Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Archive for October, 2014

Bashkir switchman on the Trans-Siberian Railway near the town of Ust-Katav, Russian Empire; ca. 1910


Taken by color photography pioneer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. He had an interest in documenting early 20th Century Russia through photography, but also enjoyed photographing others as well.

(For more of his fantastic work, take a look at the Wikimedia Commons page about him.)

POW’s from the Hungarian Second Army, Russia; ca. 1942


The Hungarian Second Army (Második Magyar Hadsereg) was one of three field armies (hadsereg) raised by the Kingdom of Hungary (Magyar Királyság) which saw action during World War II. All three armies were formed on March 1, 1940. The Second Army was the best-equipped Hungarian formation at the beginning of the war, but was virtually eliminated as an effective fighting unit by overwhelming Soviet force during the Battle of Stalingrad, suffering 84% casualties. Towards the end of the war, a reformed Second Army fought more successfully at the Battle of Debrecen, but, during the ensuing Siege of Budapest, it was destroyed completely and absorbed into the Hungarian Third Army.

In honor of Halloween, some spooky Roman ghost stories:

The first from Pliny the Younger VII, letter 27:

There was at Athens a large and spacious, but ill reputed and pestilential house. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of fetters; at first it seemed at a distance, but approached nearer by degrees; immediately afterward a phantom appeared in the form of an old man, extremely meager and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the gyves on his feet and hands. The poor inhabitants consequently passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable.

This, as it broke their rest, threw them into distempers, which, as their horrors of mind increased, proved in the end fatal to their lives. For even in the day time, though the specter did not appear, yet the remembrance of it made such a strong impression on their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and their terror remained when the cause of it was gone. By this means the house was at last deserted, as being judged by everybody to be absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity which attended it, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold.

It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and reading the bill ascertained the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged, that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the fore part of the house, and after calling for a light, together with his pen and tablets, he directed all his people to retire within. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and apparitions, he applied himself to writing with all his faculties.

The first part of the night passed with usual silence, then began the clanking of iron fetters; however, he neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid down his pen, but closed his ears by concentrating his attention. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked round and saw the apparition exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger. Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and bent again to his writing, but the ghost rattling its chains over his head as he wrote, he looked round and saw it beckoning as before. Upon this he immediately took up his lamp and followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains; and having turned into the courtyard of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus being thus deserted, marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves. The next day he went to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. There they found bones commingled and intertwined with chains; for the body had mouldered away by long lying in the ground, leaving them bare, and corroded by the fetters. The bones were collected, and buried at the public expense; and after the ghost was thus duly laid the house was haunted no more.

The other one is from Plutarch’s “Life of Cimon”, and it goes to show that ghost stories have always been used to talk about social issues:

There was left one orphan of this house, called Damon, surnamed Peripoltas, in beauty and greatness of spirit surpassing all of his age, but rude and undisciplined in temper. A Roman captain of a company that wintered in Chaeronea became passionately fond of this youth, who was now pretty nearly grown a man. And finding all his approaches, his gifts, his entreaties, alike repulsed, he showed violent inclinations to assault Damon. Our native Chaeronea was then in a distressed condition, too small and too poor to meet with anything but neglect. Damon, being sensible of this, and looking upon himself as injured already, resolved to inflict punishment. Accordingly, he and sixteen of his companions conspired against the captain; but that the design might be managed without any danger of being discovered, they all daubed their faces at night with soot. Thus disguised and inflamed with wine, they set upon him by break of day, as he was sacrificing in the market-place; and having killed him, and several others that were with him, they fled out of the city, which was extremely alarmed and troubled at the murder.

The council assembled immediately, and pronounced sentence of death against Damon and his accomplices. This they did to justify the city to the Romans. But that evening, as the magistrates were at supper together, according to the custom, Damon and his confederates, breaking into the hall, killed them, and then fled again out of the town. About this time, Lucius Lucullus chanced to be passing that way with a body of troops, upon some expedition, and this disaster having but recently happened, he stayed to examine the matter. Upon inquiry, he found the city was in no wise faulty, but rather that they themselves had suffered; therefore he drew out the soldiers, and carried them away with him. Yet Damon continuing to ravage the country all about, the citizens, by messages and decrees, in appearance favourable, enticed him into the city, and upon his return, made him Gymnasiarch; but afterwards as he was anointing himself in the vapour baths, they set upon him and killed him.

