Why is WWII history so interesting?
One reason is certainly the vastness of the whole conflict. The ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Korean’ Wars can largely be said to confine within the geographical limits of those two countries. Obviously they involved the US, China, Soviet Union and extended geographically into other areas, but you get the point. WORLD WAR, however, carries a much more epic connotation.
So if we lay out a few things, I think it’ll make it clearer. Let’s discuss scope, including beligerents, the origins, and the ramifications or long-term results.
1.Scope: The enormity of the war defies logic, and it really should be classified as ‘The World Wars of 1937-1954’ if you ask me. When an American student is asked to assess WWII, s/he will often begin with Pearl Harbor, some 8 years after the start of the Asian Theatre. The Wars transformed the ‘dynamic of destruction’ begun in WWI into a truly catastrophic and epoch-defining conflict in which Race, Ethnicity and Combatant-Status were given entirely new meanings. The Wars involved nearly everyone on the globe (not literally) fighting nearly everyone else, and in seemingly any single theatre of fighting, the complexities are mind-boggling enough to almost defy explanation. In looking at the scope of destruction in Warsaw in 1939, it’s difficult to imagine that War could be more brutal, until you look at the ‘Rape of Nanking’ or the fratricidal and very confusing wars fought in the Balkans. The scope of the war also involved ideologies on a scale not really seen before. The clash of western liberalism, national socialism and marxist inspired communism really dealt a sense of seriousness and existentialism to the conflicts. By that I mean there was a real sense of an apocalyptic showdown: each saw the ‘other’ as not only the enemy, but barbaric and even ‘evil.’ Barbarism is present in all wars, but again, the scope, the severity of the death and destruction of both individuals and of groups of people, is staggering.
2.Origins: What caused the War(s)? The answer to many is even more disturbing than the actual war, because it appears to many that the origins of this brutal war lie in a decision by the victors of WWI to impose a settlement upon Germany that would end all wars. What does this really mean? It means that even without Hitler, the suffering of the Germans prior to the outbreak of hostilities was incredible. The moral and physical landscape of Europe had been ravaged by WWI to such an extent that it would seem no war could ever take place again. The Great Terror and Holodomor in the USSR had already hit their peaks by 1939 (the traditional start of WWII) and that was only the beginning. The origins of the war lie in nefariousness, in cunning, in duplicity, in deceit and in imperialism. Which means it basically started like any other war – except this time ideologies were the driving force, rather than economics. Hitler didn’t invade Poland to secure minerals, to acquire natural forests or to take advantage of their industry. He essentially invaded to secure ‘living room’ for his Germanic peoples, his ‘Volk’. In his moral landscape there was no room for the Jew, the Slav or the undesirables. At the same time, Stalin invaded to secure the territory of the Ukraine and the Baltic countries in a bid to continue his centralization of Soviet power into a country denied to him in 1921. Russia had all the natural resources in the world with the open tundra of Siberia, so he was not after resources either, his was an ideological mission to spread Communism.
3.Ramifications: We are in the year 2014 and the United States is the lone super-power. Yet in 1938 the US was far from a global super-power in today’s sense of the word. The War(s) dramatically impacted the United States’ meteoric rise to the top of the world. The US was spared the civilian bloodshed and infrastructural damage of the European/Asian wars, yet reaped the physical and moral benefits by defeating Nazism, culturally colonizing Western Europe, and catapulting her economy into superstardom through the tremendous industrial capabilities gained through the War’s result. The USSR and USA came out of the conflicts much better off, and to cut this answer a little short – the Korean War and Vietnam Wars don’t exist without the USA’s triumph in WWII. Neither does our current predicament in Afghanistan. The Soviets continued expanding and went into Afghanistan in 1980, a place even the Tsars at the height of their empire couldn’t do very well. The US’s interventions in Asia and Latin America and the Soviet Union’s interventions and expansions into Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus were direct results of the situation in Europe after 1945.
In a nutshell, that is why people are still fascinated with the Wars of 1937-1954. That and the well-publicized and relatively unprecedented genocide of Europe’s jewry which spawned our idea of, and our word for, Genocide.
The Russian Intelligentsia:
The idea of an ‘intelligentsia’ is closely tied to the idea of the ‘intellectual’. The intellectual can be (and has been) roughly defined as a a certain social type: a scholar who participates in a public sphere independent from the political regime. The European intellectual (while having important forebears in the philosophes of the French Enlightenment), is usually seen as developing in the mid-to-late 19th c., and tied to the rise of mass society, the professionalization of scholarship the birth of a wide literary audience, and the growing commodification of culture.
Of course, when we transfer this standard definition to the Russian context, we immediately see some problems: the Russian intelligentsia is usually seen as coming into being in the late 18th and early 19th c., well before the development of a wide literary audience and any sort of mass society. Furthermore, it has been argued that there was no ‘true’, Habermas-ian Russian ‘public sphere’ until the February Revolution of 1917! So what, then, was this intelligentsia?
The term is incredibly slippery, and has been understood as everything from a “class”, to “an attitude” to “a body of declassé truth-seekers”. In fact, how one defines the Russian intelligentsia and where one locates its ‘birth’ is quite a political question, as it in many ways prefigures a certain reading of the Russian 19th century and the revolutions of 1917 (for example, Soviet historiography usually framed the question in terms of class and sought to legitimize their own thought through a teleological, hagiographical narrative connecting the USSR to the earliest days of the Russian intelligentsia, while Cold War western historians [and, to a certain extent, post-Soviet Russian historiography] usually told either a story of naive intellectuals unwittingly stumbling down the path to totalitarianism, or a tale of fledgling democratic thought that had been cruelly snuffed out by the October Revolution).
