Category Archives: Europe

South Caucasus Just Waiting for Europe?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4017-4050:

It seems an almost inbuilt problem of the South Caucasus that a positive development in one place causes alarm in another. Armenian-Turkish rapprochement angers Azerbaijan, which turns to Moscow. The “reset” American-Russian relationship is seen to damage Georgia. As soon as there was talk of the Armenian-Turkish border reopening, some Georgians were heard to worry aloud that the rerouting of trade would be bad for Georgia. Zero-sum thinking prevails.

The region suffers from a lack of inclusive thinking. Most of the big ideas and regional initiatives that have emerged in the last decade and a half have excluded either one of the South Caucasus countries themselves or a key outside power. Both Iran and Turkey have proposed “security pacts” for the Caucasus that have left out the United States and the European Union. The Commonwealth of Independent States is now without Georgia. GUAM excluded Armenia. For awhile, Moscow unsuccessfully promoted the idea of a “Caucasus Four” that included it and the three South Caucasus countries. Concentrating on a “Black Sea region” is to the detriment of Azerbaijan. Focusing on the Caspian leaves out Armenia. The metaphor of a “Silk Road,” pretty though it is, implies a return to a premodern world in which Russia did not exist. The idea of a “Great Game” unhelpfully casts Russia in a reprised role of a hostile nineteen-century power.

History has meant that there have never been any successful voluntary integration projects here. The plan for an independent Transcaucasian Federation in April 1918 collapsed after only a month. The only other unions have been colonial ones imposed from above, by the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires and by the Soviet Union. The Soviet project is hard to defend, but it did have the effect of bringing people together in a cohesive economic structure that many people still miss. In retrospect, the South Caucasian nationalists of the late 1980s lurched from one extreme to another when they took a bulldozer to the complex Soviet system. They exchanged suffocating integration for extreme disintegration, and you could say that they threw out the Caucasian baby with the Communist bathwater. Many of the economic and cultural links from those times are still there under the surface waiting to be reexploited.

The one neighbor that could be a facilitator for voluntary integration in the South Caucasus is the region that has itself accomplished such an integration, the EU. So far, unfortunately, the EU has been very slow to act in the region. One Georgian scholar says it is “too lazy and too late.” Most of its regional projects have been very modest. Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia, a European program started in 1993 for the eight countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, has spent less than 200 million euros since then—far less than BP, Gazprom, or USAID has spent in the region, to name three other foreign actors. The Eastern Partnership project is another laudable idea but is hampered by several constraints; the six countries involved have no membership perspective for the EU, which does not provide a strong incentive for reform. Promises of trade privileges and visa facilitation are more promising but have been watered down by European governments.

There is a widespread perception in the South Caucasus that it is “waiting for Europe” to notice its problems and pay attention to them. In the EU itself, there is caution. Partly, the EU has enough other problems to solve without having to deal with the headaches of the Caucasus. Partly, there is a perception that the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia need to show a stronger commitment to democracy and reform to deserve that stronger interest. So the current period may be one of less engagement and greater realism. If that is the case, it may not be all bad news. History has been unkind to the South Caucasus, but there is no shortage of experience or talent there. If the outsider powers step a bit further away, local people may remember that they also have the skills, fashioned by the centuries, to solve their own problems.

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Rise and Fall of Baku as Oil Capital

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2945-2989:

