WWII

Rossellini Reality

Yes… more neorealism.

Roberto Rossellini Paisà Movie Poster

But unlike Brief Encounter, Rossellini’s Paisan seems to benefit from his adoption of the neorealist aesthetic, to the point where I was about to write that, while the British film was fiction, Paisan is actually a documentary.  It’s not, of course.  It’s just as fictional as other films in the genre, it somehow feels real.

Perhaps this is just a reflection of the great Italian’s filmmaking genius, or maybe the subject matter–Italy during WWII–lends itself to neorealism unlike any other time and place in history.

That second argument certainly made itself very present in Rossellini’s earlier neorealist movie on the same subject, Rome, Open City.  But unlike Open City, Paisan does away with both politics and melodrama.  It is a film composed of a series of vignettes that are extremely sad, but never falls into the typical trap of trying to drive the point of the character’s suffering into the audience with a sledgehammer.  The situations are simply presented as they are, and the sadness often comes from the audience knowing more about the situation than the characters do.

The sparse approach to the material works perfectly, and though it doesn’t escape from the bane of realist art (namely, the sense that it just presents situations and answers no questions and offers no fulfillment), at least it isn’t maudlin realism, where you are invited to dwell upon the futility of existence and the fact that only suffering can break the monotony.

So, while this isn’t a film you’d watch to get your spirits up after a breakup, it’s still the apogee of neorealism and probably the only one you need to see to get a sense for the aesthetics and sensibilities of that particular postwar phenomenon.  It will not uplift you, but it will edify.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini

The nicely weird thing we can report is that Rossellini’s three realist films were the ones that inspired Ingrid Bergman to write to him offering he services.  While initially wanting to act for him, they eventually became the cover of the scandal sheets… in the fifties, two people who had a high-profile affair while married to others caused a lot of comment.

Of course, eventually, Rossellini left Ingrid for another married woman, and caused an even bigger scandal (and got himself thrown out of India)… but that’s a story for another day.

 

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Trying to Take Stock

There are many films about World War II.  Most of them are action flicks.  Some are anti-war.  Others deal with the horrors of war in general.  Some are Italian, and therefore morally ambiguous and political.  And only Quentin Tarantino knows what he was trying to do with his.

Best Years of Our Lives Movie Poster

But there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to understanding the effect of the war on the lives of the men and women in the United States who survived it.  That movie is The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 ensemble masterpiece that became the highest-grossing film since Gone With the Wind.  And since anything to do with the old South is seriously out of favor nowadays, the war film should come even further into its own as the days go by.

The title, of course, refers to the fact that, despite its horrors, war gave the protagonists–three men recently demobilized who return to their hometown–a shared experience that all of them recognize as participation in the most important event that they will ever be a part of.  They return to a society that doesn’t understand what they’ve been through, and is often cruel and indifferent to their needs.  The question “was this terrifying experience the best thing that will ever happen to me?” casts its shadow over the entire movie.

It’s never answered, because all three of the men eventually find a path that, with luck might bring them something better.  But at the same time, the paths they find might also lead them to a life of grey mediocrity, a condition that they’re ideally suited to identify because of what they’ve lived through.

Interestingly, despite some of the themes, it doesn’t show much anti-war sentiment.  The war happened.  It was important and necessary.  And now they’re dealing with what comes next.  Simple, no need to overthink it.

That’s probably why it works so well today.  In our world, a film like this would have been an exercise in political reflection, guilt and recrimination.  Back then, when the US had an actually significant event to reflect upon, it was a measured, even-handed view.  It’s interesting to see that people back then (yes, even in Hollywood!) acted like adults while seventy years later, everyone is a whining, idealistic adolescent.  Sad, too.  But mainly interesting.

Harold Russell still

The standout for me was the character of Homer Parrish, a former Navy sailor and amputee played by Harold Russell.  Our politically incorrect viewing party immediately dubbed him “Sailor Hook”, but the truth is that he steals the show; his Oscar win for best supporting actor was well-deserved: apart from being an amputee, the guy could act. so we tried to find a little more about him.

