Alaska

The Russian nihilist movement gained momentum as a body of political change after the assassination of Alexander II, or Alexander the Liberator, as he was known if you happened to be a serf. The Tsar, before he went bang, was responsible for the emancipation of Russia’s serfs. Despite being behind many other reforms such as abolishing corporal punishment and ending some of the privileges of nobility, it wasn’t enough and, having survived several assassination attempts from his ungrateful subjects, he finally succumbed in St. Petersburg, his love of routine, like many great statemen before him, having left him wide open to the hot-headed dissident.

Every Sunday Alexander would hop in his bullet proof carriage – a gift from Napoleon III – and roll up to the Mikhailovsky Manege for the military roll call and a stiff sherry. On the way back one Sunday in March 1881 a bystander lobbed a bomb at his carriage sending it under the horses hooves. Alexander survived the blast and got out to survey the damage and yell at his Cossacks to arrest the grubby urchin who threw the bomb. This they did. Yet in a lesson not to loiter at such incidents, a second urchin, then appeared and lobbed a second bomb, this one landing at Alexander II’s feet, yelling “it is too early to thank god”. Hence the need for an Alexander III. Alexander II though, amongst his many other reforms, also sold Alaska to the US for 2 cents and acre.

Alaska today is the State of Alaska, part of the United States of America, but it wasn’t always so. It used to be Russian. Having had their backsides handed to them in the Crimean War, Alexander II would pace the palace gardens with Milord, his Red Setter, getting increasingly agitated about life. Russia was not in a good state financially, and he feared that in any future conflict Alaska, being as it was vast expanse of white nothing, would be lost. And lost with no compensation, as it so happened in war. So he decided to sell whilst he could. 2c an acre was better than no cents per acre, and a pile of dead Russians.

Alaska is big. It is the biggest state in America. And America is a big country. If you like America, but you don’t like Americans, holiday in Alaska. It is right up on the shoulder of Canada, separated from the motherland by British Columbia. It dices with Russia in the Bering Strait where their territorial waters mix. Indeed if you include Alaska’s territorial waters, it is bigger than Texas, California and Montana – the next three biggest states – combined. So we can all agree Alaska is a big place.

Alaska also has lots of islands. The Aleutian Islands is a long chain of volcanic islands that clings onto its buttocks, trailing off into the Pacific Ocean. Find yourself on Unimark Island, and be sure to go and take in Mount Shishaldin, a 10,000 ft. smoldering volcano that will have a Geography teacher’s leg shaking like an excited old Labrador, it being the most perfect example of a volcanic cone as you can find on Earth. Don’t believe the marketing man at Mount Fuji, Mount Fuji is positively lop-sided compared to Shishaldin. Look it up. And if you like canoeing, you might also want to think about visiting Alaska. It has more than three million lakes. That said, many are frozen. The State has over half the world’s glaciers.

So who first lived there you mutter. Indeed, as you might imagine, not any Europeans. They then, in can case, wouldn’t be Europeans. They would in fact be Tlingit, or the People of the Tides. By all account they were the first. They were big into hunter gathering. There was also the Haida people, who are now well known for their unique art. And there was the Tsimshian people, who aren’t well known for their art, or indeed, anything at all. Then the Europeans came.

The first to hit the icy shores was Mikhail Gvozdev an inquisitive Russian who was partial to a bit of early mapping, swiftly followed by Vitus Bering who led an exhibition for the Russian navy and returned with Sea Otter pelts that were quickly lauded as the finest that had ever been seen in Moscow. Cue a brisk line of business in fur pelts out of the Aleutian Islands. Spain, strangely, then got involved, sending a number of expeditions to the area, expeditions which gave their name to places such as Valdez and Cordova. Whilst Russians never fully colonized Alaska, they did enough to be in a position to sell it to America for 2 cents an acre when the opportunity arose.

For you, Alaska might mean Sarah Palin and caribou, for others Alaska means oil. Alaska has a lot of oil. Indeed oil makes up more than 80% of Alaska’s revenues. It has vast resources. Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope produces about 400,000 barrels of oil, a day and is the largest conventional oil field ever found in North America. The oil gets from the North Slope, where it is not really needed, to Valdez, where it can be shipped to places where it is needed, via the 8oo mile Trans-Alaska pipeline. Valdez, though, is a name that is forever etched in the blotted history book of the oil industry, courtesy of the infamous Exxon Valdez.

