nazi germany

Not the Greatest French Film of All Time, Interesting Nonetheless

carne-les-enfants-du-paradis-poster

Les Enfants du Paradis Movie Poster

As we continue our slow journey through the 1001 Films one must supposedly watch before one dies (maybe if we never finish the list we’ll live forever?) we encounter a bunch of films which are reputed to be or voted as the greatest something or other.   The major conclusion one can immediately take from these is that an amazing number of important-sounding institutions exist which seem dedicated to choosing the greatest films of whatever country, and none of them can agree on which one it is.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was voted the greatest film ever in one poll of French film industry people.  Yes, I know that it was obvious that the French would select a French film for the honor, but it’s pretty amazing that they happened to select this one.  It isn’t.

It’s also been called the French equivalent of Gone with the Wind.  It also isn’t.

What it is is an interesting flick with a fascinating production history.

The plot is noteworthy .  Everyone is in love with the girl, but no one gets her.  Additional interest is given to it by having her suitors span the social range from a mime and a criminal to a count.  Loads of fun and hijinks and melodrama ensue, and the film does entertain.  The ending is also worth waiting for, as it is neither a conventional happy ending or a typical tragic one.  The only person who dies richly deserves it.

The most noteworthy thing about it, however, is that it was produced in Vichy France under the strict and watchful eye of the German censors with a cast and crew that mixed resistance elements with collaborators in what must have been the ultimate example of workplace politics.

Imagine attempting to shoot a large-scale film in a country ravaged by war, with Nazis telling you what to cut out of it and a director, Marcel Carné, who tries to sneak a lot of the stuff that is supposedly forbidden back in, in a different guise.  The sets were a shambles, which was a drawback for a film with a lot of outdoors street scenes, and one can only imagine what kind of scarcity conditions they had to operate under as the allies advanced.

robert-le-vigan

Robert Le Vigan – French actor convicted of collaborating with the Nazis in Vichy France.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film are the story of Robert Le Vigan who was removed from the production, accused of being a collaborator and disappeared.  He was later tried and sent to prison, but in the meantime they needed a replacement for him, and chose one of the Renoir brothers (yes, the son of the painter).

Collaborators, of course, weren’t tried under the Vichy régime, so you are correct in guessing that the movie wasn’t finished until the allies liberated France.  It is speculated that Carné himself created production delays that ensured the film would only be released in a free France.  Whether that is true or a product of Carné’s propaganda is open to debate, but it does cement the legend.

So, perhaps it’s not the film itself but the context and symbolism which engendered the French industry’s fascination with it.  It’s both understandable and forgivable, and the film isn’t bad either.

From Chancellor to Führer – Part 2

Nuremburg Rally

Today brings the conclusion of our excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ historical novel charting the rise of Adolf Hitler from Chancellor to Führer.  Those who missed Part 1 can read it here.

Near the end of May, 1934, German President Hindenburg returned to his estate at Neudeck, leaving Berlin for what no one doubted would be the last time. Before he left, he remarked to Vice Chancellor von Papen that things were going badly, and asked him to see what he could do about the Nazis.

* * *

Hitler and von Papen

“Only weaklings tolerate no criticism,” Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen said in a speech he gave at the Landgrafenhaus of the University of Marburg on June 17, 1934. Not by coincidence, his speech was highly critical of the Storm Detachment, of the Nazi Party, and of Hitler’s repressive policies. His audience was very much surprised, because it was von Papen who had persuaded President Hindenburg to appoint Hitler Chancellor of the coalition government. His audience was also delighted[1]. If von Papen were no longer supporting Hitler, a new, less repressive, government might be formed. That his speech that day was the last public criticism in Germany of Hitler’s government by anyone in a position of authority for more than ten years indicates how very much mistaken they were.

* * *

On June 21st, 1934, Hitler and General Blomberg, the Defense Minister, met with President Hindenburg, at the president’s request, to discuss the growing friction between the Nazi Storm Detachment and the Reichswehr.

“Your man Roehm,” the President said to Hitler, “says he’s responsible for the defense of the country. Says the Reichswehr is just a training camp.”

“He spoke out of turn, Sir,” Hitler replied. “I’ve set him straight on that.”

“If you had,” the President said, “we wouldn’t be here now. You’ll have to do more than lecture him. Or I’ll have to call for Martial Law.”

“The Reichswehr stands ready to do as you wish, Sir,” General Blomberg replied. How he intended to subdue two million Brownshirts with a force of one hundred thousand men, he did not explain.

“I will do what must be done,” Hitler said, “for the sake of Germany.”

Of course, Hindenburg and Blomberg both knew that Hitler would be unstinting in his efforts to further his own interests; as it happened, civil war would be as hard on him as it would on Germany. He could therefore be depended upon to resolve this crisis decisively and in short order.

Careful inquiries made over the next several days established the understanding that Hitler’s loyalty to the Reischwehr in this crisis would be rewarded with an army oath of loyalty to him; further, the SS, under Heinrich Himmler’s control, would stand with Hitler and the Reichswehr against Ernst Roehm and the Storm Detachment.

On June 25th, the Reichswehr was put on alert.

* * *

In Essen on June 28th, 1934, Ilse Stahl, who had previously been Josef Goebbels’ secretary and mistress, married Gauleiter Josef Terboven. Goebbels, Goering, and Hitler flew in from Berlin to attend the wedding. Goering flew back to Berlin immediately afterwards; Hitler stayed in Essen. On the 29th, he inspected a Reich Labour Camp, then spent the night in Bonn.

Völkischer Beobachter

Also on the 29th, the Völkischer Beobachter[2] published an article by General Blomberg, expressing the Reichswehr’s support for Hitler and the Party. This was a good indicator of which way the wind blew and how soon the ax would fall.

* * *

Early in the morning of June 30th, 1934, Hitler flew to Munich, and shortly after 6 AM, personally placed Ernst, who had just been woken up, under arrest, informing him that he was considered a traitor and instructing him to get dressed at once. Hitler left, and when Ernst had his clothes on, a pair of ordinary police detectives took him to Stadelheim prison.

