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Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Montenegro

Wikimedia Commons
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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 66th installment in the series.

April 29, 1913: Germany Promises to Respect Belgian Neutrality, Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Montenegro

The neutrality of Belgium, agreed by international treaty in 1839 following Belgium’s revolt against the Netherlands, was a cornerstone of peace and stability in Western Europe. With memories of Louis XIV and Napoleon always in the back of their minds, British diplomats insisted that Europe’s other Great Powers guarantee the neutrality of the new, independent kingdom in order to keep France contained. Ironically, the rationale for Belgian neutrality would shift in subsequent decades—but British commitment never wavered, as the little kingdom’s territorial integrity was still crucial to the European balance of power.

After Prussia’s stunning defeat of France and creation of the German Empire in 1870 and 1871, Belgian neutrality suddenly became a safeguard for France against Germany’s growing strength. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who had no desire to alienate Britain, reaffirmed Germany’s commitment to Belgian neutrality in 1871. Nevertheless, in the early years of the 20th century it was widely suspected that Germany might violate Belgian neutrality in an attempt to circumvent France’s new defensive fortifications and outflank French armies from the north. Of course this was exactly what the Germans envisioned in the Schlieffen Plan—and of course they had to deny it up and down.

British and French fears were shared by German anti-war socialists, who deeply distrusted Germany’s conservative military establishment (for good reason). Thus on April 29, 1913, a prominent Social Democrat, Hugo Haase, threw down the gauntlet in a speech to the Reichstag, noting, “In Belgium the approach of a Franco-German war is viewed with apprehension, because it is feared that Germany will not respect Belgian neutrality.” After this blunt reminder there was no way to avoid the subject, and the German government was forced to make a public declaration.

The government response was delivered by foreign minister Gottlieb von Jagow (above), who reassured the Reichstag that “Belgian neutrality is provided for by international conventions, and Germany is determined to respect those conventions.” The message was reiterated by war minister Josias von Heeringen, who promised parliament that “Germany will not lose sight of the fact that the neutrality of Belgium is guaranteed by international treaty.” Needless to say, both men were aware that the Schlieffen Plan called for the violation of Belgian neutrality—Jagow since January 1913 and von Heeringen since December 1912, at the latest. In fact, both were personally opposed to it on the grounds that it would provoke Britain to enter the war against Germany, as indeed it did (they were ultimately ignored, and in any event their private views can’t excuse these bald-faced lies to the public).

Austria-Hungary Mobilizes Against Montenegro

The fall of Scutari to Montenegro on April 23, 1913—the last major event of the First Balkan War—triggered yet another diplomatic crisis which threatened to provoke a much larger conflict. Spurred to action by the Austro-Hungarian war party led by chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, foreign minister Count Berchtold demanded that the Montenegrins withdraw from Scutari, which had been assigned to the new, independent state of Albania by the Great Powers at the Conference of London. Meanwhile, Berchtold also put pressure on the other Great Powers to back up their decision with the threat of force against Montenegro, currently under blockade by a multinational fleet—and if France, Britain, and Russia weren’t willing to use military action to enforce their will, he warned, Austria-Hungary would do it for them. But on April 2, Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov had insisted that Austria-Hungary could not act alone; Berchtold’s threat raised the possibility of another standoff between Austria-Hungary and Russia—or even war.

On April 25, 1913, the Conference of London refused Berchtold’s request for a naval bombardment of Montenegrin forces. Meanwhile, German foreign minister Jagow told the Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Berlin, Count Szogeny, that Germany would support military action by Austria-Hungary against Montenegro, even if it was unilateral (meaning, against the wishes of the other Great Powers); the next day the Germans warned the Conference that Austria-Hungary might proceed against Montenegro on its own. On April 28, Berchtold repeated his request for a naval bombardment, but (expecting another rebuff) also decided to go ahead with Austria-Hungary’s own military preparations.

On April 29, 1913, Austria-Hungary mobilized divisions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and began massing troops near the Montenegrin border. The following day, Jagow warned the French ambassador in Berlin, Jules Cambon, that if the situation spiraled out of control, resulting in a Russian attack on Austria-Hungary, Germany would stand beside her ally. On May 2, the Austro-Hungarian cabinet agreed to military measures against Montenegro, and the Germans repeated their support for aggressive action. Once again Europe teetered on the edge of disaster.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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