On March 24th 1989, Captain Joseph Hazelwood eased his three hundred meter long oil tanker, the Exxon Valdez, down Prince William Sound, thinking he was headed to Long Beach in California. Where he was actually headed was straight for the Bligh Reef, a reef named after William Bligh who served as Master aboard ship on Captain Cook’s third, and last, expedition. Running aground on Bligh Reef, Hazelwood quickly swore, perhaps knowing then that he would became responsible for one of the worst oil spills in US history, a spill that ultimately cost Exxon almost a $1bn.

The Exxon Valdez was subsequently repaired and put back to work, although was banned from ever sailing in Prince William sound. “Amen to that!” you wail. Indeed. In 2010 sailing as Dong Fang Ocean, under Panamanian registry, it sailed straight into a Malta-flagged cargo shop the Aali in the South China Sea. It was retired for scrap shortly afterwards. Not then, a glittering career.

Other interesting things about Alaska is that it was home to the second most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Fortunately being so sparsely populated the massive 9.2 Richter quake, which was over one thousand times more powerful than the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, killed ‘only’ 133 people.

The King Salmon is the State fish.

The Four-spot Skimmer Dragonfly the State insect.

And dog mushing, whatever that involves, is the preferred weekend activity.

So then that’s a bit of Alaska for you.

Good for glaciers and oil, not so good for Wi-Fi.

Brexit

Did you see the news delivered by Huw
We’re out you know, no more EU!
Sunderland spoke, now you better sit;
you’re not going to like it, not one little bit.

The French are mad and they will make us pay
“Putain” they yell, as they bicker and bray
What they plan to do will make you wheeze;
they’ve just doubled the price of your favourite cheese.

The Germans stare with steely gaze,
They say it’s nothing more than a childish phase
With buttocks in beamers, there’s no sign of rancour;
And for some strange reason, they want all our bankers.

Let’s hope they go, with their wet lipped greed
To sow their oats and immoral seed,
Frankfurt beckons, yet too soon they’ll rue;
When they realise at night, there is nothing to do.

And what of Italy, what is the mood,
Have they taken their eyes off their plate of food,
Do they care at all, have they time to bother
Or are they all too busy arguing with each other.

There’s no work in Spain so there’s nothing to do,
Since pop went the bubble of the housing boom.
And so the Brexit result could get the youth on their feet
But it came in after lunch so they were all fast asleep

It’s easy to fret what the future might hold,
Especially as Gordon Brown sold all of our gold,
It’s ok you cry, there is no more Farage,
Be careful people, he’s left Boris in charge.

Now I don’t know if its good, I don’t know if its bad
But the Brexit result makes me a little bit sad
For now every border we cross, we’ll be stuffed in a queue
With ghastly Americans saying… “Don’t I know you…?”

Enough of the politics, push it all to one side,
Great Britain is great, of that we have pride,
The Euros can prickle and come over all mean,
But they don’t have our bitter, and they don’t have our Queen.

Nihilism

Christian von Ehrenfels took a taste to the particularly unsavoury notion of Yellow Peril.

Von Ehrenfels was an Austrian philosopher who ran round in a bow tie, viciously whispering to anyone he could catch, that the West and the East were in a Darwinian struggle for world supremacy; a struggle, he insisted with wild eyes, that the yellow race was winning. His madcap theory posited that monogamy was to blame and that the genetically superior white man was being held back by only being able to father children with one woman. Von Ehrenfels racism had at its core, the concept of nihilism, in that the Asian conquest of the West basically equaled racial annihilation. Europe would be invaded, conquered and wiped out by a Sino-Japanese army of genetically superior soldiers in a race war that Western powers would be unable to win. You get the sense the Von Ehrenfels would not have been good on Twitter.

Getting into nihilism, like dipping your toe in a public swimming pool, is not compulsory. You can do it on a wet weekend when you need to escape the kids, but no one is making you do it. It’s basically a pretty chewy topic, it being a philosophical doctrine that essentially suggests there is nothing meaningful in life. Nothing. Life has no purpose. It supposes a mood of bleak despair. A desperate state of woe. There are no norms, no values, nor rules or laws. It is pretty depressing stuff. That said, it’s something worth having a poke at perhaps, in the interests of having something to hand should you find yourself treading water at a stuffy, bourgeois dinner party.

First pour yourself some gin.

Now there are a few different flavours of nihilism. To pick just a few, in order to get a rough feel for the cumbersome issues involved, we can kick off with metaphysical nihilism which is, as you might imagine, a form of nihilism that offers the idea that concrete objects, yes actual concrete objects, like the recently refurbished National Theatre on the Southbank, might not actually exist. Something at least to think about as you crunch on a brownie in the excellent new café.