For a working definition, let’s call the Russian intelligentsia a varied group of educated individuals who were concerned with social justice, critical of the state, and sensitive to the contours and questions of Westernization and western European thought. However, this intelligentsia’s intellectual values, social makeup, burning questions, forms of organization, views on action, and ultimate goals varied widely overtime and even between ‘members’.
So, with all of these caveats in mind, here are some moments traditionally viewed as key stages of the Russian intelligentsia:
The conception of the intelligentsia is usually located in the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great. The spread of Enlightenment thought amongst the aristocracy led to a few isolated individuals attempting to interrogate Russian reality through the lens of rationalism, universal brotherhood, and humanism. The most famous of these was A.N. Radishchev, whose “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” (1790) was a sort of critical social travelogue, narrating the poverty and misery he witnessed on a trip between the two capitals. He thoroughly criticized Russia’s autocratic government and called for reform – Catherine the Great sentenced him to death (although the punishment was commuted to Siberian exile).
2) The Decembrists
Flash forward twenty five years or so. The invasion of Napoleon in 1812 and the pursuit of his Grand Armée back to Paris turned the earlier trickle of Western ideas in Russia into, if not a flood, then at least a steady stream. The mid-1810’s to mid-1820’s witnessed a rise in critical sentiment amongst the aristocracy, especially former officers of the Napoleonic Wars. This discontent with the autocracy reached a head on December 1st, 1825, when Emperor Alexander I died rather suddenly. A group of around 3,000 soldiers gathered at St. Petersburg’s senate square and refused to swear allegiance to the new emperor, Nicholas I. The demands of these soldiers, later dubbed ‘the Decembrists’, were not all that radical – they merely sought general reform and a constitutional monarchy helmed by Alexander’s uncle, the more progressive Grand Duke Constantine. However, the revolt was swiftly put down, with five of the leaders executed and the rest exiled to Siberia.
3) “The Remarkable Decade”
As can be expected, Nicholas I became one of the most conservative emperors in modern Russian history, stifling public organizations and imposing the strictest censorship upon the press. This, however, did not prevent the beginning of a vibrant period for the Russian intelligentsia. The years 1838-1848 have been called “the remarkable decade”, and are characterized by greater and greater exposure to western thought, the rise of (limited) public dialogue in literary journals, and the forming of clandestine intellectual circles amongst (mostly) the nobility(key examples being the Stankevich circle and the Petrashevsky circle). This decade is also marked by the popularity of German philosophical thought, especially that of early German idealism (Fichte, Schelling, etc.), Hegel, and Feuerbach. Intellectuals such as V.G. Belinksy (“the father of Russian literary criticism”), A. Herzen (“the father of Russian Socialism”) and M.A. Bakunin (quite the idealist before his shift to philosophical and political anarchism) grappled with questions such as the literary expression of the Russian spirit, and the role of the individual in world history. The later half of this period saw these figures moving away from the most abstract forms of philosophical idealism (perhaps exemplified in Belinsky’s period of Right Hegelian “reconciliation with reality”) and adopting ‘philosophies of the act’ – however, even this turn to a more engaged form of social criticism in the 1840s was still marked by a predilection for contemplation and idealist notions of organic spirit & historico-national development.
4) The 1860s
The decade of the 1860s saw a huge shift in the views of the intelligentsia. Gathering around the progressive journalSovremennik (‘The Contemporary’), a group of young intellectuals (most notably N.G. Chernyshevsky and N.A. Dobrolyubov) became advocates of radical materialism and forms of utopian socialism. Influenced by the latest French and German scientific empiricism and socialist thought, ‘the generation of the 1860s’ viewed their 1840s forebears as alienated, ‘superfluous’ idealists (a generational conflict brilliantly portrayed in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Dosteovsky’s Demons). Perhaps the most influential text of this period was Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?, a novel envisioning a utopian future marked by communal social arrangements, scientific ordering of labor and the economy, and rationalism guiding all human relations and interactions (This, incidentally, was one of V.I. Lenin’s favorite books, and the source for the title of his 1902 pamphlet “What is to be Done?”). This period is also notable for the rise in populism – unsatisfied with the exploitative terms of Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861, greater and greater emphasis was put upon the plight of the peasantry. It is also important to note that the intelligentsia of the 1860s, besides being larger than at any point in its previous history, was also far more socially diverse. This is especially due to the rising popularity of radical views among university students, whose numbers were themselves swelled by Russia’s growing urban populations and the lifting of occupational restrictions for the sons of priests. Indeed, this generation is usually tied to raznochintsy, sons and daughters of the middle classes who made up the bulk of these radical social movements.
Populism, or political concern for Russia’s peasantry, can be said to characterize all periods in the history of the intelligentsia. However, it is from the late-1860s to the 1880s that Russian populism really had its greatest impact. Questions of Russia’s political future revolved around the fate of the post-emancipation peasantry. Perhaps the most famous incident of the Populist (or Narodniki) movement during this period was their ‘going to the people’ (khozhdennie k narodu) – during the spring and summer of 1874, hundreds of young students and radicals traveled to the countryside to distribute literature, spread socialism, and generally reveal to the peasantry the facts of their exploitation and show them the path to a revolutionary new future. The movement was thoroughly unsuccessful (in fact, more than a few of these radical students were turned in to the police by the peasants themselves, who viewed them with suspicion). This did not, however, decrease the popularity of populist thought. A key populist organization in the 1870s was the group Zemlya i Volya (usually translated as ‘Land and Liberty’). Devoted to agitational work and educating the people, the group split in the late 1870s into Chernyi Peredel (‘Black Repartition’, which advocated for the gradual spread of socialist thought among the peasantry) and Narodnaya Volya (‘The People’s Will’, which advocated terrorism and was responsible for the assassination of Tsar Alexander in 1881). The social make-up of this generation of the intellgentsia was like the previous, and would generally remain so until 1917 – university students, disenfranchised raznochintsy from Russia’s urban centers, professional revolutionaries, and a scattering of individuals from the lower classes and the nobility.
