Tag Archives: Germany

Video for the Classroom: “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man”

It’s almost criminal that over a week has passed in Black History Month, and the Neighborhood has no posts about important African Americans.

Today’s post is a more fun aspect of history, but important nonetheless.  It can be argued that more musical tributes were written about Joe Louis than any other athlete in American history–a Black athlete accepted by both whites and Blacks.

The longest-running heavyweight boxing champion in history, from 1937 to 1949, Joe Louis was among the greatest and most influential athletes of the 20th century.  A hero to African Americans beaten down by the Depression, discrimination and Klan violence, Louis would also become the first Black athlete widely accepted by whites as well.

The culminating moment of Louis’ career was the second fight between Louis and Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938.  Schmeling, a symbol of Nazi Germany, was immediately cast as the villain (despite his own antipathy towards Hitler).  Louis, incredibly, became an American hero overnight. 

His defeat of Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds sent Black neighborhoods across America into wild celebrations, and create something of a mythic hero in Joe Louis.  It would be a heroism belied by the still-rampant discrimination in American life through World War II.

Today’s video is a montage of Joe’s greatest hits.  Yet it’s the audio that’s most important.  Listen to the great blues ballad “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man” and you can get a glimpse of how much Joe Louis meant to people.

It’s also a pretty good tune.  Enjoy.

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This Day in History 6/6: The Normandy Landing

I may have posted on D-Day in the past…I’m not quite sure.  It doesn’t really matter, because the event is still important.

On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces of Great Britain, Canada, free France and the United States began one of the biggest amphibious assaults in American history. In invading the Normandy coast of France, the Allies would begin the first real strike into the heart of German-occupied Western Europe.

The invasion was not flawless. Many of the airborne troops missed their drop points as they parachuted behind enemy lines. German defenses, especially in the American zone, were woefully underestimated. Furthermore, the Allies would be pinned to the peninsula until mid-July, when Cherbourg was secured and a clear path made through to Paris.

Nevertheless, the Normandy invasion was a turning point in world history. For the first time since Napoleon, a hegemonic power invaded another not to conquer, but to liberate. It forced Germany into a two-front war it could not sustain. Finally, it gave the Allies some serious light at the end of a dark, blood-soaked tunnel.

I’ve probably posted it before, but here is the landing scene from Saving Private Ryan. Though not entirely accurate, it gives as sense of the horror and gravity of that fateful June morning.

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This Day in History 5/2: Nazis fall in Berlin and Italy

Red Army soldiers at a hotel near the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thus stars must have aligned perfectly, as the day in which Osama bin Laden was announced dead marks the anniversary of another milestone in the fight against oppression and terror.

On May 2, 1945, the Red Army finally announces the capture of the German capital of Berlin.  With the Soviet flag flying over the Reichstag, the German parliament building, the European theater of World War II was effectively over.

At the same time, in the Italian front, German general Heinrich von Vietinghoff signs the documents of surrender, as German forces give up all of Italy to the Allies.  Benito MussoliniHitler‘s busom buddy, was shot and strung up a few days previously on April 28, and Hitler would meet his own inglorious end on the 30th.

Like Osama bin Laden, their deaths were long overdue.  Furthermore, the world is a better place without them.  Their deaths were met with little saddness: just as today, crowds gathered in London, Times Square, Moscow and other cities to celebrate the end of lives that did far more harm than any good.

My grandmother had a soft spot for Mussolini.  Good thing she’s not around to hear this: Il Duce was as big a piece of crap as Der Fuhrer, Comrade Stalin, and the turbaned maniac we just double-tapped.  We’re a better country–nee, a better planet–without these people.

Good riddance.

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Videos for the Classroom: The original 1939 “King’s Speech”

The Neighborhood would love to give a hearty congratulations to Colin Firth, director Tom Hooper and the rest of the cast and crew of the 4-time Academy Award-winning The King’s Speech.  Both Firth and Geoffrey Rush give magesterial performances as George VI and Lionel Logue, respectively.  Well done!

I had made a serious point a few months ago to defend this film against its detractors, and I still stand by it.  Yet when it comes to the classroom, I really wish The King’s Speech wasn’t R-rated so it can be used with my students.  Hopefully, a classroom version can be available in the future.

While that happens, today we have a recording of the actual “King’s Speech”: the speech given by George VI over BBC Radio to his people across the Empire on September 3, 1939, as Britain declared war on Germany.  Those who saw the film can help students imagine what it was like for someone like George VI who struggled with his speech impairment, yet still needed to address his people at this awful hour.

