07 October 2015

Demise of Russia's Old Believers

From In Siberia, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle Loc. 3063-3070, 3254-3269:
If the Cossacks were the cowboys of Russia’s Wild East, the Old Believers were its Mennonites or Mormons. In time they split into sects or were joined by others yet more extreme. All were marked by ascetic simplicity or violent self-deprivation. They rejected baptism, churches–even prayer. The depraved ‘Wanderers’ cursed the Czar as Satan, baptised their babies in lakes and buried their dead in forest glades. There were literalists who became herdsmen in obedience to holy writ, and milk-drinking Molokans thirsty for the ‘milk of the Word’. There were self-baptisers and non-baptisers, ‘Sighers’ who prayed breathily in honour of the Holy Spirit, and the ‘Prayerless’ who abhorred any outward observance at all. There were the pious Stundists and the Dukhobor ‘Spirit-wrestlers’, pacifists, who believed in the primacy of an indwelling spirit, turning even the Bible superfluous. There would even be a sect that deified Napoleon.


Later Sergei and I went on to the hills and gazed down. ‘It’s beautiful, my village!’ It was. It shone foreshortened through his field-glasses, like a painted land: a horseman herding his cattle, a cart gliding over snow. Yet the place fell oddly into two halves, with pasture between, and long tracks lay empty which had once been bordered by houses.

‘Those farms fell into ruin. Hundreds of them. Their owners were shot or exiled in Stalin’s day for being too rich. There were twelve hundred houses in my village then, and now only three hundred!’ Their vacant spaces disturbed him. They were the village which should have been: the homes of the diligent and frugal. As we walked they took on a sad presence round us. He remembered their dates and names like a personal hurt.

A modest opulence had followed the Old Belief wherever its people settled. In 1917 they had numbered fifteen million–one tenth of Russia’s population–and owned more than half the country’s capital. Newly tolerated, they had prospered among the merchant-industrial class, the Cossacks and wealthy peasants. (Sergei himself came from the Don Cossack Pahle family.) They were ripe for Stalin’s sickle.

Inside a broken corral two men asked us for cigarettes with the fawning of the chronically drunk. Sergei steered me away. ‘Yes, they were Old Believers.’ We were wading fast through shin-deep snow. ‘Things here aren’t like they were. There are five village families who are total drunkards. People are starting to live just for themselves. Our collective for livestock and wheat is falling to bits. We used to have seventy tractors, but now there are only sixteen. Its workers hardly ever get paid, so they pilfer. As for drink, if they can’t afford official vodka, they make their own–just sugar, yeast and water mixed. It can kill you.’ His eyes lifted to heaven. ‘More than half our villagers are pensioners. Young people have gone away to the cities, to Ulan Ude, hoping for work. We’re becoming a village of the dead.’

Buddhist Survivals in Buryatia

From In Siberia, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2868-2883, 2923-2939:
Buryatia. Mongols who had settled here a millennium ago, absorbing the local tribes, her people had sometimes allied themselves with czarist Russia against the harsh Mongolian regimes to their south. They were skilled stock-breeders and metallurgists, more numerous and organised than the tribespeople in the far north. Their ancestors had ridden with Genghis Khan. In the ungiving pastures of Transbaikal which we were entering, they had been converted to Buddhism by Mongolian and Tibetan missionaries, and alone among indigenous Siberians they possessed a written language. But even during childhood the woman had sensed in her parents the terror and bewilderment of the thirties: the forced collectivisation, the disappearance of the kulaks and lamas, the destruction of the monasteries.

She sees her Buryat identity fading down the generations. She has not thought of it much before, she says; but now I sense her hunting after half-discarded memories, a definition of her people, her mother, herself.

In a village somewhere east of Ulan Ude, she remembers, her grandparents kept a scroll painted with the Buddha and fringed in blue silk. It seemed very old. But it was the caressing silk border which the small girl remembered, not the sage it enframed. There were three statuettes of the Buddha too, to which the old people burnt incense and offered meat and fruit. Sometimes the girl would watch secretly to catch the Buddhas eating. She remembers the cupboard where they sat, how its doors opened after Stalin’s death, and the sleepy fumes of incense.