Existential nihilism, meanwhile, is the depressing one. It aims it’s canon ball at life as we know it, suggesting that life has no meaning. It has no value. We are all insignificant. We have no purpose. Beachy Head beckons.

Moral nihilism is the tricky one, especially tricky if needed to be explained to a four year old who has just bitten his cousin. Also stickered as ethical nihilism, it is a view that morality does not exist, there is no one action preferable to another action. Biting the cousin, is neither right nor wrong. If morality does exist, it exists merely as a human construct and is, then, artificial. Biting a cousin is not inherently a bad thing, it is just given a higher negative weighting than what is called good. Biting the cousin is bad because it causes pain, but it is only bad as the feeling the cousin has of not being bitten, of not feeling pain, is arbitrarily given a positive weighting. So then with your four year old now paying close attention, you can tell him – or her – that all moral claims are void of any value.

And then time, perhaps, for a bit of CBeebies.

Political nihilism is a branch of nihilism that sounds, in a relative sense at least, a bit more fun. It basically rejects all social and political structures such as government, family and the law, something that usually surfaces in oppressive regimes. The Russian nihilist movement in the 1860s was one; one that involved a thick mob of badly dressed Russians who rejected all forms of authority, taking particular aim at the stiff guidelines of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the heavy handed, diffident, Tsarist monarchy. As you might imagine, the Russian state took a pretty dim view and sent a lot of nihilists to go dig ditches in Siberia.

Nihilism is associated with many of the great thinkers. The term was coined by the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, as he wrestled to characterize rationalism one wet weekend. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard – all black polo neck and thick horn rimmed glasses – took a particularly bleak view, by flouring nihilism in a concept he called levelling. Levelling was a process of suppressing individuality to a point where an individual’s uniqueness becomes non-existent. Kierkegaard once whispered to a friend in a bar:

Levelling at its maximum is like the stillness of death, where one can hear one’s own heartbeat, a stillness like death, into which nothing can penetrate, in which everything sinks, powerless.”

It must have been difficult to chat a girl up after that.

It’s Nietzsche though that nihilism is most associated with. Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher, poet, and cultural critic who has his finger prints all over modern intellectual history. For Nietzsche, nihilism was a widespread phenomenon of Western culture. We all, at some point, find out that the world does not possess the objective value or meaning that we want it to have, or have long believed it to have, and so – inevitably – we soon find ourselves slumped in the spare room, the lights off, sobbing quietly. We find ourselves in crisis.

Nietzsche, oblivious to our tears, presses on, asserting that, with the decline of Christianity and the rise of physiological decadence, nihilism is in fact characteristic of the modern age. He famously went on to have a pop at God, suggesting that faith provides people with intrinsic value, that believing in God offers people an antidote against the despair of thinking life is utterly meaningless. Christianity though, ends up undoing itself, it being constructed as it is, by humans. It then dissolves for some reason. This dissolution then leads to a distrust of all meaning. Happy days.

I’m not sure Nietzsche would be my first reserve for a Saturday night dinner-party.

So that’s that then. A little nihilism for a Monday morning. On the one hand, all very interesting, on the other, utter claptrap. It is not obvious that there’s much value to be had in staring at a chair wondering if it’s real. If your life feels meaningless get up and do something about it. Find some meaning. And if you can’t think of anything, start by sitting on the chair.

You have one go at life.

You might as well enjoy it.

Yellow Peril

That Kaiser Wilhelm II was mad as a box of frogs – and not in a good way – was starkly apparent when he stood up on 27th July 1900 and yelled and waved his arms for a good hour, exhorting his soldiers to acts of barbarism in what became known as the Hunnerede, or Hun speech. His troops at the time were sharpening their bayonets in preparation for a long trip over to China to quell the Boxer Rebellion. More on that later. The Kaiser, all spittle and agitation, was souped up beyond even that of a Liberal Democrat at a by-election:

“When you come before the enemy, you must defeat him, pardon will not be given, prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands will fall to your sword! Just as a thousand years ago the Huns, under their King Attila, made a name for themselves with their ferocity, which tradition still recalls; so may the name of Germany become known in China in such a way that no Chinaman will ever dare look a German in the eye, even with a squint”

The Foreign Office, concerned that the speech had a bit too much static to it, published a redacted version, cutting out the bits encouraging racist barbarism. When the Kaiser found out, he walloped the palace cat with a polished hunting boot, and published the speech in its original form. He then telegrammed Field Marshal Alfred von Wadersee – the expedition leader – with explicit instructions to stick it to the Chinese by all means necessary, because the Chinese were “BY NATURE COWARDLY, LIKE A DOG, BUT ALSO DECEITFUL”. It is not clear whether the capital letters were because it was a telegram, or because the Kaiser was shouting when he dictated it to the impotent lackey who took down his communications.

