Category Archives: France

Hitler’s Role at Dunkirk

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1052-72, 1226-39:

Up until now victory had tumbled upon victory in breathless profusion. Now was time for defeat. Hitler suffered his first at Dunkirk. And what better authority for this statement than von Rundstedt himself.

“To me,” remarked the Field Marshal rather ruefully, “Dunkirk was one of the great turning-points of the war. If I had had my way the English would not have got off so lightly at Dunkirk. But my hands were tied by direct orders from Hitler himself. While the English were clambering into the ships off the beaches, I was kept useless outside the port unable to move. I recommended to the Supreme Command that my five panzer divisions be immediately sent into the town and thereby completely destroy the retreating English. But l received definite orders from the Fuhrer that under no circumstances was I to attack, and l was expressly forbidden to send any of my troops closer than ten kilometres from Dunkirk. The only weapons I was permitted to use against the English were my medium guns. At this distance I sat outside the town, watching the English escape, while my tanks and infantry were prohibited from moving.

“This incredible blunder was due to Hitler’s personal idea of generalship. The Fuhrer daily received statements of tank losses incurred during the campaign, and by a simple process of arithmetic he deduced that there was not sufficient armor available at this time to attack the English. He did not realize that many of the tanks reported out of action one day could, with a little extra effort on the part of the repair squads, be able to fight in a very short time. The second reason for Hitler’s decision was the fact that on the map available to him at Berlin the ground surrounding the port appeared to be flooded and unsuitable for tank warfare. With a shortage of armor and the difficult country. Hitler decided that the cost of an attack would be too high, when the French armies to the south had not yet been destroyed. He therefore ordered that my forces be reserved so that they could be strong enough to take part in the southern drive against the French, designed to capture Paris and destroy all French resistance.”

Hitler’s successes as a strategist were now beginning to bear their blighted fruit. Despite the assurance of a man like von Rundstedt that he was capable of carrying on against the English at Dunkirk, his opinion was tossed aside by the Fuhrer in favor of his own judgment and intuition. Thus a little man studying a map hundreds of miles away from the battle, by rejecting the advice of his most brilliant commander, changed the course of history. The ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ seems even more fore-ordained than it ever appeared before.

“Hitler’s order preventing us from attacking the English at Dunkirk convinced many of us that the Fuhrer believed the English would come to terms,” said Blumentritt, “I have spoken to some Luftwaffe officers and they also say that Hitler forbade them from conducting an all-out aerial attack against the shipping at Dunkirk. This attitude of the Fuhrer’s was made clear to me at a round-table conference he had with a small group of officers following the break-through into France. It was at Charleville when Hitler came to visit Army Group headquarters. He was in an expansive mood and discussed with us his political ideas of the moment. He told us that he was exceptionally pleased with the way the offensive was going, and that everything had worked out beyond his wildest expectations. Once France was defeated there was only England left.

“Hitler then explained that in his opinion there were two fundamental established institutions which, for the time being, must be recognized as essential cornerstones in the framework of Western civilization — the Catholic Church and the British Empire. The power and strength of these two forces must be accepted as faits accomplis, and Germany must see that, for the moment, they be maintained. To achieve this purpose he proposed to make peace with England as soon as possible. Hitler was willing to grant England most generous terms, and he would even desist from pressing his claims for German colonies. Of course, England’s armed forces would have to be disbanded or seriously decreased in size. But in return for such a concession, Hitler was prepared to station as many as ten German divisions in England to aid the British government in maintaining the security of the United Kingdom. Having heard these theories of the Fuhrer, we can hardly be blamed for believing that the invasion of England was never contemplated as a serious operation.”