‘Every morning they offered the Buddhas tea and milk, then sprinkled it to the corners of the porch. That’s how Buddhism survived–in secret, the old people remembering. In Stalin’s day they rolled up the scroll with their prayer-books in a wooden box, and buried them under the house. But our family’s clan still had an altar on a hill, where they offered sacrifices.’ She frowns with remembered rebellion. ‘I wasn’t allowed to go, because I was a girl. But my brother told me about it.’


I had heard of a whole museum mured up in the cathedral, but it was closed to public view. Was it possible to…? The cat walked between us like a mascot.

Yes, it was possible. As the woman mounted the tower’s stair and unlocked door after armoured door a rich and incoherent maze came to light. Inside had been hoarded not the relics of Christian Orthodoxy but the accumulated treasures of Buddhist monasteries and temples salvaged in the hours before their demolition. Earmarked for display in a museum to promote atheism, then preserved for some future archive of their own, they waited here in glimmering profusion, sometimes stacked pell-mell among Cossack ploughs and harness, more often ranked in half-documented cabinets to themselves.

I examined them in ignorant wonder. In the gloom hundreds of Buddhas lifted their gilded hands in peace or teaching. Gifts from Tibet, Mongolia, China, even Cambodia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a few were very old. They sat or stood in bronze, gold, gypsum, papier maché. Their smiles filled the dark. Three thousand scroll-paintings crowded the shelves with Tibetan manuscripts and Chinese silks and a medley of temple instruments and regalia–ceremonial horns and the masks of lamaist mystery plays, whose actor-monks glowered out through slavering jaws or demon eyes. Sunlight penetrated only in mote-heavy beams, too weak to fade the sacred banners or illumine the fertility deities coupled in Tantric bliss. I began to lose all sense of age or worth. A horse-headed lute curved beside a ninth-century Indian Buddha, the household altar of a Buryat chief among the bric-a-brac of early tea-merchants.

The collective memory of Buryatia, it seemed, had been incarcerated in these once-Christian walls, and left to die. Of the forty-seven monasteries flourishing in the 1920s, all were gone by 1939. But Buddhism was reviving, said the woman, as she locked the last doors behind me. There were many little monasteries and temples she knew of, newly scattered through the region, and the greatest was only twenty miles away. The outer door clanged shut. The white cat was waiting in the grass. You could take a bus anywhere into the country, she said, and hear the lamas praying again.

28 September 2015

Kyrgyz–Uzbek Tensions in Kyrgyzstan

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4129-4150:
After much huffing and puffing about his popularity, Bakiyev flew into exile, vacating his ceremonial tent on the edge of Jalalabad. He and his associates and relatives now face criminal prosecution in Kyrgyzstan on charges that include murder and corruption. Hours after Bakiyev escaped, a crowd of protesters set his sprawling family home on fire. Though Batyrov says the place was already burning by the time his men arrived, the prevalent view in Kyrgyzstan is that it was Batyrov’s Uzbeks who did it. “I told them, ‘Don’t touch the house, it belonged to Bakiyev’s grandfather, and he’s a veteran of World War II,’” Ashukan Saparova, an elderly Kyrgyz woman who lives across the street, told me when I visited.

As word of the bonfire spread, the Kyrgyz grew infuriated. How dared the Uzbeks burn a Kyrgyz home? “They shouldn’t have done it. I’m a woman, but if someone burned my father’s house, I would also want revenge,” Mavlyanova, the Kyrgyz NGO activist who had a son in Batyrov’s kindergarten, told me. Though ethnic clashes had taken place even before the arson, they intensified in the following weeks. A Kyrgyz crowd rampaged through Batyrov’s Peoples’ Friendship University, burning classrooms, breaking windows, and decapitating the statue of the Uzbek leader’s father. It was late May, right around finals.

