Neckties: The Mercenary Origin [17th Century Europe]

Neckties are so egregiously uncomfortable and inconvenient that they demand an explanation, being far past any reasonable excuse.

Like so many subsequent European disasters, the modern necktie can trace its roots back to the Thirty Years’ War [1618 CE -1648 CE].

Johan Tserclaes, Count of Tilly [died 1632], was one of the leading generals of the Imperial Catholic League forces. Unsatisfied with the ruthlessness of the soldiers under his command, he scoured Europe for the most bloodthirsty, unprincipled mercenaries on the continent, finding them in what is now Croatia. They fulfilled Tilly’s expectations during the sack of Magdeburg in 1631, helping massacre roughly 25,000 of the city’s approximately 30,000 inhabitants. Magdeburg never fully recovered, and is often forgotten, but the mercenaries went on to contribute an essential component of the European gentleman’s wardrobe.

The Croatians had taken to wearing bits of cloth around their necks, though it is debatable if these early neckties originated as decorations or napkins, or a combination of the two, however strongly the simple rags originally worn by the enlisted men beneath their chins suggest etiology as a prandial hygiene aid.

By the time the Croatians switched their allegiance to the very Catholic King of France, who was a better paymaster even if he was fighting on the Protestant side, Gallic fashion sense had made the Illyrian neck-cloths a fad known as the cravat, which is roughly how you pronounced Croat in the French of the day.

Charles II, otherwise arguably the most intelligent king England ever had, is usually credited with introducing the cravat to the English speaking world when he returned from his exile in France. One can forgive the vivacious Nell Gwyn’s patron much, but the necktie tries the limits of patience and clemency.

Further Reading:

• Perhaps the best introduction to the Thirty Years’ War in English is Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War.

• Any good etymological dictionary will provide details of the origin of the word cravat. The term has cognates in over 30 languages, including most European tongues, and ranging as far afield as Viet Nam.


The Trinity and the Triads: Criminals and the Boxer Rebellion 1899 CE – 1901 CE

Between 1899 CE and 1901 CE the Chinese uprising known in English speaking countries as the Boxer Rebellion specifically targeted Western Christian missions, their missionaries, and their Chinese inhabitants with a furious violence that can only partially be explained by xenophobia and anti-imperialism.

One of many reasons raised for attacking the missions, that they constituted a network of criminal activity, appeared so bizarre to Westerners that they often passed over it in silence when they did not ignore it altogether.

Many in the West then and since were sincerely baffled as to why the self-sacrificing proselytizers of Jesus should have been selected for special persecution. Though Mark Twain insightfully limned the missionaries’ humanitarian shortcomings as agents of European and American power, as well as their failures as improvers of morality, in his short anti-imperialist masterpiece To the Person Sitting in Darkness, he did not understand China well enough to fully explain the hatred of the missions by the Boxers and their many supporters.

Anti-Christian sentiment has strong historic roots in China. The Christian inspired Taiping Rebellion of 1850 – 1864 resulted in at least 20 million Chinese deaths, and was only defeated when the British, French, and an American soldier of fortune named Frederick Townsend Ward joined forces with the detested Manchu Qing Dynasty to combat the rebels.

Ward, born in Salem, Massachusetts, had gone native, marrying a local widow and coming to the conclusion, revolutionary among Westerners for the time, that Chinese men, properly trained and motivated, would make excellent soldiers, as he had observed in the Taiping ranks. The Ever Victorious Army he put together won an impressive string of fights before Ward was shot in the gut and killed on a battlefield outside of Ningbo in 1862. The Englishman Gordon appropriated his Army and much of his reputation; an American subordinate almost certainly stole his money.

The French and English turned against the nominally Christian Taiping for a number of reasons, the most important of which was that the rebels threatened to establish a state strong enough to successfully oppose dismemberment of China by the European imperialist powers. The Manchu Qing Dynasty was a known, weak, and easily vanquished foe. Besides, Taiping Christianity was of a decidedly heterodox sort.

Its founder Hong Xiuquan was a would-be bureaucrat who kept failing the Chinese Imperial Civil Service examination. Profoundly humiliated, he had a nervous breakdown and a vision of ascending to heaven where God the Father and Jesus recognized him as Jesus’ Younger Brother, and indicated to him that it was his destiny to start a ruckus on earth. Most of Hong’s notions of Christianity appear to have come from Protestant missionary tracts rather than the Bible. Some 20 million dead later, including Hong Xiuquan, his captured son pleaded unsuccessfully that he be spared execution so he could take the civil service exam that had so baffled his father.

