Iron Curtain; The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 to 1956

Iron Curtain; The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 to 1956 by Anne Applebaum. Anchor, 2013 paper.

Anne Applebaum’s “crushing” in her book’s title is misleading. While she describes Eastern Europe’s brutal experience in the aftermath of World War II with the Russian occupation, she argues that the creation of the ”Iron Curtain”, brutal though it was, followed a brutal German occupation.  Also Eastern European borders were shaped by decisions made by the Allies at Yalta in February 1945 and Potsdam in August 1945. All of this was before Churchill named the Russian occupation zone in March 1946.

One of those Allied decisions was to forcibly move Germans (Volksdeutsche) living in Eastern Poland and Ukraine into a truncated Germany. That single act created 7.6 million German refugees. Add to that the 2.5 Czech refugees returning to the vacated Sudetenland. Applebaum suggests that these numbers dwarf the refugee problem in the twenty-first century.

By 1945 German armies in Eastern Europe were collapsing, with little hope of preventing Russians from capturing the great prize, Berlin. President Franklin Roosevelt, concerned about ending the war and bringing the soldiers home, had agreed with General Dwight Eisenhower to allow the Russians to occupy Berlin. Russian armies had also occupied Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Hence allowing the Russians to determine the future of Eastern Europe’s boundaries was simply recognizing the ‘facts on the ground.’

The “liberation” of Warsaw and Poland was a particularly complicated story. There were several Polish organizations involved, and they were bitter rivals: the Poles who had escaped to Britain in 1939 (the London Poles), those who formed a resistance in the forests of eastern Poland, and those Poles who had been in training in the Soviet Union to take over the administration of Poland after the war (Moscow communists).

Initially Joseph Stalin was willing to allow communist parties in Eastern Europe to cooperate with other left-wing parties to form post-war governments.  That effort, Applebaum reports, quickly proved to be impossible. Pre-war Polish and Hungarian governments and certainly the National Socialists in Germany had not allowed these left-wing parties, including the communists, to have any part of the political process and hence they had no governing experience.

Earning “hearts and minds” proved difficult for the Soviets. They realized that they must build a more sympathetic public, and an effort was made to reach out to young people. They opened summer camps and introduced indoctrination classes into the public schools. The Russians also worked to discredit alternative allegiances as well – the Catholic Church for example. Its clergy were branded as reactionaries.

Applebaum describes Russian destruction of civil society in Eastern Europe. Churches, educational institutions, newspapers, art, sports clubs, and universities were elements of civil society in Eastern Europe that the Soviets considered enemies of a workers’ and peasants’ democracy.

The loyalty of factory workers was assured by the intervention of the Russians on behalf of unions. On the other hand, the seizure of private companies that had survived physical destruction, their dismantling and shipment to Russia as war reparations must have reduced factory employment. Land was redistributed where it was not already in the hands of the peasantry, mostly the Junker estates, the German landed nobility of eastern Prussia.

The author notes that Jewish owners of companies and private dwellings were big losers. Anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe after the War was alive and well.

She also follows the careers of three “little Stalins.” Trained in Moscow for leadership positions, they brought with them to their respective countries in occupied Eastern Europe a well-trained security police force. With their assistance the Russians held the equivalent of the Russian “show trials” of the 1930s. They already had their lists of enemies of the Soviet Union; more names were added.

The Russians had acquired the Reichsrundfunk, the fully equipped Berlin radio station. It proved to be an important component of efforts to sell communism. The American occupation forces established a rival Radio in the American Sector or RIAS. Radio Free Europe was its successor. The Nazi regime had used radio effectively as a propaganda tool. And like other components of the Allied occupation, radio built on precedents in the Nazi authoritarian state.

Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 was a blow to the ardor of the Russian occupation. Applebaum lists several other blows to Soviet prestige in Eastern Europe. The Marshall Plan provided badly needed liquidity in Western Europe. The aid package was offered to Eastern European but declined at the Russian insistence. The blundering attempt to seal off Berlin from the three other occupying powers, the Berlin blockade and the dramatic Berlin airlift all blunders costing Russia considerable ill will.  And also Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito got away with a departure from the Eastern European Russian bloc.

Applebaum doesn’t mention a fourth blow to Soviet prestige, the long battle with two Catholic cardinals Stefon Wyszynaski (Polish) and Jozsef Mindszenty (Hungarian). Both were progressive priests much admired in Eastern Europe as well as the West.

Despite these blows, why wasn’t there more open resistance? For one thing, the Soviet occupation followed a horrible war, now over. Many of those who tolerated Eastern European communist regimes had already taken earlier steps toward collaboration. There were rewards, small though appreciated, like a coal delivery or an additional ration card. By not discussing matters with colleagues, neighbors, and friends; you could avoid trouble. Simply keeping quiet was read as compliance.

Anne Applebaum guides the reader through much disputed territory.






Leningrad; Siege and Symphony; The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich

Leningrad; Siege and Symphony; The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich by Brian Moynahan.  Grove Press, 2015, paper.

In 1942 while Dmitri Shostakovich was composing his Seventh Symphony, his native city, Leningrad, was surrounded by German armies. The Germans, wishing to avoid a street-by-street battle for the city, had instead determined to starve the city into submission.


The terror referenced in Brian Moynahan’s title had been unleashed in the 1930s by Josef Stalin and the NKVD headed by Lavrentiy Beria. Leningrad was Russia’s second largest city and its Bolshevik establishment and intelligentsia rivaled that of the Soviet capital, Moscow.


