Historically Speaking: Iron Curtains Are Older Than the Cold War

Winston Churchill made the term famous, but ideological rivalries have driven geopolitics since Athens and Sparta.

The Wall Street Journal

February 25, 2021

It was an unseasonably springlike day on March 5, 1946, when Winston Churchill visited Fulton, Missouri. The former British Prime Minister was ostensibly there to receive an honorary degree from Westminster College. But Churchill’s real purpose in coming was to urge the U.S. to form an alliance with Britain to keep the Soviet Union from expanding any further. Speaking before an august audience that included President Harry S. Truman, Churchill declared: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Churchill wasn’t the first person to employ the phrase “iron curtain” as a political metaphor. Originally a theatrical term for the safety barrier between the stage and the audience, by the early 20th century it was being used to mean a barrier between opposing powers. Nevertheless, “iron curtain” became indelibly associated with Churchill and with the defense of freedom and democracy.

This was a modern expression of an idea first articulated by the ancient Greeks: that political beliefs are worth defending. In the winter of 431-30 B.C., the Athenians were staggering under a devastating plague while simultaneously fighting Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The stakes couldn’t have been higher when the great statesman Pericles used a speech commemorating the war dead to define the struggle in terms that every Athenian would understand.

As reported by the historian Thucydides, Pericles told his compatriots that the fight wasn’t for more land, trade or treasure; it was for democracy pure and simple. Athens was special because its government existed “for the many instead of the few,” guaranteeing “equal justice to all.” No other regime, and certainly not the Spartans, could make the same claim.

Pericles died the following year, and Athens eventually went down in defeat in 404 B.C. But the idea that fighting for one’s country meant defending a political ideal continued to be influential. According to the 2nd-century Roman historian Cassius Dio, the Empire had to make war on the “lawless and godless” tribes living outside its borders. Fortifications such as Hadrian’s Wall in northern England weren’t just defensive measures but political statements: Inside bloomed civilization, outside lurked savagery.

The Great Wall of China, begun in 220 B.C. by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, had a similar function. In addition to keeping out the nomadic populations in the Mongolian plains, the wall symbolized the unity of the country under imperial rule and the Confucian belief system that supported it. Successive dynasties continued to fortify the Great Wall until the mid-17th century.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British considered themselves to be fighting for democracy against dictatorship, like the ancient Athenians. In 1806, Napoleon instigated the Continental System, an economic blockade intended to cut off Britain from trading with France’s European allies and conquests. But the attack on free trade only strengthened British determination.

A similar resolve among the NATO allies led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved and withdrew its armies from Eastern Europe. As Churchill had predicted, freedom and democracy is the ultimate shield against “war and tyranny.”

Historically Speaking: The Original Victims of Cancel Culture

Roman emperors and modern dictators have feared the social and spiritual penalties of excommunication.

The Wall Street Journal

January 28, 2021

Nowadays, all it takes for a person to be condemned to internal exile is a Twitter stampede of outrage. The lack of any regulating authority or established criteria for what constitutes repentance gives “cancel culture,” as it is popularly known, a particularly modern edge over more old-fashioned expressions of public shaming such as tar-and-feathering, boycotts and blacklists.

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
PHOTO: CORBIS/VCG/GETTY IMAGES

But the practice of turning nonconforming individuals into non-persons has been used with great effectiveness for centuries, none more so than the punishment of excommunication by the Roman Catholic Church. The penalties included social ostracism, refusal of communion and Christian burial, and eternal damnation of one’s soul.

The fear inspired by excommunication was great enough to make even kings fall in line. In 390, soldiers under the command of the Roman emperor Theodosius I massacred thousands in the Greek city of Thessalonica. In response, Bishop Ambrose of Milan excommunicated Theodosius, forcing him to don sackcloth and ashes as public penance. Ambrose’s victory established the Church’s authority over secular rulers.

