Killing Hitler had been child’s play in comparison with figuring out what to do next. After the coup, the Reich was split into two. Bormann in Munich is Führer of a remnant Nazi state. Goerdeler’s Emergency Government in Berlin fights Bormann on the inside while waging a two-front war with the Allies on the outside. But a secret meeting abroad may be a game-changer. Meanwhile, Goerdeler’s special assistant Felix Winter investigates what turn out to be crimes beyond even the conspirators’ worst fears…
Like Episode 1 before it, this episode is just $0.99 on Kindle [free with Kindle Unlimited]
Kudos to all the people who helped make this happen, and especially to
Today, July 20, 2019, marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Valkyrie, the last assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler (y”sh).
The original “Operation Valkyrie” was a contingency plan of the Ersatzheer (idiomatically: reserve army, home army) for suppressing internal unrest in such events as an uprising by the millions of coerced foreign workers in Germany, or in the event the Führer was dead or incapacitated. During 1943, the plan was substantially rewritten in secret by several staff officers involved with the Resistance to exclude participation of the SS and other NSDAP-affiliated organizations, to facilitate a quick takeover of the country following a successful assassination. Most of the rewriting was the work of Maj.-Gen. Henning von Tresckow, chief staff officer of Army Group Center and in many ways the mastermind of the conspiracy, as well as of a gravely wounded general staff officer sent home from North Africa for convalescence and reassigned to the General Army Office on Bendlerstrasse: Col. (GS) Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg. It was this fascinating man (I cannot do justice to Peter Hoffmann’s biography by selective quoting) who would eventually carry out the doomed attempt.
Operation Flash, Episode 1, describes an alternate timeline in which a previous plot, Rudolf von Gersdorff’s attempted suicide bombing at the Berlin Arsenal on March 21, 1943 had succeeded. (The one other departure from actual timeline I allowed myself is that the Valkyrie rewrite had been completed earlier than actually happened in our timeline.) Then the conspirators — despite extensive preparations for and political discussions about “the day after Hitler”, in both timelines — discover that killing the Führer and the Reichsführer-SS was actually the easy part.
Normally, Episode 2 would have been released today, but life and day job got in the way. I have just received the annotated rough draft from my editor, and am now aiming for a mid-August release.
Let me end this post on a musical note. Beethoven wrote this composition as incidental music for Goethe’s play Egmont, about the Flemish count who stood up against a different tyrant and paid with his life for it. His name is still remember in the Lowlands to this day as a fighter for freedom of religion and a martyr for (what ultimately became) Dutch independence.
In a series on book covers that is running on Mad Genius Club, Sarah Hoyt explains some of the challenges in designing an alternate history book cover. One of the examples she uses is “Operation Flash”.
I have, btw, recently done this cover for Nitay, who is a friend, but also the first client for my business (Covers Girl. The website will be up after Liberty con. I just haven’t been home long enough to devote a weekend to setting it up.)
In this novel someone kills Hitler, and history diverges. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to convey in a cover, at first sight. I mean, if Hitler had been stabbed that would be doable, but blown up… well.
So, I tried to convey confusion and that the Nazis still go on.
She told me at the time she was inspired by Harry Turtledove covers. Most of the image was actually rendered in Daz/Poser, with some details added in by hand. Note she hadn’t read the book: as she discusses here, a book cover needn’t be “the perfect scene from the book”, because that would only make sense to people who had read it! Instead, you’re trying to get people to pick the book up, and so you want to signal the genre and the general setting and subject matter.
By combining historical figures with fabricated point-of-view characters, Arbel gives us a behind-the-scenes look at a history that was ALMOST ours. It’s really a matter of moments that prevented this scenario from taking place, and it’s a story that deserves wider attention.[…]
I’m not sure exactly how he does it, but to me, Arbel seems to be writing of that time as a contemporary writer would. The scenes and characters seem to me to be thoroughly authentic, and NOT 21st century moments rotated backwards 80 years. Some of it, I’m certain, has got to be his familiarity with the language and the scenes, as they were in this period. I will leave it to others to dissect his technique[…]
I was utterly fascinated by this work[…]I devoured it in one session. It’s that good. I am looking forward, oh, yes I am, to more in this series, and I also hope that Arbel’s work gets the attention it deserves. […] it’s just too good to languish in obscurity.
No, I have not dropped off the internet 🙂 but things have been extremely busy both at work and in my little writing studio.
The first installment of my alternate history project, “Operation Flash”, just came back from copy editing. It will hit the virtual bookshelves of Amazon any day now: Episode 2 is 80% written already, and I have plans for at least Episode 3. I am planning for Episode 2 to be released sometime in June, and Episode 3 sometime in August.
The following cover was produced by “Covers Girl” (one of the many monikers of Sarah A. Hoyt):
On March 21, 1943, one man came within a hairbreadth of blowing up nearly the entire Nazi leadership.
In timeline DE1943RG, he succeeded.
Then the conspirators discovered that killing Hitler and his chief henchmen was the easy part.
Sometimes one runs into a story that, if it appeared in a novel, would stretch credulity.
The following Jewish rescue story is not only true, but its protagonist, Wehrmacht Oberleutnant [1st Lt.] Albert Battel, was honored posthumously by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among The Nations” in 1981. The Israeli lawyer and historian Zeev Goshen wrote a long and detailed article about the case in the Munich-based historical journal Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte (freely: Contemporary History Quarterly). https://www.ifz-muenchen.de/heftarchiv/1985_3_5_goshen.pdf [in German].
Przemysl was and is a small city of about 60,000 people in South-East Poland, near the present-day border with Ukraine. Its already favorable location as a trading center — on the San river, a navigable tributary of the Vistula — was further further enhanced in 1861 by the opening of a railway station on the line between Krakow and Lemberg [a.k.a. Lwow/Lvov/Lviv, present-day Ukraine]. As Przemysl was near the border between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Tsarist Russia, major fortification works were built there, at one point manned by 140,000 troops. The 1914-5 Siege of Przemysl counts as the largest siege of WW I.
After WW I and the birth of the Second Polish Republic, Przemysl was now part of the Lwow voivodeship (province) of Poland, but continued to have regional importance. About one-third of its population was Jewish.
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland (and the coordinated Soviet invasion of what was then Eastern Poland), the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line ran along the San river, and the Nazis violently drove the Jews from the left bank into the Soviet-occupied right bank part of the city. Come June 1941 and the invasion of the USSR, this Eastern part became the Jewish ghetto, its population swelled by Jews from surrounding towns being deported there.[*]
A Wehrmacht depot was established in Przemysl – for, among other things, vehicle repair and maintenance. As of July 1942, the military commander was one Major Max Liedtke, a WW I veteran and erstwhile regional newspaper editor (Greifswalder Zeitung, 1929-37) who reportedly had been dismissed for his critical comments about the Nazi regime.
