AUGUST 2017

AUGUST  2017
FACING DOWN THE RULERS OF WALL STREET A HUNDRED YEARS AGO. THEY ARE BACK.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

FOOD FIGHT

I can’t help feeling a little sorry for Merzifonly Kara Mustafa Pasa (above). He looks so sad in his portrait. He comes down in history as despised for his petty meanness and infamous for his avariciousness. But the truth may be that his greatest sin historically was having been born with the perfect skills to be a second in command. He was a brilliant organizer. His attention to detail and precision was legendary. He could calculate a bribe as quick as greased lightening. But what he needed was a firm will to make the right decisions. Unfortunately, his Sultan, Mehmed IV, had an ambition for war but found he didn’t like living in a tent. So in 1683 he went home from the war early. And that left Kara Mustafa alone at the top, a Grand Vizier with no limits on his fastidious obsession with detail, with profit, nor on his blind faith in violence as a negotiating position.Sultan Mehmed IV (above) was always trying to convince people that he was who his titles said he was. He made his first entrance into history as an infant when his father, in a fit if temper, threw his baby son down a toilet. The servants rescued the boy, but Mehmed bore the scar from that experience, physically on his forehead (ala Harry Potter), and figuratively on his ego, his entire life. Instead of a cold simple diplomatic declaration of war - or more practically, a disarming surprise attack - on March 31st, 1683 Mehmed sent Austrian Hapsburg King Leopold I a letter dripping with adolescent bravado.Mehmed IV informed Leopold (above), “…We will destroy your little country with our Army… Above all WE order you, to wait for us in your city…so WE can behead you…We will exterminate you and all of your followers, as you are the lowest creatures of God, as all unbelievers are, and erase you from the face of the earth. WE will expose the big and little to gruesome pains first and than give them to a vicious death. Your little Empire, I will take from you and its entire population I will sweep off the earth.”In the realm of braggadocio Mehmed IV letter has to rank right up there with George Bush’s 2003 invitation to the Iraqi resistance to “Bring it on.” Still, it wasn’t as if either side needed a reason for this new war. The Christians and the Muslems had been butchering each other in the Balkans for 300 years, since the fall of Constantinople. In the first century of these wars Vlad the Impaler (Christian) made his reputation having 20,000 Ottoman P.O.W’s impaled on stakes. And then he had lunch. Things just got worse from there. As Andrew Wheatcroft explains in his recent book, “The Enemy at the Gate”, “Many of the horror stories of these wars are true: the massacres and the atrocities, the endless lines of newly enslaved Hungarians in Sarajevo on their road of tears to Istanbul….The Hapsburg armies also flailed men alive, impaled prisoners, took slaves, raped captives. Savagery was a weapon of war used by both sides.” This was ethnic cleansing practiced by experts.During the winter of 1682-83 Kara Mustafa prepared the way to war. He oversaw the building and repairing of roads and bridges up to the border between Austria and Ottoman Hungry. Supply depots were established for ammunition and food. And then, in early May of 1683, an Ottoman army of 150,000 men under the direct command of Mehmed IV marched easily from Istanbul to Belgrade, just 300 miles from Vienna.But after reaching the border between war and peace the Sultan handed over command to Kara Mustafa and returned to his hunting parties in Istanbul. And from this moment things started to go wrong with the expediction.A month later, now under Kara Mustafa’s command, an advance guard of 40,000 Tartar cavalry reached the outskirts of Vienna. Remembering the note from Mehmed, King Leopold gathered up 80,000 of the residents of Vienna and ran to the west, to Linz, leaving just 5,000 citizens behind in the Austrian capital, defended by 11,000 soldiers and 370 cannon. Kara Mustafa felt he had to offer the commander of Vienna a lesson in Ottoman diplomacy. The lesson was proffered in the little village of Perchtoldsdorf, 6 miles east of Vienna, where King Leopold had a summer estate. On July 16th, called upon by Mustafa to surrender, the citizens first tried to defend their town, and only when that proved hopeless did they surrender. It was too late. Mustafa released his troops who “…massacred the