That afternoon, finally willing to accept the evidence Heinrich had collected and which Hermann had acquainted him with, Hitler uttered the code word, “hummingbird,” to Josef, allowing the purge of Brown Shirt leaders to begin. It would include from one hundred to two hundred men, most of them homosexual.

* * *

By July 2nd, it was complete. That same day, Hitler received a telegram from the German President, which read: From the reports which had been brought to me, I see that by your decisive initiative and by your brave personal activity you have nipped all the treasonable activities in the bud. You have saved the German people from a grave danger. For this I express to you my heart-felt gratitude and my sincere respect. With best greetings, von Hindenburg.

On July 3rd, Chancellor Hitler’s Cabinet met, officially asking the Reichstag to issue retroactive carte blanche; on the 13th, by a unanimous vote, the Reichstag sanctioned these murders (referenced as “events of June 30th, and July 1st and 2nd”), writing them off legally as emergency defense measures undertaken in the best interests of the nation. Officially, seventy-four conspirators had, by an imperative necessity, been summarily brought to justice, but just as officially, it was made known that there would be no accounting, no review, and no further explanation either requested or offered for what had happened in the course of those three hot summer days.

An irrevocable precedent was established on July 13th, 1934. From that date onward, it was clear to everyone that Adolf Hitler now uniquely and absolutely embodied the legitimate and freely elected government of Germany, and that if he felt a certain number of murders were in the best interests of Germany, there would be no questions. Not from the Reichstag. Not from the courts. Not from the public. There would be no questions from any industrialists or bankers, nor from the church in Germany, whether Lutheran or Catholic. Not even if the number of murders were in excess of ten million.

In 1933, no one had asked why a new special detention facility, a Konzentrationslager, or Ka-tset, was needed at Dachau. In 1934, no one asked why three more Ka-tsets, at Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and Mauthausen, were also necessary. By the summer of 1934, it was universally understood in Germany that because difficult questions would no longer be asked, they would simply be set aside in these Ka-tsets. What was not understood at that time was that in every Ka-tset, terrible answers would eventually be found.

* * *

On August 2nd, 1934, German President Paul von Hindenburg died. Hitler had been waiting for this patiently, but not idly. He’d already made arrangements to combine the offices of Chancellor and President into a single office he would hold, with the title Führer.

[1] Hitler’s popularity was always equivocal. While very few Germans were dissatisfied with HItler’s accomplishments, even fewer were at peace with themselves about the price at which these things were achieved.

[2] People’s Observer; the Munich-based newspaper of the Nazi Party.

From Chancellor to Führer – Part 1

Hitler's Brownshirts

Today we present a new excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens monumental work-in-progress about WWII and the events that led to it.  What makes this particular piece fascinating is her imagining of how Hitler would have spoken to his inner circle at a key point in his political ascent.  Stacy’s willingness to look beyond the monsters and try to study  the humans beneath is what makes her novel so attractive to us – after all, our manifesto does state that we enjoy a multi-disciplinary approach to things… and few works look beyond the obvious in history as insightfully as this one does.

After the torchlight procession and public acclamation when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933[1], he had a private supper with his closest friends; Hans, Rudolf, Hermann, Josef, and, of course, Ernst, in a small room of the Chancellory.

“I think Hindenburg will come around,” he told them. “Perhaps even join the Party. He liked it very much today when I told him I intend to serve him as loyally as his Chancellor as I did when I was his soldier, and he was my hero.

They all smiled at this.

“We must have the co-operation of the Army,” Hitler went on. “To secure it, the Brown Shirts will have to be scaled back.” Ernst was obviously angry about this, perhaps even hurt. “Officially, they will be a sports organization, and responsible for political education of young people.”

“Officially?” Ernst asked.

Adi – as everyone around the table knew him – nodded. His smile satisfied Ernst.

“Dornberger’s rocket program must cease at once,” he continued. “We can’t squander money on wonder weapons when we need to build a real army.” Adi brought the point of his index finger down on the table to emphasize the importance of basic necessities. “Tanks, artillery pieces,” he said, thumping his fingertip at the mention of each item, “rifles, boots, even uniforms.” He paused, gazing at his fingertip pressing against the table cloth. “Rockets?” He lifted his finger suddenly as he made a fizzling noise with his tongue, teeth and lips. “Champagne corks.” The others laughed. “Beer first,” Adi summarized, “then champagne.”

“Quite so,” Hermann said as the others nodded. Adi now turned his bright blue eyes toward him.

“We must have control of the Prussian State Secret Police,” he seemed to insist. “Find one of our men to take charge of it. He will expand it into a national force. And that reminds me,” he paused a moment, not so much gathering his thoughts, the others knew, as allowing them to take shape in audible words. “We have to begin seizing control of local governments. Bavaria first. It’s the birthplace of our movement, and most threatened by the Reds.”

“We’ve cleared them out before,” Ernst happily reminded him.

“Let’s all have a walk in the garden,” Adi suggested, suddenly quite cheerful. Perhaps he’d forgotten that he now had a garden. It was all so new, this dream come true. They’d pursued it for more than a decade, and tonight it was no longer a dream.

As they all rose from the table, Adi resumed speaking, going on at some length as they walked, enumerating the problems of eradicating the communists without precipitating any violent reactions. He stopped and glanced around at the diminutive garden.

“This Chancellory,” he sighed. “Like a cigar box, isn’t it? We’ll change all that. Make it impressive.”

* * *

1933 Reichstag fire

Om February 27th, 1933, while dining at the Herrenklub in Berlin, President Paul von Hindenburg and Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen noticed the sky glowing red, and heard shouts. Rising from their table and going to a window, they saw the dome of the Reichstag brilliantly lighted, shimmering and wavering as sheets of flame and billows of smoke contended in a wild sacrificial dance, engulfing and consuming it.

Even as it burned, Hitler, Goebells and Goring were on the scene, denouncing the fire as an obvious communist crime against the new administration[2]. The next day, the Prussian State Police issued a public statement that evidence in their possession indicated that the Reichstag fire was part of a Communist conspiracy to overthrow the German government. On the strength of this statement, President Hindenburg issued the “Decree of February 28th” suspending seven articles of the German Constitution. The extent to which this decree allowed police to disregard individual civil liberties was never made explicit, although it became increasingly clear.

