Art in the Soviet Union underwent a number of phases – from great restriction in Stalin’s time to some more open, less restricted periods in the decades after. Here, Alyse D. Beale provides an overview of the history of art in the USSR, with a focus on Socialist Realism art.

Lenin in Smolny in 1917 by Isaak Brodsky. An example of Socialist Realism.

Lenin in Smolny in 1917 by Isaak Brodsky. An example of Socialist Realism.

As with all else under Joseph Stalin’s domain, arts within the Soviet Union glistened with the red tinge of communist propaganda. Whereas Realism in the West sought to illustrate an unromanticized vision of daily life, Socialist Realism employed its artists as propagandists. Soviet authorities ordered countless works of herculean factory workers, the victorious motherland in all its monumental glory, and its robust leaders strolling the Kremlin. Yet with Stalin’s death, Soviet art evolved parallel to its country, becoming at once more democratic, realistic, and rebellious. Socialist Realism, once created as propaganda for a political machine, later became a tool for working against the very regime that created it.


We recommend you view:Gerasimov, Aleksandr MikhailovichI.V.Stalin and K.E.Voroshilov in the Kremlin after the Rain (1938). 296х386.


What is Socialist Realism?

Socialist Realism in its early form was not so much art, but a political machine that sought to indoctrinate every citizen with communist ideology. The movement first appeared in 1932 at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers and was later adopted as the Soviet Union's official and sole art form two years later when the Soviet Writer's Congress outlined the criteria for all future works for art. Socialist Realism, as Karl Radekexplained during the Congress, meant a reflection of "that other, new reality -- the reality of socialism...moving towards the victory of the international proletariat…[and a] literature of hatred for putrefying capitalism."


We recommend you view:Mikhail Khmelko.The Triumph of the Victorious Mother-Motherland (1949) .


The Writer's Congress mandated that Socialist Realism embody the Soviets' vision of themselves and their future. The movement emphasized monumental sculptures and buildings to depict the country’s strength and wealth. Bold music prompted workers to action, and paintings displayed cheerful workers, happy peasants, or aggrandized leaders, such as Stalin and Lenin. Each work of art had to meet four requirements: it must be proletariat, typical, realistic, and partisan. Each artwork must show a connection to the proletariat on a basic level, meaning that they be simple to understand and depict scenes from the common man rather than the bourgeoisie. More importantly, each work ought to be partisan, an unquestionable endorsement of the communist party. Socialist Realism left no room for interpretation; it was either total support for the regime, or it was treason.


Art in Thaw

Stalin's death ushered in a somewhat freer era, popularly known as "the thaw" under his successor, Nikita Khrushchev. Though arts within the Soviet Union remained restricted, Stalin's death allowed many new artists to enter the scene. Existing artists, too, embraced this more relaxed atmosphere and created more freely and originally. 

As the country underwent a de-Stalinization, authorities altered works to eliminate Stalin's likeness. The Stalinskaya Station was renamed as Semenovskaya, and removed the dictator's portrait and quote from its walls. At Belorusskaja Station, the new regime replaced a mosaic of Stalin with a red labor flag. 


We recommend you view:On left, Stalinskaya Station. On right, the renamed Semenovskaya Station with Stalin's head removed.  Eugenia. "Moscow Underground Without Stalin - See The Gaps." Real USSR: Lifting the Iron Curtain. March 2, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2015. 


Because the USSR remained highly censorious, even during “the thaw,” many artists opted to create truly realistic works that avoided any political references at all. Other artists and writers, such as V. Dudintsev who penned Not By Bread Alone, an indirect criticism of the regime, pushed the limits of what Khrushchev would allow as art, and helped pave the way for the late Socialist Realism movement.

Though Khrushchev publically supported more liberal policies concerning the arts, he often contradicted himself, which inadvertently popularized the later, more defiant movement. When the 1957 All World Festival of Youth introduced the USSR to an array of American modern and pop art, Khrushchev denounced it and martyred artists unwilling to conform to state guidelines. 

Late Socialist Realism garnered even more support when authorities ended a 1974 art show with bulldozers and a show of force. Government critics thereafter renamed the event as the "Bulldozer Exhibition." These actions divided art within the Soviet Union into two sects: official and unofficial. While the official state art remained Socialist Realism, unofficial art became more rebellious.


A Painted Rebellion

The Severe Style and Sots Art were two artistic movements that grew from Soviet artists’ rebellion against traditional Socialist Realism. While the Severe Style under Khrushchev’s rule critiqued the government implicitly, the later Sots Art movement grew increasingly blatant in their criticisms, and even mockery of, the Soviet Union.

The Severe Style portrayed Socialist Realism much more realistically than the overly propagandized, early works. Late Socialist Realism became more pessimistic in their view of the working class and embraced western styles of Expressionism. Many artists, sick of communist ideology, refused to paint any topics resembling works done under Stalin at all. Instead, they opted to create depictions of daily life or images that represented change in their country. The Severe Style favored construction sites for this reason, as it implied support for a newer, freer country.


We recommend you view:Bohouš Cizek.Untitled (circa 1960).


Technically the fusion of Soviet and Pop Art, the Sots Art movement was a complete rejection of the state-sponsored Socialist Realism. Sots Art is defined by its satirical nature and inclusion of Pop Art as a means of criticizing Soviet policies. Art critics claimed that Sots Art pieces, such as those done by Komar and Melimid (famous for their representation of Stalin sitting aside E.T., with a hiding Hitler in the shadows) were "at once subversive and nostalgic." It was a "manifestation of so-called styob, which can be translated as a kind of 'mockery' that involves miming something to such a degree that the original and the parody become indistinguishable."


We recommend you view:Komar & Melamid.Yalta Conference (1982).Tempera and oil on canvas, 72”X48”.


Art in Transition

Late Socialist Realism became a channel for protest, but also a symbol of their society’s transition to becoming, though with varying degrees, more democratic, realistic, and free.

Perhaps Soviet artists' boldest move was exposing the lie of happiness under Stalin's totalitarian regime. They did so not by political sabotage or physical rebellion, but by implementing ink and paint to portray what life was truly like for the ordinary Soviet citizen. Late Socialist Realism took no part in "heroic idealization of the working man," as Stalin had. These new artists exposed the monotony, drudgery, and grime of factories and fields if they chose this subject at all.


We recommend you view: Ivan Babenko. Waiting, set in 1945 at the end of WWII (1975-1985). Oil on canvas, 123x167 cm.


Late Soviet art became more democratic in the sense that it became available to all, rather than just state-sanctioned artists. Shortly after Stalin's death, the first public art competition took place, accepting submissions anonymously and allowing non-established artists to enter. Even the jury had become more democratic, composed of those with various professions and without allegiances and vested interests.


Embers to Flames

Socialist Realism ended with the Soviet Union’s dissolution. Artists, glad to be free from a controlling communist regime, began creating works independently from the state. It seemed as though all were glad to forget Soviet art and life in general. A "fatigue" of anything remotely Soviet led many to dismantle and hide works of Socialist Realism.

Recently, however, the discussion of Socialist Realism has gone from "stultifyingly boring" to trendy. Art collectors and Russian moguls began snatching Socialist Realism pieces, interested more in their history than in the artists' ideologies or techniques. Such pieces have been put on display around the world, featured in exhibitions from Berlin to London and even Minneapolis. One article, interestingly named "Socialist realism: Socialist in content, capitalist in price," dubbed 2014 "the year of socialist realism." The article described a 2014 Sotheby's auction that featured around forty Socialist Realism works, but the exhibition was only one of many. A June 2014 auction estimated that about twenty-four of the pieces were collectively worth about $7.7 million. Socialist Realism, once a tabooed subject of art history, gained a universal interest in a way that it failed to do even in its prime.


We recommend you view:Yuri Ivanovich Pimenov.First of May Celebration (1950)
This work, celebration International Worker's Day, was sold for 1.5 million by Sothebys London.


What do you think of Socialist Realism? Let us know below.



  1. Eugenia. "Moscow Underground Without Stalin - See The Gaps." Real USSR: Lifting the Iron Curtain. March 2, 2010. Accessed December 6, 2015. 

  2. Hosking, Geoffrey A. The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within. 2nd ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1992.409.

  3. Khidekel, Regina. It's the Real Thing: Soviet & Post-Soviet Sots Art & American Pop Art. Minneapolis, Minn.: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum :, 1998. P. 19.

  4. Lindsay, Ivan. "Socialist Realism." Agents | Dealers - An Authority on Russian Art. Accessed December 6, 2015.

  5. Neumeyer, Joy. "Socialist Realism’s Russian Renaissance." Socialist Realism's Russian Renaissance. May 19, 2014. Accessed December 6, 2015.

  6. Pyzik, Agata. "Get Real: Why Socialist Realist Painting Deserves Another Look." The Calvert Journal. December 18, 2014. Accessed December 6, 2015.

  7. Radek, Karl. "Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Art." Karl Radek: Contemporary World Literature and the Tasks of Proletarian Art (August 1934). Accessed December 6, 2015.

  8. "Reflections: Socialist Realism and Russian Art." Guggenheim.

  9. "Socialist Realism History, Characteristics of Political Propaganda Art." Encyclopedia of Art Education. Accessed December 6, 2015. 

  10. Thorpe, Vanessa. New Exhibition in Berlin Brings Forgotten Soviet Art Back to Reality. October 24, 2009. Accessed December 6, 2015.

  11. Vinogradova, Yulia. "Socialist Realism: Socialist in Content, Capitalist in Price." Socialist Realism: Socialist in Content, Capitalist in Price. July 24, 2014. Accessed December 6, 2015.

Ancient Rome was the center of one of the most powerful empires that the world has ever known. But who were the most powerful people in Ancient Rome? Here, Adrian Burrow of explains why he thinks the intriguing Vestal Virgins were the most powerful.

You can see some of Adrian’s past articles for the site on the weapon that conquered Ancient Egypt (here), bizarre World War One body armor (here), and the three most bizarre tanks ever (here).

The Sacrifice of Vestal  by Alessandro Marchesini, 1710s.

The Sacrifice of Vestal by Alessandro Marchesini, 1710s.

How do you define power? That’s a difficult question to answer, certainly within the confines of this thousand-word article. So, for my purposes, power is being able to exert your will and have the maximum amount of people follow your instructions. In Ancient Rome then, there are a great many contenders for the title of ‘Most Powerful’. 

