On the 14th August 1980, workers at the Lenin Shipyard in the Polish city of Gdańsk led by electrician Lech Wałęsa began a strike that led to the formation of the Solidarity labour movement. A decade of economic and political crises preceded the 1980 strike, but the Gdańsk strike spread throughout Poland and galvanised various other strike committees to join together for a common goal.
The trigger for the strike was the firing of a popular worker at the shipyard, a female crane operator and activist called Anna Walentynowicz. Just 5 months before her planned retirement, she was sacked for being a member of an illegal trade union. This move proved highly unpopular with the shipyard workforce, who demanded that she be reinstated.
Just a week after beginning the strike a governmental commission began negotiations with the strikers and, on the 30th August, they and representatives of the Gdańsk workers signed an agreement in which many of the strikers’ demands were met. The fact that political change, including the resignation of the Polish Communist Party’s General Secretary, had come from the workers’ action emboldened the people of Poland and fuelled the formation of the national labour union Solidarity.
Within two years up to 80% of the entire Polish workforce had joined Solidarity or one of its suborganisations, and they continued to use strikes to achieve political change. In March 1981, the crippling effects of 12 million people going on a four-hour warning strike demonstrated that the Communist Party was no longer the most powerful force in the country.
Beginning at midnight on the 13th August 1961, East German police and army began to close the border with West Berlin. The barbed wire and mesh barrier that was constructed overnight was gradually replaced with a virtually impregnable ring of reinforced concrete that ran 155km around West Berlin.
The border between East and West Germany – sometimes referred to as the inner-German border – had been closed since 1952, although the crossing between East and West Berlin remained open. This easy access proved highly problematic for the Communist government of East Germany, since people comparing the two parts of the city found West Berlin to be much more appealing.
Berlin became a focal point for East Germans who wanted to move to the West, and by 1961 an estimated 20% of the entire population had emigrated. The majority were young, educated, and skilled professionals. This so-called “brain drain” seriously depleted the workforce, and was hugely damaging to the political credibility of East Germany.
The erection of the Berlin Wall was intended to put a stop both of these problems, although it was presented to the East German people as the “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart”. The East German leader, Walter Ulbricht, had even denied any intention of building a wall just two months earlier despite pressuring USSR Premier Nikita Khrushchev to support him doing just that.
The construction of the Wall turned Berlin overnight from the easiest way to cross between East and West into the most difficult. It cut people off from their jobs, and divided families. The crossing was not opened again for 28 years.
On the 12th August 1865 Joseph Lister carried out the world’s first antiseptic surgery using the chemical phenol, otherwise known as carbolic acid. Lister is remembered among the greats of medical science for being the first person to identify the link between clean hospital conditions and infection rates.
To understand the importance of Lister’s achievement, it’s important to remember that in the 19th Century up to 50% of all hospital patients died of infection. This often occurred after surgery, during which time patients developed ‘ward fever’ – a non-specific range of secondary infections caused through poor hospital hygiene where surgeons weren’t required to wash their hands or even their stained operating gowns.
Having read the work of the Frenchman Louis Pasteur regarding the spread and growth of bacteria, Lister became interested in finding a way to remove infection-causing micro-organisms from hospitals. Germ theory of disease was only just becoming more widely accepted, but after discovering that carbolic acid, now referred to as phenol, had successfully been used to reduce the smell of raw sewage Lister began experiments using it as what became termed an ‘antiseptic’.
On the 12th August Lister used a piece of lint covered in carbolic acid to cover the compound fracture wound of a seven-year-old boy, and found that over a period of six weeks the wound healed without developing gangrene. Developments in surgical hygiene followed. As well as surgeons wearing gloves, they began to wash their hands in carbolic acid, as well as washing their instruments in Lister’s 5% solution and spraying it liberally around the operating theatre.
The Weimar Republic was officially established on 11th August 1919, when Friedrich Ebert signed the new constitution into law. The National Assembly that created the constitution had convened in the city of Weimar, which is why the state of Germany from the inauguration of the new constitution until Hitler became Fuhrer is generally referred to as the Weimar Republic. However, its official name continued to be Deutsches Reich which had first been adopted in 1871.
