Tag Archives: Germany

The Significance of The Northern Crusades in History

Modern historians tend to overlook economic factors when investigating historical motivations. The first Northern Crusade (The Wendish Crusade), as commonly narrated, was a branch of the Second Crusade, undertaken on behalf of St. Bernard de Clairvaux’s furious pulpit outreach to retake the holy land.

Ideological motivation is difficult to overlook when analyzing historical empires: the majority of empires and religions are so closely intertwined that it is almost impossible to separate them. This is true of Roman Catholicism no less than for the Vedic seers who wrote the Rig Veda, the Achaemenids who patronized Zoroastrianism, and the cult of Quetzalcoatl in Aztec Mexico. Early Islam and Maccabean Judaism are virtually irreconcilable from their irredentist histories.

Another useful hermeneutic in investigating empire expansion in history could be to see the entirety of Eurasia as a network of trading points from Greenland to China.

It is one thing to view state formation as a means of “farming the farmers” in the form of tribute and taxation, but it is another to understand that the control of choke points along trade routes was a potent method of accumulating wealth, gathering reconnaissance information and learning foreign technological innovation.

It is at this point that we interject ourselves into the 12th Century, circa 1140 Latin Europe. Right now magnificent castles are being erected, the Gothic style of architecture is gaining popularity and monastic brotherhoods are spreading throughout Christendom. The mechanization of labor is making production resemble that of the clock, the moldboard plow with three-field rotation is revolutionizing agriculture, and engineering projects are creating a Europe that finally resembled a place of almost universal order for the first time in over 600 years.

Would it come as a surprise then that the per capita wealth of Latin Christendom was relatively poor compared to towns within a place known as “Scythia,” a scarcely inhabited forest region engulfed between Latin and Greek Christendom?

Primary sources and archeology tell us of trading emporiums on the Baltic of extreme wealth, and contrasted this to the relative poverty of the pious peasant in the Holy Roman Empire. Wolin, was a perfect example of these trading hubs. Although little remains today of such sites, due to the fact that the constructions were wooden instead of stone, we know that these areas were constant sources of irritation for Christendom. Not only because of their flagrant disregard for the conducts of civilized Christian warfare, but for their flaunting of untold wealth that Western Christendom did not possess.

Let us briefly mention a few salient facts of life up until this point: the Baltic region is connected to the entirety of the world through its deep-flowing river systems. This is why Egyptologists have found Baltic amber in the tombs of the Pharaohs. This is why statues of the Buddha can be found in Scandinavian silver hoards (written in Arabic), and it is also the reason why a band of pagan pirates today known as the Vikings were able to terrorize Christendom for hundreds of years prior, brandishing a flexible blade of pure steel, that’s ingots had their origin in Persia, not in Europe.

The might of Charlemagne’s Latin kingdoms were easily able to be bypassed. No empire in history has ever been established to ignore revenues, and the larger an empire gets, the more intricate and sophisticated its road system grows, largely as a means of imperial revenue collection. Persia had the first postal system, Rome the greatest road and aqueduct system, and the Vikings (and later Wends) had their boats and rivers. What did France and Germany have?

Fast forward from the Vikings (who are all now repentant and Christened) we move eastward to an area of men who still live in a similar fashion where plunder is praised, reminiscent of Homer’s Odysseus (the sacker of cities). In this world, rapine and commerce are two sides of the same coin and the ideas and customs of mercy and charity from the West are in all essence, untranslatable.

These people were called by the Germans, Wends. They were Slavic tribes of the Western Lechitic branch, similar to today’s Poles, Czechs and Slovaks. They also happened to hold the title as the most feared pirates in the North.

In border societies, despoliation is a more rational means of social mobility than agriculture and thrift. This is true of the historical Scotch-Irish no-man’s land as it was of the Limes Saxoniae: there is no purpose in tilling the field year round just to watch it be put to torch during a surprise raid by a neighboring tribe come harvest time.

Border societies tend to value bravado, skill in weaponry and an acceptance of death as an everyday fact of life. This was a time when the November frost would still cull the infirm and ill-prepared, just like during the days of Hesiod, and charitable cloisters for the unfortunate were yet to grow out of the pagan soil. It was, with all the horror that the word was imbued with, a heathen world of dark forests and evil spirits.

The Wends raided Christendom with as much fury as the Vikings. And for a longer period of time. They were less accepting of the Latin Rite then their counterparts in the North. They belonged to a competing ethnolinguistic group. It is therefore difficult for us to imagine them not being a target of the Crusader’s craft during such a time of mass hysteria as when the Second Crusade was being launched in the Holy Land and off the coasts of Portugal. For several hundred years the Wends had dipped their helmets in the Alster, as Hamburg’s denizens cowered behind stone walls, watching their meager winter supplements devoured by the voracious children of the devil.

