Saturday, January 31, 2015

Guest Post: 30th January, 1889 - Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria found Dead

"Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the man that's wise!" wrote the Greek philosopher Sophocles. And surely there was no greater truism of European history that explained how the suicidal despair of a powerless Austrian Crown Prince could so profoundly affect the lives of hundreds of millions. Like the ill-fated heir to the throne these imperial citizens also lived in miserable subjugation under the yolk of his despotic father Franz Josef, destined to repeat the error of another stupid old man called Frederick Hohenzollern who had lost his Kingdom in Prussia after his rebellious son's flight from Mannheim.

For most of the following century and half the Royal House of Hapsburg-Lorraine had ruled a vast tract of land from the Baltic to the Aegean. Of course the interregnum was itself highly significant because the Napoleonic era had not only ended the Holy Roman Empire but it had unleashed the unstoppable rise of nationalism. Perhaps if the Hohenzollerns had survived then Otto Bismarck might even have become more than just a political thought-leader lost in his aryan dreams of a German anschluss. But then again if Napoleon had never been, perhaps Rudolf Franz Karl Joseph would have eventually become the Holy Roman Emperor.

Which is to say of course that every dog has its day and almost inevitably a Hohenzollern-style family tragedy would depose the Hapsburgs too. Ironically despite the enormous size of their demesne the bitter personal conflict between his conservative father and the liberal heir to the throne reached a boiling point of no return over a small area of land - the purchase of the Mayerling hunting lodge two years earlier. Then in late 1888, the thirty year-old crown prince met the seventeen year-old Baroness Marie Vetsera, known by the more fashionable Anglophile name Mary, and began an affair with her. According to official reports their deaths were a result of Franz Joseph's demand that the couple end the relationship: the Crown Prince, as part of a suicide pact, first shot his mistress in the head and then himself. Rudolf was officially declared to have been in a state of "mental unbalance" in order to enable Christian burial in the Imperial Crypt of the Capuchin Church in Vienna.

Ultimately the "shot heard from around the world" was the opening salvo of a general conflict between the Great Powers. And inside that struggle for the mastery of Europe burnt the German aspiration to dominate. After the Great War the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be broken up, and the three German states would gain independence with Hanover competing with Prussia for political influence in Mecklenburg, but failing. And it wouldn't be until 1945 when the Bavarian Fuhrer Adolf Hitler would manage to fulfill his dream of a united German-speaking people from the Rhine to the Danube and Baltic. 

From Today in Alternate History

Saturday, January 24, 2015

April 26, 1336 - Petrarch Leads the March up Mount Ventoux

In what is considered by many academic circles as the origin of the modern Humanist movement, Francesco Petrarca led a group of peasants to the summit of Mount Ventoux in Provence, France. He was inspired by an old timer who said that he had climbed the mountain in his youth fifty years before. Petrarch, reminded of the great achievements of the ancients, determined to revisit such a humble glory and reawaken a spirit of the people to act. He rallied locals into joining him even over the warning of the old timer and instilled in them a sense of accomplishment rarely felt by subsistence farmer peasants. In later letters, he often recounted being asked, “Why do you do this?” He responded, “Because we can.”

Petrarch, just thirty-two at the time of his ascent, was born in Arezzo, Italy. His father, SerPetracco, was a clerk in the growing Florentine middle class and friends with poet Dante Alighieri. When the city’s politics turned away from their “White Guelphs” faction, SerPetracco left the city to join the papal staff in its move to Avignon. There SerPetracco ensured that his sons Francesco and Gherardo followed his footsteps. Young Petrarch was reluctant in his studies and yearned to dedicate his time to reading the great literature of the ancient Romans, especially the devout St. Augustine of Hippo. Nevertheless, as a dedicated Catholic, he obeyed his father’s wishes.