Later church leaders relied on the threat of excommunication to maintain their power, but the method could backfire. In 1054, Pope Leo III of Rome excommunicated Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople, the head of the eastern Church, who retaliated by excommunicating Leo and the western Church. Since this Great Schism, the two churches, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, have never reunited.

During the Middle Ages, the penalty of excommunication broadened to include the cancellation of all legal protections, including the right to collect debts. Neither kings nor cities were safe. After being excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII in 1076, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV stood barefoot in the snow for three days before the pontiff grudgingly welcomed him inside to hear his repentance. The entire city of Venice was excommunicated over half a dozen times, and on each occasion the frightened Venetians capitulated to papal authority.

But the excommunication of Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, by Pope Leo X in January 1521, 500 years ago this month, didn’t work out as planned. Summoned to explain himself at the Diet of Worms, a meeting presided over by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Luther refused to recant and ask forgiveness, allegedly saying: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” In response, the Emperor declared him a heretic and outlaw, putting his life in danger. Luther was only saved from assassination by his patron, Frederick, Elector of Saxony, who hid him in a castle. Luther used the time to begin translating the Bible into German.

Napoleon Bonaparte was equally unconcerned about the spiritual consequences when he was excommunicated by Pope Pius VII in 1809. Nevertheless, he was sufficiently frightened of public opinion to kidnap the pontiff and keep him out of sight for several months. In 1938, angry over Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini tried to persuade Pope Pius XI to excommunicate the German dictator Adolf Hitler, a nonpracticing Catholic. Who knows what would have happened if he had been successful.

Historically Speaking: Two Centuries of Exploring Antarctica

Charting the southern continent took generations of heroic sacrifice and international cooperation.

The Wall Street Journal

January 14, 2021

There is a place on Earth that remains untouched by war, slavery or riots. Its inhabitants coexist in peace, and all nationalities are welcomed. No, it’s not Neverland or Shangri-La—it’s Antarctica, home to the South Pole, roughly 20 million penguins and a transient population of about 4,000 scientists and support staff.

Antarctica’s existence was only confirmed 200 years ago. Following some initial sightings by British and Russian explorers in January 1821, Captain John Davis, a British-born American sealer and explorer, landed on the Antarctic Peninsula on Feb. 7, 1821. Davis was struck by its immense size, writing in his logbook, “I think this Southern Land to be a Continent.” It is, in fact, the fifth-largest of Earth’s seven continents.

Herbert Ponting is attacked by a penguin during the 1911 Scott expedition in Antarctica.
PHOTO: HERBERT PONTING/SCOTT POLAR RESEARCH INSTITUTE, UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE/GETTY IMAGES

People had long speculated that there had to be something down at the bottom of the globe—in cartographers’ terms, a Terra Australis Incognita (“unknown southern land”). The ancient Greeks referred to the putative landmass as “Ant-Arktos,” because it was on the opposite side of the globe from the constellation of Arktos, the Bear, which appears in the north. But the closest anyone came to penetrating the freezing wastes of the Antarctic Circle was Captain James Cook, the British explorer, who looked for a southern continent from 1772-75. He got within 80 miles of the coast, but the harshness of the region convinced Cook that “no man will ever venture further than I have done.”

Davis proved him wrong half a century later, but explorers were unable to make further progress until the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century. In 1911, the British explorer Robert F. Scott led a research expedition to the South Pole, only to be beaten by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who misled his backers about his true intentions and jettisoned scientific research for the sake of getting there quickly.

Extraordinarily bad luck led to the deaths of Scott and his teammates on their return journey. In 1915, Ernest Shackleton led a British expedition that aimed to make the first crossing of Antarctica by land, but his ship Endurance was trapped in the polar ice. The crew’s 18-month odyssey to return to civilization became the stuff of legend.

