Tuesday, May 17, 2011


It's difficult to know where to start when taking about Europe during WWII. You could start at the close of the first World War and the Treaty of Versailles. You could start in the early 1930's when Stalin, with some help from Mother Nature, implemented starvation in order to hold control over the outlying Ukraine. Regardless of where you start, you are going to end up between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, somewhere in the midst of the destructive Operation Barbarossa or trapped in the hundreds of prisoner of war camps in Eastern Europe.

One of the biggest misconceptions of WWII here in the United States is that we won the war. Most of us know by now that outside of the Pacific War with Japan, the U.S. had little influence as far as physical bodies fighting. The war in Europe was won by the British standing alone on the western front and the Soviet Union storming across the eastern front. Millions of people died on that eastern front, both in battle and under the two most notorious regimes Europe has ever seen: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. While the world acknowledges the 6 million Jews who died and even the 14 million soldiers who died on either side, the land and peoples on which these two ideologies clashed is often overlooked. A book by Timothy Snyder entitled, Bloodlands, offers a look into Ukraine and Poland before, during, and after World War II, where the worst atrocities occurred.

Maybe the place to start is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact that was signed in 1939. In a startling contradiction of world views, Hitler and Stalin agreed to stay out of each others' hair for a while. Yet Hitler made it clear that he needed the lands of Russia for living room. He needed the breadbasket that was Ukraine in order to feed his growing empire of Germans. Regardless, for the time being, the two were allies. And they decided to both invade Poland and divide it in half. This was the decisive move that really brought the war to the world. The annexation of Austria and the little ol' countries around Germany were oversights, blurred lines that left the rest of Europe with some wishful thinking and maybe a little denial on the side. But Poland was different. Especially considering their immediate past, losing thousands to Stalin's paranoia. The country survived the first world war and Stalin's Great Terror only to see itself in the most unique and unfortunate positions in the war: playing host to both aggressors.

Poland had seen the Soviet brutality up close for about decade before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was instated. Stalin had it out for the Poles and blamed them for the troubles that the Soviet Union and especially Ukraine had seen in the 1930's. And to Stalin's credit, the Soviet Union did a fantastic job of keeping unwanted news out the area, including the Nazi treatment of Jews. So when both bloody oceans came crashing into Poland, the inhabitants were unsure of which was better. It turns out, or course, that the Jews preferred Stalin while the Polish majority at first preferred Hitler then realized they would be better off in the USSR.

Poland, unlike its neighbor Ukraine, had tasted the fresh breath of freedom and self autonomy, brief though it was. But unlike Ukraine, which stayed for the most part under Soviet rule, Poland traded masters. And those masters did not know mercy. The reason both countries are called the Bloodlands is because they suffered under every scenario. At least Hitler had a specific enemy: Jews. Well, to him Bolsheviks were Jews and vice versa. But with Stalin, no one was safe. He could come up with some coo coo idea and kill anyone he saw fit. The difference is that Stalin was much more disciplined. Hitler was sloppy. Stalin kept everything under lock and key, which explains why, when the Soviet dictator had killed thousands more people by 1941, the rest of the world saw Hitler as the worse enemy. You could make a case for both.

When the Germans took over, the initial plan was deport the Jews. Actually the first Final Solution draft was to ship them all to Madagascar. Then they wanted to ship them east to the Soviet Union. Well, after Germany broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, that was out of the question. And actually, the more gruesome of deaths fell to the Soviet soldiers captured and sent to POW camps. And the Final Solution wasn't completely agreed upon until well after Operation Barbarossa was finally accepted as failure. So what did the people of the Bloodlands have to face?

I've talked a little bit about what they saw before the war. Stalin blamed the Ukrainians and the Polish for the famine and for the failure of the collective farming. He targeted both nationalities within and without the Soviet Union. Thousands of Ukrainians died of hunger during the early 1930's when Stalin was trying to convert the country to collectivism. Thousands more died when he attempted to rid himself of the peasant class. And thousands more died when he decided that Ukrainian nationalists were out to get him. Many who didn't die were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. When Germany stormed in, they step up concentration camps and killed those working with the Soviet Union, as well as the educated classes. They also began shooting hundreds of thousands of Jews.