A pivotal moment in Petrarch’s life came after his father’s death in 1326. A legal battle broke out over the inheritance back in Florence, and his guardians attempted to manipulate the court to snatch up property that was rightfully Petrarch’s. Rather than hold to idealism, Petrarch dedicated himself to the battle and eventually won through his passionate appeals and strict foundation of reason. Following the victory, Petrarch found work as a clerk himself in the papal offices, often traveling as an ambassador and using his free time to write his many letters.

In the same years that Petrarch completed his studies, 1323-1324, the Church had its own issues with property. The growing power of the Franciscans had revitalized the idea of the “Poverty of Christ and the Apostles,” which, extrapolated to that time, brought many to believe that the Church should not own anything. Through papal bulls that split the Franciscans and eliminated its rogue factions, the Church defended its right and responsibility to hold property, even though Christ himself spoke, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Petrarch agreed with this temporal nature of the Church (perhaps since his own job depended upon it), but it led to another problem: wealth-seeking through indulgences.

For centuries in the Church, the concept of an “indulgence” had existed as a recorded way to make penance for sins. Many of the actions of penance included prayers, fasting, pilgrimages, or paying alms. Gradually, the paying of alms turned into a system of fines, which became a way not only for the wealthy to write a simple check to get away with moral crimes, but also for corrupt members of the Church to draw money from congregations nervous about their afterlives in Purgatory. With enormous amounts of money changing hands, counterfeiting and con-men posing as traveling priests offering absolution were widespread.

Disappointed in the weighty hierarchy of his work and in the human populace as a whole, both those selling fraudulent indulgences and those duped by them, Petrarch continued dreaming of the ancients and their glorious deeds. The failure of the Crusades and the lack of literary work brought him to consider the past millennium a “dark age,” and he aimed to bring a new light. Upon his march up Mt.Ventoux, he paused to read from St. Augustine’s Confessions, “…Men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.” Then he dismissed the peasants, encouraging them to learn to read and go to confession seeking real penance rather than paying indulgences.

Petrarch continued to write. Through his letters, he became famous in Italy and France, earning patronages that he used to encourage universities and education, particularly of Latin literature to inspire the people to work toward great deeds that would benefit their own name. Considering oneself as well as the Church, made Petrarch a controversial figure. Nevertheless, with his legal work promoting Church interest in maintaining its property, he earned a position within the inner echelons and extensively furthered St. Augustine’s writings as well as mundane ethical discussions from writers like Cicero.

In 1392, eighteen years after Petrarch’s death, Boniface IXended the tradition of indulgences for the afterlife, returning to the old standard of making them only for temporal penance, a policy which Petrarch had championed his many days. While that may have emptied some church coffers, many applauded it as an action of reform that strengthened the Church and its significance in human morality even as the world around it came to new strengths of science and technology.


In reality, Petrarch lost his court case in his youth along with his inherited property, which forever gave him a foul taste for law. During his day job with the Church, he wrote extensively and gained fame with his epic poem Africa about the Roman general Scorpio’s invasion in the Punic Wars. Its prominence caused him to be the first poet laureate in Europe in one thousand years. He climbed Mt. Ventoux out of aesthetic value, which is sometimes considered the first action of the Renaissance and birth of Humanism.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

April 25, 404 BC – Athens Defeats Sparta

After more than a quarter century of warfare with their ancient rival Sparta, the whole of Greece became unified under Athenian leadership. The two city-states had often been at odds while carrying a begrudging respect for one another, particularly in their battles against Persian invasion. At Marathon in 490 BC, Athens defeated a Persian landing force in a downhill charge that annihilated the Persians before the Spartans could arrive. Ten years later, at Thermopylae, the Spartan Leonidas led an epic defense that stalled the Persian army while the Athenian general Themistocles destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis. Further allied victories against Persia drove the empire back to Asia Minor.

