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Appeasement: smoothing the road to war.

Appeasement: smoothing the road to war.

‘The day may come when my much cursed visit to Munich will be understood.’ Neville Chamberlain speaking to Margot Asquith, May, 1940.

‘You may gain temporary appeasement by a policy of concession to violence, but you do not gain lasting peace that way. It is a grave delusion to suppose that you can.’ Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary, speaking in May, 1938.

‘Appeasement’. Rarely has reaction to a word been so transformed by time, taking it from something worthy of the greatest praise to generating near-disgust. From common-sense avoidance of confrontation to cowardice rooted in ignoring the evidence, appeasement has gone from being a sensible policy for thoughtful politicians to something to be avoided at all costs. Why was it that this idea which was once so good has become so bad? Why was it followed with regard to Hitler and Mussolini in the thirties but not against, say, Saddam Hussein in 1991 and 2003?

In the 1930s, the world was dominated by the suffering caused by the ‘Great Depression’. The economic problems which were triggered by the Wall Street Crash in October, 1929, had seen unemployment rise, trade collapse, industrial production fall, share prices fall, incomes fall and wages fall. From New Zealand to New York, from Britain to Brazil, there was despair and fear, as people struggled to make ends meet. But there were countries that were making progress and there were leaders who promised hope. This was the age of the dictators and two of them in particular seemed to be working economic miracles. In the ‘red corner’, so to speak was Joseph Stalin, bringing industrial growth in the Communist Soviet Union thanks to his ‘Five Year Plans’, while in the ‘brown corner’, by contrast, was Germany’s right-wing dictator, Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi (National Socialist) policies were having a remarkable impact and transforming the country. The fact that no other major countries were doing anywhere near as well during the depression brought great envy and attention from the rest of the world.

Praise flooded in from some really rather well-respected people for both men. David Lloyd George, the British former Prime Minister, was one of those who expressed admiration for Hitler. After visiting the Führer, Lloyd George described him as a ‘George Washington of Germany…the greatest living German’. He was probably overwhelmed by the contrast between what he saw in Germany and the state of life in Britain, especially South Wales and the industrial heartlands of the country but, even so, it was a sad thing to hear from a great politician. He would later turn against Hitler, though, supporting Churchill’s ideas against appeasement but his reputation was seriously damaged. But he was far from alone in praising Hitler as there was widespread respect for his achievements across Europe and amongst several leading figures in the USA, most famously Henry Ford. The German economic recovery appeared to be so positive that most people were more than willing to overlook some of the tactics used and the shadowy side of some of the ideology.

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David Lloyd George, the ‘Welsh Wizard’, in 1932. His visits to Hitler in the 1930s undermined his status as an astute politician. (Author: Robert Sennecke; Source: here)

Likewise, there was praise for the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin from many Western visitors who were shown neither the harsh realities of life behind the Five Year Plans nor the effects of the forced collectivisation of farms and the effects of that most terrible disaster, the Ukrainian Famine of 1933. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), a famous writer, was one who praised Stalin, controversially defending the Show Trials and naively believing that there was no famine in the Ukraine. He encouraged people from  the West to go to the USSR to find work and a better standard of living. Many hundreds of people did move from the USA and elsewhere to find prosperity and hope in a ‘Communist paradise’ but few found what they were looking for, as Tim Tzouliadis records in his excellent study, ‘The Forsaken’. Shaw spoke well of Stalin, putting him among those ‘superior leaders’ who had emerged during the Russian Revolution. Again, he was not alone in his opinions, with people like WEB Du Bois, one of the US founders of the civil rights group the NAACP, and the British Socialists, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, adding their praise for Stalin. In most of the world, though, overall conditions seemed worse than in Germany or the USSR.

Times of economic hardship tend to make countries turn inwards as they seek to protect their own systems, economies and people. In the USA, the richest and most powerful country of the age, this was especially true as the challenges of the Depression went alongside the renewed commitment to isolationism to which it had re-committed itself after the Great War. The USA had retreated from world affairs since Woodrow Wilson had left the White House in  1920 so that, even though it was his “Fourteen Points” had shaped the post-war world, but the US Congress had rejected the dying man’s plans for their own contribution. The post-war treaties of 1919 had not been ratified by the USA and so they had turned their backs on the League of Nations, the most important single organisation that would try to maintain peace and ensure smoother relations between nations. The League had come into existence but was only a shadow of what it needed to be and responsibility for keeping countries in line if there were unresolved disputes, rested with the two old European Powers, Britain and France. Economically they both lacked the capacity to act and politically they did not have the will to act. And in neither country was there great commitment from the ordinary people to demand decisive action, as they faced the immediate hardships of the Twenties and Thirties, and so the ‘League of Nations’ drifted. The logical thinking was, “Why should Britain and France take on these extra burdens at a time when there was such economic hardship in their own lands? Why should their men, their resources, their armies have to travel the world to sort out problems that had nothing to do with them when they would see little by way of the benefits?” The absence of the USA from the League of Nations would be a central problem which would smooth the path to war immeasurably.

Other problems afflicted the League of Nations between the wars, though. Various countries were not allowed to join the League at first, notably Germany and the other Central Powers from the war, as well as the newly formed Communist state of the USSR. These absences were a natural reaction to the horrors and chaos of the Great war but the gaps at the table would prove significant, morally and psychologically as well as politically. Germany finally joined in 1926 but the sense of ‘rejection’ in those early years was strong in Germany, as was the feeling that they had been made scapegoats for all the problems of the war and were to be ‘second class’ citizens in the new world order. Hitler and the Nazis would stoke up these fires of anger which smouldered away during the 1920s. Leaving the League of Nations was one of Hitler’s first actions in 1933, one which impact on the development of appeasement.

The League of Nations actually enjoyed some successes in the 1920s, mainly because the problems that came its way were quite small and included countries which were not too powerful. These countries were willing to accept the ‘advice’ of the League, which allowed Britain and France to avoid having to use the tougher measures they had available, like sending in troops to settle disputes. The League’s strategies for survival included actions at a more ‘diplomatic’ level: writing letters, holding meetings, sending advisers, making speeches which would criticise countries in public (the use of ‘shame’ to bring change) and trade sanctions. In reality, the solving of disputes in places like Silesia, Bulgaria the Aaland Islands did not tax Britain and France too much. They also had success in dealing with issues to do with border disputes, refugees, prisoners of war, slavery and leprosy. But some things were not well handled, such as a dispute involving Italy in Corfu, the failure to address the whole issue of military disarmament (which had been a big dream of President Wilson’s) and the invasion of the Ruhr by France in 1923 after Germany failed to make its reparations payments. The Ruhr invasion actually indicated a major tension between Britain and France as each country would choose to act in its own interests rather than the League of Nations; the two were not willing or able to cooperate. The weaknesses of the League became even clearer in the 1930′s when they were dealing with bigger countries and when the ‘easy’ solutions were not accepted.

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Woodrow Wilson, President of the USA (1856-1924) (Author: Harris & Ewing; Source: here)

Anyway, things were generally ‘okay’ for the League of Nations in the 1920s but they were to get much tougher in the 1930s as the Depression started and countries became increasingly aggressive and nationalistic in such tough economic circumstances. Germany, as has been mentioned, was invited to join the League of Nations in 1926, following the Locarno Treaty which settled all remaining border disputes after the war. Germany took its place alongside Britain, France, Japan and Italy as one of the main players in the League of Nations. However, in 1933, Germany left the League as Adolf Hitler did not want to be subject to their system, advice or sanctions. The crisis for the League was exacerbated in that same year when Japan also left because it was in dispute over Manchuria (see below). This indicated a major weakness of the League of Nations: what could they do when countries and politicians didn’t want to listen to them? In contrast, a year later Stalin decided that the USSR would join the League which seemed to strengthen it but the fundamental flaws in the system were so clear by then that even the presence of the USSR made little difference: everything would still depend on good will, reasonableness and the willingness of Britain and France to act together in a decisive manner. And the odds on these being successful were not exactly high.

Appeasement might not have been mentioned much so far but all of these developments in the League of Nations were important as background to it. The most significant political development that would put the spotlight on appeasement, of course, was that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany on 30th January, 1933. He was invited to take on the role of Chancellor and he was determined to use this position to restore German power and pride by rebuilding the armed forces, revitalising the economy and creating a new Reich, a one party state that would end democracy. He set this process in motion as soon as he was in power, removing political opponents, closing down the Trades Unions, marginalising then attacking the Jews and so on. In time, he broke all of the restrictions placed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles: the army was increased to more than 100 000 troops, the air force was built up, warships and submarines were built, troops were sent into the Rhineland, land lost under the Treaty of Versailles was re-occupied and so on. This did not all happen overnight; it took several years, and it was often a tentative process because Hitler knew that the country was still vulnerable to a strong military action from Britain and France. Hitler could not be sure of how these two powers would react to his breaches of the treaty, but he did have some good clues as to what would probably happen and they served only to encourage him. After 1933, Germany was no longer subject to the League of Nations, but there could still be problems from London and Paris in the form of trade sanctions or even an invasion, so why was he increasingly confident that he would face no direct confrontation? Two events from the 1930s suggested that Britain and France would do all they could to avoid conflict, choosing talking over fighting and direct action; these events were the ‘Manchurian Crisis’ (1931-34) and the ‘Abyssinian Crisis (1935-36). Appeasement was pretty much a nailed on certainty when you see what happened with these two problems.

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Maps are needed here so let’s start with Manchuria, that’s away over in the north-east of China, where the Japanese were in control in 1931. The darker red section is the main region that they occupied. (Author: CIA; Source: here)

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And now a world map to show how far it was from Britain and France. Remember, in 1931, no one was making long journeys by plane; everything was by ship, making intervention across the globe both difficult and slow. Communications by telegram and increasingly by phone were possible. But Manchuria really was a long way away in the minds of most Europeans, so why bother? (Author: Wikiacc; Source: here)

The “Manchurian Crisis” was an expression of Japanese expansionism, which had really begun when it took control of Korea in 1910. This was all tied in with Japan’s economic growth and its desire to industrialise when it had very few of its own natural resources. To cope with this situation, the army led an invasion of Manchuria in north east China, effectively telling the politicians what to do. China raised the issue of the invasion with the League of Nations in 1931,  but the initial decision of the main powers was ‘to have a look at the problem’ and so they sent some officials to check things out. They also asked Japan to leave Manchuria but this was simply ignored and nothing was done about it. When the delegation reported in October, 1932, the delay itself was a sign in itself, the decision was to recommend that the Japanese that they should give Manchuria back to the Chinese. In February, 1933, the League held a  formal vote on the matter, two years after the case had been presented to them, and there was a unanimous vote to condemn Japan and demand their immediate withdrawal from China. In response, the Japanese simply got up and walked out, ignoring the League of Nations and staying in Manchuria.

The next stage in this dispute should have been public condemnation, a ban on the sale of weapons to Japan and a trade embargo, but with the USA not involved, any such ban on trade would simply have led to more trade between those two countries. What’s the point of a ban when the country you want to punish can just trade with someone else? Added to this, Britain and France needed any trading opportunities they could have with Japan as the Great Depression was causing serious economic hardship at home. The ‘Manchurian Crisis’ passed with no real changes and clear evidence that the League of Nations would not take decisive action, especially when there were such clear flaws in the process. Added to this, no one in Britain and France really cared about what was happening on the other side of the world; the majority of people and politicians simply saw no reason to fight over Manchuria. It had been only 13 years since the end of the Great War and few people had the appetite, money or willingness to fight – and Adolf Hitler was just one of those who took note.

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A map of Abyssinia in 1908 (Author: Ken Mayer; Source: here)

 

Africa and Europe showing the strategic importance of Abyssinia

The next major challenge to the League of Nations came with the “Abyssinian Crisis” which started in late 1934. Abyssinia was the name at the time for the country we know as Ethiopia. Being in East Africa, Abyssinia was a dispute that was much closer to Europe than Manchuria had been, and was one that touched on the interests of the great powers, but it followed a similar process and had a similar result. The dispute was based on the Italian dream of power and glory, an ambition linked with control of Abyssinia.

The man at the heart of the dispute was Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator who led Italy between 1922-1943. One of the great posers in political history, Mussolini had an ego almost as large as his chin and his torso, both of which he liked to thrust in the general direction of an adoring crowd. For Italy, he desired greatness, power and an empire; for himself he wanted glory and adoration from the people – and to be respected and feared by his enemies. Unfortunately, the chances of Mussolini or Italy being respected and feared in the mid-1930′s were rather low as the country was a bit of a laughing stock amongst the European powers, which could be traced back to the end of the Great War when their desire for land was pretty much passed over at Versailles. The Italian army had not performed with any real credit in the war, they had few colonies and little by way of industry to support a great military force. it was not actually that long since the army had actually been humiliated with defeat to Abyssinia  at the hands of Menelik II during the battle of Adwa in 1896. When Mussolini was looking for a target and an opportunity to build an Empire in the 1930s, Abyssinia was there, providing the land and resources as well as the chance for revenge and glory.

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Benito Mussolini (1883-1945)(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Abyssinia was actually an important area of Africa for several powers. Control of it was useful for its proximity to the important sea lanes linked with the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and India, as well as the Middle East. For some time, Britain and France had held territory in the country as did the Italians. In 1934, there was a clash between Italian and Ethiopian forces at a place called Wel-Wel which was triggered by a border dispute focused on Italian Somaliland. The French and British noted that the Italians had moved beyond their borders in this dispute and it was referred to the League of Nations. Part of the problem was about whether Britain and France should support a potentially important Fascist European power or a small, more peripheral, African kingdom. Italy seemed to have greater significance for them in everyday affairs and economic business, so they both took care to do as little as possible to rock the boat. The decision was taken to ignore the law and so to avoid challenging Mussolini.

