WTF Fun Fact 12762 – The Signing of the Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence was likely signed on August 2nd. Click to read the full fact.

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If Hitler’s Regime was the Third Riech, Who Were the First and Second?

Ever wonder why the Nazi dominion over Germany was called the “Third Reich” and who the first and second were? Well, wonder no more.

To begin with, the phrase “Third Reich” was first mentioned as the title of a book published by Arthur Moeller van den Bruck in 1923. As you might expect given the moniker for the regime caught on, the book was a hit with the far right in the region.

The author was a German cultural historian, who in the aftermath of the defeat of the First World War pondered the situation of the German nation and saw the newly established Weimar Republic with scepticism, as a non-natural entity. He wished for a more nationalistic solution. A revolution that would bring forth a German form of fascism, incorporating ideas of Nietzsche instead of those of Marx, to combine socialism with nationalism.

You’ll be further unsurprised from this description that this book had a huge influence on the Nazi party – which at the time was still in its early growing phase. Within his musings, Moeller more or less prophesied that a future ideal state with all German peoples (including Austria) would be the “Drittes Reich” in German, which we call the “Third Reich”. A more full translation however would be the “Third Empire”.

So what are those previous Empires, or Reichs? (And to prevent a flood of eye-rolling comments, the German plural of ‘Reich’ would actually be ‘Reiche’, but we’ll do as the English-speaking world does and simply add an ‘s’ to everything.)

As for the “ First Reich”, this refers to the Middle European Empire that began with Charlemagne in 800 CE. On paper, it lasted almost exactly 1000 years, to be precise until the abdication of Francis II of Austria in 1806 CE shortly after the defeat by Napoleon in the battle of Austerlitz. For careful viewers, this duration might already ring a bell, reminding them of the known Hitler proclamations of the “thousand-year Reich”. This exclamation is directly referring to this, later baptised as the “First Reich”, which as we will see served as a form of ideological background.

It is at this point we should mention that nobody except the Nazis called this the “First Riech”. The name by which it is called today is the “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation”.

This medieval entity was not a typical kingdom, united by language and with an established capital and a sort of protoethnic homogeneity like one would find in say, France or England. Rather, while the Empire was indeed mainly Germanic, it incorporated many Italians and Slavic peoples as well.

The first stage was known as the Carolingian empire. The dominion of Charlemagne extended to an area so wide it hadn’t been seen in western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He also aided the pope against an attack from Lombards. The pope – Leo III. – who was at the time rather upset at the Eastern Roman Empire (what we call Byzantium), decided to turn to this Germanic king for an alliance. Long story short, he crowned him a “Roman emperor”, which was an effort to symbolically revive the Western Roman Empire, in which the pope in Rome would play a major role. Despite this, contemporaries would call their kingdom the “Frankish Empire”, even until the 1100s.

Without going into much detail, for the following centuries, the organisation of this state was a loose confederation of states, overseen initially by the ruling monarch. The states each belonged to hereditary dynasties such as the Staufens and the Salians. This phase begins with the Othonian dynasty, most famous for King Otho I.,  to whose reign (according to some historians) the beginning of the German nation can be accredited. This is mainly referring to him convincing most germanic princes to unite under his banner to fend of the Magyars, at the  Battle of Lechfeld in 955 (near today’s Augsburg).

In the coming centuries until the early Renaissance, the grasp of the emperor which seemed at the beginning to be firm, began to gradually slip. This can be attributed firstly to the constant clashes for power with the pope, which undermined the authority of the emperor. The most famous clash ended in 1077 with the emperor Heinrich VI. being excommunicated and begging outside the pope’s castle at Canosa for forgiveness.

The second reason for the loss of control was the unruly nature of the smaller kingdoms within a vast empire.

From the 13th century onwards, the title of Emperor stopped being hereditary. He was instead elected, therefore being dubbed “electus Romanorum imperator”. The privilege of electing the monarch to be crowned by the pope lay with important bishops as well as princes aptly called prince-electors.

Fast-forward around the late 15th century and the full name “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” first appeared, as the territory was concentrated north of the alps in mainly German-speaking areas.

In the meantime, the power of the emperor continued to dwindle. The slow fragmentation intensified after the 30 Years War in the 1600s. At the same time, the kingship in other European powers such as France and Spain was being consolidated as an authoritarian institution (see Louis XIV, “L’état, c’ést moi.”), strengthening a sense of unity or common identity within these regions.

