January 28, 1521 A Scholarly Debate

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing his “95 theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting Church authorities. This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate. 

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497, where the boy learned the so-called “trivium” – grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at age 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505. The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer, but the boy wanted none of it.

Hans & Margarethe Luder by Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, and his University as a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.  Martin Luther was cut out for different things.

Luther entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out, almost immediately.  His father was furious over what he saw as a wasted education. Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

16th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built up a surplus of good deeds, over a lifetime.  Sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin. Monetary contributions to the church could, it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.

Luther came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity. The Grace of God wasn’t a medium to be exchanged, he believed.  Rather, such grace was attained through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.

Papal “Commissioner for Indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome. A saying attributed to the Dominican friar went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

0531f24949Martin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences. He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it likely never happened. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church.  This was intended to be an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate.

Martin Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.

Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Martin Luther.  In 1520, the Papal Bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded the Professor of Theology to recant under pain of excommunication.

Luther stood on dangerous ground. In 1415, the Czech priest Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for such heresy.  Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against his followers, the “Hussieten”, five years later.


King Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was still years in the future in 1521, the year Pope Leo X named Henry “Fidei Defensor”.  “Defender of the Faith”. Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin was forced to flee for his life, from a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians.

Anabaptists Jan van Leiden, Bernhard Knipperdolling and Bernhard Krechting were tortured in the public square for their heresies, with white-hot pliers.  Their corpses were placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church, in Münster. The bones were removed some fifty years later, but those three cages remain there, to this day.


The Papal edict had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions, and he publicly burned the document. Twenty-four days later, Martin Luther was excommunicated.

On this day in 1521, Emperor Charles V convened the Diet, the deliberative assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms.  Luther was summoned to defend himself in April.

With copies of his writings laid before him on a table, Luther was asked if the books were his, and if he stood by their contents.  He affirmed that yes, they were his, but asked time to consider his second answer.

The following day, Luther gave his response.  “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the Pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen”.

Martin Luther testifies before the Diet of Worms, 1521

The “Edict of Worms” of the following month declared Luther an outlaw, ordering that he “be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”.  Anyone who wished to do so was now permitted to kill the monk, without legal consequence.

Five years earlier, Erasmus of Rotterdam had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”.  Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle.  It was there that he translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.

Radical sects took Luther’s teachings far beyond his intentions, and Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers. The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the Holy Spirit. The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, sounding very much like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.


The Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther plunged Europe into a series of wars. The Peasant’s War of 1524-’25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution. The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.

On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-century old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.

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January 2, 1935 Nazis of the Amazon

In 1935, the third Reich reached out to the Amazon basin, in search of ‘lebensraum’.  Living space.  3 SS officers bankrolled by the Nazi government, came with dozens of helpers to explore the region bordering French Guyana, with an eye toward colonizing the area for the ‘thousand-year’ Reich.

In 1978, the British-American science fiction thriller “The Boys from Brazil”  told the story of a bizarre plot to clone Adolf  Hitler, hatched by the “Angel of Death” Josef Mengele in his Brazilian jungle hideout.

In the film, Mengele met his fate at the jaws of a pack of vengeful Dobermans, under orders from one of his 94 ‘baby dictators’.

A story as squirrelly is this one could only come from the minds of Hollywood, but parts of it were closer to reality, than anyone knew at the time.

In the years following WW2, thousands of Nazi officers, senior party members and Nazi collaborators escaped across the Atlantic to find refuge in South America, especially Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

Though widely believed to be dead, Mengele himself was very much alive at the time of the film, living under an assumed identity in Bertioga, São Paulo.  The Angel of Death would escape the noose he so richly deserved, succumbing to a stroke while swimming in 1979, and drowning.

Long before there were Nazis, before there was even a Germany, ethnically German people have been emigrating in search of a better life.  In the United States, some 57 million people identify as being of full or part German ancestry, forming the largest single ethnic group, in the country.  I am one of them.

Outside of Germany itself,  The second largest German population in the world, resides in Brazil.

Mention Oktoberfest, and you’re speaking of an annual celebration of Germanic traditions, in Munich.  The second-largest Oktoberfest is a two-way tie, between the one held in Waterloo, Canada, and the city of Blumenau, in Santa Catarina, Brazil.