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Polish Rebels Exiled to Siberia

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2746-2776:

The Polish rebels shared the republican ideas of the Decembrists; theirs was a political and cultural nationalism that saw itself working in concert with the progressive nations of Europe, especially France and Italy. They sought to replace the autocratic “Holy Alliance of Monarchs” born of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 with a “Holy Alliance of Peoples.” Wysocki and his comrades rebelled under the slogan “For our freedom, and yours!”—making clear that their enemy was the Russian Empire, not its people. In Warsaw, the ceremonial dethronement of the Romanovs was preceded by a ceremony in honour of the Decembrists, organized by the Polish Patriotic Society. Five empty coffins, symbolizing the five executed ringleaders of 14 December 1825, were paraded through the streets of the Polish capital, and a religious service was held in the Orthodox Church, after which Wysocki addressed the crowd in front of the Royal Castle.

If the Poles had looked abroad for inspiration, their own insurrection catapulted them to the forefront of the European republican movement. There was an outpouring of support in the European press for the “French of the North” and calls (resisted by Louis Philippe I) for France to intervene in support of the rebels. French republicans, such as Godefroi Cavaignac and his fellow members of the Society of the Rights of Man, acknowledged their own debt to the Poles for having deflected Nicholas’s armies from intervention in France itself. The French general and hero of both the American War of Independence and the July Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette, pushed unsuccessfully for France to recognize Poland. In Britain, there was a surge of indignation, followed by meetings and rallies in support of Poland, denouncing Russia and pushing for British intervention in the conflict. In July 1831, The Times fulminated: “How long will Russia be permitted, with impunity, to make war upon the ancient and noble nation of the Poles, the allies of France, the friends of England, the natural, and, centuries ago, the tried and victorious protectors of civilized Europe against the Turkish and Muscovite barbarians?” Across the Atlantic, there was also a tide of American public sympathy for the Polish rebels.

The November Insurrection, as it became known, quickly erupted into a full-scale military confrontation between the Poles and the Russians, with both sides fielding the largest armies Europe had witnessed since the Napoleonic Wars. The insurgents had, however, overplayed their hand. They faced the might of the Imperial Russian Army while they were internally divided and commanded by hesitant men who could not decide whether to fight the Russians or negotiate with them. On 25 February 1831, a Polish force of 40,000 repelled 60,000 Russians on the Vistula to save Warsaw but managed to secure not a decisive victory but only a postponement of defeat. As Russian reinforcements poured into Poland, the rebels found themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed. After months of stubborn Polish resistance, tsarist troops ground their way back towards Warsaw and finally retook the city in October 1831.

Russian retribution fell heavily on the prostrate Polish provinces. A government edict of 15 March 1833 reassigned 11,700 Polish officers and soldiers to penal battalions and fortress labour at a variety of remote and unattractive locations throughout the Russian Empire. Several thousand more were sentenced to penal labour and settlement in Siberia. The tsar was especially vengeful in the Western Borderlands of Russia, in today’s Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, which were better integrated into the empire than the Kingdom of Poland. The insurgents there, many of them Polish noblemen, were tried by field courts martial and summarily shot. Russian allies of the Poles were singled out for especially brutal treatment.

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Origins of Elite Russian Patriotism

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1165-1188:

The uprising on Senate Square had intellectual roots that stretched back into the European Enlightenment and Romanticism, but the Decembrist movement had taken shape a decade earlier in the Imperial Army. The future Decembrists had discovered the Russian nation while fighting Napoleon and the invading French in 1812. The conflict had forged new bonds of fraternity and loyalty between the officers and their men. Russian peasants, many of whom were serfs, had shown themselves capable of loyalty, dependability and devotion to the motherland. Upon their return to Russia at the end of the conflict, the young noblemen struggled to reconcile their inspiring experiences of fighting alongside men who remained their legal property as serfs. The institution of serfdom became for them a shameful reminder of the empire’s backwardness and of the yawning gulf between the educated and wealthy elite and the desperately impoverished peasantry. Forged in the crucible of 1812, the officers’ patriotic loyalties to the Russian people began to eclipse their dynastic loyalty to the tsar.

