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World War I Centennial: Balkan Armistice, Britain Warns Germany

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The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He’ll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 47th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

December 3, 1912: Balkan Armistice, Britain Warns Germany

Seeing his armies exhausted following their defeat at Chataldzha, Bulgaria’s Tsar Ferdinand (pictured) finally listened to the pleas of the Bulgarian civilian government and the advice of Bulgaria’s patron Russia, and consented to an armistice between the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire. The armistice agreed on December 3, 1912, was a temporary ceasefire between the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro; with Greek forces still laying siege to the ancient city of Janina (Greek: Ioannina) in Epirus, the Greek commander-in-chief, crown prince Constantine, wanted to continue fighting.

This partial ceasefire was at least a step in the right direction as the situation in the Balkans threatened to escalate. Austria-Hungary was apparently willing to fight to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea through its newly conquered Albanian territory: On November 21, 1912, Franz Josef mobilized six Austro-Hungarian army corps at the request of foreign minister Count Berchtold, and a week later, on November 28, 1912, Ismail Qemali declared Albanian independence in Vlorë with support from Austria-Hungary. But the situation was far from settled: The Greek navy was bombarding Vlorë, the Serbs were still occupying most of Albania, and Berchtold still had to get the other Great Powers to agree to the creation of a new Albanian state in the west Balkans. In the back of everyone’s mind was the distinct chance that the Ottoman Empire might simply fall apart, precipitating a disorderly and violent scramble by the Great Powers to secure their shares of Turkish territory in Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East.

The armistice between (most of) the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire cleared the way for an international peace conference. First suggested by the French premier Raymond Poincaré in mid-October and finally convened December 17, 1912, the Conference of London (actually two parallel conferences) gathered diplomatic representatives from the European Great Powers, the Ottoman Empire, and the Balkan League in the grey, rainy British capital to settle the situation in the Balkans and keep the peace in Europe.

In the weeks leading up to the Conference, the foreign secretaries and ambassadors of the Great Powers met individually to exchange views, agree on priorities, and establish plans of action, while their bosses engaged in some public grandstanding to win domestic political points. The overall effect was to consolidate the two alliance groups, with Britain, France, and Russia on one side and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other (and Italy nominally supporting Germany and Austria-Hungary as Triple Alliance partners, but actually on the sidelines).

No one wanted to appear weak or vacillating in front of their allies, or at home. On November 17, 1912, the French premier Raymond Poincare assured the Russian ambassador that France would back up Russia, and on November 23, 1912, Tsar Nicholas II told his Council of Ministers that he had decided to mobilize three Russian army districts, although the ministers later convinced him to reverse the order.

Meanwhile, on November 22, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II privately promised Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, that Germany would back up Austria-Hungary in a war. Publicly, on November 28, 1912, German foreign secretary Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter told the Bundesrat (upper house of Parliament) that Germany was prepared to go to war in support of its ally Austria-Hungary, and on December 2, Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg repeated the message to the Reichstag (the lower house). These veiled public threats drew an immediate public response. On December 4, Raymond Poincaré reassured the French Chamber of Deputies that he would protect France’s position in the Ottoman Empire, including commercial interests in the Balkans and Syria, while Paul Cambon, the French ambassador to London, privately warned that “Germanism,” represented by Austria-Hungary, had designs on the Mediterranean through the Balkans, threatening British interests. On November 22 and 23, 1912, Grey and Cambon exchanged letters finalizing the Anglo-French Naval Convention of July 1912.

The Balance of Power

In addition to the safety of their Mediterranean Suez route, the British were motivated by their longstanding concern to maintain the balance of power in Europe, which historically required preventing any Continental state from becoming all-powerful. In one of the most important private exchanges of this period, on December 3, 1912, the British chancellor (previously war secretary) Richard Haldane responded to Bethmann Hollweg’s veiled threat in front of the Reichstag by visiting the German ambassador to London, Karl Max, Prince Lichnowsky, and warning him that, if Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia and a general European war resulted, Britain would probably side with France against Germany. According to Lichnowsky, Haldane explained that “the theory of the balance of power was an axiom of British foreign policy and had led to the entente with France and Russia.” In short, Britain would probably honor its commitments to France, however vague.

Lichnowsky could hardly be surprised by Haldane’s warning: An Anglophile like his predecessor Metternich, he was sympathetic to the British viewpoint and frequently repeated Metternich’s warning that German naval construction was alienating British public opinion to his superiors in Berlin—Bethmann Hollweg, Kiderlen-Wächter and Kaiser Wilhelm II. The British chancellor’s warning of December 3 was especially noteworthy because of Haldane’s own “Germanophile” tendencies (he was a devotee of German philosophy) and supposed sympathy for Germany. And this was not just the view of a single minister: On December 6, 1912, King George V himself warned Kaiser Wilhelm II’s brother, Prince Henry of Prussia, that Britain would “very certainly under certain circumstances” take the side of France and Russia in the event of war.

Unsurprisingly, these warnings were angrily disregarded by Wilhelm II and the rest of the German government. Fulminating that Haldane’s warning was a “moral declaration of war,” on December 8, 1912 the Kaiser convened what came to be known as the “Imperial War Council” to consider the possibility of a European war with his top military advisors.

Characteristically, while planning for war, the Germans also tried to persuade themselves that the British were bluffing. In 1913, the new foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, wrote to Lichnowsky, telling him to “be more optimistic in your judgment of our British friends. I think you see things too black when you give expression that in the event of war England will be found on France’s side whatever happens.” In less than two years, the same basic combination of German belligerence and wishful thinking would lead Europe over the edge and into the abyss.

See all entries here.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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