Wednesday, 15 January 2014

"The Gun: The AK-47" by C.J. Chivers - a review

Given the death before Christmas of the Soviet weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov, I thought it was a good time to post this review of a book from 2010, which made a study of his most famous invention: the iconic AK-47...

“The Gun: The AK-47 and the Evolution of War”

by C.J. Chivers

Few guns achieve iconic status.  One of those that indubitably has is the AK-47 – the Kalashnikov.  Simply engineered, reliable and easy to use, it is now nearly ubiquitous, with an estimated 100 million examples currently in circulation.  Instantly recognisable the world over, it is a subject of political iconography from the gable-ends of Belfast to the flags of Hezbollah and Mozambique, and is the weapon of choice for generations of freedom fighters, terrorists and jihadis.  It has become ‘the people’s gun’. 

With the book market teeming with ‘micro-histories’ of everything from cod, to sugar, to the Atlantic Ocean itself, it was perhaps inevitable that someone should seek to tackle a brand as powerful and as malevolently cool as the AK-47.  Yet, C. J. Chivers’ book “The Gun” goes further than retracing the story of the weapon’s development and its subsequent emergence as an icon – fascinating though it is.  This, he claims, is a gun that has changed the very nature of warfare and has even altered history itself. 

It is certainly a remarkable story.  According to the Soviet mythology, Mikhail Kalashnikov – himself the son of an exiled kulak – was the original proletarian hero: a man whose patriotism and class consciousness, fired by service in World War Two, had led him to single-handedly design the most successful weapon of all time.

As ever, the truth is rather more prosaic.  As Chivers relates, the gun was a hybrid of existing rifle technology and was the product of more minds than one.  Thus, though Kalashnikov certainly played a central role in its development, there were some who later questioned whether his name should have been appended to the weapon at all. 

The gun’s real, large-scale debut would be in Vietnam, where its rivalry with the American M-16 would carry with it much wider connotations: capitalist versus communist, peasant versus professional soldier.  The Kalashnikov won hands down.  More reliable, more hardy and cheaper to produce, it won many plaudits, even being preferred by some US Marines to their standard-issue weapon. 

Chivers writes very well, as one would expect from a Pulitzer Prize winner.  His descriptions of set-pieces, such as a jungle fire-fight or an attempted assassination, are exemplary.  He also works hard to disentangle the mythology surrounding the weapon’s development and is admirably clear when explaining technological matters. 

Yet, there are a couple of caveats.  For one thing, the book is rather overlong and would have benefitted from some judicious cutting.  Though impeccably-researched and engagingly presented, it spends fully four chapters explaining the background history of automatic weaponry, when surely one would have sufficed.  Also, the book’s episodic, impressionistic feel – shifting from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq and elsewhere – tends to rob it of a narrative focus and definable structure.

More seriously, Chivers seems to wrestle rather unconvincingly and inconclusively with the wider aspects of his story.  The overarching context of the book is that of the profound changes wrought by the miniaturisation, simplification and democratisation of automatic weaponry, as exemplified by the AK-47.  The original automatic gun – the Gatling – resembled an artillery piece and required a crew of men to fire it, whilst the Kalashnikov is about the size of a tennis racquet, the weight of an axe and can be had for around $200.  There is a very valid point to be made here, but Chivers does not quite make it coherently or explicitly enough, almost preferring the argument to materialise incidentally as he goes along.  

Yet, these complaints should not detract from a formidable feat of research and writing.  Chivers’ story of the Kalashnikov is a fascinating and complex one, which encompasses both the darkest days of the Cold War and the asymmetric warfare of the early 21st Century, and features illuminating asides on technological developments and wider strategic concerns.  He has marshalled these myriad sources well and has surely produced the final word on one of the most brutally effective and iconic weapons of our times. 

This review first appeared in History Today, January 2011

© Roger Moorhouse 2010

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

"Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" - a historian's review

I finally got around to watching the last part of the German mini-series "Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter" last night.  It first aired in Germany earlier this year, and caused something of a sensation, drawing enormous audiences, provoking spirited debate and anguished reflection and generally jumping the normal bounds inhabited by a TV programme. 

Meaning literally "Our Mothers, our Fathers", it is the story of 5 friends (3 men & 2 women) who meet up just prior to the invasion of the USSR in the spring of 1941 to swear eternal friendship and promise to meet again the following Christmas.  They are perhaps a microcosm of the ordinary German population: 2 soldiers (one keen, one not), an ambitious singer, a nurse eager to do her duty for the Fatherland, and a Jewish tailor. None of them, tellingly, is a Nazi.

