If Day

(Written in 2016 and never posted.)

Never heard of this before, a simulated violent Nazi takeover of Winnipeg, Canada on a wintry February day in 1942. If Day, they called it, and no one had to explain what the if meant. The Axis powers were winning the war in February of 1942–indeed, they had yet to peak, that would be later, in the summer–and the notion that the Blitzkrieg could reach far into Canada seemed unlikely, but not impossible. An even though everyone in town knew this was a simulated Nazi conquest, it must have creeped the hell out of them. The Canadian Air Force painted up planes in Nazi colors and markings and buzzed the city, even bombed, and an armored column of Wehrmacht soldiers defeated the local Canadian units and captured them. The city fell quickly, the SS came in shooting, and men in German uniforms patrolled the streets harassing and threatening people. Gestapo agents, fully armed and uniformed (the uniforms and Nazi accessories were borrowed from Hollywood film studios) arrested people, sometimes en masse (they carried off the mayor and city council), or singly off the sidewalk, and posters threatening death for all manner of infringements went up all over town. The radio stations were seized, the CBC broadcast martial Nazi music and Hitler’s speeches all day. The afternoon edition of the Winnipeg paper came out in German. The day culminated in a goose stepping Nazi victory parade. The idea was to spur the sale of victory bonds, and it worked better than the organizers could have imagined, Manitobans purchased $60 million (Canadian) in bonds by the end of the month—about one billion in 2016 American dollars.

Talk about performance art.


A little riffing on Le Pen and fascism and French history

The landslide defeat of Le Pen today is historically a big thing for France—it is perhaps the most decisive defeat that the peculiarly French form of the far right has suffered since World War 2. The electorate, presented with the movement’s most presentable package ever, utterly rejected it. This doesn’t mean it is going away. It never has gone away. Yet it was only actually in power once, during the Vichy years, 1940-44. Nowhere was the Nazi consolidation of their conquest easier than in France, where perhaps a third of the populace were pre-disposed to a fascist government already and where the Nazi occupiers found no shortage of talented civil servants to operate the French government and bureaucracy for them. The French took care of collecting victims of the Holocaust for the Germans, the French collected and shipped their own citizens off to work in German factories, the French even had their own Gestapo. It was as if there had been a fascist infrastructure sitting there in France awaiting a fascist takeover. Whether that takeover came from inside or outside (i.e., from Germany) was no matter to the French right. When France’s greatest living military hero, Philippe Petain, who’d saved the French Army from mutiny and collapse in 1917 and eventually led them in victory through Berlin a year later, agreed to lead France under Nazi domination it just signalled how profoundly fascist the nation had become. Perhaps half the county felt it their patriotic duty to follow Petain. Perhaps more. A little known factoid from the war is that most of the French soldiers rescued at Dunkirk as the Blitzkrieg closed in demanded to be returned after the French surrender to France to finish their service in the Vichy army. That Vichy was a fascist puppet state did not bother them. France was now allied with Nazi Germany and Germany was at war with England. Serving in the Free French forces under De Gaulle was seen by many and perhaps most French soldiers in 1940 as being unpatriotic. That changed as Nazi repression grew worse and Nazi demands for French manpower increased and as Nazi armies were defeated on battlefields. But in 1940 it was obvious that fascism had dug deep roots in the French national psyche. No other state the Nazis conquered rolled over as did France. No other subject people collaborated so. Reading the histories of those days is surreal. France had been enemies to the death with Germany in World War One. They died in unbelievable numbers defending France. Not now. The spirit of fascism had transformed the land in the years between the wars. Not everyone was a fascist, of course, but enough were to make it very uncomfortable for those who were not.

Apparently that spirit remains. It just wasn’t quite sure how widespread it is. We now know. About a third of the French electorate has fascist tendencies. Some of that third are powerfully fascist, some just ornery nationalist. Which is about what it was in the 1930’s. Things haven’t fundamentally changed at all. Perhaps the left’s retribution after liberation in 1944 had not been ferocious enough. Perhaps they should have hanged Petain, and shot tens of thousands more. Perhaps they should have thrown a million collaborators in re-education camps. Perhaps there should have been a purge worthy of the darkest days of the French Revolution. But they were a democracy. And democracies don’t do that sort of thing. Besides, that is what Vichy had been doing. They were the ones killing and torturing and exacting brutal revenge on political enemies for four long years. No one wanted to go through that again.

Which might be what doomed Le Pen’s party to defeat. No one wanted to go through life under a far right government again. The French right had power only once, from 1940-44, and only because an anti-democratic foreign regime forced itself upon it. Without Nazi Germany there never would have been a fascist government in France. And now in lieu of Hitler it was Putin trying to put the French hard right in charge. A lot of bad memories came rushing back, you could see it in the French press. A lot of talk about Vichy, and Petain, and how the French Right had once sold out the French people for the sake of its brutal ideology. And then all the talk of an aggressive foreign dictator–Putin–interfering in French domestic politics, again, just like the 1930’s, when German Nazis and French fascists were very close. Not that Le Pen and her platform were anything even close to Naziism, but it sure smelled funny. And familiar. Like those odd smells that suddenly bring back the past in powerful deja vu. It was all too much, and today the French voters kicked the French right to the curb. The threat is over for now.

Not that the French far right’s struggle is over. It is never over. In France the next Revolution is always just around the bend (there have been five Republics since the Revolution, and perhaps twice that many regime changes). You can dream big dreams in France, because politically just about anything seems within the realm of possibility. Le Pen’s party will retreat and reform, as there is always fertile ground in France for this fierce Francophile nationalism (remember how it once conquered Europe), and at the same time elements of the far right might well grow more radical, getting violent and militant and perhaps even paramilitary. None of this is new. It was a powerful far right/fascist coalition that did so much to weaken the French Third Republic as Nazi Germany grew into a mortal threat in the 1930’s. Of course back then the French Far Left, with some elements following orders from Stalin, was the right’s foil, and Left and Right battled in the streets even as both undermined the center. During the Vichy regime those street battles took on a much more vicious nature as the left formed the core of the French Resistance (the Maquis) and the right became the parts of the Gestapo’s police state (the Milice). Now that French hard Left and even its softer Left is pretty much spent (for now, anyway) as a political force, only anti-semitic fascism remains as a mass movement, deeply rooted radical ideology in France. That is what made Le Pen’s campaign so unsettling, that unlike Trump she did not come out of nowhere but was the leader of a generations old political party that represented at least a century and a half of French ideological history. German fascism had shallower roots in 1933, yet swept the country after a couple electoral victories. Were we seeing a repeat of that success in France?

Nope. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, more or less, came though.


Maréchal Pétain meets Adolf Hitler in October 1940. As low a point as there ever was in French history, it is also the high water mark of the French far right’s political power. You’d be hard pressed to find an entire political movement that ever betrayed its own country in such abject humiliation as did French conservatives after the French surrender in 1940. Not even Lenin turned his entire country over to the Germans in 1918 in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Hitler left the French with no pride whatsoever, and the French Right had no problem with the set up at all. Thus Marine Le Pen licking Putin’s jackboots was nothing new to those aware of the history of French fascism.

It was the best of times: the nostalgia of modern day fascism, a Dutch case history.

