Im Westen nichts Neues

Related image

This is the cover of the novel that we had at home, the one I read.  The hand, the barbed wire and the butterfly make an image that has stuck in my memory.  Erich Maria Remarque, born Erich Paul Remark, on this day in 1898.

Remarque is remarkable for three main reasons.

  1.  He wrote of World War 1 from the German perspective.
  2. He wrote the defining novel about a war that is celebrated in reams of poetry.
  3. He began the tradition of war veterans writing about their own experience of war.

Novels about war were not new.  Stephen Crane wrote the Red Badge of Courage in 1893 and it tells of the US Civil War from the standpoint of an ordinary soldier.  It reads like a personal account, but Crane was a novelist, not a soldier.  He was born after the war and based his book on interviews with veterans of the war.

Remarque fought in WW1, and was wounded.  He became a teacher after the war and then wrote the novel in 1928.  In the novel he is particularly hard on teachers who instill mindless nationalism in their students.  Above all it is an anti-war novel.

The Nazis hated it.  Remarque was declared “unpatriotic” and his books were removed from German libraries and added to the bonfires.  He moved to live in Switzerland.  In Germany the facts of his military service were denied by the Third Reich and his citizenship was revoked.  He moved with his wife to the USA before the outbreak of the war and eventually became a US citizen in 1947.

His sister in Germany, Elfriede Scholz, was tried on a charge of undermining morale and was beheaded.  The court stated “Your brother is unfortunately beyond our reach — you, however, will not escape us”.

Kropp on the other hand is a thinker. He proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out among themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting“. (3.42)


The history of my stupidity


In a week when I injured my leg jumping from a wall and went on to get my car clamped I have to celebrate my own humanity, the flaws in myself, my own stupidity.  I present a portrait of both myself and my car sporting immobility boots.

So I can have not better companion than Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish Nobel Laureate who was born on this day in 1911.  Born in what is today Lithuania in what was then the Russian Empire, but speaking Polish, Milosz has that quality common amongst writers who struggle between their national and linguistic identities.  You will see it in Irish, Indian and African writers who write in English.  The disassociation between language and race promotes a focus on the weight of words, how words can shape meaning and identity.

Milosz was happy to resolve his identity by a refusal to identify.  To the ire of various activists he refused to be either Polish or Lithuanian.

Milosz went on to become a citizen of Nazi Poland.  He refused to become a supporter of the short lived Warsaw uprising, holding to his determination of what he was not.

Then he was a comrade of Stalinist Russian Poland and eventually became the polar opposite; a citizen of the United States of America.

As to my own stupidity….volumes could not cover it.  I could fill a library.

The history of my stupidity; by Czeslaw Milosz

The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes.

Some would be devoted to acting against consciousness,
like the flight of a moth which, had it known,
would have tended nevertheless toward the candle’s flame.

Others would deal with ways to silence anxiety,
the little whisper which, though it is a warning, is ignored.

I would deal separately with satisfaction and pride,
the time when I was among their adherents
who strut victoriously, unsuspecting.

But all of them would have one subject, desire,
if only my own — but no, not at all; alas,
I was driven because I wanted to be like others.
I was afraid of what was wild and indecent in me.

The history of my stupidity will not be written.
For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.

Never forget


Reichstag building wrapped by the artist Christo

On this day in 1933 Adolf Hitler managed to push “The Enabling Act” through the Reichstag in Germany.

This gave him the position of Dictator, and gave the minority Nazi party effective control of Germany.  Democracy was sacrificed to expedience.  The confusion of coalition government was replaced by the clarity, direction and strength of single minded purpose.  See where that ended up?

Democracy is hard.  Government is a messy process.  It is dirty, political, flawed, frustrating, time-consuming and downright annoying.  The Germans swept all that away in favour of simple solutions.

Beware politicians who seem to offer simple solutions to complex problems.  Remember the Enabling Act.  If you don’t know what it is, inform yourself.  This stuff is important to know!

Epic: by Patrick Kavanagh

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.

He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.


War on drugs



The early successes of the German forces in WW2 were, in large part, due to drug use by the troops.

In the 1930’s amphetamines and methamphetamines were widely available over the counter in Germany. When the German army invaded Poland in 1939 some troops used a drug called Pervitin to stay alert and awake. Wehrmacht doctors recognised the value of the drugs in the short term and recommended them to high command. They were issued widely, but particularly to the troops most crucial to the Blitzkrieg tactics ; the tank crews and aircrews.

The allies were astounded at the pace and speed of the German advance from the Ardennes to Dunkirk.   The famous panzer commander Heinz Guderian said to his troops “I needed you to stay awake for 3 days, you did it for 17.”

OK 17 days is a bit of an exaggeration, but the point is valid. Each night as the French defenders lapsed into sleep, cradling their daily ration of a bottle of red wine, the Germans kept moving forward. Methamphetamines have a number of effects on the human body. As well as keeping you alert and awake they reduce the need for food (pretty handy side benefit for soldiers) and they make you fearless, and more aggressive. It turns regular soldiers into super-troopers.

