Undying Defeat: The Power of Failed Uprisings

From the Warsaw Ghetto to the Alamo, doomed rebels live on in culture

John Wayne said that he saw the Alamo as ‘a metaphor for America’. PHOTO: ALAMY

Earlier this month, Israel commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. The annual Remembrance Day of the Holocaust and Heroism, as it is called, reminds Israelis of the moral duty to fight to the last.

The Warsaw ghetto battle is one of many doomed uprisings across history that have cast their influence far beyond their failures, providing inspiration to a nation’s politics and culture.

Nearly 500,000 Polish Jews once lived in the ghetto. By January 1943, the Nazis had marked the surviving 55,000 for deportation. The Jewish Fighting Organization had just one machine gun and fewer than a hundred revolvers for a thousand or so sick and starving volunteer soldiers. The Jews started by blowing up some tanks and fought on until May 16. The Germans executed 7,000 survivors and deported the rest.

For many Jews, the rebellion offered a narrative of resistance, an alternative to the grim story of the fortress of Masada, where nearly 1,000 besieged fighters chose suicide over slavery during the First Jewish-Roman War (A.D. 66–73).
The story of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has also entered the wider culture. The title of Leon Uris’s 1961 novel “Mila 18” comes from the street address of the headquarters of the Jewish resistance in their hopeless fight. Four decades later, Roman Polanski made the uprising a crucial part of his 2002 Oscar-winning film, “The Pianist,” whose musician hero aids the effort.

Other doomed uprisings have also been preserved in art. The 48-hour Paris Uprising of 1832, fought by 3,000 insurrectionists against 30,000 regular troops, gained immortality through Victor Hugo, who made the revolt a major plot point in “Les Misérables” (1862). The novel was a hit on its debut and ever after—and gave its world-wide readership a set of martyrs to emulate.

Even a young country like the U.S. has its share of national myths, of desperate last stands serving as touchstones for American identity. One has been the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 during the War of Texas Independence. “Remember the Alamo” became the Texan war cry only weeks after roughly 200 ill-equipped rebels, among them the frontiersman Davy Crockett, were killed defending the Alamo mission in San Antonio against some 2,000 Mexican troops.

The Alamo’s imagery of patriotic sacrifice became popular in novels and paintings but really took off during the film era, beginning in 1915 with the D.W. Griffith production, “Martyrs of the Alamo.” Walt Disney got in on the act with his 1950s TV miniseries, “ Davy Crockett : King of the Wild Frontier.” John Wayne’s 1960 “The Alamo,” starring Wayne as Crockett, immortalized the character for a generation.

Wayne said that he saw the Alamo as “a metaphor of America” and its will for freedom. Others did too, even in very different contexts. During the Vietnam War, President Lyndon Johnson, whose hometown wasn’t far from San Antonio, once told the National Security Council why he believed U.S. troops needed to be fighting in Southeast Asia: “Hell,” he said, “Vietnam is just like the Alamo.”

When Blossoms and Bullets Go Together: The Battles of Springtime

Generals have launched spring offensives from ancient times to the Taliban era

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

‘When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding; Sweet lovers love the spring,” wrote Shakespeare. But the season has a darker side as well. As we’re now reminded each year when the Taliban anticipate the warm weather by announcing their latest spring offensive in Afghanistan, military commanders and strategists have always loved the season, too.

The World War I poet Wilfred Owen highlighted the irony of this juxtaposition—the budding of new life alongside the massacre of those in life’s prime—in his famous “Spring Offensive”: “Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled / By the May breeze”—right before their deaths.

The pairing of rebirth with violent death has an ancient history. In the 19th century, the anthropologist James George Frazer identified the concept of the “dying and rising god” as one of the earliest cornerstones of religious belief. For new life to appear in springtime, there had to be a death or sacrifice in winter. Similar sacrifice-and-rejuvenation myths can be found among the Sumerians, Egyptians, Canaanites and Greeks.

Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures saw spring in this dual perspective for practical reasons as well. The agricultural calendar revolved around wet winters, cool springs and very hot summers when almost nothing grew except olives and figs. Harvest time for essential cereal crops such as wheat and barley took place in the spring. The months of May and June, therefore, were perfect for armies to invade, because they could live off the land. The Bible says of King David, who lived around 1,000 B.C., that he sent Joab and the Israelite army to fight the Ammonites “in the spring of the year, when kings normally go out to war.”