surrendered garrison with their sabers, slaughtered noncombatant civilians, and then incinerated a church and tower packed with women and children.” (World History of Warfare; Archer & Ferris)However this bravado did not have the intended effect of destroying the enemies’ will to fight. “The Viennese responded by impaling severed Turkish heads in full view of their trenches and later flayed live captives.” (ibid) Mustafa had no choice now but to lay siege to Vienna. And here technology was on the side of the defenders, thanks to the invention of the “trace italienne”, or the Star Fort. This design replaced vertical masonry walls which had defended Constantinople and which were easily knocked down by sold artillery shot.Instead, as Wikipedia explains, “forts became both lower and larger in area…” Low brick curtain walls filled with earth absorbed enemy shells. Cannon embrasures allowed defenders to safely target any enemy artillery positions. An exterior ditch or moat kept enemy cavalry and troops at a distance. Mustafa would either have to accept the massive causalities of a direct assault or take the time to undermine the forts. With odds in his favor of 800 to 1 the direct assault might well have worked. But Kara Mustafa instead ordered his men to begin digging.
All through August the Ottoman engineers tunneled, hollowing massive galleries underneath Vienna’s outer defenses. In early September, when these were packed with gunpowder and exploded, an almost 12 mile line of fortifications simply collapsed; the fall of Vienna was only a matter of time. The defenders were almost out of food. Then, on September 6, 1683, as the Austrians prepared for the literal last ditch defense of their city, out of the muddy waters of the mighty Danube River, arose a hero; Jan Sobieski, King of Poland.Sobieski’s original not-so-heroic plan had been for an alliance between himself, France and the Ottomans against Leopold’s Austria. But finding Mehmed IV was not interested in sharing the booty from Vienna , Sobieski joined up the Austrians instead. The newly christened “Holy League” had about 80,000 men outside of Vienna, still giving Mustafa a numerical advantage of almost 2 to 1. But the Ottoman army was divided between fending off Sobieski and attacking Vienna. Mustafa refused to delay his assault. The last fortress had already been undermined, the charges planted and the fuses set. Whatever happened with Sobieski’s army, the final act of the siege would be played out on September 12, 1683.The Polish King chose as his battle ground a hill (Kahlen Berg) rising 1,500 feet above the Danube flood plain just outside the walls of Vienna. On this hill a large part of the Ottoman army was camped, including Mustafa’s own red tent. But anticipating Sobieski’s plan, at four that morning, Mustafa launched a spoiling attack against the League’s troops.As the armies threw themselves against each other all morning lomg on the hill, the Ottoman engineers were finishing their preparations underground. At about one that afternoon they lit the fuses and sealed the mine from their end. But an Austrian counter-mining operation then broke into the underground gallery and at almost the last second stopped the fuses. Vienna would not fall this day. Kara Mustafa had run out of time.Sensing the Ottoman forces were exhausted, at about five o’clock Sobieski launched a massed cavalry attack (20,000 men and horses), led by his distinctive “winged angles”. The Polish riders slammed into the Ottoman troops, and swept them from the hill.By 5:30 Sobieski was entering Mustafa’s personal tent and the Ottoman army was in full retreat toward the twin cities of Buda and Pest. Kara Mustafa had lost 15,000 dead and wounded and 5,000 captured, while the “League” had 5,000 dead. As history tells the tale, Sobieski got the glory while the Hapsburgs got the empire.To celebrate the miracle of victory the bakers of Vienna invented a new pastry, twisted into a crescent in rememberance of the Ottoman crescent flags. In Austria the pastry is called a “Vienniuserie”. When Marie Antoinette introduced the treat to France in 1770, it was given the name by which the rest of the world knows it; a “croissant”. A more suspect legend says Sobieski introduced the bagel to commemorate the stirrups of his victorious cavalry, and that Europe’s first taste of cappuccino was in bags of coffee left behind by the fleeing Ottoman troops, or perhaps what was left behind was some tasty “Vienna Roast” coffee. There may be an element of truth in some or all of these