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We Could Use a Man (or Woman) Like Franklin Roosevelt Again

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

If I had to place myself on the political spectrum it would be in the area occupied by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I am definitely a liberal, I can no longer claim to be a conservative by any means of the imagination, but as a historian I am very careful in embracing the extremes of left, or right wing populism, the very things which are driving much of the political division in our country. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was wise enough to state:

“Say that civilization is a tree which, as it grows, continually produces rot and dead wood. The radical says: “Cut it down.” The conservative says: “Don’t touch it.” The liberal compromises: “Let’s prune, so that we lose neither the old trunk nor the new branches.” This campaign is waged to teach the country to march upon its appointed course, the way of change, in an orderly march, avoiding alike the revolution of radicalism and the revolution of conservatism.”

Of course there were quite a few conservatives and progressives of his time who loathes and attempted to obstruct, hamper, or defeat Roosevelt’s New Deal. But what many didn’t understand was that Roosevelt was willing to risk failure so long as he learned from it and succeeded in the end.

As Historian John Meacham wrote:

“Disappointed liberals lobbied the president to move more quickly on social and economic issues. “You’ll never be a good politician,” FDR once told Eleanor, who frequently presented such pleas to her husband. “You are too impatient.” At a White House meeting, Roosevelt parried a questioner with a lesson in practical politics. Lincoln, Roosevelt said, “was a sad man because he couldn’t get it all at once. And nobody can. Maybe you would make a much better President than I have. Maybe you will, someday. If you ever sit here, you will learn that you cannot, just by shouting from the housetops, get what you want all the time.” He sometimes turned to sports to make his point. “I have no expectation of making a hit every time I come to bat,” Roosevelt remarked. “What I seek is the highest possible batting average.”

Likewise, Meacham noted:

“He argued that leadership, even his own, was imperfect. A wise public, Roosevelt believed, would give a well-meaning, forward-leaning president the benefit of the doubt. “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said in 1932. “It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something…. We need enthusiasm, imagination and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely.”

The situation confronting Roosevelt is little different than we face today. There are political forces on the extreme left and right that have little regard for what has been accomplished in the American experiment, and who as Roosevelt noted either want to cut it down completely, or change nothing, as if two and a half-centuries have not passed. As Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

Meacham noted of Roosevelt:

Sustained by this view of progress, Roosevelt urged the nation onward. “We shall strive for perfection,” Roosevelt said. “We shall not achieve it immediately—but we still shall strive. We may make mistakes—but they must never be mistakes which result from faintness of heart or abandonment of moral principle…. Our Constitution of 1787 was not a perfect instrument; it is not perfect yet. But it provided a firm base upon which all manner of men, of all races and colors and creeds, could build our solid structure of democracy.”

Abraham Lincoln understood this when in the Gettysburg Address he noted:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Roosevelt understood, just as Lincoln did that our system, form, and institutions were under attack from many sides, thus we all must take increased devotion… that this nation, under, God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from thee earth.”

I am going to stop for now. I am about two-thirds of the way through Meacham’s book and about 1/3 of the way through Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Leadership in Turbulent Times, which looks at the lives, failures, and ultimate successes of the leadership styles of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Baines Johnson.

It seams that now regardless of what party or ideology we espouse, we want absolute doctrinal purity. Certainly that was not what our founders thought, nor men like Franklin Roosevelt. Our Republic can be destroyed by the radicalism of the Right and Left, but also the complacency of the Center, which by ignoring the the crisis engulfing the country only make the crisis worse. Hannah Arendt noted:

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”

I am a liberal, a progressive, and a Democrat, but I am as much as of a realist as Franklin Roosevelt. Our Union is imperfect, but just because it is so it should not be cut down and destroyed, nor ignored and uncultivated by progress. The grafting of new branches onto the old stock is not a travesty, or a threat. It is the ideal that motivated the Founders was not that they were achieving perfection in the moment, but that they were planting ideals that would ultimately be universal. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Such thoughts are now part of the Constitutions of other countries and the United Nations. If we want to look into the imaginary future they are included as part of the Constitution of the United Federation of Planets.