Geert Wilders, the headline said, the Donald Trump of the Netherlands who wants to lead his country of the European Union and shut the borders to Muslims. You see this a lot lately, countries have their own Donald Trumps. Yet Geert Wilders has been a player on the Dutch political stage for years, and the Netherlands has a political history that most European nations share but the United States doesn’t. We’ve had the KKK. But the KKK, even at its most vast in the 1920’s, was never a political movement in the sense of wanting to take over the reins of government. There has never been a hard right fascist movement in the US that amounted to more than a few hundred to a few thousand scattered weirdos in jack boots. But there is scarcely a nation in Europe that did not in the 1930’s have a militant movement of hardened fascists whose goal, whether through elections (as in Germany) or military coup (as in Spain) or revolution (as in Italy), was the fascist control and re-engineering of society. Most of them became willing participants in the Nazi regime once the Germans conquered or assimilated their countries. Other fascist movements–as in England and Switzerland–never got the chance before their leaders were imprisoned or interned by their government for the duration of the war. And still others–Spain, mainly, but also the fascist elements in Portugal–eschewed the Germans almost completely and survived fascism’s collapse in 1945. (However, Spain sent fifty thousand volunteers, the Blue Division, to the Russian front where nearly all fought to the death, paragons of the fascist warrior ideal, if about as un-Aryan as a European could be). The Dutch had a home grown nazi/fascist/national socialist movement before the war, a movement that was both well developed and well known by the late thirties, so well known, in fact, that Dutch nazis were the evil conspirators in Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent.

But things were moving so fast and on such a scale that all their dreams of a Dutch fascist empire seemed like schoolboy fantasies. Holland was too small. It hadn’t fought a war since the Battle of Waterloo. Twentieth century history was vast and sweeping and full of revolution and war and transformation. What was Holland but shopkeepers and chocolate and memories of greatness gone by? So man did those Dutch national socialists get excited when Hitler invaded Holland without warning in the spring of 1940. Yes, the Luftwaffe leveled Rotterdam, just to show that the Luftwaffe could level Rotterdam. But look at the upside. Now at last Dutch fascists could have their Greater Dutch Empire, including Belgium, the Belgian Congo, the Dutch East Indies, South Africa (they assumed Hitler would take it from the defeated English and give it to back the Dutch) and a few places in the western hemisphere even–Suriname, Curacao, Aruba and a smattering of other islands acquired in the sugar and slaves days. Even the Frisian Islands. It would be a global empire, with domains on four continents and hundreds of millions of subjects. No one would laugh at the Dutch then, with their wooden shoes and tulips and Bergen Op Zoom. They would be the rulers of a mighty fascist empire. Not even Germany, which in the mid thirties was still just a rump state of what had been Imperial Germany–had anything even remotely possible (it seemed at the time) on the scale of such a Dutch fascist empire. And who would lead this realm? Who was the mighty leader of which there were problems only he could fix?

It was to be Anton Mussert, the leader and co-founder of the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (National Socialist Movement) of Holland since 1931. Virtually every country in Europe had their little führer to be, Mussert was the Dutch version. But it was a fleeting fantasy. By 1939 it was obvious that Hitler’s Germany was no longer a rump state of anything, and Dutch fascists, if they wanted to avoid being a boil on Germany’s Nazi ass, better join with the Third Reich. The Nazi invasion was their deliverance, their moment, the end of history and beginning of the new era. Hitler, as he did with the local Nazis everywhere he conquered, put Mussert in charge and expected him to serve his new masters. He did, too. He was quite helpful when it came to rounding up Holland’s hundred thousand Jews, and even more helpful when the Nazis began plucking Dutch men off the streets to work in German war industries. He must have been annoying, though, as the Germans eventually stopped bothering with him, and by the time the Nazis were deliberately starving the Dutch in 1944 no one paid attention to Mussert at all. He said virtually nothing as his people starved–the Nazis kept him well fed–and one can only imagine the dread filling him as he watched the Allies advance. It all ended so fast. In 1940 Germany was the crest of the future of mankind, the Dutch included. By 1945 Nazi Germany was a leveled wasteland, destroyed, and the Nazis themselves on the run. The restored government Dutch government shot Mussert after the war, an afterthought, a footnote at best. They gave him a two day trial. I have no idea what he said in his own defense. I was just following orders wouldn’t have worked. Pride utterly gone, he begged the queen for clemency. She refused. He was executed by firing squad in 1946, in the same plaza where hundreds if Dutch had been executed (who knows how many by his direct order) during the war for violating some Nazi edict or another. If he had any last words, I couldn’t find them.

I have no idea if Anton Mussert is a hero to his new spawn. He certainly doesn’t look like a hero. He’s a balding, pudgy nebbish–pardon the Yiddish–in a silly uniform. Then again, people who look like complete schmucks can get elected president. It’s all a matter of perception. Perhaps people who think Geert Wilders is the most charismatic thing since Gouda cheese would be knocked off their feet by a shot of Anton Mussert giving the straight armed salute. I have no idea. It is very difficult to get into the mindset of these atavistic Nazi nostalgists.

Many of the new Dutch fascists (or however one says Alt-Right in Dutch) certainly do lionize the few ten thousand Dutch who joined the Waffen SS to wear groovy black uniforms with skulls and crossbones and swastikas to fight hard against Bolshevism and Jewry and commit inexplicable war crimes. Some of the surviving Dutch SS members were hanged or shot later too. Probably not enough, but some. Most of them were killed on the Russian front. Things were never easy at home either those five long years, 1940-45. I read somewhere that the Netherlands had more dead and killed residents per capita than any other country in Western Europe. War, Holocaust, famine and bombing took their toll. Denmark, another flat, small peace  loving democratic monarchy, had skated though the Nazi occupation relatively unscathed, even after saving almost every one of its Jewish residents from the Holocaust. But Holland was not Denmark. Holland was trashed, starved, bombed, and fought over. Thousands of its citizens were slaves in the German foreign workers program. It certainly was unable to save its Jewish population. Yet the Danes avoided all that horror without the need of  a quisling like Mussert. His being on a first name basis with Hitler did The Netherlands no good at all. He made a lot of those dead Dutch possible. That was brought up in his trial. I wish we knew what he uttered in is own defense.

Neither could The Dutch, unlike the equally humiliated French, take solace that their overseas empire was still in the fight. Because for the duration of the war in the Pacific (1942 to 1945) in the vast Dutch colonial domain known as the East Indies, the tens of thousands of Dutch soldiers and sailors and civilians and colonial administrators captured or interned by the Japanese died at a prodigious rate in Japanese camps. And millions of subject Indonesians were killed or worked or starved to death (about four million is the usual figure). The Asian Holocaust that took place within the Japanese Empire from 1937-45 was nearly as brutal as anything the Third Reich came up with, and sometimes more so, and only China saw more violence, murder and brutality under Japanese fascist occupation than did the Dutch East Indies. (The Philippines came in a close third). The Dutch were just as helpless in preventing any of it as they were back home in Holland. Afterward, the Indonesians learned that no matter how much they hated the Japanese, the Japanese had at least shown that Asians can defeat Europeans. Japanese arms had beat the Russians in 1905. Then even more stunningly, Japanese armies, navies and air forces in 1941 and 1942 routed the Americans in the Philippines, the English at Singapore, the French in Indochina (they just walked in and took the place, and the French let them) and most importantly from the Indonesian nationalist point of view, they easily routed the Dutch the length and breadth of the Dutch East Indies. So the Indonesians rose up and booted out the Netherlands colonial administration and the tens of thousands of Dutch soldiers sent to put down the rebellion. Japanese prisoners even pitched in (as they did in Indochina as well). Somehow the whole story has slipped from the public historical consciousness, but it was one of the great anti-colonial revolutions, and the Battle of Surabaya, even though the Dutch army (and navy and air force) won it tactically, it is one of the most decisive battles since World War Two, leading to the end of a great colonial empire. An army raised by small, brown skinned, colonial subjects, armed with as many modern weapons as they could get their hands on, nearly beat a modern European army. It did not go unnoticed throughout Asia. Indeed, perhaps the Indonesian Revolution will prove a key moment in world history, though we don’t know it yet.