Oktoberfest Blumenau
Outside of Munich, Oktoberfest Blumenau in Brazil is one of the two largest celebrations of the original festival, in the world.

Outside of Europe, descendants of German immigrant ancestors have largely assimilated into their host societies, adopting local languages and adapting Germanic-sounding surnames to spellings and sounds more familiar to their adopted cultures.

Brazilians of German ancestry are in every sense Brazilian, except to the racially obsessed mind, of a Nazi.

In 1935, the third Reich reached out to the Amazon basin, in search of ‘lebensraum’.  Living space.  3 SS officers bankrolled by the Nazi government, came with dozens of helpers to explore the region bordering French Guyana, with an eye toward colonizing the area for the ‘thousand-year’ Reich.

Talk about squirrelly ideas.  The hardships of life in the Amazon jungle made this a strange choice of destination, but the idea made sense to these people.  With over 1 million ethnic Germans already living in the country, the pieces were already in place.  Or so they believed.

SS officer Joseph Greiner died of a ‘fever’ while on the expedition, most likely yellow fever or malaria. Expedition leader Schulz Kampfhenkel returned to the Fatherland with glowing reports of “The Guyana Projekt”.  “The two largest scantly populated, but rich in resources, areas on earth” Kampfhenkel wrote to his boss, the failed chicken farmer turned Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, “are in Siberia and South America”.

article-1080071-0238C02C000005DC-732_468x623As befitting a man who completely buys into Nazi ideas of racial superiority, the SS officer wrote “For the more advanced white race it offers outstanding possibilities for exploitation”, adding that the people who lived there “cannot be measured in civilised terms as we know them in Germany”.

A propaganda film was made of Greiner’s work in the jungle, but Himmler showed ‘scant interest’ in such grandiose plans.  “Given time”, the bloodless bureaucrat wrote to his jungle emissary, “the plan may be submitted again”.

So it is, that there is a Nazi graveyard by a tributary of the River Jary,  in the Amazon jungle. There you will find a 9-ft. cross, bearing this inscription: “Joseph Greiner died here on 2.1.1936“.

December 25, 1914 Christmas Truce

Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim.

“Sitzkrieg”. “Phony War”. Those were the terms used to describe the September ‘39 to May 1940 period, when neither side of what was to become the second world war, was yet prepared to launch a major ground war against the other.

“The Blow on the Yser”, depicting the ‘Race to the Sea’. 6th in a series of postcards on the German invasion of France.

25 years earlier things had been different, at the outbreak of “The Great War”.  Had you been alive in August of 1914, you’d have witnessed what might be described as the simultaneous detonation of a continent.

When governments make war on one another, it’s the Harry and the Fritz down the street, the every day Pierre and the Ivan, who must do the fighting.  And the bleeding.  And the dying.

France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre meets the Meuse.  27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.

The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23, only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons.

In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity at the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers.  Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture.  Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

Angels of Mons

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another.  It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War, ending in the apocalypse of Ypres, in which 75,000 from all sides lost their lives.  All along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter themselves from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

On the Western Front, it rained for much of November and December that first year.  The no man’s land between British and German trenches was a wasteland of mud and barbed wire. Christmas Eve, 1914 dawned cold and clear.  The frozen ground allowed men to move about for the first time in weeks.

That evening, English soldiers heard Germans singing a Christmas carol.  “Silent night.  The Tommies were the first to respond, singing ‘The First Noel”.  Then both sides joined together, in a rendition of ‘O Come, all ye Faithful’.


The following day was Christmas, 1914. A few German soldiers emerged from their trenches at the first light of dawn, approaching the Allies across no man’s land, calling out “Merry Christmas” in the native tongue of their adversaries.

Allied soldiers first thought it was a trick, but these Germans were unarmed, standing out in the open where they could be shot on a whim. Tommies soon climbed out of their own trenches, shaking hands with the Germans and exchanging gifts of cigarettes, food and souvenirs. In at least one sector, enemy soldiers played a friendly game of soccer.


Captain Bruce Bairnsfather later wrote: “I wouldn’t have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. … I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. … I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. … The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck.”

