On July 31, 1941, Hermann Göring, writing under instructions from Hitler, ordered Reinhard Heydrich, SS general and Heinrich Himmler’s number-two man, “to submit to me as soon as possible a general plan of the administrative material and financial measures necessary for carrying out the desired final solution of the Jewish question.”
Goering recounted briefly the outline for that “final solution” that had been drawn up on January 24, 1939: “emigration and evacuation in the best possible way.” This program of what would become mass, systematic extermination was to encompass “all the territories of Europe under German occupation.”
Heydrich already had some experience with organizing such a plan, having reintroduced the cruel medieval concept of the ghetto in Warsaw after the German occupation of Poland. Jews were crammed into cramped walled areas of major cities and held as prisoners, as their property was confiscated and given to either local Germans or non-Jewish Polish peasants.
Behind this horrendous scheme, carried out month by month, country by country, was Hitler, whose “greatest weakness was found in the vast numbers of oppressed peoples who hated [him] and the immoral ways of his government.” This assessment was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s, given at a Kremlin meeting that same day, July 31, with American adviser to the president Harry Hopkins.
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On July 31, 1917, the Allies launch a renewed assault on German lines in the Flanders region of Belgium, in the much-contested region near Ypres, during World War I. The attack begins more than three months of brutal fighting, known as the Third Battle of Ypres.
While the first and second battles at Ypres were attacks by the Germans against the Allied-controlled salient around Ypres—which crucially blocked any German advance to the English Channel—the third was spearheaded by the British commander in chief, Sir Douglas Haig. After the resounding failure of the Nivelle Offensive–named for its mastermind, the French commander Robert Nivelle–the previous May, followed by widespread mutinies within the French army, Haig insisted that the British should press ahead with another major offensive that summer. The aggressive and meticulously planned offensive, ostensibly aimed at destroying German submarine bases located on the north coast of Belgium, was in fact driven by Haig’s (mistaken) belief that the German army was on the verge of collapse, and would be broken completely by a major Allied victory.
READ MORE: Life in the Trenches of World War I
After an opening barrage of some 3,000 guns, Haig ordered nine British divisions, led by Sir Hubert Gough’s 5th Army, to advance on the German lines near the Belgian village of Passchendaele on July 31; they were joined by six French divisions. In the first two days of the attacks, while suffering heavy casualties, the Allies made significant advances—in some sectors pushing the Germans back more than a mile and taking more than 5,000 German prisoners—if not as significant as Haig had envisioned. The offensive was renewed in mid-August, though heavy rains and thickening mud severely hampered the effectiveness of Allied infantry and artillery and prevented substantial gains over the majority of the summer and early fall.
Dissatisfied with his army’s gains by the end of August, Haig had replaced Gough with Herbert Plumer at the head of the attack; after several small gains in September, the British were able to establish control over the ridge of land east of Ypres. Encouraged, Haig pushed Plumer to continue the attacks towards the Passchendaele ridge, some 10 kilometers from Ypres.
Thus the Third Battle of Ypres–also known as Passchendaele, for the village, and the ridge surrounding it, that saw the heaviest fighting–continued into its third month, as the Allied attackers reached near-exhaustion, with few notable gains, and the Germans reinforced their positions in the region with reserve troops released from the Eastern Front, where Russia’s army was foundering amid internal turmoil. Unwilling to give up, Haig ordered a final three attacks on Passchendaele in late October. The eventual capture of the village, by Canadian and British troops, on November 6, 1917, allowed Haig to finally call off the offensive, claiming victory, despite some 310,000 British casualties, as opposed to 260,000 on the German side, and a failure to create any substantial breakthrough, or change of momentum, on the Western Front. Given its outcome, the Third Battle of Ypres remains one of the most costly and controversial offensives of World War I, representing–at least for the British–the epitome of the wasteful and futile nature of trench warfare.
READ MORE: World War I—in Color
On July 31, 1777, a 19-year-old French aristocrat, Marie-Joseph Paul Roch Yves Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, accepts a commission as a major-general in the Continental Army—without pay.
During his service as the Continental Congress’ secret envoy to France, Silas Deane had, on December 7, 1776, struck an agreement with French military expert, Baron Johann DeKalb, and his protege, the Marquis de Lafayette, to offer their military knowledge and experience to the American cause. However, Deane was replaced with Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee, who were unenthused by the proposal. Meanwhile, King Louis XVI feared angering Britain and prohibited Lafayette’s departure. The British ambassador to the French court at Versailles demanded the seizure of Lafayette’s ship, which resulted in Lafayette’s arrest. Lafayette, though, managed to escape, set sail and elude two British ships dispatched to recapture him.
