10 Historical Rivals Who Became Friends (For A While)

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Vote up the oddest historical couples.

In times of crisis, core beliefs can often take a back seat to more immediate goals. Even a sworn religious or political foe can seem like a friend in a pinch. Sometimes the cooperation stems from a mutual enemy; at other moments, the bigger prize is worth the cost of helping a rival.

From the uneasy coalition of Romans and Barbarian kingdoms that stood against Attila, to the American and German rescue mission in the dying days of World War II, this collection looks at the strangest historical partnerships.

  • 1
    142 VOTES

    The US Army And The Wehrmacht Teamed Up For A Mission In 1945

    Itter Castle in Austria was the site of a highly unusual operation in the very last days of the European theater of World War II. The Nazis used the castle to hold high-profile French prisoners of war. By May 1945, the prison’s guards had fled and a unit of Waffen-SS came in to wipe out the French prisoners and carry out reprisals against the local population for any hints of surrender. 

    A German officer who opposed the Nazis, Josef Gangl, and a small group of men loyal to him intervened to protect the prisoners and locals. Heavily outnumbered, Gangl sent word to the American forces in the area seeking aid. His call for help was answered by Capt. John C. "Jack" Lee, Jr., who arrived with a band of volunteers and a single Sherman tank. The motley crew of French prisoners, American troops, and Wehrmacht soldiers bravely defended the castle against the SS. The tank was blown up, but the SS weren’t able to breach the castle. 

    An American relief force arrived in the late afternoon and captured the SS unit. There was only one casualty on the defending side: Gangl was slain by a sniper while trying to spot the position of the anti-tank gun from an observation post.

    Many years after the battle, Lee was asked by a reporter in 1973 what he made of the whole endeavor. His short answer summed it all up perfectly: "Well, it was just the damnedest thing."

    142 votes
  • The Crusaders And The Mongols Coordinated Against The Mamluks
    Photo: Sayf al-vâhidî et al / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    81 VOTES

    The Crusaders And The Mongols Coordinated Against The Mamluks

    In the battle for the Holy Land, the Crusaders weren’t actually all that picky when it came to finding allies. France repeatedly reached out to the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries seeking cooperation against shared foes in the Holy Land. But it was the formidable English monarch, Edward I, who came the closest to sealing an alliance between Christendom and the pagan Mongols. 

    Edward, then a prince, arrived in the Levant in 1271 with only a small number of knights and retainers. He sent out envoys to the Mongol leader Abaqa to seek aid against the Mamluks. Abaqa was receptive to the idea and agreed to an offensive in Syria while Edward’s forces struck elsewhere. The coordination proved to be unsuccessful, as Edward’s small force couldn’t achieve much and the Mongols withdrew without a major battle. 

    Although further attempts to work together were tried by the French, Edward’s failed mission would be the only real shared venture between the Mongols and Christendom. As the Mongol empire fractured in the 13th century between different khanates, some converted to Islam and effectively closed the door on any further treaties with the Crusaders.

    81 votes
  • 3
    75 VOTES

    Sparta And The Persians Teamed Up To Subdue Athens

    The Spartan legend was forged in the hot gates of Thermopylae where the brave 300 led by Leonidas laid down their lives against the innumerable Persian forces during the failed invasion of Greece. The story has been told and retold numerous times over the ages, with varying degrees of accuracy. Neither the accord between the city-states nor the animosity with the Persians would last, however. Within a generation, the city-states of Athens and Sparta were locked in a deadly conflict, and the Persians were only too happy to lend the latter a hand.

    With Athens ascendant in the Aegean, the Persian King Darius II ordered his satraps in Asia Minor to seek an alliance with Sparta. The king’s son Cyrus was sent to oversee the campaign in person. Thanks to substantial financial and naval support, Sparta gained the upper hand in the conflict, and briefly became the dominant force in Greece.