* * *

In the elections of March 5, 1933, the Nazis won 44 percent of the popular vote, and 288 seats in the Reichstag; their anti-Communist hysteria had failed to free them of their coalition, let alone bring them the two-thirds majority necessary to alter the constitution. To obtain the majority he could not secure at the polls, Hitler resorted to the flagship in his arsenal of chicanery: brute force applied with sleight-of-hand and masked by eloquence.

The decree of February 28th allowed Hitler to authorize the arrest of a number of Communist and Socialist Reichstag members. With only one hundred such arrests, the Reichstag would still have a quorum, and Hitler’s coalition would have a two-thirds majority. Further, by making these arrests sporadically over the course of two weeks, the Nazis leant credibility to the allegations of a conspiracy while obfuscating their real purpose.

* * *

Hindenburg and Hitler

“May the German imperial war which we have carried through with such renown be followed by a peace for the Empire no less glorious,” the First Kaiser Wilhelm had said on March 21st, 1871, at the opening of the first German Reichstag, “and, from now on, may the German people confine their efforts to winning victories in the field of peaceful enjoyments. May God so ordain!”

There could be no doubt that feelings of unease and disquiet were prevalent in the weeks following the Reichstag fire. Aside from the anxiety of possible revolution, Hitler’s unabashed willingness to use such dictatorial powers as were already at his disposal, without hesitation and without remorse, had caused profound, widespread concern. In choosing to open the newly elected Reichstag on March 21st, Hitler hoped the nation and the world would infer that Germany had passed through a formative, solidifying turmoil, and that he would now lead the country through an indefinite period of peace and progress. In choosing to convene the Reichstag opening at the Garrison Church in Potsdam, Hitler intended that both the Army and the vestigial remnants of the glorious former Empire would infer that he held them in reverence.

“May the old sprit of this celebrated shrine permeate the generation of today,” President Hindenburg said, addressing the members of the Reichstag. His speech was broadcast to all of Germany, as well as the world, by radio. “May it liberate us from selfishness and party strife and bring us together in national self-consciousness to bless a proud and free Germany united in herself.”

After responding to this, Hitler bowed low before the President, grasping his hand. With few exceptions, the world believed Hitler to be everything he pretended to be, and nothing else. With even fewer exceptions, Germany also believed.

On March 23rd, the Reichstag convened at the Kroll Opera House, in Berlin, to consider “The Law to Remove the Distress of the People and the State,” five concise and carefully worded paragraphs which conferred upon the Reich Cabinet, under Hitler’s guidance and control, the equivalent of dictatorial powers, nominally until April 1st, 1937. Hitler, speaking in the same restrained manner with which he had revered President Hindenburg, promised to “make use of these powers only insofar as they are essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures.”

[1] Hitler was Chancellor of a coalition government. The Nazis never received a majority of the popular vote, and never had a majority of seats in the Reichstag. However, they had the largest share of seats, and could prevent the formation of any coalition which excluded them.

[2] Marinus van der Lubbe, a Dutch Communist with prior arson convictions, was arrested in the Reichstag that same evening, and later found guilty of setting the Reichstag fire. He was executed on January 10th, 1934. In 1967 and 1983 his conviction was upheld by West German courts. In 2008, the German Federal Court of Justice overturned his conviction on the grounds that it was politically motivated. While there is every reason to suppose that van der Lubbe acted with much encouragement and material assistance from the Nazis themselves, any evidence supporting the supposition has proven to be contrived.

Rheinland – Part 2

Germany and the Rheinland

Today brings the second and final part of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ excerpt about the Rheinland incident in the years prior to World War II.  As always, a fascinating glimpse beyond the dates and facts and into the minds of the principal actors.

“I know what it is,” Foreign Minister Laval said to his staffers as he pushed aside the map they had asked him to look at. “A lot of sand. And a lot of rocks.”

He would be leaving on January 3rd, 1935, to meet with Mussolini. He intended to give up a lot of sand and rocks near the Libyan border with French Equatorial Africa in the hope that Mussolini would abandon long-standing Italian claims against Tunisia. Laval also hoped to sustain Mussolini’s disenchantment with Hitler, who had not made a good impression on Il Duce at their first meeting. The friction between them regarding Austria was the sort of thing Laval could exploit to France’s advantage.

“It’s nothing but desert,” Mussolini observed, when he saw the map of it himself on January 4th.

“There are probably a few villages in there,” Laval grinned. There was no pretense about him, Mussolini realized. He had brought sand and rocks, and wouldn’t pretend they were anything else.

“You, Duce,” Laval resumed speaking when he noticed the gleam of appreciation in Mussolini’s eyes, “rule Italy without restraint. I don’t rule France. My boss doesn’t even rule France. If you really want these negotiations between our two countries to succeed, I have to return home with something that will stand up to public opinion, something that will be endorsed by the press. You’re in a position to give me something like that; you have the prerogative to be generous.”

He was a hard-bitten, hard-boiled lout, but in contrast to British or German Ministers, he could be liked, although he was no less conniving than they. The point, really, and Mussolini understood this, was the appearance of concession, which would bring with it good press and a bit of prestige. It was enough to clinch the bargain which Laval and Mussolini had really been after: an agreement that if Hitler again attempted to seize Austria, the French army would support Italian action against him, and that if Hitler moved his army into the demilitarized Rheinland, the Italian Air Force would support French action against him.

Early in February, Laval went to London, where he reaffirmed his commitment to a Pact with the Soviet Union without clarifying whether or not Czechoslovakia would be a co-signatory. British statesmen, regardless of which party was in office at any moment, mistrusted any series of interlocking treaty obligations, always bearing in mind the stacked-rifle effect that had played out in the summer of 1914. A pistol-shot in Prague might all too easily replicate the avalanche of events spawned at Sarajevo[1].

When Laval had returned to France, Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg came to Paris to discuss the defense of Austria with him. Because the Socialist Parties of Austria and France had recently allied themselves with one another,  Léon Blum called for public demonstrations against the Austrian Fascist.

As a pragmatic negotiator bargaining for the survival of France, Laval did not concern himself with ideology, particularly if that ideology could only weaken and isolate France.