Soon exploration gave way to international competition over Antarctica’s natural resources. Great Britain marked almost two-thirds of the continent’s landmass as part of the British Empire, but a half dozen other countries also staked claims. In 1947 the U.S. joined the fray with Operation High Jump, a U.S. Navy-led mission to establish a research base that involved 13 ships and 23 aircraft.

Antarctica’s freedom and neutrality were in question during the Cold War. But in 1957, a group of geophysicists managed to launch a year-long Antarctic research project involving 12 countries. It was such a success that two years later the countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and the USSR, signed the Antarctic Treaty, guaranteeing the continent’s protection from militarization and exploitation. This goodwill toward men took a further 20 years to extend to women, but in 1979 American engineer Irene C. Peden became the first woman to work at the South Pole for an entire winter.

Historically Speaking: The Martini’s Contribution to Civilization

The cocktail was invented in the U.S., but it soon became a worldwide symbol of sophistication.

Wall Street Journal

December 18, 2020

In 1887, the Chicago Tribune hailed the martini as the quintessential Christmas drink, reminding readers that it is “made of Vermouth, Booth’s Gin, and Angostura Bitters.” That remains the classic recipe, even though no one can say for certain who created it.

The journalist H.L. Mencken famously declared that the martini was “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet,” and there are plenty of claimants to the title of inventor. The city of Martinez, Calif., insists the martini was first made there in 1849, for a miner who wanted to celebrate a gold strike with something “special.” Another origin story gives the credit to Jerry Thomas, the bartender of the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, in 1867.

Actor Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, with his signature martini.
PHOTO: MGM/EVERETT COLLECTION

Of course, just as calculus was discovered simultaneously by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, the martini may have sprung from multiple cocktail shakers. What soon made it stand out from all other gin cocktails was its association with high society. The hero of “Burning Daylight,” Jack London’s 1910 novel about a gold-miner turned entrepreneur, drinks martinis to prove to himself and others that he has “arrived.” Ernest Hemingway paid tribute to the drink in his 1929 novel “A Farewell To Arms” with the immortal line, “I had never tasted anything so cool and clean. They made me feel civilized.”

Prohibition was a golden age for the martini. Its adaptability was a boon: Even the coarsest bathtub gin could be made palatable with the addition of vermouth and olive brine (a dirty martini), a pickled onion (Gibson), lemon (twist), lime cordial (gimlet) or extra vermouth (wet). President Franklin D. Roosevelt was so attached to the cocktail that he tried a little martini diplomacy on Stalin during the Yalta conference of 1945. Stalin could just about stand the taste but informed Roosevelt that the cold on the way down wasn’t to his liking at all.

The American love affair with the martini continued in Hollywood films like “All About Eve,” starring Bette Davis, which portrayed it as the epitome of glamour and sophistication. But change was coming. In Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel “Live and Let Die,” James Bond ordered a martini made with vodka instead of gin. Worse, two years later in “Diamonds are Forever,” Fleming described the drink as being “shaken and not stirred,” even though shaking weakens it. Then again, according to an analysis of Bond’s alcohol consumption published in the British Medical Journal in 2013, 007 sometimes downed the equivalent of 14 martinis in a 24-hour period, so his whole body would have been shaking.

American businessmen weren’t all that far behind. The three-martini lunch was a national pastime until business lunches ceased to be fully tax-deductible in the 1980s. Banished from meetings, the martini went back to its roots as a mixologists’ dream, reinventing itself as a ‘tini for all seasons.

The 1990s brought new varieties that even James Bond might have thought twice about, like the chocolate martini, made with creme de cacao, and the appletini, made with apple liqueur, cider or juice. Whatever your favorite, this holiday season let’s toast to feeling civilized.

Leaders Who Bowed Out Gracefully

Kings and politicians have used their last moments on the world stage to deliver words of inspiration.

November 5, 2020

The Wall Street Journal

The concession speech is one of the great accomplishments of modern democracy. The election is over and passions are running high, but the loser graciously concedes defeat, calls for national unity and reminds supporters that tomorrow is another day. It may be pure political theater, but it’s pageantry with a purpose.

