Wise Czar

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

World War I Soldier and Ukrainian soldier in 2014100 years ago, the death of one man in an obscure country set off a chain of events that would culminate in the most destructive conflict the world had ever seen. 100 years later, troubling events in the same part of the world once again threaten global stability.

I am, of course, referring to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo in 1914, which ultimately led to World War I, and to the 2014 civil war between Ukrainians and pro-Russian nationalists, which is slowly pitting the major world powers against each other. Although a full century separates these two events, both share common themes that cannot be overlooked:

The Belief that a Giant War is Impossible

Today, as the World War II generation quickly leaves us, there are less and less people who can remember a violent, global conflict. To be sure, there are many small wars, and we are used to those happening on a fairly frequent basis, but I would wager that few people in the western world can envision a devastating world war that would put all of our lives in danger. It just doesn’t seem possible, especially with the increasing economic and political interdependence among countries. After all, we have the United Nations, NATO, and the European Union, not to mention a number of other smaller international groups.

Guess what? Westerners thought the same exact thing in 1913, just a year before World War I started. Back then, Europe was still controlled by empires and emperors which competed against each other. At the same time, most, if not all of the royal families in Europe, were somehow related. The kings of Germany, Russia and Great Britain were all cousins! Who would have thought that family would fight family in a world war?

Aside from this, the great powers were strongly economically connected. In 1913, Britain, Germany and France  traded largely with each other. In fact, most of Germany’s exports went to Britain.  We tend to think of the global economy as a modern development, but it was definitely around to a large extent before World War I as well.

I shouldn’t forget to mention that Europeans and Americans visited each other quite often in 1913, just like we do today. Tourism was alive and well, although it took longer because there weren’t yet passenger planes.

In 1913, the newspaper The Economist wrote, “ war between the civilised communities of the world [is] an impossibility.” It was wrong. Tragically wrong. This should cause us to reevaluate the belief that another World War is impossible because, unfortunately, the old maxim holds true—never say never.


Franz Ferdinand Assassination

The event that sparked World War I–the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand–was a result of nationalism.

Some say that this historical “ism” was the scourge of the 20th century, and in many (many) ways it was. For those who haven’t had history in 20 years, or otherwise hate it, let me give you a brief refresher on what exactly nationalism is. The standard definition given in schools is “pride in one’s country,” but it goes beyond that. It really comes down to how do you identify or define yourself?  In the United States, we see ourselves as Americans and we are separate from, for example, Poles, who live in Poland. A nationalist, then, promotes identifying with a particular culture or country that is separate from another culture or country.

In 1914, nationalism was brewing in Serbia. At that time, the Serbians were controlled by the Austro-Hungarian empire, and they wanted their own nation, their own identity. This is why, on June 28, 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, dead in the streets of Sarajevo. This violent act of nationalism set the spark for the Great War.

Fast forward to today, and you’ll notice that the chief cause of the violence in Ukraine is…nationalism. People who are loyal to Russia in eastern Ukraine hope to separate themselves from the rest of Ukraine. They are, essentially, Russian nationalists living within Ukrainian borders. On the other side, Ukraine wants to preserve its own national identity, separate from Russia. As a result, the two forces are clashing. When it comes down to it, the conflict is an identity crisis, and such crises have the unfortunate tendency of dragging in other world players.


So how exactly did the assassination of one man in 1914 lead to a global war? After the assassination, Austria-Hungary naturally declared war on Serbia. Then the dominoes began to fall. This part always gets confusing, so I’ll try  to keep it simple. Russia was friends with Serbia. Germany was friends with Austria-Hungary. So the war expanded to include Russia and Serbia versus Germany and Austria-Hungary. Then, France came in to help Russia, and Great Britain came in to help France. Finally, the Ottoman Empire came in to help Germany. Basically (In reality it’s more complicated then this) , alliances forced the countries of Europe to all help each other, so it kind of became a gang war where friends were sticking up for friends.

Today, although the system of alliances is not as rigid, there are definitely two camps forming over the crisis in Ukraine. Despite denying it, Russia is clearly helping to directly arm and train the eastern Ukrainian rebels in their fight against western Ukraine. Naturally, Russia stands to gain if eastern Ukraine defeats western Ukraine because the east would probably try to become part of Russia in some way.

