Most historians of the war argue that poison gas on the battlefield was a failure and usually measure its effectiveness based on its lethality. But Tim Cook argues in No Place to Run that this may be true in that gas was not a “war-winning weapon,” but historians should remember that gas was a much more “complicated and nuanced weapon.” It was far more effective at removing men from combat and leaving fear and unrest among its survivors. One soldier wrote that “it is a terrible and hateful sensation to be choked and suffocated and unable to get breath: a casualty from gun fire may be dying from his wounds, but they don’t give him the sensation that his life is being strangled out of him.” Thus, gas was effective for many reasons other than its lethality.
One, it was a weapon of fear. There was no escape from gas on the battlefield, there was no way to tell if you were actually out of range of the gas cloud, or it would be trapped in the buried earth of an artillery shell blast, or even spending a night in a respirator because a sentry mistook fog for a phosgene gas cloud. As Cook’s title notes, there was “no place to run.”
Two, gas was primarily a casualty-causing agent rather than a killer. Cook notes that in 1918 when the Germans were using mustard gas, British gas casualties rose to from 7.2% in 1917 to 15% of total casualties. Yet, at the same fatality rates from gas dropped from 3.4% in 1917 to 2.4% in 1918. Gas wounded soldiers required their comrades to bring them off the battlefield, clogging up supply lines, aid stations and weakening the manpower available to actually continue an offensive. Or, imagine heading to the frontlines while passing the lines of gurgling, choking men who would never die from their wounds but would never recover either. The fear of gas was a far more important weapon than the casualties inflicted.
Even gas casualties statistics are misleading. The British army reports somewhere between 1.1 and 1.3 million gas casualties in the war, of which 91,000 died. This is not as large a number as you might think. Mostly it looks as if gas warfare was ineffective. For example, if the Germans released 600 canisters of chlorine gas and only caused 50 British casualties, this would be seen as a failure. Yet that attack would force the entire line of British soldiers to wear respirators for the duration of the battle – drastically changing the nature of the engagement even without the statistics to prove success.
Both armies on the Western Front (dont know much about other theatres) quickly adapted to the reality of gas warfare. Soldiers were trained to put on masks and protective gear quickly and without thinking – even a few seconds could save you from decades of agony or death. Intensive gas training was increasingly a part of an effective unit’s ability to fight on the battlefields of the Western Front, as there was always the fear of gas in any battle by the last years of the war. Soldiers had to act without thinking – the second the whistle blew that gas was spotted, or when a gas shell landed 5 metres in front of you, you had to immediately adjust your gear or put on your mask, and then keep fighting. Any hesitation could be lethal. Total gas warfare, when both sides began using choking gas, tear gas, and gas that burned any skin it came in contact with, meant that armies had to be trained at many levels. Small things like Doctors removing contaminated fabric from the wounded to avoid gas burns had to be “learned” in medical services dealing with gas casualties. Still, total preparation did not stop gas casualties. Hiding gas shells in the midst of a high explosive artillery barrage could catch soldiers unaware, or gas stuck in shell holes, or gas mixing with the mud and water of the trenches. Days after an attack, a soldier might be discovered dead after digging a hole to rest in during the night, or severely burned as water shifted in the muddy landscape onto a soldier as he slept.