Yet it is certainly a key moment of colonial liberation that is impossible to imagine without the context of the rise of fascism–a German fascism corrupting and conquering the Netherlands, and Japanese fascism seizing the East Indies. Holland as a colonial power was mortally wounded by the Japanese, as was Britain’s hold on India after the abject humiliation of their loss of Singapore. Fascism, though it failed, inflicted wounds on European colonial powers that bled their colonial empire to death within a few years. The Netherlands, Great Britain, France and Belgium were booted from Asia inside of a decade, and from Africa wiithin two. (Only Portugal, protected from the storm of Nazi revolution and total war by the neutrality of Spain, found its overseas empire unfazed.) That was the power of fascism, the lasting result of its nihilism and destruction. From 1931 to 1945 it was an existential threat to the world on a scale not seen since the Mongol invasions. It lost, totally, completely, nearly annihilated. But it left little fascist seeds scattered about, blown by the winds, and they seem to be germinating at last. Like Geert Wilders, for instance, the 21st century Anton Mussert, sans jackboots.

When you come down to it, weighing the good (shiny uniforms, getting to hang with Hitler) against the bad (murder, starvation, genocide, loss of empire and dignity), Dutch fascism turned out to be a complete disaster and abject humiliation for the Dutch people and Dutch state. And now a reborn Dutch fascism, a kinder, gentler fascism, seems to be returning, following the distinctly non-German playbook that Anton Mussert and his pals were so effective with for a while in the 1930’s. There is that musty haven’t-we-been-here-before feel in the sights and sounds and ideology of Geert Wilders. Nostalgia. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.


Anton Mussert

Winston Churchill on funding the arts

Perhaps you’ve seen this quote lately:

When Winston Churchill was asked to cuts arts funding in favor of the war effort, he simply replied “Then what are we fighting for?”

Alas, Winston Churchill never said that. I’ve heard various accounts of how it was he never said it–one blamed Kevin Bacon because he knows everybody–but Winston never said it. He so never said it I laughed the first time I read it because it seemed so ludicrous. For one thing Churchill would have starved his own grandmother to defeat Hitler. For another almost everyone artistic was drafted into the service or being used for the war effort in one way or the other (many of the young male leads you see in British war-era films had been wounded and discharged already.) Thirdly, England was in hock so deep to the United States even before we entered the war that it eventually had to sell off its empire to pay us back, so arts funding would have meant nothing compared to, say, India. And finally I wonder if most of Britain’s arts funding already came from the aristocracy. There were enough of them. Still are.

In a country that didn’t even have enough bomb shelters for its working class population, detouring scarce funds instead into the arts would have been a travesty. Those were different times, desperate times. We can’t even conceive how desperate. We should be thankful that we can have debates about arts funding. That’s an option of civilizations not facing annihilation.

However, Winston Churchill did once say that a man who blew the trumpet for his living would be glad to play the violin for his amusement. And I have never been able to figure out what the hell that means. But he was a painter, and you how they are.

Tokyo Rose

[2014. The offending list has since disappeared, incidentally.]

Sometimes you see something on the web that really bothers you. There was a time when you’d leave a comment, but comments sections are now sewers of hate and confusion and paranoia and worthless for anything but outrage and craziness. So instead you find out who’s in charge and send them an email, and more often than not the guy in charge reads it. So after seeing something I thought was totally wrong and unfair in an idiotic bit of clickbait on Answers.com, I emailed David Karandish, the CEO of Answers.com, and said this:

I know in the grand scheme of things it means nothing, but the answers.com piece 9 Notorious Traitors in History lists Iva Toguri D’Aquino aka Tokyo Rose in its sixth spot, between the fairly loathsome creatures Ezra Pound and Vidkun Quisling. Alas, it is a well known if tragic tale that D’Aquino was not only not a traitor but her treason trial was a travesty and she received a full presidential pardon in 1976. Even a cursory reading of her Wikipedia entry would have shown this, this paragraph in particular:

On January 15, 2006, the World War II Veterans Committee (sponsors of the Memorial Day Parade in Washington D.C. and the National World War II Memorial, the newest monument on the National Mall, citing “her indomitable spirit, love of country, and the example of courage she has given her fellow Americans”, awarded Toguri its annual Edward J. Herlihy Citizenship Award. According to one biographer, Toguri found it the most memorable day of her life.

As I said, in the grand scheme it means nothing, and I understand the pressures of coming up with content and clickbait and just how ephemeral this all is anyway, but still a couple ten thousand people who read your site’s essay will learn, again, that Tokyo Rose was a traitor. There was a time when history a few generations old was the realm of scholars, but no more. Now it’s in the hands of interns and amateurs and smartasses.


That was it. It means nothing, does nothing, matters not a bit. I know that. In fact it was a waste of a half hour and we only get so many half hours in life. But it made me feel a little better.
Iva Toguri served six years for treason, and was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford. Ford had served in the Pacific in the war, and had probably listened to Tokyo Rose every day.

Iva Toguri served six years for treason, and was later pardoned by President Gerald Ford. Ford had served in the Pacific in the war, and had probably listened to Tokyo Rose every day.


I think when English and Americans condemn France for its collaboration in World War 2–and I am not justifying the craven Vichy government–they forget one key point about themselves. And that is that unlike Britain and the USA, France was conquered, occupied, and then left in part a puppet state, a succession of events which they had no control over once the Germans had flanked their armies and left Paris, and France itself, essentially defenseless.  A simple miscalculation by the French high command–they had placed the left wing of their army, with most of their armored forces, too far forward to respond to the German blitz through the Ardennes–brought about military collapse. It was sudden and complete, even more sudden and complete than the defeat in 1871, and completely opposite the brutal slog of 1914-18. War like this didn’t even seem possible. The French–the government, the press, the labor leaders, the armed forces, the population–were stunned into cowed acquiescence. Cleverly, their Nazi conquerors offered employment and a future to all kinds of French citizens. The French were now subjects with a stake in the future of the Third Reich, a status not granted to the citizens of Poland, etc., who faced extermination by murder or starvation or endless chattel slavery.