* * *

heinkel he-51

In March 1935, Hitler announced, in two separate statements, the existence of the Luftwaffe, and the reinstatement of Military Conscription in Germany. He intended to create thirty-six army divisions forming twelve corps. It was Hitler’s contention that this action would somehow make a European War less likely, and that it would make Germany better able to co-operate in the international peace process.

At about this same time, French Prime Minister Pierre-Étienne Flandin was attempting to increase France’s required length of military service to two years, which was necessary to make up for the smaller number of draft-age men available in France[2]. When this was brought to a vote in the French Parliament, it was seen as an escalating response to Hitler’s action, but it had been months in developing, as Flandin had had to overcome Socialist opposition to the change.

* * *

On May 15th, 1935, Paul Reynaud proposed the creation of an Armoured Corps along the lines presented the year before by Colonel De Gaulle in his book, Toward a Professional Army. Léon Blum was among those who argued against Reynaud’s proposal; it was defeated by a large majority[3].

* * *

Kriegsmarine Recruitment Poster

On June 18th, 1935, Britain and Germany signed a naval agreement limiting the displacement tonnage of the Kriegsmarine to thirty-five percent of the Royal Navy’s. Neither France nor Italy had been informed of the negotiations leading to this treaty, nor did either nation approve it.

This was not the first time Germany had violated the Versailles Treaty, but it was the first instance of collusion by a second nation in a German treaty violation. And while neither Laval nor Mussolini could, on principle, find fault with self-interested duplicity in an ally, both men felt that the Anglo-German Naval Agreement  had given the lie to the united front the three powers had presented at Stresa; this was, undoubtedly, Hitler’s purpose. Germany had no need for colonies, and little use for a surface navy, but everything to gain in alienating the British from their former allies.

* * *

Knowing that Mussolini had agreed to send the Italian Air Force in support of the French army if France opposed a German attempt to reoccupy the demilitarized Rheinland, Hitler had instructed the German Embassy in Rome to watch Mussolini’s mood closely, to determine if he would still abide by that agreement after the failure of the Hoare-Laval plan. On February 22nd, 1936, ambassador Ulrich von Hassell notified Berlin that Mussolini had at last changed his mind, not only about the Rheinland, but Austria as well.

In Berlin on Monday, March 2nd, Adolf Hitler met with the French ambassador, promising to have concrete proposals for an understanding between their countries the next time the two men met. On Friday, March 6th, Hermann Goering called a meeting of the Reichstag for noon the next day while Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels brought the foreign press to a hotel, where they “attended a news conference” until late the following morning.

At dawn on Saturday, March 7th, 1936, elements of the Wehrmacht entered the demilitarized zone of Western Germany known as the Rheinland. The 22,000 men taking part in this were in uniform and lightly armed, but were transported in non-military vehicles, and had been instructed to halt and withdraw if they encountered any opposition from the French army, although this possibility was considered to be highly unlikely.

When the meeting of the Reichstag had been called to order, Hitler began speaking, first giving more than half an hour to a summary of German History as understood by the Nazi Party. Then he took a moment to make a cryptic reference to the Polish Corridor before discussing “The German Question” at length.

The salient point in this portion of his speech was his statement that “the German Reich Government has today re-established the full and unlimited sovereignty of the Reich in the demilitarized zone of the Rheinland.” Among his conclusions was that returning the German army to the Rheinland was in the best interests of France in particular, and of Europe in general, since it was a necessary part of his opposition to Bolshevism, and to restoring the German nation. As a vouchsafe of his sincerity, he proposed the establishment of a new mutually demilitarized zone, which, quite by coincidence, would require French forces to withdraw from the Maginot Line.

Before Hitler had finished speaking to the Reichstag, the Polish government notified France that they were prepared to adhere to their alliance, and requested an immediate discussion to determine what actions should be taken.

On Sunday, March 8th, French Prime Minister Sarraut addressed the nation via radio, assuring them that the German threat would not be tolerated. However, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s only communication to Sarraut was to say that although Britain would support France in the event of an attack, he was concerned that action against the Germans might result in Germany “going Bolshevik”.

On Monday, March 9th, having not heard from their French allies, the Polish government was the first to endorse the German remilitarization of the Rheinland in an announcement stating that Hitler’s action was an appropriate response to the French alliance with the Soviet Union[4].

On Wednesday, March 11th, Sarraut announced that France would not take unilateral action against Germany, but would bring the matter to the League of Nations in conjunction with other signatories of the Locarno Pact. Neither the League nor the Pact acted against Hitler.

[1] That this attitude aided and abetted Hitler’s step-by-step plans for Europe was, from the British perspective, an unfortunate yet irrelevant coincidence.

[2] From 1915-1919, the birthrate was half what it had previously been, so that by the 1930s, France faced an increasing shortage of manpower.

[3] Although France had had more tanks than Germany all along, France had no Armored Divisions until January of 1940, several months after the validity of De Gaulle’s ideas had been demonstrated in Poland by the Wehmacht.

[4] It should be noted that Poland had a mutual assistance pact with Germany as well as with France. In the absence of communication from France, the Poles felt that standing back to back with Hitler was probably safer than facing him alone with their backs to the Soviet Union.

Rheinland – Part 1

Edouard Daladier

Lost among the striking images we have of World War II are the often even more important political maneuvers that took place among political leaders before and during the war.  This fascinating chess game is often overlooked, which is unfortunate.  Luckily, however, we have access to excerpts from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ monumental historical novel about the war – and she knows exactly how to highlight the important parts of that political history – whether it be in Europe, Asia, Africa or America.

Today, she takes us on a quick tour of the big picture as things began to heat up.

Édouard Daladier had become Prime Minister of France on January 31st, 1933. In March, Polish Dictator Marshal Piłsudski had suggested to him that Poland and France should together attack Germany and depose Hitler. Daladier, however, preferred the Four Powers Pact[1] Mussolini proposed on March 19th, 1933. When Deladier signed the Four Powers Pact, in June, 1933, Piłsudski decided it was time for Poland to come to terms with Hitler, and began negotiating a German-Polish non-aggression pact.