The author illustrates the character of Bolshevik ‘party politics’ in Soviet Russia with the murder of Sergi Kirov in 1934. Kirov had been the popular chief of the Leningrad Bolsheviks, and his assassination may have been ordered by Stalin. In any case, Stalin took the opportunity to liquidate those delegates who, while attending the Seventeenth Party Congress in 1934, had made clear Kirov’s popularity over Stalin’s.


That murdering campaign then moved on to other victims: many of Leningrad’s artists, musicians, composers, dancers, and film-makers, a favored class of ‘creatives,’ who had made the city a great cultural center in Soviet Russia, as it had been in Imperial Russia. Stalin was an art enthusiast, but he knew what he liked – and didn’t like. Shostakovich had watched Stalin walk out of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Opera, Shostakovich concluded, was too dangerous and henceforth he concentrated on symphonic music, string quartets, and smaller orchestral pieces.


Moynahan provides us with descriptions of the interrogation techniques of the NKVD. Boris Izvekov, head of geophysics at Leningrad Technical University, was arrested in February 1942. Likely his name had been obtained earlier from a mathematics professor who, under interrogation, had fingered him as an active participant in a German spy ring within the faculty. Izvekov was a son of a priest – not good, but he had had nothing to do with the “anti-Bolshevik” Whites. His interrogation went on for days until he confessed and also incriminated colleagues for counter-revolutionary activities. He then was shot.


Moynahan considers whether Stalin knew about Operation Barbarossa before it was launched in 22 June 1941. It is difficult to believe that he wasn’t informed of the 3.2 million German soldiers marshalling on his borders. Warnings of German preparations were dismissed as “Allied provocations.”


Stalin counted on the German invasion of the Low Countries and France taking more time and a greater toll of German military strength. And in the meanwhile Soviet war production was expanded and factories dismantled and moved toward the Urals. Were the Russians stalling for time?


The German Army overran Poland and the Baltic states and by August 1941 had reached the Leningrad area. Another German/Finish army approached the city from the north. The residents remained patriotic and even heroic in their resistance. Yet food failed to reach the city and their bread ration continued to be reduced.


There were favored groups: Russian defenders of the city of course but surprisingly the musical community. Live broadcasts of orchestra music was considered vital to the city’s optimism. The state-owned radio stations in Russia had their own orchestras. Each Russian army unit its band. There were orchestras attached to different performance spaces. Many of these musicians including, Shostakovich and his family, were evacuated to inland cities, including Kuibyshev (modern-day Samara), designated to be the Russian capital should Moscow fall.


The fourth movement of his Seventh Symphony was finished at Kuibyshev. (The first three had been composed in Leningrad during the siege.) And the world premiere of the Seventh was performed there on March 1942. The Leningrad premier was in August of that year. The score was smuggled out and performed in London and New York.


Moynahan’s narrative, a month-by-month account, switches abruptly from starvation – even cannibalism – in Leningrad to the fortunes of the Russian army in 1941-1943. Bad news kept coming: the fall of Sevastopol and Kharkov and the ever tightening grip on Leningrad. The staggering German defeat before Stalingrad from August 1942 and February 1943 is beyond the scope of this book. And hence the reader cannot celebrate it alongside the citizens of Leningrad.


Moynahan mentions an important event that should also have cheered Leningrad had the city been able to foresee its outcome.  On 8 December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and aimed their armies at Southeast Asia. Russia would not have to fight a war in its Far East. Hitler declared war on the U.S. and American weaponry and munitions began flowing through the port of Murmansk. But it wasn’t until January 1943 that the Russian army broke the siege of Leningrad, establishing a corridor that allowed food to reach the starving city.

Ravensbrück; Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women

Ravensbrück; Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm. Doubleday, 2016 paper.

Ravensbrück is a history (Sarah Helm calls it a biography.) of this concentration camp for women in the Mecklenburg region fifty miles due north of Berlin. The book is also a compendium of information that many will find useful, as I did. I had a good friend, Maguy (Katz) McCullough, who spent almost a year in the Ravensbrück camp. Her story blends into Helm’s camp chronology. See my essay in three parts, “Maguy (Katz) McCullough, In Memoriam.”


The title of Helm’s book should read “Heinrich Himmler’s Concentration Camp for Women.” Its location and purpose were determined by Himmler’s authority as Reichsfürher and head of the SS (Schutzstaffel). Ravensbrück was part of his ‘empire’ within the Third Reich.  He had an estate near the camp, where he had installed his mistress and hence made periodic visits to the camp.  He was the quintessential micro-manager, making decisions about such minutia as the number of strokes of the whip for various offenses.


The prison was built primarily to house German female opponents of the National Socialists and to relieve overcrowded local jails. But the camp and its sub-camps kept receiving new groups of women who weren’t politicos: Jehovah Witnesses, Jews, habitual criminals, and a-socials (prostitutes, homeless women, and the “work-shy”). Ravensbrück and its satellite camps had a top population of 45,000, well above capacity. The higher administration was primarily drawn from the SS and changed frequently. The women guards were from neighboring villages. They had had no training; they generally despised those they oversaw, and frequently beat them out of their frustration.


