Saturday musical delight: US Army Band performing “Time Stand Still” by Rush

The US Army band, “Pershing’s Own”, posted this tribute to Neil Peart (1947-2020) — an unusual vocals plus chamber instruments arrangement of the Rush song, “Time Stands Still”. I stilll prefer the original, but it works remarkably well, and shows off the song writing talents of Peart (lyrics), Lee and Lifeson (music) to people with an aversion to a rock sound.


Gestapo-NKVD contacts in occupied Poland, 1939-1941

Anybody with a passing familiarity with WW II knows of the Molotov-Ribbentrop “Non-Aggression Pact” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, as well as of its secret annex in which the two competing totalitarian collectivisms divided up Poland between them, roughly on the Curzon Line that was later to be the basis for the postwar Polish-Soviet border.[*]

Received wisdom among many people has it that neither side was sincere in this pact; that Nazi Germany intended to invade the USSR already then (there is no doubt that Hitler y”sh dreamed of “Lebensraum” in the East since the 1920s — the debate is only about when this turned from pipedream to concrete objective); and that Stalin y”sh was trying to buy time, as he’d killed off roughly 90% of general officers and 50% of regimental officers in the Great Purge.

However, during the nearly two years between the 1939 pact and Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the USSR), a level of Nazi-Soviet cooperation existed that is hard to square with the notion of a “cold peace”. Diplomatic correspondence has been released online as part of the Avalon Project, and makes for some “interesting” reading:

But something that astonished even this writer was the level of coordination and cooperation that appeared to exist between the Gestapo and the NKVD as regards the Polish population in their respective areas of recognizance. Wikipedia has a surprisingly detailed article on the subject, both in English and in German:–NKVD_conferences

A first meeting took place at Brzesc (Brest-Litovsk) on Sep. 27, 1939 (while fighting was still going on). According to understandings reached, almost 42,500 Polish POWs were handed over to the Nazis by the USSR. Both sides expected Polish resistance to emerge and discussed ways to suppress it.

A second meeting on these reportedly took place in late November 1939 at Przemysl (later the site of Albert Battel’s heroic rescue attempt), a city that straddled the Bug river along which the Curzon Line ran in that area, and hence was split between the occupiers.

The best-known meeting is the third, starting Feb. 20, 1940, in the south Polish mountain resort of Zakopane. The name of the Nazi German representative was none other than Adolf Eichmann (y”sh). According to some sources, notably Armia Krajowa (Home Army) commander Tadeusz “Bor” Komorowski, a followup meeting with NKVD representatives took place at Krakow in March 1940.

What we do know is that, with apparent mutual coordination, twin massacres of the Polish intelligentsia took place: the Intelligenzaktion (intelligentia action) and subsequent AB-Aktion (Ausserordentliche Befriedigungsaktion, Extraordinary Pacification Action) in the Nazi sector, and the Katyn massacres of Polish officer POWs held by the Soviets. (Katyn lies near Smolensk, Russia.)

The USSR also deported between 300K and 1M Polish nationals to Siberia, the Urals, and Kazakhstan. Following Operation Barbarossa and a July 1941 treaty with the Polish Government in exile, this group at least benefited from an amnesty. Polish General Wladyslaw Anders recruited an army from among them and evacuated its soldiers and civilian relatives via Iran. Mortality during this evacuation was high as well, not even counting the Poles who had died in the Gulag.