G.V. Plekhanov, the founder of Chernyi Peredel (the splinter group from Zemlya i Volya that opposed the use of terror), emmigrated to Switzerland in 1880 to avoid arrest. During the early 1880s, Plekhanov read works on political economy extensively, and became a convicted Marxist (he is usually referred to as ‘the father of Russian Marxism’). In 1883 Plekhanov and a group of co-revolutionaries formed Gruppa Osvobozhdennie Truda (‘Group for the Emancipation of Labor’) in Geneva, which was the first Russian Marxist organization. Plekhanov was known as an incredibly sophisticated theorist, and his works on Russia and Marxist theory, as well as the ability of Gruppa Osvobozhdennie Truda to establish networks for the transmission of texts inside Tsarist Russia, influenced a generation of the Russian intelligentsia to shift their focus from efforts with the peasantry and their belief in utopian socialism to agitation amongst the urban proletariat and study of Marxist political and economic theory. From here we see the growing rise of conspiratorial circles in Russia and emigre circles abroad, the crystallization of Marxist trends in the Iskra period and the founding of the RSDLP, the split of this group into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions at its second congress in 1903, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the First World War and the Revolutions of 1917.
phew. My apologies for treating the end of the 19th / early 20th c. in rather abridged fashion. The Russian intelligentsia is an absolutely fascinating subject, and I’ve only sketched out for you just the most basic outline of the Russian 19th century. Missing are Bakunin, Kropotkin and questions of anarchism, Herzen’s Kolokol and the radical emigre tradition, the role of literature and the press in spreading radical thought, Slavophile currents in politics and culture, Nihilism as a cultural/intellectual movement, the rise of liberalism at the turn of the 20th century, and a whole historiography of the October Revolution (not to mention questions of gender, ethnicity, economics, trans-imperial connections, etc etc etc). I would be more than happy to answer any questions you have regarding certain events, periods, and persons.
The two classic works on the Russian intelligentsia, which cover the intellectual, social, and political trajectories of the 19th century, are:
- Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution, translated by Francis Haskell (New York: George Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1960 ).
- Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979 ).
A classic work on the development of the intelligentsia out of the 18th c. is also:
- Marc Raeff, Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).
The Death of Grigori Rasputin.
Separating fact from fiction in the life of Grigori Rasputin is quite possibly an impossible task. The so-called Mad Monk was rumored to be a member of the Khlysts, a sect that themselves were subject to rumors about bizarre sexual practices, and despite probably not being true (less than reputable sources still like to claim it to be so), it certainly didn’t help his reputation. When it comes to his death, it reads just as fantastical as his life, and as the only first hand accounts are from those who plotted his death, much of it must be taken with a grain of salt, a story told by men who wished to describe just how inhuman their quarry was.
The close relationship he enjoyed with the Imperial Family of Russia along with his reputation causes all sorts of tongues to wag over the possibility he was sleeping with the Tzarina, and possibly her daughters as well. The apparent influence he held over the Tzarina earned him few friends, and an attempt on his life was made in 1914 presumably over these fears although the assassin was an insane peasant woman who couldn’t be connected to any palace intrigue. Despite the deep stab wound to his gut, Rasputin survived that one.
With the Tzar having left to oversea the military during World War I however, the Tzarina’s reliance on Rasputin became only more pronounced however, and in December of 1916 a new attempt on his life was made. Prince Felix Yusupov was married to the Tzar’s niece, and, along with other plotters including army officers and politicians, invited Rasputin to his family palace. Rasputin was given cyanide laced food and drink, which appeared to have no ill effects on him. Determined to kill the man, Yusupov fetched a revolver and shot him twice in the abdomen, which seemed only to enrage Rasputin, who attacked him, and then fled up a flight of stairs from the basement room he had been being entertained in, and out the door into the Russian winter. Shot twice more outside by Vladimir Purishkevich, a member of the Duma, Yusupov then hit him over the head to ensure he was down. The body was trussed, weighted, and dumped through a hole cut in the ice of a river. his body would be found a few days later, and although the rumors were that he was still alive when disposed of, there was little to suggest he had drowned to death, and the real cause of death was probably a bullet to the head during his escape attempt.
Whether or not he was poisoned has also been called into question. Prince Yusupov claimed he had, but it wasn’t found during the autopsy. As I said at the onset, only his killers know exactly how the murder was conducted, and it is clear that they wished to ensure that their actions were seen as the noble slaying of a monster who threatened the Romanov family, and what better way to do so than describe an inhuman fanatic who survived poison, shooting, and the cold, only to finally die by drowning under the ice.
In part though, don’t you think the tragedies of the past, combined with increased knowledge of ourselves, make that possible in the present?
Just some food for thought; Hitler’s first plan wasn’t to exterminate the Jews, he had simpler dreams to send them of somewhere, such as Madagascar. The final solution came in part from him not giving a shit to carry that out logistically and in part from American influence. The first portion of the American 20th century saw a huge rise in the eugenics movement, which basically gave “scientific” justification to castrate the dumb people as well as non-Aryan races. Many states had mandatory sterilizations of those deemed “unfit.” Here’s a synopsis of what I’m talking about. The next link is to a recent monograph discussing American influence in Nazi racial policy..
Well before our armies set foot in German territory, American businesses were inside interment camps, providing and maintaining filing software punch cards on the people “processed” by those locations.
All this to say, at the time, Germany didn’t have a monopoly on “evil.”
