Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Wilderness Rebounded Following the Black Death

August 24, 2020

The recent ill-advised lockdown that failed to stop the spread of the coronavirus reduced human activity for several months, and the wildlife noticed.  Deer and coyote, normally more active at night, began roaming big city streets in broad day light.  It doesn’t take long for wilderness to rebound when the presence of humans is diminished or eliminated.  The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is now 1 of the greatest nature reserves in the world, thanks to radiation fallout which makes the area an unpopular place for people to reside.  Past epidemics have led to the rebound of wilderness.  Europeans introduced many infectious diseases to the Americas, resulting in an 80% reduction in Indian populations.  Many Europeans then mistakenly believed the Americas had always been a sparsely populated segment of the world.  They collectively forgot their own past history with the bubonic plague.

The bubonic plague is believed to have originated in the Gobi Desert, possibly in the gerbil population.  Fleas spread the dangerous bacteria (Yersinia pestis) to the Mongolian raiders descended from Ghengis Khan who then carried it to Europe during hostile invasions and through free trade.  During 1347 a merchant ship with an 100% infection rate arrived in Venice, Italy and soon the plague spread throughout Europe in fleas carried by rats.  People slept on straw mats, crowded together in unsanitary condition, and bubonic plague outbreaks exploded.  In addition to being flea-borne the bacteria could be transmitted through the air between people in close contact with each other. The plague is an horrible disease, killing people in 3-4 days, and the victims die in agony–their lymph glands literally burst with toxic bacterial waste and white blood cells.  The victims turn back, hence the name “Black Death.”  50% of the population died.  Not enough agricultural workers remained alive to harvest the crops, and combined with bad weather from the onset of The Little Ice Age, famine soon followed the plague.  Wild animals and wilderness soon took over much of rural Europe.

Fast and lethal, the Black Death spread more than a mile per day

Bubonic plague, originating in Asia, decimated European populations for 2 centuries and wilderness areas rebounded.

Aspen Glow. A Limited Edition Fine Art Print from Peter Lik. – LIK ...

Birch and aspen trees quickly sprouted in abandoned fields that were soon replaced by oak forests with trees that eventually grew 150 feet tall.

Białowieża

Huge oak trees like this grew on abandoned agricultural land following the Black Death.

Grass growing in abandoned grain fields fed herds of wild cattle and horses recently freed from their dead human masters, and these escapees interbred with their wild cousins.  Bison expanded their range.  Soon birch and aspen forests sprouted in the fields, and moose invaded the new natural areas to feed on the saplings.  Brown bears enjoyed the fruits of long neglected orchards.  Eventually, oak trees shaded out the birch forests, and they grew to enormous size–the acorns feeding wild boars and roe deer.  Lynx and wolves reclaimed land they’d lost in the previous centuries.

The Significance of Aurochs | borderslynn

The aurochs, the ancestor of modern cows, along with cattle that went feral roamed the European countryside in the years following the Black Death.  The Black Death likely delayed the extinction of the aurochs by centuries.  They didn’t become extinct until 1527.

The Odd Couple!! (Wild Red Deer Stag & Horse) | Horses, Animals ...

Red deer and horse populations increased when human populations decreased.

King Jagiello escaped an outbreak of the plague in 1426 when he retreated to an hunting manor in the Bialowitza woods.  No roads or bridges penetrated this vast wilderness.  Royalty protected this wilderness for centuries, and today it is just a partial remnant of the post Black Death rebound of nature.

Author Mimi Matthews

Wolf packs took over when humans disappeared from large areas of Europe.

Don’t Go

July 27, 2020

My father was born in Buczacz (pronounced Buchach), Poland where soccer was the most popular sport.  The town soccer teams were split along ethnic lines, and they often played against each other.  The Poles were supposed to be the best, the Ukrainians 2nd, and the Jews the worst.  In reality the opposite was true.  Though the referees would cheat excessively for the Polish soccer team, the Jewish soccer team would invariably defeat them anyway.  After beating the Poles, the Jewish fans and players fled the stadium because if the Poles cornered any Jew following their humiliation, they would beat them senseless or possibly even murder a trapped Jew.

