Monday, 30 June 2014

How the World Went to War

Recently I have been helping out with Barnet Museum's Barnet In World War One exhibition. The opening of the exhibition on Sunday was a fantastic event and despite the rain, a very enjoyable day. 

Everyone knows what happened in WWI, who fought who, how many died, when it began and when it ended. But today I wanted to blog on why, in the summer of 1914, Europe almost accidentally stumbled into the most catastrophic war the world had ever seen, precipitated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

28 June
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot dead while on a state visit to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. His killer was Gavrilo Princip a 19 year old who was backed by Serbian terrorist organisation, ‘the Black Hand’. One would-be assassin threw a bomb at the Archduke's motorcade in a first, unsuccessful, attempt on his life. But, when a fateful mistake meant Franz Ferdinand’s driver took the car directly to the street corner where Princip was standing, his two shots killed the Archduke and his wife, Sophie Chotek. The assassination ultimately pushed existing animosities and alliances into a full blown war.

29 June
Austria-Hungary exacted revenge by destroying Serbian shops in Sarajevo. The Serbian government claimed it was not responsible for the murders, and said it had tried to warn Austria of a plot. However the Austrian chief of military staff, Conrad von Hötzendorf, wanted war, hoping their powerfully ally Germany would back them. The foreign secretary was more cautious, fearing that Serbia’s long time ally Russia would be angered by any attack and be forced to step in.

5 July
When he learnt of Austria-Hungary’s wish to attack Serbia, Kaiser Wilhelm pledged Germany's support, even if it meant war with Russia. This became known as Germany’s ‘blank cheque’, which would guarantee any action they decided to take against Serbia. The Kaiser explained: “Should a war between Austria-Hungary and Russia be unavoidable, Austria-Hungary can rest assured that Germany, your old faithful ally, will stand at your side.” 

7 July
With Germany's backing Austria was keen to attack Serbia, but the Hungarian Prime Minister Tisza was hesitant, afraid an attack on Serbia would spark a war with its much larger neighbour, Russia. Instead the ministers agreed to draw up an ultimatum to Serbia - some wanted to make it so harsh the Serbs would be forced to reject it, and trigger war between the two countries.

9 July
Britain tried to deter Germany from war. In 1907 Britain had moved into a closer friendship with France and Russia, as part of the ‘Triple Entente’. Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary, was aware of Germany's support for Austria-Hungary and explained that British public opinion would make it very difficult for him to stay out of the fighting if events in the Balkans escalated. 

19 July
Austria-Hungary’s ministers gathered for a secret meeting in Vienna, where they made the final decision to issue an ultimatum to Serbia, as Tisza finally agreed on war, saying “It was very hard for me to come to the decision to give my advice for war, but I am now firmly convinced of its necessity”. If Serbia agreed to its terms, it would come under Austria-Hungary’s control. If it refused, Austria-Hungary would declare war.

21 July
Having discovered Austria-Hungary’s intentions to threaten Serbia, Russia's foreign minister issued them with a warning, declaring that Russia would support Serbia.

23 July
Ignoring Russian warnings, Austria-Hungary issued the Serbian government with its impossible ultimatum. It blamed Serbian officials for Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and made a series of demands. Among them was; Serbia must stop all anti-Austro-Hungarian propaganda and remove anyone deemed guilty of it from office; it must accept Austria-Hungary’s collaboration in suppressing subversive movements within Serbia, and it must allow Austria to direct judicial proceedings against accessories in the assassination plot. In short, Serbia was being asked to hand over sovereignty.

25 July
After checking he had Russia’s support in the event of war, the Serbian Prime Minister delivered his reply to the Austrian embassy. Serbia conceded to all of the demands, apart from two. Key among them was the request that Austria-Hungary be allowed to direct judicial proceedings in Serbia - a violation of its constitution. Serbia had effectively rejected the ultimatum and, as planned in Vienna, war was now inevitable.

26 July
The British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey proposed a peace conference to try to stop Europe descending into war. His plan was that Italy, Germany, France and the UK, the four countries not directly involved in the Balkan crisis, should act as mediators between Austria-Hungary, Serbia and their ally Russia. This offer was met with hostility from the German Kaiser who didn't want to be seen to give in to Britain’s “condescending orders”.

28 July
Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, although the Austrian army was not ready to attack, and would not be for another two weeks. Germany was frustrated with its ally; it had been a month since Franz Ferdinand’s assassination and with each day that passed, sympathy for Austria-Hungary’s cause among other European powers was ebbing away.

30 July
Under immense pressure from his foreign minister, the Tsar ordered his armies to prepare for war and mobilise against both Germany and Austria-Hungary. Although just the day before he had agreed not to go to war, the Tsar was now convinced that Russia must protect Serbia. His ministers advised that if he did not act boldly, the Russian dynasty would be at risk.

