May 24th 1956: First Eurovision

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The original Eurovision logo

 

On this day in 1956, the first Eurovision Song Contest (then known as the Eurovision Grand Prix) was held in Lugano, Switzerland. The idea for the event came about in a 1955 meeting of the European Broadcasting Union in Monaco, after they were inspired by the Sanremo Music Festival in Italy. The first ever Eurovision broadcast lasted for one almost two-hour show on May 24th, primarily broadcast over radio. The event saw seven European countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland) submit two songs each. The winner was picked by a jury panel made up of representatives from the participating countries who voted for their favourite song in secret.

 

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1956 winner Lys Assia of Switzerland

 

In 1956, the prize went to Switzerland’s own Lys Assia with the song ‘Refrain’. The tradition of the Eurovision song contest continues annually to this day, though the format is very different to how it was in 1956 – most notably the increased number of participant countries (37 took part this year) and the fact that each country only enter one song each. The 2014 Eurovision contest was won by Austria’s Conchita Wurst for the song ‘Rise Like a Phoenix’.

 

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2014 winner Conchita Wurst of Austria

March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia

 

On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea.

 

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Lithograph by William Simpson showing the conditions of sick and wounded during Crimean War. Florence Nightingale became famous for her nursing work during this war (source: Wikipedia)

 

The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856.

 

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Map of the Black Sea area during the Crimean War (source: http://www.emersonkent.com/map_archive/crimean_war_1853.htm; credit: University of Texas at Austin. From Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912)

 

 

On the 160th anniversary of this event, the Crimean War has never seen so significant. Once considered an oddity, a blip, the war no-one remembers from history class, now it is all anyone can talk about. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which until recently was an autonomous region of Ukraine, has sparked international tensions reminiscent of the Cold War era. The United Nations has recently declared illegal the vote Crimea took in favour of joining Russia, fuelling claims that the election results are suspicious, especially as Russia had troops stationed in the area. Russia has received international condemnation for the action, with many states claiming they have violated international law by invading a sovereign state. The G8 leaders have become the G7, suspending the summit which was planned to take place in Russia and shunning their once peer. The whole situation carries disturbing memories of the Cold War, with the Western and Eastern blocs watching each other warily as each expands their sphere of influence. The Crimea crisis is still developing, and it is a prime example of when understanding of the history is key to understanding the present.

March 19th 1945: Hitler’s ‘Nero Decree’

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Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945)

On this day in 1945, Chancellor of Germany Adolf Hitler issued his ‘Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree’. This action came towards the end of World War Two as the Allied forces led by the Soviet Union, United States and United Kingdom, made further advances into Germany. One of the last actions of his dictatorship, this decree called for the destruction of German infrastructure in order to impede the Allied advance; Hitler intended for the enemy to find only ‘scorched earth’. Due to Hitler’s readiness to sacrifice Germany in order to put up obstacles for the Allies, this action was compared to the infamous Roman Emperor Nero who supposedly orchestrated the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD.

 

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Emperor Nero (37 – 68)

Some have suggested Hitler intended for the German population to be destroyed as punishment for losing the war, and to ensure there would be no Germany after National Socialism. The decree was, luckily for Germany, not implemented by his disillusioned subordinates. Hitler was unable to enforce it, as he was soon confined to his bunker and killed himself just 42 days after issuing the Nero Decree. It was the last act of a desperate man, and shows his willingness to destroy the Germany he supposedly loved. The comparison to a Roman emperor is interesting. Rome has typically been invoked as a hallmark of civilisation, and empires throughout history have liked to compare themselves to the ancients. The British Empire, modern America, and dictatorial regimes like Nazi Germany have all made comparisons to Rome. However, it is unlikely Hitler would have been pleased with being likened to one of the most infamous and megalomaniacal emperors.

March 15th 1848: Hungarian Revolution begins

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Battle at Tápióbicske during the war of independence – Mór Than

 

On this day in 1848, a revolution broke out in Hungary. There had been a growing reform movement which demanded change and provisions for those who had been most affected by the economic downturn after the Napoleonic Wars. Journalist Lajos Kossuth became leader of this movement, and pushed for democracy and civil equality in Hungary. As it stood, the Hungarian elites did not pay tax but only they had the vote – the system was in dire need of change. The Habsburg monarchs tried to suppress the movement by blocking its legislation and arresting its leaders. The full revolution began with mass demonstrations and insurrections throughout Hungary. The powers-that-be acquiesed on some demands – passing reforms and establishing a new parliament. As the imperial government of Austria tied to halt the movement, the revolution soon evolved into a war of independence. Hungary lost the war, and the Austrians retained control over the kingdom.

