Category Archives: nationalism

Quick German Surrenders in the West

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2649-59. 4137-57:

Contrary to the fond hopes of von Luttwitz, not all junior commanders in the West were the ‘hurrahing’ type. It was only their discipline and not their faith that kept many of them in the line. Thus it was quite common to find German officers surrendering only after they had assured themselves that their honor had not been compromised. The fact that they had sworn to fight to the last was interpreted by many officers as fighting until they found a way to stop which was not inconsistent with their oath.

On one occasion an infantry commander refused to surrender unless Allied troops had first thrown some phosphorus grenades into his position, as he had no answer to phosphorus. Six grenades were therefore produced and thrown, and, after inspecting the results of the subsequent explosion, the German officer, his honor apparently having been saved, quietly surrendered himself and his whole unit. Another instance of this kind of behavior was provided by the commander of the Cherbourg Arsenal who declined to give himself up until a tank was produced. A Sherman tank was accordingly driven up to the walls of the Arsenal and the general then considered he had been subjected to a tank attack. Not possessing adequate anti-tank defense, he now felt that he could surrender honorably and without having broken his pledge to defend to the end.

On 14 August, hardly two weeks before the city was invested, Wildermuth took over the defense of the bastion of Le Havre.

If the Supreme Command was looking for a fanatical, zealous, feverish young Nazi to inspire German troops to fight to the end, it could have chosen no one less likely to fit the role than Colonel Eberhard Wildermuth. He was not young, he was not inspired, he was not a soldier, and what was most important, he was not a Nazi. Nevertheless, the polite, tired, efficient bank director was suddenly shunted from Italy to this fortress in France, and ordered to perform a fight-to-the-death task for the glory of the Fatherland. Small wonder the martyr’s crown rested uneasily on his head, and so readily slipped off when events hemmed him in.

A two-divisional British assault, following the dropping of some 11,000 tons of bombs in Le Havre, was launched on 10 September.

By noon on 12 September, forty-eight hours later, the port had capitulated and 11,300 German troops had laid down their arms. This, despite the fact that the defenses available were amongst the strongest in Europe, that ammunition was plentiful for the 115 guns in Le Havre, and that sufficient food was on hand to keep 14,000 soldiers for eighty-nine more days. The explanation for this speedy collapse lies in the commandant’s personal conception of what ‘the end’ really meant. “In my opinion it was futile to fight tanks with bare hands,” said Colonel Wildermuth. “As early as 9 September I had given orders to all my officers that Allied infantry attacks were to be opposed everywhere, even with the side arms only. But in the event of an attack by tanks, resistance nests which no longer had any anti-tank weapons were then at liberty to surrender.”

Thus the Colonel had transformed the Supreme Command’s precept of fight to the last man to his own concept of fight to the last anti-tank gun. The difference was fundamental. It marked the civilian from the soldier. For Wildermuth, with his banker’s mind, was a soldier only so long as it was reasonable to remain one. Once the cost in blood and pain was too much, he felt it was time to become a civilian again. He was an efficient, able man who carried efficiency and ability into battle with him in much the same way as he would have used them to draw up a balance-sheet. He was not mentally prepared to sacrifice the lives of his men for a philosophy in which he only half-heartedly believed. It is in the personality of the leader of the garrison of Le Havre that lies much of the explanation for the fall of this formidable fortress in less than forty-eight hours.

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Germany’s Foreign Infantry in France

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2095-2110, 4630-42:

France had been turned into a vast training-center, where divisions destroyed on other sectors could come for rest, refitting and reorganization. Thus, many of these divisions were more real on paper than they were on the ground. “Often I would be informed that a new division was to arrive in France,” said von Rundstedt, “direct from Russia or Norway or Central Germany. When it finally made its appearance in the West it would consist, in all, of a divisional commander, a medical officer and five bakers.”

To reform these shattered divisions which had left the bulk of their German personnel in Russian graves or Russian prisoner-of-war camps, the Supreme Command drafted so-called volunteers from amongst the peoples of the countries they occupied. There not being enough able-bodied Germans still capable of keeping a war machine and an industrial machine going at the same time, the infantry divisions in France were largely rebuilt by utilizing the huge reserve of non-Germanic manpower in Europe. Using this foreign element chiefly for supply and administrative duties, the infantry divisions in the West were liberally sprinkled with Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, Roumanians, Czechs, Dutchmen, Alsatians, to mention but a few. These non-Germans usually made up at least ten per cent of a division’s strength and in some divisions comprised about twenty-five per cent of the formation’s personnel.

