The Long View: Twentieth Century The History of the World, 1901 to 2000 By J.M. Roberts

VNV Nation – Automatic

VNV Nation – Automatic

If I could pick a musical representation of the twentieth century, it might be VNV Nation’s album, Automatic. Ronan Harris has an ability to write lyrics that distill things to their essence, and the essence of this album is the twentieth century’s technological progress and scientific optimism. This isn’t the whole story of course, but we have plenty of pop culture about the nasty things. It is nice to remember the good parts too.

As for the book review, I didn’t actually get much out of it, probably because John J. Reilly didn’t either.

Here are the best two bits;

Roberts is probably correct that it is too early to write a history of the 20th century per se. It is also possible that my expectations for any book on this topic would be too novelistic, formed in large part from a century's worth of speculative writing about the future. Nonetheless, I cannot help but reflect that the century all those science fiction writers were so keen to describe is over, and what do we have to show for it? Maybe the narrative coherence of H.G. Wells's "Things to Come" is too much to expect of any history book.

There are three great stories that can be written involving the 20th century, only two of which could have been told as soon as the year 2000. One might be called "Grey's Twilight," after the British foreign minister who remarked, as the First World War broke out, that the lights were going out all over Europe. That story came to an end with the fall of communism in 1989. Another story might be The Decisive Lifetime. The theme in that period, running from roughly 1860 to 1945, would be about the triumph of liberalism within western civilization. The third story is about the place of the 20th century within modernity as a whole.

Twentieth Century
The History of the World, 1901 to 2000
By J.M. Roberts

Viking (Penguin Putnam), 1999
US$39.95, 905 pages
ISBN: 0-670-88456-1

Back in the 20th century, the US Department of Agriculture sometimes used to distribute slabs of surplus butter to old people. (I know this because, one way and another, my family came into possession of more than one of them. We had a large family, and they did us for a month.) These slabs were about the same size as this block of a book. They also had the same creamy, undifferentiated texture as its prose. Other similarities are that the butter and the book were both probably well meant, but neither was very nutritious.

J.M. (John Morris) Roberts is a former Warden of Oxford's Merton College. As his recent History of the World and History of Europe prove, he is neither a stupid man nor a bad writer. He reminds us on more than one occasion that it is really too early to be writing a history of the 20th century, since we will not have anything like a usable perspective for generations to come. (He also labored under the handicap that by no stretch of the imagination could the century be said to have been over by the time the book went to press, though he gets high marks for recording events quite late into 1999.) Certainly his "Twentieth Century" is very readable, and often insightful. Its failings are two: it is oddly factless, and it is too cautious about connecting the dots to make a sustained narrative.

Roberts is predictably good when he discusses ordinary diplomatic history. He notes, acutely, that the historiographical fashion for "history from below" has little application to the final years before the First World War, since the outbreak of the war really was the work of Europe's foreign ministries and general staffs. Regarding that war, Roberts suggests that the outcome of the Dardanelles campaign, when the Allies failed to take Constantinople and so relieve Russia through the Black Sea, was the decisive event of the whole century. It was largely for that reason that both the Czarist and the ephemeral social-democratic Kerensky regimes in Russia collapsed, to be followed by 70 years of Bolshevism. Without the menace and lure of the Soviet Union, it is hard to see how either fascism or the Second World War could have occurred in anything like the forms they did, much less the Cold War.

There are two great trends that Roberts sees as characteristic of the 20th century. The first was the end of European history as a largely autonomous story. In 1901, most of the world was ruled by white people from a small number of European capitals. Within fifty years, this was no longer the case, and Europe itself was divided between two power-blocks whose centers lay outside it. (As always, Roberts cannot quite decide whether Russia is a European country, but then neither can the Russians.) The century as a whole, Roberts notes, falls rather neatly into two halves defined by this "end of European history." The most important thing about the 20th century, however, is that it was the time when all the planet's local histories finally merged into a universal history. This is new, and it is reason enough to accord the period something like the sense of unique importance that the people who lived in it claimed for themselves at the time.

The previous two paragraphs give you all the conceptual structure that "Twentieth Century" has. This might have provided the backbone for a good, extended essay. In fact, there are several good essays in "Twentieth Century" that can stand on their own. What they cannot do is stand together. Far too much of the book is page after page of dateless explanations about trends in economics or Chinese politics or what not. There are memorable truisms, such as, "To extend the idea of what is possible is to change the way people think as well as the way they act," and "What this means for organized religion, except that it means something, is almost impossible to say." Writing like this might be understandable in a book with a title like "Neanderthal Culture: 300,000 to 100,000 BC." To use this level of abstraction is writing about a carnival of a century, especially when you have lived through most of it yourself, is to indulge an unnecessary austerity.

Judging from this book, there don't seem to have been many people in the 20th century. There were no interesting ones, aside from Winston Churchill. The names of usual-suspect politicians are given, as well as, awkwardly, those of a small circle of scientists. That just about exhausts 20th century biography. As far as I can tell, there were no artists or philosophers after 1901. There were also no influential philosophical ideas, except for the great gasbags of Marxism and Freudianism and Darwinism. It may or may not be significant that the century seems to have had a singular dearth of notable historians.

Even within his narrow parameters, Roberts has odd notions about who merits a mention. Maybe only American chauvinism makes me wonder how anyone could write an essay on the origins of rocket technology and not mention Robert Goddard. It is simply mystifying, however, to read an extended discussion of the influence of Cuban Marxism in Latin America, a discussion that, moreover, alludes to the failed Bolivian insurgency in the 1960s, and still not find any mention of Che Guevara, who died in the Bolivian uprising.

Roberts is probably correct that it is too early to write a history of the 20th century per se. It is also possible that my expectations for any book on this topic would be too novelistic, formed in large part from a century's worth of speculative writing about the future. Nonetheless, I cannot help but reflect that the century all those science fiction writers were so keen to describe is over, and what do we have to show for it? Maybe the narrative coherence of H.G. Wells's "Things to Come" is too much to expect of any history book. Still, surely something along the lines of Paul Johnson's "Modern Times" is not too much to ask for? (The original edition, which covered only the 1920s to the 1980s, is still the best.)

