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Erik Sass

Mixed Messages from Italy

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Erik Sass

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 107th installment in the series. 

March 10-11, 1914: Mixed Messages from Italy

In the opening months of the Great War, Germany and Austria-Hungary were enraged by the failure of their supposed ally Italy to come to their aid, compounded by an even greater betrayal when the Italians sided with their enemies and attacked Austria-Hungary in May 1915 (shown above). Public opinion excoriated the “treacherous Latins” for this “stab in the back,” but as always the truth was more complicated.

Italy first joined Germany and Austria-Hungary in the defensive Triple Alliance in 1882, mostly out of fear of France, which had invaded Italy under Francis I, Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte; annexed Corsica in 1768; stationed troops in Rome and annexed Italian-speaking Savoy and Nice under Napoleon III; and more recently opposed Italy’s colonial ambitions in North Africa. But when France renounced new territorial claims and formed a closer relationship with Italy’s friend Britain, Italian motives for adhering to the Alliance faded.

Italy also had unfinished business with her “ally” Austria-Hungary, which held Italian-speaking territory around Trent and Trieste. The heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, cherished hopes of recovering Lombardy and Venice, lost to the new Italian state in 1859 and 1866, and Italian nationalists deplored Austria-Hungary’s oppression of its Italian minority, especially the recent Hohenlohe Decrees banning Italians from public office in August 1913. Italy and Austria-Hungary were also competing for influence in the Balkans.

In short, many Italians considered Austria-Hungary the real enemy, prompting Italian diplomats to hedge their bets. In 1902, Italy and France signed a secret non-aggression pact as well as a colonial agreement for North Africa, assigning Libya to Italy and Morocco to France. The Italians also insisted on adding a clause to the Triple Alliance treaty specifying that Italy would never have to fight Britain. And in 1909, Italy struck a deal with Russia aiming to preserve the status quo in the Balkans, which was obviously directed against Austria-Hungary.

But in typical fashion, Italian diplomats mostly kept their military colleagues in the dark about these other agreements, since none technically involved new military commitments. As far as Italian generals were concerned, Italy’s main obligations were still to its Triple Alliance partners. Thus in March 1914, the chief of the Italian general staff, Albert Pollio, dispatched General Luigi Zuccari, the commander of Italy’s Third Army, to Berlin to hammer out plans for military cooperation in the event of a hypothetical French attack on Germany. 

At a conference on March 10 and 11, 1914, Zuccari and the German quartermaster general, Major General Count George von Waldersee, agreed on a war plan calling for the transportation of three Italian army corps and two cavalry divisions through Austria to the Rhine, where they would reinforce German troops facing the French invaders. Meanwhile Italy would attack France directly across their shared frontier, forcing the French to divert troops from the main attack on Germany. In return (although the generals didn’t discuss this), Italy could probably expect territorial rewards in Nice, Savoy, Corsica, North Africa, and the Balkans.

This plan was so radically at odds with Italy’s actual actions just a few months later, it’s tempting to conclude it must be evidence of Italian duplicity. But Pollio, the conservative chief of the general staff, was a staunch supporter of the Triple Alliance, and Zuccari was simply following his orders. Again, as professional soldiers they didn’t consider diplomacy their concern: The fact that Italy’s civilian government was more likely to go to war against Austria-Hungary than for her was irrelevant to their duty as officers.

Events were about to reveal the basic dysfunction in the Triple Alliance. As Austria-Hungary and Germany pushed for war in July 1914, Italian diplomats correctly pointed out that the treaty was defensive in character, and therefore didn’t apply if Austria-Hungary provoked a broader conflict by attacking Serbia. Austria-Hungary also neglected to consult Italy before delivering the fatal ultimatum to Serbia (in July 1913 the Italian foreign minister, San Giuliano, had warned Austria-Hungary not to embark on any Balkan adventures without consulting Italy first, so there was no excuse for keeping Italy out of the loop one year later). Finally, in July 1914, Austria-Hungary also seemed to be breaking its promise to give Italy “compensation” for any territorial gains Austria-Hungary might make in the Balkans.

In other words, despite the public outcry in Germany and Austria-Hungary over Italian “treachery,” the fact was Italy had absolutely no obligation to join their war under the defensive Triple Alliance treaty—and beneath all their feigned indignation, top officials in Berlin and Vienna knew it. On March 13, 1914, the chief of the German general staff, Helmut von Moltke, advised his Austrian counterpart, Conrad von Hötzendorf: “At present… we must begin the war as if the Italians were not to be expected at all.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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History
A Brief History of Time
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You may have heard that time is a social construct, but that doesn’t stop it from having consequences in the real world. If you show up to a party 10 minutes before it’s scheduled to start, you’ll likely be the first one there, and if you arrive to an interview 10 minutes late, you likely won’t get the job. But how did humanity agree on when and how to observe certain times of day?

In their new video, the It’s Okay to Be Smart team explains how humans “invented” the modern concept of time. The increments we use to measure time, like seconds, minutes, and hours, come from the ancient civilizations of the Egyptians and the Babylonians. Early clocks, like sundials and water clocks, were pretty crude, so people couldn’t pinpoint a time like noon down to the second even if they wanted to. But as clocks became more accurate, the problem wasn’t being unable to tell time accurately, but deciding which clocks qualified as “accurate” in the first place.

In 1884, President Chester A. Arthur organized the International Meridian Conference with the intention of deciding on a uniform definition of time to be followed around the world. The attendees ended up choosing the meridian running through Greenwich, England as the official Prime Meridian, and all clocks would be measured against the clock in the town’s observatory. Greenwich Mean Time is still used as the standard world time today.

Check out the full story below.

[h/t It’s Okay to Be Smart]

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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