The Weimar Republic was born amid civil strife and open revolt that engulfed cities across Germany in the closing weeks of the First World War. The November Revolution actually began at the end of October 1918, but quickly spread from the port of Kiel to reach as far as the southern city of Munich by the 7th November.
The “German Republic” was declared on the 9th November, shortly after Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication was announced. Power was swiftly transferred to Friedrich Ebert, who reluctantly accepted it and formed a coalition government known as the “Council of the People’s Deputies”. It was this government that therefore signed the armistice on the 11th November, and which authorised the brutal suppression of the Spartacist Uprising in January 1919. Just four days after the deaths of Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht elections for the National Assembly took place, which convened in Weimar in order to avoid the unrest in Berlin.
It took the best of part of seven months for the delegates to agree on the terms of the constitution, and Ebert signed it into law while on holiday in Schwarzburg.
On the 10th August 1792, French revolutionary troops stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Referred to by some historians as ‘the Second Revolution’ the events of the 10th August suspended the monarchy under King Louis XVI.
The royal family had lived in the Tuileries since the October Days of 1789 saw them brought back to Paris from Versailles. Louis and his family were virtually imprisoned, as proved when crowds barred them from moving to their summer residence in April 1791. This may have influenced Louis to carry out the failed Flight to Varennes two months later, after which the family were more officially held under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace.
The relationship between the royal family and the people of Paris continued to decline throughout 1792. The king did himself no favours by vetoing a range of decrees passed by the Legislative Assembly, but the situation grew worse with the threat of invasion from foreign armies. By the time of the Brunswick Manifesto on 1st August that lent foreign support to the royal family, the crowds of Paris held Louis and the concept of monarchy in absolute contempt.
On the morning of the 10th August, crowds massed outside the Tuileries. With Louis opting to take shelter in the Legislative Assembly building, his Swiss Guard who were left to defend the palace were eventually overrun after they ran out of ammunition. Approximately 800 people on the king’s side were killed, and Paris was put in the hands of the revolutionaries while the royal family were sent to the Temple prison.
On the 9th August 1974, Richard Nixon resigned as President of the United States of America while facing impeachment and the almost certain removal from office due to the Watergate Scandal. Although Nixon’s impeachment trial was not completed due to his resignation, it is the only time in American history that impeachment has resulted in the departure from office of its target.
The Watergate Scandal began when five men were arrested inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington D.C.’s Watergate building on June 17, 1972. It was soon discovered, thanks primarily to two journalists and an anonymous informant nicknamed Deep Throat, that the men were connected to the Committee for the Re-Election of the President that was in charge of Nixon’s campaign.
Although Nixon probably didn’t personally know about the break-in in advance, he did later attempt to cover up the details by getting the CIA to force the FBI to abandon its investigation. Despite this attempt, details later emerged of the Republican Party connection to the break-in and of other “dirty tricks” carried out against the Democrats in the run-up to the Presidential election.
The release of taped conversations held in the Oval Office between Nixon and his aides provided more evidence of wrong-doing. When the so-called “Smoking Gun Tape” was released on the 5th August, in which Nixon personally agreed that the CIA should ask the FBI to stop the investigation, any remaining support for the President disappeared. He announced his resignation in a televised speech on the 8th August and it took effect from noon the next day.
On the 8th August 1963, a gang of 15 men attacked a Royal Mail train heading from Glasgow to London and stole over £2.6million in cash. Worth £50million today, the vast majority of the money was never recovered.
A core team of five men with backgrounds in organised crime planned the robbery over a number of months before drafting in support from another group of criminals with experience in train robberies. Central to the plan was information about the amount of money carried on Royal Mail trains, and this was supplied by a Salford postal worker known to the gang as ‘The Ulsterman’.
