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 2,500 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.

Notes: Continue reading


In 1943, in their last successful offensive operation of the war, the Germans seized the Dodecanese Islands (off the coast of Turkey) from the surrendering Italians. There was a marginal military value in the islands, perhaps, if only to drive off the British who attempted to beat them to it (the Guns of Navarone is about this campaign). But one of the primary reasons the Germans were so determined to take the Dodecanese was that the Italians had refused to deport the several thousand Jews–Ladino speakers, originally from medieval Spain–to German death camps. The SS came in right behind the troops the troops and as soon as fighting was completed (the Brits were licked, their last complete fiasco of the war), preparations were made to collect all the Jews, seize their valuables, and transport them to Auschwitz. Upon arrival nearly all were immediately gassed. One of the oldest Jewish communities in existence was exterminated in the time it takes to take a shower.

The Germans left a force of five thousand soldiers on the strategically useless (but Judenrein) islands where they remained till the end of the war, doing nothing. But they were an afterthought anyway. Basically the Nazis launched an offensive at high risk in an area they didn’t need just so they could exterminate its Jews. Keep in mind that the Allies were already landing in nearby Italy and the Wehrmacht was desperately in need of help there, but killing the Jews came first. The Nazi regime was committed to the annihilation of all eleven million European Jews, and none, not even a few thousand on some islands in the remotest corner of the Reich, would escape if Himmler’s bureaucrats could get there to arrange the logistics.

I think you need to read some of the recent scholarship on the Nazi state to appreciate the uniqueness of it as a genocide machine. It’s primary function once the Holocaust began was the annihilation of the Jews. That was virtually the Nazi raison d’etre, and was such an obsession that it trumped more existential needs, such as defending the nation from the Russian army. Obviously the Nazis were human, and humans can do terrible things, but were not talking about the Nazis as people, those sad frail things in the docket at Nuremberg. We’re talking about them organized into a vast killing machine. There are some states that go far, far beyond being merely human to the point where they are an actual threat to humanity itself.

The Nazis are like the Mongols, another state that engaged in deliberate genocide on a scale unfathomable now. Western civilization as we know it, built upon the structure of the Roman Empire, only survived the Mongols because the Mongols had never updated their leadership succession process from the days of the small tribe. When Genghis’ heir Ögedei died suddenly in 1241, his general Subutai–perhaps the most brilliantly successful military leader in all history–had to ride from Germany to Karakoram deep in Mongolia. He called off the planned offensive that would have annihilated all the armies and leadership in his way all the way to the Atlantic. Spain would have followed soon afterward. Italy too. England would have been an easy catch. Scandinavia? The Mediterranean? Had Ögedei lived another ten years all Europe would have been under a similar yoke as Russia. As it was another brilliant Mongol leader, Batu Khan was set to conquer Europe in 1255 when he died. After that the Mongols turned to China, the Middle East and India, all of them vastly more wealthy than Western Europe. Europe was spared and western civilization as we know it survived. It’s little realized now just how close it came to destruction, and how it was sheer luck that saved us. Had either Ögedei or Batu Khan lived a decade longer, the flowering of medieval civilization, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment would never have happened. The west was actually already terribly weakened by that time, pushed into a corner of Europe, impoverished, stalled, its economy shrinking, its intellectual output meager, one more Mongol push could have finished it off. There was nothing inevitable in our rise to world domination.

