Category Archives: U.S.

Cracking the Japanese Navy Code System, 1940s

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 88-90:

On June 1, 1939, the Japanese fleet began using a code that the Allies came to call JN-25. The Japanese—who had moved to using numbers rather than characters—now employed a massive codebook containing about thirty thousand five-digit groups. They also had a new way of enciphering. Before the code was sent, each code group was enciphered by using math to apply an “additive.”

Here is how the additive method worked: When a Japanese cryptographer began encoding a single message, he would look in the codebook and find the five-digit group that stood for the word (or syllable or phrase or punctuation mark) he wanted. He would repeat that process until he got to the end of the message. Then he would get out a different book, called an additive book, turn to a page—selected at random—pick a five-digit number, and add that to the first code group. He would add the next additive to the second. And so on. The Japanese code makers used a peculiar kind of math called noncarrying or “false” addition. There was no carrying of digits, so 8 plus 7 would equal 5, rather than 15. If the code group for “maru” was, say, 13563, and the additive was 24968, the resulting group would be 37421 (1 + 2 =3; 3 + 4 = 7; 5 + 9 = 4; 6 + 6 = 2; 3 + 8 = 1). That was the group of digits that would be radioed. To crack a message, the Americans had to figure out the additive and subtract it to get the code group. Then they had to figure out what the code group stood for.

Once again, it was Agnes Driscoll who diagnosed the new system. Neither she nor anybody in the Navy operation had seen an additive cipher—everything up to then had been transposition, or switching—but she figured it out. It took her less than a year to make a dent. A March 1 status report for the unit “GYP-1” stated that for the “5-number system”—an early title for JN-25—“First break [was] made by Mrs. Driscoll. Solution progressing satisfactorily.” She worked on it for several more months before being transferred in late 1940 to German systems—a promotion in the sense that the Atlantic was beginning to emerge as the hot spot. The research team continued working their way through JN-25, using her methods.

The process of stripping additives and discerning the meaning of code groups was laborious and excruciating. Years after World War II ended, American code breakers who worked in Hawaii and Australia were still arguing with their D.C. counterparts over what certain code groups stood for. Much like the women who trained the men who would get to do the wartime flying, much like Elizebeth Friedman over at the Coast Guard, Agnes Driscoll taught the men in the field who did this. “In the Navy she was without peer as a cryptanalyst,” wrote Edwin Layton, who headed naval intelligence for Admiral Nimitz, the chief naval commander in the Pacific during the war. In December 1940, both code and cipher were changed, to a system the Allies called JN-25B; the team stripped the additives and built a partial bank of code words. Then, in early December 1941—days before Pearl Harbor—the additive books were changed. The codebooks were not. The U.S. Navy was able to recover a certain amount of the new system—but not enough—before the attack on Pearl Harbor happened and all hell broke loose.

“If the Japanese Navy had changed the code-book along with the cipher keys on 1 December 1941, there is no telling how badly the war in the Pacific would have gone,” said Laurance Safford.

As crushing as Pearl Harbor was, it was thanks in large part to Driscoll’s decades-long detective work—and to the example Elizebeth Friedman set for other women—that America did not enter the Second World War quite as blind as it might have seemed.

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Two Methods of Encryption

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 82-83:

