Monday, 17 August 2020

Warsaw 1920 - the Battle that saved Europe from Communism ... and you've probably never heard of it.

 

It’s a scenario that will seem quite familiar to us today.  A revolutionary rogue state, bent on world domination, spreading its ideology and influence as far as it can, by fair means or foul. But, 100 years ago this month, it was revolutionary Russia that was hitting the headlines for its expansionist ambitions, and it was Poland that stood in its way.

Viewed from a British perspective, it is easy to imagine the interwar period – with the Jarrow March, the General Strike and the Great Depression – as one characterised primarily by economic rather than military challenges.  Yet, for much of central Europe, the time after the end of the First World War was marked by conflict: states emerged, or re-emerged, and frontiers were redrawn, often with violence.  To paraphrase Churchill’s pithy quip: the War of the Titans gave way to the War of the Pygmies. 

Though largely forgotten in Britain, the most significant, and long-lasting, of those wars was the Polish-Soviet War, which raged for 18 months from the spring of 1919.  It had its origins in the standard frontier squabble.  Poland, re-emerging after 123 years of absence from the map of Europe and capitalising on the chaos then engulfing revolutionary Russia, was seeking to push its eastern frontier as far as possible to incorporate as many formerly-Polish lands as it could. 

In this way, the Poles reached – and took – Kiev in the spring of 1920, but that was to prove their high-water mark.  The Soviet counter-offensive that followed pushed them back, and kept pushing, spurred by the humiliation that a Polish invasion provoked. 

Soviet successes soon bred grander strategic aims.  Survival morphed into expansion.  Lenin, only newly ensconced in the Kremlin, was acutely aware of the need to expand the communist system – not only to help realise Marx’s universalist ambitions, but also to secure the revolution at home.  His Red Army, now advancing westward, was the ideal vector: communism would be exported on the tips of its bayonets.

In that ambition, Germany was seen as key.  Lenin knew that the success of the communist revolution in Russia was ideologically anomalous.  According to Marxist doctrine, communism was supposed to be the scientifically inevitable product of the collapse of the capitalist system; it was meant to occur in those countries with a highly developed industrial sector and a highly politicised proletariat.

Russia fulfilled neither of these criteria, of course, but Germany – then wracked by the political fallout of its defeat and collapse at the end of the First World War – was the perfect candidate, and appeared to be ripe for revolution.  That spring had already seen both a left-wing revolt in the Ruhr, and an attempted coup by the right – the Kapp Putsch – seek to seize power in Berlin.  The arrival of the Red Army on Germany’s eastern frontier would most likely have doomed the nascent Weimar Republic to an ignominious cot-death.

So it was that, as the Red Army approached Warsaw that summer, it was assumed that the Poles were already beaten, and the next target was already in Lenin’s sights.  As the order of the day to Red Army troops put it: “Over the corpse of White Poland, to worldwide conflagration!”  It was a fair assumption.  Polish forces were falling back in disarray, driven into retreat by the blood-soaked proto-Blitzkrieg of the Red Army’s Konarmia, the “Red Cavalry”.  Brest-Litovsk fell to the Soviets on 1 August, Lwów was already under siege. Warsaw appeared to be next.

Internationally, the constellation was little rosier.  German dockworkers in Danzig went on strike rather than unload ammunition bound for the Poles.  French socialists declared their opposition to “reactionary and capitalist Poland”, as did their confrères in Britain, spurred by the armchair revolutionaries of the “Hands off Russia” campaign.  When the government in Warsaw published an “Appeal to the World”, in early August, explaining the dangers of a Bolshevik invasion of Europe, it fell largely on deaf ears.  Only a small group of French military advisors – including a young Charles de Gaulle – arrived in the capital seeking to stiffen Polish resolve.

Not that Polish resolve needed much stiffening.  With a Soviet “Revolutionary Committee” waiting in the wings, and secret policemen and “requisitioning agents” running amok in those areas already under Soviet control, the grim realities of Soviet rule were brutally evident.  Poland’s very survival appeared to be at stake.

The end, when it came, was brutally swift.  After the Red Army spearhead’s advance was checked at Radzymin, to the east of Warsaw that August, a Polish counterattack drove northward into the overextended Soviet flank, finally defeating the Red Army in a ten-day engagement, which would cost around 20,000 lives.  Known to Poles as “The Miracle on the Vistula”, the battle not only relieved the capital, it routed Soviet forces, scattering them north into East Prussia and Lithuania. 