It’s a great way to get students into the spirit of wartime Europe by listening to the king the way Britons would have listened back in World War II.

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This Day in History 12/13: Woodrow Wilson arrives in Paris for the 1919 Peace Conference

On this day, December 13, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson arrived in Paris to participate in the final peace talks that will end the War to End All Wars, or World War I.

Unlike his counterparts in Britain and France–who wanted sweet revenge over 4 years of trench warfare–Wilson wanted to re-organize the international order to develop a new society based on peace, cooperation and democracy.  His “Fourteen Points” outlined Wilson’s philosophy of international rights, individual self-determination and a worldwide peacekeeping body that would resolve international conflicts without bloodshed.

The ultimate treaty fell well short of Wilson’s wishes, and would ultimately lead to an even worse conflict two decades later.

Attached is an old documentary about the Paris Peace Conference.  It’s pretty straightforward and it gives a good synopsis of the sides, arguments and politics of postwar Europe.

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The Historic Effect—and Potential Danger—of Julian Assange

Show me a completely honest, transparent nation, and I will show you a nation that will cease to exist.

The Persian Wars. The Peloponnesian Wars. Roman Slave Revolts. The First and Second Jewish Revolts. The Crusades. The Hundred Years’ War. The French and Indian War. The American Revolution. The Napoleonic Wars. The American Civil War. World War I. World War II. The Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Vietnam. Korea.

All of these events would have ended differently had Julian Assange’s Wikileaks existed then and disclosed classified information to the public. Some of these events would’ve ended for the better. Yet most would’ve ended for the worst.

This is the problem. This is the potential impact of Julian Assange’s manic quest.

To be honest, as I perused the volumes—and I mean volumes—of documents released by Assange’s site over the year, there is no one real opinion on their immediate danger. On the one hand, military releases of troop movements, theater tactics, and potential terror targets do pose a current threat; American lives are put in immediate risk.

Yet if you look at the diplomatic dispatches and e-mails, they rarely reveal anything Earth-shattering, at least to those familiar with foreign affairs. To many in the know, it comes as no surprise that China is ready to wash their hands of Kim Jong Il and the failed North Korean state. Silvio Berlusconi’s admiration of Vladimir Putin—and signaling of closer ties between Russia and Italy—was a long time in development. And it should shock no one that the Saudis so loudly exhorted the United States to bomb Iran in order to protect their petro-fueled theocratic fiefdom.

The information itself (barring the military documents) is not really at issue. The real crisis lies in the concept of full disclosure. Assange, at least outwardly, declares that his aim is to combat the lies, deception and dishonesty of government and big business.

Either Assange is a naïve fool—or, more probable, Assange is a canny opportunist ready to cash in on privileged information.

Can a nation-state function effectively if all their cards are on display to everyone at the table? History is not on Assange’s side.

If Wikileaks existed in 480 BCE, the Persians would have known of the other passage around Thermopylae well in advance, thereby avoiding the 300 Spartans lying in wait and heading straight for Athens and Sparta itself.

If Wikileaks existed in 71 BCE, the slave army led by Spartacus would have known of the Apennine passes that could’ve caused Roman armies to outflank him, drawing out the rebellion and depleting Roman power.

If Wikileaks existed in 1776 through 1781, it would’ve released the names and identities of the members of the Culper Spy Ring, a ring of patriot spies on Long Island that were absolutely necessary to George Washington in helping to defeat the British in the American Revolution. Those identities were so secret that the public didn’t learn of them until the late 1930s.

If Wikileaks existed in 1914, it would’ve released the secret dispatches between Germany and Mexico well before the infamous Zimmermann Note, urging the Mexican government to wage war on the United States. Our entry into World War I may have been accelerated, and who knows what would’ve happened.

If Wikileaks existed in 1941, it would’ve released the notes and research from British intelligence at Bletchley Park, especially their work on breaking the Enigma code, a secret German code used to communicate U-Boat movements at sea.

If Wikileaks existed in 1943, it would’ve released the Navajo code used by the US Marines in sending coded messages to our Marines in the Pacific theater—much to the delight of our Japanese opponents.

If Wikileaks existed in 1949, it would’ve released the flight status and schedules of cargo planes dropping supplies on a besieged Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. Don’t be surprised if squadrons of Soviet MiGs were just itching for those schedules.

If Wikileaks existed in 1962, during 13 terrible days in November, God knows what would’ve happened.

