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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: this day in history, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Spies and the burning Reichstag

By Benjamin Carter Hett

It is well known that someone set fire to the Reichstag in Berlin on the evening of 27 February 1933 – eighty-one years ago. It is also well known that Hitler’s new government took this opportunity to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree, gutting the Weimar constitution and effectively initiating a 12-year dictatorship. Many readers will know that ever since 1933 controversy has raged about who actually set fire to the Reichstag: was it the first step in a Communist coup, was it a Nazi conspiracy to supply a justification for their Decree, or was the rather confused young Dutch stonemason Marinus van der Lubbe telling the truth when he claimed he had set the fire himself?


Firemen work on the burning Reichstag, February 1933. Item from Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One matter that is less well known, however, is just how much, and for how long, various intelligence services have taken an interest in these questions.

Spies were a part of the story from the beginning. In March 1933, a senior officer of Britain’s MI5 named Guy Liddell traveled to Germany to make contact with the newly reorganized German Secret Police (soon to be christened the Gestapo) and its leader, the brilliant but sinister Rudolf Diels. At the time, one of the main tasks facing Diels and his officers was the investigation of the Reichstag fire. Liddell wrote a long report on his experiences in Germany, noting among other things that the weakness of the police evidence against Marinus van der Lubbe led him to the view that “previous con­clusions that this incident was a piece of Nazi provocation to provide a pretext for the wholesale suppression of the German Communist Party were amply confirmed.”

After the Second World War, Rudolf Diels and the small group of his former Gestapo subordinates who had investigated the fire in 1933 faced a difficult legal situation. To varying degrees they had been involved in Nazi crimes (including the thoroughly corrupt fire investigation itself) and they had to navigate the tricky waters of war crimes and “denazification” investigations and prosecutions. One of their real advantages, however, was their intelligence experience – coupled with their undeniable anti-Communism. This made them attractive to the Western Allies’ intelligence services. Rudolf Diels was, for many years, a key paid source on politics in Germany for the American CIC (military counter intelligence). His payment, as recorded in a written contract from 1948, was 12 cartons of cigarettes per month, supplemented now and then by ration cards and cans of Crisco – the real sources of value in Germany at the time. A few years later one of the leading figures in the West German Federal Criminal Police (BKA) complained to American intelligence officers that overly-zealous prosecutions of ex-Nazi police officers were a Cold War danger. They were weakening the BKA to the point that West Germany itself would become “a push-over for Eastern intelligence services” and thus “a weak link and danger point in the whole Western defense system.” The CIA officer who recorded these comments noted that they were “worth attention.”

One of the things that Diels and his former subordinates had to worry about was the testimony and the book of a man named Hans Bernd Gisevius, who accused them of covering up Nazi guilt for the Reichstag fire as well as involvement in a number of murders. Gisevius had himself been a Gestapo officer in 1933; from there he went on to serve in Germany’s military intelligence service, the Abwehr, during the war – and became active in the resistance that led to the famous Valkyrie plot. Diels and Gisevius hated each other. Around 1950 many well-informed people – no doubt including Diels and Gisevius – thought these men were both candidates to head the newly created West German domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. When Diels and Gisevius argued about who set the Reichstag fire – which they did both publicly and vitriolically – it is hard to overlook the fact that they were competing for jobs and influence in the emerging West German intelligence sector.

The Cold War also explained why the infamous East German Stasi spent many years and considerable effort doing its own discreet research into the Reichstag fire and the people who had been involved in it. Above all the Stasi hoped to find information that would discredit prominent East German dissidents, along with ex-Nazi police and intelligence officials in West Germany. The Stasi also tried to recruit at least one well-known western Reichstag fire researcher to be, in Stasi-speak, an “unofficial employee.”

But the most important link between intelligence services and the Reichstag fire came in the form of a man named Fritz Tobias, who from the 1950s to the 1970s was a senior official of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the West German federal state of Lower Saxony. Earlier, in the 1940s – by his own account at least – he had served as a “scout” for the British Secret Intelligence Service. This meant that, while working on a “denazification” tribunal, he was supposed to keep his eyes open for former Nazis who might be useful to the British.

In 1951 Tobias started devoting his spare time – by his account, only his spare time – to research on the Reichstag fire. By the late 1950s his work was already becoming known, and, to some German officials, somewhat troubling. Tobias could and did use the powers of his office to get information. He was able to get access to classified documents that were closed to the public, and on at least one occasion he brought a prosecutor along with him to question a retired judge who had evidence to give about the fire. Was this all really just a spare time project? In the early 1960s, when Tobias’s lengthy book on the Reichstag fire was published (lengthy in German anyway – the English translation cut it by about half), Tobias used agents from the Office for Constitutional Protection to threaten academic historians who disagreed with his arguments, and blackmailed the director of a prestigious institute with classified documents revealing that director’s Nazi past. There seems at least a possibility that Tobias’s work was really an official commission. When asked about this while testifying in court in 1961, Tobias declined to answer because of his duty to maintain official secrets.

Why would German security services in the 1960s care about who had burned the Reichstag? There are several possibilities, admittedly only speculative. Tobias’s book, like Rudolf Diels’s before him, was to a considerable extent an attack on Hans Bernd Gisevius. Gisevius had made himself very unpopular with the West German government through his advocacy of a policy of neutrality in the Cold War and his friendship with gadflies like Martin Niemöller. There are materials in the FBI’s file on Gisevius (and yes, the bureau had one) that seem likely to have come from a German security service. There is also the issue that all the state and the Federal West German governments were very much on the defensive in the early 1960s about the number of senior officials they employed who had bad records from the Nazi era. Tobias’s own state of Lower Saxony was one of the worst offenders in this regard. Tobias’s book was very much a defense, indeed a glorification, of those former Gestapo officers who had worked with Rudolf Diels – one of whom, Walter Zirpins, had an office just down the hall from Fritz Tobias at the Lower Saxon Interior Ministry.