There’s an army film about rehabilitating veterans in which he stars, entitled Diary of a Sergeant.  It’s available in its entirety on Youtube.  Inspiring and sobering in equal measures, kind of like the film about the Battle of San Pietro, also produced by the military and which was so significant that we spoke about it twice: here and here.

This film makes the reviewer’s job pretty simple: if you haven’t seen it, watch it.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again.  There’s something here for everyone except, maybe, for those people who need constant, non-stop action.  There’s a reason this one is considered one of the best of the best.

Eventually, the War Ended

rome-open-city-1945-700x987

Even in Italy, a country that was, to a degree ravaged by both sides in WWII, the conflict eventually came to an end, and things went back to normal, even to the point where politically charged films could be made.

Of course, the open wound that directors could stick their cameras into was the memory of the war itself and the deep divisions in Italian society.  So for our next film from the 1001 films to see before you die, we give you Roma, Città Aperta (Rome, Open City), the first of Roberto Rossellini‘s Neorrealist films, and probably the most raw.

It’s a film about fear and loyalty–both extreme loyalty and the confused, divided kind–as well as about betrayal, and the cost of not being true.

It’s also a film about strange bedfellows in which we see a Catholic Priest share the fate of a Communist revolutionary, and women dying alongside their men.

All of these effects are heightened by how it looks.  The lack of availability of adequate processing facilities as well as the difficulty in obtaining film stock means that the imagery isn’t of the quality one expected from the era; at times, it looks more like a war documentary filmed at the front than the output of a studio.

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The one criticism that has been leveled against it is valid: this is more of a melodramatic piece than an unflinching slice of realism.  But even that works in the film’s favor, making it more powerful than a pure expression of realist ideas could have achieved.

But powerful as what?  This isn’t so much an anti-war film as one that decries the hypocrisy of humanity.  I feel that, melodrama aside, it shrugs its shoulders at the way we are… and therein lies its ultimate success, and its capacity to be classified as neorrealist.

It’s impossible to analyze it further without spoilers, but this truly is a film that everyone should see.  People haven’t changed since it was made, after all.

 

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.

When Bad Propaganda is Good

John Huston

John Huston is best known for directing Hollywood classics ranging from The Maltese Falcon to Annie, but perhaps his most interesting films are three that were shot at the behest of the US army during the Second World War.  The Army Signal Corps requested a series of propaganda films, which Huston duly filmed…  and which were then released only in a limited way, never really used during the war effort.

Perhaps the least controversial of the three was Report from the Aleutians, which was reasonably aligned with what the government wanted, but was delayed by Huston’s portrayal of Army life as monotonous – not a particularly welcome message for a wartime propaganda film, obviously.  It can be viewed in its entirety, here.

The most surprising thing about Let There Be Light is that it was allowed to be filmed in the first place.  1946 was hardly a time to focus on the “nervous condition” and treatment of veterans.  It brought to light a whole raft of issues that are only really being taken seriously today, and which were extremely unwelcome in the dawning light of the cold war.  The one unsurprising chapter in its history is that it was banned by the Army until 1981.  It can be viewed here.

The final film is, by far, the most interesting of the three.  It is called The Battle of San Pietro, and was filmed during and immediately following the battle of the same name, during the Italian campaign.

As a film that documents a victory for the Allies, this one could have been (it is arguable that it should have been, as that was what he was being paid for, after all) a paean to the justice of the Allied cause and an ode to the heroism of its troops and to the inevitability of victory when one took into account the combined virtues of justice and heroism.

The Battle of San Pietro Still

But Huston, unlike his Nazi counterpart, documentary genius Leni Reifenstahl, decided not to obey his masters’ commands to the letter.  He let an evident love for truth in documentary filmmaking overrun his assignment, and showed just how hard-fought the victory had been.  Dead GIs are not something one normally expects from a film meant to raise US morale, nor is the effect of the war on civilian populations… but they are present.  The film was released, in 1945 (though some troops saw it in 1944), and eventually even allowed to be called a classic in its own right (and by far the most famous of Huston’s wartime work), but it was a close-run thing.  Curious people can watch it here.