During the reign of Charles V, the empire then became fatally divided along religious lines in the aftermath of the protestant reformation. As Voltaire mentioned sarcastically, the “Holy Roman Empire” was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor even an Empire.

In the last phase of this “Empire”, the main power in the German world was beginning to split between the Prussians in the north and the Austrians in the south. In Prussia, the rulers were the prince-electors of the electorate of Brandenburg, the Hohenzollern, who were proclaimed kings of Prussia in 1701. Austria was led by the Habsburgs, who were to remain the last holders of the title (of emperor) until the end.

This end finally came with the dissolvement by the storm that was Napoleon who swept over the nations in the name of bringing revolution and with cries of “down with aristocracy”… while he simultaneously more or less tried to make himself an emperor.

This brings us to the 19th century when there was a big development in art that subsequently romanticized all medieval things. This genre of art was used in the formation of national ideologies, which in the center of Europe manifested in the desire to unite all German people into one country.

Fast-forwarding a bit more and the Holy Roman Empire was seen by the Nazis as the end of the anarchy of the warlords and the birth of a medieval form of German identity. As such, its strong leaders  were praised, although they had their problems with some aspects. For example Charlmagn killing Saxons by the thousands because of them being pagan allegedly nagging the Saxon-loving Hitler.

Nevertheless, in the scope of romanticizing the past, many of the old kings such as Barbarossa or the aforementioned Otho were portrayed as heroes of the German nation.

The heirlooms of these kings were seen as semi-sacred and were in fact politicized . Such as the famous crown of the empire and other regalia that were in Vienna, the seat of the last Holy Roman Emperors, which were brought to Nuremberg by the Nazis directly after the Anschluss (the taking over of Austria) in March of 1938.

Nuremberg was an embodiment of the old days, thanks to the aura of its medieval city center and ancient castle for one, but also due to the importance of the city itself. Nuremberg was one of the seats of the Imperial Diet (Reichstag) and one of the highest judicial institutions of the Holy Roman Empire (the Reichskammergericht). Also it lay conveniently almost at the center of the pre-war Nazi domain. And so it was chosen as a kind of center for mythicized ancient and modern German traditions- a sort of ideological capital. Therefore, it was home to the most glamorous Nazi party event- the Nurnberg rallies. The 1934 rally was filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, and made into a propaganda film called “Triumph des Willens” (“Triumph of the Will”), from which much of the nazi imagery that people know best comes from.

The imperial relics brought from Vienna, were displayed during the Party Congress of September 1938, six months after the Anschluss with Austria. These relics also included the Holy Lance, the spear that Longinus pierced Christ with, to which magical powers were (of course) ascribed. He who possessed it could not be defeated.

Unfortunately for the Nazis, nobody told the 3rd, 42nd and 45th infantry divisions which captured the city in April 1945, after fierce fighting.

Due to its symbolism, it was chosen by the allies as the place for the trials of the Nazi war crimes, the Nuremberg trials.

So yes, the Nazis cared a lot for what they called the “First Reich”, which, let’s not forget, was defeated by Napoleon in the end. Naturally, with the French at fault, it was yet another thing to go after them for.

This all brings us to the Second Reich.

Without looking too closely at the details, after a very tumultuous 19th century, in 1871, the king of Prussia – the most powerful of the German states – with the help of his generals and the cunning of his chancellor, Bismarck defeated the French under emperor Napoleon III. After this, whilst Paris was still under occupation, he was heralded Kaiser or Emperor of most of the German-speaking nations in­ Versaille.

Talk of a revival of the Holy Roman Empire was in the air. The mere act of naming the new country  “Deutsches Reich”, or “German Empire” was a reference to that. That old empire – brought down by the French – was now united again based on the occasion of defeating the French- and a Napoleon at that.

The most prominent example of the symbolism is the monument at Kyffhäuser (pronunciation: “Kif-Hoy-ser”), which is the third largest of its kind in Germany. Depicted in it is the solemn petrified king Barbarossa in his sleep, and atop of him, as if emerging from the rock, king Wilhelm the first is exiting as an incarnation of the prophecy and saviour of the country.