Captain Sir Edward Hulse Bart reported a sing-song which “ended up with ‘Auld lang syne’ which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wurttenbergers, etc, joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film I should have sworn that it was faked!”

Nearly 100,000 Allied and German troops were involved in the unofficial ceasefire of December 24-25, 1914, which lasted in some sectors until New Year’s Day.

christmas-truce-1914-400x186A few tried to replicate the event the following year, but there were explicit orders preventing it. Captain Llewelyn Wyn Griffith recorded that after a night of exchanging carols, dawn on Christmas Day 1915 saw a “rush of men from both sides … [and] a feverish exchange of souvenirs” before the men were quickly called back by their officers.

One German unit tried to leave their trenches under a flag of truce on Easter Sunday 1915.  They were warned off by the British opposite them.

christmas-military1-e1482512805772German soldier Richard Schirrmann wrote in December 1915, “When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines …. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that they remained good friends even after Christmas was over”.

Some will tell you, that the bitterness engendered by continuous fighting made such fraternization all but impossible.  Yet there are those who believe that soldiers never stopped fraternizing with their opponents, at least during the Christmas season.  Heavy artillery, machine gun, and sniper fire were all intensified in anticipation of Christmas truces, minimizing such events in a way that kept them out of the history books.

1914-christmas-eve-truceEven so, there is evidence of a small Christmas truce occurring in 1916, previously unknown to historians. 23-year-old Private Ronald MacKinnon of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, wrote home about German and Canadian soldiers reaching across battle lines near Arras, sharing Christmas greetings and trading gifts. “I had quite a good Christmas considering I was in the front line”, he wrote. “Christmas Eve was pretty stiff, sentry-go up to the hips in mud of course. … We had a truce on Christmas Day and our German friends were quite friendly. They came over to see us and we traded bully beef for cigars”. The letter ends with Private MacKinnon noting that “Christmas was ‘tray bon’, which means very good.”

Private Ronald MacKinnon of Toronto Ontario, Regimental number 157629, was killed barely three months later on April 9, 1917, during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

The Man He Killed

“Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

“But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

“I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

“He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

“Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown.”

November 27, 1942 Scuttled

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it, even if they had to sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzers had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people in shock in the wake of their June surrender.  All those years their government had told them, that the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot line, was more than enough to counter German aggression.

France had fallen in six weeks.

Vichy-FranceGermany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of France, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain.  Though mostly toothless, the self-described “French state” in Vichy was left relatively free to run its own affairs, compared with the Nazi occupied regions to the west and north.

That changed in November 1942, with the joint British/American invasion of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.  At the time, the north African provinces were nominally under the control of the Vichy regime.  Hitler gave orders for the immediate occupation of all of France.

Scuttled, 2With the armistice of June 1940, much of the French naval fleet was confined to the Mediterranean port of Toulon.  Confined but not disarmed, and the French fleet possessed some of the most advanced naval technologies of the age, enough to shift the balance of military power in the Mediterranean.

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it, even if they had to sink it to the bottom of the ocean.

Scuttled, 1In November 1942, the Nazi government came to take control of that fleet. The motorized 7th Panzer column of German tanks, armored cars and armored personnel carriers descended on Toulon with an SS motorcycle battalion, taking over port defenses to either side of the harbor. German officers entered fleet headquarters and arrested French officers, but not before word of what was happening was relayed to French Admiral Jean de Laborde, aboard the flagship Strasbourg.

The order went out across the base at Toulon.  Prepare to scuttle the fleet, and resist the advance of German troops, by any means necessary.

The German column approached the main gate to the harbor facility in the small hours of November 27, demanding access.  ‘Of course,’ smiled the French guard. ‘Do you have your access paperwork?’

Toulon, französisches KriegsschiffUnder orders to take the harbor without bloodshed, the Nazi commander was dismayed. Was he being denied access by this, his defeated adversary?  Minutes seemed like hours in the tense wrangling which followed.  Germans gesticulated and argued with French guards, who stalled and prevaricated at the closed gate.

The Germans produced documentation, only to be thanked, asked to wait, and left standing at the gate.