Perhaps the fact that Huston could do this kind of thing and still get promoted means that the correct side won the war.  The fact that he wasn’t sent to Siberia or executed without trial for disobeying the spirit, if not the letter, of his contract makes these films even more valuable today.

The fact that both of the above were a close-run thing…  bears thinking about.

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.

Ethiopia in WWII – Part 2

haile selassie

Today we bring you the second part of Stacy Danielle Stephens’ story of Ethiopia in WWII from her monumental historical novel.  We’re certain you’ll enjoy it as much as we did!

On November 14th, 1935, Stanley Baldwin’s Tories won what would be the last general election to be held in the UK for nearly ten years. Baldwin again sent his foreign minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, to Paris, where he met with Laval on December 7th. By the following day, the two of them had devised what would be known as the Hoare-Laval Plan[1]. It was a potential compromise affording both Mussolini and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Sellasie a way out of a war which was not especially promising for either of them. More importantly, it would have precluded Hitler’s wooing a disgraced Mussolini away from the allies who had allowed his misstep to become an embarrassment.

Put simply, the plan would have given Mussolini a portion of Ethiopia, with which he could declare victory and promote Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel to the rank of Emperor. In exchange for this territorial concession, the remainder of Ethiopia would be left intact and independent, and spared the further ravages of a continued war. Unfortunately, a French official gave copies of the plan to a pair of reporters. Details of it were published in the Daily Telegraph in London, and by two papers in Paris.

As a work of statesmanship, the plan was unparalleled, and, since everybody got something, it typified what Laval had always sought in every dispute he’d had to arbitrate. But in Britain and France, as well as in the US, the public perceived it as what it was: a compromise. In strictly moral terms, it was utterly wrong.

On December 17th, Laval’s government narrowly survived a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies. By December 27th, Paul Reynaud, leading the conservative Democratic Alliance, and Léon Blum, leading the Socialists, had joined the opposition against him, and the vote of confidence they called for was even closer than it had been ten days earlier.

On January 22nd, 1936, while Laval himself was in Geneva, the Radical-Socialist Party withdrew its support, and his government fell. On January 24th, Albert Sarraut was named Prime Minister of France.

* * *

In Geneva, Switzerland, on Tuesday, June 30th, 1936, Edvard Beneš, President of the Assembly, called the meeting to order, and then resigned. Belgian Prime Minister, Paul van Zeeland, came forward to take his place and continued with the next order of business, an appeal to the League from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Although Italy had withdrawn its delegation from the League on May 12th, 1936, there were still journalists from Italy in the audience. They began jeering the moment Selassie was introduced. Nicolae Titulescu, the permanent representative of Romania to the League, immediately stood and shouted, “A la Porte, les Sauvages![2]” When the offending parties had been removed, Selassie began speaking[3].

“I, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, am here today to claim that justice which is due to my people, and the assistance promised to us,” he began. “There is no precedent for a Head of State himself speaking in this assembly. But there is also no precedent for a people being victim of such injustice and being at present threatened by abandonment to its aggressor.”

For the first several minutes, he summarized the atrocities which had occurred in the aggression against his nation, reminding the League that they themselves had defined Italy’s actions as aggression, and condemned them, but taken no real action to end them. And he assured the League that the atrocities which had been reported to them were factual; that he had witnessed them himself.

In the concluding minutes of his address, he explained that the League’s concern was really no longer the survival of Ethiopia, but of the League itself, and that international morality was at stake. “Placed by the aggressor face to face with the accomplished fact, are States going to set the terrible precedent of bowing before force?” he asked. “And the great Powers who have promised the guarantee of collective security to small States on whom weighs the threat that they may one day suffer the fate of Ethiopia, I ask what measures do you intend to take?

“I have come to Geneva to discharge in your midst the most painful of the duties of a head of State,” he concluded. “What reply shall I have to take back to my people?”