Despite all this, no one at this point thought of dubbing this empire the “Second Reich”. Yes, the regime did make parallels to the past, but they regarded themselves as a sovereign modern state. One prone to innovation, and not technically a second iteration of the Holy Roman Empire.

After its fall in 1918 however, many felt reminded of that period after Napoleon where they had been humbled by an external enemy and their German Empire dissolved. As previously alluded to, they began seeing the period in which they were living just as another interregnum, a period without a king. Essentially, the people – particularly those opposing the democratic system – were putting their hope in a future empire.

As van den Bruck put it, this “Third Reich” would be a continuation of the previous two, now both viewed as iterations of the destiny of German unity. This Third Reich would – unlike the Holy Roman empire or First Reich – be a truly sovereign one and – unlike the German Empire or Second Reich – inclusive of all German-speaking peoples. Therefore, it would include Austria and Bohemia (which was at the time in Czech). In the Nazi national hymn, “Deutschland über alles”, the area was explicitly mentioned, and the Third Reich should reign over a part of the world ranging from northern Italy (as seen today) to the Baltic and from the Netherlands to Esthonia.

So by dubbing themselves the Third Reich, the Nazis were Implying a natural continuation within German history, even a fulfilment of a prophecy. This also forged a link between themselves, the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire. Of course, thankfully for everyone, including its own citizens, the Third Riech didn’t exactly have the staying power the Nazis had been hoping for.

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How Did the Practice of Calling Liberals Left and Conservatives Right Start?

Depending on the country you live in, political opinion may be varied, or biased in one direction. In democratic countries, you obviously have the option to actually decide what direction your state should move towards via voting. And while a lot of political parties may opt for a safer middle ground usually more relatable for a wider demographic, there will always be the ones standing on, and for, the far right or far left.

But why do we call them that? It turns out the terms actually come with a rich history of their own and while they may mean different things in different countries and plenty of nuance on each side, a general classification comes from Scottish sociologist Robert Morrison MacIver, who in his 1947 treatise ‘The Web of Government’ classified things as such: “The right is always the party sector associated with the interests of the upper or dominant classes, the left the sector expressive of the lower economic or social classes, and the centre that of the middle classes. Historically this criterion seems acceptable. The conservative right has defended entrenched prerogatives, privileges and powers; the left has attacked them. The right has been more favorable to the aristocratic position, to the hierarchy of birth or of wealth; the left has fought for the equalization of advantage or of opportunity, for the claims of the less advantaged. Defence and attack have met, under democratic conditions, not in the name of class but in the name of principle; but the opposing principles have broadly corresponded to the interests of the different classes.”

Fascinatingly, despite seeming to be diametrically opposed on the surface, both sides of the political spectrum show manifestations of populism and may find a strong base in people belonging to each class of people from impoverished to rich.

In fact, there are proponents of the so-called ‘horseshoe theory’, which essentially says that the political far ‘left’ and far ‘right’ are, well, far closer to each other than they are to the ones traditionally holding the center. The reason for this is that the extremists on both sides tend to favour authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

In any event, this all brings us to the origin of the classifications “left” and ‘right-wing’ themselves. These lie in the French Revolution.

Rewinding to the turbulent years between 1789 and 1799, the French monarchy was, to oversimplify it, overthrown in favour of the common people’s plight.

With the king and all his friends now mostly having forcibly gone the way of their ancestors and therefore unable to voice any more opinions, a new system of government had to be implemented. This had to happen as quickly as possible, seeing as the alternative was a further descent into chaos, which was already pretty rampant in the region as is wont to happen when all the leaders get their heads lopped off suddenly and the mob takes control.

The ‘Ancient Régime’ or ‘Old Order’ played a quite vital role in this, as the general structure of legislative bodies was kept. Within it, from the Speaker’s point of view, who stood facing the assembly, it becomes clear where ‘left’ and ‘right’ comes from – it is simply the actual seating arrangement. Traditionally, as the more extremists on the two sides didn’t exactly like to co-mingle the aristocracy sat on the right while the commoners sat on the left and those more in the middle didn’t mind sitting closer. Naturally, within the National Assembly, being on the right came to mean supporting the king, while sitting on the left meant you were in favour of overthrowing him.

One member of this assembly, deputy Baron de Gauville summed up: “We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.”

