30 July 2023

Danish Civil Warriors and Crusaders

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle pp. 103-105:

On Christmas Day 1144, the Christian Principality of Edessa was lost to Sultan Zenghi of Mosul. It was the first major defeat in the Latin Middle East, and when the news reached Western Europe, it was met with despair and determination. Something had to be done, and preparations were underway for a new crusade just as large as the first (in general, see Phillips 2007). An absolutely crucial force in this effort was Bernard of Clairvaux, abbot of the wide-reaching Cistercian order. Bernhard was a gifted speaker and traveled throughout northern Europe on a preaching mission, and it was also he who initially allowed Northern German princes to fight the pagan Slavic peoples instead of traveling to Edessa. He rationalized this on the theological grounds that the devil attacked Christianity on all fronts simultaneously, and that it was just as important to defend themselves in the north as it was in the south. This cumulatively led to the so-called Second Crusade in 1147, which was one crusade but executed on many fronts, as it was described by contemporaries. Crusades were led against Damascus, against several places in the Iberian Peninsula, and in the Baltic Sea.

In 1146, Cardinal Ubaldus hosted a church meeting in Odense to preach crusade and drum up support (Bysted et al. 2012; Jensen 2017). The reaction must have amazed him, because King Erik III Lamb of Denmark immediately abdicated and entered a monastery, thus becoming the first and so far the only Danish king to voluntarily surrender the throne. He also died shortly afterwards and presumably resigned due to illness. He was followed by Sweyn III, who was later nicknamed Sweyn Grathe. Grathe was chosen by the Sealanders, but the people of Jutland concurrently chose Canute, the son of Magnus (Nilsson) (who had killed Canute Lavard). The third individual to partake in the battle for the throne was Canute Lavard’s son, Valdemar, who was now about 15 years old. The struggle developed into an eleven year war between Sweyn III, Canute, and Valdemar, and is often portrayed as a civil war. It is probably more accurate to see the conflict as formerly independent countries who now seized the opportunity to choose their own king. Conversely, these kings sought to expand their own power and unite the kingdoms over which their predecessors had ruled. During this same time period, several kings fought for power in Norway and Sweden as well.

The bloody wars in Denmark give a rare insight to the rulers’ paths, both physically and mentally, to power within the empire. Sweyn III began his king’s reign by working with Valdemar to declare Canute Lavard a saint and place his bones as relics upon the high altar in Ringsted. It was not recognized by Archbishop Eskild because it was a private canonization without the pope’s acceptance, but it does show that Valdemar would henceforth use his father’s miracles as an argument to support his own position as king. After that, Keld of Viborg, who had previously sought the pope for permission to mission and become a martyr among the pagan Wends, mediated between Sweyn and Canute by having them participate in a joint crusade against the Wendish Dobin, near present-day Rostock. They participated because the pope promised that if they fell, their souls would be in heaven before their blood cooled on the earth (Knytlingesaga 1919–25, 108). At Dobin, they met with a Saxon cavalry, and succeeded in occupying the city, baptizing the inhabitants and forcing them to free their Christian slaves. Then, according to Saxo, the Danish army withdrew because Sweyn and Canute did not trust each other. According to his contemporary, German historian Helmold of Bosau, retreat was because “the Danes are mighty warriors at home, but completely useless in real battle” (Helmold 1868, 65).

28 July 2023

Scandinavian Warriors in 9th c.

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle pp. 62-64:

Ireland had previously been the target of Norwegian warriors, and in 851 Danes also started raiding the island. In 853 Ivar became king of Dublin and later participated in the conquest of York in 866. In 844 and 846 some of the armies that had fought in France pressed onwards to Galicia in northern Spain, and even to Arabic Lisbon: according to some later Spanish sources, these troops were dispatched by the Danish king Horik. In 854, 70 ships, led by Björn Ironside and Hastings, sailed from England via Spain to Morocco, into the Mediterranean, ultimately reaching Italy. Although it is difficult to measure the scale of these battles compared to earlier periods with fewer sources, it seems clear that the battles from the mid-800s onwards were vaster in scope, earning attention from their contemporaries who became the victims. There are three main reasons for this intensification of warfare.

First, it is clear that the Nordic longship had developed into a maneuverable and efficient war machine: Danish and Scandinavian fleets were famous and desired by other rulers for centuries to come. It probably wasn’t until around 1200 that other countries off the Atlantic coast built equally strong fleets; in the Mediterranean it probably happened in the early 1100s. Until then, the Scandinavians had a significant advantage at sea.

Secondly, the expansion in the 800s shows that Scandinavia was an extremely rich area. There is a very specific reason for that. With the rise of Islam in the 600s and the conquest of large parts of the Mediterranean world until the beginning of the 700s, Europe’s economic center of gravity shifted to the east. The link between East and West in the Mediterranean was left un-interrupted, but the Arab gold mines and new efficient exploitation of the Silk Road and its access to the East’s lucrative trade system provided an economic boost to the Byzantine Empire, particularly to the capital of Constantinople. The Scandinavians had access to this via the Gulf of Finland, Lake Ladoga in northwest Russia, and along the great Russian rivers to the Black Sea (Bjerg et al. 2013). Islam actually brought Scandinavia closer to being Europe’s economic center, becoming bridge and a transit area between the East and West. The vast quantities of gold coins found in Scandinavia clearly illustrate this. So far at least 200,000 Arabic gold coins have been excavated by archeologists, and with the spread of metal detectors more and more are discovered each year. Yet it is still only a small percentage of the many coins that were buried, and they represent only those treasures that were not dug up again by their owner or his heirs. Most of these immense riches were later invested towards war technology and political capital, in ships and men.

Third, most of these raiding expeditions were not random looting. Nor did they reflect a large-scale war between Denmark and other countries or between two cultures, one European and one Scandinavian, or between two religions, one Christian and one pagan. Rather, they were a natural element of an intricate political game between a variety of different rulers, with opponents and allied partners coming together across the political and religious spectrum.

The Danish wars in England were a continuation of old alliances across the North Sea. In northern England, Danish armies were apparently well received by the local population, whose elite probably had ancient Scandinavian roots. Several groups of warriors joined together to form the “great army” in 865, and in the coming years they conquered relatively easily East Anglia and Northumbria, which starting in around 870 came under Danish control. The Great Army threatened the kingdom of Mercia and Wessex in southern England, where it was stopped by King Alfred the Great. The warriors were soon followed by peasants who settled and cultivated the land. Danish had a lasting influence on the English language, and northern England became known as the Danelaw, the area under Danish law and control. We do know the names of several Danish commanders and kings located in England from the 800 and 900s. However, we don’t know if these kings also simultaneously ruled over anything back in Denmark. English sources say that they occasionally returned home to Denmark. This indicates that the relationship would have been close at the time, and the involvement in England clearly had a profound effect on the political hierarchy and power dynamics in Denmark.

The same certainly applies to the Frankish empire. One of the most important defensive strategies of the French king against the attack of the Scandinavian armies was to quickly ally himself with other Scandinavian rulers who were given land to which to defend [like Rollo in Normandy].

26 July 2023

The Danish Empire!

Here's a book I've long been waiting for, after coming across accounts of Danish colonies in Africa and India, Danish intercession with the Barbary pirates, and Denmark's more familiar (and longer-lasting) Atlantic colonies, let alone the once dominant role of Danes in the Baltic region. This is a new and comprehensive book, so I'll make an effort not to quote as many passages as I would do if it had been on the market for a longer time.

From The Rise and Fall of the Danish Empire, by Michael Bregnsbo and Kurt Villads Jensen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), Kindle pp. 13-14, 16-17:

The Danish Empire: Rise and Fall. This sounds as a pretentious title for the small kingdom of Denmark, but it is inspired by English historian Edward Gibbon’s grande opus, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Released in 1776–88, it has since become a classic, not only serving as an unattainable standard for later historians due to its vivid narrative style, but also as a landmark work. It became an essential source for later generations in their understanding of the Middle Ages as a dark period and became a manifest for enlightened thought and rationality in the face of superstition and sensations.

We have chosen to title this book The Danish Empire: Rise and Fall—to stress the volatile and shifting nature of the political unit that throughout history has been called Denmark. Today, one rarely hears much about the topic of Denmark’s having been a great and politically important power. Denmark is mostly understood as a small country content with its current modest political situation. It is certainly true that Denmark is a country that has become smaller over time. However, modern descriptions of Danish history have cultivated the idea that Denmark has always been a miniscule country and has always been threatened by its powerful southern neighbor, as evident in the traditional general histories of Denmark (Christensen 1977–92; Olsen 1988–91). Images of Denmark as a large country, a substantial political power, something that may even be called an empire, lie beyond the tradition of modern Danish history. This is what we would like to attempt to challenge, and therefore we have emphasized the phraseology of rise and fall in the title.