These spies and their various schemes make up a fascinating, if murky, part of this murky historical mystery.

Benjamin Carter Hett, a former trial lawyer and professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is the author of Burning the Reichstag, Death in the Tiergarten and Crossing Hitler, winner of the Fraenkel Prize.

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2. Scientists propose Big Bang Theory

This Day in World History

April 1, 1948

Scientists Propose Big Bang Theory

Poet T.S. Eliot might still be right — the world might end with a whimper. But on April 1, 1948, physicists George Gamow and Ralph Alpher first proposed the now prevailing idea of how the universe began — with a big bang.

Gamow worked closely in the 1930s and 1940s with Edward Teller to understand beta decay — a kind of nuclear decay that results in the loss of electrons — and to understand the makeup of red giant stars.

From this work, Gamow and Alpher — one of his students — developed the idea that the universe was highly compressed until a vast thermonuclear explosion occurred. The explosion released neutrons, protons, and electrons. As the universe cooled, it became possible for neutrons to combine with other neutrons or with protons to form chemical elements.

Time Line of the Universe. Source: NASA/WMAP Science Team.

Gamow and Alpher published their findings in the journal Physical Review on April 1, 1948. The title of the paper — “The Origin of Chemical Elements” — suggests the link between cosmology and particle physics that the big-bang theory represents.

The paper’s authorship showed a bit of Gamow’s whimsy. Thinking it wrong to have a paper on particle physics written by one author whose name began with A (as in positively charged alpha particles) and G (as in gamma rays) without having a B (as in negatively charged beta particles), Gamow asked friend Hans Bethe to add his name to the byline. Bethe agreed, and thereby became part of history.

Just five years later, Gamow made a brilliant addition to a wholly different field. After learning of James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the double helical structure of DNA, Gamow wrote Crick suggesting that the genetic code was made up of three-part segments. Gamow’s suggestion set Watson, Crick, and other researchers to investigate the possibility, which turned out — in essence (though not in the details Gamow had suggested) — to be true.

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3. Magellan reaches the Philippines

This Day in World History

March 16, 1521

Magellan Reaches the Philippines

On March 16, 1521, Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, attempting to sail around the world for Spain, reached the Philippine archipelago. Magellan and his expedition were the first Europeans to reach the Philippines, a stop on the first circumnavigation of the globe, though Magellan’s portion of that journey would soon end.

The expedition of five ships and 250 men had left Spain on September 20, 1519. Magellan sought a western route — avoiding the southern tip of Africa, which Portugal controlled — to the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) of Southeast Asia. Magellan survived two mutinies before sailing around the southern tip of South America, finding the strait named for him, in November of 1520. Reaching calm waters after a dangerous passage, Magellan named the ocean west of South America “the Pacific Ocean.”

As the ships continued sailing west, supplies dwindled, the crew was forced to eat leather and drink a mixture of salt and freshwater, and men began dying of scurvy. Fortified by provisions secured at island stops along the way, the ships reached the Philippines in March 1521.

Magellan spent more than a month in the area, trading with local leaders and trying to convert them to Christianity. He grew angry at one chief who refused to cooperate, however, and ordered an attack on his village. Wounded in the fighting, Magellan bravely held his ground while the rest of his men escaped back to the ship, but then received more wounds and died on the beach.

It took until September of 1522 for the remains of the expedition, 17 survivors under the command of Juan Sebastián de Elcano, to reach Spain. Though he did not complete this voyage, Magellan is considered the first person to circumnavigate the globe because earlier in his career he had sailed an eastern route from Portugal to Southeast Asia, the same region he had reached on his last, fatal voyage by sailing west.

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4. Nadir Shah enters Delhi and captures the Peacock Throne

This Day in World History

March 21, 1739

Nadir Shah enters Delhi and captures the Peacock Throne

On March 21, 1739, Nādir Shāh, leading Persian (modern Iranian) and Turkish forces, completed his conquest of the Mughal Empire by capturing Delhi, India, its capital. He seized vast stores of wealth, and among the prizes he carried away was the fabled Peacock Throne.

Nādir Shāh Afshār. Source: Victoria & Albert Museum.

Born in 1688, Nadr Qoli Beg belonged to a Turkish people loyal to the Safavid rulers of Iran. He became a military leader and helped Shah Tahmasp II regain the throne that had been lost to Afghan invaders. Soon after, however, he was angered by the Shah’s surrender to the Ottoman Turks. In response, he deposed the Shah and placed the Shah’s son on the throne, naming himself regent. That arrangement lasted only a few years; in 1736, he deposed the boy and assumed rule as Nādir Shāh.

The new ruler was bent on conquest. He built a navy and captured Bahrain and Oman before launching himself overland against the Mughals. His conquest of that empire went quickly, giving him the prized throne. Built originally by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan, it reportedly had silver steps set on golden feet. The back showed two open peacock tails. The whole was studded with precious gems.

The throne became the symbol of the Iranian monarchy, though it only remained in Nādir Shāh’s hands for a short time. He was defeated in battle by the Kurds, who seized the throne and apparently dismantled it. A modern Peacock Throne was made in the early 1800s. That splendid but less spectacular model served as the throne of Iran’s Shahs until the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

Nādir Shāh did not fare much better than his magnificent throne. He continued his warring ways, building an empire that was plagued by financial problems and frequent revolts against his cruel rule. In 1749, he was killed by members of his own army.

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5. Handel conducts London premiere of Messiah

This Day in World History

March 23, 1743

Handel conducts London premiere of Messiah

Source: NYPL.