There are three great stories that can be written involving the 20th century, only two of which could have been told as soon as the year 2000. One might be called "Grey's Twilight," after the British foreign minister who remarked, as the First World War broke out, that the lights were going out all over Europe. That story came to an end with the fall of communism in 1989. Another story might be The Decisive Lifetime. The theme in that period, running from roughly 1860 to 1945, would be about the triumph of liberalism within western civilization. The third story is about the place of the 20th century within modernity as a whole. That story may not be writable for another 100 years, though publishers may well be tempted to jump the gun so as to get it on the market first.

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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Dragon and Herdsman Book Review

Dragon and Herdsman: Dragonback book 4
by Timothy Zahn
304 pages
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy (March 27, 2018) in a set with volumes 5 and 6

Fourteen year old boys still don’t make good plans. After escaping from the Brummgan slavers, the Chookook family, with a healthy dose of good fortune, Jack infiltrates another mercenary organization in order to steal their files. This time, Jack and Draycos know where to look because of an act of mercy that Draycos insisted upon back in Volume 1: Draycos took a few seconds to prop up a man he had disabled so that the mercenary wouldn’t burn to death upon the ground heated by the crash of his ship.

In doing so, Draycos instantiates something very much like the jus ad bello criteria of the Catholic Church that govern just conduct in war.

What Catholic military doctrine does resemble is the criteria that well-run civilian police forces articulate regarding the use of deadly force. As the nightly television news will tell you, rules of this sort often work imperfectly. However, they do make sense for any law-governed society in which the authorities, too, can be held responsible for their actions.

So far as I know, Zahn isn’t Catholic. I guess that he simply used medieval chivalric ideal as an example for Draycos, and in some typically thorough research, brought this along for the ride. What I can’t even begin to guess is whether he developed it into a more modern rendition on his own, or if he used another source.

Reading something like The Song of Roland with the eyes of an early twenty-first century American, it is hard to avoid the impression that Roland is a bit of a chump. Roland’s last stand is certainly dramatic, but he could have blown that horn earlier and saved everyone a lot of trouble. But his knightly honor wouldn’t let him call for help carelessly. To do so would be to admit weakness, which would shame him in the eyes of his peers. Roland is mostly concerned with defending his honor, defined as mutual respect among a society of equals [warriors]. If your peers don’t see or recognize this kind of honor, it very much doesn’t truly exist.

Draycos’ ideas of honor on the other hand, are a little more practical than Roland’s. Draycos is perfectly willing to retreat without shame in the face of a superior force, or seek to avoid combat when defeat is more likely than victory. He is, on the other hand, is acutely interested in defending abstract ideals, even when no one is looking, even when it actively works against his obvious interests. This is guilt culture, rather than shame culture, in the context of war. In the Christian West, chivalry was one of the stages by which shame cultures with a warlike bent turned into guilt cultures with an interest in defending the weak and defenseless, even when they mean you harm.

In the twelve or so centuries since Hruodland, captain of the Breton Marches, made a last stand that was told for a thousand years, Catholic thinking on war has tended toward a police model, where minimum force is used to achieve the objective at hand. This is very much the model Draycos uses, except that in his culture, he personally combines the prerogatives of judge and jury and executioner in one, which is a bit unsettling to Jack, and probably would be to most of Zahn’s readers, modern Westerners, who are accustomed to a separation of powers model.

Battle of Palatea  Edmund Ollier  Publication date 1882 [Public domain]

Battle of Palatea

Edmund Ollier

Publication date 1882 [Public domain]

However, Western thinking on war by those who actively practice it doesn’t necessary track well with the development of Catholic Just War doctrine. Victor Davis Hanson made the argument that going back to the Classical Greeks, the Western way of war was to seek decisive battle which destroyed the enemy [or at least his ability to fight]. What this looks like shouldn’t be at all unfamiliar to any educated Westerner, because it is how we [the Allies] waged World War II.

THE WAR MY GRANDFATHERS WAGED  BY ENGLISH: ISHIKAWA KŌYŌ - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, PUBLIC DOMAIN,  HTTPS://COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG/W/INDEX.PHP?CURID=3681456


BY ENGLISH: ISHIKAWA KŌYŌ - 写真のアップローダが出典を示していないのでどこからこの写真を持ってきたのか不明だが、該当写真は1953年8月15日発行の「東京大空襲秘録写真集」(雄鶏社刊)の12, 13ページに「道路一杯に横たわる焼死体、誰とも知れぬ一片の灰のかたまりにすぎないが…」のキャプション付きで掲載されているので著作権問題はクリアされている。, PUBLIC DOMAIN,


We crushed our enemies, until they had no recourse. We burned their cities, without remorse. I’m not talking about nuclear weapons either, which don’t actually rise to the level of the enormity I am talking about. This was what Jerry Pournelle called WARRE. Warre to the knife, fire bombs, nuclear weapons, death and destruction. I am not sure that Hanson made his argument in quite the way he meant to, but I think it is true that the West has a tendency to do this.

Draycos, despite being on the losing end of an interstellar war, is too high minded to embrace the scorched earth tactics of his enemies. Even though that war involved the death of something like 90-95% of his people. We were not so generous to our enemies.

That highmindedness is put to the test here, in Dragon and Herdsman, when Jack and Draycos, fleeing from angry mercs who caught them in the act, stumble upon a colony of Draycos’ people on a remote world. Except, they aren’t really his people, in the cultural sense. These phooka are physically the same as Draycos, but in isolation, they have regressed to a state of mute inactivity, unable to speak, and ignorant of the proud glories of K’da history.

