November 22, 1942 Malign Governance

Taken individually, either power possessed the potential to destroy the world order.  The mind can only ponder the great good fortune of we who would be free, that these malign governments turned to destroying each other.

In the 18th century, the Founding Fathers gave us a Republic, centered on individual liberty, delegated and diffuse authority and checks & balances. Unique in world history, it was a governing model, based on an idea.

In this election year of peace and prosperity, news media and candidates alike speak of “Socialism”.  A top down ideology where individual liberty is subsumed by the collective, and cosmic chance is all that separates benign governance, from authoritarianism.

Two of the worst such ideologies rose up in the wake of the War to end all Wars.  One a murderous, authoritarian, collectivist ideology with international aspirations and class obsessions. The other a murderous, authoritarian, and collectivist ideology with nationalist aspirations and ethnic obsessions.

symbol-combo-1506965295.jpgTaken individually, either power possessed the potential to destroy the world order.  The mind can only ponder the great good fortune of we who would be free, that these malign governments turned to destroying each other.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began in 1938. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or occupied.  Great Britain alone escaped Nazi invasion, as the shattered defenders of the island nation fled the beaches of Dunkirk.

The National Socialist “Thousand-year Reich” was allied for a time with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact of August, 1939.

We in the west understand World War 2 in terms of European and Pacific “Theaters”.  Yet the most shattering conflict of this most destructive war in history unfolded not in those places, but the Eastern Front, between the two former allies.

Max_Brückner_-_Otto_Henning_-_Richard_Wagner_-_Final_scene_of_Götterdämmerung
“Valhalla in flames, in an 1894 depiction by Max Brückner, one of the original set designers for the opera”. H/T Wikipedia

This was a Race war, Slav against Teuton.  The Ragnarök of Norse mythology.  The all-destroying Götterdämmerung of Wagnerian opera.  Of an estimated 70–85 million deaths attributed to World War II, approximately 30 million occurred on the Eastern Front.  95% of all Wehrmacht casualties between 1941 and 1944, took place on the “Ostfront”.  The former allies fought out the most ferocious battle of that bloodiest theater of the war, in the streets and the sewers of Stalingrad.

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Soviet soldiers on the offensive against German troops during the Battle of Stalingrad, February 1943. Zelma/RIA Novosti archive, image no. 44732 (CC BY-SA3.0)

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

Most of the cattle, grain and rail cars surrounding the city were shipped out, in advance of the German assault.  Government propagandists boasted of the “harvest victory”, and yet most of Stalingrad’s civilian residents remained, leaving the city short of food.  Making matters worse, the Luftwaffe bombed Volga River shipping, sinking 32 vessels and crippling another 9 in the narrow waterway.  The most vital link in the city’s supply chain, was cut off.  

In the beginning, Soviet defense suffered extreme manpower shortages.  One part of the early defense fell to the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, a primarily female unit comprised of young volunteers with little training and the wrong weapons to engage ground targets. These women were all alone at this point with no support from other units, yet they traded shot for shot with the German 16th Panzer Division until all 37 AA guns had been wiped out or overrun. When it was over, 16th Panzer soldiers were amazed to learn, they had been fighting women.

1077th

Stalingrad was quickly reduced to rubble, with the German 6th Army controlling 90% of the city.  Still, the the Soviet defense held on.  General Vasily Chuikov commanding the weak 62nd army well understand the overwhelming power of the Blitzkreig and insisted on “Hugging the Enemy”, to nullify German air power.

With backs to the Volga, they fought for the very sewers of the city, men and women alike reduced to a primitive level of existence. The Germans called it “Rattenkrieg”. “War of the Rats”.  One German infantryman wrote home to his family, “Animals flee this burning hell of a city. The hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure”.

As many as 80,000 Red Army soldiers lay dead by the middle of October, 1942. Counting German losses and civilian deaths, the battle cost a quarter million lives up to this point. And it was barely halfway over.Stalingrad

Ice floes in the Volga further cut off supplies.  Defenders were reduced to cannibalism as a massive Soviet counter-attack assembled on the German’s exposed left flank.

By November, General Georgy Zhukov had assembled over a million fresh troops and three Air Armies, for the assault on Stalingrad.  1,500 tanks and 2,500 heavy guns arrived fresh from the factory, many departing with paint, still wet.

The rumble of artillery, the “Great Soviet God of War” could be heard across the steppe as the Soviet counter-attack commenced in a blinding snowstorm on November 19, 1942.

German General Friedrich von Paulus sent a telegram to Adolf Hitler, requesting permission to withdraw.  The response from the Fuhrer:  the 6th Army should fight “to the last soldier and the last bullet.”  Von Paulus send a second telegram on the 22nd.  The 6th Army was surrounded.  stalingrad1

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

Even then, thousands of troops refused to lay down arms and continued to fight from the cellars and the sewers, holding on until early March.

