Fist Of History

January, 2010Archive for

Morality coloring history…

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

One of the challenges that I consider central to the study of history, in fact one of the cornerstone duties of every historian, is to attempt to write history as neutral as humanly possible on a topic.  Now it is probably impossible to be truly neutral, the very process of analyzing history or choosing a topic to explore puts a bias on things, however I still feel a historian should do their absolute best to try to present the material that is free of emotion or effort to direct the readers’ emotions.  The book that I read recently that caught my eye with its textbook example of such emotional coloring was World War I: An Illustrated History by David Scott-Daniell, printed in 1965 in London by the Ernest Been Limited Corporation.  It is a entry level short history of World War I, I picked it up originally because the library had mistakenly bound it as a World War II history but filed it properly in World War I, so I gave it a whirl.

The quote that exemplifies the moral/emotional coloring of the book throughout is as follows, from page 76 of the book:

“Captain Bell [British pilot] was officially credited with the destruction of forty-one enemy aeroplanes in battl, but there were others not reported.  Richthofen [German pilot] had eighty victims, all British.  Richthofen had eighty victims, all British.  Richthofen was a pilot of outstanding skill and daring, even among his fellow heroes of the air.  He led the famous ‘Richthofen Circus’, twelve Fokker fighters, all painted bright red, and flown by outstanding pilots proud of the honor of following Richthofen.  Like the other ‘aces’ Richthofen died in battle in the air.”

For those who might not have caught it, Captain Bell, a British pilot, destroyed forty-one enemy airplanes, Richthofen had eighty victims, and in that simple word choice an emotional and moral slant is bluntly placed upon a historical point of fact.  Neither pilot skimmed through the air hunting down innocent civilian pilots who happened to be taking a pleasant flight through an active combat zone, both pilots engaged other fellow combatants in battle during a period of active, declared war.  Any of the pilots who were shot down, and killed, by Richthofen would have gladly killed him in turn had the chance presented itself.  (In fact one did, Richthofen was killed in a confused air battle in which ground artillery and a British pilot in combination resulted in Richthofen’s combat death.)  Describing anyone who goes into a war as an armed combatant as a victim of enemy action is at best emotionalism and at worst misleading, the business of war is death and destruction and those who march forth to engage in it should be remembered as such.  Fellow combatants joined in a test of strength, economic, political, social, and military strength, a contest in which some on both sides will die.  This in no way lowers the emotional impact or tragedy of their deaths, but historians have a duty to my eye to record these deaths in a tone free of emotion.  Either everyone who falls in a battle is a victim or no one is if you are a historian, to write otherwise is to shirk your duties as a scribe of the past.

Which though leads itself to a more pressing question in history, in this era of modern war were can one use the term victim selectively to describe individuals caught up in the actions of war who should not have been.  Using the word “victim” for everyone in war misses the point and power of the word but who, in a modern war, is actually an honest victim when two or more nations war with each other?  Civilians are no longer a clear distinction because during a total industrial war some citizens engage directly in war production, generating materials of war, where these individuals work is generally accepted as a viable target for military strikes.  What of the citizens who raise food, some of which feeds the working population and some of which directly feeds the armies in the field fighting the war, are they a viable target?  What of the crops they raise, is famine a valid tactic of war or does it create victims of the conflict?  The children of dead soldiers, are they victims or is their loss acceptable because their fathers and mothers marched to war?  What of those killed in military actions who are only engaged in a war to the extent they are citizens of a nation engaged in hostilities?

Plus then of course that opens another dimension to this question, what of the contrast of aggressor to defender nations, many historians writing of World War I and World War II will describe Belgium, France, Greece, Holland, Norway, Russia, and Yugoslavia as all victims of German aggression, and therefore by implication the suffering of their populations in all forms as that of victims.  But is that the marker and, if so, does that place upon a historian a duty to try to tease out which nation struck first, which nation is the true aggressor, to even create a framework to analyze that difficult relationship.  Take the current military action the United States is engaged in Afghanistan, the United States argues its actions are justified because of the events of 11 September 2001, that terrorists with direct links to an organization based in Afghanistan represent a threat to the security of the United States, i.e. the United States and its losses on 11 September 2001 made it the victim of aggression.  Not by a nation state but by a rogue organization, but what of those who were then injured in United States military actions only peripherally associated with terrorism in Afghanistan, are they victims or aggressors dying  a death due to a chain of action they began?

The use of victim is a powerful term, I do not have answers to the above questions, I don’t believe historians will, or should, ever have definitive answers to these questions, but I do know that a historian should use the word victim with care and careful thought and, to my eye, only in the most unique circumstances when speaking of combatants operating in the field of combat.

