In 1850, General Charles Napier was the British Commander in Chief of India. On 17 February 1850, Napier met with several influential Hindu priests who complained about the British prohibition of Sati, or the Hindu tradition of burning a widow alive on the pyre of the dead husband. The Hindu priests said the custom was an integral part of their culture.
Napier replied, “Very well. We also have a custom: When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”
The practice of Sati all but disappeared on the Indian subcontinent.
In September 1939, the joint invasion of Poland by National Socialist Germany and its defacto ally Soviet Russia, defeated the Polish Army in 36 days. (Not too bad considering the much better equipped, more numerous, and better positioned French and British armies only lasted 45 days) Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers, sailors, and civilians fled to Western Allied countries but millions did not. The Soviet authorities emptied the jails, put the communist political prisoners in charge, and encouraged the rest to seek revenge. Because the Soviets disarmed the populace, “axe murder” became the most common cause of death in eastern Poland for the next three months.
In formal agreement with Nazi Germany on 28 September 1939, Poland was to be erased from history. Stalin’s stated and declared aim was the final destruction of Polish culture. On 10 February 1940, the Soviet Union began the forced exile and ethnic cleansing of Poles in Soviet occupied eastern Poland (Western Belorussia and western Ukraine today). That night, the NKVD (forerunner to the KGB) and Red Army burst into the homes of 139,794 middle and upper class ethnic Poles. (That number is straight from the Soviet archive, the actual number was probably much higher) Service in the pre-war Polish state was deemed a “crime against the revolution”. Captured Polish officers and soldiers were soon joined by thousands of government workers, land owners, school teachers, university professors, scientists, Polish Jews, factory managers, writers and publishers, business owners, and priests and clergy, including their extended families. Anyone they could find who could provide any leadership or resistance to the Soviet socialist march westward was targeted. Most were given 15 minutes to pack and herded onto trains for the long cold journey to gulags in Siberia and Kazahkstan where they were to be worked to death on collective farms or starved. Thousands of Polish women were raped and many more Polish citizens were immediately executed at the whims of their occupiers. Soviet journalists and teachers celebrated, proclaiming, “Poland had fallen and would never rise again.”
Mass graves of Poles from the Soviet pogroms of early 1940 were found all over eastern Poland and western Russia, the 22,000 dead found in Katyn Forest by German troops in 1943 being the most famous. Most survivors arrived in Siberia in April when the temperatures were still well below zero and were forced to build their camps with what they had, with no shelter or winter clothing and little food provided. Tens of thousands more perished enroute to and during the construction of the camps. Many Poles were sent to the same camps the kulaks were murdered in the decade before.
2.2 million Poles were deported east by the Soviet Union in the 21 months between the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The vast majority were never seen again. Only about 200,000 survivors returned to Poland after the war. The returnees were mostly soldiers and their camp followers from the Polish Armored Division and Polish II Corps, who fought with the Western Allies in North Africa, Italy, and France; the ZPP (Soviet based Polish Communists), and the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies, Soviet creations later in the war comprised of Polish soldiers led by Russian officers.
The two million Poles killed by the Soviets are not included in the usual figure of six million Poles killed during Second World War, or 22% reduction in the Polish population. The official six million figure was compiled by the Soviet backed Polish government in 1947 and included the three million non-Jewish Poles were killed by the German occupation, and three million Polish Jews killed in the Holocaust. The 1947 estimate did not include the Poles killed by the Soviets because the areas occupied by the Soviets from Sept 1939-June 1941 were never returned to Poland after the war and were given to Soviet Belorussia and Soviet Ukraine. The two million Poles killed in the “Forgotten Holocaust” by the Soviets were included in the Belorussian and Ukrainian wartime death tolls to hide the fact that they weren’t killed by German socialists but by Russian socialists.
“Bloodlands” by Timothy Snyder should be required reading for humanity.
Dresden was a Baroque German city and dubbed the “Florence on the Elbe”. It’s Central European mystique was rivaled only by Vienna and Prague. In early 1945, it had little military significance and fewer anti aircraft defenses. 900,000 civilians, mostly refugees fleeing Soviet atrocities, swelled the city.
On the night of 12-13 February 1945, 773 British Avro Lancaster bombers struck the city with incendiaries solely to break the German civilian will to continue the war. The mission was the brainchild of British Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, a disciple of Giullo Douhet, the influential Italian pre war air centric strategic bombing enthusiast who believed that ground troops were obsolete. By late 1944, the “thousand bomber raids” of the British Bomber Command and US Eighth Air Force were having significant economic impact on Germany’s ability to carry on the war. Harris wanted to go further and “break the will” of the German people. That “the Blitz” on London and other British cities did not do so in 1940 was of no concern to him: the Germans just simply didn’t drop enough bombs. Harris saw no need for ground troops and that air power alone could win the war. According to Harris, every day that his bombers supported ground attacks was “another day in the life of Nazi Germany.”