Many Danish historians of the twentieth century tacitly assume that Denmark has always had the same size and political influence that it has today. If asked directly they would agree that it is an incorrect assumption. Yet history continues to be written accordingly: addressing how the territories that lie within the current borders of Denmark have changed over time. The border duchies of Schleswig and Holstein are mentioned due to the political problems they have always caused. Scania in southern Sweden is seldom referred to as a Danish territory as it was during the Middle Ages; other former Danish regions as Halland and Blekinge in Sweden are rarely addressed at all, not to mention the Baltic islands of Gotland, Øsel (Saaremaa), Rügen, and the country of Estonia. The Danish Empire actually stretched from the North Cape in northern Norway to Hamburg in Germany for over three hundred years, roughly equivalent to the distance between Hamburg and Sicily. This book hopes to recognize, include, and allocate these territories within their accurate place time and in history, such as England [Danelaw] in the Viking Period, Norway from the time of the Kalmar Union between 1397–1814, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, the West Indies, and Colonies in Africa [Danish Gold Coast] and India. While Denmark’s history should be acknowledged in its collective entirety, it should also remain in its European context. Denmark was at times a relatively large power in Europe, and functioned as a direct threat, particularly to many of the smaller Germanic principalities of the south: it wasn’t until later in history that these power dynamics became inverted.

23 July 2023

Poland's Election of 4 June 1989

From Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 32; Random House, 2009), Kindle pp. 188-191:

The election turned out to be a single-issue referendum: Do you want the Communist system to continue in Poland? This was hinted at when the opposition discovered it did not need to promote its previously unknown candidates to the public. It ran the same electoral poster throughout the entire country: a photograph of its local candidate, whoever that was, shaking hands with Wałęsa, over a Solidarity logo. As Kwaśniewski later said in mocking complaint, even a cow running on a Solidarity ticket would have won. Furthermore, the electoral law adopted for this election stipulated a winner-take-all system, rather than proportional representation; that is, only a candidate who received an absolute majority of the votes cast (at least 50 percent plus one vote) would be elected in a first round. Absent such a result, in a second round, two weeks later, the winner of a plurality of votes cast would get the mandate. Back in March, Prime Minister Rakowski had been warned by a wizened and wise colleague that under such an electoral procedure the party would not win a single Senate seat. But the clairvoyant only passed the memo along, without doing anything about it, because electoral law was not his bailiwick. In the first round, the opposition won 160 mandates out of the 161 it was allowed to contest in the Sejm and 92 of the 100 in the Senate. The ruling coalition, in the first round, took 3 seats in the Sejm—out of the 264 set aside for it—and zero Senate seats.

Two weeks after the debacle, Rakowski wrote in his Diaries that “to assume a candidate from the national list would get 50 percent plus one vote was a fundamental mistake. That the entire establishment of the state exposed itself to such a test is simply incomprehensible.” Indeed it was, Mr. Prime Minister. He added that “another mistake was the method for Senate elections. If the proportional system had been adopted, we would have gained thirty to forty seats in the Senate.” Most embarrassing of all, thirty-three out of the thirty-five candidates from the special “national list”—the top establishment figures—although running unopposed, had nonetheless been crossed off by a majority of voters. General Kiszczak was beside himself that in Polish embassies all over the world—except Albania—the national list had been voted down by the diplomatic corps and staff. “Somehow, in the depth of our brains, we were convinced that we would win the elections,” wrote Rakowski, a party member since 1946, “because, after all, we had always won elections.” In the races that Solidarity had not been allowed to contest, there was still the second round to ensure victories for the candidates of uncivil society by a mere plurality of votes, thereby securing the original plan of a regime-dominated parliament, which in turn would elect Jaruzelski to the presidency. But there were no provisions to recuperate the establishment figures’ completely unopposed thirty-five seats: against whom would they run in a second round? The opposition, wary of losing everything, left it to the party-state to fill these seats by post facto procedural sleight of hand. The generals still had command over the repressive apparatus, and while many people suspected (rightly) that Poland’s uncivil society had lost the stomach to shed blood, again, for such a ruinous system, the Chinese launched a crackdown in Tiananmen Square on the very day of the Polish elections.

In Poland, all the political figures who profoundly mistrusted one another and who worked doggedly to ensure they were not outfoxed by the other side were dumbfounded by the results of their joint labors. Together they had written a political script that neither side had anticipated. Would uncivil society accept its defeat, something it had always said it would never do? Would Solidarity seek to take power, something it had said it would never do? Amid the uncertainty, on July 3, Michnik—as was his style—raised a scandal. He wrote an editorial in the opposition newspaper he edited, Gazeta Wyborcza, entitled “Your President, our Prime Minister.” Michnik’s closest colleagues jumped on him for “prematurely” advocating a Solidarity government. One of his most eloquent critics was Tadeusz Mazowiecki. But it turned out that opportunists were opportunistic, for when Wałęsa approached the forgotten United Peasant Party and the Democratic Party—the “historical allies” of the ruling Communists—both eagerly accepted Solidarity’s offer of alliance against the Communists. Wałęsa then tapped his trusted adviser, General Kiszczak’s former detainee, to lead the governing coalition; Mazowiecki was duly confirmed as Poland’s prime minister. During his inaugural speech on September 12, 1989, the first postwar head of government in Poland not assigned to the office by the Communist regime fainted on the rostrum of the Sejm. Doctors took him for a short walk in the park, whence he returned to the parliament chamber. “Excuse me, but I have reached the same state as the Polish economy,” Mazowiecki quipped. “But I have recovered, and I hope the economy will recover too.” In the 1990s, half of Poland’s then $45 billion in foreign debt to Western governments and commercial banks was forgiven, in what at the time was the most generous treatment ever extended to a debtor country.

22 July 2023

Poland Was Different

From Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 32; Random House, 2009), Kindle pp. 173-175:

Poland was different. Even though peasants fiercely resisted the collectivization of agriculture everywhere, only in Poland did the party abandon the process (in 1956), so that the overwhelming majority of Polish farmland (80 percent) reverted to individual households, with only 1 percent organized as collective farms (and the rest as state farms). Such an independent peasantry was unique in the East bloc (and matched only by China when it disbanded its communes beginning in the 1970s). Further, as a result of Hitler’s murderous war and Stalin’s border shifts, Poland had become an almost universally Catholic country, and most people were churchgoers, including—often on the sly—party members. By 1977, after three decades of continuous administrative and fiscal pressure against it, the Church in Poland counted 20,000 priests and 27,600 nuns—many thousands more than during the pre-Communist interwar period. Communist Poland was organized into nearly 7,000 parishes, as well as 27 dioceses supervised by 77 bishops, with some 10,000 churches along with 4,000 chapels. Almost 5,000 students were enrolled in 44 higher Catholic seminaries, while another 1,400 studied at the Catholic Theological Academy and 2,500 at the Catholic University in Lublin—the only such Catholic institution of higher learning in the Communist world. In 1978, the archbishop of Kraków, Karol Józef Wojtyła (1920–2005), became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first-ever Polish pope.

No less distinctive was Poland’s militant working class (which Communist industrialization had greatly enlarged). Unlike the oneoff explosions in East Germany (1953), Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and (on a smaller scale) Romania (1977), eruptions in Poland recurred. In Poznań in 1956, a strike at the gigantic Josef Stalin Metallurgical Complex against a new system for calculating wages prompted more than 100,000 people (out of the city’s 380,000) to march to Adam Mickiewicz Square, where, in front of Poznań’s old royal castle, they chanted “We are hungry,” “Down with the Red bourgeoisie.” Around seventy were killed and many hundreds wounded when Poland’s uncivil society unleashed one of the bloodiest repressions in the East bloc’s history that did not involve Soviet troops. But more strike waves and demonstrations followed in 1968, 1970, 1976, and 1980 like jolts on an uncivil-society electrocardiogram. Poland’s workers developed powerful organizational forms—above all, elected interfactory strike committees—that would culminate in an independent (non-Communist) trade union known as Solidarity. In a parallel breakthrough in fall 1976, fourteen members of the intelligentsia established a Workers’ Defense Committee (Komitet Obrony Robotników, or KOR). These were men and women of different generations and different political biographies: a well-known elderly writer, a famous actress, a young and an old university professor, two retired attorneys, two officers of the wartime Home Army, a priest, some student activists, and a few hard-core dissidents. Making public their names, addresses, and telephone numbers, they invited victimized workers and their families to contact them for help. “Do not burn down committees,” exclaimed KOR’s Jacek Kuroń (1934–2004) in the aftermath of the 1976 strikes and riots, “set up your own!”

20 July 2023

The Spark that Toppled Ceauşescu

From Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 32; Random House, 2009), Kindle pp. 111-115:

László Tőkés had a history of conflict with Romania’s Reformed (Calvinist) Church authorities as well as with the political authorities; that’s how the pastor had ended up in Timişoara. At previous postings in Braşov and Dej, both in Transylvania (which has a large ethnic Hungarian minority), Tőkés had spoken out against the leadership of the Reformed Church, whose congregation in Romania was entirely ethnic Hungarian, and the condition of Romania’s Hungarians. This had provoked his relocation to Cluj—where his father had been dismissed as deputy bishop—and then, in 1986, to Timişoara (outside Transylvania), a predominantly Romanian Orthodox yet cosmopolitan city of about 350,000. What major trouble could the Hungarian pastor possibly cause there? In Timişoara, Tőkés set about reviving the small local Reformed church with his charisma. He allowed students to recite poetry at services, which was expressly forbidden, and spoke out against Ceauşescu’s unpopular “systematization” (destruction) of villages and their Orthodox churches. The Timişoaran authorities, faced with the prospect of organized dissent, pressured the Reformed Church bishop to remove Tőkés as pastor, which he did in March 1989. On that ground, the authorities set eviction proceedings in motion. Tőkés appealed. At Timişoara’s Reformed church building—three modest stories of grimy brick and stone, lacking even a cross or spire—every window of the pastor’s flat was smashed. In November, Tőkés was slashed in a knife assault by thugs during a break-in; police who were posted outside to keep him under house arrest did nothing. Finally, losing his official appeals, Tőkés appealed to parishioners at Sunday Mass to witness his scheduled “illegal” eviction on the coming Friday, December 15. That’s right: the authorities had informed the pastor of the precise date.

