Category Archives: war

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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Degrees of French Patriotism in Alsace

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 69-70:

Even after the return of peace [in 1918], national governments would pioneer methods of displacing unwanted minorities that would be applied on a much larger scale twenty years later. A case in point was France’s “cleansing” (épuration) of the border provinces of Alsace and Lorraine between 1918 and 1921, in what Mark Mazower describes as “a blatantly racist assault on the civil rights of Germanspeakers” in the region. After his victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Bismarck had ill-advisedly annexed the ethnically mixed provinces to the Reich, creating a permanent antagonism between the two countries. When France reconquered Alsace-Lorraine in 1918, it immediately set out to eliminate any basis for future disputes about the provinces’ political complexion by purging them of those who might be thought to favor their reincorporation into Germany. To facilitate the process, the population was divided into four categories by the end of December 1918. Residents whose French loyalties were unquestioned were given identity cards marked with the letter “A,” signifying that they had been citizens of France before the Franco-Prussian War. Those who had at least one pre-1870 French parent received “B” cards. Citizens of Allied and neutral countries were placed in the “C” category; the remainder—a total of 513,000 “enemy” nationals and their children, including those who had been born in Alsace-Lorraine—became members of the “D” class. As we have seen, Heinrich Himmler’s racial gurus would use this system as a model when devising the Deutsche Volksliste in occupied Poland two decades later.

Like the Volksliste, the French classification scheme could readily be applied for the purpose of discrimination as well as expulsion. Category “A” card-holders, for example, could exchange Reichsmarks for francs at a much more favorable exchange rate than members of the other classes. Holders of “B” cards were often turned down for public-sector jobs on the ground of their mixed parentage. The most stringent disabilities, needless to say, applied to the “D” class, whose members among other restrictions were not permitted to travel. Petty persecution, however, soon gave way to deportation. The first to be removed were German-speaking civil servants; later, those marked for expulsion included factory owners and the unemployed. Their fate was determined by commissions de triage that held meetings in camera to assess the French patriotism of the persons concerned, often on the basis of denunciations solicited by local officials from individuals waging personal vendettas. Those who failed this examination were pushed across the frontier into Germany. They were permitted to take thirty kilograms of baggage with them and a maximum of two thousand Reichsmarks, all their remaining property being forfeited to the French state. But an even larger number were induced to opt for “voluntary repatriation” on the same terms. They did so because they expected to be removed eventually; because life in the “D” category had become intolerable; because, although not personally removable, their spouses or children were “D” card-holders; or, in some cases, because they feared physical attack by members of the majority population. Altogether, nearly 100,000 expellees and “voluntary repatriates” were transferred to Germany before the system was discontinued in July 1921.

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Prewar Ethnic Cleansing 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. 39-41:

In one respect it is misleading to speak of “the postwar expulsions.” From the very beginning of the Second World War, the European totalitarian powers engaged in ethnic cleansing on a scale never before seen in history. For Adolf Hitler, a continent from which “undesirable” peoples—Jews, Slavs, Roma, and others—had been displaced to make room for incoming German colonists lay at the very heart of his nightmarish racial vision. Even the Holocaust, when it had finally been decided upon, was but a means to this larger end. But his fellow dictator Josef Stalin also had grand ambitions to redraw the ethnographic map of the continent. During the two years of their uneasy partnership under the Nazi-Soviet Pact, both men found it convenient to work together.

Neither was a newcomer to the task. Stalin especially had a notable record of moving potentially troublesome national minorities around his empire, both as a form of collective punishment and to ensure that vulnerable borderlands were inhabited by ethnic groups—principally Russians and Georgians—in whose loyalty he considered he could repose greater confidence. To be sure, the internal transfer of smaller nations falling within the Russian orbit already had a long and dishonorable history by the time Stalin assumed control. Tsar Alexander II, the ironically named “Tsar-Liberator,” displaced nearly half a million natives of the western Caucasus in 1863–64 to enhance the security of the border. His grandson, Nicholas II, would follow his example in the first months of the Great War, removing to the Russian interior the ethnic Germans of central Poland along with an even greater number of Polish Jews. With the front beginning to collapse in the face of Hindenburg’s counterattacks in January 1915, Army General Headquarters stepped up this purge of potentially disloyal German, Austro-Hungarian, and Turkish subjects, by the simple expedient of giving the expellees a short period to collect what goods they could and then setting fire to their houses and crops. As the displaced people fled east, without food or any semblance of an evacuation system in operation, they began to die in large numbers. In the central Asian regions and the Far East of the Russian Empire, Chinese, Korean, and Moslem populations were removed for similar reasons. But it was only after the Bolshevik Revolution that internal deportations of entire peoples became a regular instrument of state policy.