The city-states grew in power, and their rivalry turned to all-out warfare. They traded victories and defeats until both sides were exhausted in 421 BC. Sparta and its allies had powerful land-based armies, conquering Attica, the region around Athens, time and again. Each siege lasted only a few weeks, however, as the Spartan army had to return to keep the helot slave population in check. Athens, meanwhile, maintained a vast empire of islands through its democratically supported navy.  A peace treaty was proposed and signed by Spartan general-kings and Athenian politicians, led by the strategos (elected general) Nicias. Both sides vowed to uphold it for fifty years. It took less than seven years for the war to resume when Athens’s ally in faraway Sicily, Segesta, called for military aid against Syracusan attack.

The young Athenian leader Alcibiades championed the campaign to support them. Syracuse was the most powerful of the Greek colonies on Sicily, a land rich with grain and trade. If they conquered it, the Athenians could bring many other cities into their Delian League, perhaps enough to overwhelm Sparta. He had supporters such as enthusiastic Lamachus, but others opposed starting a new war, especially Nicias, who had prompted peace years before. In an energetic speech, Nicias outlined the vast resources Athens would have to expend to even attempt a conquest of wealthy, powerful Sicily. The speech backfired, invigorating the assembly into voting to send those soldiers and ships with hopes of seizing rich new colonies. Nicias himself was voted to be among the commanders, along with Alcibiades and Lamachus.

Just before the fleet sailed, hermai all over the city were desecrated. Marker stones dedicated to Hermes, god of luck and travel, were venerated in Athens as they not only had religious significance but also established boundaries, gave directions, and served as meeting places. Alcibiades and his cronies were blamed, primarily by Nicias and others who opposed the brash young Athenian. Alcibiades requested a trial to prove his innocence, but the request was denied.

Rather than wait and be recalled once his opponents who stayed behind to have the ear of the assembly, Alcibiades threw himself into his own trial. For hours, he debated with himself, waiting for his accusers to appear. His theatrics did gather a crowd, and eventually a quorum determined that he was innocent. His embarrassed political foes dropped the issue.

Upon arriving in Sicily, Alcibiades led the army, balancing Nicias’s conservatism with Lamachus’s eagerness to attack Syracuse head-on. The first battle in 415 BC proved a new stalemate as the Athenian infantry put the Syracusans to retreat, but the massive Syracusan cavalry kept the Athenians from pursuit. That winter, the Athenians completed a wall to siege the city, making cavalry ineffective, and Syracuse surrendered. Using the victory to his advantage, Alcibiades rapidly moved from city to city gaining allegiance from their Greek leaders, first in Sicily and then in southern Italy.

Within a few years of campaigning and diplomacy, the Athenian Empire had nearly doubled in size. Sparta’s position as leader of the oligarchies of Greece waned, and more city-states followed the Athenian model of populace-rule. Alcibiades masterminded a new war with Sparta, baiting them into an attack that was painted as imperialistic to the other Greeks. After the defeat and forced installation of democracy into Sparta, the first great threat to Athens came from the north as expansionistic Macedonians marched. Using the full weight of its empire, such as effective Sicilian cavalry, Athens countered the Macedonian assault and turned it into a client state.

In the coming century, Athens would face other incursions from growing powers. Romans from central Italy threatened allies in the south, requiring counterattacks again and again. Athens also faced rivalry in Sicily from growing Carthaginian influence, which prompted the outright conquest of the once-Phoenician colony. Persia continued its rule in the east, regularly fighting over cities in western Asia Minor with large Greek populations and losing Egypt after a rebellion with Athenian support. For centuries, Athens served as a political and intellectual capital of the world, attracting geniuses such as Archimedes and Hiro. Ultimately decadence caused the democratic Athenians to collapse, leaving a power vacuum in the Mediterranean that would last until Hunnish invasion.


