December 28, 1914 A Little Kindness

Small acts of kindness abound throughout the long and sordid history of human strife. You need only look for them.

John Rabe was a German businessman working for Siemens China Corporation for thirty years first in Mukden, Peking and Tientsin and later Shanghai and finally, Nanking. Along the way he joined the Nazi party rising to Deputy Group Leader, in local party operations.

Germany had longstanding economic ties with China during this time while WW1 found Germany and Japan, on opposite sides. During the 1930s, aggressively militaristic views brought the former adversaries, into common cause. Meanwhile, the Great Depression brought about a slowdown in Sino-German trade. The second Sino-Japanese war saw Nazi Germany take sides with Japan, a conflict culminating in one of the great atrocities of a century, full of government atrocities. The 1937 rape of Nanking.

Rabe estimated the Nanking massacre resulted in the death of 50,000 to 60,000 Chinese civilians while later estimates put the number, as high as 250,000. Committed Nazi though he was Rabe used his party credentials to appeal to Japanese authorities delaying the inevitable and allowing nearly a quarter million, to escape.

Scene from John Rabe, the movie

Returning to Berlin in 1938 Rabe delivered lectures featuring films and photographs of Japanese atrocities, in Nanking. He wrote Hitler himself asking the Fuhrer to intervene but the letter, was never delivered. He was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo before being released, at Siemans’ behest.

Rabe was arrested and interrogated after the war first by the Soviet NKVD and later, the British Army. A lengthy “de-Nazification” process and subsequent legal appeals left the Rabe family impoverished subsisting on wild seeds, dry bread, and little more. Dire as they were the family’s circumstances could have been worse. On hearing of their plight the citizens of Nanking raised some $2,000 USD, to help. Nanking’s Mayor personally traveled to Berlin in 1948 to deliver a stockpile of food, for the family. From mid-1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking continued to send the Rabe family a “Care package”, every month.

Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, der Löwe von Afrika

Much the same could be said of the “Lion of Africa“, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. Returning home from German East Africa in the wake of WW1 Lettow-Vorbeck was a conquering hero, the only German commander of the Great War, undefeated in the field.

Vorbeck came to detest the upstart Hitler who eagerly attempted to recruit him, to the Nazi party. But for his war hero status Vorbeck’s invitation that Hitler go “f–k himself” may have earned him a firing squad. As it was the man lived out his days financially destitute with his home destroyed by allied bombs and heartbroken, over the loss of two sons. For a time Vorbeck was able to survive mostly by the help of food packages sent by adversaries from the earlier war, British Intelligence Officer Richard Meinertzhagen and South African Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts.

The Hutu are an agricultural people living in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, the largest of three distinct groups with 85% of the population in Rwanda, and Burundi. The Tutsis are a cattle herding people who, despite minority status represent the historic ruling class in a three-tiered patronage/client system not unlike the social system, of ancient Rome. At the bottom are the Twa people, an ancient pygmy hunter/gatherer caste representing less than 1 percent of the population.

In late 20th-century Rwanda, political power lay with the Tutsi minority. Rwanda entered a four-year civil war in 1990 with the aid of neighboring, Uganda.

Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines broadcast between July 8, 1993 and July 31, 1994. Called by many “the soundtrack to genocide” RTLM reached most of the Rwandan population with a program of contemporary music interspersed with a vile stream of racist hate propaganda directed by Hutu hardliners toward the Tutsi minority, Hutu moderates and others.

Kantano Habimana was a regulair on-air personality fond of suggesting that “those who have guns [to] immediately go to these cockroaches [and] encircle them and kill them…” The station’s only female presenter, Valérie Bemeriki would exhort listeners to “not kill those cockroaches with a bullet — cut them to pieces with a machete”. Belgium born Georges Ruggiu, the station’s only white personality reminded listeners that “graves were waiting to be filled“.

Talk about Hate Radio.

A vile youth group came into being during this time, called the Interahamwe. The name translates as “Those who work together” but native speakers understood. “Work” referred to killing. Guns were distributed to older members while the younger militia stockpiled machetes and other farm implements. Teachers instructed children to ask parents about their ethnicity and report their findings, back to school. Lists were compiled.

Rwanda under President Juvénal Habyarimana was a one-party dictatorship rife, with electoral fraud. The spark came on April 6, 1994 when the aircraft carrying the president was shot down, with no survivors.

The call went out within hours, across RTLM radio. It was “time to cut down the tall trees“. The average Tutsi stands nearly five inches taller than the average Hutu with many reaching seven feet and more. No one doubted what that meant.

Husbands turned on wives, neighbor on neighbor in a 100-day orgy of violence shocking, even by 20th century standards. Interahamwe militias and others fanned out across Rwanda with guns, machetes, hammers and clubs, savagely attacking Tutsis, even moderate Hutus and Twa. Every ten to twelve seconds for 100 days someone was murdered. Usually, hacked to pieces.

Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu, managed the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali. Rusesabagina’s wife Tatiana, a Tutsi, fled with the children but never made it to Kigali airport. Targeted by messages broadcast on RTLM radio Tatiana’s truck was singled out from her convoy, and attacked. She was among the lucky ones and managed to flee, to the hotel. Like African Oskar Schindlers the couple took in 1,268 Tutsi and Hutu refugees and hid them, for the duration.

They were the lucky ones. Tatiana herself lost her mother, brother, sister-in-law and four nieces and nephews in the genocide. Her father paid Hutu militia to shoot him outright and not subject him, to a more painful death.

“ With their machetes they would cut your left hand off. Then they would disappear and reappear a few hours later to cut off your right hand. A little later they would return for your left leg etc. They went on till you died. They wanted to make you suffer as long as possible. There was one alternative: you could pay soldiers so they would just shoot you. That’s what her [Tatiana’s] father did”.

Paul Rusesabagina

Rusesabagina himself lost four of eight siblings, a “comparatively lucky outcome” for a Rwandan family.

The Rusesabaginas were not alone in grasping for some shred of decency in the charnel house that was Rwanda during those three months, in 1994. The 22-year-old Hutu Olive Mukankusi found herself walking down a row of torched and burned out homes when she chanced upon two Tutsi girls 15 and 17 dazedly walking among the rubble. Former neighbors, Mukankusi knew what awaited these girls when the militias returned. She hid them in a banana beer pit, behind her two-room dirt floor home.

Olive knew that she herself would be killed if found out and yet she added a third, a 55-year-old woman, to her backyard hiding hole. The best of our kind met the worst when Olive was betrayed to the Interhamwe, by a neighbor. Brought to one of many killing places the four were saved only by the discovery of 20,000 francs sewed into the hem of Olive’s skirt, equivalent to $140 USD. She had just sold the year’s crop. It was all she had.

Olive Mukankusi, now 47

Taking the money the would-be killers wandered off, probably in search of something to drink. Olive’s husband supported her throughout the ordeal and yet was imprisoned for twelve years suspected of being a killer, and not a protector. No good deed goes unpunished.

No fewer than 300 such episodes have been identified during those 90-days in Rwanda when as few as a half-million were hacked to death by their neighbors and perhaps, as many as 1.2 million.

With over 200,000 combatants the Battle of Fredericksburg was one of the largest and bloodiest battles, of the American Civil War.

On the morning of December 14, 1862, Confederate soldier Richard Kirkland gathered up as many canteens as he could carry and stepped into the no man’s land, between the two watching armies.  Sergeant Kirkland stayed out there for an hour and a half while no one fired. None so much as even moved.  There between two hostile armies which had only yesterday torn each other to bits, the “Angel of Marye’s Heights” tended to the wounded and dying adversary here straightening out a shattered leg and there covering a wounded man with a warm overcoat and always, the mercy of a drink of water.

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Under cover as a visiting nurse Irena Sendler removed as many as 2,400 Jewish infants and children and another 100 teenagers from the Warsaw ghetto with the help of a little dog, trained to bark at Nazi soldiers.