Draycos is stunned and appalled to find his brethren reduced to such a state. Draycos’ sense of honor, like cast iron, can be strong, but also brittle. It is especially endangered when a core assumption, like the inherent nobility of his people, is undermined. Fortunately, Jack’s more pragmatic [self-serving even] sense of ethics provides cushion and flexibility in the same way that a blade can be made more durable by combining hard steel for the edge with mild steel for the spine, taking the best properties of both.

For Jack and Draycos, the process by which this works is not simply conversation and time. They are each becoming more like one another, so much so that Jack is starting to have some of Draycos’ warrior’s spirit [and tactical knowledge], while Draycos now has the resiliency born of living life in the shadows. The phooka are likewise slow of body and of mind because the hosts they found on remote Rho Scorvi are dimwitted and indolent.

There is something special about Jack and Draycos, and in some way their meeting was providential. And now we have another piece of the puzzle as to why this might be.

My other book reviews | Reading Log

Other books by Timothy Zahn

New Thrawn series:
Thrawn: Alliances

Quadrail series:
Night Train to Rigel: Quadrail book 1 review
The Third Lynx: Quadrail book 2 review
Odd Girl Out: Quadrail book 3 review
The Domino Pattern: Quadrail book 4 review
Judgement at Proteus: Quadrail book 5 review


Original Thrawn Trilogy:
Heir to the Empire
Dark Force Rising
The Last Command

Blackcollar series:
The Blackcollar: Blackcollar series book 1 review
The Backlash Mission: Blackcollar series book 2 review

Dragonback series:
Dragon and Thief
Dragon and Soldier
Dragon and Slave

Starcraft: Evolution

Cascade Point and Other Stories

Rule by Coup

WW2-era Japanese Conflict Resolution Procedure

WW2-era Japanese Conflict Resolution Procedure

I saw a comment on Reddit relating the story of an attempted coup by a Japanese officer to prevent Emperor Hirohito from surrendering after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was interesting enough to reproduce here, in full.

Interesting little story, an 8mm Nambu almost destroyed the earth.
The surrender of Japan to allied forces in 1945 did not come easily, even after two unprecedented acts of destruction against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the few ministers to strongly advocate surrender was Shigenori Togo, the Foreign Minister. He was reluctantly supported by Kantaro Suzuki, the PM. But Suzuki was nothing like his predecessor, Hideki "Razor" Tojo. Suzuki was easily manipulated and rather ineffectual.
On the other side of the table was the fiery General Korechika Anami. As both Minister of Defense and Head of the Army, Anami was the single most powerful man in Japan. Even after the horrible event at Nagasaki, Anami refused the surrender terms. He believed that Allied forces, mostly American, would be forced to land in the Kyushu Islands. There, he could mount a massive defense effort and inflict horrible losses on Allied forces. He was not far off. Allied forces had plans for Operation Olympic and Operation Coronet, together known as Op Downfall. Though Op Downfall would never occur, the plan called for the largest amphibious invasion in history. In addition to the man power, an American Army Colonel reported that at least seven atomic bombs would be ready for the invasion.
The Japanese ministers argued to a deadlock. The Emperor himself made an unprecedented entry into politics and made the call himself. Japan would do the unthinkable. For the first time in it's ancient history, it would surrender to a foreign power. In the minds of the Japanese policy makers, and even the average person, their sacred nation would no longer exist, divided among the allied powers America, China, and the borderline traitorous USSR.
Enter our Nambu Type 14, precisely like the one pictured above. The model in question belonged to one Major Hatanaka. Kenji Hatanaka was a mere 22 years old at the time of the Kyujo Incident. He, along with a few other officers heard word of the impending surrender, and reacted as one might expect of a young extremist. He responded with the only emotion that he knew, fury.
Hatanaka boldly approached General Anami and told him of his plans directly.
"I intend to seize control of the government from the treasonous ministers!" He proclaimed. "I have faith in the Army. You will lead us to defend ourselves."
Anami, who claimed he would sleep in the fields and eat soil rather than surrender, made an interesting move. Had he said "yes" the coup would have proceeded. If he said "no" he would have had to arrest Hatanaka, his only intelligence source into the insurrectionists. Instead, he said "Maybe." Either the old general was truly weary, or he cleverly delayed Hatanaka while receiving regular updates on his plans.
Sometime around 1 am on August 15th, just 11 hours before the surrender broadcast, Maj. Hatanaka entered the office for General Mori, head of the Imperial Guardsmen. He explained his intentions, and that he would need the help of the Imperial Guard if he was to save Japan. Mori, a religious man, said the plan was folly. He intended to pray, and advised Hatanaka to do the same. As extremists often do, the insurgent major resorted to sudden violence. He drew his 8mm Nambu and fired a single shot into Mori's skull, killing him instantly. An ally of Hatanaka's killed the General's brother (who had been with them) with a samurai sword. Using Mori's ID stamp, Hatanaka forged Strategic Order #584. The Imperial Guard, or IG, were ordered to seize the Emperor's Palace.
The IG was the chief security apparatus of the Imperial Household. The had no resistance as they took control of the palace. With Hatanaka in direct command, the IG severed the phone lines and ransacked the palace searching for the prerecorded surrender vinyl.
Tokugawa, a man whose name is nearly synonymous with samurai history, was one of the imperial aids. He foresaw such an attempt by the military, and took it upon himself to hide the surrender recording.
Hatanaka and his men searched the room of imperial treasures for the recording. The word of the Emperor was so sacred that to place the recording anywhere else would have been blasphemy. Tokugawa was clearly a man of some practicality. He hid the recording among the maids' bed sheets. Despite getting a rough beat down by the militants, he feigned ignorance and successful threw Hatanaka off the trail.
With the palace quarantined from the outside world, Hatanaka decided that it was more pressing to broadcast his progress to the various commanders. He hoped that Anami's "maybe" would turn into a "yes" if he heard of the coup's initial successes. With the Emperor and Anami, Hatanaka would have the support of the two most powerful men in Japan, even if one was only powerful for few minutes.
Word got out to an Army division known as the Eastern District Army. They received two notifications. One from the insurgents, asking for their support. The other was from the besieged imperial aids, who managed to find one phone line that wasn't cut. It is hard to get more illustrative than that when discussing the choice given to the EDA's commander, General Tanaka.
Hatanaka left the palace and made his way to the other primary target of any coup, the radio station. NHK was one of the last remaining radio broadcast towers in Tokyo. It was also the primary way to contact the Americans. Prior to the incident, NHK had announced that a major proclamation from the Emperor would be broadcasted at noon on August 15th, a Wednesday. American intelligence forces understood that this was going to be the surrender proclamation. After numerous delays and continued fighting, the Americans had tempered faith in this schedule. President Truman had a metaphorical finger on the Op Downfall button, and any changes in the Japanese security situation could have caused him to press it.
General Tanaka, head of the EDA, took a large contingent of men over to the Imperial Palace. He was immediately recognized by the IG. Tanaka had gathered some intel on the affair and briefed the guardsmen. "General Mori has been assasinated. SO#584 is a forgery and Maj. Hatanaka is a rebel." He said. "Where is Maj. Kenji Hatanaka?" He demanded. Terrified, the IG told him that the insurgent was on his way to the radio station. Tanaka immedietly dispatched men to the station and ordered phone lines restored. He was running out of time.
Unless Anami suddenly appeared, Hatanaka's coup d'etat was doomed. But it almost didn't matter. Hatanaka had no desire to usurp control of the government. That was just a means to an end. The endgame was Japan, and a continued war with America. His sacred Japan, despite all her hardships, would win. He had seven rounds in his pistol to prove it.
Ok.. If you read this far, I'm sure you're wondering How does the Nambu almost destroy the world? Here it is.
Hatanaka entered the radio station as the only armed man there. The skeletal staff had no security and no means to defend themselves. They were, however, aware of their all important mission: to deliver the surrender recording to the world and end the war.
Between 4 am and 5, just seven hours before the deadline, Hatanaka put a gun to a staffers head. He explained himself, and demanded airtime. Japan, along with Allied intelligence, would hear him speak. By doing this, he could potentially spark an allied invasion and force Anami's hand in complacency. What Hatanaka did not know, was that Anami had finally died after hours of suffering. He had taken his own life in the ritualistic fashion of cutting his own stomach open.
The radio staff acted in a way no less than heroic. One staffer had snuck downstairs and disabled the broadcast tower. Another, with a gun to his head, told Hatanaka that he could not give him airtime because he had no clearance to do so. He also cited air raid concerns. Had the radio operator caved into the pressure of being at gunpoint, the repercussions could have been unthinkable. Hatanaka's fury ran out. He had finally begun to accept the inevitable. He no longer threatened the radio crew. He begged them.
The phone rang. General Tanaka was on the line. Hatanaka, in tears, begged Tanaka for help and permission to use the radio. He declined. Hatanaka disappeared.
Just a few hours later, the surrender recording was safely delivered to the radio station. It was broadcasted to the world without further incident, and the war was finally over. Hatanaka was discovered at the scene of the crime. He had taken his life with the same Nambu pistol by firing a single shot into the middle of his forehead.
TLDR: An insurgent Japanese major briefly seized partial control of the government as an attempt to prolong WWII and spark what would have been the bloodiest operation in history. He used a Nambu pistol to attempt this before killing himself in failure.