On March 23, 1743, composer George Frideric Handel directed the first London performance of his sacred oratorio, Messiah. While the composition has become revered as a magnificent choral work — and a staple of the Christmas holiday season — it met some controversy when it first appeared.

Remarkably, Handel needed only three weeks in the summer of 1741 to write Messiah. As his text, he used a libretto compiled by Charles Jennens from verses of the Bible and from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. Jennens was apparently upset that Handel wrote the work in such a short time; he thought the sacred subject needed more time.

He was also annoyed because Handel debuted the work in Dublin in the spring of 1742, not reserving it for a London premiere. Leading Irish clerics (led by Jonathan Swift) insisted that, if their church choirs were to be used to sing the oratorio, ticket sales had to go to charity. That precedent established a longstanding tradition for Messiah.

When Handel finally prepared to present the work in London, more controversy arose. Some people objected to a work on a sacred theme being performed in a secular setting — London’s Covent Garden Theater. The controversy disappeared with the popular acceptance of Handel’s music, however. Even Jennens became reconciled to the composer, in part because Handel rewrote some sections his collaborator considered poor.

Today’s performances do not reflect the scores of these initial performances. Handel revised the piece often, and current productions use one or another of these later versions. The full Messiah tells not only the Christmas story but also of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. Groups that perform the oratorio at Christmas generally only perform the first part.

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6. Paris Commune formed

This Day in World History

March 26, 1871

Paris Commune formed

In the wake of France’s defeat by Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War, workers and students of Paris joined together to form a revolutionary government called the Paris Commune. Elected on March 26, the Commune was in direct opposition to the conservative national government. Some historians call the period of the Commune’s rule the first working-class revolt. Though historic, the rebellion failed.

The revolt was prompted in part by the peace negotiated by the French government, which allowed the Prussians to occupy the city. Parisians were angered by what they saw as betrayal after they had survived a six-month Prussian siege. Worried that the restive Parisians might cause trouble, the French government sent troops on March 18 to seize the cannon that Paris’s militia — the National Guard — had used during the war. That action sparked the rebellion. The National Guard refused to turn over the weapons and called for elections of a citizen’s government.

The Commune government created on March 26 was a mix of liberals who embraced the principles of the French Revolution, socialists who wanted thoroughgoing social reform, and radical socialists who insisted on armed revolution. The Commune issued a series of laws that once again removed government support from the Roman Catholic church and created a ten-hour workday. Inspired by the Parisians’ example, people in other French cities established communes as well.

The government organized its forces and struck back. First, it repressed communes in Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse, and other cities. Meanwhile, the Paris Commune had become more divided and incapable of functioning smoothly. Then, on May 21, the national government sent troops into Paris. In fierce fighting that lasted a week, the Commune government and the people’s revolt were destroyed. Perhaps as many as 20,000 Communards were killed, and thousands more were arrested.

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7. Galileo arrives in Rome for trial before Inquisition

This Day in World History

February 13, 1633

Galileo arrives in Rome for trial before Inquisition

Source: Library of Congress.

Sixty-nine years old, wracked by sciatica, weary of controversy, Galileo Galilei entered Rome on February 13, 1633. He had been summoned by Pope Urban VIII to an Inquisition investigating his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The charge was heresy. The cause was Galileo’s support of the Copernican theory that the planets, including Earth, revolved around the sun.

Nicolas Copernicus had published his heliocentric theory in 1543. His ideas were condemned by religious leaders — not only Catholic ones but also Protestants Martin Luther and John Calvin — because they contradicted the Bible. Slowly, though, astronomers began to accept the sun-centered universe.

Galileo’s own acceptance, forged in the 1590s, grew stronger in 1609, when he used a new invention, the telescope, to study the planets. Discovering that the Moon had craters, Jupiter was orbited by moons, and Venus had phases like the Moon, he rejected the accepted belief that the heavens were fixed, perfect, and revolving around Earth.

Church authorities, however, objected to a 1613 letter he wrote supporting the Copernican theory. At a hearing, he was told not to actively promote Copernican ideas. A document placed in the records of the proceeding went further, saying he was ordered never to discuss the theory in any way, but evidence suggests that Galileo’s understanding the document was planted after the meeting by enemies.

By the late 1620s, Galileo believed that Pope Urban would be more open to his ideas than earlier popes. He wrote the Dialogue as a conversation between a Copernican and an adherent of the Church’s geocentric theory, hoping to escape condemnation by presenting both views. The ploy failed, and he was summoned. The panel of cardinals decided to ban his book, force him to abjure Copernican ideas, and sentence him to imprisonment. A few months later, the old man was released to his home, where he lived until 1642.

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8. Fidel Castro becomes Prime Minister of Cuba

This Day in World History

February 16, 1958

Fidel Castro Becomes Prime Minister of Cuba

Fidel Castro arrives MATS Terminal, Washington, D.C. 15 April 1959.

Dressed in army fatigues and surrounded by supporters and reporters, 32-year old Fidel Castro took the oath of office as Cuba’s prime minister on February 16, 1959. He would remain in power for nearly fifty years.

In 1953, Castro had led an attack on a Cuban army barracks hoping to launch a revolt against the government of Fulgencio Batista. That attack failed and he was arrested and imprisoned, though later released in an amnesty of political prisoners. Castro and his brother Raúl formed a small rebel group and hid in Cuba’s eastern mountains as they gathered more supporters, trained them to fight, and connected with other anti-Batista groups. By late 1958, the rebel forces were advancing westward. On January 1, 1959, Batista fled the country and Castro entered Havana triumphant.

