Archive for April, 2008

Today’s History Lesson marks an event witnessed by none, assisted by few, but celebrated by millions.  On April 30, 1945, Mr. and Mrs. Adolf Hitler (one day after tying the knot) committed suicide.  Eva took a cyanide capsule, as did Adolf, who simultaneously shot himself.  And thus was ended the life of one of history’s greatest tyrants.  Their bodies were removed from bunker deep below the Chancellery, placed in a bomb crater, doused with gasoline, and burned.

But suicide had not been the original plan for Hitler.  Many of his staunchest supporters had suggested, and even started preparing, escape before the Russians reached Berlin.  There was talk of retreat to the Bavarian mountains and a final stand in the redoubts there.  And South America offered a possible refuge and a place to start anew.

But on April 22, 1945, after yet another tirade against his Generals, Hitler decided to take his life.  So with the Russians just down the street, Hitler did just that…and the mass exodus began.  Like rats on a sinking ship, the “citizens” of the Chancellery scattered, hoping to somehow escape.  Quite a few did make their getaway, many more did not.

Recommended Reading: Hitler: A Study in Tyranny

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The thought of a wedding conjures up all sorts of images.  For some, it’s the bride’s white dress and a big church with an orchestra.  For others, it’s a sunny island beach somewhere in the Pacific with a few guests milling around in the ocean breezes.  Still others have in their mind’s eye a plateful of food, a piece (or two) of delicious cake, and that yummy carbonated punch with crushed ice or sherbet in it.  You can probably guess which image is mine…as I head up for another glass.

Whatever the pictures, it’s pretty safe to say that our idea of the “perfect wedding” doesn’t include a subterranean bunker.  The lights flickering on and off, mostly due to enemy artillery fire, isn’t generally our idea of a “Wedding of Whimsy”.  And it won’t bring tears of joy to your eyes knowing that pretty much everyone in town that’s not in the wedding party wants to kill you, your husband, and everyone that is in the wedding party.

But those were the circumstances surrounding Eva Braun’s wedding ceremony on April 29, 1945.  Soviet troops were now in the heart of Berlin, fighting just down the street from the Chancellery, and exacting their revenge.  For more than three years, the Soviets had suffered bloodshed, brutality, and horror at the hands of their German invaders in Russia, and it was payback time.  Above all else, they wanted to make sure that the one man behind it all, Eva Braun’s new husband, did not escape from his “wedding chapel”.

A white wedding dress?  Any German with one had stuck it on a pole and was looking for the nearest American soldier to wave it at.  Cake?…yeah, right.  And that tasty punch?…nowhere to be found.  I’m sure the two witnesses at the wedding, Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann, had a strong suspicion that some exotic location would not be the Hitlers’ honeymoon destination, though maybe someplace warm would be.

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945 – Max Hastings is one of the finest writer-historians around, and this work only strengthens my claim.

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April 28, 1945 marks the death of Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini.  Il Duce had taken the reigns of Italy in 1922 and had served as its leader until his removal from office and subsequent arrest in July of 1943, when the Allied invasion of Italy began.

For two months he had been constantly moved around, as his captors sought to keep him from the Germans.  But just two months later, a German special ops team, led by Otto Skorzeny, rescued Mussolini and promptly took him to northern Italy, which was still under German control.  There Mussolini set up yet another Facist state that he headed until 1945 when the Allied forces closed in from the south.

And then began Benito’s flight to freedom.  Dressed as a German soldier, he retreated further north with the troops and was heading for Switzerland to escape to Spain when, on April 27, 1945, he and his mistress were captured by communist partisans.  They were moved to Mezzegra, a small town on the Italian-Swiss border, where they were both shot the next day.

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©AP Images

I grew up watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons, and one of the regular features of the show was the PBA Bowling Tour.  For some, bowling isn’t the most exciting sport…roll a ball and knock down pins.  And many will chuckle (or laugh out loud) at the thought of televising a game of bowling.  But ABC did (and still does)…with the crowd in a bowling alley and the announcers speaking in hushed tones as though they’re watching a Tiger Woods birdie attempt on the 16th.

I like to bowl, even though I’m not very good at it.  I generally roll the ball down the lane as hard as I can, in case I hit any pins (I love to watch them scatter).  My scores usually break 100, though as a sophomore in high school, I rolled a 190…my best game ever.  But I’m no Earl Anthony.

Who is Earl Anthony?  Oh my…have you been living under a rock?!?  Earl was only the greatest bowler ever, and a fixture of those televised PBA matches that I watched.  The lefty bowler won a bunch of titles in his career, including a half-dozen PBA National Championship and seven Senior Titles.  Born on April 27, 1938, Anthony’s first love was baseball and he reached the minor leagues before an ankle injury ended his pitching career.  But rather than pack it in, he simply traded pitching off a mound for pitching down the lane, a “perfect-game” decision for the man who became “Bowler of the 20th Century”.