The bombing of Dresden on the night of 12/13 February 1945 created a firestorm that demolished the city. A “firestorm” is a fire that burns so hot it consumes oxygen at such a furious pace that it creates a tornado-like windstorm around the fire to feed it. The firestorm demolished 90% of Dresden’s inner city and killed upwards of 40,000 German civilians… in one night.
It was the largest single loss of life in the shortest period of time in the war. The two atomic bombs dropped months later on Japan weren’t nearly as destructive.
The American Eighth Air Force bombed Dresden’s rail yards the next night but the damage was already done. Because of Dresden, Churchill would call off Harris’ Bomber Command’s nighttime area “terror bombings” of civilian targets.
The bombing of Dresden tarnished the sacrifices of the American and British bomber crews and the real economic and military impact the bomber campaigns had during the war. Harris would escape war crimes charges (because the Allies won) but public opinion would force him to emigrate to South Africa after the war
In late 1114, Henry V (not that one, the Frankish version) the Holy Roman Emperor, invaded the Duchy of Saxony to assert his authority on Duke Lothair of Supplinsburg. Lothair was the Pope’s ally in the Investiture Controversy and supported the Pope’s demands to appoint local church officials. More practically, Lothair despised Henry’s heavy handed ways. Henry was a direct descendant of Charlemagne and believed he was a Roman Emperor no different than Nero, Augustus, or Marcus Aurelius.
On 11 February 1115, Lothair’s Saxon army met Henry’s Imperial army just outside the town of Welfesholz (in modern day Saxon-Anhalt, Germany). The Imperial Army was led by Henry’s field marshal, Count Hoyer of Mansfeld. The Imperial Army was defeated when a young knight slew Mansfeld in single combat during the battle. The Imperial Army army routed after witnessing Mansfeld’s death.
The battle effectively broke Imperial power and ended the destructive 50 year long “civil war” between medieval Germans that had stalled Central Europe politically and culturally. More importantly, the Battle of Welfesholz forced Henry, at the Concordant of Worms in 1122, to accept the Papal investiture of bishops in the Holy Roman Empire, and soon, all of Christendom.
Up to this point in the Middle Ages, Imperial dukes, counts, and princes relied on the bishops and clergy for the administration of their territories. Since the clergy had to be literate (to read the Bible) and Imperial nobility could appoint them, it made sense to have the loyal clergy administer the Empie. But after the Battle of Welfesholz and Concordant of Worms, the Empire’s administration was no longer solely loyal to the Emperor and his princes. The new Papal influence on bishops forced the Imperial nobility to create their own administrations separate from the clergy. A loyal secular administration demanded an increase in literacy among the population to fill the vacuum left by the potentially divided loyalties of the clerical (religious) staff.
The ability to appoint bishops greatly increased Papal and monastic influence across Europe and elevated members of the lower classes to unheard of power and glory in the process as Papal appointed clergy. And the nobility’s inability to appoint clergy in their realms meant a vast increase in noble military aged males with nothing to do. Where once they’d be chosen as priests and bishops, they now became barons, knights, or mercenaries. This massive influx of fighting men pushed feudalism to its natural limits and the Imperial lands became a patchwork of robber baronies and petty kingdoms that raided and warred upon each other.
Upon his return from the Boer War, Lord Baden-Powell, a British cavalry officer and an old Africa and India hand, believed that cosmopolitan Edwardian society didn’t teach the life skills necessary for British youths to live overseas in unfamiliar cultures and environments. He also found that his “Aid to Scouting”, a military manual that focused on reconnaissance in hostile terrain, was a big hit among teenage and pre-teen boys. In 1907, he formed the Boy Scout Association to teach boys survival, individualism, manners and citizenship.
Two years later, a Western Pennsylvania newspaper mogul, William D. Boyce, was on a trip to East Africa and spent some time in London. One morning he was lost in the narrow streets and thick fog when an unknown boy scout came upon him and led him back to his hotel. The scout refused recompense and said he was “only doing his good deed for the day.” Boyce was so impressed with the young man that on his return trip he stopped at Baden-Powell’s Scouting headquarters and obtained a copy of “Aid to Scouting”.