I reproduced this story because it reminded me of something Greg Cochran said about WW2-era Japan:

There was no non-war party in Japan in 1941. Assassinating the prime minister (twice), attempted military coups where the plotters were all forgiven – nobody really ran Japan. Fanatical secret societies of mid-level Army officers had a veto power (by assassination), but no one was really running things. For example, the Kwantung Army decided to attack the Russians (Khalkhyn Gol) by itself, without authorization from the Japanese government or even the Army high command. How weird is that? They lost, too.
In 1941, the question was who to attack, not whether.

This comment, the first time I had read it, reminded me of something I had read in the Economist:

But in retrospect, he says, one of the most chilling moments came when he was still chief executive and had unsuccessfully challenged his chairman, Tsuyoshi Kikukawa, to explain the missing money. He found another director, Hisashi Mori, also seemed to be stonewalling him. “Mr Mori, who do you work for?” he recalls asking, expecting the answer to be Olympus. “Michael, I work for Mr Kikukawa. I'm loyal to Mr Kikukawa,” Mr Mori is said to have replied.

Even today, the normal mode of Japanese loyalty is intensely feudal and personal. Japanese politics are much the same way as business, the LDP is less a party than a coalition of local grandees who collaborate to stay in power, but maintain their own local interests and power structures. In a very real sense, no one is in charge.

The Long View: Werwolf!

Werwolf wasn't the only partisan organization organized in post-WWII Germany. However, Werwolf was probably the best known. Here, John imagines what might have been if the remaining Nazis in 1945 hadn't been too otherwordly to be effective.

The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, 1944-1946
by Perry Biddiscombe
University of Toronto Press, 1998
455 Pages, US$ 39.95
ISBN: 0-8020-0862-3


Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda and Gauleiter of Berlin, showed no signs of slacking in the months before he killed himself in Hitler's bunker on May 1, 1945. According to the selections from his diary edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper and published as "Final Entries 1945," he not only attended to his ordinary duties regarding national editorial policy and the defense of the city, but also found time to do things like review the new tax code and to arrange for an annoying colleague to be drafted. Of all these activities, however, perhaps the most surreal was his enthusiastic support for the "Werwolf" movement.

Goebbels spoke of the Werwolf almost as if it were an electoral campaign. Despite the other things he had on his mind, he exerted himself to create a new Werwolf radio station, and even tried to found a newspaper. (The radio station actually operated for a few weeks.) Propaganda for and about the Werwolf were among the last products of the regime. In retrospect, some commentators have tended to dismiss the Werwolf as something of a Nazi hoax, one whose primary effect was to induce the western Allies to invade Germany on a broad front, rather than go directly for Berlin. Still, I for one have sometimes wondered just what this "Werwolf" effort was, and how seriously the Nazis took it.

