January 28, 2023

Sleepwalking through history

WWI poster

Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands¬†is a brutal book about what Hitler and Stalin did to Eastern Europe. One statistic explains the murderous machine of Hitler and Stalin- children born in Soviet Ukraine in 1933 had a life expectancy of merely seven years. Hitler couldn’t match the early brutality of Stalin. The constraints of World War One forced Hitler to catch up with Stalin which he did with the words of an SS officer: “The more of these bastards go down, the fewer of them we’ll have to feed.” A child in Ukraine, after losing his entire family to Stalin’s genocide, said weakly before succumbing, “Everything dies.” Everyone lied as millions perished. An honest person suffered the most and died first. Walter Duranty of the New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for writing lies to cover for Stalin’s genocide. Malcolm Muggeridge was one of the courageous few, writing Stalin’s genocide was “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it happened.” George Orwell witnessed the monstrous lies in the Bloodlands where twenty million perished through the actions of Hitler and Stalin to eradicate the right to be human.

No book about World War One can match Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and¬†combined with Bloodlands, makes events in Russia and Ukraine seem like reliving a terrible history. In the buildup to World War One, diplomats complained, “Russian diplomacy was one long and manifold lie.” The British empire was fading and economic trade had also the seductive effect of making bribery a convenient tool for the enemies of capitalism. The “security dilemma” meant as one government improved its defense to ensure security, other countries felt more insecure and built their defenses until the network of odd alliances only needed a trigger to begin the killing fields of World War. That trigger was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. A team of young assassins plotted to kill Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The first assassin threw his bomb and missed, took weak cyanide that failed to kill him, jumped off a bridge into a river too shallow to drown him, and delegated the act of war to his teammate assassin who succeeded in killing the archduke and his wife. But not before the archduke, after escaping the first bomb, was forced to listen to the mayor of Sarajevo make prepared remarks, exclaiming in shock, “All the citizens of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness and most enthusiastically greet your highness..” The mayor was too stunned to change his speech. The archduke shouted back at him, “I come here as your guest and you greet me with bombs!” Then the second assassin’s bullets struck.

Michigan’s military museum in Frankenmuth is filled with stories and memorabilia of Michigan soldiers from World War One to the War on Terror. The Polar Bear Unit, nearly all from Michigan, was sent to northern Russia at the end of World War One to help fight the new communist government. More than 200 in the Polar Bear Unit were killed and hundreds wounded in fighting near the Arctic Circle. World War Two and Vietnam cover more walls. Duane Hackney, of Flint, enlisted in the Air Force. Hackney had more than 200 pararescue missions in the Vietnam War, earning Airman of the Year, the Cheney Award, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, 4 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 18 Air Medals, and dozens more medals. Another wall and more stories in the glass cases of the local Green Berets and Special Forces soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then you get to the story of James ¬†Thompson, an African-American from Detroit. Thompson had fought in World War Two and was an officer in the all black 24th infantry during the Korean War. He was taken prisoner, surviving 1004 days in a North Korean prison camp. His 24th infantry was accused of “running like rabbits” and “bugging out.” His prison camp didn’t have a roof or blankets. Many prisoners died in the below zero temperatures. The Korean War prisoners were criticized after the war for failing to escape. The Chinese took control of Camp 5 and put the white and black prisoners through indoctrination sessions. The Chinese failed to convert and turn the black soldiers but that didn’t stop the critics at home from accusing the black POWs of Camp 5 from collaborating to receive preferential treatment. James Thompson wanted the truth told, that he and the POWs of Camp 5 served with honor and sacrifice.

As the sleepwalkers awoke to the horrors of World War One, California Senator Hiram Johnson said, “The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.”


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