His adjutant was Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) Albert Battel, a 51-year old lawyer from Breslau, Silesia (present-day Wroclaw, Poland) who had been called up for reserve duty. Battel actually had joined the NSDAP in 1933 (which ensured his continued legal career) but got into trouble with the party hierarchy: he continued to have friendly relations with Jews and, on one occasion, extended a loan to a Jewish colleague who had fallen on hard times [presumably, due to effectively being banned from representing non-Jewish clients]. Battel also reportedly assisted his Jewish in-laws to emigrate to Switzerland. While posted at Przemysl, he got a party reprimand for shaking the hand of the head of the Jewish council, a former classmate named Dr. Duldig.
On July 26, 1942, the SS planned the “Resettlement to the East” of the city’s Jews, the true destination being the nearby extermination camp of Belzec.
But when the SS task force showed up at the bridge across the San into the Jewish ghetto, they found their way blocked by a Wehrmacht detachment. The sergeant-major commanding it stated he had been ordered by Lt. Battel to block access across the bridge, by live fire if necessary. This is one of a few rare examples where Wehrmacht and SS actually pointed guns at each other!
The SS turned tail, and lodged an official complaint with the Wehrmacht city commander. However, Liedtke clearly approved of his adjutant’s behavior and backed him. About 100 Jews from the ghetto were working at his depot, and he was satisfied with their labor.
It was, however, obvious that the SS would return with reinforcements. So before they could do so, Battel sent three trucks into the ghetto, and in several trips, the depot workers and their families were shuttled across and given shelter at the Wehrmacht depot.
The SS did return the next day and deported the city’s remaining Jews, but were forced to spare the Wehrmacht depot as “they had nothing lost there”. Altogether, Battel (with the connivance of Liedtke) saved about 500 Jews from certain death.
Significantly, Battel did not suffer more severe consequences for his actions than a dressing-down — although correspondence within the SS and Party about his case got to the very top of the food chain, with a letter from Himmler to Bormann. Battel was supposed to be punished upon demobilization following the “Final Victory”, which [thank G-d] never came. Eventually Battel was given a medical discharge in 1944 for the heart disease that eventually claimed his life in 1952.
But, while escaping punishment for his courageous act, he received no reward in his lifetime either. Indeed, a postwar denazification court classified him as “IV. Mitlaüfer” (Category 4: Fellow Traveler[**]), and consequently barred him from practicing law in postwar Germany.
Battel’s superior officer, Liedtke, had been (punitively?) sent to the front, was taken prisoner by the Red Army, and eventually died in 1955 at a Soviet POW camp.
Both Battel and Liedtke were posthumously honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Shoah memorial institution, Yad Vashem.
Until near the end of the war (post-Valkyrie, perhaps), the Wehrmacht still enjoyed a measure of protection from the SS thugs. Liedtke and Battel had plausibly argued operational exigencies: that the smooth functioning of their depot was logistically and strategically essential for the Wehrmacht’s Eastern Front, and that their “essential workers” could not be missed. No bribes were required, as they were in the case of Oskar Schindler. That Liedtke and Battel knew how to argue their case in writing (being an erstwhile journalist and lawyer, respectively) surely did not hurt.
But I would also like to think Battel, as a veteran lawyer, would have familiarized himself with the Wehrmacht’s own Military Penal Code (issued 1872 under Kaiser Wilhelm I, but apparently reprinted as late as 1944!)
Art. 47: I. If through the execution of a military order a penal offense is committed, then only the commanding superior officer is responsible. [So far, no surprise.] However, the obeying subordinate is liable to punishment as a participant if: 1. He has exceeded [the limits of] the order given 2. It was known to him that the purpose of the superior officer’s order was a military or civil crime or offense. [Original wording: “wenn ihm bekannt gewesen, daß der Befehl des Vorgesetzten eine Handlung betraf, welche ein bürgerliches oder militärisches Verbrechen oder Vergehen bezweckte.”]
Had Battel appeared before a court-martial, he would likely have invoked this clause, which would have brought considerable embarrassment.[***]
[*] The well-known if controversial Israeli political scientist Ze’ev Sternhell hails from the town. He was hidden and raised by a Polish Catholic family and even acted as an altar boy until reconnecting with his roots.
[***] I will devote a separate blog post to the defense of “Befehlsnotstand” — freely: obeisance of criminal orders under duress — in German law. Suffice to saw: examples of true Befehlsnotstand were vanishingly rare: commanders of shooting squads such as Reserve Battalion 101 (the subject of Christopher Browning’s landmark book “Ordinary Men”) relied on peer pressure and indoctrination rather than coercion.
Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff’s attempted suicide bombing on March 21, 1943, which I have blogged about here and fictionalized here. This one would have been a decapitation strike on the regime top, rather than a one-target assassination
Georg Elser‘s time bomb at the Bürgerbraukeller, November 8, 1939 — about which today’s blog post
Johann Georg Elser was born Johann Georg Müller on January 4, 1903, the out-of-wedlock son of a cartwright’s daughter. One year later, his mother married a timber merchant and landowner named Ludwig Elser, who adopted the boy. The stepfather was apparently an alcoholic and violent while drunk, which may have motivated the stepson’s becoming a teetotaler.
Georg (he went by his middle name) apprenticed as a lathe worker but, for health reasons, switched to carpentry, and eventually graduated best in his class in trade school. He then worked as a master joiner and cabinet maker, after a while settling down in Konstanz on the Boden Lake (near the Swiss border) where he worked for a manufacturer of “grandfather’s clocks”.
He joined the “Red Front Fighters League” (an organization affiliated with the German Communist Party) in 1928, but dropped out after one year. What I have read of his biography suggests a highly introverted man who mostly kept to himself, except for joining a local music club where he played the zither (apparently with some proficiency).
His employer went bankrupt in the Great Depression, as did its successor company. Eventually, Elser found himself reduced to working for room and board as a repairman at a hostel for the indigent in Meersburg. He earned himself a reputation as a painstaking, very precise worker who kept to himself. (Nevertheless, he did father a child out of wedlock with a waitress: the child was adopted by her later husband.)
He apparently was opposed to the National Socialist regime from the start: contemporaries recall he would switch off the radio if a Hitler speech came on, or would leave the room. His employment fortunes improved, but from 1937 on, it was obvious to him why: Germany’s industry was gearing up for war.
After the Munich agreement in which Chamberlain shamefully sold the Czechs out to Hitler, Elser apparently concluded Hitler needed killing. Every November 9th, AH gave a memorial speech at the Bürgerbraukeller, th Munich beer hall where his abortive 1923 putsch had taken place.
Elser attended the speech and, doing so, discovered the beer hall was unguarded both before and after. He also noticed that the speaker’s dais stood in front of a thick pillar. A plan started forming in his head.
From this point on, he was a man with a mission. He was also the worst nightmare of any protective detail: a “lone wolf” who involves nobody in his plans and therefore is impervious to infiltrants and informants.
Elser quit his job and managed to get work at a quarry, from which he managed to purloin a large quantity of dynamite. (From a previous employer, which had a sideline in the production of ammunition and detonators, he had earlier squirreled away a rather smaller quantity of gunpowder.)
According to the movie Elser, er haette den Welt verandert [Elser, he would have changed the world] he broke up with his then-partner (who may have born two of his children) in order to protect them in case he got caught. (The woman herself does not recall it that way.)
Elser built a very precise timer — accurate to one minute over a period of five days — then a second, redundant one in case the first failed. (To anyone who happened to see the work in progress, he’d say he was working on a new clock design.)