With that, the Soviet front collapsed, and the Kremlin finally sued for peace.  Lenin’s drive to spread communism westward to Germany and beyond was halted – for a generation – and Poland’s independence was secured – again, for a generation.  Germany, too, was temporarily saved from the horrors of totalitarian revolution.

Few outside Poland – at the time, or since – have fully appreciated the significance of the Battle of Warsaw.  One of those who did was Edgar Vincent, 1st Viscount D’Abernon, a prominent businessman and MP, who was a member of the Allied advisory mission that had arrived in Warsaw that summer.  Writing later about the importance of the Polish victory at Warsaw, he was categorical, stating that, had the Poles “failed to arrest the triumphant advance of the Soviet Army at the Battle of Warsaw, not only would Christianity have experienced a dangerous reverse, but the very existence of western civilisation would have been imperilled.”  No surprise, perhaps, that the battle is remembered in modern Poland as the Cud na Wisłą, the “Miracle on the Vistula”. 

Sometimes it is useful to be reminded of historical precedents; particularly so in times of crisis, when present tribulations can seem overwhelming.  History doesn’t repeat itself, of course, but it can provide echoes and patterns, which often serve to inform our understanding.  The Battle of Warsaw is just such an example; a reminder that – though circumstances can change – existential threats are nothing new, and moreover, they are not unavoidable; deliverance can come from an unexpected quarter.  For these reasons alone, it is very much worth remembering. 


©Roger Moorhouse 2020

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

"Darkest Hour" - a review

I was very pleased to be invited to the UK premiere of "Darkest Hour" last night in London.  The film by Joe Wright, with Gary Oldman as Churchill, broadly follows the circumstances of Churchill's accession to the post of Prime Minister in May 1940, as military reverses in France forced the previous incumbent, Neville Chamberlain, from office.

I have to say - the film is beautifully shot, with a few nice directorial touches, and as such is very convincing.  1940s London appears to have been faithfully reconstructed for our amusement.  Oldman is excellent as Churchill - all grunts and jowls and rheumy eyes - only once, briefly, did the mask seem to slip.  I would predict that he will certainly be a contender for major awards with this performance.

The supporting cast were all excellent - Kristin Scott-Thomas was brilliant as Clemmie, and Stephen Dillane stood out as the cadaverous, scheming Halifax.

I'm not minded to judge the film on its historical accuracy - it is an entertainment, and so plays a little bit loose with the tumultuous events of the summer; overegging the power of the 'peace party' (I would say) and exaggerating Winston's wobble (I've never thought that he lacked faith in his own opinions).

However, aside from that, one passage seemed very out of place to me.  The underground scene, where a desperate Winston takes a trip on the London Underground to 'consult' the Great British public on what his approach should be, or (to be generous) on the rightness of his instincts...  This, to me, was a nonsense...  An a-historical projecting back of our modern populist instincts.  Also the bit where he read out the names of those he spoke to and cited their opinions was all too much like Jeremy Corbyn's ridiculously twee referencing of "Muriel from Barnsley" in the House of Commons.   I may be wrong, but I don't think the passage fitted the tenor of the film, nor did it chime (in my opinion) with the Churchill of historical record.

Anyway - that aside - "Darkest Hour" was a good, largely convincing film.  Oldman deserves every gong going for his performance and overall - i'd give it a B+. 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Hacksaw Ridge - a hurrah for the forgotten heroes of war

My grandfather - Capt. Stanley Millar - was in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) during World War Two.  Already a GP before the war, he joined up in 1939 and served right the way through - France 1940, North Africa, Italy, and back into France in 1944.  I've often idly wondered what it must have been like for him; patching up all those injured young men, agonizing over those that he couldn't save.  However, sadly for me - as I suspect for most of us - the role of army medics is one that gets so little air time in the conventional narrative, that it is often hard to imagine what they went through.

That said, I don't imagine for a moment that my grandfather went through anything like the horrors experienced by the subject of the new film "Hacksaw Ridge".  Set mostly during the battle for Okinawa during World War Two, the film tells the true story of Desmond Doss; a young, Virginian, Seventh Day Adventist, who joins up out of patriotic fervour after Pearl Harbor, only to discover that his devout faith forbids him from handling a weapon.

After much wrangling with the military authorities, Doss qualifies as a combat medic with the 77th Infantry Division; thereby squaring his faith with his desire to serve his country.  What followed would have made lesser men wish they had stayed at home.  In real life, Doss served in the Philippines and on Guam, but the film jumps straight to his service in the Battle for Okinawa in the summer of 1945 - specifically to the battle for the Maeda escarpment; known to the Americans as "Hacksaw Ridge".

As one might expect, the battle scenes in the film are not for the faint of heart - they are graphic, visceral and extremely brutal.  Throughout, however, the unarmed Private Doss (played brilliantly by Andrew Garfield) scampers around the battlefield saved those that can be saved.  Most impressively, after a Japanese counter-attack forces the Americans off the ridge, he stays behind - risking certain death if discovered - to tend to the remaining wounded.  In this way, it is estimated that Doss saved some 75 American lives, including that of his commanding officer, before he was himself injured and evacuated.

The real-life Desmond Doss
Hacksaw Ridge is a quite astonishing film, which gives us a rare glimpse into the horrors experienced by the forgotten heroes of the medical corps - men who went into battle with the task of saving lives when all around are trying to take them.  The film ends with the - now rather commonplace - film footage of interviews with the real-life characters.  You will not leave the cinema dry-eyed.

In recognition of his actions, Doss was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945 - the first conscientious objector to be so honoured.  He died in 2006.
And, what of Stanley?  He came home from the war, but was evidently never the same man he had once been.  He started drinking, was struck off, got divorced and ended up taking his own life in 1973.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Martin Bormann - and the flight from common sense

One of the effects of the return of the execrable crudfest that is "Hunting Hitler" is that all manner of conspiracists come out of the woodwork - on Twitter and elsewhere - to air their preposterous theories, in sympathy with the nonsense spouted by the dubious "experts" that front the show.

In amongst that cornucopia of claptrap is a long-standing piece of idiocy regarding Martin Bormann.

Martin Bormann
a master of horticultural deception
- or not...
Allow me to elucidate...  Martin Bormann - Hitler's Party Secretary and the 'eminence grise' of the Third Reich - was last seen alive on 2 May 1945 by Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann. Together with Bormann, Axmann had been part of a group that have left the Reich Chancellery Bunker and had headed north on Friedrichstrasse, reaching the Spree at the Weidendammer Bridge. Soon after, Axmann left the group before doubling back on himself.  Then, he claimed to have seen the bodies of both Bormann and SS doctor Ludwig Stumpfegger, not far from the Lehrter Station.

Aside from Axmann's story, however, no other contemporary account of Bormann's fate was ever given. He was tried 'in absentia' at Nuremberg, and declared legally deceased in 1954, despite the fact that the West German government continued looking for him - officially at least - until 1971.

Then, in 1972, construction workers near the Lehrter Station in Berlin discovered the remains of two men, who were identified through dental records to be Bormann and Stumpfegger.  With the development of new technology, in due course - in 1998 - Bormann's remains were conclusively identified to be his via DNA testing, providing a match to his son Martin Bormann junior.  With that - for most sane individuals - the Bormann story draws to its definitive end.  Martin Bormann died, on 2 May, close to the Lehrter Station in Berlin...

But - according to our conspiracist friends - there is a twist.  They maintain that Bormann's remains contained traces of a red soil that is not native to Berlin.  Instead, they say, the soil is the same as that of some region of Paraguay or of Argentina...  Cue dramatic music..  Dun dun daaaa...

Bormann's body was passed to his heirs after the DNA tests were carried out and was cremated, so this theory is impossible to test - even if we would wish to.  However, let us just think of the logical implications of this daft theory for a moment...

The conspiracists' story would run as follows.  Bormann - far from dying on 2 May in Berlin - somehow escaped the Nazi capital and went to live in South America.  Then, when he died, his body was presumably buried, in Paraguay (or elsewhere), then exhumed, packaged up, and taken back to Berlin by persons unknown and surreptitiously reburied close to the Lehrter Station, not far from where he had last been seen in 1945, so as to give the world an alibi; to cover up the 'fact' that Bormann had escaped. And all this happened without the people involved being intercepted by the German or Paraguayan authorities or being spotted or betrayed by anyone...

(Oh - as an aside - One question for the conspiracist cretins - what about Stumpfegger? Did he go to South America too? So, was he also flown back to Berlin after his death? Or did he actually die in 1945 and those persons unknown had some secret knowledge of where he was buried so that Bormann could be carefully placed next to him?  I think we need to know!)

Hmm.  Forgive me for being a spoilsport - but every fibre of my being is crying out that this cockamayme tale can only be arrant horseshit.  Is it not just possible that Bormann died and was buried IN BERLIN, IN 1945, a few yards from where he was last seen?!  Is that not a more logical solution to the conundrum? Is it not infinitely more logical than the idea that he escaped to South America, died, was buried, was exhumed, flown back to Berlin, and reburied, close to where he had last been seen...?

I know that conspiracy theorists have - by definition - a tenuous grasp of concepts like "logic", "facts" and "probability" - but Jeez...

It would not surprise me in the least if this idiotic tale gets an airing in the current series of Hunting Hitler - but then again idiocy and conspiracy theories often travel hand in hand...


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

"1944 - Forced to Fight" - a historian's review

The Estonian film "1944" was released to huge acclaim in 2015 and was submitted as that country's entry for the 2015 Academy Awards as best foreign film, has now been released in the UK (with subtitles), under the title "1944 - Forced to Fight".

It is set against the backdrop of Estonia's unenviable fate during World War Two, stuck as it was between the rock of Nazi Germany and the unmovable object of Stalin's Soviet Union.  Those that have read my book "The Devils' Alliance" will know some of the horrors endured by the Baltic States during this period.  For the uninitiated, a thumbnail sketch: this was a time in which is was quite possible for a single family to have parents exiled to Siberia by Stalin in 1940, have an elder son drafted into the Red Army the same year, and a younger son conscripted into the Waffen-SS in 1944.  On our comfortable little island, with its clear moral narrative of World War Two, such complexities can be hard to fathom.

Yet, "1944 - Forced to Fight" explains them very ably and succinctly.  It focuses on two individual soldiers - Karl Tammik and Juri Jõgi - who find themselves on either side of that divide; one fighting for the Germans, one for the Soviets.  Like most of their countrymen, neither shows any particular ideological fervour, except the desire to escape the madness and go home.  Their story plays out during a few months of the Red Army's advance into Estonia - between the Battle of the Tannenberg Line and the fighting on the island of Saaremaa - in the late summer and autumn of 1944.

I won't spoil the story for readers by giving away the narrative strands that link the two principal characters, but suffice it to say that the film is one of the best World War Two films I have seen.  It is well acted - with excellent characterisation (even through the medium of subtitles), the combat scenes are as riveting and harrowing as they are authentic, and the central narrative brilliantly displays the impossible predicament that the people of Estonia - and their Baltic neighbours - found themselves in during the war.

See it - you won't regret it.



Tuesday, 11 October 2016

"Blitzed" by Norman Ohler - a historian's review

Hitler - cynics say - is the gift that keeps on giving.  He still holds us all, it seems, in his awful thrall.  We are fascinated and appalled by him in equal measure.  But we should perhaps also be grateful - grateful that, where once he inspired genocide and war, now he just inspires occasionally dodgy history.

This last week saw the publication in the UK of "Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany" by German author Norman Ohler.  The PR campaign here in the UK was immense.  Perhaps it was the book's heady combination of "Hitler" and "drugs" that did it; catnip to the media - but it received prominent reviews in the press, alongside a "news" item on the BBC website, which amounted to little more than a breathless extended plug by the author.  Nonetheless, after the book's success when published in Germany last year, I was keen to see it, hoping for a treatment of the subject that would be typically 'Germanic' and thorough.

Ohler's thesis is twofold.  Firstly, he suggests that Hitler himself was addicted to the cocktail of drugs supplied to him by his personal physician; Theodor Morell, which included cocaine, the morphine-derivative Eukodal, and Pervitin; a form of methamphetamine.  This addiction, he says, had political and military consequences, as Hitler's sense of invincibility and his inability to see reason grew unchecked, and - in 1945, when he struggled with the consequences of withdrawal.

The second strand of the book is that - despite Nazism's official disapproval - drug use was actually rather commonplace during the Third Reich and in particular that the use and abuse of Pervitin was widespread, especially in the military.  Pervitin - which induced feelings of euphoria, alertness and diminished inhibitions - was certainly exploited by the German armed forces, and Ohler says, seems to have played a key role in the early successes that are so often attributed to the tactical genius of the Blitzkrieg.

Both these subjects are well worthy of historical examination, yet - for all the hyperbole - neither is entirely new.  Hitler's drug habits have often been discussed in detail - in (for instance) Leonard Heston's "Medical Casebook of Adolf Hitler" from 1979 or Ernst-Gunther Schenck's "Patient Hitler" from 1989.  In addition, it is a subject that has been discussed - at least in passing - in all the Hitler biographies, including Alan Bullock's "Hitler: A Study in Tyranny" from 1952.  Hitler's drug use has even been the subject of a couple of low-rent TV documentaries in recent years. Ohler's claim to novelty on this therefore, should be taken with a considerable pinch of salt.

Where Ohler is rather more novel is in his claims that Hitler was addicted to the cocktail of drugs that he received.  Of course, the honest answer is that we can't know for sure as there is not enough evidence to be had - but I think it is telling that more circumspect commentators - such as Schenck, who was an SS doctor - have concluded that, as far as the evidence allows a conclusion to be drawn, Hitler was most probably not addicted to any of the substances that he was given.  Nonetheless that doesn't stop Ohler from jumping to his sensational conclusion not only that Hitler was addicted, but that the addiction had political and military consequences.

The material on the use of Pervitin - though less spectacular than the tales of Hitler's supposed addictions - is rather more interesting.  Certainly Pervitin use appears to have been widespread before and during the war, particularly in the military - and this has also been written about before - but again Ohler overplays his hand by making some claims for pharmacological explanations for military events that are scarcely sustainable in the sober light of day.

Stylistically, "Blitzed" is very readable; Ohler has written novels previously, and it shows.  But, while his story rattles along well, he rather struggles with the requirements of serious non-fiction.  The twin strands of his narrative are imperfectly spliced, and he undermines his own credibility by adding a smattering of contemporary drug-related words "junkies", "high", "doped up" throughout his narrative.

In sum, there is some engaging and enlightening material here - but very little that has not been said before elsewhere.  All that is provable isn't new; and all that is new isn't provable.  "Blitzed" is certainly sensational - but whether it is good history or not is another matter.


Thursday, 15 September 2016

"Anthropoid" - a historian's review

Bloody typical!  You wait 40 years for a film about the wartime assassination of Obergruppenfuehrer Reinhard Heydrich, and then two come along at once...! 



The first of these - "Anthropoid" - I saw last night.  And it is very good. 

It follows the story of Heydrich's two assassins - Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan) and Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) - from their arrival in occupied Czechoslovakia, parachuted in courtesy of SOE, to their deaths at the hands of the Germans in the aftermath of their successful killing of Heydrich. 

Of course, my primary concern was that the history is not played with too much, and in this regard the film certainly did not disappoint: production values were excellent and it had the all-important whiff of authenticity: the Germans spoke German and the Czech accents were maintained throughout - indeed some of the actors - such as the luminous Anna Geislerová - are themselves Czechs. The narrative, too, did not noticeably stray from the historic one - every aspect was there; the betrayal, the cyanide, the razing of Lidice - even the head in a bucket... 

Historically then, "Anthropoid" is pretty much faultless. Dramatically, too, it is very strong.  It is structured, effectively, as a long crescendo, climaxing with the deadly siege at the church.  This generally works well, though the first half of the film - with scene setting, characterisation etc - was a tad slow. Murphy and Dornan were very convincing as Gabcik and Kubis, though the characters might have been fleshed out a little more - even allowing some artistic licence - and the tensions between them and the domestic resistance might have been turned up a notch.

Nonetheless, that is a minor criticism.  Overall, "Anthropoid" showed how history can be translated brilliantly to the big screen without excessive compromise in terms of historical accuracy.  It is well worth a watch. 

The other Heydrich-assassination-themed film, by the way, is the adaptation of the Laurent Binet novel "HHhH" - which is due for release later this year.