The Boxer Rebellion then, was an anti-colonial uprising in China around 1900. It was led by the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, a Xenophobic martial-arts organization, who dressed in black, looked suitably nasty and blamed a lot of the problems in China on the West. The Boxers, as they became known, sought to save China by killing every Westerner they could get their calloused hands on. This they did, in addition to slotting a number of Chinese Christians. It spoke of a gritty period in Beijing’s past. News of the Boxer atrocities made it to the West and lit a fuse, stirring age old feelings that were steeped in what was known in the West as the ideology of Yellow Peril.

Yellow peril is a racist colour-metaphor that is fundamental to the xenophobic theory of colonialism. The fear of Yellow Peril was not China specific. Indeed it was not country specific. It was, more broadly, a fear of the people of the East. A vague, existential fear of a vast, faceless hoard of yellow people, all of whom hated the West. The imagery of Yellow Peril is, as you might imagine, full of primitive apes, guns, swords and crazy eyes. They were all madmen, who possessed special powers; so ran the propaganda.

It has been suggested that this racist ideology had its roots in the cultural misrepresentations that originated in the Graeco-Persian wars fought some 500 years BC. The academic Gina Marchetti also identified the fear of Asians as one that was rooted in the sleepless nights associated with Genghis Khan and his raucous Mongolian invasions of Europe in the 13th century. The French orientalist and historian, Ernest Renan, author of the popular tome Life at Jesus, had long warned Europeans of the dangers of the East. Only Renan meant Russia. Still East, but not yellow. The West though, has long perceived Russia as more Asiatic than European.

The Boxer Revolution was eventually quashed by the Eight Nation Alliance, an alliance made up of the unlikely bedfellows – given what was to follow just a decade or so later – of Japan, Russia, Britain, France, Italy, the US, the Austro-Hungary and the Kaiser’s revved-up Germans. The Alliance went to sort out the Boxers under the banner of “humanitarian intervention”. As it turned out Beijing was sacked before the Germans had even arrived. That didn’t stop them from carrying out the Kaiser’s orders and they went on the rampage. The German Social Democrat Politician, August Bebel, later described the actions as “a campaign of revenge as barbaric as has never been seen in the last centuries, and not often at all in history”. Given history is stuffed to the seams with some grisly encounters, it clearly wasn’t humankind’s greatest hour.

Yet Yellow Peril was even legalized in the US in 1875 with the Page Act, a legislative order that prohibited the entry of immigrants considered “undesirable”. Which begs the question, who is undesirable? The Irish? What with their drinking and taste for a scrap? No, not the Irish. At least not according to the law of the time. The law described an “undesirable” as any individual from Asia who was coming to America to work. This included prostitutes. The law was named after Horace F. Page a hardnosed Republican Congressman from California. The Page Act was followed up in 1882 by Chinese Exclusion Act which as it suggests, was a bit more country specific.

The political endorsement of such a racist doctrine led to the regular lynching of Chinese people. So regular in fact that it coined the expression “Having a Chinaman’s chance in hell”. Meaning, in case it wasn’t obvious, no chance at all. In 1871 a seething mob of about five hundred white men ran amok in Los Angeles intent on smashing up the Chinese residents. Twenty immigrants were beaten, tortured and then hung on Calle de los Negros, or “Nigger alley”. It remains the largest mass lynching in American history.

The massacre was triggered by the shooting of a local rancher who had taken a wrong turn on the way to the post office and ended up in the cross fire of two warring Chinese gangs. The fight between the gangs was a result of a long running feud over the abduction of a Chinese woman called Yut Ho. It’s unclear whether she was, but you might suspect so.

And there once again run the fine margins of human history.

Fast forward a couple of hundred years and we have Donald Trump and his hair, poking fingers at rallies talking about American jobs that are still being stolen by the Chinese. Only this time the jobs are all in China. The reason they are in China is, perhaps, because America’s great corporations decided to move them there. The question the Red Necked rust belt then must ask is, to whose benefit has it been? Them, the Red Necks, the Chinese labourer working 18 hours a day with no wee breaks, or corporate America. Something, at least, to think about over a Bud-lite or two.

So that’s a bit about Yellow Peril.

Another distinctly depressing passage of human history.

Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II was the last German Emperor. That he was the last German Emperor was entirely of his own making.