Irena Sendler

Sendler would travel daily to the ghetto, and soon started to smuggle Jewish babies out in the bottom of a medical bag.  She’d place soiled bandages around and over sedated babies to keep guards from looking too closely. She carried a burlap sack in the back of her truck. Sometimes she’d use that or even a coffin to smuggle larger children and even teenagers out of the ghetto, other times leading them out through cellars or sewers.

She was caught by the Gestapo in 1943, betrayed by a colleague under torture, and by a nosy landlady.  Nazi interrogators beat her savagely, but she never gave up any of those children.

Irena lasted 100 days in Pawiak prison, a place where the average inmate survived less than a month.  She was at last returned to the Gestapo and stood against a wall for execution, too broken to care. One SS guard said “not you” and roughly shoved her out of the door, and into the street. He’d been bribed by her friends and was himself later discovered, and executed.

The B-17 bomber “Ye Olde Pub” made a successful run against the munitions factory in Bremen, but paid a terrible price. The aircraft was savaged by German fighters, great parts of the air frame torn away, a wing severely damaged and part of the tail torn off. The aircraft’s Plexiglas nose was shattered and the #2 engine seized. Six of the ten-man crew were wounded and the tail gunner dead, his blood frozen in icicles over silent machine guns.

Pilot Charles Brown had been knocked out at one point and came around just in time to avert a fatal dive. Barely able to maintain altitude and well inside of German air space the pilot’s blood ran cold at the sight of that sleek German fighter arriving just off his left wing tip.

The two men were so close they could look into each other’s eyes.

“He’s going to destroy us,” the American said out loud. This was his first mission.  He was sure it was about to be his last.

Franz Stigler needed only one more kill to become an Ace and this one, was going to be easy. Except, peering into the eyes of his adversary Stigler remembered the words of his flight instructor, Hans Roedel. “You follow the rules of war for you – not for your enemy” Roedel had said. “You fight by rules to keep your humanity”.

Stigler knew the Nazis would shoot him if he got this close without making the kill and so he signaled “proceed”, and he peeled away.

Charles Brown and Franz Stigler met many years later and became fast friends, and frequent fishing buddies. The pair died only six months apart when Stigler was 92 and Brown, 87.

In their obituaries, each man was mentioned as the other’s “Special Brother”.

Perhaps the best known of many such acts of human kindness began on Christmas eve 1914 and continued through this day and in some sectors, for another two weeks.

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 singing.  The low sound of a Christmas carol, drifting across no man’s land…Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.

Tommies responded back. Silent Night. They saw lanterns and small fir trees.  Messages were shouted along the trenches.  In some places, British soldiers and even a few French joined in the Germans’ songs. Alles schläft; einsam wacht, Nur das traute hochheilige Paar. Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar

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.”

In the wake of the Doolittle raid of 1942, 250,000 Chinese civilians were destroyed by Japanese soldiers in the hunt for the American flyers. Not one was ever betrayed.

So, as we close this Christmas season 2021 and turn to a new year we might remember, that these stories are but a few. Our kind is capable of great savagery but also, great kindness.

What if it’s as simple as that and it’s always been, nothing more than a choice?

December 6, 1240 Mongol

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests, “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. Likewise could be said of the Mongol Empire. A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute. 

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There is no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

Mongol Golden Horde

Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader. By 1197, the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe.  One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet.

His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

NatGeo Cover, Afghan girl

The Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History fails to record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features.  There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.

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The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words, “Horse Archer”.  Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, every man capable of hitting a bird in flight. Stirrups allowed the rider to fire in any direction, including to the rear. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his mounts, fresh. 

While medieval armies encumbered with long baggage trains sometimes averaged only single digits and rarely exceeded twelve miles at a time, Mongol riders could cover 100 miles and more, in a day.  Vast hordes of these people could appear outside of city gates often, even before news of their presence.

Horse Archer

The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with the stretching of animal sinews, glued to the exterior.  The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of an American football field.  High, arching ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw weight of a first-class English longbow is 70-80 pounds.  The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs, depending upon the physical strength of its user.

Following the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Khan (Chief of State) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 of these circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.

Mongol Invasion of the Rus

13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than a single nation. One by one these city-states fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.  Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake with all its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde.  On this day, December 6, 1240, Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev in modern Ukraine, following several days’ struggle.

By the end of 1241, Mongol armies crushed opposing forces from the Plains of Hungary, to Eastern Persia, to the outskirts of Austria. That December, plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy, when news arrived informing the Mongol host of the death of the Great Khan, Ögödei.  Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required all Princes of the Blood to return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad. Centered in Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, in what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Since 1241, the Abbassids paid tribute to the Khanate in the form of gold, military support, and, according to rumors, Christian captives of the Crusades. That all came to a halt in 1258, when Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to continue the practice. The Abbassid Caliphate ceased to exist on February 10, following a twelve-day siege by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan, brother of the Khagan (great kahn) Möngke.

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The Mongols first looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals.  The “House of Wisdom”, the grand library of Baghdad, compiled over generations and  comparable in size and scope to the modern-day Library of Congress, the British Library in London or the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris, was utterly destroyed.  Survivors said the muddy waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of all those books, and red from the blood of the slain.

Estimates of the number killed in the fall of Baghdad range from 90,000 to an eye-popping one million.  Hulagu needed to move his camp to get upwind, so overwhelming was the stench of the dead.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

In 1281, a massive Mongol fleet of some 4,000 ships and 140,000 men set out under Kublai Khan, to invade Japan. This was the second such attempt, the largest naval invasion in history and not to be eclipsed until the 20th century D-Day invasion, of Normandy. As with the previous attempt, a great typhoon came up and destroyed the Mongol fleet. As many as 70,000 men were captured.  The Mongols never again attempted the invasion of Japan. To this day, we know this “Divine Wind”, as “Kamikaze”.

Tamerlane
Tamerlane

Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan.

Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day.  Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more he destroyed.  Many, have never entirely recovered.  Best known for pyramids of skulls left behind, as many as 19 million fell to the murderous regime, of Tamerlane.

The violence of the age was so vast and horrific it’s hard to get your head around. World War 2, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter.  From the battlefields to the death camps, WWII ended the lives of 40 to 72 million souls, killed in a few short years.  Roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth.  By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one-by-one with edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests, “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. Likewise could be said of the Mongol Empire. A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute. 

Catalan-Atlas-depicting-Marco-Polo-traveling-to-the-East-during-the-Pax-Mongolica
The Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East during the ‘Pax Mongolica’.

This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000-mile “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished under Mongol control throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

In the 14th century, the “Black Death” began to change the balance of power on the Eurasian steppe. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.

Black Death

Mongols ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible), but never regained the high ground of December 1241 as chieftains fell to squabbling, over bloodlines.

And yet, the Mongols never went away. Not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals up to 8 percent of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about one-half of one per cent of the world’s population at this time, to descend directly from that baby with the blood clot, grasped in his tiny little fist.  Genghis Khan.

November 11, 1918 The 11th Hour

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front with riots at home and mutiny, in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars had collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  Nearly every combatant saw the disintegration of its domestic economy, or teetering on the brink.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire may have led to nothing more, than a regional squabble.  Wiser heads could have prevailed, the diplomatic crisis of July resulting in nothing more than a policing action in the Balkans.

As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances combined with slavish obedience to mobilization timetables, to draw the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End All Wars” exploded across the European continent.

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them sang patriotic songs as the young men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria and France stole last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarded their ships and trains.

Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Horatio Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “Pal’s Battalions”, to fight for King and country.

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The signs could have been written in any number of languages, in the early phase of the war

Over the next four years a generation would be chewed up and spit out, in pieces.

Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, civilian and military, combined.

6,503 Americans lost their lives during the savage, month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day’s fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.

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Over 1.5 million shells were fired in the days leading to the battle of the Somme

Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally, torn to pieces. Tens of thousands remain missing, to this day.

Had you found yourself in the mud and the blood, the rats and the lice of the trenches during the New Year of 1917-’18, you could have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”.

We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
we’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.