The German occupation was helped along immeasurably by the presence of a very large pre-war fascist and extreme rightist movement in France. This was true across large parts of Europe (even the neutral Swiss arrested their own Nazi sympathizers just in case). These homegrown fascists were more than willing to take up leadership, administrative and policing roles in both Vichy France and German occupied France, as well as throughout the French colonial empire. It’s hard not to think of these French collaborators with a visceral disgust, even seventy five years later. Yet we’ve almost forgotten that there were fascist elements–and Stalinist elements–in Britain as well ready to take their place in their own Nazi occupation government should it come to be. Had Hitler’s planned Operation Sea Lion somehow succeeded in crossing the English Channel there can be little doubt that the virtually disarmed Britain (with nearly all the Royal Army’s equipment–cannon, tanks, machine guns, etc.–abandoned at Dunkirk) would have been conquered as easily as France. And that there would have been some degree of collaboration with Nazi occupation authorities in England (remember the film It Happened Here?) Would there have been the same degree of collaboration as in France? Hard to tell. The fascist movement was smaller in England, but it was not insignificant. Indeed, it included the former King Edward, then living in France as the Duke of Windsor, and who was quite chummy with Adolf Hitler as late as 1939. (The Nazis had big plans for Edward, but the British spirited him away to the Bahamas before the panzers reached him.) In France the suddenness of defeat made fascism seem irresistible, inevitable. It’s hard to see why England would have reacted any differently. And it’s not like the English would have had much choice. To refuse to collaborate was often the last decision one ever made.

For argument’s sake, and strictly theoretically speaking, let’s also assume that had Britain or France somehow been occupied by the Soviet Union, as were the Baltic States and eastern Poland in 1939, there would have been no shortage of collaborators either. The NKVD (Stalin’s vast secret police organization) had no problem finding local Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians to work for the Soviet occupation–even as the same NKVD was arresting, torturing, imprisoning, exiling or executing hundreds of thousands of the collaborators’ countrymen. Hitler or Stalin, it did not matter, there were quite literally millions of civilians, police and military the breadth of occupied Europe willing to join up (there were half a million “Germanic non-Germans” in the Waffen SS alone, though many of those were conscripts, and perhaps a million Russians assisted the Wehrmacht as soldiers or auxiliaries, if only to avoid starvation as prisoners of war). Had the US somehow been conquered by Hitler or Stalin there would have been no shortage of collaborators here either. It might seem immoral, ludicrous and inconceivable now, but in the 1930’s both fascism and Stalinist communism were seen as legitimate ideologies by a remarkable number of people. That became clear when the Spanish Civil War erupted and the intelligentsia and artistic communities across the western world began splitting into two camps. I am not sure now which side had more supporters, even in the U.S. In Hollywood there were rallies and star studded fundraisers on behalf of the fascists. Though it wasn’t so much fascism that drew these people, but anti-communism. By this point communism–then still more widely known as bolshevism–had terrified many. Remember that this was during Stalin’s purges and show trials, and after the appallingly brutal famine in the Ukraine (the Holodomor.) Bolshevism was not revolution like our own genteel (or so we remember it) American Revolution. This was a French Revolution gone utterly mad and evil. Thus Franco, wrapping himself in the anti-communist banner, received a surprising amount of support even among western intellectuals and bohemians, far more than we care to remember now. I mean Gertrude Stein? J.R.R. Tolkien?

On the other hand, the Spanish Republic’s supporters splintered immediately into liberals and socialists on the one hand and an ardent Stalinist bloc that in Spain actually purged the non-Stalinist Republicans, executing hundreds, sometimes right in the front lines. Stalin’s paranoia had an incredibly long reach. It is forgotten now that George Orwell himself, the voice in English of the anti-fascist Republican cause, barely escaped such an execution in Barcelona. Agents came to his hotel looking for he and his wife. They escaped to France, but just barely. (The film Land and Freedom vividly shows some of this madness.) Fascism, on the other hand, had an almost universal solidarity, it was a mailed fist. Meanwhile, and tragically, anti-fascism was splintering into every faction imaginable, and the hard line Stalinists saw everyone else on the left as an enemy to be subverted or destroyed before Stalin got around to defeating fascism. (In fact, Stalin’s plans to launch a surprise assault on Nazi Germany were sidelined by his decision to purge, torture and execute nearly all his generals instead.) Spain became a microcosm of what the rest of Europe would be in the 1940’s, with Nazis and locals willing to serve them, and Stalin’s agents and those willing to serve them. Somehow, though, both Hitler and Stalin failed to make permanent inroads in Spain. Although a division of Spanish volunteers served on the Russian Front–and after Franco withdrew them, a core of 3000 Spanish fascist fanatics refused to leave, fighting till the war’s end– Franco retained his independence and his nation’s neutrality, and the Spanish communists, once Franco was gone, became genuine democratic socialists. Unfortunately you can’t say the same for the rest of Europe. Fascism was ended only by Germany’s military defeat, otherwise it might still in charge now. And Stalinism–though somewhat mellowed with age– fell only when the Soviet Union imploded through economic failure. Neither showed any sign of ever going away on its own. There was a limitless supply of people in every occupied state willing to do their German or Russian master’s bidding, even if it meant shooting down their own kind in cold blood.

It’s as if the raw material of collaboration was there throughout the Western world just waiting for its moment. My father remembered being taken to beer halls when he was a boy by his father. The rooms were draped with Nazi flags and people listened to Hitler’s speeches on the shortwave and cheered lustily–and this was in Detroit, Michigan in 1940. In Europe of course it was far worse. Switzerland had to arrest politicians and military men who actively supported Hitler (though the head of the Nazi Party in Switzerland was assassinated by a Croatian Jew in Davos in 1936 in a rare and prescient act of resistance), while both Hungary and Romania were spared conquest by the Nazis because homegrown fascist movements had taken over the government. The cost of the more honorable alternative of resisting the Third Reich was all too vividly shown by Yugoslavia, which suffered through four years of appalling warfare and murderous oppression that killed nearly ten per cent of the pre-war population.

Collaboration made far too much sense for most people at the time. It would today as well. The Polish resistance–the Home Army–was 400,000 strong in 1944. The French resistance (before the Allies landed) had one quarter of that. France had a larger population than Poland and had one twelfth of the civilian losses of Poland. But the Germans had forbad Polish collaboration. The Poles were left with no alternative but resistance. If they were caught they were almost invariably killed, but they were going to starve or be worked to death anyway. But the French could choose to collaborate actively (by assisting the regime) or passively (by not assisting the resistance). In not resisting you would survive, perhaps even thrive. Your family would eat. Joining the resistance meant a strong likelihood of torture and/or death, perhaps extended to your family members and friends and neighbors. So most passively collaborated. It was the logical choice, collaboration. They had to think about their families. I am not being sarcastic here. Passive collaboration was the genuine logical choice for most Frenchmen. In terms of taking care of their own, it was the correct thing to do.

Unlike Britain, the USA or Switzerland, France had the misfortune to be conquered, and then the fortune to be handled fairly lightly by the Reich. The Danes, good Aryans that they were even if they despised the Germans, were occupied with even a lighter touch (while spiriting almost 100% of their Jews into Sweden and out of the reach of the Holocaust), but the French (the non-Jewish French, anyway) still did extremely well compared with the genocide against the Slavic Poles. It was the relatively mellow German occupation in France made collaboration possible. Even had a Polish fascist (and there were plenty of them pre-war) wanted to join the Nazis as so many French citizens did after the surrender in May of 1940, he wouldn’t have been accepted. (Recall Sophie’s Choice where Sophie’s father was a Polish fascist, yet she still was sent to a death camp.) Besides, the Nazis went through and slaughtered the Polish intelligentsia early in the occupation, thus in one stroke sparing Poland discussions like those about French collaborationist guilt. (As for their guilt in the Holocaust, that is another matter). But any Célines there may have been in the literary salons of Warsaw were quickly executed by the Nazi occupation authorities along side the patriots.