Around forty parishioners, mostly elderly, formed a human chain outside the pastor’s residence. They benefited from a sudden unseasonably warm winter stretch, following a brutal cold snap, but, more important, they defied the conspicuous Securitate. When the Securitate did not disperse the small crowd, more people beyond the pastor’s supporters joined, including ethnic Romanians, Germans, Serbs, Greeks, and, some have said, a few Gypsies. The Hungarian pastor spoke from his windows to the crowd outside in Romanian. Some who joined were from other Protestant denominations, such as the Baptists and Pentecostals, religious minorities that were similarly harassed. Others came from an adjacent stop for the tram that ferried workers to the city’s outlying industrial plants and students to the big local universities. The tram also facilitated the spread of information about the confrontation throughout the town. Timişoara’s inhabitants that winter, as previously, had no electricity for most of the day and often for much of the evening, including during the interval from 6:00 until 9:00 P.M., when people needed it most. Elevators were avoided, since the blackouts, coming without warning, trapped people in them. The strongest lightbulbs sold were only 40 watts. The temperature inside homes was no more than 55 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, and hot water usually came on just once a week.

People in Timişoara, as elsewhere in Romania, were given coupons to buy a few kilos of meat and fifty grams of butter—a month. They queued for hours, and sometimes even the meager allotments their coupons permitted ran out. Meanwhile, as everyone in Timişoara knew, on the outskirts lay one of Europe’s largest pork-processing plants. The town also had large local bread factories and other major food production facilities. Many Timişoarans labored in these plants, and they doubtless told others what was made in them and in what quantities. But much of this locally produced food, like everything else, was being exported for hard currency. The furious townsfolk, spending years shoulder to shoulder in queues, were united in their deprivation. But they could call upon no forms of social organization other than their churches, which were under Securitate surveillance. Their workplaces belonged to the regime. Furthermore, crowds on the streets were permitted only in connection with scripted holidays and soccer matches. In fact, back on November 15, following Romania’s defeat of Denmark in a World Cup qualifier in Bucharest, Timişoara’s streets had filled with elated fans, some of whom had apparently chanted “Down with Ceauşescu!” This unpublicized incident had indicated the potential for a wider conflagration if some thing set it off. That is exactly what the pastor’s principled, stubborn defiance had triggered on December 15.

On December 16, Timişoara’s mayor, summoned to intervene by the Securitate, arrived at the Reformed church with workmen to replace the shattered windows and with doctors to examine the pastor’s pregnant wife. In turn, the mayor requested that Tőkés instruct the crowd to disperse. In order to avoid bloodshed, the pastor agreed. But the crowd, by then much beyond his congregation, was in no mood to go home; some began accusing Tőkés of collaboration. Others assumed that his dispersal request resulted from pressure by the Securitate. Tőkés discovered himself a “prisoner” of the people’s anger. But “in that street,” recalled one eyewitness, “was a tension and a feeling of power that you could almost touch.” Both joyous and apprehensive, the gathering crowd began to relocate from the small church toward the city center, Opera Square, several blocks away. Having initially assembled to defend the ethnic Hungarian pastor, the crowd began singing the 1848 nationalist anthem, “Awake, Romanians.” Shop windows were smashed—the regime’s blackouts enabled some people to hurl rocks without being seen—and some chanted “Down with Ceauşescu!” “Down with tyranny!” “Freedom!” This lightning escalation—precisely what the appearance of the mayor had sought to preempt—had transpired in a single day.

It was the beginning of a political bank run.

19 July 2023

Romania's Ruling Elite Before 1989

From Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 32; Random House, 2009), Kindle pp. 117-120:

Ceauşescu (1918–89), the third of ten children, came from poor peasant stock, signed on as a shoemaker’s apprentice at age eleven, and joined the Communists as a teenager. As a “person dangerous to the public order,” he spent much of his youth in Romania’s Doftana Prison—the “Marxist University”—where he met [Gheorghe Gheorghiu]-Dej. Following the late-1947 Communist takeover, Ceauşescu was eventually put in charge of personnel. When he became general secretary at age fortyseven in 1965, he was not only the youngest Romanian Politburo member but the youngest party chieftain in Eastern Europe. Six years later, during the Sino-Soviet split, he provoked Soviet military maneuvers on Romania’s border by undertaking a bold state visit to China. Ceauşescu aimed to study what could be adapted from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to forestall “socialism with a human face” in Romania. On the same trip he visited Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, and liked what he saw there, too. Back in Romania, as Ceauşescu’s mini—cultural revolution and maximal cult unfolded, at least twenty-seven members of his extended clan got high posts. Most prominently, and unusually for Communist regimes, his wife, Elena (1916–89), who had dropped out of grade school but suddenly held a doctorate in chemistry, became coruler. Their debauched son Nicu (1951–1996), the minister of youth, became the heir apparent. The patriarch himself, who had completed only the four-year elementary school in his village, became a god. He bore the same title as had Antonescu (and Dej): Conducător.

Samizdat was virtually unknown in Communist Romania, and dissidents there always seemed fewer than even the small numbers elsewhere in the bloc. “Romanian dissent,” went the saying, “lives in Paris, and his name is Paul Goma” (the Romanian writer [1935—]). One reason was that unlike dissenters under other Communist regimes, those in Romania elicited indifference or even scorn from the West, where Ceauşescu was lauded as the great “maverick” willing to buck Moscow. As one analyst noted, “three presidents of the United States, three presidents of France, the Emperor of Japan, the Queen of England and a lot of other important people expressed their admiration” for Romania’s supposed “independent course.” In 1968, Ceauşescu, alone among East bloc leaders, refused to join the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. In fact, on August 23, a holiday in Romania commemorating the anniversary of the 1944 coup against the pro-Nazi regime, he publicly condemned the operation against the Prague Spring. The West was not alone in going bananas with approval: the overjoyed Goma joined the Romanian Communist party. In 1973, however, he was expelled from the party and in 1977 exiled for supporting the Czechoslovak Charter 77 human rights movement and writing two letters to Ceauşescu denouncing the Securitate, making Goma an international cause célèbre. Still, that such a nonparty critic could have joined the Romanian Communist party, even if only briefly, showed that many Romanians strongly identified with the regime’s gestures to distance Romanian communism from Soviet tutelage, while aiming for a special Romanian mission within the Communist world.

Leaving aside the few pro-Western critical types, such as Goma abroad and, at home, Doina Cornea (1929—), a professor of French literature at Cluj and advocate for human rights, the émigré historian Vladimir Tismăneanu has observed that “many Romanians despised, even hated Ceauşescu and his tyranny, but did not like liberal, Western-style democratic values either.” Communism drew upon and deepened this illiberal side of Romania’s political culture, while also spawning a new elite—Romania’s uncivil society. Around 10,000 made up the central establishment and 200,000 the regional one. This elite, largely provincial and undereducated, by design had become far more Romanian and far less Jewish, Hungarian, or German than any previous elite in Romania. Its grateful members shared career paths and life experiences—to a point. Officials “regularly attended party meetings and courses for ideological indoctrination and in this way were molded and shaped in a certain spirit and acquired a certain behavior in society,” explained Silviu Brucan (1916–2006), a onetime protégé of Dej. “The cohesion of this social group sprang from the status of its members and the special relations among them, from their position in the structure of power, from their high salaries, and particularly from their access to a wide range of restricted benefits and privileges.” Brucan—a Jew who had been born Saul Bruckner—was uncivil society’s ambassador to Washington (1956–9) and to the United Nations (1959–62), and then head of Romanian TV.

18 July 2023

GDR's Elite Decisionmaking

From Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 32; Random House, 2009), Kindle pp. 91-93:

The GDR’s uncivil society became immobilized by its own advance. By 1989, Honecker, who had begun his party career as a youth league agitator, was seventy-seven. Willi Stoph (1914–99), East German prime minister since 1964 (except for a brief interlude when he was head of state), was seventy-five. Erich Mielke (1907–2000), the head of the Stasi since 1957, was eighty-one. This ruling echelon, which had first settled in the villas of the northern Berlin suburb of Pankow, near Soviet military headquarters, moved farther out in 1960 to the more easily guarded, isolated Wandlitz woods (near Hermann Göring’s old hunting lodge). There they enjoyed Western food, fashion, jewelry, and electronics imported for them by the Stasi. Their uncivil-society compound became known as “Volvo-grad” for their chauffeur-driven imported vehicles (they could not bear to follow global elite practice and import West German Mercedeses). But despite herding together, the East German elites and their families mostly refrained from socializing—Mielke’s men were not supposed to keep a watchful eye on the private lives of party officialdom, but maybe they did? Decision making was a mystery even for high officials. “One of the most interesting findings is how little most policymakers, including many members of the SED’s highest circles, knew,” explained one scholar of East German ruling circles. “At Politburo meetings leaders discussed very little of substance. Two or three individuals walking in the woods on a weekend frequently made important decisions, and expertise rarely played a major role.”

