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US National Archives

Germany’s Fateful Gamble

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US National Archives

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 262nd installment in the series. 

January 9, 1917: Germany’s Fateful Gamble

The most fateful decision of the First World War was made on January 9, 1917, at a top-secret meeting of Germany’s civil and military leaders at Pless Castle in Silesia in Eastern Germany. Here, at the urging of chief of the general staff Paul von Hindenburg and his close collaborator, first quartermaster Erich Ludendorff, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg reluctantly agreed to the resumption of unrestricted U-boat warfare – a gamble that would decide the outcome of the war.

As 1917 began, Germany’s strategic options were narrowing. The plan of the previous chief of the general staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, to bleed France white at Verdun had succeeded in causing massive casualties but failed to split the Allies or knock France out of the war, as hoped. Germany’s main allies, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, were both on the defensive, requiring more and more assistance to simply survive, and the simultaneous Allied offensives at the Somme and in Galicia had sorely taxed German manpower and material.

Meanwhile Germany’s vast industrial machine was gradually being stretched to the limit, while shortages of food and fuel stirred growing discontent in the civilian population. The indecisive Battle of Jutland in May 1916 left the Allied naval blockade undisturbed, and Britain’s adoption of conscription was putting several million new soldiers in the field. 

But Hindenburg and Ludendorff believed that victory was still within reach, provided Germany acted boldly and swiftly. Indeed the Allies also found themselves overstretched, as France reached the limits of her own manpower following Verdun and the Russians suddenly found themselves responsible for shoring up Romania, or what was left of it. Further, as before Germany enjoyed the advantage of a central position, allowing it to move forces between various fronts and perhaps defeat its enemies “in detail,” or one at a time.

In order to exploit these opportunities, in 1917 Hindenburg and Ludendorff contemplated yet another shift in focus, this time from west to east (reversing Falkhenhayn’s earlier switch from east to west). On the Western Front, they planned a surprise withdrawal from the Somme to massive, newly constructed fortifications at the Siegfried Line – known to the Allies as the Hindenburg Line – shortening the front by around 25 miles and freeing up two whole armies for service elsewhere. 

By going on the defensive on the Western Front, they hoped, Germany would be able to deliver a knockout blow to Italy, Russia, or both; Russia in particular was already teetering on the edge of revolution, and the incompetent tsarist regime just needed a final push before it collapsed.

However Hindenburg and Ludendorff realized that simply shortening the Western Front and digging in wouldn’t be enough: they also had to ratchet up the pressure on Britain in order to keep the British from launching a new offensive like the Somme, and maybe even knock them out of the war. To accomplish this they pinned their hopes on a new (but no longer secret) weapon: the submarine.

“Germany Is Playing Her Last Card” 

Germany had already tried unrestricted U-boat warfare twice, unleashing a growing fleet of submarines on Allied and neutral shipping, with permission to sink unarmed merchant ships without warning. But on both occasions these campaigns were eventually suspended (first in the summer of 1915, then again in the spring of 1916) in the face of protests from neutral countries, especially the United States of America, over civilian casualties. 

The threat of war with the U.S. had forced Berlin to back down twice, but by early 1917 Germany’s leaders were willing to take the risk. A number of factors contributed to this shift, including the general sense that time was working against Germany, as well as public demands for retaliation in kind against the “Starvation Blockade” maintained by the British Royal Navy. The steady growth of Germany’s U-boat fleet also held out the promise of a decisive result. 

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Most important, however, were Britain’s growing dependence on U.S. imports to sustain its war effort, a vulnerability which could be exploited by attacks on shipping, and the resulting enmity of Germany’s new military leaders, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, towards the U.S.

According to the U.S. ambassador to Berlin, James Gerard, in the fall of 1916 Ludendorff was on the record as stating that “he did not believe America could do more damage to Germany than she had done if the countries were actually at war, and that he considered that, practically, America and Germany were engaged in hostilities.” With the ascendancy of Hindenburg and Ludendorff over Germany’s civilian government – in effect a bloodless military coup countenanced by Kaiser Wilhelm II – the balance of political power in Berlin shifted towards open confrontation.

