Category Archives: history

Using Hitler to prove a point

From Joe Posnanski

Rule 1: It is never a good idea to invoke the name of Hitler to make an unrelated sports-related point — or any unrelated point.
Rule 2: However, if you plan going to bring up Hitler in historical context, see Rule 1.
Rule 3: In certain rare cases, when you are interested in using Hitler to prove a larger truth, see Rule 1.
Rule 4: The one exception to this is … See Rule 1.
Rule 5: Yeah. Rule 1. Always.

Life inside a German POW camp

French POW’s filmed their time in the camp with camera parts smuggled in sausage.

The Austrian camp, close to the border with Czechoslovakia, was originally built for troops taking part in military exercises.

There were 40 barracks, 20 each side of a central aisle. The land was bound by two lines of barbed wire, the perimeter illuminated by floodlights.

Escape seemed almost impossible. Almost…. and it is remarkable that we can see it.

Through some extraordinary ingenuity – and cunning – the men filmed their efforts.

Their rarely seen footage is called Sous Le Manteau (Clandestinely). So professional is it that on first viewing you would be forgiven for thinking it is a post-war reconstruction.

It is in fact a 30-minute documentary, shot in secret by the prisoners themselves. Risking death, they recorded it on a secret camera built from parts that were smuggled into the camp in sausages.

The prisoners had discovered that German soldiers would only check food sent in by cutting it down the middle. The parts were hidden in the ends.

The camera they built was concealed in a hollowed-out dictionary from the camp library. The spine of the book opened like a shutter. The 8mm reels on which the film was stored were then nailed into the heels of their makeshift shoes.

It gives an incredible insight into living conditions within the camp. The scant food they were given, the searches conducted without warning by the German soldiers. They filmed it all, even the searches, right under the noses of their guards.


1943 Battle of Kursk video footage

The Battle of Kursk was a World War II engagement between German and Soviet forces on the Eastern Front near the city of Kursk, (450 kilometers or 280 miles southwest of Moscow) in the Soviet Union in July and August 1943. The German offensive was code named Operation Citadel (German: Unternehmen Zitadelle) and would lead to both one of the largest armored clashes, which is the battle of Prokhorovka, and the costliest single day of aerial warfare in history. The German offensive eventually provoked two soviet counteroffensives code named Operation Polkovodets Rumyantsev (Russian: Полководец Румянцев) and Operation Kutuzov (Russian: Куту́зов). The battle saw the final strategic offensive the Germans were able to mount in the east, and the decisive Soviet victory gave the Red Army the strategic initiative for the rest of the war.

December 1941 by Craig Shirley

December 19411

While on the way to the cabin on Friday, I stopped by Indigo Books and picked up December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World by Craig Shirley.  The book attempts to look at each day of December 1941 in the lead up and aftermath of the attack of Pearl Harbour though a variety of lens to give the month and attack some context.  He examines historical records, news paper accounts and even pop culture as part of this effort to explain the almost instantaneous change in American culture and life because of it’s entry into Word War II.


It’s an entertaining read.  I wandered through the almost 600 pages in two days.  I leaned a lot, especially about the difference in American and British views of how to communicate the war (Churchill laid it all out while FDR chose to reveal as little as possible) but in the end it was a very unsatisfying read.  The editing was awful.  The book got countless historical facts wrong (like the tonnage of the Price of Wales or the suggestion that England had 500,000 pilots trained).  The there are sentences like, “It was raking in millions each week, mostly for the top four studios: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros.”  The fourth studio was…  Also Pittsburgh was misspelled.  Things like that drove me crazy.


What was interesting to learn was the totalitarian powers that Congress almost immediately gave FDR to win the war.  What was even more interesting is when you realize that once war was won, those powers were taken away from the President.  It speaks to the ability the United States has to make and remake itself as the context determines it.  It will be interesting to see if the U.S. ever returns to a pre-9/11 mindset.

Rita Hayworth

I think the other thing the book did well was explain the events leading up to Pearl Harbour from Japan’s perspective.  While in no ways does it justify the attack, it does explain a little of what the Japanese were thinking through their militaristic cabinet.  I am not sure that I would recommend the book, there are just simply too many mistakes in it but it wasn’t a bad way to spend the weekend.

Japanese students are taught almost nothing about WWII

Japan like a lot of country’s with a dark past, struggle with educating their students about subjects like WWII.

There was one page on what is known as the Mukden incident, when Japanese soldiers blew up a railway in Manchuria in China in 1931.

There was one page on other events leading up to the Sino-Japanese war in 1937 – including one line, in a footnote, about the massacre that took place when Japanese forces invaded Nanjing – the Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanjing.

There was another sentence on the Koreans and the Chinese who were brought to Japan as miners during the war, and one line, again in a footnote, on “comfort women” – a prostitution corps created by the Imperial Army of Japan.

There was also just one sentence on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Return to sender?

University of Chicago receives incredible package for Dr. Indiana Jones and would like to identify its sender.

Package for Dr. Indiana Jones

What we know: The package contained an incredibly detailed replica of “University of Chicago Professor” Abner Ravenwood’s journal from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. It looks only sort of like this one, but almost exactly like this one, so much so that we thought it might have been the one that was for sale on Ebay had we not seen some telling inconsistencies in cover color and “Ex Libris” page (and distinct lack of sword). The book itself is a bit dusty, and the cover is teal fabric with a red velvet spine, with weathered inserts and many postcards/pictures of Marion Ravenwood (and some cool old replica money) included. It’s clear that it is mostly, but not completely handmade, as although the included paper is weathered all of the “handwriting” and calligraphy lacks the telltale pressure marks of actual handwriting.

