26 January 2014

Mark Sykes, Amateur at Play in the Middle East

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 3104-3162:
His name was Mark Sykes—or, more formally, Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes, 6th Baronet, of Sledmere.

Few people in history have so heedlessly caused so much tragedy. At the age of thirty-six, the handsome if slightly doughy Sykes epitomized that remarkable subclass of British aristocrats of the late imperial age known as the “Amateurs.” Despite its somewhat derogatory modern connotation, the term derives from the Latin “for the love of,” and in this context denoted a select group of wealthy and usually titled young men whose breeding, education, and freedom from careerist pressures—it was considered terribly déclassé for such men to hold down bona fide jobs—allowed them to dabble over a broad range of interests and find all doors flung open to them. Raised on a thirty-thousand-acre ancestral estate as the only child of a Yorkshire aristocrat, Sykes, like so many of his fellow Amateurs, seemed intent on living the lives of ten “ordinary” men. Educated at Cambridge, he had traveled extensively throughout the Ottoman Empire, authored four books, been a soldier in the Boer War, served as parliamentary secretary to the chief administrator of Ireland and honorary attaché to the British embassy in Constantinople—and those were just the highlights up to the age of twenty-five. In the succeeding eleven years before his arrival in Cairo that autumn, he had married and had sired five children—a sixth would soon be on the way—won a reputation as an accomplished caricaturist, invented an early version of the overhead projector and, since 1912, served as the Conservative member of Parliament for Hull Central.

Sykes’s appearance in Cairo was a result of the most recent addition to his résumé. The previous spring, Lord Kitchener had appointed him as an advisor to the de Bunsen Committee, an interdepartmental government board designed to guide the British cabinet on Middle Eastern affairs. Unsurprisingly, Sykes had quickly emerged as the dominant member of that committee, and in July 1915 set out on an extended fact-finding mission to the region with the intention of imparting his firsthand impressions to the cabinet upon his return.

Lawrence and Sykes first met that August, during Sykes’s stopover in Cairo on the outgoing leg of his fact-finding mission. Like most everyone else, Lawrence took a quick liking to the charming and personable MP. He and others in the Cairo intelligence staff were also gratified to finally find someone in the senior branches of the British government who appeared to appreciate their ideas for unconventional warfare. That estimate was initially fortified upon Sykes’s return to Egypt in November; he had spent the previous two months meeting with officials in British India, a group vehemently opposed to the war-by-proxy plots emanating out of British Egypt, and the returned Sykes made no secret that his sympathies lay with the Egyptian approach.

Yet for all his astounding achievements, Mark Sykes exemplified another characteristic common among the British ruling class of the Edwardian age, a breezy arrogance that held that most of the world’s messy problems were capable of neat solution, that the British had the answers to many of them, and that it was their special burden—no less tiresome for being God-given—to enlighten the rest of humanity to that fact. Sykes’s special skill in this regard was a talent for bold and refreshingly concise writing, the ability to break down complex issues into neat bulleted-point formulas that provided the illusion of almost mathematical simplicity. He was a master of the PowerPoint presentation nearly a century before it existed. One example—there were to be many more in the years just ahead—was an analysis he composed during his August stopover in Cairo that purported to chart the various intellectual elements at work in the Middle East. After first dividing those elements between the “Ancients” and the “Moderns,” Sykes offered up subcategories. Thus, Class I of the Ancients were the orthodox (“hard, unyielding, bigoted and fanatical”), while Class I of the Moderns (“the highest type”) denoted “a person of good family who has entirely absorbed a Western education,” not to be confused with the Class II Moderns, who were “the poor, incompetent, or criminal who have received an inferior European education and whose minds by circumstances or temperament or both are driven into more sinister channels than the first class.” Not content to end there, Sykes proceeded to apply his formula to various regions of the Middle East, offering his British readers an easy-to-follow guide to their nation’s standing in each. It was not a pretty picture in a place like Egypt, frankly: from the Class I, II, and III Ancients, absolute hostility, benevolent apathy, and mild approval, respectively, joined to constitutional opposition and unforgiving enmity among the Class I and II Moderns.

It certainly wasn’t the first time such silly racialist formulas had been put to paper, but it spoke volumes to the British leadership’s own smugness—as well, no doubt, to their perpetually harried states in grappling with a conflict that spanned the globe—that such drivel, well organized and confidently stated, took on the flavor of wisdom. Upon Sykes’s return to London and a bravura performance before the de Bunsen Committee, the British government would essentially hand off to the thirty-six-year-old Amateur one of the thorniest—and from a historical standpoint, most profoundly important—assignments of World War I: sorting out the competing territorial claims of Great Britain and her allies in the Middle East.

Only belatedly would British leaders recognize another aspect of Sykes’s character, one that might have given them pause had they spotted it earlier. Perhaps to be expected given his frenetic pace and catholic range of interests, Mark Sykes had a very hard time keeping his facts, even his own beliefs, straight. Impressed by the last person he had spoken with, or the last idea that had popped into his fecund mind, he was forever contradicting positions or policies he had advocated earlier—often mere days earlier.

