The History of Riley and the Great War: Munich

German Howitzer WWI via Guns in the Great War

Karl Eisner had actually lost an election shortly before Riley and Cornelius arrived in Munich, but he had not yet submitted his official resignation. He was assassinated on February 21, 1919, which must have been a very short time after the brawl at the Weissbräukeller.

Adolf Hitler was born in Linz, Austria on April 20, 1889. Following his service in the Great War, in which he was a soldier for the Kaiser, Hitler found many sympathetic ears in the charming Bavarian city of Munich for his racial hatreds, his authoritarian beliefs, and his fanatical embrace of Ludendorff’s “stab-in-the-back” theory. After service as a prison guard for a short time, he became fully immersed in fascist politics in Munich. He led the famous Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, at a Munich establishment called the Bürgerbräukeller. His plan was to put Ludendorff in charge of an armed force that would march on Berlin and seize the government. The failure of this plot caused Hitler to be sentenced to a term in Landsberg Prison, where he began to write Mein Kampf. It is noteworthy that Ludendorff and others of the Prussian old guard were willing to work with a ruffian from the lower class like Hitler. They thought they could control him. They were not the last to make that mistake.

The true identity of the mysterious Mr. Linz in the novel is, of course, unknown.

The History of Riley and the Great War: Berlin

German Soldiers at Christmas via The Atlantic

By all accounts, Rosa Luxemburg was a warm, passionate, humorous woman with a lifelong dedication to the cause of Communism, the writings of Karl Marx, and the struggles of the working class. She inspired love and loyalty from her friends, intense hatred from her enemies. She loved children and animals. She was fearless in the face of the most extreme adversity. While her writings on economic theory appear dry to the modern reader, Rosa Luxemburg clearly had a vivid personality that long remained in the memories of her colleagues.

Luxemburg was born in 1871 in a small Polish town near the Russian border. Her family moved to Warsaw in 1873. At the age of five, Rosa suffered a hip ailment that left her with the permanent limp described in the novel. She came to liberal politics at a very young age, having helped organize a general strike at the age of fifteen. While at university in Zurich, Luxemburg met the fierce Russian ideologue Leo Jogiches, who became her lover for a time and her friend for life. With his help, Luxemburg spent her life mixing heavy intellectual labor with dangerous political activism. She did not hesitate to criticize Lenin when she disagreed with him, but she was a great admirer of his and, in turn, he respected her. Luxemburg, who moved to Germany in 1898, dreamed of creating a Marxist state there that would improve upon Lenin’s work in Russia.

Luxemburg and her fellow activists fiercely opposed Germany’s initiation of war in 1914. She, along with Karl Liebknecht and others, formed an organization to advocate for peace and for workers’ rights. It came to be called the Spartacist League, after the slave who rebelled against the Roman Empire. In 1916, Luxemburg and Liebnecht were imprisoned in “protective custody,” to keep them out of the way during the balance of the war. As the Armistice approached, Liebknecht was released on October 23, 1918 and Rosa on November 8.

The comic opera foolishness of the Spartacist Revolution described in the novel is supported by history. Following its surrender to the Allies, Germany was a chaotic mess. Kaiser Wilhelm skulked out of the country, as did the prominent general Erich Ludendorff, who later was the chief promulgator of the “stab-in-the-back” theory which claimed that Germany only lost the war because it was betrayed by Marxists and Jews at home. In the vacuum, leadership of the German nation nominally fell to a Socialist named Frederich Ebert. Disgruntled and impoverished ex-soldiers banded into groups called Freikorps (“Free Corps”), pillaging and bullying throughout the country. As the novel indicates, one of the Freikorps leaders was Waldemar Pabst, a right-winger with an abiding hatred of Communists and Jews. Street fighting among Freikorps, Communists, Socialists, and miscellaneous mobs became common.

In this toxic mix, the short-lived Spartacist Revolution was born. After being released from prison, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed the creation of a Free Socialist Republic from the window of the Kaiser’s palace, the Berliner Stadtschloss, the same day that a representative of the Socialist party proclaimed a rival republic from a window at the Reichstag. Once Rosa arrived on the scene, she urged caution, knowing the Communists were in no way ready to mount a revolution and sustain a government. She, Liebknecht and others founded the Red Flag, a journal that published articles promoting their cause. Luxemburg was the journal’s dominant writer.

Then, in December, a group of dissident sailors from the German Navy took over the central Berlin post office, protesting the government’s failure to provide back pay to the military. Ebert ordered his troops to attack on Christmas Eve, 1918, but the sailors drove them back. This event came to be known as Bloody Christmas and enflamed the passions of the Communists, who called the first Congress of the German Communist party. Luxemburg was one of the main speakers and reportedly drew a strong response. Shortly afterward, again against Rosa’s advice, the party announced a rebellion, which came to be called the Spartacist Revolution, or Spartacist Uprising, since many of the leaders were in the Spartacist League.