    The Spartans would later support Cyrus in his bid to oust his brother from power. An impressive force of 10,000 marched into the Persian Empire but was forced to turn back after the Persian prince fell in battle. The long and treacherous march through hostile territory was recorded by Xenophon in the Anabasis. The story also served as the inspiration for the 1979 cult classic, The Warriors

    75 votes
  • 4
    66 VOTES

    The Romans Formed An Uneasy Coalition To Stop Attila

    In the 4th century CE, it was fair to say the Roman Empire had seen better days. But the ailing empire could still muster a formidable army when crisis loomed. Few were equal in magnitude to the threat posed by Attila and the Huns. As they ravaged through Gaul (now France), a coalition of Goths, Franks, and assorted tribes came together under the Roman leader Flavius Aetius to take on the Huns.

    Relations between the coalition members weren’t exactly harmonious (the Visigoths had sacked Rome in 410 CE), but the even greater threat of the Huns saw those differences put aside at the climactic Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (also called fields) in 451. The Visigothic king Theodoric fell in the conflict alongside thousands of others in an exceptionally brutal encounter. A heavy price was paid to put an end to the Hunnic invasion, and the uneasy truce between the coalition soon dissolved.

    Rome was sacked again in 455 as the Western half of the empire entered a terminal decline that saw the once-mighty empire fall. 

    66 votes
  • The Soviet Union And The Allies Put Aside Ideological Differences To Defeat Hitler
    Photo: US government photographer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    71 VOTES

    The Soviet Union And The Allies Put Aside Ideological Differences To Defeat Hitler

    In the Russian Civil War, the Allies unsuccessfully intervened in 1918 but lacked both the means and will to alter the outcome. The emerging Soviet Union was very much the black sheep of the diplomatic world of the post-World War I era. 

    But those frosty relations were melted by the far worse prospect of a world dominated by fascism. Winston Churchill was one of the most vehement opponents of communism, but when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Churchill's verdict was characteristically pithy:

    I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby. If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.

    The shared goal of toppling the Führer led to a shotgun marriage between the ideologically divergent Allies and the Soviet Union. The Soviets did much of the heavy lifting, but were aided enormously by American production and the opening of a second front in 1944. For a brief, tantalizing moment, the promise of a harmonious postwar world loomed in 1945, but it was not to be. Soon after the triumph over the Nazis, the old differences came to the fore once again.

    71 votes
  • 6
    107 VOTES

    The Eight-Nation Alliance Was An Alliance In Name Only

    At the turn of the 20th century, China was in the midst of a terrible drought that was just the latest in a series of catastrophes that befell it in the 19th and 20th centuries. In response, peasant groups calling themselves the Righteous Fists of Fury rose up across the country to direct their ire against hated foreign influences, especially Christians. The bemused foreigners took to calling the malcontents Boxers, and the name stuck. By June 1900, the situation had escalated to the point that foreign embassies in China were under siege by the Boxers.

    A coalition force of the world’s foremost imperial powers was thrown together to relieve the embassies and punish the ruling Qing dynasty for its suspected support of the rebels. From the beginning, the expedition was beset by internal disputes stemming from the rivalries between members of the so-called alliance. The choice of the leader came down to machinations between Germany and Russia to stop the British from taking control. Alfred von Waldersee was appointed to oversee the venture but was still in Berlin at the time.

    While Waldersee was on his way to China, the ragtag group of troops set out. The soldiers moved as eight separate forces rather than as one unified group. Each wanted to beat the other to the prestige of taking the capital first. After a few skirmishes in August, the Boxers completely disappeared from the conflict, leaving the Qing to fight the combined forces alone. All that was left for the allies was to take Beijing itself.

    The Russian and Japanese detachments raced out in front to be the first into the city. The assault on the capital was an uncoordinated mess that saw each member of the alliance try to beat the other over the walls. In the end, Welsh and Indian troops slipped past lightly defended sections of the city to claim the glory. The forces of "civilization" then brutally sacked the city.

    The German commander appointed to oversee the whole thing didn’t arrive until the conflict was already over. He still tried to pick a fight, which only served to worsen Germany’s international standing. Within five years of the intervention, Russia and Japan would be at war. Within 15, every member of the alliance would be drawn into World War I.

    107 votes