Perry Biddiscombe, an assistant professor of history at the University of Victoria, answers in "Werwolf!" all the questions you are likely to have about the movement, and in a very readable form. (Don't be intimidated by the apparent size of the book, by the way: the text ends at page 285, followed by notes and appendices.) "Werwolf!" provides valuable insights into the "polyarchic" nature of the Nazi regime, both in its salad days and in its dissolution, as well as a general overview of the last few months of the war in Europe. Finally, though the author does not address this matter, the book may provide some useful ideas for counterfactual speculation about the possible evolution of National Socialist society, had it survived the war.

The term "Werwolf" is the equivalent of the English "werewolf," meaning "man-wolf" or "lycanthrope." There is, however, another term, "Wehrwolf," which is pronounced about the same as "Werwolf," but which means "defense wolf." "Wehrwolf" actually has a long association with irregular warfare in Germany. A famous novel by that title, written by one Hermann Loens and published in 1910, was a romantic treatment of peasant guerrillas in northern Germany during the 17th century. Though this novel was in fact promoted by the Nazi government, particularly the Hitler Youth, the spelling "Werwolf" was favored when the Germans began planning for partisan warfare, because the Nazis had had a competitor on the Right in the 1920s called the "Wehrwolf Bund." Besides, "Werwolf" sounded more feral.

As with so much else the Nazi government did, the Werwolf initiative was something of a pillow fight, with different actors competing for control of Werwolf organizations and with different ideas for what the Werwolf was supposed to do. The original concept was clear enough, however.

"Clausewitzian partisans" are part of orthodox military doctrine. They are militia who operate behind the lines in territory occupied by the enemy. Their function is to cut supply lines and generally cause confusion, but their operation presupposes the continued existence of a national government and a conventional army. The Germans had experience fielding irregular forces of this nature, both against Napoleon and in the form of the independent "Freikorps" units that operated in eastern Germany during the chaotic period just after the First World War. The Germans started thinking about them again as soon as the situation on the Russian front began to deteriorate, and in fact anti-Communist partisans did the Red Army appreciable damage. It was only in the last half of 1944, however, that the Germans began to focus on the possibility that the Allies might have to be resisted within Germany itself.

This was a job that no major player in the German government or the military wanted to be associated with until the last moment. Thinking about the penetration of Germany, even the extended Germany of Hitler's annexations, implied a fair amount of defeatism. Additionally, the military was not keen on sharing its dwindling resources for training and material with civilian stay-behind groups. In principle, the Werwolf was commanded by SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, through a back channel consisting of local chiefs of police. These middle-aged men tended to regard partisan activity as somewhat disreputable, and in any case had no idea how to go about it. Far more dynamic, and only nominally under SS command, was the Werwolf program operated by the Hitler Youth. The story of the Werwolf proper, in fact, is largely a cautionary tale about what happens when you give teenagers a license to kill.

Despite all obstacles, training programs were improvised for youths and adults, though the courses sometimes lasted just days. Underground bunkers were prepared in isolated areas, from which the Werwolf were supposed to emerge to strike terror into the enemy. Werwolf was supposed to mesh into the larger project of establishing an "Alpine Redoubt," a base in Austria and mountainous southern Germany to which conventional forces might retreat. Certainly the major Werwolf training bases were located in that area. The last-minute attempt to build underground facilities in the Alps were too little, too late, and the armies ordered to go there never arrived, for the most part. In the final few days, Hitler decided to stay in Berlin, rather than go south and try to organize the Redoubt from Berchtesgaden. Still, it was not quite just a propaganda ploy.

What did the Werwolf do? They sniped. They mined roads. They poured sand into the gas tanks of jeeps. (Sugar was in short supply, no doubt.) They were especially feared for the "decapitation wires" they strung across roads. They poisoned food stocks and liquor. (The Russians had the biggest problem with this.) They committed arson, though perhaps less than they are credited with: every unexplained fire or explosion associated with a military installation tended to be blamed on the Werwolf. These activities slackened off within a few months of the capitulation on May 7, though incidents were reported as late as 1947.

The problem with assessing the extent of Werwolf activity is that not only official Werwolf personnel committed partisan acts. Much of the regular German fighting forces disarticulated into isolated units that sometimes kept fighting, even after the high command surrendered.. In the east, units that had been bypassed by the Red Army tried to fight their way west, so they could surrender to the Anglo-Americans. In the west, the final "strategy" of the high command was to stop even trying to halt the Allied armored penetrations of Germany, but to hit these units from behind and cut off their supplies. Perhaps the most harrowing accounts in the book are those relating to the expulsion of the ethnic German populations from the Sudetenland and the areas annexed by Poland. The latter theater in particular seems to have been the only point in the European war in which a civilian population was keen about a "scorched earth" strategy.

Very little Werwolf activity was directed with an eye toward political survival after the complete occupation of Germany. The Nazi leadership could not bring themselves to think about the matter. Certainly Himmler could not. In the last days before his own suicide, he tried to close the Werwolf down, the better to curry favor with the western Allies. Still, elements of the movement did make some plans for after the war. The Hitler Youth branch devised a political platform for a peaceful, postwar, Werwolf political organization. They also took steps toward ensuring financing for these efforts. In the last days of the war, forward-looking Nazis scurried about Germany with funds taken from the Party or the national treasury, buying up businesses "at fire-sale prices," as Biddiscombe dryly puts it. These enterprises prospered slightly in the months following the end of the fighting, but were wrapped up by the occupation authorities by the end of 1945.

