Play as though your life depends on it

“On the evening of 12 April [1945], the Berlin Philharmonic gave its last performance. Albert Speer, who organized it, had invited Grand Admiral Dönitz and also Hitler’s adjutant, Colonel von Below. The hall was properly lit for the occasion, despite the electricity cuts. ‘The concert took us back to another world,’ wrote Below. The programme included Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Bruckner’s 8th Symphony—(Speer later claimed that this was his warning signal to the orchestra to escape Berlin immediately after the performance to avoid being drafted into the Volkssturm)—and the finale to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Even if Wagner did not bring the audience back to present reality, the moment of escapism did not last long. It is said that, after the performance, the Nazi Party had organized Hitler Youth members to stand in uniform with baskets of cyanide capsules and offer them to members of the audience as they left.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Babes in warland

“Berlin’s population in early April [1945] stood at anything between 3 and 3.5 million people, including around 120,000 infants. When General Reymann raised the problem of feeding these children at a meeting in the Reich Chancellery bunker, Hitler stared at him. ‘There are no children of that age left in Berlin,’ he said. Reymann finally understood that his supreme commander had no contact with human reality.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

The flower of the nation

“The Führer’s response to the onrush of Soviet tank brigades towards Berlin had been to order the establishment of a Panzerjagd Division, but in typical Nazi style, this impressive-sounding organization for destroying tanks failed to live up to its title. It consisted of bicycle companies mainly from the Hitler Youth. Each bicyclist was to carry two panzerfaust anti-tank launchers clamped upright either side of the front wheel and attached to the handlebars. The bicyclist was supposed to be able to dismount in a moment and be ready for action against a T-34 or Stalin tank. Even the Japanese did not expect their kamikazes to ride into battle on a bicycle.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Jornada del muerto

“The snow was deep on the roads and eventually most women had to abandon their prams and carry the youngest children. In the icy wind they also found that their thermoses had cooled. There was only one way to feed a hungry infant, but they could not find any shelter in which to breast-feed. All the houses were locked, either abandoned already or owned by people who refused to open their door to anyone. . . . One young wife, in a letter to her mother explaining the death from cold of her own child, also described the fate of other mothers, some crying over a bundle which contained a baby frozen to death, others sitting in the snow, propped against a tree by the side of the road, with older children standing nearby whimpering in fear, not knowing whether their mother was unconscious or dead.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Scourged

“Although the Soviet authorities were well aware of the terrible retribution being exacted in East Prussia, they seemed angered, in fact almost offended, to find that German civilians were fleeing. Countryside and town were virtually depopulated. The NKVD chief of the 2nd Belorussian Front reported to G. F. Aleksandrov, the chief ideologist on the central committee, that there were ‘very few Germans left . . . many settlements are completely abandoned.’ He gave examples of villages where half a dozen people remained and small towns with fifteen people or so, almost all over forty-five years of age. The ‘noble fury’ was triggering the largest panic migration in history. Between 12 January and mid-February 1945, almost 8.5 million Germans fled their homes in the eastern provinces of the Reich.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945 (ellipsis in original)

Take it now and make payments

“The deepest determinant of contemporary social psychology is not mass unbelief but mass production. Industrialism has decisively undermined the republican ideals of independence, self-sufficiency, and proprietorship—the ‘modest competence’ postulated by early democratic theorists as the basis of civic virtue and civil equality. It is the practice of demanding skills, rather than fragmented and routinized drudgery, that disciplines us and makes mutual respect and sympathy possible. Work that provides scope for the exercise of virtues and talents; a physical, social, and political environment commensurate in scale with our authentic, non-manufactured needs and appetites; and a much greater degree of equality, with fewer status distinctions, and those resting on inner qualities rather than money—these are the requirements of psychic health at present. The alternative is infantilism and authoritarianism, compensated—at least until the earth’s ecology breaks down—by frantic consumption.”  – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

Storm force 7

“What can motivate ordinary men and women to behave decently most of the time and heroically in emergencies? Perhaps it might help to reduce the many temptations to behave otherwise. Chief among these in twenty-first-century America are the relentless sexualization of advertising and entertainment, the pervasive economic insecurity engineered by business and government (especially Republican) policies, and the enfeeblement of civic life entailed by extreme laissez-faire ideology. These things make it harder to maintain dignity or restraint and to trust or care about other people. None of them are necessary consequences of skepticism or intellectual freedom, and some of them are promoted most vigorously by people who loudly proclaim themselves religious.” – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