Oil was first exploited commercially in the mid-nineteenth century. The industry took off in 1871 when the Russian government allowed in private enterprise and the first wells were drilled. Two of the Swedish Nobel brothers, Robert and Ludwig, invested in the new industry and by the end of the decade had the biggest refinery in Baku and were shipping barrels of oil across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan in the world’s first oil tanker, the Zoroaster. By the 1880s, oil fields such as Balakhany had sprouted hundreds of brick wells extracting the oil from the ground, and Baku’s new northern industrial suburb was nicknamed the Black Town because of the clouds of dark oil smoke hanging over it from two hundred refineries. In one generation, Baku turned from a forgotten desert citadel into a modern metropolis. The population skyrocketed from 14,000 in 1863 to 206,000 forty years later. “Baku is greater than any other oil city in the world. If oil is king, Baku is its throne,” wrote the British author J. D. Henry in 1905. You could become a millionaire literally overnight if an “oil gusher” appeared on your land. One man who got lucky was Haji Zeynalabdin Tagiev, the illiterate son of a shoemaker, who turned into one of Baku’s most famous businessmen and benefactors after a gusher appeared on his land. Tagiev was unusual in being a native Azeri. Most of the businessmen were European, Russian, or Armenian. Tensions between Armenian bourgeoisie and Azeri workers were an underlying cause of the brutal “Tatar-Armenian” war in Baku in 1905 in which hundreds were killed and thousands of oil wells destroyed.

Henry asked rhetorically, “Why is Baku rich? The answer is simple—because it produces a commodity which has a market wider than the civilised world, for it is carried on camels into the innermost parts of the Asian Continent, and on yaks into the wild regions of the Himalayas.” But camels and yaks were insufficient to export a major new world community to the wider world. Baku faced the same problem as it would a century later—how to export the oil from the land-locked Caspian basin to consumers. In the 1870s, the geography of the Caucasus was such a barrier that Tiflis imported more American kerosene by ship than it did Baku oil. The Caspian Sea was stormy and dangerous for several months of the year, limiting how much could be sent to Russia. So in 1883 the new oilmen, with financing from the Rothschild family, built the first cross-Caucasian railway from Baku to Batum on the Black Sea. In 1906, Baku oil made another leap forward when the world’s longest “kerosene pipeline” was completed, running for 519 miles along the same route to Batum.

In the years 1914–21, oil wealth was a major factor in the international scramble for the Caucasus. In 1918, German commander Erich von Ludendorff saw Azerbaijani oil and its route via Georgia as a key reason to move into the South Caucasus. In the end, the British took control of Baku, and in 1919 British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour identified its oil as Britain’s major priority in the region. He said, “I should say we are not going to spend all our money and men in civilizing a few people who do not want to be civilized. We will protect Batum, Baku, the railway between them and the pipe-line.” When the British had gone, the oil-starved Bolsheviks made Baku their first target in the Transcaucasus. Having captured the city in April 1920, Trotsky declared that the new oil resources would win the Reds the Civil War and would be “our hope for restoring the economy, for ensuring that old men and women and children do not die of cold in Moscow.”

Only in the late 1920s did Baku oil production climb back to its prewar levels, but in 1941 Baku was vital to Stalin’s war effort against Germany and produced around three-quarters of the Soviet Union’s oil. When Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Germans again identified Baku oil as a vital asset. In August 1942, the Germans occupied the western side of the North Caucasus and planned a push south to Azerbaijan. Saying “Unless we get the Baku oil, the war is lost,” Hitler diverted divisions away from the battle for Stalingrad toward the Caucasus. That summer, Hitler’s staff famously had a cake made for him that had the shape of the Caspian Sea in the middle. Film footage shows a delighted Hitler taking a slice of the cake, which had the letters B-A-K-U written on it in white icing and chocolate made to look like oil spooned over it.

The debacle at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–43 meant that Germany never invaded the South Caucasus, but even the threat of attack was a death-sentence for the Baku oil industry. Stalin, who knew the Baku oil fields from his revolutionary days of 1905, had the oil wells shut down so they would not fall into German hands. Almost the entire Azerbaijani oil industry and its experts were transferred to the oil wells of the Volga and the Urals. After the war, Russia’s oil fields received the major investment, and Azerbaijan suffered. The on-land fields had dried up, and in order to reach the trickier offshore fields, a small town named Oily Rocks was built thirty miles out in the sea—reached across a causeway built on sunken ships. Cramped and polluted, Oily Rocks eked out what could still be drilled of Azerbaijan’s oil within the capacity of Soviet technology. But increasingly, the existing expertise was not up to the challenge. By the time the Soviet Union ended, Azerbaijan was producing only 3 percent of the Soviet oil output.