What follows, over 3x90 minute programmes, shows what life - and the war - throws at the five friends, and crucially shows the ways in which they, like the vast majority of ordinary people, were subtly made complicit in both the Nazi regime and the all-pervading horrors of World War Two.  The singer, Greta, for instance, has an affair with a Gestapo man, essentially to further her career; Wilhelm (the enthusiastic soldier) is disillusioned by his experience of the war, his less enthusiastic brother Friedhelm becomes totally apathetic and ruthless.  I won't spoil your enjoyment by revealing too much more.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when..."
In this respect, the film does a great job of bringing the nuances and complexities of life in wartime in a dictatorship to the screen.  Living in freer times, we like to imagine life back then as black and white: you were either clean or you collaborated.  However, life is rarely so neat, and certainly wasn't back then under the Third Reich or the Soviet Union.  What the film brilliantly brings to the fore is the countless shades of grey that existed for everyone.  The tiny compromises and accommodations that could often have huge consequences.  So far, then, so realistic.

Another positive was the film's production values, which were excellent.  Acting throughout was never less than convincing, and - whisper it quietly - people got dirty..., army uniforms were never neatly pressed.  I remember a veteran once saying to me that they could smell the Red Army before you could see them - this film gives a whiff of that grim olfactory realism.  In this regard, the only complaint was that the deaths were far too neat - people shot once in the body rarely die instantaneously; yet here they did, irritatingly regularly.

There are other gripes... I found it rather unrealistic that the five friends kept bumping into each other. Considering the vast extent of German-occupied Europe between 1941-45, it was utterly implausible that the nurse and her soldier beau, for instance, should have bumped into each other - not once but twice!  And that the Jew-cum-Partisan should recognise his childhood pal passing him in a Wehrmacht Kubelwagen... One is tempted to quip - "Of all the slit trenches in all the world..."

OK, I get it - the piece has to make a few concessions for the sake of a narrative structure.  But there were other failings - the film also showed a rather peculiar "world view".  It is probably to be expected that the Germans themselves would not be portrayed terribly sympathetically - they are all in some way seen as complicit (as the premise dictates), they are all 'collectively guilty' for the crimes of the Nazis.

Yet, beyond that, the film demonstrated some rather peculiar sympathies and prejudices.  The Polish Underground Army (AK), for instance - in which the Jewish tailor finds temporary refuge - is portrayed as being rabidly and almost uniformly anti-Semitic. Now, anti-Semitism was not just a German disease, and there were certainly instances of it in wartime Poland.  But, but... let us not forget that Poland has more individuals listed as "Righteous Among the Nations" - for saving Jews during the Holocaust - than ANY other country - and over 10 times the figure for Germany.  So, to portray the Polish partisans as more anti-Semitic than any of the German characters on show was not only a gross distortion - it was grossly unfair.

More surprising, perhaps, was the positive spin that was put on the Red Army and the Soviet Union in the film.  Not only did the benighted Polish partisans express the opinion that the Germans were worse than the Soviets, (they tended to view both as equally awful), but a would-be rape of the nurse character (Charlie) is interrupted by a stern (female) Red Army officer, who then finds her a position in a Red Army medical unit. If the scene were at all realistic, one fears, a captured German nurse like Charlie would have been raped - probably numerous times - before being unceremoniously shot.

One is tempted to wonder why the Soviet Union is portrayed in such a positive light - the only group incidentally that come out of the film with any apparent credit whatsoever.  Indeed, such is the gloss applied, that - were it not for the excellent production values - one might have imagined that the film had been made during the dying days of the GDR!

Despite all this historically-themed griping - this is nonetheless an excellent film, which is well worth seeing (and it is due to be shown with subtitles as "Generation War" on BBC2 this winter).  German TV's treatment of the Third Reich, the war, and the nation's complicity in both has clearly come a long way, but there is still - perhaps - a little way to go.

© Roger Moorhouse 2013

Saturday, 23 November 2013

The Fortress at Brest - a story of heroism, sacrifice and unreconstructed Soviet historiography

I watched an interesting film yesterday.  "Fortress of War" is the subtitled English-language release title of a Belarusian film from 2010, 'Брестская крепость' or "The Brest Fortress".  It tells the remarkable story of the Soviet garrison manning the 19th Century Fortress at Brest, on the Soviet-German frontier, in the opening days of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.  Astonishingly, the fortress held out for a week against the German attack, suffering enormous privation in the process, before its last defenders were forced to surrender.  It is indeed a remarkable story.

And, it is a remarkable film.  In pure cinema terms, it is actually rather good.  If I were to describe it as a "Belarusian 'Saving Private Ryan'", then that might sound mocking, but it should be taken as a compliment.  The narrative is well-paced, the characters (though a tad two-dimensional) are just about rounded enough, and the battle scenes are gripping and reasonably realistic.  So, on that level at least, the film is certainly not a waste of 138 minutes of your life.

The film is also remarkable on another level, however: as an example of unreconstructed Soviet 'hurrah' historiography.  But for the glossy modern production values, this exact film could have been made in 1985 - or even 1965.  The message is the same: the Soviet Union was a land of milk, honey and happiness before the Nazi invasion, and the Red Army was the unblemished valiant defender of the Soviet people.  Even the film's Political Commissar - Yefim Fomin - is portrayed with unalloyed admiration.  This - in 2013 - is truly remarkable.

So, there is a great deal that the film does not tell the viewer.  One salient point is the immediate history predating the 1941 attack, for instance that Brest had been in Poland two years before, and had itself been invaded and occupied by the Soviets and the Germans jointly in 1939.  Indeed, it was at Brest that one of the most remarkable episodes of the opening phase of the World War Two took place; the joint Soviet-German parade of September 22 1939.  As the image below shows, Brest could well have been synonymous with the brief flowering of 'friendship' between Moscow and Berlin.
German & Soviet Commanders take the salute at Brest
Yet, understandably perhaps, that was not an image that the world chose to remember after 1941.  Accordingly, no mention is made of it in the film.  Even the Nazi-Soviet Pact itself is reduced to a couple of oblique references that would pass most viewers by entirely.  The political and geographical complexity that Brest signified is reduced to a simple tale of Red Army soldiers defending the Soviet Motherland against unprovoked attack.

Of course, it is too much to expect a film with a discreet narrative to include such related, though extraneous, material as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, or the Soviet deportations of Poles from Brest and elsewhere of the previous summer, but the 'tone' of the film is still rather astonishing.  One parlour game that I sometimes play in these situations is to transpose the Soviets for the Nazis and then question whether the portrayal might be deemed balanced or objective.  So, for instance, the Political Commissar character - let us imagine that he were to be changed to an SS man, galvanising his troops, leading them in battle?  (Now this is not such a crass comparison: after all, let's not forget that the NKVD (to which the Political Commissar belonged) was responsible for the Soviet Purges, the Deportations, the Gulag, the Katyn Massacres, etc etc.. and easily qualifies as a criminal organisation, like the SS.)  So, even after the most cursory thought, most readers will surely agree with me that it is unthinkable that an SS officer would be portrayed in an uncritical light, and rightly so.  Yet, incredibly, in the Soviet world-view, the Commissar can still be a positive figure. Clearly, a generation after the fall of the Soviet Union, the ex-Soviet equivalent of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung: the famed "Coming to Terms with the Past", is barely off the starting blocks...

So, "Fortress of War" is well-worth a watch, and is remarkable on a number of levels.  Its Belarussian film makers should probably be congratulated, but they should most definitely be dragged into the 21st Century.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The Saga of the Dornier 17

I had a rare treat last week, being invited up to RAF Cosford to take a look at the Dornier Do 17 wreck that was raised from the seabed this last summer.  It was a fascinating visit.

It was, of course, very interesting to have a tour around the workshops and see what Cosford is doing with a number of other WW2 projects: not least one of only two surviving Handley Page Hampdens - recovered from northern Russia - and a dismantled Vickers Wellington; a Heath-Robinson-esque melange of geodesic aluminium, wooden battens and tattered Irish linen...

A Dornier 17 of WW2 - shown here in Croatian colours
But the highlight was naturally the Dornier.  Shot down on 26 August 1940 over the English Channel, the Dornier Do 17 was one of around 2,000 of the light, twin-engine bomber built - known as the "Flying Pencil" for its slim fuselage - which became one of the mainstays of the Luftwaffe's tactical bombing arm.  Separated from its accompanying squadron, it seems that 5K+AR ran foul of one of the RAF's least-loved aircraft, the Boulton-Paul Defiant.  Holed across the cockpit and engines, the Dornier ditched over the Goodwin Sands, off the Kent coast, before flipping over onto its back and sinking in around 50ft of water. Two of the plane's 4 crew survived the crash and became PoWs
The wreck remained on the Goodwin sands, apparently unknown, until the early years of the 21st Century, by which time it was thought to be the only one in existence (though the wreckage of another still litters a site near Oslo in Norway).  After a fund-raising effort, the RAF Museum finally raised the plane's remains in June 2013, and have now begun a conservation project.