Hitler broke his treaty with the Soviet Union in June of 1941, and Germany invaded Soviet-occupied Poland where Buczacz was located.  As soon as the Germans took control of the town, the Gestapo issued an order for all Jewish male heads of households in Buczacz to report to the town soccer field. My Grandfather Isadore vacillated over whether he should go or not.  His first wife, my Grandmother Regina, urged him not to go.  Years later, she often recounted how she told him “don’t go, don’t go.” My grandfather didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot with the German authorities, but on the other hand he did not trust them.  In the end he decided not to go.  That night, they heard the sound of a machine gun coming from the direction of the soccer field.  My father, then 11 years old, knew immediately what had happened–the Germans had murdered all the Jewish men gullible enough to follow German orders.  His parents assured him that his fears were baseless, but a Jewish track athlete had managed to run away and escape, and he came to their house that night and confirmed my father’s fearful assumption.

Simply ordering Jews to report to their execution was a common tactic Germans used to liquidate a town or city of its Jews.  The executions were called Actions.  With most of the male leadership gone, Germans found it easier to intimidate the remaining population, moving them to ghettos or shipping them off to labor camps.  Jews who managed to escape these mass shooting were often attacked by gangs of Poles or Ukrainians during their escape. The natives killed Jews for their money, jewels, or houses.  They were quick to take advantage of a Jew’s misfortune.

10,000 Jews lived in Buczacz before World War II, making up about half the population.  7,000 were killed directly in town and most of the rest were shipped off to concentration camps.  There were a total of 3 Actions or mass shootings; but Germans, Poles, and Ukrainians murdered many Jews in individual incidents.  From a 2nd story window my father’s family witnessed a German officer shoot a teenaged girl in the head.  Her blood flowed in the snow.  The German ceremonially put gloves on before the shooting and removed them after.  Germans began rounding up Jews to send to concentration camps, and my father’s family hid in the septic tank when the Germans knocked on the door and shouted, “Jew, come out.”  My grandfather knew this was not a tenable situation–eventually the Germans would enter the house and conduct a thorough search and drag them out because their Polish neighbors would tell them Jews were inside. So he went to the countryside and found an Ukrainian farmer who agreed to hide his family in an hayloft in exchange for gold.  My grandfather gave the man some gold and promised more after the war was over.  My father and his brother hid in an hay wagon on the way to the farm and were later joined by their parents.  Still later, my Uncle Haskell stayed with them after his wife and children were taken to a concentration camp while he was at work.  The 5 of them stayed in the hayloft for 2 years, and they suffered from cold, hunger, and thirst.  The farmer gave them each 1 piece of bread a day and the water from boiling potatoes, and on Christmas he gave them butter.  During summer the farmer provided all the dandelions, cucumbers, and cherries they could eat.  The relationship was not harmonious, however.  Whenever the Germans won a major battle the farmer threatened to kick them out.  The Russians liberated Buczacz in 1944, and my father’s family was able to leave the hayloft.   My father’s family were among the 100 Jews in Buczacz who survived…~1% of the Jewish population.

Buchach - Navigator Ukraine

Buchach, Ukraine where my dad was born and grew up.  It was part of Poland when he lived here.

My Grandfather Isadore Gelbart with his 2nd wife, Ilsa.  He lost his parents, 5 brothers and sisters, and many uncles, aunts, and cousins during the Holocaust; but he saved his 1st wife, sons, and brother-in-law. Photo circa 1976. Isadore owned a shoe store until WWII.  He became a lawyer after the war at age 60.  His father was a beekeeper who made mead and sold it to bars.

My Grandmother Regina grew up in nearby Nadworna before she married Isadore. 2,000 Jews lived in Nadvorna and they suffered the same fate as the Buczacz Jews.  Shortly after occupying Nadvorna, the Germans were looking for a convenient location to mass execute as many Jews as they could.  The Ukrainians pointed out a trench used to store ammunition during World War I.  Unlike the first Action in Buczacz, most of the victims in this mass execution were women and children, killed while their husbands and fathers were at work.  Over 1000 children were shot here.  Pious Jews in Nadworna were especially persecuted.  Rabbi’s beards were set on fire, and some had their eyes poked out while being taunted about how their God was not protecting them.  Some Germans justified the executions with bizarre mental gymnastics.  Shaje Shmerier, one of the very few Nadvorna survivors, relates how on a cold winter’s day he was using an iron bar to break the ice on top of a well when a German soldier came up to him and said, “we only killed the communist Jews.  The good Jews are safe.”  Schaje thought of telling him children are not communists and don’t even know what communism is but didn’t want to stand and argue with the German.  He avoided them and had been using that particular well (which was off the busiest route) in the hopes of not running into any Germans.