Then over a period of a month and a half, he followed this basic routine. He’d go eat dinner at the Bürgerbraukeller, hide in the restroom at closing time, and let himself be locked in. Then, after he was alone, he got to work: at first, he installed an invisible door in the wood paneling of the pillar. Then, behind the door, he started hollowing out — slowly and laboriously, without power tools and careful not to make any noise — a space large enough to hold the explosives (about 120 kilograms!) and redundant time fuses. Come morning, he’d retreat into the restroom, then leave the cafe after it opened. (Presumably, the rate-determining step was the amount of debris he could smuggle out unseen in one trip.) The now movable wood panel was covered on the inside with felt to suppress the ticking sounds of the timer.
Then came the big day. On November 9, 1939, at 21:00, the Führer was scheduled to speak. Elser set his delay fuses for November 9 at 21:20 (allowing for the “main act” to appear a bit late), made a trip back at night and checked with his ear against the pillar that his mechanism was working, and — satisfied — set out for the Swiss border.
What inadvertently saved Hitler was the weather forecast. He wanted to be back in Berlin on the next day, so was planning to fly back after the speech. However, his personal pilot told him it would not be safe to fly in the heavy fog that had been forecast for later that night — so as Plan B, he decided to take a special train instead and move his schedule. Instead of the “warmup speeches” by lesser party brass at 8PM, the “main act” took the stage immediately at that hour. Furthermore, he cut his speech short from the usual two hours-plus to about one hour, and by 9:07 PM was on his way to the train.
Thirteen minutes later, exactly as scheduled, the bomb went off. Of the about 120 stragglers who were still in the cavernous beer hall, eight got killed (seven party drones and one waitress) and 63 wounded, of which 16 severely. The consensus of historians is that the bomb would have killed Hitler instantly if he had still been on the dais.
Arthur Nebe, the head of the criminal investigations department of the Reich, immediately took personal charge of the investigation. Nebe’s role in the Third Reich is highly ambiguous: on the one hand, he was involved in crimes against humanity, on the other hand, he was in touch with anti-Hitler conspirators in the Army and the Abwehr (intelligence service) from near the beginning of the Third Reich. He suspected the bombing was a failed attempt by the Army, and (thus his friend Hans-Bernd Gisevius recalls in his not always reliable resistance memoir To The Bitter End) was originally planning to arrest and shoot some Bavarian Legitimisten (separatist monarchists seeking to restore the Wittelsbach dynasty at the head of a fully independent Bavaria) as a cover-up. Then news reached him that somebody had been arrested while trying to cross the border into Switzerland: Elser had been carrying bits of detonator, his old Red Front badge, and other paraphernalia, with the help of which he had hoped to apply for political asylum in Switzerland.
Elser was tortured, not to extract a confession — he admitted from the beginning he had placed the bomb — but to extract the names of his foreign handlers. The Gestapo and SD, in particular, could not believe Elser had acted alone.
In a bizarre sideshow, the SD’s domestic intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg had been posing as a dissident army officer “Captain Schämmel”, thus stringing along two MI6 operatives (S. Payne Best and Richard H. Stevens) stationed in Holland. On the very next day, he lured them to a rendezvous at café Backus in Venlo, just steps from the Dutch-German border — they would finally get to meet a senior anti-Nazi general. Instead, the two men were kidnapped by a team of SD operatives led by Alfred Naujocks (of earlier Gleiwitz Incident infamy), with Lt. Klop becoming the first Dutch fatality of World War Two. Best and Stevens spent the rest of the war in concentration camps (Sachsenhausen at first, Dachau), but under what by KZ standards were “VIP conditions”, as they were regarded as “valuable prisoners” who must be kept alive for a future show trial or prisoner exchange.
Elser himself finally offered to build a replica of the bomb, so they could see he could do it just fine by himself. This duly happened. He spent the rest of the war in Dachau, likewise under privileged conditions (presumably ahead of a big show trial proving British complicity in a plot against the Führer — this never happened). He had two cells to himself, one of which was a carpentry workshop where he produced items for the camp guards and privileged prisoners.
On April 9, 1945, with the Americans approaching Dachau, he was taken to the camp crematorium and shot on the direct orders of Himmler.
What if? What would have happened if Elser had succeeded? My fiction writer’s WAG is this:
• Göring was the designated successor at the time. He was a nasty piece of work but appears to have had no particular enthusiasm for an offensive war against the Western powers — especially not as long as they could be bullied into diplomatic concessions. Additionally, he was too severely addled by morphine addiction to have been an effective war leader by this stage. It cannot be ruled out that a “Little Third Reich” would have existed for decades on German, Austrian, Polish, and Czech territory — but that the Reich would have been “contained” there.
What happened to the beer garden? After the war, what was left of it served as an American officers club, then eventually the whole complex was redeveloped. The site now contains the Gasteig symphony hall and convention cente as well as the head offices of GEMA (the German equivalent of ASCAP or BMI). The exact spot of the explosion is marked by this memorial plaque:
At this site in the former Bürgerbraukellertried the joiner Johann Georg Elser, on November 8, 1939, to carry out an attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler, and therewith to put an end to the National Socialist terror regime. The plan failed. Elser was, after 5 ½ years of imprisonment, murdered on April 9, 1945 at Dachau Concentration Camp
I used to think that “black propaganda” was something like “propaganda pushing a black legend” or “libelous propaganda”. But like so often, there is a difference between (often vaguely defined) usage of a phrase in ordinary conversation, and its precise definition as a “term of art”.
This paper on propaganda during WW II was highly informative. Briefly, in the “business”, “white propaganda” is defined as propaganda “under true flag”: it reveals its origin and does not purport to come from a neutral or opposing side. Examples on the Axis side are the Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally radio broadcasts, as well as the “Germany Calling” broadcasts of the pseudonymous Lord Haw-Haw.
In contrast, “Black Propaganda” is defined as propaganda under false flag: originating from the opponent’s side but disguising itself as friendly, for the purpose of sowing misinformation, confusion, demoralization, or all of the above. The term “Grey Propaganda” is used for cases where allegiance of the propagandist is deliberately made vague or ambiguous.
The uncontested masters of the art of black propaganda/”false flag” propaganda in WW II were Sefton Delmer and his PWE (Political Warfare Executive). Delmer was born and mostly raised in Berlin: his Australian father had been a professor of English literature there until he and his parents were interned as enemy aliens during WW I, then released to England in a prisoner exchange. After getting a degree in modern languages at Oxford and working as a freelance journalist, he was recruited as the Berlin bureau chief for the Daily Express (1990-1933). There, he befriended top nazis (particularly SA leader Ernst Röhm) and in fact became the first British journalist to be allowed to interview Hitler (y”sh). He was also present at the scene of the Reichstag Fire (and kept arguing all his life that it was a Nazi “false flag attack”): shortly after, he was reposted to Paris, and later reported on the Spanish civil war as well as on the invasions of Poland and France. In the nick of time, he and his wife made it to England, where he briefly worked as an announcer for the BBC German-language service.
