Archive for May 2015

SATAN V HITLER   Leave a comment

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Bullet-ridden slogan, FYR Macedonia, on the road to Belgrade 2000

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In war we grow up quickly. In war, time appears to last longer. Moments can last a lifetime. So too can careers be made in a single moment; for war is an opportunity for the quick-witted. Advancements and promotions happen more quickly and unexpectedly in the blaze of battle than in the slow meandering predictability of peacetime. War in a paradoxical way makes things less complicated. There we are offered life in black and white. We prioritize through the necessity of self-preservation and scorn indecision and long term planning. The chaos of change finds unexpected rulers. And in the twilight of war, a prospective ruler has, in order to move from the military to the political, only to paint himself a ‘freedom-fighter’ and let the blackened image of his defeated enemy serve to contrast the radiance of his own brightness. Hitler was that moral foil. He has remained the dark touchstone of European politics for over seventy years now and shall remain that way for much time to come. He is the sunless end of the dark spectrum but it is difficult to find an answer why. Did he kill more than any other leader? Did he cause more suffering? Was he crueller? Madder? Less human than any other? The prosaic answer is probably not. Comrade Stalin and Chairman Mao can be accused of wiping out more of their own populations than Hitler killed enemies (as unpalatable as such blood algebra is to their respective victims). Cruelty has no bar, and even Hitler’s xenophobia and race-baiting have seen analogies in countless smaller and less ‘meaningful’ clashes from Rwanda to Yugoslavia, Darfur to Dili. What makes Hitler special is not his spectacular brutality but the unanimous recognition of him, by the Giants of Yalta, as the most brutal, the greatest evil. In moral terms the Pandora’s Box that was opened during World War II needed to be closed again and the denigration of Hitler absolved many sins which weren’t only his. Hitler became, somewhat bizarrely, a continent’s scapegoat. Anti-Semitism, ultra nationalism, authoritarianism, and mystical and science-fiction politics were prevalent throughout Europe in the twenties and thirties. That fact is often conveniently forgotten by European nations who are brought up convinced that they were victims, those who ultimately defeated Hitler. Hitler equals evil. They are therefore the divinely-ordained custodians of moral rectitude.

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Fuera de Uruguay

The moustache and raised arm are instant symbols of tyranny. Protesting George W Bush’s visit to Uruguay, Montevideo 2007.

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This nervous gloss on history may have been a psychological necessity, a way of burying the dark deeds of humanity in the ceremonial cremation of a symbolical incarnation of those deeds. Perhaps it reflected an aspiration to be simply better people, by putting what was ‘too much’ behind them. However, those who leap-fogged to power in the wake of World War II, would rule with remarkable longevity, in East and West, under Soviet tutelage, under American protection, or as independent islands of authoritarianism. And their rule was built upon a cracked plinth of treachery and wishful thinking.

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Great Satan2

Great Satan, former US Embassy/’US Den of Espionage’, Tehran.

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Western politics decry the deliberate indoctrination of free peoples by state-sponsored ideas. Propaganda is a dirty tool left to Goebbels and the Communists. And yet the illusion of an absence of propaganda in a liberal society can be as dangerous as the obvious existence of propaganda in a restrictive society. The West may disingenuously belittle the propaganda of the Iranian revolution or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as though it were devoid of its own propagandas. As though the internet precludes dictatorships, and the sins of our rulers have evolved into minor ones. When a Revolutionary Guard, asked his opinion of America’s intentions in the Middle East, decries Great Satan’s meddling, we see this biblical invocation as a schoolboy production of an infantile propaganda. As though we are punishing the country’s rulers for their lack of tact, rather than the repression beneath which their tactlessness fails to hide. And yet the only difference between us is that we, in the West, have moved from the Religion of the Ideal to the Religion of the Real in order to dress our grand designs and ignoble intentions. When we are confronted by an enemy, we don’t call him Satan, we call him Hitler.