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Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), the last Emperor of Ethiopia. (Author: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection; Source: here). Haile Selassie was the leader of Abyssinina at the time of the Italian invasion. His dignified appeal for help from the League of Nations in June, a936, fell on deaf ears and he was forced into exile in Britain. In 1941, he was reinstalled as leader with British assistance. Today, Haile Selassie is revered as a god in Rastafarianism.

The big issue for Britain and France at the time was the growing fear about Germany’s military build-up in Europe, and the two main powers wanted to keep Italy as an ally in that struggle. In 1935, Britain and France said that neither side was really at fault in Abyssinia, hoping that it would all just settle down, but this was effectively telling Italy that, as long as they promised to help against Germany, they would be pretty much free to act as they wanted in Africa. Mussolini built up his forces and, to cut a long story short, launched an attack which led to war. Over several months, from October, 1935, to May, 1936, the fighting continued until the Italians declared victory. Mussolini had his empire and the adulation of the Italian people; and the League of Nations had been exposed as toothless once more. It had been both powerless and, more importantly, unwilling to act in a clear-cut dispute; Britain and France failed to do the right thing by protecting Abyssinia, a small state which needed support against a more powerful aggressor. They had acted out of pure self-interest in allowing Italy to act as it did. Again, Hitler took note of the actions and the arguments of the British and French; the message was pretty easy to understand.

Soon after the conflict ended, Mussolini took Italy into an alliance with Hitler, seeing his strength and clarity as a better model for leadership than the inertia and avoidance of Britain and France; their plan to keep Mussolini on their side had unravelled. This was in October, 1936, and the so-called ‘Rome-Berlin axis’ was to be the start of a great alliance across the Alps. It would lead to further cooperation and a strengthened unity in the joint venture to support the Fascist forces of General Franco in the Spanish Civil War which had started in July, 1936. This would be another example of the failure of the League of Nations to take decisive action to stop the rise of the dictators. And so all this is the background for appeasement, the failure of Britain, in particular, to stand up to Hitler’s expansionism in Germany ahead of World War II.

Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany on 30th January, 1933. It was expected that he would be a ‘flash in the pan’, kept under control by the President, Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), and various other experienced politicians. They got it slightly wrong, to say the least, so that Hitler and the Nazis stayed in power rather longer than had been expected, until May 1945, in fact. On Hindenburg’s death in August 1934, Hitler became both Chancellor and President, combining these roles as ‘The Führer’, the Leader of Germany.

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Adolf Hitler with his first cabinet in 193, Hermann Goering to his right and Franz von Papen to his left. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

As soon as he had power, Hitler acted in a far more decisive manner than his opponents expected. They could not have foreseen that he would take out the Communist and Socialist members of the Reichstag as a force; they did not foresee his ban on the Trades Unions on May 2nd, the day after he allowed the traditional May Day marches to go ahead; they could not have foreseen that the ‘Reichstag Fire’ in February 1933 would allow him to pass the Enabling Act, granting him the powers to act as a dictator during a time of ‘crisis’, a situation that would last until the end of the Second World war. And no one could have foreseen the energy with which the Nazis would enact their policies and the drive with which so many people came to support them, especially in moving forward the economic regeneration. The great symbol of this new Germany came to be the autobahns, the motorways built across the country in such number, and with such quality, that they remain amongst the finest in the world but there was development to observe in other areas of German society during the thirties.

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Building the autobahns in the 1930s; Hitler does some symbolic digging. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

On the back of the support he received, Hitler basically began to prepare for war and nearly every major decision he made has to be seen in this light. He was one of those who felt betrayed by the ‘November Criminals’ who had signed the Treaty of Versailles. He had served as a soldier in the Great War and felt deep anger at the armistice which inflicted defeat on a mighty army. He also had a deep seated hatred of the Jews, seeing them as a disease and a curse, worthy of punishment simply for being alive. He saw the Treaty of Versailles as the greatest injustice imposed upon the people of Germany, something that had to be thrown off as soon as possible. He believed that Germans were superior to other races, and deserved more ‘lebensraum’ (living space) in the East, where they would put it to far better use than the Slavic peoples. Time was short and preparations had to begin immediately to help build the Third Reich, which was to last for a thousand years.

Hitler proceeded to break each of the key terms of the Treaty of Versailles: the numbers in the army exceeded 100 000, warships were constructed and the Luftwaffe formed but Britain and France did nothing. German troops entered the Rhineland in 1936, it having been declared a demilitarised zone by the Treaty of Versailles, and Britain and France did nothing. Germany was united with Austria in the ‘Anschluss’ of March 1938 and, although there were concerns, Britain and France did nothing. They did speak to Hitler, though, and his promises that he would not do anything else to break the Treaty were enough for them; it is hard to see the acceptance of such a ‘promise’ as an act of wisdom. And then in October, 1938, Hitler’s troops moved in to the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. This was an area which had been taken from Germany as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the Sudetens being German speaking, and Hitler declared that they should rightfully be in the German Reich. All the actions of Britain, France and the League of Nations suggested that they might moan and complain but they would not actually do anything about it. And so it was: comments were made, questions were asked, concerns were raised but no action was taken to stop Germany retaking the Sudetenland.

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A warm welcome for the German troops in Vienna, Austria, March 1938. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

This is really where Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, came in, doing an early form of shuttle diplomacy, flying off to visit Hitler in the hope of brokering a deal on Czechoslovakia. The Munich Conferences came to be seen as the epitome of appeasement, the weakest diplomacy, whereby a madman gave a fool the run around. The promise made by Hitler that he would not seek to extend Germany’s control any further would soon be ignored. The decisive moment that finally brought an end to appeasement came in September, 1939, when Hitler decided to move into Poland. Again, he thought that words not actions would follow but this time it proved wrong as both France and Britain declared war on Germany and World War II began. Six years of the most intense fighting would follow, the largest and most destructive war in history. But why did Britain, in particular, not act earlier?

The person seen as the epitome of the policy was, of course, Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940. While this is logical, it is also a bit harsh as Chamberlain was not alone in following this policy. However, appeasement was an attitude and a policy of the British establishment throughout the 1930s, as can be seen from the way Winston Churchill was widely derided as a warmonger for his analysis of Hitler’s expansionist tendencies. Indeed for most of the thirties,he was the only senior politician to speak out against Hitler and appeasement, and his ideas around a ‘gathering storm’ saw him pushed well and truly to the margins of political life. People like Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister before Chamberlain, would often mock Churchill and his analysis of the dangers posed by Hitler and a strong Germany. The truth of the matter is that just about no one, no politician, no military leader and no major group in society, wanted war in 1935 or ‘36 or ’37, and with good reason: Britain was in an economic depression and could not afford it and the armed forces were not strong enough in numbers of trained troops and in technology.  And also of great significance was the fact that people remembered all too well the horrors of the Great War so that the thought of choosing a ‘return match’ for no good reason was beyond them; the fathers who had fought and survived, did not want to put their sons through the same hell. Appeasement was a hopeful ‘head-in-the-sand’ approach, but it was one that united the country and made sense. Any politician taking an alternative position would have been accused of being a ‘warmonger’, a maker of war, just as Churchill was accused.

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Neville Chamberlain and his famous piece of paper: ‘Peace for our time’, 30th September, 1938. (Author: Ministry of Information official photographer; Source: here)

The reaction of the people as Chamberlain returned from Munich on 30th September, 1938, waving that famous piece of paper in his hand, Hitler’s promise to keep his word, was one of overwhelming support. People sang and wept and cheered. They sang ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’ and they celebrated long into the night because it was ‘Peace for our time’. Chamberlain represented a nation of appeasers, and is that not what politicians are supposed to be in a democracy, people who represent the views of the majority? The reaction of the newspapers the next day indicated that it was Chamberlain who was seen as the wise one, the strong one, the brave one, and not Churchill. The years to come would change that but the country, and the papers, were lucky to be able to be wise after the event.

And France was no different really. They took pretty much the same line as Britain, seeking to negotiate where they could, taking the moral high-ground by pointing out breaches of the Treaty and expressing their concerns, but not pushing for war. This was actually an important positive in appeasement because when war finally did come, both Britain and France could say, ‘You were warned’. They could say they had tried everything else rather than rushing to war at the first opportunity. Hitler was clearly to blame for World War II in a way which the Kaiser probably could not have been held to be so totally responsible 25 years earlier.

One other thing that can serve to explain, if not totally justify, appeasement is that Britain (and France) eventually won. Okay, it might have happened earlier and with far less damage and fewer deaths, but there is a big argument to say that Britain could not have successfully embarked on a war of such magnitude any earlier than it did. Maybe if Britain and France had taken on Germany in 1938 or even 1936, they would have been fighting a much weaker force but they too were far weaker than they were in 1939 – and their leader would have been Chamberlain. Behind the banner of appeasement, Britain did build and prepare for war: planes were developed, tanks were built, ships were refitted, soldiers were recruited and supplies were built up. To argue against appeasement is easy and ‘alternative’ histories are impossible to prove; there is certainly an argument to justify Chamberlain’s actions and that comes with victory in 1945. Rather like the appalling ‘Nazi-Soviet Pact’ of August 1939, the one justification is that, when Hitler did launch Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the USSR withstood the attack. It was a victory achieved at huge cost and it might well have ended differently but, in the end, the USSR played the key role in defeating the Nazis. So it could not have been completely the wrong decision to make the Pact – and maybe Chamberlain could argue the same. All of his trips to Munich, being made to look a bit of a fool and sounding rather weak as he said, ‘My mother always told me, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again’, all was worth it because, in the end, victory was achieved. But it was a mighty close run thing.

And don’t forget, an alternative to appeasement might well be having leaders who look for opportunities to go to war, as some might say happened with the Falklands Conflict in 1982 or the Gulf War in 2003. Somewhere between the two approaches, there has to be a ‘happy medium’ – what a shame it’s never in the same place from one crisis to the next.

 

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Munich: The 1938 Appeasement Crisis’ by David Faber; ‘The Road to War: The origins of World War II’ by Richard Overy and Andrew Wheatcroft; ’1939: Countdown to War’ by Richard Overy; ‘The Origins of the Second World War’ by AJP Taylor; ‘Making friends with Hitler’ by Ian Kershaw

TV: ‘The Nazis – A Warning from History’ by Laurence Rees; ‘The World at War’ (Directed by Peter Tiffin for Thames Television, 2010 edition); ‘The Gathering Storm’ (BBC drama, 2002)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herbert Hoover: A good man in power at a bad time.

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‘Economic depression cannot be cured by legislative action or executive pronouncement. Economic wounds must be healed by the action of the cells of the economic body – the producers and consumers themselves.’ Herbert H. Hoover

Herbert Hoover: A good man in power at a bad time.

Herbert Hoover was, by all accounts, a hard-working man, a clever man and a generous man. Hoover was almost certainly one of the best men ever to become President of the USA. He wanted to help the poor – and he did. He wanted to reward people who worked hard – and he did that too. He wanted to be a man of principle and integrity – and he managed that as well. Hoover was respected by those who knew him, a self-made millionaire who worked hard all of his life, a man f energy and action who never sat back or left important things to others.He was a man of principle and integrity. and yet, as president, Hoover is usually remembered as a weak and ineffective leader, a failure in the eyes of most people. So, just who was Herbert Henry Hoover and why did things go so very badly wrong for him?

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The “Hoover Dam” was one of the great engineering achievements of its age. It was dedicated by President Roosevelt in 1935 and named in honour of Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the USA, but it was all a bit controversial. Still, it is now officially the highest dam in the western hemisphere and helps keep Las Vegas going, which may be a ‘good thing’. There are far worse things that were named in Hoover’s honour, as we shall see. (Author: snakefisch; Source: here)

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) was a mining engineer by trade. Orphaned at the age of 9, he was highly motivated, intelligent and very hard-working. He did not go to high school but worked during the day and then did his studies at night school, showing the discipline and motivation that he, and many others, thought was essential for doing well in the USA. Hoover was brilliant at engineering and rose to become one of the world’s leading figures in mining. He made a fortune out of his work but he was never a greedy or selfish man. He wanted to use his skills, experience and money to help others. A great example of this was how he undertook a mission to go to Belgium during the Great War, 1914-18, to help the people displaced and suffering because of the fighting in the region. Using his own money and coordinating many volunteers, Hoover helped thousands of people by providing them with food, shelter and medical care. He was a true humanitarian and a genuinely good man. But in surveys to decide who was the best American President, Hoover rarely gets voted inside the top number 30, and recent polls put him at around 36 out of 44. Admittedly this puts him above Warren Harding at 41 and George W. Bush at 39, but it’s still pretty bad for this committed, generous Quaker who did so much to epitomise the ‘American Dream’.

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Herbert Hoover (Author: Underwood & Underwood; Source: here)

The answer to the inevitable question, namely, ‘What went wrong for Mr. Hoover?’, echoes the words of Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister between 1957 and 1963. When asked by a young journalist what his biggest problem was as Prime Minister, Macmillan replied with the famous words: ‘Events, dear boy, events!’ This quote may be considered boring by many people and, indeed, might have been trivialised by over-use, but it is widely used for a reason: ‘events’ really are just about the most important thing in politics and few have suffered their curse quite like Herbert Hoover.