Ukraine - Ukraine Poland, Nadvirna Nadwirna Nadvorna Nadworna ...

Nadvorna, Ukraine.  When my late grandmother grew up here, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then after WWI it was Poland.  It was a popular resort town during the early 20th century.  Most of the 2,000 Jews who lived here were killed during the Holocaust.

A very brief history of Galicia since 1500 when the Jews arrived.

Location Galicia in Europe.svg

The province of Galicia is half in Poland and half in the Ukraine.  It was all part of Poland when my father lived there.

Polish noblemen owned huge estates in Galicia during the feudal ages.  They started inviting Jewish merchants onto their estates because they wanted to improve their local economies.  Jews, persecuted elsewhere, were glad to live on these estates, and they started arriving in Galicia about 1500.  Eventually, prosperous towns like Buczacz and Nadworna started popping up on these estates. Jews became part of the newly emerging middle class artisans and merchants who stabilized the economy.  Cossacks, descendants of Ghengis Khan’s hordes, and Turks repeatedly attacked Galicia and occasionally laid ruin to some towns, murdering and terrorizing the Jewish population along the way.  But the towns were always rebuilt.  By the early 18th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire drove the Turks away, and it controlled the province until World War I. (My grandfather served as a cavalry officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the war.) Poland gained independence after World War I, and Galicia became part of Poland.  After World War II the Soviet Union swallowed up the province.  The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the Ukraine declared its independence.  Galicia is now split between Poland and the Ukraine.

Reference:

Nadworna

Numerous authors

Landmanshaft of Nadworna in Israel and America 1975

Operation Sea Lion

October 12, 2019

Germany could have won World War II and were closer to winning than most people realize.  If instead of invading Russia during the summer of 1941, Hitler had followed the advice of his admirals and diverted more resources to North Africa, the German army would have easily swept aside the British and captured all the oil in the Middle East.  Then, he could have ordered the invasion of southern Russia and captured all of their oil supplies, and it would have been game over for the allies because the Germans would have controlled most of the available worldwide oil.  Another scenario that could have led to German victory was a successful invasion of Great Britain following the surrender of France.  Germany’s plan for this invasion was code named Operation Sea Lion.  If Germany defeated Great Britain, the allies would not have been able to supply the Soviet Union with war materials, and Germany could have gone on to conquer Russia.

Initial German plan; subsequently much changed

The German plan to invade England in 1940.  The Germans were unable to achieve complete air superiority, so Hitler canceled the operation.

By August 1940 the Germans seemed invincible.  Germany crushed the French army and the British Expeditionary Force in 2 months and had 300,000 British troops trapped at Dunkirk along the northern coast of France.  An incredible effort using hundreds of civilian boats rescued these troops and brought them back to England (as depicted in a recent motion picture).  However, the British were forced to leave all their heavy equipment and ammunition behind.  They were a naked army without tanks or artillery.  The British were so desperate for arms the U.S. gave them 300,000 surplus WWI rifles.  At this point of the war the British army was no match for the German Wehrmacht.  3 obstacles stood in the German’s way: the English Channel, the British navy, and the Royal Air Force.  The Germans knew it was critical to destroy the Royal Air Force as an effective fighting force before they could bring their troops across the English Channel on barges.  Otherwise, British bombers and warships would sink the barges and kill thousands of German troops before they even landed in England.  If on the other hand, the German Luftwaffe had complete air superiority, they could sink British ships attempting to interdict the barges.  Operation Sea Lion included a plan to create an alley for the barges using mines and submarines that would also stop British war ships from interfering with the landings.

Germany was winning the air war against England also known as the Battle of Britain.  Herman Goering, Chief of the Luftwaffe, ordered massed bomber formations protected by fighter escorts to attack British airfields.  Though they shot down more German fighters than they lost, England had fewer planes and could not afford the loss in attrition.  England was soon losing more planes and pilots than they could replace.  One day, Churchill, the prime minister of England, ordered a bombing raid on Berlin.  This so infuriated Hitler that he ordered a change in strategy.  Instead of continuing the winning strategy of attacking British air bases, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to bomb civilian targets.  With the aid of newfangled radar and coastal spotters British fighter pilots were able to down lots of German bombers without losing as many planes as they had during the previous phase of the battle.  Meanwhile, British bombers sank many German barges that were moving into position to ferry German troops across the English Channel.  Hitler kept delaying Operation Sea Lion until he finally canceled it during October 1940.  The Germans were just too afraid of losing too many troops in the English Channel.