As Luxemburg feared, the rebellion played into the hands of the Freikorps and the right-wing Prussian officers who wished to distance themselves from the recent defeat and return to power in Germany. The Freikorps made quick work of the rebels. Luxemburg and Liebknecht went into hiding, but were arrested at a residence in the Berlin suburb of Wilmersdorf. They were taken to the Eden Hotel, where Waldemar Pabst interrogated them. He later admitted that he also ordered their execution. Soldiers took them (some accounts say separately) to the Tiergarten, where Liebknecht was killed and his body taken as an “unknown person” to a morgue. Luxemburg was shot and her body thrown from the Liechtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr Canal. Two months later, her great friend Leo Jogiches was also killed.

Otto von Kleist is not mentioned in any account of these events other than that of Riley and Cornelius. Nor is there any mention of the tiger’s fate, although it is true that the Zoologischer Garten Berlin is located in the Tiergarten, not far from the Landwehr Canal.

The History Behind Riley and the Great War: France

Vive La France

One Hundred Years Ago Today (allegedly)

The 28th Infantry Regiment took the village of Cantigny on May 28, 1918 and then held it against seven fierce counterattacks over 72 hours. As a result, the regiment proudly bears the nickname “The Black Lions of Cantigny.” While the strategic importance of the victory has been questioned, this first successful offensive battle by American soldiers on European soil was important to Allied morale. Colonel Hanson Ely commanded the regiment.

The depictions of Clemenceau’s background, temperament, and importance to the war effort are consistent with historical descriptions. Winston Churchill made several visits to France during 1918 in his capacity as Minister of Munitions. He had earlier lost the post of First Lord of the Admiralty, having fairly or unfairly taken most of the blame for the failed campaign at Gallipoli.

Paris was indeed threatened by Operation Blücher and came close to being lost, with Clemenceau raging at Pershing to put more of his men into action. Codebreaker Henri Painvin is credited with a herculean and successful effort to break the Germans’ codes after they changed their system, although the extent to which his work contributed to saving Paris has been a subject of dispute.

I find no mention in history of Le Colibri. In some respects, though, his character is reminiscent of the life and legend of the famous gourmet Maurice Edmond Sailland (1872–1956), who used the pen name Curnonsky.

The History Behind Riley and the Great War: Prologue: The Columbus Raid

World War One Remembrance stained glass window by stainedglassartist on Flickr

The event that precipitated the 1916 Punitive Expedition led by General John “Black Jack” Pershing was indeed Pancho Villa’s raid on the New Mexico town of Columbus on March 9, 1916. This raid, which followed atrocities by Villa’s men at San Isabel and Aqua Prieta, forced Woodrow Wilson’s hand and made it inevitable that the United States would retaliate by sending a force after Villa, one of several pretenders to power in the long Mexican Revolution. The names of Villa’s commanders in the Columbus raid are as given in the novel. Susan and John Moore actually existed and ran a store outside of Columbus. John Moore was killed by Villistas after the Columbus raid, although history says he was shot by men led by Candelario Cervantes; no history book mentions a Spaniard or a boxing match. Susan Moore indeed hid in the desert after being wounded, and she was rescued by soldiers from the fort. Many years later, the Mexican government paid her the compensation described in the novel. Interestingly, according to a history by Eileen Welsome that is cited in the bibliography, another claimant who received a payment was named James O’Neal. I have no idea what to make of that, but perhaps Cornelius talked his way into some modest compensation for the ordeal in the cave.

To be continued…

Reviews for Riley and the Great War

Book by Santi Di Ferrol cc licensed via Flickr

We’re so proud of all the kind things the reviewers have been saying about Riley and the Great War, an historical thriller that takes a wry look at some of the transformative events of the 20th Century.

The series is off to a wonderful start with a reception like this. Will we see you at a reading or other writerly event soon? If not, you can always keep up with the latest from me and Riley right here on the blog. Once I learn what all the pedals and buttons do on this contraption.

“Captivating and engaging, James Anderson O’Neal’s Riley and the Great War is a blend of historical fiction and nonstop adventure. … The dynamic between Riley and Cornelius definitely steals the show.”
— Foreword Reviews, May/June 2018

“Riley and the Great War is a rollicking good historical novel that will keep the reader turning pages from start to finish. James Anderson O’Neal is a consummate novelist who knows both the craft and the art of good writing. Highly recommended.”
—William C. Hammond, author of A Call to Arms and For Love of Country, winner of the Military Writers Society of America 2011 Gold Medal for Historical Fiction Protagonist

“O’Neal’s evocative prose immerses you in the past, as if you’d stepped inside a painting.”
— Brian Freeman, bestselling author of The Night Bird