For a long while after apparitions continuing to be seen, and groans to be heard in that place, so our fathers have told us, they ordered the gates of the baths to be built up; and even to this day those who live in the neighbourhood believe that they sometimes see spectres and hear alarming sounds. The posterity of Damon, of whom some still remain, mostly in Phocis, near the town of Stiris, are called Asbolomeni, that is, in the Aeolian idiom, men daubed with soot: because Damon was thus besmeared when he committed this murder.

And finally, did you know that Augustus’ childhood home was haunted? From Suetonius, “Life of Augustus” 6:

His nursery is shown to this clay, in a villa belonging to the family, in the suburbs of Velitrae; being a very small place, and much like a pantry. An opinion prevails in the neighbourhood, that he was also born there. Into this place no person presumes to enter, unless upon necessity, and with great devotion, from a belief, for a long time prevalent, that such as rashly enter it are seized with great horror and consternation, which a short while since was confirmed by a remarkable incident. For when a new inhabitant of the house had, either by mere chance, or to try the truth of the report, taken up his lodging in that apartment, in the course of the night, a few hours afterwards, he was thrown out by some sudden violence, he knew not how, and was found in a state of stupefaction, with the coverlet of his bed, before the door of the chamber.

A camouflaged road 10 km from Russian border, in Finland; June 27, 1941


Apparently the purpose was to conceal the road from a Russian watchtower which was located at the border.

Batterie Mirus, Guernsey; ca. 1942


Batterie Mirus was an artillery gun emplacement built in Nazi occupied Guernsey, disguised as a cottage to fool aerial surveillance.

(Background: During World War II, the Channel Islands were the only part of Britain captured by the Nazis. During a long and brutal occupation the Nazi’s essentially turned the islands into stationary battleships, pouring more concrete into fortifications and gun emplacements than was poured in the rest of the Atlantic Wall combined. The largest guns in The Channel Islands were situated in Guernsey, at the Batterie Mirus. They had a range of around 51km, meaning they could theoretically hit the coast of France.)


German Alpenkorps soldiers posing on a mountain; ca. 1915.


Hiter, Speer and entourage mesmerized at the Schwerer Gustav. Largest and Heaviest artillery ever used in combat; ca. 1941


Also know as Dora, Krupp was responsible for its development. It saw very little combat as the gun proved to be a logistical nightmare. Stands as the largest-calibre rifled weapon ever used in combat, the heaviest artillery piece ever built by weight and fired the heaviest shells of any artillery.


The Schwerer Gustav could fire armor-piercing rounds weighing over 7,000kg (~15,000lb) with a muzzle velocity of ~700 m/s (~2,400 ft/s)

(Size compared with the OTR-21 Tochka.)

The Airship Graf Zeppelin lands smoothly on the ice- strewn waters of a bay at the Frans Josef polar islands to deliver post to the Soviet icebreaker Malygin; ca. July 1931


Some more information on the Graf Zeppelin’s Arctic Flight.


The shells from an allied creeping bombardment spent in a single day on German lines; ca. 1916


Prisoners work at Belbaltlag, a Gulag camp for building the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal; ca. 1932


Usually these pictures were propaganda and featured criminals, not political prisoners. Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for a good description of “shock battalions” in the gulags. Note the plump faces and clothes on these prisoners.

250MB hard drive; ca. 1979


To think now, I have 16gb of flash storage on my phone and 3 terabytes of hard disk space with an extra 250gb of solid state storage on my computer but back then this was groundbreaking stuff. Makes me scared for the future in a way. Imagine when we think back and say “I can’t believe I ONLY used 3 terabytes”.

Canadian Soldiers take back a wounded from the front during the battle of Passchendaele; ca. November, 1917


Douglas Haig’s chief of staff, Launcelot Kiggell, reportedly broke down and wept when he finally visited the Passchendaele battlefield in the autumn of 1917, saying “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”


Flight of G3M Bombers over the Aleutian Islands; ca. 1943



Tsar Nicholas II shoveling snow in a park while under captivity in Tsarskoye Selo, Russia; ca. 1917


We often hear about how war changed in the 20th century due to machine guns and tanks, but how was warfare revolutionized in the 19th century through technological advances? Were there any precursors to the 20th century’s changes?