Cook’s work on gas warfare stands out as one of the few historical studies that belie the established narrative in the Canadian literature on the war. I am not sure how other nations’ historians have treated it. Unlike other Canadian historians of the First World War, such as Duguid and Nicholson, Cook’s writing on gas warfare provides depth to the history of the weapon as more than simply an immoral tool of war. He argued that the “gas environment” where a soldier had to fear a gas attack at any moment, or endure fighting within the gas cloud, had had dramatic consequences for all the soldiers of the war. Cooks attempts to re-imagine the entire soldier experience of the trenches as one equally marked by toxic gas as by artillery shells and machine gun bullets. The image of the war he describes presents an important but subtle difference from what other historians have written. It is an atrocious world where the brief moments of courage do little to overcome the unending horrors of gas warfare. It was “like water rotting wood,” Cook writes, “not often immediately deadly, but … constant, insidious, and demoralizing.” His picture has little in common with the image of the successful, deadly, and honourable Canadian soldier. By the end of the war during the Hundred Days, Cook argues that “the Canadian way of war was steeped in poison gas.” Consider that 1 in 4 American casualties were from gas warfare, which demonstrates how the lack of proper gas protocols in the unbloodied American army severely affected their fighting capability. Gas warfare was a reality of the Western Front, one to which armies had to adapt or perish. So while most historians, and popular memory, acknowledge the pervasiveness of gas warfare in the First World War, few address its totality and its effects on tactics and operations.
Gas warfare wasn’t technically banned until the 1925 Geneva Protocol, and even still chemical agents have been used since the First World War. The Italians used it against the Abyssinians in the 30s, Japan used it against the Chinese, there are unconfirmed reports that Egypt used it against Yemen in the 60s, the United States’ use of napalm in Vietnam, allegations of Soviet use in Afghanistan in the 80s, and of course Iraq using it against Iran also in the 80s. One of the biggest fears of the American Army as it entered Iraq in the First Gulf War was being confronted with chemical warfare.
LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin (Deutsches Luftschiff Zeppelin #127; Registration: D-LZ 127) was a German-built and -operated, passenger-carrying, hydrogen-filled, rigid airship which operated commercially from 1928 to 1937. It was named after the German pioneer of airships, Graf Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who was a Count in the German nobility.
The ‘Graf Zeppelin’ is considered the finest airship ever built. It flew more miles than any airship had done to that time or would in the future. Its first flight was on September 18, 1928. In August 1929, it circled the globe. Its flight began with a trip from Friedrichshaften, Germany, to Lakehurst, New Jersey, allowing William Randolph Hearst, who had financed the trip in exchange for exclusive rights to the story, to claim that the voyage began from American soil.
Piloted by Eckener, the craft stopped only at Tokyo, Japan, Los Angeles, California, and Lakehurst. The trip took 12 days—less time than the ocean trip from Tokyo to San Francisco.
During the 10 years the Graf Zeppelin flew, it made 590 flights including 144 ocean crossings. It flew more than one million miles (1,609,344 kilometers), visited the United States, the Arctic, the Middle East, and South America, and carried 13,110 passengers.
Four-year-old Michael Finder of East Germany is tossed by his father into a net held by firemen across the border in West Berlin. The apartments were in East Berlin while their windows opened into West Berlin; October 7th, 1961
German infiltrators lined up for execution by firing squad after conviction by a military court for wearing U.S. uniforms during the Battle of the Bulge; ca. 1944
These men were part of Operation Greif (Griffin). From left to right are Schmidt, Billing, and Pernass.
“Perhaps the largest panic was created when a German commando team was captured near Aywaille on 17 December. Comprising Unteroffizier Manfred Pernass, Oberfähnrich Günther Billing, and Gefreiter Wilhelm Schmidt, they were captured when they failed to give the correct password. It was Schmidt who gave credence to a rumor that Skorzeny intended to capture General Dwight Eisenhower and his staff….Pernass, Billing, and Schmidt were given a military trial at Henri-Chapelle on 21 December and were sentenced to death and executed by a firing squad on 23 December.”
The soldiers in the picture were executed after a military trial pursuant to the Hague Convention of 1907. The commander of the operation, Otto Skorzeny, was actually tried after the war – along with a significant number of concentration camp officials and guards, in the Dachau tribunals. Interestingly, Skorzeny and the other surviving officers involved in Operation Greif were acquitted based on the argument that the German soldiers in American uniforms were not technically ordered to fight (just to spread deception). However, it has generally been accepted that wearing an enemy’s uniform and infiltrating his lines is a great way to get yourself shot as a spy.
