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Posts Tagged ‘WW II

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

1939 was a “turning point year”

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German cavalry and motorized units entering Po...
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Writing a review of the latest Hitchens book, Ian Buruma writes that 1939 was a turning point year. Well it is a fact of history that Hitler chose the turn his game of international blackmail in 1936, 1937 and 1938 into all out war in September, 1939.

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What did my father have in mind when he accepted to go to Paris in April 1939 for the Royal Bank of Canada after getting out of Barcelona only months before that in 1938? Did he simply ignore the trend of overt agressiveness being openly shown by Hitler’s Nazi regime? Did he care if that could have any effect on his life and the life of his family?

I’ve read about 1939 in a few history books. All agreed that it was a beautiful spring and summer, especially in Paris. Was that the existential factor that induced him to continue living in Paris even after Hitler’s armies invaded Poland in September 1939?

It’s a fact I remember about my boyhood in Sherbrooke QC during the war years of late 1940 till 1945, that my father rarely missed listening to the BBC news broadcast. Surely he listened to the same news broadcasts in 1939? How could he not feel the menace of attack from the belligerent Nazi armed forces right up to the invasion of Poland and especially as reports from the Eastern Front left little doubt that Hitler’s  intentions couldn’t be peaceful since his takeover and elimination of Polish elites was evident, even at that early stage of WW II?

Or was it that my father subscribed to the ideas of the Canadian Prime Minister of that  time, McKenzie-King, who met with Hitler in 1937 and felt he was a calm and serious political leader, even though Von Neurath, the German Foreign Minister admitted to King that many Jews had been treated “very roughly” in “cleaning things up” in German cities, like Berlin?

In the end me and my family made it out of France at a few minutes after midnight!

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2010/06/28 at 23:32

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.

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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
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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/10/27 at 08:36

The Prussians learned an important lesson when they were beaten by Napoleon’s “Industrial Warfare”

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The Kingdom of Prussia within the German Empire
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Here is an explanation from Goldman and 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.

Decal for German helmet, Sieg Heil !! Alles ju...
Image via Wikipedia

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.

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Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2009/08/02 at 17:49

GWB and his “Churchill cult”

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Geoffrey Wheatcroft writes in NY Review of Books, one of my favorite journals of opinion, writes an interesting review of several books about Churchill titled Churchill and his myths.

Apparently Wheatcroft is writing his own book about Churchill.

I find the following excerpt from the NYRB review most interesting:

And yet the strangest thing is that Churchill knew what a hateful regression all this was, or a part of him knew that. In My Early Life, his most engaging book, he writes a romantic reverie about cavalry warfare in the good old days, cast aside in “a greedy, base, opportunist” manner by

chemists in spectacles and chauffeurs pulling at the levers of aeroplanes…. War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid…we now have entire populations, including even women and children, pitted against one another in brutish mutual extermination.

Ten years after writing that, Churchill led the way in cruel, brutish, and exterminatory war-making against women and children, partly thanks to his uncompromising personality, partly thanks to what was seen as the logic of the situation. Three years after he hoped for “devastating, exterminating” attacks on civilians, he was shown blazing German towns filmed from the air, and exclaimed, “Are we beasts? Have we taken this too far?” And two years after that he tried (not very creditably) to dissociate himself from the destruction of Dresden by Bomber Command. He was the same man—the same immensely complex man—in 1930, 1940, 1943, and 1945. He was the same man still when, in his last speech as prime minister before his final retirement in 1955, he wondered sadly, “Which way shall we turn to save our lives and the future of the world?”

Those words are quoted by John Lukacs at the end of his essay, though he doesn’t draw any further moral. Lynne Olson does. In the best sentence in her book, about the Suez adventure of 1956, she writes, “Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, the lessons of Munich and appeasement were wrongly applied to a later international crisis.” Likewise, having rightly observed that “there has arisen among America’s elite a Churchill cult,” Patrick Buchanan devotes a chapter, “Man of the Century,” to denouncing the cult, and the man. He not only looks askance at Churchill’s saying in September 1943 that “to achieve the extirpation of Nazi tyranny there are no lengths of violence to which we will not go”; he chastises the administration of George Bush the Younger—who installed a bust of Churchill in the Oval Office—for having emulated “every folly of imperial Britain in her plunge from power,” and having drawn every wrong lesson from Churchill’s career. There is by now an entire book to be written about the way that “Munich,” “appeasement,” and “Churchill” have been ritually invoked, from Suez to Vietnam to Iraq, so often in false analogy, and so often with calamitous results.

Which of us knows for sure whether any war can ever be “good”? The conclusion one might well draw from the story told in different ways by these books is that there may never be good wars or just wars, but that there may be necessary wars; and that the war in which Churchill led his country, awful and inexcusable as its means sometimes were, and grim as many of its consequences, really was a “war of necessity,” just as much as the present war in Iraq was not. We should almost be grateful to George Bush and Tony Blair for illuminating the distinction.