But the largest group of foreigners found in the Wehrmacht in the West were Russians. So many prisoners had been taken in the early victories in Russia, that it was decided in 1942 to make use of these troops rather than continue to feed them or exterminate them. Realizing that it might be dangerous to inject so large a foreign element into normal German divisions, the Supreme Command decided to form these Russian troops into separate units of their own which would be officered by Germans. With the aid of a Russian general, Vlassov, this huge recruiting drive was begun.

The causes that will lead a man to desert are many. But at the basis of them all is loss of faith in what one has been fighting for. It sometimes takes more courage to desert than it does to remain in the line. For a deserter voluntarily accepts the risk of death if he should fail, and the hatred and opprobrium of his countrymen if he should succeed. And when he has succeeded his only reward is the soul-destroying existence of a prisoner-of-war camp. Yet in World War II Germans frequently walked through unfamiliar minefields, swam wide rivers, traveled hundreds of miles on forged passes, and even killed their own sentries to enable them to desert.

The non-German element in the Wehrmacht provided the largest category of deserters. These Poles, Czechs, Russians, Alsatians and others were constantly on the look-out for an opportunity to cross over to Allied lines. But since they had little, or no, faith in the German cause their actions were understandable. With the Germans themselves, however, the circumstances leading to desertion were far more complex. They varied with the individual and his experiences. Inability to put up with conditions in the field, recognition of the fact that Germany had lost the war, dissatisfaction with their officers, ‘horror’ at finding their unit under S.S. command, long periods of unbroken fighting without rest, inadequate equipment, lack of news from home, personal resentment at some unfair treatment, were some of the long list of explanations advanced for the defection of Germans in the fall of 1944. Few deserters claimed that an ideological disagreement with Nazism had brought about their state of mind, and hardly any blamed Hitler personally, although, the S.S., the party and the Wehrmacht came in for their share of condemnation.

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Missionary Interrogators in the Pacific

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 3201-35, 3284-3321:

[A]mong the first wave of US Marines to hit the beach at Guadalcanal on August 8, 1942, was a man who had been a Congregationalist missionary to Japan for twenty-six years.

Sherwood F. Moran (1885–1983) had been home on furlough on December 7, 1941. Immediately, he went to US Marine headquarters in Washington. Volunteering for service, he told the Marines there that his idiomatic Japanese was probably better than any other American’s. The Marines sent him to the South Pacific, and put him in charge of interrogating POWs. He had radical ideas about how this task should be carried out: “By the expression on your face, the glance of your eye, the tone of your voice” you must “get him to know” that you really do regard all men as “brothers,” he instructed other Marines. He proved to be so good at extracting intelligence from captured soldiers that he was told to write an instruction manual for others assigned to this job. The resulting document systematically rejected the beliefs of many Marines that Japanese prisoners should be shot, if not tortured. The American interviewer, Moran’s manual advised, should speak to the Japanese prisoner “as a human being to a human being,” treating him with respect.

On Guadalcanal, Moran was by far the oldest man around. He was soon being called “Pappy” by the young men working under his supervision. Language fluency was what got Moran to the South Pacific, but what he did with his Japanese is what made history. Moran may have been, as his family liked to say of him, “probably the only Marine of his era who never took a drink, never smoked a cigarette, and never cursed.” He was much more than that. He was, among other things, a classic ecumenical Protestant missionary.

Educated at Oberlin College and at Union Theological Seminary, and inspired more by Jane Addams’s social work than by any ideology of religious conversion, Moran was a devoted follower of the Student Volunteer Movement’s greatest orator, Sherwood Eddy. Moran and Eddy were sometimes called “the two Sherwoods” because Moran served for a year as Eddy’s personal secretary, traveling with him and absorbing his liberal views about the missionary project. Worldly enough to have become an accomplished tap dancer, and to have considered a career in vaudeville before a trusted female friend warned him against the unwholesome characters he would meet in the New York theater milieu, Moran was anything but retiring in his ways and was far from orthodox in his theology. Moran married his Oberlin sweetheart, Ursul, and settled down with her in Japan to raise a family and exemplify what the two understood to be a Christian life, and to help local Japanese in whatever way they could. Moran quickly took a serious interest in Buddhism and in Japanese art—on which he published several monographs late in life—and became an outspoken critic of the militarism of the Japanese ruling elite.