Lawrence began to get a glimmer of this in the time he spent around Sykes during that November stopover. There was something altogether disquieting about the cavalier way the young MP disregarded inconvenient evidence that didn’t fit his currently held view, often only to seize on that same evidence when his opinion changed. As Lawrence would later write in Seven Pillars, Sykes was “the imaginative advocate of unconvincing world movements … a bundle of prejudices, intuitions, half-sciences. His ideas were of the outside, and he lacked patience to test his materials before choosing his style of building. He would take an aspect of the truth, detach it from its circumstances, inflate it, twist and model it.”

But there was yet another side to Sykes’s personality that boded ill for the crucial role he was about to assume. It seems the man was something of a sneak. Whether due to a need to prove he was always the cleverest person in the room, or a con man’s desire to get one over simply for the sport of it, the young Amateur would make an art form out of bending the truth to suit his needs, of playing one side against another by withholding or manipulating crucial information. The result would be a most peculiar place in history for Mark Sykes: it’s hard to think of any figure who, with no true malice intended and neither a nation nor an army at his disposal, was to wreak more havoc on the twentieth century than the personable and brilliant young aristocrat from Yorkshire, havoc that a small group of his countrymen, including T. E. Lawrence, would try very hard to set right.

Which isn’t to suggest that Sykes uniquely possessed these traits. Indeed, when it came to duplicity, the Amateur had a lot of very accomplished competitors in the Middle East just then.
The highly credentialed professionals don't seem to be doing any better.

24 January 2014

Berber Awakenings in the Maghreb

In the wake of the Tunisian Revolution in 2011, The American Interest published a backgrounder article headlined The Berber Awakening by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, who had just published a book on The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States (University of Texas Press, 2011). Here are a few excerpts from the article.
North Africa has long been the neglected stepchild of Anglo-American Middle East academe and policy institutes. This region, commonly known as the Maghreb, was traditionally the near-exclusive preserve of European (mainly French) policymakers and scholars, owing to proximity, colonial experiences, linguistic familiarity and economic interests.

This neglect is now coming to end. North African studies have flourished recently in the scholarly realm, in English as well as French. On the policy side, the wake-up call came for some with the radical Islamist challenge and bloodletting in Algeria during the 1990s. For others, it came with the discovery of young men of Moroccan and Algerian origins in the ranks of al-Qaeda. For democracy and civil society promoters, Morocco under King Mohamed VI offered a model to emulate. But if any of these didn’t happen to grab your attention, there was Tunisia 2011, which provided the spark for the explosions of popular protest rumbling across the entire Arab world and parts of the Muslim world beyond....

Constitutionally, Algeria and Morocco are certainly Arab-Islamic states, with Arabic being the sole official language. Organizationally, they are both members of the 22-nation League of Arab States, as well as the largely moribund five-nation Arab Maghreb Union (along with Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania). Beginning in the 1930s, the ideologues of Algeria’s national movement proclaimed the Arabic language, along with Islam and territorial nationalism, as the central pillars of their challenge to a century of French settler-colonialism and incorporation into metropolitan France. Morocco’s urban nationalist elite had a similar Arab-Islamic orientation.

Upon achieving independence, both countries directed their educational and cultural nation-building efforts toward the east, toward the Mashriq, linking their societies’ roots to the rise of Islam and the spread of its Arabic-language civilization across North Africa beginning in the late 7th century. Both Algeria and Morocco had to work hard at “becoming Arab”, importing thousands of teachers from the Mashriq to instill a standardized version of written Arabic to replace French as the language of administration. This Arabic differed sharply from the North African dialectical Arabic (darija) spoken in daily life—let alone from the widely spoken Berber dialects. There are three primary dialects in Morocco, and two primary ones in Algeria, along with two additional ones spoken by smaller groups.

So who are the Berbers, and why are they worthy of attention? Simply put, the Berbers are North Africa’s “natives”, the population encountered by the region’s various conquerors and “civilizers”: Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, Arab-Muslims and Europeans. Berber social organization was classically tribal, and they spoke varieties of a single, mainly unwritten language classified today as Afro-Asian. Their encounters with foreign forces, which generally were more powerful, produced a variety of responses ranging from resistance and retreat to acceptance and assimilation. Overall, Berbers straddled multiple worlds, assimilating the “other” with whom they were engaged in one form of accommodation or another, but retaining distinct attributes of their own.

Inevitably, given their relative weakness, this collection of tribal groupings was branded by a derogatory term: “Berbers”, from the Greek and Roman appellations for “barbarians.” Subsequent Arab-Muslim conquerors quickly adopted the term, and it has stuck ever since. Not surprisingly, modern-day Berber militants reject such stigmatization imposed from the outside, and prefer to call themselves Amazigh, which translates into “free men.”

The Amazigh are worthy of our attention for several reasons, one of which is their underappreciated demographic significance. Speakers of one of the Berber/Tamazight dialects constitute approximately 40–45 percent of the population in Morocco, 20–25 percent in Algeria, 8–9 percent in Libya and about 1–5 percent in Tunisia. They total some 15–20 million persons, a number that exceeds the total population, for the sake of comparison, of Greece or Portugal. These numbers, while considerable, are significantly lower as a percentage than they were a century ago, thanks to complex processes of economic and political integration that have occurred throughout the region.

