Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Fuhrer in the Making - Book Review

When Nazi Germany took over Austria in March 1938, there was an outburst of not just anti-Semitism but outright sadism against the Jews. They were, among much else, made to scrub the slogans of the previous regime off walls and pavements. Then the expropriations started. An elderly Jewish couple who lost their shop appealed to Hitler in Berlin. Did His Excellency the Chancellor, they wrote, perhaps remember that as a young painter before the war selling his paintings on the corner of the Siebensterngasse, he would when it rained drop in at a certain shop and be given a cup of tea? Could he now see his way to helping the people who had treated him with such kindness? Hitler marked that the letter should be ignored, and the old couple surely went to a death camp.

We owe our knowledge of this fact to a remarkable 1999 book: "Hitler's Vienna" by Brigitte Hamann. Her extensive research revealed that Hitler was not really an anti-Semite until after World War I. What had happened in those crucial wartime years is the question that Thomas Weber now answers in "Hitler's First War." Like Ms. Hamann, he has searched out original documents and found new material. Like her, he fundamentally alters our understanding of one of the most studied figures of the 20th century.

Hitler wrote about his war experiences in "Mein Kampf" (1925), and biographers have generally relied on his account. He put himself across as a soldier-hero: a "runner" carrying messages back and forth through machine-gun fire and artillery, twice decorated with the Iron Cross for bravery, wounded and then, toward the end of the war, blinded by poison gas. He learned of the end of the war at a military hospital in Pasewalk, not far from Berlin, and he wept.

In Hitler's version, the weeping soon turned vindictive against the soft-brained academics, Jews and members of the left who, he alleged, had caused Germany to lose the war. Remaining in the army, he was sent to Bavaria to fight against left-wing revolutionaries. (And yet Mr. Weber has discovered that, briefly at the turn of 1918-19, and unmentioned in "Mein Kampf," Hitler wore a red brassard and supported the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic.) Demobilized, he became an informer for the army's propaganda unit— though whether he volunteered or was coerced because of his short-lived involvement with the Bavarian Soviet Republic, Mr. Weber admits we cannot know—and was sent to monitor a meeting of the obscure German Workers' Party, soon to be re-named National Socialist German Workers' Party. Hitler was deeply impressed by the party's hypernationalism and anti-Semitism and joined within a week of attending his first meeting. He also found that he was a tremendously effective public speaker. The speeches do not translate: What sounds superb in one language can sound plain comic in another. But desperate Germans were soon paying to hear Hitler speak, and, as the party's chief source of revenue, he took over the leadership.

How did the young Hitler—diffident, gauche, without solid political convictions—turn into the fascist demagogue of 1922? There is no simple answer to this question, but "Hitler's First War" debunks some of the standard responses. Biographers have long assumed that the war marked a turning point: the comradeship of the trenches, the common soldier's hatred of the profiteers in the rear and the sense of betrayal with the peace made in 1918. Yet there was the nagging question of why the brave, decorated soldier of "Mein Kampf" was not promoted. Hitler served more or less for the whole of the war and never rose above the rank of corporal, which, given that he undoubtedly had leadership qualities, comes as a considerable surprise.

With some luck and a lot of diligence, Mr. Weber has discovered the missing documents of Hitler's war service, and it is fair to say that very little of Hitler's own account survives the discovery. There were indeed two Iron Crosses, but his regimental runner's job was not necessarily dangerous, and he lived in relative comfort at the regimental headquarters away from the front lines. Ordinary soldiers referred to such men as Etappenschweine ("rear pigs") —all armies have such a word: "cushy number" and "base wallah" are British examples. Officers had to dish out a quota of medals, and if you did not offend them they would just put your name on the list. Hitler was not, it appears, particularly courageous. He was just there. And, as it happens, a Jewish superior officer, Hugo Gutmann, recommended Hitler for his first Iron Cross. He was not thanked for this act in later life—though his fate, emigration to the United States, was greatly preferable to that of the old couple in Vienna.

