WWI Centennial: Germans Execute Edith Cavell

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 205th installment in the series.

October 12-13, 1915: Germans Execute Edith Cavell, Bomb London

The execution of Edith Louisa Cavell, a British nurse who helped Allied prisoners of war escape Belgium, provided yet more evidence (if any more were needed after Belgian atrocities, Louvain, Notre Dame de Reims, the Lusitania, and gas) that the men in charge of the German war effort had no grasp of the propaganda struggle being waged alongside the shooting conflict, pitting them against the Allies in a battle for the high ground of global public opinion.

A devout Anglican, Cavell had worked in Belgium teaching nursing beginning in 1907, and bravely returned from London after war broke out to continue ministering to wounded soldiers from both sides at her clinic in Brussels. In addition to her life-saving work, Cavell was apparently contacted by British intelligence agents who prevailed on her sense of patriotism to help smuggle around 200 Allied soldiers out of Belgium to the Netherlands, for eventual repatriation; she also passed information to the Allies, concealed on the bodies or in the clothes of the escapees. 

Apprehended on August 15, 1915, along with 34 others Cavell was charged with treason by authorities of the German military occupation force in Belgium (despite the fact that she had neither German nor Belgian citizenship, common conditions for a charge of treason). Because Cavell was already well known for her charitable work, her arrest spurred immediate appeals from clemency.

Pleas from the U.S. and Spanish ambassadors failed to move the German military authorities in Belgium, and Cavell was executed by firing squad at 2 a.m. on October 12, 1915, along with her co-conspirator Philippe Baucq. Her final words to an Anglican chaplain who was allowed to visit her reflected her unwavering idealism and Christian piety: “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

There was no question of Cavell’s guilt (she confessed) and both sides of the conflict had already shown their determination to take extremely harsh measures against spies (or even suspected spies, probably leading to the deaths of scores of innocent people). Nonetheless executing Cavell was a self-inflicted propaganda defeat, as it played into popular narratives of passive female victimhood and uncomplaining Christian martyrdom dating back to the Victorian era.

The international outcry over Cavell’s death prompted the Germans to commute the death sentences of the 33 surviving conspirators, but the damage was done: the execution of Cavell soon became symbolic shorthand for German brutality and “frightfulness.”

Many ordinary Germans realized that killing Cavell was a mistake, at least according to the German novelist Arnold Zweig. In his novel Young Woman of 1914 one of the characters, Sergeant Brümmer, remarks mournfully to the heroine Lenore Wahl:

We shall have to pay for that girl’s blood, and it will take a great many lives to avenge it. They tell me that the English newspapers are wild about it. Why were these people allowed to shoot a brave young woman because she helped prisoners to escape over the frontier… She wasn’t just an ordinary girl she was a nurse, Fraulein Wahl. And she worked in a hospital where she looked after a great many of our men, both officers and rank and file. I needn’t tell you the story in detail, but it’s the talk of all Belgium, and indeed the whole world just now.

Significantly Zweig’s characters seem to share the same Victorian attitudes toward female virtue that made Cavell the perfect tragic victim in British and French eyes:

Lenore sat with wandering eyes, ready for flight. She remembered the Archduchess, the first victim of this war. Shot in Serajevo; and now another woman too—shot in Brussels. Had not all the thinkers in Germany, and indeed in all the world, conferred on women their charter of humanity? Couldn’t she have been pardoned, or even imprisoned? This was too much…

Conversely sentiment wasn’t necessarily unanimous on the Allied side, as some men objected to the special status accorded her as a female victim. A few weeks after her execution Frederic Keeling, a British soldier on the Western Front, noted that his comrades weren’t much impressed by the self-righteous rhetoric:

I see from the papers that the silly sentimental agitation about Nurse Cavell still goes on at home. A good many soldiers out here don’t think much of it. I have discussed it with many and found them all of my opinion—while admiring the woman immensely, I think the Germans were quite within their rights in shooting her. The agitation reveals the worst side of the English character. I hope some Suffragists who prefer to stand for the principle of women’s equal responsibility for their actions will protest against the rot that is being talked.

Bloodiest Zeppelin Raid of the War

On the night of October 13, 1915 German zeppelins struck Britain yet again, in what turned out to be the bloodiest bombing raid of the war carried out by airships (though not airplanes). This time five zeppelins—L11, L13, L14, L15, and L16—bombed London and several surrounding towns, killing 71, including 15 Canadian soldiers, and wounding 128. Once again the raid rattled British civilians and made an especially big impression on children. One boy, J. McHenry, wrote about the bombing of London the following day for school, describing what were obviously ineffective air defenses: 

I had not been reading more than half an hour when I heard a terrible bang… I dropped the book, rushed to the window opened it and jumped out into the parapet… No sooner had I got out when bang – bang two more bombs followed in quick succession, and then all was silent for a few seconds. Boom—crash—boom, came the answer from our guns, and a hail of lead went sailing skywards, but I am sorry to say that they did not find their destination. I could see gun flashes coming from the British Museum and from the Kingsway, I only just caught a glimpse of the zeppelin in the city direction the search-lights were shining on it, and the shells were bursting underneath it. Whether it was hit I do not know but all of a sudden It disappeared and fled.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Netflix Is Testing Commercials, and Subscribers Aren't Happy

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iStock

Save the occasional "Are you still watching?" message popping up between episodes, it's possible to watch an entire Netflix series in one sitting with little to no distractions. Now, the streaming service is testing something that could upend that: As CNN reports, Netflix has quietly started sprinkling advertisements into its programming, something the subscription-based service has been able to avoid up to this point.