At its peak, in 117 AD, the Roman Empire was vast, covering a jaw-dropping five-million square kilometers. Just to put that in perspective, the Roman Empire was the equivalent of 1.4 billion soccer pitches. They’d have certainly needed a very well inflated pig’s bladder and a team compromising of giants in order to set up a quick game of five-a-side soccer. What is so impressive is this empire was ruled with a communication structure no more advanced than a lot of straight, flat roads.


Emperor Trajan

The ruler of the Empire at its peak was the Emperor - in this case Trajan, soon to be handing over to Hadrian on account of a severe case of premature death* - who was responsible for some sixty five million people. The Emperor had near incomputable and incomparable power then. His will could, quite literally, change the course of history. Yet, did anyone have power over the Emperor? You could argue that both the people and the senate had a degree of influence over the Emperor. After all, an Emperor is still only human and a great many of them received their comeuppance for miffing off the wrong people.** However, I would argue that the group of people who had the most influence over the Emperor were the vestal virgins.


Vestal Virgins

The Vestal Virgins were a group of six hand-picked women who were responsible for the maintaining of the perpetual sacred flame kept in the temple of Vesta. This was an incredibly important duty as it was believed that should the flame be snuffed out then Rome would fall. These sacred maidens had an unparalleled position of power amongst women at this point in history; they did not have to marry, they were not the ‘property’ of any man, and their position enabled them to wield significant religious and political influence. They could also, according to Alexandra Turney of Through Eternity Tours, “own property, vote, and write a will. They had the best seats at public games, and they even had the power to free condemned prisoners and slaves. A condemned man on his way to his execution only had to catch a glimpse of a Vestal Virgin to be freed.”

The extent of their responsibility and influence can be seen by their punishment if something went wrong in Ancient Rome. We can see an example of this in the BBC article ‘Ancient Rome’s Maidens: who were the Vestal Virgins?’ (reference at bottom of article)

“Despite their elevated position within Roman society, some historians, including Professor Brennan, argue that they were often scapegoated for military defeat. Problems on the battlefield were blamed on a failure to maintain Vesta's fire.”

Yet, I would argue, that an opposite case could be made. If the failure of a failed military campaign was the fault of the Vestal Virgins, then conversely a military success was due to their influence. To go a step further, if the Vestal Virgins were to decree that a military campaign was destined to fail, then could anyone, even an Emperor, disagree? Let’s take a look at a few examples of this. Pliny the Elder – the Roman naturalist, author and philosopher – wrote in Book 28 of his Natural History:

“At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.”


Vestals as ‘Super-heroes’

The Vestal Virgins had the power to convene with the gods and, even more impressively, the gods would listen to and be influencedby their words. This isn’t just regular Emperor power, this is super hero level power. If Gegania, one of the first Vestals, were to crop up as an Avenger in the next Marvel film then absolutely no-one should be surprised. This was a power that the Vestals would wield to influence and change the political landscape.

The Vestals interceded and saved Julius Caesar from Sulla’s proscriptions. Sulla was, at the time, the ‘dictator’ of Rome and the most powerful man in the city. He had a list of enemies of the state who, through his proscriptions, would be killed or banished. Julius Caesar’s name was on this list – his demise was certain. That was until the Vestal’s stepped up and saw that he was granted pardon. The Vestals had stood up to the most powerful person in Rome, in the midst of his punishing and pretty psychopathic political pruning, and been victorious. 

That’s is not to say the Vestal’s were untouchable however, they, like anyone, could be toppled. This was often done through the aforementioned scapegoating or through the besmirching of their character. The punishments for Vestas put into this position were severe. Rules prevented Vesta’s from being killed or harmed but these restrictions were averted by effectively burying them alive.*** 

Yet, what power comes without severe danger? And what power the Vestal Virgins had. Who else could bend an Emperor, and by proxy 65 million Romans, to their will?


Who do you think the most powerful people in Ancient Rome were? Let us know below.


Adrian is the co-owner of Imagining History School Workshops - an organisation dedicated to bringing the very best history workshops to primary schools across the UK. You can find out more at or follow them on twitter at @imagininghist

If you want to keep up to date with Adrian's writing, including his regular Playing with History video game feature for, then you can do so @adewritesstuff.



*It really was a severe case of premature death. Trajan died of a suspected stroke in the city of Selinus. His adopted son Hadrian took on the mantle of Emperor who, along with his father, is considered one of the ‘good’ Emperors.

**Emperor Caracalla had it pretty bad. He was killed by one of his bodyguards whilst taking a pee at the side of the road. Worst bodyguard ever.

*** In 114 BC the Vestal Mercia was left to starve to death in a sealed tomb – not a good way to go. Though in the historical records the frequency of such a heinous punishment was rare, most Vestals retired after a thirty-year service and enjoyed a rather generous pension.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

Museums are important in helping us connect with the past and with historical events – but not all museums are equal. Here, Shannon Bent explains why she thinks Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum, a museum that considers the dark past of the Nazi regime, is an excellent museum.

Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum. Remains of the Berlin Wall are at the top of the picture. Source: Adam Carr, available  here .

Berlin’s Topography of Terror Museum. Remains of the Berlin Wall are at the top of the picture. Source: Adam Carr, available here.

In my previous article posted here on ‘History is Now’ (here) I spoke about Checkpoint Charlie, a well-known tourist destination in Berlin. I talked about this over-commercialised site, and how completely insensitive and underwhelming I felt the ‘attraction’ was. Funnily enough, a few days ago and around a month after I wrote this article, my Dad handed me a page from the British Daily Mailnewspaper with the headline ‘Mona Lisa? It’s a bit rubbish’. It was a small section on the page and detailed the results of a survey done by the airline ‘easyJet’ about what the most desirable tourist destinations to visit in Europe were. While the Mona Lisa was named the most disappointing, Checkpoint Charlie came in at a close second with 84% of 2,000 Britons polled saying they disliked the site. At the risk of being smug, or using the phrase ‘called it’, I’m hardly surprised. It does, however, further the idea that this site is rather useless at its intention and doesn’t exactly educate or even interest many visitors. I was actually rather pleased to read this; at least quite a few other people actually agree with me and I’m not just overreacting!  

Now we’ve seen an instance of failure in the museum sector, perhaps I can offer a view and recommendation for a museum I feel could not be more opposite to the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. Situated perhaps less than a five-minute walk apart, this museum to me is a symbol of the right way to do it; an example of how to educate accurately and effectively on a sensitive subject while remaining interesting and respectful: The Topography of Terror.


The Topography of Terror Museum

The building is initially imposing, yet it is not obvious as to what it contains. Situated next to a preserved section of the Berlin Wall, and on the site of the SS central command, this simply curated museum takes the visitors through the chronology of the reign of terror that the Gestapo, SS and Reich Security lead over the people of Germany and beyond during the Second World War. With room for temporary and special exhibitions within the space that remain within the general theme of the museum, this site doesn’t hide anything. The site that it is on also provokes thought. What better way to keep the memory of the horrors inflicted alive than by placing them in a building sat on the area where the headquarters of the main perpetrators once resided. There is something fairly poetic and thought-provoking about this. Furthermore, with the remains of a piece of the Berlin Wall encompassed into the site that you can walk along and see the remnants of the graffiti from those that lived through it, it further serves as a reminder of the humanity caught up in war, and seeks to remind you that you are learning about individual and real people who had to face the horrors that presented themselves to them during both the Second World War and the Cold War. The area is alive with history, and therefore is the perfect place to keep history alive in. 

When you first enter the Topography of Terror, I would argue that most would be struck with the expanse of space, cleanliness and I should think some would argue sparsity of the place. The museum is free, something that I always appreciate. So, there is no funnelling towards a desk where they’ll ask for your money and try and sell you an overpriced guide book on top of your tickets. Furthermore, and thankfully, there is no gift shop. I hardly think it would be appropriate to place the SS symbol on a pencil or a tote bag to sell at the end of your visit, so a huge well done to the person that manages to keep the retail and commercialisation issue away. Therefore, upon entrance you are free to roam wherever you wish to begin. Despite this, the fantastic curation of the museum lends itself to naturally leading you in a chronological order through the build up to the Nazi regime and through the Second World War.


The Curation

I mentioned that it is the fantastic curation that pulls you into a kind of ‘one-way system’ concept around the room, yet the curation is simple. The entire concept is just boards hung from the ceiling, with one main introductory board per section, numbered in order to help the flow. As you can see, it pulls you around each corner and makes you curious for the next board, in a rather morbid way perhaps. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my opinion. Just because these subjects are some of the darkest and bloodiest points in history doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Besides, if people are interested, or if it is interesting to them then they are learning about the topic. Ultimately, isn’t this the aim of museums such as the Topography of Terror? Education of these subjects so they shall never be repeated again is of course the main remit of the museum. Consequently, I see no issue with a visitor of this museum finding the content of interest, and with a want to learn more around each information board. 

The phrase ‘it pulls no punches’ may be a little insensitive on this subject, but also fairly appropriate. Perhaps one of my favourite things about this museum is it does not seek to hide the facts, or veil them in mystery and inaccuracy. The facts, the stats, the numbers and the photos are clear for everyone to see. It perhaps for some is an overload of information and writing; if you aren’t already interested in the topic then perhaps this isn’t the museum for you. Certainly, it isn’t a museum to bring younger children. They would find it pretty boring, with no interaction or engagement tailored to them. But in my opinion, this isn’t poor planning or curation on the museum’s part. They knew their target audience, and they knew what information they were aiming at who, and in my opinion they have pulled this off very well. The text is simple and fairly broken up into smaller paragraphs, interspersed with many photos of varied sizes. It gives the exhibition variety, but also makes it an information packed display which is of course the overall aim.


The Meaning of the Museum

The reason I wanted to speak about this museum though, is because of its greater meaning. It has been created by the German people in full knowledge of the history of the site that it is sat on, and it is a symbol that they are not afraid of the truth. While a comical concept, there was once a thought of ‘don’t mention the war’ when it came to the countries that were involved. However, this museum shows that education and information does not have to be hidden from its place of origin and removes the concept of guilt or blame and simply seeks to teach so we can learn from mistakes. It baffles me that there was once a thought that Germany should not be open about the crimes that occurred during the Second World War. After all, and I think I can be accurate and agreed with when I say this, the Nazi regime and the extreme SS that came from it were not truly representative of the country or the majority of its people at the time. These days, while neo-Nazism does exist in various countries and that is a terrifying thought, the viewpoint that caused the atrocities that the Topography of Terror details are reserved luckily to a small section of people. This museum proves that the past doesn’t have to be hidden, or glossed over and more to the point can in fact be shown in greater detail to educate as many people as possible. 