There also wasn't much comradeship. When Hitler broke surface in politics, he asked his old comrades in the regiment for support and discovered that on the whole they had not liked him one bit. Men who had fought at the front in World War I were, moreover, not at all keen on staging a second war, and extraordinarily few of Hitler's old comrades went along with Nazism. Most supported the Weimar Republic. Mr. Weber's research shows that it's not really possible to connect the brutalization of men in the trenches to the birth of National Socialism.

It is very much to Mr. Weber's credit that he has managed to dig out the details, and we can place his book together with Ms. Hamann's as a triumph of original research in a very stony field. The conclusion that might be drawn is that Hitler was far more of the opportunist than is generally supposed. He made things up as he went along, including his own past. If we still haven't answered the question of what turned Hitler into an anti-Semitic idealogue, at least attention has been shifted to the Bavarian years of 1919-22. Ms. Hamann and Mr. Weber point the way forward for the next scholar's diligent researches.
—Mr. Stone is a professor of modern history at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

Beetle - The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith (D K R Crosswell)


There have been countless biographies of the generals of World War II, and many are excellent. This biography of Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff, is one of the best. Smith has never received the attention and the credit that he deserves. A chief of staff is perhaps bound to be an unsung hero, but "Beetle" Smith was far more than just a tough and able administrator. In the words of a fellow officer, he possessed "all the charm of a rattlesnake." Yet the bad-cop routine—one he used almost entirely with fellow Americans and not with Allies—was forced upon him because Eisenhower, his supreme commander, desperately wanted to be liked by everybody.

Like almost every key U.S. Army officer in World War II, Smith (1895– 1961) was spotted by George C. Marshall. After serving as Marshall's right-hand man in Washington, Smith moved to Europe as Eisenhower's chief of staff in 1942. His first operational task, while based in London, was to coordinate the North African landings codenamed Operation Torch. Although the invasion was a success, problems mounted rapidly. The most serious was the supply chain, which Smith tried to reorganize radically, but Eisenhower was reluctant to take hard decisions.

In addition to all his operational duties, Smith was also left to handle the press, and political and diplomatic relations, acting as Eisenhower's "primary shock-absorber." The politically naïve Eisenhower had suddenly discovered the pitfalls of supreme command, especially when it involved the latent civil war of French politics. His decision to make use of Admiral François Darlan, the head of the Vichy French navy, to defuse opposition to the Allied landings in North Africa produced a storm of condemnation in the U.S. and Britain, especially as Vichy's anti-Jewish laws were left in place. Eisenhower complained to an old friend of his role as supreme commander: "I am a cross between a one-time soldier, a pseudo-statesman, a jack-legged politician and a crooked diplomat." These first trials, and especially the failures in the advance on Tunisia, did not constitute Eisenhower's finest hour. He was close to a breakdown by January 1943, and his weak performance briefing the Com bined Chiefs of Staff at the Casablanca conference—Roosevelt thought him "jittery"—nearly led to his resignation. He confided to Patton that he thought "his thread [was] about to be cut." But the British did not insist on his removal, and with Smith's steady advice Eisenhower weathered the storm.

Eisenhower and Smith were both caught up in the great strategic debate within the Allied camp. Marshall wanted the invasion of France to have every priority and remained deeply suspicious of British attempts to postpone it by diverting efforts to the Mediterranean theater because of their material and manpower shortages. As in the Napoleonic wars, British strategy was to avoid a major continental engagement until, making use of the Royal Navy, the enemy had been worn down at the periphery. American doctrine was the very opposite: using industrial supremacy to fight a battle of equipment (Materialschlacht) and confronting the enemy in a head-on land engagement. Mr. Crosswell quotes the boast of one U.S. general: "The American Army does not solve its problems, it overwhelms them."

But Marshall's plans for an early invasion of Northwest Europe were thwarted by Churchill, who went directly to Roosevelt. As things turned out, Churchill proved to be right to postpone D-Day, albeit for the wrong reasons. He longed to attack the "soft under-belly of Europe" through Italy and into central Europe to forestall a Soviet occupation after the war. (Roo sevelt, Marshall and Eisenhower all failed to foresee the Stalin's ambitions.) Marshall, on the other hand, was wrong because any attempt to mount a cross-Channel invasion in 1942 or even 1943 would have ended in disaster. The U.S. Army was simply not ready, the shipping and landing-craft were not available and the Allies lacked air supremacy.