And the west faced nothing even remotely like that again until the Third Reich. And while the Nazis never came that close, were never on the verge of snuffing out western civilization (though they dreamed of it) world conquest was only their secondary aim–annihilating Jews was their first goal. They stated this over and over, even on Hitler’s last day he spoke of it, as did Goebbels as Hitler’s corpse burned. And The Nazis were remarkably successful at it, virtually destroying one of the world’s oldest civilizations, that of the European Jews. And remember what it took to stop the incredibly efficient Nazi killing machine–their own outright annihilation as an entity. It had to be completely destroyed. The genocide machine was so automated that is kept operating right up until the end. Even as Soviet armies advanced to the walls of Chelmno in January, 1945, the SS methodically executed every single Jew on the grounds, dispensed with the bodies–a bone crushing machine, the Knochenmühle, helped speed along the process–and destroyed all the records because the SS was fully aware that the genocide of the Jews was a crime. Indeed, they’d known that all along, so that only within the legal system of Germany was killing Jews legal. It was a genocide of extraordinary efficiency, even banality. It was automated, bureaucratized. The killers had sick leave and benefits, they took vacations and got together for company dinners. Corruption was looked down upon–Auschwitz’s first commandant was tried and executed for pilfering–and there are mountains of memos. The SS, and in particular the RSHA, contained the best and the brightest, and it used all of the most modern organizational, technological and “best practices” of its day to carry out its mission.

This was not blood lust, this Holocaust. It was not even race hate as we think of it here–these men often expressed pity for the Jews–it was the very essence of modern civilization repurposed for the annihilation of Jews. You can find comments in the reports of Ensatzkommandos that the SS were often appalled at the Lithuanians and Ukrainians and others who pitched in to help round up and slaughter Jews. They were so unscientific, so full of hate. So murderous. But for the Nazis this wasn’t about murder. This was about removing what they considered a dangerous parasite from humanity, the Jew. It was a duty to be performed methodically, without emotion. There was no need for human feelings on the matter. The SS knew it was not easy for a civilized German to engage in such mass murder. Himmler gave pep talks to that effect. It is something that had to be done. It was race science, not lynching. It’s procedure. You can see that in the bored looks on the faces of SS men watching the Last Jew at Vinnitsa being murdered. 28,000 is a lot of Jews, not bad for a day’s work, let’s write up our status reports and call it a day. And that’s what they did.

To me that is what singles the Holocaust out. It was not people killing people, it was the processes of modern civilization exterminating people. It was best practices. It was some of the most intelligent people in one of the most intellectually advanced states on Earth, committing mass murder on a deliberate scale not seen since the Mongols in volume, organization, logic and efficiency. Indeed, the members of the Einsatzgruppen were for the most ardent Nazis what members of the Peace Corps were in our time, idealists out to improve humanity. That is how they saw themselves.

When you downplay that, downplay this genocide, comparing it to just another horrendous human tragedy, I think you lose sight of the truly awful nature of the Holocaust. That is wasn’t hate that drove it, it was logic. And that goes to the very core of western civilization. We are a civilization that prides itself on our science and logic. We make fun of superstitions, we increasingly condemn religion. Logic, we think, separates us from barbarism. And yet logic was behind the Holocaust. Just as logic was behind the eugenics movement that was quite the rage in pre-war intellectual circles through Europe and the US. George Bernard Shaw was an advocate of eugenics. George Bernard Shaw. Think of that. There is a direct logical connection between the eugenics movement on the 1930’s and the Nazi genocide of the Jews. The same principle is involved. The same thinking. It was all so perfectly logical. Only the means and ends were different. To me, that is what makes it so singularly terrifying. We are not talking about the Ku Klux Klan here. None of those lowbrow small town racist goons. We’re talking the best and the brightest and scientific theory. The Holocaust began as an intellectual movement. The division of the SS in charge, the RSHA, was like the MIT of mass murder. The elite.