The initial provisional government included leaders from several rebel factions, not just Castro’s. At first, he refrained from taking any political power, although he was commander of the armed forces. In six weeks, though, the provisional prime minister—not a Castro ally—resigned, and he took the office.

During 1959, Castro supporters, including Raúl, filled more and more top-level positions. Meanwhile, hundreds of former Batista officials were tried and executed, and Castro began sending signals that he was a Communist. An exodus of thousands of Cubans began, some fearing for their lives because of links to Batista, others angered by Castro’s refusal to restore the 1940 constitution and hold promised elections. Cuban relations with the United States worsened when Castro seized the assets of several American companies and tilted toward the Soviet Union; they fractured when the U.S. government cancelled trade agreements and backed an invasion by anti-Castro Cubans, which failed miserably. By early 1962, Castro had announced that his revolution was socialist, and the United States had placed an embargo on trade with the island.

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9. Adolf Hitler’s treason trial begins in Munich

This Day in World History

February 26, 1924

Adolf Hitler’s Treason Trial Begins in Munich

On February 26, 1924, Adolf Hitler and nine associates stood trial in a Munich courtroom. The charge was treason — they were accused of trying to overthrow the German republic. That day, Hitler turned the tables to accuse the German leaders who had surrendered in 1918, ending World War I, and created the republican government he so despised: “There is no such thing as high treason against the traitors of 1918,” he proclaimed.

Germany in the early 1920s was deeply divided. Right-wing nationalists like Hitler bitterly opposed both the republican government and the leftists and Communists who struggled with them for power. These nationalists were also inspired by the example of fascist Benito Mussolini, who had seized power in Italy. Perhaps, they thought, they too could gain power with forceful action.

Hitler’s hopes to launch a national revolt were buttressed by the apparent support of three Bavarian officials. Hoping to force them to join his cause, he staged a putsch, or coup, at a political meeting in a Munich beer garden. Declaring “The revolution has begun,” he had armed thugs from his National Socialist (Nazi) party use the threat of force to convince the three to join him. The next day, however, the three had police fire on a Nazi march, and had Hitler and others arrested.

The trial received coverage across Germany, which Hitler used to his advantage. He denounced the republican government. He denounced the three Bavarian leaders for cowardice. He remained defiant down to the guilty verdict. In his closing speech, Hitler offered a prophetic call: “The man who is born to be a dictator is not compelled: he wills it.”

Sympathetic judges gave Hitler a sentence of only five years. He served only eight months of it. He spent his time in prison writing the first half of Mein Kampf¸ his political manifesto, which detailed his anger at “the traitors of 1918” and set forth his extreme racial views. He also used his time in prison to plan a second — and more successful — takeover of Germany’s government.

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10. Final episode of TV series M*A*S*H airs

This Day in World History

February 28, 1983

Final Episode of TV Series M*A*S*H Airs

On February 28, 1983, at the end of its eleventh season, M*A*S*H said goodbye to television. More than 105 million Americans in about 51 million homes watched the series finale, a two-and-a-half-hour-long movie directed by star Alan Alda, that featured the show’s characteristic blend of comedy and drama.

M*A*S*H debuted in 1972, two years after the release of the Robert Altman movie of the same name and four years after the publication of the Richard Hooker novel that was the original for both. Set in a mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War, the show featured an ensemble cast that included three regulars — Alda as doctor “Hawkeye” Pierce, Loretta Swit as chief nurse Major Margaret Houlihan, and William Christopher as chaplain Father Mulcahy — who appeared in all eleven seasons.

In its first few seasons, the show’s Korean War setting made it a commentary of sorts on the Vietnam War. Even after Vietnam ended, the series examined the tragic personal cost of war and the extent to which people will go to try to maintain sanity in war. The last episode, set around the close of the Korean War, included storylines reinforcing those themes.

The show made several innovations, including use of multiple storylines in an episode, the mixture of comedy and drama, the way the camera was used to shoot scenes, and the fact that the characters developed over time.

M*A*S*H remains one of the most highly regarded of all television series. Though the records the final episode once held for number of households tuning in and total number of viewers have been surpassed by Super Bowl broadcasts, that last show remains the single most watched episode of a television series in US history. Its Neilsen rating of 60.2, which means that more than three-quarters of all televisions were tuned to it, makes it the highest-rated television show of any kind.

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11. Alexander II Becomes Czar of Russia

This Day in World History

March 2, 1855

Alexander II Becomes Czar of Russia

Aleksandr II Imperator Vseross. Source: New York Public Library.

When his father, Nicholas I, died of pneumonia, Alexander Nikolayevich Romanov succeeded to the throne of emperor of Russia, becoming Czar Alexander II. While his 36-year rule was marked by substantial reforms, it was also dogged by unrest and several assassination attempts.

Two strong influences stamped Alexander’s character. One was the autocratic personality and rule of his father; the other was his education, tinged with the principles of liberalism and romanticism. He ascended to the throne with Russia in a crisis, fighting the Crimean War against the Ottoman Empire, which had the support of Britain and France. The fighting continued for nearly a year, but Alexander had to sign a treaty making concession.

Russia’s defeat convinced him that he had to modernize the nation and spurred a program of industrialization and liberal reform. New railway lines were built, universities and courts were reformed, and there was even some steps made to reduce censorship. The signal achievement of Alexander’s reign was the emancipation of the serfs, as tens of millions of peasants were released from centuries-old feudal bonds and even given land allotments. The reform failed to produce a viable class of small farmers, however.

Another liberalization, with Russia lightening its grip on Poland, led to nationalist revolts there and the growth of radicalism both there and in Russia. Alexander responded by strengthening the secret police, which produced more unrest, further suppression, and several assassination attempts against the emperor. In 1881, he leaned once more toward liberalization, signing a decree on March 1 that would create a new constitution. That very day, he was wounded fatally in a terrorist attack, dying one day short of the anniversary of the day he took the throne.