This museum, and certainly this mindset, is a triumph. I can only hope that this continues and spreads wider. The Topography of Terror achieves what all museums should set out to do; clear and accurate information, accessible to as many people as possible and presented in an intriguing and unique way. Even if the subject matter is difficult and sensitive, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, usually the total opposite. It is these subjects that need to be understood the most, by as many people as possible. Its museums like this one that ensure that it can be understood, so it is never repeated in history again. 


I would highly recommend this museum. If you are interested, here is the website and if you are in the area, I would urge you to visit. Let’s keep the knowledge of topics like this and the museums that tell the stories as widely known as possible. Link here.


I hope you can come along with me on this exploration. Don’t hesitate to comment, feedback, and you could even email me for a chat about all this on I would really love people to get involved in this.

The U.S. Coast Guard played a key role during World War Two. Here, Daniel L. Smith tells us about the varied and important role the service played in saving lives and contributing to the US and Allied Powers’ war efforts around the globe.

You can read a few of Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here) and Medieval jesters (here).

The U.S. Coast Guard Escanaba crew on board the boat in World War Two.

The U.S. Coast Guard Escanaba crew on board the boat in World War Two.

The naval history of World War II is propense, given the size of the war and participation of nations involved. And more often than not, the United States Navy offers a huge and understandingly repetitive presence over the naval history of WWII. More often than not however, it is the United States Coast Guard’s selfless service and true expense that is lost in that large shadow. As an Honorably Discharged U.S. Coast Guard Veteran, I wear a Coast Guard “Excellence” Ribbon, as well as the 9/11 Transportation Medal for service in the 9/11 attacks in 2001. With experience in rough seas, law enforcement, and search and rescue – I am pleased to share this story about the U.S.C.G. in WWII.

In November of 1941 the Coast Guard went from the Treasury Department to the Department of the Navy; so perhaps this was why the histories of WWII usually look past or only shortly mention the Coast Guard’s priceless role in the great event. The United States declared war after the Japanese surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor, and spent four years and eight months in the fray of internal and external conflict. It was this catalyst that the Coast Guard’s accountabilities to its service to country extended significantly, being valued more than just search-and-rescue, and law enforcement; now it was seen completely integrating militarily.[1]

The Coast Guard was actually involved in some very significant events in World War II. How effective were they? Seaman John Cullen, for instance, was walking the beach performing routine night patrol on the 13thof June of 1942. During his walk Seaman Cullen observed four Germans landing ashore, on a saboteur mission code-named Operation Pastorius. Seaman Cullen of the U.S. Coast Guard was actuallythefirstAmerican who came into contact with the enemy on the shores of mainland USA during WWII.[2]Another incident, CGC Icarus (WPC-110), a 165-ft patrol boat that once had been a rumrunner chaser during Prohibition, put a German U-352 under water on 9 May 1942, off the south coast of Charleston, South Carolina.[3]The Icarus crew took on 33 prisoners that day. They were the first German nationals taken in combat as prisoners by any U.S. armed force.[4]

During the entire length of WWII, U.S. Coast Guard elements sent 12 German and two Japanese submarines to the bottom of the ocean, and would end up capturing two German warships. Finally, Signalman 1stClass Douglas A. Munro was the only Coast Guardsman to be awarded the Medal of Honor. It was at the 2ndBattle of the Matanikau, Petty Officer Munro was tasked with leading the extraction of 400 United States Marines that had been beaten and overrun on the Japanese island. Munro used a 7.62 mm deck-mounted machine gun aboard his “Higgins Boat” to direct a suppressing fire against the Japanese positions as the other recovery boats took on the beaten and battered American Marines. He would end up selflessly putting himself between heavy fire from the Japanese forces and the U.S. Marines – leading the ten landing craft and saving all five-hundred U.S. Marines, including 25 wounded, all escaped.[5] 



The United States Coast Guard wasand continues to remain to be the most professional, elite, and underappreciated service out of the 5 branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. In WWII history, evidence suggests the U.S. Coast Guard was more involved than the history books lead on. So, justhow effective was the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II? Admiral Chester Nimitz highly praised the valuable and selfless performance of Coast Guard men and women in World War II by stating: “I know of no instance wherein they did not acquit themselves in the highest traditions of their Service, or prove themselves worthy of their Service motto, ‘Semper Paratus’—‘Always Ready.’”[6]

It was back in 1837 that the Coast Guard went even further with the order to save lives and property. The main functions of the service were no longer just law enforcement related, but now relied upon as the saviors of life and property with maritime safety taking up an equally important role. For a branch of service that has less peopleserving in it than the New York City Police Department, it always seems it is the U.S. Coast Guard that always stands out at the end of their long days. The Coast Guard has been involved in every single one of our nations wars at sea –along the side of their Navy counterparts. These brief aforementioned illustrations stand as evidence to the examples of the Coast Guard, its crew, and its mission capabilities. Of course, all of this centered around being a 5thmilitary branch of service, with all privileges entitled. 

There is another historical event that would equal silenceto the incredible effectiveness of the Coast Guard’s mission capabilities. Signalman 1stClass Douglas A. Munro, is the aforementioned Coast Guardsman who would equally compare in this quiet and unpromotedglory in while their service. Its interesting in part to think about just howunrecognized the service is. Proof? Half of my recruit training company didn’t even know the Coast Guard was a seagoing service when asked about it by the Company Commanders.[7]If recruits are naïve about the mission, is it unreasonable to assume that the general public wouldn’t have an idea of Coast Guard’s mission effectiveness? Of course not.

The mission effectiveness pre-dating our modern era is apparent when looking back in the historical entries. The Revenue Cutter Service (as it used to be known) was re-named United States Coast Guard in 1915, after the U.S. Government observed justhoweffective they were as a wartime andnon-wartime entity.[8]It is amazing that with such successes in the field and low publicity, both publicly and within the other four military branches, the Coast Guard still continues to remain the mostunderappreciated branch of the services. 



Overall, the Coast Guard performed valiantly with statistics of their own military accomplishments during WWII. 12 submarines were sunk in the Atlantic Theatre by Coast Guard Cutters, Coast Guard Anti-Sub Planes, and Coast Guard-crewed naval vessels. The U.S. Coast Guard documented that from 1941, to the end of the war, Coast Guard crews had served successfully on board Navy attack transports (APs & APAs) and with personnel to spare. They continue on to say, “It was an obvious choice to let the Coast Guard continue to assist in manning various ships of the ever-increasing Navy fleet. They readily took to all of the various types of landing craft utilized by the Navy, including the Landing Craft Infantry, Large, or LCI(L)s, beginning in 1943.”[9]

Technologically, the Coast Guard headed a cooperative effort between scientists and the U.S. Navy, to develop the Long-Range Navigation (LORAN) system. The Coast Guard stated that, “Pulse transmission of radio waves permits LORAN to measure the time a signal travels. This allows an infinite number of lines of position to be placed over the Earth’s surface by radio. Using special charts and a simple receiver, a plane or ship could determine its general location within a few miles by longitude and latitude. LORAN is the first use of electronic navigation, precursor to Global Positioning System (GPS).”[10]

In June of 1942, legislation in the Executive Branch changed the face of the U.S. Coast Guard forever sealing their fate as a military service. Further, the presidential decree allowed for the centralization of the Coast Guard as the premier multi-mission branch of service. According to the U.S. Coast Guard Historians Office:

“The President delegates port-security to the Coast Guard. Responsibilities included: Control of anchorage and movement of all vessels in port; Issuance of identification cards and the supervision of access to vessels and waterfront facilities; Fire-prevention measures including inspections, recommendations and enforcement; Firefighting activities, including use of fireboats, trailer pumps and other extinguishing agents; Supervision of the loading and stowage of explosives and military ammunition; Boarding and examination of vessels in port; Sealing of vessels' radios; Licensing of vessels for movement in local waters and for departure; Guarding of important facilities; Enforcement of all regulations governing vessels and waterfront security; Maintenance of water patrols; General enforcement of federal laws on navigable waters and other miscellaneous duties.”[11]


Handling and piloting these small boats in the rough surf is most certainly a specialized skill. Additionally, this type of emphasized skillset was not common among men in the Navy. Not guys in the Coast Guard though. Many of the coxswains (small boat handlers) had learned this skill from pushing boats through the surf at coastal lifesaving stations. Coast Guard small boat handlers were actually only at lifesaving stations. Most were highly seasoned small-boat handlers, as this proved valuable to the service. Maneuvering landing craft through strong currents, reefs, sand bars and heavy surf, is what these lifesavers excel at. Further, their aid to amphibious operations during the entirety of the war is infinite. 



The experience of these surfmen were priceless during amphibious operations. The Coast Guard's surfmen acted as trainers and coaches to the U.S. Navy small boatmen trying to learn the complexities of controlling craft in the rough waters and heavy seas. During the early period of WWII, thousands of Coast Guard and Navy personnel were skilled and apt to handle landing craft in preparation for the beaches.

Part of that landing craft mission was landing troops at D-Day, but, given the sheer size of the operation, the Navy and Army asked that the Coast Guard also provide a flotilla of ships to rescue Americans stranded in the water. The Coastie’s punctually rose-up to complete the challenge, pulling from their daily experience in saving lives for over a century. The Coast Guards Cutters and other small-craft went to war on D-Day. They were literally behind the first wave of landing craft hitting the beaches of Normandy. They had been told to stay two miles away from the shoreline, but most of the Coastie’s took their craft closer to shore where they could rescue more lives. 

The United States Coast Guard pulled over 400 men out of the water that day. One small-boat named "Homing Pigeon," manned by the Coast Guard, rescued 126 lives in one day.[12]It was the Coast Guard Cutters Eastwind and Southwind that would end up capturing the Nazi vessel Externsteine off the coast of Greenland doing weather and supply duty after a brief fire-fight with nobody killed. The Coast Guardsmen gave the newly captured Nazi ship the name USS Eastbreeze and placed 37 men on board to man the vessel. Eastbreeze would end up sailing to Boston where the U.S. Navy renamed her USS Callao. Nazi supply vessel Externsteine was the only enemy ship captured while at sea by any U.S. naval forces during World War II.