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The minutes of the meeting on January 9, 1917, make clear that Bethmann-Hollweg was now playing second fiddle to Hindenburg and Ludendorff, public heroes who enjoyed the backing of the fickle monarch. Germany’s leaders also allowed themselves to be swayed by optimistic thinking, in the form of cheery projections from the Admiralty about how quickly British morale and war-making capacity could be destroyed through unrestricted sinkings. 

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Admiral Henning von Holtzendorff, who headed the Admiralty’s analytical division, calculated that Germany’s growing U-boat fleet could sink 500,000-600,000 tons of British shipping per month at first – a forecast that proved remarkably accurate. However Holtzendorff erred in his assumptions about the impact that this would have on Britain’s total available shipping, as the British could requisition neutral shipping and order more replacements from American shipyards. The German Admiralty also failed to anticipate Allied tactics for convoying merchant ships (they believed convoys were ineffective, and if anything would make it easier for submarines to find targets). Finally, the German high command underestimated Britain’s ability to increase domestic production by finding manufacturing substitutes, implement rationing, and bring new farmland under cultivation; although ordinary British people certainly suffered from shortages and chaffed at rationing, the U-boat campaign fell far short of “starving Britain to her knees.”

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Equally important to the German (mis)calculations was the belief that America, as a mercantile but not mercenary nation, was basically unwilling to fight, due both to her traditional isolation and what they viewed as the social and cultural incoherence of the American population, resulting from the large proportion of immigrants (including millions of German descent, whom they assumed would not be loyal to their adopted land).

In short they predicted that the undisciplined, polyglot American rabble would resist conscription and European-style mass mobilization. Instead, any declaration of war would be mostly symbolic, or as Bethmann-Hollweg summarized the military leaders’ argument: “America's assistance, in case she enters the war, will consist in the delivery of food supplies to England, financial support, delivery of airplanes and the dispatching of corps of volunteers.” And its armed forces were so pathetically small that even if America did fight, Hindenburg and Ludendorff assured the civilians, Germany could win the war before it had a chance to mobilize enough men to make a difference in Europe. 

It’s worth pointing out that even at this critical stage, not everyone was convinced. Indeed Bethmann-Hollweg sounded a skeptical note during the meeting, observing, “Admiral von Holtzendorff assumes that we will have England on her knees by the next harvest… Of course, it must be admitted that those prospects are not capable of being demonstrated by proof.” Nevertheless he bowed to the general’s convictions, thus completing the submission of Germany’s civilian government to its military.

When the decision was publicized at the end of the month, everyone understood that Germany’s fate was riding on the outcome. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat living in Berlin, confided in her diary: “We all know and feel that Germany is playing her last card; with what results, no one can possibly foretell.” Unrestricted U-boat warfare would resume on February 1, 1917.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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13 Smart Facts About The Big Bang Theory
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CBS Entertainment

The Big Bang Theory, which has held the title of television's most popular comedy for several years now, and will return for its 11th season on Monday, September 25th. In the meantime, geek out with these facts about the long-running cerebral comedy on the 10th anniversary of its premiere.

1. THE SHOW WASN’T PITCHED IN A TRADITIONAL WAY.

Instead of writing up a premise—which includes outlines of the characters and the long-term vision for the show—and pitching it to CBS, co-creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady revealed at PaleyFest in 2009 that for their pitch, they wrote a complete script, hired actors, and, as Lorre explained, “put on a show” for CBS president Les Moonves. Lorre found the experience to be “crazy,” but it obviously worked.

2. IT TOOK TWO PILOTS FOR THE SHOW TO GET PICKED UP TO SERIES.

The show filmed two different pilots, because CBS didn't like the first one but felt the show had potential. The first pilot began with a different theme song and featured Sheldon, Leonard, and two female characters, including a different actress playing what would become the Penny role. Chuck Lorre thought the initial pilot “sucked” but is open to having the unaired pilot included as part of a DVD.