The Crusader Creed brought together the promise of riches on earth as in heaven, and certainly the former tended to acquiesce more with certain elements of the strongmen of the West. Primary sources such as Helmold of Basau, tend to bemoan this tendency amongst his Saxon brethren, that the zeal for lucre tended to outweigh the zeal for souls.

After the Germanic Military Orders conquered the north, a three hundred year reign of Teutonic trading supremacy would begin in the Baltic in the name of the Hanseatic League. Monopoly markets were established in the commodities of amber, resins, cod, and timber. Lübeck, once a tiny Wendish outpost became the political epicenter of the league, and the pagan emporia of olden year became a thing of legend until the arrival of modern archeology.

 

Book Review: Death in the Baltic by Cathryn J. Prince

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Wilhelm Gustloff Modell sx3 cropped

The Wilhelm Gustloff was a German built pleasure ship built by the Nazis to bolster their public image both at home and abroad in the late 1930’s.  It is remembered today because when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine in early 1945 as it was evacuating civilians and wounded military personnel from East Prussia to Kiel its sinking became the ship sinking with the highest loss of life in recorded history.  Nobody knows for sure but the smart money is that somewhere north of 8,500 people died when the Gustloff sank into the icy Baltic waters on January 30, 1945.  This is a story that should have been told a long time ago as it is an event that is virtually forgotten outside of the families who lost relatives and historians.  I would love to be able to say that Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn Prince is the book to tell that story but there are so many issues with the book itself that I have a hard time doing that.

The book is 200 pages of text separated into eleven chapters with an appendix, notes for each chapter, a bibliography, and index.  The chapters describe the war in the east, the drive for Germans to evacuate, the evacuation operation itself, the situation in the Baltic, and the sinking and rescue of the ship.  The writing is for the most part very clear, though there were parts where I was confused as to what point the author was trying to make or what information she was trying to impart.

First, let me say that it is obvious that quite a bit of effort and research went into writing this book.  That alone makes the glaring errors that appear regularly throughout the text so disheartening.  All is not bleak in my review however.  The book does an outstanding job of narrating the events surrounding the sinking and subsequent rescue attempts.  I also found the stories of what the survivors did post war to be extremely interesting and well written.

The errors, I generally tab books that I read for review at places where there are errors or misinformation as well as passages of particular note.  This book has plenty of the former and only one of the latter.  Many of the errors are simple errors of fact that even a cursory search of Wikipedia or Google would show to be wrong.  Some examples of this include:  1. pg. 17: The claim is made that a sailor received a payment in Deutsche Marks in January, 1945.  This could not be since in January, 194 the German currency was the ReichsMark and the Deutsche Mark was not introduced for circulation until 1948 and in the intervening Years occupation scrip and ReichsMarks had been used Post-War.  2. pg. 31: The claim is made that German girls joined the Hitler Youth at the age of ten.  They did not, German girls joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel, which was the female Nazi youth organization.  This is corrected later and then the terms are used interchangeably, which they are not. The Bund Deutscher Mädel and Hitler Youth were two separate organizations with separate training programs.  3. pg. 40: I was surprised to find out that the 6th Army that surrendered at Stalingrad only had 90,000 men.  It would be useful to make it clear that that is how many men surrendered but that the 6th Army had upwards of 500,000 men on it’s roster and only 90,000 men survived to go into captivity.  These are just a few of the examples of factual errors.

Chapter five discussing the tactical and operational situation in the Baltic Sea is thoroughly confusing in its entirety.  Mainly because one gets the impression that the author does not have a good grasp of geography.  She seems to use the terms Black Sea and Baltic Sea interchangeably or at least as though one were an extension of the other.  That is certainly not the case as the two seas are separated by over 1,500 km on land and to get from one to the other by sea you have to travel through the Mediterranean, Atlantic Ocean, and North Sea.

There are many other similar instances of confused facts or outright misinformation in the first six chapters of the book.  I found myself jarred every time I ran across one.  Some are obvious editing errors such as misspelling Führer to errors that showed a lack of basic knowledge of the time.  Not every reader will catch many of these mistakes, but that does not excuse them.  I found myself wondering as I read it if any historian had proofread the book prior to publication?  Almost all mistakes are amenable to simple fixes that can be fixed in subsequent editions.

This could be an outstanding book about a little known, obscure, but important topic. The author is absolutely correct that the suffering of ethnic Germans in East Europe has largely been ignored post-war. She is also correct that it is time these stories were told and told in such a way that it is clear that not every German was a Nazi but that all Germans ended up being painted with the Nazi brush.

