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A Criminal Campaign and Compliant Generals: Barbarossa 1941

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The 78th anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 is approaching. The German war against the Soviet Union was unlike any in modern military history. It was not just a war to defeat the Soviets militarily or to overthrow Stalin’s regime of terror. It was a war conceived to conquer as well as to exterminate and enslave.

The Nazis believed the Slavic peoples of the Soviet Union to what the referred to as untermenschen or sub-human and the plan was designed to provide the German master race with the necessary Lebensraum, or living space. The plan called for ethnic cleansing, the extermination of the Jews and the deliberate starvation of 30 million other people in the Soviet Union. The destruction of the Jews of the Soviet Union, which the Nazis linked with Bolshevism, and the elimination of anyone associated with the Soviet government or Communist Party was paramount. It was an ideological war without mercy in which civilized norms that governed the conduct of war were defied and trampled.

The German war in the east would differ from any previous war.  Its underlying basis was ideological. Economic and geopolitical considerations were given importance in relationship to the understanding of the German “Master Race.”  Race and Lebensraum was the goal of the State that “concentrates all of its strength on marking out a way of life for our people through the allocation of Lebensraum for the next one hundred years…the goal corresponds equally to the highest national and ethnic requirements.” 

Hitler set the stage on March 3rd 1941 when he told confidants: “the forthcoming campaign is more than a mere armed conflict; it is a collision between two different ideologies…this war will not be ended merely by the defeat of the enemy armed forces” and that “the Jewish-Bolshevist intelligentsia must be eliminated….”

On March 30th 1941 Hitler addressed 250 Generals about the nature of the war to come:

Shortly before the order was issued, Hitler previewed it to the generals saying that the war in Russia “cannot be conducted in a knightly fashion” and that it would have to be waged with “unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness. Hitler told the Generals that they would have to “dispense with all of their outdated and traditional ideas about chivalry and the generally accepted rules of warfare: the Bolsheviks had long since dispensed with them.” He explained that his orders were beyond their comprehension, he told them “I cannot and will not change my orders and I insist that that they be carried out with unquestioning and unconditional obedience.” Few questioned the order and few protested, those that did were told by the Army Commander, Field Marshal Von Brauchtisch “the he would express their opinion to OKW and Hitler respectively.” 

But Von Brauchitsch refused to protest to Hitler and instead issued an order on his own authority “threatening dire penalties for excesses against civilians and prisoners of war” which he maintained at Nurmeberg “was sufficient to nullify the Commissar Order.” Yet Von Brauchitsch’s hands were not unsoiled and he later told his commanders to “proceed with the necessary hardness.” He knew what that meant as he was present.

General Franz Halder, Chief of the OKH, or the Army High Command took notes on Hitler’s speech. They are chilling to read as none present could have understood them in any other way than Hitler meant:

“Clash of two ideologies. Crushing denunciation of Bolshevism, identified with asocial criminality….We must forget the comradeship between soldiers. A Communist is no comrade before nor after the battle. This is a war of extermination….We do not wage war to preserve the enemy….War against Russia: Extermination of the Bolshevist Commissars and of the Communist intelligentsia….this is no job for military courts. The individual troop commanders must know the issues at stake. They must be leaders in the fight….This war will be very different from war in the West. In the East harshness today means leniency in the future. Commanders must make the sacrifice of overcoming their personal scruples.” 

General Erich Hoepner, commander of Panzer Group Four who would be executed following the attempt to assassinate Hitler in 1944, told his commanders that the invasion was “an essential part of the German people’s struggle for existence” and stated, “the struggle must aim at the annihilation of today’s Russia and must therefore be waged with unparalleled harshness”. Hoepner told his officers that they were fighting for “the defense of European culture against Moscovite–Asiatic inundation, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism … No adherents of the present Russian-Bolshevik system are to be spared.”

The German Army as well as the SS Einsatzgruppen and the German Order Police launched their attack in the early hours of June 22nd  and did not lack the hardness required to commit war crimes and atrocities that are unimaginable, and which can never be allowed to happen again.

I could go on but I will end for now.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, leadership, Military, nazi germany, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Ill-Fated Field Marshal of Stalingrad: A Lesson for Men Who Blindly Follow “Invincible” Cult-Like Leaders

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-six years ago today the commander of the encircled German Sixth Army at Stalingrad, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus left his command bunker and surrendered the the Red Army. In the ruins of Stalingrad lay most of his Army. Around 90,000 survivors surrendered in the coming days to the Red Army. Of the Germans taken prisoner, only about 5,000 returned home. Most were to die of their wounds, or of diseases, maltreatment, and starvation in Soviet Camps between 1943 and 1955 when the bulk of the survivors were released.

Friedrich Paulus was one of them, and his story is interesting, not because he was the Commander of the Sixth Army, but because he wasn’t the kind of man one would have expected to command an army of 13 divisions with a strength of nearly 285,000 men spearheading the great German Offensive of 1942.