What was the scope of the Coast Guard’s rescue operations in WWII? A thorough examination of the United States military’s records in the European phase of the war will reveal just how operationally effective the small services were outside of battle. 4,243 servicemen and merchant mariners were saved, and of these 1,658 survivors were picked up from being torpedoed along the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. 810 souls were saved in the North Atlantic, and in the Mediterranean 115 saved. Further, 1,660 were saved from rescue cutters from the English Channel at D-Day. The fact is almost four and a half million fighting soldiers would embark by ship, to fight the enemy in Europe and Africa. Of all who were deployed , 3,954 were lost at sea.



Over the course of World War Two, the U.S. Coast Guard remained completely active with the remaining landing forces until Japan surrendered. Other operations that contributed to the Coastie’s efforts were mine-sweeping off the coasts during occupation. At the finish of major military operations in the Pacific, the soldiers., sailors, and airmen being ferried home by the Coast Guard would come to know the last ride home as… “Magic Carpet” rides. These rides home would have to have been one of the most relieving moments of any war wearied serviceman. 

The Coast Guard contributed as much as any other branch of service to the war effort as part of the amphibious forces in the Pacific theatre of war. The men of this nation's smallest branch of service, – smaller than the N.Y.P.D. to be exact – proved as heroic and valiant as the men in the other branches. The Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, in 1946, would stand on the podium and publicly state that during the war the United States Coast Guard "earned the highest respect and deepest appreciation of the Navy and Marine Corps. Its performance of duty has been without exception in keeping with the highest traditions of service." 

The fact of the matter is…“Their experience in operating in all types of surf conditions as well  as on the high seas made the Coast Guard crews a valuable addition to the Allied invasion fleets.”[13]The United States Coast Guard continues to be the most elite branch of service operational today, also making the Coast Guard statistically, the best the five branches of military has to offer. The truth is that for being the most underappreciated branch of service; the men and women of the Coast Guard display their moraland ethicalprinciples in the line of duty.[14]They truly were mission effective in WWII.



What do you think of the US Coast Guard in World War Two? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at

[1]Bishop, Eleanor C. 1989. Prints in the sand: the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol in World War II. Missoula, Mont: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co.

[2]Walling, Michael G. 2008. “Dangerous Duty in the North Atlantic.” Naval History

[3]Ibid., pp. 204-207.

[4]Ibid., p. 208.

[5]Quesada, Alejandro de. 2011. US Coast Guard in World War II. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. WorldCat Reference Center, Online. p. 97.

[6]U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (monograph 7).

[7]“USCG Basic Training Experience, Delta-162” Daniel L. Smith, 2002.

[8]U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (Monograph 17)

[9]"U.S. Coast Guard Manned LCI(L)'s." U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed April 1, 2019.

[10]"Time Line 1900's - 2000's." United States Coast Guard (USCG) Historian's Office. Accessed April 19, 2019.

[11]Ibid.(USCG) Historians Office.

[12]Christy, Gabe. "How 60 Coast Guard Cutters Saved Over 400 Men On D-Day." WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Last modified September 14, 2017.

[13]"What’s in the Coast Guard’s Secret Sauce for High Retention?" Federal News Network. Last modified January 16, 2018.

[14]"From the Homefront: Top 10 Things We Wish People Knew About Coast Guard Life « Coast Guard All Hands." Coast Guard All Hands. Last modified February 5, 2014.


Alejandro de Quesada,. 2011. US Coast Guard in World War II. Oxford: Osprey Publishing Ltd. WorldCat Reference Center, Online.

Arch A. Mercey and Lee Grove, eds. Sea, Surf, & Hell: The U.S. Coast Guard in World War II (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1945).  pp. 12-14.

Eleanor C. Bishop, 1989. Prints in the sand: the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol in World War II. Missoula, Mont: Pictorial Histories Pub. Co.

"From the Homefront: Top 10 Things We Wish People Knew About Coast Guard Life « Coast Guard All Hands." Coast Guard All Hands. Last modified February 5, 2014.

Gabe Christy. "How 60 Coast Guard Cutters Saved Over 400 Men On D-Day." WAR HISTORY ONLINE. Last modified September 14, 2017.

Ken Wiley,. 2007. Lucky thirteen: D-Days in the Pacific with the U.S. Coast Guard in World War II. Philadelphia: Casemate.

Michael G. Walling, 2008. “Dangerous Duty in the North Atlantic.” Naval History

U.S. Coast Guard, Historian’s Office, “World War II”

 "U.S. Coast Guard Manned LCI(L)'s." U.S. Department of Defense. Accessed April 1, 2019.

U.S. Coast Guard, Statistical Division/Historical Section, Public Information Division, The Coast Guard At War (Washington: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 30 June 1944–1 January 1954), (Monograph 1-30)

"What’s in the Coast Guard’s Secret Sauce for High Retention?" Federal News Network. Last modified January 16, 2018.

In mid-to-late nineteenth century Victorian Britain, ‘freak shows’ were popular exhibitions where the general public could pay to go and observe individuals with physical abnormalities and deformities. By their very nature these shows were underpinned by exploitative institutions designed to make money from those rejected by society. However, when the bigger picture is scrutinized, it becomes apparent that the situation facing those involved within ‘freak shows’ wasn’t as straightforward as it might initially seem. Stuart Cameron explains.

Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’.

Joseph Merrick, the ‘Elephant Man’.

Usage of the word ‘freak’

Before diving into the historical details of this subject it is important to justify the usage of the word ‘freak’ within this article.

The word likely conjures up different feelings to different people. By modern standards, most would agree that much of the language used by Victorians towards individuals exhibited within ‘freak shows’ - ‘freaks’ - would be considered distasteful, uncomfortable, and politically incorrect to say the very least.

Robert Bogdan, author of Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, produced a list of words that have been used to describe ‘freaks’ throughout time. Terms like ‘lusus natrae’ (Latin for ‘freaks of nature’), ‘curiosities’, ‘oddities’, ‘monsters’, ‘grotesques’, and ‘nature’s mistakes’ are a few of the many examples that carry clear negative implications. In contrast to those, terms like ‘wonders’, ‘marvels’, rarities’, and ‘very special people’ carry considerably more sympathetic connotations, but were almost only exclusively used within marketing and advertising materials for shows.[1]

Based on this non-exhaustive list, what is clear is that ‘freaks’ were not solely seen as something negative, but at times were actually valued based on the rarity of their existence. Such a variety of jargon exists towards ‘freaks’ as a result of blended scientific terminology and show-world hype, muddied further by the progression of time.[2]Regardless of whether the connotation was negative or positive, ‘freaks’ either way were seen as something different and non-compliant with social ideas of normality.

On top of that, ‘freaks’ came in all shapes and sizes. Some were born as ‘freaks’, some became ‘freaks’ at a point in their lifetime as a result of an accident or a medical condition, and others altered their bodies and became ‘freaks’ by choice. This in turn makes the word ‘freak’ a term that covers a lot of territory. It’s a word that has been used to refer to bearded ladies like Julia Pastrana (dubbed as ‘the Bear Lady’); conjoined ‘Siamese’ twins like Chang and Eng; and to people with full body tattoo coverage like George Burchett (dubbed as the ‘King of Tattooists’). The only trait these three very different people have in common? That they were physically not ‘normal’.

As such, this makes the concept of a ‘freak’ one that transcends gender, racial, economic, social, age, medical, and scientific boundaries. Naturally, however, this throws up some obstacles for historians examining the ‘freak show’ industry. As uncomfortable as the continued usage of the word ‘freak’ may be, it is used solely on the grounds that there is no modern equivalent that accurately represents the diversity of the men and women involved within the shows.


'Freak Shows' within Victorian society

‘Freak Shows’ were exhibitions of biologically abnormal humans and animals that members of the public could pay a small fee and observe a physical manifestation of something quite drastically different from themselves. The shows were at their peak in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and appealed to people across the economic and class spectrum of the United Kingdom. As well as that, private “for ladies only” viewing rooms were provided so that women had safe spaces within potentially dangerous urban places to attend shows.[3]The contemporary humor magazine Punchdubbed Britain’s “growing taste for deformity” as the ‘Deformito-Mania’, claiming that ‘freak shows’ were an “unhealthy admiration for the monstrous”.[4]Regardless of the social background of the audience, the reaction from those who attended shows was often a combination of shock, horror, andfascination.

The shows could be set up quickly, and at very low cost. In the same way that the circus travelled between towns and cities across the country, ‘freak show’ owners deployed a similar strategy. As such, the mobility of the shows proved a fundamental part of their popular appeal. Being able to set up quickly in community halls and in the back rooms of public houses kept outgoing costs at a minimum and helped to make the shows accessible to the working classes. Joseph Merrick, known more famously as ‘The Elephant Man’ was regularly exhibited in the back room of an east London pub known as a “penny gaff”. As well as these ‘pop-up' style shows, certain venues became infamous for their ‘freak show’ exhibitions. The Egyptian Hall, in Piccadilly, London hosted a number of different ‘freaks’ throughout the nineteenth century including the ‘Living Skeleton’ (being a man who consisted of little more than skin and bone) and the ‘Siamese’ twins Chang and Eng (who were conjoined by their stomach).[5]


The Showmen

To the showmen in charge, ‘freaks’ were undoubtedly their business commodities – and their way of turning a profit. In his memoirs, British showman Tom Norman (also referred to as ‘the Penny Showman’) admitted: “There was a time, in my career as a showman, when I would exhibit any mortal thing for money”, adding “there were always large crowds who were only too eager to pay and see anything that aroused their curiosity, no matter how repulsive, or how demoralising.”[6]From a twenty-first century perspective, seeing the ‘freak show’ industry as anything but exploitative can prove to be difficult. But, in a perplexing sort of way, ‘freak shows’ gave ‘freaks’ a platform to exhibit their bodies and make a small income – more than anything else in Victorian society offered to most of them.

It was common that ‘freak shows’ were advertised through promotions that established narratives and origin stories of the ‘freaks’ on display – which in most cases were totally fictitious. Storytelling was a common technique used by the showman in the knowledge that the audiences who came to view the exhibits were susceptible to believing the tales, no matter how whimsical or fantastic they were. This made the showman an understated, yet integral part of the entertainment success of his shows. It wasn’t just a case of ‘freaks’ taking the initiative to exhibit themselves and receiving the entirety of the profit without the showman. A massive part of their success lay in the way that the showmen marketed them, told their “stories”, and highlighted the rarity of their existence to the audience.

