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British Back Russians on von Sanders

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

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 95th installment in the series. 

December 15, 1913: British Back Russians on von Sanders

In the autumn of 1913, Europe was gripped by yet another in a long series of diplomatic crises, this time triggered by the news that a German officer, Lieutenant General Liman von Sanders, was to be appointed commander of the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople. The Russians in particular vehemently opposed this arrangement, arguing that it would effectively turn control of the Ottoman capital over to Germany, thus threatening Russia’s foreign trade, half of which flowed through the Turkish straits; the Russians also hoped to conquer Constantinople for themselves someday.

As in the previous crises caused by the Balkan Wars, Europe’s Great Powers tried to avoid a wider conflict but nevertheless found themselves dragged into a cycle of escalation by less powerful client states—in this case, the Ottoman Empire.

For the Committee of Union and Progress (Young Turks) led by Enver Pasha, the German military mission was more than just a step towards overhauling the Turkish army; it also held out the possibility of a more serious commitment from Germany to protect the beleaguered Ottoman Empire against the other Great Powers. If the Turks could just get Germany to sign a formal defensive alliance, it would buy them time to carry out sweeping reforms to get the empire back on its feet. For their part the Germans were leery of deeper Turkish entanglements, viewing the ramshackle empire as essentially a lost cause and a dangerous liability in military terms (the von Sanders mission was as much about staking a claim to Turkish territory as it was about defending it). But the Young Turks were willing to play hardball with their reluctant partners.

On December 4, 1913, the Turks delivered a fait accompli to the Great Powers—including Germany—by formally announcing von Sanders’ appointment as commander of the First Army Corps. By escalating the situation the Turks hoped to force the Germans to make a clear stand at the side of the Ottoman Empire, using the diplomatic crisis surrounding the von Sanders Affair as leverage; with their prestige on the line, it would be harder for the Germans to back down and leave the Turks hanging.

Unsurprisingly the Russians were not at all happy with this turn of events. On December 6, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov rang the alarm bells in St. Petersburg, warning Tsar Nicholas II that “to abandon the Straits to a powerful state would be to place the economic development of the whole of South Russia at the mercy of that state.” And two could play the escalation game: on December 7, Sazonov raised the stakes by suggesting that Russia might be forced to seek compensation in the form of Turkish territory—specifically the province of Erzurum in Turkish Armenia. Thus the wily foreign minister, ever opportunistic, hoped to either get rid of von Sanders or use the crisis to advance Russia’s devious long-term plan to annex Turkish territory.

As intended, Sazonov’s threat triggered serious alarm in Western capitals, with France and Britain hurrying to restrain their Entente partner while also urging Germany to back down—not unlike friends trying to prevent a drunken bar fight. But their efforts were overtaken by events: von Sanders left Berlin for Constantinople on December 9, arriving five days later. Meanwhile on December 12 Sazonov informed Britain and France that Russia considered this a test of the Entente, adding, “This lack of… solidarity between the three Entente Powers arouses our serious apprehension...”

Up to this point British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey (top) had avoided involvement in the von Sanders Affair, which didn’t directly affect British interests. But with war in the air, on December 15, 1913, the phlegmatic foreign secretary finally left the sidelines, warning the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, that “Russia might demand compensations in Constantinople in the form of the transfer to her of a command in Armenia. Such a solution seemed to him to be fraught with danger, as it might mean the beginning of the end—the beginning of the partition of Turkey in Asia.” Later Grey told Lichnowsky “the Russians are more concerned than ever and must be satisfied somehow…”

Lichnowsky conveyed Grey’s warnings to Berlin, and the Germans—who had no desire for a confrontation with the Entente over the von Sanders mission—began thinking of ways to satisfy Russian demands while still maintaining German and Turkish prestige. The answer was clear enough: to save face von Sanders would give up command of the Constantinople army but remain in Turkey in a military capacity, which, in the Kabuki-like world of European power politics, would technically mean no one had backed down.

On December 18, von Sanders (with a nudge from the German ambassador to Constantinople, Baron von Wangenheim) suddenly realized that reforming the Turkish army and commanding an active army corps was too much for one person to handle, and requested a transfer to command of the Turkish army corps at Adrianople, leaving Constantinople in Turkish hands once again. This wasn’t quite the end of the von Sanders Affair, as the Turks still required some convincing, but it showed that the Germans were trying to defuse the situation, and tensions began to subside.

However the Liman von Sanders Affair revealed dynamics that would help precipitate the First World War less than a year later. For one thing, the Turks’ decision to escalate the crisis showed that Germany, having encouraged its allies in a particular course of action, couldn’t necessarily control them once they embarked on it. At the same time Grey’s initial reluctance to take sides, which allowed the situation to escalate dangerously, foreshadowed Britain’s belated intervention during the final crisis of July 1914, when the world’s fate hung in the balance. 

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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