Indeed, it is this very decline that has helped spur the modern Amazigh identity movement, one which explicitly foregrounds a collective Amazigh “self”, complete with a flag, anthems, collective memory sites (lieux de memoire), a “national” narrative and ancient and modern icons. Thus the movement seeks to renegotiate the terms of Berber accommodation with various “others”: the nation-state, Islam and modernity. The movement’s central demands are recognition by state authorities of the existence of the Amazigh people as a collective and of the historical and cultural Amazighité of North Africa. The most immediate and concrete manifestations of that recognition would be to make Tamazight an official language equal to Arabic and to begin redressing the multitude of injustices which they say have been inflicted on the Berbers in both the colonial and independence eras through corrective educational, social and economic policies. More generally, the movement challenges the fundamental national narratives of these countries, which until recently consigned Berber cultural expressions to state-sponsored folklore festivals, complemented by National Geographic-type television programs on remote and exotic mountain villages, on par with the nomadic Touareg “blue men” of the desert.

In their efforts to fashion a “modern” ethno-cultural collective identity out of the older building blocks of their societies, the Amazigh activists are part of a more general trend that challenges hegemonic Arab-centered nationalism. Ironically, the ever-accelerating processes of globalization, which some thinkers have heralded as the harbinger of a long-awaited post-national age, are also generating an intensified “politics of identity.” The new politics of identity in the Muslim world is marked by the ethno-cultural assertion of formerly marginalized minority groups, combined with a demand for the democratization of political life. For some, like the Kurds, this has reached a critical mass, morphing into full-fledged nationalism. For others, like the Muslim residents of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, this kind of nationalism is forming fast. Berbers have not yet reached that stage, and they may never reach it. But they, too, have achieved a measure of recognition and self-definition that was inconceivable a generation ago.

21 January 2014

The Arab Awakening in 1915

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2832-2871:
BY THE MIDSUMMER of 1915 on Gallipoli, so many men were dying in such a confined space—in some spots, the opposing trenchlines were less than thirty yards apart—that informal truces began to be called in order to gather up the dead. The arrangements were usually worked out by local commanders, so that at a specified time grave-digging parties from both sides would step out into no-man’s-land and begin their ghastly work.

This certainly appeared to be the intent of the Ottoman lieutenant who, on the morning of August 20, climbed from his army’s forward trench and, under the cover of a white flag, started across no-man’s-land. Instead, upon reaching the British line, the young officer announced to his startled hosts that he wished to surrender.

Following standard procedure, the man was bound and blindfolded and passed down through the Med-Ex trenchworks to regimental headquarters. If standard procedure had continued to be followed, he would have been interrogated there by an intelligence officer, then sent on to the central prisoner-of-war stockade before eventual transfer to a POW camp in Cyprus or Egypt. But there was nothing at all standard about this prisoner. His name was Mohammed al-Faroki, and despite his unassuming appearance—he was just twenty-four and very slight—the story he told was so remarkable that successive British officers felt their superiors needed to hear it.

He claimed to be a member of a secret military society called al-Ahd (the Awakening), comprised largely of Arab officers like himself, that had been waiting in vain for months for the right conditions to stage a revolt against their Turkish overseers. Rumors of shadowy fifth-column networks inside the Ottoman Empire had become rather commonplace by that summer, but what was different about Faroki was that he supplied a list of his alleged al-Ahd coconspirators, most of them high-ranking officers, complete with details on which units they commanded and where they were currently deployed.

Testament to the importance given the lieutenant’s claims, on August 25, General Ian Hamilton, the overall commander of the Gallipoli campaign, fired off a report to War Secretary Kitchener himself. Deciding that the intelligence unit in Cairo was best equipped to judge the truthfulness of the lieutenant’s story, London ordered Faroki put on board a warship bound for Egypt.

At least initially, neither Gilbert Clayton, the overall commander of the British military intelligence unit in Cairo, nor any of his subordinates knew quite what to make of the young man brought to their Savoy Hotel offices on September 10. Their attention was piqued, however, when Faroki suggested the British had squandered a profound military opportunity by not going ashore at Alexandretta in the spring of 1915. According to Faroki, not only had Alexandretta been guarded primarily by Arab-conscript units at the time, with many of their commanders committed al-Ahd members, but these units had even carefully sabotaged the city’s defensive fortifications in anticipation of an imminent British landing force. Those efforts had come to naught, obviously, when the British instead launched their disastrous Gallipoli campaign. That wasn’t the worst of it, however. Once Gallipoli started, Djemal Pasha had swiftly sent the Arab units in Alexandretta to the battlefront; as a result, Faroki explained, many of the would-be conspirators of al-Ahd now lay dead on the Gallipoli hillsides, killed by the very “enemy” they had hoped to join.

Up to this point, much of Faroki’s story was easy enough to verify. The founder of al-Ahd, a man named Abdul Aziz al-Masri, was living in exile in Cairo, and he was brought in to vouch for Faroki’s bona fides. As for his claim that Alexandretta had been guarded by troops anxious to mutiny, this was precisely what Lawrence had ascertained from his interviews with Ottoman prisoners and had stressed in his lobbying for a landing there. But Faroki had more to tell. A lot more.