We can condemn the French–and all the other nationalities too–for collaborating. And we should. But we should also keep in mind that our own compatriots would have acted no better in the same circumstances. With a breath of fascism in the breeze today, it’ll be interesting to watch how people collaborate these next couple months of 2016 in the United States. We will be surprised, I suspect, at who switches sides, and how fast, and without blinking an eye.

Frankreich, Milizionär bewacht Widerstandskämpfer

A member of the French Milice (the Vichy military police) guarding captured (or arrested) members of the French resistance, June 21, 1944. Note the Hitler mustache….

Artistic license

I always get Céline and Ezra Pound confused, I said. I was being snide. You can be snide discussing Louis Ferdinand Céline and Ezra Pound. But I had to explain this time. How I’d only made that comparison because both were vicious anti-Semites and fascists. Céline was pro-Nazi (but not necessarily pro-Hitler) to the point of being a collaborator. The only thing that kept him from the firing squad–which he deserved–was his reputation as a writer. He was a seminal figure in Holocaust Denial as well. Just an evil bastard all around. Loathsome. Not that he cared what other people–aside, perhaps from his fellow collaborators–thought. The more one is hated, he said, the happier one is. I believe the Resistance had him marked for assassination but the war ended first and he became something for the liberated and restored judicial system. They let him go.

Ezra Pound was not much better, though unlike Céline at least he seemed to be certifiably mad. It probably saved him from the gallows. He spent the war in Mussolini’s employ, delivering viciously treasonous and unhinged anti-Semitic broadcasts. He was captured after the war by a literary-minded American officer. Bad luck. They kept him in a cage and he railed and ranted. The worm had turned.

But what writers they were, both of them. Pound one of the finest ever in the English language, certainly in American English. His stuff utterly mystifies me, I could spend years trying to crack it. It’s bare boned, gorgeous, magnificent. Céline was one of the greatest of French writers, we had nobody like him in American literature till Burroughs, who in fact idolized Céline. It’s weird how so many Americans took Céline to heart–but then the United States had never experienced a Nazi occupation. We could read his prose and separate the writer from the times, I suppose. (Ginsberg befriending him, though, remains a little hard to figure out.) I know that my rule has always been you have to separate the art from the asshole. I know a lot of literary types like to excuse Céline and Pound’s “excesses”, as if writers are different from you and me. But a war criminal is a war criminal. Some just write really well.

In his defense at his trial Céline composed Réponses aux accusations formulées contre moi par la justice française au titre de trahison et reproduites par la Police Judiciaire danoise au cours de mes interrogatoires, pendant mon incarcération 1945–1946 à Copenhague. You’ll find it in his canon, in English, titled Reply to Charges of Treason Made by the French Department of Justice. I’ve never seen it, though I’d love to, as its prose apparently swept the judges off their feet. He never served another day in jail. Céline should have hung but he wrote so well. Pound too. They hanged that hack Lord Haw Haw (real name William Joyce) even though his copy was nowhere near as vile as the spew that came from Pound’s pen and mouth during the war, nor as corrosive as any of Celine’s wartime pamphlets. But Céline got off with a one year sentence, suspended, and later an amnesty. Genius has its perks. Artistic license. The Americans, not so literary minded, were a little harsher on Pound, who was locked up in a psychiatric hospital for twelve years. Not that he was actually insane, he was just eccentric and vile and hypergraphically talented, yet weird enough to pass for a lunatic. He wrote The Pisan Cantos during his stay. Hot wind came from the marshes and death-chill from the mountains.

Lord Haw Haw, a lousy writer, received no mercy. His fellow Englishmen, who’d listened to him on Nazi radio every day till the end of the war, felt no pity. Nor did anyone clamber to save his scrawny neck as they had Pound’s and Céline’s. The sentence was death. May the swastika be raised from the dust! he yelled artlessly. His neck snapped seconds afterward.

The Nazis themselves had no soft spot for wayward intellectuals. Thus they tortured and shot without compunction one of the greatest historians of modern times, Marc Bloch. Though his influence is imperceptible in the United States, he had revolutionized the study of history when he co-founded (with Lucian Febvre) the Annales School of thought. Bloch and Lefebvre’s methods were to narrative history what Thucydides was to Homer. To the Nazis, however, Bloch was just another resistance member who wouldn’t talk. Not that they were unaware who he was. No mercy was shown despite his brilliance. Klaus Barbie himself is said to have tortured him. You can imagine their conversations. Yet Bloch still wouldn’t talk. Then, with the Americans already in France, Barbie had a squad take him into the courtyard of the Gestapo building and execute him. Vive La France! Bloch cried out. He was 57 and looked like a rumpled college professor. He’d been working on Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien. In English they titled it The Historian’s Craft, seeming to utterly miss the point. Bloch wrote his last pages in his cell. 

Barbie was finally caught in 1983. He’d been in Bolivia since the war, surrounded by like-minded Nazis while enchanting successive dictators. He helped to overthrow a democratically elected government or two, dealt in arms, taught torture. It was a good life. Then his luck ran out and he was extradited to France in chains. It was a huge trial, every day in the papers. The Butcher of Lyon, they called him. He had killed, either by his own hand or his own direct order, fourteen thousand people. Men and women. The elderly and children. Entire families. He never wrote anything that I know of, but he performed exquisitely painful tortures. He literally–not metaphorically–skinned men alive during interrogations. In an era of abundant state sanctioned sadists, Barbie stood out for the quality of his work. If pain were literature he was a Céline. If pain were poetry he was an Ezra Pound. He was that good.

The evidence against Barbie was overwhelming–the Germans kept accurate, detailed records of everything they did, no matter how horrible–and he was convicted of crimes against humanity, among them the killing of Marc Bloch. They threw him in jail for the rest of his life. That life lasted till 1991, when cancer ate up his insides and he died at aged 77 in agony and awfulness and alone. When I stand before the throne of God, he said, I shall be judged innocent. 

What a strange little essay this was. It just gushed out while I was watching Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis, you know, he can do that. I saw a photo of his headstone once. A Greek friend translated it for me. I don’t hope for anything, it read, I don’t fear anything. I’m free.

Horses were not an option because the Wehrmacht ate them.


Being dull, I spend a lot of time that could be spent watching the Weather Channel instead watching (or listening, actually) to lectures online. Science and history, for the most part. Arcane, big words, hopelessly obscure, badly rendered power points, that kind of thing. On the Weather Channel the meteorologist babe had legs to die for, but on my computer a guy was going on about the Wehrmacht. I kept listening. He said it was a mess, that Wehrmacht, nothing like you see on Combat! In 1942 their reconnaissance units had run out of motorcycles–those nifty sidecar things Vic Morrow is always ducking from on Combat!–because the motors had all frozen, seized, and self-destructed in the Russian winter. Horses were not an option because the Wehrmacht ate them. So they gave the reconnaissance units bicycles. Bicycles. Blitzkrieg with a low carbon bootprint.