On the night of the robbery, the gang tampered with the signal at ‘Sears Crossing’ in Ledburn, Buckinghamshire in order to stop the train. Having overpowered the driver and the second crew member, the gang drove the train half a mile to a location where they could load the stolen bags of money onto a waiting Austin Loadstar truck.
Forcing their way in to the High Value Packages coach, the gang met only little resistance from the five postal workers inside the carriage and so ordered them to lie down on the floor in the corner while the bags of money were removed.
Having set themselves a time-limit of 30 minutes to carry out the robbery, 8 bags were left behind on the train when the gang drove to their hide-out at Leatherslade Farm. Here the loot was divided up, and the robbers dispersed before the police could find them. However, the majority were later arrested and convicted.
On the 7th August 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by the United States Congress. The joint resolution granted powers to President Lyndon B. Johnson to use military force to assist countries in Southeast Asia facing so-called “communist aggression”. Many critics of the war condemned Congress for granting Johnson a “blank cheque” to escalate American military involvement in the Vietnamese conflict. At the time, however, it passed unanimously through the House of Representatives and only two Senators opposed the resolution.
The Resolution was a response to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident that had taken place just a few days earlier, in which the North Vietnamese Navy was blamed for attacking US ships on two separate occasions. While it is accepted that the USS Maddox did exchange fire with three enemy torpedo boats on the 2nd August, the claim that it was attacked again on the 4th August is now known to be false.
Even at the time it was acknowledged that the second attack may not have actually happened. Captain John J. Herrick, the commander of the Maddox, had spent four hours firing at enemy ships picked up on radar. However, he sent a message just a few hours later saying that no enemy boats had actually been sighted and so the radar may have malfunctioned. However, the President was not informed of this before going on television to announce that US ships had been attacked. Johnson’s desire to retaliate led to the Resolution, and this in turn led to the USA escalating its involvement in the Vietnam War.
On the 6th August 1945, the USA dropped an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on the Japanese city of Hiroshima from the B-29 aircraft Enola Gay. 70,000 people were killed instantly, of whom 20,000 were military personnel. Approximately another 70,000 died over the following months due to radiation sickness, burns, and other injuries directly related to the explosion.
The Potsdam Declaration issued on the 28th July by the Allies called for the unconditional surrender of Japan. If the government did not surrender they threated “the complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and…utter devastation of the Japanese homeland”. Having completed the successful Trinity atomic test on the 16th July, the USA felt that the atomic bomb could quickly end the war in the Pacific.
Hiroshima was chosen as a target due to its industrial and military significance since it was the command centre for the defence of southern Japan and contained approximately 40,000 military personnel. The Enola Gay and six accompanying aircraft had a 6-hour flight from the air base at North Field, Tinian before reaching the city where they released the bomb at 8.15am. It exploded 600m above the city as planned, with the equivalent to 16 kilotons of TNT. Virtually all buildings within a mile of the blast were flattened.
Following the bombing, President Truman warned that if Japan did not surrender, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.” Japan did not surrender. A second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later.
On the 5th August 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested near the South African town of Howick and imprisoned facing charges of inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without a passport. He wasn’t released for nearly 28 years.
Mandela was a leading figure of the anti-apartheid movement and protested peacefully against the racist system. However, having been imprisoned after being found guilty of treason, he adopted more militant tactics on his release and soon became a wanted man. His arrest came after he spent 6 months travelling in disguise around Africa and to London in order to win support for the movement.
The trial began on the 15th October, with Mandela representing himself and using his defence speeches as a way to promote the African National Congress’ “moral opposition to racism”. In his “black man in a white man’s court” speech, for example, he said he would serve the sentence handed down by the court but would continue to fight against racial discrimination.
Having been sentenced to five years imprisonment Mandela was jailed in Pretoria, Robben Island, and Pretoria again within a 9 month period. Shortly after his return to Pretoria he and nine other defendants were charged on four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government and put on trial in what became known as the “Rivonia Trial”. The trial brought international attention to the anti-apartheid struggle but, having been found guilty, Mandela and his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela was finally released in 1990 after 27 years, six months and five days.