Even in today’s world, we play into viscous mechanisms, not necessarily of our choosing, but of the way the past has shaped us. For example, the computer I’m typing on right now, the cell phone I use, even the fabrics I clothe myself in, all come from slave labor. Sure, the people who make my goods might not be owned by someone, and they do make a wage ($45/month probably), but these people aren’t people the way you or I are. They have no time to let their mind wander, they have no time to create, they have no time to enjoy the fruits created by past generations. They simply work, always obeying a master. I realize my purchase fuels this. I understand that my heaven is someone else’s hell, yet I continue to because my culture promotes and even mandates such behavior. It’d be ludicrous for me to try to be a part of society if I didn’t have a cell phone, or a computer for that matter. I need this stuff.
To end on a positive though, despite our nation’s history of slavery and racism, we’ve managed to elect a Black president. Europe is far more unified with itself. Japan isn’t raping China… Human’s really seem to be going somewhere. My overall point though, is that sometimes we fall into patterns of thinking that we’re already at some benevolent level of being where the world is in harmony and people are “civilized.” In truth, we’re barely getting there. The more we’re familiar with struggles of the past, the clearer our understanding of the present becomes. What I see is that all people want to be good and contribute, however the “unbalanced” ways of the past shape our understandings of good which might throw us of course, when we feel we’re going in the right direction.
Winnipeg the Bear, is seen here with Lt. Harry Colebourn when she was the unofficial mascot of a Canadian cavalry regiment; ca.1914
Winnipeg, or Winnie, (24 August 1914 – 12 May 1934) was the name given to a female black bear that lived at London Zoo from 1915 until her death in 1934.
She was bought as a small cub for $20 (probably from the hunter who had shot her mother) at a stop in White River, Ontario, by Lt. Harry Colebourn of The Fort Garry Horse, a Canadian cavalry regiment, en route to the Western Front during the First World War. The bear was smuggled into Britain as an unofficial regimental mascot. Lt. Colebourn, the regiment’s veterinarian, named her after his home city of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Before leaving for France, Colebourn left Winnie at London Zoo.
Winnipeg’s eventual destination was to have been the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, but at the end of the War, Colebourn decided to allow Winnie to remain at the London Zoo, where she was much loved for her playfulness and gentleness. (From Wikipedia)
WWI battles before trenches and heavy fortifications became permanent:
The French army expected the war to be a highly mobile one and designed its army and its doctrine around this premise. Something crucial to understanding early-Great War French doctrine is the idea of the “cult of the offensive” — that is, always be on the attack. It was almost religious the adherence by high command to this simple concept and it shaped their entire military and the inevitable destruction they would face in the upcoming weeks. Joseph Joffre, the leader of the French military, said in 1913 regulations which I like to pull out all the time: “The French army, returning to its traditions, accepts no law in the conduct of operations other than the offensive.”
Because they were to be on the attack constantly in a maneuver based war the French saw no reason to burden the infantry corps with ponderous heavy artillery. The mid and late war ideas of ‘softening’ enemies up with incredible artillery barrages were seen as unnecessary and tactically irresponsible by most staff planners. A withering barrage of bullets from their singleshot 1886 Lebel 8mm rifles would shock the enemy and then they would fix their bayonets la rosalie and ‘finish off’ the remaining soldiers in a charge.
They also, unlike the Germans, had a very restricted set of artillery calibers as they did not want to complicate supply. As such, they went in with mostly groups of 75mm mobile field artillery and very limited numbers of 105mm and 120mm heavy artillery. This would prove to be disastrous against the Germans who had a significantly larger amount of heavy artillery that outranged and outgunned the French and rendered their artillery, essentially, useless.
Cavalry was also in a unique position in the early stages of the war. Something that is wildly overblown in hollywood is the amount of death in ancient battle. The death came when the army was routed and the cavalry pursued and destroyed the scattered army who was giving their backs. That was the job of the cavalry for thousands of years — the final slam that broke the enemy armies back for good. Cavalry’s essential role in WWI was to scout and assist infantry in the attack but the latter part became…problematic. It doesn’t matter if you route the enemy army. They still have guns and they can still turn around and shoot your cavalry armed with lances and sabres if you try to slam into their rears.
This is a particularly interesting area of history for me because it was essentially the armies marching as fast as they can without any regard for rest or recuperation. It got to the point where the many times the only chance the German infantry had a chance to engage the French infantry was when the French had to stop to rest. It didn’t really matter though, since the Germans were marching for tens of kilometers straight and were too exhausted to fight.
This is a hole that would be filled up by light armor and trucks in World War II but for now was a void and thus when the French were sent reeling back from the Belgian border towards Paris the Germans could not properly capitalize. They could only pursue the French military as fast as the infantry could march which would, ultimately, lead to massive amounts of attrition. So much that many estimates put the strength of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Armies (the ones who were the “hammer” coming through Belgium in the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan) at less than 50% manpower by the time the Battle of the Marne had occurred. The battle which would break the back of the German Army’s on the “right” flank and send them fleeing back near Belgium where both sides would default to what we now know as trench warfare for the majority of the war.
Anyways, back to the actual military fighting. Aviation was still in its infantry and filled a role similar to cavalry — scouting. In fact, to get back on my tangent above, it was actually airplanes which noted the German movement South prior to the Battle of the Marne which gave the French the German army’s flank and ultimately lead to their decisive victory.
The nature of Joffre’s war centered on the offensive and the nature of the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan which called for a rapid strike through Belgium and to Paris was a lightning fast, maneuver based war that had to end in a matter of weeks — with modern weaponry. It’s a disaster waiting to happen and that’s what came to be.