The event that shook the happy world of Herbert Hoover was one which is as big as they come: his world was totally messed up by the economic disaster which was the ‘Wall Street Crash’ of October 1929. The collapse of share prices at that time on Wall Street, the home of the New York Stock Exchange, heralded the massive and dramatic decline of the US economy. The ‘Great Crash’ triggered the world-wide ‘Great Depression’ that so dominated the 1930s and, through its impact on the Second World War, shaped the rest of the century. Looking back it was clear that serious problems were developing on the Stock Market during the 1920s, as things were simply too good for too long and for no particular reason. With hindsight, it is clear that ‘something’ should have been done by ‘somebody’ but that was not on the agenda at the time. When Hoover, standing as a Republican, won the presidential election of November, 1928, and took office in the following March, things looked as good as they ever had. In his Inaugural Speech, Hoover was even willing to proclaim that, ‘Given the chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this country’. The new President’s honourable goal and his fine words were to prove more than a little wide of the mark. The policies of the ‘previous eight years’, to which Hoover had referred in his speech, were those of his immediate predecessors, the Republican Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, both of whom are worth a mention in their own right. Therefore, we’ll take a little detour to look at these two very different men before getting back to Hoover.

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Warren Harding (Author: Harris & Ewing; Source: here)

Warren Gamaliel Harding (1865-1923) is generally considered to have been the worst US president in history, despite being blessed with one of the greatest second names ever. This is a little harsh because there were some seriously bad performances in the 1840s and 1850s who tend to get overlooked, including close contemporaries of Abraham Lincoln, like Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pearce, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson. However, Harding does have a lot to commend him as a disaster of the first order, as his naiveté, gullibility and general foolishness were pretty hard to believe.

Harding was the successor to the famous Woodrow Wilson and was in office from 1920-23. He presided over the first years of prohibition, the start of the rise of the gangsters, and he did so with real style and aplomb, being oblivious to the growing political carnage around him. Harding never came to grips with the fact his friends, many of whom he appointed to high office, were far from being the nice, friendly, honest people he thought they were; in fact, they were astonishingly corrupt. They took huge advantage of their appointments to cut deals all over the place so as to make each other a nice little profit through business deals linked with Government projects. The biggest outrage was ‘The Tea-Pot Dome’ scandal in which the Minister for the Interior, Albert Fall, leased out Government-run oilfields to private companies in return for bribes and interest-free loans. Fall went to prison for his actions but several other officials broke the law under Harding. The whole Government was in a mess in those early years of the Twenties, with crime running almost out of control. Gangster related crime was running out of control around prohibition and corruption of Government and Police officials at every level was on the rise. Writing this brief paragraph makes it clear that Warren Harding deserves a full chapter of his own so this can end now really. Harding died quite suddenly and unexpectedly in 1923, well before he completed his term as president and it’s probably a good job he did as things would in all likelihood have got even worse. Two of his more controversial decisions were to stop American soldiers getting their ‘bonus’ payment after the Great War, while he also allowed trusts (monopolies) to become more powerful, both of which would have serious consequences for Herbert Hoover later on.

Mind you, it must be said that, after a dodgy few years in the early 1920s, one thing was going very well at the end of Harding’s time in office and that was the economy. Business in the USA was starting to boom in the post-war period and many people were getting significantly richer, especially those who were already rich. Ordinary workers saw slow but steady improvements and felt a sense of expectation that life would get better in the years to come. Confidence in the economy started to rise, a key factor for any country, and Harding did also sign the law giving women the vote. So spare at least one kind thought for Warren Harding, a man for whom life did not got off to the best of starts, as he did spend his early years being called ‘Winnie’ by his Mum.

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Calvin Coolidge (Author: John Garo; Source: here)

Anyway, with Harding gone, the vice-president was required to step into office. This was the almost legendary Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933, President 1923-28). Coolidge liked to keep things quiet and simple. He didn’t believe in talking too much, saying ‘I never got hurt by what I didn’t say.’ Once he was asked by an exhausted colleague how he managed to look so well after a morning’s meetings. His colleague said he was worn out by talking at length to just four different people; Coolidge replied that that was his problem: ‘You talk to them.’ Coolidge’s approach was to ignore anything he could, almost boring people into sorting things out for themselves. It seemed to work in most people’s eyes – and at least the economy kept going well. Dorothy Parker, a noted wit of the time, when told that Coolidge had died, simply said, ‘How can they possibly tell?’, a cutting reference to his lack of energy and personality.

The quotation that Coolidge himself is most linked with, though, is, ‘The business of America is business’. In the ‘Roaring Twenties’, the idea that making money and getting rich was at the heart of being American seems to have come to the fore – and Coolidge presided over this. Mind you, for those who like a good quotation, it is worth remembering Coolidge also said that, ‘Civilisation and profit go hand in hand’, something highly questionable as you see mega-rich multi-nationals like Wal-Mart, KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks and the like, reach out from the USA and dominate almost every High Street in the world. But enough of such opinions and back to the Twenties, where most Americans were more than happy to have ‘laissez-faire’ and the small government policies of Calvin Coolidge.

The idea of business being at the heart of life, values and goals in the USA of the Twenties is clearly true. This decade was the ‘Jazz Age’, the boom time for nearly all Americans. Coolidge was a popular President, a leader whose policies were so light that they amounted to an almost total avoidance of intervention in the economy. In doing this he was in line with the values of the time; his victory in 1924′s election showed that the people wanted his way of working. The Republican Government followed laissez-faire policies, stepping back and doing as little as possible, leaving things to individuals and businesses who were free to do pretty much whatever they chose, paying the wages they wanted, working the hours they wanted, charging the prices they wanted. It all seemed to go pretty well throughout the decade as share prices boomed, profits grew and real wages rose a little. The people were happy, businesses were happy and politicians were happy with this set up; small Government was good so what could possibly go wrong? Or, as Hoover himself put it, ‘We shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this country’.

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Herbert Hoover’s Inauguration, March 1929. (Author: National Photo Company; Source: here)

When he came into office, Hoover simply did what was expected of him and carried on the Republican policies which had been so successful and popular in the previous eight years. For any sensible politician, this was clearly the ‘right thing to do’ and the evidence was there: low unemployment, high profits, a booming stock market, rising confidence, happy workers and even happier bosses. Everyone agreed that they wanted ‘small Government’ which kept interference to a minimum and left it to people and businesses to get on with their own thing. Hoover simply did what was wanted and sat back to watch things unravel in a really big, horrible, bad sort of way. The problems first showed up on Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, but they had started elsewhere – and for this you need to understand a basic thing or two about economics, shares, business and the like. You might want to have a break before reading this bit so come back when you’re ready, maybe bringing a nice hot drink and a biscuit with you – but get it yourself, don’t leave it up to your Mum or someone else to get it for you.

Right, stocks and shares first. These are basically ‘parts’ of companies that people can buy. A business can sometimes be sold in sections to investors, people who put money into the company for a variety of reasons but always with a view to making more money. The money invested can be used by the company to do a variety of things, like buying new machinery, developing new products, creating new markets, doing research, building factories and the like. In very simple terms, investors have two ways of making money: they are entitled to a share of the profits at the end of the year and they can sell their shares to another investor for more than they paid for them (assuming the company’s value has increased in the meantime). Firstly, if you own 10% of the shares, in theory you can take 10% of the profits which are declared at the end of the year. This is known as the ‘dividend’. Secondly, if you buy your 100 shares for £1 each, you pay £100; if the price goes up to £2 a share and you sell them all then you make £100 profit. Easy money. Or it can be. Sometimes.

Trading in shares is an easy way to make money as long as certain things happen, of course. You have to have enough spare money to buy a decent number of shares, the company has to make decent profits and things have to look positive for the future; in this situation, things are positive and an investor can make good money as the share price rises. But why do share prices go up? And what affects the price of a share? The second point first: the number of shares, the value of the company, confidence in the company, how competing companies are doing and how many people want the shares will all affect the price of any share. But the one thing that is guaranteed to make prices go up is the answer to the first question: that is expected profits. It’s not so much how well a company has done in the past as what people expect to happen in future that will really affect a share price. At least that should be the key factor in rising share prices: good prospects and rising profits should see share prices rise; bad prospects, falling profits or even losses ahead should see them fall.

On Wall Street in the late 1920s, things got more than a bit silly and the basic rules, like looking at profits and what was going to happen in future, were ignored by more and more investors. Many experienced investors knew there was a problem with numerous companies around 1927, as share prices were rising when profits were falling. The Government knew there was a potential problem developing but they didn’t think it was their job to get involved so share prices went up and up and up, even though many observers knew that they should have been falling. Share prices rose because demand was high as lots of ordinary investors thought buying shares was the easy way to make money. When people realised there was a problem and that shares were over-priced, they came down quickly; in reality they went off a cliff and share prices crashed.

Shares are actually bought and sold on a stock market. Before 1920, nearly all the people who dealt in shares were ‘professionals’, making a living by studying companies and investing their money for the medium and longer term (5 years or more). After the Great War of 1914-1918, the USA had done well economically and made lots of money so that increasing numbers of ordinary people had a little spare cash for the first time and some of them decided to invest it. But this really meant that they ‘gambled’ it on the stock market. Buying and selling shares is always a gamble because the investor can win or lose because the price can go down as well as up. Most of the time, some share prices go up but others fall because not all companies do well at the same time.

Dealing with shares is a bit like an auction in that the number of shares is limited. As more people want shares in a particular company, the higher the price will go. When you are gambling, though, it’s useful to study the form of the horse or team you are backing; when you are at an auction, it’s good to have a bit of knowledge or skill so that you know what you are buying. Few people would buy a vase or a painting just on a ‘feeling’; if they are serious investors, they would want to make a judgement on the real value of the product they intend to buy. The same is true for shares but on the stock market during the 1920s, none of this really mattered because shares in almost every company were doing well and many were doing superbly. Every investor would win, it seemed, as there was no risk of a ‘bad buy’. In many areas, buying shares became the way to make easy money and so more and more people started buying shares, whether or not they knew anything about economics and business. Some people became millionaires almost overnight, it seemed, and a wave of optimism and celebration grew into complacency and expectation. Many people did whatever they could to get some spare cash to buy shares. And as the prices rose they believed they had lots more money. Many people believed they were suddenly rich and they bought property and goods, as well as more shares. Share prices were rising, people were rich…lovely.

But there was a problem. The money that many people held in shares was not ‘real’ money. It only became real when they sold their shares but people did not think like this. The share prices had risen and people expected them to keep on rising; in theory, they had lots of money but they didn’t want to sell their shares as they could expect to make even more money. Many people even borrowed money from the banks to buy shares and planned to pay off the loan later when they sold their shares and pocketed an easy profit. Imagine going to a bank today and saying you were going to use a loan to buy shares or to bet on a horse – they would never give it to you but, in those days, no questions were asked. Anyway, people used their ‘profits’ and borrowed more money to buy lots of the new goods that were available in the 1920s, goods like vacuum cleaners, radios, washing machines and, most of all, cars, especially the Model-T made by Mr. Henry Ford, the first car made by mass production methods.

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Henry Ford next to a ‘Tin Lizzie’, his Model T. Ford’s production line would lead to one being produced every 24 seconds in the 1920s. Over 15 million were produced between 1908 and 1927. The saying, ‘You can have any colour as long as it’s black’, may or may not have been said by Ford but the Model T was only available in black after 1913. This was because Ford was obsessed with reducing costs and using just one colour did just that. (Author: Ford Motor Company; Source: here)

By September, 1929, the stock market and the economy had over-heated to a frightening degree and there were clear warning signs of troubles ahead. Share prices were far too high, based on company profits and widespread over-production, so that during the late summer and autumn of 1929, the rise in values first of all slowed, dropped, briefly recovered and then suddenly and totally collapsed. The famous ‘Wall Street Crash’ came in October 1929 and it triggered the collapse of the world economy and the start of the ‘Great Depression’. Share prices would not recover their full 1929 values on Wall Street until the early 1950s. And the US economy itself would only recover thanks to World War II.

The ‘Wall Street Crash’ and the ‘Great Depression’ meant disaster for President Hoover. He was held responsible for everything because he was in charge when it happened even though he had simply followed those laissez-faire Republican policies of Harding and Coolidge which had been so popular with everyone throughout the decade. He was left holding the blame for doing what was popular – but flawed. Such is the problem of events in the life of any politician but rarely has anyone been left in such a mess by doing the popular thing. However, what really did for Hoover was that, after the ‘Great Crash’, as the boom years faded into the terrible depression, he stood by those same policies; he would not intervene but left the recovery to the markets and to individuals, seeing that their energy and skills would sort things out just as they had in the good years. This was, to put it mildly, a mistake.

But what had actually gone wrong in the lead up to the ‘Wall Street Crash’? Let’s step back a little and see if Herbert Hoover was really to blame for what happened in 1929 and the years that followed. One massive reason for the crash was the over-production of many goods by US industries. A range of new products became widely available in the 1920s and the use of the production line saw more of them made more quickly and more cheaply. Radios, washing machines, vacuum cleaners and cars were among the goods that became ‘must haves’ for the majority of the population. Wages were rising a little but demand for these goods rose more, with advertising on radio and in newspapers creating a larger market. The development of sales by catalogues and mail order also extended the markets beyond the cities and out into small-town America. Many companies saw their profits rise and they built new factories and employed more people so as to make more goods. Planning ahead, based on past sales and high profits, many invested lots of money in new factories. This was fine until it became clear that many people already had a car, a radio, a washing machine and so on. Demand started to tail off but the factories were still producing the goods which had to be stock-piled or reduced in price. As has already been mentioned, profits actually began to fall in many companies from about 1927 but most people ignored the warning signs and kept buying shares. Experienced investors saw the problem and many sold their shares, making massive profits in the process. The Government knew there was a problem but no officials wanted to say anything or to interfere. The Republicans believed in ‘laissez-faire’ government, saying they should not interfere with things unless they absolutely had to – and the people certainly did not want the government to interfere if it would stop them making money. The warning signs for the economy had started under Coolidge, who did nothing, and Hoover just continued the same policies.