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MY LIFE IN THE RED ARMY   2 comments

 Alfred Kornreich

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Fredek (full name Alfred Kornreich, but sometimes Fredzió: Polish is a language with many pet derivatives) was the son of my grandfather Henryk’s brother Matteusz. The photo above shows him after the events here described as a Second Lieutenant in the 4th Armoured Regiment “Skorpion” of the Polish Second Corp, which had been formed from Polish prisoners-of-war and deportees held in Soviet territory in 1941-42. How joining up with a regiment which, after a perilous exodus from Soviet territory and a stint guarding Iraqi oil fields, would go on to fight with ultimate success but deadly attrition at Monte Cassino, the Battles of Ancona, Cesano, and Bologna, could be viewed at one time as salvation for the young officer is the subject of the following history.  

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The Sikorski-Mayski Agreement which facilitated the recruitment of Polish units on Soviet territory would save Fredek from execution for deserting the Red Army.

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A native of Cracow, Fredek was twenty years old when the Second World War began. He managed to leave German-occupied Poland, where he was studying law at the Jagiellonian University, and reach Soviet-occupied Lwów where his knowledge of auto mechanics (he could drive a car) landed him a job at a factory. There, he thought he had been spared the enforced Soviet deportation which awaited all those who had come from the western German-controlled zone, as, he would later recall, in Communist eyes ‘they were considered “unreliable” or simply suspect‘. Unfortunately for Fredek, he, like many other Polish citizens of varied ethnicities, was drafted into the Soviet Red Army. He had quite an experience and after the war when he had moved to America he wrote a book about his adventures, My Life in the Red Army. My father Wojtek didn’t read Fredek’s book until much later, but would recall when he was in London, just after the war, reading a review of it in the Polish Catholic Press. There a somewhat sanctimonious reviewer wrote disapprovingly, rebuking Fredek for being more interested in wooing women than informing the world about the moral degeneracy of the Soviets. Although Wojtek would have little doubt that people like Fredek did more to rid the world of dictatorships than that reviewer.

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Fredek Kornreich

Fifteen year old Fredek in 1935.

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As a Pole, caught in Russian-controlled territory in 1940, it was difficult for Fredek to decide what was best: to be sent to a labour camp or to fight for the ‘glorious’ Red Army. A prison camp or a military camp. The Soviet officers told their new ‘recruits’, in Lwów, that, coming from capitalist Poland, they would be amazed and honoured to join the ‘only democratic army in the world!’ Fredek took it with a stoic pinch of salt although it wasn’t easy. He was shot at, wounded, half-starved, almost had his legs unnecessarily amputated, and ultimately ended up deserting the Red Army and joining the reconstituted Polish Army (General Anders’ Army was formed following the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement from Polish prisoners-of-war on Soviet territory who had not yet succumbed to the executioner’s bullet or the Gulag’s workload and privations). He had the secret police on his trail and memorably describes standing at a Soviet train station, on crutches, up to his knees in snow and mud, and seeing his own face on NKVD Wanted posters.  Fredek’s salvation from being shot as a deserter was the formation of Anders’ Army and, a fugitive from Soviet justice, he enthusiastically enlisted at a reception centre in Jangi Yul, Uzbekistan. He would end up fighting with the Polish II Corp’s 4th Armoured Regiment at the Battle of Monte Casino where he was to distinguish himself, leading a tank unit up Mass Albaneta.

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Monument to the Polish 4th Armoured Regiment “Skorpion” (Fredek was a Second Lieutenant), erected from the shell of a mine-destroyed Sherman tank, in which the regiment’s first casualties fell during the Battle of Monte Cassino.

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Years later, when I tracked down the original 1949 edition of Fredek’s book, my father read it for the first time with relish, comparing it to an up-dated version of The Good Soldier Šwejk, the Czech writer Jaroslaw Hašek’s satire on the Austro-Hungarian Army in the First World War. But it couldn’t have been that funny to live through. Perhaps, humour or mental instability were indeed effective tools in helping to increase the odds of coming out of those things alive. Fredek was a forced conscript in the Soviet Army, fighting for a cause he despised against an enemy he despised even more. The moral dilemma he faced, as a Pole, in fighting for the Russians was one of a myriad of moral wars which the millions of representatives of ‘smaller nations’ and ethnic minorities  experienced during the war. To understand the vulnerability of nationhood at the time makes it clear in the maze of conflicts which formed the war, why there were Slovak, Romanian, Ukrainian, or Baltic contingents within the German advance on Russia. Why Finland joined the attack on Russia. This was a time when the cost of not being on one side, together with at least one strong nation, be it ‘great’ or not, signalled the death-knell of recently-won nationhood. On the eve of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s attack on The Soviet Union, Fredek realized that, as a Pole in Soviet hands, he had little choice in the matter.