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Cher Ami

Those who fought the “Great War”, were not always human.  The carrier pigeon Cher Ami escaped a hail of bullets and returned twenty-five miles to her coop despite a sucking chest wound, the loss of an eye and a leg that hung on, by a single tendon.  The message she’d been given to carry, saved the lives of 190 men.

“Warrior” was the thoroughbred mount to General “Galloper” Jack Seely, arriving in August 1914 and serving four years “over there”. “The horse the Germans can’t kill” survived snipers, poison gas and shellfire to be twice buried alive in great explosions, only to return home to the Isle of Wight, and live to the ripe old age of 33.

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First division Rags

First Division Rags” ran through a torrent of shells, gassed and blinded in one eye, a shell fragment damaging his front paw, yet still, he got his message through.

Jackie the baboon lost a leg during heavy bombardment from German guns while frantically building a protective rock wall to shelter himself from what the German soldier Ernst Jünger later called, the “Storm of Steel”.

Tirpitz the German pig jumped clear of the sinking light cruiser SMS Dresden and would serve out the war not in a frying pan but as mascot to the HMS Glasgow.

Sixteen million animals served on all sides and in all theaters of WW1:  from cats to canaries, to pigeons and mules, camels, donkeys and dogs.  As “dumb animals”, none were given the choice to “volunteer”.  And yet serve they did, some nine million animals making the supreme sacrifice.

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British Army mules in the mud of the western front, 1918

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front with riots at home and mutiny, in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars had collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  Nearly every combatant saw the disintegration of its domestic economy, or teetering on the brink.

A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the fog and the darkness, expecting that they were about to be attacked. Instead, they were shocked to see the apparitions of three sedans, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.

Imperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home had sent a peace delegation, headed by the 43-year-old politician Matthias Erzberger.

The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned from a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.

Adolf Hitler would gleefully accept French surrender in the same rail car, some twenty-two years later.

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The German delegation was shocked at the words that came out of Foch’s mouth. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Stunned, Erzberger responded. The Germans believed they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.

Ferdinand Foch had seen his country destroyed by war. He had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”. He had no intention of letting up.

Marshall Foch now produced a list of thirty-four demands, each one a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. She was to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With the German population at home facing starvation, the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 rail cars and 5,000 trucks.

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With 2,250 dying every day on the Western Front, Foch informed Erzberger he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”.  Even so, the plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute, of the last day.

The German King, Kaiser Wilhelm, abdicated on the 10th as riots broke out in the streets of Germany. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11 and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

The order went out to that effect. The war would be over in hours, but there were no other instructions.

Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground they could walk over in just a few hours?

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The last six hours

Many continued the attack, believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw their last chance at glory or promotion. An artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until only minutes before 11:00.

English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…

No fewer than 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, another 3,240 seriously wounded.

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Still smarting from the disastrous defeat at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back, on the final day of the war. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.

The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120.

One-hundred-three years ago today all sides suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded, and missing in those final six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour after the signing of the armistice, than during the D-Day invasion, 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”.   Perhaps this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove.  Anti-German bias had not reached levels of the next war, when President Roosevelt interned Americans of Japanese descent.  Yet, such bias was very real.  Gunther’s fiancé had already broken up with him. He’d recently been busted in rank, after writing home complaining about conditions at the front.

Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the enemy machine gun position, as German soldiers frantically waved and yelled for him, to go back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland was the last man to die in combat, in the Great War.  It was 10:59am.  The war would be over, in sixty seconds.

Sargeant-Henry-Gunther

After eight months on the front lines Corporal Joe Rodier of Worcester Massachusetts, was jubilant.   “Another day of days“.   Rodier wrote in his diary.  “Armistice signed with Germany to take effect at 11 a.m. this date. Great manifestations. Town lighted up at night. Everybody drunk, even to the dog. Moonlight, cool night & not a shot heard“.

Matthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.

AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave error. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant that the war would have to be fought, all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, Foch remarked “This isn’t peace! This is a truce that will last for 20 years”.

The man got it wrong, by 36 days.

On a personal note:
Norman Francis Long

PFC Norman F. Long was wounded during the Great War, a member of the United States Army, 33rd Pennsylvania Infantry.  He left us on December 18, 1963, only hours before his namesake, my brother Norm, was born.

My father’s father went to his final rest on Christmas eve of 1963, in Arlington National Cemetery.  Section 41, grave marker 2161.

At 63 I remember still, the pleasures of a little boy fishing with his grandfather. Just as I myself will one day take my granddaughter fishing and a bridge some sixty years in the building, will have been crossed.

Rest in peace, Grampa.  You left us, too soon.

October 9, 768 The Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

In Medieval Europe, most of the government powers that mattered were exercised by a chief officer to the King, called the “Mayor of the Palace”. This Maior Domus, or “Majordomo” was created during the Merovingian Dynasty to manage the household of the Frankish King. By the 7th century, the position had evolved into the power behind the throne of an all but ceremonial monarch.

In 751, the Mayor of the Palace forced King Childeric III off the throne and into a monastery.  He was the younger son of Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his wife Rotrude, destined to become sire to the founding father of the European Middle Ages.  He was Pepin III, “The Short”.

The Hammer
Charles “The Hammer” Martel who Saved Europe from an Invasion by the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours

Pepin’s first act as King was to intercede with King Aistulf of the Lombards, on behalf of Pope Stephen II. Pepin wrested several cities away from the Lombards, forming a belt of central Italian territory which would later become the basis for the Papal States. In the first crowning of a civil ruler by a Pope, Stephen anointed Pepin “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans) in 754, naming his sons Charlemagne and Carloman as his heirs. It was the first vestige of a multi-ethnic union of European territories which would last until the age of Napoleon – the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin died on campaign at age 54, his sons crowned co-rulers of the Franks on October 9, 768. Three years later, Carloman’s unexpected and unexplained death left Charlemagne undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom.

images (3)

Charlemagne led an incursion into Muslim Spain, continuing his father’s policy toward the Church when he cleared the Lombards out of Northern Italy.  He Christianized the Saxon tribes to his east, sometimes under pain of death.

Pope Leo III was attacked by Italian enemies in the streets of Rome, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue. For the third time in a half-century, a Pope had reached out to the Frankish Kingdom, for assistance.

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor” on Christmas day in the year 800, in the old St. Peter’s Basilica. The honor may have been mostly diplomatic, as the seat of what now remained of the Roman Empire, was in Constantinople. Nevertheless, this alliance between a Pope and the leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, was nothing short of a tectonic shift in western political power.

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne was “Pater Europae”, the Father of Europe. German and French monarchies alike have traced their roots to his empire from that day, to this.

The title fell into disuse with the end of the Carolingian dynasty, until Pope John XII once again came under attack by Italian enemies of the Papacy. The crowning of Otto I began an unbroken line of succession, extending out eight centuries. Charlemagne had been the first to bear the title of Emperor. Otto I is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, the date of his coronation in 962, as the founding.

Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000
Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000

Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.

Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection.  After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.

The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years.  Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities.  Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.

Schism and excommunication followed.  Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088.  The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.

HRE 1500

The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties.  It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family.  Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

The Holy Roman Empire became bogged down in struggles of succession in the 18th century. There was the War of Spanish Succession. The War of Polish Succession. The Wars of Austrian Succession and of German Dualism. The Holy Roman Empire peaked in 1050, becoming increasingly anachronistic by the period of the French Revolution. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Franz II, Emperor of Austria and Germany, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the 3rd Coalition by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz, in 1804.

Napoleon sarcastically commented that the German states were always “becoming, not being”. Ironically, the policies of that “little corporal” directly resulted in the rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870, a polity which would go on humble the French state, in two world wars.

August 27, 479BC Remember the Athenians

We’re two and one-half millennia down the road and we can still see who these people were, in our every-day lives.

Whether we think about it or not, western culture has one foot in religion and the other in the world of secular democratic thought. Athens, and Jerusalem.

Born in 150AD, the lawyer and philosopher Tertullian of Carthage converted to Christianity at age forty and spent the remainder of his life, defending the Christian faith.

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”

Tertullian of Carthage

The answer would shape the next 2,000 years of Judeo-Christian culture.