A youthful Stalin cut his teeth as an architect of forced removals when as “Commissar for Nationalities” he assisted his fellow Georgian, Sergo Ordzhonikidze, to clear out the Terek Cossacks from the northern Caucasus in 1920. In the second half of the 1930s, movements of this kind reached unprecedented levels. “Between 1935 and 1938,” as Terry Martin notes, “at least nine Soviet nationalities—Poles, Germans, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, Koreans, Chinese, Kurds, Iranians—were all subjected to ethnic cleansing.” Most of these movements were connected to the Soviet leader’s paranoia over “spies” and “wreckers” within the country. In 1937, for example, 11,868 ethnic Germans living in the USSR were arrested as suspected Nazi agents; the following year no fewer than 27,432 were detained on similar charges. The number of Soviet Poles held for espionage was greater still. The majority of these detainees were executed; the peoples to which they belonged were internally exiled by police and NKVD units. During the years of Stalin’s “Great Terror,” a total of approximately 800,000 members of national minorities were victims of execution, arrest, or deportation—generally to the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which began to rival Siberia as convenient dumping grounds for peoples the government viewed with disfavor.

Although Hitler had less scope than his Soviet counterpart for large-scale transfers of population, he too worked energetically to convert Germany into an ethnically and racially homogeneous state even before the war. The persecution of the Jews since 1933 had the explicit intention of compelling them to leave the country: in its crudest form, this consisted of physically pushing those who held dual citizenship across the borders into the territory of neighboring countries. A further wave of coerced migrations, this time under international auspices, ensued as a result of the Munich Agreement, which provided a six-month window of opportunity for ethnic Czechs and Slovaks to move out of the Sudetenland (and Germans elsewhere in Czechoslovakia to transfer in) and established a German-Czechoslovak commission to “consider ways of facilitating the transfer of population.” In the spring of 1939, Germany browbeat neighboring Lithuania into ceding the largely German Memelland to the Reich, though tens of thousands of Volksdeutsche were left in the areas remaining under Lithuanian control. Lastly, at Mussolini’s behest, Heinrich Himmler opened negotiations with Italy in May 1939 to secure the removal of the 200,000 ethnic Germans of the Alto Adige region in the Italian Alps. Notwithstanding his “Pact of Steel” with Hitler concluded in the same month, the Duce had not been oblivious to the recent fate of countries bordering on the Reich that harbored German minority populations. After the Nazi state’s absorption of Austria in the Anschluss of 1938, Mussolini considered it wise to remove temptation, and his ethnic Germans, from his new partner’s field of vision. By July, an agreement in principle had been reached for the “voluntary” departure of the German-speaking population, though no decision was taken as to their ultimate destination. Although the pact supposedly required the ratification of the ethnic Germans themselves in a plebiscite, an affirmative vote was ensured by declaring that any who elected to remain ipso facto consented to be resettled anywhere within the Italian domains that Mussolini chose to send them. According to rumors deliberately spread to make certain that voters saw the matter in the correct light, this was to be Abyssinia.

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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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Elusive Property Rights in Eastern Europe

From Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism, by Slavenka Drakulic (Penguin, 2021), Kindle pp. 160-161:

My own experience of private property and that of people I know leads me to understand that both “private” and “property” are vague and very relative categories in my part of Europe. There are many reasons for this, ranging from political and economic changes through social ownership and war to ethnic cleansing and the Holocaust.

Watching the Hungarian movie 1945, directed by Ferenc Török and released in 2017, is perhaps the best way to understand at least one aspect of this; good films sometimes make such things possible. It begins with two strangers, Orthodox Jews, disembarking from a train at a small railway station in the middle of nowhere. They have two big boxes with them, almost like coffins. The railway station worker takes his bicycle and departs for the village in a great hurry to deliver news of their arrival. Meanwhile, villagers prepare for the wedding of a son of a local businessman who took over the local shop after the Jewish owners were transported to a concentration camp. As the two new arrivals approach the village on foot, the news spreads and people panic. They are afraid that the two Jews are coming back to reclaim the property of their relatives, who had been deported a year or two before. In the meantime everything has been stolen by the villagers—the shop, the tavern, the houses. Why are these two returning? And what is in their big boxes? Maybe the goods they want to sell once they have taken back the shop? Everybody took part in the plundering, so everybody has reason to fear the two strangers approaching. . . .