Technically, there are two kinds of secret message systems. One kind is a code, in which an entire word or phrase is replaced by another word, a series of letters, or a string of numbers, known as a “code group.” A code may be used for secrecy, but also for brevity and truncation. Shorthand is a code in precisely this way and so, often, is modern-day texting. Common phrases, even long ones, can be compressed into short code groups, making messages faster and—when using cable, as many people did in the early decades of the twentieth century—cheaper to send. Saving money has always been important to governments, so the compression advantage is a big deal. Cable companies typically charged by the word, so the fact that stock phrases like “your request of last month has been approved” could be boiled down to a code group, as could the names of places or people or units, meant governments could save a good bit of money when sending telegrams. In the War Department’s “general address and signature” code that was employed in 1925, for example, the word “cavalry” was HUNUG, “Pursuit Squadron” was LYLIV, “Bombardment Squadron” was BEBAX, “Wagon Company” was DIGUF, “U.S. Naval Academy” was HOFOW, and “Fourth Division Air Service” was BABAZ. (Texting uses codes, like OMG and IMO, for much the same reason: brevity and, at times, concealment.) The best code is one in which code groups are randomly assigned, with no rhyme or reason that an enemy can discern. Codes are compiled and kept in codebooks, not unlike dictionaries, where the encoder can look up the word or phrase and the corresponding group that stands for it. But even random codes have an obvious vulnerability: Constant repetitious use of the same code groups in messages enables code breakers to tease out their meaning from context or position.

The other type of system is called a cipher, in which a single letter—or number—is replaced by another single letter or number. Ciphers can be created by scrambling letters, which is called transposition—turning the word “brain,” for example, into “nirab.” Or a cipher can be achieved by replacing individual units with other units, a method called substitution: By substituting X for b, T for r, V for a, O for i, and P for n, for example, brain becomes “XTVOP.” For centuries, ciphers were created by hand, often by those clever Renaissance men who would line alphabets up against one another and create boxes and tables that gave a way to substitute one letter for another. But when radio and telegraph came along, messages could be sent much, much faster than a wigwag flag could do. Machines were needed that could encipher rapidly; and, because it became easier to spot simple patterns when so many messages were being sent and intercepted, more complicated ciphers were needed. People can make complex ciphers, but people make mistakes. Machines are less likely to do so. These machines created an early form of what would later be called encryption, which meant that people who broke them might be described as an early version of what would later be called hackers.

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Hello Girls and Yeomanettes in World War I

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 76, 81:

Parker Hitt was a champion of women and a believer in women’s intellectual abilities as well as their bedrock stamina. In Europe, Parker Hitt was charged with overseeing battlefield communications for the Army’s Signal Corps. The Americans, British, and French strung phone lines around Europe and needed telephone operators to connect the calls. Switchboard operation was women’s work, and male soldiers refused to do it. French operators were not as adept as American ones, so the Signal Corps recruited U.S. switchboard operators who were bilingual in English and French and loaded them into ships bound for Europe. Known as the “Hello Girls,” these were the first American women other than nurses to be sent by the U.S. military into harm’s way. The officers whose calls they connected often prefaced their conversations by saying, “Thank Heaven you’re here!” Parker Hitt pushed for the Hello Girls to be allowed to prove their competence and courage. They did so, remaining at their posts even when ordered to evacuate during bombing in Paris, and moving to the front lines, where they worked the switchboards during explosions and fires.

The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, was developing its own female secret weapon, as part of a code-breaking operation that, true to the prevailing climate, was kept jealously separate from the Army or any other rival entity. Upon America’s entry into World War I, the country had struggled to quickly enlarge its modest career Navy, and created a men’s naval reserve that permitted civilian men to serve during wartime, often as specialists with expertise in areas such as math or science. Even this influx wasn’t enough, however, and it occurred to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to wonder aloud whether there was any law “that says a yeoman must be a man.” Remarkably, there was not. Nowhere in the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 did it say that a naval yeoman had to be male. Thanks to that loophole, American women were permitted to enlist in the naval reserves during World War I, and the designation “Yeoman (F)” was created. The move was controversial, even shocking, to the public, but many more women hastened to enlist than the Navy had expected. To the women’s disappointment, they were not allowed to serve on ships (nurses, who were in a different category, could do so) but mostly worked as clerks and stenographers, facilitating the towering stacks of paperwork that the naval bureaucracy generates—the original yeoman’s work. During the first global conflict of the twentieth century, eleven thousand American women served as Yeoman (F)—also called yeomanettes.