It was no coincidence that the Romans named the month of March after Mars, the god of war but also the guardian of agriculture. As the saying goes, “An army fights on its stomach.” For ancient Greek historians, the rhythm of war rarely changed: Discussion took place in the winter, action began in spring. When they referred to a population “waiting for spring,” it was usually literary shorthand for a people living in fear of the next attack. The military campaigns of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.) into the Balkans, Persia and India began with a spring offensive.

In succeeding centuries, the seasonal rhythms of Europe, which were very different from those of warmer climes, brought about a new calendar of warfare. Europe’s reliance on the autumn harvest ended the ancient marriage of spring and warfare. Conscripts were unwilling to abandon their farms and fight in the months between planting and harvesting.

 This seasonal difficulty would not be addressed until Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632), a great military innovator, developed principles for the first modern army. According to the British historian Basil Liddell Hart, Gustavus made the crucial shift from short-term conscripts, drawn away from agricultural labor, to a standing force of professional, trained soldiers on duty all year round, regardless of the seasons.

Gustavus died before he could fully implement his ideas. This revolution in military affairs fell instead to Frederick the Great, king of Prussia (1712-1786), who turned military life into a respectable upper-class career choice and the Prussian army into a mobile, flexible and efficient machine.

Frederick believed that a successful army attacks first and hard, a lesson absorbed by Napoleon a half century later. This meant that the spring season, which had become the season for drilling and training in preparation for summer campaigning, became a fighting season again.

But the modern iteration of the spring offensive is different from its ancient forebear. Its purpose isn’t to feed an army but to incapacitate enemies before they have the chance to strike. The strategy is a risky gambler’s throw, relying on timing and psychology as much as on strength and numbers.

For Napoleon, the spring offensive played to his strength in being able to combine speed, troop concentration and offensive action in a single, decisive blow. Throughout his career he relied on the spring offensive, beginning with his first military campaign in Italy (1796-7), in which the French defeated the more-numerous and better-supplied Austrians. His final spring campaign was also his boldest. Despite severe shortages of money and troops, Napoleon came within a hair’s breadth of victory at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815.

The most famous spring campaign of the early 20th century—Germany’s 1918 offensive in World War I, originated by Gen. Erich Ludendorff—reveals its limitations as a strategy. If the knockout blow doesn’t happen, what next?

 At the end of 1917, the German high command had decided that the army needed a spring offensive to revive morale. Ludendorff thought that only an attack in the Napoleonic mode would work: “The army pined for the offensive…It alone is decisive,” he wrote. He was convinced that all he had to do was “blow a hole in the middle” of the enemy’s front and “the rest will follow of its own accord.” When Ludendorff’s first spring offensive stalled after 15 days, he quickly launched four more. Lacking any other objective than the attack itself, all failed, leaving Germany bankrupt and crippled by July.

In this century, the Taliban have found their own brutal way to renew the ancient tradition—with the blossoms come the bombs and the bloodshed.

How Mermaid-Merman Tales Got to This Year’s Oscars

ILLUSTRATON: DANIEL ZALKUS

‘The Shape of Water,’ the best-picture winner, extends a tradition of ancient tales of these water creatures and their dealings with humans

Popular culture is enamored with mermaids. This year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” about a lonely mute woman and a captured amphibious man, is a new take on an old theme. “The Little Mermaid,” Disney ’senormously successful 1989 animated film, was based on the Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, and it was turned into a Broadway musical, which even now is still being staged across the country.

The fascination with mermythology began with the ancient Greeks. In the beginning, mermen were few and far between. As for mermaids, they were simply members of a large chorus of female sea creatures that included the benign Nereids, the sea-nymph daughters of the sea god Nereus, and the Sirens, whose singing led sailors to their doom—a fate Odysseus barely escapes in Homer’s epic “The Odyssey.”

Over the centuries, the innocuous mermaid became interchangeable with the deadly sirens. They led Scottish sailors to their deaths in one of the variations of the anonymous poem “Sir Patrick Spens,” probably written in the 15th century: “Then up it raise the mermaiden, / Wi the comb an glass in her hand: / ‘Here’s a health to you, my merrie young men, / For you never will see dry land.’”

In pictures, mermaids endlessly combed their hair while sitting semi-naked on the rocks, lying in wait for seafarers. During the Elizabethan era, a “mermaid” was a euphemism for a prostitute. Poets and artists used them to link feminine sexuality with eternal damnation.

But in other tales, the original, more innocent idea of a mermaid persisted. Andersen’s 1837 story followed an old literary tradition of a “virtuous” mermaid hoping to redeem herself through human love.