This brings us to the role of the Nazi Party in the Werwolf movement. An aspect of the Third Reich on which Biddiscombe lays great stress is the surprisingly derelict state of the Party itself. When the Party was new, it was in many ways a youth movement, or perhaps a brilliant propaganda machine that mobilized a youth movement. Even before the war began, however, it had become little more than a patronage organization, notable mostly for its corruption. The old guard, who had come to power with Hitler, had no new ideas themselves and stubbornly refused to make way for new blood. The Gauleiter, or district leaders, were not an elite, and the organizations they commanded did not attract persons of the first quality.

This situation particularly frustrated the "old fighters" like Goebbels and Robert Ley, the labor chief, and Martin Bormann, Hitler's party secretary. Though they continued to have considerable influence on policy because of their strong personal relationships with Hitler, nevertheless they had long been losing institutional power as the Party was eclipsed by the SS. That organization could make some claim to being an elite. At the very least, it was still more feared than despised. Thus, in the closing months of the regime, some of the Party leaders saw the Werwolf as an opportunity to wrest power back from the Reich's decaying institutions.

Goebbels especially grasped the possibility that guerrilla war could be a political process as well as a military strategy. It was largely through his influence that the Werwolf assumed something of the aspect of a terrorist organization. Where it could, it tried to prevent individuals and communities from surrendering, and it assassinated civil officials who cooperated with the Allies. Few Germans welcomed these activities, but something else that Goebbels grasped was that terror might serve where popularity was absent. By his estimate, only 10% to 15% of the German population were potential supporters for a truly revolutionary movement. His goal was to use the Werwolf to activate that potential. With the help of the radical elite, the occupiers could be provoked into savage reprisals that would win over the mass of the people to Neo-Nazism, a term that came into use in April 1945.

Bizarre as it may seem, Goebbels saw the collapse of the Reich as the opportunity to put through a social revolution, particularly a social revolution manned by radicalized youth. Always on the left-wing of the Party, Goebbels felt that Hitler had been mislead by the Junkers and the traditional military into bourgeois policies that had corrupted the whole movement. With Germany's cities in ruins and its institutions no longer functioning, the possibility had arisen to start again from scratch. Biddiscombe notes that Hermann Rauschning , a former Nazi official who defected to the West before the war, called Nazism a "revolution of nihilism." Biddiscombe suggests that the radical wing of the Party, freed by defeat from the responsibility for actual government and the constraints of a conventional war, reverted in the final days to the nihilistic essence of Nazism.

In some ways, Goebbels' policy resembled what Mao Zedong did in China. Even the plans for the Alpine Redoubt are reminiscent of the Long March to the base at Yennan. Before the Long March, the Chinese Communist Party was a fairly conventional Stalinist organization. It presupposed the facilities of civilization for its operation. When it descended from the mountains after the war with Japan ended, however, the Communist Party was something like a new society in itself. Goebbels hoped for something similar in Europe, counting on the sudden outbreak of a war between the western and eastern Allies to provide the strategic breathing room for a renewed regime to coalesce. When no such war broke out, and the Alpine Redoubt proved to be just another Nazi pipe dream, the Werwolf simply evaporated.

While perhaps one should not press the Chinese comparison too far, still it is probably significant that the most radical manifestations of Chinese Communism appeared a good 15 or 20 years after the Party came to power. They appeared in time of peace, as old party hands tried to retake control from the conventional organs of government. If the Nazi state had won its war with the Soviet Union and fended off invasion from the West, might something similar have happened? The early Nazi enthusiasm for socialism and social solidarity had become largely rhetorical by 1939, but the ideas always remained, ready to the hand of bold Party officials who might someday find the arrogance of the SS too threatening.

Perhaps the Werwolf is the dim reflection in our world of another future. In that world, the 1960s see Brown Guards take over the streets of Germania, the new Nazi capital. Egged on by Old Fighters behind the scenes, they demand that the aristocrats of the SS get off their high horses and learn from the Volk. Ancient universities are closed down or turned into schools of indoctrination. Elderly scholars are sent to country districts to raise pigs. Gullible journalists arrive from abroad, and send home admiring articles about how the Germans must be understood on their own terms.

Any scenario in which the Third Reich lasts longer than it did is unpleasant to think about. In this one, however, there is at least a built-in consolation. The Nazi empire, held together by coercion, would probably have blown up as soon as the effectiveness of its military was degraded by revolutionary fervor.


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The Long View: If the July 20 Plot had Succeeded.....

More alternative history from John. Often, the main thrust of his thinking was that the world could have been very much worse than it was, even though it was frequently awful. Hitler may have been a bad leader, but Himmler would have probably been worse....

If the July 20 Plot Had Succeeded.....

On July 20, 1944, Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler by placing a bomb in the conference room at the East Prussia command center where Hitler was holding a meeting. The bomb went off and von Stauffenberg telephoned to his confederates in Berlin that Hitler had been killed. The conspirators had planned to stage a coup, using elements of the skeletal Home Army in Germany, perhaps supported by some of the generals on the Western Front. However, the would-be putschists in Berlin dithered for several hours, trying to get confirmation that Hitler was really dead. They did not seize the government ministries, or the telephone exchanges, or even the radio stations. When Goebbels was able to confirm that Hitler was alive and convince the army units in Berlin of this fact, the coup collapsed in short order. Apparently, all that saved Hitler's life was the absent-minded placement by his adjutant of the bomb from one side of a wooden table support to the other. Suppose the bomb had not been moved, and Hitler had been killed?

The conspirators had some foggy notion that they might be able to surrender to the Allies in the west, or at least negotiate a withdrawal to Germany's western border, while continuing to fight defensive battles in the east. Certainly they had gone much further in sounding out the western commanders about their attitude to a coup, though in some ways the most forceful member of the anti-Hitler network involved in the assassination attempt was Major General Henning von Tresckow of Army Group Center on the Eastern Front. (They had also attempted covert negotiations with both the Anglo-Americans and the Russians. They managed to talk to unofficial representatives of both sides, but without results.)