* * *

Adolf Hitler’s most unpopular act in his first year as Chancellor was a ten-year pact signed by Polish Ambassador Lipski in Berlin on January 26th, 1934, pledging mutual non-aggression between Germany and Poland[2], including a promise to defend each other against attack.

In France at this same time, a financial scandal brought down the government headed by Camille Chautemps. A new government formed by Édouard Deladier on February 6th was brought down by rioting that same evening[3].

On February 9th, Gaston Doumergue was named Prime Minister, and Pierre Laval was appointed Minister of Colonies.

On February 12th, Labour Unions in France had called for a national strike to protest the demonstrations of February 6th. Communists and Socialists also co-operated in the protest, working together for the first time in twelve years. It was a germinal moment for what would become the Popular Front.

* * *

“At a time when all of us have but the one earnest desire to heal the wounds of the past decades in peaceful cooperation with other nations,” Hitler was concluding his speech of March 7th, 1934, “we are happy to give to the world a visible demonstration of the background of the problems which concern us today and proof of the skill with which we master them. Thus I am happy and proud to declare the International Automobile Exhibition of 1934 in Berlin open to the public.”

In a later interview, Hitler told Louis Lochner that “the aim and the purpose of all progress must be to make a nation as a whole, and humanity as a whole, happier than before.”

Hitler wanted German automakers to mass-produce an automobile the average German could afford. Of course, the new factories necessary to build several million autos could be retooled to produce several thousand tanks or aircraft easily enough.

* * *

De Gaulle - Toward a Professional Army

In May of 1934, Colonel Charles De Gaulle’s book, Toward a Professional Army, was published in France. In it, he proposed the creation of an elite force capable of deadly strikes[4]. This force would total seven divisions composed of men serving six year enlistments, rather than the eighteen-month conscription which was the standard in France at the time. Six of these divisions would be armoured, with one regiment each of heavy and medium tanks, supported by a battalion of light tanks for reconnaissance, as well as engineers and artillery. The seventh division would be mechanized infantry.

De Gaulle’s book was not well received by the army overall, because it defied standard military procedures, and because his proposals were not compatible with France’s reserve system. It was even less well received by the general public, because a professional army was considered reminiscent of the military coup that had ended the Second Republic in 1851, and which re-established the French Empire[5].

* * *

On June 14th, 1934, Hitler flew to Venice to meet with Benito Mussolini. Although they made several public appearances over the course of three days, they spoke privately, without keeping any record of their discussions.

Time Magazine reported that the only official statement the two dictators made, issued after Hitler had returned to Germany, was that they had begun a “cordial spiritual collaboration,” but also reported that the two were rumoured to have come to an agreement concerning Austria.

* * *

Engelbert Dolfuss Assassination

On July 25th, 1934, Austrian Nazis assassinated Chancellor[6] Engelbert Dollfuss. Guessing that this was an attempt at Anschluss, Mussolini moved several army units to the Austrian border, indicating that German intervention in Austria would not be permitted. Obviously, the two dictators had failed to come to an agreement regarding Austria.

The assassins were apprehended in Vienna and executed. Kurt Schuschnigg became Chancellor of Austria.

[1] A plan under which Britain, France, Germany and Italy would arbitrate border adjustments between or among European nations. Mussolini’s intent was to obtain French and British assistance securing the borders of his Austrian and Hungarian allies against Hitler. The Poles and Czechoslovakians saw it as a weakening of collective security and an accommodation of Hitler at their expense. That France, with the construction of the Maginot Line, appeared to be planning for a defensive war against Germany, which would leave Hitler at liberty to attack France’s allies, greatly reinforced this perception. The French Parliament never ratified the Four Powers Pact.

[2] This meant that the western half of Prussia, as well as the small sections of Pomerania and Silesia which had been taken away under the Versailles Treaty could not be wrested from Polish administration by force until 1944. As it happened, the Polish Corridor would be the least of Germany’s concerns by 1944.

[3] Deladier, a Radical, had dismissed a conservative police official. Conservative protesters attempted to seize the Chamber of Deputies. It is not clear what their intentions were, but the establishment of a provisional fascist government was among the possibilities. One police officer and fourteen rioting civilians were killed in the mêlée, and more than a thousand injured.

[4] Foudre mortelle; literally, mortal lightning.

[5] Toward a Professional Army was highly regarded in Germany, where its principles were not only embraced, but enthusiastically applied when Hitler later created Panzer divisions capable of lightning war.

[6] He was in practice a dictator, modeling his “Austrofascism” after Mussolini’s example, having also aligned his government with Italy.

Kristallnacht, the Untold Story

Warsaw - 1938

The last post of 2014 brings another excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens’ amazing historical novel, we get yet another glimpse into WWII.  This time, we stare the horror of the Holocaust in the face by going into the details that not everyone is aware of regarding its early days.  Can you tell we love these little slices of history? (you can read some of the earlier ones here, here, here and here – highly recommended!).

On March 31st, 1938, the Polish Senate passed The Expatriates Act, a law which had already passed the Sejm, the lower house of Poland’s parliament. The intent of this law was to prevent those European Jews who were nominally Polish citizens from entering Poland.

* * *

On October 15th, 1938, the Polish Government announced that effective October 31st, 1938, all persons holding Polish passports and wishing to return to Poland must first obtain a special stamp at the Polish Consulate in their country of residence. It went without saying that Jews would not be given the stamp.

* * *

Jews Boarding Trains for Deportation

At eight o’clock on the evening of October 27th, 1938, Herschel Grynszpan’s parents, brother, and sister were taken into police custody in Hanover. They were among approximately 17,000 Polish Jews residing in Germany who would be taken in cattle cars to the Polish border, then driven like cattle across the border, arriving in Sbenszyn on October 29th, 1938. Because they had valid Polish passports, the Polish government could not refuse them entry; however, they were housed in the stables of a military installation.

On the morning of Sunday, October 30th, the Red Cross brought food to the camp in Sbenszyn. The detainees there hadn’t eaten since their arrest on Thursday.

On Thursday, November 3rd, Hirschel, now living in Paris, received a letter from his father, telling him what had happened to his family, and urging him to go to America, if he could, and to attempt to help them from there.