The stress of Smith's job, especially dealing with the rival egos of Eisenhower's army group and army commanders—to say nothing of the constant political interference from Churchill—contributed to his irascibility and ulcers. His infrequent escapes from his desk revolved around needlepoint, fishing and collecting objets d'art. Smith was, in Mr. Crosswell's words, both "a loner and an inveterate collector all his life."

Eisenhower has always received the credit for the close Allied cooperation, but in "Beetle" we find that Smith achieved much of it working behind the scenes. Eisenhower knew this and wrote to Marshall about the necessity of promoting him. "Smith seems to have a better understanding of the British and is more successful in producing smooth teamwork among the various elements of the staff than any other subordinate I have." Yet Eisenhower's feelings about Beetle seem to have been ambivalent, even though he depended on his abilities to an extraordinary degree. They were never close friends, and Eisenhower failed to give Smith the credit he deserved. Smith's ability to get on well with the British also often led to accusations that he was prejudiced in their favor. Yet he was brilliant in containing inter-Allied explosions, especially those provoked by the prima donna Bernard Montgomery. Major turf wars w ere avoided by Smith's skilled handling of the insufferable British general. When Montgomery came to Eisenhower's headquarters in Algiers in 1943, he said to Smith: "I expect I am a bit unpopular up here." Smith replied: "General, to serve under you would be a great privilege for anyone, to serve long side you wouldn't be too bad. But, say, General, to serve over you is hell."

Montgomery, however, was not the only senior commander to exploit Eisenhower's failure to establish firm control and his attempts to compromise. American generals like Omar Bradley and George Patton also played games and threw tantrums, which Smith had to resolve. "The trouble with Ike," Smith observed, "is that instead of giving direct and clear orders, [he] dresses them up in polite language; and that is why our senior American commanders take advantage." Eisenhower's reliance on charm and manipulation all too often failed to work. Patton likened him to a politician running for office rather than a real commander.

This book, which manages to be both brutally honest and fair, does little to bolster the Ike myth, but clearly shows his moment of glory during the Ardennes offensive in December 1944, when he really did at last take a grip. But Eisenhower quickly lost it again during the rest of that terrible winter. And perhaps predictably, it was Smith who had to fire a semi-deranged Patton in September 1945 after his outrageous remarks attacking denazification.

Smith was disappointed not to get Eisenhower's job after the end of the war. But his talents for tough negotiation were not ignored. He was appointed to Moscow as ambassador, and Eisen hower said that it would "serve those bastards right." Although in bad health, Smith was called upon again, in 1950, to reorganize the fledgling CIA. He was appalled by the gifted amateurs in covert operations, who clearly were out of their league up against the ruthless KGB. On becoming president, Eisenhower again called on Smith—to serve under John Foster Dulles at the State Department—and Smith dutifully obeyed. His main role was dealing with the collapse of French Indochina and the Geneva conference in 1954. Struggling against ill health, partly due to a diet of cigarettes, "bourbon and Dex edrine," Smith died in 1961.

Mr. Crosswell's account both of Smith's life and of supreme command in Europe is expert and written in good clean prose. Almost a third of it is devoted to logistic problems, which have never received the importance they deserve, especially for the war in Northwest Europe. Although strangely structured, with Smith's postwar career at the beginning, the book provides a vital addition to our understanding of the politics and problems of allied warfare.

—Mr. Beevor is the author of "D-Day: The Battle for Normandy" (Penguin).

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Steering mistake sank the Titanic

Titanic sunk by steering mistake, author says
Reuters - Thursday, September 23 2010

LONDON - The Titanic hit an iceberg in 1912 because of a basic steering error, and only sank as fast as it did because an official persuaded the captain to continue sailing, an author said in an interview published on Wednesday.

Louise Patten, a writer and granddaughter of Titanic second officer Charles Lightoller, said the truth about what happened nearly 100 years ago had been hidden for fear of tarnishing the reputation of her grandfather, who later became a war hero.

Lightoller, the most senior officer to have survived the disaster, covered up the error in two inquiries on both sides of the Atlantic because he was worried it would bankrupt the ill-fated liner's owners and put his colleagues out of a job.

