Category Archives: labor

Born and Bred in the NK Gulag

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 119-134:

In stories of concentration camp survival, there is a conventional narrative arc. Security forces steal the protagonist away from a loving family and a comfortable home. To survive, he abandons moral principles, suppresses feelings for others, and ceases to be a civilized human being.

In perhaps the most celebrated of these stories, Night, by Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, the thirteen-year-old narrator explains his torment with an account of the normal life that existed before he and his family were packed aboard trains bound for Nazi death camps. Wiesel studied the Talmud daily. His father owned a store and watched over their village in Romania. His grandfather was always present to celebrate the Jewish holidays. But after the boy’s entire family perished in the camps, Wiesel was left “alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.”

Shin’s story of survival is different.

His mother beat him, and he viewed her as a competitor for food. His father, who was allowed by guards to sleep with his mother just five nights a year, ignored him. His brother was a stranger. Children in the camp were untrustworthy and abusive. Before he learned anything else, Shin learned to survive by snitching on all of them.

Love and mercy and family were words without meaning. God did not disappear or die. Shin had never heard of him. In a preface to Night, Wiesel wrote that an adolescent’s knowledge of death and evil “should be limited to what one discovers in literature.”

In Camp 14, Shin did not know literature existed. He saw only one book in the camp, a Korean grammar, in the hands of a teacher who wore a guard’s uniform, carried a revolver on his hip, and beat one of his primary school classmates to death with a chalkboard pointer.

Unlike those who have survived a concentration camp, Shin had not been torn away from a civilized existence and forced to descend into hell. He was born and raised there. He accepted its values. He called it home.

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Civil Rights in Romania, 1866–1919

From A Concise History of Romania (Cambridge Concise Histories), by Keith Hitchins (Cambridge, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1926-1950:

The formation of the two large, dominant political parties in the decade after the adoption of the Constitution of 1866 largely completed the political superstructure of the pre-World War era. With the National Liberal Party and the Conservative Party in place, the parliamentary system came fully into being.

The authors of the Constitution and the founders of political parties gave no notice specifically to women. That women should play an active role in the new political system as a distinct social group or could even have issues of their own requiring political debate, let alone legislative action, struck the majority of political leaders as highly novel ideas. Thus the Constitution of 1866 and subsequent parliamentary acts left women in a juridical status that could be traced back to the law codes of Matei Basarab and Vasile Lupu in the middle of the seventeenth century. They stipulated the legal dependence of the wife on the husband in all matters, making her position essentially that of a minor. Thus, down to the First World War, in accordance with the Civil Code of 1866, women could not be a party to any legal arrangement without the consent of her husband or a judge and could not freely dispose of their inheritance or other wealth acquired during marriage. Discrimination in public employment was widespread. Certain professions were closed even to women with university degrees, and those with legal training were not allowed to plead cases in court on the grounds that they did not enjoy political rights. Women were, indeed, deprived of political rights, and the general mood of the time made any significant change unlikely. When several members of the Chamber of Deputies, including C. A. Rosetti, during the debate on the revision of the Constitution in 1884 proposed that married women who met the financial requirements for the ballot be allowed to vote directly for candidates, the response from many colleagues was laughter.

Another category of society also had formidable obstacles to overcome in order to gain civil rights. Gypsies had been slaves since their arrival in the Romanian principalities from south of the Danube in the fourteenth century. They were subject to various labor services and payments, depending upon whether their masters were princes, boiers, or clergy and whether they themselves were settled or nomadic. Even though they contributed much to the economies of the principalities through their labor in agriculture and as craftsmen, they occupied the margins of Romanian society, since their style of life was fundamentally different. Support for their emancipation came from many sides, especially liberals. Mihail Kogălniceanu wrote Esquisse sur l’histoire, les moeurs et la language des Cigains (1837) in order to acquaint the political and cultural elites with their condition and spur reform, and Ion Câmpineanu freed his own slaves. Through the efforts of reformers the Gypsies achieved full emancipation in Moldavia in 1855 and in Wallachia in 1856. In the half-century down to the First World War some of the 200,000 to 250,000 Gypsies settled on land the state made available to them or moved to cities, while many continued their nomadic way of life. In any case, the great majority remained outsiders.

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Farmer-soldiers on the Hokkaido Frontier

From Hokkaido, A History of Ethnic Transition and Development on Japan’s Northern Island, by Ann B. Irish (McFarland, 2009), pp. 115-117:

Traditional Japanese practices of government and administration were not suited to an enterprise such as pioneer settlement. Allowing freedom and adaptability rather than following set regulations—which might not fit the conditions—was not the Japanese way. Japan had no tradition of democracy. Moreover, with some Kaitakushi officials in Tokyo and others in Sapporo and the slowness of communication at the time, administration was bound to be difficult.