At their very core, ‘freak shows’ were exploitative. They were underpinned by an inhumane business model that capitalized on the misfortune of people rejected by society, and with no opportunity to make a living on the basis of them being physically different. Victorian society left ‘freaks’ in a situation with little option in life, and as a result their involvement within the ‘freak show’ industry was one that they themselves had little control of.


What do you think of the 19th century ‘freak show’ industry? Let us know below.

Author Bio

Stuart Cameron is a freelance copywriter and blogger on a mission to harness the past to better understand the now. More of his blog posts, his writing portfolio, and details about his copywriting services are available at

[1]Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, 1988. 6.

[2]Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, 1988. 6.

[3]Durbach, Nadja. Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture. (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009). 7.

[4]“The Deformito-Mania” Punch Magazine. (4 Sept 1847). 90.

[5]Mayes, Ronald. ‘The Romance of London Theatres No.87. The Egyptian Hall’ Lewisham Hippodrome Programme, March 1930. (no further bibliographic details provided)

[6]Norman, Tom & Norman, George. The Penny Showman: Memoirs of Tom Norman “Silver King”. (London, 1985). 23-24.

Across the world many languages have become extinct over the past decades. Here, Casey Titus considers this in the American context by telling us about five Native American languages that have become extinct in the twenty-first century.

Four members of the Osage Nation with US President Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

Four members of the Osage Nation with US President Calvin Coolidge in 1924.

1.     Serrano 

This language was spoken by the Serrano people of Southern California, a Serran branch of the Uto-Aztecan family which is one of the world’s primary language families and that stretches from Idaho in the United States to El Salvador in Central America. Serrano translates as “highlander” or “mountaineer” in Spanish, and was given by Spanish missionaries in the late 18thcentury as the Serrano historically resided in the San Bernardino Mountains and other Transverse Ranges as well as the Mojave Desert. Due to forced relocations and smallpox epidemics for which the Serrano people had no immunity, their population was greatly reduced and by 1910, only 150 of the Native Californians were estimated to be left. The last fully fluent speaker was Dorothy Ramon, who died in 2002.


2.     Unami


An Algonquian language that stretches from the Rocky Mountains to Atlantic Canada, Unami was spoken by the Lenape people, who stretched across five states, but primarily Delaware, from the late 17thto early 18thcenturies. The Lenape had a matrilineal clan system whose women elders could remove leaders of whom they disapproved and families were matrilocal; newlywed couples would reside with the bride’s family where her mother and sisters could assist her with her growing family. By 1682, their population was endangered and subsequent decades of intertribal conflict and forced relocation pushed the Lenape people further west until the 1860s when the United States government sent most remaining Lenape to present-day Oklahoma under the Indian removal policy. Currently, the Delaware Tribe of Indians is one of three federally recognized tribes, with Unami being one of two Delaware languages, the other being Munsee. The last fluent speaker in the United States was Edward Thompson who died on August 31, 2002.



3.     Klamath-Modoc

A traditional language of the Klamath and Modoc people spoken around the Klamath Lake that extends to southern Oregon and northern California, both ethnicities speak a dialect of the language. Klamath is part of the Plateau Penutian language family and, like Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages, this language is abundant in ablaut, any sound change within a word that indicates grammatical information. By 1998, only one native speaker remained. Four years later, the last fluent Klamath speaker residing in Chiloquin, Oregon, Neva Eggsman, died at the age of 92. As of 2006, there are no more native speakers of either the Klamath or Modoc dialects.


4.     Osage

Osage is a Siouan language spoken by the Osage people of Oklahoma. Siouan languages are located primarily in the Great Plains, Ohio, and Mississippi Valleys. The Osage Nation developed in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys around 700 BC and migrated west of the Mississippi after the 17thcentury because of ongoing battles with the Iroquois, who were invading the Ohio Valley from New York and Pennsylvania in search for new hunting grounds. “Osage” is a loose French version of the tribe’s name that roughly translates to “warlike.” At the height of their power in the early 19thcentury, the Osage was the dominant power in the region and feared by neighboring tribes. The missionary Isaac McCoy described the Osage as an “uncommonly fierce, courageous, warlike nation.” Though not officially declared extinct, as of 2009, approximately 15-20 elders claimed Osage as their second language. In early 2015, Osage Nation Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear announced he would render Osage language immersion and revitalization a priority.


5.     Eyak

Historically spoken by the Eyak people, indigenous to south-central Alaska. Eyak is one of twenty-one official languages in the state of Alaska. The rapid spread of English and restraint of indigenous languages contributed to the decline of Eyak. The last full-blooded Eyak and native speaker, Marie Smith Jones, died in 2008 and with her, the Eyak language. In June of 2010, an astounding revival effort was made when the Anchorage Daily News published an article about Guillaume Leduey, a French college student who taught himself Eyak from the age of 12 through the use of print and audio instructional materials received from the Alaska Native Language Center. He is now classified as a fluent speaker, translator, and instructor of Eyak.


What do you think of the extinction of these languages? Let us know below. 


“Klamath Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Feb. 2019,

“Osage.” Atlas of Endangered Alphabets,

Revolvy, LLC. “‘Klamath Language’ on” Revolvy,

Revolvy, LLC. “‘Unami Language’ on” Revolvy,

“Serrano Language.” Serrano Language - Howling Pixel,

“Serrano Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Apr. 2019,

“Unami Language.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Sept. 2018,

There are many questions around the origins of the Picts, Gaels, and Scots, the original peoples of what was to become Scotland. Here, Steven Keith, originally from Scotland and living in India for twenty years, looks at theories for the origins of these peoples and how they came to be in Scotland.

You can read Steven’s article on the origins of Scotland here.

Scota and Goidel Glas on a voyage from Egypt. From the 15th century chronicle Scotichronicon

Scota and Goidel Glas on a voyage from Egypt. From the 15th century chronicle Scotichronicon

When the tribe of Chattiarrived in Scotland at the beginning of the Christian era and became the embryonic clan Keith, they assimilated with the people known to us by their Roman name, the Picts. They, however, knew themselves by another name, the Kalti or Kelti.We are aware of this from the written work of the Roman scribes, who quite naturally filled in the details of the unknown that they were expected to. 

Where the Pictscame from and who they were, other than the carvers of often monumental monoliths and the speakers, readers and writers of a script we are still yet to decipher, understand and know, remains mysterious to the masses. 

They themselves believed that they were the descendants of the Goddess Brigid, considered to be sacred and benevolent across the disparate communities of the ‘Celtic’ world. Kenneth MacAlpin, considered to be Scotland’s first king, was a descendant through his mother, as all Pictish kings were, as a consequence of their matrilineal system of inheritance. To the Gaelic speakers who had arrived in Ireland, the Picts of what they called Alba (Scotland) were known as the Cruithne, which translates into English as ‘wheat growers’, and that name too was to be found in use in Ireland at that time to describe the non-Gaels. Their land was known as Cruithentuath. The Cruithne had populated Ireland before the arrival in Hibernia of the Gaels from Iberia.


Different Interpretations

In the Irish chronicle, the Book of Lecain, it is written that from Noah came Japheth and then father after son, Fathecht, Mais, Buain, Agnoin, Partilan, Luchtai, Cinge and Cruithne who himself produced the seven sons, Cait, Ce, Cirig, Fib, Fidach, Fotla and Fortrem, each of whom were Kings of the seven provinces or Kingdoms of Cruithentuath.

The Greek historian Strabo, writing in the first century A.D, asserted that the Picts or Kaltis had been displaced to Scotland from the Celtic lands of Gaul, which he called ‘Galati’, by the Samaritans, whose soldiers had invaded from beyond the River Rhine and from the mountains that are now part of Switzerland. In fact, he tells the reader that they had arrived in ‘Celtae Galatea’ from Asia Minor where they had been known as the Kaldees or Galat from Galatia, the area that was formally the lands upon which the Hittites had built their capital of Hattusha. Are they the same people as the Chaldeans who migrated from the neighborhood of Sumer, north toward Anatolia?

The Gaels themselves recorded their descent through time in the Lebor Gabala, written in the eleventh century A.D. It claimed that their ancestor was a Scythian King, Fenius Farsaid, also a descendant of Japheth and one of the seventy two chiefs who began the construction of the ill-fated Tower of Babel. His son Nel wed the Egyptian Princess, Scota and from that union came the son, Goidal Glas, from whom came the Gaelic culture and language (one of the original seventy two tongues that emerged following the curse on the seventy two chieftains intent on building a tower to talk to God!). Nel and Scota spent their time in Egypt before they left for Spain, leaving at the same time that the Hebrews departed. Wherever they left to, they brought with them the accumulated knowledge of that civilization.

The Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is of course, where we first read of the Tower of Babel or Japheth, as well as his second born son, Magog. From the Roman historian of the first century A.D, Titus Flavius Josephus, we learn that from Magog are descended the Scythians. Could it be that from the fist born son of Japheth came the Picts and from the second born came the Gaels? The biblical Tribe of Dan has often been connected with the story of Ireland, particularly with one of the founding people of that land, the Tuath De Danann, which can translate as the ‘tribe of Dan’.


Coming from the North?

The Dan Hebrews, who occupied a coastal territory in ancient Israel, were mariners and merchants. They were also of the lands of Crete and Greece, from where they left at the time of a great famine and the schism within the House of David that saw the ten northern tribes seceding over the ascension to the throne of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, before a reconciliation and the reunification of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel. These were concurrent events. According to history, from the Greek islands they arrived in Denmark, giving that place its name. Interestingly, the rest of Scandinavia began to be populated at Denmark, for obvious geographic reasons; therefore it would have been possible for the Tuath De Danann to have arrived in Ireland from the north, as the Irish chronicles inform. Scotland too, is to the north of Ireland. 

According to the ancient myths of Ireland, (recorded at different times, in different languages and by different peoples) upon the arrival of the Gaels on the island, Ireland was inhabited by a people who were known to history as the Tuath De Danann. According to legend, the first Gael ashore was met by the three high Kings of the Tuath De Danann, MacCuill, MacCecht and MacGreine, accompanied by their Queens. The story continues that a deal was struck, and the Gaels agreed that they would wait on board their ships anchored offshore. In the meantime one of the Queens conjured a tempest with the intention of scattering the invading fleet; however it abated with the magical words of a Gaelic poet. In the end the surviving Gaels, or Milesians, as they were known to the Tuath De Danann and to the chroniclers of the time, landed and agreed that Ireland should be split between them; the Gaels taking the ground of the island and the Tuath De Danann inheriting the underground, where they would continue to live as the fairy people of fable.