Wilhelm was Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild. Yes our Queen Victoria. The monarchies of Europe at the time were all seemingly related. Parlour maids stayed in the parlour. There was no marrying across party lines. The only marrying to be done was with fully vetted royals from other countries. Hence the incidence of “my cousin is also your cousin” at any Royal hoo-haa.

His mother, Princess Victoria, was the eldest child of Queen Victoria. A popular fad of the age seemed to be the one, still perhaps popular in some parts of America where newer money burns with social ambition, to name your child after yourself. Hence Wilhelm when he became Emperor at the age of 29 he was Wilhelm II. Albeit Whilhelm I was his grandfather not his father. Fortunately these days we have the Beckhams who have started an altogether different fad.

God Bless Brooklyn.

Wilhelm was born with one arm a lot shorter than the other arm. About six inches shorter. Find any photo of the guy and he’s either holding something like a sword, or wearing white gloves so you can’t really tell. The reason he had a withered arm was because of a traumatic breeched birth. A breech birth is when the baby comes out the wrong way round – bot first. These days, they normally intervene with a very quick C-section, but back in the day it was all a bit more eye watering.

Many historians have suggested that Wilhelm’s disability went a long way to explaining his emotional issues. Of which there were many.

There were red flags from an early age. In 1863 Wilhelm, presumably with his parents, went to England for the wedding of his Uncle Bertie, who later found fame as Edward VII. Bertie, or Edward, had wisely gone Dane, marrying Princess Alexandra of Denmark, making for what was possibly a loin tingling bevy of bridesmaids. Anyway, at the ceremony, Wilhelm was in the hands of another Uncle, Uncle Alfred, known amongst the family as Affie after a childhood mispronunciation of Alfred caught on. As they do.

During the ceremony, Wilhelm was cavorting about and was told to sit still. You could argue, perhaps, that a stuffy, pomped up ceremony was not exactly a four year old’s wicket, more so if you had an army of nannies outside flirting with the guardsmen, but that’s not the point. The point was that Wilhelm, who was wearing highland dress, promptly drew his sgian-dubh on Alfred and threatened to do him. Alfred, given he was eighteen and his cousin was four, simply took the sgian-dubh off him. So Wilhelm bit Alfred on the leg. It was easy to see why his cousins did not like him.

Yet that is not the whole story, for Wilhelm also had a difficult relationship with his parents. His mother obsessed over his arm and blamed herself for his handicap. She comes across, on the whole, as a mother who was holding on a bit tight. At eight, she decided Wilhelm had to learn to ride a horse convinced that as an heir to the throne it was imperative for him to be able to ride a horse. By all accounts Wilhelm was not a natural in the saddle and he’d fall off. He’d be put back on the horse. And he’d fall off. This continued, tears would flow. At some point he learnt to ride, but meal times were always a bit sticky after that. Wilhelm later wrote “The torments inflicted on me, in this pony riding, must be attributed to my mother”. Enough said.

Wilhelm I died in 1888. His son, Emperor Frederick III, took to the throne suffering from incurable throat cancer and lasted only ninety nine days. At twenty nine then, Wilhelm, became Wilhelm II.

At the time the Emperor and the Chancellor ran the country. The Emperor – strategy, the Chancellor – more an operational role. Wilhelm I had largely left the running of the country to the then Chancellor, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, aka the “Iron Chancellor”, a conservative Prussian statesman who had skillfully kept the diplomatic plates spinning so that Europe remained at peace. The historian Eric Hobsbawn described Bismarck as the “undisputed world champion in the game of multilateral diplomatic chess”. You suspect Bismarck would have cleaned up at Risk on any wet weekend mini-break in Wales. Less so, given his age, Twister.

It wasn’t long before Bismarck was out and the Kaiser, like a bull on heat, started breaking all the crockery in Europe’s kitchen as he jettisoned Bismarck’s peaceful foreign policy in favour of what his generals described as a “war of aggression”. Historians point to an interview Wilhelm II did with the Daily Telegraph in which he made many a modern day pop star appear measured and well-adjusted. In the interview he implied Germany didn’t care for the British, that the French and the Russians had tried to incite Germany to intervene in the Second Boer war and that the buildup of the German navy was targeted against the Japanese. He famously finished up by yelling “you English are mad, mad, mad as March hares” leaving the Daily Telegraph sub-editor and easy headline.

When it all kicked off in July 1914, Wilhelm II was, then, possibly not the man you would have wanted to be making the calls out of the German palace. With Russia mobilizing her army to give some cover to little Serbia as Austria-Hungry popped on the knuckle-dusters, the Kaiser got into a proper tizz thinking Russia, France and Great Britain were all gearing up to destroy Germany.