For example. The French in the early days of the war advanced on a German town in Alsace-Lorraine called Mulhouse and occupied it with little resistance and the Germans prepared a counter attack. They would march into battle shoulder to shoulder in ordered lockstep and the battle would rapidly disintegrate into a bloody mess in a dense vineyard and forest. The massive heat and exhaustion took an insurmountable toll as hundreds of men simply collapsed into roadside ditches and those who did not would be cut down by French machine guns.
Part of the reason of the French slaughter of the Germans was the German insistence on usage of reserves. The Germans used their reserves on the frontlines while the French were more reluctant to do so and as such, at the Rhone-Rhine Canal, the French opened fire on disorganized Baden Landwehr (third-line units of older men often equipped with outdated equipment) across open fields. One company of the Landwehr’s alone fired off 35,000 rounds blindly. Sergeant Otto Breinlinger of the 11th RIR said that after Mulhouse his company was reduced from 250 men to 16.
Orders were not heard or flat out ignored until officers threatened to shoot deserters. In the Second Battle of Mulhouse, which had similar results, Major Leist of the 40th IR, 1st Battallion said: “There can be no talk of a connection with the Regiment; not a single regimental order was passed down during the entire battle.”
This type of battle would define the early war battles between the French and Germans before the Battle of the Marne which would send the war into what we now know as trench warfare. Incredible amounts of death to artillery, charging into machine guns, marching lockstep and charging in giant blobs into rifle fire. It seems almost cartoonish but that was really what was the strategy early on. The other great example of early war battles were the engagements between the Belgians and the Germans, where the Germans had to push on a ring of forts in the Liege region to gain control of the narrow passage into the country and keep their war plan on schedule.
Despite the Belgians inept armed forces of half trained militiamen they absolutely slaughtered the Germans. During what is now known as the Siege of Liege the Germans got lost in the dark, officers were separated from their men, soldiers panicked and shot wildly under suspicion of guerrilla fire. Further, the Germans attacked in tight formations — a rich environment for untrained soldiers to unleash mass fire upon and cause devastating damage. 150 rounds every sixty seconds and incredible artillery fire swept out massed German columns before the walls of the fort. From an anonymous Belgian officer: “As line after line of German infantry advanced, we simply mowed them down. … They made no attempt at deploying, but came on, line after line, almost shoulder to shoulder, until, as we shot them down, the fallen were heaped one on top of the other, in an awful barricade of dead and wounded men that threatened to mask our guns and cause us trouble.”
No war games or military theory provided the Germans or the French with the knowledge of what modern warfare truly was and the lethality it provided. Officers thought to overcome the firepower of thousands of rifles, dozens of machine guns, and artillery pieces fixed on their position with dash and daring maneuvers and were punished with staggering casualty rates.
Collected via Holger H. Herwig’s The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World
- Barbara Tuchman The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I
- Holger H. Herwig The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World
- Holger H. Herwig The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918
- Robert Doughty Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War
What flak and anti-aircraft fire looks like form the air; the thin lines are shrapnel and the thicker lines are tracer shells. Royal Air Force bombing raid over Brest, France, January 31 1941.
Why couldn’t the Jews just “blend in” during World War Two?
There are a number of issues for Jews just “blending in”, which broadly speaking worked differently in Eastern and Western Europe.
In Western Europe, maltreatment of Jews was mostly incremental. The Nazis didn’t start mass murdering people right out of the gate (though it was clear that things were going to get bad for the Jews, and people did openly speak in the ’30s of the possibility of Jews being killed en masse, albeit not on the scale it actually occurred). First, citizenship was revoked, certain rights were rolled back, Jews were de-integrated from society, etc. Eventually you got things like the famous yellow stars. The penalties for pretending not to be Jewish were pretty steep, and being killed for being Jewish wasn’t an immediate threat. Additionally, records were used over time to make it difficult to hide Jewish lineage. While Jews “passing” would’ve been relatively easy in Germany, the environment pre-war made it an unlikely choice.
In Eastern Europe, the Germans essentially rolled in followed by killing squads and created ghettos in cities. However, there were a couple of issues. First, you did have some of the same effect as in Western Europe, where people feared the Germans finding them unregistered more than they feared what’d happen if they didn’t. Creating ghettos and killing everybody wasn’t announced.
In Kiev, for instance, Jews were told that they had to assemble with their possessions for resettlement a few days after the occupation began–anyone violating the order would be shot. But upon their arrival, they were all shot in a ravine at Babi Yar–only a few who managed to slip away survived. While some Jews might’ve feared what would happen, the prospect of being hunted down was present, and culturally speaking restrictions on Jewish residence in Europe wasn’t exactly a new phenomenon.
Additionally, in Eastern Europe much more than western, Jews weren’t very integrated. It’d be a dead giveaway if someone could only speak Yiddish (which would’ve happened in rural areas, though most people could probably converse in the local language) or couldn’t find non-Jews to vouch for them or couldn’t document a name that wasn’t Jewish.
In all these cases, the penalty for trying to “pass” was death, and the Nazis had whatever historical records were available to hunt down those who tried.
However, some people did. While it was difficult to do it, among the millions of Jews some were bound to try it, and some succeeded. Just yesterday I heard someone asking about documenting Jewish genealogies because their Litvak (Lithuanian-Jewish) ancestors intentionally obfuscated their Jewish heritage. And I know a woman (this anecdote is illustrative, not a source–that’d be against the rules) who survived the war as a girl in a Belgian orphanage–it was assured that there was no documentation tying her to being Jewish, and by all appearances she was just a young girl who was abandoned.
A better-known example is the French village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which sheltered thousands of French Jews (and others escaping Nazi persecution). Note that France had an integrated Jewish community (so people could “pass”) and didn’t have the incremental persecution increases in Germany, so there was more incentive to try to avoid the Germans figuring out you were Jewish at all. It required a organized effort, and lots of forged documents–if you mysteriously had no record of birth in the local church, the Nazis wouldn’t just shrug and move on.