Moran’s manual instructed the interrogators to speak to a Japanese prisoner not only as a brother, but almost as a seducer. In his very first paragraph Moran compared the “interviewer”—a label he preferred to “interrogator”—to a “lover.” Each interviewer must develop his own skills, so that each “will gradually work out a technique of his own, his very own, just as a man does in making love to a woman! The comparison is not merely a flip bon mot; the interviewer should be a real wooer!” Some Marines in their “hard-boiled” manner will “sneer that this is a sentimental attitude,” Moran predicted, but he urged resolution and persistence in the face of such banal scorn. The central theme of “Suggestions for Japanese Interpreters Based on Work in the Field,” as the manual was entitled, was the need to establish rapport with the prisoner. Moran insisted that “the Japanese soldier is a person to be pitied rather than hated,” a man who has been misled, deceived, and manipulated by his government and his officers. Every prisoner actually had a story he wanted to tell, and the job of the interviewer was to create an atmosphere in which the prisoner would tell it. The interviewer should learn as much as he could about Japan and its history and culture. Those like himself who had lived in Japan had a great advantage, yes, but others should do all they could to inform themselves so as to do a better job.

Of course one must never forget the goal of extracting intelligence.

The missionary foundation for Moran’s work with POWs becomes all the more significant when we recognize two counterparts in the army and the navy who adopted virtually the same approach, and who were both missionary sons. The notorious service rivalries in the Pacific war prevented Moran from knowing about it, but Army Col. John Alfred Burden (1900–1999) and Navy Lt. Otis Carey [sic] (1921–2006) were operating on the basis of the same instincts. That the anti-torture policies and practices of all three services in the Pacific War were instituted by missionary-connected Americans has gone unnoticed until now. A sign of just how thoroughly this episode had been forgotten by the 1980s is the fact that none of these three men is mentioned in two books written in that decade by the leading students of the war in the Pacific: Akira Iriye’s Power and Culture: The Japanese-American War, 1941–1945 and John W. Dower’s War Without Mercy.

“Otis Cary’s name,” reports Ulrich Straus, “was the only one cited repeatedly” many years after the war, when Japanese veterans “wrote up their wartime experience in prison camps.” Cary, who was remembered with respect, even affection, “was determined,” writes Straus, “to treat prisoners not as enemies but as human beings, individuals who deserved to have a bright future aiding in the reconstruction of a new, democratic Japan.” The son and grandson of Congregationalist missionaries, Cary, who always considered Japanese his native language, had come “home” in 1936 to attend Deerfield Academy and then Amherst College, as did so many missionary sons. He enlisted in 1942 and by early 1943 was the navy’s primary officer for interrogation. He was stationed first in Hawaii and then in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, where he led in the interrogation of POWs captured in the fighting there. Cary was first hampered by the army, which was in control of the American operation in the Aleutians and wanted nothing to do with the navy’s Japanese language specialists. Still, Cary managed to win acceptance when he had the astonishing luck of encountering, as his first POW, a soldier from his own hometown in Japan. Carey extracted information from this man that was deemed highly valuable by the top brass.

But Cary did not operate on a large scale until later in the war, in the Marianas, especially on Saipan in the summer of 1944. It was there that Cary, confronted with a flood of captives, made such a lasting impression on the soldiers he interrogated. “Following lengthy discussions,” notes Straus, many of the prisoners “eventually found persuasive Cary’s argument that [they] had given their all in the service of their country, had nothing to be ashamed of, and should look forward to contributing to the reconstruction of a post-war Japan.”

Cary’s successes in the Aleutians and the Marianas would be better known if he had written about his exploits in English instead of only in Japanese. As translated by Straus, Cary explained that the soldiers “were used to being coerced and knew how to take evasive measures,” but “if treated humanely, they lost the will to resist.” While there were rumors about high pressure methods used on the POWs, Cary insisted that nothing of the sort happened on his watch. The unanimous postwar testimony of the POWs in his charge vindicates the claim. Cary went back to Japan after the war and headed the American Studies program at Doshisha University, the close partner of his US alma mater, Amherst. Largely unknown in the United States, to which he returned ten years before his death in 2006, Cary was an important and widely celebrated figure in Japanese academia.

Cary apparently had no contact with his Army counterpart, John Alfred Burden, who was a medical doctor in Hawaii at the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Burden immediately enlisted in the army, ready to use the language skills he acquired as a Tokyo-born son and the grandson of Seventh-day Adventist missionaries. He was able to speak the Tokyo dialect more fluently than most of the Nisei with whom he worked in the South Pacific. As a captain posted to Fiji in October 1942, Burden was frustrated that his superiors did not quickly send him into the combat zones where his language facility could be of immediate use. He finally persuaded them to send him to Guadalcanal in December, accompanied by two Japanese Americans who, Burden complained bitterly, had been stuck in a prejudice-filled atmosphere on Fiji driving trucks around the base. Burden went on to lead the first joint Caucasian-Nisei team of interrogators, eventually establishing an impressive record.