And so began World War I.

Wilhelm II died in exile, in the Netherlands, on the 4th June 1941, aged 82.

Lunatic.

World War I

World War I was a bloody war. A bloody war, played out in muddy trenches, fought by men whose pride and patriotism trumped any murmurings of disquiet as to what they were all doing in the mud. One of the bloodiest of the many bloody exchanges was the Brusilov Offensive, a four month campaign fought on the Eastern Front through the long, hot summer of 1916; a campaign that the eminent historian Graydon Tunstall labelled the worst crisis of World War I, and a campaign where our Ludwig Wittgenstein picked up his medal.

That said, the Brusilov Offensive was only the worst crisis of World War I if you happened to be pitching your bayonet in the name of the German led Triple Alliance. If you were backing the colours of the Tripple Entente, the Brusilov Offensive was one of your greatest triumphs, albeit at a terrible cost. The loss of life was devastating.

The statistics of World War I make for grim reading, as you might expect for a global war that saw the mobilization of more than seventy million military personnel, about nine million of whom never returned home. Seven million civilians never even left home, but they too died. Hence bearded historians talking in heavy tones about it being one of the deadliest conflicts in history.

Yet unless you paid attention at school, or later became a bearded historian, the question: “What started World War I?” may, indeed, leave your lips a little dry. You know it was a terrible, global conflict but what actually started it?

First of all take a sip of your gin and relax. It’s not straightforward, and many historians are still sending each other sly emails, late at night, questioning each other’s suggestions about the exact cause of the war. That said, what you need to know is that Europe, at the turn of the 19th Century had the look of a conflict waiting to happen. It was a pressure cooker. It was an age when souped up Tsars and Emperors did deals, broke deals, signed accords and agreements. It was an age of back scratching and political jockeying. It was an age of both cock and bull. The bigger the better.

And get this, the King of England – George V, Germany’s big man – Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Russia’s top dog, Tsar Nicholas II, were all cousins.

Back at the beginning. Austria-Hungry, often referred to as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, dare you imagine it a slightly haughty lot, stirred things up by annexing Bosnia which it had previously been sat on. This got the wick of Serbia. Not a big deal you might well mutter. Wrong. Serbia was chums with Russia. “Don’t poke the bear” says the tea coaster, for good reason. Russia then, as now – somewhat disturbingly – found the Balkans a bit of an itch, and long had its hand in destabilising many a Balkan peace accord. The region, for good reason, became known as the ‘powder keg of Europe’.

The powder duly got torched in 1912 with the First Balkan War, and then torched again a year later in the Second Balkan War. They were all at each other’s throats, literally, but at least it was all contained. The rest of Europe watched from a far, as if flicking through the channels on Sky. Watching, but not really involved.

Let them scrap it out.

In June 1914, Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a man with a truly wonderful, wonderful moustache, had thought it a good idea to take in a state visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. This turned out to be a bad idea. A very bad idea. A group of disgruntled agitators, later to be known as assassins, had got together and thought it a good idea of their own to pop the Archduke, and his wife, hoping it would hurry the break off of the South Slav provinces. These provinces could then all be glued together to form Yugoslavia. Fine on paper.

The assassins, in a plan that appeared to have been spun together over a couple of beers, all lined up beside the road the Archduke was due to barrel down in his car. The Archduke duly whistled passed and a grenade was lobbed his way. Perhaps too early, or too late, or a little off line, by the time the ping went pop the Archduke was down the road leaving those clutching the bunting to bear the brunt of the explosion. The hapless assassins scarpered. Later that afternoon, the Archduke was driving back to his hotel when his convoy took a wrong turn down a street, a street where one of the same assassins, Gavrilo Princip, happened to be having a fag. Not quite believing his luck, he threw away his cigarette, pulled out a gun, and shot both the Archduke and his wife.

The assassination precipitated the July Crisis, which was – as you might assume – a crisis, in July. The July crisis was a month of sticky diplomatic manoeuvrings across Europe. It resulted in Austria-Hungary serving Serbia with the July ultimatum which contained ten demands. Serbia agreed to nine of them, but for some reason refused to allow Austrian delegates into Serbia for the purpose of investigating Franz Ferdinand’s assassination.

And so, in a slightly heavy handed diplomatic turn, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Serbia put through a telegram to Moscow and Moscow, ever eager to “have a bit” started to mobilise her army against Austria-Hungary, and a few days later, got her tanks lined up on Germany too. The Kaiser then asked his cousin, the Tsar, if he could stop mobilising his army. The Tsar flared his nostrils and refused. So Germany declared war on Russia. Germany then asked France to stay out of it, but France being French, and perhaps not trusting the Germans, didn’t really commit either way. A bit miffed, Germany took it out on Luxembourg, and then declared war on France. Great Britain, still Great back then, with a navy the envy of the world, then got involved. Why? Belgium.

