May 08

History Wednesday: The Instant Presidency

It might not seem like it if one listens to American mainstream culture, but Mexico has come a long way in the last 25 years or so. While the country continues to face some very serious issues, it has also become a fairly stable multiparty democracy. Indeed, in my humble opinion one which has outpaced most of the former Soviet Bloc nations over the same time period.

This is in spite of being the scene of the shortest tenure of any head of state in recorded history. More on that in a moment.

After declaring independence from Spain in 1810, Mexico endured two absolute monarchies (one of which came courtesy of the Hapsburgs), several disastrous wars and enough outright corruption to make Silvio Berlusconi look like a paragon of honesty.

Oleo_Antonio_Lopez_de_Santa_Anna

This guy lost over half of the country yet still managed to become president … 11 TIMES.

By the turn of the 20th Century Mexico was well into a period known as the Porfiriato, an era of repression dominated by the virtual dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz, who had effectively been in power since 1876. Although the Porfiriato represented by far Mexico’s longest period of stability to date, it was anything but democratic.

Finally tired of decades of stagnation, the Mexicans overthrew Diaz in 1911 after a ham-handed attempt to hand the aging strongman yet another re-election “victory.” This event sparked what became known as the Mexican Revolution.

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“Wait, did somebody say, ‘stagnation?'”

Anyway, unfortunately for Mexico Diaz’s overthrow soon degenerated into an all-out civil war with multiple competing factions. This is the era which produced Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, who effectively became warlords in the north and south respectively. By the time the dust settled in late 1920 Mexico went through 11 presidents in the space of less than 10 years.

Francisco Madero was the main figure during the early stages of the Mexican Revolution. A liberal reformer strongly influenced by Benito Juarez, Madero became president in late 1911. In the hopes of establishing national unity Madero included pro-Diaz and other conservative figures in his government, who then proceeded to bring reform efforts to a standstill.

In February 1913 forces led by Generals Victoriano Huerta and Felix Diaz (the former president’s nephew) staged a coup d’etat against the Madero government with support from Henry Lane Wilson, the American ambassador. On 19 February Madero was forced to resign and was executed a few days later.

The idea, of course, was to make Huerta the new president. There was just one problem. Huerta wanted everything to be “legal,” but he wasn’t in the presidential line of succession. Well, that’s where our friend Pedro Lascurain comes into the picture.

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“Pedro, we have a little job for you ….”

Under the constitution of the day, as foreign minister Lascurain was fourth in the presidential line of succession. Since Huerta had already forced out the first three – Madero, the vice president and the attorney general – Lascurain was legally entitled to become president, which he did with Huerta’s blessing.

President Lascurain had two items on his agenda: (1) appoint Huerta as interior minister (and therefore next in the line of succession) and, (2) resign. He dutifully accomplished both. Huerta then called a late-night session of the Mexican Congress to validate the move, which they did with Huerta’s soldiers training their guns on them so they didn’t miss the point.

Sources disagree exactly how long Lascurain served as President of the United Mexican States, but it was certainly less than an hour. Perhaps quite wisely, Lascurain left politics immediately afterward.

Huerta then took it upon himself to establish a military dictatorship which made the Diaz regime look like an anarcho-syndicalist commune. Meanwhile in Washington, President Woodrow Wilson – aghast that Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson (no relation) took such a leading role in this mess – recalled the rogue diplomat and demanded Huerta schedule elections. The diplomatic situation quickly deteriorated from there, leading directly to the occupation of Veracruz the following year.

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“Yeah. Thanks a lot.”

Although the Huerta regime lasted less than 18 months before it succumbed to rebel forces, the general – often called El Chacal (“The Jackal”) – remains one of the most vilified figures in Mexican history. As for Lascurain, he quietly spent the rest of his life as an attorney and law school director.

Apr 03

History Wednesday: The Incompetent Traitor

Ah, Norway. Home of cross-country skiing, world-famous fjords, and a black metal scene which makes even the worst excesses of 80s bands such as Van Halen or Mötley Crüe look like Gilligan’s Island. Although technically neutral in World War II, the Norwegian people suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis. A primary cause was one of their own.