The defeat of the Taiping, and that of the smaller contemporary uprising known as the Nian Rebellion, opened up broad swaths of China to foreign Christian missions.

But the missions were not technically part of China, or subject to Chinese law. Some details of the workings of the principle of extraterritoriality explain a good deal of the widespread Chinese hatred of the Christian missions. To better understand the situation, however, it is necessary to look at the legal system of Imperial China.

To simplify a bit, a confession was required for a guilty verdict. Criminals and society could not improve unless wrongdoing was acknowledged by the perpetrator. To prevent hardened criminals from escaping reform or punishment, torture was selectively applied to obtain confessions. Court officials ran the risk of truly horrifying penalties if they were found to have tortured an innocent suspect.

The missionaries and their foreign sponsors were appalled. They convinced their governments to force the Chinese state to accept that in the missions the laws of the foreign country applied. Chinese law was null and void on mission grounds. This had unintended consequences. Members of Chinese criminal societies, often referred to in English as triads, soon took advantage of the situation, as did opponents of the Chinese government. Both criminals and revolutionaries were commonly referred to as bandits.

If a criminal could escape the long arm of the Chinese law by droning some unmelodic songs and occasionally ingesting a small bit of sour grape wine and dry bread, it was a small price to pay. Many of the foreign missionaries had a naïve belief in the efficacy of repentance and remission of sins in cases where there was not even regret. A surprizingly large number of missions became safe havens for organized crime in their territories. This fact was often unknown to the missionaries, and widely resented by their victimized Chinese neighbors.

Not all Western missionaries were so oblivious, but enough were to condemn the class as a whole when the Boxers finally rebelled to express their grievances.

The missions led the Western nations in their calls for reparations and vengeance after suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. They demanded silver and occasionally heads, no doubt in the spirit of Christian charity.

Mao later praised the nominally Christian Taiping forces for their communitarianism and their opposition to the binding of women’s feet.

Further Reading:

• There are many books on the Boxer Rebellion, too many of which in English focus on the foreign legations in Beijing or see the missionaries and the missions’ Chinese inhabitants as simple martyrs. David Silbey’s The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China sets context for the imperialist threat to the Middle Kingdom. Joseph Esherick’s The Origins of the Boxer Uprising redresses the overemphasis on European and American experiences usefully, with a helpful focus on the specific causes of Boxer grievances in Shandong.

• Two useful introductions to the Taiping Rebellion are Jonathan Spence’s God’s Chinese Son and Stephen Platt’s Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom. The under-documented life of Frederick Townsend Ward is sketched by Caleb Carr in The Devil Soldier.

• Perhaps the most entertaining way to gain an introduction to the Imperial Chinese justice system is to read Robert van Gulik’s annotated translation of 18th century crime stories, Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.

Potatoes and Germany: 1618 CE – 1648 CE

During slow news cycles, German magazines and newspapers periodically publish stories on why the potato is a healthy food, or why it tastes so good, lovingly specifying its nutrients: calories, vitamins and minerals, all carefully located within the structure of the tuber and its skin. The story behind Germany’s love of the potato is considerably more complex and interesting than such publications usually indicate, however.

When the American-born Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford of baking soda fame, finally established cultivation of the potato as a food crop in Bavaria in the 1780s and 90s, later than had been done in many other German regions, inhabitants of the poor house initially strongly objected to being fed the starchy root. History has never been entirely fair to Thompson, often remembering him more for being Johnny Appleseed’s cousin, or being on the wrong side of the American Revolution, or for so angering his wife that he lost his prized roses, or for designing the Englischer Garten in Munich, rather than for his important work on ballistics, illumination, and thermodynamics, and I have no intention of being so now.

He perhaps deserves a degree of sympathy regarding the flowers: he had dreaded the arrival of a klatch of his wife’s friends, fearing, from experience, that their noise and tumult would disrupt his concentration while he was working on his experiments. After chaining the gates shut to block the arrival of carriages, Thompson retreated to his laboratory only to look up from his work to see his wife and her maids pouring boiling water over his cherished roses. The lady was Lavoisier’s widow, and not to be trifled with. Thompson and Madame Lavoisier separated a year after marrying. Their courtship had lasted four years.

Today each German eats on average 70 kilograms [150 pounds] of potatoes a year. But Germany did not take to the potato eagerly like Ireland, whose uniquely suitable friable soils and small-holds paved the way to the monoculture that led to the disasters of the Famine of the 1840s and 50s.