Incidentally, it’s been pointed out that you could not have had the Holocaust without the industrial level mass slaughter of World War One. All that automated killing on such an enormous scale is what allowed the Nazi mind to imagine using automated methods–whether Einsatzgruppen and their methodical mass killing methods, or the ovens working on factory time tables, and those bone crushing machines producing high grade fertilizer–to kill people by the hundreds of thousands. We have an image of the First World War as mud and corpses and useless slaughter, which was true. That’s what it was for the soldiers. But not for the planners. The battles were immense set piece things, with carefully calculated artillery barrages (which became a science in itself), complex chemical warfare, tremendous logistical issues, organization on an incredible scale. All this to kill more of them than they could of you. Acceptable casualty rates that grew into the hundreds of thousand per battle. Even if a force took 90% casualties running through machine gun fire, it could be acceptable if the surviving ten percent managed to take their objective. You wound up with millions of men living in environments surrounded by the dead, bodies everywhere, till the dead became just everyday things. Everyone had seen piles of bodies and grew quite used to everything but their smell. Thus, amid the slaughter of the First World War, was the civilization of the Enlightenment exposed to the concept of economies of scale and mass production techniques, even to the use of railways to ships large number of humans in record time–first used to mobilize armies in 1914, and then a generation later to send entire populations to extermination camps. The annihilation of the Jews of Hungary in Austerlitz is a truly impressive accomplishment, in strictly logistical terms. Eichmann was rightly proud of it from his Nazi point of view. It was a marvel of German efficiency. And imagine, then, had the Third Reich not lost the war how the Holocaust would become standard operating procedure. It’s not the killing that makes the Holocaust special. It’s best practices learned in World War One. You can kill huge numbers of people if you do it right, without even getting your hands dirty, and it’s just a job like any other job. Some people manage milk bottling plants. Some people managed extermination camps. Take that forward a generation and some people were managing ICBM complexes with procedures to be followed that would wipe out hundreds of millions of people. As with the Holocaust, it was also carefully planned out, with documents documenting the step by step processes. Nothing was off the cuff. There was no improvisation. It was best practices. Killing is easy, if done big enough.

I’m not trying to say that other horrors, African slavery among them, weren’t horrors. Indeed, I compare the slaveocracy in the south to the Third Reich. Not that it compared in methods and aims, but there was a lot of the same sort of thinking, but 19th century style, pre-industrial. To read the writings of the thinking class in the American slave states in the 1850’s is eye opening. There’s a comforting illusion developed in the past 150 years that slavery would have disappeared even if the Civil War not been fought, but it is nonsense. Slavery was in better shape in the 1850’s than it had ever been, and indeed was ceaselessly trying to expand out of the South, which is what so much of American politics had been about since the War of 1812. And slavery would not have disappeared but expanded as the south industrialized (this is the current academic thinking), as slavery is just as suited to industry as it is to agriculture, and what industry did exist in the ante-bellum south was quite dependent on slave labor. Slavery would have been proven a viable economic system into the 20th century. Had the Confederacy decisively won the Civil War it would have begun expanding south into the Caribbean and west to California. Southern California would have had a slave economy. (The climate here is perfect for year round agriculture, which maximizes a slave’s profit making potential.) Had Britain and France entered the war on the side of the Confederacy–a real possibility in 1862–slavery could have regained some of the acceptability (or tolerance, anyway) it had lost to the Abolitionist movement over the previous hundred years. Slavery now is as wrong a means of production as we can imagine. That is, at least in America, because the North won the Civil War and criminalized slavery. Until then not everyone thought it was bad, not even outside the United States. Until then it was just another way of making a living.  Maybe people didn’t like it, but they could live with it. There had always been slavery, they figured. It was older than capitalism. It was a natural way of doing things. The slave owning class in the American South saw themselves as the direct descendants of a natural social order that had existed since the Old Testament. It was the industries of the North, said southerners, that were new and alien and unnatural.

The destruction of slavery in America in the 1860’s is one of the most important revolutions of the modern era. But because it was so successful in completely destroying the institution of slavery, we can’t see just how dramatic a change it was. There are hundreds of thousands of neo Nazis today, and probably a couple million sympathizers. Even the absolute destruction of the Third Reich failed to eliminate Nazism. It remains a threat. But there is almost no one who advocates a return to the chattel slavery of pre-Civil War America. Not even the KKK calls for that. The very concept has been purged from western civilization. Abraham Lincoln did that. Had he bungled the war who knows where we’d be now. But it is because of the magnitude of Union’s victory that people don’t realize just how important to western civilization the American Civil War was. It made the Nazi slave labor system a crime against humanity. It made the Soviet gulag system the blemish that communism can’t seem to escape. (And it makes many people wonder what the hell is going on in Angola Penitentiary.)