Belgium was neutral. George V told his cousin the Kaiser, to leave Belgium alone. The Kaiser responded by declaring war on Belgium. Who does that? It’s Belgium. It’s flat. It’s like an old Aunt that sits quietly in the corner on a rocking chair perhaps good for a bit of chocolate and maybe, maybe, the occasional weekend visit. Rather than leave Belgium high and dry, Britain then declared war on Germany.

And so World War I began.

One wrong turn, one hot-headed Kaiser and one an epic failure of diplomacy, and over sixteen million people lost their life.

What a waste.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

You might have heard of Ludwig Wittgenstein, but then, like me, you might not have. Lo lament the ignorant souls of the Twitter age!

Anyway, you probably have heard of Bertrand Russell. Russell is a scion of British highbrow goings on; a philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, writer, social critic, political activist and indeed a Nobel laureate. You don’t get the sense that Russell would have lost much sleep over his GCSEs. But then given the grade inflation and dumbing down of GCSEs, courtesy of commercially minded modern day exam boards, GCSEs are not what they once were. Cs are today’s Bs, Bs today’s As. Or so we’re lead to believe by the more wet-lipped of the mainstream press.

Russell, though, had heard of Wittgenstein.

That is because  on the 18th October 1911, as Russell took tea in his rooms in Trinity College, Cambridge, Wittgenstein knocked on his door and announced that he would like to sign up for lectures. No UCAS form or sticky personal mission statement for Wittgenstein, leaving many a sixth form careers adviser spitting Duke of Edinburgh awards. Russell agreed. Soon Wittgenstein was not only attending his lectures, but dominating them. That not many students bothered to attend Russell’s lectures was not the point. Russell was to later describe Wittgenstein as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived; passionate, profound, intense and dominating.” Words today that are more likely used to describe Christian Grey. He of a bit of slap and tickle with a rubber hose in the garden shed, fame.

How times change.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Austria. His father, Karl Otto, was an industrial tycoon and one of Europe’s wealthiest men. He was also, by the sound of things, a complete bastard. His mother was not, she was a lovely lady, born a Bohemian Jew. Her side of the family were a bit more friendly; indeed she was the aunt of Friedrich Hayek another clever man best known for his lucid defense of classical liberalism. Wittgenstein, our Ludwig, was born on 26th April 1889, the same year Preston North End beat Wolves in the F.A Cup, completing the double no less.

Ludwig was one of nine.

Karl Otto though, was not a pleasant man. He was rich, but cruel. A disciplinarian. He deplored contemporary music. You can assume he wanted his sons to grow up like him. Which he did. He wanted them to be titans of industry and were held back from school lest they pick up bad habits. For Ludwig and his brothers there would be no whoopee cushions on the teacher’s chair. They were educated at home to prepare them for running Karl Otto’s empire. It was a tense household, Ludwig’s mother being unable to stand up to her husband. His brother, Hans was by all accounts a musical prodigy who, aged five, had a public meltdown at a carnival because two brass bands played the same tune in different keys. As you do. Hans later ran away to America and jumped off a boat in Chesapeake Bay and drowned. Ludwig’s elder brother Rudi also committed suicide. He walked into a bar in Berlin and asked the band to play Thomas Koschat’s Verlassen, Verlassen, Verlassen, before taking to a corner booth where he mixed himself a cocktail of milk and potassium cyanide. And, curtains. Ludwig’s other brother Kurt, also sadly shot himself at the end of World War I, when his troops refused to obey his orders. Karl Otto was perhaps a lesson for all fathers to chill their onions and let their children find their own way.

It was whilst Wittgenstein was studying mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Berlin that he started getting hot for mathematics, specifically logic. He was, he wrote in his diary, in a near “constant, indescribable, almost pathological state of agitation”. Mathematics not being the most obvious place to turn to in such a state, unless perhaps you happen to be a genius. If you turn to five pints and a curry to take the sting out of one’s agitation, you can take comfort from the fact – if it was not obvious – you are unlikely to be a genius. You are thus less likely to have depression, albeit you will need toil for many years in an office in order to pay off the mortgage. You are also unlikely to win a Nobel Prize. Still, swings and roundabouts.

It was by embracing logic that Wittgenstein ended up knocking on Russell’s door.