Meanwhile, thousands of French seamen worked in grim silence throughout the early morning hours, preparing to scuttle their own fleet.  Valves and watertight doors were opened, incendiary and demolition charges were prepared and placed.

27_toulonFinally, the Panzer column could be stalled no more.  German tanks rumbled through the main gate at 5:25am, even as the order to scuttle passed throughout the fleet.  Dull explosions sounded across the harbor, as fighting broke out between the German column, and French sailors pouring out of their ships in the early dawn light.  Lead German tanks broke for the Strasbourg, even now pouring greasy, black smoke from its superstructure, as she settled to the bottom.

The Germans could only look on, helpless, as a dying fleet escaped their grasp.  In the end, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 28 tugs, 4 cranes and a school ship, were destroyed.  39 smaller vessels of negligible military value fell into German hands along with twelve fleet vessels, all of them damaged.

The fires would burn, for weeks.  The harbor at Toulon would remain fouled and polluted, for years.

The French Navy lost 12 men killed and 26 wounded on that day, 75 years ago, today.  The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable.  How many lives could have been lost can never be known, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power.  But for the bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten, foe.

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November 4, 1914 Battle of the Bees

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck came to loathe Adolf Hitler, and tried to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazi political machine. When offered the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, he apparently did more than merely decline the job. He told Der Fuehrer to perform an anatomically improbable act.  Years later, Charles Miller asked the nephew of a Schutztruppe officer about the exchange. “I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go f**k himself”.   “That’s right”, came the reply, “except that I don’t think he put it that politely”.

When WWI broke out in 1914, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain.  All administered parts of the African continent.

The 2nd Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment was stationed in Bangalore, southern India, at the outbreak of war.  By mid-October, the more experienced of their Indian allies had shipped off to France, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Little but leftovers were assigned to the German East African invasion.  Many had never even fired a rifle, let alone a machine gun.

Since August, there had been an informal agreement that the African territories would be left alone. That changed on November 2, when an allied force of 8,000 British troops and their Indian allies arrived at the seaport town of Tanga, in what is now Tanzania.

Deutsch-Ostafrika, Askari im KampfThis invasion force, commanded by General Arthur Aitkin, spent that first day and most of the second sweeping for non-existent mines, before finally assembling an assault force on the beaches late on November 3rd. It was a welcome break for the German Commander, Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who had assembled and trained a force of Askari warriors around a core of white German commissioned and non-commissioned officers.

The Germans used those 2 days to bring in more defenders, increasing their number from two companies to almost a thousand individuals. The German and Ascari defenders were well situated and very familiar with the terrain, unlike the British-led allied forces, who had conducted no reconnaissance whatsoever.

The fighting of November 4 met with mixed results. Several columns bogged down in the swamps approaching town, leaving much of their lines in disarray. The harbor contingent had some successes in the fighting that followed, with Gurkhas of the Kashmiri Rifles and the 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment capturing the customs house and Hotel Deutscher Kaiser.

Though outnumbered 8 to 1, the defenders managed to turn their attackers when they got some help from an unexpected direction. Millions of bees, agitated by the gunfire, had joined in the fight.

Charge of the Bengal Lancers

“Killer” bees are a strain of western honey bees that have been “Africanized”; cross bred with larger, more aggressive African bees, in order to produce more honey in tropical conditions.

The honey producers who crossed these creatures in the 1950s quickly learned what Aitken’s men could have told them in 1914. These things are aggressive, they swarm, and, if angered, they will chase you for a mile and more.

The Germans got some of it, but the bees spent most of their wrath on the British and the Indians, who found themselves pelting for the beaches at maximum speed. I don’t know if it’s true or just a story, but I’ve heard of one radio man who stayed at his post, directing the beach withdrawal as he was stung to death by thousands of bees. According to the story, he received the Victoria Cross, posthumously, for gallantry “while sustaining aerial attack”.

The Battle for Tanga was a humiliating defeat for the British. The Royal Navy refused to carry heavy machine guns back, fearing that they might damage their small landing craft. The guns would be left behind, for future allied forces to deal with.  It was a gift for Lettow-Vorbeck, whose forces found enough modern rifles for three Askari companies, along with 600,000 rounds of ammunition, 16 machine guns, several field telephones and enough clothing to last the Schutztruppe for a year.

