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the work of history

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    No hard feelings, of course. I understand your annoyance.


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    February 11, 1889: The Meiji Constitution is promulgated.

    During the reign of Emperor Meiji, which lasted from 1867 to 1912, Japan was transformed from an isolated, shogunate-ruled nation into an industrialized and unified nation that could compete with Western powers economically and militarily. In 1871 the han - territorial domains of feudal lords - were reorganized into a modern prefecture system (a system that remains in place today) that allowed for direct control by the central government. Certain customs, especially those pertaining to the declining samurai class (such as public sword-carrying privileges), were outlawed outright, while Japanese society looked to Western culture for inspiration. 

    In 1889, the Meiji government adopted a constitution that proclaimed that the new Japanese state would “maintain and secure from decline the ancient form of government” and pursue “a great policy co-extensive with the Heavens and with the Earth”. At the same time, it would “in consideration of the progressive tendency of the course of human affairs and in parallel with the advance of civilization… establish fundamental laws formulated into express provisions of law…” Japan had never before adopted a written constitution, and the Meiji Constitution, which was modeled after that of the German Empire more than any other European country, was in many ways a signal to Western powers that the country was advanced enough, by their standards, to exist as equals on the world stage. Itō Hirobumi, Japan’s first Prime Minister, was largely responsible for researching the governments of the other world powers and for deciding which ideas to incorporate; some of his reasoning can be read in his “Commentaries on the constitution of the empire of Japan”.

    The Empire of Japan, the only world power outside Europe and North America and Asia’s first constitutional government, was born when the Meiji Constitution went into effect in November of 1890. The constitution was nullified in 1947 when the new postwar Constitution of Japan was enacted.

    Other links: An 1890 article from the New York Times reflecting on “old and modern Japan”:

    It has been the mistake as well as the misfortune of our Western world to look upon these far-off peoples as ‘half-civilized’, but the semi-civilization is relative only, not absolute, and it may be open to question whether their half is not quite equal to the fraction we concede them to own in common with ourselves…


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    African-American workers collect the bones of soldiers killed at the Battle of Cold Harbor, April 1865.

    Library of Congress


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    February 12, 1946: Isaac Woodard, a World War II veteran, is beaten by police.

    Sergeant Isaac Woodard was an African-American soldier who had served in the Pacific Theater before being honorably discharged at the end of the war. He had been traveling on a bus from Augusta, Georgia to North Carolina, where his family lived, but his trip soon became much more than the average family visit. Exact details of the event are difficult to ascertain because of conflicting newspaper accounts and the victim’s own partial amnesia following the event, but the confrontation that took place in an alley in South Carolina on February 12, 1946, was nevertheless one immortalized by history as a case of extreme and vile injustice - the beating and blinding and permanent maiming by his own countrymen of a man who had emerged mostly unscathed from serving his country in war.  

    Outside of Augusta, Woodard briefly argued with the driver of his bus, requesting that the bus make a stop so that he could use the restroom; Woodard was let off the bus after the short quarrel and let back on, the problem seemingly resolved. Shortly afterward, however, the bus driver stopped in a town in South Carolina where he contacted the local police, who arrested Woodard for causing “a disturbance” on the bus. After answering “yes” to the policemens’ inquiries rather than “yes, sir”, Woodard was struck in the face with a weapon. In a few moments, the policemen were beating Woodard with their clubs, and sometime during this beating, Woodard’s eyeballs were ruptured. Although newspaper headlines announced that policemen had “gouged” out Woodard’s eyes, it is more likely that repeated blows to his head had simply damaged his eyes to a point beyond repair, although he himself testified specifically that the policemen had aimed for his eyes with their clubs.Woodard spent the following night in jail, suffering from amnesia, and when he woke up, he was completely and permanently blind. 

    Violence against and the mistreatment of black veterans was not an uncommon occurrence in the years following World War II. The cases of Woodard and other Americans like him helped lead to Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981, which abolished racial discrimination in the armed forces. Unfortunately, the trial set up for Woodard’s attackers was a complete failure. Despite having admitted during the trial that he had purposely aimed for, with intent to damage, Woodard’s eyes, the Chief of Police was found not guilty on all charges, and the verdict was received by the courtroom enthusiastically. Woodard was not without his supporters however, chiefly the NAACP and affiliates and notably Orson Welles.


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    February 12, 1809: Charles Darwin is born.

    from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

    On the Origin of Species


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    February 13, 1945: Air raids over Dresden by the USAAF and RAF begin.

