded Poland after Germany did and subsequently it annexed the Baltics, invaded Finland, and forced Romania to cede territory to it. When Germany invaded France in 1940, it did so knowing that it would face no invasion from the east and what’s more, it did so with tanks built with Russian minerals, fueled with Russian oil, and crewed by men fed with Russian grain. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would see nearly two years of collaboration between the greatest Communist power and the greatest Fascist one, and it would allow Germany to invade and subjugate most of Western Europe.

The nation that would suffer the most from the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was, of course, the Soviet Union. Hitler was able to take the west and then turn his full focus east. He broke the pact in 1941 and the war that followed resulted in the death of ten million Soviet citizens. The USSR paid dearly for Joseph Stalin’s short-sighted diplomatic ploys. Germany would not have been able to invade Poland if it had been opposed by with the Western Allies and the USSR. Without Poland and France subjugated, Germany could never have invaded Russia. If the Soviet Union had not signed the pact and had instead warned Germany against invading Poland, a great deal of suffering could have been avoided.

August 22nd in German History: German Troops Perpetrate the Holocaust of Kedros

Memorial to the massacre of the village of Ano Meros.

While the German occupations of France, Poland, and Yugoslavia are well-known, the occupation of Greece is not often discussed. From 1941 until 1945, Greece was occupied by both Italian and German forces following the invasion of the country. The occupying forces committed numerous atrocities. One of the worst, the Holocaust of Kedros, occurred on the island of Crete on August 22nd, 1944.

Soon after mainland Greece fell, the island of Crete was invaded by German paratroopers and amphibious troops. Although Allied forces were defeated, many remained in the countryside and the island became a hotbed of resistance activity. In the Amari Basin are located the Kedros villages, which during the war sheltered several bands of Commonwealth soldiers. During the summer of 1944 the German occupying forces were preparing to withdraw to the city of Chania as they could no longer maintain any effective control over the countryside. In order to dissuade any resistance attacks against their retreating troops, German commanders decided to attack villages which were known to have sheltered the enemy. So, at dawn on August 22nd, German infantry battalions arrived in the Amari valley and rounded up the populations of the eight Kedros villages. They gathered the locals together and separated those who would be executed. Women were told to gather valuable belongings and the men who were not to be executed were sent to a separate location and held there. After the men and women left, the Germans began shooting those they had selected for execution. When done, they burned the bodies and looted the houses of everything they could find. Then they burned the houses.

The commander of the German occupation, Lieutenant General Friedrich-Wilhelm Muller, was captured by the Soviets on the Eastern Front and in 1947 was executed by Greece for war crimes. However, the damage that he did to the Kedros villages was never fully undone. One of the villages, Smiles, was never rebuilt and no reparations were ever paid to the survivors. While the world has done a great deal to repair the damage done by the Second World War, the Kedros Holocaust is just one example of how we have failed to completely erase what was done.

August 21st in German History: Christian Schad is Born

Christian Schad.

Although Germany is known more for its political figures and its scientists, it has also produced numerous artists. One was Christian Schad, a painter and photographer who was part of the Dada and New Objectivity movements. He was born on August 21st, 1894.

Schad was born in the town of Miesbach in Upper Bavaria. His father was a prosperous lawyer who paid for his studies at the Art Academy of Munich. He moved to Switzerland in 1915 to avoid military service and there he became a Dadaist. He began painting and developed his own version of the photo-gram in 1918. He moved to Italy in 1920 and began painting more realistic works. In 1927 he moved with his wife to Vienna and later to Berlin. Because his art seemed more conventional than that produced by other members of the New Objectivity movement, it was not condemned by the Nazis. In fact, it was part of The Great German Art Exhibition set up by the government in 1937. However, he was forced to stop painting in the 1930s because the Great Depression forced his father to stop supporting him and his work. His studios were destroyed by bombings multiple times during the war and he lived in relative obscurity until the 1960s. In that decade, his reputation increased as his works were shown several times and the Photo-realist movement increased in popularity. He died On February 25th, 1982.

Christian Schad made important contributions to art in the 20th century. Although not as significant as, say, Picasso, his works are important parts of the Dadist and New Objectivity movements. Even though he was not the most talented painter of his era, his name should not be forgotten as if he accomplished nothing.

August 20th in German History: Germany Captures Brussels

Grand-Place |
German troops march into Belgium.

Soon after Germany entered WWI, it invaded the neutral nation of Belgium. It wanted to bypass French defenses on the French-German border and so sought to move troops through Belgian territory. When the Belgian government refused to allow German armies to pass, Germany declared war and quickly invaded the kingdom. Although the Belgians fought bravely, they were outnumbered and soon their capitol fell on August 20th, 1914.

The German invasion of Belgium began on midnight, August 4th when Germany declared war. German troops crossed the Belgian border and attacked the city of Liege. The fortifications around Liege were meant to hold back the German forces for long enough to allow the French and British armies to arrive in Belgium and push the Germans back. Further, the demolition of railways and bridges was supposed to slow down the German advance by hampering the progress of their heavy artillery. The German plan called for Liege to fall in two days, but it in fact took eleven days for all of the forts to be captured. However, the Fall of Liege left the capitol open, and German troops marched into it unopposed on the 20th. The Germans continued on, taking most of Belgium before advancing into France. The Allies had been unable to defend Belgium, and soon the Germans had taken most of the industrial territory on the Franco-Belgian border. Although the Germans were stopped at the Marne River, the quick fall of Belgium had allowed the Kaiser’s armies to take large amounts of territory and nearly win the war in 1914.