It may be unpleasant. It may be distasteful. It may even be undemocratic. Yet the brutal reality is that most of our effective policymaking happens behind closed doors outside of the public eye. If everything were held public, if everything were up for public scrutiny and debate, nothing would be accomplished.

If Assange’s motives are altruistic, then his end result would be a hyper-sized version of the New England town meeting, where every policy decision is debated, re-debated, amended, and voted on by all constituents. Even in New England, this model of direct democracy doesn’t work, especially for larger municipalities.

What then would lead a rational person to believe that this method would work for a planet of 6-7 billion people—especially since a large chunk of them don’t have access to decent electricity, let alone a computer with Internet access?

Yet Assange’s handiwork has an even more dangerous potential. His goal of undermining secrecy and subterfuge is a threat against our individuality, both our own and our respective nations.

As individuals, our identity is based on the fact that there is something about us that is unique from our neighbors. Part of that unique character is our information. Few of us, Assange included, would be willing to let our personal lives be an open book for the world to see.

Yet once our secrets are revealed, a part of our identity is lost. If Assange can create such havoc for governments and companies, what is to stop him from releasing massive lists of IRS tax returns, Social Security numbers, report cards—even e-mail addresses and passwords?

Mind you, this isn’t Facebook, a site where one voluntarily gives up some of their privacy—and can even regulate what is shown to the public. Wikileaks seems hellbent on making every person on the planet a public figure against their will. It’s tantamount to specicide, a murderous attack on all human beings.

Nations and governments, like individuals, also rely on privileged information to set them apart from their counterparts. If Julian Assange thinks that he can create a one-world government just by baring the secrets of the world at everyone’s feet, then he is in for a rude awakening.

Wikileaks will not stop secrets. Wikileaks will not stop espionage. Wikileaks will not stop closed-door meetings. It did-and will continue to-affect the security of national information. Even more ironically, Wikileaks has adversely affected the freedom of access to documents that SHOULD be accessible to all Americans.

Yet the potential dangers of Assange’s mischief are too tragic to ignore. His attacks on secrecy have already caused irreparable damage to our national security. It has embarrassed and dismantled years of diplomacy among nations.

Even more importantly, Wikileaks is an attack on national and individual identity. The nations of the world, not just the United States, must recognize this.

Julian Assange is no fool. He even has masses of followers and disciples; computer hackers, programmers and the like willing to break into any computer for the best information.

This is why his work is so dangerous: his extortion of information (potentially for monetary reasons) amounts to an act of terrorism that could pale in comparison to any missile or pipe bomb.

For the first time in this century, the nations of this planet could finally unite in a common cause: protecting their very individuality against a common threat.

That threat is Julian Assange—a man much more dangerous than Osama bin Laden or Kim Jong Il.

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Mr. D and the “War on Christmas”: A Response to Ed O’Donnell’s 11/25 NY Daily News Column

Around mid-December, a memo circulates around my school that could be seen as a broadside in the ever-resurgent “War on Christmas.”

Once you get past the logistical minutia about cleaning up rooms, timetables for parties and whatnot, a curious sentence pops up, to the effect of

“Under no circumstances are children to be removed from parties due to behavior.  Even if you do not celebrate it, these children are entitled to Christmas celebrations.”

Not holidays, but CHRISTMAS celebrations.  One can’t be too sure if this is intentional or not.  However, the message was loud and clear: keep your skepticism, doubt and alternative beliefs at the door.  In this community, it is Christmas—and
ONL Y Christmas, not Chanukah or even Kwanzaa—that matters.

I thought about this as I read a recent Daily News column by Ed O’Donnell, associate professor of history at Holy Cross.  In his piece, O’Donnell finds a new appreciation for the much-maligned phrase “Happy Holidays.”  Speaking as a church-going Christian himself, O’Donnell claims that Happy Holidays “embodies both a fundamental American value and, strange as it may sound, one of Christmas’ core religious ideals.”

It demonstrates the spirit of American inclusiveness, as it is free to interpretation by any faith, and also focuses on inclusivity’s Christian message—a message clouded by “a grotesque exhibition of materialist excess,” in O’Donnell’s words.

Some disclosure is in order. I’ve met Professor O’Donnell a number of times through lectures, workshops and grant programs.  Heck, I even piloted one of my curriculum units for him.  O’Donnell is a first-rate historian, a magnificent writer (I recommend his book Ship Ablaze, about the 1904 sinking of the General Slocum) and one of the finest lecturers I’ve ever met.

Even better—and take my word for it—Ed is a stand-up fellow, a really nice guy.