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U.S. Army vs. Navy Codebreaker Recruitment

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 26-27, 32-38:

The Navy was a service that cared about status. It wanted women who were well connected socially, and there also seems to have been interest in knowing what the women looked like. The application asked that the women submit passport photos, some of which excited a bit of commentary. “I might point out that the passport photos will scarcely do justice to a number of the members of the course,” enthused Harvard’s Donald Menzel, saying that the women’s “appearance is such that large-scale photographs would be a grace to any naval office.”

Around the same time, another meeting was taking place. Twenty women’s colleges sent representatives to the elegant Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. Army was working to forge its own ties with institutions that schooled women. Already it was clear that educated women would be needed for the broader war effort. As the country coped with an acute labor shortage, the inspector general of the Department of Labor noted that adult civilians would not be sufficient to stock an economy bereft of its male workers. Students would be needed, and it made sense to start with the female ones. So the Army worked to tap its own network of women’s colleges before the Navy could reach them; indeed, the Navy suspended its own efforts to set up training at Connecticut College when it learned that the Army had gotten there first.

Disparate as their backgrounds were, the women who answered these summonses—that of the Navy and that of the Army—had a handful of qualities in common. They were smart and resourceful, and they had strived to acquire as much schooling as circumstances would permit, at a time when women received little encouragement or reward for doing so. They were adept at math or science or foreign languages, often all three. They were dutiful and patriotic. They were adventurous and willing. And they did not expect any public credit for the clandestine work they were entering into.

One of the best code-breaking assets is a good memory, and the only thing better than one person with a good memory is a lot of people with good memories. Every step of the process—the division of enemy traffic into separate systems; the noting of scattered coincidences; the building up of indexes and files; the managing of vast quantities of information; the ability to pick out the signal from the noise—enabled the great intuitive leaps. The precursor work during the war was almost always done by women, and many of those intuitive leaps were made by women as well.

Precisely because they did not expect to be celebrated or even promoted, the women tended to be collegial. This was in marked contrast to the Navy men—especially—who were fighting for recognition in a hotly careerist service. “The women who gathered together in our world worked very hard. None of us had an attitude of having to succeed or outdo one another, except in trivial ways,” recalled Ann Caracristi years later. “I mean, you wanted to be the first to solve a particular problem, or you wanted to be the first to get this recovery. But there was very little competition for, you know, for money, or anything of that nature, because everybody really assumed that when the war was over we would be leaving… The majority of the people considered it a temporary way of life.”

What is interesting about this generation of women is that they did understand that at some point they might have to work for pay. Forged by the Depression, they knew they might have to support themselves, even on a teacher’s salary, no matter how “good” a marriage they did or did not make. Some were sent to college with the idea that it would be ideal to meet a man, but their degree would permit them to “fall back” on teaching school. And some women went to college because they were, in fact, ambitious and planned to compete for the few spots in law or medical schools that were available to them.

Suddenly these women were wanted—for their minds. “Come at once; we could use you in Washington,” was the message conveyed to Jeuel Bannister, a high school band director who had taken an Army course on cryptanalysis at Winthrop College, in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

In the 1940s, the American labor force was strictly segregated by gender. There were newspaper want ads that read “Male Help Wanted” and others that read “Female Help Wanted.” For educated women, there was a tiny universe of jobs to be had, and these always paid less than men’s jobs did. But it turned out that the very jobs women had been relegated to were often the ones best suited to code-breaking work. Schoolteaching—with the learning it required—was chief among these. Knowledge of Latin and Greek; a close study of literature and ancient texts; facility with foreign languages; the ability to read closely, to think, to make sense of a large amount of data: These skills were perfect.

