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Unfair to Zoege

Hugh Pennington

Werner Zoege von Manteuffel has had a hard time from history. He was the first to publish a paper describing the benefits of wearing rubber gloves during surgery, on 22 May 1897 in the Centralblatt für Chirurgie, then the most influential journal of its kind, and using lively language (‘the “boiled Hand” gives absolute security!’), but medical historians today give the credit to William S. Halstead of Johns Hopkins Hospital on the basis of an anecdote, told many years after the event, that he had introduced them to protect the hands of his girlfriend, the theatre sister, from dermatitis caused by exposure to corrosive disinfectant.

Zoege spent most of his surgical career at the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, in Estonia). Although before the First World War it was in the Russian Empire, it was run by the Baltic Germans, for the Baltic Germans. Salaries were in roubles; teaching was in German. In March 1904, near the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War, Zoege joined a Red Cross flying column set up with Romanov sponsorship, which travelled to Manchuria via Lake Baikal.

The war went badly for Russia, despite its army being the biggest in the world. And there were problems inside the empire too, with riots in the Baltic provinces, Poland and the Caucasus, as well as St Petersburg. They were put down with severity. Hundreds were shot or sabred. On 18 February 1905 the tsar’s uncle, the absolutist antisemite Grand Duke Serge, was blown up by a bomb thrown under his carriage as it was leaving the Kremlin. The governor of Baku and prefect of Moscow were also assassinated. At the end of June 1905 the crew of the battleship Kniaz Potemkin mutinied off Odessa, whose populace made common cause with them.

The war ended on 29 August 1905 when the Russians accepted most of the Japanese terms at a peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The destruction of the Russian Baltic Fleet had been determinative. After being inspected by the tsar, it left the Baltic in mid-October 1904. On the 22nd it came on a fleet of Hull trawlers fishing on Dogger Bank. The Russians thought they were Japanese torpedo boats. They opened fire, decapitating two fishermen, wounding others, sinking the trawler Crane and damaging others, before sailing on. Some warships went through the Suez Canal; others went round the Cape.

After a rendezvous at Madagascar, on 22 May 1905 they arrived at the straits of Tsushima, between Korea and Japan. The fleet was led by Admiral Rozhestvensky on its flagship, the Kniaz Suvarov. Battle was joined on 27 May. The admiral started with eight battleships, three armoured cruisers and nine destroyers. Only three destroyers survived; all the other vessels were sunk or captured. Rozhestvensky’s flagship was sunk by torpedoes, an early example of fire-and-forget. The admiral was captured. The Japanese lost only three torpedo boats during the battle.

Zoege returned home in the summer of 1905 to take up the surgery chair at Dorpat, and became consultant to the Estonian army after independence in 1918. He retired in 1925 and died in 1926, before the Nazis moved the Baltic Germans to parts of Poland that had been cleared by ethnic cleansing, and before Estonia was grasped again by Russia under Stalin.

Putin has declared his nostalgia for the tsarist empire. Whether the Battle of Tsushima figures in his memory bank is doubtful. But history is repeating itself with the loss of the fleet flagship Moskva on 13 April 2022 and the failure of his massive forces to take Ukraine with ease. As for ‘Z’, the Russian identifier on its invading tanks, precedents do not bode well, either. Hitler’s Z-Plan of 1939 to build 13 battleships by 1948 was overtaken by events, and Admiral Koga’s Operation Z, established in 1944 to defend the Japanese-held Pacific islands, was a failure. Its name may have been taken from the maritime signal flag ‘Z’, raised by Admiral Togo at Tsushima as his order to attack the Russians at 1:55 p.m. on 27 May 1905.


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  • 15 June 2022 at 11:10pm
    larrykoen says:
    Zoege's article may be found at https://www.uni-giessen.de/fbz/fb05/germanistik/absprache/sprachverwendung/gloning/tx/zoege-von-manteuffel_1897_gummihandschuhe.htm .