Germany’s adoption of the potato was even less like the enthusiastic cultivation of the more nourishing sweet potato by the Chinese, who used it to turn previously marginal sandy soils into highly productive fields about the same time they were using maize to transform barely arable hill lands into rich sources of grain. The Chinese people used American crops brilliantly to fuel a remarkable demographic surge that started long before there was a United States of America, succeeding despite egregious misgovernment by the Ming and the Qing Dynasties, insurrections, civil wars, easily preventable diseases, and invasions.

The potato was introduced to Germany as a flowering botanical novelty in 1589, but won widespread acceptance as a foodstuff for farmers and the poor in the 17th century.

To understand Germany’s special regard for the potato it helps, as with so many German historical questions, to look again at the Thirty Years War. Some Germans identify this period of 1618 to 1648 as the greatest disaster in Germany’s history, surpassing even bombing and defeat in World War II and subsequent occupation by the Russians, Americans, British and French. At least 8 million people died in the Thirty Years’ War, the quotidian horrors of which are described vividly by Grimmelshausen in Simplicius Simplicissimus, and in a suitably pedestrian modern manner by Brecht in Mother Courage.

To even briefly summarize the events of the Thirty Years War would take a long time.

Things got weird: towards the end of it the very Catholic King of France came in to help the Protestant side. There is a strong case to be made that a man named Wallenstein invented the modern military-industrial complex during the conflict, and got assassinated for his efforts. Strategies and allegiances were incredibly complex and mutable. But one tactic remained remarkably constant: winter on enemy territory if you could, eating up his food stores rather than your own.

Fields of wheat, rye, and barley were hard to protect. Granaries were easy to pillage. But nourishing amounts of potatoes could be grown in small plots, and the tuber matures, with sugars converting to starches, after the part of the plant above ground dies. The potato is just the sort of clandestine food source a peasant farmer needs when soldiers are likely to requisition his crops. With a bit of dairy added to the diet, potatoes provide enough nutrition for the oppressed and poor to survive and reproduce, as Irish history attests.

In mid-17th century Germany, it was often necessary to be able to hide your food before you could eat it. The potato was a peasant farmer innovation in German nutrition, adopted by higher classes only as a result of the famines of 1719 and 1743.

Frederick the Great, who died in 1786, was such an enthusiastic promoter of potatoes that people leave tubers on his grave to this day. Some poorly informed authors credit him with introducing the potato as food to Germany, ignoring nearly 200 years of peasant achievement. Such efforts are as misleading as the statue to Sir Francis Drake in Offenburg, which lauds his role in disseminating the potato without ever mentioning the agricultural genius of the Andean cultivators and that of their neighbors on the Chilean plains who developed this staple of world nutrition.

Further Reading:

• For the introduction of American food crops to Europe and Asia, there is still no better place to start than Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange.

• Carolus Clusius is as well known for his work on tulips as his introduction of the potato and its flower to the Low Countries and Germany: the Leiden University Library has drawn up useful bibliographies and summaries.

• Sanborn Brown’s biography Benjamin Thompson – Count Rumford has been a classic since it was published in 1979.

• Perhaps the best introduction to the Thirty Years War in English is Peter Wilson’s The Thirty Years War.

Unintended Consequences of the Original Crusade: The Defeat of Persia [623 CE – 624 CE]

The great power struggle that defined much of the Roman Empire’s history was the conflict with Persia. Celts and Germans could come and go, often with disastrous consequences, but the Persian threat, in many ways a malign inheritance from the Greeks, remained a constant problem for Rome ever since the Republic expanded into the Eastern Mediterranean. Julius Caesar was planning a campaign against the Persians when he was mobbed and cut down in the portico of the building where the Senate was meeting; the Roman and Byzantine Emperors were regularly bedeviled and occasionally killed by armies of the traditional enemy from the Iranian plateau.

A brief summary of the career of the Emperor Heraclius [575 CE – 641 CE] illustrates the unexpected climax to this great rivalry.

When Heraclius became emperor in Constantinople in 610, the situation was dire. The Western Empire, partially reconquered in the middle of the preceding century at crippling cost by Justinian’s generals, had shattered beyond recovery, and the Persians fought their way to the Bosporus shortly after Heraclius took the throne.

Worse, by 616 the Persians had invaded Anatolia again and occupied Egypt, the imperial granary, taking Jerusalem with its holy sites along the way. Heraclius briefly considered transferring the seat of the Empire to the unravaged lands of North Africa, centered on what is now known as Tunisia.

It took Heraclius a decade to stabilize the situation in the East. He called for what amounted to a crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the Persians, who at this time by and large followed a form of Zoroastrianism, in terms that anticipated those later used by West European invaders of the Middle East. Forging an alliance with the Khazars, who are better known for their 8th Century conversion to Judaism and their contribution of a bride selection ceremony to Byzantine court ritual, on the northern border of the Iranian Plateau, Heraclius wisely decided to attack the Persian homeland rather than undertake a grinding war of attrition to regain devastated provinces along the Roman border.