31 July
The Kaiser believed Britain, France and Russia would use the pretext of war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia to encircle and “annihilate” Germany. German military plans aimed to deal with this “encirclement” by making a pre-emptive strike against France, through Belgium, before turning the bulk of its forces east to deal with Russia. Germany issued an ultimatum to Russia that unless it called off mobilisation, war will be declared. And, afraid of an attack by France, Germany demanded that its neighbour in the west show friendship towards them by allowing German soldiers to occupy French frontier forts for the duration of war with Russia.

1 August
The German ambassador asked the Russian foreign minister Sasonov to back down three times, and three times Sasonov refused. This forced the German army to mobilise. In the west, France had already begun mobilising its armies in anticipation of German attack. A European war was now inevitable.

2 August
On the pretext of preventing a French attack, Germany sent an ultimatum to Belgium asking for safe passage through its territory. If the Belgian government said no, Germany would consider them an enemy. Britain had promised to guarantee Belgium’s neutrality, and if the German demand was rejected, and soldiers crossed its border, Britain would be obliged to act. Belgium rejected the ultimatum.

3 August
In Paris, the German ambassador delivered Germany’s declaration of war to the French foreign ministry. France had been careful to do nothing to provoke Germany - positioning its troops 10 km from the German border - but Germany’s military plans were inflexible. They had to defeat France before attacking Russia. 

4 August
As German troops advanced into Belgium, the British cabinet was agreed that it could not stand aside, and an ultimatum was sent to Berlin.

4 August
The Kaiser and his government refused to stop the invasion of Belgium and at 23:00, Britain declared war on Germany. The European powers were pitted against each other and Britain would drag its global empire into the conflict. An assassination in southern Europe, brought war not only to the wider continent, but to the populations of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and North and South America. 

Many believed the war would be over within months, but fighting continued for another four years, and the war that would be 'over by Christmas' ended up being the most devastating one the world had ever seen to that date.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The First Woman In Space

On this day, 51 years and 1 day ago, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to ever fly in space, on 16 June 1963. Lieutenant Valentina Tereshkova, 26, was the fifth Russian cosmonaut to go into the Earth's orbit when her spaceship Vostok VI was launched at 1230 Moscow time. Tereshkova was a textile factory assembly worker and an amateur skydiver. before being selected from over four hundred applicants to fly in space due to her expertise in skydiving. After the dissolution of the first group of female cosmonauts in 1969, she became a prominent member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, holding various political offices. She remained politically active following the collapse of the Soviet Union and is still revered as a heroine in post-Soviet Russia. In 2013 she offered to go on a one-way trip to Mars if the opportunity arose, and at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics she was a flag-carrier of the Olympic flag.

After the flight of Yuri Gagarin in 1961, Sergey Korolyov, the chief Soviet rocket engineer, came up with the idea of putting a woman in space. On 16 February 1962, Valentina Tereshkova was selected to join the female cosmonaut corps. Out of more than four hundred applicants, five were selected: Tatyana Kuznetsova, Irina Solovyova, Zhanna Yorkina, Valentina Ponomaryova, and Tereshkova. Qualifications included that they be parachutists under 30 years of age, under 170 cm tall, and under 70 kg (154 lbs.) in weight.

Tereshkova was considered a particularly worthy candidate, partly due to her "proletarian" background, and because her father, tank leader sergeant Vladimir Tereshkov, was a war hero. He died in the Finnish Winter War during World War II in the Lemetti area in Finnish Karelia when Tereshkova was two years old. After her mission she was asked how the Soviet Union should thank her for her service to the country. Tereshkova asked that the government search for, and publish, the location where her father was killed in action. This was done, and a monument now stands at the site in Lemetti—now on the Russian side of the border. Tereshkova has since visited Finland several times.

The group spent several months in intensive training, concluding with examinations in November 1962, after which four remaining candidates were commissioned Junior Lieutenants in the Soviet Air Force. Tereshkova, Solovyova and Ponomaryova were the leading candidates, and a joint mission profile was developed that would see two women launched into space, on solo Vostok flights on consecutive days in March or April 1963. However the original plan, that two women would launch into space was altered and it was decided that a male cosmonaut would join Tereshkova in June 1963 instead.

Even though there were plans for further flights by women, it took 19 years until the second woman, Svetlana Savitskaya, flew into space. None of the other four in Tereshkova's early group flew, and in October 1969 the pioneering female cosmonaut group was dissolved.Although Tereshkova experienced nausea and physical discomfort for much of the flight, she orbited the earth 48 times and spent almost three days in space. With a single flight, she logged more flight time than the combined times of all American astronauts who had flown before that date. Tereshkova also maintained a flight log and took photographs of the horizon, which were later used to identify aerosol layers within the atmosphere.

Due to her prominence Tereshkova was chosen for several political positions: from 1966 to 1974 she was a member of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, from 1974 to 1989 a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and from 1969 to 1991 she was in the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Tereshkova also became a well known representative of the Soviet Union abroad; in 1966 she was made a member of the World Peace Council and she was also the Soviet representative to the UN Conference for the International Women's Year in Mexico City in 1975.