Delmer spoke flawless German, both formal and colloquial, and was intimately familiar with German mores. These qualities came to serve him well when he was recruited by the PWE to run psychological warfare broadcasts.
After a few false starts, GS-1 or (in the German radio alphabet of the day) Gustav Siegfried Eins emerged. In modern net-speak, it was what we would nowadays call a massive “concern trolling” operation. GS-1 was a shortwave station on which “Der Chef” supposedly reached out to his network of “patriotic opposition”. Supposedly, Der Chef was an old-school senior army officer who was loyal to Germany and even to the Führer, but disgusted with the corruption and perversion of party and SS officials, which he collectively referred to as the Parteikommune. From his perch, he told tales of nest-feathering, pocket-lining, living high on the hog while troops and regular citizens suffered, as well as of sexual licentiousness, orgies. and “Violations of Paragraph 175” (i.e., homosexuality). (While a fair amount of this was written by amateur and professional pornographers, not all of this was fictional: Sefton Delmer was privy to many a dirty secret the Nazis wished he wasn’t.)
Eventually, when GS-1 had outlived its usefulness, “Der Chef”s lair was supposedly overrun, live on the air, by the Gestapo, with the broadcasts ending in bursts of sub-machinegun fire.[**]
GS-1 made way for Delmer’s greatest achievement: the creation and operation of two subtle “false flag” radio stations working in tandem: the high-powered Soldatensender Calais on the AM band, and its shortwave companion station Deutscher Kurzwellensender Atlantik (targeted primarily at German naval personnel, which by that stage primarily meant U-boot crews.)
Soldatensender Calais purported to be a German military entertainment broadcaster operating from Calais in occupied Northern France: in fact, it was being broadcast from a 500 kW (!!) station Aspidistra [*] in Southern England. Its programming consisted of what Sefton Delmer would later describe as “cover, cover, cover, dirt, dirt, cover”: a mixture of music popular with the German troops, sports coverage, and — for additional cover — speeches by Hitler and other top Nazi officials, the better to make the listeners receptive to disinformation and demoralizing propaganda items. For example, a broadcaster posting as a soldier would give tips on how to be declared unfit for onerous duty, how to avoid being transferred to the Eastern Front, etc., while others would detail scams Wehrmacht men might fall prey to, or arouse the age-old anxiety of the deployed soldier about his wife’s fidelity, his family’s welfare, or both. The station made its last broadcast on April 30, 1945, the day Hitler committed suicide.
After the war, Delmer served as chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Daily Express for fifteen years, until forced into retirement over an expenses dispute. He would go on to write several volumes of memoirs, an archive of which can be found here.
I cannot resist mentioning that when Labour MP (and British ambassador to Moscow) Stafford Cripps found out about Delmer’s operations, he was so scandalized that he wrote to Anthony Eden (Foreign Secretary and de facto Churchill’s deputy) that “If this is the sort of thing that is needed to win the war, why, I’d rather lose it.” This is of course precisely the sort of thing that inspired Churchill’s famous quip about the ascetic Cripps: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”
[*] This has originally been built for WJZ radio in Newark, NJ — yes, Steely Dan fans, the station namechecked in “The Nightfly” — until an FCC regulation limited individual stations’ broadcasting power to 50kw. RCA was only too happy to resell it to the British government.
[**] Unfortunately, the broadcast technician, who did not understand German, ran the segment twice.
Anybody who has been reading war fiction or military history — or, to a lesser extent, crime fiction — likely has seen expressions like:
“A few of the mutineers were shot pour encourager les autres.”
“As executing all those who had refused the order to attack would have been impossible, a few of the ringleaders were made an example of, to encourage the others.”
The meaning of the expression is obvious from context. But the other day I stumbled onto its exact origins.
To cut a long story short: during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), an admiral named John Byng was ordered to relieve the besieged British garrison on the island of Minorca. He sailed in a hastily assembled fleet of ramshackle vessels, then after an inconclusive sea battle with the French returned to Gibraltar — probably figuring that, if he pressed on, he’d sacrifice his men for no tangible result.
He was court-martialed, found guilty of “failing to do his utmost” (Articles of War 12), and sentenced to death — under Article 12, as written, the court could not reach another outcome. As the court-martial were clearly troubled by this, they unanimously recommended that King George II should exercise his royal prerogative of clemency.
Several senior politicians, including Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, were also willing to intercede for Byng, as they (rightly) suspected he was being made a scapegoat for the appalling state of readiness of his fleet.
Unfortunately for Byng, he had three factors working against him:
(a) as junior officers had been sentenced to death and executed for similarly not doing the impossible with defective means, there was pressure on the court martial to apply the law with the same severity to senior officers.
(b) King George II (grandfather of “Mad King George” III from whom the American colonists declared independence) clearly placed a great premium on personal bravery: he was, in fact, the last British monarch to personally lead his troops in battle (at the 1743 Battle of Dettingen).
(c) There was bad blood between George II and Pitt, who had pressured the king to relinquish his hereditary position as Duke and Prince-Elector (Kurfürst) of Hannover as it created a conflict of interest.
In the end, George II denied clemency, and Admiral Byng was executed by a firing squad aboard a ship at Portsmouth harbor.
Byng’s execution was satirised by Voltaire in his novel Candide. In Portsmouth, Candide witnesses the execution of an officer by firing squad and is told that “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others” (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres).
As a postscript, this blatant error juris (miscarriage of justice) eventually, 22 years later, prompted a revision of Article 12 to allow for alternative punishments such as the court-martial deems appropriate in view of the details and circumstances.
But Voltaire’s idiom is with us to this day, even as its origins have gotten somewhat lost in the mists of time.
This poem was written in 1907 by the German symbolist and “national renewal” poet Stefan George. It is as if he was prescient about what would happen in his own country in 1933. Or perhaps he simply understood a timeless truth about human nature: the attraction of a charismatic flimflam artist or ideology, and how they can lead a nation astray and asunder.
Those who have read Peter Hoffmann’s priceless biography of the Stauffenberg brothers Berthold and Claus will be aware they were both members of Stefan George’s inner circle. And indeed, Claus would countless times refer to this poem whenever Hitler [y”sh] was being discussed.
Here is Peter Viereck‘s verse translation, and below that follows the German original.
He comes from the mountain, he stands in the grove!
Our own eyes have seen it: the wine that he wove
From water, the corpses he wakens.
O could you but hear it, at midnight my laugh:
My hour is striking; come step in my trap;
Now into my net stream the fishes.
The masses mass madder, both numbskull and sage;
They root up the arbors, they trample the grain;
Make way for the new Resurrected.
I’ll do for you everything heaven can do.
A hair-breadth is lacking – your gape too confused
To sense that your senses are stricken.
I make it all facile, the rare and the earned;
Here’s something like gold (I create it from dirt)
And something like scent, sap, and spices –
And what the great prophet himself never dared:
The art without sowing to reap out of air
The powers still lying fallow.
The Lord of the Flies is expanding his Reich;
All treasures, all blessings are swelling his might . . .
Down, down with the handful who doubt him!
Cheer louder, you dupes of the ambush of hell;
What’s left of life-essence, you squander its spells
And only on doomsday feel paupered.