On the other side, the United States and much of Europe supports western Ukraine because of its pro-western tendencies and is putting increased sanctions on Russia for supporting eastern Ukraine. So a civil war between Ukrainians has drawn in two of the most powerful nations on earth against each other—the United States and Russia. This has not happened to such an extent since the Cold War and, in a worse case scenario, could lead to a cataclysmic global confrontation that would put every human being in danger.

Naturally, it’s easy for a historian to look back and cherry-pick similarities between two historical events. As much as the causes of World War I and the current Ukrainian crisis have in common, they have many differences. Most importantly, there are no treaties explicitly binding countries to help each other militarily in this conflict. There has been a lot of talk of sanctions and non-military aid from the west, but almost nobody supports an armed conflict precisely because history has taught us what that can lead to. Even Russia has been careful, opting for subversive methods of advancing their agenda instead of direct aggression.

So let’s hope that humanity has, in fact, learned something from history and is able to take measures to avoid another global conflict. Commemorating the hundredth anniversary of World War I with another world war isn’t a good idea, but that’s just me.


Recently, I attended a special outdoor commemoration for the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. A number of period tanks, artillery and landing craft were on exhibit, all of which were fascinating to behold.

Among this collection was a living relic, likeherd-mentalityly over 90 years old, whose advanced age did not prevent him from unwaveringly standing and captivating the audience with his own tales from the 1944 invasion of Normandy.

“I remember at night in the camp we used to shoot at birds in the distance for target practice,” recalled the aged veteran. “The funny thing was that often, instead of hitting the birds in the dark, we actually ended up shooting wandering Frenchmen, hahaha!” “Ha ha ha” laughed the excited crowd at the joke, except, it wasn’t a joke. Here was a man talking about accidentally killing people, and the crowd was laughing as if they had just seen Moe slap Curly in The Three Stooges.

I can understand why the veteran was able to take the story lightly—war had likely numbed him as it does so many others—but what about the crowd? Did they truly find it funny that innocent Frenchmen were getting mistaken for birds and shot to death in the dark, or were they just laughing because they felt that it was the appropriate social reaction at the time. I would argue the latter.

Everybody is, to some extent, an actor when it comes to social situations. We laugh out of politeness when somebody says something that’s supposed to be funny, and we exaggerate our sadness when somebody we have never met dies. I will illustrate both examples.

Scenario 1: You are in a grocery store staring at the shelf, calculating whether you should buy “Aunt Jemima” or “Log Cabin” maple syrup. Suddenly, your near-meditative state is broken by an elderly lady who bumps into you, causing you to drop the box of pancake mix you were holding under your arm. As you bend over to pick it up you hear the lady chuckle as she says, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Gee wilickers, I am as clumsy as a clown today, aren’t I? Hahaha.” “Ha ha ha,” you artificially laugh back. You didn’t actually find anything funny in the situation, but you didn’t want to be rude, so you forced a laugh. (According to a recent study, it turns out that those fake laughs may not actually be fooling anybody).

A typical “fake” laugh

Scenario 2: You are an insurance saleswoman meeting with a potential buyer at a restaurant. The buyer, a few minutes late, apologizes saying that his cousin has just passed away, and that he had gotten caught up dealing with that situation. Instinctively, you let out a groan of sadness to try and empathize with the buyer. Now, it is sad to hear about anyone dying. We are emotionally programmed to be upset when we hear that type of news, so you definitely feel some sadness. But are you really feeling as sad as you act? The answer is probably no, and there is nothing wrong with that. You cannot be truly distraught over somebody dying when you had no emotional bond with them. Imagine if you could—everybody would be depressed all the time. The point is, you had to probably act a little bit sadder than you were because it was the right thing to do at the time.

We all do things to socially fit in to some extent. In the two cases illustrated above, there is nothing wrong with that. Humans are social creatures  who need company, and you’re not going to get company by being the hothead who glares at the lady who accidentally bumped into you or being the jerk who doesn’t offer support to others during times of grief.