“Students started running away,” recalled Anara Samatova, a professor of literature, who is Kyrgyz. Samatova collected exam papers and followed her students out through the back door. In the next few days, Jalalabad descended into hell. Hiding in her apartment, Samatova peeked out the window and saw a group of armed Kyrgyz men interrogating an Uzbek teenager dressed in a black T-shirt. She knew the kid was Uzbek because his captors called him sart, a derogatory term the Kyrgyz use for Uzbeks, the local n-word. Samatova couldn’t hear what the gunmen were grilling him about, but she overheard the kid protesting: “But my house was burned too.” With that, the men shot him, put his body in a car, and drove off.

Next up in the war’s path was Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city and a bustling hub of the south. Tensions had been brewing there for years, as the Uzbek commercial class dominating the city rubbed up against the influx of poorer rural migrants, most of them Kyrgyz. In fact, an element of class had seeped into the conflict. Many rural Kyrgyz resented the Uzbeks for their perceived wealth. It’s a deeply flawed stereotype, but one that proved very resilient.

27 September 2015

Central Asia's Land of Cotton

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4701-4717:
Uzbekistan’s cotton troubles have a long history. In the nineteenth century, Russian imperial planners insisted the Uzbeks ramp up their cotton production to feed the commercial demands of the realm. At the time, Russia was importing a lot of cotton from the United States at a high cost. The newly conquered Central Asian plains, with their arid climate, provided an ideal setting for building a domestic cotton industry. Hundreds of cotton gins sprung up throughout the region. Deeming the local strain of cotton too crude, the Russians introduced an American strain whose longer fibers were better suited to producing fine clothes.

Aided by Russian financial incentives, cotton began to displace traditional food crops grown by local farmers and became the primary cash crop. A senior Russian colonial official “acknowledged bluntly that cotton was ‘the central nerve and main point of interest and concern of the local population. At the same time it is also the link connecting Turkestan with Moscow and the rest of Russia.’” Russian engineers built a railway line, in part to facilitate the cotton trade. The Russian push succeeded: in 1860, Central Asia supplied no more than 7 percent of cotton to Russian mills. By 1915, that figure had grown to 70 percent.

The Soviets continued the practice, and the obsession with cotton began to take its toll on the land. “Moscow turned Central Asia into a mega-farm designed to produce ever greater quantities of cotton. To this end irrigation kept being expanded beyond the capacity of Central Asian rivers, the soil exhausted by monoculture kept getting saturated with chemical fertilizers, the crops sprayed by clouds of pesticides and herbicides, and instead of fully mechanizing the production, cheap native labor was routinely used for harvesting the [cotton],” writes Svat Soucek, an eloquent chronicler of Central Asian history. In the waning years of the Soviet Union, fudging cotton-output figures gave rise to a wide-ranging corruption investigation that ensnared high-ranking officials both in Tashkent and in Moscow. The leaders of independent Uzbekistan continued the cursed agricultural model.

Kyrgyzstan's Heckling Women Special Forces

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2888-2901:
Walking around Jalalabad, where mayors rose and fell based on the whims of the crowds, I thought of Kyrgyzstan as a bizarre case of direct democracy taken to its most absurd extreme in a society where institutions and laws are weak or nonexistent, where clans are strong, and where poverty makes people edgy, easily manipulated, and ready to attempt risky things.

The presence of loudly disposed women at rallies became a fixture of political life in Kyrgyzstan. Describing a recent rally where a heckling argument occurred between two rival camps, a local journalist mentioned something called OBON. The word sounded like the ubiquitous Russian acronym for Police Special Forces, and I assumed he was talking about riot police. It turned out the acronym stood for Heckling Women Special Forces. These histrionic commandos have been effective in Kyrgyzstan’s modern political history. They scream and drown out their opponents; they can land a punch if need be, or fall on the ground in a theatrical show of sorrow; security forces don’t quite know how to deal with them, they are just a bunch of middle-aged and elderly women. Waiting in a Defense Ministry reception area a few days later, I overheard two senior security operatives, both tough-looking men, discussing the challenges of OBON. “You know, in Jalalabad fifty women were able to seize the governor’s office—what the hell do you do in a situation like that?”