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12. Mendeleev’s Periodic Table presented in public

This Day in World History

March 6, 1869

Mendeleev’s Periodic Table presented in public

Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. Source: NYPL.

On March 6, 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev’s breakthrough discovery was presented to the Russian Chemical Society. The chemist had determined that the known elements — 70 at the time — could be arranged by their atomic weights into a table that revealed that their physical properties followed regular patterns. He had invented the periodic table of elements.

In his early twenties, Mendeleev had intuited that the elements followed some kind of order, and he spent thirteen years trying to discover it. In developing his system, he drew on the data and ideas of scientists around the world. Two — Lothar Meyer and British chemist John Alexander Reina Newlands — had published ideas about the periodicity of elements. But Mendeleev’s addressed every known element, which theirs had not.

His system also surpassed the others because he accounted for gaps in the sequence of elements. Mendeleev said that an element would be discovered to fill each gap and even predicted the properties of those elements. The discovery of the one of these missing elements — gallium, in 1875 — helped spur wide acceptance of Mendeleev’s system.

Later work showed that Mendeleev’s reliance on atomic weight to determine periodicity is not completely correct. While atomic weight tends to increase as one moves from element to element, there are exceptions. Mendeleev also did not have the theoretical understanding to explain why the elements exhibited these periodic characteristics. Nevertheless, his achievement marked an important milestone in the understanding of the physical world.

Mendeleev did not personally present his breakthrough to the Chemical Society. Ill on the day of the meeting, he asked a colleague to deliver the report.

Interestingly, the date celebrated for this event reflects Russia’s use of the “Old Style” Julian calendar. According to the “New Style” Gregorian calendar — not adopted in Russia until after 1918 — Mendeleev’s periodic table was presented twelve days later, on March 18.

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13. Earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster strike Japan

This Day in World History

March 11, 2011

Earthquake, Tsunami, and Nuclear Disaster Strike Japan

Japan, situated on the Ring of Fire on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, has suffered some major earthquakes over the years. However, nothing before compared to the triple disaster of March 11, 2011: a massive earthquake followed by powerful tsunamis which led to a serious nuclear accident.

The horrors began shortly before three in the afternoon local time with a 9.0-magnitude earthquake. Its epicenter was nearly 20 miles below the floor of the Pacific Ocean about 80 miles east of the Japanese city of Sendai. The quake was one of the most powerful ever recorded, and the strongest to hit this region of Japan.

Map prepared by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration depicting the tsunami wave height model for the Pacific Ocean following the March 11, 2011, earthquake off Sendai, Japan. Source: NOAA Center for Tsunami Research.

The quake unleashed several tsunamis, or tidal waves, that moved as fast as 500 miles an hour in all directions — most destructively to the nearby northeastern coast of Japan’s Honshu island. Waves as high as 33 feet high crashed into towns and cities along the coast, washing away anything in their path. One wave reportedly reached as far inland as 6 miles.

Several nuclear plants are located in northern Honshu. Most shut down automatically when the quake occurred, but the powerful tsunamis damaged the backup power systems at a plant in Fukushima. As a result, cooling systems shut down, and nuclear fuel overheated and later caught fire. The fire released radiation in the air, and the use of seawater to try to cool the reactors led to radiation contaminating the sea. Japanese officials had to ban people from a zone up to 18 miles around the damaged reactors, scene of the second worst nuclear accident in history.

In the end, the triple disaster cost Japan nearly 20,000 dead — mostly from the tsunamis — more than 130,000 forced from their homes, more than $300 billion in damage, and a severe jolt to the economy.

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14. Académie Française forms

This Day in World History

March 13, 1634

The Académie Française forms

Members of the French Academy, the Académie française, after a session, crossing the Pont des Arts from the Institute / A. Castaigne. Source: Library of Congress.

For five years, beginning in 1629, a small group of writers gathered in Paris to discuss literary topics. The group soon came to the attention of Cardinal Richelieu, the power behind the French throne and a wealthy patron of the arts. He suggested that the body become official, an idea the group grudgingly accepted. On March 13, 1634, they formally constituted themselves as the Académie Française. The Academy has been in operation ever since except for a ten-year hiatus during the French Revolution. The following year they received a charter from the king.

The Academy was formed to act as the official authority on the French language, aiming to keep it pure and free of vulgar usage or foreign influence. That task has become increasingly difficult in recent years. The Academy has decried use of the verb “impacter,” Frenchifying the English verb “impact.” It has blanched when French magazine covers proclaim the presence of “le best of” lists inside. It can do nothing to compel the usage it endorses, however.

As part of its task of maintaining language standards, the Academy was charged with creating a French dictionary. The first edition of that dictionary did not appear until 1694. The most recent edition — the ninth — was published in 1992.

The Academy has a maximum membership of forty. Membership is for life, and those chosen for the honor are called “Immortals.” Many of France’s leading writers over the years have served as members, including Pierre Corneille, Jean Racine, Voltaire, and Victor Hugo — though the list of those not selected (which includes Molière, Honoré de Balzac, Marcel Proust, and Jean-Paul Sartre) is equally distinguished. The first woman member was admitted in 1980. The current secretary — one of three officers of the Academy — is a woman.

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15. Alfred Nobel dies

This Day in World History

December 10, 1896

Alfred Nobel dies

Stricken by a cerebral hemorrhage, wealthy industrialist Alfred Nobel died on December 10, 1896. That date is still commemorated as the day on which the famous prizes issued in his name—perhaps the most prestigious prizes in the world—are officially awarded each year.