We live in a nation whose past is far from perfect, a nation that has deviated from its foundational principles all too many times, that being said, Franklin Roosevelt, understood this as fact. He did not try to mythologize our past. He sought the best from that ancient trunk and grafted on, as Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt before him, as well as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson did after him, ideas that expanded liberty for all, without which the radicals of the right or left fail to appreciate.

Roosevelt spoke during his nomination speech at the 1932 Democratic Party Convention:

“Wild radicalism has made few converts, and the greatest tribute that I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of the millions of our people who have suffered so much,” Roosevelt said. “To fail to offer them a new chance is not only to betray their hopes but to misunderstand their patience.

The forces of progress, Roosevelt believed, were not to cower or to lash out, but to engage. “To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster,” he said. “Reaction is no barrier to the radical. It is a challenge, a provocation. The way to meet that danger is to offer a workable program of reconstruction, and the party to offer it is the party with clean hands.

He then introduced a crucial phrase: “I pledge you, I pledge myself,” FDR said, “to a New Deal for the American people.” The crisis was existential. “His impulse,” Winston Churchill wrote of FDR in the mid-1930s, “is one which makes toward the fuller life of the masses of the people in every land, and which, as it glows the brighter, may well eclipse both the lurid flames of German Nordic self-assertion and the baleful unnatural lights which are diffused from Soviet Russia.”

That is how I view the situation today. As far as it goes, those who consider themselves to be Democratic Socialists are little more than Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F Kennedy, or Lyndon Baines Johnson Democrats. They believe in the New Deal, Civil Rights, and the Great Society. They also believe in the realities of science and Climate Change and seek answers that work with our economic and scientific realities, like their predecessors they believe in the instruments of the future. In the past it was fossile fuels and nuclear power; now it is wind power, and solar energy, combined with the cleanest and most efficient forms of past energy. None of those ideas are radical, they are progressive, economically sound, job producing, and environmentally friendly policies that could help reverse the scourge of global warming, sea rise, and climate change.

Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt realized the dangers of Stalinist Communism and Hitlerian Fascism, which he saw as a threat to the United States in the 1930s, but in the short term he realized that the Nazi threat was the greatest threat, and allied with Britain, the Soviet Union, Free France, and China to defeat Germany first, Japan next, and then deal with the Soviet Union using the full power of the nation; Diplomatic, Informational, Military, and Economic to achieve the overthrow of the Soviet Union. That did not happen until 1990, but when it did a plethora of Soviet dominated regimes fell in Eastern Europe. Since that time the Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations have surrendered many of those gains and allowed a New expansionist, Soviet Union, albeit without the Soviet Name to be reestablished in Russia under Vladimir Putin.

I won’t go into the other overseas threats, but he would recognize the danger of President Trump’s “America First” policy which is little different from the America Firsters of his era. He looked forward, they looked back. He looked at a world that might overwhelm the United States, the threats of Naziism, Fascism, and Stalinist Communism, and in spite of resistance from his own party and the Republican isolationists who adopted the America First ideology of men like Charles Lindberg which would have surrendered all of Europe, including Great Britain to the Nazis because it was nothing more than an intra-racial struggle and not one against inferior races. Even after Hitler overran Poland and Western Europe Lindberg argued:

“for leaving the Old World to its own devices. “Now that war has broken out again, we in America have a decision to make on which the destiny of our nation depends,” Lindbergh said, adding: “In making our decision, this point should be clear: these wars in Europe are not wars in which our civilization is defending itself against some Asiatic intruder. There is no Genghis Khan or Xerxes marching against our Western nations. This is not a question of banding together to defend the White race against foreign invasion. This is simply one more of those age-old quarrels within our own family of nations.”

Roosevelt knew that was nonsense. He worked patiently with congress on both sides of the aisle, building his case in spite of resistance until Hitler attacked Poland, and overran most of Western Europe, Roosevelt’s policy ideas were ratified into policy. When Japan attacked at Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States he was able to act.

Roosevelt brought the country together. He helped to maintain at disparate alliance between Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. It was courageous, as Meacham noted:

” A man of courage, Churchill appreciated it when he detected courage in others, and he had seen it, intimately, in Franklin Roosevelt. “It was a marvel that he bore up against it through all the many years of tumult and storm,” Churchill said of FDR’s paralysis. “Not one man in ten millions, stricken and crippled as he was, would have attempted to plunge into a life of physical and mental exertion and of hard, ceaseless political controversy. Not one in ten millions would have tried, not one in a generation would have succeeded, not only in entering this sphere, not only in acting vehemently in it, but in becoming indisputable master of the scene.”