So in short, you’d have to decide way in advance to pass in Germany, and it’d be difficult to in Eastern Europe. In either case, the incentive to hide being Jewish wasn’t immediately apparent, but the risks of it were.
Whatever happened to Oskar Dirlewanger?
Oskar Dirlewanger had a long career as a soldier, fighting in World War One, fighting with the freikorps against communist insurrectionists in Weimar Germany, fighting with the Condor Legion during the Spanish Civil War. He also had a long ‘career’ as a sexual sadist and convicted child rapist. Undoubtedly this all made him very qualified to head the SS convict division, tasked with anti-partisan operations on the eastern front. The division went on to commit some of the most heinous crimes of the war (some of which are loosely depicted in the Russian movie Come and See. Sealing up hundreds of civilians in a barn, setting it on fire and spraying with machine guns was a trademark. Gang rape, mutilation and wholesale slaughter of civilians and enemy combatants was the modus operandi of these brave SS men. Redirected to Warsaw in time to fight in the uprising of 1944, the division took part in the Wola massacre of as many as 40,000 Polish civilians.
Fast forward to the end of the war, Dirlewanger wound up in Althausen prison in the French occupation zone. Official reports state that he died of natural causes while in prison. Later on, there were unsubstantiated rumors had it that he escaped and joined the French Foreign Legion to fight in Indochina, and then the Egyptian Army.
One report had it different. In an act worthy of a Tarantino revenge/vindication story arc, he was found by three Poles serving in the French military, who proceeded to mercilessly beat him to death in his cell.
The Katyn Massacre
The Katyn Massacre was horrifying. 22,000 prisoners of war from the officer corp and high ranking civilians who surrendered peacefully to the soviets when Poland was invaded, murdered simply so there would be less resistance to Soviet rule.
Detailed information on the executions in the Kalinin NKVD prison was provided during a hearing by Dmitrii Tokarev, former head of the Board of the District NKVD in Kalinin. According to Tokarev, the shooting started in the evening and ended at dawn. The first transport on 4 April 1940, carried 390 people, and the executioners had a hard time killing so many people during one night. The following transports held no more than 250 people. The executions were usually performed with German-made 7.65×17mm Walther PPK pistols supplied by Moscow, but 7.62×38mmR Nagant M1895 revolvers were also used. The executioners used German weapons rather than the standard Soviet revolvers, as the latter were said to offer too much recoil, which made shooting painful after the first dozen executions. Vasili Mikhailovich Blokhin, chief executioner for the NKVD—and quite possibly the most prolific executioner in history—is reported to have personally shot and killed 7,000 of the condemned, some as young as 18, from the Ostashkov camp at Kalinin prison over a period of 28 days in April 1940.
The killings were methodical. After the personal information of the condemned was checked, he was handcuffed and led to a cell insulated with stacks of sandbags along the walls and a felt-lined, heavy door. The victim was told to kneel in the middle of the cell, was then approached from behind by the executioner and immediately shot in the back of the head. The body was carried out through the opposite door and laid in one of the five or six waiting trucks, whereupon the next condemned was taken inside. In addition to muffling by the rough insulation in the execution cell, the pistol gunshots were also masked by the operation of loud machines (perhaps fans) throughout the night. This procedure went on every night, except for the May Day holiday.
…but what happened with the discovery of the Katyn burial site is a lesson in how screwed up the world was at that time. when the Germans found the massacre site, they used it as propaganda material against the Russians.
When the Russians retook the area, they planted evidence and said the Germans committed the massacre.
The whole era was colossal race to the bottom: who can kill the most people, in the most brutal fashion, and claim their enemy killed more, in a more brutal fashion. a sort of anti-morality. it really makes you wonder, how humanity can be that screwed up.
When, in September 1943, Goebbels was informed that the German army had to withdraw from the Katyn area, he wrote a prediction in his diary. His entry for 29 September 1943 reads: “Unfortunately we have had to give up Katyn. The Bolsheviks undoubtedly will soon ‘find’ that we shot 12,000 Polish officers. That episode is one that is going to cause us quite a little trouble in the future. The Soviets are undoubtedly going to make it their business to discover as many mass graves as possible and then blame it on us”.
Having retaken the Katyn area almost immediately after the Red Army had recaptured Smolensk, around September–October 1943, NKVD forces began a cover-up operation. A cemetery the Germans had permitted the Polish Red Cross to build was destroyed and other evidence removed. Witnesses were “interviewed”, and threatened with being arrested as German collaborators if their testimonies disagreed with the official line. Since none of the documents found on the dead had dates later than April 1940 the Soviet secret police planted false evidence that pushed the massacre date forward to the summer of 1941 when the Nazis controlled the area. A preliminary report was issued by NKVD operatives Vsevolod Merkulov and Sergei Kruglov, dated 10–11 January 1944, concluding that the Polish officers were shot by the Germans.
Young Ukrainian boys with wooden clubs chase a battered and bloodied Jewish woman during the Lviv pogroms; ca. 1941
“On June 30, 1941, Lvov was conquered by the Germans. Pogroms against the Jews began that day, carried out by Ukranian civilians and the German Einsatzgruppe C. The Ukrainians were incited by rumors that the Jews had participated in the murders of Ukrainian political prisoners in the Soviet regime’s NKVD (security police) prison. Jews were forced to take the bodies out of the prison, and then the pogroms commenced and continued until July 3. In those few days, some 4,000 Jews were killed.”
Chances are the reason most of these photos are of women, is that their men were already dead.
(A professor once told me that mediocre, normal people are the most dangerous in situations of persecution.