Four months later on 8 February 1910, Boyce founded the Boys Scouts of America. He based the program on Baden-Powell’s book and incorporated several other youth organizations based on Native American lore and frontier living.
In the late 80s, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev introduced “perestroika” (restructuring), “glastnost” (openness), and the lesser known “khozraschyot” (commercialization) reforms to make the Soviet system more efficient and alleviate the crushing social, political, spiritual, and economic problems of late stage socialism. However, Gorbachev’s reforms gave a small taste of life in the West and just acted as a catalyst for the demand of more reforms. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, communist and socialist governments fell across Eastern Europe culminating in the violent Romanian Revolution in December 1989. However, the iron grip of the Communist Party in Russia staved off revolution in the Soviet Union, though significant political turmoil and economic stagnation still existed. Reformers fought “moderates” who fought hardliners who fought everyone for the soul of the Russian people.
In a victory for the reformers, Western businesses were allowed access to Russian markets. One of the first business to capitalize (ahem…) on the new market was the McDonald’s Corporation. On 31 January 1990, the first McDonald’s fast food restaurant opened on Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. Thousands lined up and waited for hours to spend the equivalent of several days’ wages for a Big Mac.
The Golden Arches, the most recognizable symbol of Western Capitalism, had entrenched itself in the belly of the beast. The Russian people weren’t just lining up for a tasty burger, but to experience firsthand the inevitable changes on the horizon. For the first time, there was no jumping of the queue for party members. True egalitarianism was found in the order line; a queue that ended at the smiling face of the polite cashier. The politeness of the cashier was shocking to a people who were “used to the commercial boorishness” of the Soviet consumer goods’ sector and the unchallenged petty power of even the lowest members of the party and government bureaucracies. For years, the McDonald’s in Moscow was the most popular and trendy restaurant in the country.
Within two years, the Soviet Union would cease to exist.
In 1861, Emperor Alexander II of Russia emancipated the serfs. Serfs, slaves in all but name, were finally given permission to marry without consent of the nobility, own land and property, own a business, and freely move. For the next 50 years a new class of middle class peasant arose in Imperial Russia, the “kulak”, who owned land and livestock, hired laborers, and upon whose backs was the agricultural foundation of the Imperial Russian Empire.
During the Bolshevik Revolution toward the end of the First World War, the kulaks were generally allied with the Red Army despite the socialist rhetoric. Bolshevik socialists prioritized organization and collectivization of the urban workers, the cities, and factories. In 1918, the Bolsheviks needed food for the Red Army and attempted to “organize” the countryside. They seized land and foodstuffs from the wealthier kulaks and organized peasant committees among the rest. Food production dropped, and in 1919 the Bolsheviks eased the pogroms against the kulaks to prevent famine.
In the 20s, “kulak” became a pejorative term used for any peasant who owned a certain amount of land, generally about ten acres or more, but the standards were lowered as the years went by. By the late 20s, Soviet collectivization was prepared to move into the countryside in earnest. In 1928, Stalin announced his “revolution from above”, the first “Five Year Plan” for Soviet industrialization, and this included rural collectivization. In December 1929, Stalin announced the collectivization of the kulak’s land and on 30 January 1930, the Soviet Politburo formally approved “Dekulakization” in the entirety of the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The kulaks’ land was collectivized at gunpoint. Kulaks who were not outright killed were sent to camps where they worked as slaves, sometimes in their own communities. Many were sent to camps in the arctic or Siberia, where they froze or were worked to death. As is normal for matters regarding absolute power, Dekulakization quickly spiraled out of control. Soviet commissars and peasant committees quickly found there was no check for their abuses of power. First the definition of “kulak” was broadened as to be meaningless. “Kulak” was first expanded to any peasant who hired labor, then to any peasant who owned any land at all, then to owners of just livestock, then to any who possessed property, and eventually to any peasant who disagreed with collectivization. By 1931, “Kulak” was a not a class but simply a “rural enemy of the state”. Eventually, strongmen on the Soviet peasant committees and secret police deemed anyone who disagreed with their rule a “kulak”, which was effectively a death sentence. Scores were settled with a simple denunciation of “kulak”.
About two million men, women and children across the Soviet Union were deemed kulaks and killed in 1930 and 1931. Millions more were deported, fled, or emigrated to other countries. The resulting famine that gripped the Soviet Union the next year was a direct result of Dekulakization. The Soviet Famine of 1932/33 killed another eight million people. In 1933, 30,000 people a day died, primarily Ukrainians and Kazakhs, from being deliberately starved to death by the prioritization of food to ethnic Russians.
