Today in History: March 12-14

Hello again! Foreign Exchanges is still settling in to its new headquarters but there’s a light at the end of this hiatus tunnel. Barring any unforeseen developments I hope to resume regular programming on Tuesday, March 17. I realize that’s St. Patrick’s Day, but this year especially I would imagine it will be subdued. I expect our return edition will be dominated by pandemic news. While we’re on that subject, I hope nobody reading this has contracted COVID-19, but if you or any of your loved ones are infected please accept my best wishes for a quick and full recovery.

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March 12, 1930: Mahatma Gandhi leads a 24 day march covering more than 240 miles from the Sabarmati Ashram in Gujarat to the village of Dandi, known as the “Salt March” or the “Dandi March.” Gandhi’s aim was to protest the British monopoly on salt production, so he and his followers manufactured their own salt at Dandi after arriving there on April 6, as well as several other places along the coast, always in violation of the 1882 British Salt Act. The march was a landmark event in both the conception of non-violent protest and the Indian independence movement, and Gandhi’s decision to focus on an item that people used every day, salt, boosted the movement’s profile and led millions of Indians to follow his lead and launch their own salt protests.

Gandhi leading his followers on the march

March 12, 1938: Nazi Germany occupies and annexes Austria in the event known as the Anschluss. Uniting Austria and Germany was one of the earliest tenets of the Nazi Party and the most important component of its Heim ins Reich project to incorporate all ethnic Germans into a “Greater Germany” state. The Nazi occupation, which was welcomed by many Austrians, forestalled a planned referendum on unification that Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg had scheduled for the following day.

March 12, 1968: With British blessing, the African island nation of Mauritius declares independence. Commemorated today as National Day in Mauritius.

March 12, 1971: The Turkish military undertakes the second of its four (at least) coups d’etat, toppling the government of Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel. What makes the 1971 coup unique is that it was not only bloodless, Turkish soldiers never actually left their barracks. Instead all that was required was a memo by military chief of staff Memduh Tağmaç warning Demirel that a coup was coming if he didn’t step down. The military was concerned over the rise in leftist political movements and left-wing violence—there was a countervailing surge in right-wing violence by the paramilitary Gray Wolves militia, but that didn’t bug the military so much. Demirel’s government seemed powerless to rein in the chaos and its weakness was also opening the door to a more Islamist political opposition, another thing that was anathema to the military. Under the fig leaf of a civilian government, the military ruled Turkey until the 1973 elections, but after another surge in political violence it seized power again in 1980.

March 13, 624: The Battle of Badr leaves Muhammad’s followers victorious over a small Meccan army.

March 13, 1591: The Sultanate of Morocco’s invasion of the Sahelian Songhai Empire culminates with a decisive victory in the Battle of Tondibi, just north of the city of Gao (in modern Mali). The victorious Moroccan army continued into Gao, the Songhai capital, and sacked the city, followed by the commercially important cities of Timbuktu and Djenné. The battle shattered the Songhai Empire, which had been around since the 1460s, causing it to break into several smaller kingdoms.

March 13, 1884: The army of the so-called Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad, besieges Khartoum. Sudan at the time was ruled directly by Egypt and indirectly by Britain, since Egypt was a British “protectorate.” Muhammad Ahmad’s rebellion against Egyptian rule brought Sudan more fully to London’s attention and eventually led to a more direct British control over Sudan. But the early stages of that war were very successful for the Mahdists—perhaps no operation more successful than this siege, which ended on January 26, 1885, with Mahdist forces bursting into the city and capturing it. Muhammad Ahmad himself didn’t live long enough to enjoy his triumph, though; he died of typhus in June.

March 14, 1978: The Israeli Defense Forces invade southern Lebanon as far north as the Litani River, which explains why it was called “Operation Litani.” It was an aspect of both the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War and the longstanding conflict between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The IDF was responding to the “Coastal Road Massacre,” a PLO hijacking of a bus near Tel Aviv on March 11 in which 38 Israeli citizens had been killed and that had been staged out of the PLO’s stronghold in southern Lebanon. Operation Litani’s aim was to drive the PLO out of southern Lebanon and strengthen the South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia that was supported by the Israelis. Israeli forces killed somewhere between 1100 and around 2000 people and displaced tens of thousands more. The IDF adopted a ceasefire on March 21 and the PLO followed suit a week later, with the Israelis withdrawing ostensibly in favor of the newly created United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNFIL), though in reality they turned their positions over to the SLA. The PLO remained active in southern Lebanon however, leading to a second and much longer Israeli invasion in 1982.