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Friday, June 1, 2018

Friday Links

Churchill's "We shall fight on the beaches...we shall never surrender" speech: it's the anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk by a flotilla of small boats.

June 1 is National Doughnut Day. Here's where to find free doughnuts and how doughnuts are made

Artificial Intelligence Is Cracking Open the Vatican's Secret Archives.


A Brief History of the Stoplight.

Europe’s Oldest Tree Lives in Italy.

ICYMI, Wednesday's links are here, and include 18th century tips on managing servants., Kurt Vonnegut's letter home after imprisonment in an underground slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse Five) during the Dresden bombing, teaching a spider to jump on demand, and the anniversary of the 1453: fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Wednesday links

Kurt Vonnegut's May 29, 1945 letter home after imprisonment in an underground slaughterhouse (Slaughterhouse Five) during the Dresden bombing.


A Brief History of America’s Appetite for Macaroni and Cheese.

May 29, 1453: the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

18th century tips on managing servants.

Remembering When Only Barbarians Drank Milk: "butter eater” was once a terrible insult.

ICYMI, Monday's links are here, and include Memorial Day links, inside JFK’s door-to-door search for a French call girl (and why she had to look like Jackie), the evolution of the "Beauty and the Beast" story, and the greatest missing art masterpieces.

Monday, May 28, 2018

May 29, 1453: the fall of Constantinople

Click here to embiggen
Oh, what a noble and beautiful city is Constantinople! How many monasteries and palaces it contains, constructed with wonderful skill! It would take too long to describe all the wealth that is there of every kind, of gold, of silver, all kinds of clothes, holy relics... There are, I think, around twenty thousand eunuchs living there always.

~ Fulcher of Chartres (1059 -??) (Historia Hierosolymitana, during the First Crusade, 1096)

They found the Turks coming right up under the walls and seeking battle, particularly the Janissaries ... and when one or two of them were killed, at once more Turks came and took away the dead ones ... without caring how near they came to the city walls. Our men shot at them with guns and crossbows, aiming at the Turk who was carrying away his dead countryman, and both of them would fall to the ground dead, and then there came other Turks and took them away, none fearing death, but being willing to let ten of themselves be killed rather than suffer the shame of leaving a single Turkish corpse by the walls.

Nothing will ever equal the horror of this harrowing and terrible spectacle. People frightened by the shouting ran out of their houses and were cut down by the sword before they knew what was happening. And some were massacred in their houses where they tried to hide, and some in churches where they sought refuge... they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions . . . There were virgins who awoke from troubled sleep to find those brigands standing over them with bloody hands and faces full of abject fury. This medley of all nations, these frantic brutes stormed into their houses, dragged them, tore them, forced them, dishonored them, raped them at the cross-roads and made them submit to the most terrible outrages.

(wiki) The last siege of Constantinople,
contemporary 15th century French miniature
When Mehmed saw the ravages, the destruction and the deserted houses and all that had perished and become ruins, then a great sadness took possession of him and he repented the pillage and all the destruction. Tears came to his eyes and sobbing he expressed his sadness. "What a town this was! And we have allowed it to be destroyed!" His soul was full of sorrow. And in truth it was natural, so much did the horror of the situation exceed all limits.

~ excerpts from various eye-witness accounts of the fall of Constantinople (wiki), 29 May 1453

Today is the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (wiki) to an Ottoman army under the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II after a siege of seven weeks. The last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Paliailogos, died in the final defense of the city, and the ensuing orgy of pillage and massacre brought the eastern Roman empire to a decisive end.* 

Founded as Byzantium in the 7th century B.C. by Greek colonists from Megara, Constantinople (now Istanbul) sits at the junction of the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus, which leads to the Black Sea, about 15 miles to the northeast. This strategic location led to its becoming an ancient entrepot for trade between the east and west, and in A.D. 330, the Roman emperor Constantine made it the capital of his eastern empire, which - as the Byzantine Empire - outlasted the fall of Rome itself by nearly 1,000 years. After the sack of the city by the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the Byzantine Empire never regained its former glory, and by the time of its final defeat, it had been whittled down by the Ottoman Turks to little more than the capital itself and a small hinterland. 

Mehmet entering the city after three days of rape and plunder
The loss of Constantinople was a major shock to Christendom and particularly to the Greek and Russian Orthodox communities, for whom the city had been their spiritual nexus. During its subsequent "golden age" and 19th-century decline, Constantinople remained the capital of the Ottoman Empire until the end of World War I, when what was left of the old Ottoman territories became today's Republic of Turkey with a new capital at Ankara.** 

French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) wrote in Flight to Arras,

"The injustice of defeat lies in the fact that its most innocent victims are made to look like heartless accomplices. It is impossible to see behind defeat the sacrifices, the austere performance of duty, the self-discipline and the vigilance that are there - those things the god of battle does not take account of."