Askari-on-MarchColonel, and later General Lettow-Vorbeck, was called “Der Löwe von Afrika“, the Lion of Africa. He never once had more than 3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askaris under his command, yet he wore the allies out, leading no fewer than 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops in a four-years long wild goose chase all over equatorial Africa.

The Lion of Africa returned to Germany a conquering hero at the end of WW1.  Of all German field commanders in all theaters of the war, von Lettow alone was undefeated in the field, acclaimed as leading “the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful”.

lettowvorbeckportraitPaul von Lettow-Vorbeck came to loathe Adolf Hitler, and tried to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazi political machine. When offered the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, he apparently did more than merely decline the job. He told Der Fuehrer to perform an anatomically improbable act.  Years later, Charles Miller asked the nephew of a Schutztruppe officer about the exchange. “I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go f**k himself”.   “That’s right”Came the reply, “except that I don’t think he put it that politely”.

Persecuted by the Nazis, the Lion of Africa was a broken man by the end of WWII, surviving only due to his former hero status. His home was bombed out and his two sons Rüdiger and Arnd, were dead.

Lettow-Vorbeck would get back on his feet, but for a time he had to depend on food packages from England, sent to him from Sir Richard Meinertzhagen and General Jan Smuts.  Two who took to feeding the man, so great was their respect for their former adversary in the earlier war.

August 23, 1942 War of the Rats

A German infantryman wrote to his family, “Animals flee this burning hell of a city. The hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure”.

WWII could have ended differently, had two of the most homicidal dictators in history become allies. It actually started out that way, when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, in August, 1939. That would end two years later with “Operation Barbarossa”, the German surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, beginning on June 22, 1941.

We’re accustomed to thinking of World War II in terms of the European and the Pacific “Theaters”, but the most horrific casualties of the most destructive war in history, took place on the “Ostfront”, (Eastern Front).  95% of all German Army casualties between 1941 and 1944, and 65% of all Allied military casualties from the entire war, took place on the Eastern Front. The bloodiest battle of the Eastern Front, probably the bloodiest battle in all of history, began this day in 1942, in the city of Stalingrad.

stalingrad. Red Army
Photo by Nara Archives / Rex Features (2093505a) October 1942, Stalingrad – Soviet Guardsmen Fighting In The Streets Of The Stalingrad Outskirts

Soviet propagandists called it a “harvest victory”, when most of the cattle, grain and rail cars were shipped out of the city in advance of the German assault.

Most of Stalingrad’s civilian residents remained however, leaving the city short of food, even before the commencement of German attacks. Making things worse, the Luftwaffe bombed Volga River shipping, sinking 32 ships and crippling another 9 in the narrow waterway, cutting off this vital link in the city’s supply chain.

Wilfred von Richtofen, cousin of the famous “Red Baron” of WWI, opened up with his heavy bombers on August 23rd, dropping over 1,000 tons of high explosive on Stalingrad.

The Soviets suffered from extreme manpower shortages in the beginning.  The burden of the early defense of the city fell to the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, a primarily female unit of young volunteers who had no training and the wrong weapons to engage ground targets. These women were all alone at this point with no support from other units, but they traded shot for shot with the German 16th Panzer Division until all 37 AA guns had been wiped out or overrun. When it was over, 16th Panzer soldiers were shocked to learn they’d been fighting women.


Stalingrad was quickly reduced to rubble, with the German 6th Army controlling 90% of the city.  Still, Lt. Gen. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov’s army held on.  With backs to the Volga, they fought for the very sewers of the city, men and women alike reduced to a primitive level of existence. The Germans called it “Rattenkrieg”. “War of the Rats”. A German infantryman wrote to his family, “Animals flee this burning hell of a city. The hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure”.

As many as 80,000 Red Army soldiers lay dead by the middle of October, 1942. Counting German losses and civilian deaths, the battle cost a quarter of a million lives up to this point, and the fighting still had months to go.Stalingrad

Ice floes in the Volga river further cut off the defender’s supplies, reducing them to cannibalism as a massive Soviet counter-attack was building on the German’s exposed left flank.

