August 16th in German History: The Death of Robert Bunsen

Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (HeidICON 53016) (cropped).jpg
Robert Bunsen

Many scientists are well-known. Names like Einstein and Newton are popular even in non-scientific contexts. However, few names are known almost entirely for a single invention. Robert Bunsen himself is, unfortunately, almost completely forgotten while his invention lives on. However, Bunsen did more than simply invent the burner that is a mainstay of high school science labs. He made important contributions to chemistry. He died on August 16th, 1899.

Robert Bunsen was born in 1811 and was the son of a professor and chief librarian at the University of Gottingen. He studied chemistry at Gottingen and in 1831 obtained a PhD. During the 1830s he made his first discoveries. He discovered that iron hydroxate could be used as an antidote for arsenic poisoning and studied the chemical cacodyl. He created the Bunsen cell battery in 1841 and lost sight in his right eye after a cacodyl explosion. In 1846 he was part of an expedition to the volcanoes of Iceland. In the 1850s he began using electrolysis to produce pure metals and in 1852 he conducted the work that would lead to his reciprocity law, which details the relationship between the intensity and duration of light. In 1855 Bunsen and his lab assistant Peter Desaga perfected the Bunsen Burner, which produced a hotter and cleaner flame than those produced by earlier burners. In 1859 he began his systematic study of emission spectra of heated elements using the recently invented spectroscope. As a result of this study he discovered Cesium in 1860 and Rubidium in 1861. Bunsen was very prominent during his lifetime, and in 1877 he and Gustav Kirchhoff were the first recipients of the Davy Medal. Bunsen retired at the age of 78 and died ten years later.

By all accounts, Robert Bunsen was a humble and well-mannered person in addition to being an excellent scientist. However, his refusal to seek any patents and desire to spend most of his time doing research instead of increasing his popularity have almost certainly contributed to his contributions being mostly forgotten. It is unfortunate that the most hard-working people are often remembered far less than those who contributed comparatively little but who made their contributions in more popular fields.

August 15th in German History: The Great Phenol Plot is Uncovered

The New York World breaks the story of the Phenol Plot.

The First World War was a dark and horrible conflict which saw the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians. However, it was not fought by men in the trenches alone. Numerous instances of subterfuge were attempted by both sides in order to help swing the war in their favor. One such ploy was the Great Phenol Plot, which was an attempt to purchase the American supply of phenol so as to preempt its use in British explosive production. The plot was unveiled on August 15th, 1915.

Phenol is a chemical precursor used in organic chemistry. Importantly, it is used in both the production of aspirin and in high explosives. Immediately after WWI began Britain imposed a naval blockade of Germany. Thus, only Britain and her allies were able to engage in large-scale trade with the United States. Before the war, Britain produced most of the phenol used by American manufactures but the start of hostilities meant that British production had to be used almost exclusively for armaments. Thus, American manufacturers like Thomas Edison built phenol plants to supply domestic demand. Germany realized that this phenol could be used to make weapons for Britain, and so looked to cutting the supply off. Germany had numerous agents in the US tasked with sabotaging war production and maintaining popular support for neutrality. One agent, Hugo Schweitzer, was ordered by ambassador Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff and Interior Ministry official Heinrich Albert to buy Edison’s excess phenol using money funneled to him by the interior ministry. The phenol would go to the American subsidiary of the German company Bayer to be used in the production of aspirin, which had been disrupted by the lack of the chemical. However, the Secret Service was in the process of investigating Albert for distribution of propaganda and their agents picked up his briefcase when he forgot it on a train on June 24th, 1915. While his activities were not strictly illegal, someone in the Secret Service leaked information of them to the New York World, an anti-German newspaper. The World published the details of the plot on August 15th, forcing Albert to stop funding purchases. Schweitzer was able to secure a new source of funding and continue the operation for a few more months, but he was forced to ease all purchases by the end of the year as funding was pulled.

Although the Phenol Plot was ultimately foiled, it did benefit Germany. Enough phenol to make 4.5 million pounds of explosives was diverted and the plot made a net of two million dollars from sales of phenol. The plot may have harmed American public opinion of Germany to some small extent, but America was already turning against Germany as a result of the sinking of the Lusitania. In the end, though, the attempt to turn American production away from supplying British arms factories was futile, as shipments of weapons and resources to Britain would only grow, especially when it declared war on Germany.