You’ll hang out your tongues, but the trough has been drained;
You’ll panic like cattle whose farm is ablaze . . .
And dreadful the blast of the trumpet.
Stefan George’s original:
Dort kommt er vom Berge · dort steht er im Hain!
Wir sahen es selber · er wandelt in Wein
Das Wasser und spricht mit den Toten.‹
O könntet ihr hören mein Lachen bei Nacht:
Nun schlug meine Stunde · nun füllt sich das Garn ·
Nun strömen die Fische zum Hamen.
Die weisen die Toren – toll wälzt sich das Volk ·
Entwurzelt die Bäume · zerklittert das Korn ·
Macht Bahn für den Zug des Erstandnen.
Kein Werk ist des Himmels das ich euch nicht tu.
Ein Haarbreit nur fehlt und ihr merkt nicht den Trug
Mit euren geschlagenen Sinnen.
Ich schaff euch für alles was selten und schwer
Das Leichte · ein Ding das wie Gold ist aus Lehm ·
Wie Duft ist und Saft ist und Würze –
Und was sich der grosse Profet nicht getraut:
Die Kunst ohne roden und säen und baun
Zu saugen gespeicherte Kräfte.
Der Fürst des Geziefers verbreitet sein reich ·
Kein Schatz der ihm mangelt · kein Glück das ihm weicht ..
Zu grund mit dem Rest der Empörer!
Ihr jauchzet · entzückt von dem teuflischen Schein ·
100 years ago to the day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice went into effect that ended The Great War. Its reverberations are many to this day: I will just mention a few below. ( The Rearview Mirror has some further reflections. )
The people of the time did not call it (yet) World War One, as they thought the Great War would be the war to end all other wars. Sadly, its ambiguous ending sewed the seeds of another war, to be more terrible still. The myth spread that the losing side had not really lost on the battlefield, but had been “stabbed in the back” on the home front (the so-called Dolchstosslegende). The Versailles Treaty, and the crippling and frankly unrealistic reparations payments it imposed, did the rest: in the resulting instability, a demobilized, shiftless lance corporal who’d been sent to eavesdrop on a newly formed “German Workers Party” ended up its leader instead, and his case officer (Capt. Ernst Röhm) the commander of its party militia. The rest is (grisly) history.
In general, out of a quite human, understandable desire to never see such a large-scale conflict again, pacifist and appeasement sentiments ruled that actually emboldened such as had learned a very different lesson from the conflict — said corporal [y”sh] and his future partners in crime.
Not every invention brought to bear on WW I was just meant to kill people and break things. The Bosch-Haber ammonia synthesis, for instance, saved millions from starvation then and has been a life-giver ever since, even as its existence probably extended the war by another two years.
Another legacy of the war has been the attempts to create international organizations which were to prevent war — the League of Nations then, the United Nations after WW II. Lofty as the aims in their creation were, the UN, in particular, would degenerate into a sickening parody of itself, where “human rights commissions” can be chaired by bloody dictatorships, and an organization meant to assist one group of refugees from one conflict ended up perpetuating its own existence through the expedient of extending refugee status to all descendants of the original group in perpetuity — a definition not used for any other group of refugees.
Yet another, very different, legacy was in poetry. Fifteen of the best-known war poems are gathered here: let me quote just three.
In Flanders Fields, by John McRae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Perhaps, by Vera Brittain
(Dedicated to her fiance Roland Aubrey Leighton, who was killed at the age of 20 by a sniper in 1915, four months after she had accepted his marriage proposal)
Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.
Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.
Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.
Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.
But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the question: “why didn’t anybody try to kill Hitler” (y”sh), I’d have a tidy sum of money. In truth, depending on how you define an attempt, there have been over forty events that may qualify, over a dozen of which became serious. Four of the latter came within a hairbreadth of succeeding. In reverse chronological order, they are:
Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff’s attempted suicide bombing on March 21, 1943, which I have blogged about here and fictionalized here. This one would have been a decapitation strike on the regime top, rather than a one-target assassination
Henning von Tresckow and Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s attempted bombing of the Führer’s plane on March 13, 1943, about which today’s blog post
Georg Elser‘s time bomb at the Bürgerbraukeller, November 8, 1939 — about which a future blog post
All would-be assassins had to find ways to circumvent elaborate security measures, that only got more stringent with every known attempt. By the time of the war, there were three concentric protection circles — not counting ad hoc deployment of Gestapo, SS, and SD:
outer perimeter security of the Wolfsschanze/Wolf’s Lair and other forward headquarters was assured by a battalion from the elite Grossdeutschland motorized infantry division: this Führerbegleitbatallion (Leader escort battalion) grew into a regiment with tanks, armored carriers, and anti-aircraft guns, and eventually (after Hitler holed up for the last time in his Berlin bunker) was sent to the front as a division.
inner security was provided the Reichssicherheitsdienst (RSD) of up to a few hundred trained police and security personnel (not to be confused with the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, which was the SS’s domestic and foreign intelligence apparatus), which protected not just Hitler but other top Nazi functionaries. Its commander Hans Rattenhuber was also the overall security chief.
finally, 8-12 trusted bodyguards recruited from the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (the 1st Waffen SS regiment, later a division) provided the closest-in security, and did double duty as valets and messengers. This Führerbegleitkommando answered to the Führer directly, in practice to his chief adjutant Julius Schaub. A number of those stayed with their master in the bunker to the last.
Gersdorff recalls in his memoirs, Soldat im Untergang/Soldier In The Downfall, that, when a senior officer pulled out his handkerchief as he had a cold, an RSD agent grasped his hand while it was in his pocket and brought it up very slowly, then only let go when he was certain it only contained an innocuous object.
Col. (GS) [**] Henning von Tresckow, the Ia Staff Officer (Operations) of Army Group Center, and his adjutant, Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff (who happened to be Tresckow’s cousin), had been convinced since the autumn of 1941 that Hitler had to be removed, if need be by assassination. While they were unabashed German nationalists and outright anticommunists, the mass murder of Jews and other civilians by SS “task forces” (Einsatzkommandos) had been a bridge too far — especially once Tresckow and his aide discovered that these were not isolated war crimes by rogue units, but part and parcel of a systematic policy handed down from the top itself. Gradually and carefully, Tresckow and Schlabrendorff gathered a group of conspirators around them, with the Ic Staff Officer (Intelligence) Col. (GS) von Gersdorff as an early recruit.
When the Führer was to fly to Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte) headquarters near Smolensk, a plan formed in the conspirators’ minds. If only they could smuggle a bomb with a time fuse on board of the Führer’s personal FW 200 “Condor” before it flew back, that could circumvent many of the problems with a shooting or grenade attack.