Preface: American Civil War and “the rest” (Franco-Prussian and Austro-Prussian primarily) are two separate entities so ill discuss them separately even though it breaks chronological order. They involved two entirely different approaches of waging war and need to be treated as separate cases. The Americans had a Jominian (a Napoleonic military theorist) understanding of warfare and thus attempted to replicate Napoleonic methods tactically. When I get to this point at the end I’ll describe Napoleonic tactics in it and you can use that to compare/contrast with what else I describe. The rest of the West, basically, Europe, would have a style of war which swung much more in the WWI-side of the spectrum in their respective Austro-Prussian and Franco-Prussian Wars.

The big game changers were breech loaded artillery (as opposed to muzzle loading), flintlock and percussion cap muskets (ie: using sparks or chemical pouches to ignite a muzzle loaded smoothbore or rifled musket) going to cartridge based breech loaded rifles, and proto-machine guns. The Austro-Prussian War would be the first (and last) European war where cartridge based breech loaded rifles were faced up against muzzle loaded muskets. The Prussians would enter the ring with the Dreyse Needle Gun. It would be a singleshot breech loaded rifle which had an effective firing rate of 8-10 rounds per minute and an effective range of over 650 meters. It had the added benefit as well as being capable of being fired from the prone position. The Austrians were using a percussion cap muzzle loaded musket called the Lorenz. It could not be fired from the prone position (by virtue of being muzzle loaded) and only had an effective range of ~500 meters. Most notably, however, was its firing rate; it could like all other muskets pump out 3 shots, 4 maximum, per minute.

The Dreyse completely and utterly outclassed the musket and through this many Prussian thinkers thought that 300 of their men were superior to a battalion of Austrians. They were completely right. This is how the Prussians fought in the Austro-Prussian War: They would send up a “skirmishing line” 2 lines deep. Remember in the ACW how men would be packed together elbow to elbow? Each man would be given a 3 meters between each of them — 10 feet-ish a couple dozen men wide. Basically these 2 lines would approach the enemy and use cover as they saw fit and approached and retreated as they saw fit (again, infantry chains). The rest of the battalion would sit back and send in platoons/company’s to reinforce the skirmishing line throughout the battle. That is, essentially, what WWI fighting was in the infantry realm of things. Skirmishing lines of men approaching an enemy position with strong reserves constantly reinforcing them in ‘waves’.

The Austrians, in contrast, were heavily influenced by their very recent war with France in 1859 during the wars of Italian Unification. With the Austrians ranging their guns for long range (and thus firing “high” and letting the bullets drop) the French would use a revolutionary new tactic which the Germans would dub Stoßtaktik, or shock tactics. The French would essentially march at quick pace across open field to the Austrians face; while they would suffer casualties in the approach once they got in the Austrians face their muskets would still be “ranged” for long distance and thus would literally shoot over the French’s heads. After being thoroughly routed in 1859 the Austrians, in their infinite wisdom, would just completely copy French tactics in their doctrine without any thought of it. That is, they would put their men in dense formation and charge in open field attempting to use ‘shock tactics’ against the Prussians in 1866.

The Austrians would, completely and utterly, be annihilated. As the Austrians were charging more or less shoulder to shoulder the Prussians were lying prone next to a tree or a rock or what have you and picking them off. At Podol 400 Prussians would face off against 2000 Austrians and they would, in the truest sense, obliterate them. The Prussians would have 100 killed or injured with the Prussians having over 1000 killed, injured, or captured. At Trautenau, one of Austria’s few “victories”, they would lose 5000 men compared to Prussia’s 1300. The biggest battle of the war, the Battle of Königgrätz, saw 9000 Prussians killed or wounded with 43,500 Austrians killed, captured, or wounded. As you can see this was a war in which modern tactics and modern rifles would be the defining reason of defeat.