However, there are times when this social instinct to fit in can cause us to do commit horrible acts, acts we would never have committed on our own. Let’s consider an extreme example first: The Holocaust.

Up until World War II, the Jews had lived in peace alongside their neighbors in Europe. People shopped at Jewish stores, borrowed from Jewish lenders and had coffee with their Jewish friends. Enter Adolf Hitler and the Jewish persecution. All of a sudden it became socially acceptable to hate Jews. People who had once gotten along with their Jewish neighbors now began to mistreat them to fit in with Nazi society. From the Nuremberg Laws, to Kristallnacht, to the final solution, it just got worse and worse. Ultimately, peoples’ failure to speak up against society led to the deaths of 6 million Jews.

In 1938, German mobs committed violence against Jews in what became known as Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht (1938)– one of the worst cases of peer pressure gone wrong.

The example need not be that extreme. Consider how nasty the audience gets on those live talent competitions like The X Factor or American Idol when somebody does not perform well on stage. Boo’s, shrieks, and taunts is all you hear. However, if there was just one person in the audience, I doubt he would criticize the person on stage as much. I bet he would say,”That’s ok, you tried your best,” instead of “You suck!” There is a safety in numbers, and people will act however good or bad they feel they can get away with socially.

It’s hard to go against social rules and expectations. In most cases those rules and expectations are there for a reason—we all have to somehow cooperate on this planet despite having billions of individual differences.

At the same time, individuality is something we sometimes desperately need to bring us back to humanity. A mob with thousands (or millions) of different voices cannot think on its own, and it loses that morality which is present in each of us as individuals. It becomes no different from a herd of cattle, hence the term “herd mentality.”

To avoid this, we must always maintain our individual sense of humanity and morality and realize when it is being compromised by a group. At that point, it may be necessary to either leave the group, or, more courageously, to try and bring the group back into the right. After all, it only takes one domino to set off a chain reaction.

We have, in the modern world, an expectation of continual progress. Society, technology and knowledge always seem to be improving and moving forward. We seem to believe that things can only get better in the future, never worse.

            Unfortunately, history has revealed that such optimism is not always backed by reality. In a previous article on the Indus Valley civilization, I mentioned that the Indus drainage system was very advanced for its time, and that centuries later people had reverted to dumping excrement out of their windows. This is just one example of society actually devolving.

A Roman Aqueduct

A Roman Aqueduct: An example of ancient technology that was lost.

            We pride ourselves on being so much more advanced than those who came before us, but we forget that, like the business cycle, human civilization has had its expansionary and recessionary periods. We need only look at the fall of Rome, a collapse that brought the end of the ancient world, for an example of a severe societal recession.

            The Roman Republic, beginning in 509 B.C., almost immediately became obsessed with expansion. Over the next few centuries, Rome conquered the rest of Italy, Greece, Carthage, Gaul, Iberia, North Africa, Macedonia, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria and Palestine. In 31 B.C., Octavian reorganized the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire and took on the title of Augustus. The empire continued to expand, conquering Britannia, Armenia, Dacia and parts of Germany.

            Now, there is nothing civilized about bloodshed, and in that respect Rome was no more civilized than any other period in human history. However, Rome brought a number of technological advances to its imperial holdings which, after its collapse, were not seen to the same degree again for centuries.

            Among these advancements was the road. This might at first seem like a simple accomplishment, but there is more to it.  It is true that primitive roads and paths had already existed for centuries, but they were not in any sense orderly or systematic. They might have connected points A and B but not points A and C. At its peak, Rome had 53,000 miles of roads connecting its entire empire. Furthermore, many of these roads were paved, making them extremely durable. Rome, therefore, brought an interconnectedness to its world that had not been seen before and was not really seen again for many centuries.

A Roman Road

A Roman Road

            Another amazing technological development by Rome was the aqueduct. Aqueducts brought water from distant locations into a city or town and could carry waste out. Built in Rome itself and in other major centers of the empire, they stretched for thousands of miles and brought fresh water to millions of people. Construction was not simple, requiring years of land surveys and advanced engineering skills. The Romans even had a water purification system. Rome’s aqueduct system was actually analogous to a modern day water supply network in its sophistication, reach and effectiveness.