But there were other women’s jobs that turned out to be useful. Librarians were recruited to make sense of discarded tangles of coded messages. “Nothing had been filed. It was just a mess,” said Jaenn Coz, one of a number of code-breaking librarians who came to work for the Navy. “They sucked us out from all over the country.” Secretaries were good at filing and record keeping and at shorthand, which is itself a very real kind of code. Running office machines—tabulator, keypunch—was a woman’s occupation, and thousands were now needed to run the IBM machines that compared and overlapped multidigit code groups. Music majors were wanted; musical talent, which involves the ability to follow patterns, is an indicator of code-breaking prowess, so all that piano practicing that girls did paid off. Telephone switchboard operators were unintimidated by the most complex machines. In fact, the communications industry from its origins was one that had been considered suitable for women. Boys delivered telegrams, but women connected calls, in large part because women were considered more polite to callers.

Character also mattered. Here again, women’s colleges were ideal. All the schools had codes of comportment—curfews, housemothers, chaperones, rules about not smoking in your room and not having men visit you in private and not having sex and not wearing trousers or shorts in public. All of this enabled the women to sail through the military’s background checks. Bible colleges were even better; many of those graduates didn’t drink.

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The 1941 Boom in U.S. Codebreaking Jobs

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 22-25:

During World War II, code breaking would come into its own as one of the most fruitful forms of intelligence that exists. Listening in on enemy conversations provides a verbatim, real-time way to know what that enemy is thinking and doing and arguing about and worrying over and planning. It provides information on strategy, troop movements, shipping itineraries, political alliances, battlefield casualties, pending attacks, and supply needs. The code breakers of World War II advanced what is known as signals intelligence—reading the coded transmissions of enemies, as well as (sometimes) of allies. They laid the groundwork for the now burgeoning field of cybersecurity, which entails protecting one’s data, networks, and communications against enemy attack. They pioneered work that would lead to the modern computing industry. After the war, the U.S. Army and Navy code-breaking operations merged to become what is now the National Security Agency. It was women who helped found the field of clandestine eavesdropping—much bigger and more controversial now than it was then—and it was women in many cases who shaped the early culture of the NSA.

The women also played a central role in shortening the war. Code breaking was crucial to Allied success in defeating Japan, both at sea and during the bloody amphibious assaults on Pacific islands against a foe that was dug in, literally—the cave fighting toward the end of the war was terrible, as were kamikaze attacks and other suicide missions—and willing to fight to the death. And in the all-important Atlantic theater, U.S. and British penetration of the Nazi Enigma cipher that German admiral Karl Dönitz used to direct his U-boat commanders helped bring about the total elimination of the Nazi submarine threat.

The chain of events that led to the women’s recruitment was a long one, but a signal moment occurred in September 1941, when U.S. Navy rear admiral Leigh Noyes wrote a letter to Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College, the women’s counterpart to Harvard. For more than a year the Navy had been quietly recruiting male intelligence officers from elite colleges and universities, and now it was embarking on the same experiment with women. Noyes wanted to know whether Comstock would identify a group of Radcliffe students to be trained in cryptanalysis. He confided that the Navy was looking for “bright, close-mouthed native students”—that is, high-achieving women who had the sense and ability to keep a secret and who had been born in the United States and were free of close ties with other nations.

“Evidence of a flair for languages or for mathematics could be advantageous,” Noyes said, adding that “any intense sociological quirks would, of course, be undesirable.” Without stating what such “quirks” might be, the admiral suggested that a handful of promising seniors could enroll in a training course the Navy had developed.

“In the event of total war,” Noyes told her, “women will be needed for this work, and they can do it probably better than men.”

Ada Comstock was happy to comply. “It interests me very much and I should like to take whatever steps would be thought serviceable,” she promptly wrote to her friend Donald Menzel, an astronomy professor at Harvard who was serving as a point person for the broader naval recruiting effort. Astronomy is a mathematical science and a naval one—for centuries, navigation was done using the position of the sun and the stars—and many of the instructors who taught the secret course would come from the field.

At the Navy’s request, Comstock also approached leaders of other women’s schools. These deans and presidents were devoted to the cause of educating women and eager to defend liberty and freedom of thought against fascism and totalitarian belief systems. They also were keen to develop career opportunities for their students. The leaders savvily perceived that war might open up fields—and spots in graduate schools—that up to now had been closed to women. Even before Comstock received the Navy’s letter, many of the leaders had been strategizing over how they could provide what Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College, called “trained brains” to a war effort that would depend on advances in science and math.