Andersen purposely broke with the old tales. As he acknowledged to a friend, his fishy heroine would “follow a more natural, more divine path” that depended on her own actions rather than that of “an alien creature.” Egged on by her sisters to murder the prince whom she loves and return to her mermaid existence, she chooses death instead—a sacrifice that earns her the right to a soul, something that mermaids were said to lack.

Richard Wagner’s version of mermaids—the Rhine maidens who guard the treasure of “Das Rheingold”—also bucked the “temptress” cliché. While these maidens could be cruel, they gave valuable advice later in the “Ring” cycle.

The cultural rehabilitation of mermaids gained steam in the 20th century. In T.S. Eliot’s 1915 poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” their erotic power becomes a symbol of release from stifling respectability. The sad protagonist laments, “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.” By 1984, when a gorgeous mermaid (Daryl Hannah) fell in love with a nerdy man ( Tom Hanks ) in the film comedy “Splash,” audiences were ready to accept that mermaids might offer a liberating alternative to society’s hang-ups, and that humans themselves are the obstacle to perfect happiness, not female sexuality.

What makes “The Shape of Water” unusual is that a scaly male, not a sexy mermaid, is the object of affection to be rescued. Andersen probably wouldn’t recognize his Little Mermaid in Mr. del Toro’s nameless, male amphibian, yet the two tales are mirror images of the same fantasy: Love conquers all.

In Epidemics, Leaders Play a Crucial Role

ILLUSTRATION: JON KRAUSE

Lessons in heroism and horror as a famed flu pandemic hits a milestone

A century ago this week, an army cook named Albert Gitchell at Fort Riley, Kansas, paid a visit to the camp infirmary, complaining of a severe cold. It’s now thought that he was America’s patient zero in the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

The disease killed more than 40 million people world-wide, including 675,000 Americans. In this case, as in so many others throughout history, the pace of the pandemic’s deadly progress depended on the actions of public officials.

Spain had allowed unrestricted reporting about the flu, so people mistakenly believed it originated there. Other countries, including the U.S., squandered thousands of lives by suppressing news and delaying health measures. Chicago kept its schools open, citing a state commission that had declared the epidemic at a “standstill,” while the city’s public health commissioner said, “It is our duty to keep the people from fear. Worry kills more people than the epidemic.”

Worry had indeed sown chaos, misery and violence in many previous outbreaks, such as the Black Plague. The disease, probably caused by bacteria-infected fleas living on rodents, swept through Asia and Europe during the 1340s, killing up to a quarter of the world’s population. In Europe, where over 50 million died, a search for scapegoats led to widespread pogroms against Jews. In 1349, the city of Strasbourg in France, already somewhat affected by the plague, put to death hundreds of Jews and expelled the rest.

But not all authorities lost their heads at the first sign of contagion. Pope Clement VI (1291-1352), one of a series of popes who ruled from the southern French city of Avignon, declared that the Jews had not caused the plague and issued two papal bulls against their persecution.

In Italy, Venetian authorities took the practical approach: They didn’t allow ships from infected ports to dock and subjected all travelers to a period of isolation. The term quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning “40 days”—the official length of time until the Venetians granted foreign ships the right of entry.

Less exalted rulers could also show prudence and compassion in the face of a pandemic. After the Black Plague struck the village of Eyam in England, the vicar William Mompesson persuaded its several hundred inhabitants not to flee, to prevent the disease from spreading to other villages. The biggest landowner in the county, the earl of Devonshire, ensured a regular supply of food and necessities to the stricken community. Some 260 villagers died during their self-imposed quarantine, but their decision likely saved thousands of lives.

The response to more recent pandemics has not always met that same high standard. When viral severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) began in China in November 2002, the government’s refusal to acknowledge the outbreak allowed the disease to spread to Hong Kong, a hub for the West and much of Asia, thus creating a world problem. On a more hopeful note, when Ebola was spreading uncontrollably through West Africa in 2014, the Ugandans leapt into action, saturating their media with warnings and enabling quick reporting of suspected cases, and successfully contained their outbreak.

Pandemics always create a sense of crisis. History shows that public leadership is the most powerful weapon in keeping them from becoming full-blown tragedies.

The First Fixer-Upper: A Look at White House Renovations

Rude visitors, sinking pianos and dismayed presidential residents

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

This year marks the bicentennial of the public reopening of the White House after the War of 1812, when the British burned the executive mansion and sent President James Madison fleeing. Though the grand house has legions of devotees today, its occupants haven’t always loved the place.

The problems began in the 1790s, as the Founding Fathers struggled with the question of how grand such a residence should be for an elected president in a popular government. Was the building to be a government office with sleeping arrangements, a private home, the people’s palace or all of the above? Frequent name changes reflected the confusion: President’s Palace, President’s House and Executive Mansion. The president made its official name the White House only in 1901.