The inmates were expected to work in order to live. Many of them worked in an adjoining factory that made military uniforms or at Siemens, an electronics company that made components for weapons. Payments for the work of these women were made directly to the SS, not to the workers. Hence they were ‘slaves’ and their labor, ‘slave labor.’


Helm argues that the killing that went on in Ravensbrück was not primarily the result of any ideological position. Hanna Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil” that results from ordinary people following orders without much thought about their actions best explains the murdering that went on at Ravensbrück. Yet how can one fit into any scheme of private morality the story Helm tells of some guard beating to death with a hammer an inmate who could not get up when commanded to do so?. Or the story of twelve Polish Catholic nuns who, for reasons unknown, ended up at Ravensbrück in its last few weeks and were shot, some through their eyes?


Helm spends much time detailing the camp’s organization. In addition to the staff, there were prisoners called blockovas (elsewhere kapos) who supervised the day-to-day operations. Their volunteering made it less likely that they would be selected for one or another horrible fate and because they received perks. Some blockovas were brutal, like their masters. Some tried to be ameliorative.


Much has been made of the medical experiments performed on prisoners at Ravensbrück and other camps. They resulted in much suffering. Fortunately the numbers were small and the deaths few.


My friend was Parisian and had been arrested for her participation in the French Resistance. Fortunately for Maguy, her arrest was late in the German occupation, sometime after D-Day when German occupation forces decided to ship female prisoners off to Ravensbrück. They were ill-prepared for camp life; shocked at what the encountered upon arrival. Fortunately they only had to survive one Ravensbrück winter.


Most of the French inmates were liberated in April 1945, the result of an agreement between Himmler and a member of the Swedish royal family, Count Folke Bernadotte, acting on behalf of the Swedish Red Cross. Initially mostly Danish and Norwegian women were liberated, transported to the Danish border on especially marked white buses and then by rail through Denmark and ferry to Sweden. Himmler eventually opened the rescue to all nationalities. The Ravensbrück rescue is the largest in World War II.


Himmler approved the rescue as part of his screwy idea of convincing the British and Americans to join him in a ‘post-Hitlerite Germany’ in opposing the Soviet domination of central and eastern Europe. Our General Eisenhower would have none of this and other such schemes by Nazi big-wigs who were hoping to avoid the hangman’s knot.


Eisenhower’s other decision that impacted the fate of the prisoners at Ravensbrück was that they should “stay-put,” awaiting the arrival of Allied forces and prepare themselves for an orderly repatriation after the German surrender. Meanwhile the sick were getting bullets in the head, and the Ravensbrück gas chambers were operating to tidy up the camp for its liberation.


Himmler hid these arrangements from Hitler. Hitler had ordered that the releases from Ravensbrück and other camps cease and all remaining inmates shot or gassed. Or marched to camps deeper inside Germany. The result was those deadly marches in the last few days of the war. But Maguy Katz was safe in Sweden.




Lens of War; Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War

Lens of War; Exploring Iconic Photographs of the Civil War by J. Matthew Gallman & Gary Gallagher, editors. University of Georgia Press, 2015.

The Civil War was well documented by commercial photographers. They invited the leadership of the War into their studios to have portraits made. They also carried their photographic equipment to the fields of battle and into military camps. Several dozen historians of the Civil War were asked by the editors to pick their favorite photograph and write an essay on what the picture tells us about that deadly conflict.

Much has been said about Abraham Lincoln’s visits to Mathew Brady’s and Alexander Gardner’s studios in Washington to have his picture taken. Appropriately Lens of War begins with a portrait taken by Gardner the day before Lincoln was to make a “short contribution” to the dedication of the Gettysburg Cemetery. There is some speculation by the essayist that Lincoln may have been thinking about a portrait to illustrate his few, but well-chosen words.

Lincoln may also have had in mind the Gardner portrait being used for a carte de visite. These were popular photographic reproductions mounted on a cardboard measuring 4 x 2½ inches. They were traded amongst friends and left as calling cards. Celebrity photographs, including President Lincoln’s, were much valued. But ordinary soldiers of the Civil War era also stood in lines to obtain a carte de visite of themselves in uniform to mail home.

This was before the age of the photographic smile. Back in the 1860s, you were supposed to look yourself. You were allowed to frown, even scowl, as appropriate to the situation. And there would be few occasions for a smile amongst these often grim circumstances.

One of the photographic portraits is of William Tecumseh Sherman. His “march to the sea” is often compared to what in the twentieth-century is called ‘total war.’ He looks a bit crazed in this photograph. The accompanying essay reveals that Sherman suffered a mental breakdown in the winter of 1861.

Photographers documented the totality of warfare. The most common subject was death, often dead bodies in various stages of decomposition.

One of the photographs is of a dying horse, and we are reminded that armies moved by animal power, mule and horse-drawn wagons. There was an enormous amount of matériel to be transported; warfare in the 1860s involved a vast supply structure. Horses were overworked, badly tended, and not given enough forage or water. The Union armies needed 2.3 million new horses each year of the war.

Several portraits of generals have them dressed in uniforms of cavalry officers. The famous picture of Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveler, is included in this volume. But unlike draft animals, cavalry mounts played a small role in the major battles of the War.

A photo of three prisoners of war captured by Union forces at the Gettysburg battle suggests that they were not Lee’s finest. The essayist calls attention to their shoes which looked to be in good shape, not having been subject to several years of marching. They may have been stragglers or deserters. They would soon be put in jeopardy of their lives. By 1863 the prisoner exchange was breaking down. The results were over-crowded, prisoner-of-war camps and death from neglect and disease. The tragedy is well-documented at the Andersonville prison site in Georgia.