In one of those ironies of history that would look absurd in fiction, the Katyn execution site was essentially next door to where Army Group Center had its headquarters. Its chief intelligence officer, Col. Rudolf Freiherr [=Baron] von Gersdorff, had been tipped off as early as August 1942 about rumors among Polish forced laborers on the site and at a railway line. On March 21, 1943, Gersdorff, a core member of the anti-Hitler conspirators around operations officer Col. Henning von Tresckow, had attempted a suicide bombing on Hitler and most of the Nazi top at a memorial ceremony in Berlin. Irony of ironies, shortly after Gersdorff’s return to his post, laborers discovered the Katyn burial site, and it was Gersdorff who would oversee autopsies (first by a German coroner, later by Swiss and other neutral pathologists), and host war correspondents, Red Cross representatives, and even Polish clergy at the killing site. I can only imagine the emotional anguish of being whipsawed between two mass-murderous dictatorships in this manner. That the massacre was grist on the mill of Goebbels (y”sh) did not make it any less real. Soviet propaganda tried to blame the massacres on the Nazis — but while there were plenty of real massacres to blame them for, the time frame did not work for this one. Ammunition offered no “smoking gun” – the men had been killed with single neck shots from German-made Walther pistols. Autopsy revealed the corpses had been killed about a year before Barbarossa. While the Walthers did impart a measure of plausible deniability, the main reason appears to have been that they were the “tool of choice” of the NKVD’s chief executioner Vassily Blokhin, who considered Soviet-made pistols too unreliable.[**] About 90% of the Katyn victims were ethnic Poles; most of the remainder were Jews, including the Chief Military Rabbi Baruch Steinberg.

Picture the same basic product, like a smartphone operating system, but with two different design philosophies and diverging in details of implementation. The more I learn about Bolshevism and National Socialism, the more I think of them not as “opposites” but as the iOS and the Android operating systems of totalitarian collectivism.

“That old saw about, ‘to understand all is to forgive all’, is a load of tripe. Some things, the more you understand the more you loathe them.”

Robert A. Heinlein, “Starship Troopers”

[*] Post-1945, Stalin would “compensate” his own satellite state with German lands to the East of the Oder-Neisse line—Pomerania, Silesia, etc.

[**] Blokhin has the “distinction” of being listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific executioner in history: during Katyn alone, he personally shot a total of 7,000 men over a 4-week period, at a rate of about one per three minutes.

A brief Coronavirus update

A guestblogger at Watts Up With That, who himself survived the infection, has a news-packed update. Read the whole thing, but perhaps the most important paragraphs are:

Transmission route is either contact or inhalation […] The significant inhalation route is now shown by both the Diamond Princess cruise ship experiment (more below) and by the fact that ordinary surgical masks proved ineffective in the Wuhan hospital setting (JAMA, previous post).

Incubation period is 7-10 days from initial infection. The good news is that the 14-day quarantine adopted pretty much universally last week should therefore be effective […] Wuhan then makes a now well-established clinical bifurcation. In 75-80% of cases, by symptom day 10 there is a normal ‘corona cold’ recovery lasting a few days. (In my own case last week, 3 recovery days in total, days 9-12 from symptom onset.) In 20-25% of cases, by symptom day 10 Wuhan progresses to lower respiratory tract pneumonia, where death may occur with or without ICU intervention. The percentage of these deep pneumonias that are viral as opposed to a secondary bacteria infection is not known, but the NEJM clinical case report from Washington State discussed in the following paragraph strongly suggests viral (like SARS), not secondary [opportunistic] bacterial [infection] treatable with antibiotics.

The bad news is that Wuhan IS transmissible during some later part of the symptomless incubation period. […]

And here is some good news:

The new NEJM [New England Journal of Medicine] case report is so important it is summarized here because it leads to a hopeful culminating section below. The Seattle Wuhan case evidenced x-ray diagnosed lower respiratory tract pneumonia from days 9-11 from symptom onset. Supplemental oxygen was started day 9. IV antibiotics were started day 10 to no effect, so discontinued after one day. Importantly (more below), experimental antiviral remdesivir started day 11 by IV under a compassionate use exception, and the deep viral pneumonia fully resolved (per x-ray diagnosis) within 24 hours!

Remdesivir was developed by Gilead Scientific as an antiviral for Ebola and Marburg viruses, but was subsequently found to be active against other single-stranded RNA viruses.

Based on this, China has announced a full-scale random double blind placebo controlled trial in 761 patients. As of this writing China reports successful synthesis of sufficient remdesivir active, so human testing begins today.

PS: A friendly writer sent me this rather more worrying analysis arriving at a comparatively high basic reproduction number R0 of the virus:

RIP Li Wenliang, one of the “Fallen Caryatids”

Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who first warned a major epidemic of a new coronavirus was afoot (and suffered police intimidation for doing so) has now succumbed to the disease. May his memory be for a blessing.

My writing mentor Sarah Hoyt’s immediate reaction was “Rodin’s Fallen Caryatid”. [See also her own blog post.]

Auguste Rodin, “Fallen Caryatid With Stone” [ CC:BY Emw ]

She recalled its description by Robert Heinlein. Verily, it is hard to think of a more fitting tribute, to him and so many others like him.

[Jubal Harshaw to Ben:] “[F]or almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures—it got to be such a habit that they did it as casually as a small boy steps on an ant. After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl. But he didn’t simply say, ‘Look, you jerks, if you must design this way, make it a brawny male figure.’ No, he showed it . . . and generalized the symbol. Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried—and failed, fallen under the load. She’s a good girl—look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, but not blaming anyone else, not even the gods . . . and still trying to shoulder her load, after she’s crumpled under it.

  “But she’s more than good art denouncing some very bad art; she’s a symbol for every woman who has ever tried to shoulder a load that was too heavy for her—over half the female population of this planet, living and dead, I would guess. But not alone women—this symbol is sexless. It means every man and every woman who ever lived who sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, whose courage wasn’t even noticed until they crumpled under their loads. It’s courage, Ben, and victory.”
“Victory in defeat, there is none higher. She didn’t give up, Ben; she’s still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She’s a father going down to a dull office job while cancer is painfully eating away his insides, so as to bring home one more pay check for the kids. She’s a twelve-year old girl trying to mother her baby brothers and sisters because Mama had to go to Heaven. She’s a switchboard operator sticking to her job while smoke is choking her and the fire is cutting off her escape. She’s all the unsung heroes who couldn’t quite cut it but never quit. Come. Just salute as you pass her[…]

Robert A. Heinlein, “Stranger In A Strange Land”, Chapter 30.

“The Devil’s Mercedes-Benz” found, and other details on Operation Anthropoid

Mark Felton’s YouTube channel showed a surprising find this week.

In a small  village in Denmark, a car from a military surplus sale had been sitting since 1959. When the owner put it up for sale in 1980, a vintage car enthusiast (and engineer retired from Mercedes-Benz) named Laurits Lauritsen showed up and bought it.

He quickly realized the car was a collector’s item, a rare specimen of the Mercedes B-320 cabriolet limousine. But the further he dug into the vehicle’s provenance and specific details, the more he realized he was looking at an unusual historical artifact.

The car was manufactured in 1938 — when only 34 of that model were produced. Moreover, it had been a custom build to order at their Mannheim plant — only one car fit the description. What’s more, the car had clearly sustained serious damage at the right rear, which had been repaired slapdash using wartime procedures and materials.

Guess what: that car had once had the license plate number “SS-3” [*] and been the vehicle Reinhard Heydrich [y”sh] was driving when he finally met his nemesis. The “Butcher of Prague” prided himself on his ruthlessness and efficiency, but also on his fearlessness and contempt for normal security precautions: he would commute openly to his office as Acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia in Hradcany Castle, accompanied only by his driver, in an unarmored open-topped car and on a fixed route.
On May 27, 1942, two SOE operatives — the Czech Jan Kubis and the Slovak Josef Gabcik — lay in wait for him at the hairpin bend where they knew his car would have to slow down. Their assassination plan had the apt code name “Operation Anthropoid”.
Gabcik stepped in front of the car, aimed his Sten gun, and pulled the trigger — but it jammed. Then Kubis threw a modified antitank grenade [**] toward the car. It exploded against the right rear, and caused the damage that Lauritsen would later see had been shoddily repaired. The explosion sent a volley of shrapnel into Heydrich’s back that ultimately caused his death from septicemia.

Bundesarchiv [German Federal Archives] image # 146-1972-039-44 (via Mediawiki)

Heydrich was operated upon: his spleen was removed, a tear in his diaphragm repaired, and a number of other repairs effected. Then Himmler’s personal physician, Karl Gebhardt, arrived and oversaw further treatment. Heydrich at first seemed on the mend, but then started running a fever. Hitler’s physician Theodor Morell recommended administering sulfonamides (penicillin was not available in the Third Reich) but Gebhardt forbade this, claiming they were ineffective in battle wounds. Eventually Heydrich died of septicemia.

Kubis and Gabcik paid with their lives three weeks later at the siege of St. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral, where the Orthodox bishop Gorazd had given them shelter.  (Gorazd was executed by the Nazis, and ultimately made an Orthodox saint.) In the reprisal butchery at Lidice and Lezaky, as well as in other measures, an estimated 5,000 Czechs were killed.  An entire phase of the Shoah got the code name Aktion Reinhard. Yet not all Nazis were displeased he was gone: he was known to have extensive files of “dirt” on many rivals. At least one SS general (Sepp Dietrich) supposedly said: “Gott sei Dank ist das Schwein kaputt” (thank G-d the swine has bought it). There is even (dubious) speculation that Gebhardt deliberately allowed his patient to die at Himmler’s instigation, e.g., Weisz, G.; Albury, W. R. The Attempt on the Life of Reinhard Heydrich , Architect of the “ Final Solution ”: A Review of His Treatment and Autopsy. Isr. Med. Assoc. J. 201416 (april), 212–216.

A lot of ink has flowed about the assassination and its aftermath. Several movies have been devoted to it, from the 1943 “Hangmen Also Die” by Fritz Lang, to the 2017 “Anthropoid”. Harry Turtledove’s “The Man With The Iron Heart” explores an alternate time line where Heydrich survived and became the leader of postwar anti-Allied insurgency (think “Werwolf on steroids”).  A number of songs were written about the operation, including SS-3 by thrash metal band Slayer:

and “A Lovely Day Tomorrow” by folk-rock ensemble British Sea Power. The lyrics of the latter song refer to “the devil’s Mercedes-Benz”, hence the title of this post.

Let me just briefly touch on two enduring myths. According to one lasting canard, the bomb was laced with botulism toxin to ensure the target would not survive even if only wounded. Recently the original autopsy report was discovered: it is discussed in this medical journal article (paywalled) Tatu, L.; Jost, W.; Bogousslavsky, J. The Botulinum Toxin Legend of Reinhard Heydrich’s Death. Neurology 2017, 89 (1), 84–87. DOI: These authors conclude from the autopsy report, and the documentation of Heydrich’s treatment, that there were no clinical signs of botulism poisoning whatsoever, and that besides Josef Gabcik, the man who threw the bomb, lived for another 3 weeks without any signs of disease before committing suicide when hopelessly trapped in the Cyril and Methodius Church siege.

Another myth that refuses to go away is that Heydrich — the practical mastermind of the Shoah — had some Jewish ancestry himself. This myth was put to bed by a recent biography of Heydrich, “Hitler’s Hangman” by Robert Gerwath. (I will review this book separately.) Briefly, the stepfather of Heydrich’s father Bruno (an erstwhile opera singer and minor composer who ran a music conservatory in Halle, near Leipzig), did have a stepfather with the Jewish-sounding surname Süss —  but the man apparently was Lutheran, as were his ancestors. The story that Bruno Heydrich was Jewish had been planted in the 1916 edition of Hugo Riemann’s Musik-Lexikon (freely: “Who’s Who in Music?”) by a disgraced former pupil. [***] 

With apologies to J. B. S. Haldane, history is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose…

[*] Some research on Axishistory dot com about low-numbered SS license plates revealed that SS-1 and SS-2 were the main and backup vehicles of Reichsführer-SS Himmler [y”sh] and SS-3 and SS-4 similarly for the his right-hand man, the head of the RSHA (Reich Security Head Office).  

[**] The modification was to reduce its weight so it could more easily be thrown.

[***]  Ironically, Bruno Heydrich appears to have had cordial relations with Halle’s Jews, many of whose children patronized Bruno’s conservatory — and young Reinhard even was friends with the son of the cantor of Halle’s synagogue, Abraham Lichtenstein. The future RSHA leader and practical mastermind of the Shoah apparently was a very late convert to the antisemitic cause (and to Nazism: as late as 1929 he was still telling jokes about “Bohemian Corporal” Hitler and “Cripple” Goebbels). Gerwath plausibly argues Heydrich was motivated above all by malignant ambition a l’outrance and would have fanatically embraced any cause that offered him a road to power and narcissistic supply.