Category Archives: Today in History

1918 Germany ceases unrestricted submarine warfare

On this day in 1918, a German U-boat submarine fires the last torpedo of World War I, as Germany ceases its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

Unrestricted submarine warfare was first introduced in World War I in early 1915 when Germany declared the area around the British Isles a war zone, in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, would be attacked by the German navy. To confront the overwhelming superiority of the British navy, the Germans utilized their most dangerous weapon, the stealthy U-boat submarine. A string of attacks on merchant ships began, culminating in the sinking of the British ship Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. The attack on the Lusitania—which killed 1,201 people, including 128 Americans—sparked the ire of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who demanded an end to German attacks against unarmed merchant ships. Over the next year, the German navy reluctantly limited the practice at the urging of the country’s government, who feared to antagonize the U.S. and provoking its intervention in the war against Germany.

At the beginning of 1917, however, naval and army commanders managed to convince Kaiser Wilhelm II of the need to resume the unrestricted submarine policy, claiming that unrestricted U-boat warfare against the British at sea could result in a German victory by that fall. On February 1, Germany resumed its submarine attacks on the enemy and neutral shipping interests at sea. Two days later, Wilson broke diplomatic relations with Germany; on April 6, 1917, the U.S. formally entered World War I on the side of the Allied powers.

The hope that Germany—despite the deadlock on the battlefields of the Western Front—could win the war by naval warfare persisted until the last months of the war, growing fainter with the Allied resurgence in France and Belgium in the summer of 1918 and the deepening discontent and frustration with the war on the German home front, as well as among its soldiers and sailors. In mid-October 1918, as the German government grappled with how to obtain an armistice without damaging Germany’s chances to obtain favorable peace terms and its army commanders contended with the dire situation at the front, Admiral Reinhardt Scheer dealt the final blow to Germany’s U-boat strategy, ordering all his navy’s submarines to return to their German bases.

The final German torpedo of World War I was fired in the Irish Sea on October 21, sinking a small British merchant ship, the Saint Barcham, and drowning its eight crewmen. In a measure of the characteristic aggression of German submarine warfare, a total of 318 merchant seamen had been killed that month alone. Now, however, the German submarines returned home, leaving the entire strategically important Belgian coast firmly under Allied control.

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October 20, 1740

Maria Theresa assumes the rule of Austria, Bohemia, and Hungary upon the death of her father Karl VI. Maria Theresa von Habsburg was one of the most remarkable rulers in European history. When her father died in 1740, she came to the Habsburg throne. She was young, amiable but over-sheltered, and her father had amazingly neglected to train her properly. Despite those crippling disadvantages she learned on the job. During her forty-year-long reign, she defended her territory from neighboring rulers as well as beginning many social reforms, which her son Joseph would expand, and is admired by many to this day – except children, who usually only remember that she had the bright idea of mandatory basic schools. One of her children was Marie Antoinette, who became even more famous than her mother, although for very unfortunate reasons.

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October 19, 1813

Napoleon begins his retreat from the Battle of Leipzig, which had started on October 16. At that battle Napoleon had about 185,000 troops and the allies against him (Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden had a total of about 320,000.) The Austrian army was commanded by General Karl Phillip Schwarzenberg and the Prussian army by General Gebhard Blücher.

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East Germany and Hungary move toward democracy

On October 18, 1989, the Iron Curtain nations of East Germany and Hungary take significant steps toward ending the communist domination of their countries to replace it with more democratic politics and free market economies. In Hungary, the Communist Party had disbanded on October 7. This action was followed by the razing of the barbed wire fence that had for years separated Hungary from Austria. The destruction of the fence effectively marked the end of the Berlin Wall as an impediment to travel between East and West Germany, since East Germans could now simply travel to Hungary, enter Austria, and go on from there to West Germany. Not surprisingly, the Berlin Wall came down shortly thereafter.

On October 18, the Hungarian constitution was amended to allow a multiparty political system and free elections (which took place in 1990). Many of the state controls over the economy were removed and Hungary moved toward a limited free market system. Meetings of workers, students, and others across the nation issued statements denouncing past “crimes” committed by the communist regime.

The changes were perhaps even more dramatic in East Germany, where on October 18 the nearly 20-year rule of communist strongman Erich Honecker came to an end. Honecker had been the Communist Party General Secretary in East Germany since 1971, and had ruled as head of state since 1976. With vanishing support from the Soviet Union, the effective end of the Berlin Wall (through Hungary’s action), and widespread criticism of his government from the East German population, Honecker fled to the USSR and was replaced by a more reform-minded regime. He later returned to East Germany, where he was tried and convicted of manslaughter in the deaths of East German refugees killed trying to go over the Berlin Wall since its erection in 1961. His sentence was commuted because of his poor health.

Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz as the Communist Party leader. Krenz enjoyed a good deal of popular support due to his role as a peacemaker in the demonstrations earlier in October. On October 7, only four months after the Tienneman Square massacre in China, Honecker ordered troops to be prepared to open fire on demonstrators in Leipzig. Luckily, Krenz, then in charge of security, arrived in Leipzig two days later to rescind Honecker’s order. Krenz’s attempt to save the party’s image by preventing violence merely allowed the revolution to proceed in a non-violent manner.

The actions in East Germany and Hungary reflected not only the growing dissatisfaction of their citizenry with over 40 years of communist rule, but also the steadily weakening hold of the Soviet Union over its East European satellites.

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October 18, 1977

The Lufthansa plane which had been hijacked by Palestinian terrorists on October 13 is taken by commandos and the passengers are freed. Lufthansa Flight 181 was a Boeing 737-230 Adv aircraft named Landshut, hijacked on 13 October 1977 by 4 militants who called themselves Commando Martyr Halime. On October 18, the aircraft was stormed by the West German counter-terrorism group GSG 9 in Mogadishu, Somalia and all 86 passengers rescued. The rescue operation was codenamed Feuerzauber (German term for “Fire Magic”). The objective of the Lufthansa hijacking was to secure the release of imprisoned Red Army Faction leaders and is considered to be part of the German Autumn.

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October 11, 1923

In the great inflation after WWI the German mark falls to a price of 4 billion per dollar. During a period between 1918 and January 1924, the German mark suffered hyperinflation. It caused considerable internal political instability in the country, the occupation of the Ruhr by foreign troops as well as misery for the general populace. To pay for the large costs of the ongoing First World War, Germany suspended the gold standard (the convertibility of its currency to gold) when the war broke out. Unlike the French Third Republic, which imposed its first income tax to pay for the war, German Emperor Wilhelm II and the German parliament decided unanimously to fund the war entirely by borrowing, a decision criticized by financial experts such as Hjalmar Schacht as a dangerous risk for currency devaluation.

By fall 1922, Germany found itself unable to make reparations payments. The mark was by now practically worthless, making it impossible for Germany to buy foreign exchange or gold using paper marks. Instead, reparations were to be paid in goods such as coal. In January 1923, French and Belgian troops occupied the industrial region of Germany in the Ruhr valley to ensure reparations payments. Inflation was exacerbated when workers in the Ruhr went on a general strike and the German government printed more money to continue paying for their passive resistance. By November 1923, the US dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks.

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