3. JIM PARSONS THOUGHT HE WAS AUDITIONING FOR A GAME SHOW.

Amy and Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory.
CBS Entertainment

When Jim Parsons’s agent called and said Chuck Lorre wanted him to audition for a pilot, Parsons misunderstood. “I did not know Chuck Lorre at the time,” Parsons told David Letterman in 2014. “I thought he was talking about Chuck Woolery. I thought, why are they so excited about it? We should see what the man has to offer before we’re like, ‘It’s a new Chuck Woolery pilot!'"

4. ED ROBERTSON OF THE BARENAKED LADIES HESITATED TO WRITE THE THEME SONG.

As the story goes, Lorre and Prady went to a Barenaked Ladies concert and were impressed that lead singer Ed Robertson sang a song on cosmological theory, so they tapped him to write the series' theme song, called “The History of Everything." In 2013, Robertson told CBS News that he’d previously written some songs for TV and films only to have his work rejected, so he was initially reluctant to take on the project.

“I was like, look, how many other people have you asked to write this? I’m at my cottage, I got a couple of weeks off right now and if you’ve asked Counting Crows and Jack Johnson and all these other people to write it, then I kinda don’t want to waste my time on it,” Robertson told them. Lorre and Prady told Robertson he was their only choice, so Robertson agreed to come on board. The first version was 32 seconds long but Robertson had to trim it down to 15 seconds. The original version was also acoustic, which Lorre loved, but Robertson insisted that his bandmates be on the track, and Lorre loved that one even more.

5. SHELDON PROBABLY DOESN’T HAVE ASPERGER’S.

Because of Sheldon’s anti-social nature, viewers have often assumed that Sheldon has Asperger's syndrome. But Prady has stated that, "We write the character as the character. A lot of people see various things in him and make the connections. Our feeling is that Sheldon's mother never got a diagnosis, so we don't have one.”

Parsons himself isn’t totally sure, though. “Asperger’s came up as a question within the first few episodes. I got asked about it by a reporter, and I had heard of it, but I didn’t know what it was, specifically,” he told Adweek in 2014. “So I asked the writers—I said, ‘They’re asking me if Sheldon has Asperger’s’ and they were like, ‘No.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ And I went back and I said, ‘No.’ And then I read some about it and I went, OK, well, if the writers say he doesn’t, then he doesn’t, but he certainly shares some qualities with those who do. I like the way it’s handled ... This is who this person is; he’s just another human.”

6. KUNAL NAYYAR GOT HIRED BECAUSE HE WAS “CHARMING."

CBS Entertainment

In reminiscing about the early days, Prady explained to Buzzy Mag how Raj came to be: “When we were casting for that part, we were casting for an international member of the ensemble, [because] if you go into the science department at a university, it’s not [just] Americans,” Prady said. “It’s one of the most international kinds of communities. So we saw foreign-born people. And so we saw people who were Korean and Korean-American and Latino. And then Kunal came in and it was like Jim [Parsons]—it was just Person Number Eight on a day of Twenty-Seven people, and he was charming.”

7. AMY FARRAH FOWLER WAS MADE A NEUROSCIENTIST ON PURPOSE.

Mayim Bialik, who in real life has a PhD in neuroscience, told Variety how Amy Farrah Fowler’s profession came to be. “They didn’t have a profession for my character when I came on in the finale of season three,” she says. “In season four, Bill Prady said they’d make her what I am so I could fix things (in the script) if they were wrong. It’s neat to know what things mean. But most of the time, I don’t have to use it.”

8. ASTROPARTICLE PHYSICIST/SCIENCE CONSULTANT DAVID SALTZBERG ONCE GOT A JOKE ON THE AIR.

The Big Bang Theory has had David Saltzberg on retainer since the beginning of the series. Every week he attends the tapings and offers up corrections and ensures the white boards used in the scenes are accurate. During episode nine of the first season, Saltzberg wrote a joke for Sheldon, who has a fight with another scientist. Penny asks Sheldon about the misunderstanding and Sheldon replies, “A little misunderstanding? Galileo and the Pope had a little misunderstanding!”