With the mayor’s job in play, a similar round of musical chairs occurred in the provincial governor’s office. After the music stopped, the man who ended up sitting down was Bakiyev’s former ambassador to Pakistan. A few days later, in a flurry of new decrees, the interim government announced the appointment of a new Jalalabad mayor. His name was not Asylbek Tashtanbekov, the OBON-backed running champion.

26 September 2015

Wordcatcher Tales: Tobruk, Feldwebel

I learned two new German military terms from my recent reading about how D-Day was experienced by the German military.

Tobruk – Several of the soldiers interviewed in D DAY Through German Eyes - Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015) referred to their bunkers as Tobruks. I could guess its etymology—from Tobruk in Libya, the site of famous battles during World War II—but couldn't visualize what kind of bunker it might be. Fortunately there are lots of images of tobruk bunkers in Wikimedia Commons, and a very informative site about the Regelbau architecture of German fortifications from the World War II era. Here's how the latter source defines a Tobruk:
The Tobruk or "ringstellung" is basically a reinforced foxhole, some with a small, two-man habitat attached to it. The simplest version is named Bauform 201 or 58c, but a a variety of bunkers emerged from it. Tobruks are also an integral part of many larger bunkers, where they serve as observation posts and machinegun positions.

Feldwebel – None of the German military ranks are translated in The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006). Perhaps the author simply wanted to avoid having to choose between, say, private first class and lance corporal to translate Gefreiter or Sturmmann ('stormtrooper', the SS paramilitary equivalent). There is lots of variation across anglophone militaries, and especially across various service branches. But perhaps the author also wanted an easy way to signal the distinction between Wehrmacht (regular army) ranks and their Waffen-SS equivalents. For instance, an SS-Hauptsturmführer is equivalent to a Wehrmacht Hauptmann (Army captain).

One of the Wehrmacht ranks I was surprised not to recognize was Feldwebel 'sergeant'. (The same term has been borrowed by several other European armies, including those of Russia and Sweden.) It dates back to the early days of massed infantry tactics that required careful alignment of troops wielding pikes or firing muskets. The Feldwebel was the person who kept the troops in the field properly aligned.

German Wikipedia says Feldwebel derives from Old High German weibôn 'sich hin und her bewegen' ('to go back and forth') but doesn't cite a source, and translates Webel as Gerichtsdiener ('court usher'). The Swiss German rank is Feldweibel, related to Weibel (also Amtsweibel or Amtsdiener), the officer in charge of protocol in various official gatherings.

English Wikipedia cites the same Old High German etymology but translates Webel too simply as 'usher' (as in court usher, Gentleman Usher of the Royal Household and of various anglophone parliaments, or White House Chief Usher). If I had to put a contemporary label on all these formal order-keeping roles, I would lump them into the category of sergeant-at-arms, rather than usher. (It's ironic that "sergeant-at-arms" now distinguishes various sorts of civilian order-keepers from military order-keeping sergeants.)

French Wikipedia gives Feldwebel a slightly different etymology (also without citing a source): "vieil allemand waibel, pièce de métier à tisser servant à ramener tous les fils sur la ligne (peigne)" ('Old German waibel, the loom piece serving to keep all the threads aligned [comb]').

The last etymology seems to me to get closer to the source of the term Webel, a Middle High German cognate of English weft, according to Guus Kroonen's The Proto-Germanic n-stems.: A study in diachronic morphophonology (Rodopi, 2011). The weft threads are those that go back and forth ('sich hin und her bewegen') across the warp threads to weave fabrics on a loom.

This reminds me of the first line of the first dialog I had to memorize when I took the Romanian language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in 1969: "Bună ziua, Domnule Locotenent!" ("Guten Tag, Herr Leutnant!")