In Poland, things were much worse. Having lived through the similar horrors of the Soviet Union as Ukraine, the Polish people saw their entire country taken over by the Nazi Germans. To make matters worse, Poland had a very high Jewish population and Warsaw itself was an extremely Jewish city. The ghetto in Warsaw was one of the worst sites of WWII. Many Jews from all over Europe were sent to live there, in horrid conditions and with no hope of survival.

After Hitler realized that the Soviet Union would not collapse like he had thought, he changed his rhetoric. The allies (USSR, USA, and Britain) were run by the Jewish conspiracy. The best way to beat these allies who were in turn beating the German army, was to kill the Jews. Thus, the final solution became more of a final cop out. The Nazis never intended for the Jews to prosper, but when Hitler viewed his shortcomings, he needed a scapegoat. The Jews would do. The final solution was to wipe them off the face the earth in the hopes that it would weaken the forces that surrounded them.

It is widely accepted that one of Hitler's biggest blunders was invading the Soviet Union. He could have just looked about 50 years earlier to see our dear friend Napoleon making the same mistake with a very similar outcome. However, I think Hitler could have succeeded in Operation Barbarossa if he had put his allies to good use. The Japanese were a huge threat to Stalin. And while their interests lay in the Pacific, Hitler could have very easily persuaded his friends in the East to make a two-front war on the Soviet Union. Better yet, if Hitler had just been more patient, he could very well have succeeded. His only foe in Europe was Churchill. Roosevelt had not entered the European war until well after 1941. If Hitler had focused his attentions to the western front first, secured his hold on western Europe, and convinced his Japanese allies to assist him later on in the Russian invasion, the outcome may have been very different. Stalin was very content with the pact with Hitler and refused to believe the intelligence that claimed Hitler would move on him.

But the fact remains that Hitler took a gamble. And either way, Poland was still a massive death site. Himmler did not want his death factories set up within German proper, so occupied Poland made a great home for such. Poland saw not only the death of millions of Jews but also millions of civilian and war-time deaths. Probably the worst came near the end of the war when the Nazis burned the Warsaw ghetto to the ground and Hitler decided he wanted to the city leveled. He came pretty close.

I knew going into this about the partisan armies that fought both sides, the ghetto uprising of 1944, and the bold Ukrainians who stood their ground against both foes. But what I didn't know was the horribly ironic outcome that the end of the war brought. As Russian forces came raping their way through every village to "liberate" Poland, they brought with them their plans for that country as a satellite communist state. And in doing so, it brought with them the ideology that Stalin, and Hitler to some extent, believed in: ethnic cleansing. And while the Soviet Union practiced (barely) more humane ways of getting this done, it was still wild to see how in the wake of 6 million Jewish deaths the people of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and the Baltic States could still believe in ethnic separation. Stalin had thousands of Germans deported on trains, much like the Germans had deported their Jewish victims, back to Germany. Many displaced Jews also had to travel back to Germany to discover what had happened to their family. Stalin cleared the border lands of diversity. Germans were back in Germany, Belorussians were back in Belarus, and Poles were back in Poland. And the communists were back in Poland. Poor Poland, who had seen the Soviet rule, been handled by both Soviet and Nazi fascism, then totally by Nazis, now again were being held in the palm of Stalin's hand.

It's odd to think how people like Stalin and Hitler get into power. Hitler made more sense in the ashes of World War I. What's more confusing is the muffled and silenced pleas for help that came from behind the iron curtain before the war started followed by the mass ignoring of the very loud and horrible cries from the European Jews. Their deaths did nothing to sway Roosevelt or Churchill. The holocaust was a PART of the reason the allies declared war on Nazi Germany. I was told by someone that horrors such as this exist today. Genocide. And while genocide is real, it is not as thought out or as carefully dictated as the Nazi death camps or the Soviet plans of starvation. It is difficult to wrap my mind around the entirety of World War II but nearly impossible to understand the hardships faced by Ukraine and Poland, a land of people sandwiched between two evils.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Barton Mitchell: A Coincidental Hero

My good friend Erik Fox started a website called Hoosiers Doing Something. It is a really neat website that seeks out different Indiana-born folks who are doing neat things. You should totally check it out.