Paulus, born in 1890 joined the Imperial Army in 1910 and served on the Western Front in the First World War, finishing the war as a Captain and after serving in. Freikorps was retained as one of the 4,000 officers in the new Reichsheer. He served as a staff officer and company commander, and briefly commanded a battalion. He would also serve on the staff which developed the new Panzer Forces for the Wehrmacht. An apolitical professional he was not a Nazi but considered Hitler:

“an excellent leader for the German people, a man who had contributed greatly to the development of the state. After watching him evolve the strategies that conquered Poland, France, and most of Europe, Paulus was awed by Hitler’s grasp of the technical aspects of warfare. He considered him a genius.”

That being said, Guderian was concerned about Paulus’s lack of command experience, decisiveness, and toughness. Paulus was promoted to Colonel in 1938 and served as Chief of Staff to Heinz Guderian’s XVI Motorized Corps, and then promoted to the rank of Generalmajor (the equivalent of a U.S. Brigadier General) to serve as Chief of Staff to the 10th Army under the command of General Walter Reichenau during the invasion of Poland. He continued in that position when 10th Army was redesigned 6th Army for the Invasion Of France and the Low Countries. After that campaign he was promoted to Generalleutnant and assigned as deputy Chief Staff, Operations, of the Oberkommando Des Heeres, the German General Staff. In this capacity he served as one of the principle planners of Operation Barbarossa.

His wife, Elena, a descendant of one of Romania’s Royal Houses was opposed to Hitler and the war. She told her husband that “he was far too good for the likes of men such as Keitel and the other “lackeys” who surrounded Hitler.” She protested the injustice of the war against Poland, but he simply followed orders. When he brought home maps and documents related to Barbarossa she again protested to him. When he ignored her she said:

“What will become of us all? Who will survive to the end?”

Believing in Hitler’s invincibility, Paulus ignored her concerns and told her that the war would be over in six weeks.

But Elena’s concerns were well justified. In December 1941 the German Offensive ground to a halt at the gates of Moscow and a devastating Red Army counterattack created a crisis in the Wehrmacht which was completely unprepared for the Russian Winter. Only heroic resistance and improvisation by German units and the still imperfect application of operational warfare kept saved the German front. Battles continued throughout the winter, the lines stabilized and both sides planned for the coming year.

During the winter debacle Hitler had sacked many commanders which left many vacancies. Reichenau, a committed National Socialist and fanatical fighter took over command of Army Group South from Field Marshal Gerd Von Rundstedt, who had been fired by Hitler. Reichenau, who had been Paulus’s patron had Paulus promoted to General der Panzertruppen and named as commander of 6th Army.

The two men were nothing alike and Paulus had never commanded more than a battalion, and not in combat, but six days later the athletic Reichenau suffered a heart attack and suffered a head injury during a medical evacuation flight back to Germany. He died, and Paulus, revoked the infamous Commissar Order, and Reichenau’s most notorious orders, the Severity Order which stated:

“The most important objective of this campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete destruction of its sources of power and the extermination of the Asiatic influence in European civilization.… In this eastern theatre, the soldier is not only a man fighting in accordance with the rules of the art of war, but also the ruthless standard bearer of a national conception.… For this reason the soldier must learn fully to appreciate the necessity for the severe but just retribution that must be meted out to the subhuman species of Jewry.…”

Paulus also forbade cooperation with the Einsatzgruppen death squads, which Reichenau had gone out of his way to support. This was unusual for any commander on the Eastern Front, especially one who believed in Hitler’s invincibility. Paulus did well in his first combat with the Red Army, when it attempted to disrupt the coming German offensive at Kharkov as Sixth Army encircled and captured over 200,000 Soviet troops.

The Sixth Army had a key role in the German summer offensive, Operation Blau. Paulus commanded it well but became involved in the battle for Stalingrad, and Hitler would not let him quit, and promoted him to Colonel General. Likewise, unknown to Hitler and his commanders, Stalin knew of Operation Blau and observing the German movements decided to turn Stalingrad into a fortress. He conducted a strategic withdraw to preserve his forces, allowing the Germans to advance further into the Caucasus and divide their armies, leaving the flanks of the Sixth Army protected by pathetically equipped Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian armies which could not match the manpower, mobility, or firepower of the Red Army.

Stalin allowed the German Army Group South to advance, and allowed Sixth Army to battle street by street, building by building, factory by factory to capture Stalingrad. Had the Germans followed their operational doctrine Stalingrad would have been bypassed and surrounded, but they didn’t. Paulus allowed the Soviets to maintain their defense by not cutting the Red Army defenders in the city off from the Volga, even not taking action to link up with the Fourth Panzer Army which under its commander Hermann Hoth had broken through the Soviet front south of the Stalingrad when the opportunity presented itself.