That said, I do take issue with O’Donnell in this particular survey of the “War on Christmas.” Two points to consider:

(1) His exalting of “Happy Holidays” as a triumph of American inclusivity over religious bigotry fails to take into account Christmas’ own status as a persecuted holiday in the early history of our republic; and

(2) Though it is perhaps unintentional, O’Donnell’s appreciation for “Happy Holidays” might be construed as creating a new orthodoxy, pulling down one golden calf in place of another.

The first point is, in my humble opinion, an egregious omission on O’Donnell’s part.   Of course, he is correct in mentioning our country’s history of violence over religion, via the anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon movements of the mid-19th century.  Yet Christmas did not have an easy road to acceptance: often just as treacherous as the Mormon trek towards the salt flats of Utah.

Since the Reformation, Protestant groups saw Christmas as one of the prime targets for assault in their war against the Roman Catholic Church.  The pomp and pageantry of Christmas was reviled as a papist extravagance bearing the “marks of the beast.”

This anti-Christmas attitude was superimposed on the New World.  England’s Puritan government had severely curtailed the holiday in 1647 and banned it outright in 1652.  Plymouth abolished Christmas, as did Massachusetts Bay in 1659—with a huge 50 shilling fine for non-compliance.  In Of Plimoth Plantation, William Bradford recalls the Christmas of 1621, which was a regular work day at the Separatist colony:

“On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called [the settlers] out to work as was usual. However, the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it [a] matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.” ~ William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation (1647)

Even after the bans were lifted in the late 1600s, Christmas was rarely celebrated outside of immigrant—mostly German—communities in New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as the Anglican gentry of Virginia.   Massachusetts and the rest of New England kept to the old superstitions and prejudices of the holiday.  Christmas, in the Puritan view, was vain, extravagant, Papist, elitist, and royalist.

In fact, a major victory in the American Revolution would not have been possible if Christmas were celebrated more widely in the colonies. The 1776 Christmas victory over the Hessians at Trenton would have turned out differently if both sides—and not just the German mercenaries—were hung over after holiday celebrations.

It wasn’t until 1870—after the Revolution, western expansion, immigration waves, industrialization, and a bloody Civil War—that Christmas finally became a federal holiday, thereby shaking off the vestiges of Puritan intolerance.

To then bury the name “Christmas” under the verbal veneer of “Happy Holidays” can be seen as intolerant as well—intolerant of the arduous road Christmas took to gain acceptance in the United States over fear and superstition.

This leads me to my second point.  I’m in full agreement that the conservative blowhards who push “Keep Christ in Christmas” while turning their heads at its crass commercialism deserve a sound comeuppance.  Though my views tend towards the conservative side, I’m no holy roller—I’m less of a churchgoer than Professor O’Donnell, who goes weekly.  The right has more important things to worry about than labels and names on the best time of year.

That said, the secular left is not getting off easy.  O’Donnell notes that “Happy Holidays” embodies a uniquely American virtue: “respect for each and every citizen’s right to their own religious beliefs (or nonbeliefs). “  Does this also include the right to not say “Happy Holidays”?  Or are those who adhere to their particular beliefs in exclusion to others subject to their own shunning by a secular establishment?

I’m not picking on O’Donnell per se, since I understand his intentions with the piece: to express an appreciation for an unpopular phrase of the season.  Yet this sentiment of inclusiveness can lead many to construe it as the focus for a new standard of exclusiveness.  The “Happy Holidays” crowd, in their zeal to include everyone and respect all, may in fact be disrespecting and persecuting those who see in their individual holidays a source of identity and cohesion—EVEN IF their celebrations may seem exclusive to others.

Does this mean that the “War on Christmas” is legitimate?  Not really; Christmas is not going away anytime soon.  Yet whenever a phrase like “Happy Holidays” is touted as supreme or better than something else, it tends to create an aura of authority—an aura that inherently excludes those who disagree.

George Orwell famously said that “freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This, in many ways more so than inclusivity and respect, is the true republican virtue of American society. Sometime this season, I will hear someone tell me “Happy Holidays.”  I may not like it.  I may feel like cracking a two-by-four over the bastard’s head.  Yet I have to respect his right to say it—and conversely, that SOB has to respect my right to tell them “Merry Christmas” if I feel like it.

So this holiday season, say “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Chanukah,” “Joyous Kwanzaa,” or whatever you feel like.

Just don’t try to shame someone for mistaking you for a believer and slipping a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Chanukah.” If you don’t know what that can lead to, re-read George Orwell’s magnum opus to refresh your memory.

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