The women’s college leaders met at Mount Holyoke on October 31 and November 1, 1941, with representatives from Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Smith, and Mount Holyoke attending. Comstock told them about the Navy’s request and said Radcliffe would participate. She distributed some materials the Navy had developed: a “Guide for Instructors” and an “Introduction to Students.” The idea was that selected students would take the course during the remainder of their senior year, then go to work for the Navy, in Washington, as civilians. The “Guide for Instructors” assured them that no prior experience was necessary and that they would receive a “gouge,” or answers to the problems. The instructors would be given a few texts to jump-start their own education, including a work called Treatise on Cryptography, another titled Notes on Communications Security, and a pamphlet called The Contributions of the Cryptographic Bureaus in the World War—meaning World War I, the so-called war to end all wars.

The result was the wave of secret letters that appeared in college mailboxes in the fall of 1941, summoning surprised young women to secret meetings. Most were in the top 10 percent of their class, selected based on academic performance as well as character and loyalty and grit.

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Sudeten Germans in 1930s Czechoslovakia

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 11-12:

When the ailing and elderly Masaryk stepped down from the presidency in 1935, he carried away much of the Sudetendeutsch community’s goodwill with him. In contrast to the charismatic Father-Liberator, Edvard Beneš, his long-time heir apparent, seemed a colorless and uninspiring replacement. Across the political spectrum, Czechoslovaks paid tribute to Beneš’s intelligence, diligence, and efficiency. In administrative ability he stood head and shoulders above his peers. But if his talents were those of the skilled bureaucrat, so too were his flaws. Thin-skinned, intensely self-righteous, cold, and prone to bearing grudges, he was to prove an unfortunate choice as Masaryk’s successor. His own secretary, Jaromír Smutný, acknowledged that although a “brilliant master of tactics and strategy, the greatest Machiavelli of our time … he is unable to awaken the enthusiasm of the masses…. People leave him persuaded, but not feeling entirely with him, full of confidence but without affection.” Beneš also had a tendency toward political idées fixes that would twice prove disastrous for his country. An ardent Francophile, between the wars he placed his complete trust in the relationship between Prague and Paris, only to be abandoned by the French at Munich. A similar disillusionment lay in his future, after he transferred his unquestioning and unrequited confidence to the Soviet Union. The Sudeten German population’s attitude to Beneš, hence, was at best one of reserve. It was suspicious of his efficient public relations network that ceaselessly reiterated to Western Europeans what they wanted to hear about Czechoslovakia’s and its president’s exemplary liberal and democratic credentials—an image it knew to be more than a little rose-colored. It recognized him as a committed Czech nationalist, whose regard for minority rights owed more to pragmatism than conviction. And it had little confidence that in any situation in which Czechoslovak and Sudetendeutsch interests were in conflict, Beneš would treat the two communities even-handedly and impartially. When the resolution to confirm Beneš in the presidency was put before the Prague parliament in 1935, not a single Sudetendeutsch deputy voted in favor.