This black-and-white movie, in a style close to that of a documentary, shows the collective fear of the return of rightful owners, and how it destroys a community built on lies, denunciations and theft.

But this happened all over Eastern Europe and not only to Jews. Some three million ethnic Germans were expelled or had to flee their homes during the aftermath of World War II from the part of Czechoslovakia annexed by Hitler in 1938. Of course, local people promptly moved into those vacated houses. When thirty years later, two strangers suddenly appeared in a local tavern in a small village there, they were met with an awkward silence and suspicion. Perhaps these two men came because they wanted their family’s property back? But they were only two journalists in search of a good story, who, as it happens, got a unique chance to experience firsthand the mistrust of those living in and from stolen property.

When do wars really end? It seems that wars continue to live on in property documents, in doubts, nightmares and fears for generations.

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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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Potage and Reportage in Vietnam, 1966

From Eat Your Heart Out, Ho Chi Minh: Or Things You Won’t Learn at Yale, by Tony Thompson (BookSurge, 2012), Kindle pp. 139-140:

Cubello took a bunk in a corner of the tent next to Bob Gaylord, a career soldier, former short order cook, and petty thief. Bob found or stole a one-burner kerosene stove and then began to filch food from the mess hall and cook it for us. So we all liked Gaylord despite personal hygiene deficiencies on his part, such as never changing his green army T-shirt.

Army food wasn’t bad as long as the army cooks had nothing to do with it. Gaylord mixed jars of stuffed green olives and anchovies—yes, from somewhere he got dozens of those small flat cans of anchovies—with a stolen gallon can of army beef stew and heated it to tepid on his stove. We craved salty food because of our constant sweating. With enough Tabasco, we thought the salty, fishy stew was delicious.

Time magazine claimed on several occasions that GIs in Vietnam had shrimp cocktail, steak, and ice cream on a regular basis. I suppose that you have to expect a certain level of bollocks from a mass audience magazine, as Time used to be. Time was printed on a useful quality of paper, though. In Vietnam, if you saw a soldier walking in a purposeful manner with a rolled-up copy of Time, you knew where he was going.

Time’s reporting of Vietnam had a more basic flaw. Time’s main local correspondent, Pham Xuan An, had remarkable sources of information. In The Making of a Quagmire, David Halberstam described An as the linchpin of his “small but first-rate intelligence network” of journalists. Halberstam thought that An “had the best military contacts in the country.”

In claiming this, Halberstam was certainly correct. An was a colonel, and later a general, in the North Vietnamese Army. An sent invaluable reports about American activities to North Vietnam via the Cu Chi tunnels.

A full description of An’s role is in The New Yorker of May 23, 2005.

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World War I Spreads, 1917

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 297-298:

By the end of 1917 most of the world’s population had entered a state of belligerency. Even during the Napoleonic Wars this situation had no precedent. Two impetuses to the process came from the unrestricted submarine campaign and from American entry. The first threatened death and destruction to almost every country; the second made neutrality less attractive and joining the Allies more so. Yet the new belligerents made their own decisions, which were frequently contested. In China intervention led to civil war, and in Greece to something close to it; in Brazil it prompted civil disorder and repression of the German-Brazilians. In China, the issue became embroiled with the contests between Duan and Li and between the northern Chinese warlords and the Guomindang. Intervention became a gambit in a domestic struggle, with Duan holding the advantage. Brazilian public opinion was always pro-Allied in tendency, but it took the submarine sinkings to create a Congress majority for belligerency. Finally, in Siam the government had no legislature to contend with, and once the king insisted on intervention his foreign minister assented.

None of the four countries envisaged an all-out struggle, which makes their interventions easier to comprehend. So does US entry, which made the Allies more likely to win. Indeed, America also initially envisaged a limited commitment, but unlike the other new arrivals it subsequently expanded it. China, Brazil, and Siam were remote from the Central Powers and therefore ran little risk. Greece ran a bigger one, as a fighting front ran through its northern territory, and of the four it made the biggest military contribution. But the costs and risks should be set against the prospective gains. For Brazil these were primarily economic. For Siam and China the additional incentive was gaining traction against the unequal treaties, the Chinese being particularly focused on the Shandong lease. In Greece Venizelos wanted Bulgarian and Turkish territories that might support a glittering future in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. The prize all sought was a voice in the peace settlement.