stories, but true or not, they are legendary.Mustafa regrouped his forces at Belgrade, and put them into defensive positions, in case the Austrians tried to quickly follow up their victory. But Sobieski and Leopold’s armies were as exhausted as the Ottoman troops, and Hapsburg prince was not interested in taking undue risks. Leopold knew that time was on his side now.The final casualty of the battle of Vienna was Kara Mustafa himself. On December 25, 1683, a date with little meaning to a Muslim, the soldiers came for him. He waited for them with his collar open, and stretched his neck so they might wrap the traditional silk rope around his throat. Ever attentive to details, his last words to the assassins were, “Be certain to tie the knot correctly.” Then several men pulled the knot tight until the life was squeezed out of him. His decapitated head was carried to Istanbul and presented to Mehmed IV in a velvet bag. His grave was disgraced and lost by conquering Hapsburg armies a generation later, and his headstone now rests in the Bugarian/Turkish border town of Edirne, as either a warning or a promise, depending on which side of the border you are standing on.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK

I have some shocking news for you. The man in the Iron Mask was not Leonardo DiCaprio. And anyway, he didn’t wear an iron mask. I mean, just think this thing through. The first time you drool in your sleep in an iron mask, you would be rusted in shut. It was a velvet mask. And he was not the twin of King Louis XIV or any other Louie. Who he was seems to have been mixed up in what is called “The Affair of the Poisons” which is a morality tale of a cute little love-sick tramp with the affinity for “inheritance powders”, and her amoral boyfriend. Throw in the King’s mistress for a little spice, and you have a recipe for what Alexis de Tocqueville called “L’Ancien Regime”, and what in modern terms we would call a soap opera of the rich and infamous. It leaves me wondering why the French waited so long to start chopping off heads.
We begin in 1659, with a little tramp named Marie Madeleine Margherite D’Aubray Brinvillers. We’ll call her Maire for short. I don’t think she’ll mind. Marie was a tiny pixie-doll of a woman with sparkling blue eyes who seems to have committed no major public sins until she was about thirty. That was when her husband (above) introduced her to a handsome cavalryman named Godin de Sainte-Croix, to whom the husband owed a whole bunch of money. Hubby had to move out of the country to avoid his other creditors, and he left Marie behind as a sort of payment on account for Sainte-Croix. Marie didn’t seem to mind the arrangement, and neither did Sainte-Croix. Except, as much fun as Sainte-Croix had with little Marie, she wasn’t making him any richer. Where, oh, where was Sainte-Croix going to find enough money to live in the style to which he wanted to grow accustomed to?
Sainte-Croix developed a multi-step plan. Step one was to encourage Marie to do some charity work. Step two was for Sainte-Croix to make the acquaintance of certain people with a knowledge of chemistry, such as a man known only to history by the name of “Auguer”.
Now, in the days before CSI the only way to prove poisoning - as opposed to just an unhygienic cook - was to catch the suspect pouring poison on the food, or to get him or her to confess. This is why torture was so popular for so long. It never failed. No matter who you arrested, ten minutes with them on the rack and you could get them to admit almost anything.Of course, if your suspect was too connected to be tortured, the only alternative was to lock him up while you slowly collected evidence. That might take decades. And during that time witnesses could be bought off, killed off, or just die of natural causes. People dropped dead all the time in 17th century France. The staggering death toll made for the convoluted plots of some very popular French novels and plays.
So when poor people started dropping dead at the hospital where Marie had volunteered as a nurse, nobody took notice. They were poor people. In 17th century France the streets were littered with dead poor people. It was the perfect time and place for little Marie to practice her new trade.When Marie had perfected the formula she had gotten from Sainte-Croix, which she did in 1666, she had no compuction about slipping the poison into her father’s lunch. He died suddenly. And his little darling inherited a little money, which she and Saint-Croix quickly burned through.