Plenty of concentration camp guards and officials were executed. There was also an extrajudicial massacre of concentration camp guards at Dachau, carried out by the troops who liberated the camp.
Hjalmar Schacht was an economist of the Weimar Republic and for the Nazis until his dismissal in 1937 due to his opposition to German rearmament. He was known for working with or developing several schemes that the Germans used throughout the interwar period.
The first scheme he was known for was the introduction of the Rentenmark. The currency of the Weimar Republic was normally the Reichsmark, but several things happened after World War I that caused great turmoil in the German economy. Many Germans considered the reparations to be a great outrage (as reparations are paid in “defeat,” and in the view of many Germans, Germany had not lost the war). To that extent, the Germans were willing to sabotage their own economy in an attempt to get the reparations waived or dismissed, due to a supposed German inability to pay it. This is all documented in Sally Marks’ “Myths of Reparations.”
One mechanism of their attempts to sabotage the reparations was to print large amounts of their currency. While there were several relatively sane ways that the Germans could purchase the gold and goods necessary for reparations, such as issuing bonds, raising taxes, or even taking on foreign currency debt, the Germans instead deliberately chose to print Reichsmarks, in an effort to wreck the German economy, thus bringing the Entente to the table to renegotiate the reparations. And it worked-the Dawes and Young Plans, created in the wake of the ensuing Weimar Hyperinflation, allowed to Germans to restructure and reduce the amount of reparations. This was of course at the expense of two years of German economic growth, which resulted in gross wealth destruction and was only fixed by the introduction of the Rentenmark. The Rentenmark, which Schacht was one of several economist that developed the scheme, was a substitute Reichsmark that used German land (real estate) as collateral, much in the lines several other countries used gold or silver to back their currencies. This was introduced into the German economy and helped to restore stability.
It should be noted that during this time, Schacht was only one of a handful of economists and political figures that assisted in the Weimar Republic’s return to economic growth. Hans Luther and Karl Helfferich were the main economists responsible for the Rentenmark.
Schacht in Nazi Germany, because of his political support and his rather sketchy if not outright illegal financial maneuvering to support the Nazis, was able to become Minister of Economics. During this time, he continued the programs of the previous German administration (namely, public works to artificially lower unemployment numbers, such as the autobahn) and expanded them into a general plan for German autarky. The two main issues he had to deal with were the lack of foreign reserves (caused by the German sell off due to the Great Depression) and the means of rearmament.
Simply put, if Germany ran out of foreign reserves, it would not only be hard pressed to trade with other countries but it would also severely weaken the strength of the German mark. To get around this, Schacht helped structure several trade transactions with South American, European, and even a handful of Asian countries whereby German could acquire strategic materials necessary for rearmament in exchange for either German marks or German goods, which would allow time for the Nazis to balance the foreign reserves deficit (which they never did, instead doubling down on it to increase the rate of rearmament).
The Mefos bills that he created were another tool whereby the Germans could secretly rearm themselves using economic tricks. As president of the Reichsbank, Schacht in theory was only supposed to be a lender of last resort-namely, his job was to be independent of the government and only to step in to preserve monetary stability. However, by issuing Mefos bills, he was able to secretly (if not fraudulently) loan money directly to the German government through a dummy corporation.
This allowed the German government to take on far more debt than any sane investor would have bought on, at a lower rate of interest. For a simple finance lesson, the more debt a country has, the greater the risk. An investor would demand a higher interest rate in return for taking on this higher risk. Since the interest rate for Germany was essentially fixed around 4.50%, this meant there was a theoretical ceiling after which nobody would be willing to buy German government bonds. Through the use of the Mefos bills, in addition to hiding arms purchases from Britain and France, they were also able to bypass this ceiling.
Of course, this would have been completely unsustainable, and would have required the acquisition of large amounts of foreign reserves to balance out the fact that the ostensibly independent Reichsbank was in fact loaning money to the German government, which would otherwise cause rapid inflation as it turned out German currency wasn’t worth what people thought it was. This was part of the reason why the Nazi government chose to invade many countries-one of their most important objectives was the seizure of all the currency and reserves in the various banks, to feed the gaping maw in the German economy left by Schacht and the Nazis’ policies.