Even so the German advance had conquered most of the city when in November the Red Army launched Operation Uranus. The operation totally surprised the Germans and in four days time the Sixth Army went from the spearhead of the German assault to an army cut off and surrounded by a Soviet Army Group. The Italian, Hungarian, and Romanian armies on its flanks were shattered.

Plans were made to relieve the Sixth Army but they depended on the Sixth Army attacking out to meet the relief forces from the Fourth Panzer Army. Hitler refused permission and Paulus obeyed, believing Hitler’s promise that Goering’s Luftwaffe would be able to keep his troops supplied. On New Year’s Day Hitler promoted Paulus to Colonel General.

But the handwriting was on the wall. German Forces to the south were having to extricate themselves from an even bigger encirclement. The superb generalship of Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein prevented a complete disaster and inflicted a compelling defeat on the Red Army, but the Sixth Army was doomed. On the 7th Of January Paulus was offered generous surrender terms by General Konstantin Rokossovsky. Paulus asked permission to surrender which was denied by Hitler.

Again on January 22nd Paulus requested his Fuhrer:

… For submittal to the Führer and to commander in chief, Army Group Don.… The Russians are advancing on a six-kilometer frontage both sides of Voporonovo toward the east, [toward Stalingrad] in part with flying colors. There is no possibility to close the gap … All provisions are used up. Over twelve thousand unattended [wounded] men in the pocket. What orders am I to issue to the troops, who have no ammunition left? … Immediate decision is required, since symptoms of disintegration are noted in some places. However, the troops still have faith in their commanders.” Paulus

On January 25th the Red Army overran the last airfield in the Stalingrad pocket.

To a Luftwaffe Officer who was sent by Berlin to encourage Paulus about new airlifts, Paulus said:

“Why on earth did the Luftwaffe ever promise to keep us supplied? Who is the man responsible for declaring that it was possible? Had someone told me it was not possible, I should not have held it against the Luftwaffe. I could have broken out. When I was strong enough to do so. Now it is too late.…”

Paulus radioed Hitler for permission to surrender, empathetically stating the conditions in the pocket. No food, no medicine, no ammunition, no fuel; only to be denied again.

On January 30th, the 10th anniversary of Hitler’s seizure of power the Troops in Stalingrad were treated to a radio broadcast from Berlin, not Hitler, but Goering. The words of the Reichsmarschal fell hollow on the ears of the doomed men:

“… What herculean labors our Führer has performed … out of this pulp, this human pulp … to forge a nation as hard as steel. The enemy is tough, but the German soldier has grown tougher.… We have taken away the Russians’ coal and iron, and without that they can no longer make armaments on a large scale.… Rising above all these gigantic battles like a mighty monument is Stalingrad.… One day this will be recognized as the greatest battle in our history, a battle of heroes.… We have a mighty epic of an incomparable struggle, the struggle of the Nibelungs. They, too, stood to the last.… My soldiers, thousands of years have passed, and thousands of years ago in a tiny pass in Greece stood a tremendously brave and bold man with three hundred soldiers, Leonidas with his three hundred Spartans.… Then the last man fell … and now only the inscription stands: ‘Wanderer, if you should come to Sparta, go tell the Spartans you found us lying here as the law bade us.’… Someday men will read: ‘If you come to Germany, go tell the Germans you saw us lying in Stalingrad, as the law bade us.…’”

The soldiers knew that they had been abandoned by Berlin. Yet, Paulus, ever loyal radioed:

January 30th:

On the tenth anniversary of your assumption of power, the Sixth Army hails its “Führer.” The swastika flag is still flying above Stalingrad. May our battle be an example to the present and coming generations, that they must never capitulate even in a hopeless situation, for then Germany will come out victorious.

Hail my Führer Paulus, Generaloberst

But it was a lie. Less than 24 hours later on January 31st with Red Army tanks and troops outside his command bunker, Paulus surrendered, just hours after Hitler promoted him to Field Marshal. The promotion was supposed to encourage Paulus to commit suicide as no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered his army.

Colonel Adam, an aide to Paulus recorded how Paulus received his promotion:

January 31, 1943 – 7.00 a.m. It was still dark but day was dawning almost imperceptibly. Paulus was asleep. It was some time before I could break out of the maze of thoughts and strange dreams that depressed me so greatly. But I don’t think I remained in this state for very long. I was going to get up quietly when someone knocked at the door. Paulus awoke and sat up. It was the HQ commander. He handed the colonel general a piece of paper and said: ‘Congratulations. The rank of field marshal has been conferred upon you. The dispatch came early this morning – it was the last one.’

‘One can’t help feeling it’s an invitation to suicide. However I’m not going to do them such a favour.’ said Paulus after reading the dispatch. Schmidt continued: ‘At the same time I have to inform you that the Russians are at the door.’ with these words he opened the door and a Soviet general and his interpreter entered the room. The general announced that we were his prisoners. I placed my revolver on the table.”