Six hundred years before his time that secular part, hung in the balance. It is hardly an exaggeration to say. The course of western thought and culture was set on this day, in 479BC.

A century before the age of classical Greece King Darius I, third King of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula.   

Achaemenid_Empire
Achaemenid Empire

Several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled in 499BC, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea. This “Ionian Revolt” lasted six years.  While unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius.  Herodotus records that, every night before dinner, Darius required one of his servants three times, to repeat: “Master, remember the Athenians“.

Darius
Persian King Darius I

The Persian Shahanshah (‘King of Kings’) sent emissaries to the Greek city states, demanding gifts of earth and water signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them.  Sparta didn’t bother.  They threw Darius’ ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they called down. “There is your water”.

Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire. What happened over the next 20 years made us all who we are, today.

Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea.   A massive force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ own brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica.

Nine thousand hoplites marched out of Athens to meet the threat joined by 1,000 heavily armored infantry, out of Plataea. The two sides met on the beach on a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.

On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line.  “At them!”

Battle of Marathon

Easily outnumbering the Greeks two to one the Persian force depended on massive flights of arrows, to decimate the foe. Greek tactics centered around a tight formation some eight men deep called a “phalanx”.

With each man burdened by 70-pounds of bronze and leather armor the hoplites likely marched to within arrow range, about two hundred meters, and then closed the distance at a dead run.

The Persian shafts rained down and yet had little effect, against the heavy armor of the Greeks. The bone crushing collision of bronze against the light quilted jerkins of the Persians, their wicker shields and small swords & axes no match against the wooden hoplon and ash wood shafts of the hoplite spear. The Battle of Marathon was a humiliating defeat for Darius with 6,400 Persians lying dead in the sand.  Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.

Fun fact: We all know the legend of Pheidippides, dropping his shield and running the 25 miles to Athens to announce the victory and dropping dead with the word, “Nenikēkamen!” (We have won!) So, why would a trained Hemerodrome (Day Runner) die from a mere 25 miles? Folks do that all the time, I’ve done it twice, myself. The man had just run 150 miles round-trip to Lacedaemon to request Spartan assistance for the battle, before that last run to Athens. So. You ran a Marathon? Ppppppth. Talk to me after you’ve run a 153-mile Spartathlon.

Undeterred, Datis sailed for Athens now undefended with her entire army away, at Marathon. The exhausted Greeks trudged 25 miles back to face down the Persian fleet now anchored at Phaleron. Humiliated but as yet undefeated the Persian triremes, turned for home.

Back in Asia Minor the King of Kings spent three years preparing another invasion. One he would lead himself, and not Datis. It wasn’t meant to be. Darius had an Egyptian revolt to deal with first and died, in 486BC. Ten years after Marathon it was Darius’ son Xerxes who returned, to finish what his father had started.

In 480BC, news of a massive Persian army on the move reached Lacedaemonia, principal region of the Spartan state.  Several Greek city states were technically at war with one another in 480BC but that was dropped, as preparations were made for a two-pronged defense. An allied Greek navy would meet the Persian triremes at the straits of Artemisium while an army of Hoplites, Greek heavy infantry, would meet the Persian army at the narrow pass known as the “Hot Gates”.  

The story is familiar. The last stand at Thermopylae. The famed 300 led by Leonidas blocking the narrow pass at the head of an allied army of some 7,000 hoplites, It was a puny force compared with the 100,000 strong, commanded by Xerxes.

Thermopylae

The standoff lasted for three days until a traitor arose from among the Greeks, Ephialtes of Trachis, who led the Persians through a narrow path to come around behind the Greek line.

Knowing himself betrayed Leonidas dismissed most of his soldiers, knowing they would be needed, for the battle yet to come.  300 Spartans, 700 Thespian allies and an unreliable contingent of 400 Thebans now faced the Persian hordes, in front and to the rear.  True to form, the Theban band defected to the Persian side, at the earliest opportunity. 

The water has receded now from the ancient pass, at Thermopylae

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill on which the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955 and remains, to this day: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

As the battle unfolded at Thermopylae the vastly superior Persian fleet met that of the Greek allies, at a place called Artemisium.

The Greek triremes here hopelessly outnumbered with 271 ships manned by 4,065 marines rowed by 46,070 oarsman. The Persian fleet numbered 1,207 much larger vessels with 36,210 marines rowed by 205,190 oarsman. Even so, Artemisium was fought to a meaningless stalemate at a cost of 100 Greek ships and four times that, lost to Xerxes. The Greeks could scarcely afford such losses and retreated to a narrow strait between the mainland and the island of Salamis.

The battered Greek navy was as a cat up a tree while Persians on land went on to conquer Phocis, Boeotia, Attica, and Euboea. Using the cramped straits to his best advantage the General/Statesmen Themistocles persuaded the battered Greeks, to give battle. The vast Persian navy was of no advantage in the crowded straits of Salamis. It was a brilliant Greek victory with the loss of forty ships with Persian losses numbering 200 to 300. Xerxes himself retreated to Asia leaving General Mardonius to finish the Greeks, the following year.

The culminating battle happened on or about August 27-28, 479BC. It was a massive battle for antiquity, more like a Waterloo or a Gettysburg fought out on the slopes of Mount Mycale and the plains near the small town of Plataea.

The Battle of Plataea was a massive victory for the Greeks in this, the last land battle of the second Persian invasion of the Peloponnese. Minor skirmishes would continue for another 30 years but now began a flourishing of art, architecture and philosophy known as the Golden Age, of classical Greece. The future of western secular culture, was now assured.

Doubt me? Consider the idea that the common man has a say in important matters affecting his surroundings. Even the word democracy itself, comes from the Greek words demos meaning people, and kratia meaning power or rule. The student of Art and architecture need look no further than the Parthenon’s resemblance to any number of public buildings in cities from North America to western Europe. To look upon the sculpture of the goddess Aphrodite of Knidos is to see the human form itself and not the stiff, stylized artwork of the ancients. Draconian laws? Granted ancient Greek justice was harsh but the very notion that we’re all equal before the law, of written codes not subject to the whim of an aristocracy…thank the Athenian legislator Draco, for that one.

So…yeah. We’re now two and one-half millennia down the road and we still see who these people were, in our every-day lives.

August 7, 1933 Anatomy of Genocide

“Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens. He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.”

Soghomon Tehlirian 1921

Soghomon Tehlirian studied his quarry, for weeks. He even took an apartment near the man’s home at #4 Hardenbergstraße, to shadow the hated Talaat Pasha and learn his daily routine.

Then came the day. March 15, 1921.  Tehlirian waited with his unsuspecting victim at a crosswalk, hurrying across only to turn and cross, once more.   To look into the man’s eyes. Identity thus confirmed, the assassin wheeled on passing his victim, and raised the Luger.  A single bullet in the nape of the neck.

The hated architect of the deportation and murder of so many of his people, of the extermination of 85 members of the assassin‘s own family, was dead before he hit the street.  Tehlirian did not run.  He waited patiently for the Polizei and surrendered, upon their arrival.

12 jurors of a Weimar Court pronounced Tehlirian not guilty of this, his second assassination. The first was that of Harutian Mgrditichian, that Judas to his own people who fed the Ottoman overlord the names and addresses, of its victims.

There was no term in 1921, for the Armenian genocide. International law was ambivalent, as to whether there was even a crime. When the Jewish/Polish law student Rafael Lemkin asked his professor why there was no law under which to prosecute Talaat, the professor replied “Consider the case of a farmer who owns a flock of chickens. He kills them and this is his business. If you interfere, you are trespassing.”

On November 26, 1935, the anti-Semitic and racist Nuremberg Laws added the Romani people as “enemies of the race-based state”, of Nazi Germany. Over the next ten years as many as three-quarters of the itinerant Indo-Aryan Roma and Sinti people, were wiped from the face of the earth. Two-thirds of all the Jews in Europe were systematically murdered by the Nazi regime along with untold numbers of smaller “undesirable” groups such as Jehova’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Germans with mental and physical disabilities and others. Six to ten percent of all the Polish gentiles in Nazi occupied Europe were destroyed along with three million Polish Jews.