The Tuath De Danann had themselves invaded Ireland, relieving those they knew as the Fir Bolg, of their command. Scholars assert that the Fir Bolg were the Celts displaced from the area of today’s Belgium which was being incorporated into the Romanized world. That would confuse things, as the dates for the Roman advance on Belgae are too late to fit. Or are they? Legend asserts that the Fir Bolg were descendants of 5,000 people who had originated in Greece and arrived in Ireland from there after first traversing continental Europe as far as the English Channel.

Were the Tuath De Danann and the Cruithne one and the same people? By becoming the fairies residing in the underworld or spiritual world, they became eternal. Their symbols, names, histories and legends would become part of the high culture of the Gaels of Ireland and remain so, as indeed happened across the water in Scotland, where the spiritual heritage of the Picts or Cruithne was the glue that held together the new society forged by their merging with the Scots of Dal Riata, to create a Gaelic Scotland. The standing stones, the Stone of Destiny, the Stone of Tara, the Book of Tara. The name Eire, the Gaelic form of Ireland, comes from Eriu, one of the triumvirate of Goddess’ of the Tuath De Danann and the wife of King MacCecht. Her sisters Banba and Fotla have given their names informally and poetically, to their land. Fotla was also a son of Cruithne. Could he instead have been a daughter, perhaps more appropriate in a matrilineal succession? Sons and daughters sharing the kingdom.


How People came to Scotland

Is it not reasonable to suggest that the mass displacement of populations that occurred around the globe but specifically for this piece, in North Africa, the Levant, Anatolia and the Black Sea area, during the seven years of famine, between 1703 B.C and 1696 B.C was the primary driving force for the settlement of Scotland, Ireland and much of north western Europe, for that matter? This catastrophic calamity, that was recorded from China to the Americas in literature and in the rings of trees, forced starving Aryans from their desiccated grasslands, over the Hindu Kush towards the Indus valley. It drove the Scythians westward too, into Europe and thus creating the Celtic nations of Europe, that over time themselves spread westward until being isolated there millennia later.

We can see that the seafarers of the Mediterranean had already established intercontinental trade routes. The builders of the monuments of the Middle East had already navigated the northern European coastline. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to see the connection between the Levantine leviathans and the Pictish stones at Callanish, both constructed to monitor and honor the sun and its cycle. It seems that the ancestral origin myths, retained and remembered by the modern Scots and Irish, are borne out. 

In my recent article (here), it is asserted that there was a fusion between the Hittites of Anatolia and the Picts. Were they already familiar with each other from their shared time together in the Middle East, the crucible of modern civilization? Each of the original waves of invaders of what would eventually become the British Isles, launched themselves from the Mediterranean. It seems that they moved because famine had caused the collapse of their societies. City states were collapsing. Civilizations too. Sumer, like its teacher, Harappa also collapsed at this time, perhaps forcing its most famous son, Abraham, credited with teaching science to the Egyptians, to begin the migration that would allow him to fulfill his God given duties to teach. The first to reach those windswept northern shores built the structures that allowed civilization to exist, specifically to track time. Each of the civilizations in that area at that time were polytheistic, solar worshippers. They had emerged from the same root, one teaching the other and pushing knowledge of the material world farther along the road of discovery. They brought all their knowledge and customs with them. They also brought their spiritual inheritance and it has never left us.


What do you think of the article? Let us know below.


Steven Douglas Keith is a Scotsman living for twenty years in the mountains of India, an essayist, an artist and a poet. His work seeks to find the commonalities shared by cultures, specifically between the traditions of the orient and occident.

He can be found on Twitter @k_el_phand

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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During the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-89) the Cold War got hotter – and there were a number of major Cold War battlegrounds. Somebody who played a key role in many of these was CIA Director William Casey. Casey was to play a major role in several noteworthy and controversial events, perhaps most infamously in the Iran-Contra Affair. Scott Rose explains.

You can read Scott’s past articles about spies who shared American atomic secrets with the Soviet Union (read here), the 1950s “Red Scare” (read here), the American who supplied the Soviets with secrets in the 1980s (read here), and Cuban spies in the US in the 1980s (read here).

William Casey, CIA Director from 1981-1987.

William Casey, CIA Director from 1981-1987.

As the Cold War drew to its conclusion, President Ronald Reagan was viewed as the one individual most responsible for the eventual demise of the Soviet Union. Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin will probably always be thought of as the beginning of the end of communism in the U.S.S.R. and its satellite states.

However, there was another American official just as responsible for the Cold War victory of the Western world. William J. “Bill” Casey was Reagan’s CIA Director from 1981-1987, and Casey pulled the strings of American Cold War policy, making it his personal crusade to bleed the Soviet Union dry. Undoubtedly, Casey was one of the most powerful CIA Directors to ever hold the position.

Instead of being remembered for his patriotism as Reagan is, Casey’s legacy is quite controversial and unclear. Most Americans who remember Casey will forever associate him with the murky episode known as the Iran-Contra Affair.


Lawyer, Spymaster, Writer

Bill Casey was born in New York in 1913, to a hard-working family with limited financial means. From his childhood onward, Casey was ambitious and determined to change his social status. During his grade school years, he displayed great intellect, while showing a temperamental side as well, earning the nickname “Volcano” from his classmates. The only mark he ever received less than a B grade was a C in personal conduct. He became a caddie at a local golf course and taught himself how to play golf, which would remain a lifelong hobby.

Casey’s good grades got him into Fordham University in Manhattan, followed by law school at St. John’s University. In 1938, he passed the bar exam and began working at a law firm in New York. Casey displayed a talent in business and financial law, and created what is known as the “tax shelter.”

During World War II, Casey went to work for the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the pre-cursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. He served in France and helped coordinate American spying operations inside Nazi Germany. Fiercely patriotic, Casey was by all accounts very effective in his position managing spies and gleaning vital information as the Allies prepared to invade Germany, and was awarded the Bronze Star for his service. After the war, he would return to his legal practice in New York.

Casey wrote several books about business law during the 1950s; the books sold well, and were widely purchased by other American lawyers. He made a small fortune, which was multiplied by successfully investing his earnings into a variety of business ventures and stock holdings. He also lectured on tax law for fourteen years at New York University.

Casey was a strong supporter of Richard Nixon during the election of 1968. Nixon and Casey had common ground; both were conservative lawyers, World War II veterans, and staunch anti-Communists. In 1971, Nixon named Casey chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and three years later, Casey became Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs.


A Partnership with Reagan

During the late 1970s, the United States looked to be losing prestige on the world stage. The Jimmy Carter Administration had failed to check Soviet influence around the world, and the Iran hostage crisis had made Carter appear soft. The American economy was in recession, compounding the nation’s problems in foreign affairs.

Ronald Reagan was challenging Carter in the 1980 election, vowing to restore America to its former glory. An unabashed capitalist and anti-Soviet, Reagan was a candidate Casey could relate to, just as Nixon had been. Upon announcing his candidacy, Reagan named the crafty and tireless Casey to be his campaign chairman. Reagan won in a landslide, and shortly after he was inaugurated, the Americans who had been held hostage in Iran were released. There has been a popular theory that Casey persuaded the Iranians to delay the release in order to weaken the Carter campaign; whether or not this was true has never been established.

Reagan asked Casey to become the new CIA Director, but initially Casey was not enthused about the prospect. He wanted to help shape American foreign policy, not merely report intelligence that had been gathered. However, Reagan promised Casey he would be given a large role in the country’s international affairs, and Casey took the job. Still well respected in the intelligence community for his OSS operations, he was a popular choice with many of the senior officials at the CIA.

During the Carter years, the CIA had been vilified in several Senate hearings. The Agency’s budget had been drastically cut, and by 1980 morale had dwindled. Upon becoming Director, Casey sought to rebuild the CIA back into the world’s strongest and most effective intelligence organization. Budgets were increased, and many new agents and administrators were hired. Casey voiced his intention to not only stop the increase of Soviet influence, but to “roll back” the Soviet world presence as well. His understanding of intelligence gathering and economics had put him in a unique position to do just that.


Taking on the Soviets

As the American economy recovered, Casey realized that the Soviet economic system could be damaged through long, drawn-out military operations such as the one in Afghanistan. The Soviets had invaded the country in 1979, but were now engaged in an ongoing conflict with Afghan rebels known as mujahedeen, or freedom-fighters. Casey asked Congress for financial aid for the Afghans, and received even more money than he had asked for. The CIA used these resources to furnish the Afghans with military equipment for use against the Soviets. Before long, the mujahedeenwere using American anti-aircraft missiles to bring down Soviet military helicopters. Just as Casey had expected, the U.S.S.R. poured more money and personnel into the conflict. In all, the Soviets would be bogged down in Afghanistan for nearly ten years, before withdrawing in 1989, losing billions of dollars and thousands of troops along the way.

Casey had hoped to accomplish the same objectives in Nicaragua, where the Soviets were sending $400 million per year to back the communist Sandinista government in its fight against the American-backed Contra forces. However, Congress was not as receptive to aiding the Contras, who had a less-than-stellar record when it came to human rights. Eventually, a bill was passed to limit American aid to the Contras. When the CIA mined harbors in Nicaragua, Casey was called to testify before Congress, and most of his answers were vague and indirect. By this time, Casey spoke in a slurring fashion (referring to Nicaragua as Nica-wag-wa), and there were many occasions when he spoke and left his listeners completely confused. In 1984, Congress passed a second measure, completely banning American aid to the Contras.

Neither Casey nor President Reagan had any intention of letting the Contra cause die. Before the second Congressional Bill was passed, Reagan asked his National Security Advisor, Robert McFarlane, to find a way to keep the Contras afloat. McFarlane and his deputy, Lt. Colonel Oliver North, were able to persuade the royal family of Saudi Arabia to send a million dollars per month to the Contras. This was a far cry from the level of assistance the Sandinistas were receiving from the Soviets, but enough to keep the war going for the foreseeable future. For Casey’s part, he went on record that the CIA no longer had any involvement in Nicaragua.