The logic being that a mediocre person is in a situation of unsure status within the system. They do not have any skills which cement them into a position of need or power, nor are they clearly defined as a target of persecution. In order to signal to others that they are a ‘true believer’ and not part of the doubter’s camp or aligned with the ‘enemy’, these mediocre people often rely on exhibiting dramatic and excessive acts of violence against the targeted population.
An interesting example is the Cambodian Communist mass killings and the importance of thought crime to the Khmer regime. The Khmer were obsessed with trying to find physical symptoms to inner states, as thier main ‘enemy’ was not one defined by the ethnic but of political beliefs. Since you can’t tell by looking at someone what ideology they follow, the Khmer relied heavily on semiotics in order to find possible non-believers (soft hands meaning hadn’t worked in agriculture, wears glasses implying education enough to necessitate them to read, et al). In Tuol Sleng, the Khmer’s main torture center, even after a prisoner confessed to being a traitor or harboring negative thoughts about the regime, they weren’t executed right there, however, they were kept imprisoned and continued to be tortured. Why were they kept alive, when the main purpose of TS was to identify and execute traitors? One hypothesis is that, in order to clearly demonstrate their hatred of the ‘enemy’ and signal that they are a ‘true believer’ of the Khmer’s ideals, especially in the context of the Khmer’s paranoia, the perpetrators continued to torture the imprisoned, confessed ‘traitors’, in an outward display of hatred.)
Rioters during the Bobby Sands hunger strike attack police in Belfast, Northern Ireland; ca. 1981
Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner working with a rat in a “Skinner box”; ca. 1960
Skinner was one of the founding fathers of behavioral psychology. He felt strongly that all human behavior could be broken down I a fundamental electro-chemical interaction. This was groundbreaking in psychology for a number of reasons: 1- it gave rise to “scientifically respectable” psychological research, 2- it crossed some philosophical boundaries into concepts of free will, 3- it laid foundation for cognitive behavioral therapy, by making the correlation between conditioned behavioral response and positive/negative reinforcement. (He wasn’t the only one, Pavlov being the other of note, but he was one who gained recognition.)
His theories have come to be known as “incomplete,” as we discovered there are other measurable elements that predict behavior, but his steadfast belief in his ideas, and his committed research brought on a whole new wave of psychological ideology.
The Russians teaching the German prisoners of war the cossack dance. The Eastern front, Russia; ca.1915
François-Noël Babeuf: The First Revolutionary Communist.
François-Noël Babeuf was born in 1760, in Saint-Quentin, to a desperately poor family. He was born in filth, in his own words. He was given an education by his father, and had a hell of a mind. His intelligence, thirst for knowledge, and independent thinking complemented the short and informal education he received, and paved the the way for his future. He began working, digging a canal, at the age of twelve. A few years later, he worked for a notary specializing in feudal law. His job was to help the aristocracy claim as much as possible of their ancient privileges. Around the same time, he married Marie-Anne Langlet.
In 1789 he participated in drawing up the official complaints for his area to submit to the Estates General, but without much success. When the revolution broke out in 1789, Babeuf wrote a letter to his wife
How ill that joy made me! I was at the same time alike satisfied and ill content. I said, so much the better and so much the worse! I understand that the people should do justice for itself; I approve of that justice so long as the destruction of the guilty suffices for it, but has it not to-day become cruel? Punishments of all kinds – quartering, torture, the wheel, the stake, the whip, the gibbet, executions everywhere – have demoralised us! Our masters, instead of policing us, have made us barbarians, because they are such themselves. They reap, and will continue to reap, what they lave sown. For all this, O my poor wife! will have, as far as one can see, terrible consequences! We are as yet only at the beginning!
Despite his reaction, Babeuf threw himself into the revolution wholeheartedly. He changed his name to Camille, the French form of Camillus, after the neoclassical fashion of the time. He changed the name of his son, too, from Robert to Émile, in honor of Rousseau’s book. In 1790, he was imprisoned for his writings, which were judged to incite rebellion against the government. He wasn’t held long, and soon continued his activism. In October 1790, he started his own newspaper. He argued for the actual abolition of fiefdom, where feudal property was declared invalid, instead of the process started in 1789 to phase it out by allowing communities to buy themselves free.
Who wants to hold onto equality if it is in name only? Equality can’t be the name of a meaningless transaction. It has to show itself by immense, and positive results, by effects that are easily seen, and not by imaginary abstractions.
He was arrested against in 1791, but the outcry from the community was powerful enough that he was released within days. He spent the next few years writing, holding minor administrative positions, and going in and out of prison.
His attitude to violence remained. He opposed the Terror, and welcomed the end of its leaders, for whom he coined the word “terroriste”.
In 1794, he started a new paper, called Journal of Press Freedom, and later the Tribune of the People. At the same time, he took that name Gracchus. After the end of the Terror, tolerance for political radicalism was even lower than it had been before, and Babeuf was arrested the same year. In prison, he formed new connections, with people like Augustin Darthé, Sylvain Maréchal, and Filippo Buonarroti.
With them, he began a new part of his life, politically. These new friends and allies were admirers of Robespierre and the rest of the fallen left of the recent past. Babeuf came to see things from their point of view, and attempted to rehabilitate Robespierre and his fellow “terrorists”. After the Jacobin club had been forcibly closed, Babeuf and Co. created its successor, the Panthéon Club. They were quickly driven underground. This became the start of the Conspiracy of Equals, a clandestine movement to start a new revolution. Their goals were two-pronged, on the one hand, which was the side they showed in public, they wanted to return to the constitution of 1793, which had held the beginning of a welfare state, universal suffrage, and other democratic gains which the constitution of 1795 had undone. For those who had been let into the inner circle, they wanted to abolish the current system of government entirely, and to end private property. The second side to the movement was infinitely more threatening to the authorities, but even the “public” goals could get them all sentenced to death.