Disease, death marches, cold, overwork, mistreatment, and malnutrition all took their toll on the prisoners.  Nearly 110,000 went into captivity following the Battle of Stalingrad.  Fewer than 6,000 lived to return to Germany.

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German soldiers, Battle of Stalingrad, January 1943 H/T Britannica.com

Nigh on 80 years later, my fellow Americans face one of history’s “hinge” moments.  Do we choose the self-governance of We the People, with all of its many warts and short-comings.   Or do we abandon self-government to cosmic chance, and the rule of a self-interested, few.

February 28, 1944 Test Pilot

The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops.  It was the last plane to leave Berlin.  Two days later, Hitler was dead.

Hannah Reitsch earned her wings in the 1930s, as a flying missionary.  The Encyclopedia Britannica describes her as the first female test pilot in Germany.  If she wasn’t the first female test pilot in history, I’d be interested to know who that might be.
Reitsch began flying gliders in 1932, as the treaty of Versailles prohibited anyone flying “war planes” in Germany. In 1934, she broke the world’s altitude record for women (9,184 feet).  Hannah Reitsch was a German Nationalist, and her work brought her into contact with the highest levels of Nazi party officialdom.
hannah-reitschAs a test pilot, Reitsch won an Iron Cross, Second Class, for risking her life trying to cut British barrage-balloon cables. On one test flight of the rocket powered Messerschmitt 163 Komet in 1942, she flew the thing at speeds of 500 mph, a speed nearly unheard of at the time. She spun out of control and crash-landed on her 5th flight, leaving her with severe injuries.  Her nose was all but torn off, her skull fractured in four places.  Two facial bones were broken, and her upper and lower jaws out of alignment.  Even then, she managed to write down what had happened before passing out.
Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring awarded her a special diamond-encrusted version of thehitler_goering_und_hanna_reitsch Gold Medal for Military Flying on this day in 1944. Adolf Hitler personally awarded her an Iron Cross, First Class.
It was while receiving this second Iron Cross in Berchtesgaden, that she suggested the creation of a Luftwaffe suicide squad, “Operation Self Sacrifice”.
Hitler was initially put off by the idea, though she finally persuaded him to look into modifying a Messerschmitt Me-328B fighter for the purpose. Reitsch put together a suicide group, becoming the first to take the pledge, though the idea would never take shape. The pledge read, in part: “I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as a pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.”
The plan came to an abrupt halt when an Allied bombing raid wiped out the factory in which the prototype Me-328s were being built.
In the last days of the war, Hitler dismissed his designated successor Hermann Göring, over a telegram in which the Luftwaffe head requested permission to take control of the crumbling third Reich.  Hitler appointed Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim, ordering Hannah to take him out of Berlin and giving each a vial of cyanide, to be used in the event of capture.   The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops.  It was the last plane to leave Berlin.  Two days later, Hitler was dead.berlin-wwii
Taken into American custody on May 9, Reitsch and von Greim repeated the same statement to American interrogators: “It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer’s side.” She spent 15 months in prison, giving detailed testimony as to the “complete disintegration’ of Hitler’s personality, during the last months of his life.  She was found not guilty of war crimes, and released in 1946. Von Greim committed suicide, in prison.
In her 1951 memoir “Fliegen – Mein Leben”, (Flying is my life), Reitsch offers no moral judgement on Hitler or the Third Reich.
She resumed flying competitions in 1954, opening a gliding school in Ghana in 1962.  She later traveled to the United States, where she met Igor Sikorsky and Neil Armstrong, and even John F. Kennedy.Hanna Reitsch, Fliegen Mein Leben
Reitsch remained a controversial figure, due to her ties with the Third Reich.  Shortly before her death in 1979, she responded to a description someone had written of her, as `Hitler’s girlfriend’.  “I had been picked for this mission” she wrote, “because I was a pilot…I can only assume that the inventor of these accounts did not realize what the consequences would be for my life.  Ever since then I have been accused of many things in connection with the Third Reich”.
Toward the end of her life, she was interviewed by the Jewish-American photo-journalist, Ron Laytner. Even then she was defiant:  “And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can’t find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power … Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost”.
Hannah Reitsch died in Frankfurt on August 24, 1979, of an apparent heart attack.  Former British test pilot and Royal Navy officer Eric Brown received a letter from her earlier that month, in which she wrote, “It began in the bunker, there it shall end.”  There was no autopsy, or at least there is no report of one.  Brown, for one, believes that, after all those years, she had finally used that cyanide capsule.