14 September 2015

From Political Prisoner to Police Chief in a Day

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 698-721:
The revolution here was so fast and surreal that a man who woke up on a prison bunk became the nation’s security czar by the time he went to bed. Shortly after protesters took over the presidential palace, Felix Kulov, a former police chief and mayor of Bishkek, was sprung from jail and found himself cruising the city’s mad streets in a white sport-utility vehicle, appealing to crazed crowds to stop the looting. “This turn of events was of course unusual,” Kulov, clad in blue jeans and sporting a buzz cut, said the next morning in front of his new digs at the Interior Ministry.

A career police officer who rose to the rank of general, Kulov served as vice president, interior minister, and head of the National Security Service. Just as his personal popularity began to threaten President Akayev, Kulov was convicted of corruption in a dubious trial that Western observers considered politically motivated. It is not that he was necessarily blameless. It is just that he was no worse than the average, so picking on him smacked of selective justice.

For the next five years, Kulov languished in jail with six hundred other inmates. Comrades from his political party, Ar-Namys, supplied the whole prison with food, books, exercise equipment, woodworking lathes, soccer balls, and even special trucks to pump out the sewage. Kulov’s party once gave the cash-strapped prison twenty tons of potatoes. The party wanted to keep its leader fit and healthy, and the easiest way to do it was to support the whole prison. Behind bars, Kulov kept himself busy. He once gave his party comrades a wooden scale model of a ship carved by him and his jail buddies.

The day of the revolution, his supporters drove forty miles to the prison, where the superintendent promptly released him. “This man will be promoted,” Kulov joked shortly afterward. The liberated general sprang into action that very evening, as looters rampaged through the capital, ransacking stores. The police had retreated into their precincts after the storming of the palace and were in no mood to venture out again. Bloodstains were still drying on the spots where the cops had come under a shower of rocks from the protesters. “They were so demoralized,” Kulov recalled. “I could do little more than appeal to the conscience of every officer.”

One evening after the uprising, Kulov addressed the crowds massing in front of the city’s landmark Central Department Store, begging them not to loot. Several other popular shops, like Beta Stores, were overrun, vandalized, and emptied of merchandise.

The hordes of looters and thugs roaming the streets the first two postrevolutionary nights scared most peaceful residents into their homes, where some dusted off old shotguns and vowed to shoot if the marauding crowds approached. But the main department store survived with just a couple of cracked windows, an important moral victory of law and order in the capital.

The police, having absorbed the emotional shocks of being attacked by the protesters, came back to the streets, at one point shooting rounds into the air to keep looters at bay. Thousands of Bishkek residents responded to televised calls by Kulov and others to form militias and patrol their neighborhoods and the city’s landmarks.

13 September 2015

Post-Soviet Status: "Respected Thief"

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2402-25:
Kyrgyzstan is a very small country, so rumors and news have a way of traveling fast in the overlapping circles of the country’s movers and shakers who booze, gossip, and do business together. Out of that cauldron, Ibraimova fished out a troubling morsel of scuttlebutt: a contract to kill Sadyrkulov had already been placed with a notorious mobster named Kamchi Kolbayev, a baby-faced, thirty-seven-year-old Don Corleone of Kyrgyzstan.

Following a long Soviet criminal tradition, Kolbayev was the so-called respected thief, a crowned prince of jailhouse aristocracy now entrusted by his colleagues to rule a vast criminal empire according to an informal code of “understandings” that are ruthless but noble, as any bleeding-heart mobster will tell you. Respected thieves require official protection, or at least acquiescence, and Kolbayev’s rise up the criminal food chain coincided with the entrenchment of the Bakiyev regime and the elevation of [his brother] Janysh. Kamchi benefited greatly from the murder of a major competitor: Ryspek Akhmatbayev, the Robin Hood who once dominated the country’s criminal underworld, won a parliamentary seat, and died in a flurry of gunfire outside a mosque.