Most of the photographs are ‘staged’ in one way or another. Photographers looking for a compelling image, moved rifles around, even repositioned bodies. With no Photoshop, details had to be considered before the photograph was taken. In some cases there are included a sequence of images that attest to this moving around of the “décor” of the battlefield.

Several photographs document the large numbers of black refugees flooding into Union lines. Many were leaving plantation homes threatened by invading armies. But many were opting to “liberate” themselves and their families. By 1864 perhaps 400,000 slaves had walked away from the cotton fields where they had labored for a life-time. The essayist argues that this flood of refugees, having made their own personal decisions, forced the Union to grapple with the issue of slavery; hence the Emancipation Proclamation.

The last photo in Lens of War was of the Grand Review, victorious Union troops marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in May of 1865. It was a momentous occasion; at that point the Union army was the world’s greatest. Most of the marchers were from the Midwest and having won the war, were anxious to get home. The guns were silent but their futures uncertain.

It would be illuminating to have had photographs that documented Confederate soldiers returning to their often devastated homes. But the Confederacy was not nearly as well documented visually. Later, and often much later, statues were the common means of envisioning “the lost cause” and commemorating its Civil War. We are presently tucking away these statues.

That Neutral Island; A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War

That Neutral Island; A Cultural History of Ireland During the Second World War by Clair Wills. Harvard University Press. 2007


Eamon de Valera, president of Ireland from 1932 and 1948, made the decision to keep Ireland neutral after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. He was supported in this decision by most Irish politicians and a good majority of the public. Yet Clair Wills suggests that it remains a festering historical issue.


De Valera had been a critic of the “victor’s peace” dictated to Germany at Versailles in 1918. He had become disillusioned with the League of Nation after it failed to respond to Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. It would have been impossible for any Irish statesman to have imposed on Ireland an active participation in the war; 1939 was only a few years beyond the Irish rebellion against Imperial Britain and civil war between Irish republicans and unionists. Not to stir up that hornet’s nest! There was also the very practical reason that Ireland lacked both an army and coastal defenses.


Small nations, De Valera, believed had the right to make decisions about entering this great-power war. At least until the summer of 1940, he could argue that Germany was respecting that decision. Neutrality was the popular choice across the Channel. Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Scandinavia, most of the Balkans, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland had remained neutral. The USA had also remained neutral; Irish-Americans were divided on the issue.


Irish neutrality, Wills maintains, was a pragmatic, inevitable, and difficult response to war on the continent. And ultimately it was also successful. But that is not how both Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt viewed it at the time. Rather the Irish were shirking their responsibility as good Europeans. More specifically, they worried that the Germans would invade neutral Ireland to strike at England’s west Coast, avoiding the more difficult cross-channel invasion.


From the spring of 1940 until the invasion of Russia in June, 1941, Germany carried on an extensive aerial bombardment of RAF factories and installations in preparation for an invasion of Britain. That included Belfast in north Ireland. The Irish were shocked; in 1940 north Ireland was still considered part the Irish republic, though under temporary English occupation. The war came home to Irish living in the communities on its west coast in another way. Bodies of dead seamen began washing up on shore, the result of German submarine warfare against ships bringing supplies to England. And Ireland.


While Sweden and Switzerland may have profited from their neutrality, Ireland did not. That was because, Wills points out, Ireland was dependent on imports of food, most of the raw materials that fed its young industries, and coal to produce electricity and heat homes. Shortages produced price increases which made available food stuffs too expensive for the rural and city poor.


With high unemployment particularly in the western counties, many young Irishmen sought employment in Britain, building English factories, landing strips, coastal defenses, and army bases. They weren’t all that well treated by Brits. But they found the pay good and they were fed.


Wills contends that the severity of newspaper and radio censorship heightened a sense of isolation from events in Europe. As part of their neutrality, incoming news about the war had to be “balanced.” Movies were hugely popular. But most films came from the US or Britain and had to be heavily censored so as not to appear to be Allied propaganda.


Many Irishmen, Wills argues, thought this isolation a boon to Irish arts, long dominated from abroad. Prewar Ireland was stuck in what would today be called the post-colonial mind set. In the absence of British, French, and American cultural

production, Irish drama and the short story flourished, finding new audiences among Ireland’s educated classes.


There were those who advocated the establishment of a corporatist society. Benito Mussolini in Italy, Francisco Franco in Spain, and particularly António Salazar in Portugal were admired for their social experimentation. Irish conservatives resonated to their rhetoric of order and social harmony.


Much of the Roman Catholic clergy joined in that enthusiasm, attacking the individualism and materialism of popular culture in Europe and America. Ireland would be a force in the rejuvenation and re-Christianization of Europe after the war. Thus the pragmatic decision for neutrality acquired a moral virtue.

Such a good book.

Dark Continent; Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower.

Dark Continent; Europe’s Twentieth Century by Mark Mazower. Vintage, 2000 paper. (752)


Mark Mazower has received much praise for his Dark Continent. He argues there and in this book that European fascism in the interwar period is a continuation of the authoritarian regimes of the nineteenth century and not alien to European traditions. Thus National Socialism cannot be explained solely by the party and its leader’s insanity. Moreover post-war European political economy has many of the same intentions as the National Socialist regime in Germany. Had Adolf Hitler not chosen to divert the German economy to war production in the late 1930s, the economic consequences of his corporatism might have resembled the prosperity of post-war Germany and Europe.