* N.B. In addition to the Byzantine Greeks defending the city, there were large contingents of Venetians, Genoese, Sicilians, and natives of the Papal States.

** However, it wasn't until 1930 that the Turkish government officially changed the name of the city to Istanbul.

Here's a brief documentary:


And you can't do a piece on Constantinople without the classic song Istanbul (Not Constantinople) - the video below is a Tiny Toons production using the version by They Must Be Giants, but for the music alone I prefer the original 1953 version by The Four Lads.

Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, ol' Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night...


Kurt Vonnegut's May 29, 1945 letter home after imprisonment in an underground slaughterhouse during the Dresden bombing

On December 19, 1944, twenty-two year old Kurt Vonnegut (wiki) was captured by Wehrmacht troops. Below is the letter he wrote to his family after the end of the war informing them of his capture and survival. Describing the capture and move to Dresden:

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations -- the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn't room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year's Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn't.
Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th.
In Dresden they were imprisoned in an underground slaughterhouse known by German soldiers as "Schlachthof Fünf" (Slaughterhouse Five (wiki)), which, of course, he used 25 years later as the title and organizing principle of his best-known book. During the bombing of Dresden (wiki), which took place in four raids between February 13th and 15th, the subterranean nature of the prison saved their lives: 
On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people* in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden -- possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me. 
After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city. 
Transcript below the scan - read the whole thing.




Transcript

FROM:

Pfc. K. Vonnegut, Jr.,
12102964 U. S. Army.

TO:

Kurt Vonnegut,
Williams Creek,
Indianapolis, Indiana.

Dear people:

I'm told that you were probably never informed that I was anything other than "missing in action." Chances are that you also failed to receive any of the letters I wrote from Germany. That leaves me a lot of explaining to do -- in precis:

The location of the original Slaughterhouse Five
 is now a parking lot in front of an exhibition hall,
 but a stone statue of a cow that once marked
 the entrance to the meatpacking district
somehow survived the bombing. (more here)
I've been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler's last desperate thrust through Luxemburg and Belgium. Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges' First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight - so we gave up. The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery for it, I'm told, but I'll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren't wounded. For that much thank God.

Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations -- the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn't room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year's Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn't.

Under the Geneva Convention, Officers and Non-commissioned Officers are not obliged to work when taken prisoner. I am, as you know, a Private. One-hundred-and-fifty such minor beings were shipped to a Dresden work camp on January 10th. I was their leader by virtue of the little German I spoke. It was our misfortune to have sadistic and fanatical guards. We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day. After desperately trying to improve our situation for two months and having been met with bland smiles I told the guards just what I was going to do to them when the Russians came. They beat me up a little. I was fired as group leader. Beatings were very small time: -- one boy starved to death and the SS Troops shot two for stealing food.

Dresden after the bombing raid (wiki)
On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden -- possibly the world's most beautiful city. But not me.

After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.

When General Patton took Leipzig we were evacuated on foot to ('the Saxony-Czechoslovakian border'?). There we remained until the war ended. Our guards deserted us. On that happy day the Russians were intent on mopping up isolated outlaw resistance in our sector. Their planes (P-39's) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.

Eight of us stole a team and wagon. We traveled and looted our way through Sudetenland and Saxony for eight days, living like kings. The Russians are crazy about Americans. The Russians picked us up in Dresden. We rode from there to the American lines at Halle in Lend-Lease Ford trucks. We've since been flown to Le Havre.

I'm writing from a Red Cross Club in the Le Havre P.O.W. Repatriation Camp. I'm being wonderfully well feed and entertained. The state-bound ships are jammed, naturally, so I'll have to be patient. I hope to be home in a month. Once home I'll be given twenty-one days recuperation at Atterbury, about $600 back pay and -- get this -- sixty (60) days furlough.

I've too damned much to say, the rest will have to wait, I can't receive mail here so don't write.

May 29, 1945

Love,

Kurt - Jr.

* via a commenter, the book The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945, by Richard Overy (Viking 2013), asserts: "Recent estimates from a historical commission in Dresden have confirmed that the original figure suggested by the city's police president in March 1945 of approximately 25,000 dead is the best available estimate." The 250,000 figure came about via Goebbels' "judicial addition of an additional zero to the provisional casualty estimate."

Via the always interesting but not frequently-enough updated (that was a hint, you guys) blog of Letters of Note.

Previous posts: In 2006, Kurt Vonnegut sent this excellent letter to a high school class, and here's his 1944 letter from a German prison camp.

Monday links


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.


Inside JFK’s door-to-door search for a French call girl — and why she had to look like Jackie.

NASA's Atomic Fridge Will Make the ISS the Coldest Known Place in the Universe.

The evolution of "Beauty and the Beast."

ICYMI, Friday's links are here, and include how to ship a whale via UPS, why you wouldn't want to drink 19th century milk unless you knew it came straight from the cow., and, for fans of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, all about Towel Day.