Many Russian officers also returned from the Napoleonic Wars with their heads full of new political ideas. One officer observed that “if we took France by force of arms, she conquered us with her customs.” Many leaders of the Decembrist movement, such as Sergei Volkonsky, Ivan Yakushkin and Mikhail Fonvizin, had returned triumphantly in 1815 only to chafe at the strict hierarchies and stifling parade-ground discipline of military life. Having fought against “Napoleonic despotism” in Europe, they struggled to reconcile themselves to a Russia that was essentially the personal fiefdom of the tsar. Nikolai Bestuzhev attempted to explain his participation in the rebellion in a letter to Nicholas after his arrest:

We delivered our homeland from tyranny but we are tyrannised once again by our own sovereign…Why did we free Europe, only to be placed in chains ourselves? Did we grant a constitution to France only to not dare to speak of one for ourselves? Did we pay with our blood for primacy among nations only to be oppressed at home?

Others, such as Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Dmitry Zavalishin, too young to have fought Napoleon, were nevertheless driven by the ideas of Voltaire, Adam Smith, Concordet [sic] and Rousseau. In the wake of Russia’s victory over Napoleon, they found inspiration in the rebellions led by liberal officers in other countries demanding constitutionalism and independence.

From 1816 onwards, these young patriotic idealists began to gather in informal groups and “secret societies” to discuss reform.

But they spoke mostly French among themselves, and Russian with their servants.

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The American Revolution as Proxy War

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1016-1023, 3715-3731:

What had begun as a sectional rebellion in North America had grown into a major geopolitical shift thanks in part to the inability of the king’s commanders to snuff out the revolution in its infant stages. While the capture and occupation of New York and Philadelphia had been major benchmarks of Howe’s tenure on the continent, Washington’s penchant for escape had allowed a supposedly containable problem to spread. The loss at Saratoga and the entry of France had helped to legitimize the rebel cause. Now, with Washington’s army rejuvenated at Valley Forge, the British would have to not only deal with his rebels but also focus their military efforts elsewhere. As the Americans had no navy to speak of initially, they could not pose any meaningful threat to Britain’s island holdings around the world; the arrival of France, however, suddenly had George III fighting a defensive war, on land and on the seas.

French policy makers treated the American rebellion as a proxy war, an analog to the great struggle for influence and colonial control that was the defining theme of European conflict of the eighteenth century. With that commencement of hostility the war that began as a colonial uprising transformed into a global affair. Fueled by Old World rivalries and longstanding animosity over decades-gone wars, the planet was divided into theaters of combat that extended far beyond the initial shots at Lexington Green. The still smoldering kindling of over six centuries of periodic conflict between Great Britain and France reignited in a blaze ranging from the Caribbean Sea and Central America to the subcontinent of India. The two world powers had each lain in wait with long-standing strategic objectives and contingencies in place for capturing high-value possessions of the other, and with the formal declaration of war it did not take long for them to go into motion. Already by the time that the Waldeckers sailed from New York in November, the British East India Company had successfully orchestrated a ten-week siege to capture the highly profitable French-controlled port of Pondicherry on India’s eastern coastline.

War had come, and the Caribbean was equally on notice. It did not take long for action to get under way, and for the French it began almost immediately. Situated in the heart of the Lesser Antilles the island of Dominica was a long-standing reminder of the lingering animosity of the Seven Years’ War. Originally a French colony, Dominica was captured in 1761, and by 1778 remained firmly in British hands; the fact that it was nestled between the French islands of Martinique to the south and Guadeloupe to the north made this especially insulting. Although it was a painful memento of their past defeat, for the French high command it was now serving as a practical thorn in their side as well. It was no secret that privateers often used the island’s ports as launching points to raid enemy shipping, and if Dominica could be captured it would take away Britain’s vital toehold in the area. Along with disabling Britain’s overall effectiveness, French policy makers believed that reclaiming the island would greatly improve communication between the two island colonies that it separated.