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South Caucasus: European or Asian?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 186-210:

Is the South Caucasus in Europe or Asia? By one definition, proposed by the eighteenth-century German-Swedish geographer Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, the region is in Asia, and the border with Europe runs along the Kuma-Manych Depression, north of the Greater Caucasus range. Other geographers, a bit more tidily, have made the mountains of the Caucasus themselves the border between Europe and Asia. Nowadays, the consensus is to place Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Europe and make the Turkish border and the river Araxes the Europe-Asia frontier. The strange result of this is that “Europe” in Armenia and Azerbaijan is directly due east of the “Asian” Turkish towns of Kars and Trabzon.

No definition is satisfactory because the South Caucasus has multiple identities. It is both European and Asian, with strong Middle Eastern influences as well. Politically the three countries, and Georgia in particular, tend to look to Europe. They are members of the two European institutions, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—but then so is Turkey. The Georgian politician Zurab Zhvania famously told the Council of Europe in 1999, “I am Georgian and therefore I am European.” But Armenians maintain links with their diaspora communities in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria, and Azerbaijanis have affinities with the Turkic nations of Central Asia. In the end, it comes down to a matter of self-identification. At the beginning of Kurban Said’s classic 1937 novel of the Caucasus, Ali and Nino, set in Baku before and during the First World War, a Russian teacher informs his pupils that the Russian Empire has resolved the ancient geographical dispute over the Caucasus in favor of Europe. The teacher says, “It can therefore be said, my children, that it is partly your responsibility as to whether our town should belong to progressive Europe or to reactionary Asia”—at which point Mehmed Haidar, sitting in the back row, raises his hand and says, “Please, sir, we would rather stay in Asia.”

The Caucasus also has its own identity. Anthropologists identify its customs and traditions fairly easily, and they get more marked the closer to the mountains one gets. The Caucasian nationalities share similar wedding and funeral ceremonies, and all mark the fortieth day after the death of a loved one with strikingly similar rituals. The same elaborate rituals of hospitality and toasting are found across the region, even among Muslim Azerbaijanis. Foreign mediators between “warring” Armenians and Azerbaijanis or Georgians and Abkhaz have frequently seen how once the two sides sit down to dinner together, political differences are forgotten and convivial rituals of eating and drinking precisely observed. Ethnic and religious differences were always there but are much more accentuated by modern politics. A century ago, attitudes toward religion could be deeply pragmatic. In her memoir of early twentieth-century Abkhazia, Adile Abas-oglu writes, “Arriving in Mokva for the Muslim festivals I always laughed when I observed how people drink wine and vodka at them and some families cooked holiday dishes from pork.”

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Kubary: From Naturalist to Land Grabber in the German Pacific

From Mikloucho-Maclay: New Guinea Diaries 1871–1883, trans. & ed. by C.L. Sentinella (Madang, PNG: Kristen Pres, 1975), pp. 324-329:

The administration of the Kompanie on the Maclay Coast was put in the hands of a certain Herr Kubary, a Polish national of Hungarian origin with a British passport which he had acquired while on a brief visit to Sydney. He had spent many years in Micronesia as an ornithologist and naturalist collecting for German museums. He had been collecting very successfully in the Caroline Islands for the Museum fuer Voelkerkunde in Berlin when in September, 1885, his contract with the museum was suddenly terminated for the flimsiest of reasons, leaving him stranded on the island of Yap. It is difficult to believe that this sudden loss of his livelihood was accidental. It seems more probably that this was manipulated by the German foreign office. The dismissal notice had come with the visit to Yap of a German warship, the Albatross, which was in the Pacific for the specific purpose of planting the German flag on the various islands of the Carolines. Kubary was offered employment as interpreter and guide on the Albatross, and for this he was ideally suited as there was no one with a more intimate knowledge of this area of the Pacific. Stranded in Yap as he was, he had little choice but to accept.