In his thirties, Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel became interested in explosives and experimented with a chemical named nitroglycerin, but it was very volatile, and accidental explosions frequently occurred. When he accidentally discovered that the liquid was more stable if dried, he had a new invention, which he called dynamite, from which he built a huge fortune. Nobel lived a solitary life: he never married and had little social life, though he was intellectually active and committed to philanthropic causes. In 1895, at sixty-two, he began to develop chest pains. Late in that year, he wrote a will. When he died the following year, his family was shocked to learn that in this will he had left the bulk of his fortune to fund prizes to be given each year to individuals who had made the greatest achievements in chemistry, literature, physiology or medicine, physics, and who had made significant contributions to world peace.

Because his surviving family contested the will, the first Nobel Prizes were not issued until 1901. In 1968, the Bank of Sweden created a sixth award, in economics, named in Alfred Nobel’s honor. The winners of the six awards—called laureates—receive medals and a citation at an awards ceremony each December 10; they also receive a sum of money. All prizes but the peace prize are awarded in Stockholm; that ceremony occurs in Oslo, as a Norwegian committee confers that award. Each laureate gives a lecture in the days preceding the awards ceremony. Some years, more than one person receives a given award. In some years, a prize in a particular field may not be granted.

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16. Virgin of Guadalupe appears to Mexican peasant

This Day in World History

December 12, 1531

Virgin of Guadalupe appears to Mexican peasant

According to the tradition accepted by the Roman Catholic Church, a fifty-five-year old Native American who had converted to Christianity was moving down Tepeyac Hill to a church in Mexico City to attend mass. Suddenly, he beheld a vision of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ and an iconic figure in the Catholic Church. She instructed him to tell the local bishop to build a shrine to her on the spot. The Native American, Juan Diego, hurried to the bishop to relate the story. The bishop was intrigued but unconvinced; he needed proof, he said. Three days after the first encounter, on December 12, 1531, Diego saw the vision again. Asking for a sign, Mary told him to gather roses and carry them in his cloak to the bishop. When Diego opened his cloak and the roses fell out, the image of the Virgin Mary was embedded in the fabric of the inside of the cloak. A shrine was built on the site, and later a basilica.

The account is not universally accepted. The bishop identified in the story did not reach office until three years after the visitation was said to take place, and his papers say nothing of the event nor of Juan Diego. Indeed, documentary evidence about the visitation comes from more than a century later. Nevertheless, since the 1550s, the site has been home to a shrine—one of many dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe across Mexico. The Virgin of Guadalupe was named the patron saint of Mexico and recently was named the patroness of all the Americas. She has long been a national symbol for Mexicans. Today, the basilica in Tepeyac Hill contains a cloth said to be the original cloak—and is a much-visited pilgrimage destination.

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17. Dickens publishes A Christmas Carol

This Day in World History

December 19, 1843

Dickens publishes A Christmas Carol

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it.” So begins a staple of Christmas celebrations, Charles Dickens’s novella A Christmas Carol.

Dickens’s book, of course, relates the conversion of the crabbed miser Ebenezer Scrooge to a warm-hearted man who embraces Christmas after a night of visits from the ghost of his old partner, Jacob Marley, and three time-traveling spirits, those of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come. Dickens’s work became an instant classic. All 6,000 copies of the first printing were sold by Christmas, and the 2,000 copy second printing that quickly followed was also quickly sold out. Its lasting charm is evidenced by countless plays, radio dramatizations, television specials, and movie adaptations that have followed, a new one, seemingly, each generation.

While A Christmas Carol is probably Dickens’s most beloved work, it did little to alleviate the financial trouble in which he labored in 1843. At the time, Martin Chuzzlewhit was being serialized, but sales were slow. With his wife expecting the couple’s fifth child, Dickens penned the Christmas story in the hopes of a financial boost. Despite the brisk sales, his income did not rise as desired. The cost of producing the book—all resulting from Dickens’s own decisions, as he supervised the printing and hired the illustrator—was so high that the author saw few profits. Dickens lamented that “I shall be ruined past all mortal hope of redemption”—ironic, given that A Christmas Carol demonstrates that redemption has nothing to do with one’s financial condition.

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18. Elizabeth Blackwell becomes first woman to receive a medical degree

This Day in World History

January 23, 1849

Elizabeth Blackwell Becomes First Woman to Receive a Medical Degree

Source: National Library of Medicine

On January 23, 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell strode to the front of the Presbyterian church in Geneva, New York, to receive her diploma from Benjamin Hale, president of Geneva Medical College. The ceremony made Blackwell — who graduated first in her class — the first woman in the modern world to receive a medical degree.

Blackwell was born to a wealthy and progressive-minded English family that moved to the United States in the 1830s, when she was around ten. She became a teacher, though that profession did not engage her. One day, a dying friend told her that she might have endured her disease better if she had been attended by a female physician. The conversation planted the idea of becoming a doctor in Blackwell’s mind.

She received some rudimentary training in medicine in the home of a local physician and began applying to medical school. Geneva accepted her, in part because the student body — to whom the question of her admission had been put — treated the idea of a female medical student as a joke. Blackwell faced the hostility of some teachers, students, and townspeople, though she eventually disarmed critics with her dedication and seriousness.

Prejudice made it difficult for Blackwell to establish a practice after her graduation. In 1853, she opened a clinic for women in New York City. She was eventually joined by her sister Emily and by Marie E. Zakrzewska, both of whom she had encouraged to earn medical degrees. The clinic grew and in 1857 was renamed the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. Eleven years later, Blackwell opened the Woman’s Medical College associated with the infirmary. In 1869, she returned to England, where she lived and worked for the rest of her life.