Following his safe arrival in South Carolina, Lafayette traveled to Philadelphia, expecting to be made General George Washington’s second-in-command. Although Lafayette’s youth made Congress reluctant to promote him over more experienced colonial officers, the young Frenchman’s willingness to volunteer his services without pay won their respect and Lafayette was commissioned as a major-general.
Lafayette served at Brandywine in 1777, as well as Barren Hill, Monmouth and Rhode Island in 1778. Following the formal treaty of alliance with Lafayette’s native France in February 1778 and Britain’s subsequent declaration of war, Lafayette asked to return to Paris and consult the king as to his future service. Washington was willing to spare Lafayette, who departed in January 1779. By March, Franklin reported from Paris that Lafayette had become an excellent advocate for the American cause at the French court. Following his six-month respite in France, Lafayette returned to aid the American war effort in Virginia, where he participated in the successful siege of Yorktown in 1781, before returning to France and the further service of his own country.
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A hurricane strikes the east coast of Florida, sinking 10 Spanish treasure ships and killing nearly 1,000 people, on July 31, 1715. All of the gold and silver onboard at the time would not be recovered until 250 years later.
From 1701, Spain sent fleets of ships to the Western Hemisphere to bring back natural resources, including gold and silver. These groups of ships were heavily fortified against pirates, but there was little that could be done to protect them from bad weather.
On July 24, 10 Spanish ships and one French ship left Havana, Cuba, on their way to Europe, carrying tons of gold and silver coins, about 14 million pesos worth. The Spanish ships stayed very close to the Florida coast, as was the custom, while the French ship, the Grifon, ventured further out from the shore. A week later, as the ships were between Cape Canaveral and Fort Pierce, in modern-day Florida, the winds picked up dramatically.
The hurricane advanced quickly and, one by one, the ships were wrecked. The Nuestra Senora de la Regla sank, sending 200 people and 120 tons of coins to a watery grave. The Santa Cristo de San Ramon went down with 120 sailors aboard. In all, somewhere between 700 and 1,000 people lost their lives in the wrecks. Meanwhile, the Grifon was able to ride out the storm; most of its crew survived.
In the following months, Spanish officials in Havana sent ships to salvage the treasure. About 80 percent had been recovered by April 1716, but the rest remained lost until the 1960s.
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On the morning of July 31, 1975, James Riddle Hoffa, one of the most influential American labor leaders of the 20th century, is officially reported missing after he failed to return home the previous night. Though he is popularly believed to have been the victim of a Mafia hit, conclusive evidence was never found and Hoffa’s fate remains a mystery.
READ MORE: What Happened to Jimmy Hoffa?
Born in 1913 to a poor coal miner in Brazil, Indiana, Jimmy Hoffa proved a natural leader in his youth. At the age of 20, he helped organize a labor strike in Detroit, and remained an advocate for downtrodden workers for the rest of his life. Hoffa’s charisma and talents as a local organizer quickly got him noticed by the Teamsters and carried him upward through its ranks. Then a small but rapidly growing union, the Teamsters organized truckers across the country, and through the use of strikes, boycotts and some more powerful though less legal methods of protest, won contract demands on behalf of workers.
Hoffa became president of the Teamsters in 1957, when its former leader was imprisoned for bribery. As chief, Hoffa was lauded for his tireless work to expand the union, and for his unflagging devotion to even the organization’s least powerful members. His caring and approachability were captured in one of the more well-known quotes attributed to him: “You got a problem? Call me. Just pick up the phone.”
Hoffa’s dedication to the worker and his electrifying public speeches made him wildly popular, both among his fellow workers and the politicians and businessmen with whom he negotiated. Yet, for all the battles he fought and won on behalf of American drivers, he also had a dark side. In Hoffa’s time, many Teamster leaders partnered with the Mafia in racketeering, extortion and embezzlement. Hoffa himself had relationships with high-ranking mobsters, and was the target of several government investigations throughout the 1960s. In 1967, he was convicted of bribery and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
While in jail, Hoffa never ceded his office, and when Richard Nixon commuted his sentence in 1971, he was poised to make a comeback. Released on condition of not participating in union activities for 10 years, Hoffa was planning to fight the restriction in court when he disappeared on the afternoon of July 30, 1975, from the parking lot of a restaurant in Detroit, not far from where he got his start as a labor organizer. His family filed a missing persons report to the Bloomfield Township police the next day. Several conspiracy theories have been floated about Hoffa’s disappearance and the location of his remains, but the truth remains unknown.
READ MORE: 6 Mysterious Disappearances in US History