    The infamous Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden took place only months before the end of the war in Europe. Like Tokyo, Dresden was firebombed, ravaged by firestorms set by the thousands of incendiary bombs that were dropped over the city between February 13 and 15. During these fire attacks, the heat of the air spiked to a peak temperature of 2700 °F, and infernos on the ground sucked people in, burning hundreds to thousands of people literally to cinders. 

    Dresden was a city of both industrial and military importance, and it had, until 1945, avoided the worst of the Allies’ air raids, making it a logical target for an air attack. At the same time, the city was a cultural center (a point emphasized by German propaganda), it possessed a high population of refugees, and by this time in 1945 the German war effort was already crumbling; as a result, many questioned the legitimacy of the act and the justification for it. Some civilians even believed that the Allies would carefully spare Dresden because of its cultural significance, even as a gesture of goodwill, but either way, Dresden was mostly unprotected from air raids - it was a soft target. One British historian called it “excessive” but not “completely irrational’ on the part of the Allies. Others believe that part of the British motivation in carrying out the attack was simple payback against the destructive raids conducted by the Luftwaffe early in the war; however, the bombing of Dresden claimed nearly the same amount of civilian lives as the eight-month-long Blitz of London - around 25,000.

    Excerpts from Voices from the Third Reich:

    There was a rushing sound in the air, and trees were cracking and falling down. Only later did I realize that this was from the fire…. Earlier, while we were leaving our house, a friend had gone by who had on white gloves… And from under a fallen tree, a hand in a white glove was slowly opening and closing. 

    There was an unmistakable roar in the air: the fire. The thundering fire reminded me of the biblical catastrophes I had heard about in my education in the humanities. I was aghast. I can’t describe seeing this city burn in any other way. The color had changed as well. It was no longer pinkish-red. The fire had become a furious white and yellow, and the sky was just one massive mountain of cloud…

    The next day was Ash Wednesday. The streets of Dresden were filled with debris and bricks. You had to walk on top of it to get anywhere. Dead people were lined on either side of the street - women, children, and soldiers. I remember seeing children with backpacks lying there with their faces to the ground. While walking down that street I heard a man cry out, “Mother!”… He was standing on top of a huge pile of bricks, underneath which his mother was buried. 

    Kurt Vonnegut witnessed the bombing of Dresden as an American soldier imprisoned in the city, and the influence of the experience can be seen in several of his works, although the event is most notably featured in his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five.


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    Theodor Rosenhauer paints the ruins of Dresden’s Japanese Palace after Allied bombing raids destroyed the city, February 1945. 

    Deustche Fotothek


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    February 14, 1778: Fernando Sor is born.

    Study in B minor, Op. 35, No. 22, played by Per-Olov Kindgren


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    February 14, 1818: Frederick Douglass is born.

    In actuality Douglass, like many slaves, did not know the exact date of his birthday (not even the year); instead, he chose to celebrate it on February 14. Douglass had been born a slave in Maryland to a slave woman and an unidentified white man, possibly one of the owners of the plantation on which he had been born. At a young age, he was sent to Baltimore to work for a new master, whose wife taught him to read until her husband put a stop to the lessons; still Douglass honed his reading skills by learning from white children living in his neighborhood. Literacy introduced Douglass to all manner of political writing and anti-slavery material. Later in his life he would write in his autobiography that “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom”. After all, it had been his masters who, fearful that his education would lead to rebellion, had attempted to keep him (and the rest of his fellow slaves) illiterate. In the same book he quoted his master as saying, on the subject of educating slaves:

    A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now… if you teach that nigger… how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.

    Douglass’ autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which he wrote in 1845, eight years after escaping to freedom in New York, was so eloquently written that many readers were skeptical that a black man - and an ex-slave, at that - had actually written the book. Nevertheless, the work proved influential in the growing abolitionist movement, and Frederick Douglass cemented his place as one of the movement’s most important black activists. He believed that education would be the African-American’s most important tool in improving his or her station; he argued that the U.S. Constitution could not be interpreted as a pro-slavery document but, in fact, the opposite; he was for many years an ardent supporter of the women’s rights movement and was the only African-American, man or woman, present at the Seneca Falls Convention. A famously powerful orator, he vehemently criticized the hypocrisy of white American society in his Fourth of July speech, and by 1861 he was one of the most famous black men in the country, acquainted even with the president himself. He lived to see the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and during Reconstruction he was nominated (without his knowledge) as Vice President to the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872. 