Military strategists have long wondered what would’ve happened, if Operation Sea Lion had been launched.  Most simulated war games have England winning the campaign.  In the simulations Germans were able to land the 1st echelon of troops but 2nd and 3rd waves were stopped by the British navy, leaving German troops stranded.  However, some simulated war games do have Germany winning the campaign.  In any case it would have been a brutal battle.  Churchill writes they would have used poison gas and were prepared to fight a prolonged guerilla war.  The Germans had a list of prominent British intellectuals and Jews they were planning on arresting immediately.

Hitler didn’t hate the British because he saw them as fellow Aryans.  He just wanted them to surrender and let him conquer the Slavs in Russia who he considered a subhuman slave race.  Perhaps this is why he was so eager to turn his attention to Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union) the following summer.

Reference:

Churchill, Winston

Memoirs of the Second World War

Houghton Mifflin 1959

Napoleon Bonaparte in 1794 Words

August 17, 2019

I always wondered why Napoleon Bonaparte was considered a great military strategist, even though he lost 3 entire armies over his career.  I read a 900 page biography of Napoleon this summer to help me understand his supposed brilliance.  This biography is so detailed as to include such facts as Napoleon had a good report card when he was 12 years old.  I’m writing this essay for those readers who have some interest in Napoleon, but not enough to care about what grades he made in school.

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Napoleon Bonaparte.  He was a good, hard-working tactician in his earlier years.

Napoleon was born in 1769 on the island of Corsica near the coasts of Italy and France.  His family was of Italian descent and would be considered upper middle class by today’s standards.  His family sent Napoleon to military school in France when he was 10 years old, and he stayed there for 8 years, rarely seeing family members.  A French scholarship covered most of his expenses.  Napoleon was a voracious reader, spending much of his time in the library, and he had few friends.  He became an artillery officer, but most of his early years were spent on approved and unapproved leaves of absences.  He was busy straightening out the family business on Corsica (a silkworm orchard) because his father had died at a young age.  Also, he was reluctant to take part in a French Civil War between royalists and Republican revolutionaries.  He first distinguished himself as a competent military man when the artillery unit he commanded helped the French repel a British occupation of the French port of Toulouse.

European powers were almost constantly at war during this time period.  England used its powerful navy to dominate overseas trade, while France contested with Austria over all the little kingdoms that today make up Germany and Italy (neither of which existed as a country yet).  Victory in a battle usually meant the winner could insert a puppet king on the throne of a little kingdom.  Austria was mostly winning these battles when Napoleon was put in charge of the French army in northern Italy.

Napoleon enjoyed a rapid rise in rank for 2 reasons: his ability, and because most of the older French officers consisted of aristocracy that had been purged during the French Revolution.  Still in his mid-twenties, Napoleon commanded a French army that defeated the Austrians and conquered all of Italy except for Sicily.  Meanwhile, other French generals were losing against Austria in Germany.  Napoleon became a national hero and developed a cult of personality following because of his great military victories.

The French government next assigned the task of conquering Egypt to Napoleon as a way to counter British control of the Mediterranean.  At this time the Ottoman Empire owned Egypt, and it was defended by primitive mercenaries known a Mamluks who fought on horseback with spears and muskets.  The more technologically advanced French army easily outclassed them and conquered Egypt.  Napoleon dreamed of conquering the land all the way to India, like his hero, Alexander the Great, so he led his force across the Sinai desert and into what today is Israel.  The French army murdered prisoners and shot women and children during their advance.  Napoleon’s advance was finally stopped at Acre, a fort just north of the location of modern day Haifa, Israel where a cruel Arab king and his Jewish general organized a defensive stand with help from the British navy.  Napoleon was forced to withdraw his forces back across the Sinai desert because the British navy had blockaded his supplies from crossing the Mediterranean Sea.  Without orders Napoleon snuck across the Mediterranean in a boat, leaving his army to succumb to the plague and a British expeditionary force a few years later.