Another reason for the boom in share prices was that more and more credit (borrowed money) became available in the 1920s. With all the brilliant new goods being made, people wanted them and they wanted them immediately. Rather than saving up and then buying them as they had done in the past, people increasingly used H.P. or ‘Hire Purchase’ to get them. This meant they borrowed off the bank or the company itself, allowing people to have the goods straight away and then paying the money back over a year or so but with interest. This was fine while people had jobs and could afford to repay their loans but once the problems started, people were left in debt and companies saw their profits start to fall. Increased borrowing had actually had the effect of artificially increasing demand for goods so that company profits had leapt up and it led to them expand too quickly. Instead of people having saved up and buying only when they were able to, HP allowed them to buy immediately. This artificial increase in demand fed into over-production which was made worse by the fact that most goods had been built to last. Once people had bought their washing machine or vacuum cleaner, that was it for a good number of years; they didn’t break so they didn’t need replacing. This was one reason why manufacturers, developing a similar strategy of the Ford Motor Company, started to build in weaknesses to their products, meaning people would always need a replacement. But HP was popular with people and businesses, so the Republicans had no intention of stopping or controlling it; why should they interfere and limit choice?

Rising incomes in the early 1920’s contributed to the economic boom. Although some groups, like farmers and workers in the cotton mills and other traditional industries, did not do too well, most people in the big industrial cities had seen their incomes rise. Many of them had a bit of spare money for the first time. Through reports in newspapers and on the radio, people became aware of how easy it seemed to be to make money when buying shares on the stock market. During the 1920s, playing the stock market became more and more normal so that you were considered to be a ‘fool’ if you didn’t do it. The banks, many of which were small, one-town outfits, were able to lend money without restriction and so it was that many of them gave loans which allowed people to ‘buy on the margin’. This meant people borrowed money to buy shares with the aim of paying the bank loan back and pocketing the difference after the shares rose. As with HP impacting on sales of goods, so this provided a massive increase in share prices as it allowed the demand for shares to go up immediately as investors did not have to save up before buying shares. Many banks actually took money from their savers’ accounts and used it to buy shares for themselves, planning to pay it back into the accounts later on and keeping the profit. This is now illegal but at the time it was allowed.

Various other factors played a part in the boom of the 1920s, and the subsequent collapse of the economy. Monopolies, or ‘Trusts’, were allowed to develop in the USA without any restriction by the Republican Government. Business leaders liked monopolies as they allowed more control, higher prices and increased profits. The Trusts got greedy, though, expanded too quickly and fed into over-production. Another issue was tariffs, a tax placed on foreign goods coming into a country, which was a way of protecting local industry. In the 1920s, the Republicans had responded to requests for help in this way from US businesses, but other countries had retaliated by doing the same to US goods. While the American market was booming, they did not need to export goods, but when the Crash came and they wanted to sell goods abroad, they couldn’t because of the high prices brought on by the tariffs. In addition to this, as mentioned earlier,the new advertising industry exercised an extraordinary power over the population. Demand for goods rose as the radio, posters and magazines made people aware of the ‘wonderful benefits’ that could be found through these time and energy saving devices.

All of this shows the uncomfortable truth that, behind the boom and bust, was ordinary people, the people who make capitalism work on a day to day basis; if they don’t buy, then nothing happens. The average American became ever more optimistic and confident as the Twenties unfolded. Many were young, positive people, who wanted to grab every opportunity and make a better life for themselves and their families. They looked for the upside and ignored the warnings, believing in the full glory of the ‘American Dream’. In such an atmosphere, President Hoover had no real chance of controlling spending or investing by anyone. To have limited opportunities through legislation would have been considered un-Republican and anti-American. In an age when there was a growing fear of Communism, expressed in things like the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, no President could easily interfere in the operation of the free market. But, anyway, most of the damage was actually done before the 1928 election but people judge who ever happens to be in power at the time, so Hoover was to blame when Wall Street crashed in October 1929.

President Hoover failed to deal with the impact of the greatest economic crisis in modern history. The problems on Wall Street quickly spread across the USA and reverberated around the globe. One particular consequence of this was that banks which had loaned money to Germany and Austria now wanted that money back. This triggered an economic crisis which would eventually see Hitler come to power in 1933. Around the world, trade collapsed, unemployment rose and nationalism was strengthened as Governments tried to protect their own interests. The Great Depression would be at its worst in the years 1930 to 1933 but its impact defined the whole decade both in the USA and internationally.

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Adolf Hitler came to power as Chancellor of Germany on 30th January, 1933, partly as a result of the ‘Great Depression’. (Author: Theo Eisenhart; Source: here)

In the USA, Hoover continued the Republican policy of ‘laissez-faire’ as he tried to deal with the economic fall-out after October 1929. He saw no reason to change policies: why should the government have to sort things out? They had not raised taxes or ran things when they were going well, so why should they increase spending and tell people what to do now that there were problems? The belief was that the markets would sort things out in time and people would have to look after themselves until that point. This was the idea of ‘rugged individualism’, something which people believed had made the USA ‘strong’, whereby people took responsibility for everything in their own lives. If they had no job, they should set up a business or move or get training. In good times, they should have saved so that they could later be secure in the bad times. If people wanted education or health care, they should save and pay for it all themselves. This was fine in theory but the USA was in crisis and Hoover looked cruel as he did little to help. When he did put money in to things, such as helping people keep their homes, there simply wasn’t enough of it and it was a case of ‘too little, too late’.

The incident which came to haunt Hoover most of all was his treatment of the ‘Bonus Marchers’. These men were a group of soldiers who had fought in the Great War and had been promised the payment of a bonus as a reward for winning the war. The bonus was not due to be paid until 1941 but many of the former soldiers were facing problems in 1931 because of the Depression. Unemployment had seen many of them lose their homes as well as their jobs and they faced an uncertain future. They organised themselves with a march on Washington, D.C., In the city, they built a ‘Hooverville’, a shanty town, named after the President. There were many such ‘Hoovervilles’ across the country, an indictment of Hoover’s handling of the crisis. The Bonus Marchers asked that their bonus be paid early because, just as they had helped the country in its hour of need during the war, they believed that they should be helped in their time of suffering. Instead of granting the request, police and troops were turned on the men. The protesters were beaten and shots were fired; four men died and many were injured. The picture of US troops firing on former soldiers horrified everyone and ensured that Hoover would be defeated in the election of 1932.

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Bonus Marchers clash with police in the protests of 1932. (Author: Signal Corps Photographer; Source: here)

The story of the ‘Bonus Marchers’ was a tragic end to four years which should have been the fine presidency of a good, honest man. He was easily defeated in the Presidential Election of 1932 by Franklin D. Roosevelt who brought in the ‘New deal’ and the greatest Government intervention seen in the USA to that date. FDR would go onto win four terms in office and would lead the nation in World War II becoming regarded as one of the greatest Presidents of all time. In his shadow, most others would have looked like failures; the tragedy for Herbert Hoover was that, in the most public years of his life, he had failed so badly that history would judge him little more kindly than his own age.

And he had a long time to reflect on the events of these years as he only died in 1964, at the age of 90, the fourth oldest man to have been president.

 

Find out more:

Books: ‘The Great Crash, 1929′ by JK Galbraith (Penguin, 2009); ‘The Life of Herbert H. Hoover’ by George Nash (Numerous volumes).

Novels: ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’by John Steinbeck

Films: ‘City Lights’ and Modern Times’ starring Charlie Chaplin, ‘They shoot horses, don’t they?’ and ‘The Color Purple’.

Songs: ‘Brother, can you spare a dime’ by Bing Crosby, ‘Whistle while you work’ by Artie Shaw and ‘We’re in the money’ by Al Dubin and Harry Warren

 

Joseph Stalin: ‘Man of the Year’, 1939 and 1942.

Josef Stalin

Joseph Stalin: ‘Man of the Year’, 1939 and 1942.

‘It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.’ Joseph Stalin

When Britons are asked to name an evil person from history they almost always go for Adolf Hitler. This is probably why so few British children have been called ‘Adolf’ recently. To be honest, it comes as something as a shock to hear that even 25 babies have been so named since 1945, as one has to assume at least a few were in honour of Germany’s most notorious leader. There’s no doubt that ‘The Führer’ was an astonishingly nasty man and no one can seriously object to Hitler as Rolling Stone’s choice as ‘The Most Hated Man in Modern History’ in 2009. However, Hitler is far from being the only contender for that dubious crown, and there are others who have committed the most horrific crimes but who seem to have somehow slipped under the radar. In the Twentieth Century alone there were many people who would have recognised Hitler as a kindred spirit. They might not have agreed with him politically, but in terms of tactics, the likes of Mao Zedong in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Idi Amin Dada in Uganda would have understood where he was coming from. Of all the challengers, though, maybe one stands out as the real contender for the title of ‘Most Evil Man of the Century’: Joseph Djughashvili, the Georgian peasant better known to the world by his nickname, ‘Stalin’, which means ‘Man of Steel’. One has to be impressed by ‘Time Magazine’ here. Not happy with honouring Hitler as their ‘Man of the Year’ for 1938, they followed this up by giving the award to Stalin in 1939 and 1942. Strange times, indeed.

Joseph Stalin led the Soviet Union or USSR (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) from 1928 until his death in 1953. Despite the fact that even the prisoners cried when he died, the fact that Stalin was Saddam Hussein’s hero should be enough to warn us that here was a man of some darkness. When Saddam visited Moscow as the leader of Iraq, he was only interested in seeing Stalin’s rooms. When he was growing up, he apparently modelled himself on Stalin: he grew a similar moustache, smoked the same cigarettes and he imitated his behaviour when he came to power, including ethnic cleansing and the ‘removal’ of enemies. And both Saddam and Stalin had something in common as they were, for significant periods of time, close allies of the West receiving some serious assistance from the USA and Britain. This has almost certainly been a key factor in explaining why Stalin has never been seen as quite as bad as Hitler. Let’s have a look at why Saddam and some others have loved this man while most Westerners have managed no more than fear tinged with a little respect and a lot of gratitude.

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Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Saddam Hussein (1937-2006). Photographed in 1974, this shows Saddam as a young imitator of the ‘Man of Steel’. The moustache lacks a little flair. (Author: ; Source: here)

Joseph Djughashvili (1879-1953) was born in Georgia, a part of the Russian Empire at the time and also one of the states which later formed the USSR. He was from a peasant background but showed himself to be reasonably clever in his village. He was chosen to receive an education which most children would have been denied at that time under the Tsar’s autocratic or dictatorial system. He went to the local junior seminary for trainee priests in the Russian Orthodox Church which was the only place to get any real education at that time. While he was there, Stalin discovered radical ideas and first came into contact with the ideas of Communism and he left the seminary to become a full time revolutionary taking on the name ‘Stalin’ for reasons of security and because it sounded strong. He joined the fledgling Communist Party and was imprisoned by the Tsar’s forces on many occasions. Like thousands of other revolutionaries living in that very conservative society, Stalin was sent to prison in the Urals and Siberia, escaping five times and making his way back to the west of Russia. He never really showed that he had any original ideas or exhibited behaviour that suggested he would become one of the most famous people of the century.

Stalin’s journey to power started slowly and progressed slowly. He first met Lenin at the ‘Workers’ Hall’ in Tampere, Finland, in 1905 and went on to attend various Communist Party conferences in the years before the Russian Revolution (1917). He was not part of Lenin’s circle of friends and advisers, partly because Lenin was so much more educated and sophisticated than Stalin, the rough peasant. He played no real role in the two Revolutions of 1917 that came to establish Communism in the country, arriving to join in the chaos of that year. It was following the arrival of Lenin in Russia between the two revolutions, and especially in the aftermath of the ‘October Revolution’, that Stalin was to find his key role. Not only was Stalin diligent, organised and hard-working, he was also blessed with an almost photographic memory and total loyalty to Lenin and the Communist Party. While Lenin thought and planned, others argued over theory and strategy, looking inward and upward within the Party structures. Meanwhile, Stalin was left to do the dull, tedious work as General Secretary of the Communist Party, the lowest role on the Politburo, the main council of seven members, but a role which would, in time, create the power base from which he would control Party and the country, so changing the course of history. Stalin’s work involved allocating party membership cards, writing letters, arranging agendas and distributing minutes. He was the ‘dull’ man who was almost laughed at by the ‘intellectuals’ in the party, keeping his place simply because Lenin found him useful. How people can be underestimated.

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A true genius or the face of a madman? – Lenin, real name ‘Vladimir Ilych Ulyanov’ (1870-1924) (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Stalin’s role as General Secretary of the Party was crucial for various reasons, most of all for the role he had as the one who distributed the membership cards of the Communist Party. He became the known name for party members around the country, the first point of contact in Moscow. These cards were issued each year so people came to rely on approval from Comrade Stalin to stay in the ‘good books’. He might not have any ideological ideas but Stalin had power on a practical level; the membership card meant access to meetings and access to certain privileges. Over the years, Stalin was able to promote or reject people as he saw fit. He could decide who came to Moscow to present the views of the party from each region. He knew the outsiders, those far from Moscow and Petrograd/Leningrad. He knew the secrets, like a Chief Whip in UK politics. While his colleagues on the Politburo argued on ideology and debated over policy, Stalin just listened and watched and remembered; Lenin controlled everything anyway so debate was futile but it might not always be the case. And what the likes of Trotsky, the apparent heir to Lenin and the strongest members of the politburo, never realised was that Stalin really was a force to be reckoned with, a man with a plan if the opportunity ever came his way.