Paulus surrendered, and did not commit suicide. In the next few days the other isolated pockets of German resistance surrendered as well. Roughly 95,000 Germans, Italians, and Romanians surrendered at Stalingrad. Fewer than 6,000 would return home after nearly a decade of imprisonment and forced labor.

In Hitler’s headquarters the scene was terrifying. Hitler ranted about the treason and cowardice of Paulus, and his lackeys in the military agreed. Paulus should have shot himself and the garrison formed a hedgehog and resisted to the last bullet.

Though he surrendered Paulus did not give support to the Soviets or the German resistance until he learned of the execution of his Friend Field Marshal Erich von Witzleben and others for their participation in the attempt to kill Hitler. When he learned of their deaths he joined the he joined the Communist-inspired Bund Deutsche Offiziere, an “anti-Fascist” group that broadcast appeals to the citizens of the Third Reich against the Hitler regime.

After the war he testified at the Nuremberg Trials admitting German conduct of the war in the east was criminal but refusing to label men like Wilhelm Keitel, and Afred Jodl as war criminals. He took up a position as the civilian chief for military history for the new East German Government. He died on February 1st 1957, having never seen his wife since he left to take command of Sixth Army in January 1942, she died in 1949. His son Alexander was killed at Anzio in 1944. His other son, Ernst, survived the war and committed suicide in 1970.

Paulus’s fate is an object lesson for military personnel, civil servants, or police officials who themselves are apolitical, and honorable people become seduced and believe in cults of personality, and end up sacrificing their lives, reputations, and even their families in the process.

Without mentioning any names, Americans who worship at the cult of Trump should pay heed. like Paulus, their loyalty will be betrayed, and even as their leader abandons them.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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On the East Side: Berlin, 32 Years Later

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The last time we were in Berlin was in November 1986. At the time it was a divided city. When we last we here we had to have special permission and special paperwork to go to the city. Back then we drove the autobahn from Helmstedt to Berlin. At the inter-German border we had to first get our paperwork checked and stamped at the NATO border crossing center, Checkpoint Alpha.

We then drove a few hundred yards to the Soviet checkpoint where Soviet troops checked our paperwork. That part was interesting because the Soviets frequently rejected NATO troops for minor mistakes in the paperwork and would make them spend extra time waiting outside the guard shack. Fortunately for us the wait was minimal and with the necessary military courtesies exchanged, we were on our way.

It was 110 miles from Helmstedt to the Allied Military Checkpoint. On reaching Berlin we had to repeat the drill with the Soviets that we did at Helmstedt and the check in at the NATO checkpoint, Checkpoint Bravo which we passed again on Sunday when driving into Berlin.

Once in Berlin we found our hotel on the West side and the next day drove to Checkpoint Charlie before going into East Berlin. We made a second trip into the city on Sunday morning. East Berlin was the pearl of the Warsaw Pact but compared to West Berlin it was dingy, impoverished, and still showed the deep scars of the Second World War where pulverized buildings, still not repaired or restored covered blocks away from the Unter den Linden and Alexanderplatz. As Americans we were shadowed by Stasi agents everywhere we went. The beer was bad, and like anyone else we waited in long lines to purchase what little we could in the stores we shopped.

Conversely, West Berlin was an island of opportunity and opulence though surrounded by the DDR and its Soviet allies.

The closest we could come back then to the Brandenburger Tor was about 200 Meters as it sat in the middle of the Zone of Death, an appropriate term based on the number of East Germans who were killed or wounded trying to escape to the West.

The contrast today is amazing. The hotel we are staying in was then in the East. Almost everywhere we have been in the past two days once was in East Berlin and the change is remarkable. Much of the Unter den Linden is recognizable simply because the buildings were part of the government and diplomatic center of the city, monuments still stand where they were 32 years ago, but now it is hard to find what was the wall around the Brandenburger Tor and the Reichstag. We walked under the Brandenburger Tor and past the Reichstag where the Wall once stood. Not far away the Mall of Berlin practically sits in the former Zone of Death and was built where Berlin’s largest pre-World War Two Department Store, Wertheim once stood. It is now the heart of a reborn central shopping district which had been ravaged by Nazi rule, war, and Soviet rule. It really is hard to believe the difference now.

Now there are still signs of the War. We have seen a number of buildings, especially brick or stone structures that still have the pick marks and holes caused by bullets, or shell fragments. Some of these buildings are across from our hotel at Humbolt University’s old medical school and clinic complex. The Rumanian Embassy has similar damage.

Anyway, we remain on the former East Side tonight and should visit some more museums tomorrow including the DDR Museum and possibly the Berlin Wall Museum near Checkpoint Charle. We will be meeting our friend, Dr. Bishop Rink, the head of the German Military Lutheran or Evangelische Chaplain Service who we hosted in Virginia Beach during the summer tomorrow afternoon.

So anyway, until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Hitler Invades Poland, 79 Years Later: Race, Lebensraum, and the Rape of Europe

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Seventy-nine years ago today the German Wehrmacht on the orders of Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. It began the European phase of the Second World War and by the time the war was over Europe would be devastated, Hitler would be dead, and the world changed.