Then in 1670 Marie shed more tears when her two brothers suddenly dropped dead. Marie inherited a little more money. By now, all the heirs in the Brinvillers family were getting nervous. But still nobody suspected the little elf, the little pixie, Marie Brinvillers. She was too cute. Cute people can’t be serial murderers.And just when the homicidal little pixie was about to knock off her own mother for another load of cash, Gordin Sainte-Croix, the greedy mastermind of the entire slaughter, unexpectedly fell ill and dropped dead himself. Mon Dieu! Cele semble suspecte?!
The cops were brought in. They uncovered a hand written confession by Sainte-Croix (Why do upper crust muderers always feel the need to become authors?). And it seems he even left a list of names of satisfied customers who he had directed to the mysterious chemist, Msr. Auger. The list included included Madame de Montespan, who was Louis XIV’s mistress – which in pre-revolutionary France was almost a cabinet position - and the Duchesse of Orleans, Louis’s sister-in-law (above), and...Marie Brinviller. Marie panicked. The cops were not going to torture the King’s mistress, but they would have no hesitation about putting a lower level nobility cutie like Marie on the rack. She ran off to seek protection with her husband in exile. But she was now infamous and hubby wanted nothing to do with her. So Marie signed herself into a convent in Liege, Belgium.
This placed the pious nuns running the convent in a moral bind. They were sworn to provide sanctuary to all who asked for it and who sought forgivness for their sins, but, on the other hand, how do you solve a problem like Marie? How do you catch a cloud of suspicion and pin it down? The good sisters consulted scripture and after due deliberations decided to rat out their guest.
They allowed a cop disguised as a priest to enter the convent and while offering solace to the trouble little lady he escorted Marie right out the front gate, where she was immediately arrested.
It is not a happy ending for our little heroine. Marie was brought back to Paris in chains, tortured for a confession (i.e. waterboarded), tried in secret, and on July 16, 1676 she was forced to drink eight pints of water (more waterboarding)… and then mercifully she was beheaded. And just to be sure, they then burned her corpse. And that is how you solve a problem like Marie.It looked like all hell was about to break loose in France. The cops had Marie's confession and Sainte-Croix's list, and just before the case broke wide open...Louis XIV (above) ordered all further investigations to cease. And being the King, his orders were obeyed. He shut it down. Nobody ever asked Madame Montespan or the Duchesse of Orleans how their names came to be on a list of people who had bought “inheritance powders”. Or if they had ever used them.
And shutting down the investigation also left unanswered another set of unpleasant questions: who was Msr. Auger, really? And what did he know? And more importantly, did he have any plans to write his biography or maybe a 'how to' book? And what does any of this have to do with Leonardo DiCaprio?Nothing: like I said, the “Man in the Iron Mask” was really the “Man in the Velvet Mask” and velvet just sounds too fey for a novel. But if you are of a novel mind set you might ask yourself a few questions.
Why would the King of France keep someone locked up in one prison after another for decades? What secret could be so big that the prisoner was required to wear a mask at all times in front of strangers? What secret could be kept secure by ordering a prisoner to never speak to anyone, not even with his jailers? Could such a plan even hope to work?
It’s too complicated. James Bond villains have simpler plans than that. Why not just kill the prisoner? You don’t even need a trial, let alone a secret trial. In the middle of the 17th century the one thing France had a surfeit of besides starving peasants, was a criminal nobility. Louis could have knocked off every royal mass murderer from “Auger” to the Marquis de Sade and nobody would have said “Boo”. If you ask me this story is mostly a fantasy invented by Alexande Dumas. And wasn’t the truth just as entertaining as the myth? Not to Marie's relatives, of course, but it was for me.

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