“Czeslawa Kwoka. Auschwitz. 1942. Auschwitz photographer Wilhelm Brasse was deeply affected by seeing Czeslawa Kwoka beaten. “I felt as if I was being hit myself,” Brasse later said, “but I couldn’t interfere.”” Wikimedia Commons

Genocide was a crime without a name at this time. Germans called it Völkermord, (‘murder of a people’). Poles called it ludobójstwo, (‘killing of a people or nation’) and Winston Churchill, referring to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, spoke of “a crime without a name”. It was Rafael Lemkin in 1944 who coined the term ‘genocide’, from the Ancient Greek word génos (γένος, meaning “race” or “people”) and the Latin suffix caedere, meaning, “to kill”.

The term came into common usage during the Nuremberg trials but only as a descriptive. It wasn’t until the 1946 Polish Genocide trials of Arthur Greiser and Amon Leopold Goth that the term took on formal, legal meaning.

In 1996, research professor and founding Genocide Watch President Gregory Stanton presented a briefing paper to the United States Department of State, describing the “8 Stages of Genocide”. That was amended in 2012 to add two more, resulting in ten identifiable stages, of genocide:

  • Classification: People are divided into “them and us”. Between 1949 and 1961, Mao’s purges of China and Tibet killed an estimated 49 to 78 million souls
  • Symbolization: “When combined with hatred, symbols may be forced upon unwilling members of pariah groups…” On this day in 1933 the government of Iraq slaughtered over 3,000 Assyrians in the village of Sumail. To this day August 7 is known as, Assyrian Martyrs Day.
  • Discrimination: “Law or cultural power excludes groups from full civil rights: segregation or apartheid laws, denial of voting rights”. Josef Stalin killed 23 million between 1932 and 1939 in various purges and the politically orchestrated ‘famine’ called the Holodomor.
  • Dehumanization: “One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases.” The Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler was responsible for 12 million civilian deaths in the concentration camps and pogroms of 1935 through 1945.
  • Organization: “Genocide is always organized… Special army units or militias are often trained and armed…” Leopold II of Belgium was responsible for the death of 8,000,000 between 1886 and 1908, in the Belgian Congo.
  • Polarization: “Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda…” Hideki Tojo is credited with the death of five million civilians, during World War 2
  • Preparation: “Mass killing is planned. Victims are identified and separated because of their ethnic or religious identity…” The genocide carried out by Ismail Enver of Turkey killed 1,200,000 Armenians, 350,000 Greek Pontians, 480,000 Anatolian Greeks and a half-million Assyrians between 1915 and 1920.
  • Persecution: “Expropriation, forced displacement, ghettos, concentration camps”. Between 1975 and 1979 the agrarian utopia of the Khmer Rouge led by a revolutionary cadre of 9 intellectuals called the Ang-ka murdered between a quarter and a third of their fellow Cambodians.
  • Extermination: “It is ‘extermination’ to the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human”. The worst genocides of the 20th century killed something like 160 million souls. A closer accounting is impossible when even the counters, are killed.
  • Denial: “The perpetrators… deny that they committed any crimes…”
    Pol Pot, a self-described peaceful man who had done no wrong, died peacefully, in his sleep, in 1998.

Stanton’s ten steps may be taken in linear fashion, in any combination or all at once.

Here’s an interesting exercise. Keyword-search the term ‘country of poets and thinkers’ in the search engine, of your choice. They will all yield the same answer. Germany.

So, how does a culture known for all that, produce the Nazi Holocaust? How for that matter does the everyday Rwandan take up a machete and hack his countryman to bloody bits? How does the Cambodian farmer don the red & white scarf of the Khmer Rouge and bash in the skulls, of his neighbors? Off-duty photographs of SS officers depict not slavering monsters but smiling, everyday family members and neighbors, enjoying a pleasant outing with family, pets and friends.

The way it begins is that particular form of idiocy of which we are all guilty, every day. The classification of our fellow man not as individuals but as members, of a group.

July 26, 1887 A Tower of Babel

Today, Google Translate supports 108 languages serving over 200 million users, daily. Esperanto became number 64 on February 22, 2012.

In the first book of the Hebrew Bible known to Christians as the Old Testament, Genesis 11:1-9 explains the origin story, of the world’s many languages. A veritable Tower of Babel.

In the late 19th century Russian town of Białystok, in what is now Poland, a Yiddish speaking majority lived side-by-side with Poles, Belarusians, Russians, Germans, Lipka Tatars and others.  Relations were anything but harmonious between groups. Leyzer Leyvi Zamenhov was part of that Yiddish speaking majority and believed many of the differences, were linguistic.

Primera_edición_de_esperanto

As the son of a German language teacher, Zamenhof was fluent in many languages including Russian, German, French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish and English.  He was reasonably proficient in Italian, Spanish and Lithuanian, as well. Zamenhof came to believe that poor relations between Białystok’s many minorities stemmed from the lack of a common language, so it was he set out to create an “auxiliary language”. An international second language to foster communications, between people of different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

Writing under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto”, Zamenhov published the “Unua Libro” (First Book) on July 26, 1887, setting forth the rules for the new tongue.

The goal was to create an easily learned, politically neutral language transcending nationality, fostering peace and international understanding between people with different regional and/or national languages.

Esperanto alphabet

The Esperanto alphabet includes 28 letters. There are 23 consonants, 5 cardinal vowels, and 2 semivowels which combine with vowels to form 6 diphthongs. Esperanto words are derived by stringing together prefixes, roots, and suffixes. The process is regular, so that people may create new words as they speak and still be understood.

The original core vocabulary included 900 such roots, which are combined in a regular manner so that they might be better used by international speakers.

For example, the adjective “BONA” means “GOOD”. The suffix “UL” indicates a person having a given trait, and “O” designates the ending of a noun. Therefore, the Esperanto word “BONULO” translates as “A good person”.  The title of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 movie “The Godfather”, translates as “La Baptopatro”.  “Esperanto” itself translates as “one who hopes”.

Some useful English words and phrases include the following, along with Esperanto translation and International Phonetic Alphabet transcriptions:

 ○ Do you speak Esperanto? Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? [ˈtʃu vi pa.ˈro.las ˌes.pe.ˈran.ton]
 ○ Thank you. Dankon [ˈdan.kon]
 ○ You’re welcome. Ne dankinde [ˌne.dan.ˈkin.de]
 ○ One beer, please. Unu bieron, mi petas [ˈu.nu bi.ˈe.ron, mi ˈpe.tas]
 ○ Where is the toilet? Kie estas la necesejo? [ˈki.e ˈes.tas ˈla ˌne.tse.ˈse.jo]

Today, Google Translate supports 108 languages serving over 200 million users, daily.    Esperanto became number 64 on February 22, 2012.

May 10, 1940 And What of the Mouse?

Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.

Throughout history and across cultures, having a child with a member of a hostile force is looked upon as a grave betrayal of social values.  Often such parents, usually women, are shunned by neighbors and even family.  “War children” may experience even worse subjected to ostracism, bullying, and more.

Much is written of what takes place, when politicians send nations to war. Few take note of the innocents. The proverbial mice wishing only to go about their business while all about them, is chaos.

“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers”.

African Proverb

On the Eastern Front of World War 2, combat between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union rose to proportions of apocalyptic race war, Slav against Teuton, in a paroxysm of mutual extermination that is horrifying, even by the hellish standards of that war.  Four out of every five German soldiers who died in all World War 2, died on the ‘Ostfront’.

While precise numbers are impossible to ascertain, an estimated several hundred thousand to as many as 2 million German females from 8 to 80 were raped by Red Army soldiers. Some, as many as 60 or 70 times according to historian, William Hitchcock.. Austrian women were no different nor even Soviet women, released from work camps. 