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The Ancient Magic of Mistletoe

The plant’s odyssey from a Greek festival to a role in the works of Dickens and Trollope

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Is mistletoe naughty or nice? The No. 1 hit single for Christmas 1952 was young Jimmy Boyd warbling how he caught “mommy kissing Santa Claus underneath the mistletoe last night.” It may very well have been daddy in costume—but, if not, that would make mistletoe very naughty indeed. For this plant, that would be par for the course.

Mistletoe, in its various species, is found all over the world and has played a part in fertility rituals for thousands of years. The plant’s ability to live off other trees—it’s a parasite—and remain evergreen even in the dead of winter awed the earliest agricultural societies. Mistletoe became a go-to plant for sacred rites and poetic inspiration.

Kissing under the mistletoe may have begun with the Greeks’ Kronia agricultural festival. Its Roman successor, the Saturnalia, combined licentious behavior with mistletoe. The naturalist Pliny the Elder, who died in A.D. 79, noticed to his surprise that mistletoe was just as sacred, if not more, to the Druids of Gaul. Its growth on certain oak trees, which the Druids believed to possess magical powers, spurred them to use mistletoe in ritual sacrifices and medicinal potions to cure ailments such as infertility.

Mistletoe’s mystical properties also earned it a starring role in the 13th-century Old Norse collection of mythical tales known as the Prose Edda. Here mistletoe becomes a deadly weapon in the form of an arrow that kills the sun-god Baldur. His mother Frigga, the goddess of love and marriage, weeps tears that turn into white mistletoe berries. In some versions, this brings Baldur back to life, carrying faint echoes of the reincarnation myths of ancient Mesopotamia. Either way, Frigga declares mistletoe to be the symbol of peace and love.

Beliefs about mistletoe’s powers managed to survive the Catholic Church’s official disapproval for all things pagan. People used the plant as a totem to scare away trolls, thwart witchcraft, prevent fires and bring about reconciliations. But such superstitions fizzled out in the wake of the Enlightenment.

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A History of the Unloved Electoral College

Opponents have ranged from John Adams to Richard Nixon. Why has the system survived?

PHOTO: THOMAS FUCHS

The 2016 election results caused plenty of bitterness—not the least of which had to do with the Electoral College. Donald Trump won the presidency a year ago this week but lost the popular vote—something that has happened a handful of times in the republic’s history and twice in the past two decades. In a December press conference, President Barack Obama declared the system to be past its sell-by date: “It’s a carry-over from an earlier vision of how our federal government was going to work.”

What were the Founding Fathers thinking? At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they created a unique system for choosing the president. Each state got a number of electors based on the total of its U.S. senators (two) and U.S. representatives (as set by census). Each state legislature could decide the method of picking electors, but if the electors’ vote was inconclusive, the choice would be sent to the House of Representatives. “The original idea,” wrote Federal Election Commission official William C. Kimberling in 1992, “was for the most knowledgeable and informed individuals from each State to select the president based solely on merit and without regard to State of origin or political party.” Continue reading…

A Brief History of Protest in Sports

From angry gladiators to Suffragette sabotage

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Sports and protest often go together: As soon as someone makes a call, somebody else is disputing it. But in recent weeks, the really big clashes have happened off the playing fields, as President Donald Trump and others criticized football players kneeling during the national anthem. Such mixing of sports, politics and protest has ancient roots—on the part of both spectators and players.

An early protest by a player comes down to us in “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” by the Roman historian Suetonius (69-130 A.D.). An unnamed gladiator once refused to fight in front of the Emperor Caligula. Then, the gladiator, seeing he would die anyway, grabbed his trident and killed his would-be victors.

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A Brief History of Driving on the Left

Over the centuries, plenty of empires and nations have driven on the left side of the road

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Fifty years ago this month, on Sept. 3, 1967, the world turned upside down in Sweden. Or rather it went from left to right: On that day, the Swedes abandoned 200 years of left-hand traffic, or LHT, to switch over to RHT. The event was commemorated as Högertrafikomläggningen (the right-hand traffic diversion) or H-Day for short.

Bahrain, Finland and Iceland soon followed Sweden’s example. Pakistan considered switching to RHT in the 1960s but decided it would be too difficult, am

ong other things, to change the habits of the country’s numerous camel-cart drivers. Even the U.K. briefly toyed with the idea only to drop it because of cost and rising nationalist affection for driving on the left. Continue reading…