This Month in History

  By Komnenos

Johan Hus Riot

After a procession to commemorate Johan Hus on July 30 1419, an angry crowd stormed the town-hall of Prague, the capital of Bohemia (today’s CSR), and killed a number of assembled councilors . 

Johan Hus (1369-1415) was a Czech church reformer who four years before that event had been burned at the stake.  Hus had been inspired by the teachings of the English theologian, John Wycliffe, a vociferous critic of the Catholic Church.  Both had preached against the decline of the moral standards inside the Church, against the worldliness of papacy and clergy, against the financial exploitations of the laymen through the sale of indulgencies, and reflecting the sentiments of the people.  Hus had attracted a large following in Bohemia.

In 1414, Johan Hus agreed to attend the council of the Roman- Catholic Church in Constance, Southern Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund (1368-1437) , brother of the Bohemian King Wenceslaus (1361-1419), had guaranteed Hus’ safe conduct and the right to defend his position. A few weeks after his arrival in Germany, Hus was arrested, tortured for months, and, in June 1415, burned at the stake after a four week long show trial.  Hus’ execution had caused consternation and protest in his native Bohemia and had increased the number of his followers dramatically. From being a religious protest in the beginning, it soon became a national movements of the Slavic Czechs against the ruling German aristocracy.  When Wenceslaus died in 1419, Sigismund , whom the Czechs quite rightly regarded as the man responsible for Hus’ execution, was the “heir apparent”, but, for obvious reasons, not the most popular man in Bohemia.

On the procession of the 30 July, the motions of the enraged people of Prague finally swapped over, the town hall was stormed, and the councilors, who were sympathetic to Sigismund’s cause, thrown out of the window. It was the beginning of the Hussite wars, whose history is told in an excellent article on AE’s main section.

Fall of Robespierre

The Committee of Public Safety of the French Republic met on the 27 July 1794 (or the 9th Thermidor of the Revolutionary calendar, which is the reason why this rebellien against R. is called the "Thermidor rebellion") to discuss new proposals that its leader, Maximilien Robespierre, had brought forward: Last remaining rights of defendants were to be abolished, and the immunity of the members of the National Convent were to be restricted.  As Robespierre began to speak, members of the more moderate factions of the Committee interupted him and, eventually, prevented him from giving a statement. Robespierre would leave the meeting unharmed, but the Committee decided to have him and his closest ally and friend, Saint-Just, arrested. Robespierre, who refused to believe that the French people finally had enough of his dictatorial reign, hesitated to call for military support from the loyal parts of the Paris Commune, and he and Saint-Just were, eventually, arrested in the Hotel de Paris (the townhall) on the evening of the 27th, and Robespierre was badly wounded by a gun shot. Both men were guillotined without trial the following day.

With Robespierre’s arrest and execution, the most radical phase of the French Revolution came to an end and a period of restoration began.  Robespierre’s role during the French Revolution is a complex and ambiguous one.  Although Robespierre, as the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, inflicted a draconian reign onto France, through the brutal oppression of any Royalist, moderate opposition or enemies inside the Jacobins (Danton), through a system of indiscriminate imprisonment and executions, his dictatorial measures also secured the historically significant achievements of the French Revolutions against its numerous internal and external enemies.  There can be no doubt that Robespierre was not driven by personal ambitions or by lust for power, but by a fanatical pursuit of what was regarded as the principles of the French Revoution.

There is an excellent article about Robespierre's fall by Quetzcoatl on AE's main page:

Byzantines Crushed

On July 26th, 811, the Byzantine army, led by the Emperor Nikephoros I, was annihilated by the Bulgars under their Khan Krum, near Pliska, the Bulgarian capital.  The campaign in the summer of 811 had been Nikephoros’ second attempt to regain former Byzantine territory conquered by the Bulgars, and, although he had succeeded to take Pliska on July 23th, he was led by Krum into an ambush in a nearby gorge, and, on the 26th, the Bulgars attacked the Byzantine camp, overwhelming the Emperor’s army which had no means to escape and killing Nikephoros at the outset of the battle. Nikephoros’ son and heir, Stauracios, was badly injured, from which he never fully recovered.  The legend goes that Khan Krum turned the skull of the defeated Emperor into a silver-mounted drinking vessel.

The Bulgars continued to endanger the Balkan borders of the Empire and, in 814, began their three year long siege of Constantinople that ended only after Krum's death in 817.
The 29 July 1014 was the day Basil II (976-1025) “Bulgaroktonos” (the “Bulgar-Slayer”) earned his famous nickname. In the battle of Kleidion, the Byzantine Emperor defeated the West-Bulgar Tsar Samuel, and, in the aftermath, 14,000 Bulgar soldiers were blinded at the orders of Basil.

The battle itself was the climax and the virtual end of decades of Byzantine struggling against the Bulgarian Kingdoms that, more than once, had threatened the very existence of the Byzantine Empire. (See July 26). After years of eventually successful campaigning in the East, after 1002, Basil II was, finally, in a position to dedicate his entire efforts on Samuel’s Empire. The Eastern Bulgarian Empire had been subjugated by John Tzimisces (969-976), but the Western Bulgars with their capital, Ochrid, had successfully defended their independence. Although in years of continuous warfare, Basil II had recaptured most of the former Byzantine possessions on the Balkans from Samuel.  By 1014, he still hadn’t been able to deal the final blow.  This was about to change.