After the islands had been formally annexed by Germany, Kubary and his family, consisting of a half-caste wife and two children, were landed at Matupit [Rabaul] in New Britain, where he was put in charge of a plantation. After a time, he was transferred to take charge of the Neu Guinea Kompanie possessions in Astrolabe Bay [now in Madang Province] and he established himself in Bongu. Later he was transferred a few miles up the coast to Bogatim when the administration headquarters was transferred from Finschhafen. The latter had been abandoned, more or less in panic, as a result of the fearful mortality from tropical diseases among the Kompanie officials there.

Herr Kubary, who boasted that he was “the Lord God of Astrolabe Bay,” proceeded ruthlessly with the acquisition of land in pursuance of the policy of the Neu Guinea Kompanie for the expansion of plantations. The Kompanie was quite unscrupulous in its methods of acquiring land. The officials superficially inspected large areas which appeared suitable, sometimes merely climbing a tree and inspecting with binoculars, and then displaying a quantity of European goods — axes, knives, beads, cloth, etc. — they offered to purchase the land. The natives, not understanding what was really involved, appeared to agree, and a document was drawn up only vaguely defining the area and magnanimously excluding the village and an undefined piece of land for native cultivation. Each adult male member of the village or villages was required to touch the pen before his name was appended to the document. By such methods the Kompanie became the “legal” owners of vast areas of land, although it was many years before any actual survey was made. In a similar way Kubary acquired large areas around Bogadjim for a few axes and some tobacco. The level fertile land behind Gorendu and Gumbu was soon taken from the natives right up to the Gabenau River, leaving the natives of those villages without land for cultivation. Bongu was somewhat more fortunate in that the land was not so level but had a series of rather steep ridges running down in the direction of the sea and was therefore not so acceptable for Kompanie plantations. The Gorendu and Gumbu people, face with lack of garden land, had to turn to Bongu land and ultimately were compelled to be aggregated with Bongu village, where their descendants live to the present day, still retaining their Gorendu and Gumbu identity.

The concept of individual ownership and free disposal of land was quite an alien one to the natives, and, in any case, they themselves did not own this land. They had been granted the right to use it for cultivation purposes and to dig for clay for pottery-making for which they were famous.

Kubary was discharged from the Kompanie in 1895 and went back to Ponape in the Caroline Islands. It seems to be in the nature of poetic justice that the right to his own plantation on Ponape was disputed, and while on a visit to the Spanish authorities in Manila to appeal for his rights, the plantation was completely devastated in a native uprising against the Spaniards.

In Astrolabe Bay, Kubary left a legacy that was the cause of unending trouble for the German authorities. The natives had been warned by Maclay that white men might come who would not be like him and were not to be trusted, but he also warned that to resist them by force would be hopeless and would only invite disaster. Now, faced with white men whose behaviour at best was unpredictable and often baleful, the only alternative seemed to be to offer as little cooperation as possible without displaying any open hostility.

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Catherine, Diderot, and Walpole in St. Petersburg

From Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, 2013), Kindle Loc. 900-916:

Catherine also invited the Encyclopediste Denis Diderot to St Petersburg. Their daily talks became so animated that the Empress was forced to place a table between them to stop the Frenchman from grabbing her knees in his enthusiasm. In 1765 she had bought the impoverished Diderot’s library and made him its salaried librarian for life. Like her correspondence with Voltaire, the purchase was partly driven by private intellectual curiosity and partly by a calculated public display of cultural diplomacy. The acquisition of the library was Catherine’s grand reproach to a French society which had failed to support his genius. ‘Would you ever have suspected fifty years ago that one day the Scythians would so nobly recompense in Paris the virtue, science, and philosophy that are treated so shamefully among us?’ wrote Voltaire.