By November, General Georgy Zhukov had assembled over a million fresh troops, 1,500 tanks, 2,500 heavy guns, and three Air Armies for the assault on Stalingrad. The rumble of artillery, the “Great Soviet God of War” could be heard across the steppe as the Soviet counter-attack commenced in a blinding snowstorm on November 19th, 1942. It was now the Germans who were trapped.

German General Friedrich von Paulus asked Hitler’s permission to withdraw before they became surrounded.  The response was that he should fight “to the last soldier and the last bullet.”stalingrad1

German forward movement on the Eastern Front came to an end in February, 1943, when 91,000 freezing, wounded, sick and starving Germans were surrendered to the Red Army.

Even then, as many as 11,000 Germans refused to lay down their arms and continued to fight from the cellars and the sewers of Stalingrad, holding on until early March.

Disease, death marches, cold, overwork, mistreatment, and malnutrition would all take their toll on the prisoners.  Of the nearly 110,000 who went into captivity after the Battle of Stalingrad, fewer than 6,000 lived to return to Germany, after the war.

July 20, 1914 The Coming Crisis

There would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII. This would be a cataclysm that would change a century.  Few realized it on this date, 103 years ago today. The collision was only days away.

On the eve of 1870, the German nation existed only as an agglomeration of 22 independent German states. On the eve of WWI, Germany was one of the five Great Powers of Europe.

Alarmed by the aggressive growth of its historic adversary, France had by that time increased its period of compulsory military service from two years to three, in an effort to offset the advantage which a population of 70 million conferred on Germany, compared with a French population of 40 million.

Joseph Caillaux was a left-wing politician, once Prime Minister of France and, by 1913, a cabinet minister under the more conservative administration of French President Raymond Poincare.

Never too discreet with his personal conduct, Caillaux paraded through his public life with a succession of mistresses. One of them was Henriette Raynouard.  By 1911, both were divorced and Madame Raynouard had become Henriette Caillaux.

A relative pacifist, many on the French right considered Caillaux to be too “soft” on Germany. One of them was Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading right-wing newspaper Le Figaro, who regularly excoriated the politician.

affairecaillaux_thumbOn March 16, 1914, the now-second Mrs Caillaux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. She waited for a full hour to see the newspaper’s editor, before walking into his office and shooting him at his desk. Four out of six rounds hit their mark. Gaston Calmette would be dead before the night was through.

It was the crime of the century.  The OJ trial version 1.0.  The French public was captivated as the trial began, 102 years ago, today.

The British public was similarly distracted, by the latest in a series of Irish Home Rule crises.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire, a sprawling amalgamation of 17 nations, 20 Parliamentary groups and 27 political parties, desperately needed to bring the Balkan peninsula into line after the June 28 assassination of the heir-apparent to the dual monarchy.

That individual Serbians were complicit in the assassination is beyond doubt, but so many government records of the era have disappeared that it’s impossible to determine official Serbian complicity. Nevertheless, Serbia had to be brought into line.

Having given Austria his assurance of support in the event of war with Serbia, even if Russia entered in support of its Slavic ally, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany left on a summer cruise in the Norwegian fjords. The Kaiser’s being out of touch for those critical days in July, has been called the most expensive maritime disaster, in naval history.


The Austro-Hungarian Empire delivered a deliberately unacceptable ultimatum to Serbia on the 23rd, a bald pretext for the war it declared on the 28th. The same day, Madame Caillaux was acquitted on the grounds that hers was a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion.

In the days that followed, entangling alliances and mutual distrust reigned over the European continent. As expected, Russia mobilized in support of Serbia, as Germany began implementation of its long-standing strategy of a lightning defeat of France, before wheeling to face the much larger “Russian steamroller”.

Pre-planned timetables took over.  France alone would have 3,781,000 military men under orders before the middle of August, arriving at the western front on 7,000 trains, arriving as often as one every eight minutes.

There would be no “Phoney War”, no “Sitzkreig”, as some wags were wont to call the early days of WWII. The coming storm would resemble the near-simultaneous detonation of a continent.  A cataclysm which would destroy everything in its path and irrevocably alter the following century.  Few realized it, as this warm summer day came and went, 103 years ago today.   The four horsemen of the apocalypse, cometh.  The collision was only days away.