The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 had created 25,000,000 citizens living in states in which they were a minority. The largest two minorities were Germans and Jews. It was assumed that the League of Nations would be able to guard Europe’s ethnic complexity; hence there was no necessity for an exchange of populations. But ethnic conflict remained a continuing challenge to the League. Unlike America, Europe had no tradition of the ‘melting-pot.’


This minority problem was particularly acute in Eastern Europe. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which ended the Great War on the eastern front had established a “Pax Germania.” That was overturned by the Russian revolution in 1917 and the Versailles treaty, which created relatively weak buffer states between Russia and Germany with uncertain futures.


The success of Mazower’s book is that it explains interwar developments that have often been considered inexplicable. For example, the British policy of ‘appeasement’ which we are always told only encouraged Adolf Hitler’s ambitions. The alternative to appeasement, it is commonly argued, would have been opposition, and that had been ruled out because Britain was unprepared. Mazower suggests, rather, that Chamberlain was “blinkered” by the traditional anti-Bolshevism of the British Conservative Party. National Socialism, many Brits believed, was an understandable reaction to the rise of Bolshevism. Sooner or later the two dictators would clash, sparing Britain another land war. Or so they hoped.


Both the Soviet Union and National Socialist Germany were in the process of creating a new social order. However Russia believed in the future of the industrial state and had little regard for the welfare of its agricultural classes. Hitler wanted to turn Germans into peasants, not industrial workers. Both economies were evolving in an interwar backdrop of population decline, unemployment and political extremism.


Mazower does a remarkable job of making post-World War II Europe interesting. One can sense in the Dark Continent the declining interest of historians in the Cold War. The conflict between the two world powers that emerged from the rubble did not, fortunately, result in military confrontation. Rather the Cold War, according to Mazower, brought stability to post-war Europe. There was an acceptance of the status quo, post-1945, despite the rhetoric.


Mazower speaks of continuity but he fashions Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and her years as Britain’s Prime Minister as a bolt out of the blue. She set about dismantling social democracy in Britain while it was being rebuilt on the Continent. She sold off state-owned enterprises when Continentals were comfortable with theirs. Hers was an authoritarian form of neo-liberalism, both strengthening the role of the state in, for example, regulating labor relations, but also weakening Britain’s industrial sector. During her decade Britain lost over a million factory jobs. She looked with disfavor on the post-colonial migration of colonials to Britain. Her legacy is rarely celebrated these days.


Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who occupied the White House in those same years, have often been given credit – have taken credit – for the unexpected collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. Rather than Anglo-American bluster, it was the result of the prolonged old age of the political economy of Stalinism that lasted for three decades after his death in 1953, and well beyond its usefulness.


Meanwhile in Eastern Europe “goulash consumerism,” the importation of consumer goods from the West, mollified the public and propped up the “little Stalins.” Occasionally the Russians had to lend a helping hand, for example suppressing the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. But ultimately Russia lacked the will to continue these interventions.


The real victor in 1989 and the Soviet zone in Eastern Europe was not the Anglo-Americans, nor the European Union. Rather it was European capitalism, but a capitalism willing to accept the welfare state and recognize its continuity with Europe’s twentieth century.

The Beauty and the Sorrow; An Intimate History of the First World War

The Beauty and the Sorrow; An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund. Knopf, 2012 paper. (781)


A wonderful book. Peter Englund has woven together the experiences of twenty individuals to form a narrative of the “Great War.” Drawn from diaries and memoirs, they suggest the sorrow and something of the beauty experienced by those men and women caught up in a world at war. Englund has provided excellent explanatory footnotes to give these accounts their context.


The author follows a chronological order, traveling from one front to another: France and Belgium, the Russian front, Italy, Mesopotamia, East Africa, the Caucasus, and back. He reinforces the common view that this vast waste of human life was never guided by any intermediate objectives, only the ultimate ‘total victory.’ Initially the war was popular; by 1917 war weariness and the huge loss of life were fomenting revolutions.


We can comprehend the sorrow emanating from this seemingly senseless slaughter. Less so the beauty. But in fact the diarists often remark on the beauty encountered: the landscape, the sunsets, the sacrifices, the sense of comradeship. When fighting, soldiers experienced the thrill of combat. Their low-paying civilian jobs offered no future; the war provided them with purpose.


Most of the time, however, they are not fighting but waiting, waiting and having time to think about and dread the next enemy engagement. They had no idea of the significance of their battlefield nor knowledge of what is happening elsewhere. They were exhausted, bored, depressed, and in some cases hungry.


Englund’s war experiences include two women, volunteer nurses caring for the bodies and souls of the wounded and dying. The wounds are horrendous; infections that would now be stopped with drugs usually meant death in World War I. Soldiers died of the Spanish flu, dysentery, and typhus and suffered from malaria, trench foot, and dengue fever. Although the care of the wounded and sick became more organized over time, it remained mostly a volunteer effort.


Many soldiers suffered a cluster of symptoms resulting from the trauma of battle; a dazed stare, shaking and stammering, difficulty walking, dizziness, vomiting, sever headaches, buzzing in the ears, a yellowish mist in front of the eyes, amnesia. This phenomenon was called ‘Shell Shock’ in World War I. In our later wars ‘Combat Stress Reaction’, ‘Battle Fatigue’, and ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.’


Several of the diarists were from the New World. Harvey Cushing was a doctor from Boston who went to France to study war surgery. He reflects on the field hospitals and their care. He is struck by the amount of wastage in the war. After a battle, the field would be strewn with dead bodies but also the detritus of warfare.


Rafael de Nogales was a Venezuelan who did not wish to miss the excitement ‘over there.’ His first choice was the German army. Rejected he offered his services to “heroic little Belgium,” then to Serbia and Russia which likewise rejected his offer. He finally settled on the Ottoman Army first serving on the Caucasus front and ultimately Mesopotamia. The Ottoman Army proved a bad choice; De Nogales openly disapproved of their shooting the wounded, prisoners, deserters, and all partisans. He tried on several occasions to save the lives of enemy airmen. He feared for his own safety.


Much has been made of the mutinies of soldiers and sailors. Mutinous behavior began with the tendency of soldiers to adopt a strategy of live-and-let-live. The famous ‘Christmas truce’ in 1914, for instance. By 1916 indiscipline was becoming serious. The contagion spread from the Austrian to the Russian army and then to the western front. On the home front there were strikes in factories and dockyards. The diary entries in the last two years of the war are much less poetic. Rumors that the war would soon be ending did not help with the willingness to fight on.


Paolo Minnelli, a trooper in an Alpine regiment of the Italian army, tells the story of an execution of two deserters in those last years, soldiers from his own unit.  The first is tied to a tree and the adjutant orders the squad to fire. Nothing happens. A second order to fire. Nothing happens again. The adjutant claps his hands, a threat to the reluctant executioners. A third command works. The second soldier’s death then follows. The firing squad is dismissed, having made its statement about the war and its commands.


Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo

Went the Day Well? Witnessing Waterloo by David Crane. Vintage, 2016, paper.

The Battle of Waterloo ended Napoleon’s effort to reverse his and French fortunes. In1814 he had been banished to the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany, escaped, took command of the French army, and invaded Belgium. He was defeated by the Prussians at Ligny on 16 June 1815, fought the British at Quatre Bras, and was soundly defeated the next day by the combined armies of Prussia and Britain, near a village called Waterloo. David Crane’s book is a group portrait of the English on the day of battle.

Crane is critical of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and field marshal of the British army. Britain had always relied more heavily on her navy. But Wellington’s army had performed well during the Peninsular War in Spain. Perhaps it can be said that Wellington lucked out; Waterloo brightened a generally lackluster military career.

Crane presents the army officer, George Keppel, as exemplary of the British nobility ­- an entrenched, privileged caste. Keppel cared nothing about his opportunity to acquire an education, preferring instead the London of prize-fighting and bull-bating. His father, 4th Earl of Albemarle, decided that a commission in the army might straighten out his sixteen-year-old son.

Some of the nobility acknowledged the obligations of their caste; Keppel did not. He landed in Brussels in command of an undistinguished unit of commoners, best his father could arrange for a second son. In no way prepared for leadership in a field of battle, Keppel survived. Many under his command did not.

William DeLancey did not survive Waterloo. He was a respected young officer, under Wellington as well. He had just married and the couple had spent a night or two together in Brussels, before he left for the front. She, like many female family members of the privileged class, had rented a room in the city to await news of the battle and the fate of her husband. They came: a report that he had been wounded but still alive, another that he was dead, was badly wounded and sheltered in a cottage near the field of battle. There was little care for the wounded, so she made her way to his side. They spent the last few hours of his life together.

Frederick Ponsonby was wounded at Waterloo as well. He was also the second son of a titled Englishman. Armed with only a long spear or lance his company of Light Dragoons had battled French cavalry. Ponsonby was wounded in the encounter and left on the field with the dead and dying. He spent eighteen hours there before being rescued.

Lying wounded, he had had a series of “visitors.” The first was a lone French soldier, a straggler, who stabbed Ponsonby in the back. Next a French infantry man looking for loot. Then a French officer came by, friendly but unable to come to Ponsonby’s assistance because the battle was still raging. He did offer Ponsonby a swig of his brandy. He conveyed the news – false – that the Duke of Wellington was dead and Allied battalions surrendering. Next a French infantryman used his body as a shield, chattering gaily while he fired away. Finally a gang of murderous Belgian looters came by. He survived.

Many of the stories are not about participants at Waterloo, but ordinary English folk on the “home front.” A young servant girl, Eliza Fenning, was on death row. She had insisted on baking some dumplings for her mistress, according to her mistress. It turned out that they were poisoned with arsenic. Spats between servants and mistresses were common, and this appeared to the prosecution to be the outcome of one of them. The English press, however, had doubts about Eliza’s guilt and stirred up a public controversy. All of England witnessed her trial through the newspapers. Eliza was hanged on the Friday before Waterloo. Life went on, notwithstanding events in Belgium.

In 1815 communications across Britain were limited mostly to newspapers. No wire service then, most of the news from Waterloo would be distributed in the usual way, by coach-and-fours setting out from Lombard Street, London. On this occasion, delivering the victory at Waterloo, coaches and drivers were bedecked with flowers and ribbons. On to Lincoln, Winchester, Portsmouth, Gloucester, Oxford, Bristol, Manchester, York, Newcastle, Edinburg, Perth, and Glasgow. Criers on the mail coaches proclaimed news of the great victory.