The Franco-Prussian War is an interesting case because it’s one where the French had their own breech loaded rifle, the Chassepot. It was superior to the Dreyse Needle Gun in just about every single way and French infantry chains would, on average, outclass the Prussians. Where the Prussians had the distinct advantage would be in the strategic level of war (ie: mobilizing their men effectively and striking the French before they could ‘get ready’) and with their artillery, new breech loaded Krupp Guns. The French, despite their superior cavalry and infantry, would be hit immediately and taken by surprise. They would be battered back to Sedan where they would be surrounded on the ridges and simply battered into surrender.

The French still used muzzle loaded artillery which had to be set to detonate at set distances and thus the rounds had to be precisely timed to strike certain areas of the enemy at a certain distance. It was quite complicated and cumbersome at best. The Prussians breech loaded guns in contrast, while at a lesser range than the French, had a significant rate of fire advantage and also had percussion impact fuses which meant wherever the shell hit that’s where it exploded. To make things even more deadly the Prussians made a habit of putting all of their artillery in one area and firing as a single empowered battery right at the front to obliterate the enemy. The French would be battered by combined German artillery while being squeezed from all sides by the infantry (despite the Germans suffering egregious casualties — one Prussian company suffered 68% casualties at Mars-la-Toure for instance). A battle would look more or less like platoons/companies finding cover and picking off at each other with artillery batteries on both sides laying waste to the other side; very proto-WWI in my opinion.

The American Civil War, however, was a totally different beast. Light infantry became a “thing” in the mid 1700’s and would be an integral part of European warfare in the Napoleonic Era where a light infantry body would win or lose battles at time. Wellington would at times make 1/3rd of his force skirmisher/light infantry forces which would decimate enemy formations; all which would be ‘taking cover’ and the like. Further, and this is just pre-content pettiness, Napoleonic warfare was more than just two sides lining up in an open field and unloading on each other until one side gave up. This is very important to know because having a strong understanding of Napoleon’s tactics are necessary to understand America’s in the Civil War, and, most importantly, why it didn’t work and why it was faux-Napoleonic. In short, Napoleons tactics were to use combined arms to force the enemy to dedicate his reserves to the flank and thus have the entire enemy engaged. He would then use the remainder of his own reserves to smash into the weakest enemy spot with massive columns in a final bayonet charge to crush the enemy with overwhelming numbers and without the enemy being capable of reinforcing the position.

Let me make this clear as it’s important: It was the cooperation between the infantry, cavalry, and artillery that locked the enemy in place through a delicate dance of maneuver and the reserves that decided the battle. The American Civil War was absolutely nothing like this but it attempted to, and now we get to what an American Civil War battle looked like. Whereas in a Napoleonic battle you’d have a mass of columns approaching the enemy and forming a line or staying in a column respective to the situation with cavalry advancing with the infantry and artillery batteries suppressing the enemy while skirmisher formations screen the enemy and pick them off, the Americans had just one of these components: the infantry bit. Their artillery was present but hardly as decisive as Napoleon (or his contemporaries) would use them. The Union never really had anything resembling real light infantry battalions and the CSA, while using them in small number, never really put them to use in mass as his European contemporaries were and as they were used in the Napoleonic Wars. While on the tail end of the war this would change, for the major bloodbaths my assertion remains true.

Further, and perhaps most deadly of all, rifled muskets along with advances made cavalry nearly useless. This is only compounded by the fact that America had zero cavalry tradition whatsoever and thus what little cavalry they did have were dragoons (mounted infantry, essentially) and scouts. They had next to nothing to ‘crash’ into the enemy and be that decisive factor and what little they did had was useless in the face of rifled muskets which were accurate up to 350 yards and effective to 500. Last but certainly not least the Americans on either side were not keen on keeping reserves which, again, was completely against the entire principle of the tactics they were trying to apply.