August 14th in German History: The Cologne Cathedral is Completed

Cologne Cathedral (Cologne, 1880) | Structurae
The Cologne Cathedral.

Yesterday, I discussed the start of construction on the Berlin Wall. On that day a symbol of oppression began to rise in Berlin, and when it fell the people of Germany rejoiced. Today is the anniversary of the completion of the construction of an entirely different symbol, the Cologne Cathedral. The Cathedral was completed on August 14th, 1880, after six hundred and thirty-two years of construction.

A series of churches and secular buildings occupied the site of the Cologne Cathedral from the 4th century until construction began in the 13th century. In 1164, the relics of the three wise men were acquired and plans were drawn up for an appropriate building to house them in. However, construction only began when the foundation was laid down in 1248. The east wing was completed and consecrated in 1322, but construction stopped in 1473. It was difficult to secure funding for massive construction projects at the time, and further, the construction itself was difficult in the absence of machine tools. The Cologne Cathedral is not unique in its drawn-out state of partial completion. In 1842, the Kingdom of Prussia looked to completion of the Cathedral as a way to improve relations with its Catholic subjects. Original plans were used but more modern construction techniques, mainly the use of cast-iron girders, were substituted for older ones. The cathedral was completed on August 14th, 1880, and celebrations were held when it opened. It was the tallest building for four years, and is still the third tallest church in the world. The cathedral was hit by fourteen bombs during WWII but it remained standing. It was repaired by 1956, although further restorations have been conducted since then.

The Cologne Cathedral has been a spiritual symbol for centuries. While Christianity has faded in Germany along with the rest of Europe, the building still stands as a beacon of German unity and progress. Today, it stands against intolerance as ethno-nationalists march outside its walls. It has been damaged and rebuilt, a testament to its importance to the German people. While the Berlin Wall may have been built faster, the Cologne Cathedral will stand for centuries after the wall was consigned to the ash heap of history.

August 13th in German History: Construction on the Berlin Wall Begins

The Berlin Wall.

The Berlin Wall was the most visible symbol of communist oppression in Europe. For twenty-eight years it stood, holding the people of East Berlin captive under an oppressive government. On August 13th, 1961, the border between East and West Germany was officially closed and construction on the wall began.

East German workers build the Berlin Wall.

After the Second World War, Germany was divided into two zones. The west was under French, British, and American occupation and the east was put under Soviet occupation. Soon, the western powers combined their zone to form the Federal Republic of Germany and shortly after the eastern portion was made into the nominally independent German Democratic Republic. However, these two states quickly saw divergent standards of living. US aid in the form of the Marshall Plan along with superior economic policies led to the standard of living in West Germany rising far faster than in East Germany. Although the main border between the two states was closed, the border between East and West Berlin remained opened, creating a loophole which allowed migration. This allowed a large number of East Germans to flee from east to west. By 1961, twenty percent of the East German population emigrated to the Federal Republic. These people were dis-proportionally young and well-educated, leading to a brain drain. The East German economy suffered and so did the prestige of its ideology, Soviet Socialism. Both the East German government and its puppet masters in the USSR realized that something had to be done. Thus, when John F. Kennedy, president at the time, said that the US would not take military action if the border in Berlin were closed, Walter Ubricht, the chair of the Socialist Unity Party, decided that the time was right to close the border and build a barrier. Thus, on August 13th, 1961, East German troops were sent to the border with orders to shoot those who attempted to cross. On that day, workers began demolishing buildings and setting up the barriers, guard towers, bunkers, and minefields that would make up the wall.

The Berlin Wall did solve the immediate problem faced by East Germany. It prevented illegal border crossings and kept the people of East Germany from fleeing west. However, in the long term it contributed to the destruction of Soviet Socialism as an acceptable ideology. The wall showed the world that the Soviet system was fundamentally inferior to the capitalist one of the west, and demonstrated that force was necessary to prevent people from choosing the west over the east. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet Union’s grip on Eastern Europe shattered. Its grip on the minds of the people, however, was shattered when the Berlin Wall rose.

August 12th in German History: The Wola Massacre Ends

Wola Massacre Memorial on Górczewska Street | The Wola massa… | Flickr
The memorial to the Wola Massacre.

During the Second World War, Germany was responsible for uncountable massacres, atrocities and genocides. The reasons for these acts were many, but they often boiled down to a combination of racist hatred and a brutally practical desire to eliminate resistance. These motivations were behind the Wola Massacre, the killing of tens of thousands of Poles by German soldiers. The massacre ended on August 12th, 1944.

