Posted by Nick Milne on October 1, 2009
One of the problems that I had to face very early on in getting this project in gear was that October is so absurdly choked with excellence that settling on only one event or anniversary per day almost seemed unfair. There were some (Lepanto, Trafalgar, etc.) where nothing else even came close, but for others – like today – it’s a mixed bag, and no easy choice.
Seeing as it’s the first of the month, I’m going to mention two things that are in some sense related. The strictest efforts will be made hereafter to stick to one thing per day, but I’ll include notes at the end about other items of interest.
The Jewish Problem
October is a dreadful month for the Israelites and their descendants, but the horrors they suffer are matched by more mutedly positive occurences as well.
We shall begin on a very dark day, however. On the first of October, 1898, Tsar Nicholas II – against whom I otherwise have no official complaints, and after whom I like to think I was named (I don’t really know) – infamously ordered the expulsion of the Jews from the major cities of Russia. In this he was doing nothing new: his father and predecessor, Alexander III, had taken a number of starkly anti-Semitic measures during his rule, the result being a series of pogroms that were so notoriously awful that they became a matter of discussion the world over. Swinburne wrote a devastating sonnet about it in 1882:
On The Russian Persecution Of The Jews
O son of man, by lying tongues adored,
By slaughterous hands of slaves with feet red-shod
In carnage deep as ever Christian trod
Profaned with prayer and sacrifice abhorred
And incense from the trembling tyrant’s horde,
Brute worshippers or wielders of the rod,
Most murderous even of all that call thee God,
Most treacherous even that ever called thee Lord;
Face loved of little children long ago,
Head hated of the priests and rulers then,
If thou see this, or hear these hounds of thine
Run ravening as the Gadarean swine,
Say, was not this thy Passion, to foreknow
In death’s worst hour the works of Christian men?
Nicholas had only been Tsar since 1894, in which year he was unexpectedly thrust into absolute power following the sudden death of his father. He was 26 years old at the time of his ascendency, and just a hair shy of 28 at the time of his official coronation in May of 1896. That event was marked by ominous tragedy: a massive public festival a few days afterwards, intended to celebrate both his coronation and his birthday, degenerated into chaos when the hundreds of thousands of citizens in attendance worked themselves into a stampede once the free food and drink began to be handed out. Nearly 1500 people were trampled to death; another 15000 or so were injured. It did not bode well for the inexperienced emperor.
Unpopular from the start, it’s little wonder, then, that he should hew so closely to his father’s example. Alexander III had himself a tough act to follow, though for different reasons: his own father and predecessor, Alexander II, had been assassinated in 1881. The elder Alexander had been something of a reformer, emancipating Russia’s serfs in 1861 and even drafting plans for the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. He was killed before he could put them into action, and his son, understandably disenchanted with the will of the people, refused even to consider them. The assassination motivated a great deal of anti-Semitism in itself, as one of the assassins was a Jew. This assocation of Jews with assassins and traitors would continue unabated for some time, stoked by Alexander III’s own wrathful policies – such as the May Laws of 1882, predicated in part upon the Jewish identity of the assassin and designed to severely restrict the movement of Jews in Russia – and eventually Nicholas II’s own attempts to live up to the standard set by a man who seemed bent on revenge.
Under immense pressure during the Revolution of 1905, Nicholas eventually established the parliamentary Duma himself, fulfulling in letter, if not in spirit, the wishes of his assassinated grandfather. On the anti-Semitic front, his rapidly changing fortunes saw the treatment of the Jews typified by the expulsions of Oct. 1st 1898 culminate in the pogroms of 1903-05, in which some 1000 Jews were killed, and many thousands more injured. The mass exodus of the Russian Jews that such treatment occasioned would see over two million flee to different parts of the world – 250,000 of them, tragically, to other parts of Europe.
We know how that turned out, alas, and so it with a sort of grim, weary satisfaction that we learn that the sentences of the Nuremberg Trials were handed out on Oct. 1st, 1946.
Here we’re on slightly more familiar ground for the average reader, so I don’t intend to go into much detail about this beyond laying the scene. The close of the Second World War saw the apprehension of most of the architects of the Third Reich, with a few notable exceptions to be found in those who took their own lives beforehand, like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, among others, and those who simply eluded capture, like Martin Bormann (missing, later found dead) and Adolf Eichmann (fled to Argentina, executed in Israel in 1962). These monstrous men were put on trial with the dual aims of sentencing them to some fitting punishment for their crimes and establishing a jurisprudential template by which similar crimes in the future – it breaks one’s heart even to say it – could be prosecuted.
It was an interesting moment for justice, all things considered, and the directions taken both by the prosecution and the defence have had enormous consequences upon the ethical development of the world at large. To what extent can it plausibly be said that those in positions of authority are unaware of the consequences of their actions? To what extent does the military mandate to follow orders supersede and even occlude the individual conscience? What is to be done with “research” obtained through a program of undisguised medical torture? How can we live in a world in which questions like this even have to be asked? There were no easy answers out of Nuremberg.
Another feature of this as far as “justice” as a concept is concerned is the seeming inconsequentiality of it all. The worst that a civilized race could do to the Nazi was kill him; that was it. They could kill him once, and kill him in a relatively humane way, and nothing more. The method of execution for all twelve of the men sentenced to death at the Trials was hanging, though two of them escaped this fate: Hermann Goering committed suicide in his cell before the sentence could be carried out, and Martin Bormann, tried in absentia, wasn’t present to receive it. Those convicts who were members of the military rather than the civilian wing of the Reich were meant to be accorded (what was thought to be) the somewhat more dignified death by firing squad, but in a concession to the shamefulness of the crimes being punished they were denied even this. That’s the best and most ferocious thing that could be done to such men, and it’s just as unsatisfying now as it was in 1946.
Only Eichmann would endure a specifically Jewish vengeance for his crimes – hanged like the rest of them, only in Israel – and it’s possible that out of all those brought to trial he might most have deserved it. The trouble is that one more dead Nazi doesn’t bring back even one dead Jew, much less six million of them. Revenge and just retribution produce similar results, though one is at least morally satisfying in theory. Nicholas II and all his family were gunned down like vermin in a basement in Yekaterinburg, but if the Jews of Russia reaped any significant benefits or received any just recompense from the act, it certainly was not readily apparent. Their mass exodus from Russia would continue into the 1920s, with many of them tragically trading present misery for a fate too monstrous to be imagined. At least 100,000 who remained behind met the same end.
The suffering of the Jews will be a frequent subject throughout this astonishing month. There are many highs and lows yet to be endured, and I hope you’ll keep reading to see what else transpires.
Other Things for Today
- Alexander Suvorov and his Russian army rout the Turks at the Battle of Kinburn in 1787.
- T.E. Lawrence and his Arab army capture Damascus in 1918.
- Finally, it must be noted that Don John of Austria perished on this day in 1578, a mere seven years after the great victory at Lepanto. I’ll be getting to that later – oh boy, will I ever – so I’ll just say for now that the importance of this man cannot easily be overstated. We’ll see why in about a week.