Something to believe in

“Prescribing religion in its generic form has become commonplace among social critics, particularly communitarians. They have a point. No society—for that matter, no individual—can flourish without a great deal of trust, devotion, solidarity, and self-discipline. Religion often fosters these things, and not only among co-religionists. But although untrammeled sexual freedom is not a requirement of human flourishing, any more than the untrammeled freedom to accumulate money, untrammeled intellectual freedom most certainly is. Unquestioned authority is not merely undesirable, it is impossible, a contradiction in terms. Authority is what remains after all questions have been asked, all objections posed, all doubts explored. Until then, there is only superstition or cowed silence. Religious orthodoxy, and in particular the theistic hypothesis, has had many centuries to establish its intellectual authority. Its prospects are dwindling. If trust, devotion, and the other requisites of community depend on a general belief in supernatural agencies, then the triumph of the therapeutic is probably permanent.” – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

The bossings

“[Max] Weber conceived charisma as one of three kinds of authority—traditional, charismatic, and bureaucratic—that characterize all organizations, including religious ones. Traditional authority, typical of primitive societies, derives from inertia and aims at continuity. Bureaucratic authority, typical of modern societies, derives from methodical reasoning and aims at efficiency. Charismatic authority is untypical and unpredictable; it derives from a singularly compelling, dynamic figure, seemingly gifted by God, and aims at radical reform or innovation. The charismatic figure arises when a tradition or bureaucracy stagnates, and his legacy is inevitably regularized by his uncharismatic successors.” – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

The popular magic

“The assumption that one cannot be reliably good without God persists in the United States, explicitly or implicitly, to the extent that a declared unbeliever almost certainly cannot be elected to national office. Around half the population identify themselves as born-again Christians and believe in angels, miracles, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the special creation of the Earth within the last ten thousand years. So if (as everyone seems to agree) America is in decline morally, an excess of skeptical rationalism is probably not to blame.” – George Scialabba, “The Wages of Original Sin”

She might have brought something to study

“A skilled professional I know had to turn down an important freelance assignment because of a recurring commitment to chauffeur her son to a resumé-building ‘social action’ assignment required by his high school. This involved driving the boy for 45 minutes to a community center, cooling her heels while he sorted used clothing for charity, and driving him back—forgoing income which, judiciously donated, could have fed, clothed, and inoculated an African village. The dubious ‘lessons’ of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that children are entitled to treat their mothers’ time as worth nothing, that you can make the world a better place by destroying economic value, and that the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.” – Steven Pinker, “The Trouble with Harvard”

Civilization comes to Hooterville

“Educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition. On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.” – Steven Pinker, “The Trouble with Harvard”

The Project

Twenty-seven months ago, around the time of the centenary of the the start of the First World War, I began a reading project, setting myself to read about the twentieth century’s wars, the political and economic and ideological struggles, and the people caught up in them. I knew a fair amount about the subject already, picked up in bits and pieces over the years, but I wanted to get a bigger picture – learn the contexts, draw connections, see the flow, see how one thing made the way for another thing, see if I could gain a better understanding of the world I live in – we live in – and how it got from where it was to where it is.

Today I finished: eighty-three books, innumerable articles, and various films later. I learned various things, made various connections, saw the flows, the causes and effects (in so far as those are discernable). The two major lessons I learned were, 1) The First World War (also known as the Great War) was a catastrophe for Eurpean civilization, a cataclysm from which the pre-war European world had no hope of recovery, and from which the aftershocks are still felt. If you seek to understand the world, you could do well by understanding how it was before the Great War, how quckly and how much was destroyed during that war, and all that arose from the wreckage of that collapse. And 2) if people are given the choice between believing a comforting lie and believing a discomforting truth, they will pick the lie, every time. They will hold onto their belief in that lie until they are crushed – their men slaughtered, their women raped, their children enslaved, their cities burned and razed.

Reaping the whirlwind

“Any civilized person must react with horror to the human consequences of the catastrophe that befell the German people in the last months of the war. The battle for the Third Reich cost the lives of something like 400,000 Germans killed in ground fighting and by aerial bombardment in 1945 alone, together with anything up to two million who died in the flight from the east. Eight million became homeless refugees. Yet it is hard to conceive any less dreadful conclusion to the nightmare Hitler and his nation had precipitated. When the German people failed to depose their leader, when they made the choice, conscious or otherwise, to fight to the end, they condemned Germany to the fate which it suffered in the closing months of the Second World War.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