Kamchi fared much better. One November evening in 2008, crime bosses from across the former Soviet Union gathered in a fancy Moscow restaurant to discuss pressing business matters and anoint new respected thieves. According to a Russian newspaper account of the meeting, the guests included such colorfully nicknamed individuals as Basil the Resurrected, Hamlet, Railcar, the Ogre, the Little Japanese Man, and Granpa Hassan. Kamchi was there too, and his peers crowned the Kyrgyz as a “respected thief,” elevating him to the rarefied top rung of organized crime. The title, peculiar to the Soviet criminal underworld, denotes an eventful life lived according to a rigorous criminal code that prohibits any normal employment, prescribes utter disdain for law enforcement, and usually involves significant prison stints and elaborately coded tattoos. Very few criminals rise to the rank of respected thief, whose closest international equivalent might be the Italian mafia’s capo di tutti cappi. (The original Russian term, Vor v Zakone, is often translated as Thief-in-Law, which is confusing as it conjures a meddlesome mother-in-law.)

A couple of years after attaining the respected-thief status, Kamchi became big enough to land on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of major transnational crime figures whose assets are subject to a freeze. The U.S. government identified Kamchi as a key member of the Brothers’ Circle (formerly known as Family of Eleven, and the Twenty), a multiethnic criminal group spread across the former Soviet Union and active in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. “The Brothers’ Circle serves as a coordinating body for several criminal networks, mediating disputes between the individual criminal networks and directing member criminal activity globally,” the Treasury Department says. Tagged by President Obama as “a significant narcotics trafficker” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, Kamchi serves as the Brothers’ Circle’s overseer for Central Asia, a principal staging ground for global trafficking of Afghan heroin.

Presidential Transitions in Kyrgyzstan

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2635-44:
The reign of President Bakiyev ended the same way it began, with a revolution and an exile. He fled, first to a large ceremonial tent in his home village in southern Kyrgyzstan, and then out of the country. Facing an irate populace, his brothers, sons, and cronies ran for the exits too, not all of them successfully. Bakiyev eventually settled in Belarus, at the personal invitation of the local dictator. The only two presidents Kyrgyzstan had known in its twenty years of independence ended up as outcasts and fugitives: one in Moscow teaching physics, the other in Minsk living in a forced retirement. Bakiyev, the hopeful product of the optimistically named Tulip Revolution, mutated into a villain so quickly that his allies didn’t know what hit them. “We got tricked like little kids,” Roza Otunbayeva, the perennial opposition leader who helped bring Bakiyev to power, told me shortly after she helped overthrow him. “He made all the right speeches back then.” During his five-year reign, nepotism and graft surpassed the excesses of the previous regime, while government opponents began to suffer suspicious deaths. In the words of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the master of the one-liner, Bakiyev “stepped on the same rake” that had whacked his predecessor on the head.

German Military Changes after 20 July 1944

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 3557-59, 3575-95:
The purge of the Wehrmacht began immediately [the attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July]. On 22 July, centuries of tradition were brushed aside. The military salute was abolished, replaced by the deutsche Gruss – the Hitler salute – ‘as an outward token of gratitude for his miraculous escape’....

And then came the final act of surrender. On 29 July, Heinz Guderian abandoned centuries of impartiality at a stroke. The German Army would no longer remain aloof from politics. In future, the German Army would be Hitler’s Army. That day he ordered:
Every General Staff officer must be a National Socialist Leadership Officer, namely he must demonstrate that he is one of the ‘best of the best’ not merely in the realms of strategy and tactics, but also in the political realm through his exemplary attitude and active guidance and instruction of younger comrades in the Führer’s ideas.