In 1779 Catherine caused a similar sensation when she bought the art collection amassed by former British Prime Minister Robert Walpole from his spendthrift grandson. Its 204 pieces included works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Hals and Guido Reni, and was probably the greatest single art purchase of the eighteenth century. It formed the basis of a new public museum attached to the Winter Palace that Catherine called the Hermitage. The English public was indignant, and the export of the Walpole collection became a national scandal. ‘How sad it is to see passing into the hands of Scythians things that are so precious that ten people at most will admire them in Russia,’ wrote the French collector and art dealer Jean-Henri Eberts of an earlier purchase of Catherine’s in September 1769. It was not the last time that Russian money would buy great British institutions, to the titillated disapproval of London’s chattering classes.

‘You forget that we are in different positions – you work with paper which forgives all while I, the poor Empress, must work with human hide,’ Catherine had written to Diderot after his departure from St Petersburg in 1774. That human hide had proved, by the late 1780s, less tractable than she had once imagined.

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Spain and Russia as Frontier Empires

From Glorious Misadventures: Nikolai Rezanov and the Dream of a Russian America, by Owen Matthews (Bloomsbury, 2013), Kindle Loc. 418-486:

Spain and Russia were medieval Europe’s marcher kingdoms. Spain held the North African Moors at bay in the west, while in the east Russia battled the Mongols and their successors, the Muslim Tatars. Both Spain and Russia, as a result of the demands of centuries of military effort, remained more autocratic, more religious and more deeply feudal than their less-threatened continental neighbours. But both Madrid and Muscovy were richly rewarded for their struggles against the infidel in the form of vast unexplored lands full of worldly riches. Divine providence gave Spain the New World – or so Spain’s Most Catholic monarchs believed. Likewise Russia’s most Orthodox Tsars were convinced that their divine reward was Siberia, whose boundless natural resources funded the emergence of Muscovy as a European power, and forms the foundation of Russia’s oil wealth today.

The grand princes of Muscovy had had dreams of empire since 1472, when Ivan III married Zoë Paleologina, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XII. Zoë brought not only her double-headed eagle coat of arms to Muscovy but also the idea that Moscow could be the successor to her fallen Byzantine homeland – a third Rome. Russia’s expansion to the west was blocked by the powerful kingdom of Poland-Lithuania and the Baltic trading cities of the Hanseatic League. But to the east the power of the Mongol-Tatars was weakening.

It was Zoë’s grandson Ivan the Terrible who decisively turned the balance of power on Christendom’s eastern flank when he took the Tatar capital of Kazan in 1553. Ivan crowned himself caesar – in Russian, tsar – in recognition of his conquest. In 1556 he pushed his armies south along the Volga and annihilated the southern Tatars in their stronghold at Astrakhan. At a stroke Ivan had made the Volga, the great southern artery of European Russia, into a Muscovite river, opening trade to the Caspian and beyond to Persia.

The capture of Kazan had also given Muscovy easy access to the Kama River, the Urals and the riches of Siberia itself. At the same time Europeans in search of furs and a north-east passage to China began arriving at the Arctic village of Kholmogory – later known as Arkhangelsk – at the mouth of the Northern Dvina River. The first was Richard Chancellor, head of the English Muscovy Company, London’s first chartered company of merchant adventurers, who visited in 1553.

Meanwhile Spain’s conquests in distant America were transforming the economy of Europe with a huge influx of gold. Northern Europe was also undergoing a boom in trade and manufacture centered on wool-cloth. With this new prosperity came a burgeoning demand for luxury goods from the East, particularly for the sixteenth century’s two greatest luxuries – spices and furs. Portuguese and English seafarers were driven to prodigies of navigation and discovery by the search for high-value spices – particularly peppercorns, nutmeg and allspice – to flavour the foods of the wealthy. In the same way Russian adventurers drove ever deeper into Siberia in search of the fox, sable and marten with which the rising merchant classes of Europe trimmed their clothes.