Because of the nature and importance of the story told and topic covered I will reluctantly recommend this book.  There are almost literally no other English languages sources for stories of the dislocation of ethnic Germans at the end of WWII. Readers should just keep in mind that the best and most important part of the narrative is that part surrounding the actual events just before, during, and after the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed. The author has showcased her research and storytelling ability in these compelling chapters. I only wish that the same attention to detail had gone into the rest of the book.

Book Review: Dresden: A Survivor’s Story by Victor Gregg

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Victor Gregg’s Dresden: A Survivor’s Story is a short work describing the author’s experience as  POW who got caught in Dresden in February, 1945 when the Allies bombed the city in what would become known as the Firebombing of Dresden.  The attack essentially destroyed the city center and killed an estimated 25,000 German’s.  Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the attacks that also discusses the controversy surrounding them that has grown up since the war.  To sum up the controversy, general anti-war people claim they were a crime and so do Neo-Nazi’s.  Both claim that Dresden was not a legitimate military target or that if it was the bombing did not hit them.

Back to the book.  Dresden: A Survivor’s Story, is the story of what one man saw and did just before, during, and just after the bombing.  Printed the book would only amount to roughly 40 pages.  It is an engaging tale and the author writes with a witty sarcasm that keeps the narrative flowing.  The events he relates surrounding the Dresden bombing seem fantastical but are probably accurate representations of what actually happened.  There is no doubt that the bombing of Dresden and it’s aftereffect were horrific.  Mr. Gregg’s narrative reflects this.  The only part of the book I take exception to is the afterword which I felt was a poorly written attempted rationale for why the Firebombing of Dresden was a war-crime.  I leave it to the individual reader to research it on their own and make the decision of whether a war-crime (A term I object to) occurred or not.

Editorializing: Personally, I find the whole talk of war crimes to be farcical.  It would be comical if so many people did not take the notion so seriously.  The term and the associated crimes against humanity, genocide, etc. Have been so misused that they no longer have meaning.  The traditional Laws of War stood the Western World in good stead for centuries and nothing that was done in WWII seems to me to have mitigated against their use.  What has happened in the last hundred years is a Quixotic attempt to civilize war, an activity that is inherently uncivilized.  The right of the victors would have sufficed perfectly to put the perpetrators of the holocaust against a wall but for some reason, the West felt the need for legalized vengeance.  Their invention of these crimes has subsequently turned around and bit them ever since.  There was no need to justify the destruction of Dresden, it was an enemy city and thus subject to attack.  The severity of said attack was and is irrelevant.  There is no such concept of proportionality in warfare, nor should their be.  Warfare is doing what you think you need to do to compel your enemy to submit; no more and no less.

Overall this is a well written work of personal reflection.  I recommend it for people that would like a description of what it was like to be in Dresden during and immediately after the bombing.  There is no great amount of detail here but it gives a good general description of what living through such an event was like.

Stasi Museum – Leipzig, Germany

The Stasi Museum in Leipzig, Germany.  For those who have never heard of it, the Stasi was the East German Little brother to the Russian NKVD internal security Secret Police.  The Stasi maintained a network of informers within both East and West Germany during the Cold War and also maintained dossiers on almost every German, even many in the West.  In East Germany (GDR) the Stasi was the government organ responsible for internal security and ferreting out dissidents to the regime.  They did this by doing some things that made the  Nazi Gestapo look like amateurs.

Below are some of the photos I took in our hasty tour of the museum before it closed.

The exterior of the former Stasi building as you approach it on the street.
Mural of the Coat of Arms of the (Minsitry for State Security) Stasi just inside the entrance to the building.
Machine used by the Stasi to steam open personal letters so their contents could be read in the search for dissidents.
Machine used to seal envelopes that had been opened. The goal was to make it so that people did not know, or at least were not sure, that their mail had been opened.
This machine was used to back-light letters. According to the plaques next to it, this method could sometimes catch microfilm that had been glued underneath the stamp.
Stasi officer’s Wall Locker with equipment.
Stool and camera used to take pictures of inmates held by the Stasi for questioning.

 

Holding Cell where Stasi detainees were kept, sometimes for months or years before their release.
Kit used by Stasi officers to disguise themselves when performing surveillance of citizens identified as possible regime enemies.

Sudeten Deutsch Memorial

Saw this interesting little bit of history this morning and figure I would take a photo. This has less to do with warfare itself than with the aftermath of war. This is a plaque dedicated to the role that Bayreuth, Germany played in the resettlement of ethnic Germans in the wake of the mass expulsion of these people from their homes in Eastern Europe after Germany’s defeat in WWII. Their is a good piece with a brief history of post war ethnic movements in Europe by the BBC Here: Article

MY transaltion of the plaque below is:

No More War or Expulsions

from February to October 1946 the Bayreuth Main Train Station hosted 33 Cargo trains containing 39,281 expellees from the Sudetenland.

The city and county are thankful for the reception

Sudeten German Organisation July 2010