Mission after mission the Stukas kept bombing, the M-109’s kept strafing and the panzers kept rolling forwards.

The downside of drug use is what happens in the longer term. A short fast campaign, such as that in France in 1940, was perfectly suited to drug use. In longer, drawn out actions the benefits of drug use become counterproductive. As a result the drugs didn’t work on the Russian front.

In wartime military advantages tend to be short term. They are quickly copied by enemies. During the Battle of Britain the British noticed that all the shot-down Luftwaffe aircraft appeared to carry a tube of Pervitin. Analysis determined what it was and the British began to issue similar drugs to their own pilots.

I often wonder how troops today are using highly sophisticated drugs to enhance performance, reduce fear, increase aggression etc. If you face a soldier in a hot situation, just how rational is he/she?

Where are my legions?


One of my favourite anecdotes from my study of ancient Rome is how Emperor Augustus, in times of stress, would stalk the corridors of his palace crying out  “Publius Quinctilius Varus where are my legions?”

In the year 4 CE Tiberius led a massive army of 13 legions into Germany to subjugate the country.  A revolt in Illyricum (modern day Balkans) caused a huge drain on Roman troops.  Half of all standing legions had to be deployed to the Balkans.  In 6 CE this left Varus leading only three legions in Germany to consolidate it as a province.  Up to this point what Rome wanted Rome got.

Arminius, a Roman trained soldier and Roman citizen brought together a coalition of six German tribes.  Arminius (Herman) was acting as a local advisor to Varus while putting together an alliance of warring tribes to defeat him.  Arminius then informed Varus of a local rebellion and guided the Romans straight into his ambush in the Teutoburg forest.

Arminius knew that the Legions were unbeatable once they deployed in battle array.  His ambush and tactics during the fight were designed to constrict the Romans to narrow forest tracks, and to string them out over a long line of march.  Clearings were further constricted by trenches and ditches.

The Romans were subjected to a series of well organised flank attacks from the forest.  Light German troops moved quickly through the bogs and muddy tracks and rained javelins down upon the heavily armoured Romans.  Despite the desperate situation the Romans managed to establish a defensive camp at the end of the day.  But when they tried to escape they became disoriented in the woods.  Attack after attack eventually wiped out the three legions and their standards were lost.

The Romans retrenched to the line of the River Rhine.  In subsequent years they mounted large scale punitive expeditions against the German tribes.  In 16 CE Germanicus (father of emperor Caligula) recovered two of the three lost eagles and was held to have avenged the defeat.

In truth however the Germans halted the advance of Rome.  From this point on the primary driver of the Roman Empire was maintenance of existing territory rather than expansion.  Exceptions to this were the conquest of Britain under Claudius and the short lived expansion across the Danube immortalised by Trajan on his commemorative column in Rome.

The event became central to celebration of German nationalism in the 19th Century and National Socialism in the 20th Century.  Since WW2 the modern German state has downplayed militaristic national symbols and celebrations to mark the 2000 year anniversary were low key.

Spanish Flu

Alfonso XIII

Alfonso XIII

What’s in a name?  Diseases are often named after places, and who wants to be remembered for a disease?  Early outbreaks of Syphilis in Europe for instance occured during a French invasion of Italy in 1494.  The French promptly called it the “Italian” disease and blamed it on Neapolitans.  The Neapolitans blamed it on the French soldiers and called it the “French” disease.  The truth is that the strain probably came from the New World, transmitted to Europe by the men who sailed with Christopher Columbus.  Which would make it the Spanish disease.  Or the “Indian” disease since Columbus thought he had found a Western route to India.

Spanish flu was confirmed in the USA in March 1918 in Fort Riley, Kansas.  There is much debate now about the origin of the flu.  What is certain is that it exploded all along the Western Front at the end of World War 1 in the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which troops commonly live.

One theory is that it migrated from the herds of pigs that were kept penned nearby to feed troops.  Another theory arises from a forgotten piece of war history.  Thousands of Chinese coolies were recruited by the allies to provide labour along the western front.  There was an outbreak of H1N1 virus in China around the same time.  Did it originate in Europe and spread to China or vice versa?

In France, England and Germany the wartime propaganda machine was in full swing.  There was no reporting of deaths from flu as this might encourage military action by the enemy.  However Spain was outside of the conflict.  When the Spanish king Alfonso XIII became ill with the flu the pandemic was reported widely, giving the impression that it was rampant in Spain.  As a result it became known as the Spanish Flu.

Now a truly international poet.  Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki.  Born in Italy to a Polish family he was wounded in WW1 fighting for France and died of the Spanish flu.  He coined the terms “Cubism” and “Surrealism”.

Le Pont Mirabeau; Guillaume Apollinaire

Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away
And lovers
Must I be reminded
Joy came always after pain

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I

We’re face to face and hand in hand
While under the bridges
Of embrace expire
Eternal tired tidal eyes

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I

Love elapses like the river
Love goes by
Poor life is indolent
And expectation always violent

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I

The days and equally the weeks elapse
The past remains the past
Love remains lost
Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I