In 1874, the Kaitakushi [Development Commission] gained official permission to recruit ex-samurai to go to the northern island as tondenhei [屯田兵 'camp-field-soldier'], or farmer-soldiers. These former samurai whose feudal lords had not supported the Meiji Restoration now had no means of making a living; their lords encouraged emigration to Hokkaido. As early as 1854, several shogunate inspectors in Hokkaido had recommended a tondenhei system; perhaps the Russian policy of setting up Cossack outposts in Siberia inspired the scheme. The first such Hokkaido settlement appeared in 1875, when 198 farmer-soldiers and their families came to Sapporo and established homes in the Kotoni district, northwest of today’s city center. The government furnished each former samurai with eight acres of land and a house complete with a Russian stove to cope with the winter cold. The men even received cold weather uniforms. In return, the eighteen to thirty-five year old male settlers were placed in regiments and participated in military exercises (mostly in the winter, when farming tasks did not claim their immediate attention). They would turn out for military duty if needed. Thus they could help protect Hokkaido from the Russians. They carried guns and, as former samurai, swords. By the end of 1876, more than two thousand tondenhei soldier-farmers had gone to Hokkaido in the program, many simply because the Meiji Restoration had deprived them of their livelihood. Though at first only former samurai were included, later the scheme was opened to others. After the 1875 treaty settled the border with Russia, the military justification no longer seemed so important, and few more tondenhei were recruited. In 1903 they were incorporated into the nation’s army. During the years of recruitment, over seven thousand tondenhei families participated in establishing about forty villages in Hokkaido.

One very small tondenhei settlement near Sapporo only had thirty-two households, but almost all the others held between 150 and 220 families. Most of these villages were placed in the Ishikari Valley, around Sapporo and Takikawa and upstream in the Kamikawa basin, in which Asahikawa sits. A few tondenhei villages were along the coast, at Muroran and near Akkeshi and Nemuro far to the east. The eastern settlements, established from 1886 to about 1890, were planned as defense posts because Russian encroachment via the Kuril Islands seemed a possibility despite the border treaty adopted in 1875 by Japan and Russia. Three tondenhei villages were placed upstream on the Tokoro River and two on the Yubetsu, both streams emptying into the Sea of Okhotsk on Hokkaido’s northeast coast. The most prosperous area of tondenhei settlement, though, was in the Kamikawa basin [incl. Biei and Furano above Asahikawa]. Here the settlers found fertile soild and a climate suitable for farming, with hot summer weather. The tondenhei settlers cultivated northern crops, but as hardy strains of rice later became available, farmers shifted more and more of the land to rice cultivation, which dominated the area by the early twentieth century.

The tondenhei lived a regulated life, for example working a twelve hour day in the fields from April to September. During the colder part of the year, the workday would last for only eleven hours, men either clearing land or participating in military drill. Many of the tondenhei had a hard time, as they were not used to farming. But families did work together—each family recruited had to include two able-bodied members who could work in addition to the farmer-soldier—and lend a hand to each other. Some of the tondenhei served in the Russo-Japanese War.

Tondenhei settlements were more successful than other new communities in Hokkaido. The Kaitakushi set aside good land for the tondenhei villages, which also received other special benefits. Moreover, as former samurai, the farmer-soldiers were often people who could exert leadership or influence farmers who did not have such advantages. Some years later, tondenhei military units became the famed and respected Seventh Division in the Army of Japan.

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Stalin’s Great Terror and Its Mitigation

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 3100-3114, 3297-3309:

But the Great Terror was more than a bloodletting among Bolsheviks. It was a complex series of repressions involving many different groups. The striking thing about it, compared to other waves of Soviet terror, is that such a high proportion of the victims were murdered. Of the 1.5 million people arrested by the secret police (and we do not have the figures for arrests by the regular police), 1.3 million were sentenced, and more than half of these (681,692 people) were executed by a firing squad for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. At the height of the Great Terror, between August 1937 and November 1938, on average 1,500 people were shot each day. The population of the Gulag labour camps meanwhile grew from 1.2 to 1.9 million, a figure which conceals at least 140,000 deaths within the camps themselves.