I expect every General Staff officer to accept and convert to my views immediately – and to do so publicly. Anyone who cannot do so should ask to leave the General Staff.
The humiliation continued. Staff officers attending situation conferences before Hitler were forcibly searched to see if they were carrying weapons or explosives. Political commissars – National Socialist Leadership Officers – began appearing at front-line units in increasing numbers to imbue the German Army with the spirit of National Socialism. ‘If a commander failed to follow orders to fight to the last man, his political officer would report this to the Nazi Party,’ infantry officer Siegfried Knappe wrote. The Party, in turn, ‘would take action to have the commander relieved of his command’. On 1 August, Himmler introduced the Sippenhaftung – the arrest not merely of all the suspected conspirators, but their entire families, their homes, all their worldly possessions. ‘This man is a traitor, the blood is bad,’ the Reichsführer SS declared, ‘there is bad blood in them, that will be eradicated.’ The Stauffenberg family would be eliminated ‘to the last member’. Three days later, a specially convened ‘Court of Honour’ was set up to expel members of the Wehrmacht from military service so they could be tried in civilian courts for their involvement in the putsch. It was a formality. Each man was dismissed in ‘only a few minutes’. Gerd von Rundstedt was wheeled out of retirement to preside over affairs. The elderly field marshal had his doubts, but passed judgment anyway. The leading conspirators, including Hoepner and Witzleben, were led before the People’s Court set up to try them on 7 August. The verdict was swiftly delivered: guilty; the penalty, death by hanging the following day at Plötzensee prison in Berlin’s north-western suburbs.

The Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine fared no better as a National Socialist broom swept through all three branches of the Wehrmacht in the aftermath of 20 July.

The Honor of Carving the Sheep's Head

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 402-15:
Then he invited me to a lunch in his honor to be held in the drafty shack of a local village elder, a stern man wrapped in many layers of clothing. My Tatar drivers were eager to get back to Bishkek and warned me that this “quick lunch” would last most of the day. I started to believe them on the seventh or eighth course when various soups, rice dishes, and many servings of meat gave way to manti, Kyrgyz steamed dumplings stuffed with mutton, onions, and chunks of fat. You eat them with your hands, and it is said that the true measure of a good dumpling comes from the sensation of fat trickling down to your elbow as you raise the dumpling from plate to mouth. In that regard, these dumplings didn’t disappoint.

By the time I felt I could manage an escape from the lunch and crawl back to the car—since walking no longer seemed possible, given the gluttony—a man sitting next to me handed me a boiled head of some animal and a sharp long knife. Tradition demanded that a guest of honor cut strips of meat from the head and pass them around. Since I had traveled the farthest to be at this feast, it was decided that I should scalp the head, my neighbor explained. I protested that Beknazarov was the true guest of honor—I was just a pesky lunch crasher and therefore should be disqualified from the task. I didn’t want to steal another man’s boiled head. Seeing my confusion, my neighbor laughed and passed the head to a Beknazarov aide, who proceeded to slice and dice it with an authority born of many such feasts. Sensing our lunch was starting to morph into dinner, I quietly slipped away. Beknazarov stayed behind, sitting cross-legged on the floor, chatting with the elders and enjoying being the man of the moment again. Within a month he would be leading crowds of protesters yet again.

12 September 2015

Useless German Navy and Air Force on D-Day

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 4146-67:
Frustration on land was mirrored by frustration at sea and in the skies. Across France in the first week of August there was a growing realization in the mind of the Landser [soldier], Matrose [sailor] and Flieger [airman] that the house of cards was about to collapse, that the efforts of the summer of 1944 had been in vain. The Kriegsmarine’s campaign against the invasion armada had been an unmitigated disaster, despite Karl Dönitz’s attempt to hide the fact with his continued exhortations:
Two years ago it was fair to say that Norway had to be defended in American waters where we could sink the most shipping. Such a concept is no longer applicable. Today it is more important to sink one landing ship in the invasion area than it is to sink one Liberty ship in the Atlantic, for example.
The problem was that Dönitz’s U-boats could get nowhere near the invasion fleet. The Allied defensive blockade was impenetrable. ‘The very strong defences encountered in the Seine Bay are striking,’ the admiral complained. ‘U309 had to return after only six days’ operations in the invasion area because of the utter exhaustion of her crew.’ Herbert Werner’s U415 too lasted just six days, another victim of enemy counter-measures – an aerial mine dropped outside the imposing U-boat pens at Brest. Werner had sunk no enemy vessels. In return, he lost his boat and two of his crew. Its loss, Werner bemoaned, ‘became just another statistic in the dismal obliteration of our U-boat force’. In the first fortnight of July, thirteen U-boats had been lost, leaving just six submarines to challenge the invasion fleet. ‘During these disastrous two weeks, no more than three or four U-boats at a time were attacking the convoys ferrying invasion supplies,’ Werner wrote. ‘New Allied divisions, fully equipped and with thousands of tanks and vehicles, poured ashore.’ As he buried his dead in the cemetery of a Brest suburb, Werner found himself pondering his fate. ‘What could I say to parents who, if their sons must die, wanted them to die as heroes in combat?’ he asked himself. ‘I was still struggling with my sentences long after midnight.’