Heraclius invaded the Iranian Plateau from the north in a brilliant campaign [623 – 624]. Though fighting was to last half a decade more, the Romans so convincingly defeated the Persians on their home soil that Persian aristocrats deposed and murdered their emperor Chosroes II and begged for peace while their troops still occupied half of the Mediterranean East. It took the better part of a year to transfer power in the provinces, but the Eastern Roman Empire’s frontiers were restored. The crusade had every appearance of total success.

The Byzantine troops expressed their religious feelings in part by extinguishing the Persian’s sacred flame and defiling the Persian’s sacred well. The pious of Christendom praised Heraclius for recovering the True Cross on which Jesus had been crucified. Over time, relics purporting to be from this artifact proliferated throughout Europe, suggesting an unusually massive or perhaps self-replicating piece of wood.

Both the Byzantine and Persian Empires were exhausted by the conflict.

Operating for the most part beneath their notice were the Arabs, who had long been valued as barbarian mercenaries. But the Arabian Peninsula had been religiously and politically united by the Prophet Mohammed. There is a strong and plausible tradition of a letter having been sent to Heraclius in the name of Mohammed. There is unfortunately no compelling proof the Byzantine Emperor ever received or read such a missive, if it indeed existed.

Unless he dies young, no hero lives forever. In the fullness of time, the golden youth of Heraclius gave way to a bloated old age. He lost much of his prestige with his people for marrying his niece.

By 634 the first army of the great Arabian Conquest had been formed. Neither the Byzantines nor the Persians understood that their time honored method of controlling Arabian marauders, subsidizing the nearest sheik, was no longer adequate or even remotely possible.

Exhausted by age and infirmity, with his country still rebuilding from its prodigious military efforts, Heraclius could not stop the Arabs from taking the provinces he had won back from the Persians. The forces of the Caliphate quickly conquered Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia [636 – 646], and were with difficulty temporarily turned back from Tunisia. At about the same time, Lombards and Visigoths relieved the Byzantines of small but crucial territories in Italy and Spain. Heraclius must have believed his life’s work was in vain.

His Persian foes, if they had time to spare him a thought, might have considered him lucky by comparison. The Arabs, treating the deserts near and in Persia as seas only they could navigate, attacked at will and overran the Iranian plateau by 649. Still prostrate from their defeat by Heraclius, the Persians could not mount an adequate defense.

A few aristocrats hid out in the mountains, but the ancient civilization of Persia became a part of the Islamic Caliphate. In time, the Iranians established what independence they could by adherence to Shiite rather than orthodox Sunni beliefs, but their ancient religion, deeply wounded by the crusading Heraclius, lived on only in attenuated form in persecuted minority populations scattered from Mesopotamia to India.

The conquest of Byzantine and Persian provinces of the Middle East and eastern Northern Africa eventually provided the resources for the Caliphate to expand across all of North Africa as well as much of South and Southeast Asia. Thus the most lasting creation of the original crusading Christian ruler is the belt of Islam running from the gates of Spain through North Africa, the Mideast, and South Asia to Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

Further Reading:

• Geoffrey Regan’s First Crusader: Byzantium’s Holy Wars offers an accessible account of the career of Heraclius in English.

• For the full sweep of Rome’s conflict with Persia, painted in broad strokes with illuminating detail, selectively perusing Colin McEvedy’s The [New] Penguin Atlas of Ancient History and The [New] Penguin Atlas of Medieval History will be rewarding.

• Hugh Kennedy’s The Great Arab Conquests provides a useful overview of its subject.

The Czech Legion Takes the Long Way Home: World War I and the Russian Revolution [1918 CE – 1920 CE]

Between the ages of 8 and 11, I compulsively read retellings and translations of Xenophon’s Anabasis. Something about the plight of desperate young men stranded in hostile territory by the incompetence of their allies and leaders spoke to the conditions of my childhood, and it was half a decade before I began to become properly aware of the compromising context of the events and the dubious values of the author. It was fortunate I did not run across the even more impressive and complex story of the Czech Legion’s fighting withdrawal of over 4,000 miles [6,500 km] between 1918 CE and 1920 CE, through the entire length of Siberia during the Russian Civil War, until I was older.

At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, roughly 100,000 Czechs fled the Austro-Hungarian Empire to settle in Imperial Russia, mostly around Kiev in the Ukraine. They provided elite reconnaissance units to the Russian Army fighting the Austrians in World War I. During that conflict, Czech and Slovak soldiers conscripted by the Austrians surrendered en masse to the Russians, who parked these troops in prisoner of war camps in central Russia. The approximately 60,000 soldiers of the Czech Legion came primarily from these two sources.