For some time, he claimed, he had served as a kind of liaison between al-Ahd and another Arab secret society, al-Fatat, in Damascus. From this linking, al-Ahd had learned of the covert negotiations between al-Fatat and Emir Hussein in Mecca toward staging a joint uprising against the Turks. In the process, al-Ahd had also learned of the secret correspondence between Emir Hussein and the British in Cairo. The upshot of all this was that, if armed and supported by Britain, both Arab secret societies, the civilian al-Fatat and the military al-Ahd, were now prepared to join Emir Hussein in revolt against the Turks.

Such a partnership would come with a price, though: British recognition of an independent Arab nation encompassing virtually the entire Arab world, from Iraq in the east to Syria in the west and extending down to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The precise parameters of this Arab nation were open to some limited negotiation—the would-be rebels recognized Britain’s colonial claim to Aden and its commercial interests in southern Iraq—but the one absolute precondition was that the French were not to have a controlling presence anywhere. If all that was agreed to, Faroki explained, then the British could have their revolution in the heart of the Ottoman world.

15 January 2014

Irreconcilable Goals of the Young Turks

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 717-728:
By 1911, the Young Turks had begun to solidify their hold on power, and had come up with three main rallying points in hopes of keeping their fractious empire together: modernization, the defense of Islam, and a call for a rejoining of the greater Turkic-speaking world, or Turanism. All of which sounded good, except that these three planks stood in direct opposition to one another.

The very progressivism of many of the Young Turks’ social decrees may have played well with secularists and the empire’s Jewish and Christian minorities, but they simultaneously enraged huge numbers of Muslim traditionalists. Similarly, while their increasingly jingoistic Turanist rhetoric surely excited the ethnic Turk populace, it just as surely alienated the non-Turkish populations—Arabs, Slavs, Armenians, Greeks—who now constituted a majority within the empire. As for wrapping themselves in the mantle of Islam’s defenders, that might conceivably win over Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab Muslims, but it didn’t do much for everyone else—including, for that matter, the sizable minority of Arabs who were Christians. In effect, by trying to find something to appeal to every segment of their polyglot society, the Young Turks were giving all of them something to hate and fear.

For Lawrence, a young man increasingly attuned to the political and social currents swirling around him, an inescapable conclusion began to form: little by little, the Ottoman Empire was coming apart at the seams.

Germans Fomenting Jihad in the Early 1900s

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 768-786:
The count was a man of catholic enthusiasms, and in addition to archaeology and horse racing and slave girls, there was one that Germany’s imperial rivals in the Near East found particularly irksome: Max von Oppenheim wanted to rearrange the regional political chessboard through stoking the fires of Islamic jihad.

He had begun formulating the idea shortly after taking up his consular position in Cairo. In Oppenheim’s estimation, the great Achilles’ heels of Germany’s principal European competitors—Great Britain, France, and Russia—were the Muslim populations to be found within their imperial borders, populations that deeply resented being under the thumb of Christian colonial powers. As the only major European power never to have attempted colonization in the Muslim world, Oppenheim propounded, Germany was uniquely positioned to turn this situation to its advantage—especially if it could forge an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. If it came to a Europe-wide war, Oppenheim posited in a flurry of reports to the German foreign ministry, and the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople could be persuaded to call for a holy war against the Christian occupiers of their former lands, what would happen in British-ruled Egypt, or French Tunisia, or the Russian Caucasus?

One person who was itching to find out was Kaiser Wilhelm II. Forwarded some of Oppenheim’s “war by revolution” treatises, the German emperor quickly became a committed proponent of the jihad notion. Wilhelm saw to it that Oppenheim, “my feared spy,” was promoted at the Cairo embassy, assuming the somewhat ironic title of chief legal counsel.

Until the blessed day of pan-Islamic jihad came, there was plenty of work to be done in British Egypt. Through the early 1900s, Oppenheim spent much of his time—and not a little of his personal fortune—quietly wooing a broad cross section of the Egyptian elite opposed to British rule: tribal sheikhs, urban intellectuals, nationalists, and religious figures. While he had already won the kaiser to his jihadist ideas, in 1907 Oppenheim gained another adherent in the form of his new subordinate, Curt Prüfer. Enough with scholarly articles and Egyptian shadow plays; under the tutelage of his charismatic supervisor, Prüfer now saw the opportunity to spread gasoline over the region, put a match to it, and see what happened.

14 January 2014

Early Oil Rush Days, 1913

From Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, 2013), Kindle Loc. 950-966:
In 1913, Socony was primarily an exporter of petroleum products, and China was by far its largest market. In comparison, the company’s exports to the Ottoman Empire, primarily kerosene to fuel its embryonic industrial facilities, were minuscule. To put into perspective how minuscule, while Standard’s kerosene represented the second biggest American export to the Ottoman Empire, the largest was Singer sewing machines.

But as the Standard vice president, William Bemis, had explained to the three men brought to his office that morning, they weren’t being sent to the Near East to rustle up new purchasing clients, but rather to find and develop new sources of oil.

It was simple economics. By the end of 1913, the exponentially growing demand for oil and petroleum products around the globe meant that demand would soon outstrip supply. In the United States alone, the number of combustion-engine vehicles on the road had increased twentyfold in less than a decade, from some seventy-five thousand in 1905 to well over 1.5 million in 1913—and already a number of the oldest American oilfields were starting to run dry.