Objectively speaking, something like this might have been possible. The military position of Germany in July 1944 was grim. At the beginning of the month, the Russians had crossed the pre-war eastern border of Poland. Hitler was having that conference in East Prussia because the Russians were only about 60 klicks from the province. In the west, the Anglo-Americans were breaking out of Normandy, and Paris would fall in August. Still, the Germans were far from beaten. Armaments production, for instance, peaked in July. In the months before Germany finally surrendered, they would stabilize the situation more than once, and even conduct some notable offensives. In other words, they still had something to bargain with, and both sides knew it.


The Long View: The World Hitler Never Made

Alternative history, which gets the unusual name allohistory in this book review, has been one of my favorite genres. When done well, you tend to learn a lot of real history by proxy, since good alt history is based on real events. One can never invent stories near so wild as what actually happened.

The book John reviews here is a survey of alternative histories about the Third Reich. Some are about a world in which the Nazis never were, and some are about a world in which the Nazis triumphed. None of the stories are actually pro-Nazi. [John managed to find a partial example the author missed] However, the kind of stories we tell about the Nazis have changed over the years. The most vicious and diabolical portrayals came from the immediate post-war years. As time has passed, the Third Reich began to be portrayed as something that was the more banal evil of later Communism, gray, and bureaucratically neglectful. In the end, Hitler has become a joke, Godwin's Law non-withstanding.

We can't take Hitler seriouisly anymore

The World Hitler Never Made
By Gavriel D. Rosenfeld
Cambridge University Press, 2005
524 Pages, US$19.80
ISBN 0-521-84706-0


Every generation gets the space invaders it deserves. In H. G. Wells's day, they were aggressive railroad trestles armed with late Industrial Revolution death rays and poison gas. By the 1950s, they were subversive vegetable bodysnatchers that tried to appear 200% American. Now comes Gavriel Rosenfeld, a historian at Fairfield University who specializes in the postwar reception of the Third Reich, to propose that every generation gets the alternative Hitler it deserves. We can learn quite a lot about how Western society has dealt with the memory of the Nazi regime, he suggests, by examining the speculations that have appeared over the years about how that stretch of history might have been different. Most important, by noting how these speculations have changed, we can make some useful inferences about the working of historical memory and about the political cultures of the several nations in which these speculations have appeared.

The book covers four classes of hypotheticals: Hitler wins; Hitler loses but escapes; Hitler is deleted from history; and hypothetical Holocausts (both Holocausts avoided and Holocausts that were more complete). According to the cumulative table of sources in the Appendix, this survey covers 116 works, including novels, short stories, essays, films, television productions, and some academic histories. The works that are discussed are of very variable quality. They range from novels of great merit, such as George Steiner's "The Portage to San Cristobal" and Len Deighton's "SS-GB," to the unfortunately never-to-be-forgotten film, "They Saved Hitler's Brain." (There is an image from that film on the book's dustjacket: they saved not only the brain but the whole head, cowlick and all.) Alternate history (or alternative history, or uchronie: the author prefers "allohistory") has been a recognized genre for some time. It will be easy for attentive readers to point to a few examples the author overlooked, but this survey is remarkably comprehensive.

Allohistorical stories involving Nazi Germany are chiefly an Anglo-American phenomenon, but about 15% of the author's sources are German or Austrian. British and American stories (including a few novels) about the consequences of a German victory began to appear even before the Second World War began. After the war, speculation about that topic took a rest. Such works as did appear, such as Noel Coward's well-received 1947 play about Britain under German occupation, "Peace in Our Time," and John W. Wall's novel "The Sound of His Horn," portrayed Germans as diabolical and their victims as heroes. In comic books and pulp magazines, however, there were numerous stories about how Hitler had escaped and the terrible things that would happen to him when he was caught. In the late fifties and early 1960s, interest revived in allohistory about Nazi victory, either in terms of global conquest or the occupation of Great Britain. Some writers depicted the victims as collaborators. It is to this period that we owe what perhaps remains the best-known "Hitler Wins" novel, Philip Dick's The Man in the High Castle, as well as some notable British teleplays, such as Giles Cooper's "The Other Man."

In the 1970s, Rosenfeld tells us, the Hitler Wave began. Popular culture and historical studies treated many aspects of the history of the Nazi era. In allohistory, the Germans began to be portrayed as less absolutely villainous. Alternative historical scenarios were increasingly used to critique the increasingly troubled societies of their authors.

The last great inflection came with the end of the Cold War in 1989. At that point, it became easier to believe that the defeat of the Nazis had not simply cast out the fascist Satan with the communist Beelzebub. The outcome of the Second World War again seemed optimal, and allohistory in large part reflected this. However, well-thought-out works like Robert Harris's "Fatherland" depicted a Nazi-dominated Europe that seemed less like the Hell of earlier allohistorical speculation and more like ordinary unhappiness. Rosenfeld calls this evolution "normalization." As we will see, it worries him mightily.

The early British interest in the subject is not hard to explain. During the war, every adult Briton had reason to contemplate what life would be like if the Germans invaded the country, since the Germans were evidently preparing to do exactly that. British civil defense work involved some preparation for that eventuality; some people even trained for a partisan underground that would operate under a German occupation. And after the war, of course, the German plans for the occupation became public, and featured in many essays and news articles.

In the early postwar era, the British prided themselves on being made of sterner stuff than the continentals. Even if the Germans had occupied the country, the early stories said, the British people would not have collaborated. During the revival in the 1960s of allohistorical speculation (occasioned by the trial of Adolf Eichmann, Rosenfeld suggests), some British writers took a different view. Though the Germans were still portrayed as very bad, the British became no better than the French. Some would have resisted, but not always in an admirable fashion; many would have joined enthusiastically with the projects of the Greater Reich.