Gersdorff, via his contacts in the Abwehr (military intelligence) headquarters (where another group of conspirators went all the way to the top), had managed to get hold of a stock of captured British “Nobel 808” plastic explosives — more powerful and reliable than anything in their own arsenal — and of so-called “time pencil” detonators, which make no sizzling or ticking noise. The available time pencils came in 10 minute, 30 minutes, and 2 hours variants. The image below, from the US National Archives, illustrates their mechanism:
Briefly: on the inside of a soft metal housing was a glass vial with a strong acid. The pencil was primed by bending or applying strong pressure, which crushed the vial. The acid would burn through a thin metal wire that held back a spring, to which a striker pin was attached. The striker pin would hit a detonator cap, which finally would set off the explosive. The duration of the process will be determined by the concentration of the acid and the thickness (and composition) of the wire. In cold weather, of course, the chemical reaction will be slowed down…
Tresckow and Schlabrendorff did do their homework: in between their extensive staff officer duties, they managed to carry out thorough experiments with the explosives and fuses. They discovered that cold weather could extend the stated time of the time pencils by over 100%, but that they were otherwise quite reliable, and that about a kilogram of explosive should be adequate to blow the Condor’s fuselage to bits.
They prepared an explosive parcel disguised as two bottles of Cointreau liqueur, which contained about 2 kg of Nobel 808.
At any rate—while Hitler (and/or Rattenhuber?) were notorious for changing movement plans at the last minute, two planes carrying Hitler, his entourage, and his close-in protection detail did duly land on Saturday, March 13, 1943. (One was the dictator’s personal Focke-Wulf 200 Condor illustrated below — not the Junkers 52 shown in the opening scenes of the movie “Valkyrie”. [*])
Schlabrendorff, in his memoirs Offizieren gegen Hitler (see also here in English), recounts that during the dinner following the briefing, the dictator would only eat food prepared by his own cook, then taste-tested before his eyes by his personal physician Theodor Morell. “The proceedings reminded one of an oriental despot of bygone ages.” (F. v. S.)
Tresckow approached one of Hitler’s closest aides, Col. Heinz Brandt, if he could do him a favor: he owed his friend Gen. Hellmuth Stieff two bottles of liquor because he had lost a bet with him, and if Col. Brandt would be so kind as to deliver it to him? This being a not uncommon request among staff officers, Brandt agreed. Schlabrendorff, being Tresckow’s aide, was asked to bring the liquor to the plane.
Once Schlabrendorff saw Hitler board the plane, he surreptitiously primed the 30-minute time pencil he had earlier selected, and handed the package over to Brandt — who boarded the same plane as Hitler (otherwise Schlabrendorff would have had to come up with a last-minute excuse that it wasn’t the right parcel, or something).
The plane took off for Rastenburg, East Prussia (presently Ketrzyn, Poland) — the location of the Wolf’s Lair — and the conspirators gave a coded heads-up to their co-conspirators in Berlin. The next code word would follow once a signal had come to the HQ’s communications room that the plane had crashed.
The pair waited anxiously — then a signal came in that the plane had duly arrived at Rastenburg.
Gen. Stieff would later join the conspirators, but was not (yet) in on the plan, so if he started opening the bottles, he would be in for quite a ‘spirited’ surprise. So Schlabrendorff traveled to Rastenburg himself and told Col. Brandt that there had been a mixup: he had been given the wrong bottles (Cointreau), so if he wouldn’t mind giving them back and trading them for the right bottles (Cognac)?
Brandt suspected nothing, and the substitution was made with a smile. Schlabrendorff made his way to the nearby railroad exchange, and there caught a night train to Berlin.
Once in his sleeper compartment, he locked the door and very cautiously, with a razor blade, excised the failed detonator from the explosive charge and started disassembling it.
As it turned out, the glass was broken, the wire had been eaten through despite the cold, and the striker had been released.
Only the percussion cap, for the first time ever in all their experience, had failed to fire.
For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost,
for want of a horseshoe a horse went lame,
for want of a horse a rider never got through,
for want of a rider a message never arrived,
for want of a message an army was never sent,
for want of an army a battle was lost,
for want of a battle a war was lost,
for want of a war a kingdom fell,
and all for want of a nail.
Or “all for the want of a percussion cap”, the war dragged on for two more years and many millions more were slain.
[*] Update: according to “Guarding Hitler” by Mark Felton, the second plane was also a Condor, but without the armored compartment (12mm steel, 50mm bulletproof glass) and parachute seat for the Führer.
Apparently, the first plane was taken up for a 10- or 15-minute test flight before every trip with the Führer. This would also have set off any bomb with a barometric fuse, had one been smuggled aboard.
[**] Note about ranks: Both Tresckow and Gersdorff’s formal ranks were Oberst i. G., in full Oberst im Generalstabsdienst: Colonel in General Staff service. I have rendered this as Col. (GS). Permanent assignment to the general staff was indicated by red vertical trouser stripes (“Lampassen”) in the uniform.
The recent spectacle/trainwreck concerning SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh could not help remind the WW II history buff in me of the tragicomic episode known as the Fritsch Affair or Fritsch Scandal. That story bears retelling as a cautionary tale on how a character assassination may be successful even if the accusations are proven false and the accused is exonerated. Below follows my short summary.
Sometime in 1936, Berlin police arrested and interrogated a habitual criminal and extortionist named Otto Schmidt. His particular racket at the time was to spy on men who picked up homosexual prostitutes and to blackmail them.
During interrogation (clearly aimed at arresting the “johns” in question for violating the notorious “Article 175” of the penal code) he named various of his “clients”. Some enjoyed “protection” from above and could not be touched. Then Schmidt dropped the name of one “General von Fritsch”.
“You mean: Generaloberst[*]Freiherr von Fritsch?!”
“Yes! Him! I saw him in the act with Bayern-Seppl!” [Freely: “Bavarian Joe”, street name of a well-known male prostitute.]
Holy shmoly! Colonel-General Baron von Fritsch?! The Commander in Chief of the Army?!? [**]
The report made its way up the chain all the way to Reichsführer-SS Himmler (y”sh), who was also the supreme head of all police forces in the Third Reich. Himmler’s agenda at the time included fostering his own parallel army (the Waffen-SS) at the expense of the regular army with its officer caste dominated by Prussian nobles — and therefore, pleased as punch, he immediately ran off to his master with the report. To his surprise and disappointment, however, Hitler (y”sh) immediately told Himmler to “burn this filth”. (Evidently, von Fritsch still could not be spared.)
But instead of destroying the report as ordered, Himmler tucked it away in his safe, figuring it might yet come in handy.
Then the fateful Hossbach conference happened. At this closed gathering of the Führer with then-foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath, Defense Minister Werner von Blomberg, and the heads of the three Wehrmacht branches (army commander von Fritsch, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, and Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring) Hitler for the first time unveiled concrete military objectives, specifically Austria and Czechoslovakia. (Minutes of the meeting were taken down by his military adjutant, Col. Hossbach, by whose name the conference is hence known.) To the great surprise and disappointment of the grandiose dictator, Blomberg and especially Fritsch pushed back hard against the invasion plans, while von Neurath was not enthusiastic either.
Blomberg was shortly later forced into retirement when it turned out his much younger second wife had a past as a prostitute and X-rated photo model. The post of Defense Minister was then supplanted by a new Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) with the toadyish Wilhelm Keitel at the helm. Foreign Minister Neurath ended up being replaced in a cabinet reshuffle by the repulsive Joachim von Ribbentrop. But how to get rid of von Fritsch?