These ‘commoners’ of the ‘opposing team’ were, however, not what we would understand of the term – people of more modest wealth and working regular jobs – but rather representatives of the richer capitalist class, the so-called ‘bourgeoisie’. Therefore originally, the ‘left’ was actually in favour of things like the free market and laissez-faire commerce. Within the parliaments, they also stood opposite those voicing their support for the aristocracy, the royals and their wishes, as well as the interests of the church. Unlike this original ‘right’, the ‘left’ wanted secularism, an increase of civil liberties, as well as republicanism.

Now all those we would actually call ‘commoners’ – the peasants, the working class, the unemployed – were not represented in this form of government really much at all, but it should be obvious that their ideals were in the general case in opposition to those of the aristocracy, therefore being ‘more left’ than the actual political left of the time. The bourgeoisie was still closer to what they wanted, and these early capitalists therefore the best allies they had.

So you can see how them gaining access to legislative bodies and the slow, but inevitable utter ousting of the aristocracy would shift the political spectrum towards capitalists being on the right.

Fast-forwarding a bit in history, to a time after 1848 – the parties used red and white flags as identifying symbols – and here is the origin of calling left-wing parties “the reds” (not to be confused with the phrase “raising red flags” which was a warning for floods).

The terminology of ‘left’ and ‘right’ was first used as a slur by the respective opposite parties and it was only in the early 20th century that these classifiers took over fully. Additionally, at first, political right-wing parties rejected the terms, as they did not wish to promote further disunity among citizens, while the ones on the left thought this was necessary in order to affect societal change. (Marx proclaimed a battle of the classes….And of course he needed classes for this theories to work!)

In any event, the formation of the more modern political parties closer to what we think of them as, finally, can be traced back to the 19th century, long after the French Revolution. The first of them emerged out of middle class liberals. The aristocracy disappeared for good in the 20th century, leaving only conservative parties that then had to compromise in order to gain a base of voters. Meanwhile, capitalism grew and with it the reactionary and equally multiplying working class, which began to form trade unions or identify with socialist, communist or even anarchist ideals.

Socialist parties originally held the purpose of giving political rights to workers and later split from the originally allied liberals, as they wanted said workers to actually have the control over the means of production. The colour red was adopted by many socialist parties, and is still seen in most european socialist parties today. It also became the colour of Communism as it developed out of WWI, in support of the Bolshevik Revolution.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, right-wing parties may include extreme conservatives, fascists, and nationalists. Depending on the time and place, these, too, either fall strongly into the people’s favour or out of it. Fascism, for instance, was obviously quite popular leading up to and during World War II in countries such as Germany or Italy, while being quite strongly condemned afterwards.

But to complete the political spectrum, another, mellower type of conservative party began to appear as a means to counteract liberalism – Christian democrats, who were originally founded by Catholics seeing a threat to their traditional values.

Finally, green parties with a strong stance on climate policies developed last and only recently, when the general public became aware of such issues in the late 20th century.

In any event, as you can see, since its original inception, the system of classifying everybody as left or right has obviously branched out, diversified with considerable nuance.

It should also be noted here that the development of what exactly ‘left’ and ‘right’ ended up meaning, did not happen in the same way in all countries.

For example, while some Americans may be quick to cry ‘communist’ at their Democrat party – which actually stands in part for so-called ‘libertarianism’ – modern-day French people would only scoff and call the same party ‘bourgeois’ instead. What is considered ‘left-wing’ in the United States is actually regarded as still pretty far on the right in some European countries. France and Germany’s respective political ‘left’, for instance, are on the side of socialism.

Additionally, it has been argued that ‘left’ and ‘right’ cannot properly encompass where one stands on most issues, as the political landscape is complex and includes many social and economic factors. While there are many ways of detailing this, one widely influential way of expressing this complexity was conceived by Hans Eysenck in the 1950s: He applied two axes, ‘radical’ to ‘conservative’ and ‘democratic’ to ‘authoritarian’, based on his (sometimes contested) research.

Another helpful two-axis system stems from Virginia Postrel, who in 1998 expanded the economic left-right axis with one ranging from authoritarianism to libertarianism.

And because it has grown into a field of study easily as varied as the political fractions, many more examples could be given, all with their own virtues and flaws. However, in most countries, ‘left’ and ‘right’ are still the clearest signifiers of which hill one is prepared to die on.

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