As with many a genius, Russell first thought Wittgenstein was a nut job. In an early lecture Wittgenstein argued that all existential propositions were meaningless. This happened in a lecture room. Russell stroked his moustache and asked Wittgenstein to consider the proposition that there was no hippopotamus in the room. Wittgenstein refused to agree. So Russell looked under all the desks and announced that he could not find one. Wittgenstein shook his head, and remained unconvinced. So that’s cleared that up then. Suffice to say, were we in the lecture, you and I would have been well into the Sun crossword by the time they finished their intellectual pow-wow. 6 down, 5 letters – Davina McCall’s eldest child.

Karl Otto curled up his cold fingers for the last time on 13th January 1913 and with one final rasping breath, Ludwig became one of the wealthiest men in Europe. As you might expect, he started giving it away to Austrian artist and writers. He then retreated to Norway. He rented a small house in Skjolden for the winter and started getting into the thick weeds of some philosophical questions. It was a productive period, the outcome was Logik, as you might suss, a book that is to be found down at the chewy end of the book shelf.

On the outbreak of World War I Wittgenstein signed up, full bore, for the Austro-Hungarian army. He soon found himself on the front line, covered in mud, fighting tooth and claw against the Russians. Wittgenstein soon won the admiration of the troops by taking up position in an observation post in no man’s land and unloading his ammunition on the Allied troops. He was noted for his courage and sang-froid. Medals got pinned to his breast. For his part in the final Austrian offensive in June 1918 he was recommended for the Gold Medal of Valour, one of the highest honours in the Austrian army. He spent the war with Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief recommending it to anyone in distress and became known amongst his fellow soldiers as the “man with the gospels.”

In the summer of 1918 he took leave of the army and rolled out his sleeping bag in one of his Summer houses and penned Tractatus, a philosophical work that aimed to identify the relationship between language and reality, and to define the limits of science. If you are yawning, stop it. Tractatus is widely recognized as one of the most significant philosophical works of the twentieth century.

After the war Wittgenstein trained to be a teacher. He spent a summer working as a gardener in a monastery and eventually got a job in a school in a remote village. He soon took the title of village odd ball. The students though, as is often the case, loved him. His sister wrote that his pupils “literally crawled over each other in their desire to be chosen for answers or demonstrations”. If you were thick, though, he was a tyrant. And not averse to yelling, caning, boxing ears and pulling hair. Violence aside he was held up as a village legend. He would yell “krautsalat” whenever the headmaster played the piano to the delight of the pupils. Krautsalat, as you might guess, means coleslaw. Hero.

Or not. Wittgenstein left teaching after punching a pupil who then collapsed unconscious. Wittgenstein fled the village. He later returned to hand in his resignation and in a turn on modern day teaching regulations, the headmaster tried to persuade Wittgenstein to stay. He didn’t. His teaching days were done and Wittgenstein returned to Vienna. By now Tractatus  had been published to international acclaim and Wittgenstein was a man to have at your dinner party. Only Wittgenstein didn’t care much for dinner parties and looked into becoming  a monk. He didn’t don the robes but worked in the gardens a bit, before being persuaded by friends to return to Cambridge to turn the collar down on a PhD. John Maynard Keynes wrote in a letter to his wife “Well, God has arrived. I met him on the 5.15pm train”.

Ironically, Wittgenstein couldn’t work at Cambridge as he didn’t have a degree. His previous residency was though sufficient to fulfill the eligibility requirements for a PhD and it was suggested that he submit Tractatus as his thesis, which was examined by Russell and the distinguished philosopher G.E. Moore. At the end of his thesis defence Wittgenstein clapped his examiners on the shoulder, and showing the sort of chutzpah not recommended by nervy sixth form careers advisers, said “don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand.” Moore wrote it was a work of genius and Wittgenstein was quickly made a Fellow of Trinity College.

Wittgenstein was teaching at Cambridge when World War II broke out. Unable to tolerate the thought of doing nothing, he got a manual job at Guy’s Hospital in London as a dispensary porter, delivering drugs from the pharmacy to the ward where he would then advise patients not to take them. Staff were not told that the man pushing the trolley around was one of the world’s most famous philosophers. To them he was plain Ludwig.

Wittgenstein resigned from Cambridge in 1948 to concentrate on writing and spent some time in Ireland and the US. Shortly after returning to London he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died the day after his sixty second birthday on the 28th April 1951 leaving a voluminous archive of unpublished papers. Wittgenstein’s influence has been felt in almost every field of humanities and social sciences since.

So that’s Ludwig Wittgenstein then.

Now you know.

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.” – Wittgenstein, Tractatus.

Time for a gin.