What we get, in result, is an absolute bloodbath that we now know as the American Civil War and notable battles like Gettysburg. Pickett’s Charge would have, with Napoleon, been accompanied with cavalry to add a decisive shock factor and to draw out the enemy reserves. Instead it was a colossal failure. In fact Pickett’s Charge is a microcosm of ACW tactics as a whole. Justus Scheibert, a Prussian observer to the ACW, commented on his experience with witnessing a battle:

“The nearer to the enemy, the more faulty the lines and the more ragged the first (line) until it crumbled and mixed with the skirmishers. Forward went this muddle leading the wavy rest. Finally the mass obtruded upon the point of attack. In a sustained, stubborn clash, even the third would join the melee. Meanwhile the usually weak reserve tried to be useful on the flanks, or stiffened places that faltered, or plugged holes. In sum it had been a division neatly drawn up. Now its units, anything but neat, vaguely coherent, resembled a swarm of skirmishers.”1

This is really what ACW battles came down to. They were entirely indecisive as they lacked a deciding factor. Even infantry can be that factor with the right weapons but they just didn’t have them. Imagine two massive blobs of infantry with 5-6 men packed into a square meter elbow to elbow and using modern, rifled muskets. They would meet, fire off volleys at each other and try to act with a column attack that was entirely unsupported by cavalry and only marginally so by artillery and without any skirmishing body to weaken the enemy. It would have been an absolute bloodbath and a chaotic mess. With totally amateur officers on all levels of command compounding this men just could not engage with the enemy. There are too many cases of a battalion attempting a charge and just stopping short and breaking down formation into just, as Scheibert calls it, a loose collection of line infantry who are now “skirmishers” who just charged the enemy and are now, short of them, just dissolving into random and uncontrolled fire. In response to this by the end of the war bloody campaigns of attrition like the Petersburg and Overland campaigns.

Really one of the biggest issues with the Americans was their insistence on using, at first, the Regiment (1500) as the smallest tactical unit and later the Battalion (800). One officer would lead these men and if he died the entire thing went to crap. There was no backup plan — the entire regiment or battalion operates as one. It fights as one and dies as one. This was an incredibly Napoleonic way of doing things while, as our friend Scheibert will again observe, Europeans were already on the path out of:

“Prussian tactics freed (officers) to use their own minds… Liberated battalion and even company commanders could be the heads of tactical units, their own, and make them fight as right-thinking officers saw fit and as well-trained troops best could. The flexible line at the forward edge resembles a chain , then with detachable links under independent guidance. At crisis they can dismember into smaller and even the smallest units without disfunction… Our Prussian tactics thus gave our line officers energy, elasticity, and speed – to the entire army’s benefit… Furthermore, diligent peacetime training provided our troops an abundance of formations, something to fit any circumstance.”2

What Sheibert just described is what is commonly referred to as an “infantry chain”, that is, the gradual breaking down of infantry bodies into smaller tactically independent units. It doesn’t matter too much if your Battalion Commander gets popped because your lieutenant or your colonel or whatever can just break off on his own and make his own decisions.This is the beginnings of squad based warfare that will be so prevalent in WW2 and contemporary warfare. Rather than operating in groups of 800 or god forbid 1500 you would see Company’s and Platoons with men as little as 80-100 operating independent from the rest of the body. This harkens back to what I talked about in my first post with the Prussians and later the French and would be completely reminiscent of 20th century warfare.

The difference in the Napoleonic Wars as opposed to the American Revolution or the Crimean War or the Franco-Prussian War and the American Civil War:

  • The Napoleonic Wars were with flintlock muzzle loaded smoothbore muskets and would be reminiscent of 18th century warfare. Napoleon would be famous for using his infantry, skirmishing bodies, elite cavalry, and artillery to decisively force the enemy to commit their reserves. Once the reserves were committed Napoleon’s reserves would be organized into columns and then smashed with bayonets into the weakest link of the enemy line and ‘roll them up’. This is a very basic understanding of the wars but it provides a good enough overview.
  • In contract the Austro-Prussian War would be a good ‘transition point’ of where we see the old world make way for the new. Muskets versus breech loaded rifles. Tight infantry bodies and cavalry against infantry chains and skirmishing lines. It would be a total slaughter as imagined.
  • The Franco-Prussian War was absolutely nothing like the Napoleonic Wars. It would be masses of skirmishing lines hundreds of meters wide screening each other with massive artillery batteries pounding the enemy. The major technological change here would be percussion operated artillery shells and breech loaded Krupp guns versus timed fuse muzzle loaded cannons from the French. The
  • American Civil War was an attempt of the Americans, who had absolutely zero experience with higher levels of war to use Napoleonic tactics without any understanding of how they worked. The largest force an American general commanded in their history to this point was in the Mexican-American War and it was 12,000 men. They had zero experience with the operational or strategic level of war and had an officer corps totally unprepared for mobilized, modern, total warfare. Add into this their absolutely zero cavalry tradition (and thus no heavy cavalry to act as a decisive actor), horribly inefficient low level officers, and trying to use column charges against percussion cap minie ball firing muskets and you get the makings of a bloodbath. Infantry literally just charging head on into other infantry, breaking apart, and retreating. However no one side had a decisive actor so even if you lost horribly you didn’t really have to worry about pursuit. So every battle both sides could just retreat, lick their wounds, and go back to it. There was nothing forcing the victory or being that final crush that made the enemy truly crushed.