People also don’t realize that slavery was not only a successful labor system, but was even more successful as a financial system. The slaveocrats had more wealth in their slaves than there was in all the other forms of wealth put together in the US–industry, banks, shipping, farming, railroads, everything–with the sole exception of the value of all the land in the US itself. Only all the real estate in the US was worth more than all the slaves, though of course real estate wealth was diffused, while much of slave wealth was concentrated and even more importantly could be turned immediately into cash. Land took longer to sell. If a slave, on average, was worth $800 in 1860, and there were four million slaves, that comes to over $3 billion in 1860 dollars (or nearly a hundred billion 2015 dollars). This system seems to be the result of the fact that so few slaves shipped from Africa–around 300,000 or so, about four per cent of the total–arrived in the United States. The vast majority of slaves were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean, where work was so brutal they rarely survived long. A steady supply made them cheap and disposable. The slave system in the United States was forced to raise their own slaves. That three hundred thousand were, with careful husbandry, grown into a workforce of four million or so. And as the supply from Africa was limited and eventually dried up altogether in the 1820’s, slaves became a very valuable commodity. Soon a banking and finance and insurance system evolved to meet the needs of both slave owners and slave traders. Slaves attained such a value that one’s wealth could be measured in the value of one’s slaves. Slavery attained a place in the pre-war South’s economy like that of real estate now.

Even if slaves themselves were of no use outside the South, the wealth in slaves extended the south’s reach far beyond its borders. The southern slave owners were a vastly rich and powerful class, and their financial power reached throughout the United States and across the globe. By banning slavery, an entire financial class and all its accoutrements was eliminated, their power and influence ended. Their kind was never to be seen again. Only in Brazil did slavery, much weakened by manumission and drought and popular resentment, linger on for another generation. Brazil ended it, finally, in 1888.

Much like the Germans’ race theory driven National Socialism, the American South believed that owning slaves made them morally and physically indomitable both as men and as a civilization. Just like Germans who saw strength and world domination in their genocide–killing the Jews went hand in hand with expanding German power in the Nazi mind–to the southern slaveocrat elite their Peculiar Institution was an institution that would make the South a world power and be the guiding light and future of all mankind. God intended the slave owners to rule. It’s the white man’s burden thing carried to the extreme degree. A degree not surpassed until the Third Reich.

Yet while slavery is an abomination, one of humanity’s great horrors, it never achieved its modern apogee because, unlike the Germans, the Confederates were hapless and mostly incompetent in matters of war and administration. And, also unlike the Germans, slavery benefitted mostly the large landowners and financiers. (The middle class slave owners, of which there were far more than realized now, were concentrated in the border states, states retaken by the North early in the war if they had seceded at all). So while National Socialism was bought by the entire population of Germany and almost all the European Ausländers (Germans living outside Germany), the townsmen and peasantry of the American South tired quickly of the war (remember secession was not universally popular to begin with) and the Confederate government had to deal with widespread internal rebellion (also forgotten today). And then there’s this–slavery disintegrated as soon as even a small party of Union soldiers showed up in the neighborhood. But German genocide had little economic purpose–killing is easy. It had no purpose other than killing Jews. Slavery is a much more difficult undertaking, and unlike the genocide of the Jews was extremely sensitive to outside interference. Slavery would have thrived had the South not declared independence, something they quickly became bitterly aware of. As soon as the Union’s armies or even a single gunboat approached, the plantations hemorrhaged slaves. The southern economy, indeed its very economic engine, dissolved.