This very long extract will have to be my last from this book. Burden and Cary deserve their own Wikipedia articles, as do a few other missionaries who once worked for the OSS.

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Broad Scope of Missionary Work

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 224-61:

Missionaries established schools, colleges, medical schools, and other technical infrastructures that survived into the postcolonial era. Missionaries were especially active in advancing literacy. They translated countless books into indigenous languages, produced dictionaries, and created written versions of languages that had been exclusively oral. Some missionary institutions became vital incubators of anti-imperialist nationalisms, as in the case of the American University in Beirut, founded in 1866, and the alma mater of several generations of Arab nationalist leaders. Christianity itself has assumed shapes in the Global South quite different from the contours designed by European and American evangelists. Religious voices purporting to speak on behalf of indigenous peoples have occasionally claimed that the missionary impact was beneficial for endowing local populations with Christian resources that proved to be invaluable. Feminist scholars have called attention to the ways in which African women were able to use Christianity—for all the patriarchal elements in its scriptures—as a tool for increasing their autonomy, especially in choosing their own spouses.

Scholars continue to inquire just where and how the actions of missionaries affected the subsequent histories of the societies they influenced. That inquiry is an important and contested aspect of today’s discussions of colonialism and the postcolonial order that is largely beyond the scope of Protestants Abroad. But not altogether. As scholars come to recognize the interactive dimensions of the missionary project, we can comprehend that project itself as a genuinely global, dialectical event. Missions were part of the world-historical process by which the world we call modern was created.

This book’s cast of characters was involved with missions in three different capacities. The first of these was service abroad as a missionary. People routinely classified as missionaries included not only evangelists, but teachers, doctors, nurses, YMCA leaders, university professors, and social service workers affiliated in any way with institutions and programs sponsored by missionary societies, churches, and missionary-friendly foundations. All were understood to be part of the greater missionary enterprise, even though some would say, “I wasn’t really a missionary,” by way of explaining they were not directly involved in evangelism. A second order of involvement was to grow up as the child of missionaries, often spending many years in the field. The third capacity was the least direct: to be closely associated with missionaries, typically through missionary support organizations.

Although there were persons of both sexes in all three of these categories, the gender ratio was different in each case. In the field, about two-thirds of missionary personnel were women, either unwed or married to male missionaries. Missions afforded women opportunities to perform social roles often denied to them in the United States. Glass ceilings in the mission field were higher and more subject to exceptions than in most American communities. By the 1950s, nearly half of the missionary physicians in India were female. Women led many colleges in China. These included one of the most famous missionaries of all time, Minnie Vautrin, who turned the campus of Ginling College into a fortress during the Nanking Massacre of 1937 and 1938. She is credited with saving several thousand Chinese women from rape and murder at the hands of marauding Japanese soldiers. Women were sometimes allowed to preach in the mission field, even though Paul the Apostle had told the Christians of Corinth, “Let your women keep silent in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience.” While home on furlough, female preachers were often prohibited from speaking from the pulpits of their own denominations, sometimes even in their home congregations.

Among missionary children, there were of course equal numbers of males and females. In missionary support organizations, women were very prominent. Most denominations had women’s missionary boards that exercised strong influence in church affairs and stood among the largest women’s organizations in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These women’s missionary boards were often active on social issues, urging their denominations to take more vigorous stands, especially against racism. A group of 150 women from the various denominational missionary boards picketed a Washington, D.C., hotel in 1945 to protest its refusal to serve black members of the United Council of Church Women.

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U.S. Role in Ukraine Famine, 1922

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1517-53:

But in one extremely important sense this first Soviet famine did differ from the famine that was to follow a decade later: in 1921 mass hunger was not kept secret. More importantly, the regime tried to help the starving. Pravda itself announced the existence of famine when on 21 June it declared that 25 million people were going hungry in the Soviet Union. Soon after, the regime sanctioned the creation of an “All-Russian Famine Committee” made up of non-Bolshevik political and cultural figures. Local self-help committees were created to assist the starving. International appeals for aid followed, most prominently from the writer Maxim Gorky, who led a campaign addressed “To All Honest People,” in the name of all that was best in Russian culture. “Gloomy days have come to the country of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mendeleev, Pavlov, Mussorgsky, Glinka,” he wrote, and called for contributions. Gorky’s list of Russian luminaries conspicuously left out the names of Lenin and Trotsky. Extraordinarily—given how paranoid they would become about the diaspora in the years that followed—the Ukrainian Communist Party even discussed asking for help from Ukrainians who had emigrated to Canada and the United States.