The differential impact of the Great Depression on Czech and German communities intensified the Sudetenland’s sense of alienation. As one of the most export-dependent parts of the country, the Sudetenland was hard hit by the contraction in international trade. But the Prague government added greatly to the region’s distress by its practice of preferring Czechs for public-sector jobs, dismissing thousands of Sudetendeutsch workers in the process. Germans, more than 23 percent of the population in the 1930 census, five years later made up only 2 percent of the civil servants in ministerial positions, 5 percent of the officer corps in the army, and 10 percent of the employees of the state railways. Not a single ethnic German was to be found in Beneš’s own Foreign Ministry. State contracts, even for projects in the German-speaking districts, were steered toward Czechoslovak firms. By 1936, more than 60 percent of all Czechoslovak unemployment was concentrated in the Sudetenland. No less injurious to German sensibilities was Prague’s dismissive response to their complaints of discrimination. It was unreasonable, Czech leaders argued, for the Sudetendeutsche to complain about their exclusion from public-sector employment while they remained equivocal in their loyalty to the very state that they expected to pay their wages. Germans, on the other hand, recalled that Czechoslovakia had come into existence as a result of Czech and Slovak soldiers deserting from the Austro-Hungarian army during the Great War and forming a Czechoslovak Legion to join the conflict on the Allied side against their former comrades in arms. For Beneš and his followers, with their record of disloyalty to the Hapsburg Empire at a moment when it was fighting for its life, to preach to anyone else about minority nationalities’ duty of fidelity to countries to which they had been unwillingly attached seemed to most Sudetendeutsche the epitome of hypocrisy.

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Long History of People Exiled

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle p. 67:

The driving out of unwanted peoples, to be sure, is a practice almost as old as recorded history. The Old Testament tells the story of numerous forced migrations carried out by the Israelites and their neighbors against each other, the Babylonian Captivity being the most celebrated. Philip II of Macedonia was renowned for the scale of his population transfers in the fourth century B.C., a precedent that his son, Alexander the Great, appears to have intended to follow on a far more massive scale. The colonial era witnessed many more forced displacements, often accompanied or initiated by massacre. Some of these bore a distinctly “modern” tinge. The Act of Resettlement that followed Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland, for example, ordered Irish property owners in three-quarters of the island to remove themselves to the impoverished western province of Connacht by May 1, 1654, to make room for incoming English and Scottish colonists; those remaining east of the River Shannon after that date were to be killed wherever found. “The human misery involved,” in the judgment of Marcus Tanner, “probably equaled anything inflicted on Russia or Poland in the 1940s by Nazi Germany.” On a smaller scale, but proportionately just as lethal, was the United States’ forced relocation of part of the Cherokee nation from Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama to eastern Oklahoma along the so-called “Trail of Tears” in 1838; perhaps a quarter of the fifteen thousand men, women, and children who were driven out perished, most of them while detained in assembly camps. Extensive forced migrations occurred in Africa and Asia also. In what is today Nigeria the Sokoto Caliphate, the largest independent state in nineteenth-century Africa, practiced slavery on a massive scale—by 1860 it possessed at least as many slaves as the United States—as an instrument of forced migration, the purpose being to increase the security of disputed border areas. “Enforced population displacement … was supposed to strengthen the Islamic state, which was achieved through demographic concentration.” On the western borderlands of China, the Qing Empire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “used deportations and mass kidnappings to build a human resource base.”

Contemporary scholars agree, though, that the twentieth century has been the heyday of forcible population transfers. The rise of the nation-state, in place of the dynastic multinational empires of the earlier period, was both cause and effect of the ideological claim that political and ethnographic boundaries ought to be identical.

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Missing Migration History in Europe

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 1-3:

Immediately after the Second World War, the victorious Allies carried out the largest forced population transfer—and perhaps the greatest single movement of peoples—in human history. With the assistance of the British, Soviet, and U.S. governments, millions of German-speaking civilians living in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the parts of eastern Germany assigned to Poland were driven out of their homes and deposited amid the ruins of the Reich, to fend for themselves as best they could. Millions more, who had fled the advancing Red Army in the final months of the war, were prevented from returning to their places of origin, and became lifelong exiles. Others again were forcibly removed from Yugoslavia and Romania, although the Allies had never sanctioned deportations from those countries. Altogether, the expulsion operation permanently displaced at least 12 million people, and perhaps as many as 14 million. Most of these were women and children under the age of sixteen; the smallest cohort of those affected were adult males. These expulsions were accomplished with and accompanied by great violence. Tens and possibly hundreds of thousands lost their lives through ill-treatment, starvation, and disease while detained in camps before their departure—often, like Auschwitz I, the same concentration camps used by the Germans during the Second World War. Many more perished on expulsion trains, locked in freight wagons without food, water, or heating during journeys to Germany that sometimes took weeks; or died by the roadside while being driven on foot to the borders. The death rate continued to mount in Germany itself, as homeless expellees succumbed to hypothermia, malnutrition, and other effects of their ordeal. Calculating the scale of the mortality remains a source of great controversy today, but estimates of 500,000 deaths at the lower end of the spectrum, and as many as 1.5 million at the higher, are consistent with the evidence as it exists at present. Much more research will have to be carried out before this range can be narrowed to a figure that can be cited with reasonable confidence.