Herschel had hoped to study in Paris, once his immigration status had been rectified. Although he could not legally remain in Paris, French authorities were unable to deport him. His German visa had expired, and because he was Jewish, neither Germany nor Poland would issue him a new visa. There was no possibility of his emigrating to America.

On Monday, November 7th, he purchased a revolver and a box of ammunition, then went to the German Embassy.

“I am a German citizen,” he told the receptionist, “and wish to speak with the ambassador.”

“On what business?” she asked. He did not answer. “Do you have your passport with you?” Again, he did not answer. She pressed an electric signal to summon assistance from the Embassy staff. Legation Secretary Ernst vom Rath responded. When he entered the reception area, Herschel rapidly fired six shots. Three slugs went wide, embedding themselves in the wall. One struck Rath’s foot and another his shoulder, and one struck his spleen[1].

* * *

On November 8th, 1938, the Völkischer Beobachter’s front page banner headline screamed HEINOUS JEWISH ATTEMPTED MURDER while a smaller front page headline spoke of a CRIME AGAINST THE PEACE OF EUROPE. Neither of these articles concerned the ruthless deportations which had recently occurred, but were about the Embassy shooting in Paris, as were six more articles on the inner pages. Other newspapers in Germany were clamoring for justice, punishment, and consequences. To heighten the drama, Hitler sent his personal physician, Karl Brandt, to Paris to monitor vom Rath’s condition, and quietly promoted the Legation Secretary to Counselor. Newspapers were instructed to use the new rank when referencing vom Rath, and to say nothing about the promotion. In Munich, party Gauleiters were gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, and not wanting to be outdone, each of them phoned his local with instructions that plans be made at once for spontaneous demonstrations against the Jews.

Funeral of Ernst vom Rath

On November 9th, Counselor Ernst vom Rath died[2].

By the morning of November 10th, with few exceptions, every synagogue and Jewish-owned business in Germany had been vandalized or burned. By that evening, 30,000 Jewish men had been arrested[3].

[1] Although the crime took place in the German Embassy, Grynszpan was arrested by Paris police and remained in French custody until July 18th, 1940, when he was extradited to Germany under the terms of the armistice. He never went to trial, and the last person known to have seen him alive, in 1943, was Adolf Eichmann.

[2] He would be given a state funeral on November 17th, with Hitler present.

[3] They would spend two to three months in concentration camps, then be released, only to be arrested again within three years.

The German V2 Rocket – Part 2

V2 Launch Site

Today we present the second half of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ V2 segment of her Historical novel about WWII.  If you like what you see here please remember that Stacy’s Bismarck series is also available here, as are many other parts of her hugely ambitious novel – just look for stories tagged WW2.

They came first to the labour camp at Trassenheide, where unskilled Soviet prisoners were housed, if one used the term as a euphemism. A number of the barracks had been damaged. A prisoner detail was flinging objects of various shapes and sizes onto the bed of a large truck. As he came closer to the work, Dietrich recognized that the objects were bodies and body parts. He marveled for a moment at the indifference with which the living dispatched the dead, then remembered that these were prisoners of war who had little hope and less expectation of leaving any differently than their comrades were leaving now.

“A thousand dead[1] there, you suppose?” Zanssen asked him.

“Five hundred, at least.”

Dietrich realized then that neither of them had broken step while observing this. They turned toward the left, knowing from memory the course of the road which was no longer there. As they approached Karlshagen, the residence area for German scientists and technicians, Dietrich saw that it was no longer there, either. Timbers, both limbs of trees and structural beams, were strewn like chopped vegetables in a stew. Not one building remained standing, nor had any piece large enough to recognize been left lying about. Fragments, at best, were surrounded by jots and tittles of what had been.

“God in heaven,” Zanssen said, stopping in his tracks. Dietrich stopped, too, thinking that no one could have survived that mélange. They stood there, perhaps a minute, perhaps two, before they saw a Hitler Youth detail[2] collecting bodies. These were not being flung onto trucks, but were placed neatly and covered with tarps until they could be identified.

* * *

Albert Speer and Adolf Hitler

At seven o’clock that morning, Luftwaffe Chief of Staff Jeschonnek was informed that all of Peenemunde was in flames. He had been severely reprimanded by Field Marshall Milch and Reichsmarschall Göring in rapid succession via telephone earlier that day, and scolded by Hitler, in person, the day before. Shortly after nine, Jeschonnek’s secretary found his body on the floor of his office, dead of a single shot from the revolver in his hand.

* * *

Several minutes had passed before Dietrich realized that Colonel Zanssen had continued ahead without him. Perhaps an hour later, Dietrich had drifted past what remained of the residences and saw the Colonel again, talking with Reichsminister Speer outside the ruins of the rocket factory.

“Only one hundred and twenty of our people were killed,” Zanssen was telling Speer, “but more than ninety per cent of our housing is gone. That’s the worst of it.”

It seemed to Dietrich that putting up new shelters should be considerably less trouble than replacing sophisticated machinery, but he kept silent until he saw Ludo. Even then, he only shrieked a shrill gasp of excitement before lighting out at a run toward Ludo, who heard his approaching footfalls soon enough to welcome him with open arms.

“You survived?” Dietrich asked even as they embraced.

“Yes, most of us did. We thought the attack had ended, and came out to see the damage. It was the final wave, which came when most of us were outdoors, that pulverized the houses and barracks.”

“That’s wonderful.”

“And when that attack had ended, the director himself began screaming that we must save the important documents. The offices were hardly more than smoke and flame, hotter than hell, but he led a group of us in, sending us out in relays with armfuls of papers as quickly as he could grab them. Everything important was saved that way.”

Dietrich was pleasantly surprised to find that soup and coffee were available in the mess hall, but not so surprised to learn that this had been one of the director’s first orders that morning.

* * *

On the 19th, Reichsminister Speer met with Adi at Wolfsschanze, primarily to “correct” some “misinformation” Adi had received from General Fromm. Speer felt that by limiting repairs to essentials, Peenemunde could be operational within four weeks. Further, leaving wreckage and structural damage in plain view of British reconnaissance flights would give the impression their attack had succeeded, and thus discourage any return engagements.