Fur, in a cold and poorly heated world, was not only a symbol of wealth but also a bringer of comfort and, in the case of Russia, literally a lifesaver. Fine furs were staggeringly valuable. In 1623 one Siberian official reported the theft of ‘two black fox pelts, one worth 30 rubles the other 80’. The thief could have bought himself fifty Siberian acres, a cabin, five good horses, ten cows and twenty sheep on the proceeds, and still have had some of his ill-gotten money left over. No wonder painters of the new bourgeoisie, from Jan van Eyck in the Netherlands to Sebastiano del Piombo in Rome, painted their subjects’ sable collars in such loving detail. They were often worth more than the artist could hope to make in years.

Siberian fur transformed Muscovy from a minor principality on the fringes of Europe into a great power. In 1595 Tsar Boris Godunov had so much of it that he sent Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II fur in lieu of military assistance against the Turks. Boris’s tribute was a dazzling show of Russia’s new wealth. The 337,235 squirrel skins and 40,360 sables, as well as marten, beaver and wolf skins Boris sent took up twenty rooms of Prague Castle. At the beginning of the seventeenth century ‘soft gold’ accounted for up to a third of Muscovy’s revenues. Without the Siberian fur rush, the wealth it brought and the vertiginous territorial expansion that it drove, the Russia of Peter the Great would have been unimaginable.

Like the Spanish captains of the New World or the seafarers of Queen Elizabeth I of England, the conquistadors of Siberia were essentially pirates licensed by the Russian crown. The Stroganovs, a trading dynasty from the Hanseatic city-state of Novgorod, which had been incorporated into Muscovy in 1478, financed the first fur-trapping expeditions into the uplands of the Urals and pioneered the use of licensed privateers. In April 1558 Ivan the Terrible gave Anikei Stroganov rights over five million acres of Urals forest, effectively making him viceroy of the unexplored territory responsible for its development and security. Beyond the Urals, however, lay the Tatar khanate of Sibir, an obstacle both to obtaining furs and to the expansion of the Tsar’s dominion.

In 1577 the Stroganovs recruited a young buccaneer named Yermak Timofeyevich. Yermak was a scion of a family of notorious river pirates who had plied the middle Volga but had found themselves out of business with the fall of Kazan and the establishment of Muscovite control over the great river. With his band of professional – and temporarily jobless – marauders Yermak headed eastwards, pushed deep into Tatar territory and in 1580 took Sibir. To placate the Tsar for taking such a step without royal permission, Yermak sent a vast haul of 2,500 sables to Moscow. Ivan was suitably impressed. In return for his gift, he made Yermak Muscovy’s viceroy in Siberia – just as Yermak’s former employer Stroganov had become lord of the Urals. Yermak also received a handsome suit of armour from the Tsar, which was to prove his undoing five years later as he attempted to swim away from a Tatar ambush but was drowned by his heavy breastplate.

Yermak was a Cossack, one of a growing community of men who had fled serfdom in Poland, Livonia and Muscovy and sought freedom in the no-man’s-land of the mid-Volga and the south-east steppes of European Russia. Cossacks were a social caste, not a racial or national group. Their freedom was a precarious one because of the regular Tatar slaving expeditions which filled the markets of Constantinople with hundreds of thousands of new Slavic captives every year. Moscow itself had been raided and burned by Khan Devlet Giray of Crimea as recently as 1571, and the Crimean Khanate would not be finally subdued until the reign of Catherine the Great in 1783. Ivan the Terrible, borrowing the Stroganovs’ methods, was the first tsar to harness these outlaws to the service of the state. In the absence of any natural boundaries to his fledging empire, Ivan offered the Cossacks freedom from serfdom and a licence to exploit native peoples in exchange for their service as guardians of Russia’s eastern and southern borderlands.

The Tsar organized the Cossacks into ‘hosts’, a military and administrative term for a tribe of armed colonists who could be instantly turned into a military force. The names of the successive hosts is a chronicle of Russia’s growing empire – Don, Kuban, Terek, Asktakhan, Ural, Orenburg, Siberian, Turkestan, Transbaikal, Amur, Ussuri. The Cossack sotni, or hundreds, elected leaders known as atamany, and when the host was not in state service it was free to explore – and maraud – on its own account.