The sheer scale of the Great Terror makes it all the harder to explain. The types of people caught in it were so diverse. Some historians have maintained that it is best understood as a number of related but separate waves of terror, each one capable of being explained on its own but not as part of a single phenomenon. There was certainly a complex amalgam of different elements that made up the Great Terror: the purging of the Party, the great ‘show trials’, the mass arrests in the cities, the ‘kulak operation’ and ‘national operations’ against minorities. But while it may be helpful to analyse these various components separately, the fact remains that they all began and ended simultaneously, which does suggest that they were part of a unified campaign that needs to be explained. To begin to understand it, we must look at the Great Terror, not, as some have argued, as an uncontrolled or accidental happening, a product of the chaos and infighting of the Stalinist regime, nor as something driven by social pressures from below, as argued by ‘revisionist’ historians, but as an operation, which we now know from studying the archives was masterminded and controlled by Stalin directly in response to the circumstances he perceived in 1937.

At the rate the arrests were going on, it would not be long before doubts spread. How many ‘enemies of the people’ could there be? By 1938 it was becoming clear that unless the arrests came to an end the terror system would be undermined. The terror was getting out of control. In January Stalin warned the NKVD not to carry on arresting people solely on the basis of denunciations without first checking their veracity. He spoke against ‘false vigilance’ and careerists who made denunciations to promote themselves. Yezhov’s power was gradually reduced. In November he was replaced by his deputy, Lavrenty Beria, who immediately announced a full review of the arrests in Yezhov’s reign. By 1940, 1.5 million cases were reviewed; 450,000 convictions were quashed, 128,000 cases closed, 30,000 people released from jail, and 327,000 people let out of the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies. These releases restored many people’s faith in Soviet justice. They allowed those with doubts to explain the ‘Yezhov terror’ as a temporary aberration rather than as a product of the system. Their reasoning went like this: the mass arrests had all been Yezhov’s doing, but Stalin had corrected his mistakes, and uncovered Yezhov as an ‘enemy of the people’ (he was shot in 1940), who had tried to undermine the Soviet government by arresting so many innocent people and thus spreading discontent. People now accepted that anybody not released by Beria, and everyone arrested under him, must be guilty of the crimes for which they stood accused. The belief system had been stabilized, allowing rule by terror to go on.

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The October 1917 Coup d’Etat

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1480-1493:

In the big industrial cities there was a similar process of radicalization in the wake of the Kornilov crisis. The Bolsheviks were the principal beneficiaries of this, winning their first majority in the Petrograd Soviet on 31 August. The Soviets of Riga, Saratov and Moscow fell to them soon afterwards. The rising fortunes of the Bolsheviks were due mainly to the fact that they were the only major political party which stood uncompromisingly for ‘All power to the Soviets’.

This point bears emphasizing, for one of the most basic misconceptions about the October Revolution is that the Bolsheviks were swept to power on a tide of mass support for the Party. They were not. The October insurrection was a coup d’état, actively supported by a small minority of the population, but it took place in the midst of a social revolution, which was focused on the popular ideal of Soviet power. After the Kornilov crisis there was a sudden outpouring of resolutions from factories, villages and army units calling for a Soviet government. But almost without exception they called on all the socialist parties to participate in its establishment, and often showed a marked impatience with their factional disputes.

The real significance of the Kornilov Affair was that it reinforced the popular belief in a ‘counter-revolutionary’ threat against the Soviet—a threat the Bolsheviks would invoke to mobilize the Red Guards and other militants in October. In this sense the Kornilov Affair was a dress rehearsal for the Bolshevik seizure of power. The Bolshevik Military Organization emerged from the underground—where it had been since July—with renewed strength from its participation in the struggle against Kornilov. The Red Guards were also reinforced: 40,000 of them had been armed in the crisis. As Trotsky later wrote, ‘the army that rose against Kornilov was the army-to-be of the October revolution’.

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British Indian POWs in New Guinea

From Hell’s Battlefield: The Australians in New Guinea in World War II, by Phillip Bradley (Allen & Unwin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6755-6767:

As far back as 10 December 1944, the first two Indian prisoners of war had been found by an Australian patrol. Indians had been brought in by the Japanese to work in labour companies, and these two had walked for forty-five days from Wewak. The advance towards Balif in March gathered up more emaciated Indians: Sandy Pearson released some who had been kept in bamboo cages and were unable to stand. In March 1945, Gavin Long talked to a released Indian who had been captured in Singapore and brought to Wewak with about 500 other POW-slaves. Long wrote, ‘I have never seen a man so thin, he was literally skin and bone.’

