Cover Reveal: “Operation Flash, Episode 1”

No, I have not dropped off the internet 🙂 but things have been extremely busy both at work and in my little writing studio.

The first installment of my alternate history project, “Operation Flash”, just came back from copy editing. It will hit the virtual bookshelves of Amazon any day now: Episode 2 is 80% written already, and I have plans for at least Episode 3. I am planning for Episode 2 to be released sometime in June, and Episode 3 sometime in August.

The following cover was produced by “Covers Girl” (one of the many monikers of Sarah A. Hoyt):

Cover for Operation Flash, Episode 1

On March 21, 1943, one man came within a hairbreadth of blowing up nearly the entire Nazi leadership.

In timeline DE1943RG, he succeeded.

Then the conspirators discovered that killing Hitler and his chief henchmen was the easy part.




Purim/Bach Day/Spring Day post: J. S. Bach, “Peasant Cantata” BWV 212

Happy Purim to all who observe the holiday!

But owing to a calendarial coincidence, 14 Adar II this year coincides with March 21 — both the vernal equinox and the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Some sources have March 23: that is actually the day he was baptised. I saw the original baptismal register at his birth house in Eisenach.)

Picture of J. S. Bach’s baptismal registration (from the website of the EKD=German Evangelical Lutheran Church). Translation: 4. To Mr. Johann Ambrosius Bach, householder, a son. Godfathers: Sebastian Nagel, householder, and Johann Georg Kochen, forestry official of the principality. Given name: Johann Sebastian

In keeping with the playful spirit of Purim, let’s have one of Bach’s more jocular compositions. The burlesque cantata “Mer hah’n en neue Oberkeet!” BWV 212 —Saxon dialect for “We have a new authority!”—is commonly referred to as the Bauerncantata or Peasant Cantata. It was commissioned and written for the 36th birthday of the Kammerherr (Chamberlain) von Dieskau. The full libretto and its English translation can be read here.

As it happens, the late, great lyrical baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a descendant of the selfsame Chamberlain von Dieskau on his mother’s side. Here is his performance of Bach’s Peasant Cantata BWV 212. Enjoy!

Book teaser: “Operation Flash” (alternate history)

On March 21, 1943, one man came within a hairbreadth of blowing up nearly the entire Nazi leadership.

In timeline DE1943RG, he succeeded.

Then the conspirators discovered that killing Hitler and his chief henchmen was the easy part.

Coming to Amazon Kindle soon:

Operation Flash

Episode 1: Knight’s Gambit Accepted

Stranger than fiction: Albert Battel and the Przemysl rescue during WW II

Sometimes one runs into a story that, if it appeared in a novel, would stretch credulity. 

The following Jewish rescue story is not only true, but its protagonist, Wehrmacht Oberleutnant [1st Lt.] Albert Battel, was honored posthumously by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among The Nations” in 1981. The Israeli lawyer and historian Zeev Goshen wrote a long and detailed article about the case in the Munich-based historical journal Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte (freely: Contemporary History Quarterly). [in German].

Przemysl was and is a small city of about 60,000 people in South-East Poland, near the present-day border with Ukraine. Its already favorable location as a trading center — on the San river, a navigable tributary of the Vistula — was further further enhanced in 1861 by the opening of a railway station on the line between Krakow and Lemberg [a.k.a. Lwow/Lvov/Lviv, present-day Ukraine]. As Przemysl was near the border between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Tsarist Russia, major fortification works were built there, at one point manned by 140,000 troops. The 1914-5 Siege of Przemysl counts as the largest siege of WW I.

After WW I and the birth of the Second Polish Republic, Przemysl was now part of the Lwow voivodeship (province) of Poland, but continued to have regional importance. About one-third of its population was Jewish.

Following the Nazi invasion of Poland (and the coordinated Soviet invasion of what was then Eastern Poland), the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line ran along the San river, and the Nazis violently drove the Jews from the left bank into the Soviet-occupied right bank part of the city. Come June 1941 and the invasion of the USSR, this Eastern part became the Jewish ghetto, its population swelled by Jews from surrounding towns being deported there.[*] 

A Wehrmacht depot was established in Przemysl – for, among other things, vehicle repair and maintenance. As of July 1942, the military commander was one Major Max Liedtke, a WW I veteran and erstwhile regional newspaper editor (Greifswalder Zeitung, 1929-37) who reportedly had been dismissed for his critical comments about the Nazi regime.