            Finally, Rome’s government administered its territory so effectively that it brought about the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, during its golden age. Granted, there was plenty of bloodshed occurring on the frontiers, but the average Roman citizen could traverse the empire without fear of harassment. A strict legal code created order, while cooperation with local authorities allowed for far flung control.

            All of this began to collapse with the Germanic invasions in the third century B.C., and by 476 B.C. the Western Roman Empire had fallen. What followed is what historians have dubbed the Dark Ages. Rule and order was decentralized, the old Roman roads and aqueducts, still in use for centuries after, began to deteriorate, and people could no longer get around safely. Indeed, the Romans, who had served as the police force, were gone. Now if you wanted to go from France to Spain, you were on your own. A few people began to consolidate local power, hiring warriors to fight for them and peasants to work for them—this was the beginning of feudalism and knighthood.

            Essentially, with the collapse of Rome, Europe lost the only central authority powerful and wealthy enough to create and maintain technological advancements and widespread order. Just think if the U.S. government disappeared. The interstate highway system would fall into disrepair along with commerce; the various states would fight over water supply, land and access to goods. Investment in new technology, in our case NASA and other such organizations, would cease. We would suffer a severe societal recession just like fifth century Europe.

            So although it is good to be optimistic, we should understand that we are not entitled to a brighter future. Societies like ours have come and gone. It is up to us to ensure our own survival and development.


Encyclopedia Britannica

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc.,   1996.



            The Indus Valley Civilization is the red headed stepchild of the three earliest world civilizations, the other two being Mesopotamia and Egypt. Its obscurity is largely due to the many unsolved mysteries it contains.

            The study of this ancient culture, which existed roughly 3500 years ago in what is today Pakistan and India, has been left mostly to the archeologists, who have been exploring the remains of its two chief cities—Harappa and Mohenjo-daro—hoping to learn more. What little we do know about this ancient culture is truly fascinating and should definitely be emphasized right along with the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the pyramids of Egypt.

            Chief among the Indus Valley civilization’s accomplishments is the toilet. Yes, the toilet. While other cultures at that time were building giant monuments, the Indus people focused on a more practical goal—sanitation and the removal of waste.

            In Mohenjo-daro, not only have archaeologists discovered brick lined toilets, but they have found what appear to be

An excavated Harappan bath.

An excavated Harappan bath.

ancient urinals in the form of tiny pipes protruding up from the ground. Furthermore, small bathing platforms have also been discovered in the ruins of Harappan houses, which means the Indus people cared about their personal hygiene. All waste and dirt was flushed with water.

            These toilets and baths were connected to a drainage system that was fairly advanced for its time. Composed mostly of baked brick, the drains ran along the streets and were often covered by brick or stone so as to be hidden from public view.

            Such an emphasis on waste removal and personal hygiene is especially impressive when one considers that thousands of years later, during the European dark ages up through about the industrial revolution, society was relatively careless when it came to sanitation, often simply tossing excrement out the window.

            Another fascinating aspect of the Indus Valley civilization is its many distinctions from other civilizations of the era. The Indus drainage system, for example, was unique. Ancient Egyptians had toilets, but they were not connected to a drain (the only way to clean them up was by hand).

            But the differences go far beyond waste removal. Unlike Mesopotamia and Egypt, no evidence of giant temples or monuments has been found in most Indus excavation sites. Furthermore, few weapons or evidence of a large military have been discovered. Harappa, especially, stands apart. Many archaeologists believe it was a city ruled by merchants and craftsmen, rather then by some all-powerful king who would build monuments to himself. Indeed, little statuettes and pieces of jewelry have been found, implying a more market-oriented culture.

            At the same time, new sites and pieces of evidence are always being unearthed. The remains of Dholavira, an ancient Indus city in India, does contain evidence of some monumental building. Thus, much has yet to be learned.

            Indeed, this lack of knowledge on the Indus civilization is a fascinating component in itself. Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, we really have no idea about any specific political, military or religious events from the Indus Valley civilization.

