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Russian Black Sea fleet, Wikimedia Commons

Russians Weigh War Against Turkey

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Russian Black Sea fleet, 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 August, 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 98th installment in the series. 

January 13 to 15, 1914: Russians Weigh War Against Turkey, Liman von Sanders Affair Resolved

In mid-January 1914, the Liman von Sanders Affair was finally resolved by some bureaucratic sleight-of-hand in Constantinople—and not a moment too soon, as the Russians were seriously considering war against the Ottoman Empire.

In December 1913, Russian foreign minister Sergei Sazonov was alarmed by the appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders, to command the Turkish First Army Corps guarding Constantinople; Sazonov and other top officials in St. Petersburg feared this would place the Ottoman capital and strategic Turkish straits under German control, menacing Russian foreign trade and frustrating their own ambitions to conquer the ancient city in the not-too-distant future.

Sazonov responded by enlisting Russia’s “Triple Entente” allies, France and Britain, to pressure Germany and Turkey to cancel the von Sanders mission. The French were ready to back up Russia, but the cagey British required a bit of coaxing. After some dithering, British foreign minister Edward Grey finally warned Berlin that the Russians might demand compensation for von Sanders’ appointment in the form of territory in Turkish Armenia (where the Russians were already fomenting rebellion), which in turn might trigger the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire—exactly what the Germans didn’t want to happen (at least, not yet).

Facing a united front from Russia, France, and Britain, the Germans signaled that they were ready to compromise: after some prodding by German diplomats, in late December von Sanders asked the Turkish government to transfer him to another command, which would remove him from Constantinople while still upholding German prestige. However the Turks, still hoping to draw Germany into a long-term defensive alliance, took their time about granting the request.

The Russians were in no mood to wait: On January 13, 1914, Sazonov convened a war council presided over by premier Vladimir Kokovtsov (who was also finance minister) and attended by war minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov, navy minister Ivan Grigorovich, and chief of staff Yakov Zhilinsky. At this secret meeting Russia’s top leadership considered the ramifications of war against the Ottoman Empire—including the possibility of a much wider war.

Referring to Sazonov’s designs on Turkish Armenia, Kokovtsov warned that Russian advances here would probably trigger war with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Could Russia handle all three enemies at once? The answer depended partly on Russia’s allies. Here Sazonov told his colleagues that “France would go as far as Russia may wish,” an opinion supported by French president Raymond Poincaré’s statements as well as the recent appointment of the fiercely anti-German Maurice Paléologue as French ambassador to Russia; Sazonov had also received assurances from Poincaré that Britain would fight with them—as long as the British believed that the Germans started it.

On the military front, Sukhomlinov and Zhilinsky expressed confidence that Russia could fight Turkey, Germany, and Austria-Hungary simultaneously, as long as she could count on support from France and Britain. True, the strategic situation would be even better in 1917, when Russia’s Great Military Program, finally approved by Tsar Nicholas II in November 1913, would be substantially complete; Russia also needed to extend its military railroads and bolster its Black Sea fleet for an amphibious assault on Constantinople. But the soldiers were clear: If Russia had to go to war now, she could take all comers.

As it turned out, this wouldn’t be necessary. On January 15, 1914, the Turks announced that Liman von Sanders had been promoted to field marshal in the Turkish army, which meant he was now too high-ranking to command an individual army corps; instead he would serve as inspector general, overseeing training and reforms. Basically, von Sanders had been “kicked upstairs” to resolve the situation without damaging anyone’s prestige.

As this peaceful resolution showed, nobody actually wanted a general European war. The problem was that most of the Great Powers—Russia and France on one side, Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other—believed they faced long-term threats that might eventually compel them to go to war in spite of their own peaceful intentions. Russia feared another power might seize Constantinople and also felt obliged to protect its Slavic cousin, Serbia, in order to preserve its own influence in the Balkans; France feared Germany’s growing economic and military might and resented German bullying in colonial affairs; the Austrians feared the rise of Slavic nationalism in the Balkans, which threatened to tear their patchwork empire apart; and the Germans feared encirclement and the decline of Austria-Hungary, their only real ally.

As 1914 wore on these fears—along with each nation’s belief in its own military preparedness, and their collective tendency to bluff and counter-bluff in high-stakes conflicts—all combined to produce a very dangerous situation.

See the previous installment or all entries

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0
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Get Your GIFs Ready for This International Public Domain GIF-Making Competition
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“Dissension” by Tobias Rothe. Original image courtesy Fondazione Federico Zeri/Università di Bologna // CC-BY 3.0

Excellent GIF-making skills can serve you beyond material for your clever tweets. Each year, a group of four digital libraries from across the world hosts GIF IT UP, a competition to find the best animated image sourced from public domain images from their archives.

The competition is sponsored by Europeana, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), New Zealand’s DigitalNZ, and the National Library of Australia’s Trove, all of which host millions of public domain works. The requirements are that the source material must be in the public domain, have a 'no known copyright restrictions' statement, or have a Creative Commons license that allows its reuse. The material must also come from one of the sponsored sources. Oh, and judging by the past winners, it helps if it’s a little whimsical.

The image above won the grand prize in 2015. And this was a runner-up in 2016:

via GIPHY

This year’s prizes haven’t been announced yet (although Europeana says there will be a new one for first-time GIF makers), but last year’s grand prize winner got their own Giphoscope, and runners-up got $20 gift cards. (Turns out, there’s not a lot of money in public domain art.)

Not an expert GIFer yet? You can always revisit the audio version of DPLA’s advanced GIF-making tutorial from last year.

The fourth-annual GIF IT UP contest opens to submissions October 1.

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