As I was reading through this Hoosier blog, I was reminded of a book I had read a few years ago called 10 Days that Unexpectedly Changed America. It was actually a History Channel program that was later adapted into a book. One of the days that changed our country was the Battle of Antietam. And they discussed a forgotten hero, Barton Mitchell--an Indiana native who more or less accidentally altered our country's history.

Private Barton Mitchell was just straight chill-laxing in a field in mid-September 1862. He was in the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry (Union represent!). Now, at this point in the Civil War, the Confederacy was making much bigger strides than anyone had expected. They had won at Bull Run, and Polk had poked his little head up into Kentucky and moved the Confederate line further north. The Union was getting a little nervous. And they knew that one more strategic victory for the South could have dire consequences for the States. Mitchell, stretching out and taking it easy in this field, finds a letter wrapped around some cigars. And it is from . . .DUN DUN DUUUUUUUUNNNNNNN . . . General Lee himself!

General Robert E. Lee had written letters to his officers with his plans to invade the Union. It sounded suicidal to the rest of the country. But Lee knew the stakes. He had a couple victories under his belt. One more victory would mean that the British Empire will back them. Invading the North will prove to the northerners that the war is not worth the bloodshed. The South will not go quietly! It was a risky move. But if it worked, the North would have to compromise. Either they would give in to the South's demands in order to preserve the Union or the South would secede and create two separate nations.

Unfortunately for Lee, his Special Order 191 fell into the lap of the good ol' Hoosier boy, Private Barton Mitchell, who in turn, gave the letter to General McClellan. Lee's plans, according to Special Order 191, was to ride North into Maryland and take Harper's Ferry. McClellan cut him off, which led to the single bloodiest battle on American soil. Antietam.

I went on a field trip today to visit Barton Mitchell. He is buried in Hartsville, IN, in the Hartsville Baptist Cemetery. It was a beautiful spring day, and I didn't mind driving the hour and a half to where Mitchell lay. It took me a little while to find the cemetery, which was back behind a church down one lane dirt road, over a bubbling creek and plotted next to some farm land. I searched through the cemetery for about an hour and couldn't actually find his headstone, which looks like this. I did find some Mitchell's thrown in between the Fix's and Woodruff's and Mobley's of Bartholomew County. And next to the Mitchell graves was an empty plot with this:

Though I knew this wasn't old enough to be a Civil War Veteran's marking, I was tired of looking and it would get the job done. I knelt down and talked to Barton for a moment. I wondered how it must feel to be forgotten for doing something so monumental. And yet, he didn't really do much of anything other than pick up some garbage and give it to his superior officer. Yet, if those eagle eyes of his hadn't spotted that Special Order 191, the battle of Antietam would not have been fought and the tides would not have turned in the Union's favor. Yet, if that battle hadn't been fought, think about all the blood that would not have spilled. It got me thinking. Adjusting to life after the war must have been extremely difficult for Barton Mitchell. His haphazard actions evolved into something so huge that it was named one of the days that changed America by some History Channel producers!

All joking aside, this post is meant to honor Private Barton W. Mitchell and the work he did. Even though it may have been by accident, he was still instrumental in that awful and dare I say necessary battle that raged in a corn field in Maryland. Had General Lee gotten to Harper's Ferry, I'm not sure what would have happened. So, thanks again, Barton. It's nice to see that even in 1862, no matter where you went, there was a Hoosier doing something important.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

To Hell with Eternity: Using Christianity in Politics

"Manipulate the masses using something I might have said, but make sure it's totally out of context."
-Jesus, Mark 5:17

Just kidding. Mark 5:17 is actually a crowd of people asking Jesus to leave them alone. But I thought it was pretty fitting. Political figures dating all the way back to Constantine have used Christianity for their benefit. Today, we are all too familiar with both parties (though nowadays, it's mostly the Republicans) using the religion's standards as part of his platform in order to gain votes or approval. The reasons for this are both simple and complex. Basically, Christianity is the most popular religion, aside from Islam. And Islam took it a step further by setting up Islamic states, countries run by and defined by a religion. I want to focus on Christianity, though. The question is why is it so popular and how did it become such a dominate force in the political realm, especially in viking age Scandinavia.