The promotional content Netflix is experimenting with differs from conventional cable commercials in some fundamental ways. The promos won't be advertising third-party brands, Netflix promises: Rather, they'll exclusively show off Netflix original content, like seriesGlow and Stranger Things (though one Reddit user did report seeing an ad for Better Call Saul, which Netflix licenses from AMC). And instead of inserting ads throughout the program, as some non-subscription streaming services do, Netflix will only include them at the end of some episodes with a "skip" button similar to the one that allows viewers to bypass a show's opening credits. And each promo subscribers see will be personalized based on their viewing habits, hopefully turning them on to new shows and not just annoying them in the middle of their binge-watching sessions.

Despite these assurances from Netflix, viewers aren't happy. Many customers have taken to social media threatening to cancel their service if the promos become the norm, which likely may not happen: They've only been shown to a select number of test viewers so far, and based on user response, Netflix may decide to pull the plug on the experiment.

The good news is that as long as the ads are still in the test phase, you can choose to opt out of them. Just go to Netflix.com/DoNotTest and toggle off the switch next to the words "Include me in tests and previews." Now you're ready to resume your binge-watching marathon without interruption.

[h/t CNN]

10 Things You Might Not Know About Columbo

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

For more than 40 years, Peter Falk entered living rooms around the world as Lieutenant Columbo, an unconventional L.A. homicide detective known for his ruffled raincoat and trademark cigar. The actor would go on to win four Emmys for the role, while the series itself remains a benchmark for television crime dramas. But if series creators William Link and Richard Levinson went with their initial choice, the iconic role of Columbo would have gone to a syrupy-smooth crooner rather than the inelegant Falk. Get familiar with one of TV's most unique heroes with facts about Columbo.

1. BING CROSBY WAS ORIGINALLY EYED FOR THE ROLE.

Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link's first choice to play their low-key detective was crooner Bing Crosby. Der Bingle loved the script and the character, but he feared that a TV series commitment would interfere with his true passion—golf. It was probably providential that Crosby turned the role down, since his death in 1977 occurred while the series was still a solid hit on NBC. 

2. PETER FALK WAS AN UNEXPECTED SEX SYMBOL.

Peter Falk in 'Columbo'
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Character actor Lee J. Cobb was also considered for the role, until Peter Falk phoned co-creator William Link. Falk had gotten a copy of the script from his agents at William Morris and told Link that he’d “kill to play that cop.” Link and Levinson knew the actor back from their days of working in New York, and even though he was the opposite of everything they’d originally pictured for Lt. Columbo, they had to admit that Falk had a certain likeability that translated to both men and women. Falk was described by a certain female demographic as “sexy,” and males liked him because he was an unthreatening, humble, blue-collar underdog who was smarter than the wealthy perps he encountered.

3. FALK WAS A GOVERNMENT WORKER BEFORE BECOMING AN ACTOR.

Peter Falk wasn’t too far removed from the character he played. In real life he tended to be rumpled and disheveled and was forever misplacing things (he was famous for losing his car keys and having to be driven home from the studio by someone else). He was also intelligent, having earned a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University, which led to him working for the State of Connecticut’s Budget Bureau as an efficiency expert until the acting bug bit him. He was also used to being underestimated due to his appearance; he’d lost his right eye to cancer at age three, and many of his drama teachers in college warned him of his limited chances in film due to his cockeyed stare. Indeed, after a screen test at Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn dismissed him by saying, “For the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.”

4. COLUMBO'S DOG WASN'T A WELCOME SIGHT AT FIRST.

Columbo's dog
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

When Columbo was renewed for a second season, NBC brass had a request: they wanted the lieutenant to have a sidekick. Perhaps a young rookie detective just learning the ropes. Link and Levinson were resistant to the idea, but the network was pressuring them. They conferred with Steven Bochco, who was writing the script for the season opener, “Etude in Black,” and together they hatched the idea of giving Lt. Columbo a dog as a “partner.” Falk was against the idea at first; he felt that between the raincoat, cigar, and Peugeot his character had enough gimmicks. But when he met the lethargic, drooling Basset Hound that had been plucked from a pound, Falk knew it was perfect for Columbo's dog.