In the hope of assuring London would be destroyed, Adi approved the controversial “high-pressure pump” program[3]. He also issued orders giving it top priority.

A few days later, Reichsfuehrer Himmler met with Speer and Adi, offering to put his top man, Major-General Hans Kammler, at Speer’s disposal, to help in procuring the labour necessary to repair the rocket facility, and to produce the rockets themselves[4]. Adi decided then that rocket production at Peenemunde would cease once Kammler had completed the construction of an underground rocket assembly facility[5].

* * *

She dropped her tea. Her cup shattered on the floor.

“Do you feel it?” she asked, panicked.

“What?” I asked.

“Into the closet, Love,” she said, jumping up from the table. “Now.”

I wanted to finish our supper, and relax with my tea, but it was imperative that I get into the closet at once, so I did. She was right behind me, but before I could ask another question, it all suddenly ended. My clothes simply disappeared, although I could feel abrasions on my skin, where traces of them had given way, dissolving in a moment. Then I was wrapped in all of our coats, sweaters and mackintoshes as our ceiling, floor and walls all seemed to liquify, and everything around me was either flying upward or falling away beneath me. I was sliding downward among some of it while the rest of it rushed up and over me. In a moment, dust was everywhere. It was done, whatever it was that had happened.

The closet door was in front of me, although I was reclining at an angle under it. Perhaps foolishly, I tried to open it, after wrestling my way out of the wraps that must have cushioned my descent through the wreckage. Debris, apparently, held the door in place. It had probably thus saved my life. I had room to move, and somewhat above or in front of me, there was a vague area composed of less darkness. I crawled away in that direction, burrowing through dust-coated chunks of the shattered building to the top of a heap of rubble, where I emerged, perhaps a story high, in the brilliance of the evening’s declining sun. People were gathering in a crowd, all of them wondering, as I did, what had happened. From the nature of their exclamations and the tones with which they uttered them, I knew they were seeing gruesome casualties.

“Look at that, eh?” I heard an audibly relieved man say, loud and clear. Almost jovially, he added, “But don’t stare.”

“Hello, Miss?” someone else called up to me. “Stay put. Rescue will arrive presently.”

Except for the layer of dust covering me, I was naked. The oblique sunlight played on the bright white powder coating my skin, and I was shining like a celestial being. The last thing I wanted was to sit in the chill of this September evening perched atop a heap of rubble in full view of everyone, who couldn’t help but gaze, transfixed by the vision I presented, a feminine incarnation of Siva, nesting miraculously in the midst of Chiswick. But I understood. There might be people still alive below me. If I tried to traverse the unstable wreckage, it might fall and kill someone.

I waited, wondering if Ellie was in there and still alive, perhaps unconscious, or if her body was scattered among the arms, legs, and other parts bystanders were already locating.

* * *

The dust had been carefully wiped away from my face. I was wrapped in a blanket and sitting with a cup of tea. As the rescue team continued their work, I felt relief at the sight of each hand or foot that I did not recognize, and immeasurable guilt. Somebody else would know those hands and feet, and would have to accept what I was not yet accepting; that someone they loved, who had survived five years of carnage and destruction, had stopped short of surviving the war.

I reminded myself that this had not been my war, or my city, and that I only wished each of these people dead because that was the necessary corollary to Ellie being alive.

There was speculation that a gas main had blown up, but I knew better than to believe this. Among those survivors on the scene, the observation was utterly consistent. The building instantly came apart, and then there were two rapid explosions.

What my imagination kept coming back to was something like radio-controlled atomic energy. I pictured a beam of some sort that shattered the very molecules of objects it was aimed at, releasing immeasurable forces by the sublimation of matter. Something from Buck Rogers.

I knew how crazy that was, but hadn’t this whole war been insane? Before the war, no one could have imagined a world ruled by Russia and the United States operating in tandem, but by the autumn of 1944, nobody could imagine the war having any other result. It was clear by then that for the rest of the century, at least, and perhaps for the rest of human history, Roosevelt’s easy-going variety of capitalism and Stalin’s cynical variety of communism would contend for the hearts and minds of all the earth. Nothing else was now possible.

Possible? Once, a radio controlled airplane was just a joke, a gag in a Porky Pig cartoon. Now the Germans had been using them successfully for three months.

I remembered, then, that the RAF had gotten the doodlebug’s number. They had figured out what it was, how it worked, and how to stop it. Now they were shooting most of them down above the channel. Whatever this new thing was that Hitler had thrown at us over our supper, we would figure it out. We would stop it in its tracks, even if it had no tracks, and we would throw it right back at him.

I started crying, and didn’t stop until I fell asleep at the rest centre in Hammersmith.

* * *

Swastika - Ancient Oriental Good Luck Symbol

The following morning, Ellie and I were at a table, having tea and buns at the rest center in Hammersmith, which was cleaner and cheerier than many I had seen before, perhaps because at this stage of the war, the need was less than it had been, and it was easier to keep a place clean and make it cheery. Or maybe it was just that my point of view had changed. I wasn’t visiting this time, gathering news for another column. I was simply here, like everyone else.

“Something German, you reckon?” Ellie asked quietly. I nodded. “There’s been talk around the depot,” she resumed. “Nothing official, just girls talking, piecing together the scraps of information they pick up from place to place.”

“Talk?”

She nodded, glanced around, then leaned closer.

“Hitler has rockets.”

I was actually relieved, hearing that. The Chinese had had rockets for nine hundred years. Hitler’s rockets would be bigger and deadlier, of course, but they would be nothing really new. This was what the Nazis had always done, seizing upon an old, familiar thing and twisting it, like a swastika, into some horrible thing that could terrify ordinary people. Even the swastika was not their own invention. It had been an ancient and innocent symbol of good luck and well being, but for the rest of human history it will remain the one thing that has never been wrested from Hitler’s corrupting grasp.

[1] The actual number of prisoners killed in the raid was 612.

[2] As the war progressed, the boys assigned to this work necessarily became younger.

[3] The V3. In theory, this weapon system would put a stream of artillery shells into London at six-second intervals. The launching site was destroyed by the RAF on July 6th, 1944, and the approach of Allied ground units prevented it being repaired. Further, technical difficulties with the system itself had not been resolved.