Hitler, who had concluded a deal with Stalin’s Soviet Union did not believe that Britain or France would do any more than to conclude a peace after he finished Poland. Though France and Britain could have caused havoc and maybe even ended the war had they even attempted a serious campaign against Germany in September 1939, they did not. Hitler’s gamble which gave great concern to his Generals paid off. Poland was defeated, and with his pact with Stalin in place, Hitler was able to turn his attention to the West.

Hitler’s biographer, the late German historian Joachim Fest wrote:

In spite of all expenditures in the preceding years Germany was armed only, for the war that Hitler launched on September 1, not for the war of September 3. The army did consist of 102 divisions, but only half of these were active and battle-ready. The state of its training left much to be desired. The navy was distinctly inferior to the British and even to the French fleets; not even the strength permissible under the Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935 had been attained. Shortly after the Western declarations of war reached Berlin, Grand Admiral Raeder declared tersely that the German fleet, or rather “the little that is finished or will be finished in time, can only go down fighting honorably.” The air force alone was stronger than the forces of the enemy; it had 3,298 planes at its disposal. On the other hand, the ammunition supply had been half consumed by the end of the Polish campaign, so that the war could not have been actively continued for even three or four weeks. At Nuremberg, General Jodi called the existing reserves at the outbreak of the war “literally ridiculous.” Troop equipment also amounted to considerably less than the four-month stock that the High Command of the army had demanded. Even a small-scale attack from the West in the fall of 1939 would probably have brought about Germany’s defeat and the end of the war, military experts have concluded.

But Hitler’s war went far beyond a typical military invasion, occupation and revision of borders or exploitation of economic resources. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was his first movement to achieve Lebensraum “living space” in the East. It was also a racial war where the less than human inhabitants of that space, especially the Jews would be expelled from their homes, driven into ghettos, and eventually exterminated. In Poland the victims included the Polish intelligentsia, professors, priests, military officers, government officials, nobility; anyone who might be able to lead a revolt.

By invading Poland Hitler had abandoned politics which had served him so well against, party rivals, domestic opponents, and later European and World leaders. After Poland Hitler rejected political options and pressed forward with war. Fest wrote:

One of the striking aspects of his behavior is the stubborn, peculiarly blind impatience with which he pressed forward into the conflict. That impatience was curiously at odds with the hesitancy and vacillations that had preceded earlier decisions of his. When, in the last days of August, Göring pleaded with him not to push the gamble too far, he replied heatedly that throughout his life he had always played vabanque. And though this metaphor was accurate for the matter at hand, it hardly described the wary, circumspect style with which he had proceeded in the past. We must go further back, almost to the early, prepolitical phase of his career, to find the link with the abruptness of his conduct during the summer of 1939, with its reminders of old provocations and daredevil risks. There is, in fact, every indication that during these months Hitler was throwing aside more than tried and tested tactics, that he was giving up a policy in which he had excelled for fifteen years and in which for a while he had outstripped all antagonists. It was as if he were at last tired of having to adapt himself to circumstances, tired of the eternal talking, dissimulation, and diplomatic wirepulling, and were again seeking “a great, universally understandable, liberating action.”

Hitler having brought about the destruction of Europe died by his own hand in his bunker having determined that the German people were not worthy of him. The conflict which he bathed in the mythological understandings of Wagner and Paganism was also an eschatological war. Race and Lebensraum overrode all sense of ethics, morality, and even diplomacy that might lead to long term alliances with partners that shared shared mutual interests. Instead, Hitler’s most base instincts, hatred, and the racist desire to establish his mythological Aryan Race as the overlords of Poland, and the. Of every other conquered nation put him in a league of his own.

Fest wrote:

Morally, too, he now crossed the boundary that made the war irrevocable. In the same conversation he demanded the repression of any sign “that a Polish intelligentsia is coming forward as a class of leaders. The country is to continue under a low standard of living; we want to draw only labor forces from it.” Territory that went far beyond the borders of 1914 was incorporated into the Reich. The remainder was set up as a general government under the administration of Hans Frank; one part was subjected to a ruthless process of Germanization, the other to an unprecedented campaign of enslavement and annihilation. And while the commandos, the Einsatzgruppen, commenced their reign of terror, arresting, resettling, expelling, and liquidating—so that one German army officer wrote in a horrified letter of a “band of murderers, robbers and plunderers”—Hans Frank extolled the “epoch of the East” that was now beginning for Germany, a period, as he described it in his own peculiar brand of bombastic jargon, “of the most tremendous reshaping of colonizing and resettlement implementation.”

Diplomacy has no place in eschatology. Interestingly, the same day he signed an order for a euthanasia program directed against the weakest members of his own German nation. In his worldview the handicapped, the mentally ill, and others with any kind of disability were life unworthy of life. They were a drain on society.