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“Today Russia was an ally of Germany. If she entered the war on the side of Germany, against the Allies, I would be forced to fight everything that had been dear to me for years, on the side of the two greatest foes of my country. If Russia were to go to war against Germany (or vice versa), which was generally considered possible, I would gladly fight against the Germans, but for whose sake? In whose interest? Russia’s?”

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Fortune decided for Fredek that he would fight against the Germans, and not with them. He could ruefully thank heaven for small mercies. When the Germans attacked Russia, Fredek was conscripted and packed off to Odessa on the Black Sea to undergo military training and marvel at the sadly-absent wonders of the world ‘under the sun of Stalin’s Constitution’. His detachment, composed mostly of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews, under Russian officers, trained with other representatives of the many Soviet nationalities, ‘natzmeny’, or national minorities, which included Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmens, and an Armenian called Aram. Fredek memorably recounts his first experiences of combat along the river Dniester, on the Bessarabian Front. He did his best to stay alive and managed somehow to distinguish himself for bravery, outwitting both German soldiers and his over-zealous Communist superiors. One night’s reconnaissance patrol across the river beyond German lines almost cost him his life. He describes leading nine other soldiers to map enemy troop positions and considered his survival a major accomplishment. He recounts with alarm Aram the Armenian proudly presenting him with the severed head of a German sentry and standing with two wounded men for seven hours in the ice-cold Dniester waiting for a break in fire to retreat to safety. Amidst the fighting, an existence exacerbated by the Soviets’ criminal disregard for the welfare of their own soldiers, Fredek recounts his experiences of mean-spirited petty despotism amongst his officers, but also the kindness of strangers and the camaraderie of the dispossessed. He deals with over-officious NKVD officers whose principle duty is to convict their own soldiers of ‘crimes against communism’ but also fights alongside men who selflessly pay for their comrades’ survival with their own lives.

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My Life in the Red Army Cover

Fredek changed his name and does not mention the Red Army unit in which he served and deserted from in order to protect his fellow conscripts from possible reprisals.

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Fredek deftly evokes the drudgery, boredom, and irrationality of war, together with picaresque interludes of ironic counterpoint. An account of his unit’s bawdy week of respite from the war at a man-starved Bessarabian collective farm provides much mirth as does his description of his Soviet comrades’ favourite vodka-fuelled after-dinner game which involves turning off the lights in a room, diving for cover, and shooting blindly at whomever shouts Cuckoo! Despite the vagaries of his lot (and there is much suffering and foreboding there) if there is a party to be had or an officer’s sister to charm, his spirits never flag.

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Amidst Soviet propaganda that boasted inconceivable victories over the Germans, though the Soviets were the ones going backwards, Fredek found out in July 1941 from a fellow Pole that Lwów had been captured. He wished he were fighting for something as dear to him as Lwów, for Polish soil, and not for the now God-forsaken wasteland in which he found himself. He recalled only a year earlier leaving Lwów on a Soviet train to begin his life as a Red Army soldier. It seemed like an age had passed since then. Now he was stuck in his own little corner of the world’s greatest war:

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Then everything disappeared, and we plowed into the darkness. All forty of us milled around the two doors of the car. No one spoke. For all of us Lwów was the symbol of our young lives, our homes and families. Even I, a Cracovian who had lived in Lwów for only a year, loved that city dearly. Three hundred and fifty thousand before the war, it was today a city of one million inhabitants, pulsating with life, wit, and music.

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Fredek survived both the Red Army and the Polish II Corp, later emigrating to the United States and living a full and varied life. When he found out my father had survived the war and was living in Ireland he kept in touch for the rest of their lives. Niech spoczywa w pokoju!

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Alfred & Karol

Fredek and Karol: many years later, Fredek presents a copy of “My Life in the Red Army” to an old fellow student from Cracow’s Jagiellonian University.