[4] Himmler’s purpose in this was to bring the rocket program under his own control.

[5] Mittelwerk-Dora.

Operation Barbarossa

Battle of Stalingrad

Once more, we have been able to secure a post from the immensely knowledgeable Stacy Danielle Stephens.  This one is also a WWII issue, moving east in this case, and we’re delighted to present it!   As you will see, it’s also part of a work in progress – and a fragment of the “Barbarossa” chapter at that!  But it does induce thought, in and of itself, and we loved it for that reason.

 

When the German attack began, it was not yet midnight in New York, and only a quarter past eight on the West Coast.  The majority of Americans heard about it on the radio before going to bed on Saturday night, and didn’t read about it in the papers until Monday morning.

The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff advised President Roosevelt that the Red Army could be depended upon to resist the Germans for at least four weeks, although it would ultimately be destroyed, certainly within thirteen weeks, and more probably sooner than that.  Other than Joseph Davies (the former U S ambassador to the Soviet Union) and journalist Vincent Sheean, virtually no one outside the Soviet Union believed, in the summer of 1941, that the Red Army would survive the war, let alone that the Soviet Union would emerge from it victorious, becoming a world power in the process.

The consensus was that the Red Army had inadequate transportation and communication capacities, and was both poorly led and poorly equipped.  This assessment was drawn entirely from the events occurring on the Finnish frontier in November and December of 1939, when the Red Army’s amphibious assault on the south coast of Finland failed, while a million Soviet soldiers, bogged down in mud and lost in persistent fog, were unable to advance against the substantially outnumbered Finns, who were not only able to ski into the midst of Soviet formations, but able to ski out again within moments of inflicting very heavy casualties with very light weapons.  In addition, many Finns were wily enough to misdirect Soviet supplies to their own depots, and to draw rations from Soviet field kitchens.  But by the end of January, Finland was seeking peace terms, and by March, both the winter and the Winter War were over.

By and large, the presumption was that Stalin had forced the  Finns to sue for peace by pouring everything he had against them.  A more accurate observation was that expressed by German Lieutenant-General Dittmar.  The typical Soviet soldier was unusually resilient, and the Red Army had learned–and learned quickly–from its mistakes.  If these facts were brought to Hitler’s attention, he must have considered them irrelevant.

 

* * *

himmler's BMW

     Reichsfuehrer Himmler, speaking casually at an informal gathering of some higher-ranking Nazis, had recently quoted a Wehrmacht report in his typical pretentiously off-handed manner, explaining that the real object of Operation Barbarossa was to eradicate thirty million Slavic persons from the face of the Earth[1].  Himmler’s purpose in mentioning this was most probably to steel himself and his cohort for the work that lay ahead[2].

 

* * *

Stalin

Although it was not reported at the time, Stalin went into something like a mild state of shock when he fully grasped the reality of the German attack.  Feeling that he had, in his own words, “fucked up,” he secluded himself for more than a week, finally offering his resignation to the Politburo.  Rather than have him arrested and executed, as he expected, they refused his resignation.  When he wondered aloud if he were able to lead the nation to victory, they insisted that he must, that no one else among them could.  With this, he began to recover, returning to his Kremlin office the next day.

On July 3rd, he addressed the nation.  Speaking softly and setting aside the usual Party claptrap, he simply reassured his people by calling on their love of country.  Strangely, perhaps miraculously, they responded.  It is, of course, preposterous to suggest that our world owes its existence to a sociopath directly responsible for more deaths then can be attributed to Hitler himself, and yet it is absurdly true that with nothing more than his pluck at the right moment, Stalin wrested the world from Hitler’s grasp, as had Churchill before him[3].

 

 

[1] The actual number of Soviet Citizens who died in the course of the war is believed to be twenty-seven million.  The precise number cannot be known.  Unlike the US Army, the Red Army did not collect identity information of battlefield casualties, and among the civilian population, it was customary to say nothing whenever a neighbor disappeared for any reason.  However, extrapolating from those instances in which precise losses can be documented will establish that twenty-seven million is an accurate estimate, and it can be ascertained that of the one-hundred-ninety-three million Soviet Citizens whose whereabouts were known in June of 1941, twenty-seven million–fourteen percent of them–were nowhere to be found by May of 1945.  While this figure cannot be meaningfully comprehended, it can be dramatically and effectively visualized by spelling out the word “RUSSIA” with Scrabble tiles, and then removing one of the tiles.

[2] The resettlement of ethnic Poles from Upper Silesia, West Prussia and Warthegau–portions of Imperial Germany unilaterally conferred upon Poland by the Versailles Treaty, then occupied by Germany in 1939 during the invasion of Poland and annexed into the New Reich–into the central swath of western Poland, in order to implement the repatriation of ethnic Germans from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Bessarabia–regions that had arbitrarily come under the auspices of the Soviet Union, also in 1939–made it increasingly evident that Adolf Eichmann’s proposal that the Jews of Nazi Europe be corralled in the Easternmost area under the authority of the Third Reich–the western portion of central Poland–would be unworkable.

[3] On Saturday, October 25, 1986 at Shea Stadium, in the tenth inning of game six of the 1986 World Series, the Boston Red Sox were one strike away from defeating the New York Mets and winning the series.  In the bottom of the tenth, with two out, two on, and two strikes, Ray Knight hit a single, allowing Gary Carter to score.  Minutes later, again with two out, two on, and two strikes, Kevin Mitchell scored the tying run when a wild pitch to Mookie Wilson bounced away from catcher Rich Gedman..  A few minutes after that, still two out, two on, and two strikes, Wilson hit a grounder to first which bounced under Bill Buckner’s glove.  This error allowed Knight to score the winning run, forcing a seventh game, played on Monday night because of rain on Sunday.  The Mets won game seven, eight to five.

In essence, Stalin’s radio address of July 3rd was a base hit at a crucial moment.  There would be another forty-six months of war in Europe, and the first nineteen of those months would involve ceaselessly hard and desperate fighting for the Red Army and the Soviet Union.  But Hitler would never again be one strike away from retiring the Red Army.