In reality, Sparta won the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades left without having a trial and was recalled immediately upon arrival. He fled out from under arrest and made his way to Sparta, where he served as a military adviser recommending reinforcement of Syracuse. The Athenian expedition to Sicily proved to be ruinous, devastating Athenian manpower and money just as Nicias had feared and ultimately leading to Spartan superiority in Greece. Alcibiades later returned to Athens, then to Persia, then back to Athens, and finally was slain in Thrace surrounded by mistresses. Spartan domination of Greece rapidly declined over the next decades, ended in conquest by Macedonian king Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

Monday, January 5, 2015

April 24, 1629 – Oliver Cromwell Boards the Lyon

The day before his thirtieth birthday, Oliver Cromwell, a minor gentleman from Huntingdonshire, departed Gravesend for the New World. Born into the lower end of landed gentry northeast of London, Oliver was the only surviving son, a middle child of ten born to his parents. His inheritance granted him a toehold into the upper class, and in 1620 he married Elizabeth Bourchier, the daughter of a wealthy leather merchant, Sir James Bourchier, who owned great swaths of Essex. The two began a happy, if hard working, life together blessed with many children.

Yet Oliver Cromwell was plagued by doubt and despair through his twenties. He sought treatment in London for valde melancolicus (as clinical depression was called in the era) and at last found relief through Puritanism, the new strain of religion quickly becoming popular through the growing middle class, perhaps introduced to it by his merchant father-in-law. Cromwell later wrote that he was the “chief of all sinners” who had come to see salvation in the rigorously disciplined denomination.

Alongside his religious growth, Cromwell entered local politics. He immediately began clashing with others over the formation of a new charter for Huntingdon and proved himself an eager contender. When elections were called for a parliament in 1628, his opponents managed to spread rumors that bumped him from the support of Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich.

Discouraged about his prospects at home, Cromwell thought back to a book he had read at Cambridge, Captain John Smith’s A Description of New England published in 1616. “Here every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land… If he have nothing but his hands, he may… by industries quickly grow rich.” Cromwell admired the thought of gain through his own work and Providence without hindrance of backbiters, so he determined to join those among his father-in-law’s partners colonizing the New World.

Cromwell voyaged with the Higginson Fleet that arrived that July in Salem, on the north side of the newly chartered Massachusetts Bay Colony. His wife Elizabeth, six months pregnant, stayed behind with their three sons and daughter, Bridget, to settle affairs. When the ships returned to England, they carried a letter from Cromwell calling her to join him as quickly as possible, which they did on the Winthrop Fleet the following year. Cromwell had found his calling as a settler, and he held Salem (named for an early peaceful transition between governments) to be a paradise on Earth. Over the coming decades, Cromwell’s farm prospered, two more children were added to the family, and he became a leader among the congregation.

When the General Court of the colony called for organization of a militia for common defense in 1637, Cromwell’s name instantly became known throughout Massachusetts. He led his troops with strict discipline, intelligence, and the bravado of a man certain God is on his side. While the Civil War tore their homeland apart, Cromwell was eager to welcome veterans to his well-defended paradise. Through his connections with the merchants, Cromwell encouraged a mutual defense with other colonies on the western Atlantic in Virginia and Bermuda to ensure safety even as factions soaked up resources in England.

The test of Cromwell’s commonwealth came in 1651 when Parliament decreed that only English ships could trade legally in English ports. Dutch ships anywhere near English waters suddenly became prey for privateers, and tensions turned to war after English and Dutch fleets exchanged cannon-fire over a perceived slight of the Dutch not tipping one’s flags in salute.

With Nieuw Nederland situated between Massachusetts Bay and Virginia, Cromwell determined to make a precautionary attack. Aided by Swedish allies from the Delaware River, Cromwell’s troops, nicknamed the New Marine Army, used novel and daring sea, shore, and land tactics to conquer the Dutch North American colony. They then moved south, conquering St. Marin and he Antilles in the Caribbean and threatening Surinam.

War ended with the Dutch in 1654, just as it began anew against the Spanish. Cromwell continued to spread English authority in the Caribbean, faltering initially at the Siege of Santo Domingo in 1655 before pressing on and carving an English hold onto the island of Hispanola. He died while on campaign in 1658. According to legend, he became a prophet in his last hours and gave detailed descriptions of heaven. Some historians hold that this was due to the yellow fever that took his life. The location of his grave remains a mystery.