For most of history, defeated rulers didn’t give concession speeches; they were too busy begging for their lives, since a king who lost his throne was usually killed shortly after. The Iliad recounts six separate occasions where a defeated warrior asks his opponent for mercy, only to be hacked to death anyway. The Romans had no interest whatsoever in listening to defeated enemies—except once, in the 1st century, when the British chieftain Caractacus was brought in chains before the Senate.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain delivers his concession speech on Nov. 4, 2008, after losing the election to Barack Obama.
PHOTO: ROBYN BECK/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

On a whim, the Emperor Claudius told Caractacus to give one reason why his life should be spared. According to the historian Cassius Dio, the defeated Briton gave an impassioned speech about the glory of Rome, and how much greater it would be if he was spared: “If you save my life, I shall be an everlasting memorial of your clemency.” Impressed, the Senate set him free.

King Charles I had no hope for clemency on Jan. 30, 1649, when he faced execution after the English Civil War. But this made his speech all the more powerful, because Charles was speaking to posterity more than to his replacement, Oliver Cromwell. His final words have been a template for concession speeches ever since: After defending his record and reputation, Charles urged Cromwell to rule for the good of the country, “to endeavor to the last gasp the peace of the kingdom.”

In modern times, appeals to the nation became an important part of royal farewell speeches. When Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated as emperor of France in 1814, he stood in the courtyard of the palace of Fontainebleau and bade an emotional goodbye to the remnants of his Old Guard. He said that he was leaving to prevent further bloodshed, and ended with the exhortation: “I go, but you, my friends, will continue to serve France.”

Emperor Hirohito delivered a similar message in his radio broadcast on Aug. 14, 1945, announcing Japan’s surrender in World War II. The Emperor stressed that by choosing peace over annihilation he was serving the ultimate interests of the nation. He expected his subjects to do the same, to “enhance the innate glory of the Imperial State.” The shock of the Emperor’s words was compounded by the fact that no one outside the court and cabinet had ever heard his voice before.

In the U.S., the quality of presidential concession speeches rose markedly after they began to be televised in 1952. Over the years, Republican candidates, in particular, have elevated the art of losing to almost Churchillian heights. John McCain’s words on election night 2008, when he lost to Barack Obama, remain unmatched: “Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.”

Historically Speaking: Tales That Go Bump in the Night

From Homer to Edgar Allan Poe, ghost stories have given us a chilling good time

The Wall Street Journal

October 23, 2020

As the novelist Neil Gaiman, a master of the macabre, once said, “Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.” In this respect, we’re no different than our ancestors: They, too, loved to tell ghost stories.

One of the earliest ghosts in literature appears in Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus entertains King Alcinous of Phaeacia with an account of his trip to the Underworld, where he met the spirits of Greek heroes killed in the Trojan War. The dead Achilles complains that being a ghost is no fun: “I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another…rather than to be lord over all the dead.”

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

It was a common belief in both Eastern and Western societies that ghosts could sometimes return to right a great wrong, such as an improper burial. The idea that ghosts are intrinsically evil—the core of any good ghost story—received a boost from Plato, who believed that only wicked souls hang on after death; the good know when it’s time to let go.

Ghosts were problematic for early Christianity, which taught that sinners went straight to Hell; they weren’t supposed to be slumming it on Earth. The ghost story was dangerously close to heresy until the Church adopted the belief in Purgatory, a realm where the souls of minor sinners waited to be cleansed. The Byland Abbey tales, a collection of ghost stories recorded by an anonymous 15th-century English monk, suggest that the medieval Church regarded the supernatural as a useful form of advertising: Not paying the priest to say a mass for the dead could lead to a nasty case of haunting.