We need a leader like Franklin Roosevelt now. Personally, I am not sure if any of the challengers to Donald Trump has the gravitas, courage, or determination to go where Roosevelt went. He was willing to risk failure, admit it and try again. I don’t know if our political culture, at least the political culture of the Democratic Party would allow it. The Republicans don’t seem to care as is obvious by their continued support of Donald Trump, and his policies which are nothing short of Lindberg’s America First campaign, Hitler’s racial politics, and American Jim Crow laws.

Roosevelt began the domestic and international policies that Donald Trump fights against on a daily basis. I don’t know what Democratic candidate that will be, but it has to someone has to fully embrace the Roosevelt legacy and push it to the future. As Roosevelt showed this has to me more than about sound bites; it has to be about truth, integrity, and the willingness to engage with and even at times compromise with domestic political rivals in order to preserve the Republic against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But none of the Democratic Party candidates have yet to show me that they have the moral, or physical courage of Roosevelt who battled polio which deprived him of much of his mobility and physical abilities when he was 39 years old. Maybe if Senator Tammy Duckworth would enter the race I might see a candidate with that kind of courage. If she would enter the race, win the nomination, and the presidency, she would be the first female, combat vet and wounded warrior to serve as president.

I would like that very much.

But, until tomorrow we have what we have.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, national security, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Crossing Of an American Rubicon: The Trumped Up National Emergency

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

It has finally happened. President Trump finally declared his National Emergency because Congress did not give in to him, and because when he had solid House and Senate majorities he couldn’t garner a deal that would pass because of his own intransigence and stupidity ensured the inability to make a deal.

So here we are with a National Emergency that is based on his lies, and his inability to compromise the slightest to get a deal. After failing time and time again he shut down the Government for over a month, endangering the economy and national security in the process, even as the Mueller investigation indicted more of his close associates who appear to have quite extensive dealings with Russian agents, collaborators, and government officials. So in my view he is getting desperate, and more dangerous bit the minute.

I honestly expected that the President would use the cover of a major terrorist attack or war as cover to make his power grab. Right now al, he has done is offer a befuddled series of lies and excuses wrapped in a worthless, and plainly unconstitutional piece of paper as has ever been signed by an American President. Winston Churchill said of Russian intentions:  “It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” For Trump one can say that his intentions are clear, selfish, and washed with an enema. The key is Trump’s personal interest.” The irony is that his interests are all backed by the Russians.

It is sickening to watch as the Acting Secretary Of Defense is attempting to find the money and manpower needed for Trump’s Wall from military construction, MILCON accounts which includes everything from training facilities to tarmacs, runways to railheads, shipyards to firing ranges, drydocks to aircraft hangers, and everything that make the bases which support the troops in the field operating. Military family housing, medical facilities, schools operated by DOD which service military kids, and base security designed to protect bases from of all things, actual terrorists. Then he’s going after the DOD part of our nation’s drug interdiction programs, which is ludicrous in light of his rational that the Trump Wall is to keep out illegal drugs.

I will not compare Trump to Hitler because that would be an insult to the genocidal criminal dictator that Hitler was, not because Hitler was a good human being or worthy of any praise, but because he was a far better politician than Trump could ever hope to be. Hitler took advance of his opponents missteps, be they the political opponents, those in his own party, and European governments. But unlike Hitler, Trump delivers unforced error after error and claims to be a brilliant leader even while he is being rolled by men like Kim Jun Un, Vlad Putin, and so many others.

His only salvation is that some 35% of the American electorate, including the vast bulk of Republican legislators, are what he calls the most loyal followers, who in his words would vote for him even if he shot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue. I guarantee that if he called on them to kill that thousands would heed the call to kill his opponents, just like his Stormtroopers would before his accession to power; and how his SS, acting in concert with the Army and Police would decapitate the leadership of the SA Stormtroopers, including some of his earliest friends and allies during the Night of the Long Knives. Like Hitler, Trump’s only loyalty is to himself, all others are fungible, even his family if need be.