“The front-line Russian troops who did the fighting – as a woman, you didn’t have to be afraid of them. They shot every man they saw, even old men and young boys, but they left the women alone. It was the ones who came afterwards, the second echelon, who were the worst. They did all the raping and plundering. They stripped homes of every single possession, right down to the toilets”.

Anonymous German woman, living in Berlin

British military historian Antony Beevor concludes that 1.4 million women were raped in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, alone. Female deaths in connection with such rapes in Germany and the butchered abortion attempts which followed, are estimated at 240,000. 4,148 Red Army soldiers were punished for such atrocities.

The only survivors of 150 Polish people who walked from Lodz, Poland to Berlin Huddle in blankets, on December 14, 1945. They are waiting by a railway track hoping to be picked up by a British army train and given help. (Fred Ramage—Keystone/Getty Images / Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME)

When Yugoslav politician Milovan Djilas complained about rapes in Yugoslavia, Stalin replied that he should “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.”

Small surprise when Stalin’s own Chief of the Secret Police Lavrentiy Beria, was a serial rapist.

Displaced persons cross a bridge on the River Elbe at Tangermunde, which was blown up by the Germans, to escape the chaos behind German lines caused by the approach of the advancing Russians on May 1, 1945. (Fred Ramage—Keystone/Getty Images / Photo colorization by Sanna Dullaway for TIME)

In his 2007 book Taken by Force: Rape and American GIs in Europe in World War II, Northern Kentucky University sociology and criminology professor J. Robert Lilly reports that 11,040 rapes were carried out by US servicemen.

In 1959, journalist Marta Hillers wrote what was then an anonymous memoir of the weeks between April 22 and June, 1945. In it, Hillers describes being gang raped by Red Army soldiers before forming a relationship with a Soviet officer, for her own protection. Marta Hillers died in 2001. Seven years later, her account was retold in the German feature film, Eine Frau in Berlin. (A Woman in Berlin).

German woman walks by Soviet troops in a scene from the 2008 film, A Woman in Berlin

Propaganda banners and posters appeared all over the Soviet-occupation zone and later East Germany, proclaiming the heroism of those who had smashed the Nazi war machine and paved the way to Soviet-German friendship. The plight of tens of thousands of “Russian children”, mostly fatherless, was taboo.

All these decades later, former East German Jan Gregor can still remember the day his mother told him that she was “made pregnant by force”.

An estimated 100,000 “Amerasian” children were born to Asian mothers and U.S. servicemen during WWII, the Korean War, and war in Vietnam. 

Some 37,000 children were fathered by American soldiers with German and Austrian women in the 10 years following the German surrender. Locals disapproved of such relations, not only because these Americans had recently been their enemies, but also because such children often became “wards of the state” in local economies already impoverished, by war.  The “brown children” of black GIs and German mothers were particularly difficult to adopt out in what was heretofore a racially homogeneous culture.  Many were adopted by American couples and families of African ancestry, back in the States.

Military forces of Nazi Germany invaded the neutral Scandinavian Kingdoms of Denmark and Norway on April 9, 1940.  Denmark fell in a day. Norwegian armed resistance ceased within two months, when civil rule passed to the Reichskommissariat Norwegen (Reich Commissariat of Norway).  The neutral Scandinavian countries remained under Wehrmacht occupation, for the next five years.

Sometimes, relationships formed between German occupying troops and native women.  The racially obsessed Nazi regime was happy to encourage such relations, particularly in Norway, where local women were considered to be of pure, “Aryan” ancestry.  Some such relationships were consensual.  Many were anything but.  Some 10,000 to 12,000 children were born to Norwegian women and German fathers, the most famous being Anni-Frid Synni Lyngstad of the Swedish pop group ABBA, who fled Norway after the war for fear of reprisals.

For nearly a thousand years, the administration of Iceland was all but indistinguishable from that of Denmark and Norway.  The Act of Union established Iceland as a fully sovereign state in 1918, an independent country in a personal union through a common monarch, with the Kingdom of Denmark. 

Following the allied withdrawal from Dunkirk, every nation on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. Alarmed at the possibility of German military presence to their north, British authorities invited the neutral nation Iceland to join the war as “as a belligerent and an ally,” following the collapse of Denmark. That invitation, was rejected.

On this day in 1940, the United Kingdom invaded Iceland, an initial force of 746 British Royal Marines disembarking at the Icelandic capital of Reykjavík. 

The British invasion of Iceland never resembled the “shooting war” in Europe.  The government complained that its neutrality had been “flagrantly violated” and demanded compensation, but principle opposition took the form of hordes of civilians, who crowded in to see what was happening.  Icelandic public opinion was sharply divided at the invasion and subsequent occupation.  Many described it all as the “blessað stríðið“, the “Lovely War”, the building of a roads, hospitals, harbors, airfields and bridges across the nation a boon to the Icelandic economy.  Others resented the occupation, which rose to half the native male population.

Sexual relationships between foreign troops and local women were severely frowned upon. Such women often accused of being traitors, even prostitutes. 

In 1941, the Icelandic Minister of the Judiciary investigated “The Situation”.  Upset that foreign troops were “taking away” women from friends and family, police investigated over 500 women for sexual with soldiers and determined, most had been consensual.  Two facilities opened to house such women in 1942 but both closed, within a year. Two-hundred fifty-five ástandsbörn (‘children of the situation’) were born of such relationships.  332 Icelandic women married foreign soldiers.

It has been said that, when governments make war, it’s the everyday Joe and the Nigel, the Fritz, Pierre and the Ivan down the street, who must do the fighting, the bleeding, and the dying.  It may well be added. It’s usually left to the mice, to pick up the pieces.

March 12, 1790 A Momentary Lapse of Reason

In recent months we have learned from our “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.

The news this morning spoke of an “elite” private school in New York, and the 12-page memorandum sent home to Moms and Dads. Turns out the Grace Church School doesn’t like the terms, “Mom” and “Dad”. Kids aren’t allowed to use them anymore. Even at home.

Leaving a reasonable person to wonder, what exactly renders these people, “elite”? And why would such a thing warrant any response at all, save for a one-finger salute?

In recent months we have learned from such “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.

Scores of millions of women and men of all persuasions and all political stripes quietly shake their heads in hopes that this too, shall pass. And not for the first time. In 1688, no fewer than 19 counties in England and Wales mobilized to defend against armed and rampaging bands of non-existent Irishmen. In 1954, widespread observation of previously unnoticed pits and dings in windshields caused residents of Washington state to believe there was an epidemic of windshield pitting, attributed to everything from sand flea eggs, to nuclear testing.

History abounds with episodes of mass hysteria. The Dancing plague of 1518. The Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and the granddaddy of them all la Grande Peur, the Great Fear sweeping across 1789 France culminating in the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and an estimated 3.1 million dead Frenchmen.

All that to return back to the status quo, in 1815.

Imagine you were there, from the beginning. August 1789. Your personal politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left but in all respects, “Moderate”. Now imagine your nation’s politics have shifted so radically in the space of two short years, you find yourself on the “reactionary right”. You are hounded, subject to persecution, even execution, at the hands of your own government. And your personal convictions haven’t changed.

In early modern France, society broke into “three estates”: the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men. The estates-general was a legislative body comprising three assemblies representing each of the three estates.

French society found itself at a crossroads in the late 18th century. Politically, the “commons” had become a caste of its own with a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates. Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition and with it, a diminution of the Monarchy and the Church.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution a decade earlier. (Did we really just blow another two Trillion on a “Covid relief” package, with 7% actually going to Covid relief?)

The straw to break the camel’s back came in the form of successive crop failures. Across Europe, peasants tilled the lands of the manor houses of minor Lords who themselves owed fealty, to the higher nobility. The system had been around since Roman times. In 1789 France, successive crop failures spawned rumors of an aristocratic plot to wipe out the working classes. Peasants rose up to take action, against the seigneurs.

The fiscal and agricultural crises of 1789 pushed the nation over the edge. The “tennis court oath” that May asserted the autonomy of the third estate, a direct affront to the hereditary rights of Kings. The beast was unleashed. The mob stormed the Bastille that July leading to bread riots in the streets and a march on the King’s residence, at Versailles.