The ghost story reached its apogee in the early modern era with Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which opens with a terrified guard seeing the ghost of the late king on the battlements of Elsinore Castle. But the rise of scientific skepticism made the genre seem old-fashioned and unsophisticated. Ghosts were notably absent from English literature until Horace Walpole, son of Britain’s first prime minister, published the supernatural mystery novel “The Castle of Otranto” in 1764, as a protest against the deadening effect of “reason” on art.

Washington Irving was the first American writer to take the ghost story seriously, creating the Headless Horseman in his 1820 tale “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” He was a lightweight, however, compared with Edgar Allan Poe, who turned horror into an art form. His famous 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher” heightens the tension with ambiguity: For most of the story, it isn’t clear whether Roderick Usher’s house really is haunted, or if he is merely “enchained by certain superstitious impressions.”

Henry James used a similar technique in 1895, when, unhappy with the tepid reception of his novels in the U.S., he decided to frighten Americans into liking him. The result was the psychological horror story “The Turn of the Screw,” about a governess who may or may not be seeing ghosts. The reviews expressed horror at the horror, with one critic describing it as “the most hopelessly evil story that we could have read in any literature.” With such universal condemnation, success was assured.

Stepping out of the Shadows

Sylvia Pankhurst by Rachel Holmes, review — finally having her moment.

Her mother and sister were once better known, but this fine biography shows just how remarkable the women’s rights activist was.

The Times

September 22, 2020

After decades of obscurity, Sylvia Pankhurst is finally having her moment. This is the third biography in seven years — not bad for a woman who spent much of her life being unfavourably compared with her more popular mother and sister.

The neglect is partly owing to Sylvia’s rich, complex life not being easily pigeonholed. Although she played an instrumental role in the suffrage movement, she was first and foremost a defender of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised. Her political choices were often noble, but lonely ones.

Sylvia inherited her appetite for social activism and boundless energy for work from her parents, Richard and Emmeline. A perpetually aspiring MP, Richard cheerfully espoused atheism, women’s suffrage, republicanism, anti-imperialism and socialism at a time when any one of these causes was sufficient to scupper a man’s electoral chances. Emmeline was just as politically involved and only slightly less radical.

Sylvia’s mother, the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst
ALAMY

Despite financial troubles and career disappointments, the Pankhurst parents were a devoted couple and the household a happy one. Sylvia was born in 1882, the second of five children and the middle daughter between Christabel (her mother’s favourite) and Adela (no one’s favourite). She craved Emmeline’s good opinion, but was closer to her father. “Life is valueless without enthusiasms,” he once told her, a piece of advice she took to heart.

Sylvia was only 16 when her father died. Without his counter-influence, the three sisters (and their brother, Harry, who died of polio aged 20) lived in thrall to their powerful mother. After Emmeline and Christabel founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 — having become frustrated by the lack of support from the Independent Labour Party — there was no question that Sylvia and Adela would do anything other than sacrifice their personal interests for the good of the cause. Sylvia later admitted that one of her greatest regrets was being made to give up a promising art career for politics.

She was imprisoned for the first time in 1906. As the tactics of the WSPU became more extreme, so did the violence employed by the authorities against its members. Sylvia was the only Pankhurst to be subjected to force-feeding, an experience she likened to rape.

“Infinitely worse than the pain,” she wrote of the experience, “was the sense of degradation.” Indeed, in some cases that was the whole point of the exercise. While not widespread, vaginal and anal “feeding” was practised on the hunger strikers. Holmes hints, but doesn’t speculate that Sylvia may have been one of its victims.


Pankhurst died in Ethiopia in 1960 after accepting an invitation from Emperor Haile Selassie, pictured, to emigrate to Africa
PHOTO ARCHIVE/GETTY

Ironically, Sylvia suffered the most while being the least convinced by the WSPU’s militant tactics. It wasn’t only the violence she abhorred. Emmeline and Christabel wanted the WSPU to remain an essentially middle-class, politically aloof organisation, whereas Sylvia regarded women’s rights as part of a wider struggle for revolutionary socialism. The differences between them became unbridgeable after Sylvia founded a separate socialist wing of the WSPU in the East End. Both she and Adela, whom Emmeline and Christabel dismissed as a talentless lightweight, were summarily expelled from the WSPU in February 1914. The four women would never again be in the same room together.