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    A Polish girl mourns her sister, who was killed by German machine-gun fire as she picked potatoes outside Warsaw during the German invasion of Poland, September 1939. 

    AP Photo


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    I’m off to the snow for winter break for a few days. Have a nice President’s Day weekend, everyone.


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    Children at the Tule Lake Relocation Center/Tule Lake Segregation Center in Newell, California, play with a scale model of their own barracks, September 1942. 

    National Archives


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    Building the Berlin Wall, August 1961.

    AP Photo


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    February 19, 1942: Franklin D. Roosevelt issues Executive Order 9066

    The order provided for the designation of military areas (to be decided by the Secretary of War and commanders of the U.S. armed forces) from which “any or all persons” could be relocated. No specific ethnic groups or sections of the nation were singled out in the text of the order, but it stated that these new powers would serve as “protection against espionage and against sabotage”. In practice, it resulted in the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, nearly two-thirds of whom were American-born citizens; smaller numbers of German- and Italian-Americans were interned as well, but no ethnic group was targeted by the government to the extent that the Japanese were. 

    Virtually every Japanese-American living on the West Coast was interned, while a small fraction of those living in Hawaii - just over a thousand - suffered the same fate. The justification for the executive order was practical; it was believed that many Japanese, Issei and Sansei alike, could not possibly remain loyal to the United States if it went to war with Japan. It was outwardly practical (the Ni’ihau Incident seemed to prove American suspicions), and it was deeply rooted in racial prejudice. Many white farmers were glad to see their Japanese competition uprooted and displaced; several newspapers printed opinion pieces that supported wholeheartedly the internment based on their own personal feelings toward the Japanese; the American public (including even Theodore Geisel/Dr. Seuss) generally supported the move; and the Supreme Court, the ultimate defender and interpreter of the U.S. Constitution, upheld the constitutionality of the executive order in Korematsu v. U.S. (also see: Hirabayashi v. U.S.).  Camps were run by the Wartime Civil Control Administration and the War Relocation Authority; the largest of these by population were Tule Lake and Poston, but the most well-known today is Manzanar.

    Some Japanese-Americans escaped internment by volunteering to serve in the U.S. Army, and many of them served in the famous 442nd Infantry Regiment, a unit that fought in Europe after 1944. Ironically, while many of its members’ families remained interned at home based on widespread racism and suspicions of disloyalty, this all-Japanese unit eventually became the most decorated infantry regiment in the history of the U.S. Army: twenty-one of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor. 

    Executive Order 9066 was eventually rescinded in 1976, and surviving Japanese internees received payments and apologies from the U.S. government in the 1990s. But money paid four decades later could not compensate for the time lost in the camps; the businesses, homes, farms, and other property sold last-minute at ridiculously low prices by their owners or vandalized and destroyed in their absence; and the humiliation and disillusionment at having been denounced by their own countrymen and rounded up by their own government. 

    Images compiled by The Atlantic


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    An American emerges from his family’s fallout shelter in Medford, Massachusetts wearing protective clothing and carrying a geiger counter, October 1961. 

    AP Photo


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    February 21, 1965: Malcolm X is assassinated.

    Many will ask what Harlem finds to honor in this stormy, controversial and bold young captain - and we will smile. Many will say turn away - away from this man, for he is not a man but a demon, a monster, a subverter and an enemy of the black man - and we will smile. They will say that he is of hate - a fanatic, a racist - who can only bring evil to the cause for which you struggle! And we will answer and say to them : Did you ever talk to Brother Malcolm? Did you ever touch him, or have him smile at you? Did you ever really listen to him? Did he ever do a mean thing? Was he ever himself associated with violence or any public disturbance? For if you did you would know him. And if you knew him you would know why we must honor him.

    Malcolm was our manhood, our living, black manhood! This was his meaning to his people. And, in honoring him, we honor the best in ourselves.

    Eulogy of Malcolm X, delivered February 27, 1965


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    February 22, 1943: Members of the White Rose are executed.

    The White Rose (die Weiße Rose) was one of the most famous anti-Nazi resistance groups working within the borders of the Third Reich; their defiant opposition against Adolf Hitler and the atrocities and oppression of his government was and is especially remarkable when juxtaposed with the traditional image of the apathetic German citizen, oblivious to or unwilling to speak out against the crimes of their own leaders and military. The principal members of the organization were students from the University of Munich - Hans and Sophie Scholl, Alex Schmorell, Willi Graf, Lilo Berndl, Jürgen Wittenstein, Falk Harnack, Christoph Probst, Traute Lafrenz, Katharina Schueddekopf, and Marie-Luise Jahn. Several had refused to join the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls ,(membership was, at that point in the war, compulsory), and most were motivated by moral reasons; some, as medical students, had witnessed the horrors of the war on the Eastern Front, atrocities committed by Germans against civilians, and the conditions of the Jewish ghettos in Warsaw and other cities. 