The League of Nation’s only response was a decision by the League Council, on July 4th, to suspend economic sanctions against Italy. Fighting in Ethiopia had ended sixty days earlier.

* * *

italian troops in ethipioa with mussolini flag

Ethiopia was the final African nation to be subdued by a European power. Italy had last attempted this subduction forty years earlier, but on March 1, 1896, the Ethiopians had defeated and humiliated the Italians at the battle of Adwa. At that time, there were public disturbances in every Italian city, and full-scale riots in both Naples and Rome. Police were unable to disperse the crowd that continuously threw rocks at Prime Minister Crispi’s office, and when the army was sent to quell the riot, civilians barricaded the rail lines, preventing the army from intervening. Crispi resigned on March 14th, 1896, and King Umberto declared a national day of mourning.

* * *

In 1936, Italy was again humiliated, even though Ethiopia had been defeated. Italy’s mismanagement of the war in the first several months allowed the Ethiopians to inflict heavy casualties and impede Italian advances, in spite of being poorly equipped and inadequately supplied. When Mussolini resorted to the widespread use of poison gas against civilians and non-military targets, the profound American goodwill Air Marshal Balbo had established at Chicago in 1933 was irretrievably lost, and throughout 1936, at every theater in the US, if Haile Selassie appeared in a newsreel, the audience applauded and cheered.

And while most Italians were pleased and proud to be citizens of what was now an empire, even such a limited war was beyond Italy’s capacities. Mussolini had blamed economic hardships on the League of Nations embargo, but it had been largely ineffective, and once it was lifted, it became increasingly clear that Italy would not soon recover from building its empire, and could never recover the costs incurred by Mussolini’s disastrous victory.

* * *

That Edvard Beneš resigned as President of the Assembly on June 30th, 1936, was not coincidence. He was also President of Czechoslovakia, a country whose independence and sovereignty were guaranteed, as Ethiopia’s had been, by Britain and France.

[1] Except for the specific portion of Ethiopia ceded to Italy, Breckinridge Long, US ambassador to Italy, had drawn up an identical plan immediately prior to the Italian invasion.

[2] Show those hooligans the door. Literally, To the door, these savages. King Carol of Romania removed Titulescu from all official assignments shortly afterward.

[3] He spoke in Amharic. The quotations are from a translated text.

Ethiopia in WW2 – Part 1

Italian Flying Boat Lands in Chicago

Today we continue our excerpts of Stacy Danielle Stephens excellent historical novel.  Apart from bringing the war to a human level, she has a knack for finding and writing vividly about things that are mostly ignored by the canned histories that came later.  One great example is the segment about the USS Greer that we ran previously – another is this post.

On July 15, 1933, two dozen Italian Savoia-Marchetti S.55 flying boats, under the command of Air Marshal Italo Balbo, landed on Lake Michigan. It was easily the most dramatic and popularly acclaimed arrival of a foreign military officer in American history. Meeting later with Charles Lindbergh and having lunch with President Roosevelt, Balbo captivated the imaginations and won the hearts of the majority of Americans.

* * *

On December 9th, 1934, at Wal Wal, in southern Abyssinia, Italian Dubats[1] encountered Camel-mounted Ethiopian soldiers. There was an exchange of fire, in which the number of Italian dead increased as the weeks went by. Flatly ruling out arbitration, Mussolini demanded that the Ethiopian government make immediate reparations.

On January 3, 1935, Ethiopia appealed to the League of Nations for arbitration. For the next several months, each commission, committee, or subcommittee to which the matter was referred recommended that Ethiopia submit to arbitration[2], then referred the matter to another commission, committee or subcommittee.

* * *

The conference at Stresa, Italy, which began on April 11th, 1935, was a response to Hitler’s cumulative treaty violations. Mussolini and Fulvio Suvich, Italian Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, met with French Prime Minister Pierre-Étienne Flandin and French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval, as well as Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and Foreign Minister Sir John Simon of Britain. After several days of discussion, the group agreed that “maintaining the independence and integrity of Austria would continue to inspire their common policy” and that they would “act in close and cordial collaboration” to oppose “by all practicable means, any unilateral repudiation of treaties which may endanger the peace of Europe.”