These objectives would be satisfied unequally and tardily; and in Greece’s case scarcely at all. But the widening of the war through new interventions weakened European pre-eminence. Siam and China challenged the unequal treaties in a manner impossible before 1914; Chinese nationalism strengthened and became more anti-Western; Brazil and other South American countries turned away from Europe. China’s intervention was determined more by Japan than by the European Allies or the United States. Moreover, the war’s prolongation undermined not only informal European dominance in East Asia but also formal control elsewhere. This was most evident in the August 1917 Montagu Declaration, promising ‘responsible government’ in India, the grandest empire’s biggest possession. But if European control was under challenge in Asia, it was still expanding in the Middle East, and 1917 was the decisive year for establishing British authority over Palestine and Iraq. These developments too would figure among the lasting consequences of these crowded months.

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Siam Enters World War I

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 285-286:

Siam declared war on Germany on 22 July 1917. The 1855 Bowring Treaty had limited its tariffs to 3 per cent and secured extraterritorial jurisdiction for British citizens, soon to be followed by those of other Powers. By 1914 Siam had ceded more than one-third of its territory to French Indochina and to the British Malay states. That its core remained independent owed something to it suiting Britain and France to keep Siam as a buffer, and something to King Rama V (reigned 1868–1910) and his advisors. Rama appointed Prince Dewrawangse as foreign minister, who served for thirty-eight years, and by 1914 was vastly experienced and temperamentally cautious. When Rama VI acceded to the throne in 1910, he kept Dewrawangse on.

Siam was less developed than Greece or Brazil. Its population in 1910 was about 8 million, and Bangkok the one substantial city. Its principal export was rice and most of its foreign trade was managed by the British from Singapore and Hong Kong. Its government was an absolute monarchy, untrammelled by representative institutions, in which members of the royal family held key ministerial portfolios and several hundred foreign advisers worked in royal service. Insofar as public opinion existed, it might have been expected to be hostile to France and Britain; but Europe was distant and Germany and Austria-Hungary could not have aided the country. In fact such considerations were outweighed by the personal outlook of King Rama, who had attended Sandhurst and Oxford and undergone officer training with the Durham Light Infantry. In 1915–16 he made donations to widows and orphans of his former regiment, and he and George V exchanged the titles of ‘General’ in each other’s armies, despite German protests that such behaviour was un-neutral.

Unrestricted submarine warfare and America’s appeal to other neutrals to break off relations with Germany started a similar debate in Siam to those in Brazil and China. The initial response to Wilson was that Siam was very remote from the war, and preferred to see how the situation developed. This holding position was primarily due to Dewrawangse, who worked closely with the British minister in Bangkok, Herbert Dering, who in turn advised London that it was best to apply no pressure but let the situation mature, and this recommendation the Foreign Office heeded. Although it might be advantageous to control the nine German steamers in Bangkok harbour and expel the 300 Germans working for the Siamese government, the country had already cooperated in, for example, deporting Indian seditionists, and the advantages from its belligerency were marginal. Dering also feared the Siamese might seek concessions over the unequal treaties. The situation remained unchanged until Rama returned from a visit to the provinces, during which time Dewrawangse (with reluctant acquiescence from an impatient ruler) sounded out Siam’s overseas emissaries. In a Cabinet meeting on 28 May Rama intervened decisively. Dewrawangse reported that the diplomats were divided: the representatives in France and Russia recommended breaking off relations (as did the French and Russian governments), but the London envoy considered it unnecessary. The king, however, said Siam should join the Allies. Previously the Central Powers had seemed to be winning, but American entry altered the equation and delaying meant Britain would end the war with greater leverage than it had now. Rama hoped the unequal treaties could be revised or even abrogated, although he forbade his ministers from saying so. Instead Dewrawangse, who was uneasy but went along, drafted a note that blamed Germany’s persistence in an illegal method of warfare despite Siam’s protests. The government took over the German vessels before their crews could damage them, rounded up the German nationals, and asked the Allies how Siam could help them. When the communications minister voiced concern about running the railways without German experts, Rama replaced him. The kingdom had an army of 12,000–15,000 men, and initially it was not intended to send troops, but in 1918 a contingent of 1,254 volunteers went to France, where nineteen were killed. Siam attended the peace conference and urged amendments to the unequal treaties and recovery of full sovereignty, which America conceded in 1920 and Britain and France in 1925. In relation to the objectives set for it, Siam’s was the most successful of the 1917 interventions, despite the war being followed by a financial crisis. The story underlines how the new conditions forged opportunities for dissatisfied nations to press claims.

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