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German Chancellor Warns of Impending Racial Struggle

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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 63rd installment in the series.

April 7, 1913: German Chancellor Warns of Impending Racial Struggle

The new military spending bill presented to the German Reichstag on March 1, 1913, arrived in a climate of growing fear. In a speech urging the Reichstag to vote for the bill on April 7, 1913, German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg (pictured) warned that Austria-Hungary – Germany’s only real ally – faced an existential threat from the rise of Slavic power in the Balkans in the First Balkan War, and predicted a “life and death struggle” between “Germanism” and “Slavism.” Earlier the chancellor envisioned an impending “world catastrophe” resulting from a “European conflagration pitting Slavs against Teutons.”

This language echoed Bethmann Hollweg’s master Kaiser Wilhelm II, who in a letter sent December 15, 1912, warned his friend, the shipping magnate Albert Ballin, “There is about to be a racial struggle between the Teutons and the Slavs… it is the future of the Hapsburg monarchy and the existence of our country which are at stake.” On February 10, 1913, German chief-of-staff Helmuth von Moltke (“the Younger”) took the same gloomy view in a letter to Austrian chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, predicting a racial struggle between Germans and Slavs and assuring Conrad of German support in such an eventuality.

Social Darwinism

Although this kind of overtly racial rhetoric may sound foreign to modern ears, it was widespread among European and American elites in the early years of the 20th century. The application of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection to humanity gave a scientific gloss to racism, known as social Darwinism, in which human races were viewed as virtually distinct species with their own characteristic attributes. Like competing individuals, different races displayed varying levels of evolutionary fitness; unsurprisingly, in a worldview elaborated by white Europeans they always seemed to come out on top.

While social Darwinists devoted a great deal of attention to the differences between white Europeans and Africans and Asians, they also believed different branches of the white race were competing with each other. Of particular interest was the rivalry between the “Germanic” peoples of northwest Europe and the Slavs of Eastern Europe – an ancient contest dating back to the great migrations of the early medieval period.

After the Western Roman Empire was overthrown by invading Germanic tribes in the fifth century, most of Western Europe was divided up into Germanic kingdoms – but the upheaval was far from over, as wave after wave of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes continued to emerge from the east. In the sixth century a new group, the Slavs, began spreading out from their homeland in western Ukraine; by the eighth century the Slavs had overrun most of Europe east of the Elbe River, where they came into conflict with the Germanic Franks and Saxons, recently united by Charlemagne. Although it is doubtful that Charlemagne or his contemporaries viewed the situation through a racial lens, later European racists portrayed their expeditions against the Slavs as the beginning of a long struggle between Germans and Slavs. Subsequent events would provide plenty of fodder for this racial interpretation of history.

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Beginning in 1226, the Teutonic Knights of East Prussia launched a series of crusades against pagan Slavs living near the Baltic Sea, which later became a sectarian war of Catholics against Orthodox Christians; their conquests eventually extended into modern-day Estonia. The Knights invited German settlers to farm land abandoned by fleeing (or dead) Slavs and founded fortress cities including Königsberg (Kaliningrad) and Riga.

Interactions between Germans and Slavs weren’t always violent. In the heyday of the Holy Roman Empire, local rulers throughout Eastern Europe offered incentives for German craftsmen and farmers to settle in their realms to stimulate economic growth. Throughout the 13th century, Polish princes granted German settlers autonomy under the “Magdeburg right,” and in 1243 King Bela IV of Hungary promised German immigrants freedom from feudal taxes. German influence also spread via the Hanseatic League, which established trading posts in cities across northern Europe. Later, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Russian tsars invited German colonists to settle throughout European Russia; the most famous group, the “Volga Germans,” lived in separate communities with a distinct German character until the Second World War, when they were sent to the gulag by Stalin.

Although German colonization was usually peaceful enough, racists of a later era viewed it as additional proof of racial superiority, as Germans spurred technical and economic development among “backward” Slavs. Indeed, there was no question in their minds about which race was better: in 1855 Arthur de Gobineau, one of the founders of “scientific” racism, wrote that “the Russians, Poles, and Serbians… are only civilized on the surface; the higher classes alone participate in our ideas, owing to the continual admixture of English, French, and German blood.” And in 1899 another famous racist, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, wrote that the “inferior Slavonics” had degraded their blood by mixing with “Mongoloid” races.

Elbow Room

Ideas of German racial superiority went hand in hand with the glorification of medieval German chivalry and a supposed economic imperative for expansion. Germany’s growing population was “hemmed in” by modern borders, and required more land; in 1895 the German sociologist Max Weber wrote that posterity would judge Germans of his day by “the extent of elbow-room that we obtain through struggle and leave behind.”

The obvious place to find this Lebensraum (“living room”) was in neighboring Slavic states. In 1911 the pan-German publicist Otto Richard Tannenberg wrote: “Room; they must make room. The western and southern Slavs – or we! ... Only by growth can a people save itself.” A decade later this project would be conceived on an even grander scale by a young Austrian-born German corporal with political ambitions named Adolf Hitler.

See the previous installment, next installment, or all entries. Also: We know the World War I Centennial page on mobile is all screwed up/doesn't actually exist. We'll get that fixed. In the meantime, if you want to read past entries on your phone, click "view full version of mentalfloss.com" below and look for the big WWI Centennial banner in the left-hand column.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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