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19. Idi Amin takes power in Uganda

This Day in World History

January 25, 1971

Idi Amin Takes Power in Uganda

Source: Library of Congress

On January 25, 1971, General Idi Amin took advantage of the absence of President Milton Obote to stage a coup and seize power in Uganda. Amin’s turbulent rule lasted only eight years, but in that time he earned him the nickname the “Butcher of Uganda.”

Obote had led Uganda’s independence movement in 1962 and had served as its first prime minster. In 1966, though, he deposed Uganda’s king and had a new constitution written that created a republic with himself as president. Amin was an ally whom Obote named as head of the army and air force at that time.

Amin decided to move against Obote when he was under investigation for his leadership of a gang of thugs. His brutality emerged quickly. Prominent Ugandans — including the police official who had been investigating him — were killed, some by armed toughs and others in mysterious circumstances. Several thousand soldiers were killed on Amin’s orders, decimating the armed forces but putting it firmly under his control.

Amin formed four different security organizations, which he used to carry out his harsh rule. Estimates suggest that as many as 300,000 people were killed in his violent rule.

Amin’s leadership was also marked by actions based on fleeting moods. Late in 1972, he ordered all Asians expelled from Uganda. The departure of some 35,000 people, many of whom owned businesses, crippled Uganda’s economy. A Muslim, Amin was extreme in his condemnation of Israel and once praised Adolf Hitler’s execution of millions of Jews.

Fear drove several different assassination attempts between his coup and 1979. That year, Amin sent troops into neighboring Tanzania to harass some villagers. In response Tanzania’s leader, Julius Nyerere, ordered a counterattack that was joined by thousands of Ugandans. Within weeks, the rebels had seized power and Amin had fled to Libya. He died in Saudi Arabia in 2003.

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20. Pinzón becomes first European to land in Brazil

This Day in World History

January 26, 1500

Pinzón Becomes First European to Land in Brazil

On January 26, 1500, Spanish sailor Vincente Yáñez Pinzón spotted land. He named the cape the Cabo de Santa María de la Consolación. The site was near modern-day Recife, Brazil, making Pinzón the first European to explore Brazil.

Pinzón was an accomplished navigator who had taken part in the famous 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus. Pinzón commanded the Niña while his brother Martín commanded the Pinta (a third brother, Francisco, was Martín’s chief officer on that ship). It was not until 1499, however, that Pinzón set out on a new expedition.

In November of that year, he sailed from Palos, Spain, reaching the South American coast by the next January. He spent several months exploring the coast, reaching as far north as the mouth of the Amazon River. Pinzón noticed that the color of the water had changed and, after sampling that differently color water, found it to be freshwater, and not saltwater. He named the body the Mar Dulce, or Sweetwater Sea, and using the strength of the outflowing current, he sailed for the West Indies before returning to Spain.

Records and maps from the Age of Exploration are not always clear or without controversy. Pinzón’s sighting of Brazil is subject to these uncertainties. Some historians think that he landed in Venezuela, not Brazil, and encountered the Orinoco River, not the Amazon. They believe that Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral—who certainly reached Brazil in April of 1500—was the first European to land there. At any rate, Portugal, not Spain, gained possession of Brazil and made it the cornerstone of its American empire.

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21. Mahatma Gandhi is assassinated

This Day in World History

January 30, 1948

Mahatma Gandhi is Assassinated

The 78-year-old man was walking to a prayer meeting with the support of two grandnieces. A man stepped out of the crowd and greeted him. The old man returned the salutation when, suddenly, the other man pulled out a pistol and shot three times. Half an hour later, Mohandas Gandhi—the leading figure of India’s independentce movement and the leading exponent of nonviolent resistance—was dead.

Born in India, Mohandas Gandhi was trained as a lawyer and first began a movement for social change in South Africa, where he had lived and worked for a time. That campaign aimed at overturning laws that limited the rights of Indians living in South Africa. The effort, based on his belief in nonviolent resistance, won some concessions from the government in 1913.

He launched his first civil disobedience movement in India in 1919, protesting a British law that required military service of all Indian men. For most of the next three decades, Gandhi was the spiritual and political leader of India, pushing for reform, boycotting British goods, protesting violence between Hindus and Muslims, and eventually pressuring Britain to grant Indian independence.

That campaign finally succeeded in 1947, though Gandhi’s hope for a united India was dashed when Britain, bowing to pressure from the Muslim League, split the area into two states—the chiefly Hindu India and the mainly Muslim Pakistan.

Religious violence followed, as members of the two faiths attacked and killed each other. Gandhi pleaded for an end to the violence and for the Hindu majority to grant tolerance to Muslims. That plea led his assassin, a Hindu fanatic, to kill the Mahatma, or “Great Soul.” A reporter who had been Gandhi’s friend wrote, “Just an old man in a loincloth in distant India: yet when he died, humanity wept.”

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22. Iceland’s Siguroardottir becomes the first openly gay world leader

This Day in World History

February 1, 2009

Iceland’s Siguroardottir Becomes the First Openly Gay World Leader

On February 1, 2009, Johanna Siguroardottir made double history: she became the first woman to serve as Iceland’s prime minister and she became the first openly gay person to become leader of any nation.

Siguroardottir’s rise to the premiership resulted from several factors. She had a long career in politics and was the longest-serving member of the Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, having first been elected in 1978. She also had experience in government positions, serving four times as Minister of Social Affairs, overseeing Iceland’s social welfare programs. Siguroardottir was a member of Iceland’s middle class, working as both a flight attendant and an office worker before entering politics. Her understanding of the basic concerns of ordinary people appealed to many Icelanders.

The other factor contributing to her achievement was Iceland’s economic mess. The island nation’s banking industry collapsed in 2008 and 2009. That crisis brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde and caused Icelanders to favor the leftist views of the socialist Siguroardottir.