Sylvia had recognised early on that first-wave feminism suffered from a fundamental weakness. It was simultaneously too narrow and too broad to be a stand-alone political platform. The wildly different directions that were taken by the four Pankhursts after the victory of 1918 proved her right: Emmeline became a Conservative, Christabel a born-again Christian, Sylvia a communist and Adela a fascist, yet all remained loyal to their concept of women’s rights.

Once cut loose from the Pankhurst orbit, Sylvia claimed the freedom to think and act as her conscience directed. In 1918 she fell in love with an Italian anarchist socialist refugee, Silvio Corio, who already had three children with two women. Undeterred, she lived with him in Woodford Green, Essex, in a ramshackle home appropriately named Red Cottage. They remained partners for the best part of 30 years, writing, publishing and campaigning together. Even more distressing for her uptight family, not to mention society in general, at the advanced age of 45 she had a son by him, Richard, who was given her surname rather than Silvio’s.

Sylvia Pankhurst, here in 1940, became a communist after the victory of 1918
ALAMY

Broadly speaking, her life can be divided into four campaigns: after women’s suffrage came communism, then anti-fascism and finally Ethiopian independence. (The last has received the least attention, although Sylvia insisted it gave her the greatest pride.) None was an unalloyed success or without controversy. Her fierce independence would lead her to break with Lenin over their ideological differences, and later support her erstwhile enemy Winston Churchill when their views on fascism aligned. She never had any time for Stalin, left-wing antisemitism or liberal racism. In her mid-seventies and widowed, she cut all ties with Britain by accepting an invitation from Emperor Haile Selassie to emigrate to Ethiopia. She died there in 1960.

The genius of Holmes’s fascinating and important biography is that it approaches Sylvia’s life as if she were a man. The writing isn’t prettified or leavened by amusing anecdotes about Victorian manners, it’s dense and serious, as befits a woman who never wore make-up and didn’t care about clothes. To paraphrase the WSPU’s slogan, it is about deeds not domesticity. Rather than dwelling on moods and relationships, Holmes is interested in ideas and consequences. It’s wonderfully refreshing. Sylvia lived for her work; her literary output was astounding. In addition to publishing her own newspaper almost every week for over four decades, she wrote nonfiction, fiction, plays, poetry and investigative reports. She even taught herself Romanian so that she could translate the poems of the 19th-century Romantic poet Mihail Eminescu. It doesn’t matter whether Sylvia was right or wrong in her political enthusiasms; as Holmes rightly insists, what counts is that by acting on them she helped to make history.

Historically Speaking: The Sharp Riposte as a Battle Tactic

Caustic comebacks have been exchanged between military leaders for millennia, from the Spartans to World War II

The Wall Street Journal

August 6, 2020

In the center of Bastogne, Belgium (pop. 16,000), there is a statue of U.S. Army General Anthony C. McAuliffe, who died 45 years ago this week. It’s a small town with a big history. Bastogne came under attack during the final German offensive of World War II, known as the Battle of the Bulge. The town was the gateway to Antwerp, a vital port for the Allies, and all that stood between the Germans and their objective was Gen. McAuliffe and his 101st Airborne Division. Despite being outnumbered by a factor of four to one, he refused to surrender, fighting on until Gen. George Patton’s reinforcements could break the siege.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

While staving off the German attack, Gen. McAuliffe uttered the greatest comeback of the war. A typewritten ultimatum from Commander Heinrich von Lüttwitz of the 47th German Panzer Corps gave him two hours to surrender the town or face “annihilation.” With ammunition running low and casualties mounting, the general made his choice. He sent back the following typed reply:

December 22, 1944

To the German Commander,

N U T S !