    The White Rose’s main activity was spreading awareness through leaflets and pamphlets heavily influenced by religious texts, ancient philosophy, and traditional German writers, while avoiding detection by the Gestapo. The second of the six eventual leaflets (and a seventh draft) read:

    The German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the fascist criminals. Each wants to be exonerated of guilt, each one continues on his way with the most placid, calm conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!

    Shortly after the total surrender of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad (and on the same day as Joseph Goebbels’ “total war” speech), a custodian at the university witnessed the Scholl siblings distributing pamphlets at the school, and the two were soon taken into custody by the Gestapo to be interrogated. Hans and Sophie Scholl, along with Christoph Probst, were tried by the People’s Court in a hasty show trial, found guilty, and executed by guillotine all on the same day - February 22,1943. More members were executed in July and October of that year, and others connected to the organization were sentenced to prison terms; however, it was the Scholls, more than any other members of the White Rose, who became symbols of selfless resistance and martyrs in postwar Germany. 

    We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace

    - Leaflet Four


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    February 24, 1920: The Nazi Party is founded.

    The original Nazi Party was founded in 1919 as the German Workers’ Party (DAP), shortly after the end of the first World War. Initial membership was only a few dozen, and the party was one of many many parties across the political spectrum seeking to gain influence in post-World War I Germany; each group offered its own solution, and the solution offered up by Anton Drexler’s nationalist group was only one of, again, many. In late 1919, Adolf Hitler was sent to spy on a party meeting, but he was afterwards invited to become a member himself after Drexler witnessed firsthand Hitler’s raw oratory skill. Adolf Hitler, member #55, rose quickly within the ranks of the party.

    On February 24, 1920, the German Workers’ Party went public and issued its “National Socialist Program” or the 25-point Programme, the political agenda upon which the DAP and the future NSDAP were based. It promoted points of both socialist and nationalist ideals, including the termination of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, equal rights for citizens, restricted immigration, freedom of religion, the nationalization of industry, no citizenship for Jews, racial purity and other points. Soon after Adolf Hitler delivered the program, the German Workers’ Party became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) - or Nazi Party, for short. Nationalism and socialism were both popular philosophies in the unstable environment of post-World War I Germany, and the addition of both terms to the party name (despite Hitler’s hostility toward certain socialist ideals) maximized its appeal to the masses. The German Workers’ Party ran on an antisemitic agenda; its founder was an antisemite; its new chairman (Hitler) was an antisemite; and so the new National Socialist German Workers’ Party, despite its points on equal rights, was explicitly antisemtiic to the core. National socialism sought to eliminate class conflict by achieving solidarity as a nation and unity against a common enemy - “international Jewry” and “Jewish Bolshevism”. 

    The once tiny German Workers’ Party, under its new leader, blossomed; within a decade, it was the second-largest party in the Reichstag. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and initiated his party’s complete takeover of the German government. 


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    A Japanese soldier stands at a captured portion of the Great Wall of China toward the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War, 1937. 

    Library of Congress


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    February 26, 1920: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari) is released.

    This highly influential silent film, directed by Robert Wiene, was one of the early works of the short-lived creative movement known as German Expressionism and one of the finest and most famous examples of early horror cinema. German Expressionism emerged at the end of World War I, and, true to its name, it (with regard to film, at least) was a uniquely German style, although its influence on later films and entire genres, even, was far-reaching.

    With its abstract, often surreal sets, stylized and distinctive look, and notable twist ending, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari introduced, along with other classic pieces of German Expressionist horror - including The Golem (1920) and Nosferatu (1922)- classic elements of horror cinema still in use today, down to the gait of Conrad Veidt’s Cesare. When the NSDAP rose to power in the early 1930s, they promoted their own styles of art and film, and their preferred styles were traditional, conservative, classical styles, nothing like the avante-garde movements of 1920s Germany. Experimentation - which characterized German Expressionism - had no place in the culture of the Third Reich, so many of the filmmakers who had worked in these styles during the Weimar era soon left Germany for France and for Hollywood, where their work could - and did, eventually - heavily impact mainstream cinema.

    Full film online.


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