The 2/8th Battalion recovered 102 Indian prisoners of the Japanese. Despite their starving condition, they refused bully beef because their Hindu faith proscribed it. One man who had survived a Japanese massacre fifteen days previously had been carried in on a stretcher. He gratefully ate biscuits and then gathered all the fallen crumbs and placed them in his shirt pocket.

By the end of the campaign, 201 Indian prisoners had been rescued by the 6th Division, the only survivors of around 3000 who had been brought to Wewak in May 1943. As Jemadar Chint Singh later wrote, ‘At this hour of our calamity the Division worked as [an] Angel for us.’ The angels kept particularly close to Singh: of the handful of Indian prisoners recovered from Japanese control at the surrender, he was the only one not on board during an aircraft accident in which the rest perished.

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Filed under Australia, Britain, food, India, Japan, labor, Papua New Guinea, slavery, war

Japan’s South Seas Detachment Crosses the Line, 1942

From Darkest Hour: The True Story of Lark Force at Rabaul – Australia’s Worst Military Disaster of World War II, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1125-1147:

Private Akiyoshi Hisaeda, from the Ehime Prefecture of Shikoku, kept a diary as he sailed to Rabaul aboard the transport Venice Maru. He described the conditions as “very cramped and uncomfortable,” and noted that the temperature inside the ship reached 43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit). Life inside the other transports was equally awful. There was little fresh water, and the crude wooden benjos (latrines) were up on the main deck, which also happened to be where the meals were cooked. Down below, everyone was tormented by hordes of flies.

The Japanese soldiers were no strangers to terrible conditions or harsh environments. Their rigorous training system, based on the principle of instant obedience achieved through strict discipline, had prepared them well. From the moment they began training as recruits, they were immersed in a culture of degradation and abuse, a rude awakening for people who had spent their entire lives learning group harmony. Not only were recruits cursed and shamed in front of their peers, they were also beaten regularly. Sometimes they were hit on the buttocks with wooden sticks, other times they were slapped, usually with an open hand but occasionally with the sole from a hobnailed shoe. Many instructors were sadistic, barely more than thugs, and they had tremendous latitude to punish recruits with methods calculated to break down every vestige of individuality. Frequently the entire class or platoon received the same punishment: If one suffered, all suffered.

One of the cruelest penalties was meted out during evening meals. Picked at random, recruits were ordered to recite by memory from the Gunjin Chokuyu [軍人勅諭 aka 'Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors'], “Emperor Meiji’s Instructions to the Men of the Fighting Services.” First issued in 1883, it exhorted warriors to carry out their duties with loyalty, propriety, valor, faithfulness, and simplicity. The wording was archaic, difficult to memorize, and if anyone made a mistake or forgot a passage, he was forbidden to eat. For recruits already bruised, exhausted, and ravenous from the day’s training, the denial of food was excruciating. After six months or more of such extreme conditioning, the recruits emerged as well-disciplined soldiers, their “bodies and minds tempered hard as steel.” The men of the South Seas Detachment were no different, and could tolerate anything that nature or the Imperial Army could throw at them.

WHEN THE INVASION FORCE REACHED THE EQUATOR AT 0500 ON JANUARY 20, the South Seas Detachment paused to commemorate a special event. In all of Japan’s 2,600-year history, they were the first army force to cross the line. Miyake later described the scene aboard his vessel: “On the day we crossed the equator, all the men, fully armed and equipped, assembled on deck. ‘At this time, when we are about to … advance into the southern hemisphere, we shall pay our respect toward the Imperial Palace,’ said the commander toward his assembled subordinates. Solemnly, and with overflowing emotions, the men presented arms toward the north.”

The South Seas Detachment [南海支隊 Nankai Shitai], under Imperial Japanese Navy command, was mostly drawn from Japan’s 55th Division, which was recruited primarily from Shikoku and played a key role in the Burma Campaign. The 55th Division’s home base and elite POW camp was Zentsūji. The POWs included about 200 Americans captured by the South Seas Detachment on Guam and Wake Island, a few dozen mostly British prisoners from Singapore, and 60 Australian officers from Rabaul. The Zentsūji POW camp was a Potemkin village to impress International Red Cross representatives with Japan’s humane treatment of its captives. Most of the rest of the men captured in the Rabaul Campaign died aboard the hell ship Montevideo Maru en route to Hainan Island, when it was torpedoed by an American submarine, the USS Sturgeon, on 1 July 1942. The loss of those 1050+ men was Australia’s single worst military disaster of World War II.

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Filed under Australia, Britain, Japan, labor, military, nationalism, Pacific, Papua New Guinea, U.S., war