Even though Saltzberg teaches at UCLA and publishes papers, he thinks his work on The Big Bang Theory is more impactful. “This has a lot more impact than anything I will ever do,” he told NPR. “It’s hard to fathom, when you think about 20 million viewers on the first showing—and that doesn't include other countries and reruns. I’m happy if a paper I write gets read by a dozen people.”

9. WIL WHEATON GOT THE “EVIL WIL WHEATON” GIG THROUGH TWITTER.

Wil Wheaton and Jim Parsons in a scene from The Big Bang Theory.
Sonja Flemming - © 2012 CBS Broadcasting, Inc

Wil Wheaton, who plays a “delightfully evil version” of himself on the show, tweeted about The Big Bang Theory. Wheaton told Larry King, “I was talking on Twitter about how much I loved the show and how I thought it was really funny.” Executive producer Steven Molaro—who will be taking on the same role in the Young Sheldon prequel, which also premieres Monday night—saw the tweet and told Wheaton to let him know if he wanted to come to a taping. A few days later Wheaton received an email from Bill Prady’s assistant about appearing on the show. “I just thought the email was a joke from one of my friends, so I just ignored it,” Wheaton said.

When Wheaton realized that the email was legit he phoned up Prady, who explained they wanted a nemesis for Sheldon. “It’s always more fun to be the villain,” Wheaton said. Even though the character has evolved into Sheldon’s ally, Wheaton said, “I still call him Evil Wil Wheaton.”

10. CHUCK LORRE THOUGHT THE SHOW AIRING AT 8 P.M. WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE END.

The show aired a handful of episodes in the fall of 2007, but a Writers Guild strike halted production until the following year. When the show returned in March, it had an earlier time slot. During a 2009 Comic-Con panel with the show’s cast and producers, the moderator asked Lorre about how CBS once again changed the time slot, this time from Mondays at 8 p.m. to Mondays at 9:30 p.m. “You guys followed us when they put us on at 8 and that is what kept us alive,” Lorre replied. "We did eight shows before the strike took us out in our first season. When the strike was over, CBS put us on at 8 p.m. and we thought that might be the end of it. You followed us and kept us alive and that was when we got the two-year pickup when we did well at 8.” The show eventually returned to the Mondays at 8 p.m. slot.

11. PARSONS ATTRIBUTES THE SHOW'S SUCCESS TO ITS LACK OF CHARACTER ARCS.

In a 2014 interview with New York Magazine, Parsons gave his theory (if you will) on why The Big Bang Theory attracts more than 20 million viewers per week—a number unheard of since the Friends-era sitcom reign. “There’s not anything to keep up with,” he said. “You don’t go, ‘I didn’t see the first three seasons, and now they’re off with prostitutes, and they no longer work in the Mafia, and I don’t understand what happened.’ People have so many choices on TV now, so no one’s asking for you to marry us. You can enjoy our show without a weekly appointment.”

12. A NEW GENUS OF JELLYFISH IS NAMED BAZINGA.

CBS Entertainment

In 2011, a photographer spotted the unnamed grape-sized rhizostome in Australia’s Brunswick River, snapped a photo of it, and sent the photo to marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin. In 2013, she named the jellyfish and published a paper on it for the Queensland Museum. In her findings she called it “a new genus and species of the rhizostome jellyfish, which cannot be placed in any known family or suborder.” She told The Huffington Post that it’s the first time in more than 100 years that a new sub-order of jellyfish had been discovered. For now, it’s the only member of the genus Bazinga, the family Bazingidae, and the sub-order Ptychophorae. Sheldon’s catchphrase also inspired the naming of a new bee species in 2013.

13. THE CAST MEMBERS ARE SOME OF THE WORLD’S HIGHEST PAID TV ACTORS.

In August 2017, Variety released a list of television's highest paid actors, and the main cast members of The Big Bang Theory—Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg, and Kunal Nayyar—came out on top for comedy, earning an average of $900,000 per episode.

BONUS FACT: WE'RE ON THE COFFEE TABLE!

Image credit: Wil Wheaton

In 2010, Wil Wheaton shared this close-up of the coffee table in Sheldon and Leonard's apartment. "I saw a lot of things that could have been on my own coffee table," he wrote, "so I decided to grab a picture."

Here's one from 2014:

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