The lecturer, Dr. Robert Citino, is a smartass (“cheeky” doesn’t quite cut it) who is one of America’s leading experts on things German and military, apparently. A fascinating talker. The perfect blend of details and anecdotes, the personal and the whole picture. He knows his scheiss, and he’s funny as hell, too. Weird even:
“….my book on the Russian campaign in 1942, which I will attempt to explain without the use of maps–I will ask several people in the front row to come up and pretend to be various terrain features, if you wouldn’t mind….”

The room full of cadets laughs nervously. Especially the plebes.

It turns out that the German generals weren’t as smart as their uniforms. Flipping through the comments below the video, his describing the Wehrmacht command as often stupid is not going over well. And we’re not even talking Wehrmacht involvement in war crimes, he adds. That’s another lecture. Actually I just saw another lecture on just that. The lecturer, Dr. Geoffrey Megargee, a tad cheeky himself, was an expert on the Holocaust on the Eastern Front. Einsatzgruppen, etc. Army involvement in genocidal war crimes was pervasive, he said. The Nuremberg Trials found commanders-in-chief Keitel and Jodl guilty of crimes against humanity, but could have carried those war crimes trials down to dozens of army and even corps level commanders too. And hanged them all, he added. It was a startling afterthought, and off topic–he was discussing the German general staff–but it was obvious even in this purely academic setting how much he hated Nazis. You don’t hang the people you love. The YouTube Neo-Nazis hated him back.

And now the Nazis really hate this funny Wehrmacht expert guy too. Amazing how many Nazis there are on YouTube. Apparently Dr. Citino is a Jew loving stooge. Or is a Jew himself. He’s Italian someone pointed out. He’s from Cleveland, but his people came from Sicily. Then he’s a race traitor too, a Nazi added. Another pointed out that Italians were not Aryans, and stabbed the Reich in the back. Others jumped in, trashing all things Nazi. A strange sort of alternative reality melee erupts, refighting the war in catty comments. Meanwhile the professor is saying how a magazine asked him to list the ten best German generals on World War Two. It was kind of absurd, he said, like picking out the ten best heavy metal guitar players. More laughter. This time the plebes join in. Apparently air guitar is not a West Point hazing ritual.

Later I’m in the car and flip on the radio and it’s Highway Star by Deep Purple. Richie Blackmore is laying out his solo with heavy metal perfection. Erich Von Manstein, I think to myself, definitely.

Operation Bagration

June 22, 2014 will be the 70th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Bagration, when the Russians broke the back of the mighty Wehrmacht, the German army. It’s not very well known in the West, partly due to the drama of D-Day, partly because of the Cold War and perhaps mainly because until perestroika the records of the Red Army were inaccessible to historians outside the USSR. But it’s well known to Germans. More of them were left there than on any other field with the possible exception of the Stalingrad campaign. Bagration was the most massive defeat ever inflicted on the Wehrmacht, the most massive success ever achieved by Russia’s Red Army, and probably the most underappreciated war changing event of WW2.

Military history isn’t easy to understand. It’s complicated, the terminology difficult, the concepts counter-intuitive. Plus people get killed. Sometimes lots and lots of people, and you can see why that bothers the average reader. So basically it’s difficult to comprehend for the vast majority of people because there’s no way to visualize it without being confused or grossed out. So let’s picture it this way. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are teams in the National Football League. It’s been a rough game. The Germans blitzed the Russians in the first quarter. The Russians held their own in the second and scored big as the clock ran out. The third quarter was a brutal slugfest but the Russians wound up dominating the field. In the fourth, after the kickoff the two teams met at the fifty yard line. The Nazis misread the Russian signals, the ball was snapped, there was a cloud of dust, and the only German players left standing were running for their lives towards their own end zone. That play was Operation Bagration.


Russian infantry aboard T-34 tanks approaching German positions somewhere in Belarus during Operation Bagration.

The Russians managed a surprise attack along a front of several hundred miles–the entire central portion of the Russian Front, what the Germans had designated as their Army Group Center–and blitzed through with remarkable speed. The Red Army achieved massive superiority wherever they attacked (ten Russian tanks to every one German tank, for example) and the German army units facing them were annihilated. Many divisions were completely destroyed. Nearly all the rest were reduced to remnants. Vehicles–from Tiger tanks to trucks to horse carts–were destroyed or abandoned.  There are stunning photos of roads littered with equipment that had been left pell mell as the retreating columns were overrun by Russian tanks and blown apart by waves of Russian aircraft, like negatives of photographs taken on the same roads in 1941.

Destroyed German column

Destroyed German column in Belarus, 1944

Indeed by 1944 the Russians had such control of the skies on the Russian Front that German units could move only by night, and in June the darkness lasted only a few hours, leaving the retreating Germans visible for twenty hours a day. The Russian air force was merciless. Tank busting Sturmovik ground attack aircraft destroyed German vehicles by the hundreds. And then behind German lines in the woods and marshes were hundreds of thousands of partisans, organized, well armed and devastatingly effective. Between the Red Army, Red Air Force and the partisans, the Germans were under assault by Russian forces on all sides, front, flank, rear, from above and even from inside, where partisans popped up out nowhere.

Russian partisans behind German lines somewhere.

Russian partisans.

Some of the German forces took refuge in towns and cities, giving them some respite from tanks, planes and partisans, but trapping them far behind the advancing Russian armies. They either surrendered–fifty thousand were taken at Minsk–or were destroyed by Russian infantry and artillery in vicious urban conflict. Among the units making their escape west, the renowned German military discipline often disintegrated, turning a thorough defeat into a panicky rout. The degree of the collapse is borne out by the losses among general officers–never before had so many German generals–thirty one of Army Group Center’s forty seven division and corps commanders–been killed or captured in one campaign. Three weeks into the offensive a triumphant Stalin had those fifty thousand German prisoners from Minsk paraded, twenty abreast, through Red Square. The humiliation must have been total, even surreal. Afterward the streets where they’d marched were washed down, an insult if there ever was one.

German prisoners paraded through Moscow, July 17, 1944.

German prisoners paraded through Moscow, July 17, 1944.

Those prisoners were but a fraction, though, of the German losses throughout the offensive. In a two month period, from June 22 though August, a half million German soldiers of Army Group Center were lost–killed, captured, wounded. That is a loss of fifty percent. And the damage went deep. When divisions surrendered en masse, and when Russian tanks overran rear areas, officers, non-coms, specialists, skilled mechanics, logistics experts, administrators, instructors, and medical personnel were killed or captured. The bones and sinew of a military machine, lost forever. You can’t replace those people with 17 year old conscripts. Conscripts don’t know anything, and the people who would have taught them were dead or being paraded through Red Square.

Looking at the Warsaw Rebellion from the far bank of the Vistula.

Watching the Warsaw Rebellion from the far bank of the Vistula.