            This lack of knowledge exists mainly because we have not cracked their language—the Indus script—yet. Seals, tablets, tokens and potsherds have all been found containing mysterious symbols, but archaeologists have not figured out what they mean. Some speculate that the Indus people were actually the first to develop writing, even before the Mesopotamians. If that is ever discovered to be true, then the Indus people would move to the front of the early civilizations list in the history textbooks. As of now, however, we just are not sure.

            In that sense, the Indus Valley is sort of a lost civilization. Yes, we know it existed and that it was fairly advanced for its time, but there is so much more we could learn. Forget Atlantis, the remains of the Indus Valley civilization may yet reveal some mind-blowing ancient knowledge.




Edwards, Mike. (editor) Indus Civilization: Clues to an Ancient Puzzle. National Geographic, V197.6

When a modern person thinks of Stone Age people, he thinks of a group of wandering ape-men grunting and throwing rocks at wild animals. Just think of the famous GEICO insurance slogan: “So easy a caveman can do it.”

Even the history books accustom us to this image, implying that before the rise of the first river valley civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Indus) humankind was simply too primitive to be of any real consequence.

All we need to hear is the term “stone age,” and we automatically think ourselves more intelligent and capable than the “Fred Flintstones” who were running around at that time.

In terms of our collective civilization, we have obviously advanced a thousand fold technologically. But when it comes to individual comparisons, are you really any smarter or more capable than your antiquarian ancestor?

The answer may be surprising to some. It turns out that you are probably no more intelligent than your prehistoric counterpart. In fact, you are probably far less capable a creature than he or she ever was.

Scientists believe that anatomically modern humans evolved around 150,000 to 200,000 years ago in Africa. This means that these early Homo sapiens sapiens were essentially just like us in their anatomical buildup. On average, their brains were about 1300 cubic centimeters, a third larger then Homo erectus, one of their evolutionary forbearers. Their increased intelligence was evidenced by the creation of stone tools and cultural practices such as burial.Image

Early Homo sapiens sapiens brain size is an estimated average, but it is in the same range as human brain sizes today. Of course, we have to account for the fact that brain size is not the only indicator of intelligence (increased neuroplasticity or grey matter is a major one), but it is a safe bet to say that near the latter end of the Paleolithic Age (12,000 B.C.) the “cavemen” were just as smart as you or I.

Naturally, they could not exhibit this intelligence in the same way you or I can. There was obviously no calculus or advanced physics for them to study. However, if you transported an early human infant through time and raised it in today’s environment, it would likely be socialized and educated to the same extent as a modern child would.

Thus, early humans’ intelligence was probably equal to our own. What about raw strength? It turns out that our prehistoric ancestors would probably have been stronger. Early humans were much bulkier than modern humans. Over time, our skeletons became more lightly built.  As our brains developed, there was less and less need for brute strength. There would have been a moment in history, however, when early humans finally achieved modern intelligence but still retained some of that greater strength. So if they ever invent time travel, I discourage you from challenging an early human to a wrestling match.

One physical area modern humans do have an advantage in, though, is endurance. Early humans had greater upper body strength and more brute force, but they were not able to keep it up for very long. So they would probably lose to us in a race.

Now, you might be reading the above points and saying, “ok, so maybe they were stronger and just as smart, but I’m the one with an iPad.” It goes without say, and I mentioned early on, that technologically we are obviously far more advanced.

The mistake people make though, is equating what I would call societal ability with individual ability. To illustrate, how many of you reading could build an i-Pad right now, even if you had the materials and machinery right here? I’m assuming few, if any.

In fact, I’m guessing most of us would not even be able to build the simple stone tools that early humans knew how to build tens of thousands of years ago. When we hear about Stone Age hand axes, blades and hammers, we think of them as so primitive. Yet we would probably not know where to begin in chipping away at stones to make these tools.

So, individually, we are less capable and far more dependent on others then our early ancestors. As our society becomes far more capable, individuals become less capable.

Perhaps societal development is a natural part of human development, and maybe that is the area where we can honestly say we are superior to our prehistoric ancestors. But, man to man and woman to woman, the caveman really can do it just as good, if not better.