David Crane reminds us that despite the glorious defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the ordinary Englishman saw no real improvement in his or her lives. At this juncture, crofters were being forced off their enclosed parcels of tillable land to create sheep ranges. The great landed barons, claiming outright ownership, were responding to the growing demand for wool for the mills in many of those towns through which the mail coaches passed. Many of the young men who ‘witnessed Waterloo’ would find employment in the mills, with their long hours and dangerous working conditions.

Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend. Part I, Occupied Paris.

Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend.  Part I, Occupied Paris.

This account is heavily indebted to two books: When Paris Went Dark; The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940 to 1944 by Ronald Rosbottom, 2014 paper and Ravensbrüch; Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women by Sarah Helm, paper 2015. Thanks always to Wikipedia.

I first met Maguy (Katz) McCullough, a Parisian, at my bookstore in Gainesville. She or her husband, Bob McCullough, both well past retirement age, would come into the bookstore every morning for their New York Times. They had met on the way to Japan on a Polish tramp steamer, married, and lived half of the year in Gainesville, half in Maguy’s flat in Paris.

Neither Bob nor Maguy drove, so every Friday, I picked her up and we went grocery shopping at the nearest Publix. As both of us were not in any hurry, we almost always spent time in its parking lot, Maguy telling me her stories, me asking questions. As part of the friendship and in payment for the shopping trips, she would invite me over for scotch. More stories and questions. Stories were repeated – and repeated, which has helped me remember.

After Bob’s death, Maguy gave up coming to Gainesville so I visited her in Paris on three different occasions. She was living in the same flat that she had lived in during the 1930s, when she had a good job working for the French Railways until her arrest in 1944. Again more opportunities for stories to be told. Again good for memory work.

She told me a bit about the Katz family. Her grandfather was from Alsace. Jewish, he was a merchant, and had decided after the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) that Paris was a better place for him, his family, and his business than was Alsace under the Prussians. Maguy said very little about her Jewish ancestry. Only that while at the Ravensbrück work camp she wore the Jewish star.

The Wehrmacht invaded France in May 1940 and six weeks later, France surrendered. The country was divided between occupied and unoccupied zones (until November 1942). Both were governed by the Vichy Regime, so named because it was to this small spa town that Maréchal Phillipe Pétain had moved the French government. Paris was in the occupied zone and hence subject to a German army of occupation.

Maguy was not in Paris when the German troops entered the city. At first she was uncertain about what to do. There had been a massive flight of Parisians and no certainty about what the occupation would involve and how long it would last. Eventually she returned to her Paris apartment in the 16th Arrondissement, not far from the Bois de Boulogne.

Shortly, thereafter, Adolf Hitler made his famous tour of the city. He thought Paris to be a model for European cities in the new world of Pax Germania. He hoped also to convince Parisians that life ‘under the German heel’ would be tolerable. And the German occupation force set to work to make it so – except for Jews, communists, and anyone resisting the occupation authorities.

While few Parisians openly welcomed German soldiers or Nazi bigwigs, many in the French army, the Roman Catholic Church, industrialists, and the conservative right viewed the occupation as an opportunity to weaken the French Left. Collaboration took various forms. The presence of many Germans, both military and otherwise, required a “service sector.” French merchants, café owners, waiters, laundresses, and many others served the Germans. Were they collaborating?

Like collaboration, resistance also took different forms. The earliest resisters were mostly from the French Left, and particularly the communists. Maguy always made the point that she was not, and never had been, a communist. Rather she had joined the “Free French” led from London by General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle, an army man, distrusted the freewheeling nature of the communist resistance; he viewed them as hot-heads. While ideology divided the resistance movement in Paris and elsewhere in France, these distinctions were lost on the SS and the Gestapo.

Early in the occupation, the roundups and arrests did not involve Parisians but rather German and Austrian refugees who had arrived in Paris after 1933 and especially Jews. In 1940, the Germans had expelled 150,000 Jews from Alsace-Lorraine after it was incorporated into greater Germany. And they were mostly hiding out in Paris.

German authorities required Jews, both foreigners and Parisians, to wear the Star of David patch and carry special ID cards. A series of edicts restricted the economic and professional activities of Jews in Paris. By the time of the Grand Rafle in July 1942 – the largest of the roundups – it was obvious that French Jews were also now targeted. But surprisingly, Maguy never was a victim of these measures, and her Jewishness was not the cause of her arrest and deportation.

So far as I know, Maguy did not keep a diary. Diaries from the years of occupation kept by Parisians, famous and otherwise, suggest a city gone “dark.” From these diaries one gets the feeling of life being narrowed, to one’s neighborhood, to one’s apartment, to one room, usually the kitchen as keeping warm became a problem. Paris was dark, and also quiet; few pedestrians, fewer private cars. There was a city-wide, early-evening curfew, which put a crimp on nightlife. Bikes and public transportation were the options; Maguy took to the bike.

As she was not arrested until sometime after June 1944, Maguy had four long years under the Germans. Because telephones could not be trusted, women in the resistance were used as couriers. And she became part of the communications network; this was the golden age of the mimeograph machine and the underground tract. They urged Parisians to be more aggressive in their opposition to the German occupation, rather than waiting it out.