Oil was rapidly becoming a crucial military asset as well. In 1912, just a year before [William] Yale’s summoning to New York, the first lord of the admiralty of Great Britain, Winston Churchill, had made international headlines with his plan to convert the entire Royal Navy from coal to oil. As might be expected, this proposed modernization of the world’s most powerful fleet was already causing the navies of other nations, including Germany, to scramble to follow suit.

As a consequence, both American and European oil companies were now rushing to find and exploit new fields wherever they might exist. One especially promising region was the Near East. In the 1870s, huge oil and gas deposits had been discovered around Baku on the Caspian Sea, and this had been followed by another large strike in the Persian Gulf in 1908. Those fields were quickly dominated by European consortiums, and the race was on to tap and lay claim to the next big find.

12 January 2014

'The Good War' Included Many Bad

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin's, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6735-6779:
In his memoirs of the late 1940s and 50s, published after his death following the famous ‘umbrella assassination’ in London in 1978, the Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov told a story that is emblematic of the postwar period – not only in his own country, but in Europe as a whole. It involved a conversation between one of his friends, who had been arrested for challenging a Communist official who had jumped the bread queue, and an officer of the Bulgarian Communist militia:
‘And now tell me who your enemies are?’ the militia chief demanded.
K. thought for a while and replied: ‘I don’t really know, I don’t think I have any enemies.’
‘No enemies!’ The chief raised his voice. ‘Do you mean to say that you hate nobody and nobody hates you?’
‘As far as I know, nobody.’
‘You are lying,’ shouted the Lieutenant-Colonel suddenly, rising from his chair. ‘What kind of a man are you not to have any enemies? You clearly do not belong to our youth, you cannot be one of our citizens, if you have no enemies! … And if you really do not know how to hate, we shall teach you! We shall teach you very quickly!’
In a sense, the militia chief in this story is right – it was virtually impossible to emerge from the Second World War without enemies. There can hardly be a better demonstration than this of the moral and human legacy of the war. After the desolation of entire regions; after the butchery of over 35 million people; after countless massacres in the name of nationality, race, religion, class or personal prejudice, virtually every person on the continent had suffered some kind of loss or injustice. Even countries which had seen little direct fighting, such as Bulgaria, had been subject to political turmoil, violent squabbles with their neighbours, coercion from the Nazis and eventually invasion by one of the world’s new superpowers. Amidst all these events, to hate one’s rivals had become entirely natural. Indeed, the leaders and propagandists of all sides had spent six long years promoting hatred as an essential weapon in the quest for victory. By the time this Bulgarian militia chief was terrorizing young students at Sofia University, hatred was no longer a mere by-product of the war – in the Communist mindset it had been elevated to a duty.

There were many, many reasons not to love one’s neighbour in the aftermath of the war. He might be a German, in which case he would be reviled by almost everyone, or he might have collaborated with Germans, which was just as bad: most of the vengeance in the aftermath of the war was directed at these two groups. He might worship the wrong god – a Catholic god or an Orthodox one, a Muslim god, or a Jewish god, or no god at all. He might belong to the wrong race or nationality: Croats had massacred Serbs during the war, Ukrainians had killed Poles, Hungarians had suppressed Slovaks, and almost everyone had persecuted Jews. He might have the wrong political beliefs: both Fascists and Communists had been responsible for countless atrocities across the continent, and both Fascists and Communists had themselves been subjected to brutal repression – as indeed had those subscribing to virtually every shade of political ideology between these two extremes.

The sheer variety of grievances that existed in 1945 demonstrates not only how universal the war had been, but also how inadequate is our traditional way of understanding it. It is not enough to portray the war as a simple conflict between the Axis and the Allies over territory. Some of the worst atrocities in the war had nothing to do with territory, but with race or nationality. The Nazis did not attack the Soviet Union merely for the sake of Lebensraum: it was also an expression of their urge to assert the superiority of the German race over Jews, Gypsies and Slavs. The Soviets did not invade Poland and the Baltic States only for the sake of territory either: they wanted to propagate communism as far westwards as they were able. Some of the most vicious fighting was not between the Axis and the Allies at all, but between local people who took the opportunity of the wider war to give vent to much older frustrations. The Croat Ustashas fought for the sake of ethnic purity. The Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians fought for national liberation. Many Greeks and Yugoslavs fought for the abolition of the monarchy - or for its restoration. Many Italians fought to free themselves from the shackles of a medieval feudalism. The Second World War was therefore not only a traditional conflict for territory: it was simultaneously a war of race, and a war of ideology, and was interlaced with half a dozen civil wars fought for purely local reasons.

Given that the Germans were only one ingredient in this vast soup of different conflicts, it stands to reason that their defeat did not bring an end to the violence. In fact, the traditional view that the war came to an end when Germany finally surrendered in May 1945 is entirely misleading: in reality, their capitulation only brought an end to one aspect of the fighting. The related conflicts over race, nationality and politics continued for weeks, months and sometimes years afterwards. Gangs of Italians were still lynching Fascists late into the 1940s. Greek Communists and Nationalists, who first fought one another as opponents or collaborators with Germany, were still at each other’s throats in 1949. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian partisan movements, born at the height of the war, were still fighting well into the mid-1950s. The Second World War was like a vast supertanker ploughing through the waters of Europe: it had such huge momentum that, while the engines might have been reversed in May 1945, its turbulent course was not finally brought to a halt until several years later.