At the end of July 1014, the two armies met in a gorge near the river Struma , on the border of today’s Greece and Bulgaria, where the Bulgar army had erected a fortified camp, thus, blocking the Byzantines’ progress.  During the night, from 28th to the 29th, a small contingent of Byzantine troops, under the command of General Nikephoros Xiphias, managed to go around the camp and, thus, to get behind Bulgar lines.  On the morning of the 29 July, the Byzantines attacked the fortifications from both sides.  The surprised Bulgars weren’t able to defend both ends, panic broke out, and Samuel’s army began to flee.  Those who didn’t get slaughtered, in the rather one-sided battle, were captured and an even worse fate than death awaited them.

Basil inflicted a terrible revenge on the Bulgars.  Out of every hundred men,ninety-nine were blinded and only one was left with a single eye to lead his comrades back to their Tsar.
When the 14,000 blinded soldiers reached the castle of Prespa , where the Tsar resided, Samuel fell into a shock at their sight and died a couple of days later.  Although the Bulgars resisted for a few more years, Basil’s shock treatment eventually had the desired effect, and the last remnants of the West-Bulgar Empire surrendered, beaten and demoralized in February 1018, and the former Empire of Tsar Samuel became, once again, a Byzantine province.

It’s a shame that Basil II is mainly remembered today for his brutal treatment of the Bulgar army after the battle of Kleidion. He was, undoubtedly, one of the great Byzantine Emperors, a hardworking and diligent servant of the Empire, which, under his reign, restored its position as the predominant force in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. Under Basil’s reign, the Empire reached heights that it hadn’t witnessed since the days of Justinian, and, although Basil’s realm never extended as far as Justinian’s, it was arguably stronger, concentrating on the Byzantine heartlands in the East.

Who knows what might have happened if Basil’s successors had been equally strong, able and decisive than the great man, but that wasn’t to be.
No better words can close a chapter on Basil II than J.J.Norwich’s:
“He died on the 15 December (1025), by the 16th, the decline had already begun.”

Spanish Armada

But, possibly, an even more decisive battle took place on the 29 July 1588, when the English fleet defeated the Spanish Armada in the battle of Gravelines.  The Armada was part of Phillip II of Spain’s (1527-1598) plan of an invasion of England that, during the reign of Queen Elisabeth I (1533-1603), had become Spain’s greatest rival in Europe and was endangering the Spanish trade in the colonies of the Americas.  Furthermore, Phillip was believed to be destined to restore England to Catholicism, which Elisabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had abandoned to install the Anglican Church.  The Spanish Armada, 130 ships and 27000 men, under the command of Admiral Medina Sidonia (groovy name!) had assembled in the English Channel near the small French town of Gravelines. On the 29 July, the English fleet, under Admiral (and pirate) Francis Drake, attacked and engaged the Spanish in a day long naval battle. Although the outcome was somewhat inconclusive, the Armada began its retreat the day after, around the West coast of Scotland and Ireland, and half of it vanquished in the rough seas of the North Atlantic.  The last years of Phillip’s reign were the beginning of Spain’s long decline as a world power and of England’s ascent.  Saved from the Spanish invasion, it began to become the world’s leading colonial and trade power.


Weimar Republic Born

On July 31, 1919, in the small East-German town of Weimar, the German National Assembly, passed the constitution of the first German Republic, which has since become known by the very name of that town, the “Weimar Republic”.  Not in itself an event that shattered the foundations of civilization, you might say, and constitutions are a largely boring affair, and I would agree with you, if it weren’t for two minor points in the small print which, as it became apparent later, nobody had cared to read carefully enough.  Anyway, after Germany’s defeat in WW1, the last Hohenzollern Emperor and King of Prussia, Wilhelm II (1859-1941), the one with the huge mustache, abdicated and went into exile in Holland.
On the same day, November 9, 1918, a leader of the SPD ( the Social-Democratic Party), Phillip Scheidemann, leapt onto a balcony of the Reichstags building in Berlin and proclaimed the first German Republic.

In January 1919, elections to a National assembly were held and the SPD became the largest party, and, together with other centre parties, held the majority in the assembly.
The delegates met in February in a theatre in Weimar to discuss, amongst other urgent things, a constitution for the new Republic.  It was modeled after existing democratic systems, it proposed a Federal Democratic Republic with a parliament elected by proportional representation and with two houses, with a ‘Reichskanzler” (Chancellor) as the head of government and a directly elected “Reichspraesident” as the head of state.
So far, so good!  Unfortunately, the founder-fathers of the Weimar Republic made a couple of mistakes, rather insignificant oversights at first glance, but with rather disastrous consequences for the further course of German history.

Firstly, it did not provide for a minimum amount of the percentage of public votes , which a party would need to enter the parliament, and, thus, allowed smaller and, in fact, mostly nationalist, right-wing parties, to send members into the Reichstag. The consequence was that the formation of stable coalition government would become very difficult and sometimes near impossible, and the Weimar Republic stumbled from one government crisis to another. ( The economic catastrophes of the 20s and 30s didn’t help either). Thanks to this little oversight, the NSDAP ( Nazis) could slip almost unnoticed into the parliaments of various German federal parliaments, and, eventually, into the Reichstag in 1928.

Secondly, the constitution contained the “§ 47” that gave the Reichspraesident the right to govern the country with a number of emergency measures, if the political situation should make it necessary. It, therefore, gave the President important powers that were potentially open to abuse.  Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), a former Field Marshall of the Empire, was elected as President for the first time in 1925 as the candidate of the nationalist parties and, again, in 1932 with the help of the Nazis, made frequent use of these powers, and, after having installed a series of right-wing governments at the end of the 20s, finally, gave Hitler the mandate to form a government in January 1933.