Things changed dramatically in Russia after the ‘October Revolution’. Lenin was the pre-eminent leader of Communism and everyone deferred to him but neither he nor the Party was able to establish Communism overnight. Chaos reigned in that huge country which had been struggling to modernise for several decades before under the rule of the Tsars. Russia was far behind the Western Powers economically and this was impacting on their fighting of the Great War where they had struggled in combating the vastly superior German Army for three years on the ‘Eastern Front’. 1.8 million men had died and there was no prospect of victory. With the Communist belief that the war was based on capitalist and nationalistic fervour, Lenin believed the war had to end. It was wrong that Imperialists were sacrificing the people for their own ends. The war ended promptly for Russia when the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed in February 1918, with Leon Trotsky negotiating on behalf of Russia. Land was lost to Germany and reparations had to be paid but many celebrated the end of what had been a horrible war for Russians everywhere but especially on the front line.

Trotsky was the obvious leader in waiting, if one was needed, in the years after the Revolution. He strengthened his position by creating and leading the Red Army to victory over the Whites (the Mensheviks and other opponents of the Bolsheviks) in the Russian Civil War (1918-21). This was a war which saw the Western Powers send soldiers and resources to try to defeat the Communists, something Stalin never forgot. But Lenin was relatively young, just 47 at the time of the Revolution, so there was no real need to consider what would happen in the coming years and who should succeed him. But in 1918, there was an assassination attempt on Lenin, who was badly wounded with one bullet remaining lodged in his head. Miraculously, he survived but he was never as strong again and after 1922 began to suffer a series of serious strokes. He was left unable to speak for the last year of his life before finally dying in January 1924. Lenin was just 53.

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Lenin shortly before his death. His wife, Krupskaya, is behind the chair. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

There had been no heir designated by Lenin and Trotsky was a man with too many enemies to be able to assume power. Rather than an individual, it was decided that the Politburo was to rule instead. However, there were serious tensions within the group, things which had remained in check while Lenin dominated everything but were now able to come to the surface. There were tensions between the right and left wings of the party over the nature and the pace of revolution; there was distrust of Trotsky, the former Menshevik turned Bolshevik; there was concern about how far Lenin’s reforms should be carried forward, especially those that had involved compromise with capitalism, such as the ‘New Economic Policy’. Lenin allowed the so called ‘Nepmen’ to operate in the USSR as a way of keeping the economy going in the troubled years of the Civil War. They were allowed to operate businesses, set wages and even make some profit which would later cause major ideological divisions to arise within the Politburo. But there was another aspect to Lenin’s legacy which had to be handled in a rather more urgent and practical way.

In his final years, Lenin had kept a record of many of his thoughts about his colleagues, including Stalin. This book of his writings and thoughts was known as ‘Lenin’s Testament’. At his death, this had been left with his wife, Nadya Krupskaya (1869-1939), but a copy had found its way to Stalin thanks to his control of people around Lenin, who included one of his secretaries. The document was to be addressed at a meeting of the General Council of the Communist Party but before this it was to be considered by the Politburo itself. It turned out that, in one way or another, ‘Lenin’s Testament’ attacked most of the Politburo, including Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Pyatokov. However, Lenin’s strongest and clearest attacks were reserved for the General Secretary, Stalin, heavily criticising him for great rudeness towards Krupskaya. Lenin made it clear that Stalin had such a dark side that he should never be allowed to wield power within the Communist Party. Stalin should have been kicked out there and then but the threat of attacks on the reputations of the rest of the group saved him; Stalin had an extraordinary piece of luck as they took the decision that ‘Lenin’s Testament’ was not to be published and was not even considered by the General Council. Stalin survived and how the others would come to regret it.

The Politburo ruled the USSR for several years until Stalin became leader in 1928. This simple statement needs some explanation as it has already been said how marginal a figure Stalin was in the leadership. Stalin had got lucky in 1924 and in the following years he benefited from being under-estimated by the rest of the Politburo. The other six men persisted in seeing Stalin as dull and irrelevant, a man who had no originality, no ideas, nothing to offer intellectually. He voted one way or the other without seeming to understand the issues or the details. Stalin was the pen-pusher, the stamp –licker, the meetings-man, the minute-taker; he was dull. But behind the scenes things had happened that were sifting the balance of power in the USSR. Out of sight of the Politburo which had turned inward to debate and argue with each other about the vision and the policies, Stalin was building a support base where it mattered; he was shaping the Party itself for his own ends. Stalin was still the name that the ordinary people knew and needed in Moscow. He sent (or did not send) the membership cards, he confirmed appointments, he directed people to attend one council (‘soviet’) or another. Stalin had the power to make a practical difference and over the years he manipulated people into positions where they could be made to support him and his plans. By 1926-7, he was growing in confidence to the point where he felt able to act.

As he began his move for power, Stalin first focused on isolating his arch enemy Leon Trotsky and the left-wingers by siding with the right-wing over issues linked with the pace and nature of economic change and the future path of the revolution. In this debate, ‘World Revolution’, the radical idea favoured by Trotsky, lost out to the more conservative idea of ‘Communism in One State’, which was favoured by the right wing of the Politburo. Stalin had no real views of his own on this but he sided with Bukharin, the most popular figure on the Politburo, and the rest of the right-wing to defeat and oust Trotsky and the Left-wing members. Trotsky was isolated and was ultimately forced to leave the Politburo and, eventually, went into exile.

Having apparently shown he was a supporter of the right, Stalin was then trusted by them but this proved to be a mistake as Stalin was nothing of the sort. His actions had been for his own benefit and soon he turned his attentions to achieving total power by removing Bukharin and the right wing, positioning himself more to the left with the support of the new members he had helped promote to power. Stalin had influenced promotions to all the ‘soviets’ below the Politburo and so he was able to bring in his own people even at that level. Stalin ousted the right-wingers in 1928 and was established as the leading figure in the USSR. In those early years, Stalin was far from secure in power but he would survive, transforming the Soviet Union during the 25 years of dictatorial power which he enjoyed until his death from a stroke in March 1953.

There is a huge amount written about Stalin and it’s all fascinating stuff, so here there will only be mention of a few events that touch on his extraordinary life. Any research undertaken on Stalin is always fascinating and disturbing so be warned.

In 1928, Joseph Stalin became leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The country had been formally established in December 1922, covering a similar area to the former Russian Empire which had been one of the ‘Great Powers’ but one which had been isolated for centuries under the rule of the Tsars. It was a huge country by area covering about 1/10th of the world’s land mass and stretching across 5000 miles from the Polish border to the Pacific Ocean. The USSR had a relatively large population of about 130 million people but it was a backward, peasant economy. Karl Marx’s prophesy had been that that Communism would first arise in an advanced industrial society and this was not the way to describe the USSR in 1917.

When Stalin came to power, he said the USSR was a hundred years behind the West industrially and had to make good that difference within 10-15 years or it would be destroyed. Stalin’s strategy for addressing this was the first of the ‘Five-Year Plans’ which was launched in 1928. Industry and farming were to be overhauled rapidly with a particular focus on heavy industries, such as mining and steel production. This in turn would develop transport, power and military strength, a key concern in the light of Russia’s history. The revolution in agriculture was to come through ‘Collectivisation’ which would create massive industrial farms and so replace the millions of small, inefficient, peasant-run, subsistence farms of Russia’s past. Things had to change at an astonishing speed and on a massive scale across the USSR.

The outcome of that first ‘Five-Year Plan’ was the beginning of the transformation of the Soviet economy and society. It would see the start of industrial cities like Magnitogorsk, the massive growth of the industrial workforce and the arrival of the tractor in the countryside. The USSR would join Germany as the only economic success stories of the decade of the ‘Depression’ which followed the Wall Street Crash but the costs would be enormous. A whole tradition of farming would be wiped out in those years, as nearly all farmland came under the ‘collectives’ but it would devastate many areas and see the near wiping out of the most successful and talented peasant farmers, the Kulaks, and the horrid effect of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33.

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Soviet tractors in the 1930s. Some children were called ‘Tractor’ in honour of this vital machine. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

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Victims of the Ukrainian famine lie on the streets of Kharkiv. Over seven million people died in total.  (Author: Unknown: Source: here)

How did such a huge famine devastate the Ukraine, such a rich and fertile region, which was the leading grain producing area of the USSR? Stalin had decided to use grain as a way of trading with the West so as to acquire key technology and resources for industrialisation. As grain production fell in 1932, Stalin actually increased the demand for grain to be exported, blatantly putting the people at risk but maintaining industrial development in the process. Stalin watched on as between six and seven million Ukrainians died in the name of ‘progress’. And he added in a few extra deaths by attacking local politicians and the intelligentsia so as to crush nationalist ambitions. How many people in the West ever hear of the ‘Ukrainian Famine’? Think on the number of deaths – up to seven million people in little more than a year. That is a frightening statistic and one which is appallingly reminiscent of the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust yet little is made of it in the West. But maybe it was just ‘too far away’ for people to know or care?

To drive industrialisation forward, the Five-Year Plans were based on a system of quotas and targets, something which traditionally brings corruption and manipulation in its wake. Each factory would receive its quota and each manager would be held responsible for the results. Corruption was rife as each manager aimed to meet or exceed the targets. Train drivers would be bribed to deliver goods to a particular factory, quality control was ignored in the race for quantity (the first tractors had to be pulled off the production lines as they did not work) and numbers were simply falsified. This led to an enormous number of deaths and imprisonments, as people who failed, questioned the system or challenged the results were ‘removed’. Thousands suffered by being accused of sabotage as managers and workers looked for people to blame for problems with machinery or the quality of goods. The quota system created a monstrous conspiracy of lies and deceit at every level as people tried not just to progress but to stay alive. It was far easier to blame a worker for breaking a machine than having to say that the machines were rubbish or that the system was flawed. A culture of fear and anxiety dominated Soviet society throughout the era of the Five-Year Plans, especially in the period before the ‘Great Patriotic War’ as the Soviets knew WWII.

The problems around quotas and targets became even worse in 1935 when Alexei Stakhanov, a miner, set an extraordinary record for digging coal. It was achieved thanks to a whole range of aid given to him, but Stakhanov’s achievement in mining 227 tonnes of coal in one shift, some 30 times over his target, made him a national hero and created a new movement. The ‘Stakhanovites’ were the heroes of the Soviet Union, warriors who helped build a great future through their energy and skill. Everyone was now capable of going beyond the targets if they really wanted to. The fact that it was all largely the result of cheating and manipulation did not matter and the propaganda element proved to be powerful in encouraging even more ‘target breaking’. It also meant even more silence from those who did not believe in the process and a strengthening of the cult of Stalin as the great leader. Who was going to challenge the achievements of the great Stakhanov even if they knew he had been given the best equipment, unlimited power and a team of men to collect his coal? People wanted to live and soon every manager was trying to create a new ‘Stakhanov’ in his factory.

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Alexey Grigoryevich Stakhanov – Hero of Socialist labour (1906-1977). The very clean and heroic Stakhanov explains his technique to a fellow miner.  (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But there was serious tension and fear in the Kremlin and in Stalin’s mind in the early years of industrialisation. Stalin was not secure in his position as leader of the USSR. In 1934, at the 17th Party Congress, the so-called ‘Congress of Victors’, a leading Communist from Leningrad, Sergei Kirov, received high levels of support and emerged as a rival to Stalin. Kirov received only three negative votes regarding his membership of the Politburo while Stalin received 267, more than anyone else. This was all covered up by Stalin who arranged for the removal of his negative votes but Kirov, a handsome and popular man, was clearly a potential rival. On 1st December, 1934, Kirov was assassinated at the Communist Party offices in Leningrad. Stalin’s involvement was always suspected but not directly proven.

One thing which is clear is that the 17th Congress marked a change in Stalin. Nearly all those who attended the Congress would be killed or imprisoned during the ‘Great Purges’ of 1936-38, the systematic attempt by Stalin to kill all potential enemies and rivals, create a climate of fear and loyalty and to ensure his place of absolute power. The purges saw a wholesale attack on the Communist Party itself. In total, nearly a million people would be killed, imprisoned or ‘removed’, meaning over a third of the total membership of the Party was wiped out. Most famously, Stalin’s paranoia led to the ‘Show Trials’ and executions of some of the most high-profile members of the Party, including old colleagues and famous names of the revolution. Bukharin, Rykov, Kamenev and Zinoviev, old Bolsheviks who had played leading roles in 1917, would be among those forced in to humiliating admissions of betrayal while on trial, before being executed as enemies of Mother Russia. But the attacks focused on others, too, including the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Church, ethnic minorities and ordinary people. It was truly a reign of terror, a time which saw the deaths and imprisonment of millions of people. The numbers involved were even more frightening than those who suffered under Hitler and the Nazis at the same time in Germany.

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Prisoners at work in an early gulag, building the Belomorkanal, 1932. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

These dreadful events were just part of the dark-side of Joseph Stalin’s actions. The plus side was to be that he became ‘Uncle Joe’, Churchill’s name for him in his role as one of the ‘Big Three’. Stalin was one of the three Allied leaders of World War II, with President Franklin Roosevelt of the USA and Britain’s Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. Stalin played a pivotal role by leading the USSR to victory in what is known as ‘The Great Patriotic War, 1941-45’. His ruthless policies of industrialisation proved to be essential for victory in the war and the people of the USSR made huge sacrifices in achieving the defeat of Nazism. In all, an estimated 27 million people from the Soviet Union died in winning the war. When measured against the total deaths in the war, an estimated 58-70 million, the significance is clear; at least a third of all deaths in the conflict were suffered by the USSR. When compared with estimates for deaths suffered by the other Allies, the numbers become even more important: Britain – 450 000 deaths, France – 560 000 and the USA – 410 000. World War II was effectively won in the USSR and not in Western Europe. The saying is that the war was won with ‘American money and Russian blood’, and there is a lot of truth in it.

But the figures hide some of the story as many of the Soviet deaths were really down to Stalin himself. There was a policy of brutality towards his own soldiers so that many were sacrificed in the cause of victory. Soldiers were sent in to battle without weapons, being told to pick up the guns of fallen comrades to carry on fighting; retreat was not allowed, the punishment being that soldiers were to be shot; soldiers were sent into battle simply to die, the theory being that the German Army would run out of ammunition in killing more and more people; there was little effort made in saving lives on the battlefield or to giving medical treatment to the wounded as this cost money and time. The horrible truth is, though, that against huge odds, especially at the three great battles for Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Stalingrad (now Volgograd), the USSR emerged victorious and turned the tide against the Nazis in the east. There were many vital moments in World War II, such as the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbor and D-Day, but the events which probably have the greatest claim to being ‘the’ turning point were those Russian victories that defended the cities of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. And those millions of Soviet deaths undoubtedly saved the lives of uncountable numbers of people in the West. Every allied country benefited from Stalin’s approach.

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One corner of Stalingrad shows the astonishing damage suffered during the greatest battle in history, ‘The Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-43’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

There are many other things that could be written about Stalin: the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact, the cult of personality, the role of the secret police and others being just a few. ‘Uncle Joe’ was a paranoid psychopath really and hardly the type of man to be stuck in a lift with. He was probably responsible for the deaths of well over 30 million people (estimates range from 10 million to 60 million) and that really is a lot of people for a man who is somewhat ignored by some people today. But, in many ways, Stalin’s policies were effective and can even be considered successful, despite the horrendous costs, because the USSR did industrialise in the 1930s so that it could just survive the Nazi attack of 1941 and so play the pivotal role in the Allied victory. This is one of the most horrid truths in modern history, namely, that Nazism was defeated because of Stalin; millions of people in the West are alive today because of Stalin; millions of people in the former USSR are not alive today because of Stalin. And yet he is a peripheral figure for many Westerners while being adored by many people in Russia so that there have been several attempts to re-instate him as a true hero of Russian history.

There is much more to be said about Joseph Stalin than can be covered here. The shock and out-pouring of grief at the announcement of his death on 5th March, 1953, was quite extraordinary. People across the USSR were stunned into disbelief as their great leader of the last quarter century was gone. Tears flowed across the nation, even in the gulags where so many thousands had been unjustly imprisoned by Stalin himself. The politburo was thrown into confusion and a power struggle ensued from which Nikita Khrushchev would eventually emerge as leader. The USSR was, of course, profoundly changed by Stalin’s death and so was the world, a world in which the nation transformed under Stalin was a Superpower, the leader of the Communist world. Relations with the USA and China, for example, developed a whole new dynamic following the death of Stalin – and it was not always a safer place or a calmer relationship.

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Stalin’s body was embalmed and laid next to that of Lenin from 1953 to 1961. It was then removed and buried in the walls of the Kremlin as part of the process of ‘De-Stalinisation’. (Author: Graham Colm; Source: here)

 

Joseph Stalin was, above all, a winner and a survivor, the man who turned the USSR from a backward peasant state in 1928 to a Superpower with the atomic bomb in 1949. But being a winner does not always make you good so please remember Iosif Vissarionovich Djughashvili, Joseph Stalin, the ‘Man of Steel’, when people go on about the worst man in history; Hitler does have competition.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar’ (2007) and ‘The Young Stalin’ (2008), both by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are easy and exciting reads that serve as excellent introductions to Stalin.

Books: ‘The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia’ by Orlando Figes.

Books: ‘Stalin’ by Robert Service. Generally seen as the definitive biography of the evil genius.

Books: ‘A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The famous book telling the story of life in the gulags through the life of one inmate.

Books: ‘The Forsaken’ by Tim Tzouliadis. A little known study of the Americans who emigrated to the USSR and suffered in the 1930s and 1940s.

Books: ‘Gulag’ by Anne Applebaum. A fascinating and powerful study of the whole system of the gulags.

TV: ‘The Cold War’ (CNN) The outstanding documentary by Jeremy Isaacs has numerous episodes that tell the story of Stalin and the Cold War.

TV: ‘World War II – Behind Closed Doors’

TV: ‘The World at War’ and ‘The People’s Century’

 

 

 

 

The Great War: ‘Well, this is a sort of war, isn’t it, sir?’

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, his wife, leave the Town Hall in Sarajevo – and the world is just five minutes away from the assassination which will take the world to war. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Great War, 1914-1918: ‘Well, this is a sort of a war, isn’t it, sir?’

‘The conduct of Germany is almost unexampled in human history. The terrible responsibility which lies at her doors can be seen in the fact that not less than seven million dead lie buried in Europe, while more than twenty million others carry upon them the evidence of wounds and sufferings, because Germany saw fit to gratify her lust for tyranny by resort to war.’ Georges Clemenceau at the Versailles Conference, 1919

‘The Great War’, ‘World War I’, ‘The First World War’, ‘The War To End All Wars’. 1914 to 1918, or 1914 to 1917, or 1917 to 1918, depending on which country you were in. Whatever you want to call it and whatever you might think of it, the ‘Great War’, was very, very big and very, very important. It was a quite extraordinary event that marked a dramatic change in world history, shifted power between nations, redrew maps, changed international relations and killed more people than any previous war. There is good reason to see it as one of the most significant events of the Twentieth Century, alongside the Great Depression, World War II and the Cold War, and, in some mistaken minds, such ‘sensational’ moments as England winning the World Cup, the arrival of ‘Rock’n’Roll’ and the invention of colour TV. Here we will just take a brief look at the origins of the Great War, a tragic tale of boredom, revenge, envy, technology and bad luck.

The Great War did not start for one simple reason, one of the facts of life in history which can upset some people. Nothing so big can ever have a single cause and the road to that war was along many routes and from many different places, factors which merged together in the glorious summer of 1914. Some of these causes were long term, a few were medium term, others were short term and they were ignited by one final trigger. It was like building a good bonfire: you need some big chunks of wood (like railway sleepers and old fashioned wardrobes) which are hard to set alight but when they do they will keep going for ages; these are the long-term factors. Next you need some medium-term issues, which are like good branches and chairs which will help set the sleepers and wardrobes on fire. After that, small twigs and kindling, maybe some rags and newspapers, which will fill in the gaps of your bonfire and catch light easily. Finally you need a light, a match which will get the whole thing going. This is the trigger, often just a tiny flame which can be transformed into a terrifying conflagration. So, what set the war off?

As so often happens in history, it would be useful at this point to have a look at some maps, to help your understanding of the situation in the world of 1914. In Europe, you should look at the way the continent was dominated by five great powers: Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Notice how few countries there are in total and the absence of many familiar modern-day countries and borders. When you consider the strength and status these European Powers enjoyed thanks to their worldwide Empires, especially those of Britain, France and Germany, you can quickly see how this became the first truly global conflict. You should also look for maps that show you how the Great Powers split into the two alliances after 1914: the Triple Entente of France, Britain and Russia (with Italy after 1915 and the USA from 1917), the ‘Central powers’ of Germany, the Austro-Hungarians and Italy (until 1915) with Turkey (from 1915). And in case you don’t have time to find these maps for yourself, here are a few to help.

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This map shows the war alliances as they were at the start of the war in 1914. As mentioned, Italy actually switched sides in 1915, believing it had a better chance of gaining land and status there than with the central Powers. The Ottoman Empire joined the Central powers, again in 1915.

(Author: Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg: * historicair (French original); Source: here)

It’s important to note that the alliances of the Great War were not deep and long-standing relationships based on deep trust, lasting friendship and a long-shared vision. The treaty between Russia and France, for example, had only been signed in 1894 while the one between Britain and France was only agreed in 1904, just a decade before the war itself. The alliance between Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been signed in 1879, and extended to include Italy in 1882. If you study some maps of Europe in 1914, you should also notice that some of the countries were a very different size and shape from what they are today; Germany, for example, was much bigger than it is today and had a border with Russia. There were also ‘states’ or empires, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which do not exist today but was an ancient territory that covered much of central and south-east Europe: modern Austria, Hungary, parts of Germany, Romania and Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Other countries with which we are very familiar today, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for example, did not exist and were parts of those former Empires. All of these states and regions, all of the many people, would be dramatically changed by the events of the next four years for this was war on a scale never seen before. After 1918, the whole map of Europe an, indeed, the world would be re-drawn.

So, why did this ‘Great War’ come about? Not surprisingly, this is not a small question and there can be no short answer. There were, instead, several long-term and medium-term factors which combined to provide the main fuel for the fire which was the Great War. One of these was, surprisingly, boredom and restlessness among the major European armies. The great European powers had a long history of fighting each other and, compared with most earlier periods, the nineteenth century (the 1800s) had actually been rather peaceful with little by way of a ‘proper’ war since the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo (which is in Belgium by the way) in 1815. There had been the Crimean War, of course, which had seen the British and French humiliate the Russian Army in 1854-56 and also the very important ‘Franco-Prussian War’ (France v Germany) in 1870-71, but overall, things in Europe had been very quiet for the best part of a hundred years. During this period, most European conflicts had in fact taken place in the more remote parts of the world, as the main powers made moves to develop and control their Empires. ‘Real’ war between the big players just hadn’t happened.

Most people would consider this situation of relative peace to have been a decidedly ‘good thing’. However, during the years of peace, one great development had been transforming the world, namely industrialisation. It had changed everything: work, pleasure, transport, buildings, diets and many other things. Those ‘other things’ included weapons. Massive scientific and technological advances had impacted on steel production, chemicals, fuel and machinery, so that military power had been transformed by the creation of powerful new weapons which had been made available to armies and generals across the continent. Armies had also got bigger as populations grew rapidly on the back of industrial progress. But many of those soldiers, especially the generals, had gone through their whole careers without the opportunity to use them. Many of them were restless, and eagerly looking for an opportunity to use their new ‘toys’. It may seem ridiculous to us but conflict between nations was seen as a far more natural and expected fact of life back then. Boredom really was an important factor in starting the Great War.

Another factor which led up to the war was the shifting balance of power between Europe’s major players. England’s traditional enemies were, of course, France and Scotland. If anything, England (and later, Britain) has had a far greater bond with Germany than it ever had with France for most of history; the ‘entente’ or ‘understanding’ with the French was a recent development, based in part at least on King Edward VII’s love of all things French, especially wine, food and women. Meanwhile, Britain had started to face a growing threat from Germany, partly in economics (as the German industrial-based economy overtook Britain’s around 1900) but also militarily through its navy. The German-British ‘arms race’ was shifting the traditional ‘balance of power’ by which peace had been maintained in Europe. France also felt a deep sense of anxiety at the military threat posed by the industrial strength of Germany but her people also wanted revenge for their defeat to Prussia in 1871. This had been a massive blow to national pride and resulted in the loss of two French regions, Alsace and Lorraine, to German control.

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(Author: The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England by David Williamson; Source: here)

Although it may be hard to see him as a ‘Ladies’ Man’, Edward VII’s love of all things French played a major role in the alliance between the two countries which had such an impact on the Great War. He is pictured here with his wife, Queen Alexandra.

Germany, by the way, had only been properly united as one country on 18th January, 1871, as a result of victory in the Franco-Prussian War, having previously been the ‘Holy Roman Empire’. This Empire had existed for a thousand years and had united many states, over 200 at times. These states had included large regions like Prussia, Bavaria, Bohemia and Saxony, with others which were very much smaller, like Lichtenstein, Thurn and Taxis, Luxembourg and Fürstenerg. The key man in the whole process of German unification, and the creator of what would be called the ‘Second Reich’, was ‘The Iron Chancellor’, Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), a huge figure on the European and world stage. He deserves a picture.

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Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898): The Iron Chancellor.(Author: Jacques Pilartz; Source: here)

 

Another key factor that led to the Great War was the arrival on the scene of the hugely important Emperor, Wilhelm II (1859-1941) or ‘Kaiser Bill’ as he was known to British troops. Wilhelm became Emperor of Germany in 1888 following the death of his father, Frederick III, after only 99 days on the throne. Wilhelm would remain as ruler until 18th November, 1918, just after the end of the war, when he abdicated. Kaiser Wilhelm II played a major part in creating the tension that almost made the Great War an ‘inevitability’, a word to be used with great caution in history. Wilhelm demands a little more attention.

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Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) – a fine hat and a moustache to die for. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Wilhelm II was a complex character. Of course, many of us can claim to be ‘complex, brilliant, misunderstood’ figures but rarely do we come to wield the power of a dictator as Wilhelm did, though. He had numerous dangerous characteristics, being described as vain, ambitious, jealous and greedy for power. Wilhelm was also impulsive, inconsistent, obsessive and a bad listener; one can see that such a man as a dictator was potentially hazardous for all concerned. One other thing which is of particular significance, and what often sees in photos and film of him, is that he had been born with a withered left arm. Less obvious is that he also had terrible issues with his balance due to a problem with the development of the inner ear. This was very damaging to his self-image and to his ability to ride a horse, an essential for any royalty of the day. In learning to ride as a child, Wilhelm was put on a horse, day after day, for several years before he could stay upright. The falls he suffered and the abuse shouted at him, fired a fierce determination, a self-loathing at his ‘weaknesses’, a desire for power and a certain pleasure in the pain of others. Such characteristics can make an individual’s life and relationships challenging; in a ruler, they can bring disaster for millions.

Kaiser Wilhelm knew England well, being a grandson of Queen Victoria, the ‘Grandmother of Europe’, as she was known because so many of her children had married into other royal families around the continent. Wilhelm visited England often and was fascinated by the Royal Navy. It is fair to say that he actually had quite an obsession with Great Britain and looked across the North Sea with particular envy and a desire to emulate her success. From the Isle of Wight, where Victoria often received Wilhelm as a guest, he would see the great warships pass, and he nurtured the desire to create such a navy of his own. German ships were invited to join the procession to mark Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, but were overshadowed by the British, much to Wilhelm’s shame. Wilhelm was actually given his own ship in the Royal Navy and was an honorary ‘Rear-Admiral’, giving him a uniform he loved to wear.

Thanks to the rise of Germany’s industrial power, Wilhelm had the opportunity to address his naval and military needs. Thanks to Krupp’s steel, for example, he had the opportunity to build ‘a fleet of my own’, especially new battleships, and so to compete with Britain for control of at least some of the seas. The British Government watched with alarm as these mighty German ships were launched, and responded by building the largest battleships ever: the Dreadnoughts. Despite all this, Britain’s desire to stay out of European affairs was strong and the Empire was far more the focus of her attention. However, there were plenty of people who thought that if the Germans wanted a fight they could have one, and that the chance to ‘put them in their place’ was not to be missed. Tension was rising in the first decade of the century.

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A convoy of the most powerful ships of the age, the Dreadnoughts, including ‘Thunderer’, ‘Monarch’ and ‘Conqueror’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

It should be remembered that the prelude to war was not all to do with Germany. Another area of tension was the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had been in decline for many decades. After 1848, the country had faced growing internal pressures as it tried to keep control of people of many different nationalities, cultures and religions within its borders. However, the memory of glory was strong among many leaders and generals, so that the there was not just a willingness to fight but even a desire for it, a cleansing of defeats past and the rebirth of a dynamic new empire. The relative successes of the Balkans War (1912-13) suggested they were still a powerful force.

Elsewhere, things were not so clear. Italian involvement was especially confused, although having signed the ‘Triple Alliance’ with Germany and the Austro-Hungarians in 1882 as a means of defending themselves against any threat from France and Russia, they did decide to honour their commitments when war started in 1914. However, there was much opposition to this from within Italy itself. The Ottoman Empire (basically modern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, Jordan, Iran, parts of Iraq and Saudi Arabia) would also become involved (after 1915) on the side of the Central Powers, partly as a way of withstanding any threat from Russia, its main enemy. The Ottoman Army was not strong, having fought badly in the Balkans War (1912-13) and this made an alliance essential. Fear was, therefore, a powerful reason for their involvement in the war.

So, why did the Great War start in 1914? In the briefest of summaries, we have: boredom in the military, coupled with the desire to try out new weapons; France’s desire for revenge and its old territories back; the push for Germany, under Wilhelm, to increase its naval power and rival Britain militarily; and the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and Italy’s fear of their stronger neighbours. War would bring risks but also opportunities for power, land and glory. It is important to realise that the values which dominate societies do change overtime and this was especially true about Europe in the early years of the Twentieth Century. One factor which marked those days more than our own times was a widespread sense of nationalism, something well beyond patriotism, something far more aggressive, which looked down on foreigners with deep hatred. A word widely used in Britain was ‘Jingoism’, a sense of one’s own superiority with a belief in the right to win and to take over what belonged to someone else. This ‘nationalism’ meant decisions were made and events were interpreted by people who saw things in very stark terms: anger, revenge, glory, victory, hatred, distrust; us and them; right and wrong; kill or be killed.

Into the powder keg of fear, anger and greed came one horrid spark, a shot which would ring out around the world. The famous incident which finally set the European bonfire burning in the summer of 1914 has not been mentioned yet. The final element, the match or the trigger, was the death of a rather pompous and difficult man in a far off country, an event which might well have been a mere footnote in history had circumstances been a little different. This ‘spark’ was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Far from a footnote, his shooting was to become a headline on an epic scale.

On 28th June, 1914, Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, travelled down by train to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had come under the control of the Austro-Hungarians in 1912-13 as a result of the ‘Balkan War’. They went to visit the soldiers of their Empire who were seeking to hold on to the region against local groups who were unhappy at their loss of independence. On their arrival at the railway station, the royal couple travelled down into Sarajevo by car but on the way they came under attack from a grenade thrown by a member of ‘The Black Hand Gang’, a group which wanted independence for Serbia, another region of the Balkans and also under the control of the Austro-Hungarians. They survived as Franz Ferdinand saw the bomb coming, put up his arm and deflected it away, unfortunately causing it to explode under the car behind. It injured about 20 people, including their attendants in the car.

The visit continued with a reception and speeches at the City Hall but Franz Ferdinand and Sophie wanted to visit the injured in the hospital. The driver of the car who was to take them to the hospital got lost as he took a wrong turn, one of the simplest, most devastating errors of all time. While he was reversing in a narrow street, trying to get back to the route, a member of the ‘Black Hand Gang’, Gavrilo Princip, just happened to walk by having come out of a shop; it was a pure coincidence that he saw the car. He was carrying a gun and fired two shots, hitting both the Archduke and his wife. Sophie, who was pregnant, died in her husband’s arms before he too died in the car. He was 51 at the time, and she was 46. Those shots would echo across the world. Princip was not executed because he was under 20 years of age; he died of tuberculosis while in prison in 1918. But his actions were to live on as the shootings would set Europe on fire for four years.

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Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, about five minutes before they were killed on 28th June, 1914. (Author: Bettmann/Corbis; Source: here)

 

Actually, it is only right to use another photo from that day, an image which is one of the most famous in history. This is Gavrilo Princip being arrested and taken to the police station in Sarajevo.

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(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

But why did this killing of an heir to a throne, in an obscure town in a distant country, lead to 16 million deaths in the Great War? The key lies with the alliances described above. The Austro-Hungarians were furious with the Serbians for what had happened and gave them a list of 30 demands that they required to be met within a month, as reparation for the loss of the Archduke. The Serbians felt able to accept all but two of these demands. But this was not enough for the government in Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, triggering a chain reaction of declarations of allegiance on both sides.

The declaration of war set in train a series of alliances. Russia had an ancient agreement to defend Serbia and so declared war on the Austro-Hungarians. The Germans honoured their alliance with the Austro-Hungarians by declaring war on Russia, leading France to declare war on Germany. Germany was determined to avoid a direct attack on France owing to a line of huge forts which had been built on their joint border by the French since 1871, and so decided to invade with a sharp and dramatic attack through Belgium. This was called the ‘Schlieffen Plan’. But Britain had a treaty with Belgium going back to the 1830s saying it would protect Belgium if it were invaded. So it was that on Bank Holiday Monday, 4th August, 1914, Britain found itself at war with Germany as a way of defending ‘plucky little Belgium’. And the rest really is history.

 

Find out more

Books: There are obviously many books which deal with the Great War. A few novels and factual books which might be used to introduce the war include: ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks; ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque; the ‘Regeneration Trilogy’ by Pat Barker; ‘Testament of Youth’ by Vera Brittain; ‘Forgotten Voices of the Great War’ by Max Arthur; ‘The Great War, 1914-1918’ by Peter Hart; ‘The Western Front’ by Richard Holmes, and ‘1914-1918’ (BBC).

TV documentaries: ‘1914-1918’, ‘First World War in Colour’, ‘The Western Front’, ‘The Great War’

Films and dramatisations: ‘The Battle of the Somme’ (1916), ‘The Trench’, ‘Gallipoli’, ‘A very long engagement’, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Birdsong’.

War Poets: ‘Poems of the Great War’ (Penguin): Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John McCrae, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney and many others.

Maps: Study maps of Europe from 1914 and from the 1920s to analyse the creation of new countries and the changes to old borders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FC Start: the USSR fights back in World War II.

FC Start: the USSR fights back in World War II.

‘In front of everyone, both the citizens of Kiev and the German occupants, they could prove what great players they were without being humiliated and without bowing down to anyone.’ Makar Goncharenko, player for FC Start.

History is a complex topic at times. How do you know or trust information if you weren’t there? Let’s face it, most great and important historical events have happened in pretty messy or unclear circumstances. They are open to so many influences that can twist or obscure their meaning, that the issue of interpretation is just about the most complicated thing to consider when ‘doing’ history. It makes things fascinating and controversial as well as ensuring that the debates and arguments about what happened and why they happened will, in many cases, never be decided. This is the case for most of history, in fact, there being so little by way of careful, detached analysis for most events, especially those of the distant past. Pre-historic events, such as why Neanderthals died out, are obviously riddled with challenges around gathering, as well as interpreting, the evidence; ancient events, such as Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses and the Prophets, as recorded in the Old Testament, are full of allegory and clearly have a powerful religious dimension which impacts on their purpose; and deciding why wars, such as the Great War, the Vietnam War or the Cold War, developed as they did will always be affected by who won and who lost. We have to accept that people in the past have not always presented the events of their time, the history of today, in a calm, clear and detached manner. There is nearly always some extra message, a value or a purpose, which impacts on the interpretation of the event, just as there is when two football managers discuss the match they have both just witnessed: ‘It was clearly a penalty’, against, ‘It was never a penalty’, is an obvious case in point.

One area of particular interest in historical events is to do with legends. Such stories are a natural part of the human story and the oldest stories we seem to have, the likes of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ and ‘The Iliad’ are just that. There may be a germ of truth in them, maybe quite a lot of truth, but they get changed in the telling so much that they lose any credible connection to the original and are, as such, unbelievable. Such is the case with stories such as King Arthur, Robin Hood or Dracula, where the real person may have existed but the stories that grow up around them come to obscure the truth. History is full of myths and legends that have the power to shape our language, beliefs and actions to this day; one only has to look at the obsessions with the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, UFOs and the regular forecasts of Armageddon linked with some ancient prophecy to see that such stories retain their influence on many people.

Legends develop for various reasons. They can be used to explain an attitude or belief; they can be used to justify an action; they offer links to origins and identities of peoples and nations; they might explain why things have gone wrong in the past and so make demands on today; they can give peace and hope to people who are suffering. Legends are powerful stories and they cannot be ignored by historians nor dismissed just because they are not ‘true’. To do this is to ignore the power and the purpose of the story. It is important that they are recognised as part of a culture and then examined to explain what they say about that culture, the people and the time from which they developed. The fact that they are believed and valued is an essential part of the legend. One only has to look at the many references to Robin Hood in the light of the banking and economic crisis of 2008 to the present day or the power of Dracula to inspire the hugely successful ‘Twilight’ series to see that ‘truth’ is not the only way in which historical events affect and shape our lives today.

The difficulty of distinguishing fact from fiction is not just a thing of the deep past. There are many events of more recent times which have been open to great debate with issues about just what happened being very difficult to discern. In some ways, the story behind every trial that comes to court, every politician who rises to power, every act of terror or war, is open to some form of interpretation and opinion. These interpretations are based on selecting the truth, highlighting some things over others, exaggerating the good or ill in the work of certain figures and drawing certain messages and consequences over others. With intelligence, care and determination, things can be agreed and reasonable conclusions drawn – but to be a ‘good’ historian is a most difficult challenge.

One particular event comes to mind as an example of this challenge. It is quite an obscure event in some ways but one which has become far better known in recent years, rooted in a game of football that took place in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1942. The match happened during World War II and inspired a Hungarian film called ‘Két félidő a pokolban’, or, ‘Two Half-Times in Hell’ from 1962. In 1981, this in turn inspired a Hollywood film, ‘Escape to Victory’, which remarkably cast the Rambo actor, Sylvester Stallone, alongside some famous footballers, including Pele and Bobby Moore. As happened with another famous war film, ‘The Great Escape’, the truth got rather twisted and some people came to believe that the film really was a factual account of a true event with Brazilians, English, Scottish, American and Argentine prisoners somehow coming together to defeat a team of German soldiers. Further films have been made about the game, a recent example being a Russian one entitled ‘Match’. It was released just before the European Football Championship of 2012 which was jointly hosted by Poland and the Ukraine. This particular film cuts to the heart of the difficulty of separating the fact from the fiction as it portrayed the Ukrainian players in a very different light from that of ‘Escape to Victory’, for example. Whereas that film had shown the players to be heroes against their opponents, ‘Match’ portrayed the Ukrainians as Nazi sympathisers, which is quite a difference. The truth, it is fair to say, is rather hard to discern, even though this was quite a recent event and many people survived to tell the story well into the 1990s. Moving beyond the legend is incredibly difficult.

Map showing Kiev and Ukraine: here

Here is a version of the story of the now famous ‘Death Match’. It shows that, despite what some people say, sport really can be important and influential for a nation. This version emphasises the positive from the players and the Ukrainian perspective. It shows how a team of local footballers caused great annoyance to the Nazis, who were occupying the Ukraine, by refusing to capitulate to their demands that they should stop being so good. Even though they were malnourished, had little by way of proper kit and had little chance to practise, these players ran rings around the ‘stars’ of their military opponents, humiliating them in the process. As we will see, it would all end in tragedy but why did these men even find themselves playing football against the elite forces of the German army in the depths of the war in Kiev during the summer of 1942?

FC Start was a football team in Kiev, in the Ukraine, not far from Chernobyl where the nuclear disaster of 1986 happened. They played for just one season during World War II and they beat everyone they played: played 9, won 9, 58 goals scored, 10 conceded. Theirs is a story of true heroism and skill but it is still relatively unknown in the West, a story lost in the political mists of time because hearing such positive tales about people who were under Communist control after the war was just not the ‘done’ thing.

The key figure behind FC Start team was a man by the name of Iosif Kordik, who controlled one of the local bakeries, in Kiev, which was the capital city. The Ukraine had been invaded by the Wehrmacht forces, the German Army, as a part of ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Kiev itself was occupied in mid-September, 1941. One day, Kordik bumped into one of his heroes, a footballer called Nikolaï Trusevich. Trusevich had been the goalkeeper for Dynamo Kiev before World War II and, now that he had returned home from a prisoner of war camp, where he had been held after being captured by the Germans, he was in need of a job. Kordik invited him to come to work for him at the imaginatively titled, ‘Bakery No. 3’. The German guards had actually released Trusevich and other Russian soldiers so that they did not have to spend time and resources guarding them; they were released with no papers so that they could not get any work, food or accommodation and were therefore expected to starve or freeze to death. It was a solution which would be cheaper than guarding and feeding them.

