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Second thoughts about the morality of WW II and both sides

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Adam Kirsch is a senior editor with The New Republic. I recall reading his stuff before and remember that a lot of it was thought provoking. This review of WW II histories is no less thought provoking. The NY Times piece offers this set of seldom seen images of that horrible time that I brushed so close to in France during May and June 1940. Kirsch’s ending is most evocative for me:

After all, the present is always lived in ambiguity. To those who fought World War II, it was plain enough that Allied bombs were killing huge numbers of German civilians, that Churchill was fighting to preserve imperialism as well as democracy, and that the bulk of the dying in Europe was being done by the Red Army at the service of Stalin. It is only in retrospect that we begin to simplify experience into myth — because we need stories to live by, because we want to honor our ancestors and our country instead of doubting them. In this way, a necessary but terrible war is simplified into a “good war,” and we start to feel shy or guilty at any reminder of the moral compromises and outright betrayals that are inseparable from every combat. The best history writing reverses this process, restoring complexity to our sense of the past. Indeed, its most important lesson may be that the awareness of ambiguity must not lead to detachment and paralysis — or to pacifism and isolationism, as Nicholson Baker and Pat Buchanan would have it.

On the contrary, the more we learn about the history of World War II, the stronger the case becomes that it was the irresolution and military weakness of the democracies that allowed Nazi Germany to provoke a world war, with all the ensuing horrors and moral compromises that these recent books expose. The fact that we can still be instructed by the war, that we are still proud of our forefathers’ virtues and pained by their sufferings and sins, is the best proof that World War II is still living history — just as the Civil War is still alive, long after the last veteran was laid to rest.

My own Lilliputian view is that the world conflict known to us as WW II really began in Manchuria, now  a major part of northeast China, in September 1931. Generals of Japan’s Kwantung Army, which occupied parts  of southern Manchuria, decided for their own nationalistic reasons to undertake invasion and near war against China, which seemed a conquerable power at that time. It’s notable that Japan’s war in China lasted about 14 years and was followed by open civil war in China between the Kuomintang of Chiang-Kai-Shek and Mao’s Communist forces, which ended in October 1949.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2011/05/27 at 19:02

Napoleon, Prussian military and Hitler

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… in the early 19th century, the Prussians developed the next step in evolving industrial military into technological military, eventually leading to the Blitzkrieg techniques evolved by Guedarian et al.

In a well reasoned book Goldman and Eliason put to bed how the need to re-organize its armies led the Prussian Generalship to examine the connection between the nation’s socio-political organization and the means to develop a modern innovative military organization.

The Diffusion of Military Technology and Ideas

By Emily O. Goldman, Leslie C. Eliason

By repeatedly beating Prussian generals in battle, Napoleon provoked a radical reaction from the Prussians who eventually outdid his brilliance in battle, beginning in the battles of the 1811 to 1815 at Waterloo, especially.

In fact, the Prussian military realized that innovating and rebuilding their military machine required basic political reforms, or freeing its serfs so that they could become citizen soldiers like the French soldiers were. The serfs and mercenaries that made up Prussian armies lacked the ability and willingness to adopt the tactical and operational innovations introduced by Napoleon’s industrialized armies.

Maj. Gen. Scharnhorst, a political liberal and a reformer leading the effort to transform Prussia’s military capability to meet and then beat Napoleon in the field, recognized that it was necessary to free serfs politically to then train them in the new tactics used by Napoleon’s armies.

It is to easy to project this basic idea of revolutionary change into the predominance that Prussian and then German armies exercised over the next 125 years up until June 1940, which saw the lightning defeat of the larger better equipped French Armies by the Wehrmacht in Western Europe.

This predominance was finally stretched and broken by the radical over-reach of Hitler in Eastern Europe from 1941 till the crushing defeat of his armies in 1945 by the Soviet military juggernaut, marshalled by Stalin.

It’s clear then that the predominance of one army over the others comes mostly from the ability to train its soldiery in use of tactics and technology. That certainly was amply demonstrated in May and June 1940 in Western Europe and again in 1943 till 1945 by the Soviet military.


Nineteenth century Europe witnessed two waves of military innovation, each of which triggered attempts to emulate or counter the successful practices. By the beginning of the century, France had raised a mass army; reorganized it into corps and divisions; and developed a new tactical system, the so-called “mixed system.” The demonstrated success of the Napoleonic military system against Old Regime armies spawned attempts by Napoleon’s adversaries to emulate and counter this style of warfare. By mid-century, Prussia’s unique response to Napoleonic warfare – an organized reserve system and a general staff coupled with the military use of the railroad and telegraph and the adoption of rifled guns and artillery transformed warfare once again. The success of Prussian military methods in the Wars of German Unification led states both within and outside of Europe to adopt German methods.