Karl Dönitz had made no rash promises on behalf of his navy in the event of invasion. His men would do their duty, but he had never assured Hitler they could halt an enemy armada. Hermann Goering, on the other hand, had pledged his Luftwaffe would give its all, that it would fight itself to death in achieving victory in the west. And now, two months after the invasion, the Allies had a firm foothold on French soil while the German air force was heading for oblivion. It could not make good its leader’s promises.

Axis vs. Allied Casualties on D-Day

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 1390-96:
The rapid success of the invasion, particularly at Utah, Gold and Sword, prompted taunts from the British propaganda machine. The German Army in the west had been taken by surprise, radio reports boasted. ‘The English reported that German soldiers had to be hauled out of their beds in their bedclothes.’ The price of the Allies’ precarious foothold on French soil was fewer than 5,000 casualties. ‘Bloody’ Omaha cost the Americans 2,400 dead, wounded and missing, but the invading forces at Utah suffered fewer than 200 dead. The British lost 400 men at Gold, a further 630 troops were casualties at Sword, and the Canadians at Juno suffered 1,200 casualties. The German Army lost at least as many men defending the beaches and landing grounds that Tuesday.

Eastern Troops Defending Normandy, 1944

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 388-405:
Germany had suffered casualties nearing four million, three out of four of them on the Eastern Front. 1943 had been a punishing year in Russia. Since July alone, Germany had lost more than 1,200,000 men. The losses could not be made good. Even after stripping Italy and especially France, even after sending more than a quarter of a million men from the training schools, even after sending wounded men back to the front, the German Army in Russia still found itself more than 300,000 short.

Short of men in the east, short of men in the west, Germany turned to desperate measures to fill its thinning ranks. Hitler was convinced the rear areas, supply depots, offices and administrations would prove to be a rich source of untapped manhood. He ordered every division, every naval and Luftwaffe unit to comb out men who could be spared duties behind the lines so they could be sent to the front. But combing out the Wehrmacht could not solve all its ills. The losses had simply been too great. In 1943, the German military machine began calling up seventeen and eighteen year olds and relying more and more heavily on foreign ‘volunteers’: Volksdeutsche – ethnic Germans, born outside the Fatherland; Freiwillige – foreign volunteers sympathetic to the Nazi cause – and Hilfswillige or ‘Hiwis’ – auxiliaries, usually Russians or Poles pressed into military service from the occupied territories or recruited from the millions of prisoners of war wasting away in German camps. With the war turning against the Wehrmacht in the east, it was no longer safe to use anti-Bolshevik Russians on the Eastern Front. From the autumn of 1943 onwards, the High Command steadily began swapping German troops behind the Atlantic Wall for these so-called Osttruppen – eastern troops. By the spring of 1944, one in six infantry battalions along the Atlantic Coast was composed of Osttruppen and foreign volunteers – Russians, Poles, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians among them. On the eastern coast of the Cotentin peninsula, 709th Infantry Division was typical of the second-rate divisions defending the west in 1944. One in five in its ranks was a volunteer from the east. Its commander, Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, was sceptical. ‘We are asking rather a lot if we expect Russians to fight in France for Germany against Americans.’