I feel like there is this romantic view of how pagans converted. It's sort of the noble savage of conversions, where the pagan sees how "powerful" the Christian God is and decides he wants that sort of backing. Of course this is referring to the superior weapons, medicines, and battle tactics that the Christian nations possessed in those early middle ages, down through the British empire of the 19th century. I think this is mostly baloney. Oh, I believe that the others saw the might of their adversaries who invoked the name of God. But I think they also saw those superior weapons pointing at their collective gonads.

Aside from the forced conversions, I think the more important deciding factor was the power, influence, and stability it promised. Viking kings and jarls in Scandinavia had riches and power, no doubt. But they knew from the monasteries they pillaged that the Church had endless riches. And even from across the sea, they could see the mainland's cohesion and obedience underneath the iron fist of the Church. The prizes didn't stop there! In converting his country to Christianity, the former sea king would thereafter join the wider European community, which meant more trade and commerce coming into his lands.

The problem with the Scandinavian countries is that it took so long to unify that many powerful kings missed out on the manipulative powers that being a Christian Monarch held. A great example is Olaf Tryggvason. Son of Svein Forkbeard, he was exiled from his home in Norway, got religion, and returned to claim the throne and the country for Christ. The people weren't ready, though. Not only were his foes numerous, but the Norwegians in the extreme reaches of the country hadn't stopped worshiping the old pagan gods long enough to even consider Christianity. They actually got tired of hearing Olaf go on and on and eventually asked him to go. Sounds familiar!

Olaf's belief in Christianity most likely puts him in line with his predecessors and contemporaries: spiritual on the outside, a raging politician on the inside, using whatever means were necessary. One could probably claim Constantine as the trend-setter who put using Christianity to maintain a kingdom on the map. I also think that he was the anti-Christ. But that's neither here nor there. The important thing is that Constantine also had no delusions about the religion. Byzantium was being torn apart, and it was out with the old, in with the new. The old pagan religions were nowhere near as organized as the Christian Church. And when he endorses this hip, new religion, an organized and systematic institution moves in and obliterates the pagan opposition. Not only do they bring organization but also fancy book learnin' and tithes that may or may not trickle into the the emperor's coffers.

Constantine, Olaf, and most likely Mike Huckabee all had something in common: using Christianity. Whereas the first two convert as a show in order to attain what they want, the latter certainly believes in and lives according to the Bible's teachings. The principle, however, is the same. Use the common thread of Christianity in order to weave a blanket of security. The romantic notion of spiritual or even strategic conversions in politics, to me, is absurd. It's economical. It's diplomacy. And it's a risk. Just as Norway wasn't ready for Olaf to convert their country to a Christian monarchy, the United States wasn't ready to be led by an overtly spiritual president. Well, that and he was Republican, and after George Bush, no one stood a chance on that ticket.

As I usually say, history fans, I'm sure that you're aware of this influence in our learning. I just think it's better to boil it down to the brass facts. Christianity is and was organized and powerful, attractive to any aspiring jarl in Scandinavia during the viking age, or to any wealthy politician looking for public office. The spiritual influence, I think, is very sparse at the top of the ladder.

Sorry, Olaf. Better luck to your namesake, St. Olaf. I gotta good feeling about him!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Two Lines of Thought Converge in a Muddled Head

Welcome to 2011, History Fans!

I realize that I have been away for some time. Well, sometimes things get hairy. And then you finally get around to shaving those hairy things. And even when you do, you can get rashes or cut yourself and not want to shave again for some time.
What I mean to say is that I was busy, then not busy and lazy, then not lazy and distracted.

But here I am, in February 2011, with two lines of thoughts ready to bore you to death. I'll start with something more familiar, then go down a treacherous road.

Some may remember that last summer I read Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel. That book had a profound impact on how I looked a societies and cultures in history. Geography plays such an important role, one that I hadn't realized until reading Diamond's book. When I first began thinking about studying vikings academically and narrowing down exactly how I'd approach it, the subject of geography was forefront in my mind. Climate and landscape really affected the lives of Icelanders and how they interacted with each other. Those elements can be found in the literature and in the history, mythical or factual. How important geography was! Add Diamond's lessons, and you've got quite an impressive subject: how geography affects society and culture.