Now is a dangerous time. Declarations of National Emergency give the President great powers above what Article II of the Constitution normally permit. Unlike any other point in our history we now have a President is prepared to use those powers for his political survival and personal gain, sadly his GOP majority in the Senate has all but surrendered their Article I powers to the imperial President.

I do not know what will happen next. The State Of California has already sued to block the effort, the Democrats in the House Of Representatives are planning legislative and possible legal moves against it. Likewise, Trump’s move has divided Republicans. So obviously this will not be enough to cement his power, it is a ploy to distract as the Mueller Eagle circles its prey.

An animal that acts purely on instinct is most dangerous when cornered. It has become apparent that Trump does not act or live within the confines of reason or legality. His business and personal life has always shown that he is a predator speaking his own engorgment, even at the expense of wives, business partners, contractors, customers, or employees. It is the world that he lives in. It is the world that he imbibed from his father Fred Trump.

So my friends, do not let your guard down. We are in completely untested waters for Americans. What will happen tomorrow we don’t know, and we would be fools to prognosticate about. Thus we have to look at history and how other human beings have behaved in similar situations.

Milton Mayer wrote in his book They Thought They Were Free about a German colleague during the 1950s that had lived through the Hitler years as an academic. The man tried to explain how changes were so gradual that people like him who should have known better did not take action, if they did at all until it was too late. The man asked Mayer:

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.”

To forsee the end of the Trump gambit is not hard. We have the benefit of seeing tyrants of history, including Hitler, with today’s authoritarian leaders. Trump has already deployed Federal troops to the U.S. Mexican Border in what most people, including many Republicans viewed as a political stunt. In the aftermath of his declaration he again went to Twitter and attacked the media as enemy of the people” and demanded retribution against his opponents. How long will it be until one of his militarized and propaganda filled believers goes on the attack. One did last week in El Paso, but thankful they were not armed. What is to keep Right Wing Trump supporters who have concealed carry permits to walk into any place and kill someone they believe to be an enemy of the people? 

The fact is there is that there is nothing that will keep this from happening. This makes me glad that I served in Iraq and on Naval boarding teams in the Persian Gulf completely unarmed, and also in a certain way for the PTSD that I suffer, because one of the afflictions if it can be called that is being very hyper vigilant. I won’t be caught by surprise if I can help it, and even unarmed I know enough how to disrupt and confuse an attacker to at least equalize a situation. After having credible threats to my life in 2009 and 2010 from a neo-Nazi long before I became outspoken in my beliefs I always remain alert, sadly, even on base, because I do take notice of the rather violent political messages on the bumper stickers and window decals of many fellow sailors, marines, and soldiers, active and retired.

I don’t want to be considered a pessimist, but I do forsee the end, unless a sea change that I don’t think will happen occurs. I fully expect something else to happen that allows Trump to expand his powers, an event that even many opponents would find hard to oppose. A Reichstag Fire moment, maybe, but possibly worse.

So with all those happy thoughts in mind, have a good night.

Until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

 

 

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Filed under civil rights, History, laws and legislation, leadership, Military, national security, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

A Futile Sacrifice: The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Throughout history there have been times that commanders have sacrificed themselves and the forces under their command for no good reason. One of the most futile of these instances occurred on December 10th 1941 when Force Z, commanded by Admiral Tom Phillips went into action against Japanese Air Forces off the Malay coast.

HMS Repulse (above) and HMS Prince of Wales (below)

The task force, composed of the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales, and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse had only recently arrived in the Far East. They had been ordered there by Winston Churchill, against the advice of the Admiralty, and other leaders of the Commonwealth. They were to be accompanied by the aircraft carrier HMS Indomitable. However, the new carrier had been damaged by grounding at Jamaica in November 1941. Even without the grounding incident it is unlikely that Indomitable could have reached Singapore in time to join the task force and provide it with the air cover necessary for its survival.

Admiral Tom Phillips (R) at Singapore

The Commander of Force Z, Admiral Phillips was considered by many in the Royal Navy to be a “desk Admiral.” He had held few sea commands and never commanded a surface force in combat. However, he had served as Naval Advisor to King George VI, and had gained the attention and favor of Winston Churchill while serving as Deputy Chief of the Naval Staff. Churchill had him appointed as Acting Vice Admiral and later Acting Admiral to command what would become known as Force Z.

