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“Przekrój” Magazine brings to the English reader some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in such fields as culture, society, ecology and literature. Stand aside from the haste and fierceness of everyday news and join us now!

Przekrój
Our eternally pessimistic correspondent gives his historical highlights for the month of May.
2020-05-01 00:00:00

May in History
Diary of an Eternal Pessimist

May in History
May in History

May in history, according to an eternal pessimist.

Read in 7 minutes

1st May 1786

Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Vienna. It was a real celebration for music lovers, but a problem for political censors and defenders of morality. Nothing to worry about though, with Salieri in the audience...

2nd May 1729

A baby girl was born in Szczecin (Stettin) to a noble family. Her parents named her Sophie Friederike Auguste, but they will call her Fike. Although she was a princess, her life was no fairy tale. Her mother would have preferred a son, the family wasn’t very rich and Fike’s days were filled with boredom. Fortunately, there were some good fairies around – namely, influential relatives. They arranged for Fike to marry Peter, the future Tsar of Russia. She herself would become known as Empress Catherine the Great – a true evil godmother in the history of Poland.

3rd May 1660

A peace treaty between Poland and Sweden was signed in Oliwa, under the terms of which the Poles were meant to regain their stolen works of art. So gullible! The Swedes in fact had no intention of giving back what they stole.

4th May 1807

In a beautiful palace in Kamenets in Prussia, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte signed an alliance with an envoy of the Persian Shah. Everything would ultimately come to naught: the empire, the Shah’s rule, even the palace itself.

5th May 1989

The young boxing champion Mike Tyson turned out to be a speed demon. Fortunately, he did not knock out the police officer who stopped his car, but Tyson’s troubles would not end with speeding tickets…

6th May 1939

Amid continued German aggression towards its neighbours, the Polish daily Ilustrowany Kuryer Codzienny published a letter to the editors about candidates for ‘human torpedoes’, ready to sacrifice their lives for Poland in suicidal attacks. We never got to have our own kamikaze – still, the atrocities of war in Poland surpassed all fears, anyway.

7th May 558

During an earthquake, the dome of the Hagia Sophia basilica in Constantinople collapsed. The Emperor Justinian the Great would order it to be rebuilt even higher, in excess of 55 metres. So many men would try to build something more impressive, yet fail.

8th May 1958

The famous horror film Dracula starring Christopher Lee made its premiere, marking the beginning of a long and popular series. This Dracula cannot be killed!

9th May 1835

The first readers of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales awoke after a sleepless night. The only question is whether they were too scared to fall asleep, or simply stayed up all night reading.

10th May 1503

Christopher Columbus discovered the Cayman Islands. It would be some time before ‘banksters’ would get into the habit of setting up offshore accounts there.

11th May 1830

Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz unveiled a statue of Nicolaus Copernicus, funded by Stanisław Staszic. Both Niemcewicz and Staszic were freemasons. How long would it be before Copernicus’s theory would also turn out to be a masonic invention...

12th May 1994

Quentin Tarantino’s controversial film Pulp Fiction was screened at the Cannes Film Festival. But the true uproar would come 11 days later, when it won the Palme d’Or.

13th May 1940

The new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced in a speech that the only things he had to offer his countrymen were “blood, toil, tears and sweat”. How about that: a politician who tells the truth!

14th May 1643

The barely five-year-old Louis XIV became king of France. His would-be successors would not have it so easy. The Sun King would spend 72 years on the throne and only finally relinquish it to his own great-grandson!

15th May 1863

The “Exhibition of Rejects” opened on the banks of the Seine, featuring the paintings of artists who had been rejected by the conservative jury from being shown at the famed Salon de Paris. Everyone was there! Cézanne, Manet, Whistler, Pissarro... Hardly anyone remembers their rivals today.

16th May 1985

Michael Jordan was named NBA Rookie of the Year. Even he was once just a promising novice.

17th May 1961

Fidel Castro offered the Americans to exchange more than 1000 prisoners taken in the Bay of Pigs for 500 bulldozers. A truly revolutionary barter.

18th May 1896

A festival held in Moscow to celebrate the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II ended in tragedy. Instead of promoting gratitude among his subjects, it turned out that 1389 people were trampled to death during the distribution of gifts. The Tsar, however, did not announce a period of national mourning, which the people saw as an omen of bad things to come – for both the Tsar and his country.

19th May 1897

Oscar Wilde was released from the prison in Reading where he’d spent two years for homosexual offences. He was now merely a shadow of his former self and no longer the life of the party. He would die just three years later. Victorian morality would survive him by many years.

20th May 1912

A ceremony was held in Warsaw’s Saxon Square to consecrate the Church of St. Alexander Nevsky, a symbol of Russian domination over Poland. Several years later, with the restoration of the Polish state after World War I, the 70-metre building would be dismantled.

21st May 1939

A football match between Ruch Chorzów and Union Touring ended in the final score of 12:1, with Ernest Wilimowski from Upper Silesia scoring 10 goals! This was a fantastic record in the Polish professional league. Wilimowski is not fondly remembered, however, as soon he would be scoring even more goals... wearing a jersey with a swastika on it.

22nd May 2001

Jane Fonda divorced Ted Turner after 10 years of marriage. And it had seemed that two bright stars could shine together.

23rd May 1430

While returning from battle, the 18-year-old Joan of Arc fell into the hands of the Burgundians, who in turn gave the French heroine over to the English. It was meant to be the end of her, but it became the beginning of her even greater, though tragic, glory.

24th May 1844

Samuel Morse used his code to send the first telegraph in history. The message was a solemn quote from the Bible: “What hath God wrought!” The first message ever sent online, in 1969, was much less dignified: “lo”. It was supposed to say “login”, but the system crashed...

25th May 1935

At the stadium in Ann Arbor, the American athlete Jesse Owens set four world records in just 45 minutes, winning the 100-yard dash, the long jump, the 200-yard dash, and the 220-yard low hurdles race! It was an amazing feat, but today this African-American athlete is known mainly for irritating Hitler during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

26th May 1521

Martin Luther was declared a heretic by an imperial order. A long period of religious wars began, which would claim millions of victims.

27th May 1703

Peter the Great founded the city of Sankt Petersburg. If he had known how many times the name of the city would change, he probably would have chosen something simpler.

28th May 585 BCE

A solar eclipse happened to occur during the battle between the Lydians and the Medes on the Halys River. The frightened enemies quickly made peace. Had they listened to Thales of Miletus, who had predicted this eclipse based on calculations, they wouldn’t have been so surprised. But who listens to philosophers, anyway?

29th May 1942

Bing Crosby recorded his hit song White Christmas. To date, 50 million copies of the single have been sold, an absolute record! If only it could actually help to make it snow on Christmas Day...

30th May 323 BCE

Alexander the Great was feeling pretty rough after a night drinking with his friends to celebrate another military victory. He started to feel better in a few days – as often happens right before someone dies. On 5th June, the pain returned, and his plans for further glorious conquests had to be abandoned. On 9th June he said goodbye to his friends, dying days later on 11th June. Before he was mummified, his friends started to wonder if one of them may have poisoned him. These accusations were brought up again and again, unleashing a long fratricidal war over Alexander’s succession.

31st May 1283

The King of Naples, Charles I of Anjou, was preparing for a duel with the King of Aragon, Peter III, with dominion over Sicily at stake. The enemies racked their brains all night, and the next day arrived at the duel location at different times. Brilliant! That way they were both able to declare victory.

 

Translated by Daniel J. Sax

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