Category Archives: History
I thought this would be fitting for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, seeing that we’re in the eleventh year.
Almost every major event in the second half of the twentieth century—most of the ones that had major, life-changing impacts—stem from World War II: the Cold War from Potsdam and the political land-rush by the victorious US and USSR; the Space Race from the Cold War; the numerous Arab-Israeli, African, and Southeast Asian conflicts from the staggering blows the colonial powers took in finances and manpower; the European Union and its precursor, the European Economic Community; hell, if it wasn’t for World War II, the United States would have spent the 1940s wallowing in a great depressing, instead of becoming an industrial workhorse to fill the hole left by declining colonial empires.
But the seeds of the Second World War were sown at Versailles, an armistice so demanding after a war so brutal that many perceived an end the hundreds of years of European infighting, a heritage that catalyzed into the powerblocks which marched off to war in 1914. The importance of World War One is muted and diminished today; there are frequent blockbusters filmed about the Second World War nowadays, but few people want to look back to the slaughter of trench warfare and poison gas. Yet it was the event that formed the bridge between the European politics of the Industrial Revolution and the globalizing post-war world in the Atomic Age.
The Great War is often overshadowed in history by its brutish progeny, but without the Great War the face of the twentieth century would be a far different place. Germany wouldn’t have undergone the financial and psychological hardships that left it crippled and bitter in the wake of Versailles; England and France wouldn’t have lost an entire generation of young men. No “Rape of Belgium” would mean no Holocaust. It is well worth remembering the symbolic value of France signing its terms of surrender in 1940 in the same train car in which the Germans had surrendered in 1918; Hitler spent decades preying on the frustration and ennui of the German people, constructing the “stab in the back” legacy to harness nationalistic grievances. The Great War poisoned its own well at Versailles. Defeat bred German resentment; victory spelled future ruin for the victors.
The Allied Powers which dictated the Treaty of Versailles found themselves in precarious positions two decades later; England and France wanted an old-fashioned “to the victors go the spoils” style of war reparations, and to expand their colonial empires with German holdings, which is precisely what they got. The Great War left France rightfully war-averse from staggering casualty rates, as emphasized by the Maginot Line—a wall against the future German invasions, a fully defensive line signalling an unwillingness to send further millions of men to die in foreign fields, as well as an expectation and preparation against future aggression . Britain found itself under-manned and under-equipped on the eve of war in the 1930s, forced to flail about diplomatically in attempts to encircle Germany with treaties as its military trained and re-armed. While England bravely soldiered on alone, two World Wars were enough to bankrupt an empire upon which the sun never set. The small countries of Europe were wary of choosing Chamberlain’s diplomatic carrot to Hitler’s stick; after all, many of them were created from the great treaty-bound empires which had collapsed in 1917 and 1918.
Armistice Day is a bitter irony, a sober holiday marking the conclusion of the bloodiest, most gruesome war in history, a war which many proclaimed would be the last war in history due to its wholesale slaughter. Yet the Great War’s main accomplishment was setting the stage for a repeat performance.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
So, four hundred and twenty-four years ago today, a resupply convoy arrived in North Carolina to find the colony it was supposed resupply, Roanoke Colony, had vanished. There weren’t any signs of a struggle, and the buildings had all been dismantled, seemingly in a slow and orderly fashion. Pretty much anything could have happened, since the last contact with the colony was three years earlier; other supply efforts had been stymied by the whole Anglo-Spanish War and Armada thing.
It’s a fascinating little snippet of Americana (or, rather, pre-post-British Colonial Americana), particularly as an unsolved mystery: one-hundred and eighteen people vanished, and the details will probably never be revealed. The only clues were the words “Croatoan” and “Cro” carved into some nearby trees, which didn’t reveal much. An investigation provided no end of theories, namely integration with native tribes, but nothing was conclusive. Later theories include starvation and cannibalism, that the dastardly Spanish sailed from Florida to the Carolinas and attacked (what with the war and all), or that the colonists attempted to sail back to England and all drowned due to shoddy shipbuilding. (I guess the latter would explain why their buildings were all dismantled, and why these barn-ships eventually sank.)
It’s also had a slight impact on gaming (as, y’know, that’s what the blog is focused on). White Wolf rolled the disappearance into the World of Darkness, and had it connect to the Croatan tribe (Croatan, Croatoan, get it?) This conveniently avoided answering the mystery, since the Croatan all died in the fight against the Wyrm, with Roanoke implicitly where their Pyrrhic end battle was fought. More recently, Paizo used Roanoke as the inspiration for its Varnhold Vanishing module, third in the Kingmaker adventure path, and reading through that reminded me that today was the 424th anniversary of the Roanoke Disappearances.
70 years ago today, Axis troops invaded the Soviet Union as part of Operation Barbarossa. Despite a rapid advance in the early months of the campaign, capturing millions of Soviet soldiers and decimating the Soviet air and tank corps, the invasion would eventually stall, in the middle of a freezing Russian winter, in the suburbs of Moscow.
This invasion turned the tables of the Second World War. On a socio-political level, the breaking of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signified Hitler’s true intentions, a final nail in the coffin of Chamberlain’s Appeasement policy, which had been based on the misguided assumption that Hitler was a rational leader who would respect things such as treaties and state sovereignty. On a tactical level, it was the death of Blitzkrieg’s perceived invincibility: the German logistics chain strained over the vast expanses of Russia and Ukraine, the superiority of German panzers was shattered by the new Soviet T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks, and the two powers became locked in an Eastern-front death grip, a battle which only one side could win.
As a history buff, the Eastern Front fascinates me, a Wagnerian opera of two forces locked in death-struggle over scorched earth. The battles remain some of the largest engagements in history. Something like 70% of the German military never saw an American or Brit, as they were tied up fighting Soviets in the East.
I found out about Sergey Larenkov a while ago, and his photo-collage project is extraordinary: he takes old photographs of World War II and overlaps them with photos he’s taken of the locations today, creating this ghostly memories of the war. It’s particularly fascinating as an American: these are cities which were old when America was still a British colony, which were devastated during the war, and which were rebuilt again, anew, after the fighting had stopped. It’s a scale of warfare which has never been seen in the Western Hemisphere.
And Soviet infantry in front of the Imperial Hofberg Palace in Vienna.
This is one of my favorites, in how the Soviet infantry are walking in one direction, while the Russian pedestrians are walking another. The clothes, the poster of Stalin… a great contrast in how times change.
Speaking of contrast: the Soviet infantry moving to Vienna’s city-center in 1945 aren’t passing any trees, but today, there’s one tall enough to loom over them. In some of these pictures, I would have done the overlap transitions differently, but this one I really like because of it.
A T-34/85 passing under Prague’s Powder Tower, with 1945-era infantry and 2010-era pedestrians watching it.
There’s a bunch more on Larankov’s Livejournal page, from the siege of Leningrad, defense of Moscow, and more recently, a set of occupation-era Paris. Seriously good stuff, go check it out.