[1] Justus Scheibert, A Prussian Observes the American Civil War: The Military Studies of Justus Scheibert, edited & revised by Frederic Trautmann, p.41

[2] Scheibert, 49

Further Reading:

The Franco-Prussia​n War: The German Invasion of France 1870-1871, Michael Howard

With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other: The Problem of Military Thought in the Civil War North, Carl Reardon

The Campaigns of Napoleon, David Chandler

Polish concentration camp survivor weeping near charred corpse of a friend, in Leipzig, Germany; ca. 1945


This photo was taken by Margaret Bourke-White (who  was the first female war correspondent in WWII. Also she’s also the photographer of the iconic Kentucky Flood photo.) She was a badass with a robotic heart. I could have never done what she did and maintained her love of life and compassionate nature.


Japanese Zeroes drop White Phosphorous Air-Burst Bombs on B-24 Bombers over Iwo Jima; ca. February, 1945



A smiling British soldier giving two thumbs up to the camera while escorting a column of German POWs after the Siege of Tobruk; ca. 1941


Top scientists at ground zero soon after the world’s first nuclear explosion; ca. July 1945


Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves inspect the melted remnants of the 100-foot steel tower that held the Trinity bomb. Ensuring that the testing of a bomb with unknown strength would remain completely secret, the government chose a location that was so remote they had to import their water from over 150 miles away.


Panzer III auf J in Waffen SS service; ca. 1943





Flamethrowers were developed just prior to the First World War, and going into the conflict… well, no one really knew exactly what they were capable of accomplishing. (Note: this is true of some of the most pivotal and memorable weapons of WWI, including poison gas, trenches, barbed-wire, the machine-gun, air-power, and submarines).

But as the Entente and the AxisCentral Powers armies began to dig down into the trenches that would chew through an entire generation, the flamethrower found its purpose: clearing trenches. The flammenwerfer, first invented in Germany by Richard Fiedler in 1901 could fire a single-burst of flame some 20 yards from the soldier firing the weapon. Critically, if a second shot was to be fired, the igniter would need to be replaced. Like so many of the German weapons of the First World War, it relied on surprise … it’s this rather limited usability that likely prevented the German Army from using their twelve companies of Flammenwerferapparaten until February 1915, when they were deployed against the French positions outside Verdun. It would be employed to far greater effect in July of that year against British trenches at Hooge. In both instances, the flamethrowers was used primarily not as a killing device in itself, but as a means to flush a trench-full of enemy soldiers out of the safety of their fortifications and into the line of raking machine-gun fire, a far surer way to kill.

It proved to be really only effective when fired from a trench, to an enemy trench… which meant that it could only be employed in situations where enemy trenches were less than 20 yards apart – an uncommon state. Moreover, a full charge of the ignition gases was enough for only 2 minutes of sustained fire before being exhausted. Still, the situations in which it proved useful were common enough that over the course of the conflict, Germany would find more than 600 engagements to utilize their terrible flame weapon.

For the allies, they quite simple couldn’t match the German ingenuity of the flammenwerfer, confined to using the completely non-portable “Livens Large Galley Flame Projector” more like a short-range artillery cannon than what we’d think of as a “flamethrower.” Here’s a shot of it in action:



Aerial view of Stockholm before 1934



A Chinese “Boxer” Foot Soldier During the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901


How did Hitler get the idea that there was a massive Jewish conspiracy in the world?