(From me)

It’s clear that German military learned most from their experience in WW I. They found ways to develop and test out their air arm with faster fighters and tactical ground support equipment like the Stuka dive bomber and airborne transport adapted to carry parachutists into tactical situations. Then they developed tanks and tank warfare with adoption of onboard radio communications. They also developed telephone and radio communications to support their command and control of men, tanks and supply. These technological adaptions led to Blitzkrieg and warfare by movement.

Hitler was unscrupulous enough to see how to use this technical advantage combined with his canny understanding that the democracies, France, England, and the other nations of Europe were unable or unwilling to coordinate their military might to face down German military superiority.

But he did not at any time have any viable strategic plan. Most of his victories were won by the skin of the teeth with each warlike step leading to a grabbing of resources that Germany didn’t have.

The French military basically learned nothing and used armour and air in a purely support mode completely secondary to the movement of divisions, corps and armies of infantry.

(end of comment)

These two waves of innovation represented the military manifestation of broader social or economic changes. The Napoleonic warfare was the result of nationalism, while the Prussian military system was the result of the movement of industrial technologies and production techniques into the military sphere. Success or failure in the adoption of new military practices turned not only on military organization and culture, but also on the fit between the new techniques and the broader social, political and economic environment of each country.

Each of these broad social and technological changes constrained the ability of armed forces to emulate successful innovations in a different manner. The political changes required to emulate Napoleonic military practices were the most daunting. Countries unwilling to adopt wholesale social and political reforms attempted to copy those elements of the Napoleonic military system that required less jarring changes. Rail and telegraph lines were distinguished by their joint military and civilian character. Rail lines in particular were very expensive. Their development was the product of the economic interests of individual entrepreneurs and industries. Militaries were thus hamstrung or blessed with the civilian networks they were given. The rifle was the most purely military (and least expensive) of the three. Here, adoption success turned most on the abilities of the individual militaries and least on the civilian or material environment.

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2010/04/17 at 07:40

Posted in about books, history, writings

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Serendipitous reading, or something like it

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I have just finished reading The Memoirs of Colonel Hans von Luck, which he titled Panzer Commander. In some small way our paths almost crossed in the southwest of France in and around Bordeaux in June 1940. He was an officer in the victorious Panzer units commanded by Erwin Rommel, who became famous in the battles of Libya and Egypt.

I was a 5 yr old surviving as well as we could to get away from German occupied France to return to Canada by wartime convoy. With my father, mother and siblings we were making our way by hook or crook to board ships under Royal Navy command that were part of the later phase of Operation Aerial to escape from France. So close and yet so far apart.

As is often the case I have been reading another book from that fearsome time titled Explaining Hitler. The chasm that exists between the first and second books is obvious and glaring.

Here’s a sample of what von Luck writes in the last few paras of his wartime memoir:

I have often felt that in the first half of my life I was, in a double sense, a prisoner of my time: trapped on the one hand in the Prussian tradition and bound by the oath of allegiance, which made it all too easy for the Nazi regime to misuse the military leadership; then forced to pay my country’s tribute, along with so many thousand others, with five years of captivity in Russian camps.

As a professional soldier I cannot escape my share of collective guilt but as a human being I feel none.

I hope that nowhere in the world will young people ever again allow themselves to be misused.

On the other hand the story of Hitler’s ill-gotten rise to political power reeks of the worst kind of blackmail, cruelty to others, political assassinations and mayhem, with the most inhuman sentiments I can imagine. What a contrast of humanity and evil men!

Erwin Rommel
Image via Wikipedia
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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/10/27 at 08:36

Small irony on this day in history February 26, 1935 and a minor coincidence

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When I consider historical events, I tend to pay more attention to 1935 since I was born on Oct. 8, 1935 in Barcelona Spain.

So it seems worth mentioning that on this day in 1935 two events, one in Berlin and the other in Great Britain presaged the outcome of the Battle of Britain in 1940. Here are short descriptions of these events, one from and the other from Wikipedia:

On February 26, 1935, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler signs a secret decree authorizing the founding of the Reich Luftwaffe as a third German military service to join the Reich army and navy. In the same decree, Hitler appointed Hermann Goering, a German air hero from World War I and high-ranking Nazi, as commander in chief of the new German air force.


On 1935, Feb, 26 in Daventry, England, Scottish engineer and inventor Robert Watson-Watt first demonstrated the use of radar.


Most air warfare experts accept the conventional wisdom that radar was key technology used by the RAF in its Command and Control to beat back the waves of German Luftwaffe bombers and fighters in the fall of 1940 with its fighter air defence.

As for myself, I was probably conceived in my mother’s womb in early February 1935. Is this an example of an odd coincidence of completely unconnected events, some big and some insignificant?

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/02/26 at 09:49