What about the vaunted Stasi? The Stasi possessed an immense fortresslike complex in East Berlin and more than two thousand buildings, homes, bunkers, shelters, hospitals, and resorts throughout the GDR. Its staff, which numbered 5,000 in its early days, exploded to 45,000 by 1970 and 91,000 by 1989—meaning that Ulbricht and especially Honecker had built up a security ministry larger than Hitler’s Gestapo (7,000 in 1937). And that was for an East German population one quarter as large as that of Nazi Germany (66 million). In the Communist bloc, too, the Stasi stood out. Whereas the massive Brezhnev-era Soviet KGB counted one staff person for every 600 inhabitants and Poland’s equivalent SB had one for every 1,574 inhabitants, full-time Stasi personnel numbered one for every 180 East Germans. (Officially, the GDR bragged that it had one medical practitioner per 400 people.) The Stasi also developed an informant network estimated at seven times the per capita density of that of the Third Reich. Of course, for all the beatings they administered, the Stasi left behind not millions of corpses but millions of files. Its surveillance was overkill: some 6 million files, even though as late as 1989 the Stasi enumerated just 2,500 individuals as opposition activists, with only 60 deemed “hard core” (comparable to Czechoslovakia, though absurdly fewer than in Poland). That year alone the Stasi compiled 500 situation reports (each of 60 pages)—more than one per day. But the dictatorship proved incapable of using this vast reportage. As Karl Marx had written in 1842, often a “government hears only its own voice. It knows it hears only its own voice and yet it deceives itself that it hears the people’s voice.” The East German regime was out of touch, but partly for that very reason the paragons of uncivil society were in no mind to capitulate.

17 July 2023

GDR's Crisis of Legitimacy

From Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 32; Random House, 2009), Kindle pp. 70-74:

Born in 1949 following mass rapes by the Soviet army and almost toppled in its fourth year of existence by mass popular revolt, the German Democratic Republic, a rump abutting another German state, lasted four decades. That was not quite as long as Wilhelmine Germany (1870-1918) but longer than the Weimar Republic (1918-33) or the Third Reich (1933–45). Over time, the GDR’s Leninist technocratic image—as a “Red Prussia”—developed a wide following both inside and outside the Soviet bloc. In 1980, the World Bank judged East Germany to be tenth highest in the world in per capita income, above Great Britain. But in the period after World War II, particularly from the 1970s, the formula of Communist-party monopoly and state planning failed to maintain competitive economies, including in the supposed great success, the GDR, as Jeffrey Kopstein has pointed out. East Germany’s infamous State Security Service (Stasi) managed to produce files on 6 million people, more than one third of the country’s total population (16.4 million). But the political police had no answer for a prosperous West Germany, which, in the 1950s, took off on a multidecade economic miracle to become, after the United States and Japan, the world’s third most powerful economy.

East Germany’s populace, no less than the regime, understood that comparisons with West Germany were the basis of the GDR’s legitimacy. Either socialism was superior to capitalism, or it had no reason for being. This logic—starkly evident in the case of the two Germanys—held for the entire bloc. And the bloc being a bloc, the fate of each national Communist regime depended on the fate of the others. When it announced its second Five-Year Plan (1956–60), the GDR committed itself to overtaking West Germany in per capita consumption of key food products and consumer goods by 1961. Rash? Announced or not, some form of a consumer competition was inescapable. In 1961, however, rather than outconsuming West Germans, East Germans were completely enclosed: on top of the already existing 857-mile inner German-German border, a new wire fence was hastily erected some 90 miles across Berlin. The next year, a second, inner fence went up, creating a no-man’s-land, “the death strip,” patrolled by self-firing machine guns triggered by movement. These barriers were soon concretized. Still, East Germans could continue to make direct comparisons with life in West Germany from their own living rooms—just by watching West German television. In Albania the populace could watch Italian TV and in Estonia Finnish TV—rare windows. But in the GDR, Western TV was accessible in the inhabitants’ native tongue (except in a poor-reception area around Dresden, dubbed “the valley of the clueless”). North Koreans have never had anything like that vis-à-vis South Korea. West German TV offered East Germans a “nightly emigration”—and a frustrating tease.

Samizdat (self-publication) in the GDR was virtually unknown, and antisocialist dissidents were relatively few, a circumstance often attributed to the supposed lack of a strong sense of nation and nationalism. (As we shall see in the next chapter, Communist Romania is said to have lacked dissent because of a too-powerful sense of nation.) In fact, even when they were critical, intellectuals in East Germany exhibited a high degree of loyalty. The East German novelist Christa Wolf (born Christa Ihlenfeld in 1929), who after a brief stint as an informer fell under extended Stasi surveillance, openly criticized the East German leadership, but like most East German intellectuals, she hoped not to undo but to revivify the antifascist, anticapitalist cause. There was no anomaly in an intelligentsia committed to the socialist cause. True, many East German intellectuals were apolitical. And repression was omnipresent. “We were always afraid of being denounced,” recalled one person critical of the regime. But for most, West German consumerism was not their idea of better socialism. Even the hideous Wall was accepted by some of them. “I took it to be an evil, but a necessary evil for the existence of the GDR,” said one socialist intellectual, adding that “whoever wants to tear down the Wall must also be clear that he is at the same time tearing down the basis of the existence of the GDR.” Those deemed antisocialist could apply to leave or be expelled, blunting opposition domestically. As for intellectuals who refused to leave, in many cases they also refused to campaign for freedom of movement (human rights)—if leaving was betrayal, why defend the right to betrayal?

This dynamic—leave or stay—turned out to be the crucial mobilizer in 1989, when the GDR was suddenly struck by mass demonstrations, to near-universal shock, in Leipzig. As throngs of East Germans—eligible for automatic citizenship upon arrival in West Germany—clamored for exit, others massed to voice the sentiment “We’re staying.” The period from the time this agitation erupted, in autumn 1989, to the time the regime disappeared was astonishingly brief. Before a momentous peaceful demonstration on October 9 in Leipzig, the country counted fewer than 100,000 total protesters at all events, but the total would rise to 4 million by November 9, when the Berlin Wall was breached. And yet, this was mass mobilization without mass organization. The best-known organized social movement outside the regime, New Forum, was announced only in late September 1989. Though loyalist, New Forum was immediately declared “hostile to the state” and illegal by the Stasi and found no counterpart inside the ruling party—such as the reform Communists in Hungary—to negotiate with and to bolster its fledgling organization. New Forum’s activists had no offices or telephones. Its name was sometimes evoked at marches, but it was overwhelmed by events. “Social movements in the GDR evolved largely spontaneously,” argues the scholar Steven Pfaff, adding that “detestable, poorly performing authoritarian states are commonplace; it is revolutions that are unusual.” When does popular acquiescence to dictatorship vanish? When does the uncivil society lose its nerve?

The Communist establishment could not emigrate: it had no exit.

15 July 2023

1989: Ruling Class Political Bankruptcy

From Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 32; Random House, 2009), Kindle pp. 12-14:

In the popular imagination, communism’s demise in Eastern Europe has given rise to two opposing grand narratives. The first tells of a breakthrough to freedom; the second, of a revolution stolen by the old establishment. Both are partly true. Freedom, meaning the messiness of democracy as well as the rewards and risks of the market in an age of globalization, came in varying degrees to the countries of Eastern Europe, albeit with great assistance from the 1990s process of European Union accession. At the same time, much of the old Communist establishment in the East bloc survived and prospered, even in Poland (though not East Germany). Still, outcomes do not mean causation. The 1989 revolutions did not happen because of a broad freedom drive or an establishment self-enrichment grab. The cave-in was unintended, precipitated by Gorbachev’s unilateral removal of the Soviet backstop, a move that had been intended to goad socialist-bloc countries to reform themselves. In other words, Gorbachev was looking to galvanize the reform-minded Gorbachevs of Eastern Europe. There was only one flaw in this approach: there were no East European Gorbachevs. True, inside the establishments there was some ferment even before 1985 (Romania excepted), but party types inspired by Gorbachev’s Prague-Spring-style socialist revival were not numerous around the bloc. Romania’s Communist party had no reform wing whatsoever. In Poland, which was run by a military man, the party reform wing was concentrated in a periodical (Krytyka). In East Germany, proponents of a socialist renewal were found mostly among dreamy intellectuals, not officialdom. Instead of galvanizing socialist reformers in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev’s stunning repeal of the Brezhnev doctrine caught out the bloc’s uncivil societies, exposing how they had long engaged in breathtaking mismanagement. Above all, they had clung to anticapitalism in the face of an ever-flourishing capitalist Western Europe—from which the uncivil societies had borrowed to avoid making hard choices, running up self-destructive debts in hard currency, as we shall see. Then they borrowed some more. What Gorbachev did was to lay bare how socialism in the bloc had been crushed by competition with capitalism and by loans that could be repaid only by ever-new loans, Ponzi-scheme style.

