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Showdown in Constantinople

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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 90th installment in the series.

October 28, 1913: Showdown in Constantinople: The Liman Von Sanders Affair

On October 28, 1913, Lieutenant General Otto Karl Victor Liman von Sanders (top) signed a contract with Mahmud Muhtar Pasha, the Turkish ambassador to Berlin, putting von Sanders in charge of training the Ottoman army, which was in dire need of reform and modernization following its disastrous defeat in the First Balkan War.

At first glance, von Sanders’ mission was fairly routine. As Europe’s Great Powers jockeyed for position around the planet in the first years of the 20th century, one common way of extending their influence beyond the bounds of colonial empires was helping backwards states upgrade their militaries with European methods and equipment. The British had dispatched several naval missions to Constantinople to bring the Turkish navy up to snuff (with limited success); it was only natural for the Turks to turn to Germany, Europe’s preeminent land power, to reform their army. 

But the scope of von Sanders’ assignment extended even further: In addition to providing training and technical advice, the retired artillery officer would assume command of the Turkish garrison guarding the capital, Constantinople. Although von Sanders was supposed to be serving the Turkish government, in effect a key part of the Ottoman military would now fall under German control—a power grab guaranteed to raise hackles among rival Great Powers, who had their own designs on Ottoman territory and resented the German intrusion. 

Sure enough, when news of the von Sanders mission began circulating in November 1913, one Great Power in particular blew a fuse. The Russians had long dreamed of conquering Constantinople and the Turkish straits in order to secure maritime access to the Mediterranean and the oceans beyond; a hostile power in possession of the straits could bottle up Russia’s Black Sea navy and cut off its grain exports, a key source of foreign currency. Russia’s foreign trade had suffered badly after the Turks closed the straits during their war with Italy in 1912; now it looked like the Germans were plotting to take control by slipping in the back door.

With the Balkan conflicts and Albanian crises barely a memory, Europe suddenly found itself on the brink of war yet again.

The Zabern Affair

While Germany’s foreign policy stirred tensions abroad, internal political divisions were growing deeper at home, as the conservative, authoritarian government faced mounting criticism over the German military’s domination of civil society.

Along with the rest of Alsace and the neighboring province of Lorraine, the small town of Zabern (French: Saverne) had been part of France until the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, when the victorious Prussians annexed it to the newly formed German Empire; unsurprisingly, four decades later there was still some lingering resentment of the German administration among the Alsatians, who tended to view themselves as a culturally distinct group with their own history and identity, separate from both Germans and French.

In this situation it would have made sense for the German government to try to ease tensions by minimizing the more visible elements of the German occupation, for example by employing native Alsatians for garrison duty. But in typical Teutonic fashion German administrators did the exact opposite, bringing in Prussian troops to guard the border towns on the theory that the Alsatians might be disloyal—not exactly a policy designed to demonstrate trust or build confidence. And the stubborn Germans were about to discover the simple truth confronted by so many occupiers before and since: that a bunch of bored teenagers with access to alcohol aren’t necessarily the subtle instruments of statecraft one might hope.

On October 28, 1913, Günter Freiherr von Forstner, the 19-year-old second lieutenant of the Prussian 99th Regiment garrisoned in Zabern, gave a little pep talk to his troops in which he advised them, “If you are attacked, use your weapon, and if you stab a Wackes in the process, then you'll get ten marks from me”—“Wackes” being a derogatory term for Alsatians. Forstner’s insensitive comment might have passed unnoticed if some of his own soldiers hadn’t relayed it two local newspapers, which started beating the drums for disciplinary action against the second lieutenant. 

Interpreting this as an attack on their authority, Forstner’s superiors refused to reprimand the junior officer, transforming the matter from a local embarrassment into a national scandal, as socialists and other anti-militarists (as well as “respectable” bourgeois politicians) seized on the incident as proof that the German military didn’t consider itself subject to civilian oversight. Before it was over the Zabern Affair badly damaged the reputation of Kaiser Wilhelm II and almost brought down the government, while revealing profound divisions in German society. 

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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