This difference acquired a political coloration. Leftists tended to portray the British after a lost war as behaving no better than the people across the channel. Their stories implied that there would be nothing to lose by Britain merging with a supranational Europe. Nationalists, in contrast, held up the ideal of the "finest hour" (which Rosenfeld, inexplicably, almost always refers to as "the myth of the finest hour"). In the 1990s, though, it was two generally conservative historians, John Charmley and Niall Ferguson, who debated British membership in the European Union allohistorically. Charmley, notoriously, argued in his biography of Churchill that Britain could have maintained its empire by letting the Germans have their way, especially toward Russia. Ferguson thought otherwise, though we may recall that he thought most of the unpleasantness in the 20th century could have been avoided if only Britain had not intervened in the First World War.

The American question had always been about intercontinental neutrality: a question that is, curiously, asked in allohistory far more often about the Second War than the First. Early stories and assessments by historians portrayed American nonintervention in the Second World War as an unmitigated disaster. Usually it would result in the conquest of the United States, but it always made the world far worse. By the 1970s, however, some Americans of all political persuasions were arguing that the Cold War had ruined America. Allohistorical writers pointed out, reasonably enough, that the Cold War was the result of the eclipse of Germany. American writers of a libertarian bent produced stories in which Eurasia was left to its own devices. The result might be a crumbling Nazi tyranny or a hemisphere of ruins, but it would leave America prosperous and unharmed. (Even Robert Heinlein had thoughts along these lines.) Leftists, in contrast, suggested that the survival of the Nazi regime would have made the world no worse, and therefore that there was no real difference between a Nazified world and an Americanized one.

A common variation on this thought was the backstory of Norman Spinrad's famous "The Iron Dream," a science-fiction novel that was supposed to have been written by Hitler after his political projects failed and he immigrated to the United States. In this scenario, which is really a variation of the Hitler Deleted class, a Nazi-like movement forms in the United States because of the anxiety created by the Soviet annexation of Europe. In this type of story, the Third Reich is implicitly the Awful Example that the United States needs.

German-speaking writers were last into the allohistorical field, and were always more likely to think these problems through in essays than in fiction. (As a German once put it to me, Germans don't need to imagine alternate history because for Germany the first half of the 20th century was alternate history.) The earliest allohistorical stories argued that a Nazi victory would have been a disaster for Germany, too, as the regime got stranger and stranger. Later efforts, though, tended to fall into politically tinged classes, like their Anglo-American counterparts. Politically conservative people, who thought well of the postwar Federal Republic, continued to depict the world of a Nazi victory as dramatically worse than the real world. Leftists, however, often created scenarios in which such a victory resulted in a world not very different from our own, with the implication that liberal democracy was just a mellower form of fascism.

Later German allohistory explored the possibility that too much historical memory can be a bad thing. Some works described scenarios in which the Morgenthau Plan for the postwar deindustrialization of Germany was actually implemented. In a novel of this sort, the younger generations were forced to enact grotesque rituals to commemorate the misdeeds of their ancestors. The effect, of course, was to create resentment, so that whatever regret that Germans might have felt about a black spot in their history was obviated by the injustices done to them in the present. This sentiment is a fictionalized representation, Rosenfeld suggests, of the real feeling in the German world.

Such thoughts are not unknown in the English-speaking world, however. Perhaps the best Hitler Escapes novel, "The Portage to San Cristobal," features an aging Führer who is tried by an Israeli court in the Brazilian jungle. The book suggests that the very attempt to seek justice for the Holocaust keeps Hitler and Nazism alive. Rosenfeld does not dismiss this possibility, but he is clearly troubled by it. He is after, all, a student of the memory of the Holocaust, and his study shows that the increasingly popular genre of allohistory works to undermine the historical specificity of that event.

Rosenfeld does not record a single pro-Nazi allohistorical novel (I came across just one, online, and I believe it was never completed). Nonetheless, the trend in allohistory has been to move from stories in which a Nazi-dominated world is surreally evil to stories in which the Nazi empire has mellowed into a drab totalitarian state. A good example is Harry Turtledove's In the Presence of Mine Enemies, which simply transferred the fall of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union to the fall of the Nazi Party in Greater Germany. Indeed, in such a case, verisimilitude requires that the regime be credited with some laudable achievements. Even Stalin built the Moscow subway.

The flaws of the allohistorical regime cease to be the flaws of the actual Third Reich. They become universal flaws. All those Hitler Deleted stories in which Nazism arises in the United States suggest that fascism is a danger inherent in human nature. That may or may not be true, but making that point can distract attention from the history of what actually happened in Germany. For better or worse, however, the effect of allohistory on the memory of the Third Reich has been normalization and universalization. Allohistory itself, Rosenfeld suggests, is characterized by "presentism": these imaginary histories are wholly at the service of the conflicts and controversies of the time in which they are written.

There are some features of the allohistory of the Third Reich that seem to defy explanation. For instance, almost all stories in which the Holocaust is eliminated by well-meaning time travelers turn into variations of "The Monkey's Paw": when you get three wishes, the last one will be "put it back the way it was!" There is also a strange consensus that the result would have been much worse if the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler had succeeded. I myself wrote a long essay arguing just that; I seem to have been caught up in the collective unconscious when I did so.

Finally, there is the fate of Hitler himself. In his earliest postwar allohistorical incarnations, he is up to his old tricks: inciting neofascist movements and devising superweapons in jungle exile; in one American television drama he is the colleague of the insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. By the 1970s, he is portrayed as a decrepit old man, almost pitiable. Revenge against such a creature seems irrelevant in comparison to the magnitude of his crimes. In his most recent metamorphosis, though, he meets as strange a fate as any allohistorical scenario: he has become a clown. Increasingly over the last 30 years, der Führer has been appearing in comedy sketches and comic books, where he displays a short temper and a certain talent for explosive epigram.

Hitler's final state may be that of Mad Baggins, who, as Tolkien tells us, used to vanish with a flash and bang in fireside stories and became a favorite character of legend after all the true events were forgotten.

It may be allohistory, but you can't make this stuff up.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site