"They could easily have avoided the iceberg if it wasn't for the blunder," Patten told the Daily Telegraph.

"Instead of steering Titanic safely round to the left of the iceberg, once it had been spotted dead ahead, the steersman, Robert Hitchins, had panicked and turned it the wrong way."

Patten, who made the revelations to coincide with the publication of her new novel "Good as Gold" into which her account of events are woven, said that the conversion from sail ships to steam meant there were two different steering systems.

Crucially, one system meant turning the wheel one way and the other in completely the opposite direction.

Once the mistake had been made, Patten added, "they only had four minutes to change course and by the time Murdoch spotted Hitchins' mistake and then tried to rectify it, it was too late."

Patten's grandfather was not on watch at the time of the collision, but he was present at a final meeting of the ship's officers before the Titanic went down.

There he heard not only about the fatal mistake but also the fact that J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of Titanic's owner the White Star Line persuaded the captain to continue sailing, sinking the ship hours faster than would otherwise have happened.

"If Titanic had stood still, she would have survived at least until the rescue ship came and no one need have died," Patten said.

The RMS Titanic was the world's biggest passenger liner when it left Southampton, England, for New York on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912. Four days into the trip, the ship hit an iceberg and sank, taking more than 1,500 passengers with it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Profile - Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono

Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono became Indonesia's first directly-elected president in October 2004.

His first year in office was marked by major earthquakes - including the one that caused the Indian Ocean tsunami which killed more than 130,000 people in Aceh - an outbreak of polio, avian flu and more bombs in Bali.

He courted unpopularity by cutting subsidies on fuel - allowing the price to rise - but was then able to raise the subsidies again when global prices fell.

A healthy pay rise for civil servants, a negotiated end to the long-running separatist conflict in Aceh and avoidance of the worst effects of the global financial crisis helped ensure he ended his first term with a large groundswell of support.

Mr Yudhoyono has also overseen cash handouts to millions of Indonesia's poor, and restored the country's rice self-sufficiency for the first time in two decades - ensuring price stability for the staple crop.

He is also credited with spearheading a crackdown by the independent Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, that has seen several high-profile figures prosecuted, including a relative of Mr Yudhoyono.

East Timor questions

The man dubbed "the thinking general" was born in 1949 in East Java.

The son of a retired army lieutenant, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono graduated from Indonesia's military academy in 1973.

Two years later Indonesian security forces invaded East Timor. As he rose through the ranks, Mr Yudhoyono completed several tours of duty in the territory. By the time of East Timor's violent transition to independence in 1999, he had been promoted to Chief of Territorial Affairs.

As such he would have reported directly to Gen Wiranto, the former head of the armed forces who has now been indicted for war crimes by a special tribunal in East Timor.

But there has never been any attempt to bring charges against Mr Yudhoyono.

His supporters say he was not part of the inner circle of military commanders accused of allowing the violence to spread.

Honorary award

In fact, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono never quite achieved the highest levels in the military to which he aspired.

His four-star general status was an honorary award given to him when he left the army to join the government of Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000.

He started as minister for mines but was soon promoted to chief minister for security and political affairs.

A year later he found himself in conflict with his boss. Facing impeachment, President Wahid asked Mr Yudhoyono to declare a state of emergency. Mr Yudhoyono declined, and promptly lost his job.

In March 2004, history repeated itself. Mr Yudhoyono, reappointed as senior political and security minister under President Megawati, stepped down after a very public spat with the president and her husband.

Being forced from office under successive presidents seems to have enhanced Mr Yudhoyono's reputation as a man of principle, willing to sacrifice his own ambitions for the values he believes in.

How did Thailand come to this? - 20 May 2010

How did Thailand come to this?
Page last updated at 13:55 GMT, Thursday, 20 May 2010 14:55 UK
E-mail this to a friend Printable version By Vaudine England
BBC News, Bangkok

Troops used armoured vehicles to smash through the protest barricades Three months ago, Bangkok appeared to be a successful South East Asian capital city - now government troops and anti-government protesters are fighting in the streets. The BBC's Vaudine England considers how it came to this.