Blood and family

“Lieutenant Dorothy Beavers was one of a U.S. Army medical team dispatched to Ebensee. ‘Nothing had prepared us for the camps,’ she said. To their amazement, many of the inmates spoke English. These were highly educated Hungarian Jewish girls, reduced by lice and starvation to the last waystation before death. . . . As the nurses gently bathed them and treated their hurts, Dorothy Beavers was astonished to hear them describing pre-war trips to London, visits to the British Museum. ‘We discussed Shakespeare, Dante, Beethoven—and the food we’d prepare for the Jewish holidays.’ The nurse spent six weeks at Ebensee, administering plasma to men and women at the last extremities of life, carefully weaning them on to a liquid diet. ‘It was the greatest shock of my life, to see hay ladders jammed with bodies. It got to us all. After two weeks, we were just sitting around, staring into space.’ Medical teams began to arrive at the camp, to take away their own nationals. An Italian doctor turned up one day and asked: ‘Any Italians here?’ ‘Yeah, one guy,’ came back the answer, ‘but he’s dying.’ ‘If he is going to die,’ said the doctor passionately, ‘he is going to die with us.’ ” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

What happened

“Fourteen-year-old Erich Pusch, a fugitive who had lost his parents on the ice of the Frisches Haff, lay in a cellar in Danzig with his young brother and a dozen or so other terrified people, mostly women and children. The first Russian entered their refuge early on the morning of 31 March [1945]. The man demanded to know if there were any German soldiers present. Assured that there were none, he collected all watches and rings, then left. Young Erich put his head cautiously into the street to investigate, and saw some very young Russian soldiers standing around their tanks. Occasional shells were still exploding. fired by German naval guns. Erich returned to the cellar. They all sat in dread, awaiting the worst. The next Russians to arrive were very drunk. They took all the women into the adjoining room and raped them, amid hysterical pleas for mercy. Returning, the Russians noticed lying on the floor a young Russian PoW, who had lost a leg before his capture. One Red soldier bayoneted him and then, when the doomed man screamed, shot him. Every soldier in the Soviet armies had been thoroughly briefed that fellow countrymen who had surrendered to the fascists were traitors. The soldiers then demanded the shoes of everyone present, collected these in a bag, and departed. The women were left sobbing. Later that night, Mongolians came, and raped a fifteen-year-old girl. After that, successive waves of Russians appeared all night, bent on the same business. They ignored the old men and children, but raped the women repeatedly.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

Dead men tell no tales

“The testimony of Wehrmacht soldiers who survived the war is unrepresentative of the experience of Hitler’s forces fighting the Russians in the last weeks, because so many such men perished. The fate of some units, especially those of the Waffen SS, is lost in fire and smoke, because no witnesses remained to record their destruction. Significant numbers of young soldiers, children of the Third Reich, betrayed no interest in surviving its collapse. Any temptation to applaud their courage is undone by an understanding of its futility, and the depravity of the mindset which it reflected.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

Throw the little ones back

“At Rathau on the Aller, the CO of the 5th Royal Tanks advanced on foot to take a cautious look into the town before his tanks moved in. He encountered one of his own officers, a huge Welshman named John Gwilliam who later captained his country’s rugby team, ‘carrying a small German soldier by the scruff of his neck, not unlike a cat with a mouse.’ The colonel said: ‘Why not shoot him?’ Gwilliam replied in his mighty Welsh voice: ‘Oh no, sir. Much too small.’ ” – Max Hastings, Armageddon (emphasis in original)

The diminishment

“Medical research suggested that children aged between ten and fourteen suffered most from hunger. The average Dutch fourteen-year-old boy weighed forty-one kilos in 1940, but only thirty-seven kilos in 1945, and had become two centimetres shorter. Girls of the same age were a frightening seven kilos lighter and six centimetres shorter.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

Appearances and disappearances

“The courage of the Resisters was extraordinary. One day in January [1945], a Jewish mother and her two sons, desperate for food, went foraging from the house in Zeist where they had lived in precarious obscurity. They were detained by Germans who thought they appeared Jewish, and locked up in the local police station along with seven other Jews, until the SS could remove them. The father of the family sought the aid of the Resistance. Local fighters decided that a rescue attempt could be made, but that it must be carried out by men unknown by sight to the local police. A former policeman named Henry Idenburg enlisted the aid, willing or otherwise, of a Luftwaffe deserter whom the Resistance was hiding. A local garage owner agreed to turn a blind eye while a German truck he was repairing was ‘borrowed’ for an hour. On 23 January, the Luftwaffe corporal in his uniform accompanied Idenburg, in his old Dutch police uniform, to Zeist police station. They produced a forged demand for the prisoners, who were duly handed over and herded out to the truck amid appropriate shouts and abuse. When the truck halted in a forest near Driebergen, the traumatized Jewish prisoners were convinced that they were to be executed. Instead, they found themselves taken into hiding in a church until they could be removed to safe houses. They survived.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