In 1984, Casey had another huge problem to deal with. William Buckley, the CIA station chief in Lebanon, had been kidnapped by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed organization. Shortly after Buckley’s kidnapping, American intelligence operatives in Lebanon began to disappear. It was clear that Hezbollah was torturing Buckley to gain information. These fears were confirmed in early 1985 when a videotape arrived, showing Buckley being tortured. Reportedly, the tape was so graphic that several CIA officials openly wept upon watching it.


The Iran-Contra Conundrum

Casey ordered his subordinates to find Buckley’s location and plan a rescue mission. In spite of this, the CIA couldn’t determine where Buckley was, or if he was even still in Lebanon. With each passing day, the Agency became more desperate to find the agent.

Eventually, a shimmer of promise came in the form of an Israeli foreign agent named David Kimche. In July of 1985, Kimche visited Robert McFarlane in Washington, telling the National Security Advisor that there might be a way to get Buckley and six additional American hostages released. Kimche told McFarlane that there was a group of Iranians who wanted American support for overthrowing the anti-American Iranian government of Ayatollah Khomeini. In return, these Iranians would use their influence with Hezbollah to obtain the return of the Americans being held in Lebanon, including Buckley. The point of contact would be an Iranian named Manucher Ghorbanifar.


McFarlane told President Reagan and other cabinet members, including Casey, about his conversation with Kimche. The President and Casey were in full support, while others in the Administration were more suspicious of what they heard. Kimche returned in August, telling McFarlane that Ghorbanifar’s group was asking for American weapons as part of the deal. Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger were opposed to the idea, arguing that it would become an “arms for hostages” situation. Undeterred, Kimche proposed to McFarlane that Israel sell the weapons to Ghorbanifar, with the United States resupplying Israel. Weinberger argued that this would be illegal, while Casey disagreed. McFarlane and Casey supported Kimche’s idea, and ultimately, so did President Reagan. However, Casey had not been forthcoming with the President or McFarlane; he was actually already aware of Manucher Ghorbanifar. The CIA had met with the Iranian in 1984, administering two polygraph tests which Ghorbanifar had failed. Afterward, the CIA issued a “burn notice” on Ghorbanifar, meaning he was not to be trusted under any circumstance, a fact Casey made no mention of.

Shortly afterward, the arms shipments began. However, after the first shipment of TOW missiles, Ghorbanifar claimed the shipment had “fallen into the wrong hands.” After the second shipment, Ghorbanifar told McFarlane that Hezbollah would release one hostage, and for McFarlane to pick the hostage. McFarlane promptly picked William Buckley, but to Casey’s horror, the captors replied that Buckley was too ill to be moved, and another hostage would have to be chosen. Within a few months, the American government would find out that Buckley had actually died of a heart attack while being tortured in June of 1985.

The arms shipments continued into 1986; in all, there were seven shipments, with only three hostages being released. Then, in autumn of 1986, the lid was blown off the entire operation. In October, a helicopter carrying supplies to the Contras was shot down in Nicaragua. The lone survivor, an American named Eugene Hasenfus, told the Sandinistas that he was a CIA operative, which Casey denied. Then, in November, a Lebanese magazine reported the arms shipments to Iran. The Reagan Administration initially refuted the allegations, promising an investigation. Later the same month, Attorney General Edwin Meese confirmed not only that the arms shipments had indeed occurred, but also that proceeds from the arms sales had been diverted to the Contras in Nicaragua.

The spotlight turned squarely on Casey and the CIA. He was called to testify before Congress in December; however, the morning before he would have testified, Casey suffered a seizure at CIA headquarters. Taken to the hospital, he suffered a second seizure the same day. He was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, and three days later he had surgery to remove the tumor. Casey would never recover his health, and resigned as CIA Director in January of 1987.

As the Iran-Contra affair unfolded in spring of 1987, several current and former members of the Reagan Administration were called to testify before Congress, but Casey was never able to do so. Most of the American public speculated that Casey was the one person who knew the entire story. On May 5, a former Air Force officer and CIA operative named Richard Secord testified that he organized weapons deliveries to the Contras, under direction of Casey and Oliver North. The next day, Bill Casey passed away.

Legendary Washington Postreporter Bob Woodward wrote a book called Veilabout Casey and the CIA, which includes a controversial story about Casey during his final days. Whether the story is factual or simply sensationalism is up for debate. Woodward claimed to have entered Casey’s hospital room for a few minutes while Casey’s guards were away. According to Woodward, he asked Casey, “You knew about the diversion to the Contras didn’t you?” He claims Casey looked and him and nodded that indeed he had. Woodward also states that he then asked the former CIA Director why he had approved of the events that had taken place, to which Casey faintly replied, “I believed.”


What do you think of the Iran-Contra affair? Let us know below.


Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, Penguin Press, London, 2004

Robert C. McFarlane, Special Trust, Cadell & Davies, New York, 1994

Joseph E. Persico, Casey: The Lives and Secrets of William J. Casey: From The OSS to the CIA, Penguin Books, London, 1991

Bob Woodward, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1987

James Buchanan was US President from 1857-1861. He is often considered one of the worst presidents of the US, with his presidency leading up to the US Civil War. Here, Ian Craig continues his look at Buchanan’s presidency. He argues that Buchanan had prepared for the possible secession of states in the South – and that it was almost impossible for him to avoid South Carolina’s December 1860 secession following Abraham Lincoln’s election victory in November 1860.

You can read the first article in the series on James Buchanan and Bleeding Kansas here.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

President James Buchanan’s cabinet, circa 1859.

Perhaps the most trying period in James Buchanan’s career came when South Carolina seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860 a month after Abraham Lincoln was electedpresident.  It has often been recollected that the nation’s fifteenth president simply let the nation dissolve under his watch - that the nation’s president was too weak and tired from age to effectively stop the secessionist threat in the South as President Andrew Jackson had thirty years prior during the Nullification Crisis. However, this was certainly not the case as President James Buchanan had prepared for such a scenario in October 1860.


Preparing for Succession

Before Lincoln was elected, Buchanan knew that if the Illinois Republican became president the South would most likely secede.  On the election he stated that, “throughout the presidential canvass, the cotton states openly declared their purpose to secede should Mr. Lincoln be elected.” This caused much alarm for Buchanan, who turned to General Winfield Scott, the commander-in chief of the armed forces for a review of the military and its outposts in the South. This was not the action of a weak president. At the time, the President only had sixteen thousand troops to defend against secession should the South decide to do so.  When General Scott completed his review, he warned Buchanan that many of the forts in the South including Fort Sumter and those along the Mississippi River lacked sufficient troops to defend against secession.  He writes that “Fort Moultrie and Sumter, (in) Charleston Harbor, the former with an insufficient garrison, and the latter without any…should be immediately so garrisoned as to make any attempt to take any one of them by surprise ridiculous.” General Scott also advised Buchanan to send five available companies to reinforce five of the eight forts that he mentioned in his report. However, they would still be understrength in repelling an attack against their station.  

Buchanan recognized the threat to the nation but being a man of the Constitution, realized that he had little power to move troops without the approval of Congress.  If he did so without congressional approval, he feared that he would only provoke the South and start the secession movement.  Buchanan did not want to start a war that he knew he was ill prepared for. He sent a request for Congress to raise five additional regiments that could be used to reinforce the Southern garrisons, but his request was ignored by Congress. Leaning on the advice of his Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, he did not pursue the matter to find out why. However, Floyd was being investigated by Congress for spreading troops thinly throughout the South to render the army useless if war did break out. The trial was suspended for lack of evidence.  Just before he resigned, Buchanan recalled that Floyd had ordered federal artillery sent to a Southern fort, but the President himself stepped in and revoked the order. Floyd had resigned because Buchanan refused to order Major Anderson from Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded. 


Buchanan’s Dedication to the Constitution

In his December 3, 1860 annual message to Congress, Buchanan put emphasis on the impending desire of South Carolina to secede from the Union upon Lincoln’s election that November.  He stated that the “election of any of our fellow citizens to the office of president does not itself afford just cause for dissolving the Union…how then, can the result justify a revolution to destroy this very Constitution.” In a deep effort, Buchanan tried to clarify the seriousness of secession to the integrity of the Union and what the Constitution represented.  He also stated, “in order to justify secession as a Constitutional remedy, it must be on the principle that the Federal Government is a mere voluntary association of states, to be dissolved at pleasure by any one of the contracting parties.” At this point, Buchanan called out the legality of secession as unconstitutional, but his role as president gave him no power to take action against it.  This again, demonstrates his sincere dedication to the Constitution and the powers it gave.  As Buchanan explains, “apart from the execution of the laws, so far as they may be practiced, the Executive has not authority to decide what should be the relations between the federal government and South Carolina…he possesses no power to change the relations heretofore existing between them, much less acknowledge the independence of that state.”

In Buchanan’s defense he was correct, his oath of office required under Article Two Section One of the Constitution states that the president will “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of (their) ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” James Buchanan lived by the oath he took as president and executed the laws of United States as given to him by the Constitution, no powers were given against slavery and secession.  If those actions were considered acts of war, only Congress would intervene to put an end to that situation.  Buchanan urged the nation to put an end to the secessionist cry but felt as if his actions were misinterpreted. As Buchanan recalls of himself, “his every act had been misrepresented and condemned, and knew that whatever course he might pursue, he was destined to encounter their bitter hostility.  No public man was ever placed in a more trying and responsible position…without giving offence both to the anti-slavery and secession parties, because both had been clearly in the wrong.” At that point, in December 1860, only a few weeks before South Carolina officially declared its secession, James Buchanan, the Fifteenth President of the United States, felt powerless to prevent the impending Civil War.


What do you think of James Buchanan’s actions before South Carolina’s secession? Let us know below.

Early in his years as a stern Augustinian monk, Martin Luther rummaged through a book stack of a library and came across a volume of sermons. Reflecting upon the century-aged religious text, Luther wrote, “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and school.” That man was Jan Hus, considered by historians and theologians as the first church reformer, influencing reformists John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, and Huldrych Zwingli. His teachings and “violent sermons” against the unbridled moral and political corruption laid the groundwork for the Protestant Reformation. Casey Titus explains.

A sixteenth century painting of Jan Hus.

A sixteenth century painting of Jan Hus.

Born into poverty in Husinec, Bohemia, Hus’ year of birth is debated to be 1369. From an early age, Hus voyaged to Prague where he supported himself by singing and serving in churches. We know very little of his early personal life, but accounts state that his work ethic was satisfactory and his diligence to his studies was incredible.

