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Brétigny and Westphalia, Ft. Douaumont and Cuba

Where to start, where to start.  In planning this little missive, your intrepid researcher dithered for some time to find a common theme (yes, he does try), and finally settled on the lessons of war and peace.  But on 24 October also marked the first transcontinental telegraph in 1861 (which gave California the first breaking news of the Civil War), and the invasions of Ethiopia (in 1935, reported by live radio feeds for the first time) and Hungary (1956, reported by live television for the first time), and of course the first nylon stockings in 1939.  But, today, we look at the lessons of war and peace.

Beginning in 1337, a dynastic conflict called the Hundred Year’s War between the Plantagenet-Angevins of Normandy and England and the Anjous that controlled what is now eastern and southern France (modern France is largely a construction of the Bourbons in the 17th century) raged. By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain. After a peasant revolt threatened the food supply, John finally agreed to a treaty.  The Treaty of Brétigny was ratified on 24 October 1360 at Calais.  Also called the Treaty of Calais, the peace was only a nine-year breathing space, and barely that.

By 1360, England was triumphant, having captured the French King John II at Poitiers in 1356, and much of western France in the bargain.

Of a somewhat more permanent nature, the Peace of Westphalia (Westfälischer Friede) in 1648 ended a great deal more, for a little while at least.  Traditionally Westphalia was the end of the last of the four phases of the Thirty Years’ War, where much of Europe was ready to fight to the last German.  It was also where the Protestants and Catholics ended their Eighty Years’ War, where they were willing to burn the last German at the stake with any available torch for the heresy of being in the way.  That Germany survived the bloodletting, it is said, can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular mostly because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies. Westphalia was the result of over a hundred different belligerent delegations ranging in size and importance from three-county dutchies to multi-national empires that negotiated three major legal instruments.  First, there was the Peace of Munster, ratified  15 May 1648, between the Dutch Republic and their allies and the Kingdom of Spain and theirs that recognized the independence of the modern Netherlands. There was also a Treaty of Munster between the Holy Roman Empire and their gang of allies and France and theirs, and the Treaty of Osnabrück between the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden’s allies.  Both Munster and Osnabrück were ratified in Westphalia on 24 October, 1648. While Westphalia didn’t end war or even all the wars that raged across Europe and the New World at that moment, it did create a structure for a European congress, or at least a diplomatic protocol for recognizing the possibility that the bloodletting could end without destruction.

That Germany survived can only be attributed to the turnip and the potato, root vegetables that became popular because they weren’t burned by rampaging armies.

And while Europe learned to make peace, it still made war…terrible war.  By October 1916, the failed German offensive at Verdun had turned into a killing machine beyond the imagination of the diplomats at Westphalia, or, indeed, of anyone before or since. Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day for just short of a year, and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning. Fort Douaumont had been captured by the Germans in February and was pounded by French artillery for  nine months.   On 24 October, 1916 the French recovered the ruined Fort Dounemount from the Germans. The months of shelling had finally breached Dounemount’s eight foot thick steel-reinforced concrete roof that was also cushioned by four feet of earth.  The prominence that the ruined fort was built on became known at Le Morte Homme–Dead Man’s Hill–and today is the site of an ossuary.

Verdun claimed 70,000 casualties a day, for just short of a year and it was all for a handful of concrete-reinforced structures that, before the battle, France was abandoning.

It should be said that humanity had learned something of all the wars and treaties by 1962.  After two decades of brinksmanship following WWII, the Soviet Union began to emplace nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba.  On 24 October 1962, after the Americans discovered the missiles that were within range of most of the lower 48 states, John Kennedy imposed a blockade-called-quarantine on Cuba, challenging the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev to not only acknowledge the installations (that the US showed photos of in the UN) , but withdraw them.  Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours. Writing in their memoirs decades after the events, American, Russian and Cuban officers at the center of the Cuban Missile Crisis fully expected the bombs and missiles to begin falling at any moment for over a week.  But the quarantine worked, and four days later Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missiles.  Though the true “why” of that decision went to the grave with Khrushchev in 1969, it seems likely that the Politburo decided that Cuba was the wrong war in the wrong place over the wrong issue to risk the destruction of the Communist promise.

Not only Cuba, but also much of the US, Europe and East Asia, as well as large parts of European Russia were at risk of nuclear annihilation within days, if not hours.

If humanity learns no lessons ever, the lessons of Westphalia and Cuba should be clear: annihilation is not the answer to diplomatic issues.  But because of that lesson, we are left with Verduns and all their spawn. We get to destroy each other in middling-sized groups.

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9 November: A Banner Day for Germany

Although some years were much better than others, 9 November for Germans was momentous, especially in the 20th century.

