Day By Day

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

This Day In History

Today is Christmas Card Day, honoring Sir Henry Cole, who created the first commercial Christmas Card in 1843. This is an interesting fact. It shows that by the 1840's Britain's middle class was large enough and affluent enough to be willing to spend money on a trivial convenience like a pre-made seasonal greeting card and that an entire industry could be based on that phenomenon. It also says something about how social conventions and customs are shaped by commercial considerations, and also about how much of our life is organized around simple convenience. How convenient it is to simply buy and send a card, rather than to make the effort to actually get in touch with the person.

On this day in 536 AD Belisarius captured Rome. Here's the situation: As early as the third century AD, the Roman Empire was in crisis. Buffeted by invasions, plague, economic collapse, and civil war Rome seemed to be on the verge of extinction. In response to this continuing crisis the emperor Diocletian initiated a reform in which the Empire was divided into Eastern and Western parts [each of which was further subdivided] each with its own administration. After this division the Eastern and Western halves of the empire followed increasingly divergent paths. While the East prospered, the West declined until late in the fifth century AD the Western Empire effectively ceased to exist [historians disagree on this but 476 AD is the traditional date for the "fall of Rome"] and was supplanted by a number of German kingdoms. Early in the sixth century the Eastern Roman Emperor -- Justinian -- decided to reunite all the former Roman lands. To do this he embarked upon wars of reconquest and the general who led his armies westward was Belisarius.

Belisarius was one of the greatest military figures in Western history. He already had a distinguished career fighting against the Sassanids and suppressing internal revolts when he embarked upon the reconquest of the West. In 533-34 he launched a successful attack on the Vandals, recovering North Africa for the empire, then he invaded Sicily, conquered it, and used it as a base for further campaigns. In 535 he attacked the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy and in a brilliant campaign drove north through Naples all the way to Rome, which fell to him on this date in 536. He then moved on capturing Milan and Ravenna. It seemed that the restoration of the Empire would be a cakewalk. Belisarius' success, however, crippled his career. Justinian, fearing that his general was getting too powerful and popular recalled him and set him to fighting the Persians. The attempt to completely reconquer the Western empire was put on the back burner and remained there indefinitely.

And on this day in 1990 Lech Walesa was elected the President of Poland. Walesa began as a simple electrician working in the shipyards at Gdansk, but in 1970 he became involved in a local labor protest and was fired. He then began a career as a labor agitator, organizing a series of strikes first in Gdansk, and later all across Poland that resulted in the government recognizing "Solidarity", the nation's first free labor union. The agitations also got Lech arrested and he spent several months in prison. In 1983 Walesa, once again free, was rehired as an electrician at the Gdansk shipyards. In the same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Through the rest of the decade Walesa was continuously involved with Solidarity, overseeing its transformation from a labor union into an opposition political party. He was influential in convincing the Communist government to expand the range of permitted political organizations and to institute some free-market reforms. In 1989 he traveled to the United States where he was invited to address Congress -- the only foreign private citizen ever to do so -- and in Philadelphia he was awarded the "liberty medal". Returning to Poland he became a candidate for the presidency and won it on this day in 1990. Like many others Walesa found the transition from protesting and campaigning to actual governing difficult. He proved to be an incompetent administrator and embarrassing documents suggesting that he had been a collaborator with Communist authorities emerged. His personal popularity waned and in 1995 he was defeated for re-election. When he ran again in 2000 he received only 1% of the vote. Nonetheless Walesa remains an important symbolic figure much celebrated by liberal transnationalists everywhere who continue to shower him with honors. Thirty-five universities and colleges have awarded him honorary degrees. He is much in demand as a public speaker.

"Happy Birthday" to Issure Danielovich, born in 1918. You probably know him as "Kirk Douglas" although as a young man he was known as "Izzy Demsky". He was just a bit player trying to break into show business when he met Betty Joan Perske who was soon to become Lauren Bacall. Betty Joe promoted his career, introducing him to some of her big-shot friends, and soon he was getting regular work and was on his way to stardom. His autobiography, The Ragman's Son, is well worth reading.