In three short months, King Louis XVI was stripped of executive authority.

On this day in 1790, the national Assembly decreed the sale of church-owned lands by municipalities, an affront to church authority unimaginable, in earlier ages.

King Louis XVI of France

King Louis XVI fled with his family in June 1791 only to be captured, returned to Paris and placed under guard. Even then the first French constitution approved that September, reflected the voices of moderation. While sharply limiting monarchical power the King still kept his head, still GOT to be King while enjoying veto power and the authority to appoint ministers.

Radical elements were inflamed, led by the likes of Maximilien de Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton. The King must be put on trial. Louis XVI was deposed in August 1792 and thrown in prison, followed by an orgy of violence against suspected “counter-revolutionaries”.

Once absolute monarch of France, “Citizen Louis Capet” was executed by guillotine in January 1793 in front of a crowd of 100,000. Bloodthirsty sans culottes rejoiced, wrote The London Times, while “honest citizens… could not suppress their heartfelt grief and mourned in private”. Queen Marie-Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine, nine months later. The son of the royal couple, Louis-Charles, was thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8. The boy was dead at ten. The physician who performed his autopsy expressed shock and dismay at the scars, covering his little body.

The Jacobins, the most radically leftist in a kaleidoscopic mélange of competing factions, were now in power. These people went so far as to abolish history itself, creating a new calendar with themselves at the beginning. Year one. Just like that proclaimed by Pol Pot in April, 1975.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.

Historical caricature of the reign of terror

The revolution turned on itself and ate its own young in 1793-’94, a period described as the “reign of terror”. Victims by the tens of thousands walked their final steps to the guillotine, while equal numbers stood to face firing squads.

Robespierre, once the thought leader behind this whole mess, came to be seen as an enemy of the Revolution. Knowing all too well what would happen next Robespierre shot himself in the face, to prevent his own arrest. The suicide attempt succeeded only in destroying the man’s lower jaw, and several teeth. That visage, once the face of Revolution itself and now wrapped in blood soaked bandages, was separated from the rest of him the following day.

Fun fact: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin had nothing to do with the contraption, that bears his name. He didn’t even approve of capital punishment. As a physician, the torture inflicted by breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, death by boiling and dismemberment was repugnant. To be hacked at by axe or sword was hardly any better. If capital punishment was to be carried out at all he believed, the quick, impersonal and painless death afforded by a decapitation machine might just be the first step toward abolishing the death penalty, altogether.

It was Tobias Schmidt who actually invented the thing. The association with the guillotine so embarrassed the doctor’s family they changed their name. One J.M.V. Guillotin, an unrelated physician practicing in Lyons, met his end on the guillotine, giving rise to the myth that the inventor was killed by his own machine. Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin died at home of natural causes, in 1814.

Robespierre was barely in the ground when a certain Corsican corporal was thrown in prison, a suspected supporter of Robespierre. Napoleon Buonaparte would earn a place with the regime in October 1796, 13 Vendémiaire according to the new calendar, by putting down a royalist revolt in the streets.

The Napoleonic era had begun, fifteen years of violence pitting no fewer than 7 international coalitions, against the French war machine. French historian Hippolyte Taine has claimed the Revolution and Napoleonic wars took the lives of 3.1 million Frenchmen, alone. Precise numbers are impossible to determine.

Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Following a year-long government lockdown and four years of the most divisive politics in American history – even Civil War soldiers from the north and south agreed about 80% of the time – we find ourselves in a period of national hysteria. The capital is surrounded by armed troops, and razor wire. Social media billionaires with funny haircuts and weird beards arrogate to themselves who gets to say what, and when. 1st Amendment be damned.

The wealthiest man on the planet shuts down whole social media channels while #2 rains down cash on racists, claiming to root the racists out of math.

Or maybe men really can give birth and math really is, racist. Who knows, maybe everything will turn out right, after all. Now that we’ve unsexed Mr. Potato Head.

February 20, 1280 Divine Wind

For Japan the Kamikaze of the 13th century became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.

Sometime around the year 84AD, Calgacus of the Caledonian Confederacy in Northern Scotland, described the nature of peace, Roman style. The Pax Romana. “They make a desert and call it peace“.

So it was with the Pax Mongolica, a time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.” A time of peace for those who would submit, and pay tribute.

Mongolian horsemen ride in formation during the opening ceremony of the annual Naadam festival in the town of Arvaikheer, some 400 km (250 miles) west of Ulan Bator, July 9, 2006. This year’s festival is bigger than ever, as Mongolia celebrates 800 years since Genghis Khan united the nation. Celebrations around the country will culminate in a national festival in the capital on July 11. REUTERS/Nir Elias (MONGOLIA)

Never mind the pyramid of skulls over there. The Mongol conquests lasted 199 years and killed an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population, of the entire planet.

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, capable of hitting a bird in flight.

The Mongol bow was a laminate of horn and tendon around a bamboo core, the “push/pull” of the two materials producing draw weights of 80 to 160 pounds depending on the physical strength of its user. Deadly accurate aimed shots were possible at 200 meters, over twice the length of an NFL football field. Ballistic fire rained down at 500 meters, equivalent to the height of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, plus another football field. Stirrups allowed riders to fire in any direction including to the rear. The feigned retreat was a favored tactic. God help anyone rash enough, to pursue.

The warrior Esungge was the Jim Thorpe or the Michael Jordan of his day, this nephew of Genghis Khan possessed of legendary strength and skill, as an archer. In a 1225 gathering of Mongol dignitaries, Esungge struck a target at 400 meters.

Riders had a minimum of 3-4 small, fast horses, able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep them fresh. 

In a day and age when the movement of armies was limited to +/- 30 miles per day, Mongol warriors could cover 100 miles and more.  Even as the first rumors arrived concerning the approach of this horde, there in the distance appeared the guidons of the lead riders. The apocalypse was right outside your door.

First came Börte, the first and favorite wife of Temüjin, kidnapped when her husband was only 19. By raising a force sufficient to enforce his will and accomplishing her rescue, Temüjin proved his military mettle. Next came the civil war which he won, based on two innovations. First, Temüjin promoted people based on merit, rather than family connections. The great Mongol general Jebe steps onto the pages of history not as a favorite, but as the enemy who put an arrow in Temüjin’s neck, at the Battle of the 13 Sides.

The Mongolian actress Khulan Chuluun first came to international notice as Börte in the 2007 Oscar nominated Russian film, Mongol.

Next, the leader of the Mongols welcomed the lower classes among conquered peoples while the wealthy and powerful among them ended up destitute, or dead.

After founding an empire, Temüjin was proclaimed Genghis Khan, an honorary title possible ascending from the Turkic “tengiz” or sea, and Khan, meaning “Supreme Leader”. Genghis Khan, his sons and grandsons went to war on a scale never before seen in human history.

Genghis, went after the dynasty of the western Xia first and then the Jin dynasty, in the north of China. Once considered little more than a nuisance on the outskirts of civilization, the Mongol horde had now subjugated a nation of 25 million.

H/T ancient.eu, original image by bkkbrad

In 25 years the Mongols conquered more territory than Rome had managed to conquer, in 400 years. By the time of Genghis’ death in 1227, the Mongol empire stretched from the Pacific ocean to the Caspian sea. Ten million square miles, equal to the entire African continent. More than all of North America, Central America and all the islands of the Caribbean, combined.

Before he died, Genghis instructed his empire be divided into four Khanates, each to be ruled by one of his four sons: Jochi, Chagatai, Ögedei and Tolui. Genghis was buried in a secret location near the sacred mountain at Burkan Kuldun. Ögedei sacrificed 40 slave girls and 40 horses to lead his father into the next world. In 1228 the kurultai, the political and military council governing ancient Mongol and Turkic politics, elected Ögedei Supreme Leader.

Fun fact: Ögedei was the third son of Genghis, hand selected by the Great Khan to be his successor and Supreme Leader of the Mongol empire. He was also, a drunk. Chastised for his drinking by his brother Chagatai, Ögedei offered to have a supervisor keep an eye on how much he drank, and agreed to keep his consumption to a specified number of cups per day. After that the Great Khan would always drink his favorite sauce, from a very large cup.