On the most optimistic interpretation, nonetheless, the expulsions were an immense manmade catastrophe, on a scale to put the suffering that occurred as a result of the “ethnic cleansings” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s in the shade. They took place without any attempt at concealment, under the eyes of tens of thousands of journalists, diplomats, relief workers, and other observers with access to modern communications, in the middle of the world’s most crowded continent. Yet they aroused little attention at the time. Today, outside Germany, they are almost completely unknown. In most English-language histories of the period they are at best a footnote, and usually not even that. The most recent (2009) edition of Mary Fulbrook’s excellent History of Germany 1918–2008 disposes of the episode in a single uninformative paragraph; the antics of the tiny ultraleftist Red Army Faction in the 1970s and 1980s, in comparison, rate four. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Germany is typical in not according the expulsions even a single mention. What is true of German history textbooks is also the case with those dealing with the history of Europe as a whole, and even of the central European states most directly concerned. Joseph Rothschild and Nancy Wingfield’s fine survey of the region in the postwar era, Return to Diversity—by far the most accessible and reliable one-volume treatment of the subject—takes a cumulative total of less than a page to explain the means by which Poland and Czechoslovakia, until 1939 among the most heterogeneous and multicultural countries in Europe, had just ten years later become ethnic monoliths. It is, then, entirely understandable why so many of my splendid and learned colleagues on the Colgate faculty should have expressed their confusion to me after reading in the newspapers in October 2009 that the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Klaus, had demanded that the other members of the European Union legally indemnify his country against compensation claims by ethnic German expellees, as the price of his country’s ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. None had been aware that anything had occurred after the war in respect of which the Czech Republic might require to be indemnified.

It would be incorrect, however, to attribute this pervasive ignorance of the expulsions, their context, and their consequences to any conspiracy of silence. What has occurred in the postwar era is something less calculated in nature, but more insidious in effect: the phenomenon of a historical episode of great significance that is hidden in plain sight. Certainly information, albeit of highly variable quality, on the expulsions is available—for those who possess the requisite language competence and are prepared to go looking for it. A 1989 bibliography lists almost five thousand works dealing with them to some degree in the German language alone. Even today, some sixty-five years later, living expellees are not hard to find; it has been calculated that a quarter of the current German population are expellees or their immediate descendants. What is denied, then, is not the fact of the expulsions but their significance. Relegated in textbooks to a single passing mention in a vaguely phrased sentence referring to the “chaos” existing in Germany in the immediate postwar era, or simply passed over in silence, the impression is effectively conveyed that they occupy a less important place in modern European history than the cultural meanings of football hooliganism or the relevance of the Trabant automobile as a metaphor for East German society.

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Transition to Alphabetical Grading

From A Place for Everything, by Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 226-227:

For Panizzi, and the British Museum, alphabetical order was seen as a pragmatic, modern solution—in fact it was the pragmatic, modern solution.

These questions arose in American university libraries just as the institutions themselves were moving toward a grading system that used the alphabet. Yet universities had not naturally been a home to ordering by alphabet more generally. Even in the New World, supposedly freed from old caste systems by its revolution, society continued to be viewed hierarchically: the earliest surviving lists of students at Harvard and Yale Colleges show them ranked not according to their own merits, by examination results or by their conduct, but by their families’ social status. It was not until 1886 that Yale began to list graduating students in alphabetical order.