In 1393, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Prague, now known as Charles University, and earned his master’s degree in 1396. Four years later he was ordained as a priest. Two years later, Hus made his radical beliefs about reform in the Church known when he began preaching inside the city. That same year he was employed as a faculty member and taught until 1412, serving as both dean of the faculty and rector at the university.

It was during this time that Hus studied the Augustinian theological works of John Wycliffe, another reformer who promoted the first complete translation of the Bible into English. Church authorities banned many of the works of Wycliffe in 1403; nevertheless, his works still traveled to Prague during the 1390s when Hus was still studying as a student. Bohemia itself possessed an extensive history of reform efforts which made fruitful ground for Wycliffe’s ideas. These ideas ingrained themselves in the impressionable Jan Hus who eventually became known for his passionate, orthodox sermons calling for reform that denounced the immoral behavior of the clergy and popular religious practices and teachings such as pilgrimages to see bleeding statues in Germany and the prohibition against unlicensed preaching. He further preached Wycliffe’s ideologies that included support for secular lordship over territorial churches free of Papal control but still held firm to transubstantiation.


A Growing Presence 

His sermons were endured, even tolerated, by Archbishop Zbyněk Zajíc who appointed Hus a preacher at the clergy’s biennial synod. In 1405, this toleration reached its boundary as Pope Innocent VII commanded the Archbishop to rebuke Wycliffe’s teachings. In addition to religious reform, Hus became a voice and advocate of Czech nationalism. Even before Wycliffe’s writings were condemned by the German faculty at Prague, Czech Bohemians were at odds with the German Bohemians – consisting of Bavarians, Saxons, and Poles – and desired independence from them. In 1408, tensions were continuing to rise and the archbishop of Prague was once again compelled by Czech university masters to condemn Wycliffe’s teachings and suppress its influence on Czech nationalists. 

It was at this point in time Hus’ place in history was further elevated when the archbishop’s scheme backfired and resulted in further acceleration for reform of the Bohemian church with Hus as its most influential representative. In 1409, Hus and other Czech nationalists convinced the Bohemian king, Wenceslas IV, to support them against the German nations sitting on the Prague faculty. The support paid off; the Kuttenberg Decree of 1409 allowed Czechs to take control of the faculty and forced the Germans to leave for other universities. While it seemed successful for Czech nationalists like Hus, this move would have future disastrous consequences for reformers and nationalists alike. 

Over one thousand students and masters left Prague and spread accusations of Bohemian heresy. The faculty selected Hus as rector at Prague that same year. In 1409, Archbishop Zbyněk appealed to the new Pope, Alexander V, regarding the spread of heretical theology and secular encroachment on the church’s authority in Bohemia. The Pope reacted with a 1409 bull condemning Wycliffe’s theology once again and forbade preaching in Hus’ Bethlehem chapel which Hus defied. A year later, Wycliffe’s works were burned by the archbishop and Hus appealed to the new Pope, John XXIII, regarding the bull instituted by the previous Pope. Consequently, Hus was locally excommunicated by his archbishop and called to Rome for his Wycliffite teaching and disobedience to ecclesiastical superiors in August 1410. Hus refused to stand trial and was excommunicated by the Roman court in February 1411.


Growing Support

Attempts to crush Hus’ power and influence only fueled popular support for him, forcing the Archbishop of Prague to flee. Anti-Papal polemicists joined with Hus as he continued his support for reform. When Archbishop Zajíc died in 1411, the Bohemian Reformation entered a new phase that turned to disputes regarding indulgences, which is defined as forgiveness that has already taken place for certain sins. Pope John XXIII announced a crusade against King Ladislaus of Naples, protector of his rival, Gregory XII. The crusade was financed by authorized indulgences and priests encouraging people to give their offerings which Hus preached passionately against, as it was a sign of further corruption in the Church. Even King Wenceslas IV approved the indulgences because the profits were split between him and the Pope, along with anti-Wycliffite theologians at the university. Hus referenced the last chapter of Wycliffe’s book, De ecclesia, which asserted that no Pope or bishop had the right to take up the sword in the name of the Church and instead should pray for his enemies and bless those that curse him as well as man obtaining the forgiveness of sins by true repentance, not money. 

Public demonstrations increased with Hus’ supporters proclaiming opposition to the Pope, whom they addressed as “Antichrist.” Consequently, three protestors were beheaded by a Prague magistrate in July 1412; they were later considered the first martyrs of the Hussite Church. The king forbade the teaching of Wycliffe’s forty-five articles and attempted to bring about peace among the mayhem - which failed. Hus reflected on the tumultuous times and his will to endure it: “Even if I should stand before the stake which has been prepared for me, I would never accept the recommendation of the theological faculty.” A conception of the Church that the doctors of the university put forth arranged that the Pope is the head, the Cardinals the body of the Church, and that Hus and his followers must approve of it – but Hus refused. 

By this time, Hus’ theological ideas were widely accepted in Bohemia and spread resentment among the Church hierarchy. Riots erupted in parts of Bohemia over the attacks against Hus by the Pope. King Wenceslaus IV took the side of Hus and the power of his allies increased daily. Hus continued to preach at the Bethlehem Chapel. The churches of Prague were put under a ban, and an interdict was proclaimed against Prague. No citizen of Prague could receive Communion or be buried on church grounds as long as Hus continued his ministry. For the city’s protection, Hus fled into the countryside towards the end of 1412 where he continued to write and preach. One of his writings argued that Christ alone is head of the church, that a Pope “through ignorance and love of money” can make many mistakes, and that to rebel against a corrupt Pope is to obey Christ. He preached in local neighborhoods and Bohemian Wycliffism spread to the nearby countries of Poland, Hungary, Croatia, and Austria. He no longer put his trust in an irresolute king, an antagonistic Pope, or a useless Council. Instead, on October 18, 1412, he appealed to the highest Christian authority, Christ himself, bypassing centuries of laws and structures of the medieval Church, the final straw for the Church.


Hus and the Council

In November 1414, the Council of Constance assembled and Hus was urged by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund, brother of King Wenceslaus IV, to attend and explain his doctrine on the promise of safe conduct and the council’s promise of significant church reforms. Sigismund of Hungary was heir to the Bohemian crown and determined to end religious dissent within the Church. The Council of Constance became the 16thecumenical council recognized by the Catholic Church, lasting from 1414 to 1418. Hus’ suspicions over his fate may have been the reason behind making his will before departing. He arrived on November 3, 1414. 

Hus was still openly defiant to the Church, violating restrictions decreed by the Church such as continuing to preach and celebrating Mass. Due to the presence of enemies and a rumor that Hus intended to flee, Hus was arrested on November 28, 1414 and imprisoned at a Dominican monastery. Sigismund, guarantor of Hus’ safety, was furious and threatened the bishops with dismissals. The prelates successfully persuaded him that he could not be bound by promises to a heretic.

The situation turned for the worse for the eccentric preacher when Pope John XXIII fled Constance to avoid abdicating. Through the Pope, Hus was in constant communication with his friends and supporters, but now was delivered to the bishop of Constance who transferred him to the castle, Gottlieben on the Rhine. Here he remained for 73 days, chained day and night, poorly fed, and ill. Hus’ supporters, including the king, were at last able to sway the council to hold a public hearing for him in June 1415. With an ongoing investigation against Hus, the reformer was not allowed to speak in his defense and instead asked to recant his views. Hus merely replied, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.” He was brought back to his cell where others begged for him to recant. On July 6, 1415, Hus has taken to the cathedral, dressed in his priestly garments, and then stripped of them one by one. The Bishop of Lodi delivered a speech on the duty of eliminating heresy and read some theses of Hus and Wycliffe.

From there, a tall paper hat was placed upon his head with the writing, “Haeresiarcha” (i.e., the leader of a heretical movement), and led away to the stake under a heavy guard of armed men. At the place of execution, Hus knelt, spread his hands, and prayed out loud. He was undressed, his hands bound behind him, and wood and straw piled up to his neck. He refused to recant one last time to save his own life where he prayed, “Lord Jesus, it is for thee that I patiently endure this cruel death. I pray thee to have mercy on my enemies.” He was reportedly heard reciting Psalms in the midst of the flames. 

His executioners scooped his ashes and tossed them into the Rhine River so that nothing would remain of the “heretic.” Despite their attempts at physically removing Hus’ remains, some Czechs collected bits of soil from the ground where Hus was executed and brought them back to Bohemia as a memorial. 



The Papal establishment’s execution of the Czech reformer was met with public outrage and horror, resulting in the Bohemian people straying further from Papal teachings rather than be frightened back into submission.

When King Wenceslaus IV died in August 1419, his brother Sigismund of Hungary was unable to institute a functional government in Bohemia due to the Hussite revolt. The rebellion was so intense that Rome was roused to declare a crusade against them on the first of March 1420, five years following Hus’ death. Pope Martin V issued a Papal bull permitting the execution of all supporters of Hus and Wycliffe.

Two Czech commanders, Jan Žižkaand Prokop the Great, were followers of Hus and after the Hussite community evolved into a major military power, the Hussites defeated the crusade instigated by the Pope followed by three more crusades that lasted until 1436. The fighting only ceased after a negotiation was reached to authorize Bohemia to practice their new branch of Christianity – Hussitism. A century later, ninety percent of the Lands of the Bohemian Crowns’ subjects would adhere to Hussite theology. 



Because of Hus and his reformist predecessor, Bohemia experienced one of the most significant pre-reformation movements that revolted against what Hus viewed as Papal thralldom and idolatrous practices. Just over a century after Hus’ execution, the Leipzig Debate of 1519 took place and accused Martin Luther of being a Hussite for rejecting the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther fired back, asserting that the Council of Constance wronged Hus by condemning and executing him and that Papal council was subordinate to Scripture. In 1520, Luther read Hus’ De ecclesia, declaring that Staupitz, St. Augustine, and the apostle Paul were “all Hussites.”


What do you think of Jan Hus’ legacy? Let us know below.


“Jan Hus.” Reformation 500, 11 June 2014,

“Jan Hus.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Mar. 2019,

Nichols, Stephen. “The Morning Star of the Reformation: John Wycliffe (c. 1330–1384).” Desiring God, 28 Mar. 2019,

Person. “John Huss.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, Christian History, 31 Mar. 2016,

Stacey, John. “John Wycliffe.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 27 Dec. 2018,

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post