The American Commander

The true laconic riposte is extremely rare. The Spartans, whose ancient homeland of Lakonia inspired the term “laconic,” were masters of the art. When Philip II of Macedon ordered them to open their borders, he warned them, “For if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people and raze your city.” According to the later account of the Greek philosopher Plutarch, they sent back a one-word message: ‘If’.

Once the age of the Spartans passed, it took more than a millennium for the laconic comeback to return in earnest. The man most responsible was a colorful Teutonic knight called Götz von Berlichingen, who participated in countless German conflicts, uprisings and skirmishes, including the Swabian War between the Hapsburgs and the Swiss. He lost a hand to a cannonball and wore an iron prosthesis (hence his nickname, Götz of the Iron Hand). In 1515, sick of trading insults with an opponent who wouldn’t come out to fight, Götz abruptly ended the conversation with: “soldt mich hinden leckhenn,” which literally meant “kiss my ass.”

He recorded the encounter in his memoirs, but it remained little known until Johann Wolfgang von Goethe adapted Götz’s autobiography into a successful play in 1773. From then on, the insult was popularly known in Germany as a “Swabian salute.”

In his novel “Les Misérables,” Victor Hugo—possibly inspired by Goethe—immortalized the French defeat in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo with a scene of spectacular, if laconic, defiance that incorporated France’s most common expletive. According to Hugo, Gen. Pierre Cambronne, commander of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard, fought to the last syllable in the face of overwhelming force. Encircled by the British army, “They could hear the sound of the guns being reloaded and see the lighted slow matches gleaming like the eyes of tigers in the dusk. An English general called out to them, ‘Brave Frenchmen, will you not surrender?’ Cambronne answered, ‘Merde’” (that is, “shit”).

The scene’s veracity is still hotly debated, the fog of war making memories hazy. But Cambronne—who survived—later disavowed it, especially after “le mot de Cambronne’’ (Cambronne’s word) became a common euphemism for the profanity.

Historically Speaking: Playing Cards for Fun and Money

From 13th-century Egypt to the Wild West, the standard deck of 52 cards has provided entertainment—and temptation.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

More than 8,500 people traveled to Las Vegas to play in this year’s World Series of Poker, which ended July 16—a near-record for the contest. I’m not a poker player myself, but I understand the fun and excitement of playing with real cards in an actual game rather than online. There’s something uniquely pleasurable about a pack of cards—the way they look and feel to the touch—that can’t be replicated on the screen.

Although the origins of the playing card are believed to lie in China, the oldest known examples come from the Mamluk Caliphate, an Islamic empire that stretched across Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean from 1260 to 1517. It’s significant that the empire was governed by a warrior caste of former slaves: A playing card can be seen as an assertion of freedom, since time spent playing cards is time spent freely. The Mamluk card deck consisted of 52 cards divided into four suits, whose symbols reflected the daily realities of soldiering—a scimitar, a polo stick, a chalice and a coin.

Returning Crusaders and Venetian traders were probably responsible for bringing cards to Europe. Church and state authorities were not amused: In 1377, Parisians were banned from playing cards on work days. Like dice, cards were classed as gateway vices that led to greater sins. The authorities may not have been entirely wrong: Some surviving card decks from the 15th century have incredibly bawdy themes.

The suits and symbols used in playing cards became more uniform and less ornate following the advent of the printing press. French printers added a number of innovations, including dividing the four suits into red and black, and giving us the heart, diamond, club and spade symbols. Standardization enabled cards to become a lingua franca across cultures, further enhancing their appeal as a communal leisure activity.

In the 18th century, the humble playing card was the downfall of many a noble family, with vast fortunes being won and lost at the gaming table. Cards also started to feature in paintings and novels as symbols of the vagaries of fortune. The 19th-century short story “The Queen of Spades,” by the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin, beautifully captures the card mania of the period. The anti-hero, Hermann, is destroyed by his obsession with winning at Faro, a game of chance that was as popular in the saloons of the American West as it was in the drawing rooms of Europe. The lawman Wyatt Earp may have won fame in the gunfight at the OK Corral, but he earned his money as a Faro dealer in Tombstone, Ariz.