Since my life was so affected by the Spanish Civil War and WW II until July 10 1940, I am very attracted  to all critical commentary about great WW II personalities like Churchill. What I gets most of my attention in Wheatcroft’s review is that he ties together several “good war” personalities to point to their shortcomings.

My bottom line is that all war is bad, but I do realize (without accepting) that some wars may be necessary. War on the Eastern Front in WW II could not be avoided given the ambitions of Hitler and the “deaf and blind” policies of Stalin. Considering the unmitigated brutalities on both sides during that 4 year campaign, how can the word “good” be written next to “war”?

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/05/12 at 09:59

Hitlerism and German military were defeated by Stalin’s political leadership, Soviet Armed forces and the massive scale of Russian resources, mostly!

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Every time I read and hear about WW II from the Western perspective, I feel the real story of who won it, or how it was won, or what truly beat Hitlerism, is not really in the discussion.

These days I am reading “Life and Fate“, the epic tale of war on the Eastern Front written by Valery Grossman, an extraordinary Russian journalist who was truly embedded with the Soviet forces before, during and after the battle of Stalingrad, in a way that Western jounalists today rarely experience. The story he tells is one of the true barbarism of the war fought against Hitler’s armed forces. No other story by Stephen Ambrose or Cornelius Ryan is comparable for the breadth and depth of human suffering depicted by Grossman.

So it is useful serendipity today that the Web sphere offers a review of books now being published in the US about the epic war in the East. Here is an excerpt from that review:

The German invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941. It involved three million men: 152 divisions in three army groups, 3,350 tanks, 2,000 airplanes, 7,000 pieces of artillery, 600,000 motorized vehicles, and 625,000 horses. The initial efforts matched such numbers. In three weeks, Army Group Centre advanced 400 miles and captured the whole of Belorussia. Russian armies lost nearly 5,000 tanks, nearly 10,000 artillery pieces, and 1,700 planes. The victories at Bialystok and Minsk were each comparable to the German victory over the combined French and British armies in May 1940.

German plans called for the destruction of the Red Army west of the Dnieper and Dvina Rivers–to prevent it from escaping into the hinterland of Russia–and the capture of Smolensk, the land bridge to Moscow. All went well, though the distances and the minimal Soviet infrastructure quickly caused trouble with the strategic schedule as the panzer divisions awaited the slow infantry and supplies. And Smolensk held out for 63 days.

Still, the German leadership was suffused with a sense of complete victory. Eleven days after the invasion began, the army chief of staff, Franz Halder, made a famous entry in his diary: “I am therefore not exaggerating when I say that the campaign against Russia was won in 14 days.” This isn’t the mad logic that it might seem in retrospect. The General Staff’s rule of thumb was that a nation could produce two divisions (30,000 soldiers) for each million of its population. The Soviet Union prewar population was 190 million, and so should have produced an army of six million soldiers in 384 divisions. By September, Soviet dead and prisoners exceeded four million. In the first six months of fighting, the German army achieved 12–repeat, 12–great encirclements on a par with the victories at Sedan in 1871 and the Ardennes in 1940.

If Barbarossa had been a war game, all would have been over. Yet the Russians didn’t play by quite the same rules. On August 11, Halder would write:

Overall, it is clearer and clearer that we have underestimated the Russian colossus, which had prepared itself for war with an utter lack of restraint which is characteristic of the totalitarian state. This is as true in the area of organization as it is of the economy, the area of transport and communications, but above all to pure military power. At the start of the war, we reckoned on some 200 enemy divisions. Now we have already counted 360. These divisions are definitely not armed and equipped in our sense, and tactically they are in many ways badly led. But they are there.

THE GERMANS DIDN’T HAVE A WAY to win the war if the Russians were willing to keep fighting.

The fighting in Western Europe was a bloody and tough slog, but how many times worse would it have been if by the fall of 1943 the Soviet armed forces hadn’t forced the German military into full scale retreat on a vast front, especially after the battle of Kursk. And the blood letting in the East hadn’t ended. Apparently there were hundreds of thousands of Soviet military casualties during the phases of the preparation and final battle for Berlin.

Considering the way in which Allied generals and their political masters conducted the war in the West after the Battle of the Bulge, it is fair to say that they couldn’t contemplate epic and savage battles on the scale that Stalin ordered and didn’t flinch from including Stalingrad, Leningrad, and the Kursk offensive.

I just found another review of a Grossman book and another about the soldiers of the Red Army. Fascinating perspectives and explanations about Stalin’s evil manipulation of Russian soldiery and their barbaric behaviour before and during the final defeat of the German military machine.

Written by BobG in Dalian & Vancouver

2008/02/11 at 14:19