07 January 2014

Post-WWII Yugoslavia as Harbinger

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin's, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4976-5024:
It is true that the statistics associated with postwar Yugoslavia are worse than in any other country. Some 70,000 collaborationist troops and civilians were killed by the Partisans in the aftermath of the war: when compared to the population as a whole, this is more than ten times as bad as in Italy and twenty times as bad as in France.33 At first sight, the anecdotes that emerge from the postwar period also appear to support the stereotype of Yugoslavian cruelty. Dusan Vukovic, who joined the Partisans at the tender age of eleven, claims that he saw a Ustasha skinned alive and then hung on a tree branch with his own skin. ‘With my own eyes I saw the Partisans cut off noses and ears and gouge out eyes. They cut symbols of various kinds into the flesh of the captives, too, especially when they thought they had Gestapo personnel in their hands.’ Other eyewitnesses speak of routine sadism, such as guards killing their victims slowly with knives, riding prisoners like horses, or binding men and women together and throwing them into rivers to watch them drown.

Numbers aside, however, the violence that occurred in Yugoslavia at the end of the war was no more cruel than that which occurred in other countries. On the contrary, the same themes that pervaded here were present throughout the continent. There is no difference between the anecdotes above and the stories of French miliciens who are supposed to have arrested Resistance fighters during the German occupation, ‘ripped out their eyes, put bugs in the holes and sewn up their sockets’. Czech mobs were just as likely to carve Nazi symbols into the flesh of SS men they caught hold of, and Belgian maquisards thought nothing of burning collaborators alive. Despite the stereotypes, therefore, the cruelty that took place in this unfortunate part of the Balkans should not be considered unique – rather it was symbolic of a dehumanization that had taken place across the continent.

Neither does the ethnic dimension to the violence set Yugoslavia apart. Such ethnic tension might have been missing in most of western Europe but, as I have shown, it was an integral part of the war and its aftermath in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Ukraine. There were also numerous smaller, more regional conflicts involving minorities across the continent, some of which were every bit as violent on a local scale.

In fact, the only unique thing about Yugoslavia is how well it simultaneously encapsulates all of the themes I have discussed so far in this book. As in the rest of Europe, much of the violence in Yugoslavia was motivated by a simple desire for vengeance. As in the rest of Europe, the rifts caused by the war were deliberately concealed beneath a layer of cosy mythology once the war was over. The postwar breakdown of law and order was no different there than in other badly damaged areas of the continent. Lack of trust in the new police force, whom the people feared ‘as they would a plunderous mob’, was no different from the fear that Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Austrians and East Germans felt towards their own militias (or indeed towards Soviet soldiers). Lack of trust in the courts was the same as it was in France and Italy and, as in those countries, often led to people taking the law into their own hands. Clandestine, unofficial prisons were set up for collaborators, just as they were in France and Czechoslovakia; gulags were created for prisoners of war, just as they had been in the Soviet Union. Populations of Germans and Hungarians were expelled, just as they were from other countries across the continent.

It is only the involvement of the Yugoslav state that points the way to a new theme that I have not yet discussed in depth – the idea that much of the violence was politically motivated. Almost all of the events described up to now were brought about by individuals or groups acting outside state control, and who were eventually brought back into line by a combination of the Allied armies and traditional politicians. In Yugoslavia it was the state itself that conducted the violence, the Allies were absent, and traditional politicians had been replaced by revolutionaries. It is perhaps unsurprising that these fighting men took a distinctly unsubtle approach to returning the country to law and order.

Tito’s right-hand man, Milovan Djilas, put their methods succinctly in an interview published in a British magazine in 1979: ‘Yugoslavia was in a state of chaos and destruction. There was hardly any civil administration. There were no properly constituted courts. There was no way in which the cases of 20–30,000 people could have been reliably investigated. So the easy way out was to have them all shot, and have done with the problem.’ While the French and the Italians tried to rid themselves of collaborators through the courts, and bemoaned the inadequacy of their purge ever afterwards, Tito recognized the shortcomings of his legal system and dispensed with it altogether. ‘We put an end to it,’ he reminisced later, ‘once and for all.’

There is no doubt that the massacres that occurred in Yugoslavia after the war were, at least in part, politically motivated. Since the Communists were intent on forcing Croatia and Slovenia to rejoin a Yugoslavian federation, it made no sense to allow tens of thousands of staunch Croatian and Slovenian nationalists to put that reunion in jeopardy. Neither could Tito allow the continued existence of Mihailović’s royalist Chetniks to jeopardize his vision of a Communist Yugoslavia. Both groups therefore had to be dealt with one way or another. Those who were not shot were imprisoned for years or sometimes decades.

Politically motivated violence by the state was not unique to Yugoslavia. Other Communist groups across Europe were perhaps more subtle in their pursuit of power, but equally ruthless, and just as willing to resort to violence when they believed it necessary. For countless millions of people throughout the eastern half of the continent, therefore, the end of the war did not signal ‘liberation’ at all, it merely heralded a new era of state repression. The Nazi terror was over: the Communist terror was about to begin.