We offer, then, a third narrative of global political economy and a bankrupt political class in a system that was largely bereft of corrective mechanisms. It may seem a depressing tale, yet perhaps it is not as disheartening as that of ruinous elites in a market democracy. In the 1990s and 2000s, American elites colluded in the United States’ descent into a sinkhole of debt to foreign lenders, enabling besotted consumers to indulge in profligate consumption of imported goods. America’s unwitting policy emulation of irresponsible uncivil societies was facilitated by communism’s implosion in Eastern Europe, which opened the bloc economies to global integration, and by the rise of savings-rich Asia. It was in such an environment that the spectacular incomprehension, lucrative recklessness, and not infrequent fraud of elites—bankers, fund managers, enabling politicians—booby-trapped the entire world’s financial system. After the meltdown that commenced in fall 2008, we can only hope that the market and democracy prove their resiliency and good governance and accountability return. In the meantime, if Eastern Europe’s experience is any guide, those responsible will largely escape any reckoning.

14 July 2023

1989: Implosion More Than Explosion

From Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, by Stephen Kotkin (Modern Library Chronicles Series Book 32; Random House, 2009), Kindle pp. 8-11:

What more could there be to say on this twentieth anniversary of 1989? Plenty. Most analysts continue to focus disproportionately, even exclusively, on the “opposition,” which they fantasize as a “civil society.” This fixation recalls the long and fruitless search for “the bourgeoisie” who supposedly caused the French Revolution of 1789. But just as “the bourgeoisie” were mostly an outcome of 1789, so “civil society” was more a consequence than a primary cause of 1989. Thanks to the repudiation of the single-party monopoly and its corollary, the state-owned and state-run economy, the 1989 revolutions would make civil society possible. That said, highlighting the opposition is understandable for Poland since, as we shall see, Poland had an opposition, which imagined itself as civil society. Such a focus almost works for Hungary, too, because, like Poland, Hungary had a negotiated exit from communism, though Hungary’s proreform Communists in 1989 had to bolster the anti-Communist opposition in order to have a negotiating partner. Be that as it may, for all other Eastern European countries the focus on the opposition falls into the realm of fiction. And even for the Polish case, analysts too often leave out the side across the table from the opposition—namely, the Communist establishment. The often overlooked establishment, which we call “uncivil society,” is a primary focus of our book, because that is where collapse happened.

The incompetent, blinkered, and ultimately bankrupt Communist establishments—party bosses and propagandists, secret policemen and military brass—deserve their due, but we do not examine every Eastern European country in depth. East Germany, Romania, and Poland are the case studies (in that unusual order) that we single out for extended treatment because, in our view, they best reveal how and why each establishment’s implosion occurred. Seeking to use the opposition to help push through tough economic measures to save the system, uncivil society in Poland (as well as in Hungary) discovered that it had instead capitulated; in East Germany and Romania (and elsewhere) the establishment just collapsed. The causes behind both these outcomes had a lot to do with internal elite dynamics and with geopolitics, as we shall show. But in cases where the uncivil society was determined to hold on, it had to be, and was, given a shove by mass social mobilization. Paradoxically, therefore, in 1989 the enormous street demonstrations took place not in the country with the formidable organized opposition (Poland) but in the lands of the formidable Securitate and Stasi—the dreaded security police of Romania and East Germany, respectively. No less paradoxically, the mass protests broke out without equivalent mass social organizations. Hence, a second goal of our book, beyond a close look at uncivil society, entails an explanation of the social mobilization absent corresponding societal organization.

Eastern Europe ended up shaping the destiny of the Soviet Union, but the Soviets had long held the fate of Eastern Europe in their hands. The “Brezhnev Doctrine”—employing military force, as a last resort, to uphold socialism in the bloc—was in many ways the Andropov Doctrine. Yuri Andropov, the long-serving KGB chief (1967–82) and briefly the successor to Leonid Brezhnev as general secretary (1982–84), had long undergirded the Soviet resolve. Andropov played a hard-line man-on-the-spot role as Soviet ambassador to Hungary during the crackdown in 1956; he manipulated the more cautious Brezhnev over using force in Czechoslovakia in 1968; and he took a tough stance on Poland in 1980–81 during Solidarity’s existence. The KGB underling who served as station chief in Poland from April 1973 through October 1984 recalled that Andropov had refused to countenance Poland taking the “capitalist” path, a scenario viewed as zero sum geopolitically. Other evidence, though, indicates that behind closed doors in 1981 Andropov lamented that the overtaxed Soviet Union had reached the limits of its ability to intervene militarily in Eastern Europe and goaded the Polish regime to conduct its own crackdown (it did). Be that as it may, in 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev’s Kremlin not only formally repealed the Brezhnev Doctrine but also worked to prevent Eastern Europe’s uncivil societies from themselves using violence to prop up their regimes. Almost immediately thereupon, the Communist systems in Eastern Europe were overturned. The ashes of Andropov—who more than anyone had helped put Gorbachev into power—must have been turning over in his Kremlin Wall urn.

10 July 2023

How Long Did the Asian War Last?

From Asian Armageddon, 1944–45, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 283-284:

The question of how long the war in the Asia Pacific lasted can also be put to the historian. The conventional answer is that it spanned less than four years, the time that passed between Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. A slightly more unconventional reply would argue that it began in 1937 with the onset of all-out conventional hostilities between China and Japan. Recently, the Chinese government and some Chinese historians have asserted that the actual beginning of the war with Japan was in 1931, with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. Obviously, the further back in time the start of the war is pushed, the more central becomes the role of China.

There is less controversy about the end of the war, as most agree on 1945 as marking the natural conclusion. Still, the conflicts which harrowed the region for the next three decades could in many ways be seen as consequences of the larger conflagration of the early 1940s. The internecine war that would lay waste to Korea only five years into the future came about partly as a result of the division of the peninsula into a Soviet-backed north and a US-supported south after the end of the Japanese occupation. Likewise, the numerous struggles against the Western colonial masters might be seen as having been kindled by the examples set by the Japanese. It could, therefore, be argued that the Japanese-American war of 1941 to 1945 was part of a much larger half-century-long narrative stretching from the civil wars of China of the 1920s all the way until the evacuation of Saigon in 1975. Perhaps it will take another century of writing about the conflict, and the sobering effect of time passed, to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

Whether now or in the distant future, one of the main objectives of history will be to learn from it. Some of the participants in the vast conflict began learning as soon as the weapons fell silent. On August 14, 1946, the first anniversary of Japan’s decision to accept unconditional surrender, emperor Hirohito met with Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru as well as Suzuki Kantarō, who had headed the government at the end of the war. The emperor expressed regret at the way the war had developed but pointed out this had not been the first time Japan has suffered abject defeat. Events had come full circle. In the battle of the Paekchon River in 663, Japan had met China in battle for the first time in history, and it had been beaten and forced to withdraw to the home islands. “After that, political reforms were pushed forward, and the result was a major turning point in the development of Japanese civilization,” Hirohito said. “If we bear this in mind, we can naturally understand the road that Japan needs to take after this new defeat.”

09 July 2023

Japan's Defeat Hits Southeast Asia

From Asian Armageddon, 1944–45, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 278-281:

Even many years after the war, Mustapha Hussein remembered his reaction when he heard that Japan had surrendered: “I cried.” A political radical in the former British colony of Malaya, he had hoped that the peninsula’s separatist movement would seize the opportunity and declare independence during the brief period that offered itself while Japan was fatally weak and the Allies had not yet declared victory. Now that Japan had formally capitulated, the reimposition of British rule was just a matter of time. The chance was wasted. “I regretted the matter deeply as Malaya would once again be colonized and gripped by Western power.”

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, some activists did try to exploit the brief interregnum between Japan’s surrender and the arrival of the Western victors. In the East Indies on August 17, two days after the Japanese had accepted their defeat, the head of the separatist movement, Sukarno, declared independence, creating “an electrifying effect on the mass of Indonesians,” according to an observer. In Indochina two weeks later, on September 2, the day of the surrender ceremony on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay, the US-backed guerrilla leader Ho Chi Minh did the same for Vietnam. “Today we are determined to oppose the wicked schemes of the French imperialists, and we call upon the victorious Allies to recognize our freedom and independence,” he told a jubilant crowd in Hanoi.

Both attempts were squashed within weeks as the old imperialists returned, battered but determined to pick up where they had left off. It would seem that it was now back to colonial business as usual, and that the Western empires would be resurrected to their former grandeur. Nothing could be further from the truth. The European colonies, some dating back centuries, only returned for a brief interlude before evaporating forever. This also meant that the peace that was heralded by Hirohito’s speech in August 1945 was not peace at all, but more war by new means. This went for virtually all of Southeast Asia. For every society in the region except Thailand, the first two decades after the war that ended in 1945 brought new mass-scale violence, whether in the form of war, civil war, or revolution, or a combination of the three.

It came as completely unexpected to most Europeans. B. C. de Jonge, governor general of the Dutch East Indies in the 1930s, had confidently signaled that his country’s control of the Southeast Asian archipelago was essentially for eternity. “We have ruled here for 300 years with the whip and the club and we shall still be doing it in another 300 years,” he had said. In fact, counting from the time they returned to the East Indies in 1945 trying to reinstate their authority, the Dutch had only four years left as colonial masters. The Dutch had shown in 1941 that they could be beaten, fast and decisively, and the aura of superiority which had enabled them to control a country many times larger than their own was gone forever.