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British Surrender to Spain, Pensacola, 1781

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 5195-5220:

Finally on May 10, 1781, exactly forty-eight hours after the original surrender, Don Bernardo de Gálvez and General John Campbell met to negotiate the official capitulation of Pensacola. Flags flew on both sides and drummers added an air of ceremony to the proceedings, but for the British Empire there was little dignity to be found. From that day the rebellion that began in a tiny corner of New England had proven much more costly than ever anticipated and in a matter of weeks the Bourbon flag of Spain flew proudly over Florida once again.

THE CAPTURE OF PENSACOLA AND SUBSEQUENTLY ALL OF WEST Florida brought to a close one of the most controversial and misunderstood conflicts within the larger revolutionary era. Don Bernardo de Gálvez has been long admired by social organizations that commemorate the American rebellion; the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution have granted official status to Hispanic descendants of those who battled along the Gulf Coast. But from the historical vantage point there has been a struggle to place Spain’s role in the greater conflict and measure accurately how important it was. Some historians claim that Gálvez’s invasion of West Florida was entirely separate from the larger American rebellion, going so far as to call it the “Anglo-Spanish War.” Still others believe it was so vital that they refer to it as “George Washington’s Second Front.” As is typically the case in history, the truth is somewhere in-between, but important parallels can be readily drawn that warrant further investigation.

The actions of Don Gálvez along the Gulf Coast were not the sum total of Spain’s contribution to the rebel war effort, but merely an active part of it. Spain lent the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars to the would-be American nation, and like France that generosity was largely fueled by a desire for revenge from the Seven Years’ War a generation earlier. But regardless of the motivations behind the governor of Louisiana’s actions, the results are undeniable. The entrance of both France and Spain into the war drastically changed the way that administrators in London viewed the conflict; rather than it being a separatist rebellion it became a global struggle for imperial supremacy. By the end of the conflict King George’s focus was directed so much toward his old European enemies that the ongoing struggle in the colonies was considered by many to be less important and by some as a distracting afterthought. Following the surrender of Pensacola, Don Gálvez also maintained that the greater American struggle must continue, and he offered one hundred thousand pesos to his French allies so that they could head up to Virginia and aid in the siege at Yorktown.

The ultimate reconquest of West Florida would not be complete for the Spanish until the signing of the Peace of Paris in 1783, but Gálvez’s victory made immediate waves. Charles III made the young commander “Count of Gálvez” and subsequently promoted him to governor of Louisiana and the freshly acquired West Florida. It was a time of great glory for Spain, but ultimately it was only a spark in the darkness for a dying empire. For the people on the ground in Pensacola, however, the defeat was devastating. As part of the agreement, soldiers taken prisoner were not to be held in the legendarily cruel dungeons of Mexico or Central America but paroled back to British control.

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Europe’s Rent-an-Army Era after 1763

From Hessians: Mercenaries, Rebels, and the War for British North America, by Brady J. Crytzer (Westholme, 2015), Kindle Loc. 280-95:

The close of the Seven Years’ War saw a great reshuffling of Europe’s imperial hierarchy, and with each great power attempting to reestablish itself within the new geopolitical order. The 1763 Peace of Paris established the northern kingdom of Prussia as the supreme German state in the region and its ruler Frederick the Great proved to be a magnetic and respected enlightened politician. To the south Prussia was challenged for regional superiority only by the long-standing European power broker of Austria.

As Prussia and Austria gained prominence in central Europe in the wake of the postwar reorganization, the smaller polities began to do whatever was necessary to maintain relevance in an ever changing world. For those left out of the Austro-Prussian sphere of influence, there were few ways to remain competitive in the international arena. There were few natural resources to sell on the open market and because of their tiny territorial possessions, few found realistic opportunities to expand their wealth. While they lacked the commodities typically associated with increased revenue through wider economic pursuits, it seemed the only true domestic product that many of the smaller states of the Holy Roman Empire had to offer were the people themselves. With a large population held in subjugation due to an adherence to a dying feudal system, many regional German rulers began exploring new ways to turn their otherwise shrinking revenue streams into hefty channels of profit. Their means of doing so became known as Soldatenhandel, or the soldier trade. Typically speaking, the small states of the German empire, like Hesse-Cassel, bolstered their army’s numbers through either conscription or hiring mercenaries themselves, but few ever considered actually renting their armies to outside powers. When it was discovered that there was a market for such an unusual practice as Soldatenhandel, the kings and lords of the German countryside began to dramatically increase their draft totals. By 1776 in the simplest terms the otherwise insignificant German states made themselves relevant to the great powers of Europe by offering their own citizens to the highest bidder.

