IT'S AUGUST: PREPARE FOR CATACLYSM

Congress might be on recess and business slow, but this month

always has its disproportionate share of world-historical events.

By Andrew Roberts, WSJ, 7 August 2012. Mr. Roberts, a historian, is author most recently of "The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War" (Harper, 2011).

What is it about the month of August? Why should we still persist in regarding it as a quiet time—with Congress in recess, business slowed down, and people on holiday—when so many world-historical events take place in this month? You can ignore the Ides of March, but history shows that it's in the dog days of August that great events take place.

Ever since the Roman Senate proclaimed in A.D. 8 that the eighth month of every year be named after the Emperor Augustus (63 B.C.-A.D. 14), nephew and adopted heir of Julius Caesar, the month has seen a disproportionate share of cataclysmic events.

In the last century alone, World War I broke out on Aug. 4, 1914, and Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland on the night of Aug. 31, 1939. World War II was only won with the dropping of two atomic bombs in August 1945. Other 20th-century conflicts sparked in August: the Vietnam War, with the Gulf of Tonkin incident of August 1964; the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; and the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990.

August was also the month when German President Paul von Hindenburg died in 1934, paving the way for Hitler to become fuhrer; when the U.S. passed the Social Security Act in 1935; when Germany mobilized during the Sudetenland crisis of 1938; when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed the next year; when British rule in India ended in 1947; when the USSR broke off diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1948; when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961; when Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962; and when China's Cultural Revolution began in 1966.

Across the 1970s, this supposedly quiet month saw Richard Nixon's resignation from the presidency (1974), the signing of the Helsinki Final Act by the Soviet Union and Western nations (1975), and the beginning of South Africa's Soweto Riots (1976). Over the next decade, August saw fascist terrorists kill 82 people at Bologna railways (1980), the founding of the Solidarity trade union in Poland (also 1980), the assassination of Filipino opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino (1983), and the beginning of the Iran-Contra scandal (1985).

Might there be a reason why this month keeps cropping up when great men and great events collide? In Europe and America, August is usually the hottest month of the year.

The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of Aug. 24, 1572—a series of assassinations and mob attacks against French Protestants—will always stand as a terrible crime made much worse by the sultry heat that Paris had been sweltering under for three weeks. The city's heat frayed tempers and gave the city a fetid, sinister feel even before the order for the wholesale massacre was given. Yet it hardly explains the turmoil that still takes place in the period after the invention of air conditioning.

Another explanation might be that principal political decision-makers often take vacations in August, leaving less competent lieutenants in control. The outbreak of World War I is the classic case: Despite the horrific horrors looming over Europe, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was cruising in the North Sea, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey was fishing in Scotland, German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke was taking the waters in Carlsbad, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg left Berlin for his country residence, German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was at a spa in Switzerland, and German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow was on honeymoon at Lucerne.

As European civilization careened toward an abyss that was to cost over 38 million lives, most top decision-makers were on holiday.

When Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev went on holiday in August 1991, he found that the people he left behind in Moscow were so incompetent that they failed to detect a full-scale coup brewing. Cut off in his Crimean dacha, he was far easier to imprison than if he had been at the helm in the Kremlin. At least his excursion had a positive outcome; by tragic contrast, Princess Diana's holiday in France culminated in her death in the early hours of Aug. 31, 1997.

Shakespeare writes in "The Tempest" of "You sunburn'd sicklemen, of August weary," but the Grim Reaper never seems to weary of this month. So let's show much more respect for these 31 days of regularly recurring cataclysms. Great world events very rarely, it seems, conform to Congress's timetable.

 


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