The genie of independence was out of the bottle, and it could not be put back in. Often it had horrifically violent results. Dirk Bogarde, the future actor, was on the island of Java with British forces and saw how Dutch internees, returning from the camps and trying to start their lives anew in their looted homes, often were murdered by frenzied mobs. In one instance, an elderly Dutch couple had been hacked to death in their small villa: “The woman… had put up a desperate fight, her hands shredded by the knives, her blood sprayed in elegant arcs across the tiled walls. The man lay face downwards in the sitting room, his balding head almost severed from his body.”

The inability of the Western colonial powers to deal efficiently with social problems that the colonized people, left to their own devices, had occasionally proven better at solving further contributed to the Western loss of prestige in the former colonies. An example was the famine in Indochina, which was alleviated after the French authorities had been ousted in the spring of 1945 and replaced with an indigenous regime propped up by the Japanese. Immediately after assuming power, the colony’s new rulers introduced new measures to reduce speculation on the pricing of scarce rice supplies while improving the transportation of grains to the hunger-stricken provinces. “Brutal measures that we ourselves would not have ventured to take bring a momentary abundance,” a French writer reluctantly acknowledged, adding that the people of Indochina “have come to think very seriously that they are ripe to be a great nation.”

This was only reinforced when the Japanese left and handed back Indochina to the Western powers. Despite the improvement made in the spring, the food situation quickly turned desperate again. “Hanoi with a population of 200,000 inhabitants is literally dying of hunger,” a foreign observer wrote. “The worst situation is that of feeding the infants.” This was only partly the result of Western mismanagement. More importantly, Indochina experienced devastating flooding, with river levels in Hanoi reaching a historical record, but the prestige of the colonial authorities suffered yet another blow.

As in the East Indies, a protracted guerrilla campaign followed in Indochina, fueled by the population’s thirst for independence, and French determination to hold onto its prized possession. If France let go of this “admirable balcony on the Pacific,” it would no longer be a great power, a leading French politician said. The result was long years of bloodshed which gradually evolved into a full-scale conventional war, and only ended with the withdrawal of the French colonial rulers and the division of Indochina into two in 1954.

08 July 2023

Indochina, 1945: Famine & Coup

From Asian Armageddon, 1944–45, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 200-202:

The famine lasted for five months in early 1945 but its causes could be traced back to the year before, and similar to the mass starvation that had struck British-ruled India earlier in the war, it was the result of both natural calamities and official policies. Drought and insect attacks caused the spring harvest in 1944 to drop steeply below expectations, and the following autumn devastating typhoons cut down the agricultural output dramatically. The worst effects of the hunger disaster could have been mitigated if rice had been sent to the north from southern regions, where the crops were more plentiful. However, American bombing had destroyed bridges, railroads, and other infrastructure, and anyway both the Japanese army and the French colonial authorities, who were still in charge despite the presence of large Japanese forces, prioritized the transportation of their own military forces over vital food supplies for the civilian population. Between one and two million people died as a result of the 1945 mass starvation in Indochina. This overall figure covered vast regional variations, and in the worst hit areas of northern Indochina, society teetered on the brink of collapse.


The food scarcity also affected those inhabitants of Indochina who were not directly pushed to the limit by starvation, but still saw a precipitous drop in the standard of living due to steep prices in rice. The result was that the French colonial authorities became even more unpopular than before. The fact that the French administration had helped prevent the kind of mass conscription of forced labor that had happened in other parts of Japanese-controlled Asia mattered less. To many Indochinese it made a much deeper impression to see sharply dressed Japanese officers walk the streets of the major cities, in humiliating contrast to the often flabby-looking French colonial troops.

Therefore, there was widespread anticipation of better times when on March 9, 1945, the Japanese Army in Indochina took over control from the French colonial authorities in a swift coup. French officers were taken into custody, and their soldiers ordered to lay down their arms. Those who resisted were met with trademark brutality. A few French garrisons opposed the Japanese move, and in some cases extended firefights took place. At the end of the battles, French prisoners were bayoneted or beheaded. Defeated foreign legionnaires were forced to watch as Japanese soldiers hauled down the French flag, tore it to shreds, and stamped it into the ground. Rapes of French women were commonplace. Duong Thieu Chi, the official who had witnessed instances of cannibalism, was shocked to see a senior French colonial official be thrown to the floor by a Japanese captain and then beaten bloody with the hilt of a sword.

The new Japanese rulers took steps to improve the food supply, for example by handing out grain from public granaries under much publicity, and also ensured a fairer distribution of rice where it was needed. However, they were less enthusiastic about nationalistic sentiments in the population, who suddenly believed that colonialism might be a thing of the past, resulting in mass gatherings and strikes. “The defense of Indochina against the enemy outside the country will be completely ineffective if domestic order is not perfectly maintained,” the Japanese military authorities warned in a statement. The people of Indochina gradually came to understand that their new masters were perhaps not all that different from the old ones.

07 July 2023

Destruction of Manila, 1945

From Asian Armageddon, 1944–45, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 189-191:

The 11th Airborne Division also moved towards Manila from the south but still met with determined opposition and some of the most formidable hardware prepared by the Japanese in expectation of the assault. At Nichols Field, a US military airfield established before the war, they were shelled by five-inch naval guns, removed from warships and placed in strategic positions. Being forced to halt, a company commander messaged back to headquarters, “Tell Bill Halsey to stop looking for the Jap fleet. It’s dug in on Nichols Field.”

In parts of the city, the fight proceeded Stalingrad-style, with protracted combat building for building, floor for floor, room for room. When soldiers of the 1st Cavalry entered into Manila Hotel, they were met with a hail of bullets from Japanese positions on the stairs leading to the upper floors. Deadly combat ensued, as the Americans worked their way up, while the Japanese counterattacked from one floor to the next. One group of defenders held on to the mezzanine floor for 24 hours, and it was three days before every Japanese in the building had been killed, leaving it in American hands.

Shortly afterwards, Eichelberger moved into the annex of the hotel, taking in the view of Manila. “I could see the city of Manila gleaming whitely in the sunshine. I could see Corregidor, and the hook of the Cavite peninsula, which curves into Manila Bay. In another direction I could see Balayan and Batangas Bays on the sea, and, inland, Lake Taal in the crater of an extinct volcano and the shimmer of Laguna de Bay,” he wrote in his memoirs. “It was strangely like a homecoming. But soon tall plumes of smoke began to rise in Manila, and at evening the tropical sky was crimsoned by many fires. The Japanese were deliberately destroying the magical town which had been traditionally called ‘the Pearl of the Orient’.”

The almost complete devastation of Manila, including the picturesque Intermuros [sic] district dating back to the 16th century, took place despite MacArthur’s express wishes to spare the city and its people. He had told Kenney, the commander of his air corps, to avoid bombing the city from the air: “You would probably kill off the Japs all right, but there are several thousand Filipino civilians in there who would be killed, too. The world would hold up its hands in horror if we did anything like that.” However, deliberate Japanese arson, a kind of urban scorched-earth tactics, combined with artillery fire on both sides to lay waste to the city. “Every beautiful public building is in ruin, and there is no roof on any building in the Intramuros,” Eichelberger wrote in a letter to his wife. “It is all just graveyard.”

It bore a resemblance to the fate that had befallen Warsaw the year before, and the same could be said of the senseless killing of civilians. Just as the most brutal units of the German SS somehow found time to massacre the population of the Polish capital, the Japanese, too, went on a bloody rampage among defenseless men, women, and children. “Crazed with alcohol, Japanese officers and men raged through the city in an orgy of lust and destruction that brought back memories of their conduct at the capture of Nanking several years before, when their actions had horrified the civilized world,” Kenney wrote later.

06 July 2023

Roles of Nadzab and Ulithi in 1944

From Asian Armageddon, 1944–45, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 134-136:

If one were to point to one vital factor that tilted the balance against the Axis across the globe, it was, in addition to the Soviet willingness to shed blood, the juggernaut of American industrial might. To be of any use it had to be taken from the assembly lines in the United States to where it was needed, and by 1944, it was reaching the farthest corners of the Pacific. It was a miracle of transportation, but it did not come easy or cheap: for every combat division that was deployed in the war against Japan, twice the number of service troops was needed to ship it to the region and keep it supplied. This was a feat that probably no other power could accomplish but the United States, skilled in the operation of a modern continent-sized economy, with maritime commercial ties spanning across the globe to match. The war in the Pacific was a logistical contest as much as a military conflict, and America was uniquely prepared for it.

The peculiar nature of the war changed the face of the Pacific, and it brought the 20th century, with all its technological prowess and organized violence, to areas that sometimes were just emerging from the Stone Age. At Nadzab in New Guinea, originally a mission station with a tiny airfield for small planes, one of the world’s largest airports and transportation hubs had emerged from practically nothing. It was the western terminus of the Air Transport Command’s trans-Pacific flights, and by 1944, it was a beehive of frantic activity, as Navy airman Charles Furey later recalled: “During the daylight hours, the sky is filled with hovering airplanes, and airplanes taking off and landing. Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t a fiery crash on one of the runways. We hear a deep rumble, and then an obelisk of black smoke appears in the sky, a brief monument to some unlucky flight crew.”