His adjutant was Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) Albert Battel, a 51-year old lawyer from Breslau, Silesia (present-day Wroclaw, Poland) who had been called up for reserve duty. Battel actually had joined the NSDAP in 1933 (which ensured his continued legal career) but got into trouble with the party hierarchy: he continued to have friendly relations with Jews and, on one occasion, extended a loan to a Jewish colleague who had fallen on hard times [presumably, due to effectively being banned from representing non-Jewish clients]. Battel also reportedly assisted his Jewish in-laws to emigrate to Switzerland. While posted at Przemysl, he got a party reprimand for shaking the hand of the head of the Jewish council, a former classmate named Dr. Duldig.

On July 26, 1942, the SS planned the “Resettlement to the East” of the city’s Jews, the true destination being the nearby extermination camp of Belzec. 

But when the SS task force showed up at the bridge across the San into the Jewish ghetto, they found their way blocked by a Wehrmacht detachment. The sergeant-major commanding it stated he had been ordered by Lt. Battel to block access across the bridge, by live fire if necessary. This is one of a few rare examples where Wehrmacht and SS actually pointed guns at each other!

The SS turned tail, and lodged an official complaint with the Wehrmacht city commander. However, Liedtke clearly approved of his adjutant’s behavior and backed him. About 100 Jews from the ghetto were working at his depot, and he was satisfied with their labor.

It was, however, obvious that the SS would return with reinforcements. So before they could do so, Battel sent three trucks into the ghetto, and in several trips, the depot workers and their families were shuttled across and given shelter at the Wehrmacht depot. 

The SS did return the next day and deported the city’s remaining Jews, but were forced to spare the Wehrmacht depot as “they had nothing lost there”. Altogether, Battel (with the connivance of Liedtke) saved about 500 Jews from certain death.

Significantly, Battel did not suffer more severe consequences for his actions than a dressing-down — although correspondence within the SS and Party about his case got to the very top of the food chain, with a letter from Himmler to Bormann. Battel was supposed to be punished upon demobilization following the “Final Victory”, which [thank G-d] never came. Eventually Battel was given a medical discharge in 1944 for the heart disease that eventually claimed his life in 1952.

But, while escaping punishment for his courageous act, he received no reward in his lifetime either. Indeed, a postwar denazification court classified him as “IV. Mitlaüfer” (Category 4: Fellow Traveler[**]), and consequently barred him from practicing law in postwar Germany. 

Battel’s superior officer, Liedtke, had been (punitively?) sent to the front, was taken prisoner by the Red Army, and eventually died in 1955 at a Soviet POW camp.

Both Battel and Liedtke were posthumously honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Shoah memorial institution, Yad Vashem.

Until near the end of the war (post-Valkyrie, perhaps), the Wehrmacht still enjoyed a measure of protection from the SS thugs. Liedtke and Battel had plausibly argued operational exigencies: that the smooth functioning of their depot was logistically and strategically essential for  the Wehrmacht’s Eastern Front, and that their “essential workers” could not be missed. No bribes were required, as they were in the case of Oskar Schindler.  That Liedtke and Battel knew how to argue their case in writing (being an erstwhile journalist and lawyer, respectively) surely did not hurt. 

But I would also like to think Battel, as a veteran lawyer, would have familiarized himself with the Wehrmacht’s own Military Penal Code (issued 1872 under Kaiser Wilhelm I, but apparently reprinted as late as 1944!) 

Art. 47: I. If through the execution of a military order a penal offense is committed, then only the commanding superior officer is responsible. [So far, no surprise.] However, the obeying subordinate is liable to punishment as a participant if:
1. He has exceeded [the limits of] the order given
2. It was known to him that the purpose of the superior officer’s order was a military or civil crime or offense.
[Original wording: “wenn ihm bekannt gewesen, daß der Befehl des Vorgesetzten eine Handlung betraf, welche ein bürgerliches oder militärisches Verbrechen oder Vergehen bezweckte.”]

Had Battel appeared before a court-martial, he would likely have invoked this clause, which would have brought considerable embarrassment.[***]

[*] The well-known if controversial Israeli political scientist Ze’ev Sternhell hails from the town. He was hidden and raised by a Polish Catholic family and even acted as an altar boy until reconnecting with his roots.