Huge and thriving, Bangkok has long been seen - and seen itself - as a great city. But now there is blood on the streets.

How did Thailand descend into violence?

Thaksin Shinawatra won elections in 2001 and 2005. He poured money into rural areas, but was accused of corruption, had a poor human-rights record and was less popular with wealthier people in Bangkok.

He called snap elections in 2006, which were boycotted by the main opposition Democrat Party and ruled invalid by the constitutional court. Fresh elections were planned for October 2006.

Those elections never happened because on 19 September 2006 there was a bloodless coup. Fresh elections at the end of 2007 were won by a party made up of former allies of Thaksin.

Samak Sundaravej became PM, but was forced out by a court decision in September 2008, which came as yellow-shirted opponents of Thaksin occupied government buildings, leading to a state of emergency.

Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin's brother-in-law, took over. The yellow-shirts then occupied Bangkok's two main airports, forcing them to close. Thaksin was found guilty of corruption in his absence.

The occupation of the airport ended after the constitutional court dissolved the three parties that made up the coalition government. The Democrat Pary's Abhisit Vejjajiva led a new coalition government.

Supporters of Thaksin took to the streets in April 2009 wearing red shirts. They condemned Mr Abhisit's government saying it was illegitimate and demanded that there should be fresh elections.

Tensions grew in early 2010 as some of Thaksin's assets were seized. His red-shirted supporters gathered in Bangkok, with demonstrations escalating, leading to the army action against protesters on 19 May.
BACK 1 of 8 NEXT It is hard to imagine how Thailand got to this - and how it will manage to recover.

One explanation is simply that a crazed rabble of poor people came to the city from the under-developed north, flauning their love for a former prime minister - Thaksin Shinawatra - and being paid to do so.

Another vision talks of class war and a peoples' uprising, as the masses rise up on the barricades.

The reality lies somewhere in between and can only be understood by a brisk walk through Thailand's recent political history.

It is easy to speak of the 18 new constitutions in the past half-century, and the many coups. It is hard for people living in more settled countries to imagine that level of uncertainty about the basic rules of the political game.

Absolute monarchy only gave way to constitutional rule in 1932 and the play of power between the old feudal system, the military and various democratic forces has been fought out ever since, often with fatal consequences.

Certain big dates stand out: 1973, 1976, 1992, 2006 and now 2010.

Continue reading the main story Whatever version of the recent past is chosen, neither violence nor a death-defying commitment to democracy is unusual in Thai politics
Thailand's overwhelming image as a Land of Smiles - as a fantasy land of sun, sea, sex and surgery - has been carefully crafted.

It has seduced many, outsiders and Thais, into believing a facade of stability where there was perhaps more a papering over the cracks.

That paper is now badly torn. Deep-seated fissures, long in existence, can no longer be ignored.

If nothing else, commentators agree, the red-shirts have achieved that much.

Bloody history

Thailand lived under variations of military rule most of the time since the 1932 constitution, during World War II, into the 1970s.

On 14 October 1973, more than 70 protesters were killed and 800 were injured when troops opened fire on huge demonstrations held in support of pro-democracy students.

The then military government collapsed; a new constitution and new elections in six months followed.

On 26 September 1976, two students were garrotted and hanged, allegedly by police. Thousands of students gathered in their support and against military rule.

Two weeks later, on 6 October, that tension exploded into the killing by soldiers, police and right-wing mobs of at least 46 people. Students said many more died.

This moment marked the end of a democratic period, and caused parts of a generation to flee to the hills, joining a communist movement which was later decimated.

Street fighting in 1992 left scores of people dead By 1980, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda was appointed prime minister after a fellow general had ruled for three years following an October 1977 coup.

Gen Prem is now chairman of the Privy Council, and a target of red-shirt ire for what they claim was his role in the 2006 coup.

Coups and wobbly coalition governments led by appointed prime ministers carried Thailand into 1992, when Chamlong Srimaung led protests against the choice of Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon as prime minister.

King Bhumiphol Adulyadej famously called the two men into his presence to end fighting on the streets in mid-May that year, which had left scores dead, many injured and more than 2,000 people missing.