QuislingOslo1942

This guy.
Image credit: David.wintzer

Vidkun Quisling’s career started out innocuously enough, as a respected Norwegian military officer with extensive diplomatic experience. In the early 1930s he served two stints as Minister of Defense in popularly-elected conservative governments. Clearly he would have been much more successful in life had he just left well enough alone. Nevertheless despite being a truly awful politician, Quisling let his ambition get the best of him. As a result he stumbled and bumbled his way to becoming one the most notorious traitors the world has ever seen.

In the 1930s far-right politics were the rage in many parts of Europe. So in May 1933, Quisling and others founded the Nasjonal Samling, or National Unity Party. Clearly inspired by Adolf Hitler’s and Benito Mussolini’s fascist movements, NS attempted to become Norway’s answer to the Nazis, with Quisling establishing relations with the Nazis and the Italian Fascists. He even gave himself the title of Fører. However unlike Hitler’s well-organized machine of evil, the NS proved to be about as effective as the Keystone Kops.

KeystoneKops

Presumably with “Yakety Sax” playing in the background.

In sharp contrast to Hitler and the Nazis, Quisling and the NS never enjoyed any appreciable popularity among voters. In Norway’s 1933 election, Nasjonal Samling received a mere 2.5 percent of the vote and failed to elect anyone to the Norwegian parliament, the Storting. Rife with factionalization, by 1935 it appeared the party would quietly fade away.

pogs

You know, kind of like pogs.

Despite Quisling’s virtually nonexistent PR skills and his penchant for pompous, stupid gaffes, he somehow managed to keep the NS afloat, albeit just barely. In the run-up to Norway’s 1936 elections, Quisling boastfully predicted his party would win at least 10 seats in the Storting. In reality, NS performed worse in the polls than it did three years earlier. At this point neither the Norwegians nor Quisling’s supposed allies in Italy and Germany took him seriously.

Norway tried to stay neutral when World War II broke out in 1939, but shit got real for them anyway in April 1940, when the British mined the channel separating the North and Baltic Seas, including Norwegian waters, in an effort to close Axis shipping routes. In response, Germany invaded Norway the following day.

Meanwhile Quisling, who nobody listened to, tried to get everyone to listen to him. In his usual hilariously bombastic style, on 8 April Quisling burst into the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s Oslo studio and proclaimed himself head of a new government with his buddies as ministers. If you took over your local Top 40 pop station and issued a fatwa against Justin Bieber, you’d achieve similar results.

But now that I think about it, you might get some traction out of that.

The Nazis, recognizing some sort of friendly Norwegian government would be advantageous, supported this. King Haakon VII, however, flatly refused to recognize Quisling’s Norwegian government, and the actual Norwegian government voted unanimously to support the king. Quisling attempted to have the legitimate government arrested, but officers simply ignored his orders. Realizing Quisling didn’t have the juice to pull off a coup d’etat, the Nazis brushed him aside and occupied Norway their own damn selves.

However, in NS the Nazis still found a group of useful idiots to help them run the country. The Nazi Reichskommissar Josef Terboven gradually assimilated NS members into the occupation government. Finally in February 1942 the Nazis agreed to let Quisling become “minister-president” of Norway, ostensibly making him the country’s leader. In practice, however, Terboven retained effective control over Norway.

Quisling's_office_at_the_Royal_Palace_1945

Quisling did get a sweet office out of the deal, though.

During his three years in “power” Quisling took part in the usual fascist idiom, such as banning Jews from the country and attempting to establish his own cult of personality, going so far as to declare himself a descendant of Odin. He attempted repeatedly to become truly independent from Germany, meeting with Hitler on several occasions for that very reason. As usual, he was ignored. His incompetence as a national leader was further exposed when Norwegian resistance operatives smuggled intelligence on the German V-2 missile from Berlin to Oslo … on Quisling’s own airplane. The intelligence eventually made its way to London.

Deeply despised by his own people, Quisling’s regime, such as it was, came to an end in May 1945. Norwegians responded with unbridled jubilation. King Haakon VII and the legitimate government under Prime Minister Johan Nygaardsvold – who spent the war in exile in London – were restored to power. Quisling was arrested, tried for treason and executed in October 1945. Even before the end of the war “quisling” had become a synonym for “traitor” in several languages. The military officer who just wanted to run the country instead became quite possibly the most hated Scandinavian of the 20th Century.

Today Quisling’s only appreciable support comes from elements of the Norwegian black metal scene. Yeah, he should have left well enough alone.