Polish women and children led by German troops.

The Warsaw Uprising began on August 1st and saw Polish Resistance attack German forces occupying the city. Large segments of the city, especially those on the left bank of the Vistula river, were liberated quickly before the Germans could organize an adequate response. Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, issued orders to suppress the uprising without mercy, and on August 5th German battle groups began to advance on the city from the Wola suburb in the west. The German forces consisted of SS and Wehrmacht troops along with Russian collaborators. The lead battle groups were stopped by Polish resistance and took to looting civilian houses in their areas of control and killing the inhabitants. Himmler stated that Warsaw’s population was to be killed, and the Germans, some of them from the SS Dirlewanger brigade, a unit composed of criminals and collaborators that was famous for its sadistic brutality, were all to happy to oblige. The arrival of reinforcements and the use of the Polish population as human shields for tanks allowed the Germans to push to the city center and cut resistance in Wola in half. Men from the district were conscripted into burning detachments forced to burn the bodies of the dead; most of these men were executed to eliminate witnesses. German troops burned hospitals with patients inside, executed civilians, and tortured prisoners. The massacre only ended on August 12th when the general in command, Erich von dem Bach, ordered that killings stop and for prisoners to be sent to concentration camps. In all, forty to fifty thousand people were killed in the Wola massacre.

War brings out the worst in humanity, that much has always been true. However, the particular brutality which Germany exhibited on the conquered peoples of Europe stands out as among the most evil practices ever engaged in by a nation. The factors which enabled such savagery-the dehumanization of enemy civilians, the actions and rhetoric of revered leaders, and the desperation of soldiers under fire, are not in themselves uncommon. However, in this case they were taken to extremes and combined to deprive the perpetrators of their humanity.

August 11th in German History: The Death of Johann Tetzel

Johann Tetzel | Dominican friar | Britannica
Johann Tetzel.

Martin Luther’s attacks on the Catholic Church and resulting protestant reformation shaped German and European History for centuries. Someone not often remembered is the man whose actions spurred Martin Luther to break with the church. That man was Johann Tetzel, who died on August 11th, 1519.

Tetzel was born in the town of Pirna in Saxony, then a duchy, in 1465. He entered the Dominican Order after studying philosophy and theology at Leipzig University. The Dominican Order was dedicated to opposing heresy, and it was to this task that Tetzel dedicated his efforts during his early years. He was successful as a preacher and in 1502 Cardinal Giovanni di’Medici, a future pope, commissioned him to preach the Jubilee indulgence. The Jubilee was a year of pardon for sins that generated a great deal of pilgrimage and thus revenue for the church. In 1509 Tetzel was appointed an inquisitor of Poland and in that office acted to reinforce the Catholic faith there. In 1517 he was given the role that would make him infamous, that of commissioner of indulgences for Archbishop Albrecht. He was put in charge of selling indulgences to fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Indulgences were traditionally remittances which when bought would release a family member of the purchaser from purgatory if they had failed to have last rights administered. However, the extravagances of the church necessitated a large income, and to that end Tetzel made wild claims about the ability of an indulgence to absolve one of future sins. His selling of these indulgences inspired Luther to write his 95 Theses, two of which were explicitly dedicated to attacking indulgences. Although Tetzel initially gained favor with the church for attacking Luther’s writings, accusations of fraud and immorality led him to retire to the Dominican Monastery in Leipzig. He died in 1519, not quite in disgrace but certainly in infamy.

Johann Tetzel is one of the best examples of a man who influenced history through his failures rather than through his successes. His initially successful, of not outstanding career, came to a quick end when his corruption was exposed by Martin Luther and his reputation tarnished. His selling of indulgences was not abnormal for the time. The Catholic Church was immensely corrupt, a Medici did become Pope after all, and its leaders flaunted their disregard for church doctrine with their mistresses and children. Tetzel was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Specifically, he was close to Martin Luther, who would become a historical giant largely at Tetzel’s expense.

August 10th in German History: The Battle of Narva

Narva 1944.jpg
German soldiers defend the Narva River.