What we don’t know: Why this came to us. The package does not actually have real stamps on it— the outside of the package was crinkly and dirty as if it came through the mail, but the stamps themselves are pasted on and look like they have been photocopied. There is no US postage on the package, but we did receive it in a bin of mail, and it is addressed to the physical address of our building, Rosenwald Hall, which has a distinctly different address from any other buildings where it might be appropriate to send it (Haskell Hall or the Oriental Institute Museum). However, although now home to the Econ department and College Admissions, Rosenwald Hall used to be the home to our departments of geology and geography.

If you’re an applicant and sent this to us: Why? How? Did you make it? Why so awesome? If you’re a member of the University community and this belongs to you or you’ve gotten one like it before, PLEASE tell us how you acquired it, and whether or not yours came with a description— or if we’re making a big deal out of the fact that you accidentally slipped a gift for a friend in to the inter-university mail system. If you are an Indiana Jones enthusiast and have any idea who may have sent this to us or who made it, let us know that, too.

Our Parliament is Falling Apart

While democracy in Canada has seen better days, Centre Block which holds the House of Commons and the Senate is struggling as well.

The Centre Block of Canada’s three-part Parliament Buildings — which houses the Senate, the House of Commons and prime minister Stephen Harper’s office — is “seriously deteriorating” and will “reach the end of its life cycle” in seven years, according to the man in charge of renovations on Parliament Hill.

It’s a nail biter because work on a temporary home for the House of Commons in the West Block isn’t expected to be finished until 2017 and, in the meantime, tape, wood and netting are holding together parts of the iconic structure.

This past February, water leakage in Centre Block caused one of two transformers providing power to the Hill to explode “because it came to the end of its useful life,” Assistant Deputy Minister Pierre-Marc Mongeau told the Government Operations Committee Thursday.

The neo-gothic stone building — the only one in the world to be so well conserved — was re-built in 1922 after a fire destroyed the original building.

But, despite the ongoing efforts of maintenance staff to “do all they can,” Mongeau told the committee that the building’s aging structural, mechanical and technical systems are at “a critical risk of total failure by 2019.”

Mongeau said if the systems fail, the building could become unsafe for use requiring it “to be shut down.”

In 1994 and 1995, the façade of the building was repaired, but Mongeau said the other three less-visible sides were not.

Ventilation towers are “taped,” with wood pieces around them and pieces of stained glass windows in the House of Commons are beginning to fall out, he said.

“That means that we need to put in a net protection around those windows and visually that doesn’t look so good,” he said.

“Clearly it’s not likely to get better until it’s fixed,” said Liberal MP John McCallum, “but, I think (Mongeau) felt that it was manageable.”

“I’ve been there for 12 years and I’ve never had the feeling that it’s falling apart,” he said. “There are things that need repair, and it’s unfortunate that it’s going to take so many years before it’s done, but I’ve never been sitting in Parliament or walking around Centre Block thinking that I’m in a crumbling building.”

However, he said the building is the “central block of our democracy” and he’d “rather wait a few more years… and have a building of which we can be proud than do it faster and make mistakes.”

Conservative MP Mike Wallace wasn’t surprised to hear about the problems due to the sheer age of the buildings, although he said he hadn’t noticed any obvious signs of the deterioration.

“It is a fair age and, if you look around your own home, the older it gets, the more work it needs,” he said.

Mongeau was not available for comment Friday.

The House of Commons is expected to be re-housed in the modernized “energy efficient” West Block — complete with a three-layer glass ceiling, which will trap heat and supply 10 per cent of the building’s energy needs on sunny days, “even in winter” — before its end-of-life date in 2019.

The Senate will be moved to the East Block.

Painstaking rehabilitation work began on the West Block in earnest in 2007 after workers finished completely overhauling both the exterior and the interior of the 130-year-old Library of Parliament Building in the spring of 2006.

For those of us who call Saskatoon home and watched the almost painfully slow rehabilitation of the Peter McKinnon Building knows how long it takes to bring back a building to life.  Renovations change the way a building works, materials interact differently then expected, and then you have to decide what it is going to have to in the future and make it work in the context of the original architectural vision.  It’s harder than it looks.

The Greatest Marine Disaster in the History of Saskatoon

I love this story

Steamboats rarely used the South Saskatchewan River because the shallow waters made for unreliable service. Not to be deterred, the Medicine Hat hotelier and Scottish nobleman Horatio Ross commissioned a new boat in 1906-07 to connect the newly completed railway at Medicine Hat to points downstream. The sternwheeler, the S.S. City of Medicine Hat, was 40 m long and had a draft of only 0.6 m.

On June 7, 1908 the boat proceeded downstream during the high water and tricky currents of the spring flood. It cleared the Grand Trunk Railway Bridge at Saskatoon and was gingerly attempting the passage under the Canadian Northern Railway Bridge when its rudder and sternwheel became entangled in a submerged telegraph line. The captain lost control and the ship drifted downstream striking the pier of the Traffic Bridge. The ship rode up the pier and wrecked. All on board but the ship’s engineer clambered on to the bridge. He took to the water and swam to shore downstream. Some remnants of the wreck have been recovered recently.

It’s a great story for two reasons.

  1. No one was hurt.
  2. We actually use the term “The Greatest Marine Disaster in the History of Saskatoon” with a straight face.