The original dog passed away in between the end of the original NBC run of the series and its renewal on ABC, so a replacement was necessary. The new pup was visibly younger than the original dog, and as a result spent more time in the makeup chair to make him look older.

5. FALK'S REAL-LIFE WIFE PLAYED A ROLE IN THE SERIES.

Falk first met Shera Danese, the woman who would become his second wife, on the set of his 1976 film Mikey & Nicky. The movie was being filmed in Danese’s hometown of Philadelphia, and the aspiring actress had landed work as an extra. They were married in 1977, and she was able to pad out her resume by appearing on several episodes of Columbo. Her first few appearances were limited to small walk-on parts—secretaries, sexy assistants, etc. By the time the series was resurrected on ABC in the early 1990s, she was awarded larger roles.

She originally auditioned for the role of the titular rock star in 1991’s “Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star,” but her husband adamantly refused, since the role included a scene of her in bed making love to a much younger man. She instead played the role of a co-conspiring attorney, and was also allowed to sing the song that was the major hit for the murdered star.

6. THE CHARACTER'S TRADEMARK RAINCOAT CAME FROM FALK'S CLOSET.

The initial wardrobe proposed for Columbo struck Peter Falk as completely wrong for the character. To get closer to what he wanted for Columbo, the actor went into his closet and found a beat-up coat he had bought years earlier when caught in a rainstorm on 57th Street. And he ordered one of the blue suits chosen for him to be dyed brown. The drab outfit would become one of the trademarks of the character for decades.

7. STEVEN SPIELBERG GOT AN EARLY BREAK ON COLUMBO.

“Murder by the Book” was the second Columbo episode filmed, but it was the first one to air after the show was picked up as a series. Filming was delayed for a month, though, when Falk refused to sign off on this “kid”—a 25-year-old named Steven Spielberg—to direct the episode. Finally he watched a few of Spielberg’s previous credits (all of them TV episodes) and was impressed by his work on the short-lived NBC series called The Psychiatrist. Once filming was underway, Falk was impressed by many of the techniques employed by the young director, such as filming a street scene with a long lens from a building across the road. “That wasn’t common 20 years ago,” Falk said. He went on to tell producers Link and Levinson that “this guy is too good for Columbo."

8. COLUMBO'S FIRST NAME WOUND UP THE SUBJECT OF A LAWSUIT.

Fred L. Worth, author of several books of trivia facts, had a sneaking feeling that other folks were using his meticulously researched facts without crediting him. He set a “copyright trap” and mentioned in one of his books that Lt. Columbo’s first name was “Philip,” although he had completely fabricated that so-called fact. Sure enough, a 1984 edition of the Trivial Pursuit board game listed the “Philip” Columbo name as an answer on one of their cards, which led to a $300 million lawsuit filed by Mr. Worth.

The board game creators admitted in court that they’d garnered their Columbo fact from Worth’s book, but the judge ultimately determined that it was not an actionable offense. By the way, years later when Columbo was available in syndicated reruns and HD TV was an option, alert viewers were able to freeze-frame a scene where the rumpled lieutenant extended his badge for identification purposes in the season one episode “Dead Weight” and determine that his first name was, in fact, “Frank.”

9. THE SERIES DIDN'T FOLLOW A STANDARD MYSTERY FORMAT.

The premise of Columbo was the “inverted mystery,” or a “HowCatchEm” instead of a “WhoDunIt.” Every episode began with the actual crime being played out in full view of the audience, meaning viewers already knew “WhodunIt.” What they wanted to know is how Lt. Columbo would slowly zero in on the perpetrator. This sort of story was particularly challenging for the series’s writers, and they sometimes found inspiration in the most unlikely places. Like the Yellow Pages, for example. One of Peter Falk’s personal favorite episodes, “Now You See Him,” had its genesis when the writers were flipping through the telephone book looking for a possible profession for a Columbo murderer (keep in mind that all of Columbo’s victims and perps were of the Beverly Hills elite variety, not your typical Starsky and Hutch-type thug).

A page listing professional magicians caught their eye, and that led to a classic episode featuring the ever-suave Jack Cassidy playing the role of the former SS Nazi officer who worked as a nightclub magician. When the Jewish nightclub owner recognized him and threatened to expose him, well, you can guess what happened. But the challenge is to guess how Lt. Columbo ultimately caught him. 

10. THERE WAS A SPINOFF THAT KIND OF WAS BUT THEN WASN'T.

The 1979 TV series entitled Mrs. Columbo was not technically related to the original Peter Falk series. In fact, Levinson and Link opposed the entire concept of the series; it was NBC honcho Fred Silverman who gave the OK to use the Columbo name and imply that Kate Mulgrew was the widowed/divorced wife (the series changed names and backstories several times during its short run) of the famed homicide detective. The “real” Mrs. Columbo was never mentioned by her first name during the original series, but actor Peter Falk possibly slipped and revealed that her name was “Rose” when he appeared at this Dean Martin Roast saluting Frank Sinatra and asked for an autograph.

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