But Auschwitz continued operating right up until Himmler ordered all the death camps closed as the Russian armies moved in, and all the remaining inmates were to be killed on the spot or force marched to other camps. Whereas slavery was in its death throes by 1865, existing only in places that Union troops had not reached, in Germany the Holocaust was one of the few institutions in the Third Reich that existed right up until the very end of the war in Europe, surviving even the capture of the camps, becoming mobile, death camps turned into death marches, until in many places the only aspect of the Nazi state still existing were the SS involved in killing Jews. The SS remained even as the liberators moved in, as if convinced the Holocaust would survive even the end of the Reich itself.

As a genocide, the Holocaust had an extraordinary vitality, it seemed like nothing could kill it except it Allied armies. The only Holocaust I can think of that compares in tenacity was the Killing Fields of Cambodia, which only stopped when the Viet Namese army moved in and drove off Pol Pot. Like the Holocaust, the Killing Fields defied any logic but its own perfect logic. It’s that logic, the logical thought process which has been a cornerstone of western thinking since the Greeks, surviving even the Dark Ages, that makes certain Holocausts so terrifying. People massacre entire peoples because they hate–Rwanda is a perfect example of that, a St. Bartholomew’s Massacre across a whole country–and people exploit people to the point of annihilation if it makes them money (think of some tribes wiped out early in the Spanish Conquest). And people wipe out peoples all the time to gain their land (think just about anywhere).

But on rare occasions people wipe out people because a political philosophy decrees it necessary to do so, with impeccable logic. Marx somehow became the political basis of the Killing Fields. The Holocaust had elaborate ideological and legal writings justifying it. The implications of this are terrifying. It wasn’t just murder, it was the result of a well thought out doctrines. It made perfect sense. The ideology made the genocide necessary, justified and inevitable. Indeed, for a good Nazi or member of the Khmer Rouge, it would be morally wrong not to exterminate Jews or enemies of the Revolution. Their belief system required it, and they believed implicitly in the validity of those belief systems. The fanaticism of the members of the Islamic State we see now is nothing new. Indeed, it can trace its justifications back to the same logic that drove the Nazis and, via Marx by way of Mao, the government of Pol Pot. Islamic thought in its Golden Age (circa 750-1250 A.D.) was just as hip to logical thought processes of the Greeks as were the intellectuals and academics of the west. Its in our shared cultural genome.

Remember too, that both Islam and the West are rooted in Persian thought, the binary world view of Zoroaster a thousand or so years before Christ and well before the Greeks (indeed, well before the Persian Empire or even its predecessor the Median Empire, as if Christ or Confucius or Mohammed had lived before the Roman Empire or China or the Arabs existed.) We inherited the ancient Persian world of truth and lie, of good vs evil in eternal battle. There is probably nothing more fundamental to both the Islamic world and the west than our shared binary view. Everything is truth or lie or right or wrong and, by extension, good or bad. The internet has only exacerbated this. It’s our default position. It is so much a part of us, so fundamental to how we view, interpret and think, that we are not even aware of it. We like to think we are the inheritors of the Greek way of thinking but only in part, because we are far more inculcated in the thought of the ancient Persian Empire, in some fundamental ways the ur-civilization of the west. Our binary world view, good and evil in eternal battle, all that goes back to the first Holy Book, the Avesta, the word of Zoroaster. The seeds of western ideological fanaticism lie in the Persian Empire. Ironically we celebrate Alexander the Great, a pagan, as its conqueror, as if we are his descendants and the Persians utterly alien to all that we believe, yet Alexander couldn’t recognize our outlook at all today. He would be utterly at a loss to understand why we think like we do. Oh, he could tease out our Aristotelian antecedents. But good vs evil made no sense to him. And we are absolutely lost without our binary world view. Alexander, to us, would be a madman lunatic on Facebook, some nut with a reality show sacrificing to various gods and doing macho, dangerous things. But give Zoroaster a Facebook account and he’d have a zillion followers in no time at all, because he would recognize all our sturm and drang as the battle between truth and lie, and he would show us the Way.