I ran across something in my reading today that really put some pieces together. My fascination with geography in the Viking Age focused on the end of the era, the transfer of ideas to Iceland and how the sagas and stories survived. But in Gwyn Jones' A History of the Vikings, she presented an idea that I hadn't really thought of. She is discussing what led up to the Viking Age, which, if you've read this blog before, is a long and intricate story. In her book, she lays out the three prominent areas in pre-unified Norway. The first was Ostland, which included the soon to be the wealthy and blooming Vestfold. This area included the richest land in the country, so they were ahead of the pack in agriculture. The second was the Trondelag, which also had some extensive farm land, but more importantly, it was home to upper grasslands that soon became summer seters, communal grazing areas. The third was the coastal, mountainous region to the west. There is very little farmland, hardly any grasses for grazing. But there was the coast!

It's natural to see the progression in hindsight. But even then, the conditions were ripe. The first two regions were growing in wealth and power, especially in the Ostland. With western coast suffering and falling behind in the race to connect the kingdoms under one Norway, their options were limited. So they turned their longboats to their neighbors and took what they could. Now, are these the first vikings? I'm not sure. But the geography once again provides a situation in which history can be decided. Because of the poor terrain, the western Norsemen plundered their neighbors' wealth, which became a steady occupation for the next few centuries.

Geography, how you continue to amaze me!

Now, the next section is completely separate. I couldn't even think of a cool reason to connect them. It's just a couple things I've been thinking about so, you know the old saying. Two birds with one blog post.

I've been listening to a book at work called Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier. SHEW! Timothy Shannon discusses how they grew from the Iroquois league to a confederacy, and he explains the process of diplomacy through Iroquois and colonist eyes. Aside from being terribly interesting, the book has shed light on something that I know I learned about in college but didn't take much stock in: worldview.

Worldview is another heavyweight, like geography, which shapes the world around you. If you are born into an American Christian home, you are going to have a completely different world view from a Chinese Buddhist. We all know this. It isn't a new lesson. But it's a new one for me, and I've been fortunate to have Shannon illuminate the Iroquois story of origin so that I might better understand them as a people.

The Iroquois story of creation is something I've read before and still, after hearing it a second time, will not remember it that well. But it's something like this:

There was a pregnant woman who lived in the sky. Her husband would go find things for her to eat. He also dug a hole for some reason and one day she slipped through the hole. She landed in the sea and was rescued by some birds and was hoisted onto the back of a turtle. She gave birth to a girl, who in turn gave birth to twins. There was a good twin and a bad twin. They started creating things to outdo one another. Naturally the good twin would create good things like rivers and fishies and doggies and the bad twin would volley back with squalls and sharks and wolves. I forget how the story finishes. Somebody dies.

But the twins is the important part of the story. You see, with the twins there was a balance. For everything good there was something bad. This sort of thinking is crucial to understanding the Iroquois, and perhaps many native peoples. Dave will have to correct me on that one. The Indians were intent upon keeping that balance. So in their diplomacy, they would induce peace meetings with certain folks, then attack them. It is hard to wrap our heads around, but it was part of maintaining the balance.

When Europeans arrived, they could see no sense in the attacks. For them, wars were caused by economics or land disputes. Something tangible and evident. They saw the natives warring as savage and uncouth. But it actually goes much deeper. And the deeper you go, the more you find that balancing the good and the bad is at the heart of what they do. For instance, if a woman lost a member of her family and was not consoled, she would get a group of warriors to attack a neighboring community and take prisoners. These prisoners would often be adopted into families to take the place of the deceased relative. People raiding increased dramatically when 75% of the Iroquois nation was wiped out by diseases after the colonists arrived.

We have for the most part gotten over the horrific warrior and noble savage stereotypes. But Native American culture is still something I know little about. The fact that there are so many different cultures makes it even more difficult to understand. Little by little, though, it becomes clear that Native Americans are misrepresented throughout history because they are so poorly understood. For instance, it is a fact that many of the Iroquois traded sides more than once with the English and the French in their battle for domination of America. To us, they seem like treacherous fiends, but to them, it meant little more than maintaining a balance and surviving in a world where the scales were tipping out of their favor.

I hope that Dave can help shed some light on these thoughts. Before long I'd like to discuss the Iroquois League itself and how misunderstood that entity was.

Well, sorry to switch gears so dramatically, History Fans. But here's to a new year. And guess what! It's black history month! Time to do some research!