Anyway, this is enough for the night. I shall refrain from an comparisons with the current American President or the authoritarian and racist leaders taking power in parts of Europe.

The ghosts of the past seldom remain there and often return with a vengeance when awakened by the same forces that unleashed them then.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The Courageous Versus the Ideologues

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Today is a bit of a detour following my last two articles dealing with the Reichstag Fire and Reichstag Fire Decree, but it does have some ties to them and I will pick up on the Reichstag Fire theme tomorrow.

Being an ideologue of any kind is easy, you adopt an ideology and then use it to interpret the world. That is why there are so many of them of so many different varieties: right wing, left wing, religious and so many more. In fact if you take a look at the most strident supporters of any ideology, politician, or religious leader you can see that they are little different from one another. But in terms of the ideologies they espouse the most enduring of them, and the only to have ever been the foundation of state power or those dealing with economics such as the Soviet Union; or race such as Nazi Germany or the American Southern Confederacy. Hannah Arendt wrote:

“For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races. The appeal of both to large masses was so strong that they were able to enlist state support and establish themselves as official national doctrines. But far beyond the boundaries within which race-thinking and class-thinking have developed into obligatory patterns of thought, free public opinion has adopted them to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views.” 

The fact is that there is a difference between people who lean a certain way politically or religiously, and the people Eric Hoffer called, the “true believers,” the people who chose a side and never wrestle with the hard choices of life. They simply declare all who oppose their ideology or theology to be unworthy of life.

I am a liberal and a progressive, but I often find left-wing ideologues to be as off putting as militant right wingers. I guess that is because despite everything I am a realist. I wake up every day to try to do the hard thing of deciding what is right and what to believe.

My favorite television character, Raymond Reddington, played by James Spader in The Blacklist once said “I know so many zealots, men and women, who chose a side, an ideology by which to interpret the world. But, to get up every single day and to do the hard work of deciding what to believe. What’s right, today? When to stand up or stand down. That’s courage.” The fact is, no matter how stridently they espouse their beliefs, ideologues are by definition not courageous, because courage takes critical thinking, something that ideologues of any persuasion are incapable of doing. I see examples of this every day, especially in my Twitter feed and on Facebook.

While I’m sure that many, if not most of these people are good and well meaning people, they seldom display any originality of thought or true character. I had one left wing Twitter follower attack repeatedly me because to her I was supposedly a sellout. I have had right wing religious friends and followers on social media do the same.  While they attack me and each other from different ends of the political spectrum, the intellectual commonality they share is the fact that they are ideologues and zealots; and while they espouse different beliefs they are almost indistinguishable from each other in their inability to think critically and that wears me out.

I guess that is one of the things that bothers me the most about so much of what I see going on in the United States today. Too many ideologues, not enough critical thinkers. Too many people who value absolute consistently of thought without asking if what they preach is still true today, or if it might be tomorrow.

One thing that I have learned over the past eight years or so is that I have to ask what is right today, and make a choice of when to stand up, or to stand down. Sometimes, I don’t like those choices, but I make them.

I guess that is why I like reading about the lives of complicated and often conflicted people; men like T.E. Lawrence, William Tecumseh Sherman, and the fictional Raymond Reddington. I find much to admire and to criticize in all of them even as I empathize and understand each one of them. Interestingly, each of my heroes all have feet of clay. As Reddington said, “We become who we are. We can’t judge a book by its cover… But you can by its first few chapters, and most certainly by its last.” 

Have a great day, until tomorrow.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Remembering the Miracle on Ice

We all remember where we were when tragedy happened.  No one can forget where they were when John or Bobby Kennedy or the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. Likewise few can forget where they were when the Space Shuttles Challenger or Columbia, blew up or where they were during the the events of September 11th 2001.

Tragedy we remember well, but good news not so much.

But, despite the fact that good news is not always as memorable as tragedy there are some good news stories that make a lasting mark.

Back in 1980 there was one of those sentinel events. I am sure that if you were alive back then that you remember it well.

I am speaking about the victory of the US hockey team, Team USA over the Soviet team at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid New York. Some might be prone to dismiss this as merely a sporting event with little relevance, but the context of an event makes all the difference. English historian and military theorist Colin Gray wrote “Wars are not free floating events, sufficient unto themselves as objects for study and understanding. Instead, they are entirely the product of their contexts.” 

I like what Gray said, but I think that we can expand it to other historical events, not just war. If this was just a stand alone hockey game with would have little meaning. There are times when underdogs win championships and defeat heavily favored perennial champions. Most of those times, except for the devoted fans these events pass into relative obscurity and pop-up from time to time on an ESPN special. This event is much more important than a remarkable sporting event.

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Back in 1980 times were tough in the United States, recession, double digit inflation, 20% interest rates, a gas crisis, as well as the residual effects of the Vietnam War created a specter of anxiety for many people.