Two years after taking office, her government seems to have stabilized Iceland’s economy. Inflation had been surging above 18 percent a year at the end of 2008, just before she took office. By 2011, it had fallen under 4 percent. The growth rate of the nation’s gross domestic product, which had been negative in 2009 and 2010, in the wake of the economic collapse, was expected to reach 2.5 percent in 2011. The banking sector has been overhauled.

Success was not complete, however. Icelandic voters rejected a government-backed plan to reimburse British and Dutch depositors in Icelandic banks for lost deposits. Voters also seem not to favor Siguroardottir’s desire to enter the European Union.

Siguroardottir did enjoy a great personal moment from her premiership. When Iceland’s new law that allowed gay marriage took effect in June 2010, she married her longtime partner Jonina Leosdottir, a writer.

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23. Buenos Aires founded

This Day in World History

February 2, 1536

Buenos Aires First Founded

On February 2, 1536, Spanish explorer Pedro de Mendoza founded the city he named Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire—Buenos Aires, Argentina. The new town was meant to spearhead the Spanish effort to colonize the interior of South America. It came less than two years after conquistadors had returned to Spain from Peru with treasures seized from the Inca empire.

Spain’s Charles I was spurred by the vast Inca wealth to seek further riches in South America. He also wanted to block any effort by Portugal to expand its foothold in Brazil. Accordingly, he commissioned Mendoza to mount an expedition to explore and settle the Río de la Plata, a vast estuary in southern South America that had been sighted back in 1516.

Mendoza set out in August 1535 in command of 800 to 1700 men (accounts vary) in around a dozen ships. The expedition — the largest sent from Spain to the Americas to date — was ill fated, however. A fierce storm blew the ships off course, and after regrouping Mendoza decided that one of his lieutenants was a rebel and had him executed. Troubles continued after the founding of Buenos Aires. At first the Spaniards received gifts of food from the indigenous locals but soon after fighting broke out between the two groups. That conflict cut off the chief source of food, and the Spaniards began to starve. Mendoza sent a lieutenant upriver in search of a friendlier site. He founded Asunción, now the capital of Paraguay.

Mendoza himself headed back to Spain in 1537. He was seriously ill — perhaps from syphilis — and died on the return trip. His settlement continued to struggle, and in 1541 the remaining colonists abandoned it, heading for Asunción. Not until 1580, when Juan de Garay returned to the scene, was a permanent Spanish presence established at Buenos Aires.

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24. Japanese attack Port Arthur, starting Russo-Japanese War

This Day in World History

February 8, 1904

Japanese Attack Port Arthur, Starting Russo-Japanese War

On February 8, 1904, just before midnight, Japanese destroyers entered the harbor of Port Arthur (now Lü-shun, China). Soon after, they unleashed torpedoes against Russian ships in a surprise attack that began the Russo-Japanese War.

The conflict grew over competition between Russia and Japan for territory in both Korea and Manchuria, in northern China. Japan had won Port Arthur, at the tip of the Liaotung Peninsula, from China in an 1894–1895 war. Russia joined with other European powers to force it to relinquish the port, however — and then three years later had compelled China to grant the city to it. These actions rankled Japan, as did Russia’s refusal to honor a promise to withdraw troops from Manchuria. Japan decided to go to war.

The attack on Port Arthur resumed in the late morning of February 9, when bigger Japanese ships began shelling the Russian fleet and nearby forts. The Russians put up more resistance than expected, however, and the Japanese ships withdrew.

The attack on Port Arthur was inconclusive, but the rest of the war went largely Japan’s way. The Japanese enjoyed several victories in 1904, seizing Korea in March, and defeating Russian forces twice in Manchuria during the summer. More success followed in 1905, with the surrender of Port Arthur in January, a victory over a large Russian army in Manchuria in March, and a decisive naval battle at Tsushima Strait in May that destroyed the Russian fleet. Russia’s government, facing unrest at home, was forced to seek peace.

The Russo-Japanese War marked the first victory of a non-European nation against a European one in modern times. It also contributed to unrest in Russia that would lead, more than a decade later, to the Russian Revolution.

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25. Emperor Meiji issues new constitution of Japan

This Day in World History

February 11, 1889

Emperor Meiji Issues New Constitution of Japan

On February 11, 1889, Japan’s Emperor Meiji furthered his plan to modernize and westernize his nation by promulgating a new constitution. The new plan of government created a western-style two-house parliament, called the Diet, and a constitutional monarchy — though one with a Japanese character.

When Prince Mutsuhito became emperor and took the ruling name Meiji (“enlightened ruler”) in 1867, he was determined to break with his late father’s traditionalist policies and embrace western ways. He took several steps in this direction. Along with creating a public school system and enacting land reforms, the Meiji emperor created government ministries.

The crowning governmental reform was the new constitution, which embraced the idea of citizen participation — though no plebiscite was held to give the public a voice in the document either as a whole or in detail. The emperor declared that the new constitution arose from his desire “to promote the welfare of, and to give development to the moral and intellectual faculties of Our beloved subjects.”

The constitution was modeled chiefly on the Prussian constitution, a fairly conservative document that subjected parliamentary rule to the power of the monarchy. Thus, the Meiji constitution began by declaring the emperor to be sovereign and “sacred and inviolable.” The emperor was named commander of the armed forces and given the power to declare war or make peace without needing to consult with the Diet.

The constitution was chiefly written by Itō Hirobumi, one of the elder statesmen who effectively ran the Japanese government. Itō and his colleagues assumed that they would be chiefly responsible for running the government and making policy and the emperor would not become involved except occasionally.

The Meiji constitution remained in force in Japan until after World War II, when a new constitution creating a stronger parliamentary system was adopted.

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