She was decorated with the Hero of the Soviet Union medal, the USSR's highest award among multiple other awards. In 1990 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Edinburgh. Tereshkova crater on the far side of the Moon was named after her.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Salem Witch Trials

One of my favourite aspects of my AS Level history course has been studying the European Witch Craze, 1560-1640. I was interested in looking at the witch-craze beyond Europe, and one of the books I read about was Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum. The book explored pre-existing social and economic divisions within the Salem Village community and how they caused or were part of the cause of the outbreak of accusations of witchcraft in 1692.

By 1692 the village had split into two factions; one interested in gaining more power for Salem Village, the other more concerned with the politics of Salem Town. Boyer and Nissenbaum used local records to prove how the witchcraft accusations fitted neatly into a larger pattern of communal strife. However it is important to note that it was not just social and economic factors that caused the Salem Witch Trials; religion, misogyny and the work of individual witch hunters also played a large role.

The book reveals how there were long standing economic, political and personal issues which divided the village long before 1692. Whilst Salem Town was a growing centre of trade, Salem Village remained primarily an agricultural community. Boyer and Nissenbaum argued that this polarisation of interests between the town and the village created a similar divide within the village itself. The Putnam family led a faction which identified with the traditional agricultural activities of the village and consequently supported the village minister, Samuel Parris, and the drive for greater autonomy from Salem Town. The opposing faction, led by the Porter family, identified itself with the mercantile town, near which most of the Porter faction lived. In opposition to the Putnam faction, the Porters opposed the minister and wanted greater association with the town of Salem. These fault-lines explain the pattern of witchcraft accusations. 

The villagers who followed the Putnams, supported Parris and fought for an independent church for the village were the accusers of witchcraft in 1692 and many of the accused witches belonged to the Porter faction. The witchcraft trials represented the projection of the grievances caused by such factionalism upon more obtainable targets such as Rebecca Nurse and Martha Cory. Witchcraft executions were born from the transformation of a small village into a modern capitalist society, and the divisions and conflicts that naturally arose from this change.

However Boyer and Nissenbaum's intensive focus on the dynamics of Salem Village does miss other factors that contributed to the Salem Witch Trials.  Although the outbreak originated in Salem Village, the majority of the accused actually came from surrounding villages such as Andover, which was removed from the Putnam/Porter disputes and was known for its harmonious community life. The dynamics of village dispute can help to explain the origin of the outbreak, but cannot explain why this outbreak became an epidemic. The reason for the growth of the outbreak into an epidemic rests in the importance of individuals and Puritan religious beliefs. In his review of Salem Possessed, T.H. Breen argues that Boyer and Nissenbaum "assume a direct causal relationship between socio-economic conditions and individual behaviour. Indeed, the authors manage to trace almost all personal motivation back to the pocketbook." The book makes a jump between a divided society and economic change to connect these with pre-existing divisions with the personal motivations of accusers, and this may not be entirely accurate. 

Religion was also of significant importance as Puritan theology taught that witches and demons were among the punishments God could inflict upon his people. Clearly then the epidemic was not born just out of communal strife and economic changes, but was multi-factorial. It is also important to look at why the vast majority of Salem witchcraft accusations were women; it is likely that the accusations also reflected societal ideas about women and the ways men reconciled changes in gender roles.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book as it really helped me to understand not only the ways in which the outbreak of accusations in Salem was part of a larger pattern of communal conflict, but also serves to warn us that the divisive powers such conflicts have, have the potential to instigate modern 'witch hunts'.

Friday, 6 June 2014


Today marks 70 years since D-Day, the Normandy landings, codenamed Operation Neptune on 6 June 1944. The landings were part of the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II and were largest seaborne invasion in history. The operation began the Allied invasion of German-occupied western Europe, led to the restoration of the French Republic, and contributed to an Allied victory in the war.

The  landings were preceded by extensive aerial and naval bombardment and an airborne assault—the landing of 24,000 British, US, and Canadian airborne troops shortly after midnight. Strong winds blew the landing craft east of their intended positions, particularly at Utah and Omaha. The men landed under heavy fire from gun emplacements overlooking the beaches, and the shore was mined and covered with obstacles such as wooden stakes, metal tripods, and barbed wire, making the work of the beach clearing teams difficult and dangerous.

The landings were the first stage of Operation Overlord - the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe - and were intended to end World War Two. However, the operation gained a foothold that the Allies gradually expanded over the coming months. German casualties on D-Day were around 1,000 men. Allied casualties were at least 12,000, with 4,414 confirmed dead. By the end of D-Day, the Allies had established a foothold in France. Within 11 months Nazi Germany was defeated, as Soviet armies swept in from the east and captured Hitler's stronghold in Berlin.