Aha! The “burned” report suddenly reappeared. Since Fritsch had never married and had no known girlfriend (he was, basically, married to his job) it all made sense…
When confronted with the accusation, Fritsch at first was stunned. He did not help matters by muttering something about how he had lunched with some Hitler Youth to satisfy his Winter Aid quota, and maybe people got the wrong idea…
An official announcement followed that both Blomberg and Fritsch were retiring “for health reasons”. However, with the help of pressure from senior army officers, Reichskriegsgerichtsrat [roughly: Judge Advocate General] Karl Sack, a secret member of the anti-Nazi underground, won the concession that Fritsch would appear before a court-martial rather than before one of Freisler’s kangaroo courts.
Sack started his own investigation, and quickly discovered that “Bavarian Joe”s actual “client” was a retired Rittmeister [cavalry captain] named Achim von Frisch (without the extra “t”). The Rittmeister had even kept receipts for the hush money he had paid to his blackmailer.
Confronted with the evidence, Otto Schmidt broke down and confessed he had deliberately confounded the identity of his victim in order to make himself more important (and valuable to his jailers).
Schmidt was packed off to a concentration camp (where he was later shot on the direct orders of Himmler) and von Fritsch was “acquitted due to proven innocence” and exonerated.
But… he was not reinstated as Army CinC. Instead, that position fell to the more pliant Werner von Brauchitsch[***]. Von Fritsch was instead appointed Kommandant (honorary commander, ceremonial commander) of the 12th Artillery Regiment (his onetime unit).
On September 22, 1939, after the invasion of Poland, von Fritsch went to the front and deliberately exposed himself to Polish fire, thus seeking and finding a soldier’s death. Call it “suicide by enemy fire” if you wish.
Am I comparing the Deep/Derp State to the Third Reich? Of course not, and I am not suggesting parallels between Kavanaugh and von Fritsch either?
I just can’t help thinking of how a character assassination can be successful even when the accused is fully exonerated.
[*] In the Wehrmacht’s table of ranks, Generaloberst [literally: General-Colonel or Colonel-General] is a rank between General and Field Marshal. Freiherr [literally: free lord] is the equivalent of Baron in the German nobility.
[**] The Heer (army) was only one of three branches of the Wehrmacht (armed forces) — the other two branches being the Kriegsmarine (war navy) and the Luftwaffe (Air Force).
[***] von Brauchitsch would in turn be dismissed in late 1941 as a scapegoat for the first failures of the invasion of Russia, at which point Hitler put himself in direct command of the army.
This powerful Rush song about the Manhattan Project begs to be shared on this day.
Imagine a time
when it all began
In the dying days of a war
A weapon that would settle the score
Whoever found it first
would be sure to do their worst
They always had before…
Imagine a man
where it all began
A scientist pacing the floor
In each nation
always eager to explore
To build the best big stick
To turn the winning trick
But this was something more…
Imagine a man when it all began
The pilot of “Enola Gay”
Flying out of the shockwave
on that August day
All the powers that be, and the course of history
Would be changed forevermore…
As a bonus, here is a video of another, heavier song about the same subject, named after the first published account of the project: Robert Jungk’s “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” (original German title: Heller als tausend Sonnen)
Many languages are spoken in different registers for different levels of formality. For instance, Martin Joos recognizes the following five “registers” in English:
Static: the most formal register reserved for laws, contracts and other legal documents, religious ceremonies. Highly reliant on fixed (static) phrases, which may be archaic in their wording;
Formal: one-way participation (nonfiction book, academic article, lecture). Most extensive vocabulary, precise/pedantic use of technical vocabulary, precise definitions;
Consultative: two-way professional communication, e.g., teacher/student, senior/junior researcher, doctor/patient,…;
Casual: ordinary informal speech;
Intimate: between close family and friends. Nonverbal communication (gestures, facial expression), intonation, and private/insider vocabulary and references may make speech hard to understand to an outsider.
English may have an enormous vocabulary, but it is a “weak-grammar” language. In languages with more complex grammars, the same five basic settings of course exist, but the distance between the registers becomes a matter of more than just vocabulary and the (dis)use of some formal expressions. For instance, in German, there is a noticeable difference — even in “High German” regions — between the standard literary language and the Mundart (spoken vernacular). In Flanders, older people still speak West-Flemish, Limburgish,… dialects to each other, while in formal settings even they will revert to standard Dutch (which used to be known by the rather politically incorrect name of ABN or Algemeen Beschaafd Nederlands/Common Civilized [!] Dutch).
In extreme forms, the distance between Dachsprache (lit. “roof language”, umbrella language) and spoken vernacular may reach the point of diglossia — the coexistence of two distinct languages. In the parts of Germany closest to Holland, Plattdeutsch (Low German, or Plattdüütsch, if you like) coexists with standard [High] German (Hochdeutsch). In fact, the Plattdeutsch and Dutch dialects across the border are a classic example of a dialect continuum. In the Arabic-speaking world, different local vernaculars (e.g., Moroccan and Syrian Arabic) are sometimes not even mutually intelligible: hence, a permanent state of diglossia exists between the local vernaculars and their common Dachsprache, Modern Standard Arabic (based on the classical literary language).
Ancient Rome knew a similar state of diglossia, between the literary Latin that we learned in school and so-called Vulgar Latin (sermo vulgaris, i.e., common speech).[*] After the fall of the West-Roman Empire, provincial dialects of Vulgar Latin diverged into the separate languages we now call French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian,… (In fact, the very definition of a Romance language is its descent from Vulgar Latin.)
Without going down the rabbit hole of the evolution of ancient Greek, suffice to say that the classical (Attic) Greek some of us still learned in school existed in diglossia with Koine Greek (common/vernacular Greek). Unlike for Vulgar Latin, there is a substantial written corpus of written Koine Greek, above all the Christian New Testament and the Septuagint (the Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible/Tana”kh/Christian Old Testament).
Over time, with the rise and fall of the Byzantine/East-Roman empire followed by Ottoman and other foreign rules, Koine Greek evolved into the vernaculars of different parts of the Hellenosphere.
The emergence of Greek nationalism in the late 18th-early 19th Century culminated in Ioannes Kapodistrias becoming the first Prime Minister (1827-1831) of a newly independent Greece. Obviously, the Greek nationalist intelligentsia was keen on establishing a standard Greek language — but which Greek language?
One school of thought, led by Greco-French linguist Ioannis Psycharis, argued in favor of refining and unifying the cluster of vernacular Greek dialects into one standard Demotiki Glossa (“people’s language”, i.e., Demotic Greek). Another school, led by Prof. Georgios Hatzidakis, considered Demotic to be little more than an argot and instead strove to create/reconstruct an archaic, neo-Classical Greek which they called Katharevousa (“purifying” [form], originally conceived by Greek Enlightenment figure Adamantios Korais). Thus, they hoped to recapture the splendor of the ancient literary language in a modern idiom.
Tempers grew hot between the groups, occasionally reaching the level of literal fistfights rather than mere literary “battle” between Demotic and Katharevousa poets, authors, and playwrights. After the 1912-3 liberation of Macedonia and later the establishment of the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, the latter would become a stronghold of the Demotic faction, as against the Katharevousa faction at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.