After the abdication of the Czar in 1917, the Russian Provisional Government approved the previously submitted plans of a former Prague University Professor of Philosophy, Thomas Masaryk, for the formation of a Czech Army in Russia. This was to have many unintended consequences, including the loss of Imperial Russia’s gold reserves and the execution of the Czar and his family.

It soon became evident that the Russians were losing the war to the Germans and Austrians. Masaryk proposed withdrawing the Czech soldiers for redeployment on the Western Front via the arctic port of Archangel, but German troop presence soon blocked that plan.

In addition the Germans sent Lenin in a hermetically sealed train to the Finland Station, his first step in fomenting the Bolshevik Revolution.
As German forces were setting up a detached German province in the Ukraine, an adventure related to me by a childhood neighbor who fought in the campaign, and the Bolsheviks by and large ignored the World War to build their power base in the country, the Czechs were on their own, many stranded near Kiev. They wanted to go home to Bohemia.

Fortunately in 1918 they had the only competent military organization in Russia, the invading Germans excepted. Blocked north and west by hostile armies, and south by a welter of dubious nations and roadless wildernesses, they headed east on the Trans-Siberian Railroad after a viciously fought and ultimately successful two-day delaying action against the Germans, who were entering Kiev as the Legion’s first trains departed. The Trans-Siberian Railroad had connected Moscow with the Pacific port of Vladivostok in 1916.

The Czech Legion soon took control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad east of the Volga, creating a command and communications network along its entire length. They operated a telegraph service and a regularly published newspaper in addition to facilities for maintaining and armoring the trains.

Originally observing strict neutrality with regards to the Russian Civil War, they protected their own interests against attacks by local Red forces. Generally successful in avoiding alliances and armed disputes with the egregiously incompetent, corrupt, and brutal Whites, the Czech Legion largely focused on getting home. As part of this effort they had to create a small naval force on Lake Baikal to clear away Russians trying to block their way.

The mere existence and presence of Czech Legion forces changed history. A detached unit of the Legion appeared within two days’ march of Yekaterinburg, a city on the eastern edge of the Ural Mountains, where the Czar was secretly being held prisoner by the Bolsheviks. A local soviet, fearful that the proximity of Legion troops presaged a rescue attempt, killed the Czar and his family. There were no such plans. The Czechs did not know the Czar was there, and the Legion unit never entered the city.

A rear guard of the Legion in Kazan captured 8 negligently guarded train cars loaded with bullion from the Imperial Reserve. They sensibly used much of the gold to buy smooth passage east from potentially obstructive Red units, throwing in the White warlord Admiral Kolchak as a deal sweetener. Over 1,080 pounds [490 kg] of gold went missing, roughly worth $4.5 billion in current U.S. dollars. A small fraction of it was used by the Czechs to charter ships and set up the Legion Bank in Prague, an architectural gem in the center of the city. There has been a great deal of speculation as to the fate of the rest. Much of it reached the Bolsheviks, who at least made better use of it than Kolchak did of the substantial amount of American paper currency in his possession: finding it too difficult and expensive to protect, he ordered it burned. Several American arms and investment companies wound up with significant amounts of the missing gold.

The Americans, in concert with the British, French, and Japanese, invaded the Soviet Union too late to reverse the Revolution, though United States troops did engage in small conflicts with the Reds in Siberia. The Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War had surprizingly little effect on the Czech Legion’s activities.
The Czech Legion evacuated from Vladivostok in 1919 – 1920 using ships from a variety of sources, some chartered with gold bullion. Most of the soldiers returned to Europe via the United States, though some traveled by way of the Suez Canal.

Masaryk led the new nation of Czechoslovakia for most of the years between the First and Second World Wars. A Pan-Slavic enthusiast, it is perhaps kinder he did not live to see the Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia after 1945, much less the Russian and Warsaw Pact crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

Further Reading:

• There’s no more enjoyable way to gain an introduction to the history of the times in Russia than by reading Trotsky’s The Russian Revolution, a rare case in which a principal participant in world changing events could create an intelligent and remarkably frank, if only because it was written in exile, account of what happened.

• Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War and Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891 – 1924 provide a broader scope.

• Joan Mohr’s The Czech and Slovak Legion in Siberia, 1917 – 1922 is a useful English language introduction to the voluminous publications on the topic.

• Willard Sunderland’s The Baron’s Cloak is a helpful reminder of just how crazy the White leaders could be.