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Habsburg Austria Like the European Union?

From In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2016), pp. 188-190:

Habsburg Austria was the last remnant of feudalism that had survived into the early modern and modern ages. Indeed, according to one of the leading historians of the Habsburgs, the late Robert A. Kann, the Austrian Empire was “more diversified … in regard to ethnic, linguistic, and historic traditions” than any other imperium in modern times. “It was closer to the European Community of the twenty-first century” than to other empires of the nineteenth, writes the Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris. The empire sprawled “clean across Central Europe,” observes the late Oxford scholar C. A. Macartney, from the Vorarlberg Alps and Lake Constance in the west to the edge of Moldavia in the east; and from the Polish Carpathians in the north to the Adriatic Sea in the south, uniting Germans, Slavs, and Latins. And yet “in no single case,” Macartney goes on, “was one of its political frontiers also an ethnic frontier.” Germans lay inside and outside the empire; so, too, did the Poles, Ukraines, Croats, Romanians, and so on. Thus, as Kissinger states, the Habsburg Empire “could never be part of a structure legitimized by nationalism,” for as nationalism in Europe had an ethnic and religious basis, this polyglot empire would have been torn apart by such a force. Making the Habsburg Empire doubly insecure and so dependent on the status quo was its easily invadable and conquerable geography, compared to that of Great Britain, Russia, and even France.

Habsburg Austria, whose history spans the late thirteenth century to the early twentieth, by simple necessity elevated conservative order to the highest moral principle. Liberalism was held in deep suspicion because freedom could mean not only the liberation of the individual, but the liberation of ethnic groups, which could then come into conflict with one another. Thus toleration, rather than freedom, was encouraged. And because (especially following the Napoleonic Wars) the status quo was sacrosanct in Vienna, so too was the balance of power.

For decades and centuries even, Austria’s sprawling imperium defined European geopolitics. Austria was the highly imperfect solution to Turkish military advances into Central Europe in the sixteenth century and the perennial Panslav stirrings that emanated from Russia, absorbing as Austria did the blows from both forces, even as the Counter-Reformation helped bind the heavily Catholic Habsburg lands together. Austria’s role as a geopolitical balancer was further fortified by its fear of vast, Panslavic, police-state Russia on the one hand and the liberal, democratic, and revolutionary traditions of France and the West on the other. Indeed, Austria’s position as a great power was threatened by Russian imperialsm from the east, while, as Kann puts it, “western liberalism threatened the durability of her domestic structure.” And yet Austria was so often weak, something inherent “in the far-flung nature” of her monarchical possessions and her attendant “extraordinarily cumbersome administrative and decision-making arrangements,” writes Cambridge history professor Brendan Simms. It was Romania’s geographical and historical fate to be caught between and among empires, with its position at the southeastern extremity of Habsburg Austria, the southwestern extremity of Russia’s imperialist ambitions, and the northwestern extremity of those of Ottoman Turkey.

According to other interpretations, Austria itself might have constituted a bourgeoisie civilizing force from the West, altogether benevolent in its influence. For Habsburg culture was reassuring, burgerlich, and sumptuous, at least compared to what those other, bleaker imperiums from the East had to offer—partially defined, as Austria and the Catholic Church were, by the inspirational miracle of Gothic and baroque art. But what Romanians too often received from Habsburg Austria was not inspiring aesthetics but simply the appalling hardship of war, so that the northern Transylvanian Gothic style was to remain an aspirational curiosity amid copious bloodshed as empires clashed.

But the EU lacks a Metternich.

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