They gathered support through their writings, songs, and wall newspapers. The continuing setbacks for both democracy and equality swelled the ranks of Babeuf’s supporters, as did the threat from the growing royalist opposition.
In 1796, a police spy who had infiltrated the ranks of the Equals denounced them. Many members of the group were arrested, Babeuf, Buonarroti, Darthé and Maréchal among them. The next year, they were put on trial for conspiring to overthrow the government.
The trial was held in Vendôme, as the Parisian population was seen as too much of a risk. In the end, Babeuf and Darthé were sentenced to death. They were executed the next day.
Babeuf’s ideas to abolish private property and the current state were neither new nor unique, which he himself proved during his trial, but his attempt to put them into practice was unique. The Babouvist movement became the first seeds of what would later develop into socialism, communism and anarchism.
“Babeuf, the communist Babeuf, your teacher and mine,” said Jean Jaurès, “founded in our country not only socialist doctrine, but above all socialist politics”. The manifesto of the Comintern, written by Leon Trotsky, declared that
“We Communists, united in the Third International, consider ourselves the direct continuators of the heroic endeavors and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations from Babeuf – to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.”
Today, Babeuf has disappeared from public consciousness, and having been mentioned a century ago by the new faces of communism and socialism, with a name drop in the Communist Manifesto, might be his biggest claim to fame.
Chanson nouvelle à l’usage des faubourgs (Mourant du faim, mourant du froid), one of the most famous songs sung by the Babouvists, written by Sylvain Maréchal, performed by Rosalie Dubois.
Collection of texts by and about Babeuf and the Babouvists, on marxists.org
Communist historian Doug Enaa Greene lectures on the French communist revolutionary Gracchus Babeuf
I don’t know what the hell this is, but I found it while searching youtube for the video above
A Punt Gun, used for duck hunting but were banned because they depleted stocks of wild fowl; ca. 1920’s.
Called the “Punt Gun,” this firearm of unusual size could discharge over a pound of shot at a time, and dispatch upwards of fifty waterfowl in a single go. A punt gun is a type of extremely large shotgun used in the 19th and early 20th centuries for shooting large numbers of waterfowl for commercial harvesting operations and private sport. “Used for duck hunting” isn’t the right expression for aiming this piece of artillery in the general direction of a flock of ducks, firing, and spending the rest of the day picking up the carcasses.
How they were used:
An old woman who fled the war zone with her cow, sits on a bench in Amiens, France; March 28th, 1918
Armored samurai with a wakizashi; ca. 1860
Apparently, the “Arabian horses” we usually think of didn’t appear until late in Japan, where ponies were the standard. It really kills some of the samurai romance when you realize they were 4’6″ guys riding 4’6″ ponies…
(*Photo by Felice Beato (1832–1909) an Italian–British photographer who was one of the first people to take photographs in East Asia and one of the first war photographers.)
What is Fascism? (…from the realm of psychology)
It’s hard to define fascist political opinion or fascist ideology because it was, and is, such an un-ideological, anti-rational movement. That’s because, at heart, fascism is an emotional movement. If you look at the famous fascist manifestos, they’re not full of policy prescriptions: they’re an airing of grievances.
Dr. Robert Altemeyer has surveyed huge numbers of people, and other researchers have followed up on his work by cross-checking his surveys against neuro-psychology, and they’ve concluded that right-wing authoritarianism, or fascism, is a psychological phenomenon, driven by three things:
- Fear of filth and impurity
- Fear of change from “ancient tradition”
- Obsession with unambiguously knowing one’s place in any hierarchy
Neurophysiologists who’ve studied the brains of people who self-identify as far-right or fascist have argued that you can simplify the first two points: a fascist is someone who has an exaggerated emotional reaction of disgust when confronted with the possibility of anything “clean” coming in contact with anything “unclean.” Hence the fascist obsession with the word “purity:” ethnic purity, religious purity, artistic purity, national purity, sexual purity, cultural purity, etc.
There’s an old saying: “If you put one drop of water in 5000 gallons of sewage, you have 5000 gallons of sewage. If you put one drop of sewage in 5000 gallons of water, you have 5000 gallons of sewage.” It’s not actually literally true, not universally, anyway; that reaction to “even one drop” of impurity is one of the two impulses that drives some people into fascism.
The other one is hierarchy. A fascist is someone who believes that no two people anywhere ever are equal, let alone any more people than that, and that anybody who says otherwise is sneakily trying to trick you so they can get power over you. A fascist is someone who wants to know who are the (many) people who have to obey them and who are the (few) people they have to obey, and they want that as unambiguous as possible.
And implicit in that second point is militarist imperialism. First of all, there’s an obsessive love of military life and military rank, because the military teaches people to live in and trust an unambiguous hierarchy. The military is also the instrument that settles, among nations, which nations have to obey which other nations.
An 18 year old Conchita Cintrón, perhaps the most famous female matador in history, Mexico; ca. 1940
Concepción Cintrón Verrill, also known as Conchita Cintrón or La Diosa de Oro (‘The Golden Goddess’)  (August 9, 1922 in Antofagasta – February 17, 2009 in Lisbon), was a Peruvian torera (female bullfighter), perhaps the most famous in the history of bullfighting. In the ring Cintrón was said to display particular grace, style and bravado, a combination known as duende. (From Wikipedia)
Jimmy Hoffa as he appeared before a Senate hearing. August 22, 1957, Washington, DC.
The story is Jimmy was getting grilled by Bobby Kennedy who was the chief counsel of the 1957–59 Senate Labor Rackets Committee under chairman John L. McClellan. On this day in 1964, Hoffa, then Teamsters Union President, was sentenced to five years in federal prison for defrauding his union’s pension fund. In 1971, President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence.