COVID19 update, VE-Day 2020 edition: software engineer on simulation code; what exactly does “peer-reviewed” mean?

Today, 75 years ago on May 8, 1945, World War Two ended in the European theatre with the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. “The instrument of surrender signed 7 May 1945 stipulated that all hostilities must cease at 23:01 (CET), 8 May 1945, just an hour before midnight.” However, since that was already past midnight, EET and Moscow time, the USSR and its satellite states marked VE Day on May 9, and Russia does so to this day. In Israel the day is unofficially marked on May 9, owing to the large number of elderly Russian immigrants who had actually fought in what Russians call “The Great Patriotic War”.

Meanwhile, some happenings on the COVID front.

(1) (Hat tip: masgramondou.) An experienced software engineer, formerly at Google, reviews Neil Ferguson’s simulation code in detail.Yes, the one that predicted two million dead in the US, which later had to be revised downward by a factor of twenty.. Read the whole thing, and weep. A few teasers:

My background. I wrote software for 30 years. I worked at Google between 2006 and 2014, where I was a senior software engineer working on Maps, Gmail and account security. I spent the last five years at a US/UK firm where I designed the company’s database product, amongst other jobs and projects. I was also an independent consultant for a couple of years. Obviously I’m giving only my own professional opinion and not speaking for my current employer.

The documentation says: “The model is stochastic. Multiple runs with different seeds should be undertaken to see average behaviour.” “Stochastic” is just a scientific-sounding word for “random”. That’s not a problem if the randomness is intentional pseudo-randomness, i.e. the randomness is derived from a starting “seed” which is iterated to produce the random numbers. Such randomness is often used in Monte Carlo techniques. It’s safe because the seed can be recorded and the same (pseudo-)random numbers produced from it in future. Any kid who’s played Minecraft is familiar with pseudo-randomness because Minecraft gives you the seeds it uses to generate the random worlds, so by sharing seeds you can share worlds.

Clearly, the documentation wants us to think that, given a starting seed, the model will always produce the same results.

Investigation reveals the truth: the code produces critically different results, even for identical starting seeds and parameters.

I’ll illustrate with a few bugs. In issue 116 a UK “red team” at Edinburgh University reports that they tried to use a mode that stores data tables in a more efficient format for faster loading, and discovered – to their surprise – that the resulting predictions varied by around 80,000 deaths after 80 days[…]

(2) “It’s not peer-reviewed!” You hear a lot in debates about COVID19 nowadays. But what does this really mean?

For a scientific paper to get published in a reputable scientific journal, it needs to undergo peer review: the editor (or an associate/section editor) sends the submitted paper out to (usually between two and four) experts in the field for their frank evaluation of the science. They write verbal reports, passed back anonymously to the author, and may also answer a questionnaire grading the paper on various criteria (novelty, technical correctness, quality of presentation, appropriate length,…). They also make a summary recommendation which is one of the following

  • Publish as is (rarely do all reviewers recommend this on 1st pass)
  • Publish subject to minor revisions detailed in the report. (Further review is typically not expected.)
  • May be publishable subject to major revision (and usually re-reviewing of the revised manuscript).
  • Not suitable for the journal, but may be publishable in _____
  • Not suitable for publication in any form

Where does one draw the line between “minor” and “major” revision? In practice, if (nontrivial amounts of) additional experiments/computer simulations/… are required, or if the interpretation needs to be radically overhauled, it’s considered “major”, otherwise minor. One round of the process easily takes a month or more, doubled if one or more reviewers insist on major revision, or if the paper is initially rejected and resubmitted to another journal. In fast-moving research areas (not just the present global pandemic), this causes frustrating delays. So sometime in the 1990s, when the web was still in its infancy, a group of particle physicists developed an online preprint server that, after a period under the rather confusing URL (which suggested a sideline of Los Alamos National Laboratory into adult entertainment), became known as Here scientists could share their freshly submitted manuscripts with colleagues ahead of publication, or even circulate drafts. Anybody wishing to comment on such a “preprint” could just email the author.Over time, similar sites came online for the life sciences (, medicine ( and finally chemistry ( Sure, there are spam and crank submissions to these sites (site managers try to keep out the obvious ones), but for the most part, submissions are legitimate papers in their original, pre-peer reviewed, form. Many of them, if the journal (publisher) allows this, update their submission with a “postprint”, i.e., the revised manuscript after peer review. ( and similar sites are set up such that the original and revised uploads are always preserved and accessible, to forestall a “Oceania is not at war with Eurasia” scenario.) Many journals nowadays, once a paper is accepted for publication, immediately put the accepted manuscript “postprint” online, and in priority disputes this date counts as the date of first publication.

Copy editing by the production staff, typesetting in journal format, proofreading by the author (often with some last-minute changes) may take several weeks more, after which the final “version of record” comes online, often at first with placeholder page numbers ahead of inclusion in a journal issue. (No further change is made after this other than updating the placeholder page numbers to the final ones upon inclusion in an issue. If the authors find a mistake in their own paper at this point, their only option is to publish an erratum.)

Peer review is definitely valuable, and there may be substantial changes between an online preprint and the version of record — but that does not necessarily mean the preprint is worthless, especially if it comes from an established research group, in which case it’s best regarded as a “beta release” — some changes may be expected, but the paper may already be quite useful. The anonymous peer review system has its own issues with bias and (both benign and malignant) “gatekeeping”, but for the most part has served the scientific community well. Its primary weakness at this point is that qualified reviewers become over-burdened with manuscripts to review — keep in mind this is unpaid service to the scientific community, and reviewers quickly learn not to respond too fast, or they get “rewarded” with more refereeing requests. And after all, you need to perform, manage, and publish your own research, aside from teaching and any administrative duties you might have.

Alternatives have been sought. Public open peer review is one of them, where the reviewers’ reports and critiques are visible online. This could potentially become a hybrid alternative to both the preprint system and anonymous peer review, with radical transparency to the reader. In the discussion on the community testing effort in Santa Clara County, we saw an interesting example.

Stay-at-home reading promotion: all my ebooks free on Kindle, Wednesday March 25 through Sunday March 29

On account of the various lockdowns around the world, I’m following the lead of several friends who are running free or deep-discount ebook promotions. You can read these books directly on your Kindle, your smartphone (with the free Kindle app for iOS or Android), or you laptop or desktop computer (with the free Kindle app for MacOS or Windows).

WW II alternate history

On March 21, 1943, a general staff officer came within a hairbreadth of killing nearly the entire Nazi top in a suicide bombing.
In timeline DE1943RG, he succeeded.
And then the conspirators discovered killing the tyrant was the easy part of the job.

Episode 3, “Spring Awakening”, is presently in copy-edit.

Campus romance, with lots of music

“On Different Strings: A Musical Romance” was my writing debut. Between a penniless young music tutor and a British-born engineering professor, an unlikely romance cemented by music develops. Until Kafkaesque academic politics and jealous exes make appearances…


“Winter Into Spring” is a sweet romance novella set in suburban Chicagoland.

Contributions to anthologies

This one I cannot set free, but my story in it fits entirely in the free preview segment, and is hence permafree.

Purim 5703/1943 in another timeline: Excerpt from Operation Flash, Episode 1

Happy Purim to my fellow Jews! May the day be filled with joy despite the worldwide anxiety about the COVID-2019 epidemic.

It hasn’t always been a joyous occasion: during the Shoah, henchmen of the modern Haman “marked” the holiday in their own cynical way. As we learn from Wikipedia:

Nazi attacks against Jews were often coordinated with Jewish festivals. On Purim 1942, ten Jews were hanged in Zduńska Wola to “avenge” the hanging of Haman’s ten sons.[92] In a similar incident in 1943, the Nazis shot ten Jews from the Piotrkówghetto.[93] On Purim eve that same year, over 100 Jewish doctors and their families were shot by the Nazis in Częstochowa. The following day, Jewish doctors were taken from Radom and shot nearby in Szydłowiec.[93] In an apparent connection made by Hitler between his Nazi regime and the role of Haman, Hitler stated in a speech made on January 30, 1944, that if the Nazis were defeated, the Jews could celebrate “a second Purim”.[93] Indeed, Julius Streicher was heard to sarcastically remark “Purimfest 1946” as he ascended the scaffold after Nuremberg.[94]

[In fact, said occasion was on a different Jewish holiday, namely Hoshana Rabba

I am about to start pre-publication editing of Episode 3 of my World War Two alternate history series, “Operation Flash”. The premise of this series, of course, is that the March 21, 1943 suicide bombing attempt on Hitler and his main underlings had succeeded. (Colonel Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff would only have needed to use a different detonator.)
As I was writing Episode 1, I suddenly thought: “Hmm, let me check what day March 21, 1943 was on the Jewish calendar”. Sure enough, 14 Adar 5703 would have been the mother of all Purims in that timeline. So I could not resist splicing in a chapter about this, which also gave me a chance to touch on some other issues. Below I am reproducing this chapter.

Happy Purim!


Operation Flash — Episode 1 — Chapter 6

March 21, 1943

For the whole world, my name was Johann Schulze. I must never mention my old name, Joachim Israel Steinberg.

My father had been a well-known doctor. When the law forbidding Jewish doctors to treat non-Jewish patients came out, we tried to make ends meet. I somehow got a job at the Siemens-Halske electrical factory.

For one reason or another, some of my coworkers took a liking to me. So when the transports to the East started, we were distributed across a few families. Fortunately, I don’t look very Jewish, so I can “submarine”, as we call it. There are a number of us fellow “U-boats” hiding in plain sight in the city — right in the heart of the Third Reich. We are always on the lookout for Gestapo agents — and for traitors of our own, who for money or a temporary reprieve for their families ferret out fellow Jews for the Gestapo.

If anyone asked, I was originally from Lübeck, but our house had been destroyed in the major RAF raid, and my maternal uncle, Christoph Baumann, had taken me in. Some people would shake their heads in sympathy — “to flee bombardments to Berlin is like fleeing the rain into the gutter”. I would say I was “hoping to join the Wehrmacht soon”, or perhaps “wanted to join the Luftwaffe to help defend the Reich against the terror bombers”, but meanwhile was working at a factory essential for the war.

My sisters had an easier time submarining elsewhere, and actually worked in various jobs. Unlike me, they did not carry the sign of the Covenant, of course—if arrested and made to strip, I’d be done for.


We’d had a simple meal, mostly bread and a watery soup made of potatoes. This was one reason each family had only taken in one of us: unless we could somehow get registered under a false name and get ration cards issued, each hidden person was an additional mouth to feed with the same number of ration cards.

Occasionally I would take the risk and work an odd job as a day laborer, and with the money Mrs. Baumann could buy some food on the black market. She would also quietly sell family curios and jewelry, one item at a time, if needed. It wasn’t impossible to survive that way, as Mr. Baumann and his eldest son Peter had increased rations as “essential war workers”. Peter had lost a foot stepping on a mine during the France campaign and had been invalided out of the army.

The large radio, built at the same factory they worked, was one luxury we did have.


“I don’t get it. Are they drunk on the job?”

“Why?” I walked in from the other room, where I’d been reading.

“In the middle of the news overview, the radio suddenly went to a Franz Léhar tune.

“And then, after about a minute, it went back to the newsreader.”

Suddenly we heard him pause, clear his throat, and speak, with a jittery voice.


“We interrupt this program for a special announcement.”

“Proclamation Number One of the Reichsnotregierung!”

We looked at each other. Emergency Reich Government?!

The Führer—”, he paused, “The Führer, Adolf Hitler, is dead!

What?! We were dumbstruck. The newsreader continued.

“He was killed in a bomb attack together with the Deputy Führer, Reich Marshal Hermann Goering; with the Head of the Wehrmacht High Command, Field Marshal Keitel; with the Führer’s Chief Adjutant, Gen. Rudolf Schmundt; and many others.

“A conscience-less clique of party and SS leaders who are strangers to the front have attempted to stab the struggling soldiers in the back and to grab power for self-serving purposes.

“Therefore we, the Emergency Reich Government, have assumed executive power. In order to maintain law and order, the ERG has declared a state of martial law and delegated responsibility to the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht.

“1. The following are subordinated to the ERG and the Army:”

We listened in disbelief as a long list of Nazi Party institutions were declared either subordinate to the government or outlawed.

“…Effective immediately, the Waffen SS is to be integrated into the Wehrmacht. Any resistance to this order will be regarded as mutiny and punished as such.

“3. The Allgemeine SS and its associated organizations are declared illegal…”

None of us could believe our ears. Would this long nightmare at last be over?!

“…Any resistance to the military authorities is to be ruthlessly suppressed. The Fatherland is in its hour of greatest peril.

“The German soldier is faced with an historic task. It will depend on his energy and behavior whether or not Germany will be saved.


Ludwig Beck, Reichsverweser.

Dr. Carl Goerdeler, Chancellor.

Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, Commander in Chief of the Wehrmacht.”

* * *

Shock and elation filled the room; it was difficult to know if it all could be contained. The Baumanns had been Social Democrats during the Weimar Era. Mr. Baumann had been a member of the Reichsbanner Black-Red-Gold and later, when that merged with two other groups, of the Iron Front — which had fought both the SA brownshirts and the Communist “Red Front”. Somehow, he had escaped persecution after the Nazi takeover.

Meanwhile, “Siegfried’s Death” by Wagner had started playing from the radio.

“Now this senseless war will end,” Mrs. Baumann murmured, “and the troops will come home.”

“That won’t be easy,” Mr. Baumann replied. “The remaining Nazis won’t give up without a fight.”

“Perhaps Johann can come out of hiding,” daughter Ruth spoke up. For some reason, Ruth is a very popular girl’s name among Germans—even those who begrudge us the whites in our eyes, as we say here. This does not include our Ruth, mind you.

“Again, make haste slowly. And don’t go cheering too hard outside. You never know.”

I could speak only one word.

Purimfest. Purimfest.

“Come again?” Peter asked.

“Today would have been the holiday of Purim.”


“It’s where we read the book of Esther, about how an evil man named Haman tried to kill all the Jews in Persia and they were saved.”

“I remember this book from Bible School,” Mrs. Baumann added. “Esther and her uncle Mordechai stopped him.”

“And Haman was hanged from the gallows he had prepared for Mordechai.”

I had lost my faith some years ago. But this was surely a most remarkable coincidence.

25 Luglio 1943: Dino Grandi and the fall of Mussolini

This is the original radio announcement on the Italian radio from July 25, 1943 at 10:45pm:

[My translation:] “Attention! Attention! His Majesty the King and Emperor, [Victor Emmanuel III,] has accepted the resignation of the Head of Government, Prime Minister, and Secretary of State, Mr. Benito Mussolini, and has appointed to [these same offices] His Excellency, Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio.”

The bloodless coup that had occurred the day before was in no small measure the brainchild of a now forgotten Italian politician: Dino Grandi, 1st Count Mordena.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00160 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Dino Grandi had been one of “Il Duce”s earliest companions. Originally he had left-wing sympathies like Mussolini himself (many people forget that “Il Duce”s first major political engagement was as the editor-in-chief of the Italian socialist newspaper Avanti! [Forward!]). Like in “Il Duce”, World War One awakened nationalist tendencies in Grandi. He was one of the 35 Fascist delegates elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1921. From September 1929 until July 1932, he served as Foreign Minister, in which position he apparently possessed some skill: particularly with the United Kingdom, the anglophile Grandi built up good relations.

Considering Grandi’s attitude to the League of Nations too accommodating, Mussolini dismissed him and took up the portfolio himself, before later passing it on to his son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano (whose diaries are a valuable primary source). 

Grandi was appointed ambassador in London as a kind of consolation prize. He reportedly had affairs with a number of high-society ladies, notably Lady Alexandra Curzon, the daughter of Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon. (Said daughter simultaneously was carrying on with both British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Mosley and with the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Halifax).

At the outbreak of the war, Grandi was recalled when Hitler found out about Grandi’s attempts to negotiate a separate nonaggression pact between Italy and the UK, and went ballistic on Mussolini. The latter appointed Grandi Minister of Justice upon his return. Later he became Chair of the lower house of the quasi-parliament, the Chamber of Fasci and Corporations [“corporations” in the sense of estates, professional associations, and the like — in keeping with Mussolini’s “corporatist” ideology].

Grandi opposed both antisemitic legislation (introduced in 1938 under Nazi pressure) and Italy’s entry into the war, and his increasing criticism of Mussolini’s policy led to his ouster from the cabinet on February 5, 1943. Crucially for what follows, however, he remained a member of the Grand Council of Fascism.

By this time, the continued military bad news from the Eastern Front and North Africa had reduced Mussolini to a state of near-catatonia, and increasingly, senior Fascists started grumbling that Il Duce had become unfit for the job. 

Now much unlike the Führer — who was accountable to no-one (except arguably Satan) — Mussolini still had a measure of accountability to the Grand Council of Fascism, as well as to the head of state, King Vittorio Emanuele III. The latter, under Article 5 of the Statute Albertino (the constitution of Sardinia and later of Italy until 1948),  had the constitutional prerogative to appoint and dismiss all government officials, including the Prime Minister: he was, however, reluctant on principle to exercise this power.

Then, on July 10, 1943, the Allies invaded Sicily, which was the last straw for Grandi, Ciano, and many others. Grandi, as the bearer of the country’s highest decoration, had free access to the king and sounded him out. An agreement was reached that, if the Grand Council of Fascism were to recommend Mussolini’s dismissal, then the king would carry it out.

Grandi scheduled a meeting of the Grand Council of Fascism on Saturday evening, July 24, 1943 at its usual location in the aptly named “Sala del Pappagallo” (Parrot Room, after the parrot Pope Paul II had kept there [in Italian]) of the Palazzo Venezia on San Marco Square. The ostensible reason was the presentation to Mussolini of a new book.  

There, within sight of the Forum as well as of Trajan’s Market, the Duce was suddenly presented with a motion to invoke Article 5 (implied: for the King to dismiss Mussolini).

Following a lengthy debate and a break, the 28 members voted by roll call on Grandi’s motion: 19 voted in favor, 7 against, 1 abstained, and one left the room. At 2:40am on July 25, the council broke up for what turned out to be the last time.

Mussolini requested an audience with the king, who agreed to receive him at 5pm. There and then, he was told he was dismissed from his offices and that Marshal of Italy Pietro Badoglio had been appointed in his place. 

Upon emerging from the palace, a specially briefed detachment of Carabinieri accompanied the Duce “for his own protection” to a military ambulance that turned out to be a disguised “Black Maria” taking him to prison.

And thus ended the reign of Il Duce. Two months later, an SS commando team led by Otto Skorzeny would spring him from imprisonment. Brought to Hitler, he was told he would now be the head of a  puppet state in the German-occupied zone of Italy (what became known as the “Italian Social Republic”). Mussolini was at that point ill, exhausted, and looking forward to retirement, but the German tyrant threatened to have several Northern cities flattened by the Luftwaffe unless he consented. So he spent the remaining fewer than two years of his life a nominal dictator, but a prisoner in fact.

As for Dino Grandi, he fled abroad to Portugal and then Brazil — where he became a successful businessman — but eventually would return to Italy and die there at a ripe old age.

Operation Eclipse: How Churchill and Canadian troops saved Denmark from Stalin in the last days of World War Two

Mark Felton just posted a video about a fascinating episode in the last days of WW II

Mark Felton video about Operation Eclipse

View the whole thing. But here is a quick summary:

At Yalta, the Elbe River had been the agreed-upon demarcation line between the Red Army and the Western allies. On April 25, 1945, the Red Army and the US Army had met at Torgau on the Elbe, effectively cutting what remained of the “Thousand-Year” Reich into two.

Winston Churchill, however, feared that if the Russians were allowed to reach the Elbe river in the North, they would be able to march into Schleswig-Holstein and thence into Denmark — adding that to their growing inventory of Soviet satellite states.

So a group of Canadian paratroopers was sent on a deep-penetration raid across the Elbe to capture and hold the Baltic port of Wismar, and block the Soviet advance there. The Canadians encountered negligible resistance — instead, they ran into thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers eager to surrender to the Western Allies. In order not to be slowed down in their advance, the Canadians disarmed the soldiers and sent them on an unaccompanied march toward the Elbe, while they continued.

Eventually they made their objective. Shortly after they had occupied the town (against no resistance other than sporadic sniper fire), advance scouts for a Red Army tank column showed up — they were headed for the Hanseatic city of Lübeck — confirming Churchills’s suspicions, as Lübeck was the Eastern gateway to Schleswig-Holstein and then Denmark.

An uneasy standoff ensued, but no open hostilities. Of course the Canadians had to be withdrawn just days later — but their maneuver had bought Montgomery and Churchill enough time to accept the surrender of the remaining German forces in Northern Germany and in Denmark.

This was not the most glamorous or heroic operation of WW II — but it achieved an important objective, and materially affected the power relationships between NATO and the USSR in years to come. And, of course, it spared the Danes from life as a Soviet satellite.

Two cheers for Winston, and for Canadian paratroopers! And thanks to Mark Felton for sharing this unknown but important tale with us.

UPDATE: more on Operation Eclipse here:

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.

“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.

How did modern Germany come about? A very short history of German unification under Bismarck

Many people don’t realize that modern Germany, as a political entity, is a comparatively recent creation (1871). So where did it come from, and how did we get there?

How far back in the mists of dawn shall I go? All the way to Charlemagne (Karl der Große), arguably the first Holy Roman Emperor? Yes, the “First Reich” was the Holy Roman Empire (HRE) — “not holy, not Roman, and not an empire” as Voltaire famously quipped. 

The 300+ German principalities of the Holy Roman Empire

Let us fast-forward to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the overlapping European Wars of Religion, chief among them the particularly bloody and traumatic Thirty-Years War.  Many political scientists use the term “Westphalian sovereignty” for the modern conception of state sovereignty.

At that point, the Holy Roman Empire was a patchwork of some 300 principalities, all tributaries to the Holy Roman Emperor (a title held from 1438 until 1806 by the head of the House of Habsburg, and by its Austrian branch since the 1556 abdication of Charles V). It looked something like this:

The Holy Roman Empire in 1648

The principalities varied widely in size, from the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Archduchy of Austria all the way down to several “Free Cities” like Hamburg, Bremen, and Frankfurt. 

One provision of the treaty (which actually reaffirmed a provision of the 1555 Augsburg Peace) was cuius regio, eius religio, i.e., that each principality would acquire the religion of its ruler, be it Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist. Indeed, the Catholic principalities included several not-so-small Prince-Bishoprics, where the Bishop or Archbishop was both spiritual and temporal ruler: e.g.,  the Prince-Bishopric of Münster, the Prince-Bishopric of Liège/Luik/Lüttich in present-day Belgium, and the like.  

This system persisted, with various internal rearrangements, through the French Revolution, until Napoleon I became its final undoing. This had been the map on the eve of the 1789 French Revolution.

Holy Roman Empire (1789)

Following Napoleon’s victory over the Austrians at Austerlitz in 1805, the last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II (subsequently Francis II of Austria) dissolved the HRE by decree on August 6, 1806.  Concomitantly, twin processes of “mediatization” and “secularization” took place. The confusing term “mediatization” in context means that smaller principalities lost their privilege of “immediacy” (answering directly to the Holy Roman Emperor without intermediaries) but were made subject to one of the larger principalities. “Secularization” in context means that Prince-(Arch)Bishops were stripped of their temporal authority, and  that their former dominions  were either converted into secular principalities or attached to an existing larger principality. 

From 1806 until 1813, many of the newer states were part of a French client-state union called Rheinbund/Confederation of the Rhine.

From 300+ down to 39: the German Confederation (1815)

Following the final defeat of Napoleon I at Waterloo outside Brussels, the European power brokers met at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, where they laid down a blueprint for the postwar order. (Austrian Chancellor Klemens von Metternich was the “midwife” of this congress, if you like.)

For the German-speaking realm, its major consequence was the restructuring of the Rheinbund, Prussia, Austria,… into a loose German Confederation with “only” 39 member states. Four of these were actually ruled by foreign monarchs in personal union: the Duchy of Holstein (by Denmark), the Archduchy of Luxemburg (by Holland), the Duchy of Limburg (also Holland), and the Kingdom of Hanover (by England). Four others were the Free Cities of Hamburg, Bremen, Lübeck, and Frankfurt. By far the most powerful members were Catholic Austria and Lutheran Prussia.

German Confederation

The failed 1848 revolution and the rise of Otto von Bismarck

1848 was a year Europe was shaken by revolutions, including  the  German confederation. (This is also when the great immigration wave from the German Confederation to the USA took place.) Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was able to hold on to his throne, but saw himself forced to introduce some democratic reforms, including the creation of a Landtag (parliament).

One of the loudest anti-revolutionary voices in the Landtag was a former civil servant named Otto von Bismarck, born from a Junker [=squire, the lowest rank of nobility] family. He caught the eye of Friedrich Wilhelm IV and in 1851 became his envoy to the Diet of the German Confederation at Frankfurt. There, the future “Iron Chancellor” proved his mettle as a crafty diplomat and negotiator, with the Austrian envoy as his primary foil. 

Otto von Bismarck (1873)

In 1857 Friedrich Wilhelm IV was permanently put out of commission by a stroke. Until his death in 1861, his older brother Wilhelm acted as regent, then he ascended to the throne himself as Wilhelm I. (His queen was Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter.)

Wilhelm at first distrusted Bismarck and looked down upon him as a “Landwehrleutnant” (Home Guard lieutenant), but had continued to rely on him for key ambassadorial positions, first to St. Petersburg (1859) then to Paris (1862). A domestic political crisis broke out over the budget (which included major rearmament spending): Wilhelm threatened abdication in favor of his son Crown-Prince Friedrich, but the latter did not want the job and instead cajoled his father into appointing Bismarck as Chancellor. Bismarck’s two most important allies in Berlin were Minister of War Albrecht von Roon and the Chief of Staff,  Field Marshal Helmut Graf von Moltke [the Elder].

Bismarck had been a late convert to the cause of German unification, but on 30 Sept. 1862 he gave the “Blood And Iron Speech”, which ended on the following peroration:

“Prussia must concentrate its strength and hold it for the favorable moment, which has already come and gone several times. Since the treaties of Vienna, our frontiers have been ill-designed for a healthy body politic. Not through speeches and majority decisions will the great questions of the day be decided—that was the great mistake of 1848 and 1849—but by iron and blood (Eisen und Blut).”

By “Iron” he did not just mean “arms”, by the way, but industrialization more generally. 

The Second Schleswig War

In 1863, King Frederick VII of Denmark died heirless, creating a succession dispute between rival branches. Christian IX was crowned king and the new constitution asserted Danish authority over the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, but pro-German Duke Frederick VIII was supported by German-speaking separatists in said duchies.

Bismarck saw the “favorable moment” he had been hoping for, and convinced Austria to wage war against Denmark on the side of Prussia. The Danish army was no match for especially the Prussians; in the 1864 Treaty of Vienna, Danmark saw itself forced to cede all of Holstein and much of Schleswig to joint Austro-Prussian sovereignty.

The 1866 Unification War: And Then There Were Five

A dispute with Austria over the administration of the new provinces was seized upon by Bismarck as a casus belli for a war with Austria. Prussia make a military alliance with Italy, then invaded Holstein. The dispute was brought before the German Diet, which declared mobilization against Prussia. In response, Prussia declared the Diet “finished” and invaded Hanover, Saxony, and Hesse on June 15. Italy then attacked Austria on June 20.

Roon and Moltke had turned the already formidable Prussian army into an even more powerful fighting machine, and after a crushing victory at Königgratz, the Austrians called it quits — especially once it became clear that Bismarck had zero interest in any Austrian territory. (Reportedly, when Wilhelm I insisted the Prussians march on Vienna, Bismarck threatened to instead jump from a 4th-floor window, at which point Wilhelm backed down.)

At the August 23, 1886 peace of Prague, the German Confederation was dissolved. The former Habsburg province of Veneto (i.e., Venice and the surrounding mainland) was ceded to the French, who promptly passed it to Italy. 

Five days earlier, Bismarck had created the North-German Confederation in the map below. The many small states inside were now wholly dominated by Prussia (in blue). In fact, Schleswig-Holstein, the Electorate of Hesse, Nassau, the Free City of Frankfurt, and the Kingdom of Hanover were annexed outright to Prussia itself.

North German Confederation (1866)

Bismarck set about creating a federal parliament (the Reichstag), with representatives elected based on local laws. It sat as a constituent assembly at first, discussing and amending a draft federal constitution. Then federal elections took place and the new constitution went in force.

Left outside the North-German Confederation were Austria’s Southern German allies: the kingdoms of Bavaria and Württemberg, and the Archduchy of Baden. (The small Principality of Hohenzollern, an enclave inside Württemberg, was the origin of Prussia’s reigning Hohenzollern Dynasty and remained a Prussian exclave.)

So we are now down from 300+ German polities via 39 to just five.

The 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the birth of the Second Reich

The abdication of Queen Isabella II of Spain had created a succession crisis there.

After a while, a German prince from the house of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen emerged as a possible successor. Napoleon III of France now feared his “Second Empire”  would be the meat in a German sandwich. He demanded that this German candidacy be withdrawn and sent the French ambassador to Prussia to present this demand to Wilhelm I, who was vacationing at Bad Ems. Wilhelm was polite but noncommittal; Wilhelm’s secretary Abeken sent a telegram summarizing the meeting to Bismarck. The latter promptly set about “embellishing” this Ems Dispatch before releasing it to the press, in ways that were calculated to goad Napoleon III.

The latter took the bait and the French declared war on Germany, thus giving Bismarck the excuse he craved. Within six months, the French army suffered a series of humiliating defeats culminating in the siege of Paris (which saw Parisians reduced to eating their pets and their zoo animals). The Second Empire collapsed, Napoleon III was supplanted by the French Third Republic, France was forced to to pay a huge indemnity and to cede Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.

More germane to our subject, the war proved enough for the Southern German holdouts to throw in their lot with Wilhelm, thus completing German unification.

On January 1, 1871, the combined four polities became the [Second] German Reich, with King Wilhelm I of Prussia being upgraded to Kaiser/Emperor Wilhelm I. Bismarck stayed in office as Reichskanzler until after the Kaiser’s death in 1888 and the 99-day reign of his already moribund son Frederick III, until finally dismissed by Wilhelm I’s ambitious grandson Wilhelm II in 1890. 

As a footnote, the Spanish ultimately crowned the 2nd son of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy as King Amadeo I. He abdicated a year and a half later,  then was replaced by Alfonso XII, the eldest son of the exiled Queen.

From expansion to consolidation

Significantly, the last nineteen years of Bismarck’s tenure were a time, not of military adventures, but of consolidation and nation-building. 

Unlike the future Wilhelm II, or the genocidal madman at the head of the still-later Third Reich, Bismarck was above all a consummate realist. In the already then existing dispute in the German nationalist movement between Greater Germany and Lesser Germany factions, he emphatically sided with the latter, as he feared the acquisition of Austria or of Austrian-held Polish territory (both with mostly Catholic populations) would dilute the Protestant Prussian complexion of the state beyond repair. 

Instead, he set about carrying out a series of modernizing reforms. His political vision can be described as a paternalistic Obrigkeitsstaat [authority state]: be a faithful servant of the state, and the state will look after you. The Health Insurance Bill of 1883 (which formalized the system of Krankenkasse or “sick funds”), Accident Insurance Bill of 1884, and Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889 laid the foundations for what is arguably the oldest welfare state in the Western world (for better or worse).

Was he a Prussian socialist? The idea would have been anathema to him. Instead, he saw the rising support for the emerging SPD (Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands) and attempted to “take the wind out of its sails” with such social provisions. Indeed, in doing so he leaned on what previously had been his opponents in the Kulturkampf: political Catholicism.

The term Kulturkampf (“culture struggle”) was the term first coined in Germany (by Bismarck’s ally in this matter, Rudolf Virchow [*]) for a struggle of wills between the secular state and religious forces (in this case the Catholic Church). Specifically Bismarck’s insistence on secularizing or supplanting religious schools brought him on a collision course with the Vatican. He broke off diplomatic relations with the Holy See over its rejection of an ambassador (himself a Catholic prelate who had questioned the Infallibility Dogma), banned the Jesuits and several other religious orders, and introduced a Standesamt (civil registry) on the French model, enabling civil marriage and divorce. Basically, Bismarck strove to restrict the influence of the Catholic Church to the personal spiritual domain, while Pius IX and his partisans fought to preserve as much of the status quo as they could.[**]

Ironically, Bismarck created the very thing he least wanted: in reaction, the Zentrumpartei or [Catholic] Center Party emerged and became a political force to be reckoned with, until the Third Reich. [The postwar CDU, Christian-Democratic Union, is the joint successor party to the Center Party and its Lutheran counterpart.) 

The Kulturkampf petered out through a confluence of three factors: the demise of Pius IX and his succession by the more conciliatory Leo XIII; a military alliance with the Catholic Habsburg Empire; and the need for parliamentary support for Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws and a series of protective tariffs. Bismarck, always a Realpolitiker, ended up gradually walking back some of his Kulturkampf policies in a series of what he termed Mitigation Laws, and Leo XIII returned the sentiment. Eventually, Bismarck became the only non-Catholic ever to receive the Vatican’s highest decoration, the Supreme Order of Christ.

Bismarck’s End and Legacy

1888 entered German history as the Year of the Three Emperors. Wilhelm I passed away just short of his 91st birthday. His heir Friedrich III was already moribund from throat cancer and reigned for a mere 99 days: upon his death, his eldest son Wilhelm II became the last Kaiser  for the next 30 years.

Wilhelm I had been content to let Bismarck rule on his behalf, but Wilhelm II was not content with a quasi-constitutional monarch role and asserted his authority over Bismarck. When the latter proved inflexible, he was told via an emissary to come bring his resignation letter. Characteristically, Bismarck sent it by messenger instead.

(Punch cartoon by Sir John Tenniel, 1890)

Bismarck lived on for another eight years at Friedrichsruh near Hamburg. In his dotage, he wrote his memoirs and published newspaper articles criticizing his successor.

 I should write another essay on Wilhelm II and the origins of the First World War. Would it have broken out if a man like Bismarck had been Chancellor? Suffice to say for now that Wilhelm’s militarist expansionism was a dramatic departure from Bismarck’s realism and “Little Germany” nationalism, and Bismarck criticized this relentlessly to deaf Imperial ears.

One year before his death, Bismarck uttered the prophetic words:

“One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”

[*] Dr. Rudolf Virchow (1821-1902) was a public health pioneer and prolific medical researcher generally regarded as the father of modern [medical] pathology. He was also the co-founder of the German Progress Party and one of its Reichstag delegates. Bitterly opposed to some of Bismarck’s policies, he supported him in the Kulturkampf. He was also one of the first vocal opponents of pseudo-“scientific” racism.

[**] Bismarck’s Germany was not the only country to engage in a form of Kulturkampf in the latter part of the 19th century. France’s Third Republic did so, as did the Belgian government of Frère-Orban. And of course some of the founding fathers of the Italian Risorgimento were so fiercely anticlerical that they made Bismarck look like a Jesuit in comparison.

Auschwitz Inmate 4859: the incredible story of Witold Pilecki (1901-1948)

“I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”

(Cavalry Captain Witold Pilecki, upon being sentenced to death.)

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I would like to dedicate a post to the incredible story of a lionhearted Polish officer who voluntarily spent nearly three years there.

Rotmistrz [=cavalry captain] Witold Pilecki

Witold Pilecki was not born in Poland, but in Karelia (then part of the Tsar’s Archduchy of Finland). His grandfather, Jozef Pilecki, had been stripped of his peerage and banned to Siberia for supporting the 1861 Polish uprising against the Tsar, then upon his return had been forcibly resettled in Karelia. Witold’s father Julian worked as a forester. Eventually, the Pileckis relocated to Wilna (presently Vilnius) where Witold joined a forbidden Polish scouts group. After the German invasion of 1915, the family relocated to Mogilev (presently in Belarus). Come 1918 and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, the Germans withdrew and Pilecki joined irregular troops fighting with the Whites, then made his way West to the newly created Polish Republic and joined its fledging army. He was twice decorated with the Cross of Valor for bravery in the Polish-Soviet War.

Subsequently, he had parallel military and civilian careers: he commanded a cavalry training school at Lida (as well as the 1st “Lidsky” Cavalry Squadron) while acquiring his ancestral manor house and becoming a respected gentleman farmer and agricultural community leader.

After Lt. Pilecki’s unit was nearly wiped out during the twin Nazi-Soviet invasions of 1939, Pilecki went underground and co-founded the Secret Polish Army. Pilecki grew uncomfortable with the ultranationalist and anti-Jewish rhetoric of his co-founder and went over to the rival Union of Armed Struggle (ZWZ), better known under its later name Armia Krajowa (Home Army, AK).

The underground knew of a concentration camp at Oswiecim/Auschwitz (what we now know as the main camp, or Auschwitz I). At the time, it primarily held Polish political prisoners. But what happened on the inside was opaque to the AK. Incredibly, Pilecki offered to have himself locked up there to spy on the inside and organize resistance among the prisoners! His superior officers approved the plan: Lt. Pilecki took on the alias of Tomas Serafinski [presumably to protect his family] and deliberately had himself arrested during a roundup.

He then spent nearly three years in the main camp, where he organized the ZOW underground. They tried to raise inmate morale, provide mutual assistance, extra food, and medicine to members in need, to arrange lighter work details for weakened members, and to prepare for an uprising. They also smuggled out information to the AK outside, at first using inmates on outside work details, later using a radio transmitter constructed from parts laboriously purloined.

On the night of April 26 to 27, 1943. Pilecki and two comrades escaped. With the help of a parish priest, they reached an AK safe house. Pilecki was shot during his escape, but miraculously got off with a flesh wound. After reaching Warsaw and being attached to the staff of the AK’s military intelligence, he started preparing an elaborate “Report W” (English translation available here ) Aside from a lot of detail on daily life in the camp, its privations, and the bestial treatment the prisoners received, it discussed the Holocaust in progress at the sister camp Auschwitz II (Birkenau). His estimate of the number of killed up to that point, 1.5 million, was fairly accurate.[*] ) In November 1943, Pilecki was promoted to Rotmistrz (Cavalry Captain, from the German Rittmeister).

During the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Pilecki commanded the 1st Company as “Captain Roman”. He was eventually taken prisoner during the surrender of the AK in October. Fortunately, AK commander Gen. Bor-Komorowski[**] had been able to extract the concession from his opposite number, Waffen SS-General von dem Bach-Zelewski, that Polish Army POWs were to be treated as combatants under the Geneva Convention. Thus Cav. Capt. Pilecki was not sent to a concentration camp (or shot out of hand, as many were in the beginning of the uprising) but held at a POW camp for officers at Murnau.

Unbelievably, come the end of the war and liberation, Cav. Capt. Pilecki again volunteered for a mission: the Polish general Anders sent him into now-Soviet-occupied Poland to gather intelligence and organize an underground.

Pilecki frequently changed aliases and occupations, and smuggled out valuable information — on Soviet atrocities during their 1939-41 occupation, on Soviet (and Soviet lapdog) persecution of Home Army veterans, but also on the Kielce Pogrom.

Pilecki was tipped off that the so-called “Ministry of Public Security” was on his trail, but refused to leave. Arrested and tortured, he denounced nobody and revealed nothing, except that he shared information with his old army comrades and did not regard this as espionage. Following a show trial, he was found guilty of espionage for the “Western imperialists” and of (wholly fictitious) assassination plans, then sentenced to death.

His reaction to the sentence was reportedly: “I’ve been trying to live my life so that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”

Capt. Pilecki is a national hero in Poland, but nearly unknown abroad.

I first learned of his story from the song “Inmate 4859” by Swedish power metal band Sabaton, whose singer and chief songwriter Joakim Broden specializes in straight-up true war and heroism stories.

(Power metal isn’t really my thing, but major kudos to the band for teaching history to a young generation that learns so little of it.) A one-man Broadway show has meanwhile been produced (trailer below)

And most recently, an excellent biography of Pilecki in English has been published:

Let me leave the last word to Poland’s Chief Rabbi, Michael Shudrich:

“When G-d created humanity, G-d had in mind that we should all be like Captain Witold Pilecki, of blessed memory. May the life of Witold Pilecki inspire us all to do one more good deed, of any kind, each and every day of our lives.” Amen.

[*] An earlier version of the report had been smuggled out by Kazimierz Piechowski and his three companions during their  successful June 20, 1942 escape. The four men had managed to sneak into an SS arms and uniforms cache via a coal store, then drove out in a car from the motor pool! They were never caught: a prisoner who had helped them in their escape was starved to death by the SS.

[**] An Allied proclamation of August 30, 1944 that the 1st Polish Army were Allied combatants, and threatening reprisals for mistreatment, gave this order some teeth.

The tragic story of pianist Karlrobert Kreiten: how speaking one’s mind in private could be fatal in the Third Reich

The legendary Chilean-born pianist Claudio Arrau (a grand-pupil of Liszt, via Martin Krause) spent much of his youth and early adult career in Berlin, both as a performer and as a teacher at the Stern Conservatory.

One of Arrau’s pupils there was a young fellow from Düsseldorf, a child prodigy like Arrau himself had once been: his name was Karlrobert Kreiten, son of composer-pianist Theo Kreiten and then well-known soprano Emmy Kreiten. Karlrobert went on to a very successful concert career. Some shellack recordings have been preserved: below is a YouTube (apologies for the inevitably poor sound quality).

[His teached Claudio Arrau had meanwhile gotten married to a German soprano named Ruth Schneider (who had briefly been his piano student) —but the couple had their belly full of the Third Reich and left. They eventually settled in New York following a stopover in Arrau’s native Chile and a concert tour.]

Come March 17, 1943 — just four days ahead of the sadly abortive Arsenal Bomb Plot. Ahead of an important concert at the Beethoven Hall, and in the process of moving house, Kreiten was practicing in the music room of an old friend of his mother’s.

For some reason, he felt safe to let his guard down, and started speaking his mind about the war situation: he said among other things that “Hitler is sick, and Germany’s fate rests in the hands of such a madman… In two to three months there will be revolution, and Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, and [Interior Minister] Frick will all lose their heads. The war is essentially lost, and this will lead to the downfall of Germany and German culture”. When his hostess expressed dismay, he allegedly said something like “come on, are you living on the moon?”

Kreiten was unaware that his interlocutor was a diehard Nazi — who promptly discussed his outburst with two even more fanatical “lady” friends of hers, one of them a former employee of the Propaganda Ministry. Together they decided to denounce Kreiten to the Reich Music Chamber. Nothing much happened at first, and the Beethoven Hall concert was a great success, even though (peculiarly) only one paper reported on it.

Then when the women saw Kreiten was actually going to perform in Italy — for which he needed an exit visa — they lost patience and denounced him again, this time to the Gestapo.

When his exit visa was denied, Kreiten suspected nothing since such visas were hard to come by for Germans anyway, and he planned a local concert tour instead. Less than an hour ahead of a sold-out performance in Heidelberg, the Gestapo arrested him there. After two weeks of “interrogation” he was brought to Gestapo HQ in Berlin.

Kreiten’s father Theo asked to see the Gestapo officer in charge of the file, but was told “the soup will not be eaten as hot as it’s served” (a German and Dutch idiom roughly meaning “this isn’t as bad as it looks, don’t worry”). Still, the Kreitens turned to prominent figures for help: none other than Wilhelm Furtwängler, the legendary conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, lobbied with Goebbels on Kreiten’s behalf.

To no avail. To their shock, they were tipped off that on September 3, 1943, Kreiten had been brought before the People’s Court of “hanging judge” Roland Freisler. Following a brief kangaroo trial, Kreiten had been sentenced to death for Wehrkraftzersetzung (subversion of defensive strength). His attorney had not even been informed of the trial.

Kreiten was the brought to Plötzensee prison’s death row. His parents hurried to submit clemency petitions: such petitions usually took 6-12 months to make their way through the bureaucracy, and execution would meanwhile be stayed.

Then Kreiten had a terrible stroke of bad luck. During an Allied bombing raid on September 4, 1943, Plötzensee prison was hit, and in the melée four prisoners on death row were able to escape. To avoid a repeat thereof, the orders came from on high to get rid of the backlog. This led to what is known in German as the Plötzensee Blood Nights [Plötzenseer Blutnachten]. On the first night alone, Sept. 7-8, no fewer than 186 prisoners were hanged in batches of eight, by candlelight. (The guillotine that was normally used had been damaged in the air raid. Later it was discovered that six of the hanged had not even gotten death sentences and had been executed by mistake.)

One of the 186 was our pianist. The parents only found out, when trying to check up on the progress of their clemency appeal, that their son had already been executed. Adding insult to injury, they were billed the sum of RM 639,20 for the execution, payable within one week.

It should be emphasized that the pseudo-judicial murder of Kreiten was not racially motivated — the Kreitens were of impeccably “Aryan” ancestry. Nor was the pianist a member of any anti-Nazi group: he had, indeed, submitted an application for NSDAP membership. Unless you were certain you were in like-minded company who could keep their mouths shut, speaking your mind about the regime meant you were one informer away from the gallows.

ADDENDUM: here is Kreiten’s teacher playing what I imagine would have been a fitting eulogy for his slain pupil. Contrary to the received wisdom I absorbed as a young classical music lover, Liszt himself stated that Funérailles was not meant as a musical ‘funeral oration’ for Chopin (despite the very obvious homage to the Heroic Polonaise in the fourth section) — but for fellow Hungarian friends of Liszt who lost their lives in the uprising against Habsburg rule. If understood so, the first section takes on a much more sinister “march to the scaffold” quality.

Liszt’s evocative tone poem for piano stretched technique as well as the harmonic language of his time to their limits.

UPDATE: welcome, Instapundit readers!

The “perfect Aryan poster baby” was actually Jewish

[repost from my Facebook writer page]

The cover of the January 1935 issue of “Sonne ins Haus” (“sun in the house”, a Nazi magazine for mothers) featured the winner of the “most beautiful Aryan baby” photo contest.

Cover of “Sonne ins Haus”, January 1935

There was only one problem with the undeniably beautiful baby Hessy Levinsons: she was Jewish.
When her mother Pauline had taken Hessy to Hans Ballin’s photography studio for a baby portrait, the photographer had asked her if he could enter said portrait for the “most beautiful Aryan baby” contest. Pauline, flustered, felt obliged to inform the photographer that both parents were non-Aryan. The photographer’s answer: “I know. I want to make the Nazis look lächerlich” [ridiculous].

Recounting the story 80 years later, Hessy Levinsons Taft, now a chemistry professor emeritus at St. John’s University in New York, says she can laugh about it now, but realizes she might not have been alive today if the Nazis had known.

As it happens, following her father arrest and brief imprisonment in 1938, the Levinsons got the message and fled to France. After the Nazi invasion, they made it to Nice in the unoccupied zone (a.k.a., “Vichy France”). In 1941 the husband was able to bribe a Cuban consular official for visas, and with that visa they were presumably able to get a transit visa to Portugal, as they traveled to Lisbon shortly after. In 1942, they were finally able to make it to Havana, where Hessy and her sisetr Naomi attended a British school .
Come 1949, the family relocated one last time to New York City, where Hessy attended a more sciences-oriented high school and immediately was hooked on chemistry. She studied the subject at Columbia and stayed on for her doctorate, during which she met her husband, a mathematics instructor and future professor Earl J. Taft, as in “Taft-Hopf algebra”.)

The exigencies of raising small children made her leave the lab for a while, but she did continue working in science, just on the educational rather than the research side: she oversaw the development of the AP Chemistry test at Educational Testing Services in Princeton, NJ. Later she did return to research, now focusing on water treatment and sustainable water supply. Here is a very recent review article that she co-authored on the subject:

Would an editor chide me for putting this “unrealistic” story in a novel? Possibly, since unlike history, fiction has to make sense. She isn’t the only “Aryan poster boy/girl” used by the Nazis who was Jewish in whole or in part, BTW: Werner Goldberg, the “Ideal Wehrmacht Soldier” whose picture was used for recruiting posters, had a Jewish father. [I will cover his story in a future post.]

Let’s raise a glass wishing Hessy many more healthy and fulfilling years. Ad meah ve’esrim!

[For further reading: (in German) and (in English) If you do not read German fluently, check out the amazing Deep Learning-based machine translator DeepL]

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers! An alert commenter there points out that “Sonne ins Haus” predates the Third Reich and wasn’t originally a Nazi periodical — merely Gleichgeschaltet [literally: “switched in line”, idiomatically: “made to conform”] after the National Socialist takeover.

I was unable to find any online pre-1933 issues, but it seems the owner of the publishing house was a Leipzig-based entrepreneur named Kurt Herrmann (German wikipedia page). Summarizing in translation, Herrmann was a close friend of Hermann Göring [y”sh] and even acted as a witness at Göring’s remarriage to Emmy Sonneman. Already wealthy, he leveraged his pull with the Nazi top to enrich himself enough through forced “Aryanizations” — the forced sale of Jewish-owned firms to new “Aryan” owners for a tiny fraction of their value[*] — that he became the richest man in Leipzig. Near the end of the war, her fled to Liechtenstein. His firm was expropriated after the war by the Communist East German regime and Gleichgeschaltet for the second time. Herrmann himself got off lightly in his denazification trial, being classified only as category 4: Mitlaufer (fellow traveler).

[*] One of these plundered firms was the venerable sheet music publisher C. F. Peters, then owned by Henri_Hinrichsen (Hamburg 1868—Auschwitz 1942). After the war, the Communist East German government expropriated the Leipzig firm again and ran it as a state enterprise; Hinrichsen’s sons Max and Walter, who had set up the London and New York branches of the company, recreated the private company in Frankfurt. After German reunification, the company was reunited as well.

Jewish Rescue in Dutch Limburg: the NV Group [Kristallnacht anniversary post]

In the South of the Netherlands, sandwiched between Belgium and the German province [presently called] North Rhine-Westfalia, lies the rural and somewhat sleepy Dutch province of Limburg. (This is not to be confused with the German town of Limburg on the Lahn River.) Its capital, Maastricht, goes back to a Roman settlement by the name of Mosa Traiectum [Maas/Meuse river crossing].
The local dialect of Dutch is nearly indistinguishable from the Plattdeutsch [Low German] spoken across the German border, and traffic and commerce across the border was fairly frequent in the prewar era. 
Limburg only had a small Jewish population, 1,660 as of August 1941, 0.27% of the total population and just 1.2% of all Jews in the Netherlands. Most Dutch Jews lived in Amsterdam — to this day known in Dutch slang as “Mokum” [from Hebrew makom=place] — or its suburbs, to a lesser degree in the other major population centers (Rotterdam, Utrecht, Leiden,…) of what meanwhile has become the Randstad Holland megalopolis.

After Hitler [y”sh] came to power and the persecution of the Jews commenced, Limburg was one area where Jews who couldn’t afford the ruinous exit taxes would slip across the border. Usually they traveled on to the Randstad Holland, but many were trans-migrants who subsequently slipped across the lightly guarded Belgian border into Belgian Limburg, then onward to Antwerp with its large Jewish community and its port with ships going every which way. 
Yet a number of Jews stayed on in Limburg. At first they caused grumbling among the local tradespeople, who complained they had it tough enough as it was (in the later phases of the Great Depression) without having to deal with new competitors. However, as the persecution in Nazi Germany escalated from economic and civil marginalization to physical violence [particularly the Reichskristallnacht 81 years ago to this day], the attitudes of many Limburgers softened. Local Catholic clergy at first focused primarily on Catholics of Jewish origin, but later broadened their activity.
After the 1940 invasion and occupation, resistance in Limburg was at first the work of individuals and small groups working in isolation, later coalescing into larger resistance groups. Their history is discussed at great length in a 1994 Ph.D. thesis (in Dutch) at Groningen State University by one Alfred P. M. Cammaert, “Het verborgen front: Geschiedenis van de georganiseerde illegaliteit in de provincie Limburg tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog” (The Hidden Front: History of the organized underground in Limburg province during WW II), available in full online here:…/cc35a139-e781-46bd-b062-ede455ecb1d7

Some of those resistance group worked in Jewish rescue as a side activity. (Interestingly perhaps; while many Dutch rescuers were motivated by philosemitism and/or their beliefs, Cammaert quotes antisemitic diary entries from some Dutchmen who engaged in Jewish rescue nevertheless — their hatred of the Nazi occupation and desire to thwart the occupiers overcame their prejudices. A similar phenomenon existed in Belgium, particularly in the French-speaking part with its traditional aversion to anything Germanic. Recent memories of German occupation during WW I helped too: the Netherlands had been neutral throughout that war.)

Developments in Amsterdam, however, inspired the formation of a few dedicated Jewish rescue groups. One of the largest, based in Limburg, went by the name of NV-group, NV being the Dutch acronym for “naamloze vennootschap” /“anonymous venture”, idiomatically the term for a public joint-stock company or “Ltd.”.

In Amsterdam, Jews who had been rounded up were initially collected at the Hollandsche Schouwburg [Dutch Theatre] for registration and trans-shipment to the Dutch camps at Westerbork and Vught, and hence (usually) to the extermination camps in the East (particularly Sobibor and Auschwitz). As the building became too crowded, a “creche” (idiomatically: daycare) annex was opened across the street where children under 12 were held and cared for by Jewish Council employees.

As Cammaert explains it, this building was less well guarded than the Schouwburg, and bordered on a trade school run by the Reformed Church. Until the creche’s closing on September 29, 1943, about 1,000 children were smuggled out to non-Jewish rescuers via the school, in outgoing dirty laundry baskets, and using various other subterfuges. Registrars Süsskind and Halverstad would finagle the card indices and deportation lists, with the connivance of director Ms. Pimentel; after the latter was herself deported, head nurse V. Cohen (daughter of the controversial Jewish Council co-chair) likewise got involved. The children were first conveyed to two addresses in Amsterdam, where they were given forged evacuation slips, claiming they had been made homeless by the destructive 1940 Nazi bombing of Rotterdam. (Holland had mandatory ID cards then as now, but children under 16 were exempt.)

The children were handed over to a rescue group started by several students at Utrecht University (“Utrecht Children’s Committee”), working in tandem with another group around Amsterdam law student Piet Meerburg (later to become a prominent theatre producer in the postwar Netherlands). (The group got some financial assistance: Cammaert reproduces letters from the [Catholic] Bishop of Utrecht explaining that his diocese had used 25,000 guilders from its assistance fund and calling on other dioceses to chip in as well.) Until the arrest of most of the Utrecht group in mid-1943, they managed to smuggle out some 350 children, usually to foster parents in rural areas like Friesland and Limburg that were less well policed. (Hiding in the anonymity of a large city might seem superficially appealing, but Amsterdam and other large cities were teeming with both Nazis and Dutch collaborators belonging to the NSB.)

Another rescue stratagem was devised by a Dutch pediatrician named Ph. H. Fiedeldy Dop. He discreetly advised Jewish new parents to ‘expose’ their infants: non-Jewish rescuers would then “find” the babies, and they would then be registered as non-Jewish foundlings. This activity had to be abandoned when somebody “helpfully” wrote about it in the Jewish Weekly’s January 15, 1943 issue. The mind wonders how naive that reporter had to be not to realize that the one allowed Jewish periodical would be tightly monitored by the occupiers…

The rescue operations’ main bottleneck was finding temporary foster parents for that many children. [NB: as the Nazis considered the Dutch Aryans, those caught rescuing Jews were treated more leniently than, say, Poles, who usually paid with their lives as well as those of their families.] Here is where NV and similar groups entered the stage.

The first contact was a traveling salesman from Maastricht named A.H. van Mansum, who worked as a sales representative for an office equipment supplier in The Hague. As such, and with the papers to prove it, he enjoyed relative freedom of movement, which he put to use as a courier for forged IDs and ration cards. [He leveraged a number of his old contacts in the small and tightly-knit Dutch Reformed community in mostly Catholic Maastricht.]

After the Utrecht and Meerburg groups reached out to him, he managed to find homes for a number of children in the mining areas of Limburg. Many of the foster families were working class with many children, where one more would be less conspicuous.

The kingpins of the NV group were two Amsterdammers named J. Woortman en Jaap Musch. The latter, a lab technician at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, answered an ad for a position at the analytical labs of Dutch State Mines in Heerlen, Limburg, and was hired. There, together with dominee (=Reformed pastor) G. J. Pontier, he set about recruiting foster parents in Limburg for the NV effort.

NV was not the only such group (others were the Stakenborg and Paaschen group), but a particularly thorough and well-run one. All 231 children they hid survived. Jaap Musch was arrested and brutally murdered, and one Protestant clergyman in the group, dominee De Jong from Venlo, was arrested in 1944 and shot in 1945. (NV operative J. Postuma was killed in an Allied air raid on Nijverdal.)

Earlier, until its arrest by the Sipo (Sicherheitspolizei) with the help of a mole, the unrelated Westerweel Group had managed to smuggle about 100-150 Jews to Spain and Switzerland. One group of Youth Aliyah pioneers, mostly originally from Germany, was smuggled out in particularly devious fashion: after equipping the whole group with false papers, their guides signed up the whole group and themselves for voluntary labor service with the Organization Todt (OT) and got papers to travel to Bordeaux and La Rochelle in southwest France, where the OT was then carrying out major construction works. Arrived there, they went underground and made their way across the border into neutral Spain.

Aside from the specifically Jewish rescue groups, there was the national…/Landelijke_Organisatie_voor_Hulp… (LO) which helped all manner of people wanted by the Nazis to go into hiding: numerically the largest group were Dutch men who were being press-ganged into forced labor in Germany, and understandably had no desire to contribute to the enemy war machine.

Tragically, a number of Limburg rescuers reported later that they had earlier offered Jews in smaller towns like Valkenburg help to go underground, but that their help had been declined, as these small communities could not believe what was awaiting them.

Limburg was liberated by Allied troops in the autumn of 1944, and thus was spared the “Hunger Winter” that caused about 20,000 deaths in still-occupied Holland.

In many cases, the children in hiding had been orphaned, and those who had been raised by Protestant or Catholic foster parents often had no idea who they really were and their foster parents desired to have them baptized and to adopt them. As in other places, a heart-wrenching tug-of-war developed between the would-be adoptive parents and surviving Jewish relatives.

As for the rescuers: a number (including LO leaders imprisoned at Vught concentration camp) had been executed in the bloody period of the Deppner executions, when following the failed Valkyrie plot Hitler (y”sh) issued an order that resistants were no longer to be tried by courts-martial but to be handed over directly to the SD and Sipo for (implied) execution. Ironically, SS-Sturmbannführer Erich Deppner himself escaped the arm of justice, while both some subordinates and his superior Schöngarth were sentenced to death by Dutch postwar courts and executed.

Many of the NV group people, and the NV group as a whole, were later honored with the Righteous Among The Nations designation by Yad Vashem. Here is the information page on Jacobus “Jaap” Musch.

His main accomplice, Reverend Pontier, survived the war and was honored in the same way.

Greater love hath no man…

Ernst von Dohnányi (composer) and “six degrees of separation” from the Operation Flash protagonist

It was the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy who, in a short story called “Chains”, first laid out the “six degrees of separation” concept. I’ve had numerous occasions to think of this while doing background research for the Operation Flash book series.

This month, the Hyperion classical music label issued a new recording of music by Dohnányi Ernö (1877-1960), better known perhaps by the German version of his name, Ernst von Dohnányi. [Hungarian naming conventions put the family name first.] Brahms and/or Schumann aficionados won’t want to miss this lovely recording.

Ernst von Dohnanyi (EvD) was born in Pozsony/Pressburg/Bratislava to a mathematics professor and amateur cellist, whose family had been ennobled in 1697. He got his first music lessons from his father, then from age 8 studied organ with the a local church organist. At age 17, he enrolled in the Budapest conservatory, where he studied piano with pupil of Franz Liszt and composition with Hans von Koessler, a first cousin of neo-Baroque composer Max Reger and a devotee of Brahms. EvD’s first published composition was praised and plugged by Brahms; as a pianist, he rose to fame following an American tour.

This early Dohnanyi composition earned the praise of Brahms

Unlike many concert pianists at the time, EvD avidly performed chamber music aside from the usual solo works and concerti: he establised a musical association with the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim, likewise a Brahmsian. (The German-speaking musical world was at the time torn by factional dispute between followers of Wagner and traditionalist followers of Brahms.)

EvD’s fame as a composer and performer was such that, following a long stint as a professor of composition at the Berlin conservatory (where Joachim had invited him), he was appointed the director of the Budapest conservatory. Despite being considered “too German” by the more nationalist Hungarian musicians, he would often showcase works by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly.

EvD’s first wife was a concert pianist named Elsa Kunwald (who herself appears to have been of at least partial Jewish origin[*]), with whom he had a son and a daughter. Their daughter, Grete, married the German physical chemist Karl Bonhoeffer (discoverer of ortho- and para-hydrogen), brother of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
The son, Hans von Dohnanyi, (himself married to Dietrich’s sister Christel) did remain a skilled amateur musician all his life, but sought a career in law and government. Eventually, he became a senior civilian specialist in the Abwehr, the German espionage agency, where he was deeply involved in the anti-Hitler conspiracy cell led by the Abwehr’s second-in-command, general Hans Oster (with at least the tacit approval of the Abwehr’s enigmatic chief, admiral Wilhelm Canaris). When Hans’s brother-in-law Dietrich Bonhoeffer was forbidden to preach or publish by the National Socialist authorities, Hans hired him as an Abwehr agent, on the grounds that his extensive contacts with senior Protestant clergy abroad made him a valuable operative.

In our timeline, Hans was arrested shortly after the failure of the Arsenal Bombing Plot (March 21, 1943) for his role in helping a number of Jewish families escape to Switzerland as “agents”. [Yad Vashem would eventually honor him as “Righteous Among The Nations” for those actions.] Bonhoeffer, Oster, and Canaris were eventually all hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, after secret diaries by Canaris had been discovered that revealed the depth of their involvement in anti-Hitler conspiracies. They were joined in death by Karl Sack, the military judge-advocate who had been in charge of the investiagtion against them, but (as a member of the underground himself) had used delaying tactics in an attempt to run out the clock on the Third Reich before the men’s trial. Hans met his end on the same day, but at Sachsenhausen.

His son, Christoph von Dohnanyi, would in time become the musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra; another son, Klaus, served as Oberbürgermeister (freely: Lord Mayor) of Hamburg 1981-1988.

The Operation Flash series is, of course, set in a timeline where the Arsenal Plot succeeded. (Of course, then the plotters discover that killing Hitler and his chief henchmen was the easy part.) Hans, the handler and mentor of (fictional) protagonist Felix Winter, becomes a senior official in the Emergency Government led by Chancellor Carl Goerdeler. [Goerdeler, a popular former Lord Mayor of Leipzig who had resigned in protest against Nazi chicaneries, was the head of government-designate in case either the real-life Operation Flash plots or the 1944 Operation Valkyrie had succeeded.]

In our timeline, after the war EvD had to defend himself against accusations of NS sympathies, as he had continued to perform in Germany throughout. However, in view of the number of Hungarian-Jewish musicians who credited him with saving their lives, that dog would not hunt; EvD soon after left for the US to take up a professorship of music at Florida State University. His later compositions include a number of works inspired by American folk themes, such as American Rhapsody.

Ernst von Dohnányi, “American Rhapsody” Op. 47 (ca. 1953)

On a final “six degrees” note: EvD’s second wife was herself the ex-wife of composer and violinist Bronislav Huberman, who in 1936 would become the founding director of the Israel Philharmonic.

[*] The conductor Antal Dorati was Elsa Kunwald’s nephew (son of her sister Margit Kunwald)

Critical praise for “Operation Flash, Ep. 2”

From Pat Patterson’s long review on GoodReads:

I obtained this book through the Kindle Unlimited program.

When the series was introduced, it immediately was placed into my “Guilty Pleasures” category. A book in that category gets read, IMMEDIATELY, regardless of what else I’ve had in the queue ahead of it, and also regardless of whether or not I’m being at all diligent in in reviewing the books I have actually read. 
I don’t like talking about the fact that I have a Guilty Pleasure category. In fact, I plan to deny having such a category in all future conversations. Here’s the take-away: I absolutely LOVE this series. 

Just in case you missed my review of the first book, here’s the basic idea: one of the very many plots against Hitler actually succeeded.[…] the Allies are thrown into confusion that nearly matches that of the German leadership. Nobody is certain who they can trust, and how far.

This is not a criticism, not a criticism, not a criticism! The books end too soon.
That is SIGNIFICANTLY ameliorated by the fact that these books are so historically sound in their basis, that if you are like me, and love going on rabbit trails when your curiosity is triggered, you can spend a LOT of time reading about the way history worked out in OUR timeline. Almost all of the characters are based on real people; they make for fascinating reading. 
If the author had just used hand puppets, and told the story with them, it would still be a really nice thought-exercise of ‘what-if.’ However, through the eyes of the few fictional characters, we get great insights to the way people think, and what would have been real reactions to these circumstances, because the author has done a wonderful job of making the words on the page into real, flesh-and-blood people.

I’m going to eat each of these installments as they come out, BUT the real feast will be when the series is finished (and I hope that isn’t going to be too soon), and I grab up every installment and binge-read. Maybe multiple times.


The book is available for $0.99 on Kindle, or is included with your subscription for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

The wartime clandestine ‘Shetland Bus’ to and from Norway, and the Telavåg tragedy

In the west of Norway, not far from Bergen, lies the fishermen’s village of Telavåg. The linear distance to the Shetland Islands is fairly short (about 185 nautical miles). Hence, during the Nazi occupation of Norway, fishing boats were used for what the British called “the Shetland Bus“: resistance men wanted by the Gestapo were smuggled out to the Shetland Islands, while SOE operatives traveled in the opposite direction. After some losses, three US Navy submarine chasers on loan to the British were disguised as fishing boats, manned by Norwegian seamen who’d made it to England.

HNoMS Hitra, one of the three former US sub chasers that plied the Shetland Bus
Kapt.Lt. Leif “Shetlands” Larsen, commander of HNoMS Vigra

Sadly, as I was told at the Telavåg Nordsjofartsmuseum, the men running the Telavåg “Bus station” were not big on operational security: all it took was for somebody to knock on their door saying they needed help getting to England. And thus, one day a Gestapo stool pigeon managed to penetrate the operation.

On April 26, 1942, the Gestapo came to carry out arrests, but a firefight broke out, in which two mid-level Gestapo officers were killed, Kriminalrat Gerhard Berns and Kriminalsekretär Henry Bertram.

The Nazi viceroy, Reichskommissar Josef Terboven[*], decreed retaliation. On April 30, the SS landed with boats, deported the entire population of the village, and razed it to the ground. Had this been Poland or Russia, the entire population would likely have been killed outright. But as Norwegians were considered Aryans and not so-called “Untermenschen”, the men (aged 18 to 60) were instead deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (north of Berlin), while the women and children were imprisoned at a school. A local doctor who knew how to “fake” positive tests for infectious diseases managed to prevent their further deportation.

The fate of the Norwegian inmates at KL Sachsenhausen is discussed here, in German, on the blog of Prof. Günter Morsch (former longtime director of the Sachsenhausen memorial site and author of a monograph on the camp). The SS inspector-general for Norway, Hans Loritz, had previously been the camp commander until deposed for corruption. He may have favored sending such Norwegian political prisoners there as were not incarcerated locally. (Additionally, about 900 Jews who were unable to hide or escape to neutral Sweden were sent to the extermination camps, including even the tiny Jewish community of Tromsø above the polar circle! [**] )

About half of the deported men died in the camp or shortly afterwards, mostly from privations suffered there. (Notices that their widows got from the camp administration, listing the usual camouflaged causes of death such as “pneumonia” or “heart failure”, are on display at the museum.) As explained by Morsch, at the end of 1942 the Norwegian inmates were given permission to receive food parcels (particularly from the Red Cross), which greatly reduced mortality among the Norwegians. In March 1945, finally, the Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte brokered an agreemeent that permitted the repatriation of Danish and Norwegian prisoners via what came to be known as the “Bernadotte Buses”. Only a single, moribund Telavåg prisoner was left at the camp.

The returnees rebuilt Telavåg after the war. Their fellow Norwegian inmates had included a number of intellectuals (from the former Chancellor of Oslo University to the son of polar explorer and humanitarian Fridjof Nansen), and Morsch explains that Sachsenhausen survivors played a very prominent role in Norwegian postwar politics.

In 1998, a memorial museum was opened at Telavåg.

As for Josef Terboven, he committed suicide on VE-Day rather than face an assured death sentence and execution.

[*] Terboven was first and foremost a party boss, the erstwhile Gauleiter (regional leader) of the NSDAP for the Ruhr area.

[**] I will blog about their tragic fate, and Tromsø in WW II more generally, in the near future.

Real, not alternate history: the Battle for Castle Itter, the one time when US Army and Wehrmacht fought together against the SS

On May 5, 1945, just three days before VE-Day, Castle Itter[*] in Northern Tyrol became the scene of a most improbable battle. 
Since 1943, this castle had been converted by the SS into a kind-of “VIP prison” for prominent inmates from occupied France. These included two former French PMs (Edouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud); Charles de Gaulle’s sister Marie-Agnès; General Maurice Gamelin and his successor Maxime Weygand; Michel Clémenceau, son of the WW I-era prime minister; former French ambassador to Germany André François-Poncet; and many others. 
The place was administratively an Aussenlager (satellite camp) of Dachau (where another group of “prominents” was held in the main camp itself). A group of lower-status Dachau inmates carried out menial work.
The commander, SS-Hauptsturmführer [i.e., captain] Wimmer, was under orders to shoot the prisoners if capture by the Allies became imminent. He supposedly promised a prisoner delegation he would not implement this order, but the inmates placed no trust in this promise.
The camp electrician, a Yugoslav inmate, was sent out on an errand as a cover to go looking for US troops. He found a reconnaisance patrol nearly 70 km away near Innsbruck. The SS garrison did meanwhile flee, but the prisoners feared a roving SS unit would come to the castle.

The Americans sent a small team (14 men under Lt. “Jack” Lee, including crews of two Sherman tanks, “Besotten Jenny” and “Bochebuster”), which joined up with about 20 Wehrmacht soldiers led by a defector to the Austrian resistance, Major Josef Gangl.
Lee posted “Besotten Jenny” at the castle and “Bochebuster” at the bridge. The meager force’s ranks were swollen by a number of the French prisoners who had taken arms from the armory — and even one wounded SS officer who decided to switch sides. On May 5, the castle came under attack from a force of about 100-150 SS soldiers. The much smaller defending force held the SS at bay for most of May 5, until relieved in the late afternoon by a company of the 142th US Infantry Regiment. Major Gangl was killed by a sniper, but the others managed to survive. Gangl was honored posthumously as an Austrian resistance hero, while Lee got a DSC and a promotion to Captain.[**]

The Swedish power metal band Sabaton [***] often has lyrics based on actual war history and feats of wartime heroism. Their song “The Last Battle” (see below) is a pretty straight-up retelling of the event.  Kudos to the band for introducing many young(er) listeners to bits of war history they are unlikely to learn in school or from books.

The Sabaton song “The Last Battle” commemorates the Battle of Castle Itter

History is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose… (with apologies to JBS Haldane)…

[*] The castle has a musical connection: the female concert pianist and conservatory teacher Sophie Menter (a former pupil of Liszt) owned the place from 1884 until the early 1900s. Tchaikovsky was her guest at the castle and wrote works there.

[**] Mark Felton has a more detailed video here. Felton notes one other situation where a similar Wehrmacnt-US Army ad hoc coalition former against the SS — this time to rescue the precious Lipizzaner horses.

[***] Despite its superficial similarity to the Hebrew word Shabaton (sabbatical), a “sabaton” is the armored shoe or boot of a medieval suit of armor

Stranger than fiction: 3rd Reich abolished German “Fraktur” blackletter script as being “of Jewish origin”

In the popular imagination, “Fraktur” letters are quintessentially Teutonic. [*] Indeed, the “Iron Chancellor” Bismarck famously used to return books to sender if they were printed in Roman type, insisting German printers should use German type (i.e., Fraktur).

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Example of German Fraktur script from C. P. E. Bach’s “Essay on the true art of playing the keyboard”, Berlin, 1762

Some neo-Nazi groups do use Fraktur fonts in logos, banners, and tattoos, with the predictable result that some groups who affect them (or superficially similar blackletter scripts) for other reasons are falsely accused of National Socialist sympathies.

Imagine my surprise when, during “world-building” research for Operation Flash, I discovered that Fraktur fonts were actually banned in the Third Reich by a January 3, 1941 circular, which was signed by Martin Bormann but communicated a decision by the Führer himself. This “Normalschrifterlass” (standard script decree) claimed that Fraktur had actually been invented by Jews from Schwabach, and therefore now only Antiquaschrift (i.e. the standard Roman script used outside Germany) was now to be used and taught as “Normalschrift” (standard script).

There is a Dutch-language novel [**] that contains the passage: “The Germans have discovered that Pythagoras was a Jew, so now they have to call his theorem the Hermann Goering Rule instead.” As it was then and as it is now, ideological fanatics defy the satirist’s imagination.

Consensus nowadays is that even the Nazi top themselves did not believe this “pretzel logic” argument, and that they in fact made the switch on practical grounds: as they still imagined themselves ruling over a large part of Europe for an extended period of time, they had no more use for a script that nobody outside the German-speaking lands was familiar with. (The fact that the transition took the form of a phase-out rather than a book-burning-and-replacement action would seem to corroborate the theory of a pragmatic motivation. So does a February 2, 1941 entry in the diary of Josef Goebbels, where it is noted with approval that German elementary schoolers now would only have to cope with four kinds of letters — uppercase and lowercase versions each of Antiqua and cursive — rather than eight.[***])

Early on in the Third Reich, an attempt to demand Fraktur typewriters had met with failure, as typewriter manufacturers could not agree on the specific variant. Interestingly, Hitler (y”sh) himself — who had always disliked Fraktur –subsequently made a reference in a 1934 speech to misguided attempts “by backwards-lookers” to reimpose Fraktur.

In the postwar era, Fraktur never made a comeback: nowadays only Amish and Pennsylvania “Dutch”[****] printers use it as a standard printed script.

But I am still wrily amused by claims that Hebrew square script somehow stood at the cradle of Fraktur…

This video gives a good brief summary in movie form:

[*] Technically, Fraktur is just one specific member of “Gebrochene” [broken/disjoint] scripts, i.e. German blackletter scripts. In common German as well as English parlance, Fraktur has become the term for all German blackletter.

[**] “Cis de Man” (“Frankie as a man”), by Piet Bakker. It’s the sequel to the popular coming-of-age novel “Cis de Rat” (“Frankie the street rat”), following the now-adult protagonist as he is a soldier in a Dutch artillery company before and during the Nazi invasion. Both the original and the sequel are peppered with the earthy Dutch sense of humor, but remain PG-rated.

[***] The fourth script type was Kurrentschrift, the German cursive counterpart of Fraktur. One stylized variant of that, Sütterlin script, was used for cuff titles on Wehrmacht and Waffen SS uniforms throughout the war.

[****] The Pennsylvania community in question are of course of “Deutsch” (German) rather than “Nederlandse” (Dutch) origin. Dutch is on a dialect continuum with Low German (Plattdeutsch), and in the Middle Ages the language called itself “Diets” rather than “Nederlands”. This archaic term survives in the Dutch expression “iemand iets Diets maken”, freely: “tell it to somebody like it is, in plain English”.

Rosh Hashanah and the Rescue of the Danish Jews

A wonderful, healthy, and fruitful New Year to my Jewish readers.

By calendarial coincidence, the Jewish holidays for 2019 fall on or near those for 1943. Around Rosh Hashanah that year, the miraculous rescue of the Danish Jews took place. The following post is an expanded version of an earlier Facebook note.

The Danish rescue was uniquely successful among Nazi-occupied countries because of a confluence of several favorable circumstances.
(1) The Danish Jewish community was fairly small (about 7,500) and
(2) concentrated in Copenhagen, just a short boat ride away from neutral Sweden. (Today, a bridge across the Øresund connects the two countries.)
(3) Moreover, the Nazis regarded the Danes as their racial kin and ran the country as a “model protectorate”, leaving the Danish democratic government in place until well into 1943.
(4) Last but not least, the Danes and the Danish Jews had advance warning from the #2 of the occupation regime, the merchant and diplomat Georg Duckwitz (later honored as Righteous Among The Nations at Yad Vashem).

Duckwitz — an NSDAP member since 1932, but already disaffected since before the war — had learned from his superior, the Nazi plenipotentiary Werner Best, that the roundup would take place on Rosh Hashanah. Duckwitz then tipped off the Danish Social Democrat leader Hans Hedtoft, who in turn passed the word to Jewish community president C. B. Henriques and acting Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior. The Jews went underground, and over the next few weeks were spirited aboard fishing boats by the Danish resistance (and just general Jeppe Shmø’s) and ferried to neutral Sweden. One well-known rescue group acted under the cover name of “Elsinore Sewing Club”: the Danish city Helsingør/Elsinore, with its Kronborg castle that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, is just two nautical miles across the Ølesund straits from Helsingfors, Sweden.

The famous physicist Niels Bohr (who had a Jewish mother) stepped up to the plate as well, levering the Nobel Prize he had received from the hands of the Swedish king into an audience with the monarch. Bohr pleaded with him for Sweden to publicly declare its willingness to accept Jewish refugees. Sweden had in fact been quietly doing this since 1942 for Jewish refugees from Norway, but now, on October 2, a proclamation welcoming them was read out on the Swedish radio. Whether this was thanks to Bohr’s intercession, to Hans Hedtoft’s similar démarche with the Swedish ambassador in Denmark, or would have happened anyway is a matter of dispute among historians, but Bohr’s effort certainly cannot have hurt.

The Danish rescuers played with an unusually good hand of cards. Still, this would have been for naught were it not for their determination to make the most of it. In doing so, they achieved an incredible result: over 99% of Danish Jews survived the war. (About 500, mostly elderly, Jews were arrested, but owing to pressure from Danish authorities, they were sent to the Theresienstadt Ghetto rather than extermination camps, and emissaries from the International Red Cross were allowed to check on their welfare. All except 52 of the Danish Theresienstadt inmates survived the war.[*])

The role of Werner Best in this whole affair is an enigma. After the war, Best escaped execution by convincing the Danish courts that he had quietly allowed Duckwitz to thwart the deportations. Yet he not only had been informed of goings-on at the Wannsee Conference, but had eagerly organized transports from France before his transfer to Denmark. Why this sudden change of heart where it came to the Danish Jews? I would argue the key lies in a 1942 Best memorandum (published anonymously on account of its explosive contents[**]) titled Herrenschicht oder Führungsvolk? (“master caste or leadership people?”). In the course of an argument drawing parallels with the Roman empire, Best not just pleaded for an occupation policy (at least in the West) based more on persuasion than on coercion and exploitation, but already then posited German loss of the war as a realistic possibility. As I see it, by September 1943 Best probably considered the war lost, and wanted to create himself a ‘life insurance policy’ through quietly giving Duckwitz free rein.[***] (Omission, rather than commission, afforded Best a measure of deniability if Duckwitz were found out and the Gestapo bloodhounds unleashed on him.)

Let us raise a glass of Aquavit to the courageous and resourceful Danish rescuers. Skøl and Shana Tova!

[*] As a sad reflection on the unseen prices paid for any negotiation with such a diabolical regime: unbeknownst to the Danes, other Theresienstadt inmates had been sent to their deaths in Auschwitz to create more room for the Danish inmates. The Theresienstadt ghetto was originally an army fortress town founded in the late 18th century by Habsburg emperor Joseph II (who named itafter his mother, Empress Maria Theresia). It had room for about a brigade’s worth of soldiers and their dependents, but was massively overcrowded with the 40,000+ Jews held there.

[**] The substance of the memorandum was dedicated to comparisons between the Third Reich and the Roman Empire, and how (in Best’s vision) to avoid the same fate as the latter.

[***] He may also have concluded it was a lost cause trying to convince the Danes they had a Jewish problem that could only be solved through deportation.

RIP Stanislav Petrov, “The Man Who Saved The World”

NPR (via Instapundit) has a long and well-written article about the demise (not previously reported) of a Soviet missile control officer who probably prevented a nuclear world war in 1983.

My brief summary: Podpolkovnik [Lt. Col.] Stanislav Petrov was on duty that night at a missile defense monitoring station, watching out for launches of American nuclear ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missiles).

That night, suddenly the computer howled an alarm that five missiles had been launched. Estimated time to impact: 20 minutes. 
He was to pass the warning up the chain of command, which would have led to a mass launch of Soviet nuclear ICBMs, and World War Three.

Petrov sensed something wasn’t adding up.

He had been trained to expect an all-out nuclear assault from the U.S., so it seemed strange that the satellite system was detecting only a few missiles being launched. And the system itself was fairly new. He didn’t completely trust it.

So instead of doing what he had been ordered, he ordered a check for computer malfunction. If his hunch was wrong, he’d have lost precious minutes for a preemptive retaliatory strike — “get the missiles off before the rockets impact on the launchers”.

But sure enough, there had been a malfunction.

He was given a reprimand for falsifying his logbook, but not otherwise punished. Presumably even his superiors realized how close the world had been to nuclear conflagration had it not been for Petrov’s cool-headed judgment.

Petrov’s actions were the subject of a 2015 docudrama, presented by Kevin Costner: “The Man Who Saved The World” :

But Petrov never considered himself a hero: 
“That was my job,” he said. “But they were lucky it was me on shift that night.”

By coincidence (the incident wasn’t reported in the media at the time), Iron Maiden’s 1984 album “Powerslave” contained a song about a near-miss nuclear standoff: “Two Minutes To Midnight”. Let me end with that, and salute Podpolkovnik Petrov.