05 January 2014

Poles vs. Ukrainians during World War II

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin's, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4091-4123, 4147-4157:
The borderlands of eastern Poland were invaded not once, but three times during the war: first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, and finally by the Soviets again. The different ethnic communities that lived in this richly diverse area reacted to each invasion in different ways. Most of the Polish population resisted the Nazis and the Soviets alike, in the hope that Poland might somehow be able to return to its prewar status quo. The Ukrainian population, by contrast, was more divided. Almost all of them feared and hated the Russians because of the brutal way that they had ruled the Soviet part of Ukraine during the 1930s; but many welcomed the Germans, at least at first, as liberators. The Jews, meanwhile, did not know where to place their faith. Many hoped that the Soviet invasion might deliver them from Polish and Ukrainian anti-Semitism; later, some seemed to hope that the German invasion would save them from Soviet persecution. By the time the region was invaded for a third time at the end of 1943, the handful of Jews who still survived had lost faith in all outsiders, whatever their nationality.

Both the Soviets and the Nazis played these different ethnic groups off against one other. The Nazis especially sought to harness the nationalist sentiments of the Ukrainians, in order to suppress the rest of the population. Even before the invasion they had made contacts with Ukrainian far-right political groups, particularly the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). This was an illegal ultra-nationalist movement, akin to the Ustashas in Croatia or the Iron Guard in Romania, which embraced the use of violence to achieve its aims. The Nazis dangled the promise of Ukrainian independence before them in return for their collaboration. While the most powerful factions of this shady organization never trusted German intentions, other factions enthusiastically allowed themselves to be exploited – partly because they thought the Nazis would give them what they wanted, but also because they shared some of the Nazis’ darker intentions.

The most shameful collaboration between the OUN and the Nazis was the way in which they worked together to eradicate the Jews. The OUN had for years been speaking of ethnic purity, of a ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians’, and of the benefits of revolutionary terror. The implementation of the Final Solution, particularly in the region of Volhynia, showed followers of the OUN that the slogans were not mere rhetoric. These massacres, which occurred in full view of the general population, would provide the template for all future ethnic cleansing in the region. What once would have been unthinkable now became eminently possible.

During the course of 1941 and 1942, about 12,000 Ukrainian policemen became intimately acquainted with the tactics the Nazis used to kill over 200,000 Volhynian Jews. As collaborators, they were involved in the planning of operations. They gave assurances to local populations in order to lull them into a false sense of security. They were employed in the sudden encirclement of Jewish villages and settlements, and even took part in some of the killing itself. The slaughter of the Jews was the perfect apprenticeship for what would come later.

At the end of 1942, when it first became obvious that German power was waning, these same Ukrainian policemen deserted their posts en masse. They took their weapons and went to join the OUN’s new, armed partisan group, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrains‘ka Povstans’ka Armiia, or UPA). They used the skills they had learned under the Nazis to continue their campaign against their ethnic enemies – not only the region’s few remaining Jews, but this time also its large Polish population.

The massacre of Poles began in the same areas where Ukrainian policemen had been most intimately connected to the massacre of Jews: Volhynia. There were many reasons why the ethnic cleansing began here – the area contained extensive forests and marshes, and so was particularly suited to partisan activity, and the isolated Polish communities were much less well defended than in other areas – but the previous actions against the Jews certainly played their part. The taboos had already been broken: young Ukrainian men here had become both trained to kill, and inured to mass killing. When they embarked on their cleansing of the region at the end of 1942 they were therefore relatively free of both external and personal constraints.


In reaction to such events, some local Poles began to set up their own militias for the purpose of self-defence. The Polish underground also diverted resources away from resisting the occupation in order to protect Polish communities from the UPA. Some Volhynian Poles turned to the Germans for jobs as policemen so that they might have opportunities for revenge. (The Germans certainly appeared happy to recruit them, and a new wave of collaboration was born – ironically in the name of controlling former collaborators who were now running amok.) When the Soviets arrived in 1944, many Poles joined the Red Army or the NKVD – again, with the purpose of exacting revenge for all they had suffered. Ukrainian villages were burned, and thousands of Ukrainian peasants killed, in both official and unofficial reprisals for the actions of UPA. These reprisals, naturally, were used by Ukrainian partisans as further justification for their targeting of Poles and Polish villages. And so the situation degenerated into a vicious cycle. During the final year of the war, and in its immediate aftermath, the entire region was engulfed in what was effectively a civil war. What began in Volhynia spread to Galicia and central Poland. Poles and Ukrainians slaughtered one another and burned each other’s villages with an enthusiasm that far exceeded any of their actions against the German or Soviet occupiers.

Expulsions of Germans, 1945–49

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin's, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4614-4678:
The statistics associated with the expulsion of the Germans between 1945 and 1949 defy imagination. By far the greatest number of them came from the lands east of the Oder and Neisse that had been incorporated into the new Poland – almost 7 million, according to the German government figures. Almost another 3 million were removed from Czechoslovakia, and more than 1.8 million from other lands, making a total of 11,730,000 refugees altogether.

Each of the different zones of Germany coped with this massive influx of people in its own way. Probably the worst prepared was the Soviet zone, whose towns and cities were amongst the most comprehensively destroyed by the war, and which was in the process of being stripped of everything of value for Soviet war reparations. A flood of refugees arrived in the aftermath of the war, mostly from the new Poland, but also from Czechoslovakia. By the end of November 1945 there were already a million of them trying to scratch a living here, disoriented and virtually destitute. During four years from the end of the war at least 3.2 million refugees settled in the zone, and possibly as many as 4.3 million. A further 3 million or so paused there temporarily before moving on to other parts of Germany.

