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.

1 comment:

Keir said...

Thanks for the post; was waiting for someone to rebut Kerry's typically lazy generalisations although I thought his comments last week were refreshingly direct in his conscious use of emotive language; still unsure how children killed by sarin is of greater horror than by being mutilated through shelling or indiscriminate bombing.