These Cossacks were tough men. ‘I believe such men for hard living are not under the Sunne, for no cold will hurt them,’ wrote Richard Chancellor of the men he saw on the northern Dvina in 1553. ‘Yea and though they lye in the field two monthes at such times as it shal freeze more than a yard thicke the common soldier hath neither tent nor anything else over his head.’ Of the three drivers of Russia’s eastward expansion – the quest for security against the Tatars, a consciousness of its imperial destiny as the inheritor of Byzantium and the adventurous avarice of Cossacks – it was the last which was by far the most potent.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Tobruk, Feldwebel

I learned two new German military terms from my recent reading about how D-Day was experienced by the German military.

Tobruk – Several of the soldiers interviewed in D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015) referred to their bunkers as Tobruks. I could guess its etymology—from Tobruk in Libya, the site of famous battles during World War II—but couldn’t visualize what kind of bunker it might be. Fortunately there are lots of images of tobruk bunkers in Wikimedia Commons, and a very informative site about the Regelbau architecture of German fortifications from the World War II era. Here’s how the latter source defines a Tobruk:

The Tobruk or “ringstellung” is basically a reinforced foxhole, some with a small, two-man habitat attached to it. The simplest version is named Bauform 201 or 58c, but a a variety of bunkers emerged from it. Tobruks are also an integral part of many larger bunkers, where they serve as observation posts and machinegun positions.

Feldwebel – None of the German military ranks are translated in The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006). Perhaps the author simply wanted to avoid having to choose between, say, private first class and lance corporal to translate Gefreiter or Sturmmann (‘stormtrooper’, the SS paramilitary equivalent). There is lots of variation across anglophone militaries, and especially across various service branches. But perhaps the author also wanted an easy way to signal the distinction between Wehrmacht (regular army) ranks and their Waffen-SS equivalents. For instance, an SS-Hauptsturmführer is equivalent to a Wehrmacht Hauptmann (Army captain).

One of the Wehrmacht ranks I was surprised not to recognize was Feldwebel ‘sergeant’. (The same term has been borrowed by several other European armies, including those of Russia and Sweden.) It dates back to the early days of massed infantry tactics that required careful alignment of troops wielding pikes or firing muskets. The Feldwebel was the person who kept the troops in the field properly aligned.

German Wikipedia says Feldwebel derives from Old High German weibôn ‘sich hin und her bewegen’ (‘to go back and forth’) but doesn’t cite a source, and translates Webel as Gerichtsdiener (‘court usher’). The Swiss German rank is Feldweibel, related to Weibel (also Amtsweibel or Amtsdiener), the officer in charge of protocol in various official gatherings.

English Wikipedia cites the same Old High German etymology but translates Webel too simply as ‘usher’ (as in court usher, Gentleman Usher of the Royal Household and of various anglophone parliaments, or White House Chief Usher). If I had to put a contemporary label on all these formal order-keeping roles, I would lump them into the category of sergeant-at-arms, rather than usher. (It’s ironic that “sergeant-at-arms” now distinguishes various sorts of civilian order-keepers from military order-keeping sergeants.)

French Wikipedia gives Feldwebel a slightly different etymology (also without citing a source): “vieil allemand waibel, pièce de métier à tisser servant à ramener tous les fils sur la ligne (peigne)” (‘Old German waibel, the loom piece serving to keep all the threads aligned [comb]’).

The last etymology seems to me to get closer to the source of the term Webel, a Middle High German cognate of English weft, according to Guus Kroonen’s The Proto-Germanic n-stems.: A study in diachronic morphophonology (Rodopi, 2011). The weft threads are those that go back and forth (‘sich hin und her bewegen’) across the warp threads to weave fabrics on a loom.

This reminds me of the first line of the first dialog I had to memorize when I took the Romanian language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in 1969: “Bună ziua, Domnule Locotenent!” (“Guten Tag, Herr Leutnant!”)

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