The first American B-29 bomber raids against Japanese industry began soon after Saipan was captured. They were tentative at first, about one a month and used different mixes of ordnance. By mid January, XX Air Force planners, led by a young “iron major” Major Robert McNamara (JFK and LBJ’s future Secretary of Defense), devised a campaign for the most effective way to destroy Japanese morale and the war making capability of the home islands in preparation for an invasion of Japan in late summer.
McNamara was instrumental in establishing an entire school for the study of statistics at Harvard from which up and coming young Army Air Corps planners graduated. McNamara’s reliance of statistics permeated every part of the plan in preparation for the invasion. The timing, targets, routes, formations, ordnance etc. were mathematically planned down to the last detail for an effective and efficient “reduction of Japan”. Major General Curtis LeMay, the XX Air Force commander, briefed the plan to his superiors and famously summed it up, “If you kill enough of them, they will stop fighting.”
It was brutally effective. The plan’s focus on incendiaries devastated Japan’s primarily wooden cities. The morale of the Japanese population was crushed but only because there was little response from the now defunct Japanese air force, and the shock at the scale of the raids. For years the Japanese ministry of propaganda had fooled the Japanese people into thinking they were winning the war. But no amount of official lying could cover up the loss of Saipan, a Japanese home territory, and the B29s that appeared in the skies with increasing frequency.
On 27 January 1945, 68 B29s bombed Tokyo and reduced 15% of it to ash and rubble with the loss of only six planes, despite the lack of escorting fighters. McNamara’s plan was deemed successful and implemented in full. Every city in Japan, no matter the size, was targeted. A new raid launched every seven days until the end of the war. 500,000 Japanese civilians would die in the campaign and over five million displaced into the countryside.
Patton’s counterattack towards Bastogne was not only predicted by Hitler’s Ardennes planners, it was relied upon. As Patton’s 3rd Army attacked north, his lines would have to be taken over by Lieutenant General Patch’s 7th Army to the south. The 7th Army was already overextended from the Saar Valley down to the “Colmar Pocket” along the Swiss border. This presented an opportunity for the Germans to break through the thinly held lines and force Eisenhower to choose between the encirclement and destruction of the 7th Army, or the German recapture the Franco-Teutonic city of Strasbourg (it changed hands between France and Germany a few dozen times over the last 1500 years. Both countries considered it national territory).
Eisenhower could be counted on to choose to maintain the continuity of the front and withdraw from Strasbourg. This would be a national disaster for France (they couldn’t give up the city again to the Germans) and would almost assuredly force De Gaulle to withdraw France from the Allied Coalition. In any case, it would open up Patton to attack and destruction from behind. Operations North Wind and Dentist nearly succeeded on all accounts.
On 1 January 1945, the Germans launched Operation North Wind to destroy the 7th Army and seize Strasbourg. And on 15 January they launched Operation Dentist to assault into the 3rd Army’s rear area and defeat what they thought was the Allies’ most dangerous general – Patton. As expected, Eisenhower ordered a withdrawal of all troops from Strasbourg to shorten the lines, and the French ignored him and planned on fighting alone for the city. De Gaulle even threatened to stop Allied supplies from arriving in French ports and from traveling along French roads and railways. He also secretly began organizing the French resistance to “fight the new invaders”, the Americans and British. Fortunately hard fighting by the vastly outnumbered US VI Corps, which defended against attacks on three sides, held long enough for reinforcements to arrive from the Ardennes.
The VI Corps’ unexpected stand precluded the Allied abandonment of Strasbourg and allowed Eisenhower to avert France’s withdrawal from the Allied nations. (Eisenhower would say in his memoirs that De Gaulle was his biggest challenge of the war.) By 25 January both offensives were defeated. Strasbourg, Patton, and the coalition of Western Allies were saved. In hindsight it seems a foregone conclusion, but early January 1945 was one of Eisenhower’s most stressful times of the war.
On 27 January 1945, the Soviet forces in the Vistula-Oder offensive liberated the Nazi camps in the vicinity of the towns of Auschwitz and Birkenau in German province of Silesia (Occupied Polish province of Upper Silesia). The “Auschwitz Death Camp” was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners in 1940, but by 1945 it had grown into a series of 48 extermination, concentration, and labor camps around the towns of Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz.
