Monday, March 26, 2012

South of the Border

Which could be subtitled, Down Mexico Way.

It's interesting how the mind works. The mind of a writer, at least. Well, the mind of this writer.

Yesterday, Sunday March 25, an article in the local paper - The Ottawa Citizen - covered Pope Benedict's visit to Mexico. The article's title: 'Brother Benedict, now you're Mexican'. An eye-catcher, that.

For the benefit of readers who don't closely follow - or follow at all - the news from Rome, Benedict XVI - in Latin, Benedictus PP. XVI; Benedetto XVI in Italian; and Benedikt XVI in German - was born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, in 1927, in Marktl, a village in Bavaria. A bit of quick research - on Wikipedia, where else? - tells me that Benedict is not the first Pope of German origin. He's actually the seventh. The first was Stephen VIII, sometimes called Stephen IX, who presided over the Roman Catholic Church from July 939 to October 942.

And here endeth the lesson on the history of German popes. And on the pacacy. Neither the pope, nor the Roman Catholic Church, is the subject of this post. There is a connection with Germany, though. And with Mexico.

What the Citizen article on Pope Benedict brought to my mind was a previous involvement between Germany and Mexico, one that dates back to 1917. That was the second last year of World War One, the so-called Great War. What is "great" about war, I hear you ask? Well, it's a mystery to me, too. But that's what it's called in a lot of history books. In fact, I have used the same designation in my own books. World War One had, and continues to have, an important part in Newfoundland history, where my books are set.

While vacationing in Cuba last month, I finally read a book that I had purchased in 1965. That's 47 years of glancing at the spine of a book that I bought because it looked really interesting. But never, as far as I can recall, did I even open the cover. Well, maybe once or twice. I don't know if anyone else out there has this bizarre personality trait. That is, to buy a book and just think about reading it sometime. I admit to being a compulsive book buyer. I like the look and feel of books. They comfort me. I suspect I am not alone in this. There's probably quite a few of us. We should probably form an organisation. And have a newsletter. And maybe t-shirts.

The book in question is by Barbara W. Tuchman - 1912-1989 -  a respected and prize-winning American historian. She described herself as a story-teller. As indeed she was. She had two Pulitzer Prizes to her credit.

Barbara W. Tuchman

For a 1988 PBS video interview of Barbara Tuchman by Bill Moyers, follow this link:

Tuchman's most famous book, one that did win a Pulitzer, is The Guns of August, from 1962. That book tells the story of the political and military events that culminated in World War One, one of the most destructive - and stupid - wars in all of human history.

But it's an earlier book, from 1958, The Zimmermann Telegram, that I read in Cuba, and which is the subject of this posting.

 The Zimmermann Telegram

The 'Zimmermann' of the title was Arthur Zimmermann, State Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the German Empire, from November 1916 until his resignation in August 1917.

       Arthur Zimmermann                  The Zimmermann Telegram

The infamous coded telegram that will forever bear Zimmermann's name, and which will define him for all time, was a diplomatic proposal sent from Berlin on January 16, 1917, to the German Ambassador in Mexico, and delivered to the Mexican Government. It proposed that Mexico should wage war against the United States, said action to coincide with Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917, in an effort to choke off all supplies moving from North America to the British and her Allies. Germany proposed to provide military assistance to Mexico in its war with the United States, and - most interesting of all - to ensure that Mexico would, in the aftermath of a successful military alliance, regain possession of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

The proposal was even more complicated. The German Ambassador was also instructed to urge the Mexican Government to broker an alliance between Germany and the Japanese Empire against the United States and the Allied Powers. It was a ludicrous suggestion at the time, but gives an eerie echo of the actual alliance between Nazi Germany and Japan that was forged in World War Two. A bizarre example, if you will, of the maxim that says "what goes around, comes around".

The proposal did not succeed. Obviously. In the first place, British intelligence had intercepted Zimmermann's telegram, and had decoded it. The British had broken the German code earlier in the war. The American Government - when it finally accepted that the telegram was real - was predictably outraged at the German proposal. In the end, it brought the Americans into the war on the side of the British and the French, and that swung the balance of the conflict towards the Allied side, and ensured Germany's defeat. And Germany's eventual humiliation in the Versailles Treaty after the war. Which, as history records, brought about the rise of Adolf Hitler, National Socialism, and eventually World War Two. And all that that entailed.

For a Wikipedia article on cryptanalysis and the operations of "Room 40", the section of the British Admiralty that decoded enemy transmissions, go to:

The point of this present post, though, is not just to recapitualte a now relatively obscure historical event, but to note that the actual writing of history can rival any fictional treatment of historical events. And for that matter, to rival fiction of any kind for entertainment value. Barbara Tuchman was a master (the word 'mistress' obviously does not work here) of writing history in a manner so readable that it compares more than favourably with the best fiction of any genre. Her book is fully indexed, lavishly footnoted, and has an extensive bibliography, just as you expect with as serious study of history. But the fact is, it reads like a political-military thriller, utterly absorbing, difficult to put down once begun.

The one great oddity in all this is that it took me almost 47 years to get around to reading the book. Don't ask me why. There is no rational explanation. Except, possibly, to suggest that I am a world-class procrastinator. If not quite a world-class writer.


Vicki Delany said...

Perhaps the book that has had the most influence on my thinking is Tuchman's March of Folly. Today, I can still look back at what she wrote and think, A War with Iran. Well isn't that 'woodenheadedness'. The word she used so skillfully.

Rick Blechta said...

I will have to look up The Guns of August. My WW1 book (which isn't, strictly speaking, a book about this event) is Twilight of the Habsburgs which I found intensely interesting. It also explained to me once and for all why this war took place, something that my high school history classes never adequately made clear.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Tom, Rick--the Guns of August is beyond fabulous. Tuchman is my idol.

Great post, Tom.

synge lucia said...

Probably the guide which has experienced probably the most impact upon my personal considering is actually Tuchman's 03 associated with Folly. These days, I will nevertheless appear back again from exactly what your woman authored as well as believe, The Battle along with Iran. Nicely is not which 'woodenheadedness'. The term your woman utilized therefore masterfully.

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