Even as the domestic economic lurched from crisis to crisis the United State was reeling  and the humiliation that the Iranians were inflicting on the United States on a daily basis following the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran and a seemingly unending hostage crisis. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was yet another thumb in the eye of the United States.

So as the United States prepared to host the Winter Games at Lake Placid New York there was not much to cheer about. The country was mired in political crisis as the sitting President Jimmy Carter was continually at odds with his own Democratic Party and to all appeared weak in dealing with the Soviets, their satellites or the Iranians. When Cater made his “malaise” speech in July 1979 the reaction around the country and world was I was less than positive. I was in the UK touring as a spotlight tech with a  singing group and the reaction of the Brits and other Europeans was ridicule of the President, and pity for the United States. It seemed to many that the United States had hit bottom and was not coming up any time soon.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fztlLwgSFCg (highlights and live call)

In 1980 Team USA was nothing more than a bunch of American college kids playing teams of Warsaw pact professional all-stars from powerhouse teams such as the Soviet Red Army team.  The Soviets had dominated international hockey since 1956 and with the exception of the US Gold Medal team of 1960 had won every Olympic gold since that time. In 1980 the Soviets were once again expected to win Olympic Gold.

When it came to the American hockey team no one expected much, with the exception of head coach Herb Brooks.  Brooks and his collection of college players, a number of whom would later become stars in the NHL, began their time together inauspiciously conducting a 61 game exhibition tour against teams from around the world.  On February 9th in the final game leading up to the Olympics  the Americans faced the Soviets at Madison Square Garden and were blown out by a score of 10-3 by the Soviet team.  In the lead up to the Olympics the Soviets toured North America and played against NHL teams. The Soviet team went  5-3-1 against their NHL teams.  The previous year a Soviet team had shut out an NHL All-Star team 6-0.

When the Olympic completion began the Soviets as was expected dominated their opponents in the preliminary round going 5-0 and outscoring their opponents 51-10.  The United States surprised everyone tying Sweden 2-2 with a last minute goal and then stunning a highly favored Czech team 7-3 before defeating Norway, Romania and West Germany to advance to the medal round.

Brooks practiced the team hard as they prepared for the Soviets who they were scheduled to meet in the opening round of the medal competition. A loss for the Americans would force them to play for Bronze and no one expected the Americans to defeat the Soviets. Yet when the day came the Lake Placid Field House was packed with 8500 fans decked out in Red White and Blue, American flags displayed everywhere and the crowd spontaneously singing “God Bless America.”  Unfortunately because the Soviets refused to allow a later start time the game was not televised live nor broadcast live on the radio in the States.

On February 22nd I had finished work making and rolling pizza dough at Shakey’s Pizza in Stockton, went home showered and then got in my car to head over to Judy’s house.  On my way over I was listening to the radio when ABC radio broke in to air the last minute of the game live. I was listening as Al Michaels made the famous call “Eleven seconds, you’ve got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!”

I could not believe it and was screaming with joy and wild abandon in the car. As soon as I got to Judy’s I went in and told her and her parents When the game came on I watched it with undivided attention and to this day I cannot forget that night.  The Americans had beaten the vaunted Soviet team 4-3 and would go on to defeat Finland in the Gold medal game 4-2.  The next day they were guests at the White House and after that the team broke up.  13 players would go on to NHL careers, Brooks would lead the 2002 Team USA to a Silver in 2002 before being killed in a car crash in 2003.

The Soviet people and their news media were stunned by the loss and the fact that the Soviet Team won Silver by defeating Sweden 9-2 the team had lost its luster.  While it remained dominant until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990 it was the end of an era.  Today many Russian players star in the NHL and live in the United States even after their careers.

That team and its members did something that no one expected in defeating the Soviets and going on to win the Gold medal against the Finns. No one could have expected the effect on the country either. It was a miracle, a miracle on ice.

Thirty-five years later the triumph of Team USA against all odds on that night is remembered as an event nearly unequaled in sports history as well as contemporary American history.  That game actually marked a return of pride to the country after a decade of discontent, defeat and discouragement.

Some people, especially those on the political right in their Reagan myth, mistakenly give Ronald Reagan the credit for turning around the attitude of the country in the 1980s. I don’t think that they could be more wrong. It wasn’t Reagan or any other politician, it was the 1980 American Olympic hockey team that made us believe again.

That is why this event meant so much more than a a game.

I don’t know about you, but I still believe in miracles.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Political Commentary, sports and life

Barak Obama and the Beginning of the End of the Castro Regime

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In 1961 the Kennedy administration imposed a diplomatic and economic embargo on the nascent Castro regime in Cuba. At the time with the Cold War going full steam ahead the decision seemed logical and appropriate. Never mid the fact that decades of American policy which favored the Bautista dictatorship, the economic interests of American corporations and did nothing to help Cuba’s poor had helped bring about Castro’s rule. Likewise never mind the fact that Americans using Cuban mercenaries only pushed Castro further into Soviet orbit with the Bay of Pigs invasion.