The capture of Brussels, while damaging to the French and the British, was disastrous for the Belgian people. The Germans perpetrated numerous atrocities on the civilian population in revenge for resistance by soldiers and partisans. The “Rape of Belgium” saw men, women, and children shot in reprisal for attacks on German troops. Further, the German occupation saw the conscription of the Belgian population as forced labor and the theft of Belgium’s wealth and industry for use in the German war machine. Although Belgium fell quickly, it would endure the horrors of war for the entire duration of the conflict.

August 19th in German History: The 1934 German Referendum Makes Adolf Hitler Fuhrer

1934 German referendum - Wikipedia
A Banner Supporting Adolf Hitler’s Campaign

Seventeen days after the death of President Paul von Hindenberg, Germany held a referendum to legitimize Hitler’s assumption of dictatorial power. On August 1st, Hitler had combined the offices of Chancellor and President into the position of Fuhrer. On August 2nd, the day of Hindenberg’s death, he assumed his new powers. Soon after, on August 19th, 1934, the German people voted overwhelmingly in favor of the end of German democracy.

The Enabling Act had left Hindenberg, the president, as the only person who could remove Hitler from power. When Hindenberg died, Hitler ignored his command that he restore the Hohenzollern monarchy and instead took the last steps towards securing complete control. He wanted to give a veneer of popular legitimacy to his takeover, and so decided to hold a referendum in which the entire adult population would vote on whether or not they approved of his actions. The lead up to the vote saw a great deal of intimidation and elector fraud. Storm troopers stood at polling stations and watched as votes were cast, people were discouraged from voting in secret polling stations and many clubs were marched to open areas where they would cast their votes in public. Jewish people, Poles, and other ethnic minorities were in fact not prevented from casting negative votes, as the Nazis intended to use a lack of support in areas with high populations of these groups as evidence of their disloyalty. Overall, 88% of votes recorded were in favor of the creation of the position of Fuhrer. Hamburg, the city with the least support, saw 80% yes votes. The overwhelming support was used by the Nazi regime as justification for their continued totalitarian rule.

While the referendum was certainly not conducted in a free and democratic manner, it is likely that a majority of Germans did support Hitler’s takeover. Simply put, most Germans did not value democracy, and many looked at the economic and political chaos of the past decade and thought that democracy had failed and had to be replaced. When a people do not value democracy in of itself, they take a more cynical view and look at the practical benefits of each system. While democracy was not at fault for the great depression or the street fighting between Nazis and Communists, the German people thought it was and so supported a party that promised stability and prosperity at the cost of civil rights and liberties.

August 18th in German History: Karl Jatho Claims to have flown For the First Time

Karl Jatho - Wikipedia
Karl Jatho’s Biplane.

While the Wright Brothers are generally thought to have the first powered heavier-than-air flight, there are several other claimants to that achievement. One such man was Karl Jatho, a German inventor. He claimed to have made a powered flight on August 18th of 1903.

Jatho was born on February 3rd, 1873, and had a career as a public servant in Hanover. He developed a keen interest in air travel and soon began building prototype airplanes. Beginning in August of 1903 he claimed to have begun making a series of ever-longer flights. Whether his aircraft was controlled or not is a matter of some debate. A 1907 news article stated that it was, while a 1902 document says that the aircraft lacked a controlled mechanism. Jatho’s notes state that he made a flight of 60 meters months prior to the Wright Brother’s flights, although theirs were longer. However, Jatho failed to have his flight certified by witnesses until 1933. Further, subsequent attempts to fly using an exact replica of his plane had been prevented by adverse weather. Thus, his claims are not generally considered to be verified.

While the Wright Brothers almost certainly do deserve credit for being the first to make a powered and controlled flight, it is unfortunate that other pioneers of aviation are so forgotten. We are so focused on firsts that no one cares about those who were behind by just a few months. While the initial pioneers deserve a great deal of credit, their contemporaries are not so insignificant as to deserve being lost to time.

August 17th in German History: The Grand Duchy of Baden Allies with Prussia

Friedrich I of Baden.jpg
Grand Duke Frederick of Baden, who signed the treaty.

The unification of Germany into one nation was a long and complicated process. The final declaration in 1871 was the product of decades of political maneuvering and increased political and economic unity which broke down the barriers between the different German states. One important step was the treaty of alliance signed between Prussia and the Duchy of Baden on August 17, 1866.

Before the Austro-Prussian War, most German states were allied with the Empire of Austria, who opposed Prussia. However, Prussia quickly defeated Austria and her German allies. Helmuth von Moltke crushed the Austrian Army at the Battle of Sadowa and invaded several of the smaller German states. One of these states was the Grand Duchy of Baden, one of the smaller south German territories which historically had been allied with Austria. Baden was a member of the German Confederation, and Austrian-dominated league of German states meant to maintain the Emperor’s hegemony over Germany. Grand Duke Frederick succeeded his father in 1852 and had continued his pro-Austrian policy. However, the defeat of his armies forced him to withdraw from the war. His ministers resigned and on August 17th, 1866, the country signed a treaty of peace and alliance with Prussia.

Baden would quickly become a faithful ally of Prussia. Her troops fought well during the Franco-Prussian War and Duke Frederick was the first of the German leaders to hail Kaiser Wilhelm I when he was crowned Emperor of Germany. Baden remained a semi-sovereign state within the German Empire until 1918, and Frederick was its ruler until his death in 1907. Baden’s alliance with Prussia is a good example of a leader recognizing a shift in power and taking actions to preserve his own power and the safety and autonomy of his people.