This public, international appeal for help, the only one of its kind in Soviet history, produced fast results. Several relief organizations, including the International Red Cross and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC, or simply “Joint”), would eventually contribute to the relief effort, as would the Nansen Mission, a European effort put together by the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. But the most important source of immediate aid was the American Relief Administration (ARA), which was already operating in Europe in the spring of 1921. Founded by future president Herbert Hoover, the ARA had successfully distributed more than $1 billion in food and medical relief across Europe in the nine months following the 1918 armistice. Upon hearing Gorky’s appeal, Hoover, an astute student of Bolshevik ideology, leapt at the opportunity to expand his aid network into Russia.

Before entering the country, he demanded the release of all Americans held in Soviet prisons, as well as immunity from prosecution for all Americans working for the ARA. Hoover worried that ARA personnel had to control the process or aid would be stolen. He also worried, not without cause, that Americans in Russia could be accused of espionage (and they were indeed collecting information, sending it home and using diplomatic mail to do so). 30 Lenin fumed and called Hoover “impudent and a liar” for making such demands and raged against the “rank duplicity” of “America, Hoover and the League of Nations Council.” He declared that “Hoover must be punished, he must be slapped in the face publicly, for all the world to see,” an astonishing statement given how much aid he was about to receive. But the scale of the famine was such that Lenin eventually yielded.

In September 1921 an advance party of ARA relief workers reached the city of Kazan on the Volga, where they found poverty of a kind they had never seen before, even in ravaged Europe. On the streets they met “pitiful-looking figures dressed in rags and begging for a piece of bread in the name of Christ.” In the orphanages they found “emaciated little skeletons, whose gaunt faces and toothpick legs…testified to the truth of the report that they were dying off daily by the dozen.” By the summer of 1922 the Americans were feeding 11 million people every day and delivering care packages to hundreds of thousands. To stop epidemics they provided $8 million worth of medicine as well. Once their efforts were underway, the independent Russian famine relief committee was quietly dissolved: Lenin didn’t want any Russian organization not directly run by the Communist Party to gain credibility by participating in the distribution of food. But the American aid project, amplified by contributions from other foreign organizations, was allowed to go ahead, saving millions of lives.

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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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Weaponizing Famine in Ukraine, 1930s

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 194-221:

But the bourgeoisie had not created the famine. The Soviet Union’s disastrous decision to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms; the eviction of “kulaks,” the wealthier peasants, from their homes; the chaos that followed; these policies, all ultimately the responsibility of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, had led the countryside to the brink of starvation. Throughout the spring and summer of 1932, many of Stalin’s colleagues sent him urgent messages from all around the USSR, describing the crisis. Communist Party leaders in Ukraine were especially desperate, and several wrote him long letters, begging him for help.

Many of them believed, in the late summer of 1932, that a greater tragedy could still be avoided. The regime could have asked for international assistance, as it had during a previous famine in 1921. It could have halted grain exports, or stopped the punishing grain requisitions altogether. It could have offered aid to peasants in starving regions—and to a degree it did, but not nearly enough.

Instead, in the autumn of 1932, the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that widened and deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside and at the same time prevented peasants from leaving the republic in search of food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and party activists, motivated by hunger, fear and a decade of hateful and conspiratorial rhetoric, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, anything in the oven and anything in the cupboard, farm animals and pets.

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger—holod—and extermination—mor.

But famine was only half the story. While peasants were dying in the countryside, the Soviet secret police simultaneously launched an attack on the Ukrainian intellectual and political elites. As the famine spread, a campaign of slander and repression was launched against Ukrainian intellectuals, professors, museum curators, writers, artists, priests, theologians, public officials and bureaucrats. Anyone connected to the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, which had existed for a few months from June 1917, anyone who had promoted the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian history, anyone with an independent literary or artistic career, was liable to be publicly vilified, jailed, sent to a labour camp or executed. Unable to watch what was happening, Mykola Skrypnyk, one of the best-known leaders of the Ukrainian Communist Party, committed suicide in 1933. He was not alone.

Taken together, these two policies—the Holodomor in the winter and spring of 1933 and the repression of the Ukrainian intellectual and political class in the months that followed—brought about the Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet unity. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who invented the word “genocide,” spoke of Ukraine in this era as the “classic example” of his concept: “It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.”

Famine was also an effective weapon of mass destruction in Ethiopia during the 1980s.

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