The Enlightenment and the onslaught of modernity following its earlier thinkers but especially the French Revolution had a profound impact on the thinking of the 19th century. With God being out of the game as the factor upon which the course of history and the legitimacy of power could be rested, discursive pressure formed to find new explanations for why the world was the way it was, why the people in it were different from each other, and what gave political power and order its legitimacy.

To solve this conundrum, various people formulated different answers. One you might be familiar with was Marxism, in the sense that Marx posed that the underlying force of history was class conflict and the legitimacy of power ultimately derived from the ownership of the means of production (simplified version here). But another and for this question very pertinent answer was also found in Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism wants to apply the concepts of survival of the fittest and natural selection to society and politics. In the age of the rise of nationalism, which saw nations respect the according races as the actors in the historical process (like Marx viewed classes), the theory of Social Darwinism was combined with the theory of races as the historical actors and created what in essence became the völkisch ideology.

Now where do the Jews fit into and what does this have to do with some sort of alleged conspiracy, you might be asking. Well, in the tradition of völkisch thought as formulated by thinkers such as Gobineau and Houston Steward Chamberlain races as the main historical actors were seen as acting through the nation, the latter being basically their tool or outlet to compete in Social Darwinist competition between them. The Jews thought of as a race had no nation – seen as their own race, which dates back to them being imperial subject and older stereotypes of them as “the other” – but were a “race” that acted internationally rather than nationally. In order to be able to compete within the racial conflict them having no nation were seen as acting in a conspiratorial manner. Chamberlain e.g. made them out to be the controlling parasites behind political action and order that was seen as anti-national such as the Catholic Church or the Habsburg Empire. The anti-Semitism that formed here in the later stages of the 19th century is in effect a ideology of conspiracy, alleging a Jewish conspiracy in order to weaken their racial competitors.

The clearest example of such a way of thinking can be found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a political treatise produced by the Tsarist Secret Police at some point in 1904/05 that alleges to be the minutes of a meeting of the leaders of the Jewish world conspiracy where they discuss their plans to get rid of all the world’s nations and take over the world. Despite these protocols being debunked as a forgery really quick, they had a huge impact on many anti-Semitic and völkisch thinkers in Europe, not at least for some in the Habsburg empire such as Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels and others which were most likely read by the young Hitler.

The whole trope of the Jewish conspiracy as formulated by völkisch thought took on a whole new importance with the end of WWI, the Bolshevik revolution, and the subsequent attempts at revolution in Germany and elsewhere.

The defeat of the Central powers were seen by many of its soldiers and ardent supporters not as a military defeat but as a “stab in the back”. The way the war ended in Germany with revolts of soldiers and the deposition of the monarchy by Social Democrats was the foundation for this myth that in essence revolved around Germany not being defeated by the Entente but by the enemies within. The trope of the enemy within being Jews and leftists had been brewing for a long time (see the Jew count of the German army in 1916/17) but really came to the forefront with the defeat. What followed compounded this further. The violence of revolution and counter-revolution as well as the treaty of Versaille lead to many völkisch inclined thinkers and political actors believing that Germany’s defeat and the subsequent peace terms could only be explained by a concerted act of the jewish conspiracy leading to internal enemies stabbing Germany in the back, threatening the very German way of life through Bolshevism and preparing the Jewish-Bolshevik takeover of Germany by making it defenseless through the Versaille treaty.

Democracy seen as faulty and antithetical to the German racial character and communism as an essential anti-national movement were both shunned by these völkisch ideologues and explained through a concerted effort by a conspiracy of the anti-national “race”, the Jews. This was the very core idea of völkisch thought and of Nazi Weltanschauung. In the end, for Hitler and many of his followers it was the only way to explain the state of the world because it hinged on this Social Darwinist, ultra-nationalist view of history being a history of races competing for power and supremacy.


• Chrisoph Dieckmann: Jüdischer Bolschewismus 1917 bis 1921. In: Fritz Bauer Jahrbuch 2012.

• Johannes Rogalla: »Jüdischer Bolschewismus« Mythos und Realität, Dresden 2002.

• Robert Gerwarth: The Central European Counter-Revolutionary: Paramilitary Violence in Germany, Austria, and Hungary after the Great War.

• Andre Gerrits: Anti-Semitism and Anti-Communism in Easter Europe.

• Peter Pulzer: The rise of political anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria.