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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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry S. Truman: ‘The buck stops here.’

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Harry Truman at the Potsdam Conference of July-August, 1945, with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin: ‘The Big Three’. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Harry S. Truman: ‘The buck stops here.’

Now to the most famous ‘haberdasher’ in history, Harry S. Truman. The ‘S.’ in Truman’s name, by the way, did not actually stand for anything but was an attempt by his parents to please both of his grandfathers, Shipp Truman and Solomon Young. Anyway, Harry Truman was originally from a town called Independence, Missouri, but he opened his haberdashery (in the USA that means a gentlemen’s clothes shop) in Kansas City after he returned from the Great War in which he had served as a captain in the Field Artillery. It was not a hugely successful enterprise and it failed in the tough economic conditions of the early 1920s. Truman changed career and took advantage of some useful contacts to get elected as a county court judge, a post he held for eight years. Truman’s political career really took off during the 1930s. He was a Democrat and a strong supporter of Harry Hopkins, one of FDRs most trusted allies. Truman was elected Senator for Missouri in 1934 and he headed off to Washington to help drive through the radical ideas behind the New Deal. There is not really the space here to look at his relatively uninspired time as a senator so we will move on; this is what might be called a ‘convenient excuse’.

Truman was elected to the vice-presidency in 1944, the fourth election victory for Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was seriously ill at this time and there was a widespread expectation that he would not survive the next four years so Truman has to have been considered at least a ‘safe pair of hands’ by the Democratic leadership, most of all FDR himself. His move into the White House probably came sooner than expected as Roosevelt died less than three months after being sworn into office; Truman was 60 years old at the time. Dismissed by many as a bland and uninspiring man of little conviction or courage, Truman proved to be a far tougher and more aggressive character than was expected. He was in office for nearly eight years and pulled off one of the most remarkable election victories in US history when returning to the White House in 1948. His time in the Oval Office were those crucial years in which the USA adopted its role as the superpower of the West and he played a pivotal in shaping the post-war world as tensions developed into the Cold War. It was his vision and values which were fundamental in providing the foundations of US foreign policy for much of the second half of the century, so shaping world affairs and international relations in the most profound way. Harry Truman may have been an ‘accidental’ President but he grew into the role and grabbed his opportunities with both hands. This is just a part of his story.

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Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), the 33rd President of the USA (Author: Frank Gatteri; Source: here)

In the first weeks after Harry Truman became vice-president he hardly saw the president as FDR was away at the Yalta Conference, that meeting of the ‘Big Three’ which stood out as the most positive of the wartime meetings of the Allied Powers. Despite the natural tensions and simple politics of the occasion, it was generally an optimistic meeting between FDR, Churchill and Stalin which benefited from the knowledge that the war against the Nazis was effectively won, the final stages simply being played out in Central Europe. FDR’s health was a cause for concern and he was clearly a very sick man in the early months of 1945. This was one of the factors which led to various ‘details’ of what should happen in the post-war world being left open for a future conference, which would eventually take place at Potsdam near Berlin. FDRs poor health also meant that Truman rarely spent time alone with the great man, and actually only had one-to-one meetings with him on two occasions. When FDR died on 12th April, the country was in mourning for one of its most important leaders and also rather concerned as to how the relatively unknown Truman would handle his promotion. With no great track record of political leadership and rather lacking in the experience of foreign affairs, there were many questions and concerns as Truman took the responsibility for guiding the USA through the end of World War II and, it was hoped, into the post-war world.

Despite his less than inspiring background and the accidental manner of his arrival in the White House, Truman grew into a job which to most observers seemed to be beyond him in 1945. Rather surprisingly, Truman turned into a president who is regularly voted as one of the ‘Top Ten Presidents’ of all time, not matching Washington, Lincoln and FDR, maybe, but certainly well ahead of, say, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and, of course, Warren Harding. So, what did Harry Truman do that makes it worth giving up a few minutes of your life to finding out about him? Here we will look at just a few things: his decision to drop the Atom Bombs on Japan; his relationship with Joseph Stalin; the Truman Doctrine and his commitment to the Marshall Plan.

First of all, then, let’s look at the impact made by the development of the atom bomb at the end of World War II, a technological event whose importance is rather difficult to over-state. Its use on two occasions in August, 1945, brought a swift end to World War II, killing tens of thousands but probably saving the lives of millions. It brought a dramatic shift in the balance of power in international relations. Its use marked the beginning of the ‘nuclear age’, an age in which the threat of total destruction hung over the world. Nuclear weapons cast the longest, broadest and darkest of shadows over the lives of people who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. This in turn led to the rise of a new form of political activism in the form of pressure groups like CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, creating a culture which has transformed the political landscape. There was a real sense of fear and impending doom in the back of people’s minds as they feared the ‘mushroom clouds’ that would come with the threatened nuclear attacks. And, also to the delight of many politicians and others, the new technology heralded the arrival of nuclear power and transformed the nature of war, giving a huge boost to ‘defence’ spending as research and development went into over-drive during the Cold War period. In the process, this impacted on the nature of political funding in the US as campaigns were increasingly supported by the defence industry. The fear factor in the Nuclear Age was an extraordinarily powerful driver of policy.

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A scene from ‘Duck and Cover’, a US Civil Defense Film from 1951. It’s hero was the Bert the Turtle who helped children with his advice on how to survive a nuclear attack.

If you want a sense of the tension and fear of this time, get onto ‘YouTube’ or buy the DVD called ‘Nuclear Scare Stories’, especially ‘Duck and Cover’, which is a classic. I won’t spoil it for you but people really were taught that putting a table cloth over your head would do wonders when it came to saving your life in the face of such an attack. After that, you might read the splendid but frightening, ‘When the wind blows’, by Raymond Briggs.

But the main issue in all this was, of course, Truman’s use of the atom bomb itself. Technological and industrial developments had already transformed war in the Twentieth Century. No more would there be soldiers in colourful uniforms, marching steadily in formation towards the enemy lines, and never again would cavalry and swords be seen on the battlefield. The atom bomb was just one more dramatic step in the transformation of conflict, a step on from the artillery, planes, machine guns and tanks which had slaughtered people in numbers beyond counting in the two world wars and other conflicts of the first half of the century. This was different, though, as complex science came to the fore and took the destructive capability to a whole new level and put astonishing potential in the hands of politicians and generals.

The atom bomb was finally developed by Robert Oppenheimer and his team who ran the ‘Manhattan Project’, which was based at three sites in the USA, most famously Los Alamos in New Mexico. It ran between 1942 and 1946, building on the theories of Albert Einstein and the research of other great scientists like Ernest Rutherford, at Manchester University. There were many other brilliant if lesser known scientists involved on various projects in Germany, Denmark, Britain and the USA, such as  Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann. Although the ‘Manhattan Project’ turned out to be the ‘winner’ in the race for the bomb which could harness atomic power, there was no certainty that this would be the case despite the US funding and the brilliance of Oppenheimer’s team. The Nazi regime had been seeking such a development itself during the war and there were major concerns for the Allies when Germany invaded Denmark in October 1943, so closing in on Niels Bohr, a leading atomic researcher. The British managed to move Bohr to Sweden and also disrupted some factories and supplies in the Nazi nuclear programme but this all reflected how tight things were at the time. This may well be seen as a decisive moment in the war as keeping Bohr safe gave a vital advantage to the Allies and helped the ‘Manhattan Project’ them to develop the atom bomb first. By 16th July, 1945, Oppenheimer had three bombs ready to test at the top secret Los Alamos base in New Mexico.

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J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967): leader of the ‘Manhattan Project’. (Author: Department of Energy, Office of Public Affairs ; Source: here)

When the tests on the bombs were completed, some of those involved in the project were astonished and horrified by the power they had unleashed. Oppenheimer himself declared, ‘Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds’, based on a quote from the ‘Bhagavad Gita’, a sacred Hindu book. Oppenheimer and many others feared what might happen as these new weapons were unleashed on the world. But for President Truman, the bombs were a necessary evil, a weapon that gave the US an unprecedented advantage in a war which had no clear end in sight, at least in the Pacific. The Atom Bomb had been developed at huge cost and Truman knew that they might be developed by the enemy who could use them against the US and her Allies. Being under huge pressure to justify the costs and to act quickly to end the war, Truman decided to use the atom bombs. Originally the plan had been to use them against the Nazi forces in Europe but Germany but  had surrendered on 8th May, 1945, and so it was that Japan was to face attack the atomic bombs in August, 1945. Whether or not Truman made the right call is hotly debated to this day.

The full details of the dropping of the atom bombs are obviously available through many websites and books. Some of the key facts are here, though. At 8.15 am on Monday, 6th August, 1945, the city of Hiroshima was devastated when the first atom bomb, codenamed ‘Little Boy’, was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress bomber, called ‘Enola Gay’ in honour of the mother of Paul Tibbets, the pilot. The city had a population of about 340 000 and was an important military supply centre in the south of Honshu, Japan’s main island. It was an acceptable target for the bomb because of its use by the military but also because it had suffered no significant damage during the war up to that point which allowed a clear analysis of the power of the bomb. Even though ‘Little Boy’ only exploded with about 2% of its full potential, apparently, the explosion destroyed 70% of the city, killing 70 000-80 000 people almost instantly, many of them being vapourised in the process. Some of the dead included a small group of US prisoners of war. On Thursday, 9th August, a second bomb, ‘Fat Man’, was dropped on the city of Nagasaki on the southern island of Kyushu from a B-29 called ‘Bockscar’. Here there were fewer immediate deaths than in Hiroshima with about 50 000 – 70 000 killed but the bomb, which had a plutonium core as opposed to the uranium used in ‘Little Boy’, was a more powerful blast. The fewer deaths were partly down to the fact that Nagasaki was more hilly than Hiroshima. In both cities, the devastation was astonishing and the deaths from injuries and illness continued long after, mainly from the effect of burns and radiation sickness.  So far, these two incidents represent the only use of nuclear weapons although there were many near misses from accidents in the subsequent decades and on two particular occasions, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and during a NATO Training exercise in 1983, the world stood on the brink of full nuclear war. But back in 1945, Harry Truman was comfortable with his decisions and happy with the outcome, despite the deaths of so many civilians. A war against a fierce opponent who had never before surrendered in any war was brought to an end just a week afterwards with the announcement of the Japanese surrender. The actual statement had come the day before when Emperor Hirohito of Japan made his first ever radio broadcast and, to the shock and shame of many people, announced the surrender following the “use of a new and cruel bomb” which meant that continued fighting could bring the destruction of the nation and endanger the whole of humanity. The atom bomb clearly achieved its goal for President Truman who had shown a ruthless streak in his decision making.

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On 2nd September, 1945, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu, signed the official surrender on behalf of his government. It took place on board the USS ‘Missouri’, a ship named after Harry Truman’s home state. (Author: Army Signal Corps; Source: here)

The question, “Was Truman right to use the atom bombs against Japan?” has been debated many times. No simple or clear solution is evident but the logic of Truman’s arguments always show that he has a case to support his actions despite the horrific number of casualties, especially those of innocent civilians – although some people argue that in war-time, very few people are completely ‘innocent’. On the ‘pro-Truman’ side of the argument are some rather important factors, especially for a politician. It meant that the USA and its Allies won. It meant a quicker end to the war against an enemy with a fierce reputation and no willingness to surrender. It meant far fewer casualties for the USA, which was a huge factor based on the experience of the fighting in the Pacific Islands. It saved money and enabled the USA to get on with other matters, such as addressing the crisis facing Europe which had seen so much death and destruction; ‘Marshall Aid’ and the recovery of Europe happened partly because of the Atom Bombs. For a former vice-president looking to prove himself as President, it showed Truman as a strong leader who could make tough decisions. It showed Stalin and the USSR just how powerful the Atom Bomb was and that the USA was willing to use it, giving a powerful message about future conflicts. By dropping two different types of bomb, scientists had a clear understanding of which one was more powerful  which allowed further developments in future; despite the lower level of destruction and fewer casualties, the ‘better’ bomb was ‘Fat Man’, the one dropped on Nagasaki and the plutonium method was the one developed. The development and use of the atom bombs marked the USA’s pre-eminent position on the world stage, a massive development from its days of isolationism and firmly established it as the Western ‘Superpower’.

One particular example of war in the Pacific may be of use here to explain the pressure Truman came under to use the atom bomb. Many will have heard the story of the ‘Battle of Iwo Jima’, either from history books, novels, photos or films. The battle took place over five weeks in February-March, 1945, some months before the atom bombs were dropped. Iwo Jima is a tiny island just south of Japan. It had been attacked by the US Army as they tried to fight their way towards Japan. The island was defended by a force estimated at 21000 Japanese soldiers. In the fighting, the Americans lost nearly 7000 men out of a force of 70 000 with another 20 000 wounded. The Japanese, by contrast, refused to surrender, and suffered a death rate of 95% as less than one thousand were taken prisoner – and some sources put that figure as low as 216, with many of them having to have their guns dragged from them. That battle was 70 000 against 21 000; there were many other islands to fight for – and what would happen when the Americans got to Japan itself? How many more would have to die? What would it cost? How long might it take? Many people believe the atom bomb saved lives; these figures suggest that was almost certainly true.

The argument against dropping the atom bombs on Japan is simpler. The fundamental point is that the bombs killed many thousands of people in a most violent and horrific manner and most of those who died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians. Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki were important places, the majority of casualties were non-military: women, the elderly and children. The destruction was indiscriminate. Death in war is rarely ‘clean’ but these were casualties of a new kind, a terrible agony being suffered from horrendous burns and the agony of radiation sickness; many people ceased to exist as their bodies were destroyed by the heat and the blast. And the agony went on for the survivors with many people suffering blindness and cancers, many giving birth to babies with the most severe deformities long after the bombing. Every death is a tragedy but Truman’s decision to use the atom bomb undoubtedly led to the deaths of thousands of innocent people.

In reality, the atom bomb was used twice against Japan and the argument is to some extent irrelevant or academic; the bombs cannot be ‘unused’ or the destruction be ‘undone’. What is clear is that nuclear bombs have not, so far, been used again. The shock of the destruction may have played a part in curbing the actions of politicians since then, according to some observers, most notably in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was not a decision Truman took lightly but it was one which met with the strong approval of most Americans; and in a democracy, that is a pretty powerful justification for any politician.

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A burns victim being treated after the attack on Hiroshima. (Author: Shunkichi Kikuchi; Source: here)

The atom bomb had a huge impact politically as well as militarily with repercussions that shaped international relations between the ‘Superpowers’ in those early post-war years. Truman’s relationship with Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, was tense from the start and a vital factor in the development of the Cold War. Stalin had respect for, and felt respected by, FDR and Churchill, there being a certain bond between the three leaders who had seen their respective countries, and the Alliance as a whole, through one of the darkest chapters in world history. The most positive conference they had was at Yalta in February, 1945, where they sketched out what was to happen after victory had been won. Things actually looked reasonably bright in the following weeks until other events kicked in; firstly, Roosevelt died in early April 1945, to be replaced by Truman and then, in July, during the Potsdam Conference itself, Churchill was replaced by Clement Attlee as Prime Minister of Britain. Stalin was saddened by FDR’s absence but death happens; he was absolutely stunned and horrified by the loss of Churchill to be replaced by, in his opinion, such an inconsequential figure as Attlee. The photos of Attlee at the Potsdam Conference do present him as a totally different presence from Churchill. Stalin had never been keen on democracy but the defeat of Churchill sealed its fate in Eastern Europe and the USSR: if the voters could get rid of a great hero like Churchill, Stalin was not going to be taking any risks in his sphere of influence. The wartime alliance was disintegrating even before the war ended. The relationship between Stalin and Truman would do nothing to help that relationship.

Truman had little by way of real experience in foreign affairs and certainly nothing in terms of dealing with Stalin and the Soviets when he arrived at Potsdam, near Berlin, for the conference in July, 1945. He was a man who felt that he had a lot to prove and so he took a very aggressive line with the Soviet delegation, many of whom said they had never been spoken to as rudely as they were by Truman. When referring to the existence of the atom bomb, Truman did it in a way which was meant to be slightly obscure and with a threat, effectively warning Stalin that it could be used against the USSR at some stage. Stalin was not hugely impressed by the news as he already knew of the atom bomb because of spies; but he was certainly not happy with Truman, who he dismissed as a little man who was not worthy of replacing the great Roosevelt.

 

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The Big Three at Potsdam: Attlee in a crumpled three piece suit, Truman in a bow tie and Stalin in military uniform. They make an unlikely team of allies. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Truman’s view of Stalin and the USSR was that both the man and the country were evil. When he received George Kennan’s famous  ‘Long Telegram’ in 1946, the idea that Stalin was calculating and aggressive, the modern equivalent of a dreadful modern Tsar, it made perfect sense to Truman. The ‘Long Telegram’ said that Stalin was seeking to expand Communism and he wanted ‘world revolution’ as Marx had called for. Truman responded with his policy for the ‘containment’ of Communism, the so-called ‘Truman Doctrine’ which would, despite some name changes under later presidents, come to dominate US foreign policy for most of the Cold War. The tension in the relationship between Truman and Stalin was certainly a significant contributory factor at the start of the Cold War, one which took it further and deeper than it might otherwise have gone.

Another crucial element in Truman’s contribution to world affairs was the ‘Marshall Plan’. It was a key aspect of ‘Truman Doctrine’ in action and transformed the post-war world. Its full title was the ‘European Recovery Plan’ and it was developed under the guidance of one of the most significant and reliable figures of the Twentieth Century: General George C. Marshall, Truman’s Secretary of State (which means he dealt with Foreign Affairs). It was on a visit to Europe in 1947 that Marshall saw the destruction of the continent, the plight of the refugees and the potential growth in influence by Communist supporters if recovery did not come quickly. He proposed the ‘Marshall Plan’ as a way of ensuring this recovery and eventually Truman’s support enabled $13.5 billion of aid to be given to 16 countries in Western Europe. Britain and France were the biggest beneficiaries, although even that would not be enough to ensure a full recovery; Britain had been effectively bankrupt in 1946-47, having to withdraw from its commitments to support Greece at a time when it faced the on-going threat of Civil War and this would be a crucial moment in which Truman further established himself as the first of the ‘Cold Warriors’.

Truman saw that Britain’s economic plight was a true crisis and that the USA had to step into support and, effectively, to replace the old powers who had for so long been the main players in international affairs, through their Empires and the League of Nations. This demanded a massive change of attitude in the US as he had to overturn the country’s long standing isolationism, whereby it had stayed out of foreign matters unless it had to get involved during a war. He also know that the decisions that would be faced had to be backed  by a huge amount of money so that the US could deliver on promises it would have to make. Truman managed to do this and so changed the role of the USA in world affairs, creating a new world order which was to ensure that the US would be the biggest player on the global stage throughout the rest of the Twentieth Century. Truman was fundamental in shaping the modern world order.

As indicated earlier, the primary goal of ‘Marshall Aid’ and the ‘Truman Doctrine’ was to contain the spread of Communism in the post-war era. These put the ‘Long Telegram’ into action but there was more to containing Communism than these high-profile policies. One country where the Communists/Socialists were especially strong in politics after World War II was Italy. It had turned away from the Fascism of Mussolini to embrace Left Wing ideology and, as elections loomed in 1948, the USA became deeply concerned at the prospect of a Communist Government in such a key European state. Such a result would extend Communist influence right into the heart of the Mediterranean and to the border with France. It would be a sign of the failure of containment, a sign of ‘domino theory’ in action. It would be a failure for the ‘Marshall Plan’ and for Truman himself. The Catholic Church was also deeply concerned at the thought of an atheistic Government in power in Italy, the heartland of the church and effectively the home of the Pope who lived in the Vatican. The shock of a Communist Government in a country such as Italy would have been immense and, at a time when stories of communist spies in the US itself were beginning to grab the headlines, Truman and the Democrats were under great pressure to act, especially as they faced own elections in November 1948. Something had to be done and Truman was prepared for a radical approach, so in stepped the recently formed CIA for its first direct attempt at influencing foreign affairs on behalf of capitalism and democracy.

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The CIA, an organisation brought into existence by President Truman (Author: US Central Government; Source: here)

The CIA is, of course, the ‘Central Intelligence Agency’. Although the USA had always gathered intelligence through spies and in other ways, there was nothing formally coordinated until World War II when FDR set up the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). This was closed down after the war but the importance of such work in the increasingly threatening atmosphere of the ‘Cold War’ led to it being re-established by the National Security Act. The CIA was set up in 1947 when President Truman gave it responsibility for overseeing security and intelligence matters abroad. Its first major attempt at going beyond intelligence gathering and into influencing events overseas was to be in those Italian elections, where they were directed to help the Christian Democrats against the Communists. With support also coming from the Catholic Church, whose priests often directed their congregations how to vote and excommunicated members of the Communist Party, the CIA gave money, technology and resources to help the anti-Communist politicians. F. Mark Wyatt, one of the CIA ‘operatives’ on the ground during what was a violent and dirty campaign, was interviewed for the CNN ‘Cold War’ series and said that he quite literally took bags of money around with him to hand out to politicians for their ‘expenses’ and to pay for propaganda posters and pamphlets. In addition, a massive campaign was run encouraging millions of Italian-Americans in the USA to write home, telling people of the dangers of communism.

And it all worked, much to the despair and anger of the Italian Communists who were defeated. The success of the campaign saw the Christian Democrats in power. There was relief in the capitals of Western Europe and a new belief in Washington: the ‘dominoes’ had not fallen and it was possible to get the desired results if there was an appropriate level of commitment and intervention. The CIA would be at the heart of many more years of covert American activities aimed at supporting anti-Communist groups in places like Guatemala, Chile, Cuba as well as around Europe and Asia. In Italy itself, declassified records from the CIA show that the tactics used in 1948 were repeated at every Italian General Election for at least the next 24 years: so much for democracy, it might be said.

Just back to Harry Truman to finish off. Truman amazed everyone by winning the 1948 election after he had been written off and some newspapers had even printed news of his defeat before the election was over. Despite his victory over the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, though, there was lots of trouble ahead. Within a year, the defeat of Jiang Jieshi at the hands of Mao Zedong saw the greatest ‘domino’ falling as China went ‘red’, taking Communism from central Europe to the Pacific coast of Asia. This led to the accusation that Truman had been responsible for ‘the loss of China’, a phrase which would haunt Truman. It was also used to threaten subsequent presidents who feared that they would be accused of the loss of another state which fell to Communism in future. In this way ‘Domino theory’ was a central part of US foreign policy in the next two decades, never more so than when Kennedy and Johnson became embroiled in the troubles of south-east Asia. In addition to the Chinese Revolution, the Soviet Union’s development of the atom bomb, spying scandals and difficulties of the Korean War, as well as the rise of McCarthyism, all made his final years in office a difficult time. Despite these problems, Truman is usually regarded as a successful president and a tough politician who seized his opportunities and made the the most of his talents.

Even if the ‘S.’ in his name stood for nothing, Truman himself certainly stood for something very important.  His most famous quote was, ‘The buck stops here’, a man who believed that as president he was ultimately responsible for what happened, for good or ill. And whether you think he was right or wrong over the Atom Bombs or anything else, Truman was a man who made some pretty big decisions and, in doing so, transformed the USA and shaped the modern world in a most profound manner.

Harry Truman died in 1972 at the age of 88.

 

Find out more

Books: ‘Truman’ by David McCullough (1992); ‘Hiroshima’ by John Hersey (1946); ‘American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer’ by Kai Bird & Martin J. Sherwin, 2009)

Films and DVDs: ‘Truman’ (Starring Gary Sinise) (1996); ‘The World at War’ (Thames Television); ‘Cold War’ (CNN); ‘Hiroshima’ (Paul Wilmhurst) (2011)

 

“I remember when I first came to Washington. For the first six months you wonder how the hell you ever got here. For the next six months you wonder how the hell the rest of them ever got here.” Harry S. Truman

The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

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The Lord of the Rings: From Sarehole to Somme

‘Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.’ JRR Tolkien

When JRR Tolkien’s epic, ‘The Lord of the Rings’, appeared in three volumes in 1954-55 it sold pretty well without setting the publishing world on fire. It only became a ‘legendary’ book in the 1960s when it captured the imagination of a new generation of readers including many amongst the ‘hippy’ generation. Tolkien’s story of hobbits, elves and dwarves fighting alongside men against the evil power of Mordor was rich in imagery and seemed to be especially enjoyable when viewed through a smoky haze of some kind. Led Zeppelin, the legendary band of the late sixties and seventies, wrote many songs which were filled with imagery taken straight from the legends of ‘Middle Earth’. The incredible popularity of Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of films took the legend of Frodo, Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum and the ring to an enormous audience around the world. But what was ‘The Lord of the Rings’ actually about? Indeed, was it about anything at all?

Having been published in the mid-1950s, many people read Tolkien’s work as an allegory for the struggle for power in the Cold War. The ‘good’ forces of the West, seen in the feisty dwarves, the pure elves, the fragile men and above all the innocent, loyal and determined hobbits, were vulnerable band of friends, the allies, taking on the ‘dark forces’ of Communism represented by Mordor in the East. This was certainly a widespread interpretation and one passed on to me and many who read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in the seventies. But the story was actually written long before the Cold War and the frightening tension between Communism and the West. Some people claimed it was based on World War II with Germany being ‘Mordor’ while others looked for a simpler tale rooted in the Norse myths that Tolkien had loved and studied since childhood. In reality, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ speaks of war, of course, and has images rich in Norse mythology but its true origins and the essence of its meaning is to be found in an earlier conflict, the Great War of 1914-18, when Captain Tolkien served with the British Army in the trenches of the Western Front.

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JRR Tolkien, in military uniform during the Great War (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

JRR Tolkien was born in 1892, in Bloemfontein, South Africa but his family moved to England after his father died in 1896. They lived just outside Birmingham, in a village called Sarehole, near Moseley and in what was then Worcestershire but today is very much part of the city itself. It was from Sarehole that the young Tolkien would look out towards Birmingham in the distance, across to Perrot’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks, the buildings which would become the ‘Two Towers’. The domes of St. Philip’s Cathedral and the Oratory church in Birmingham may also have influenced his imagery, as did the local mill at Sarehole. ‘Ronald’ as he was known (his full name was John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, in case you need to know) grew up at a time of great upheaval with technological change impacting on life at almost every level in Britain. For Tolkien this drama was played out at home as the strength of the local industrial city cast a lengthening shadow over the countryside around him: crafts were changing, traditions were under threat and ‘Old England’ was dying.

Without going into too much detail, childhood was far from straight-forward for Ronald Tolkien, especially after his mother died in 1904. She had suffered from diabetes which was untreatable in those days before insulin had been discovered. It may seem surprising to people today, but Ronald and his brother were placed in the care of Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a friend of the family. Father Morgan was a Catholic priest at a church called the Birmingham Oratory, which had been founded in the 19th Century by John Henry Newman, a famous Anglican convert to Catholicism. Tolkien’s mother had grown up as a Baptist but had become a Catholic and JRR was strongly influenced by his own Catholic faith. Tolkien was a very intelligent, bright child, who was taught a lot by his mother, and he was extraordinarily talented at languages. He mastered Latin and Greek as a boy before developing an interest in Welsh, Finnish and Old English at Oxford University. He also had a habit, going back to childhood, of inventing his own languages, something that would lead to his creation of ‘Elvish’ as used in his books.

1916 was a momentous year for Tolkien: at the age of 24, he married Edith Bratt at St. Mary’s Church, Warwick, and was also sent out to fight in the Great War. He arrived just in time to join the fighting at the Battle of the Somme, which started on 1st July of that year. He was in and out of the trenches for four months before being sent home with a common infection called ‘trench fever’, a result of the unhygienic conditions at the front line. He was kept in hospital in Birmingham for over a month, during which time he heard that most of his old friends from school had been killed in the war. These experiences influenced him deeply and were formed into a story known as ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ which later became ‘The Silmarillion’. The sense of belonging to small groups of friends seems to have been significant for Tolkien throughout his life: at school, in the army and later on in academic life he was most at ease with small groups of like-minded men. There was something life-giving and sustaining about facing the hardships and challenges of ‘mighty forces’ in the company of a faithful ‘band’ of friends, something which stands at the heart of ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Tolkien suffered recurring bouts of trench fever in 1917-18 and he did not return to the army. He entered academic life, becoming professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University in 1925 where he remained until he retired in 1959. Tolkien was a normal sort of ‘prof’ really, doing nothing too remarkable apart from being part of ‘The Inklings’, a group that met in various pubs around Oxford, the best known of which is ‘The Eagle and Child’. Each week the group met for drinks, discussions and debates on their own writings, and the group famously included the other great ‘religious novelist’ of the period, the Anglican CS Lewis, author of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, ‘The Screwtape Letters’ and ‘Surprised by Joy’ amongst others. Tolkien clearly valued the company of like-minded men who were able to reflect on life and offer good company.

In 1937, Tolkien had a story published. It was called ‘The Hobbit’, which received widespread acclaim at the time and has remained a children’s classic ever since, selling over 100 million copies. ‘The Hobbit’ was a fantasy work which introduced Bilbo Baggins, Gollum, Middle Earth and ‘The Ring’ to the world, and would provide the background for ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which would take 16 more years to reach publication. The key point to know, though, is that the great themes of both books are to be found in his earlier book, ‘The Book of Lost Tales’ or ‘The Silmarillion’. In other words, the themes and imagery for ‘Lord of the Rings’ are rooted in his early experiences in life, his childhood in and around Birmingham, his Catholicism and, most importantly, his experience of fighting and the destruction of the Great War.

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Sarehole Mill, Moseley, Birmingham. (Author: Ashley Dace; Source: here)

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Trenches of the Somme, 1916. (Author: John Warwick Brooke; Source: here)

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is a big book in length, of course, but also in ideas, which is why so many people read it at different levels. The basic setting is the on-going struggle for power between good and evil, such that there is almost a dualism at work between a ‘good god’ (embodied in Gandalf) and a ‘bad god’ (represented by Lord Sauron with help from another baddy in Saruman). Religious values mingle with basic human and cultural values to represent a traditional way of life that comes under threat from something more simple, direct and ultimately destructive in the forces that come out of Mordor. They are expressed in the obsessive greed, lying and violence that come from the power of the ring.

The real backdrop or context for the struggle in the story is the Great War, which is one of the reasons why the story focuses on men; very few women play a significant role in the story. The plot is rooted in the traditional values of ‘Middle England’, the world of his childhood, which Tolkien saw as coming under such threat in the war. These values were expressed in many ordinary, traditional things and rooted in the disappearing English countryside: the landscape itself, the small farmers, the village pub, the old crafts, the folk songs and the relationships between ordinary people who just wanted a simple, safe life. These values saw people take time over things that mattered, built quality goods, respected wisdom and the old ways, a world in which people had time for play and for friendship. They were people who lived by the rhythm of the seasons, people who understood the traditional arts and crafts and had manners, honesty and respect for all. This way of life, the life of the ‘Hobbits’ of ‘The Shire’, had come under the greatest threat from dark, distant forces which reached out to cast a shadow over the traditional ways. These were the violent forces of the Ringwraiths at first but the Orcs and others too, the forces that wanted to seize, exploit and reject traditional ways in favour of control, selfishness and greed. The dark forces of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ were the result of the rise of industry, capitalism, individualism, greed and violence. The Hobbits were the simple people Tolkien had grown up amongst and who saw their way of life under threat: the farmers, craftsmen, the families of ‘Middle England’ who were thrown into a nightmare not of their making. Most of all they were the ordinary young men who were forced out of ‘The Shire’ and thrown into the horror and the slaughter of the trenches, in a war which seemed to be a struggle for the survival of civilisation itself. The story almost comes to express the values of the Luddites and Captain Swing, all mixed together with a bit of William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’.

The context for the struggle faced by Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Aragorn, Gandalf and the others is the Great War, the First World War of 1914-1918. Young men, many of whom had never left their home villages and towns, and who knew of foreign lands only through books and newspapers, marched off with high hopes and in great excitement to face an unknown enemy from the East. Inspired by dreams of loyalty, trust and patriotism, they volunteered and celebrated the chance to do their bit ‘for King and for country’. These men, some of them as volunteers, others as conscripts, were sent to the front line to be mown down in their millions for this was a new horror, the first ‘industrial’ war. Traditional weapons and tactics came face to face with the mass-produced destruction made available through machinery, as symbolised by the creation of the Orcs. In the Great War, artillery, gas, tanks and machine guns would wipe out a generation. Industry was tearing up the countryside of Tolkien’s childhood, the landscape being destroyed to turn trees into guns and men into monsters. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is really war poetry on the grandest scale.

One particular scene might serve to illustrate this. If you watch the final film, ‘The Return of the King’, there is a point where, following an ‘Entmoot’, a slow discussion amongst the Ents, Merry and Pippin are carried by the leading Ent to the edge of the wood. There they look out towards Isengard, the fortress of Saruman, and see a devastated landscape where the trees are being torn up and thrown into a giant furnace to build an army of Orcs to destroy Middle Earth. The Ents, or trees, are representative of the countryside itself, symbols of the slow moving but wise and deep-rooted wisdom of Middle Earth, the unchanging landscape of England reaching back to the Anglo-Saxon times and the days of Beowulf, Bede and Caedmon. Nature is being fed into the fires of industry, the landscape is being lost and the old ways are on the verge of destruction at the hands of the Orcs and Ringwraiths who are led by cold, heartless leaders who look down on all that they represent. In this scene, Tolkien recreates the trenches, the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele, and shows what is at stake with the battle for the ‘Ring’, namely civilisation and the heart of humanity. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the struggle for the soul of ‘Old England’ expressed in the horrors unleashed by politicians and rulers who seek power and ‘progress’ at any cost. The alliance of dwarves, elves, men and hobbits represent a vulnerable group which can survive only by sticking together and putting differences of language, culture and religion to one side.

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A scene from ‘Gibraltar’ bunker on the Somme showing the destruction of life as well as the countryside. (Author: British War Photographer; Source: here)

Tolkien would later speak out against Communism and Nazism for the same reasons really: totalitarian regimes, imposing their wills on ordinary people and rejecting traditional, cultural and religious values in the process. He had a world-view that was firmly set against these new ideas and against industrialisation. He favoured tradition and saw a frightening tipping point in his experiences on the battlefields of the Western Front. This is the real meaning of his greatest book.

But maybe it really is just a fairy tale about some brave little hobbits, some elves, a ring and, of course, Gollum. Maybe.

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Professor Tolkien in 1967. (Author: Unknown; Source: here)

 

Find out more

Books: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by JRR Tolkien (both Harper Collins)

Films : ‘The Lord of the Rings Trilogy’ and ‘The Hobbit’ by Peter Jackson (Eiv)

Books: ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ by CS Lewis (Harper Collins)

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

Book and film: ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque, one of the most famous anti-war statements of all time, with the film best seen in the original from 1933.

Books on ‘The Somme’: There are so many fine works about ‘The Battle of the Somme’ that it is hard to choose one or two. Fine works include: ‘The first day on the Somme’ by Martin Middlebrook (Penguin History, 2006); ‘Forgotten Voices of the Somme’ by Joshua Levine (Ebury Press) shares many of the stories of ordinary soldiers in the battle and Peter Barton’s ‘The Somme’ (Constable) contains a wide range of photographs and testimonies.

DVD: The original of ‘The Battle of the Somme’ which appeared in cinemas at the time is available from the Imperial War Museum here.

 

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.

 

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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?’

Archduke_Franz_with_his_wife

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.

Map_Europe_alliances_1914-en.svg

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.

472px-Edward_VII_and_Alexandra_after_Gunn_&_Stuart

(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.

Archduke_Franz_with_his_wife

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?

Robert Capa: Close-up from the front

Robert Capa: Close-up from the front.

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Robert Capa

Robert Capa was a Hungarian photographer. He was born in 1913 and his real name was Endre (or Andrei) Friedmann. ‘Fine’, you say, ‘so why should I know about a foreign bloke who took some pictures and changed his name?’ Well, many of the photos he took were both interesting and important, to the point that they have become iconic. He covered some of the most important events of his time and he also happened to live a rather glamorous life, mixing with more than one or two stars in the process. And he died young while working in Vietnam during the first ‘Indochina War’, a conflict which would lead on to the Vietnam War. Robert Capa actually covered five major wars, including the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), World War II and the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948. He revolutionised photo-journalism by being one of the first to work in the heat of the action, with the soldiers, at the front-line, surrounded by the gun-fire and seeing the fighting at first hand. He became a legend for his work and left a legacy which is well worth investigating if you have any interest in war, journalism, art or photography – or about looking cool under pressure.

First of all, a couple of examples of Capa’s work that show him alongside soldiers in Normandy following D-Day in 1944.

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(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here) This might not look like a great photo but Capa was seriously unlucky. Nearly all of the photos that he took on D-Day, the Allied invasion of France on 6th June, 1944, were damaged and this is one of the few that survived. The Capa hallmark is clear though – he was there so that he could get the photo in the first place.

Some famous examples of Capa’s photography can be found here.

Robert Capa really is worth knowing a little bit about as he was so much more than just a photographer. In an age when we are so used to documentaries, film and photographs of war, we can easily ignore the work of those who first went to the frontline. To be a cameraman or photographer at the front today must be extraordinary, even with the digital technology, zoom lenses, flak jackets and helmets that are available; to have been doing this in the thirties, forties and fifties required a very unusual personality with extraordinary skills and attitude.

The young Endre Friedmann’s nickname was ‘capa’, which means ‘shark’ in Hungarian. He began his career in photography after dropping out of college in Berlin. Still called Endre Friedmann, he had moved to the German capital in 1931 in an effort to escape the tensions of Budapest, where the right-wing dictatorship under Admiral Horthy was causing increasing problems for the likes of him, as he was both Jewish and left-wing. He had been recommended to a famous photographer of the time, called Otto Umbehrs, by a fellow Hungarian who was also a famous photographer, Eva Besnyö. His first break came when he was sent to the Copenhagen Stadium in Berlin to photograph a well-known figure talking about politics; as luck would have it, Friedmann’s first professional photos were of the famous Communist, Leon Trotsky, then in exile and on the run from Joseph Stalin. Later on, Capa would enhance the story of that day a little, telling how he was sent at the last minute, without a ticket and how he had to sneak in to the hall with a group of workmen. The talk was actually advertised well in advance and Capa had a ticket but, even so, it was still a remarkable ‘first job’ by anyone’s standards. Luck can certainly play a part in many lives but you still need the skill to take advantage of the opportunities when they come your way and Friedmann showed early signs of his potential as he got really close to Trotsky and captured some of the passion and energy of the speech.

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Leon Trotsky addressing the crowd at the Copenhagen Stadium, Berlin, in November 1932, the 19 year-old Endre Friedmann’s first assignment.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

But right wing politics was on the rise in Central Europe and Friedmann left Berlin soon after Hitler came to power in January 1933 and he soon arrived in Paris, one of many refugees from Nazism. He soon met and started going out with a German woman called Gerda Pohorylle (1910-1937), another photographer. In 1934, in an attempt to set up a business and make more money, Friedmann and Pohorylle created ‘Robert Capa’, claiming that they were agents for this ‘famous American’ photographer. They hoped to be able to charge the French newspapers double the normal fees for Capa’s work as he was so important; in reality they took the photos themselves. At the same time, Pohorylle also changed her name to Gerda Taro, as it was easier to spell and pronounce and it is by this name that she became famous in her own right as a photographer. The ‘Capa’ plan worked well for a while and they got numerous images into the French newspapers, some of which reflected the growing political tensions of the time. Friedmann photographed the workers’ strikes in Paris and went to the League of Nations in Geneva when the Abyssinian Emperor, Haile Salassie, begged for help in dealing with the growing threat posed by Italy’s fascist dictator, Mussolini. The double-identity of Friedmann/Capa was soon spotted but the quality of his work was acknowledged and he was given a job with an agency. As a result Friedmann became Robert Capa from that time on, a change which reflected the new dramas in his life.

In July 1936, news came through of the growing tensions in Spain. 1936 was a year of huge importance and drama, marking a step-change on the road to World War II and Capa would come to major prominence in this context by covering the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Like many people of that generation, he saw this conflict as a new type of struggle, an ideological battle of ideals and values, a fight to the death between ‘oppressive’ Fascism from the Right Wing and ‘liberating’ Left Wing ideals of Socialism and Communism. In Spain itself, the Fascists were the Nationalists, whose strength was rooted in the army, the landowners, the rich and the Catholic Church. Their leader was Colonel, later General, Francisco Franco. The Communists were the Republicans of the democratically elected Government, and were led by various people over the course of the war. It was a complex war which cannot be covered in detail here but certain important aspects can be mentioned.

Firstly, the Spanish Civil War was seen as a testing ground for World War II. There was supposedly an embargo on any country supplying resources to either side or getting directly involved in the fighting but, while this was enforced regarding most supplies to the Republicans, little was done to prevent help getting to Franco’s forces. The main aid to the Fascists came from Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany, their men, weapons and tactics giving a decisive advantage which swung the war towards the Nationalists. Hitler in particular was impressed by what his troops had achieved, gaining confidence in the Wehrmacht’s (the German Army’s) potential as well as noting the reluctance of Britain and France to act, an sign of their commitment to appeasement in the 1930s. The most famous action by German forces came with the horrendous destruction of the symbolically important town of Guernica in the Basque region. The terrible deaths inspired one of the most famous works of art of the century, ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso.

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‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso (1937). When asked by a German officer in Paris, in a disparaging tone, “Did you do this?”, Picasso replied, “No. You did.” The officer walked out.

(Author: Unknown; Source: here)

Secondly, Capa was not alone as a foreigner drawn to Spain at this time. Thousands of people from around the world, but especially from Europe, made the long trek to support either the Fascists or the Republicans in what was seen as a struggle not just for a country but for something more. The Spanish Civil War was a fight over the future direction of humanity, a struggle between traditional forces of monarchy, money and faith, against a rising tide seeking equality, justice and opportunity for all. The Right and the Left would clash horribly over the coming years, tearing apart families, destroying great cities, and spilling blood across the plains and mountains of Spain. Many famous people would be among those who volunteered to fight. Those from the Left Wing who joined the ‘International Brigades’ on the side of the Communists draw most attention today. Just a few of the famous foreigners associated with the ‘International Brigades’ included: Ernest Hemingway (author), George Orwell (author), Martha Gellhorn (journalist), Paul Robeson (actor), Willy Brandt (future leader of Germany), Laurie Lee (author), Jack Jones (British Trade Union leader), Simone Weil (philosopher and Christian mystic), Andre Marty (French political activist) and many others, from the USSR in particular. Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ are among the most famous books to come out of the Spanish Civil War. Robert Capa would be among this group.

Thirdly, Robert Capa was an eloquent witness to this war which had such important echoes down the rest of the century. His images from this extraordinary struggle bore testament to the willingness of ordinary people to fight for what they believed in, inspiring many rebels and revolutionaries around the world. The repercussions of the Spanish Civil War went well beyond the day of the Fascist victory and the ceasefire of 1939. Spain did not get directly involved in World War II due to the damage and suffering of the Civil War. The failures of Britain and France to act, as the leaders of the League of Nations, weakened their credibility on the world stage and strengthened Hitler enormously. For the Nazis, Spain had provided a real testing ground for their technology and tactics which would later be used to such effect in the early years of World War II. The failure of the Communist forces, so heavily backed by Stalin and the USSR, bred a fear and anxiety in Moscow which would lead to the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Generalissimo Franco remained in power as the much loved and totally hated ‘Benign Dictator’ until his death in 1975. He left a divided country where hatred and tension is only now being openly addressed and overcome.

Robert Capa spent much of the three years of the civil war in Spain itself, working as part of the Republican cause against Franco. Much of his material was lost and it was feared it had been destroyed but thousands of negatives eventually turned up in Mexico City in the 1990s. The collection is today known as ‘The Mexican Suitcase’ and much of the material can be viewed online. His work included one of the most famous and controversial photos of the century, ‘The Falling Soldier’. Debate as to its authenticity continues to this day, many seeing it as a remarkable image of the heroism and futility of war, while others believe it was simply a set-up. The sense of it being ‘staged’ is strong but what cannot be denied is the impact so many of Capa’s images had on people around the world.

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‘The Falling Soldier’, allegedly Federico Borrell, 5th September 1936. Probably the most famous and controversial photo ever taken by Robert Capa.

(Author: Robert Capa; Source: here)

His willingness to travel anywhere within the Republican zones, from Andalucía and Murcia in the south, to Madrid and Toledo in the centre, and to Barcelona and Bilbao in the north, meant he was always able to get closer to the action than just about anyone else. And he was always willing to go that little bit further than anyone else, capturing emotions that were then released into the lives of millions of readers around the world. His pictures from Bilbao just a few days after the notorious bombing of nearby Guernica by Hitler’s Condor Legion in April 1937 were especially powerful examples of the true cost of war.

Robert Capa’s legend was born in Spain. His courage, humour and skill were extraordinary, winning him many friends and admirers. His love of the high life was fostered, too, and he socialised with Ernest Hemingway amongst others. But the war brought tragedy into Capa’s own life, though, as he suffered the loss of his partner, Gerda Taro, herself a remarkable photographer, who was crushed to death by a tank during the Battle of Brunete near Madrid in late July 1937. Capa’s reputation as a great photographer was established during the Spanish Civil War. It brought him fame and celebrity status but these did nothing to stop his work, and his photography retained its power to tell stories that mattered and to challenge ideas throughout his life.

In January, 1938, a year or so before the end of the Spanish Civil War, but with Franco’s forces clearly in the ascendancy, Capa left for Asia to cover the troubles between China and Japan. A project had arisen to make a film documenting China’s resistance to Japanese expansion in the region. The main fighting for the Chinese was being led by the Communist forces of Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung), but the project was funded and controlled by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, or more specifically, by his domineering and manipulative wife, ‘Madame Chiang’. Capa travelled to China from France in the company of two well-known authors, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Auden was an American poet while Isherwood is famous today, amongst other things, for his memoirs of life in Berlin which were turned into the famous film ‘Cabaret’. The project, called ‘The 400 million’, turned out to be a frustrating disaster but Capa once again captured many remarkable photographs reflecting the horrors of war. By September 1938, Capa was on his way back to Europe, arriving to chronicle the last few months before the Spanish Republican forces were finally defeated by Franco in what many saw as the ‘death of European democracy’.

A résumé of his life from early 1939 hints at more riches waiting to be discovered for those who study his brief life. He left Europe for the USA in 1939 and there he went through a sham marriage so as to stay in the country, as he was technically an ‘illegal immigrant’. He worked briefly for Life magazine in Mexico and the US before travelling to Britain. In 1943, Capa travelled to North Africa with Allied troops to photograph the invasion and, even more dramatically, he accompanied US troops who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day, 6th June 1944. Most of his photos from that day were destroyed although a number of slightly out of focus images have survived. Capa loved gambling, champagne and the high life in general. He had too many affairs to mention, but three women who fell to his legendary vulnerability and charm were: the actress Ingrid Bergman, who starred alongside Humphrey Bogart in the classic film ‘Casablanca’; Hedy Lamarr, the star of the film, ‘Samson and Delilah’; and Vivien Leigh, wife of Laurence Olivier and the star of ‘Gone with the Wind’ with whom he had one of his many brief times of intimacy. Ingrid Bergman was a particularly significant relationship and she was just one of the many women who wanted to marry Capa but he refused to settle down, or to have anything to do with Hollywood, and so their relationship ended.

 

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Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982)

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Hedy Lamarr (1913-2000)

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Vivien Leigh (1913-1967)

 

In 1947, Capa joined forces with various well-known photographers to create a new photographic agency, ‘Magnum’. He was also involved with the ‘Photo League’, a left-wing agency that wanted to encourage socially aware photographers in their work; in 1947 it was ‘blacklisted’ as subversive and, in the era of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts, it closed down. Capa already knew Pablo Picasso and he photographed him once more during these years and even took images of Matisse at work. Also around this time, Capa joined John Steinbeck, the author of ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’, for a trip to the USSR. Capa’s freedom to photograph what he wanted was severely compromised and the results were disappointing, but he did get to visit Moscow, Stalingrad and Kiev, where he visited the Dynamo Stadium outside which, today, is found the memorial to FC Start (see Chapter 8). After a brief move into fashion photography linked with the work of Coco Chanel, which produced some interesting results but cost a fortune, mainly due to his huge expenses linked with drinking and gambling, Capa covered the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 and also some of the conflicts in French Indo-China in the early 1950s. And in 1952, he managed to join the list of illustrious figures charged with being a Communist sympathiser as part of the McCarthyite Witch Hunts. Few men can have been so intimately linked with the great people, places and events of the middle years of the Twentieth Century. In truth, Capa needed pressure and danger to focus his mind and enable him to produce his best work. He sought out that danger and produced his most famous and important work at the front line in war zones. He really was a ‘war’ photographer.

Robert Capa died on 25th May, 1954, on the Red River delta in Vietnam. He had agreed to cover the conflict between the French and the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, standing in for a colleague. He had arrived as the French faced devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Capa was the first photographer/journalist to die in the conflict which would develop into the Vietnam War. His death at the age of just 40 was a tragedy but one with a horrible logic and predictability about it; as Hemingway said, ‘The percentages caught up with him’. Capa had survived so many near misses over the years that it was clear that his luck would run out at some time.

‘Capa’, you may remember, means ‘shark’. In becoming Capa, Endre Friedmann created a dynamic and creative genius, a flawed character loved by almost all who met him. His short life contained far more adventure, affairs, gambling, stories and champagne than most people could ever dream of having. Hungarian émigré, friend of Hemingway and Picasso, lover of Ingrid Bergman and countless other women, terrible card player, compulsive gambler, heavy drinker, depressive, unreliable, witty, charming, a fixer and a friend. Remember Robert Capa, a man who made taking photos the basis for a truly extraordinary life.

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Robert Capa at work, a photo taken by Gerda Taro.

(Author: Gerda Taro; Source: here)

 

Find out more:

Capa’s photographs can be viewed on-line but various studies of his work are available, such as: ‘This is war: Robert Capa at work’ by Richard Whelan and Christopher Phillips (Steidl, 2007) and ‘Robert Capa: the Definitive Collection’ by Phaidon Press Ltd, 2004). His work also appears in collections such as ‘Magnum Magnum’ by Brigitte Lardinois (Thames and Hudson Ltd, 2009).

Book: ‘Blood and Champagne: The life of Robert Capa’ by Alex Kershaw (Da Capo Press, 2004).

Book: ‘Out of the shadows: A life of Gerda Taro’ by Francois Maspero (Souvenir Press Ltd., 2008).

Photos of Gerda Taro, the work of Capa’s long time partner can best be seen on-line.

 

 

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

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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.