Although the Soviet Union largely held the initiative on the Eastern Front after the Battle of Kursk, the weakened German armies were still able to put up significant resistance throughout 1944. At the Battle of Narva, the Soviet assaults were held back by soldiers of the Wehrmacht and SS. Although Narva itself fell to the Red Army, the Soviets failed to achieve their goal, to retake Estonia, and suffered heavy casualties and were forced to cease their offensive on August 10th, 1944.

After the failure of the Siege of Leningrad, Germany was pushed back to the Baltics and there was forced to hold against numerically superior Russian forces. This region had been occupied by the Soviet Union before the war, but had been under German control since Barbarossa in 1941. Stalin wanted to retake the Baltics in order to secure air and naval bases for attacks on the German iron ore trade from Sweden, and further to facilitate an invasion of East Prussia. As it was, German control of the northern Estonian coast prevented the Soviet Baltic Fleet from operating. However, the German defenders benefited from the lakes and swamps on the Estonian-Russian border and further from the river behind which Narva was located. However, if Estonia were captured, the Soviets would gain a base of supply from which they could launch further operations against the Germans. Although the Germans were not critically outmatched in manpower, they had 123,000 men to the Soviet’s 200,000, they had less than a fourth the tanks and one fifth of the planes of their enemy. Thus, when the Soviets attacked on the second of February they were able to secure multiple beachheads on the western side of the Narva River. However, despite suffering from heavy bombardment, the Germans were able to prevent the Russians from expanding their bridgeheads for several weeks. Large numbers of Estonians volunteered to fight alongside the Germans, hoping that by forming military units they would be able to secure Estonian independence. However, Soviet attacks in the Ukraine and in Belarus forced Germany to move many formations south, leaving the defensive line in front of Narva untenable. Although several Soviet battle groups had been annihilated in March, the exit of Finland from the war freed up men and material for Baltic operations. This gave the Soviets four-to-one superiority and allowed them to take Narva on July 26th, although they sustained very heavy losses. Estonian troops saved the Germans from being cut-off and allowed them to withdraw to the Tannenberg Line. On July 29th, Soviet shock troops assaulted several hills that made up part of the line, and looked poised to take them. However, seven tanks under the command of Felix Steiner flanked the Soviet armored columns and forced them to retreat. This allowed a German counterattack to retake Grenadier Hill and stabilize the front. Subsequent assaults failed to break the Tannenberg Line and the offensive was terminated on August 10th.

The Soviet failure to take Estonia on August of 1944 merely delayed the eventual outcome for Germany. Failures on other parts of the line and the growing Soviet superiority in men and equipment eventually forced Germany to abandon the Baltics, leaving behind 200,000 men encircled in the Courland pocket. However, resistance by the Germans and Estonians did buy Finland time to negotiate an acceptable peace treaty with Stalin. Further, it provided inspiration for future Estonian nationalist movements which would contribute to the country’s fierce resistance to Soviet occupation.

August 9th in German History: The Birth of Erich Huckel

Erich Huckel.

The German people have made enormous contributions to all fields of science. Erich Huckel was one of the innumerable Germans whose work moved humanity forward and helped to further the scope of human knowledge. He was born on August 9th, 1896.

Huckel was born in Berlin, in the affluent suburb of Charlottenburg. He studied at the University of Gottingen from 1914 to 1921. He became an assistant at the university after receiving his doctorate and then to Peter Debye. The two developed the Debye-Huckel theory in 1923, which explains several properties of electrolytic solutions. In 1930 he first proposed the Huckel method of orbital calculations, which allows for the construction and interpretation of the structures of certain organic molecules. He later joined the faculty of the Technische Hochschule and moved again to Phillips University, in the city of Marburg. In 1936 he developed the theory of non-Kekule molecules, although he is not usually given credit for it. He was made a full professor in 1960 and retired in 1961. He died on February 16th, 1980.

Erich Huckel was given little recognition for his work during most of his life. He is thought to have lacked communication skills, and so his contribution of the molecular orbital theory was not widely-known, which led to his remaining an assistant for most of his career. However, he was eventually made a full professor and in 1965 won the Otto Han Prize for Chemistry and Physics. It is good that he received credit during his lifetime, if only near the end of it.

August 8th in German History: The Start of the Hundred Days Offensive

An under-strength platoon of the 5th Australian Division is addressed by an officer near Warfusee-Abancourt during the Battle of Amiens, 8 August 1918. © IWM (E (AUS) 2790)
Australian troops are inspected on August 8th in preparation for the offensive.