The Russian offensive ran out of steam two months later outside Warsaw, hundreds of miles west of where it started. Russian casualties (as always) had been high, the soldiers were exhausted, tanks worn out, supply lines over reached. The Red Army units settled down on the eastern bank of the Vistula river to regroup and rest and rearm. It had reconquered all of Belarus–left utterly ruined by the Nazi administration and the retreating Wehrmacht, evoking promises of revenge by the Red Army–and half of Poland. That’s a lot of Lebensraum. To the south the Balkan front caved in throughout autumn all the way to Hungary. And in the west, the Allied forces at last broke into the open and virtually annihilated another German army, the survivors running till they reached the German border and dug in. Meanwhile in Prussia an attempt was made on Hitler’s life (Operation Valkyrie they called it) by Wehrmacht officers who could read the writing on the wall. It failed. Retribution was savage. And in Warsaw Stalin let the Nazis put down the rebellion by the Polish Home Army. The Russians watched it all from across the Vistula. It would have been so easy to intervene, but Stalin had no use for the Poles in charge. He had his own plans for Poland. The Germans leveled Warsaw block by block, adding it to the long list of cities utterly destroyed during Operation Bagration. Nazi nihilism and Soviet realpolitik came together that summer on the banks of the Vistula. But Warsaw, like Valkyrie, was only a sideshow.

Replacements for the Eastern front, November, 1944.

Replacements for the Eastern front, November, 1944.

After Operation Bagration Hitler no longer had any way to prevent the Russians from conquering Germany. It was simply a matter of time. So it’s a lucky thing for the western allies that we did land on June 6. Luckier still that we broke out of Normandy when we did and in such spectacular fashion. We’d been bogged down in the hedgerows while the Russians were moving twenty miles a day through the German armies. It is said–you heard it over and over this past June 6–that D-Day was the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. It wasn’t. The beginning of the end was June 22 in Belarus. We helped. Operation Overlord was hard fought, costly, and in the long run, a decisive Allied victory and complete humiliation for the German Army in France. But in terms of scale, Operation Bagration, like everything on the Russian Front, was much larger, the fighting more violent, the destruction more total, the losses much larger. It was war on a scale that matched all the other theatres of WW2 put together. When two giant totalitarian civilizations fight to the death, everything else pales. And with Operation Bagration the Soviets delivered the mortal wound. The Reich would survive ten more months, and would even manage one last offensive in the west, the Battle of the Bulge, and attempt one disastrously around Budapest, but they were the thrashings of a dying animal.

German soldiers, somewhere on the eastern front 1944-45, captured by Russian soldiers and stripped of their boots.

Young German POWs in 1944-45, stripped of their boots by their Russian captors. Military age had dropped to fourteen after the losses in Operation Bagration, and uniforms weren’t always to be had.

I say it was lucky for the Allies that we landed when we did because I think the real significance of the Normandy invasion was that it put the western democracies back on the continent. And just in time. After Bagration the Third Reich was effectively over, it was just a matter of when. It still functioned as a state, the Final Solution roared full blast, and it kept churning out cannon fodder (another million of whom died, mostly in Poland and the eastern provinces of Germany), but there was absolutely nothing the Germans could do that would keep the Red Army from rolling all the way to the Rhine. Even if Overlord had never happened and all the panzer divisions and Waffen SS and veteran infantry units in France had been transferred east, the Russians would only have been delayed. Perhaps the remnants of Army Group North trapped on Latvia’s Courland Peninsula till the end of the war would have managed to escape before the Red Army reached the Baltic and cut them off. Perhaps East Prussia and Silesia could have held out a little longer. Perhaps.

Some of the Red Army's several thousand Katyusha Rocket launchers pounding German positions on July 22. Thirty thousand guns opened fire on the front lines of Army Group Center for two hours before the infantry and tanks joined in.

Some of the Red Army’s several thousand Katyusha rocket launchers pounding German positions on July 22. Thirty thousand guns bombarded the front lines of Army Group Center for two hours, before Red Army infantry and tanks went in for the kill. German survivors remembered it as the most terrifying barrage of the entire war.

But at most that would have delayed the Russians two or three months. The remaining German armies in the East–full of old men and Hitler Youth armed with rifles captured from the Belgians and French and Dutch and whomever–were just stopgaps. In January of 1945 the Red Army rolled from Warsaw to the outskirts of Berlin, annihilating another German army group. In April they attacked again, taking Berlin and stopping only when they came into contact with the Western Allies—the American, British, French, and Canadian armies pushing east as fast as the autobahns could carry them. It was only then that Germany surrendered. But Germany would not have surrendered after the fall of Berlin had the western allies not been on the continent, or more realistically had we invaded later in the summer or early autumn and still been fighting in France. Hitler would not have shot himself in the Fuhrerbunker, not with all his wonder weapons and fantasies and SS and Hitler Youth fanatics. He would have had Himmler and Goebbels and Goering and Bormann and all the rest with him, he would have had Speer to keep the last factories running, and V-2 rockets and ME262 jet fighters, and some excellent generals. They would have put together one last rag tag line west of Berlin to defend the string of bombed out cities, concentration camps, frightened people, slave laborers, and Nazi officials that made up the Third Reich. And then the Russians would have utterly destroyed that line in the middle of summer and pushed on to the Rhine. All of Germany would have been under Stalin’s control, one big German Democratic Republic. That is something to wonder about. East Germany went from Nazism to Stalinism almost instantly…it proved a far easier transition than denazification and democracy. Would it have been the same though out a united Germany under Soviet control? We had to build up West Germany’s institutions from the ground up. In East Germany all they did was change the name on the door.

Geman Panzers IVs with crews in a vision of unimaginable violence.

German Panzers IVs with silent crews in a vision of unimaginable violence.  Atop the tank, a Russian soldier.

Seventy years later all that remains of Hitler’s empire in the east are the dead. The Russian dead fill graveyards by the millions, soldiers, civilians, entire populations of Jews. There are also hundreds of thousands of German soldiers buried in cemeteries in the former Soviet Union. That’s remarkably decent of the Russians, considering. Belarus hasn’t been quite so forgiving. Nazi rule was especially brutal there. A quarter, maybe even a third of the population died. Virtually all the Jews were murdered. Nearly half of the population forced from their homes. Nine thousand villages reduced to scorched earth. If you had to pick one land where the Third Reich reached its zenith of barbarity, that place would be Belarus (with Poland a close second). Even so, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers’ remains have been located and disinterred and reburied. Some go home. Some go to cemeteries established in Russia just for German war dead. And they find another forty thousand a year. It’s all done quietly, no parades, no speeches. The authorities in Minsk say they know the whereabouts of another hundred thousand or so German remains. The vast majority would have died during Operation Bagration. Belarus must be thick with them. They must litter the forest, those German bones. I suppose they must be buried. Loose bones seem to make us nervous, no matter what side they were once on.

Operation Bagration. The Russians in red, the Germans blue.


Victory Day

An abandoned German Panther tank in Belarus after Operation Bagration.

An abandoned German panzer in Belarus.



I’m writing this on May 9th, which is Victory Day in Russia, and in the Ukraine and Belarus and throughout the former Soviet Union. Today is the day that, in 1945, what was left of the Third Reich surrendered. For the peoples of what was then the Soviet Union, it commemorates their victory over the Evil Empire that set out to annihilate them and failed. The victory was total, the cost unimaginable. Millions and millions of people, tens of thousand of villages, millions of homes, all gone. Most of their major urban areas utterly wrecked. Russia lost about 13% of its people, dead. The Ukraine about 16%. Belarus 25%. Photos of Moscow and Leningrad right after the war show boys and old men and not many in between. It took the Soviet Union thirty years to reach its pre-war population levels. And those are just the dead. Not the scarred or shattered or simply stunned. Not the scared. Just those who would never know how it all came out in the end. But it ended well, you wish you could tell them. The good guys won. The greatest victory in the greatest war of all time. The greatest of everything. The most mammoth human undertaking of all time, the Russo-German War.