The British zone, which bordered none of the deporting countries, had a little more time to prepare. In the autumn and winter of 1945 the British organized an operation to take in millions more refugees, code-named Operation Swallow. Between February 1946 and October 1947 eight trains plied their way back and forth between Szczecin and Lübeck, each composed of covered freight wagons with a total capacity of 2,000 people. Other trains took refugees from Kaławska to Mariental, Alversdorf and Friedland; and from April 1946, refugees were also transported to Lübeck by sea. In this way some 6,000 ‘eastern’ Germans were transported into the British zone almost every single day for a full year and a half. By the end of the decade more than 4.25 million new people had settled here.

Further south, the Americans continued to receive refugees from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia – more than 3.5 million of them in total. The authorities there struggled to cope, and hundreds of thousands were still languishing in refugee camps at the start of the 1950s. According to General Lucius D. Clay, the American military governor in West Germany, the influx of refugees increased the population of the British and American zones of West Germany by over 23 per cent. In East Germany, according to its first president, Wilhelm Pieck, the increase in population was as much as 25 per cent. The effect this had on all parts of Germany (with the exception of the French zone, which received relatively few refugees) was verging on the catastrophic. Most of the cities had been reduced to rubble by Allied bombing during the war, and the country’s shattered infrastructure simply could not cope. Even after their arrival refugees continued to die in their thousands because they were unable to find the shelter, the medical aid or the food to sustain them after their westward odyssey.

For those who were least able to find work or integrate themselves into German society – mostly the sick, the elderly, or widowed women with children – several years in refugee camps was all they could look forward to. Conditions in these camps were sometimes not much better than finding shelter in ruined buildings. A report on the camp at Dingolfing by the Bavarian Red Cross, for example, described a high number of invalids and people with tuberculosis living in overcrowded conditions. They had no proper shoes, clothing or bedding. In another camp in Sperlhammer cardboard had to be pasted to the walls of the barracks as protection against the water that leaked through.

Worse than this, however, were the social and psychological problems experienced by the refugees. People from the east or the Sudetenland were sometimes regarded as foreigners by other Germans, and tensions often rose up between them. As General Clay wrote in 1950,
Separated from Germany through many generations, the expellee even spoke in a different tongue. He no longer shared common customs and traditions nor did he think of Germany as home. He could not persuade himself that he was forever exiled; his eyes and thoughts and hopes turned homeward.
According to one man deported from Hungary, it was difficult for his fellow expellees to forge a new life for themselves, ‘Not only because they had lost their homelands and practically all their material possessions, but also they had lost their identity.’ The social democrat Hermann Brill described the refugees he saw as suffering from a deep state of shock. ‘They have fully lost the ground from under them. That which is taken for granted by us, a sense of security from life experience, a certain personal feeling for their individual freedom and human worth, that is all gone.’ In July 1946, a Soviet report on politics in Leipzig described the refugees as still ‘deeply depressed’ and ‘the most indifferent to politics of any group of the Leipzig population’. Unable to adjust to their new circumstances, they did little but dream of returning to their ancient homelands across the border.

The right to return was the one thing that these Germans would be denied. Their expulsion was designed from the outset to be permanent, and with this in mind ever stricter border controls were set up: Germans would be allowed to leave, but they would not be allowed to come back.

Furthermore, their deportation was only the first stage of a much larger operation: after they were gone, attempts were also made to erase all traces of their existence. Even before the Germans had been driven out of Poland and Czechoslovakia, towns, villages and streets were being renamed. In the case of villages that had never had Polish or Czech names before, new ones were invented for them. German monuments were torn down and new Czech or Polish ones erected in their place. Swastikas were taken down everywhere, although their shadow could still be seen on many walls for years to come. The speaking of the German language was banned, and the few Germans who were allowed to stay (by renouncing their German nationality) were advised to speak Polish or Czech even in private.

Schools were banned from teaching the German history of areas like the Sudetenland or Silesia. Instead, Germans were portrayed as invaders on lands that had historically always been Polish or Czech. The new areas of Poland were referred to as the ‘Recovered Territories’, and Polish children there were taught nationalist slogans, such as ‘Here we were, here we are, here we stay’, and ‘These regions are reclaimed property’. Students in the border areas were not permitted to study German, even as a foreign language – in contrast to other parts of Poland where it was allowed.

It was not only in schools that this new, nationalist mythology was taught – the adult population was also fed propaganda on a prodigious scale. In Wrocław, for example, an ‘Exhibition of the Recovered Territories’ was held, and was visited by some 1.5 million people. Amongst all the obligatory political exhibits stressing Polish-Soviet brotherhood there was a huge historical section, largely devoted to the relationship between Poland and Germany. This emphasized the thousand-year conflict between the two countries, the return of Poland to its ‘Piast Path’ (in reference to a medieval Polish dynasty who defied German kings to create an independent Poland centred around Silesia), and an exhibit entitled ‘Our Immemorial Right to the Recovered Territories’.

This was not merely the claiming, or even the reclamation, of territory: it was the rewriting of history. In the new, nationalist Poland, any trace of an indigenous German culture had to be eradicated: this was to be a Poland for Poles only.