Later in the year, Ulithi atoll in the Carolines became for a period the world’s largest fleet base. It was seized against no opposition on September 23, and within weeks, it was home to not only harbor facilities, but also an airstrip and a hospital, and shortly afterwards “Radio Ulithi” began broadcasting. The base even boasted modest facilities for rest and recreation for weary soldiers and sailors, on the small island of Mogmog, ruled by the Micronesian King Ueg, who agreed to move his people to the neighboring island of Fassarai for the duration of the war. At one point when the lagoon was particularly crowded, Mogmog was “so full of bluejackets in shoregoing whites that from a distance it looked like one of those Maine islands where seagulls breed,” according to the official US Navy historian. Still, there was little entertainment: “You would sit around and drink beer and that was about it, and maybe try to go for a swim. But the coral was so sharp that it would cut your legs up and you couldn’t even get in the water,” a serviceman recalled.

Michael Bak, quartermaster on board the destroyer USS Franks, remembered the immense size of Ulithi, which seemed large enough to hold the entire US Navy: “One of the interesting things about Ulithi was that there were so many ships in the fleet coming in that everybody aboard ship had a buddy on another ship. They would come up to the bridge, where the signal gang had a record of the ships in the lagoon. The signalmen always knew, because we had to watch our division commander’s mast for signal messages which were given off on the yardarms. And one of the fellows from our crew would come to the bridge and ask if we could call different ships to see if so-and-so was aboard, and maybe get him to talk,” he said.

05 July 2023

Labor Unrest in Java, 1944

From Asian Armageddon, 1944–45, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 84-88:

In the summer of 1944, the region of Indramayu on the East Indies island of Java exploded in violence. A student at an Islamic boarding school who was known only by the name of Mi’an began distributing holy water among the peasants in the area, telling them it would make them invulnerable to attacks from non-Muslims. They needed it, for they were preparing an uprising against their Japanese-supported rulers over grain levies that made life almost unbearable. A couple of low-ranking Javanese officials in the village of Bugis were the first to feel the wrath of the peasants. Angry mobs attacked them in their homes, beating them up and destroying everything inside. The Japanese military police rushed to the scene and confronted the protesting crowd. After attempting to threaten the peasants to disperse, the soldiers opened fire, mowing down the men and boys, who were carrying only sticks and machetes. About 200 people died on that blood-soaked day.

Many had expected a clash sooner or later. Tensions had been building up in this part of the former Dutch East Indies since the spring, as village after village had protested at the rising grain acquisitions, and some had openly rebelled. “We would rather die in battle than die of hunger,” they shouted when officials tried to convince them to go home. Instead, the desperate villagers went on rampages, hunting down tax collectors and others who acted as the face of the regime at the grassroots level. One was stabbed to death by a crowd wielding sharpened bamboo sticks, another was killed along with his son.

Anger was directed as much at local officials as at the Japanese, but it was the Japanese who had the power to enforce the unpopular decisions on the poverty-stricken people of Java. Few protesters were killed on the spot. Most individuals deemed to be the ringleaders of the riots were simply driven away, never to be heard from again. Still, even the Japanese did not have the power to rein in the escalating chaos following the riots during the summer months, and as roving bandits moved through the unpoliced countryside, attacking ordinary people and looting their homes, everyone suffered.

The unrest in Java reflected larger problems afflicting the Japanese throughout their vast empire by the middle of 1944. In the Dutch East Indies, the Japanese had ostensibly been attempting a policy of unifying the various ethnicities. On Java, this philosophy of a “fraternal order,” bringing together Japanese, Indonesian, Chinese, Arabs, and Eurasians, was propagated, in direct opposition to the “divide and rule” tactics that the former Dutch colonial masters had carried out, with significant success. In most Asian areas, Japan made the pretense of supporting indigenous government of some form, in conformity with its stated objective of ridding the region of western imperialism. The one exception until the end of the war was Indochina, where the French colonial administration remained in place.

In some cases, regular friendships had evolved between Japanese and representatives of the local population. An Indonesian journalist later explained his relationship with one of the Japanese officials, who had a genuine concern for the fate of the East Indies. “He was a frank and sympathetic friend, almost like a brother to us. His Indonesian was excellent… and we had many discussions with him about politics, Japan’s objectives and Indonesian independence. He helped us in a lot of ways; for instance, sometimes if articles we had written did not pass the censor, he would somehow try to get them in print.”

The reality, however, was often the reverse of the rosy images of inter-racial harmony described in the Japanese illustrated magazines. Since the early days of the occupation in 1942, the requirements of the local population had to yield to the demands of the Japanese military. After all, access to the rich natural resources of the East Indies had formed the entire basic rationale for Tokyo’s decision to unleash the Pacific War. “I had only to know how much exploitation the native population could endure,” said Major Miyamoto Shizuo, an officer in charge of logistics planning.

It was highly ironic that by 1944 Japan was reaping extraordinarily little actual gain from its possessions in Southeast Asia. Prior to Pearl Harbor, Japanese planners had calculated with Indonesian oil meeting most of their 7.9-million-ton oil requirement per year, but Allied sinking of Japanese transport shipping had caused the amount actually shipped to other parts of the Japanese empire to gradually dwindle, and for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 1944, no oil at all was transported from the East Indies. The output of other strategic materials such as rubber and coal also dropped to a fraction of their prewar levels, meaning essentially that the entire war had been in vain, insofar as it had started out as a grab for vital resources.

Only one resource was plentiful and could be exploited directly on the spot: labor. Young men known as romusha or “work soldiers” were recruited, often forcibly, and set to work at various large-scale projects under the supervision of Japanese engineers. They were often promised good treatment before their departure, but many never returned. Of 300,000 from Java who were sent off to islands elsewhere in the huge Indonesian archipelago, only 77,000 made it home again. What happened to the others is clear from an eyewitness account of the scene at a remote mountainside, where hundreds of workers hacked out a tunnel with adzes and hammers. “Their bodies were thin and parched—bone wrapped in skin,” the testimony reads. “Corpses were just like rubbish—walking skeletons no longer shocked people.” Another account detailed the abuse they were subject to: “Because of their weakened condition, they almost did not have enough strength to walk, so that they staggered on their feet like drunkards. To rest for a moment meant running the risk of getting abuse and blows.”

04 July 2023

Chinese Troops in Burma, 1944

From Asian Armageddon, 1944–45, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 51-53:

General Tanaka Shin’ichi, commander of the Japanese Army’s 18th Division, was on a mission in northern Burma in early 1944 directly linked to the attempt at Imphal and Kohima to cut through the British lines and reach the Indian border. With his battle-hardened men, he was to cover the right flank of the Japanese forces engaged in the main offensive and tie down as many Allied forces as possible. At the same time, he was to pursue a separate and arguably more important objective, penetrating as deeply into enemy territory as possible. For him, too, the ultimate objective was to disrupt the supply lines between India and China.

Like the Japanese further south, Tanaka was up against a multinational enemy, but of a different kind. Facing him in the north Burmese hills and jungles were the products of one of the most precarious and unwieldy alliances of the entire war—that between China and America. He was an experienced officer who had taken part in most of Japan’s conflicts since the early 1930s, but he had never before confronted the Chinese in battle. When he finally had the opportunity in the spring of 1944 near the village of Yupang Ga, he was surprised. “The unexpected stubbornness of the Chinese troops in the fighting around Yupang Ga,” he wrote in post-war comments, “led the Japanese to believe the troops that faced them were far superior in both the quality of their fighting and in their equipment to the Chinese troops they had been fighting in China for years.”

The Chinese troops fighting at Yupang Ga were from the New 38th Division, the result of long months of Sino-American cooperation following the US entry into the war. The most visible sign of this cooperation was the trademark M1 helmet worn by the Chinese soldiers, as well as the many examples of state-of-the-art equipment and weaponry they were carrying into battle. More importantly, the soldiers had been through months of US-led training at camps in India and had been instructed in the methods of modern warfare. The hard work was not wasted and the Chinese pushed the Japanese back at Yupang Ga. To the young Chinese soldiers, it was an immense morale boost, and likewise to their officers, who still remembered the first humiliating battles with the technologically superior Japanese during the preceding decade. “The Chinese soldiers talked of it over and over again,” according to the official history. “The first victory is never forgotten.”

The Japanese, under pressure from the Chinese divisions, retreated back south. In this situation, General Joseph Stilwell, the senior US officer on the Asian mainland, decided to bring to bear what American forces were available to him, in the shape of the newly formed 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). Dubbed “Merrill’s Marauders” after its commander, Brigadier General Frank Merrill, it was the first major US Army unit to go into combat in Stilwell’s area of responsibility. The Marauders represented an attempt to beat the Japanese at their own game, as its members were trained to infiltrate through enemy lines and roam deep inside hostile territory.

The British had pioneered this effort on the Allied side with their Long-Range Penetration Groups, known unofficially as the Chindits, under the command of the unorthodox Major General Orde Charles Wingate. The Chindits had first been placed into battle in 1943, and by 1944 they had built up enough skill and experience to arguably have an impact on the overall conduct of the war. Elements of two Japanese divisions were engaged in fighting the Chindits, and Japanese General Mutaguchi, who led the offensives against Imphal and Kohima, argued that if either division had been able to release just one regiment from these operations, it “would have turned the scales at Kohima.”