No one ever thinks of it like that, but it was. It was actually one of the most extraordinary creations of humankind. It was the largest enterprise humans have ever carried out. Virtually none of it was driven by anything other than military necessity or totalitarian whim. The Russo-German War was also the most destructive enterprise ever, even within the context of a world war. Nothing else comes close. It probably consumed materials at a rate never surpassed. And the only thing that has ever surpassed it for sheer man killing was probably one of the plagues. The plagues inadvertently unleashed by conquistadores that swept the Americas, maybe, or those brought by Mongols from China that devastated late medieval Europe. Those pestilences took their sweet time, though, they lolled about, spreading death in successive waves. But the Russo-German War got all its killing done in a three years and eleven months. Lumped together the German, Soviet and Jewish dead and come out with ghastly averages that someone calculated. A little over 600,000 dead a month, averaged out. You can break that down by week and day. Even by hour. 826 people–soldiers, civilians–died every hour on the Eastern Front. Fourteen a minute. Every four seconds someone died, mathematically speaking. In reality, though, death came with no respect for averages. A shell cut clean through a half track at Kursk, decapitating all eight men aboard instantly. That screws up the average right there. Figure in the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff with its complement of 9,400 refugees dead in less than an hour, or the 34,000 Jews (33,771 to be exact, as Einsatzgruppen totals always were) murdered at Babi Yar in two days, or the 157,593 Red Army soldiers executed for cowardice–generally meaning they retreated–in the first year of the war (which is close to half of the total US dead from all causes in all of World War 2) and it becomes apparent just how screwy those averages are. There were days or even hours of mass carnage, and doubtless there were midwinter days so cold that fighting virtually stopped across wide stretches of the front and the only dead were those who froze to death.

You’ll notice how none of that sunk in, not even with me and I wrote it. The problem with trying to write about the Russo-German War is that the scale of awfulness was so vast it’s nearly impossible to conceptualize. A list of numbers with lots and lots of zeros. For instance, there were 70,000 villages destroyed. Try and visualize that. We can’t. We can’t visualize thirty million corpses either, let alone thirty million funerals. Though who knows how many funerals there actually were. In Leningrad the frozen dead filled warehouses to the eaves. You can walk though a wood in Belarus and the bones lie bleached under dead leaves. A child in Volgograd (née Stalingrad) picks up an old grenade and joins them even now. So many dead. Numberless numbers. The prayers for the dead must have numbered in the billions. An infinity of tears, sighs and shrugs. Numbers fail. They fail me now, fail you reading this. They certainly fail the dead.

If numbers fail, words don’t. Some of those dead left diaries. Some letters. Some, being Russian, wrote poetry. Nicolai Mayorov explained that

It’s not for us to calmly rot in graves.
We’ll lie stretched out in our half-open coffins
And hear before the dawn the cannon coughing,
The regimental bugle calling gruffly
From highways which we trod, our land to save.

We know by heart all rules and regulations.
What’s death to us? A thing that we despise.
Lined up in graves, our dead detachment lies
Awaiting orders. And let generations
To come, when talking of the dead, be wise;
Dead men have ears and eyes for truth and lies.

Alas, he lay stretched out soon enough, near Smolensk. I know nothing of the circumstances, or even when, just that he died somehow in fighting around Smolensk. He might have been blown up by a mortar or cut down by a machine gun. Perhaps he stepped on a mine. Or froze to death. Or was the unlucky tenth man in a unit punished through decimation (and thus, by pure chance, would be one of those 157,593 executed for cowardice.) Whatever. It just seems all the more random because he wrote such beautiful verse. His was an ending that would have mystified Alexander Artemov, who wrote (in a rough translation)

I cannot understand the people fighting
And I feel pity for the soldiers shot.
Sometime we all will die, and it is frightening,
But why make someone’s long life so short?
I hope for the justice on the planet, I hope for the peaceful quiet life.
The world can’t any more be violent, can it?

But it could, and he was killed soon afterward somewhere on the front. Meanwhile, down on the shore of the Black Sea, the brilliant Vsevolod Bagritsky wrote

We rose at dawn,
When night crept close to day.
The wind that blew was fresh and light
and fitful,
A little briny and a little bitter

like there was no war at all. But there was, it was Odessa in 1941, where “homes go up in flames and topple to the ground”, and even though young Vsevolod swore a stanza later that they’ll not surrender the city, ever, they did. It was only a poem. A beautiful poem, even in translation, but just a poem nonetheless. War trumped verse every time. He could always write another. Or could have, had a sniper’s bullet not taken him, pen in hand, outside Leningrad. Another long life cut short. Literary immortality is a cold comfort. Given the choice between surviving the war or having people write essays about your brilliant flame being snuffed out mid-verse, it’s unlikely that Vsevolod Bagritsky would be too thrilled about me writing these lines about him now, not this way. No one wants to be a tragedy. A martyr, maybe, but was there even a need for martyrs when people are dying at a rate of 600,000 a month?  The dead were just ciphers, one of the averages that, with the dead laid end to end, would circle the world two times. Or back and forth across the length of the Soviet Union six times. Or stacked 5,700 miles high.*

Again the numbers fail me in their sheer vastness and I look to words instead. To the war poets. Like how we remember the poems of World War One–Wilfred Owen‘s Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, as under a green sea, I saw him drowning–to put us right in the trenches and feel what they felt. Russian war poems do the same. More than all the numbers, more even than all the often stunning footage in all the documentaries on television, the verses of the Russian poets give us an inkling of what the Russo-German War truly was. The numbers provide scale, but the words give us sensations, emotions, images, thoughts. Thoughts often–too often–of men who never made it to Victory Day. They are a race of poets, the Russians, a civilization madly in love with words. During the siege of Leningrad poets read their verse into microphones and the words emanated from omnipresent speakers all across the starving city. Even the Germans could hear it from their trenches. Fifty years later survivors of the siege could still recite the lines they’d heard floating above the frozen streets. They remembered corpses on the pavement and words in the air.

Yet what bothers me, somehow, are the unknown poems that were written in those years. Ones you don’t see in anthologies or posted on websites. How many are there, thousands? Do they fill old letters home? And if so, what do the poems talk about? Can you see what their authors saw? Hear what they heard? And then, even more unknowable, how many of these poems were composed but never put to paper? More thousands? The thought of it stops me cold. Unknown lines snuffed out by the crack of a sniper’s rifle. Back to numbers again. I keep going back to numbers. 20 million dead equals x number of poems never written. Lines dreamed up but never spoken. I wonder just how many poems blew wordlessly over Russian fields.

Victory Day has meaning. It’s not just a holiday. Not just fireworks. It’s something a dead poet had put into words but never finished, and we’ll never know what that was. He’s just bones now, and the words just air.

Victory Day

Victory Day

Photo by Aleksandr Petrosyan.

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