Happy Birthday, Earl!!

Recommended Reading – Winning Bowling – Want to improve your game?  Learn from the best.

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On April 25, 1945, elements of the U.S. 69th Infantry Division advancing from the west met up with Russian soldiers moving from the east.  The meeting point, the Elbe River between Torgau and Strehla, was a scant 50 miles or so from Berlin.

The days preceding the link-up were filled with preparation and anticipation.  Signals between the two forces were arranged and U.S. and Russian tanks were given special markings to reduce the risks of “friendly fire” incidents.  Soldiers kept a keen eye out, hoping to be the first to make contact.

The first meeting occurred about 11:30am, when a U.S. reconnaissance platoon made brief contact with a Russian soldier on horseback just west of Strehla.  Speaking only briefly, he waved them further east and rode off in haste.  A Polish guide then led them to the Elbe River and, crossing over, they met a Russian major and a handful of soldiers an hour later.  Hands were shaken and pictures were taken for the sake of posterity.

There would be other encounters that day, including one with a full Russian rifle regiment near Torgau.  After nearly five years of fighting, the Allies now shared common ground against their beaten, but still kicking, enemy.

Recommended Reading: The Last Offensive – It’s another in the U.S. Army in World War II series and, despite the level of detail, these books are immensely enjoyable to read.

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I doubt that bookworms go to Heaven, but I’m guessing that if they had their druthers, Heaven would look an awful lot like the Library of Congress.  Located in Washington, D.C., it is the largest library in the world (in terms of physical space) and, if you need a book to read, I’ll wager money that this massive archive has it.

On April 24, 1800, President John Adams signed an Act of Congress transferring the seat of government from Philadelphia to a new city, named after the first President.  Part of the Act set aside $5,000 for the purchase of books and maps, as well as a place to house them.  The Library of Congress was born when the first 770 books and maps arrived from London and were placed in the Capitol.

A fire hazard?  Oh yeah.  The Library has burned twice.  It was completely destroyed when the British burned the Capitol in 1814.  And on Christmas Eve, 1851, a second fire destroyed more than half the collection, including much of Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection, purchased after the first fire.

Today, the Library of Congress contains more than 500 miles of shelf space and houses more than 30,000,000 books.  In addition, it possesses another 130,000,000 items, such as recordings, photos, maps, and antiquities.  And thousands of items are added every day.  It is maintained by a staff of several thousand employees and has an annual budget of more than half a billion (yes, billion) dollars.  Most of the photography displayed on Today’s History Lesson comes from the Library of Congress’ huge digital archive.  So while the British Library might have more stuff in it, it’s pretty safe to say that you won’t have to go overseas because you can’t find what you want.

Recommended Reading: John Adams – David McCullough is a terrific author, and his biography of our 2nd President is wonderful.

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The Real Thing.  I’d like to teach the world to sing…  Have a Coke and a Smile.  Coke is it!  The slogans are as familiar to us as the bright red cans.  And for years, Coke had been it.  Since the emergence of carbonated drinks in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Coca-Cola had enjoyed a dominant position in the soft drink hierarchy.  More than half of all soda purchases were Coke.  But that began to change and, by the early 1980’s, the brand was rapidly losing market share to its biggest rival, Pepsi-Cola.

So, the powers-that-be steering the corporate ship at Coke decided on a new course.  The original Coke formula was put away, a “new-and-improved” Coke was created and, on April 23, 1985, it was introduced to the public.

Initial positive reaction very quickly gave way to intense negative criticism for Coca-Cola.  Emotional ties to the original flavor caused an immediate, and powerful, uprising among fans of the brand.  Angry phone calls flooded Coke’s switchboards, hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions, and Pepsi had an advertising field day, suggesting that “The Real Thing” apparently wasn’t so real after all.

Faced with brand mutiny from its proponents and commercial crucifixion from its opposition, the original formula for Coke was quickly dusted off and, a few months later, re-introduced as “Coke Classic”.  And all was right with the world again.

“New Coke” would continue to hold a place on shelves for a few years but, by the early 1990’s, it was history…and few Coke diehards were sorry to see it go.

It’s pretty much the only beverage for me, and that should be all the endorsement you need.  Coke Classic (well, just “Coke” to me) is it!!

Recommended Activity:  Do I even need to write it?  I normally have a Coke on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  But today, I’m enjoying one to celebrate the world’s greatest beverage, and to remember the Great Calamity that Almost Was.  So, at 3pm CDT,  I’ll be imbibing my most favorite drink.  Have a Coke (or two or three) with me.

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