The First World War was characterized by years of bloody stalemate. Offensive after offensive failed to break the trenches, and millions died for little perceivable gain. It would require hundreds of thousands of men from the United States, a nation that had only just entered the war, and a collapse of the German economy and government to end the war. On August 8th, 1918, the Hundred Days Offensive began. It would end with the collapse of the German Army and the end of WWI.

The German Spring Offensives of 1918 had nearly led to the collapse of the Allied lines and the fall of Paris. However, the Germans had been stopped at the Marne, for the second time, and in July the front had again become quiet. Time was on the side of the Allies, as the American Expeditionary Force was arriving in great strength and the domestic situation in Germany was continuing to deteriorate. Thus, Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch decided in August that conditions were right for another offensive. British commander Sir Douglas Hauge chose the area south-west of the Somme, in Picardy, as the place for the offensive. The terrain would allow for the use of tanks and its location along the lines would allow for cooperation between the British and French armies. The operation began with the Battle of Amiens on August 8th. Ten allied divisions, with five hundred tanks, broke through German lines, achieving surprise and capturing 17,000 prisoners. A 15-mile gap was opened in the enemy defenses and over the next three days, the Allies advanced twelve miles. Subsequent battles at the Somme and other areas forced the Germans back to the Hindenberg Line, a series of extensive fortifications intended to allow a weaker force to hold out against a more numerous enemy. German commanders Paul von Hindenberg and Erich Ludendorff realized that the collapse of army morale made holding their gains from earlier in the year impossible, and that their only hope was to retreat to more entrenched positions. However, the decline in German morale caused by food shortages at home and defeat on the front made holding against a superior force nearly impossible, regardless of the fortifications present. On September 26th the first assaults on the Hindenberg Line commenced as French and American troops pushed forward in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Numerous breakthroughs in the German lines led to the total collapse of the Hindenberg line on October 17th. The German Army was pushed back into Belgium, and this total defeat led to German capitulation on November 11th, 1918.

While no Allied soldier set foot on German soil on the Western Front, after the fall of the Hindenburg Line there was really nothing Germany could have done to alter or even forestall the outcome of the war. Far more decisive in determining the outcome than the 100 Day’s Offensive was the British blockade of Germany. This blockade resulted in food shortages which, although they impacted the civilian population more than the soldiers who had a higher priority for rations, lowered German combat effectiveness and decreased morale. Further, domestic dissatisfaction with the Imperial government led to revolts in 1918. If the war had not ended in November, these revolts could have grown and put in place a government far more radical than that of the Wiemar Republic. In the end, Germany’s defeat in 1918 was perhaps the best possible outcome at that point, as it did not have to experience trench warfare on its own soil and still had a cohesive army with which to defend itself against domestic threats.

August 7th in German History: The Birth of Carl Ritter

Carl Ritter.

It is hard to imagine a time before accurate maps. For well over a century every distance and landmass in the world has been recorded and mapped, allowing anyone to see what the world looks like. One often forgets that as late as the 19th century large parts of the world were still relatively unknown. Modern geography has facilitated world trade and diplomacy, as well as allowing us to better visualize the world. Carl Ritter, one of the founders of modern geography, was born on August 7th, 1779.

Carl Ritter was born in Saxony and was the son of a doctor. As a result, he was able to obtain a good education at the Schnepfenthal Salzmann School, which focused on the study of nature. After completing his initial schooling, he served as a tutor to the children of the banker Bethmann Hollweg. During that time, he attended the University of Halle. He also began to study geography and in 1819 became a Professor of History at the University of Frankfurt. He maintained correspondence with numerous explorers, especially those focused on Africa, and in 1822 he was made a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. At this time, he was working on his “Erkunde”, a series of geographic treatises that contained theories and analysis of nearly the entire world. He gathered information and based theories on it using an inductive method of reasoning which allowed him to make conclusions as to the nature of faraway civilizations and the conditions of distant lands. He became ever more prominent in the scientific community, and was made an honorary member of the American Academy of Sciences and Curator of the Prussian Institute of Cartography. Ritter died in 1859; at the time of his death, he was one of the premier social scientists of Europe.

The study of geography, while important, has also been one of the most misused in modern history. Theories on the impacts of different climates on societies have been warped into racist beliefs of racial superiority. Ritter’s theory on the organic state was used by the Nazis to justify their invasions of Poland and Russia to obtain living space. It is unfortunate that such an important science has been blackened by the warping of its teachings.