[**] The categories were: “I. Hauptschuldige (Major offender)” “2. Belastete (including Activists, Militants, Profiteers)” “3. Minderbelastete (Lesser offenders)” “4. Mitläufer (Fellow traveler)” “V. Unbelästet (Exonerated)”

[***] I will devote a separate blog post to the defense of “Befehlsnotstand” — freely: obeisance of criminal orders under duress — in German law. Suffice to saw: examples of true Befehlsnotstand were vanishingly rare: commanders of shooting squads such as Reserve Battalion 101 (the subject of Christopher Browning’s landmark book “Ordinary Men”) relied on peer pressure and indoctrination rather than coercion.

Plagiarizing a song that itself “plagiarizes” a classical composition

Last Eurovision song festival [an event I normally pay no attention to] was won by Israel, with a tune called “Toy” by a very Rubenesque DJ and singer named Neta Barzilay.

Some people at the time noted the striking similarity between a phrase in the composition (such as it is) and the main riff of The White Stripes’s 2003 chart-topper “Seven Nation Army”. [Apparently, the title is how TWS frontman Jack White misheard “Salvation Army” as a child.] I didn’t think much of it — as I thought that riff pretty clichéd to begin with — But Universal Music Group subsequently sued Neta Barzilay on “behalf” of Jack White.

Now Mrs. Arbel forwarded me an article from Haaretz English Edition [archive link] according to which a settlement has been reached. The financial terms are undisclosed, but Jack White will receive a co-writing credit.

However, the Haaretz article [*] also points out that a very similar phrase appears in Bruckner’s 5th symphony. Listen to the YouTube below at 21:30 (the video embed should start playing 1 second before that if clicked):

Yup, substantially the same phrase, in Bb minor instead of E. Does this make it “plagiarism of plagiarism”? In the eyes of a random observer, perhaps yes. In the eyes of the law, no — because Bruckner’s composition passed into the public domain long ago, and hence Jack White [**] quoting it does not amount to a rights violation. (I would not want to feed all the rock and pop composers who have recycled bits of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Borodin,… as main melodies or riffs without as much as a hat tip. I am not talking about brief “salute” or “tribute” quotes in passing.)

So this adds a very interesting wrinkle to the case. I would have assumed that a song element that is itself lifted from a public domain source would not be copyrightable as such — the whole (which would be a derivative or [presumably in this case] a transformative work) would be, or any original material in the song. Perhaps that is the argument the defendants should have made—I am not a lawyer, but it would seem that this case would be winnable in court. (It is quite possible, however, that the defendants feared being bankrupted by a protracted legal battle against a plaintiff with very deep pockets and a “seven-nation army of copyright lawyers” on retainer.)

I cannot help being reminded of an anecdote from my HS years. A punk rocker was caught shoplifting from a record store. When the beat cop caught and arrested him, his defense was: “That record is mine! I stole it fair and square!” [Dutch original: “Die plaat is van mij! Ik heb ze eerlijk gestolen!”]

Some will rightly point out that composers like J. S. Bach had a much breezier attitude about quoting material than today’s music industry. However, here is the catch: when Bach recycled a popular song as a fugue theme, the material recycled was maybe 1% of the composition, and the contrapuntal edifice he built upon it the other 99%. Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” makes broader use of borrowed material (a Russian Orthodox hymn as the theme for the Russian defenders, and the Marseillaise as the theme for Napoleon’s invasion troops) — but again, there was a ton more music to it.

Bands like Dream Theater quote/steal bits of thematic material like magpies, but again use them as jumpoff points for more elaborate compositions and virtuoso improvisations.

But when your whole composition (such as it is) consists of a simplistic song built up from repeating one or two riffs and/snatches of melody —and then you are then discovered to have “borrowed” them — then I think the true problem is the simplistic, formulaic, and inspiration-less character of the “products” of today’s music industry, not plagiarism.

[*] credit where credit is due — regardless of my disgust with Haaretz’s editorial stance and general oikophobia, this was a good catch.
[**] According to Jack White’s wiki bio, he was a classical music aficionado before turning to rock. It is thus quite probable that he was familiar with the Bruckner original. (1970s German progressive rock band Novalis recorded this tribute to Bruckner’s 5th.) And again, I wouldn’t want to feed all the classically-raised musician turned rockers who mined classical compositions for riffs and hooks. I often quip that J. S. Bach was the greatest jazz cat in history, Mozart the greatest pop composer, and Beethoven the greatest hard rocker 🙂

The evolution of living languages (guest post at According To Hoyt)

[SUMMARY:] My guest post at Sarah Hoyt’s blog on how living languages evolve and words undergo shifts in meaning — especially when imported from other languages. This is even more rampant in English than in other major European languages, owing to English language standards being descriptive [linguistic “field workers” describing how people actually speak and write] rather than prescriptive [a language academy laying down rules for how people should be speaking and writing it].

Georg Elser: the “Lone Wolf” who nearly stopped WW II

Of the many assassination plots against Adolf Hitler [y”sh], four came quite close to succeeding, three of which I have previously blogged about:

“I wanted to prevent the war” (Georg Elser, quoted on a memorial postage stamp)

Johann Georg Elser was born Johann Georg Müller on January 4, 1903, the out-of-wedlock son of a cartwright’s daughter. One year later, his mother married a timber merchant and landowner named Ludwig Elser, who adopted the boy. The stepfather was apparently an alcoholic and violent while drunk, which may have motivated the stepson’s becoming a teetotaler.

Georg (he went by his middle name) apprenticed as a lathe worker but, for health reasons, switched to carpentry, and eventually graduated best in his class in trade school. He then worked as a master joiner and cabinet maker, after a while settling down in Konstanz on the Boden Lake (near the Swiss border) where he worked for a manufacturer of “grandfather’s clocks”.

He joined the “Red Front Fighters League” (an organization affiliated with the German Communist Party) in 1928, but dropped out after one year. What I have read of his biography suggests a highly introverted man who mostly kept to himself, except for joining a local music club where he played the zither (apparently with some proficiency).

His employer went bankrupt in the Great Depression, as did its successor company. Eventually, Elser found himself reduced to working for room and board as a repairman at a hostel for the indigent in Meersburg. He earned himself a reputation as a painstaking, very precise worker who kept to himself. (Nevertheless, he did father a child out of wedlock with a waitress: the child was adopted by her later husband.)

He apparently was opposed to the National Socialist regime from the start: contemporaries recall he would switch off the radio if a Hitler speech came on, or would leave the room. His employment fortunes improved, but from 1937 on, it was obvious to him why: Germany’s industry was gearing up for war.

After the Munich agreement in which Chamberlain shamefully sold the Czechs out to Hitler, Elser apparently concluded Hitler needed killing. Every November 9th, AH gave a memorial speech at the Bürgerbraukeller, th Munich beer hall where his abortive 1923 putsch had taken place.

Elser attended the speech and, doing so, discovered the beer hall was unguarded both before and after. He also noticed that the speaker’s dais stood in front of a thick pillar. A plan started forming in his head.

From this point on, he was a man with a mission. He was also the worst nightmare of any protective detail: a “lone wolf” who involves nobody in his plans and therefore is impervious to infiltrants and informants.

Elser quit his job and managed to get work at a quarry, from which he managed to purloin a large quantity of dynamite. (From a previous employer, which had a sideline in the production of ammunition and detonators, he had earlier squirreled away a rather smaller quantity of gunpowder.)

According to the movie Elser, er haette den Welt verandert [Elser, he would have changed the world] he broke up with his then-partner (who may have born two of his children) in order to protect them in case he got caught. (The woman herself does not recall it that way.)

Elser built a very precise timer — accurate to one minute over a period of five days — then a second, redundant one in case the first failed. (To anyone who happened to see the work in progress, he’d say he was working on a new clock design.)

Then over a period of a month and a half, he followed this basic routine. He’d go eat dinner at the Bürgerbraukeller, hide in the restroom at closing time, and let himself be locked in. Then, after he was alone, he got to work: at first, he installed an invisible door in the wood paneling of the pillar. Then, behind the door, he started hollowing out — slowly and laboriously, without power tools and careful not to make any noise — a space large enough to hold the explosives (about 120 kilograms!) and redundant time fuses. Come morning, he’d retreat into the restroom, then leave the cafe after it opened. (Presumably, the rate-determining step was the amount of debris he could smuggle out unseen in one trip.) The now movable wood panel was covered on the inside with felt to suppress the ticking sounds of the timer.

Then came the big day. On November 9, 1939, at 21:00, the Führer was scheduled to speak. Elser set his delay fuses for November 9 at 21:20 (allowing for the “main act” to appear a bit late), made a trip back at night and checked with his ear against the pillar that his mechanism was working, and — satisfied — set out for the Swiss border.

What inadvertently saved Hitler was the weather forecast. He wanted to be back in Berlin on the next day, so was planning to fly back after the speech. However, his personal pilot told him it would not be safe to fly in the heavy fog that had been forecast for later that night — so as Plan B, he decided to take a special train instead and move his schedule. Instead of the “warmup speeches” by lesser party brass at 8PM, the “main act” took the stage immediately at that hour. Furthermore, he cut his speech short from the usual two hours-plus to about one hour, and by 9:07 PM was on his way to the train.

Thirteen minutes later, exactly as scheduled, the bomb went off. Of the about 120 stragglers who were still in the cavernous beer hall, eight got killed (seven party drones and one waitress) and 63 wounded, of which 16 severely. The consensus of historians is that the bomb would have killed Hitler instantly if he had still been on the dais.

Arthur Nebe, the head of the criminal investigations department of the Reich, immediately took personal charge of the investigation. Nebe’s role in the Third Reich is highly ambiguous: on the one hand, he was involved in crimes against humanity, on the other hand, he was in touch with anti-Hitler conspirators in the Army and the Abwehr (intelligence service) from near the beginning of the Third Reich. He suspected the bombing was a failed attempt by the Army, and (thus his friend Hans-Bernd Gisevius recalls in his not always reliable resistance memoir To The Bitter End) was originally planning to arrest and shoot some Bavarian Legitimisten (separatist monarchists seeking to restore the Wittelsbach dynasty at the head of a fully independent Bavaria) as a cover-up. Then news reached him that somebody had been arrested while trying to cross the border into Switzerland: Elser had been carrying bits of detonator, his old Red Front badge, and other paraphernalia, with the help of which he had hoped to apply for political asylum in Switzerland.

Elser was tortured, not to extract a confession — he admitted from the beginning he had placed the bomb — but to extract the names of his foreign handlers. The Gestapo and SD, in particular, could not believe Elser had acted alone.

In a bizarre sideshow, the SD’s domestic intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg had been posing as a dissident army officer “Captain Schämmel”, thus stringing along two MI6 operatives (S. Payne Best and Richard H. Stevens) stationed in Holland. On the very next day, he lured them to a rendezvous at café Backus in Venlo, just steps from the Dutch-German border — they would finally get to meet a senior anti-Nazi general. Instead, the two men were kidnapped by a team of SD operatives led by Alfred Naujocks (of earlier Gleiwitz Incident infamy), with Lt. Klop becoming the first Dutch fatality of World War Two. Best and Stevens spent the rest of the war in concentration camps (Sachsenhausen at first, Dachau), but under what by KZ standards were “VIP conditions”, as they were regarded as “valuable prisoners” who must be kept alive for a future show trial or prisoner exchange.

Elser himself finally offered to build a replica of the bomb, so they could see he could do it just fine by himself. This duly happened. He spent the rest of the war in Dachau, likewise under privileged conditions (presumably ahead of a big show trial proving British complicity in a plot against the Führer — this never happened). He had two cells to himself, one of which was a carpentry workshop where he produced items for the camp guards and privileged prisoners.

On April 9, 1945, with the Americans approaching Dachau, he was taken to the camp crematorium and shot on the direct orders of Himmler.

Best and Stevens, meanwhile, were part of the same “VIP prisoner transport” that was sent to Tyrol. Their SS guards were under orders to shoot them if capture by the Allies seemed imminent, but a cashiered Wehrmacht colonel among the prisoners managed to contact a regular army unit led by Wichard von Alvensleben, who rescued the group and conveyed them to the approaching Americans.

What if? What would have happened if Elser had succeeded? My fiction writer’s WAG is this:

• Göring was the designated successor at the time. He was a nasty piece of work but appears to have had no particular enthusiasm for an offensive war against the Western powers — especially not as long as they could be bullied into diplomatic concessions. Additionally, he was too severely addled by morphine addiction to have been an effective war leader by this stage. It cannot be ruled out that a “Little Third Reich” would have existed for decades on German, Austrian, Polish, and Czech territory — but that the Reich would have been “contained” there.

What happened to the beer garden? After the war, what was left of it served as an American officers club, then eventually the whole complex was redeveloped. The site now contains the Gasteig symphony hall and convention cente as well as the head offices of GEMA (the German equivalent of ASCAP or BMI). The exact spot of the explosion is marked by this memorial plaque:

At this site in the former Bürgerbraukellertried the joiner Johann Georg Elser, on November 8, 1939, to carry out an attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler, and therewith to put an end to the National Socialist terror regime. The plan failed. Elser was, after 5 ½ years of imprisonment, murdered on April 9, 1945 at Dachau Concentration Camp

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!