Bad History – Malmedy Massacre

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

To fully appreciate this entry you first will need to travel to You Tube and watch a preserved clip of a broadcast by Keith Olbermann in which he dresses down Bill O’Reilly for his attributing the events of the Malmedy Massacre to the United States Army, rather then to the German SS.  Overall the commentary of both men has aspects that are correct, Keith Olbermann is correct in asserting that Bill O’Reilly is wrong in attributing the events of the Malmedy Massacre to the armed forces of the United States, captured American soldiers were executed in a field near where they were taken prisoners by members of the German SS.  The SS, speaking broadly, was a military organization that was semi-separated from the regular German Army, the Wehrmacht, the SS had its own chain of command, supply systems, rules of engagement, military culture and organization, and was treated effectively as an “army within an army.”  The reason though they can only be considered as a semi-separate part of the Wehrmacht is that the SS did work in military operations in cooperation with the Wehrmacht and the two military commands were expected to operate together towards overall tactical and strategic goals.

This is important to understand because the policies of the SS reflect an extreme dimension of policies followed and often supported by the leadership of the Wehrmacht, especially on the Eastern Front.  That fact is important because Bill O’Reilly is also correct, there is solid evidence that the armed forces of the United States did execute some German prisoners taken in battle, some after the events of Malmedy in retaliation and also some German prisoners of war taken in earlier battles.  In the airborne landings prior to the Normandy amphibious landings (popularly referred to as D-Day) in the early hours of 6 June 1944 the deployed airborne units were widely scattered, disorganized, and lacked the capacity or facilities to handle German’s taken prisoner.  Some soldiers did execute German prisoners of war, a sad fact but one well documented by testimony on both sides of the battle lines.  Furthermore during the Normandy landings some German’s who attempted to surrender were executed by American forces, either immediately following the conclusion of the battle or shortly after the battle.  So Bill O’Reilly is correct, American armed forces did engage in actions that could be seen as atrocities against German prisoners of war.  What both commentators miss though is the broader context of the situation and, in that, lies the real key critical aspect of these events and why Bill O’Reilly’s comments represent a horrible twisting of history.

Massacres of German prisoners of war, conducted by American forces in the Normandy campaign, and earlier in the Italian campaign of 1943, were actions of individual units of soldiers.  The highest levels of command authorizing such actions, to my knowledge, were commanders in the front lines of individual units, no order of that nature came from the central leadership of the United States armed forces or from any political leadership of any Allied power.  To put it more simply, Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and Churchill never issued any orders following the events of Malmedy to kill German prisoners of war.  However in Germany, on the Eastern Front, the situation was quite different – Russian prisoners of war were executed in vast numbers, through forced labor, starvation, and direct violence upon prisoners taken on the Eastern Front.  This savage policy was an extension of Germany’s policies regarding “racial purity” and the overall plan of the Nazi leadership to destroy the various Slavic ethnic/linguistic populations in Eastern Europe to replace them with ethnic German settlers.  Slaughtering Russian prisoners of war, in brutal and calculated fashion, was the official policy of the high command of the German SS, it was a policy followed and often supported by the command of the German Wehrmacht, and it was a policy endorsed and orchestrated by the highest levels of command in the Nazi government of Germany.

In other words – evidence indicates solidly that Adolph Hitler was the central figure behind a systematic policy of execution of any Russian prisoners of war taken from 1941 onwards and that he was supported in this policy at most, if not all levels, of the command structure of his military forces and the government of Germany.

So why does this link to the events on the Western front in which American prisoners of war were killed by a German SS unit?  It matters because the massacre of the American prisoners of war is an extension of a Nazi policy of war on the Eastern Front, meaning that this massacre was undertaken in a military environment far different then that facing American military personnel.  It was unacceptable to the higher levels of command in the United States armed forces that German prisoners of war would be executed if taken in battle, it was a breech of the rules of engagement and punishable.  For the SS units going into battle in 1944, it was not an unacceptable policy and might have even been ordered by the Nazi high command.  Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann miss the broader impact of the Malmedy massacre and the executions of German prisoners of war that occurred at the hands of American soldiers, when German prisoners of war were shot by Americans it was an action by an individual unit acting on its own, in violation of the rules of engagement and standing orders.  When German military figures executed American prisoners of war in a field in Belgium, it was an extension of a policy in operation, with official blessing, in how the German military conducted its wars from 1941 onwards.  One is a single incident that is a regrettable human failing, the other a systematic policy of slaughter and brutalization with the aim of spreading terror among ones opponents and, more darkly, destroying an entire ethnic and cultural group.