His task force arrived at Singapore on December 2nd 1941. When the Japanese attacked on December 8th (to Americans December 7th due to the International Date Line) Phillips decided to sortie to intercept and sink Japanese transports and their escorts. In doing so Phillips fell into a Japanese trap and made it worse by valuing radio silence over air support. He refused to contact or coordinate his moments with the one fighter squadron assigned to support him, No. 453 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force.

No. 453 Squadron (RAAF) Brewster Buffaloes

Disregarding the experience of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, Phillips held air power in contempt, believing it not to be a threat to surface forces, and committed his task force to battle without air support. The result was predictable. Both Prince of Wales and Repulse were sent to the bottom of the ocean in under two hours. Hundreds of sailors lost their lives, including Admiral Phillips. They sank no enemy transports, no enemy warships, and downed no enemy aircraft. But even with the support of the 10 Brewster Buffaloes of 453 Squadron, it is highly unlikely that the ships could have survived the Japanese onslaught; Phillips’s decision to sail into harm’s way doomed the fleet, just as much as Churchill’s decision to send it to Singapore did.

It was a complete waste of lives and two fine fast Battleships which could have provided excellent service with Aircraft Carriers of the U. S. Pacific Fleet, had they been sent to Australia and then on to the South Pacific rather than Singapore. But Churchill could not see this, and Phillips was even more myopic. Phillips had never served in combat and his task for would have been better served by a commander like Admiral James Somerville who had commanded a force of carriers, fast Battleships, and cruisers in combat against an enemy who often had air supremacy.

HMS Prince of Wales being Abandoned

Phillips, to be sure was a gallant an honorable man, but he was not up to the task that he was appointed by Churchill to accomplish. As a result, the Royal Navy lost both the Prince of Wales and Repulse, as well as hundreds of gallant and experienced sailors.

As for me, a historian and Naval Officer, it is one of the few operations of the Second World War that brings my anger to a boiling point every time that I think about it. There was no strategic, operational, or tactical benefit to it. Churchill would have been better off to keep the ships in the Atlantic or the Western Indian Ocean. He might have received some political criticism, but what would have that been to the loss of these ships for no strategic, operational, or tactical gain?

So, with that in mind and with the possibility that the Chinese Navy could surprise the United States Navy in the South China Sea, I bid you an unsettled night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, World War II at Sea

The Armistice Day Centenary: A Day of Conscience

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Forty years after the guns went silent in on November 11th 1918, General Omar Bradley, spoke these words on the eve of Armistice Day, 1948:

Tomorrow is our day of conscience. For although it is a monument to victory, it is also a symbol of failure. Just as it honors the dead, so must it humble the living. Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace…”

It was supposed to be the “War to end all war,” or so thought President Woodrow Wilson and other American idealists. However, the war to end all war birthed a series of wars which far exceeded the losses of the First World War as ideological wars, exponentially more powerful weapons, and systematized mass murder and genocide birthed new horrors.

Winston Churchill wrote:

“The Great War differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction, and from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought. … Europe and large parts of Asia and Africa became one vast battlefield on which after years of struggle not armies but nations broke and ran. When all was over, Torture and Cannibalism were the only two expedients that the civilized, scientific, Christian States had been able to deny themselves: and they were of doubtful utility.”

In the First World War there were over 22 million military casualties including over 8 million dead of which over 126,000 were Americans. Close to 20 million civilians also were casualties of the war.

President Woodrow Wilson established what we know now as Veteran’s Day as Armistice Day in November 1919, a year after the guns went silent.

Wilson wrote:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

That initial proclamation was followed 45 years later by one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower signed into law what we now know as Veteran’s Day in 1954.

In a sense I wish we had two holidays, one for Veterans from all wars in general and this one which we should never forget. It seems that in combining them we have lost some of the sacredness of the original. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” 

Because of that, I will remember all who served tomorrow as we observe Veterans Day, but I will not forget Armistice Day.

It is important not to forget the horrors and results of the First World War because both it and the Second World War, have faded from memory. Most people today cannot fathom killing on such a large scale, the overthrow of powerful nations and dynasties, the creation of new nations built from diverse, and often rival ethnic and religious groups such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, or the re-establishment of ancient nations such as Poland.