Zoroaster was all about free will but I wonder just how much free will we have now after centuries of truth vs lie, right vs wrong, good vs evil. That world view is so ingrained into us. Our brains think like that now. We process information like that now. How much of it is innate? If there truly was free will would eighty million Germans have followed a lunatic like Hitler to absolute destruction? How could so many smart, even brilliant people be stupid enough to believe the Jews needed to be murdered en masse to save civilization? It’s not instinct, but the thinking can be so automatic it might as well be. The entire German Volk pitched in to save the world from the evil of world Jewry. It was inconceivable that they were wrong. The Truth of the Führer versus the lies of the Jew. They believed that till the bitter end. There was almost no rebellion against Hitler. They believed in him and his anti-Semitism till the country was conquered, leveled, broken, destroyed.

There’s a famous picture of German prisoners of war watching concentration camp footage. They looked stunned. They all knew Jews were being dealt with, but most had never seen the camps, the ovens. Probably everyone of these soldiers had known Jewish families before the War. Unlike in Poland, German Jews were fully integrated into German society. They were Germans. Germany, before the First World War, had been in many ways a model state, without caste and dangerous religious bigotry. You can see the looks on these soldier’s faces when they realize what happened to their Jewish neighbors. The Holocaust machine was broken, and suddenly the Jews are people again. These Nazis are people again. Hell, most of them weren’t even Nazis. They just went along. It wasn’t like a howling lynch mob. Kristalnacht had been one ugly night that left Germans very uncomfortable. The Holocaust was a smoothly running machine, quite neat and clean, very efficient, quite logical. It’s just they never saw the pictures before.

Myrmecologists, that is entomologists who specialize in ants, the E.O. Wilsons of biology, speak of certain species as being fascist, world domineering ants. Our own household pest the Argentine ant is one, as it automatically wars and eventually destroys any other species of ant it comes across. There are several species like these. Not too many–were they all like this there’d be only one remaining species, the victor in all the endless ant wars to the death, and then something would have happened, a disease or fungus or climate change, and that last remaining ant species would have died out and there’d be no more ants in the world. But there are a few of these fascist, world dominating species, and myrmecologists joke darkly that if one of those species had the nuclear bomb the world would end in a week. Destroying an enemy ant colony is worth destroying yourselves over. Ant colonies do this regularly. The reason is that they are genetically programmed to war to the death. They will immediately attempt to destroy whatever colony they come across that is different from them. It’s not logic, obviously–they have brains the size of a head of a pin–but the genes are perfectly logical. Annihilation makes perfect sense. The Holocaust has always struck me as the same thing, though instead of genetic programming, a philosophy developed into an ideology that contained within it the logic that requires the absolute total annihilation of perceived enemies. The Nazis used Einsatzgruppen and ovens because they had no nuclear weapons. If the Third Reich had nuclear weapons, the world would have been over in a week.

Because to Hitler the total destruction of Germany was worth it if the world could be rid of the Jews. In the Führerbunker at war’s end, he said just that. And that was the logic of the Holocaust. It was the logic of World War One, when empires destroyed themselves to destroy each other. And it might have been the logic of World War Three. Destroying the village in order to save it. Who knows how close we came during the Cold War? And do we still have within us the seeds of that logic? Or were circumstances just perfect between 1914 and 1945 for nihilism on such a vast scale? Maybe so, maybe we’re not like that anymore, and maybe that is why we are still here, and not radioactive cinders throwing shadows by the light of the moon.


I discuss the fate of indigenous Americans in The Spanish conquest hit the population of the Americas like a thermo-nuclear war.

I discuss the end of the Third Reich in Operation Bagration.

I discuss Zoroaster in Zoroaster.

I discuss fascist, world domineering ants in Two giant tiny civilizations trying to conquer the world beneath our feet.