 

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Lajos Kossuth (1802 – 1894)

 

1848 was the year of revolutions – all across Europe the revolutionary spirit spread as people strove to banish the ties of oppression. Some were more successful than others but all were in the same spirit. One could compare the spread in Europe as a precursor to the Arab Spring, were revolutions spread throughout countries in the Middle East. History continues to be made there, so we can make no long term comparisons to 1848. However, it does seem to be a movement in a similar vein.

 

March 5th 1946: ‘Iron Curtain’ speech

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Churchill making the speech in Missouri

 

On this day in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, Missouri. The term had been used prior to 1946, but this was the most public use of it. In the ‘Sinews of Peace’ address, Churchill used the term ‘iron curtain’ to reference a Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. At the time, the West still saw the Soviet Union as an ally after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but Churchill’s speech heralded the onset of the Cold War tensions between the capitalist West and communist Russia. As the Cold War took hold, the phrase became popular as a reference to repressive Communist domination of Europe which hid Soviet actions and set a clear divide in Europe.

 

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Cartoon showing the Soviet iron curtain

 

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent”

 

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Churchill and Harry Truman

 

This speech can reasonably be argued to be the beginning of the Cold War which defined the European political landscape for the remainder of the century. There had been mounting criticisms of the communists prior to this, but Churchill’s speech was one of the first truly adversarial public speeches given by a major world leader targetting the Soviet Union. Churchill’s fiery rhetoric shaped the fear of communists which abounded in the Western bloc. People were convinced that there were communists in their midst, trying to create another iron curtain across their country. This fuelled the virulent anticommunism of America in the 1950s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R – WI.). McCarthy and his peers sought to drive all communist influence out of the United States, often sacrificing the pluralist principles that had traditionally been a bedrock of American ideology. The House Un-American Activities Committee conducted a series of high-profile hearings where they questioned people with supposed links to communism. The discovery of Soviet spies such as Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs only served to intensify fears. The ‘Cold War’ that Churchill helped set into motion had its ‘hot’ moments too. The Korean and Vietnam Wars were certainly ideologically driven and whilst not fought between the United States and Soviet Union directly, were still ‘proxy-wars’. The battle of the ideologies was also played out in other countries, where each side would try to prop up a leader who was friendly to their cause, often at the expense of democracy and civil liberties for the local people. This tense battle between two nuclear powers, who knew direct war meant unprecedented destruction, continued until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. There are even those who claim that the Cold War continues today, especially with the current tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Some see Russia’s military action there as Russia trying to reassert its communist-era domination of Eastern Europe. Therefore, Churchill’s iron curtain speech was a momentous symbolic event and paved the way for the Cold War, the influence of which is still felt today.

February 7th 1992: Maastricht Treaty signed

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The signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992

On this day in 1992 the European Union was brought into being by the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. It was signed by the twelve members of the European Community – a precursor to the EU. The treaty was named for the city in the Netherlands where it was drafted and signed. Maastricht became effective on November 1st 1993, and on that day the EU was formally established. It also provided for common security and foreign policy and gave the people of the signatory states European citizenship. Most importantly, Maastricht provided a blueprint for the later monetary union seen in the establishment of the common currency: the Euro.

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Euro banknotes

Whilst the signing occurred without event, the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty was more contentious. The Danish failed to ratify it, but subsequent amendments made it more fit for the Danish people and thus it was ratified. The French referendum only narrowly voted for ratification. The United Kingdom also struggled, with opponents to the treaty on both sides; Prime Minister John Major narrowly won a vote of no confidence he called to challenge the rebels.

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The flag of the European Union

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how the contemporary controversy of the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty would foreshadow the continued contention over the role of the EU. Many countries have begun to object to what they see as increasing encroachment on national sovereignty as Brussels claims authority over more and more areas of policy. For example, the European Court of Human Rights can strike down the rulings of national courts. The economic struggles of the Euro have also questioned the validity of a common currency system. I am not able to expound on the attitudes to the EU in other European countries (of that I am woefully ignorant) but as a Brit I can see what is happening over here. The Conservative Party is faced with a growing challenge on its right – something it has never had to cope with before. Eurosceptic MPs in their own party have pushed for a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership and they have watched with fear as the anti-Europe UK Independence Party steadily rises in the polls. Thus the Tories have promised to call a referendum should they be re-elected in the 2015. I personally favour continued membership of Europe and worry about the result of this referendum. It is often seen with referendums that only the people with extreme opinions on the matter come to vote. Many are apathetic about the EU, and so I can see the anti-Europe voters disproportionately dominating the polls. We have already seen this recently with the referendum on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote, and only those who fervently believed in keeping First Past the Post attended. The future of the EU looks troubled, but hopefully they will continue to use the communitarian spirit which gave us Maastricht to face these challenges head on.