In 1914, the Dresden-class light cruiser SMS Emden was operating in the Indian Ocean, where she sank Russian and French warships at Penang, captured two dozen cargo vessels and converted one into raider Kormoran.   On 9 November she was raiding a British radio station on Direction Island in the Cocos Islands when she was caught by an Australian light cruiser, HMAS Sidney. In a short and uneven fight where the Australian out-ranged the German by at least a thousand yards, Sidney managed to damage her opponent enough that Emden grounded on North Keeling Island to save what could be saved of the crew.  About a third of the Germans were killed, compared to less than ten percent of the Australians.  Part of the German’s landing party that had been left behind on Direction Island made it back as far as Turkey, where they joined the crew of battle cruiser Goeben.

Four years to the day later, Wilhelm II of Germany was abdicated from his thrones by his chancellor, Prince Max of Baden as Wilhelm fled into Holland ahead of a howling mob inspired by the Russian revolution.  He was the last king of Prussia (a dynasty that had been founded in 1701), and the third and last emperor of Germany, an empire his grandfather pronounced in 1871 and to which he ascended in 1881.  He was also the eldest grandson of Queen Victoria of Great Britain, and was thus related by marriage and blood to nearly every royal house in Europe.  On 25 November, Wilhelm submitted his formal abdications.  Max, in the cusp of a revolution boiling throughout Germany, had tried unsuccessfully to preserve a monarchy, but to avoid chaos agreed to the formation of a republic in Germany and renouncing any claims of the Crown Prince, also named Wilhelm.

In 1938, Germany was once again wracked by violence on what was known as the “night of broken glass,” or Kristallnacht.  Using the murder of a German diplomat in France as a pretext, German paramilitary organizations and disorganized mobs killed hundreds of Jews and destroyed thousands of businesses, schools, synagogues and homes of Jews throughout Germany.  Further, some thirty thousand Jews were arrested, eventually to be killed in the German camps.  It was the first time that the outside world saw what Germany had become, internally, as police and other authorities stood by and watched.

Finally, on 9 November 1989, after weeks of unrest in Eastern Bloc nations, it became obvious even to the East Germans that the hemorrhaging of Germans into Hungary and across the border into Austria (which had been opened on 11 September) was not going to be abated, and permission was given for East Germans to “visit” the West.  Not to be delayed by hundreds of miles of travel, soldiers and civilians alike in Berlin broke up and tore down the wall as the border guards looked on…or helped.  For days afterwards Berlin was a carnival atmosphere as old Stazi hands and other DDR functionaries were detained, hunted down or murdered in the “bloodless” revolution that followed.  As Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and finally Romania threw off their Moscow-controlled chains for the next few months, the West realized that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union had been weaker than they had earlier thought.

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The End of the Monster

On 4 March 1953, the Soviet Union stood still, for its great driver was gone.  On that day, it was finally confirmed, Joseph Stalin was dead.

It took long enough.  He had probably had a stroke at least two days before he was found alone in his home near Moscow.  Even his closest aides were too afraid of his violent temper to check on him, since he hadn’t been heard from.  When one brave soul finally did, even his closest associates were afraid of a trap and refused to help.

Born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvilli (or Jugashvil) on 18 December 1878 in the Russian province of Georgia, his life was one of more or less constant turmoil, conflict, revenge and frank paranoia.  A professional revolutionary from a young age when he took the name Stalin (which, depending on sources, means either “man of steel” from the Czech or “son of Lin,” the province where he was born), very little about his career relied on anything more than power, fear, and intimidation.  As one of the first of Lenin’s associates to reach Petrograd after the abdication of Nicholas II, Stalin took a prominent role in the victory of the Bolsheviks in the November revolution in 1917, and even then his habits of first isolating then liquidating all opposition, rivals (including, it is said by some, Lenin), and any others that dared to even appear to oppose him or what he wanted.

From the forced collectivization of the 1920s and the liquidation of the “kulaks,” through the Terror of the 1930s, Stalin’s sole goal was the promotion of his personal program for the aggregation of power under his control.  For him, “revolution” was for his personal benefit even if he did everything “in the name of the Soviet people.”  Married twice, his first wife died after less than two years with him; her family was wiped out in the purges.  His second wife may or may not have been murdered.  His children hated him, mostly, but his grandson sued a newspaper for libel because it called Stalin a “bloodthirsty cannibal,” a suit he lost.  Stalin’s son Yakov was captured by the Germans in 1941; Stalin refused to exchange him for Friedrich Paulus, the unlucky commander at Stalingrad.

But it was Stalin’s iron will that held the Soviet Union in the war in 1941, even after appalling casualties completely wiped out his prewar army in the first seven months.  The forced collectivization paid for the factories that turned out more armor than the rest of the world combined.  The immense system of labor camps spent less time in price negotiations and more in mining iron and aluminum and digging canals, albeit at the cost of a million prisoners a quarter.