Within a short period, several other former footballers had gathered at Bakery No. 3, most of them having played for two rivals before the war: Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev. When the German Wehrmacht, who controlled the region, put together a football league to give themselves, and other soldiers from Hungary and Romania, something to do, the players at the bakery were allowed to enter a team and they took the name ‘FC Start’. Nazi superiority was expected to be shown over their military allies as well as the local population.

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The poster advertising the ‘Death Match’ between FC Start and Flakelf. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

The local players were always short of food, tired from working shifts of up to 24 hours and in fear for their lives because of Ukrainian informers to the Nazis. They lacked proper kit, wearing cut down trousers and work shoes instead of boots. They were not allowed to train either, although they were so malnourished that this was not their biggest problem. There were serious doubts in the team about whether they should actually play or not. It took a brief speech by Trusevich to decide the issue. By coincidence, a set of red woollen shirts had been found a few days earlier. Holding one of them, he said to the others, ‘We do not have any weapons but we can fight with our victories on the football pitch…we will play in the colours of our flag. The Fascists should know that this colour can never be defeated.’ They all chose to play.

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Nikolaï Trusevich – Goalkeeper for FC Start in 1942 (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

From their first match, FC Start were the outstanding side in the competition, overcoming their physical problems thanks to great skill, tactics and teamwork. Victory after victory followed but things got tougher when they beat PGS, a German garrison team, 6-0 in July, 1942. This was simply not supposed to happen as it humiliated the German players and the ‘system’ which saw them as superior to the local people. Sport really was supposed to show Aryan supremacy, but, as in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, things were not going to plan. On 6th August, FC Start were to face their toughest challenge against ‘Flakelf’, ‘the Flak Eleven’, a newly formed team from the German Luftwaffe. It included some pilots but more players came from the anti-aircraft groups around Kiev. They won easily, 5-1. But immediately after the match, a return fixture was arranged for the following Sunday, 9th August: it would become the ‘Death Match’.

A large crowd gathered for the match. It began with Flakelf giving the Nazi salute and shouting ‘Heil Hitler!’ The Ukrainians had been ordered to do the same by an SS officer who spoke to them before the match in the changing rooms. But as they slowly raised their hands, they put their fists to their chests and gave the cry of the Red Army: ‘Fizcult Hura!’ (literally, ‘Physical Culture, Hooray!’ but better translates as ‘Long live sport!’). Not surprisingly, the Nazis were furious.

The same SS officer who had ordered them to give the Nazi salute was to be the referee for the match. The players had been advised to throw the game for their own safety but as the game started they decided just to play. Chaos broke out soon enough as the referee ignored all fouls by Flakelf even when the FC Start goalkeeper, the famous Trusevich, was deliberately kicked in the head. Flakelf took the lead while he was still dazed. But FC Start would not give in and they struck back, scoring with a long shot before another player, Makar Goncharenko, dribbled around the whole Flakelf team to score a stunning goal, even as they tried to grab him and kick him from behind. A third goal before half-time saw FC Start in control of the match. The Nazis were, to say the least, unhappy.

During half-time, the SS officer and a Ukrainian collaborator returned to the changing rooms to both warn and threaten the players that they could not, and must not, win the game. Serious consequences were threatened if they did win. However, in the second half, things were much quieter and both sides scored twice, leaving FC Start 5-3 up. Then, towards the end of the game, one of the Start team, a defender called Klimenko, dribbled around the whole of the Flakelf defence, went round the goalkeeper up to the goal-line but refused to score and, instead, he turned to kick the ball back towards the half-way line. It was the ultimate humiliation of the German team as this ‘sub-human’ Ukrainian could choose not to score against them – and still win. The whistle was blown early to save Flakelf further embarrassment. The FC Start players did not celebrate but guard dogs were turned on to the crowd of supporters. The Nazi leaders in the crowd were jeered as they left the ground. Hungarians and Romanians with the army had been seen supporting FC Start and mocking the Germans. Something had to be done.

The local Nazi leaders decided what to do but waited until FC Start had played and won their final match, 8-0, to win the league. They then turned up at Bakery No. 3 and rounded up all of the players. They were taken to the SS headquarters and interrogated in the hope that they would admit to being involved in activities against the Germans but none did so. One of the team, though, Korotkykh, was exposed as a member of the NKVD, Stalin’s Secret Police, when his sister told the SS: he was tortured and killed. As the others refused to break, they were sent off to labour camps where several of them died by being clubbed to death and then shot through the head. Three of those who died were executed as retribution for a partisan attack on a local factory. One in three of those held at the Siretz Camp were executed and they included the heart of the FC Start team: Ivan Kuzmenko, their giant striker; Alexi Klimenko, the young defender who had dribbled around the Flakelf team before refusing to score; and Nikolai Trusevich, the great goalkeeper and the man who brought the team together after going to work at Bakery No. 3. Some of the team did survive the war but then faced the backlash of those who saw them as collaborators for playing football with the enemy. Worst was the threat posed by Joseph Stalin who sent so many former prisoners of war and civilians who had contact with the Nazis to the Gulags or death after 1945.

The full story of FC Start was suppressed for many years and only came out in 1959, long after Stalin’s death, and it is really down to two Soviet leaders that it happened. Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, who was himself a Ukrainian, were instrumental in seeing that the remarkable story of FC Start found a wider audience. It was a part of ‘peaceful coexistence’ really, an example of heroism and human endurance, as well as skill, in the face of fear and hatred. For Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the witness of FC Start was an example of anti-Nazism from within Communism, a sign to the world of the strength of their system and way of life.

Today, a monument stands to the players of FC Start outside Dinamo Kiev’s ground. Makar Goncharenko, was the last member living of FC Start. He died in 1996, but four years earlier, he spoke of the team and the ‘Death Match’. He did not see any of the team as heroes, not even those who died. For him, they were just ordinary people caught up in a brutal war, a war that saw that saw the population of Kiev fall from 400 000 to 80 000. The men who played for FC Start were no different from the rest of the community; thanks to their sporting ability, they just played a different role in the struggle.

Monuments to FC Start at the Kiev stadium: photo links here and here. These are clearly evidence that some people thought something important had happened at FC Start. And there is another important memorial, see below, linked with the ‘Death Match’. It is at Syrets Concentration Camp, where three of the players were amongst the estimated 25 000 who died. The camp was close to the infamous massacre site at Babi Yar.

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(Author: Jennifer Boyer; Source: here)

So, that is the positive interpretation of the story and it is one which is powerful and emotional, a classic example of the ‘David and Goliath’ struggle. The heroes are clear, the monuments are built, the memory is enshrined in the stories and the films. But it is not quite so straight-forward and many believe that a different interpretation is necessary. Part of the problem is to do with confusion over what actually happened in 1942 and part is to do with Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the leaders of the USSR, and how the story came out.

There seems to be no doubt that the football season of 1942 did take place, including the teams mentioned, such as Flakelf and FC Start. The result in the ‘Death Match’ was almost certainly a 5-3 victory for FC Start and, within six months, half of the team had died. But then things get messy. How come the local officials of the Nazi occupiers never checked the papers of the FC Start players? They would easily have found out that they had none. Many local people were accused of being collaborators with the Nazis and some believe that the team must have included such people, as portrayed in the Russian film ‘Match’. And were the deaths that followed the game directly a result of the football or just a part of the huge suffering of the Ukrainians in the war? It is estimated that eight-ten million Ukrainians died during World War II, a higher percentage than any other nation, despite evidence of collaboration with the Nazis by some people; in such horrible circumstances, such things were, surely, to be expected. Starvation was the biggest cause of death, a further horrid famine that stands alongside the tragedy of 1933, ‘The Terror-Famine’, when up to seven million more people, mostly Ukrainians, died thanks to the consequences of Stalin’s first ‘Five Year Plan’. Clearly, the fact that four or five players died within six months of the match is no surprise; they may not have been shot.

The suffering of the people and the obvious expectation of collaboration, as in France, for example, was a particular problem when the tide of the war turned against the Nazis. Following that great turning-point, the Battle of Stalingrad, the German forces were decisively pushed back and forced out of the USSR. In the wake of this, Joseph Stalin was ruthless in his pursuit of anyone who might have been seen to have collaborated with the Nazis in any way. After the war, he famously sent Soviet Prisoners of War, who had been imprisoned in the west, straight out to gulags in Siberia for fear that they had been intellectually ‘contaminated’ by the experience. The Ukrainians feared that they would be part of the back-lash and the story of the ‘Death Match’ was covered up until after Stalin’s own death in 1953. If there was a clear story of anti-Nazi activity, surely it would have been used to impress Stalin? The story only came out under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, presented as a story of how good the Communists had been in opposing the Nazis during the war. It is all a bit too convenient for some people.

The truth is that many people do not believe the story of the ‘Death Match’ as told above. They say that those who survived and re-told the story, such as Makar Goncharenko, changed their version of events many times, almost in every re-telling. Also, there were discrepancies between different players and a lack of consistency with any surviving spectators from the estimated 2000 who attended. Marina Shevchenko, a local historian who works at the local museum of the Great Patriotic War, believes that the match between FC Start and Flakelf did take place on 9th August, 1942, and the score probably was 5-3 to FC Start – but it was not a ‘Death Match’.

The story is the stuff of legend, a spin placed upon an event played out under the most frightening circumstances – and formed into a legend to protect and justify people who then faced another bout of horror from their own rulers. It was given added energy by other politicians who wished to cast a positive light on Communists during the Cold War and that was then muddied further by Hollywood. A further twist is given by the ‘celebrity’ enjoyed by certain key players in the match who could hardly do more than re-tell the story everyone wanted to hear, the truth having long been submerged in the myth of patriotic glory. And the Russian version of events in ‘Match’ from 2012, also adds in that element which comes from a historic dislike and distrust between nations.

The Death Match. The stuff of legend. Just like Robin Hood, really?

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

Berlin, Olympia-Stadion (Luftaufnahme)

The Olimpiastadion, Berlin, 1936 – a place where important things happened. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

The Olympics: Politics and sport don’t mix apparently.

“Friendships born on the field of athletic strife are the real gold of competition. Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust.” Jesse Owens

The Olympics in the modern era were the result of the vision and hard work of a French noble called Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863-1937). He was at least partly inspired by the popular games which had been taking place in the small English village of Much Wenlock in Shropshire since 1850. This gathering, which is still held each year, aimed, “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”, an ideal which the Baron wanted to share on a far grander scale.

Baron de Coubertin was a regular visitor to Much Wenlock and he was much inspired by what he saw. After several years of planning, athletes gathered in Athens in 1896 for the first modern Olympic Games, the city being chosen, of course, because of the ancient games which had been held at Olympia from 776 BC to 393 BC. At those original games, winners received nothing more than a wreath of olive leaves, women were banned from competing and glory was all. There is no space here for a full history of the Olympics but some brief observations on a few key moments in recent history will hopefully show how fascinating and important the games have been in political as well as sporting terms.

The Baron himself: Pierre de Coubertin. He actually won a gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912 – for poetry. They really did have a range of competitions in those days and he would probably have had a chance if they had held a bushy moustache competition.

(Author: Photograph from Bain News Service; Source: From the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division digital ID cph.3c22269)

1936 – BERLIN OLYMPICS

An obvious starting point for a discussion of politics in the Olympics is Berlin, 1936. For anyone visiting the city, the stadium there should be on the agenda: a Nazi building of beauty and importance, and the venue for one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time. The hero who dominated the Berlin Olympics of 1936 was an all-time great, namely the Black American star, Jesse Owens (1913-80). Owens’ life is a story which is truly worth knowing, not just for the fact that he won four gold medals in 1936, setting a record for athletics at one Olympics which was not matched until Carl Lewis at Los Angeles in 1984. (Some of you will mention Mark Spitz, who won seven golds in swimming at Munich in 1972 and Michael Phelps who went even further to win eight golds at Beijing in 2008, again in the pool. But four athletics golds is still a record for one Olympic Games). Owens’ achievements were remarkable in themselves but they have always had an extra dimension because of the context in which they happened. The place, the times, the opponents and the spectators all contributed to the glory of what he did.

Owens was a black athlete at a time when segregation was rife in the USA. Racism was the norm during much of his life at home but, by competing in Germany when the Nazis were in control, he faced one of the most racist systems in history. When he went to Berlin, Owens was already a legend of track and field having broken three world records and equalled a fourth, all within 45 minutes at a meeting in the state of Michigan, one afternoon in 1935. He was outstanding at the long jump and at sprinting, where he competed at 100m, 200m and in relays. However, at the time when his world records were set, he could not even get a scholarship because of his skin colour, having to work in part-time jobs to fund his athletics; many lesser athletes found such scholarships easy to come by.

Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics.

(Author: Unknown; Source: derivative work by Durova of Image:Jesse_Owens.jpg – reproduction of photograph in “Die Olympischen Spiele, 1936″ p.27, 1936.)

In 1936, Adolf Hitler was looking for a major propaganda victory at the Berlin Olympics. For the Nazis, the Olympics were a wonderful opportunity to show the world the glories of their system. Berlin had been awarded the games before Hitler came to power and he wanted to take every advantage he could from this opportunity. With the world in economic depression following the Great Crash of 1929, Germany would put on a show that would show it was stronger and more dynamic than any country in the world. It was to be not only a glorious event, but it would also show the superiority of the Aryan race as blond-haired, blue-eyed athletes from Germany were expected to dominate the Games. Indeed, Germany did finish top of the medals table, but they had far more athletes than anyone else and they had been supported in training to an extent no other team could match.