The knock on the door eventually came. Maguy’s name was on a list of her circuit, carelessly left on a colleague’s desk and found by the Parisian police. Her best-laid plans did not work. After her arrest she spent weeks in jail awaiting her trial before a panel of collaborating French judges. She was found guilty and sentenced to death, though the sentence was commuted to a term in prison.

I once asked Maguy if, after the war, she had ever come across the judges who had convicted her. Oh no, she assured me, they were eliminated by the resistance.

Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend. Part II, Ravensbrück.

Maguy (Katz) McCullough, Holocaust Survivor, Friend.  Part II, Ravensbrück.

There were growing numbers of women in Parisian jails as their role in the resistance broadened, and they were occupying space that the Germans wished to use for incarcerating French men. It was decided in 1944 to deport the women to Ravensbrück, a work camp for women political prisoners in Germany, due north of Berlin.

I would like to have asked Maguy about her journey from her Parisian jail to Ravensbrück. It was certainly by rail. This was not a good time to be traveling on either French or German railroads. By 1944 they were the subject of a massive British-American air offensive. The journey would have taken days, mostly nights. Maguy would have told me of over-loaded freight cars, so she may have been spared that.

The French women, Maguy included, only had to survive one winter in the camp, and that saved many of their lives. Camp-hardened Poles and other Eastern Europeans noted how ill-prepared these French women were for camp life. In turn the French women must have been overwhelmed by their first encounter with the brutal, overcrowded camp world they entered.

Maguy would have encountered every kind of prisoner: the asoziale (a-social) – prostitutes, homeless, work-shy. A good part of the camp’s inmates were Polish women sent to Ravensbrück as part of the German land clearance program in occupied Poland and then the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944. Also Polish Jews, though Jews constituted no more than 10% of the inmate population at Ravensbrück. Also represented were habitual criminals, gypsies, communists and socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The latter were the worst treated because they refused work that involved the manufacture of weaponry.

The idea of locating war production at Ravensbrück was a new initiative by Heinrich Himmler, SS Reichsfürher. There were already sewing shops that made clothes for the army. But in the fall of 1942 Siemens, a big prewar electrical company, located a unit there which made electrical parts for fighter planes. Shocked that the women in the sewing shops were only working eight-hours a day, Himmler introduced an eleven-hour day. Siemens reimbursed the SS for their work, not the women themselves. Still it was good to have work in these camps. You never wanted to become a useless mouth, as Himmler liked to put it.

Maguy told several stories that involved these Polish women. She and her Parisian colleagues had a special concern for them because they were young and miserably treated by their German guards.

She suffered from a strict camp procedure called the Appell (roll-call) in the Appellplatz, (camp square) rain or shine, or snow. In the winter it began before dawn. The women had to stand sometimes for hours until all were accounted for. On one Appell Maguy collapsed and was taken to her barracks, which saved her life, but at some risk to the rescuer. It was perhaps even more dangerous to appear at the Revier (infirmary). The sick and weak were commonly allowed to die.

By the time of Maguy’s arrival, discipline (though not the cruelty) was beginning to crumble. This was both fortuitous and unfortunate. Individual inmates could angle for the better work assignments, such as the squads that removed the dead or working in the camp kitchen. This competition eroded prisoner solidarity. The severe overcrowding required a disciplined regimen. By 1944 that was beginning to crumble with deadly results as prisoners felt more secure in ignoring the rules.

Much of the day-to-day administration was carried out by prisoners. Blockovas (elsewhere in the camp system called kapos) were put in charge of individual blocks to enforce discipline. Initially the Ravensbrück blockovas were largely a-socials, but eventually tended to be communists. Helm calls this takeover by the communists (heavily French) a “camp revolution.”  Some of the blockovas were brutal, like their masters. Some actually tried to be ameliorative. In either case you didn’t want to be fired from that job!

Maguy wore the Jewish star but also a red triangle which identified her as a communist. This offended her; she was not a communist but a Gaullist, for which there was no badge. Always thin, she began to lose weight. There was never enough to eat; all of Germany was starving by 1944.

Ravensbrück had been a special project of Himmler’s. He had an estate near the camp, and came there periodically to see his mistress who was stashed there. He is said to have been the quintessential micro-manager, making decisions about such minutia as inmates’ diet and the number of strokes of the whip for various offenses. Did Maguy ever see Himmler during one of his camp inspections?

Much has been made of the medical experiments performed on prisoners by licensed doctors at Ravensbrück and other camps. They resulted in much suffering. Fortunately the numbers of these ‘rabbits,’ as they were called, were small and the deaths few. Because Ravensbrück was the only camp for women, there was also experimentation on methods of controlling – and exploiting – large numbers of female slave labor. Along with the often gratuitous cruelty, there were some SS administrators thinking about the future.

The highest camp administrators were generally SS careerists. The guards were women from neighboring villages. Neither had had had any training; they generally despised those they oversaw and frequently beat them out of frustration.

As it became more obvious that Germany was losing the war, individual inmates, guards, and administrators at Ravensbrück began to recalculate their strategies. For most inmates that involved obtaining food but also not running afoul of the camp administration. If you were an inmate who had collaborated with the administration, you would be worried about how to keep from being brutalized at war’s end by those inmates you had brutalized. If a guard, maybe fading into the rural German background from which you had been recruited. If an SS administrator, flight; but to where? Or you could deny what you were hearing about the Americans at the Rhine or the Russians only miles from Mecklenburg and await developments.