03 July 2023

Japanese Homefront Mood, Jul. 1944

From Asian Armageddon, 1944–45, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 115-118:

The sun was shining from a bright Pacific sky, but Admiral Ugaki Matome’s mood was much more accurately reflected in the dreary seasonal showers that he knew were now hitting the Japanese home islands. As commander of one of the fleets that had been beaten so profoundly off Saipan, he was fully aware of the implications. “It will be extremely difficult to recover from this disaster and rise again,” he wrote in his diary. “When I think the prospect of a victory is fading out gradually, it’s only natural that my heart becomes as gloomy as the sky of the rainy season.”

Back in Tokyo, the humiliation was felt equally intensely. Retired Admiral Yonai Mitsumasa was in despair. “Although I do not know [the] exact details, Japan has lost the war,” he told a colleague. “We have been defeated beyond doubt. Whoever leads the war, there is nothing to be done.” Hirohito was in a daze and spent his time gazing at fireflies in the Fugiake Garden of the Imperial Palace. “Under the circumstances, there is nothing better for him than to divert himself and to recuperate,” his second cousin Irie Sukemasa wrote in his diary.

Vice Admiral Miwa Shigeyoshi spoke for many when he commented: “Our war was lost with the loss of Saipan. I feel it was a decisive battle. The loss of Saipan meant [the Allies] could cut off our shipping and attack our homeland.” Rear Admiral Takata Toshitane, the deputy chief of Military Affairs at the Navy Ministry added, “We knew that from then on the war was going to be pretty tough. We realized that with the destruction of our industrial capacity, our production would naturally drop to practically zero.” Nagano Osami, the emperor’s supreme naval advisor, put it succinctly: “Hell is on us.”

The few foreigners left in Japan felt the different atmosphere. The Vice Admiral Paul Werner Wenneker, German Naval attaché to Tokyo, noted a clear change in the mood of the Japanese governing elite after the debacle at Saipan, an actual piece of Japan, and not recently conquered territory. “Saipan was really understood to be a matter of life and death,” he said. “About that time they began telling people the truth about the war. They began preparing them for whatever must happen. Before that, they had been doing nothing but fooling the people.” A few days after the loss of Saipan, Tōjō did indeed tell the public that “Imperial Japan has come to face an unprecedentedly great national crisis.”


Prime Minister Tōjō came under pressure over the loss of Saipan. His wife received phone calls from people who did not give their names and simply asked, “Hasn’t Tōjō committed hara-kiri yet?” In an indication that after years of war Japan was nowhere near becoming a hard dictatorship like Germany, Tōjō faced criticism that he was amassing too much power in his own hands. Some even compared him with Adolf Hitler, arguing that it was the German dictator’s insistence on making all the big decisions himself that had led to the disaster at Stalingrad in early 1943. Tōjō was unperturbed: “Chancellor Hitler was a corporal. I am a general.”

In what could have been an almost perfect parallel to the attempted assassination of Hitler in July 1944, two Japanese officers in the same month planned to throw a bomb at Tōjō’s car as it passed through the grounds of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, but their plan was thwarted, and they were sentenced to death—and later granted a stay of execution. Instead, political pressure built on Tōjō to resign from his post. An alliance of court officials and senior naval officers had been seeking to oust him for months but had been prevented from achieving their aim by Emperor Hirohito’s strong support of Tōjō.

They had been waiting for the right moment to strike, and now with the fall of Saipan, the opportunity was there. They acted by the middle of July, preparing a resolution to Hirohito stating that “the minds and hearts of the people must be infused with new life if the empire is to survive… a powerful new cabinet must be formed that will surge forward unswervingly.” With the loss of the emperor’s backing, Tōjō was doomed. On July 18, a deeply disappointed Tōjō was forced to tender his resignation. He was replaced by General Koiso Kuniyaki, who was not Hirohito’s first choice as head of the Cabinet, being seen as too easy to sway and with a dangerous penchant for mystical nationalism, probably the last thing Japan needed at this particular time.

02 July 2023

Japanese Homefront Mood, Jan. 1944

From Asian Armageddon, 1944–45, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 39-41:

Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, had made only limited promises before committing to the offensive against US and Western possessions in the Asia Pacific in late 1941 and early 1942. He would be able to deliver one victory after the other during the first months of the war while the enemy was still reeling from the initial shock of being attacked, he said, but once that early advantage had been exhausted, the going would become much harder. Now, two years into the war, Yamamoto was dead, shot down by American pilots over the South Pacific, and the US counteroffensive had picked up, pushing back at the fringes of Hirohito’s vast empire.

At the dawn of the new year 1944, therefore, many of the emperor’s subjects were concerned about the future, and some put their bewildered thoughts on paper. “An important year has come. The days are coming that will decide history,” wrote liberal journalist Kiyosawa Kiyoshi in his diary on January 1. There was a pervasive sense that things might not stay the same. In every home in Japan when breakfast was served, he noted, people asked the same question: “Will we really be able to eat in this way next year also?” Yabe Teiji, a political science professor at the Tokyo Imperial University, was more straightforward in his diary entry: “The coming year will be Japan’s year of disaster.”

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police was keenly interested in the public mood and remarked in a secret report that although some clung on to a vague sense of optimism about the war, a note of caution was clearly discernible. “There are some who are frankly amazed at the quick and mighty strategy of the enemy and fear the threat of invasion of the mainland, some who desire the announcement of the truth, and some who fear for the safety of our fleet,” the anonymous author of the report wrote, adding that people who held these views were not few in number. There were other categories of opinion, all reflecting the fact that any early enthusiasm put on display at the start of the war was long gone: “Those who go to the extreme criticize military strategy, exaggerate the announcement of our losses, and consider the war to have already been decided. Also, those who are totally unconcerned with the war situation and show a trend toward defeat and war-weariness, just longing for speedy end of war, have been seen here and there.”

By early 1944, even the most optimistic among the 73 million Japanese could no longer fool themselves into believing that life went on as before. In February, the government issued “Outline of Decisive War Emergency Measures,” closing high-end entertainment and causing life in the big cities to take on an even drabber appearance overnight. The new rules were expanded to the entire empire with immediate effect, as Admiral Ugaki Matome found out when he stayed over in Japanese-occupied Shanghai and was entertained one evening by Japan’s governor general. “Banquets, restaurants, and geishas have been banned, as in Japan proper, but the governor general still seemed as full of life as before,” Ugaki wrote in his diary. The kimono, the colorful traditional Japanese dress, was also largely gone from the streets of Japan. As one observer noted, “to be a woman, basically, is not patriotic.”

As the war economy gradually caused an increasing share of available resources to be allocated to the military, getting enough to eat was suddenly a daily struggle for average Japanese families. There were lines of usually about a hundred people outside Tokyo food shops, and on any given day thousands of residents would leave the capital to buy supplies directly from farmers. The hard times were felt particularly keenly by the Westerners who had been caught inside the borders of the Japanese Empire when war broke out. In January, Red Cross delegate H. C. Angst visited a camp for civilian internees set up inside a Catholic monastery near Yokohama and subsequently described the poor conditions that the inmates lived under: “Space is insufficient and overcrowded. Some sleeping on tables. Light sufficient. No heating.” The anti-foreign mood showed up in other ways as well. Baseball, a favorite sport for the Japanese in the prewar years, was allowed to continue but was being cleansed of English-sounding vocabulary. Sutoraiki, an attempt to reproduce the word “strike” in Japanese, was replaced with the much more indigenous-sounding honkyū.

Actually, sutoraiki is a labor term; sutoraiku is the baseball term. I haven't been able to find confirmation for honkyū, but it was probably 本球 'true/real/original ball'. Umpires had to call strikes with よし yoshi 'good' and balls with ダメ dame 'not good'. Strikes were counted 一本, 二本 ippon, nihon, with the counter for long straight things, while balls were counted 一つ, 二つ hitotsu, futatsu, with generic numbers.

Two more nativized terms for balls and strikes, according to Japanese Wikipedia, were 悪球 akkyū 'bad ball' and 正球 seikyū 'correct ball', and the phrase 悪球打ち akkyū uchi 'bad ball hitting' is still used to describe batters who rarely walk because they swing at balls out of the strike zone. Anglicized terms for the same type of batter are バッドボール・ヒッター baddobōru hittā and フリー・スウィンガー furī suingā.

01 July 2023

Earliest Japanese Ideophones?

From Nihongo Pera Pera!, by Susan Millington (Tuttle, 1993), p. 14:

The Kojiki, which appeared in 712, and the Man'yōshū, also compiled in the 8th century, were written in a mixture of styles, but are considered works of pure Japanese literature. References to the use of onomatopoeia in these two works are the earliest that I have found: sawa sawa (Kojiki), to describe a rustling sound; hodoro hodoro (Man'yōshū), for falling snow; moyuru (Kojiki), for rain falling; koro koro (Kojiki), for raking over salt; and bishi bishi (Man'yōshū), for a sniffy nose. Sawa sawa still exists today, with its original meaning. Hodoro hodoro is no longer used but has become hadare or hadara, referring to specks or patches. Moyuru is no longer in common use but survives as moya moya, meaning foggy or misty, and is related to moeru, to burn or glow. Koro koro, now meaning to roll over and over, is widely used. Bishi bishi no longer refers to a sniffling nose but instead means to be strict or rigid, or to snap. The ancient phrase seems to have been transformed into the modern day bisho bisho, meaning dripping wet.

The most comprehensive online guide to Japanese ideophones that I've found is here: https://www.tofugu.com/japanese/japanese-onomatopoeia/