But eventually Stalin’s image of himself caught up with him, and in his fear he turned on even his closest friends, including his chief secret policeman, Laverenti Beria.  As he slowed down, his last meeting with his generals had to do with Korea, and the inability of the Chinese and their North Korean allies to either make a breakthrough on the fighting front or the diplomatic.  “Purge them all,” he is said to have replied, “then launch another offensive.  The Americans won’t fight much longer.”  Within three weeks of Stalin’s death a temporary accord had been reached, and three months later the war was over.

Russia At War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond contains an essay on the life of Stalin by John D. Beatty.  Available in hardback and Kindle at fine booksellers everywhere.

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Tragedy and Triumph

18 February marks two events in 1945 that would have profound consequences for the future of warfare.  First, after fifty days of siege that cost some 50,000 military and civilian lives, Budapest fell to Rodion Malinovski’s 2nd Ukrainian Front.  Some ten thousand or so Germans and a handful of Hungarians had broken out to the west on 11 February, only to be caught on the road to Vienna and wiped out.  The Soviets suffered some 100-150,000 casualties during the long siege.

Russia at War: From the Mongol Conquest to Afghanistan, Chechnya and Beyond (edited by Timothy Dowling) discusses Budapest and a thousand other battles.  John Beatty’s essays of Soviet casualties 1941-45, Soviet armor development in WWII, Joseph Stalin and the battle for Berlin in 1945 are also featured.  Russia at War is available in hardback from fine booksellers everywhere.

On the same day, the three-day tragedy of Dresden began.  Spared heavy bombing for most of the war, Dresden was attacked three nights and two days in a row, devastating most of the medieval city.  One young American POW caught in the bombing was Kurt Vonnegut, who described his ordeal in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, named after the shelter he was trapped in.  He was also quoted in Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and complained more than once that he could never get the smell of Dresden out of his nose.

The bombing has been heavily criticized ever since. Dresden has been the subject of more than one book, one of the worst being David Irving’s Apocalypse 1945, which severely inflates the already tragic casualty count.  Officially and finally refuted in a libel trial in London described in Richard Evans’ Lying About Hitler, Irving has even served a term in jail for denying the Holocaust.

On 13 February 1951, United Nations forces (mostly Americans of the 23rd Infantry, but also the French Battalion, and a Dutch company among the 4,500 or so men) met Chinese troops (about 25,000 from the 39th, 40th and 42nd Armies) at Chipyong-ni (Dipingli in Chinese) in Korea.  The two day battle would be called the “Gettysburg of the Korean War,” and because of its disconnected and decentralized nature, one of the biggest “soldier’s battles” in history, costing the Chinese about 3,000 casualties and the US forces about 300.  It was the “high water mark” of the Chinese incursion into southern Korea, and the beginning of the gradual retreat of the Chinese and North Koreans to around the 38th parallel.

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Argonaut: The Beginning of a Bipolar World

On 4 February 1945 the Yalta conference began in at the Crimean  resort town that had been mostly abandoned since the German invasion of Russia in 1941.  Joseph Stalin hosted the only other two world leaders that mattered in early 1945, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.  Together, it is said, they divided the postwar world between them at Yalta.

The truth is somewhat more prosaic, and somewhat more sad.  FDR was dying, and that was obvious to everyone.  Churchill commanded large forces, but they were fragile and dependent on the US for much.  Stalin’s armies were killing three of every four Germans dying in the war, and he had the will and the might to do pretty much whatever he wanted to do…in Europe.  Asia was a different matter, and if he had to cross an ocean even as small as the Yellow or South China Sea his power diminished tremendously.  Still, he was capable to invading Japan from Korea, and everyone knew it.

It was at Yalta that it was decided that Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and much of the Balkans would fall under a Soviet “sphere of influence,” an irrelevant concession since the Soviets were already there or would be soon.  FDR was in no position or state to argue about it, and Churchill lacked the power without Roosevelt’s insistence to resist Stalin’s “requests.”

In all, the Yalta conference did more to create a myth of “concessions” in Europe, but left unsettled the issues surrounding Japan, including the future of Korea.  Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of the current dictator of North Korea, was a Major in the Red Army of the Soviet Union, commanding a nominal battalion of Korean guerrillas at Vyatskoye on the Amur River.  Soviet cooperation in an invasion of Japan was secured at the cost to Stalin of a French occupation zone in Germany.

Poland and China were the losers of the conference, primarily because their futures were decided without their direct participation.  The winners were the Soviet Union…and the undertakers.  The next half century would see how a truly divided world could work.