The land of nightmares and death

“Gross Rosen was not a designated mass-murder establishment. Like many Nazi concentration camps, it was simply a place where people died, usually within six months. It was not a site for sophisticated medical experiments, but prisoners were sometimes used for cruder research, such as testing army boots by marching interminably around the compounds while carrying heavy loads. Wholesale killings took place only occasionally. One day when prisoners returned from the stone quarries, from the window of his barracks [prisoner Nikolai] Maslennikov saw a chain of wagons rattling past on the narrow-gauge railway to the crematorium, laden with women and children and old people. ‘The eyes of each bore a different expression,’ he said. ‘I have seen them in my dreams forever after.’ ” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

Teachable moment

“I was standing in the ruins of my house. My heart stood still. It was here that I lived with my wife and children in peace and comfort. Who is to blame for all this? The English? The Americans? Or the Nazis? Had a Hitler not come, there would have been no war. If the Nazis had not talked so big, or put on such a show, or done so much sabre-rattling, we would have peace with those who are our enemies today. Had we retained democracy in Germany, we would still be in accord with England and the United States. It was with those thoughts that I stood before my ruined home.” – Private Heinz Trammler, December 1, 1944 (quoted by Max Hastings in Armageddon)

The nuisance value of truth

“Every era has its dangerous ideas. For millennia, the monotheistic religions have persecuted countless heresies, together with nuisances from science such as geocentrism, biblical archeology, and the theory of evolution. We can be thankful that the punishments have changed from torture and mutilation to the canceling of grants and the writing of vituperative reviews. But intellectual intimidation, whether by sword or by pen, inevitably shapes the ideas that are taken seriously in a given era, and the rear-view mirror of history presents us with a warning.” – Steven Pinker, “In Defense of Dangerous Ideas”

Ain’t fakin’

“A British medical report concluded that ‘the act of going sick, of giving in, is an all-or-nothing phenomenon, and is damaging to the personality.’ Most men, it concluded, were less effective soldiers after returning to duty, as did more than 50 per cent. The same report observed the paradox that a soldier who ran away from the battlefield was treated as a criminal and harshly punished, while the man who reported sick with combat fatigue was sympathetically received. . . . The report noted that the problem seemed much smaller in the German Army, ‘though precipitating trauma was obviously greater.’ This was a polite way of suggesting that the German soldier, in defeat, was experiencing a tougher war than his Allied counterpart, on the road to victory. The report failed to remark on the small but obvious point, however, that suspected Wehrmacht malingerers were shot. Although combat fatigue was recognized only with the utmost reluctance by the German Army, and not at all in Stalin’s formations, there are no grounds for supposing that German or Russian soldiers were less afflicted by the shock of battle than men of other armies.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

Grim reapers reaping and reaped

“Posterity is bemused by the banality of Hitler and the coterie of gangsters who formed the leadership of the Third Reich. It is scarcely surprising that during the 1944-45 campaign they sought refuge in military and political fantasies, and committed themselves to a struggle to the end. Most tacitly acknowledged that their own lives were forfeit, and they were therefore indifferent to the fate of others. Through the last months of the war, many Nazi officials, Gestapo agents and SS men showed themselves eager to encompass the deaths of as many enemies of the Third Reich as possible before their own time came. . . . In the spring of 1945 there was a rush to kill surviving critics of National Socialism within the Nazis’ reach before they could be delivered by the Allies.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

Eradicated

“Many [German] civilians, even in areas such as East Prussia and Silesia, which now [October 1944] lay close to the Red Army, found it difficult to comprehend the notion that their entire world was on the verge of extinction, that the streets in which they shopped, the farms on which they milked cows, the communities in which they had lived their lives, would forever be destroyed within a matter of months.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

First things first

“When front-line soldiers escaped from imminent peril for a few hours, their desires were usually pathetically simple. Soldiers talk much about women, but on the battlefield their private cravings are seldom sexual. A British officer described his men’s priorities as ‘char, wad, flick and kip’—tea, food, a movie and sleep.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon

Potemkin empire

“It is remarkable that the Soviet command system functioned as well as it did, given the ideological resistance to truth which was fundamental to the Stalinist system. In war, telling the truth is essential not for moral reasons, but because no commander can direct a battle effectively unless his subordinates tell him what is happening: where they are, what resources they possess, whether they have attained or are likely to attain their objectives. Yet since 1917 the Soviet Union had created an edifice of self-deceit unrivalled in human history. The mythology of heroic tractor drivers, coal miners who fulfilled monthly production norms in days, collective farms which produced record harvests, was deemed essential to the self-belief of the state. On the battlefield, in some measure this perversion persisted. Propaganda wove tales of heroes who had performed fantastic and wholly fictitious feats against the fascists.” – Max Hastings, Armageddon