But following the Cuba missile crisis the embargo and diplomatic isolation remained in place. However, in 1972 President Richard Nixon brokered a deal of detente with the Soviet Union, a superpower that was an existential threat to the United States, as well as Mao Tse Tung’s Communist China, a power that we had fought to a standstill in Korea, and which had just a few years before embarked on its “cultural revolution” one of the bloodiest and ruthless events of the twentieth century.

Nixon was a diplomatic genius who was not so wedded to his own extremely anti-Communist ideology not to recognize when a moment to change history was in the offing. Otto Von Bismarck noted that “The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history and then to try to catch onto his coattails as He marches past.”

Bismarck was right and both Nixon and Obama heard the footsteps of God in terms of diplomacy and foreign relations. Sadly very few ideologues, like Senator Marco Rubio ever get this nuance and would rather maintain a failed policy that neither benefits the United States or the Cuban people, but which is one of the few things that have kept the Castro brothers in business long after most Communist regimes ended up on the ash-heap of history.

The amazing thing is that the polices of Richard Nixon regarding the Soviet Union and China had dramatic and positive effects that his successors, be they Republican or Democrat really did not grasp. Instead, when the Iron curtain came down we in the west did all that we could to humiliate the former USSR and brought about the bellicose dictator by another name Vladimir Putin. Likewise we failed to understand the pragmatic and nationalistic nature of the Chinese Communist regime that was brought about by Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping. In both cases our failure to grasp the reality of our former opponents created new adversaries.

But such was not the case with Cuba. Cuba was different, especially after the Cold War ended. Despite our differences Cuba and the United States should have been able to overcome the effects of Castro’s seizure of power and brokered an understanding. Yes Castro was and is a Communist, but that, even during the Cold War did not prevent effective diplomacy with other Communist states such as Tito’s Yugoslavia, a country that had there been a conflict between the Soviet Union and NATO that might have well sided with the west. But with Cuba there was no nuance. Castro was the enemy.

The irony was that in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s it was Cuban soldiers that protected U.S. based oil company refineries, installations and American personnel in Angola against CIA sponsored insurgents.

The American economic embargo has been a failure for decades. This was even more the case after after the fall of the Soviet Union when our allies in South and Central America and Europe realized that Cuba was no longer a threat and refused to support our embargo, rendering it impotent, except in the domestic politics of South Florida. Only fools believe that continuing it will change Cuba. The economic and diplomatic isolation has been going on for 53 years, 23 of them after the fall of the Iron curtain, and it has failed. Fools like Marco Rubio who even before President Obama made his announcement was at a microphone condemning the decision. But then Marco Rubio is both an ideologue who basks in his status of being a victim of the dying Castro regime.

The arguments of Rubio and the other partisan flacks in the American domestic political scene for maintaining the economic embargo and diplomatic isolation are not only short sighted and play to their own local political constituency, but they work against the United States in trying to achieve a responsible and workable solution to the impasse that has poisoned Cuban-American relations for six decades.

The fact is, despite the protestation of Rubio and others we deal with a lot more unsavory characters than the Castros. Yes, they are thugs. Yes they run a police state with few freedoms and where religious liberty is not protected, but they didn’t support Al Qaida like some of our closest allies in the Middle East did, they never near sank a U.S. Navy ship like Israel did in the six day war, and they didn’t kill or wound tens of thousands of U.S. military personnel like the Chinese did when they intervened in the Korea War. From a terrorist or real military threat to U.S. National Security interests the Cubans are minor leaguers and their leaders know that.

President Obama has brought about a political and diplomatic coup in Cuban-America relations, and for now on there will be no going back. Maybe now the United States and Cuba will be able to fulfill our common destinies to work together for the betterment of our hemisphere and world.

Of course for taking this long overdue action, something that either President Bush or President Clinton should have done years ago is now being called a traitor and worse by his domestic political opponents. However, like Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis realized, the time has come for change in our relationship.

This is a historic day and a decision that was long overdue. It is a watershed, and even if the Congress refuses to lift the economic aspects, things in Cuba will change. Freedom will come and soon Cubans and Americans will finally have the chance to build a constructive and positive relationship that helps both peoples.

I have stood at the Northeast Gate of Guantanamo Bay, I have looked over the fence line at Cuba, and I pray that one day I will see the rest of that country.

This is a good night… And as a side note it will be great for baseball. Just imagine the course of history had Fidel Castro been drafted by the Yankees in the early 1950s. Hell he might be the President of the America League by now and he might not have agreed with the designated hitter rule.

But that being sad, Barak Obama should be getting the accolades given to  Nixon, and later Ronald Reagan when he dealt with Gorbachev in 1986 and 1987. This is a watershed and it will change Cuban-American relations for the better, and help the Cuban people. This is a win for the good guys, and even more importantly it will be a win for baseball.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under Foreign Policy, leadership, national security, Political Commentary