Back to future

Elections in September 1992 produced a Democrat-led coalition, with Chuan Leekpai as prime minister.

Thaksin Shinawatra proved very popular but highly divisive Two years later, a telecommunications tycoon called Thaksin Shinawatra made his political debut, under the wing of Mr Chamlong.

In 1995, Mr Chamlong led his Palang Dharma party out of the coalition, causing the Chuan government to fall. Mr Thaksin was deputy prime minister in the next government.

Two coalition governments later, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was prime minister - he is now chairman of Mr Thaksin's Peua Thai Party.

The 1997 economic crisis brought back the Democrats under Mr Chuan. But elections in January 2001 gave Mr Thaksin a resounding win.

Mr Thaksin used this to accrue wealth and power across a range of Thai institutions. He earned a shocking human rights record and quashed the free press, but poured money into rural areas usually starved of attention.

In elections in 2005 he again won by a landslide, with the highest voter turnout in Thai history. He called another, snap, election in 2006, which the Democrat opposition boycotted. His win was ruled invalid by the constitutional court on 8 May 2006.

Plans for elections in October were foiled by the 19 September coup in 2006. Since then, two Thaksin-allied governments have been elected and stymied by court actions, leading to the current Democrat government, elected by another vote in parliament, not a general election.

Determining whether current troubles are sudden and shocking, or in fact an outgrowth of a long history of conflict - discussion of which has been suppressed by censorship and strict lese majeste laws - all depends on where you choose to start.

Whatever version of the recent past is chosen, neither violence nor a death-defying commitment to democracy is unusual in Thai politics.

Friday, February 12, 2010

DNA suggests even ancient man had baldness issues

Scientists have pieced together most of the DNA of a man who lived in Greenland about 4,000 years ago, a pioneering feat that revealed hints about his appearance and even an increased risk of baldness.

It's the first genome from an ancient human, showing the potential for what one expert called a time machine for learning about the biology of ancient people.

Analysis suggests the Greenland man probably had type A-positive blood, brown eyes, darker skin than most Europeans, dry earwax, a boosted chance of going bald and several biological adaptations for weathering a cold climate, researchers report in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

The DNA also indicated the man had dark, thick hair _ a trait the scientists observed directly, since that's where the genetic material came from.

More importantly, comparisons of his DNA with that of present-day Arctic peoples shed light on the mysterious origins of the man's cultural group, the Saqqaq, the earliest known culture to settle in Greenland. Results suggest his ancestors migrated from Siberia some 5,500 years ago.

It's not clear how or why they migrated, said Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, an author of the paper. The analysis shows the now extinct Saqqaq were not direct ancestors of today's Inuits or Native Americans, he said.

The researchers nicknamed the man Inuk, which is Greenlandic for "human" or "man."

The DNA was recovered from a tuft of hair that had been excavated in 1986 from permafrost on Greenland's west coast, north of the Arctic Circle. The thousands of years in a deep freeze was key to preserving the genetic material. But most ancient human remains come from warmer places with less potential for preservation, and scientists said it's not clear how often DNA from such samples would allow for constructing a genome.

Willerslev said he believes many hair samples from around the world, perhaps from South American mummies or in collections, probably would be usable.

"I won't say it will become routine," he told reporters, but "I think it will be something we will see much more in the coming five years."

Over the past few years, scientists have reconstructed at least draft versions of genomes of other species from much older DNA. One used woolly mammoth DNA from about 18,000 years ago and 58,000 years ago, and a draft Neanderthal genome unveiled last year used 40,000-year-old DNA from three individuals.

For the new paper, the researchers identified particular markers in the man's DNA, and then turned to studies of modern-day people that have associated those markers with particular traits like eye color, blood type, and tendency toward baldness.

As scientists link more and more markers to biological traits in modern people, they will be able to apply those findings to learn more about the Greenland man, said Eddy Rubin of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"It's sort of a time machine," said Rubin, who studies Neanderthal DNA but was not connected to the new work. While the DNA-based picture is not definitive, it's a "pretty good guess," he said.

"I think it's a very important study," Rubin said. "We're really beginning to zoom in on physical characteristics of individuals which we'll never see."