At the end of the day, Schacht wasn’t a particularly brilliant economist, but he did participate in both legitimate economic schemes (as the Rentenmark) as well as some more fraudulent ones (like the Mefos bills) in order to keep Germany’s economy afloat. Still, the fact remains that despite his willingness to fund German rearmament, Nazi rearmament was still too fast even for him, which eventually led to his resignation and collaboration with the German resistance. This should show that he was not in fact some lone genius, but rather one of several German economists that happened to be in a position of leadership during the Weimar Republic and later the Nazi regime.
Sally Marks, The Myth of Reparations
Adam Tooze, Wages of Destruction
A photographer in West Berlin kicks a policeman standing across the border in East Berlin during demonstrations at Checkpoint Charlie; August 13th, 1986
When I arrived at Friedrichstrasse on 13 August 1986, demonstrators were taunting police at Checkpoint Charlie. The white line indicates the frontier between East and West. I took one step across the line, which would normally be dangerous, but the policemen were busy controlling the demonstrators. Then the man on the left kicked the policeman’s backside. My picture, symbolizing the crazy situation in Berlin, was widely published in Germany and abroad.
The first light of the Trinity test, the first atomic bomb detonation, burns through film emulsion. New Mexico, July 16th, 1945, 5:30am
The photo was by Brlyn Brixner. He was a real innovator in photography and an official photographer for the Manhattan Project. Brixner had something like 50 cameras set up that day, of all different types. Some could record at speeds of 10,000 frames per second.
If you watch the film footage that Brixner shot, you can see that the ball goes out of the frame briefly before the camera shoots up to follow it. This was Brixner’s fault. As he later said in an interview:
I was so amazed, though, initially that I just let the camera sit there. Then suddenly I realized that the ball of fire was going out of the field of view… for the first twenty seconds on the standard-speed camera it’s just sitting stationary, then suddenly you will see the field of view jump as the ball of fire is going out of the top of the frame.
German soldiers on outpost duty near Antwerp, sharing their food with Belgian orphans, published in 1915.
The basic Pickelhaube, as seen in the photo, was made of hardened (boiled) leather, given a glossy-black finish, and reinforced with a metal trim. Starting in 1892, a light brown cloth helmet cover, the M1892 Überzug, was issued for use during manoeuvres and active service. The Überzug was intended to protect the helmet from dirt and reduce its combat visibility, as the metallic fittings were highly reflective. As you mentioned regimental numbers were then sewn or stencilled onto the front of the cover.
This photo was most likely staged to generate evidence that countered Great Britain’s aggressive propaganda campaign against the German occupation of Belgium. Given this assumption there would be little reason for these men to don their Überzug.
As the war progressed, and Britain’s blockade limited Germanys leather supply, the economic factors you mentioned drove the government to produce Pickelhauben from thin sheet steel. However by 1915, as demand rapidly outpaced supply, pressurized felt and even paper was used to construct pickelhauben
By 1916, the Pickelhaube was slowly replaced the the new Stahlhelm (steel helmet) which offered greater over-all head protection.
German SS guards, exhausted from their forced labor clearing the bodies of the dead, are allowed a brief rest by British soldiers but are forced to take it by lying face down in one of the empty mass graves; ca. 1945
Taken during the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
There’s a famous quote from BBC journalist Richard Dimbleby, who was present at the liberation of this very camp.
Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life
Edda Göring and her mother, Emmy Göring, receive a handwritten letter from Hermann Göring in his death cell at Nürnberg; September 26th, 1946
Edda is the only daughter of Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Emmy Göring. Before married, Emmy (birth name Emma Johanna Henny Sonnemann) had been an actress. After marrying Göring in 10 April 1935, she became Germany’s first lady, since Hitler had no wife at the time. Emmy Göring was a genuinely gracious woman with a naive charm. Edda was born in 2 June 1938 and grew up in Berlin.