Ögedei is credited with creating a system of taxation of the peoples conquered by his father, and establishing the first capital of the Mongol empire, at Karakorum. Later capital cities would include Daidu (Beijing) and Xanadu, whose name would live on in a mediocre 1980 film by the same name, starring Olivia Newton-John.

Somehow I wonder if Kublai Khan would have recognized his summer capital in that film, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

In 1231, Ögedei launched the first of what would be seven invasions of Goryeo, the ancient proto-state we now know as Korea.

Mongol armies under the Great Khan Ögedei raided west from Afghanistan to Iran, sacking the great cities of the Bulgars and the Rus and reaching as far as Hungary and Poland. Kiev, Krakow, Buda and Pest were all sacked, and looted. The first scouts reached as far as Bohemia and Vienna. The horde was poised to sweep through all Europe when the Great Khan died in 1241, most likely during one of the drinking binges for which the Great Khan was famous.

According to the Law of Yassa, they all turned back for Karakorum and the selection, of a new Khan.

Fun fact: Georgia is one of the oldest Christian nations in the world converting to Christianity in the 4th century following the death of Christ. At the time of the apocalyptic 12th century invasion by Mongols, Georgia was preparing to join the 5th Crusade to retake Jerusalem. Census numbers taken by the Mongols themselves indicated Georgia’s ability to raise 4½ tumens, or 45,000 troops. Today we can only guess at how 45,000 troops may have affected the outcome.

There followed a period of short-lived Khans followed by regents, usually the wives or mothers of past or future khans. The tale of female domination in this world run by men is a story in itself, but now I’m getting ahead of the story. Again.

The 4th Khagan (Supreme ruler) of the Mongol Empire Möngke conquered Iraq and Syria, putting an end to the “Golden Age” of Islam. The death of Möngke Khan in 1259 set off a civil war between two brothers, grandsons of Genghis Khan. Kublai emerged victorious in 1264 over his younger brother Ariq Böke. He went on to subjugate the Song of the south of China, unifying that nation under one rule for the first time since the 9th century.

Kublai Khan, Khagan of the Mongol Empire and self styled emperor of the Yuan dynasty sits atop a throne carried by four elephants in this 18th century engraving. H/T Wikipedia

Korea, ravaged by 39 years of the Mongolian menace with barely a wooden structure left standing, capitulated and became a tributary state. It was the apex of the Mongol empire, a landmass now extending from the Sea of Japan to the shores of Turkmenistan.

In three generations the Mongols now ran the second largest empire in history, second only to that of Great Britain. Nearly 18% of dry land on the entire planet was under Mongol rule when Kublai, the self-styled Yuan emperor, set his sights on Japan.

In 1266 Kublai demanded that Japan too, become a vassal state. He sent emissaries with a letter. It is hard to find more entitlement, more arrogance and more menace, in so few words.

Cherished by the Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol Emperor sends this letter to the King of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly… Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne. Our relation is feudatory like a father and son. We think you already know this…Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”

The overture was ignored by Shogun Shikken (regent) Hōjō Tokimune and by Emperor Kameyama as was a second, two years later. Subsequent Korean emissaries and Mongol ambassadors weren’t even allowed to land.

The first invasion fleet arrived on Tsushima Island on November 4, 1274. Both sides wildly overestimated the strength of the other. Modern estimates put Japanese defenders at 4,000 to 6,000 over the next few days, the Yuan invading force at roughly 22,000 Mongol, Han, Jurchen and Korean soldiers and another 8,000 Korean sailors.

80 mounted samurai and their retinues stood in the way of that initial landing. The outcome was never in doubt but the small garrison sold their lives dearly. one samurai called Sukesada is said to have cut down 25 invaders in single combat. Results were much the same at Iki Island and Hakata Bay. Gunpowder bombs were hurled at defenders confusing samurai and terrifying horses. Such weapons had never before been seen outside of China but modern shipwreck excavations, have confirmed their existence. Stoneware bombs stuffed with gunpowder and scrap iron.

Defenders retreated to Mizuki, the ancient earthwork moat fort where all expected a final stand, but it never happened.

Back on the ships, three Yuan generals discussed what to do next. Liu Fuxiang, shot in the face by the samurai Shōni Kagesuke, believed the troops were exhausted, and needed to rest. Holdon wanted to press the attack but Hong Dagu agreed with Liu. Most of the invaders left that night, and then it happened. The Divine Wind of Retribution. The Kamikaze.

Portion of the “Mongol Scroll”, Illustrated Account of the Mongol Invasion of Japan.’ Commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga, 1293

The typhoon rising out of the east drove the Yuan fleet, dashing some onto the rocks and sinking others to the bottom. Anyone caught on the beach was executed on the spot save for Song Chinese who were believed to be there, against their will. The Mongol vessels, river craft without keel, struggled to make way. In the end some 200 ships were lost. 14,000 men departing with the invading force, never came home.

The power of the Khan depended on legends of invincibility. Such a defeat could be easily afforded, but not tolerated. There followed a period of intense diplomacy as the Khagan dealt with the troublesome Song. On September 1275, Kublai Khan sent five more emissaries to Kyūshū. These weren’t about to be sent home without an answer and so they received their response. Tokimune had them all beheaded, by sword. Five more came in 1279, with the same result.

Then came the ultimatum from the Great Khan himself. A letter. On February 20, 1281, the Japanese Imperial Court ordered all temples and shrines to pray for victory, in the second Mongol invasion.

It was the largest amphibious invasion in history until the 20th century assault on Normandy. Miles of defensive wall had been built in places, over 9-feet tall. Spikes (left) prevented Mongol vessels from approaching the shore.

A northern fleet departed Korea with 900 ships and 40,000 soldiers. The southern fleet sailed from China with an overwhelming force of 3,500 ships and 100,000 soldiers. The onslaught from Korea arrived in June, once again overwhelming the mid-channel islands at Tsushima and Iki.

This time, the formidable defenses along the shore at Hakata Bay held the invader. Invader and defender fought along the waterline, sometimes In the surf but defenses, held. Fleets of small vessels with a dozen warriors apiece swarmed among the Mongol fleet, setting fires and bringing the fight, to the enemy. These small boats accomplished little militarily but Mongol captains responded, chaining their ships together to better defend themselves.

The southern fleet arrived in August, the combined forces moving east to attack Takashima. For weeks, defenders kept the invader from getting a foothold, but no one can resist such overwhelming numbers. Not for long.

Then as before, came the Divine Wind. The Kamikaze. Unexpected in this early season and shocking in its intensity, the typhoon lashed the western shores of the home islands on August 15. Small Japanese vessels were able to seek shelter. Sturdier Korean ships were able to shelter in open water but, the makeshift Chinese fleet, never had a chance. A third of the northern fleet and over half of the southern, was destroyed. Those lucky enough to make it to land were executed, on the beach. A carpet of bodies and wreckage floated so densely on the surf, it seemed one could walk on water.

Kublai Khan never recovered. Nor did the Mongol empire. With all that manpower, all that wealth at the bottom of the ocean, the Great Khan turned first to corrupt financial advisors and later to gluttony, and alcohol. Military orders became increasingly irrational. Orders for a third invasion of Japan, that never materialized. Invasions of Vietnam and Java turned to debacle. With the deaths of his favorite wife and heir apparent, Kublai withdrew from affairs of government and died in 1294, fat, alcoholic and afflicted by gout.

For Japan the Kamikaze became a foundational myth. The Divine Wind, a literal act of Divine Providence sweeping the enemy from the seas. It was the stuff of nationhood. Not until the 20th century would Japan be called upon, to again defend her natural borders. The myth of the Divine Wind would prove to be just the thing.

USS BUNKER HILL hit by two Kamikazes in 30 seconds on 11 May 1945 off Kyushu. Dead – 372. Wounded – 264. (Navy) NARA FILE #: 080-G-323712 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 980
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