Unlike pure extermination camps like Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belsec, Auschwitz-Birkenau was hybrid camp system of three main camps and their satellite camps. KL Auschwitz I was the original concentration camp and railway terminal, with the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate (“Work makes you free”). Built in the spring of 1940, the first Polish prisoners arrived shortly thereafter. The first gassing and mass cremation took place in August 1941, when 300 Russian prisoners of war were used to test the effects of Zyklon-B. The first mass arrival of Jewish prisoners occured in February 1942, shortly after the Wannsee Conference in January. The Wannsee Conference was a meeting of high level Nazi officials to work out the logistical details needed to eradicate European Jews, with a planning factor of 10,000,000.
Auschwitz II Birkenau was a purpose built death complex, opened in late 1941, whose slave labor inmates worked the gas chambers and crematorium ovens. Most prisoners never made it to the main camp and went directly gas chambers after their baggage, clothes, and even hair were collected. 900,000 people were murdered at Auschwitz II Birkenau.
KL Auschwitz III at Monowitz was a slave labor camp complex for IG Farben that produced synthetic rubber for the German war effort. Many German corporations threw in their lot with the National Socialists, whom offered free land, labor, and tax credits in the conquered territories for ideologically pure companies. Each SS guard was paid for each inmate that worked a shift under their watch. 23,000 workers were executed, worked to death, or died of disease or malnutrition at KL Auschwitz III. This number doesn’t include the monthly 1/5 worker turnover of those sent to Auschwitz II Birkenau to be killed to make space for healthier workers.
1.1 million people, from all over Europe, were systematically worked to death, or looted, murdered and cremated in the camps. This also includes those that died during the routine sadistic torture, and/or the gruesome medical experiments on human subjects, few of whom survived. 90% of the victims were Jewish but they also included ethnic Poles, Roma, homosexuals, Polish and Russian soldiers, and German political opponents of National Socialism.
The camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau were murder on an industrial scale.
When the Soviets launched the Vistula-Oder Offensive in early January, 1945, the German administration of the camps attempted to hide the evidence of their crimes: They destroyed the gas chambers and crematoriums. They burned down the warehouses of stolen looted goods that had been an integral part of the German economy for the previous five years. They burned the meticulous camp records. They murdered as many inmates as they could, stopping only when they couldn’t dispose of the bodies. The remaining inmates were marched west to rail heads where they were sent to camps further inside Germany. Those that fell out were shot and left behind. Tens of thousands died on these death marches in the frigid January temperatures. However, the scale of their crimes against humanity couldn’t be covered up.
On morning of 27 January 1945, scouts from the 322nd and 100th Rifle Divisions of the 1st Ukrainian Front found first a sub camp of KL Auschwitz III, and then the main camps of Auschwitz II Birkenau and KL Auschwitz I later in the morning and afternoon, respectively.
The Russian troops found only 7000 scattered survivors; most were too sick to move or had hid during the prisoner round ups prior to the death marches.
Auschwitz-Birkenau camps weren’t the first extermination camps discovered by the Soviets, but they were the first to expose the scale of National Socialist crimes against humanity. The first extermination camp “liberated” from the Germans was Majdanek in July, 1944. The Majdanek Death Camp was overrun during Operation Bagration before it could be dismantled. Ironically, or maybe not so, the Soviets kept Majdanek open for Polish, Ukrainian, and Belorussian partisans allied with Western powers and supporters of the Polish Government in exile in London. At the very moment the Russians were realizing the scale of the German camps around Auschwitz, they were processing tens of thousands of political prisoners in former German camps for transport to the gulags in Siberia. However, several KL Auschwitz III camps were used for workers to dismantle the IG Farben factories for transport east. And several other camps were eventually used to hold Polish political prisoners by the NKVD and its proxies once Silesia was fully occupied by the Soviets. The Soviet vow of “Never Again” clearly didn’t apply to themselves.
The conversion of Auschwitz-Birkenau into a Soviet reeducation camp initially wasn’t attempted due to the scale of the Nazi slaughter and its later documentation. Russian soldiers found 350,000 men’s suits, 860,000 women’s garments, and seven tons of human hair estimated to be from 150,000 people. Entire buildings were full of human feces, to the point where it was caked and solidified on the walls and ceilings. Soviet doctors and the Polish Red Cross managed to save 4500 of the 7000, though some were still in the camps months later because they were too weak to move. Soviet authorities estimated 4,000,000 people were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, and the Soviets maintained this number until 1989. The inflated number actually assisted the German cover up, as Western observers dismissed the number as propaganda, and by extension the camps themselves. The discovery of Auschwitz-Birkenau was only taken seriously by Western journalists and authorities after similar camps were liberated by the Allies in April.
In 2005, 27 January became known as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to commemorate the six million Jews and 11 million others murdered by Nationals Socialists during the Second World War, 1.1 million of whom were killed in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.