Cromwell’s legacy is a mixed one. Descendants of Puritans applaud his religious convictions, and military historians are fascinated by many of his actions. On the other hand, rumors stated that his conquests of Catholic colonies were brutal, even genocidal. While the actual numbers and treatment of those defeated are often under debate, Cromwell established English control on those islands, which lasted for centuries to come.


In reality, Cromwell did not leave England. He became a member of Parliament in 1628 under the patronage of the more powerful Montagues, the Earls of Sandwich. As a cavalry commander, he quickly rose through the ranks to lead the whole of the Parliamentarian forces to victory. With the establishment of the republican Commonwealth of England, Cromwell was named Lord Protector and ruled without question until his death, after which his body was exhumed and executed for treason.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Guest Post: October 15, 1918 - Corporal Hitler's War Ends, Another Begins

A fascinating unfolding of alternate affairs explored at Today in Alternate History.

The German Empire's last ditch gambit to win the Great War was known variously as the Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht ("Kaiser's Battle") and Ludendorff Offensive. This confusion of names was something of a foreshadowing of days to come when a new struggle would define the apex of the Imperial Power structure.

At the time, little of that was in mind. On the front lines, the 2nd Bavarian Infantry Regiment was attacked with mustard gas attack on the 15th of October 1918. Among the injured was the highly opinionated and equally vocal Austrian corporal, Adolf Hitler. A loudmouth that had argued constantly about politics with his fellow men, Hitler was temporarily blinded and even lost his voice while was hospitalized in Pasewalk. For the first time, he was unable to do anything but listen and it was there among the traumatized general soldiery there that he first heard the earliest whisperings of victory and what that meant. Germany was evolving.

After his recovery and having no other opportunities for making a living, Hitler returned to Munich. The political violence surging through the city shocked him, especially as many of the perpetrators were angry unbalanced men such as himself, veterans who had been shrugged off now that the war was done. Even with his political awareness, Hitler had little opportunities as an impoverished thirty-year-old immigrant who had not graduated and still bore a chip on his shoulder for being rejected by Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts. He had known homelessness, and once more a vagabond, Hitler did what he had done before to find identity and self-worth: he turned toward the imperial army.

Hitler reported to his Company Commander Karl Mayr who - deeply impressed by Hitler's fervent nationalism and other radical ideas - rather surprised him with the unexpectedly generous offer of a position in his newly formed Education and Propaganda Department. Wrapped up in the flag, he took refuge in the burning patriotism of the emigre, more Germanic than than the Germans themselves even though he wasn't even a German Citizen. Mayr spoke of the Bolshevist threat in Munich, Hitler more than anyone could understand the causes of popular outrage among the masses. His work in propaganda was a conduit for a personal wrath by a man fearing betrayal of his new fatherland.

Soon enough Hitler was to discover that the Bolshevists were merely pawns in a dangerous double-game under the shadow of the Imperial Eagle. In the desperate days of the war, the Imperial Royal Family had been forced to cede a great deal of power to Commander-in-Chief Hindenburg and his all-powerful Quartermaster General Eric von Ludendorff that had formed a de facto military dictatorship. With the war done, the emperor was attempting to wrest back his authority. Certain elements of the Army were seeking a permanent realignment of forces that would create a constitutional monarchy.

The spectre of the Hohenzollerns being massacred by Bolshevists like the Romanov had been a driving force of much of Hitler's propaganda work, yet even through his blind nationalism, Hitler could see that was simply a bogus lie being spread by military intelligence itself. He had been duped, and once he had served his purpose to ensure the German populace would maintain war-time nerves, he was thrown into Landsberg Prison. It was there - this time among the criminal underclass - that the full extent of his political awakening would finally occur. He began his infamous diary Mein Kampf ("My Struggles") by making reference to Mayr's deception with the opening words "Not the potter, but the potter's clay."

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