At the same time, many colleges had used descriptive phrases to indicate pass or fail marks. In the late eighteenth century, Yale had used “Optimi,” best; “second Optimi,” second best; “Inferiores (Boni),” lower (good); and “Pejores,” worse. In the nineteenth century this was replaced by a scale of 1 to 4. Harvard, on the other hand, switched from numbers to letter grades in descending order from A to C just as it was adopting an alphabetically ordered card catalog. The University of Michigan initially simplified its system to pass or fail, later replaced with P for passed, C for “conditioned” (presumably some form of conditional passing grade), and A for absent. Mount Holyoke, in Massachusetts, founded in 1837 as the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, used A for excellent, B for good, C, fair, D, passed (“barely”), E for failed, before changing to pass grades A to E, with F becoming the new “failed.” With none of these changes does there appear to have been any discussion as to why A was almost always the best—it just seemed obvious that it was.

I don’t remember what grading system we used when my wife and I taught English in Zhongshan, China, in 1987-88, but I remember writing 努力 ‘works hard’ next to a few of the student names in the roster. The hardest workers tended to be students who didn’t have relatives in Honolulu, San Francisco, Vancouver, or Sydney who sent them allowances in hard currency that exceeded the value of the renmenbi we were paid each month. In any case, the grades we assigned didn’t matter. The graduates who got the best jobs were the ones who looked most attractive and/or had the richest parents.

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Vietnam Retrospective, 2007

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 273-274:

Visiting Vietnam, even the Cu Chi Tunnels, is not like visiting Antietam or Verdun (and if you don’t know what those places represent, shame on you). The country is beautiful; there are few marks of war and the people, arguably the best looking on earth, are intelligent, friendly, and interesting. But there is another level, another dimension, to life in Vietnam. The country you see was paid for in blood.

Hanoi is not really about opera or folk art performances. Basically, Hanoi is about politics. Hanoi will always be to Saigon as Washington is to LA.

To understand the price ordinary Vietnamese paid for a Communist victory, visit the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi. Despite the name, this is a museum of Vietnamese history and culture.

In a gallery containing examples of Vietnamese living quarters, there is one recreated room showing a truly Spartan lifestyle. The label on this exhibit read: “1975–1986 was a dramatic period and a profound lesson about the laws of social development.”

This is a profound understatement.

During that period after the end of the war, an individual without party connections was rationed to five meters of cloth per annum. The sandals worn by most people were made from old American tires and called “Ho Chi Minh Nikes.” Rice was also strictly rationed because of the failure of collective farming. Hunger was routine. People sat on wooden crates and looked into their empty rice bowls for entertainment because chairs and TV were only for cadres.

And this was the life of the politically acceptable. Hundreds of thousands of the politically tainted were put through reeducation camps. Many died in these camps. Millions had died in the war. There were reminders everywhere of those who were gone.

For years, Vietnam went nowhere spiritually or economically. It was one of the poorest countries on earth.

Over time, younger Vietnamese came to realize that such a life was not endurable. The older party leaders were sidelined. The younger ones cozied up to capitalism, just as in China.

Since 1993 [his last visit], Vietnam has gone through doi moi or economic openness. The boom that started in Saigon has spread to Hanoi. Much of the Hanoi Hilton prison, where John McCain was held, has been torn down for a real estate development. Corruption is rampant and is known as “lubricating oil.” There is a thriving stock exchange and over two hundred listed companies. GDP per capita has more than doubled since 1993. Many women have started tiny businesses.

Officially, Vietnam is a “market economy with a socialist orientation.” Just like Norway or The People’s Republic of Vermont.

The population of Vietnam is among the youngest on earth. They appear optimistic and have good reason to be. Writing and music and art have revived. Vietnam is rich in resources and well placed geographically. A promising future lies before it.

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Filed under economics, migration, nationalism, U.S., Vietnam, war