Pierre Laval

Apparently, the minutes of the meeting as recorded by British clerks indicate that the words “of Europe” had been agreed upon from the beginning. French and Italian sources recall that Mussolini later requested they be added. Much has been made over this point, but in either case, it is clear that France and Britain were standing behind–or, more accurately, hiding behind–the precedent established at the League of Nations. Since the peace of Europe depended upon Italy’s support for Austrian independence, Mussolini had every reason to believe that the agreement signed in Stresa was a quid pro quo, giving him carte blanche against Ethiopia.

* * *

League of Nations Meeting

In May, while he was still only Foreign Minister, Laval had persuaded the League of Nations to postpone for three months any decisions regarding Italy’s provocations of Ethiopia[3]. In August, as Prime Minister, Laval had to find a way to appease the League of Nations while keeping Mussolini as an ally poised against Hitler, but already, Léon Blum had coined the phrase, “With Mussolini, it is not a question of wrongs, but of crimes,” and the Socialists had taken it up as a slogan. The prevailing consensus in every corner of France, as well as Britain, was that Mussolini must be condemned and Ethiopia supported through, and in concert with, the League of Nations.

Knowing Laval’s reputation for negotiating the impossible into mere difficulties, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin sent his foreign minister, Sir Samuel Hoare, to Paris, with no further instructions than to push Laval to his limits and keep Britain out of war.

Hoare began the discussion with a suggestion that Britain and France attempt to get an agreement from the Germans limiting the size of the Luftwaffe[4]. He then mentioned, almost casually, that while keeping Mussolini[5] in opposition to Hitler was quite desirable, his government would have to stand behind the League.

Laval acknowledged that he was in the same bind, but wanted to know if Britain would stop at sanctions, or actually go to war with Italy if the league called for it. Hoare said that Britain had no intention of going to war. Laval expressed doubts about sanctions being anything more than an annoyance to Italy, since Germany, Japan, and the United States weren’t bound by the League’s decisions, and also expressed his gravest concern; that Mussolini might be “driven into the German camp.”

Nothing had been decided, and Laval was less certain of British support for France than he had been before the meeting. Hoare, meanwhile, addressed the League of Nations, calling for unity without mentioning any specific actions, or revealing what part Britain intended to play in that unity. It was nonetheless clear that Baldwin’s government hoped it could stand solidly behind Ethiopia and the League of Nations, but at a very comfortable distance.

* * *

On August 31st, 1935, President Roosevelt signed the Neutrality Act, which had passed both houses of Congress by majorities that approached unanimous. It established the licensing and registration of arms manufacturers in the US, and provided for an embargo of arms shipments to foreign governments at war. It also restricted travel by US citizens on vessels of other nations at war.

The President also announced that the US would not abide by any League of Nations sanctions against Italy. Since shipments of petroleum were not restricted by the Neutrality Act, and Ethiopia did not have money to purchase weapons even if they could have been exported from the US, the Neutrality Act of 1935 was essentially supporting Mussolini while purporting otherwise, and served as public notice that if the League of Nations were forming a posse, the US would not be riding in it.

* * *

On September 8th, 1935, Laval telegraphed London, asking how Britain would respond if Germany seized the moment and attacked Austria. On September 11th, he sent a telegram to Rome, reminding Mussolini that France was obligated to act in accordance with the League of Nations. Laval received no reply to either telegram.

On October 3rd, 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia.

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[1] Irregular auxiliaries in the Italian Colonial Army.

[2] It was Ethiopia which was seeking arbitration, and Italy which was refusing it.

[3] Mussolini appears to have interpreted this as an endorsement of his intentions toward Ethiopia. This may well have been Laval’s intent.

[4] What led Hoare to assume this would be an effective ice-breaker is anyone’s guess.

[5] Hoare was under the mistaken impression that Laval and Mussolini had a long-standing personal friendship,