In Britain, attempts to regulate card-playing through high taxes on the cards themselves were a failure, though they did result in one change: Every ace of spades had to show a government tax stamp, which is why it’s the card that traditionally carries the manufacturer’s mark. The last innovation in the card deck, like the first, had military origins. Many Civil War regiments killed time by playing Euchre, which requires an extra trump card. The Samuel Hart Co. duly obliged with a card which became the forerunner to the Joker, the wild card that doesn’t have a suit.

But we shouldn’t allow the unsavory association of card games with gambling to have the last word. As Charles Dickens wrote in “Nicholas Nickleby”: “Thus two people who cannot afford to play cards for money, sometimes sit down to a quiet game for love.”

Historically Speaking: How We Kept Cool Before Air Conditioning

Wind-catching towers and human-powered rotary fans were just some of the devices invented to fight the heat.

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

What would we do without our air conditioning? Given the number of rolling blackouts and brownouts that happen across the U.S. each summer, that’s not exactly a rhetorical question.

Fortunately, our ancestors knew a thing or two about staying cool even without electricity. The ancient Egyptians developed the earliest known technique: Evaporative cooling involved hanging wet reeds in front of windows, so that the air cooled as the water evaporated.

The Romans, the greatest engineers of the ancient world, had more sophisticated methods. By 312 B.C. they were piping fresh water into Rome via underground pipes and aqueducts, enabling the rich to cool and heat their houses using cold water pipes embedded in the walls and hot water pipes under the floor.

Nor were the Romans alone in developing clever domestic architecture to provide relief in hot climes. In the Middle East, architects constructed buildings with “wind catchers”—tall, four-windowed towers that funneled cool breezes down to ground level and allowed hot air to escape. These had the advantage of working on their own, without human labor. The Chinese had started using rotary fans as early as the second century, but they required a dedicated army of slaves to keep them moving. The addition of hydraulic power during the Song era, 960-1279, alleviated but didn’t end the manpower issue.

There had been no significant improvements in air conditioning designs for almost a thousand years when, in 1734, British politicians turned to Dr. John Theophilus Desaguliers, a former assistant to Isaac Newton, and begged him to find a way of cooling the overheated House of Commons. Desaguliers designed a marvelous Rube Goldberg-like system that used all three traditional methods: wind towers, pipes and rotary fans. It actually worked, so long as there was someone to crank the handle at all times.

But the machinery wore out in the late 1760s, leaving politicians as hot and bothered as ever. In desperation, the House invited Benjamin Franklin and other leading scientists to design something new. Their final scheme turned out to be no better than Desaguliers’s and required not one but two men to keep the system working.

The real breakthrough occurred in 1841, after the British engineer David Boswell Reid figured out how to control room temperature using steam power. St. George’s Hall in Liverpool is widely considered to be the world’s first air-conditioned building.

Indeed, Reid is one of history’s unsung heroes. His system worked so well that he was invited to install his pipe and ventilation design in hospitals and public buildings around the world. He was working in the U.S. at the start of the Civil War and was appointed inspector of military hospitals. Unfortunately, he died suddenly in 1863, leaving his proposed improvements to gather dust.

The chief problem with Reid’s system was that steam power was about to be overtaken by electricity. When President James Garfield was shot by an assassin in the summer of 1881, naval engineers attempted to keep him cool by using electric fans to blow air over blocks of ice. Two decades later, Willis Haviland Carrier invented the first all-electric air conditioning unit. Architects and construction engineers have been designing around it ever since.

Fears for our power grid may be exaggerated, but it’s good to know that if the unthinkable were to happen and we lost our air conditioners, history can offer us some cool solutions.