One might naively expect the most conservative and nationalistic element of society to have embraced Katharevousa. In fact, things were not so simple: Psycharis himself was an early proponent of the Megali (Greater [Greece]) idea, and the at least somewhat anticlerical Korais associated both Demotic Greek and its direct ancestor Koine with the “corrupt” Byzantine church establishment. The pre-WW II dictator Metaxas appears to have favored Demotic, as he considered the complexity of Katharevousa to be an obstacle to his goal of cultural Hellenization of all minorities.
A third, pragmatic (ahem) middle view took hold in parts of the political establishment (most notably with the great Liberal politician Venizelos): namely, a form of institutionalized diglossia. As per Venizelos’s 1917 school reforms, early schooling of children would be in the much easier Demotic form, while once they advanced beyond the first few grades of primary school, the instruction would switch to the more demanding Katharevousa.
What tipped the scales permanently in favor of Demotic appears to have been the great influx of Greek refugees following the Greek-Turkish War and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which both set the borders and mandated a forced population exchange. Many of those refugees had spoken Turkish all their lives and needed to be taught Greek nearly or completely from scratch. The obvious approach, if they were to be acculturated quickly, was to teach them “easy Greek” first and “high Greek” later. “Later,” in most cases, never came.
One last push for Katharevousa was made during the Colonels’ Regime (1967-74): a 1972 official pamphlet dismissed Demotiki as a mere “jargon” that “doesn’t even have a grammar” but appears to have had limited appeal at best.
Upon the restoration of democracy, one final language reform took place. On 30 April 1976, Article 2 of Law 309 defined Modern Greek as:
.. the Demotic that has been developed into a Panhellenic instrument of expression by the Greek People and the acknowledged writers of the Nation, properly constructed, without regional and extreme forms.
and stipulated that it be the language of instruction in schools starting with the 1977-8 school year. Finally, the polytonic accent/diacriticals system was abolished in 1982.
This “Standard Modern Greek” (as linguists call it) is recognizably different from the classical language taught in European secondary schools. You immediately notice the “h” being dropped, the “eta” being pronounced as “i”/”ee” rather than nasal é, the “beta” almost invariably being pronounced as “v”, and in general a disregard of much of the declensions, cases,… and other grammatical intricacies that those of us who went to a continental European Atheneum or Gymnasium, or a British “public school”, wracked our brains learning.
All the same, proponents of Katharevousa won the argument in one major area: the replacement of foreign loan words in Demotic by “native” Greek neologisms (ahem). A computer, for instance, became ypologistí in Standard Modern Greek, a router dromologití, and a printer an ektypotís (unless you mean the profession, which is a typographos).
This latter phenomenon has a parallel in modern Hebrew. Going back to the first modern Hebrew lexicographer, the intrepid Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, linguists tried to coin Hebrew neologisms for modern concepts and artifacts that Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew had no words for, rather than import foreign loan words. This process (to which I will dedicate a separate blog post) continues to this day at the hands of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Some of these coinages are universally accepted (machshev/thinking machine for computer, tzag or masach for display or screen, monit for taxi, kinor for violin, …), others never caught on (sach-rachok, itself a calque of the German Fernsprecher, never displaced telefon), yet others coexist as formal terms with informal vernacular (meteg with the English “switch” [in IT contexts] or the German Schalter [for a light or power switch], teka with the German Stecker [plug], natav with “router”,…) [**]
And of course, the French Language Academy succeeded in displacing (at least outside slang) “franglais” terms like “le computer” with “l’ordinateur”, “le printer” with “l’imprimante”, “un file” (the English word, not the French for a traffic jam) with “un logiciel”, etc. and even “Email” by “courriel” (a portmanteau of “courrier électronique”) …
[*] Vulgus=the common people, hence the derogatory meaning of “vulgar” (EN) or “vulgair” (NL, DE, FR,…) in other languages.
[**] Amusingly, native Israelis often stare at me when an immigrant like myself refers to “do’al” (short for doar elektroni, the proper word for Email) instead of “mail”…
There are some similarities with the Holodomor (subject of Robert Conquest’s famous book, “The Harvest of Sorrow”) in that a forced collectivization campaign led to a massive man-made famine in a region that under normal circumstances was a major food exporter. While you could say the Ukraine was the breadbasket of the USSR, Kazakhstan was its stockyard.
Unlike the Ukrainian peasants that fells victim to the dekulakization campaign, however, the Kazakhs were nomads, whose lifestyle was adapted to raising livestock in a vast territory of marginal land. Unlike in the case of the Ukraine SSR, a desire to stamp out Kazakh national identity and aspirations does not appear to have played a role as such. Furthermore, nomads did not fit any class category in “scientific” Marxism — but eventually the know-it-all social engineers in Moscow decided that the “backward” nation needed to be modernized, the nomads forcibly settled, and animal husbandry brought more in line with “modern” practices.
The result was disastrous — the number of cattle fell by 90%, and deaths from starvation were actually a higher percentage of ethnic Kazakhs than had been reached even in the Ukraine (where absolute numbers were of course larger). Combined with the flight of about another million Kazakhs to neighboring Soviet republics or to China, this actually made ethnic Kazakhs a minority in Kazakhstan until 1999.
Eventually, the Soviets were forced to backtrack. Their satrap in Kazakhstan, erstwhile co-executioner of the Tsar and his family Filipp Goloshchekin, was made a scapegoat and dismissed, but his protégé (and alleged former lover) Nikolai Yezhov — head of the NKVD during the Great Purges, which are known in Russian as the “Yezhovshchina” to this day — ensured he stayed unharmed. Only after Yezhov’s downfall and execution did Goloshchekin’s turn come: he was eventually executed by firing squad at Kuibyshev (Soviet-era name of Samara) as part of a group of “especially dangerous prisoners”.
During the Q&A, Dr. Cameron was, of course, asked why this episode is barely known in the West, while there is at least some awareness (not enough) of the Holodomor. She attributes this to the large Ukrainian diaspora in the West vs. the barely existent Kazakh one, as well as to the fact that Kazakh nomadic culture prizes oral history over the written word and stone memorials. (Dr. Cameron recounts that, when she asked where a monument to the victims had been built, she was told “in Almaty” [the former capital] and spent days touring the city, only to find a sign indicating a such a monument would be built there in the future.) The language barrier presumably plays a role too: Russian speakers can generally read Ukrainian (the two languages are closer than Dutch and German), but the Turkic Kazakh language is another matter.
(Kazakhstan itself, meanwhile, has been transformed radically, with the discovery and exploitation of vast natural resources (including but not limited to both oil and uranium). Since the 2000s, the country has seen very rapid economic growth, slowed down recently by a dip in world oil prices.)
As great and appalling as I knew the body count of communism to be, the story of the Kazakh man-made famine was new to me. There is scholarly discussion about whether it constitutes a genocide (which implies intent to decimate or eliminate an ethnic group) or a democide (a mass killing of genocidal proportions with motivated other than ethnicity). But for the victims and their kin, it would be cold comfort that they died as the results of a colossal deadly foul-up rather than deliberate intent. Whether they died from premeditated murder or from “Depraved indifference to human life”, if you like.