As our guide explained, this is very much a 'conservation' - not a 'restoration', as it is sometimes erroneously reported.  73 years of time and tide have left little unaffected.  The Dornier's aluminium body is encrusted with barnacles and sea-life, and all of it is full of sand.  Indeed, such is the accretion of wildlife that the plane has taken on, the weight that was lifted from the seabed amounted to fully three times the weight of the original aircraft.  This material is to be removed gradually over the coming months and years.

Most pressing, however, are the accumulated chloride salts, which could cause the aluminium frame to swiftly deteriorate further.  To wash these salts away, the airframe is being constantly sprayed and washed in citric acid - at a constant pH of between 5.2 and 5.5 - so as to stabilise the remains and ensure that they can be preserved for display.  This process is, necessarily, somewhat experimental but is estimated to require around 2 years.

Some of the Dornier parts in a hydration tunnel.
As was stressed by RAF Cosford's expert, the goal at present is not 'restoration', but 'conservation', and on seeing the remains in the flesh that seems eminently sensible as any attempted rebuild - one fears - would amount to little more than a replica.  Rather, it appears that the plan is essentially to replicate the exhibit of the Handley Page Halifax W1048, which was raised from a Norwegian fjord in the 1970s, and is displayed at RAF Hendon in 'as recovered' condition.

73 years in salt water? No problem
Aside from the two hydration tunnels, much of the Dornier's ancillary parts have already been cleaned up and are meticulously boxed and labelled.  Many news outlets reported the erroneous 'fact' that the plane's tyres were still inflated when the plane was raised (they were not), but there is nonetheless much evidence among the remains of the fabled German engineering efficiency.  An 8-ft aluminium spar was handed round and was astonishingly light.. Also the bearings on this recovered gear mechanism (above right) ran as true and smooth as on the day it left the factory.  Most surprisingly perhaps, when divers decided to cut the plane's oxygen 'ring main' - the piped oxygen supply than ran throughout the aircraft - they were astonished to discover that it was still 'live'.

One hindrance that surprised me is that the plane is not complete, despite what was claimed at the time of its salvage.  A few parts - wing tips etc - had already disintegrated.  But more worryingly, it seems that in the short time between its discovery and its raising, the wreck was subjected to fairly large-scale pilfering.  As a result, most of the cockpit is missing, including the seats, controls, instrumentation and guns.  Although there is still some smaller material scattered across the sea bed, it must be assumed that most of these headline artifacts have found their way into private collections.  Consequently, an amnesty is currently in place, in the hope that RAF Cosford can secure their recovery without resorting to more forceful methods.

Having contributed - like many others - to the raising of the Dornier, it was fascinating to see it and learn about the conservation efforts.  I wish the experts of RAF Cosford every success with it, and hope that at least some of the plane's missing artifacts might one day be reunited with the plane.  If you are reading this 'private collectors' - you know who you are - do the right thing, eh?

Monday, 7 October 2013

A glimpse into criminal history - The Kripo report on Paul Ogorzow's first victim.

On 4 October 1940, the man who would become known as the "S-Bahn Killer", Paul Ogorzow, claimed his first victim.  After a season of assaulting women around his home patch in the eastern suburbs of Berlin, with increasing frequency and violence, Ogorzow killed for the first time.  

What's peculiar about the case is that Ogorzow was not yet utilising the modus operandae that would become his trademark - that of battering his victims and throwing them from moving trains.  In this instance, his victim was found in her home, with a single stab wound to the neck.  

The following is a transcript of the original Berlin Kriminalpolizei report, relating the circumstances in which that first victim's body was found.  As well as the inherent tragedy of a young woman's life being taken, and her two children losing their mother, the report shows that the victim was already under investigation by the Nazi authorities for leading a "parasitic life" - and that the person who found her body was a representative of the welfare office, who was coming to take her children away.  Berlin could scarcely get more noir...

Kripo report  
5 October 1940.

At round 13.45 on 4. October 1940, the Kripo was notified by the Schutzpolizei, that Frau Ditter – resident in the Gutland II Colony, Path 5a, house 33 – had not been seen since the afternoon of the day before.  The Kripo detective Hinze discovered the following at the scene.

The front door to the house was not locked …but the door to the kitchen was blocked, so it was thought that it was locked.  As the wimpering of a child could be heard from inside, it was decided to smash a window to gain access to the room where an 18 month old and a 3-month old were found.  From this room, access was gained to the kitchen, where the body of the resident – Gerda Ditter, née Bath, b. 21.7.1920 Berlin – was discovered slumped in a crouching position.  The doctor who was called – Dr Dolgner of Friedrichsfelde – certified death by a 3cm stab wound to the left carotid artery.

The representative of the NSV [Nazi welfare organisation - RM] who was present; Konrad Braun, b. 3.9.1902 Friedrichsfelde, arrived at around 12.30 as he was due to take Ditter’s children away and place them in an orphanage.  The reason being that, in spite of warnings from the NSV, Ditter was leading a parasitic life, so much so that the NSV had decided to remove the children and allow the mother to report for labour duty.  Braun found the house dark and unlocked.  He entered and when he found the body, he lit a match.  Thereafter he called the police straight away.

The woman’s husband is with the Wehrmacht in Potsdam.  The circumstances suggest that suicide is doubtful, and that a crime is likely.  Consequently the murder commission has taken over the case. 

Ogorzow would go on to murder another 7 women over the following 9 months, until his capture in July 1941.  Admitting 8 counts of murder and over 30 counts of assault, he was sentenced to death and executed by guillotine.  Ogorzow was largely unknown until I (re)discovered his story in the Berlin archives in 2008. 

The full story of Ogorzow's crimes can be found in my book Berlin at War (US edition here) and in my e-book The Wolf's Lair.  

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

"Max Manus - Man of War" - a review

I recently spent a very enjoyable couple of hours with a Norwegian World War Two film from 2008 - "Max Manus - Man of War".  It tells the true story of the eponymous hero - Max Manus - who was one of the central figures in the Norwegian Resistance to Nazi occupation.

I must admit that I had not previously heard of Max Manus until my Norwegian publisher told me his story a couple of years ago in Oslo.  I probably shared that ignorance with most - even WW2 enthusiasts - outside Norway, but Manus' story is well worth retelling, and if you're willing to endure the subtitles, you can now inform yourself via the medium of film.

After volunteer service in the Winter War, fighting the Soviets, Max Manus returned to Oslo in time to see the German occupation of his homeland and immediately set to work - with others of like mind - to organise resistance.  After arrest by the Gestapo in 1941, he escaped and went (after an extraordinary odyssey) to the UK for formal training with what was to become the Norwegian Independent Company - or Lingekompaniet - later returning to Norway as a saboteur.

As an SOE operative and an occasional member of the "Oslo Gang", Manus participated in a number of sabotage operations against the German occupation; including frustrating the planned conscription of Norwegian men for military service, 'Operation Mardonius'; the sinking of German ships in Oslo harbour, and the 1945 sinking of the German freighter SS Donau using limpet mines. Though many of his comrades were killed in the resulting repressions, Manus survived the war and lived to the age of 81, dying in 1996.

The film concentrates, naturally, on Manus' wartime career.  It tells its story briskly and engagingly, using the device of flashbacks to Manus' service in Finland to punctuate the rest of the narrative.  It has excellent production values and splendid acting, and all in all makes for a most enjoyable couple of hours.  The lead particularly - Aksel Hennie - stands out.  I enjoyed the flashbacks to the Winter War - a most fascinating and under-known conflict in the West - but couldn't quite see their narrative purpose in the film, other than to show that Manus was in some way tormented by his service there.

I can't comment much on the accuracy of the history, sadly.  I have heard from Norwegian colleagues that the central importance of Manus is perhaps a little exaggerated, but such tweaks are maybe understandable in the name of creating a more compelling tale, and rest assured we are a long way from U-571 territory here. But what is fascinating for a non-Norwegian is how the film opens up a perspective on the story of World War Two that we hear very little of.

For this alone, I heartily recommend it.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

On Hitler and Chemical Weapons

The universal Bogey-Man
On the Internet, its known as "Godwin's Law" - the assertion that, at some point in any lively political discussion, one party or individual will inevitably be compared to Hitler.  So far, so ridiculous.  Indeed, rather than being a serious observation, one might imagine that "Godwin's Law" is merely an indication of the generally poor quality of internet discussion.  

Yet, if one stops to think for a moment, one realises that "Godwin's Law" also applies to our political elites. After all, wasn't Saddam Hussein repeated described as a 'Middle-Eastern Hitler', when the West was agitating for war against Iraq? (Actually, I think Saddam was more of a 'Stalin', but the point is moot).  And, just last week US Secretary of State John Kerry made a 'triple-whammy' with the remarkable assertion that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had "joined Hitler and Saddam" with his apparent use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Whatever the merits of the case for intervention in Syria, the perennial twinning of Hitler with the concept of 'evil incarnate' is understandable, if rather tiresome.  We are well-accustomed to accusing Hitler of all sorts of failings: all the way from psychopathic paranoia to monorchidism and a passion for coprophilia.  But the suggestion that Hitler should be tarred with the 'chemical weapons' brush cannot go unchallenged. This, then, is a brief exploration of the subject.

A British Vickers Gun team 
equipped with gas masks
Many countries have used chemical weapons over the years.  The Kaiser's Germany pioneered the tactic at the second Battle of Ypres in 1915, sending Chlorine gas over the Allied trenches, killing around 6,000.  After that debut, both sides used chemical weapons thereafter, including Mustard Gas and Phosgene, with around 90,000 more men dying agonising deaths from asphyxiation and chemical burns.

Chemical weapons were used sporadically thereafter, most notably by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and by the Italians in Ethiopia.  By World War Two, all sides had considerable stockpiles of such weapons - indeed the Germans had devoted the most time and energy to the subject, developing the nerve agents that would feature well into our own century: Tabun and Sarin, the latter of which is thought to have featured in Syria recently.  Yet, for all their ubiquity, few of the combatants dared to make the step of using their stockpiles.  Only Japan used chemical weapons in its brutal conflict with China.  Churchill, embarrassingly, was also in favour of their use, but was persuaded otherwise and railed against the 'moralistic arguments' of what he called the "parsons" surrounding him.  But what about Hitler?

Hitler, it seems, desisted from ordering his extensive chemical weapons stocks from being used in combat. (It is sometimes, rather mischievously, suggested that the gassing of the Jews constituted the use of chemical weapons - but this investigation is into the use of such agents in military combat, so cannot include the use of Zyklon-B and Carbon Monoxide in the death camps.)  The reasons for this non-use are still the subject of debate.  In the first instance, Hitler - perhaps rightly, given Churchill's inclinations - feared Allied retribution if he did.  He may also have had a disinclination towards the weapon from his own experience of being gassed in World War One (though this seems a tad implausible).  Also, it was supposedly suggested by Göring, that as the Germans did not have satisfactory gas masks for horses - and most of their army was still horse-drawn - any such strike could have been as destructive to their own side as to their opponents.  Whatever the reason, Hitler did not order the use of chemical weapons.

But, it seems, a few of Hitler's field commanders may not have been so abstemious.  Certainly on two occasions in World War Two, German troops appear to have used chemical weapons in anger.  The first of these was on the Eastern Front in 1942, when Red Army soldiers were holding out in the tunnels of a quarry in eastern Crimea and were evidently 'dealt with' using poison gas.  It is possible, however, that this is rather apocryphal and actually refers to the use of 'smoke candles', which the Germans certainly employed elsewhere to flush out or incapacitate dug-in opponents.

The second such instance is rather more convincing and is mentioned in eye-witness accounts of the Soviet siege of Breslau in 1945.  There - in the bitter urban fighting that ensued - a Soviet unit isolated in a cellar were dispatched by the use of so-called 'piss bags', containing a noxious yellow liquid, probably Tabun from the nearby Nazi chemical weapons plant at Dyhernfurth.

Though Hitler himself may have refrained from ordering the general use of chemical weapons, then, it seems that a few of his commanders in the field might not have been above using them on a very localised basis, assuming that the conditions were right and that they had access to the necessary agents.  Whether Hitler even knew about, never mind authorised, these very isolated examples is highly doubtful.

So when John Kerry, and others, lazily invoke "Godwin's Law", they should be reminded that the online convention is that he who 'plays the Hitler card' is thereby considered to have lost the argument.  More seriously, such interventions should remind the rest of us that - as always - the truth is rather more complex than our leaders - and the media - would have us believe.