Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Russian Tsar Vows “We Shall Do Everything” for Serbia

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 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 101st installment in the series. 

February 2, 1914: Russian Tsar Vows “We Shall Do Everything” for Serbia

“Greet the King for me and tell him, ‘For Serbia we shall do everything.’” Although neither man could know it at the time, Tsar Nicholas II’s parting words to Serbian Prime Minister Nikola Pašić on February 2, 1914, with a message for Serbia’s King Peter, foreshadowed the massive sacrifice Russia was about to make on behalf of her Slavic cousins exactly six months later.

Pašić and Serbia’s Crown Prince Alexander had come to St. Petersburg to discuss foreign policy, reaffirm Serbia’s loyalty to its great Slavic patron, and maybe even forge a new connection with the Russian royal family through marriage. Pašić, an elder statesman, did most of the talking on the Serbian side, and left a detailed account of their meetings with the tsar and his ministers.

Ironically, Pašić’s main talking point was Serbia’s desire for peace in order to rebuild her strength after the exhausting Balkan Wars—but he also hinted that this period of peace wasn’t going to last forever. Indeed, Serbia needed to rearm as fast as possible to meet the looming threat from Bulgaria and Austria, now allied against her.

Pašić recalled: “I led the conversation around to a discussion of Austria’s deliveries of arms to Bulgaria … the Tsar added that Germany too was supporting Bulgaria. I begged him that Russia should likewise aid us, and that out of her magazines she should deliver to us 120,000 rifles and munitions and some few cannon, particularly howitzers, if they could spare them … And here I took occasion to tell the Tsar how pleased we were that Russia had armed herself so thoroughly; it gave us a feeling of security...” The Tsar promised to help Serbia at some point, but couldn’t guarantee anything in the near term, since Russia’s war industries were fully occupied supplying its own military needs.

Next they discussed the situation with Austria-Hungary where, according to Pašić, six million South Slavs longed to be united with their brothers in Serbia: “I then told the Tsar how great a change in sentiment had taken place among the Slavs of Austria-Hungary … [who] now comprehended that … salvation could come to them only from Russia or Serbia, and that they could scarcely await the opportunity to see their desires fulfilled.” Fittingly Pašić then segued into war, telling the tsar that Serbia would be able to field half a million troops in the next Balkan conflict. Nicholas II appeared impressed, remarking, “one can go a great way with that.”

Finally Pašić broached the subject of a royal marriage between Crown Prince Alexander and one of the Tsar’s daughters, which would cement the relationship between the two countries as well as strengthen the position of the Serbian monarch at home. There was plenty of precedent for such a connection: The tsar’s first cousin once removed (sometimes referred to as his uncle), the Grand Duke Nicholas, had married a Montenegrin princess, Anastasia Nikolaevna. However, the tsar, who apparently embraced Victorian romantic notions, merely smiled and said he let his children choose their spouses for themselves.

All this talk of Slavic unity and military preparations, along with the tsar’s dramatic parting words, might seem to suggest that Russia and Serbia were anticipating war and Russia, by promising unconditional support, was practically encouraging Serbia to precipitate the conflict. But as usual the truth was a bit more complicated. Neither Pašić nor the Tsar wanted war, at least not in the near future; the problem was they weren’t fully in control.

For one thing, neither government could actually present a coherent foreign policy, as both had to contend with rival factions at home. In the case of Serbia, Pašić—the head of a moderate civilian government—was facing off with the military’s ultranationalist spymaster, Dragutin Dimitrijević (codename Apis), who was plotting a coup as well as organizing the conspiracy to assassinate Franz Ferdinand. Where Pašić wanted to conciliate Austria-Hungary in the near term, Dimitrijević called for ceaseless agitation and subversion among the empire’s South Slavs; it’s unlikely that Pašić had any knowledge of the conspiracy at this point.

Russia was similarly divided between moderates and radicals: while the tsar himself was peacefully inclined, he and his ministers were under growing pressure from “pan-Slav” ideologues who accused them of selling out their Slavic cousins in Serbia during the Balkan Wars. The pan-Slavs were a powerful force shaping Russian public opinion, and had to be heeded, resulting in an inconsistent foreign policy. Thus Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov, a moderate, was forced to appoint a radical pan-Slav, Baron Nicholas Hartwig, as Russian ambassador to Serbia—and while Sazonov frequently expressed exasperation with the Serbs, vowing to leave them to fend for themselves the next time they got into a jam, Hartwig consistently sent the opposite message, egging them on in their conflict with Austria-Hungary; in December 1913 he told his hosts in Belgrade that Serbia would be Russia’s “instrument” to “destroy” Austria-Hungary.

Just six months later the radicals would thrust Serbia and Russia into a confrontation with Austria-Hungary much sooner than the moderates could have foreseen—and then Russia would have no choice but to fulfill the tsar’s parting promise to the Serbs.

See the previous installment or all entries

The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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.”


More from mental floss studios