This photograph of Edda and Emmy was taken in Nürnberg on 26 September 1946, during the war crimes trial. Nineteen days later, Hermann Göring took his own life a day before his scheduled execution. At that time Edda was eight years old. After the trial Edda and her mother spent four years in an Allied prison camp. Years later, her mother would say it was the hardest time of their lives. After being released they lived in Münich.
Emmy died in 1973. In 1991 Gerald Posner published some quotes from Edda in his book “Hitler’s Children”. Edda complained that after the war “the government was terrible. They didn’t even let me keep [my father’s] wartime medals. The Americans stole his special baton.” Edda was very much anti-America and probably blamed America in particular for her father’s death. She rejected the overwhelming evidence that her father was involved with the war crimes.
In Posner’s book Edda was quoted as saying, “My only memories of him are such loving ones, I cannot see him any other way. I actually expect that most everybody has a favorable opinion of my father, except maybe in America. He was a good father to me.”
It’s important to note that nobody really hated the Nazi’s until around 1941, and really only intensely 1944. It wasn’t really until after the war that anti-Nazism went into full swing (as a result of discovering/confirming the horrible scope of the holocaust). It’s like everyone forgot that major industrialists in the US and western Europe praised the growth the Nazi’s brought German industry and focus it afforded their politics.
If they hadn’t committed the holocaust, I really wonder how different their legacy would have been. The neo-Nazi’s might have been a modern-day political party. Heck, if they hadn’t invaded Western Europe and focused on the Russians, they might still be around. …maybe they would have founded the European Union themselves – earlier, and included Russia.
The Free Arabian Legion provided an opportunity for German blacks who wanted to fight for the Reich. The unit’s founder was Haj Amin Al Husseini, an anti-Semite Muslim.
The Legion included Arab volunteers from the Middle East and North Africa, war prisoners who opted to fight instead of go to prison … and blacks. In the end, the Legion saw very little combat action—and most of that during the Allies’ Operation Torch in French North Africa.
Nazi racial ideology in practice could be very inconsistent:
- 57% of Soviet prisoners and millions of Soviet civilians die as a result of intentional Nazi policy. But a Russian volunteer battallion is raised to fight for Nazi Germany
- Several groups of Africans fighting for France are murdered upon capture by German troops. But some African volunteers are enlisted in the German armed forces
- Ethnic Germans in Poland are deemed superior to Poles. But these ethnic Germans, when found guilty of rape, are punished and declared as not being like “true” German men
- Non-white colonial POWs who fought for France are treated badly and suffer worse mortality rates than white French POWs. But yet the Germans collaborate with certain groups of non-whites.
Hitler asking a frostbitten and snow ravaged soldier not to salute him, but to instead rest and recover; ca. 1941- 42
Most likely taken sometime between November 1941 and March 1942. During the Winter Crisis, the majority of the Wehrmacht were still equipped with their worn out summer uniforms and summer boots (often stuffed with newspapers to try to make them warmer). This was a direct failure of the German High Command to properly equip their soldiers for winter combat in the inhospitable Russian terrain.
Additionally, across large portions of the front, the Germans were not able to successfully enter prepared defensive positions until late in the winter. As a result, the soldiers were literally lying in the snow in their summer uniforms while the temperature was regularly -40 degrees. For a German General’s view on this see Gotthard Heinrici’s recently published letters and diaries.
I don’t think this is a PR photo. At this point in time the German senior leadership was still trying to present events in the East in the most favorable light possible. Obviously, a photograph of this man’s injuries would shock anyone who saw it in a newspaper.
Also, this man’s injuries are directly attributable to Hitler himself. During the early autumn of 1941, he refused to ship adequate cold weather clothing to the front line as he perpetually believed that the Soviets would collapse in only a few weeks. Needless to say, this did not come to pass.