France was a democracy during this time, the only one in Europe, but it was weak.  The executive branch was run by a committee. France was at war with everybody, highway robbery was common, there was a royalist revolt in 1 province, overseas trade was ruined, and taxation and conscription were unpopular.  Elections were fraudulent, and government corruption was the norm.  A few politicians along with the police and the army decided to use Napoleon’s cult of personality popularity to stage a coup d’état and establish a stronger more autocratic government.  This is how Napoleon was installed as the leader of France.

Napoleon was a competent administrator.  He took measures to stabilize the economy and reduce the rampant armed robbery.  He married Josephine shortly before resuming France’s war with Austria.  While he led the French army across the Alps to reconquer Italy (France had lost it when Napoleon was in Egypt), Josephine had an affair with an Austrian military officer.  After Napoleon discovered this betrayal, Josephine never cheated on him again, but Napoleon had at least a dozen mistresses and fathered at least 2 illegitimate children during their marriage.  He was no great lover, though.  His mistresses referred to him as the 3 minute man.

Napoleon didn’t believe in royalty and thought people should achieve their rank through their ability, like he did.  Nevertheless, he made himself an emperor for life and installed his brothers on the thrones of Naples and Spain.

A peace treaty with England didn’t last long, and Napoleon planned to invade England.  He organized a massive army on the northern coast of France and Belgium.  Austria took this as an opportunity to resume their war with France–a big mistake.  Napoleon was able to rapidly move his army from northern France to Germany where he surrounded and crushed the Austrian army and its allies at Austerlitz.  Napoleon didn’t invent the corps level of operations that allowed him to execute this remarkable feat, but he was the first in history to use it.  Armies used this operational method through WWII.  It allowed for more flexibility and mobility.  Unfortunately, this great land military victory was offset at the Battle of Trafalgar where his navy was wiped out by the British navy.  This led to a long standstill with England, but the Austrians were forced to surrender when Napoleon occupied Vienna.

Napoleon had French, German, and Polish troops under his command.  Nevertheless, Prussia (now just a province in east Germany) decided to fight a war with Napoleon.  Napoleon’s army kicked Prussia’s ass at the Battle of Jenna.  Then he kicked Prussian and Russian ass at the Battle of Eylau. The allies were forced to agree to a peace agreement at Tilsit that overwhelmingly favored France.  Napoleon also used forces to occupy Spain, sticking his brother on the throne.  A long, brutal, and bloody guerrilla war was fought in Spain throughout the rest of Napoleon’s reign.  However, Napoleon sold North America west of the Mississippi to the U.S. because he knew he couldn’t hold that territory, now that he had no navy to speak of. During 1809 Austria declared war on France again and yet again Napoleon’s army kicked their ass, this time at Wagram.  Napoleon now schemed to make Austria a permanent ally.  He divorced Josephine and married Maria-Louise, the daughter of the Austrian king.  This did foster an alliance between the 2 countries, but it didn’t last when Napoleon started losing battles.

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This was the greatest extent of Napoleon’s Empire.

Napoleon’s economic dominance of Europe demanded that all countries under his influence stop importing British products.  Russia refused to boycott English goods, and Napoleon decided to force them to comply.  He led the French army in an invasion of Russia, hoping the Austrians would help him.  Austria officially agreed but didn’t really.  Napoleon’s overreach led to his downfall.

The Russians avoided major battles and fought rearguard delaying actions as they retreated.  The goal was to lure Napoleon’s army deep into Russia where his supply lines would get too thin and his soldiers would starve.  The strategy worked.  Typhoid fever and starvation took an high toll.  The Russians scorched earth strategy meant there was no food along the main roads.  Groups of soldiers leaving the main roads to forage in the countryside were murdered by Cossacks (irregular Russian cavalry).  Finally, the Russians stood and fought 1 major battle at Borodino in front of Moscow.  The French won, but it was an exhausting fight.  The Russians burned down Moscow, and there was no food for the French army when they captured it.  Napoleon mistakenly thought the Russians would surrender when he captured Moscow, like the Austrians did when he captured Vienna.  Napoleon’s army was forced to retreat back to Germany, and the Russian winter and the Cossacks pretty much destroyed what was left of the French army.

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Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.  There was no food and temperatures fell well below zero everyday that winter.  They returned on foot…they were forced to eat all their horses.

The next spring, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and England all ganged up on France.  Austria and Prussia, tired of getting their asses kicked by Napoleon, adopted his tactics and were much tougher opponents now.  Astonishingly, Napoleon was able to assemble a formidable army from remnants, new recruits, and troops from occupied Spain; but without much cavalry because they had eaten so many of their horses during the Russian campaign.  But now, Napoleon was outnumbered by at least 3-1.  He won a few more battles, but some of his generals and their army units defected to the allies, and he was forced to abdicate his throne.  He was sent into exile to the Italian island of Elba.

Less than 1 year later, he escaped from the island with 1100 men including 80 of his household servants, and he traveled through France gaining defectors from the army.  Napoleon was still popular within the army but was not well liked by the nobility and working class merchants who were tired of their sons dying in his constant wars.  Nevertheless, he regained the throne.  The allies went back to war with France, and this time Napoleon met his match in Belgium against the British general, Wellington.  When military historians war game the Battle of Waterloo, the French side usually wins.  But by now Napoleon was fat, tired, and out of shape.  He reminds me of an ex-champion boxer who makes a comeback when he is past his prime but just doesn’t have it any more.  Napoleon and his officers made numerous blunders that turned potential victory into disastrous defeat.  Napoleon abdicated his throne again and surrendered to the British.

The British sent Napoleon to exile on the rocky island of St. Helena in the middle of nowhere.  This time there was no escape.  He died in 1821 at the age of 51 from stomach cancer after suffering horribly.  Stomach cancer was a disease inherited within his family.  His father, brother, 2 sisters, nephew, and 1 of his illegitimate sons died of stomach cancer–most during middle age.

Reference:

Roberts, Andrew

Napoleon: A life

Penguin Books 2014

 

 

The Human History of Sicily in 1345 Words

June 15, 2019

Humans first began colonizing Sicily about 14,000 years ago.  Historians aren’t sure where these people originated, but they probably came from what today is mainland Italy, Spain, and/or North Africa.  Different tribes roamed various parts of the island where they fished, hunted large mammals, and foraged in the forest for plant foods.  The oldest known culture is the Mycenaean, a people who established trade routes and flourished on the island from 1600 BC-1200 BC.  This culture died out, possibly following some natural disaster, such as an earthquake that weakened the stability of that society.  Greeks started colonizing the island in 734 BC, forcing the native tribes away from the coast and into the interior.  The Greeks were 1 of the dominant civilizations in the Western World during this time, but they weren’t a single country.  Instead they were made up of many different city states–some were democratic while others were ruled by autocratic kings.  The Greeks fought with the Carthaginians for control of Sicily, and the Greeks eventually forced them off the island.  The Carthaginians descend from the Phoenicians of the bible and were a sea-faring, trading civilization.  The Greek city states of Sparta and Athens then fought for control over the island, and the former were victorious.

Almost a century later Carthaginians invaded the island again. The first great king of Sicily, Gelon, led an army that defeated the Carthaginians in battle.  (The Carthaginains still controlled a small part of the island, but Gelon had most of it.)  Gelon also founded the Greek city of Syracuse on Sicily where he established the capital of his state.  He forcibly moved the richest, best educated people he conquered to Syracuse, and the city became renowned for its high culture.

Gelon, the first great king of Sicily.

Sicily was ruled by a series of tyrant kings after Gelon’s death.  They all varied in their competence and cruelty.  Timoleon was the next great ruler of Sicily.  He drove the Carthaginians off the island after they had tried to regain control once again.  His sensible administration of the island led to it becoming the first great granary of the rising Roman empire.  Rome became the big world power during the 3rd century BC and after they defeated Carthage in 2 major wars, Sicily became part of the Roman empire, though most of the inhabitants spoke Greek instead of Latin.  Rome ruled Sicily for centuries and aside from several slave revolts Sicilian history was uneventful during this time period.

The Roman empire collapsed circa 500 AD and split into 2 kingdoms.  Western Rome, influenced by the pope, was Roman Catholic, while eastern Rome, ruled from Constantinople and known as the Byzantine Empre, was Greek Orthodox.  For a brief time the German Ostrogoth tribe conquered the western empire and ruled Sicily, but this didn’t last long.  The Byzantines took control of Sicily for about 200 years until Arabs invaded the island when they were spreading the Muslim religion across the Mediterranean at the point of a sword.  The Byzantines frequently tried to regain control of Sicily, but they could never beat the Arabs.  However, Arab kings, though they were brothers, were constantly fighting each other in a kind of Civil War that made them weak.  Meanwhile, the Normans, used as mercenaries to protect the western Roman empire, were becoming numerous and troublesome to the pope in southern Italy.  (Normans were Vikings that had conquered northern France and shortly after assimilated the French culture.) To get rid of them, the pope gave Sicily to King Robert of the Normans.  Sicily, of course, was ruled by Arab brothers and wasn’t the pope’s territory to give.  Nevertheless, Robert and his Viking army invaded Sicily and eventually defeated the Arabs.

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Illustration of Norman invasion of Sicily.

The Normans ruled Sicily for over an hundred years, until 1 of their kings married into German royalty and passed the torch onto them.  There was 1 great German King during this era by the name of Hohestaffer.  The Pope asked him to lead a Crusade to retake Jerusalem.  But instead of all out warfare, he managed to regain the city with a peace agreement.  This pissed the pope off because he hated Muslims and wanted bloodshed.  Worse yet, Hohestaffer was reportedly decent to the Muslim citizens who still lived on Sicily.  So the pope sent an army after Hohestaffer, but the German king defeated it, took his army to Rome, and made the pope surrender.

The Catholic church always hated this German line of kings, and several generations later they replaced this lineage with French Royalty.  The French kings never lived on the island and seldom even visited it.  Instead, they doled the land out to their buddies who served as absentee landlords that got rich from the poor laboring peasants.  Sicily was always kind of a backwater region controlled by distant royalty who gave their powerful friends vast estates.  This created enormous income inequality that persists today.  The Sicilians often rebelled, and during 1 rebellion King Ferdinand of Spain came to their rescue and established Spanish rule.  Spain owned Sicily for centuries, but again, the system of vast estates that enriched super rich land barons remained.  Most of the population consisted of poor peasants who never even had the chance to own land, despite the existence of large amounts of fallow acres on these huge estates.  Spain introduced the Inquisition to Sicily, explaining why it remained backwards for so long.  Many Muslims and Jews were expelled from Sicily during Spanish rule.  At this point in history Muslims were more civilized and scientifically advanced than Christians, and Jews were worldly merchants.  The Mafia probably originated during Spanish rule.  The land barons paid bandits protection money–in other words they paid them not to be robbed.  In return the bandits helped the land barons suppress peasant rebellions.

Spain ruled Sicily for about 400 years, but in a war against the Holy Roman Empire they lost it.  Austrians defeated the Spanish in a major battle on Sicily, and the Holy Roman Empire briefly owned it.  Another peace treaty granted the island to a king of the Piedmont province located in what today is Italy.  The next peace treaty granted the island to Austrian royalty who ruled Sicily from Naples.  The French under Napoleon’s brother ran the Austrian royalty out of Naples, but the British (at war with Napoleon) occupied Sicily and protected the royalty, until Napoleon’s eventual defeat.  Austrian royalty regained Naples after Napoleon lost.

Naples and Italy were controlled by Austrian royalty until Italian independence in 1861.

Unhappy peasants often rebelled in Sicily and Naples.  Royalty often were forced to flee, and they would agree to democratic reforms.  But as soon as the kings repressed the insurrections, they would tear up the newly written constitutions and re-establish autocratic rule.  Emmanuel II of the Piedmont kingdom in central Italy was different.  He supported democracy and wanted Italy to be united.  He invited the French to help him kick the Austrians out of a couple Italian provinces which were then united under his rule.  However, it was a mercenary, Giuseppe Garibaldi, who liberated Sicily and Naples from Austrian rule.  Italy was born in 1861.  A decade later the French were forced to leave Rome after their defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, and the pope retreated inside the Vatican.  (The pope and the Catholic church always opposed democracy).  This established the modern day boundaries of Italy. Nevertheless, the peasants in Sicily were still oppressed, squeezed between land barons and the mafia.  Many left for a better life in the U.S. and South America.

Italy was democratic until 1922 when Benito Mussolini took over.  He suppressed the mafia on Sicily for 14 years, so they were glad to help U.S. troops, when along with the British, they kicked the Germans and the Italian army off the island in 1943. The loss of Sicily caused Mussolini to lose power.  Since World War II, Sicily and Italy been under a democratic socialist government, and the people are probably better off than at any other time in their history.

Reference:

Norwich, John

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History

Random House 2015