Yet to those of us who have gone to war and studied past wars the end result is not so distant. It is a part of our lives even today. Edmond Taylor accurately noted in his book, The Fall of the Dynasties: The Collapse of the Old Order, 1905-1922:

“The First World War killed fewer victims than the Second World War, destroyed fewer buildings, and uprooted millions instead of tens of millions – but in many ways it left even deeper scars both on the mind and on the map of Europe. The old world never recovered from the shock.”

The cost in human lives alone is incomprehensible. In the short time that United States forces went into action in late 1917 on the western front and the armistice, 126,000 Americans were killed, 234,000 wounded, and 4,500 missing; 8.2% of the force of 4,355,000 the nation mobilized for war. More Americans were killed in the First World War than Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan combined.

But American losses were small in comparison with the European nations who had for over four years bled themselves dry.  If one wonders why Europeans seem to have so little desire for involvement in war, one only needs to see how the concentrated killing of the First World War decimated the best and brightest of that generation. Out of the nearly 8.5 million Frenchmen mobilized lost 1,357,000 killed, 4,266,000 wounded and 537,000 missing, 6,160,000 casualties or 73.3% of its forces. The Russians also lost over 73% of 12 million, Romania 71% of 750,000, Germany 65% of 11 million, Serbia 47% of 707,000, tiny Montenegro 40% of 50,000, Italy 39.9% of 5.6 million, Great Britain 36% of almost 9 million, the Ottoman Empire 34% of 8.5 million. But the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary which began the war in response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lost 90% of the 7.8 million men that it sent to war.

The human costs were horrifying. In all over over 65 million men served under arms in the war. Over 8.5 million were killed, over 21 million wounded, 7.75 million missing or prisoners or almost 37.5 million military casualties alone. That total would be roughly equivalent to every citizen of the 30 largest American cities being killed, wounded or missing.

Much of Europe was devastated and in the following months and years, mass numbers of refugees the dissolution of previously stable empires were displaced. A Civil War in Russia killed many more people and led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. Germany too was torn apart by civil war that left it bitterly divided and planted the seeds of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Border conflicts between new states with deep seated ethnic hatreds broke out. A flu pandemic spread around the world killing millions more. Economic disasters culminating in the Great Depression and social instability led to the rise of totalitarian regimes which spawned another, even more costly World War and a 40 year Cold War. The bitter results of the First World War are still felt today as conflicts in the Middle East in part fueled by the decisions of Britain and France at the end of the war rage on.

T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, who gained fame during the Arab revolt looked at the results of the war with a great deal of melancholy. He wrote:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

The his epic war poem, In Flanders Fields, Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea symbolized the cost of that war and the feelings of the warriors who endured its hell.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Yes there are always consequences to actions. This weekend as we remember what we Americans now call Veteran’s Day, and the British refer to as Remembrance Day let us blood shed by so on the battlefields of Verdun, Gallipoli, Caporetto, Passchendaele, the Marne, the Argonne, Tannenberg, the Somme, Galicia, the Balkans, Flanders Fields, at sea and in the air.

President John F. Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Kennedy was right, that our appreciation is not just to utter words, but to live by them. Sadly, the current American President has no understanding of such nuances. He continued thump his chest and spit in the face of allies while, courting nations hostile to the very ideals of the United States. Likewise, the President, a man who never served in the military, and spent the Vietnam War avoiding service and dodging the draft while later comparing avoiding sexuality transmitted diseases to combat again dishonored the men who spilt their blood in the First World War. Donald Trump does not understand anything about history, war, courage, or honor. Sadly, he is all too representative of a generation that neither knows or cares about those things. He and others like him will be the ones that lead the world into another disaster.

“Strong prejudices in an ill-formed mind are hazardous to government, and when combined with a position of power even more so.”

I write in the hope of peace and an end to war.

Peace,

Padre Steve

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The Tale of the Desert Fox: Erwin Rommel, a Cautionary Tale for Men Who Serve Tyrants

rommel

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Just over 74 years ago in Ulm Germany a car pulled up to the residence of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In the car was the driver and two Generals dispatched by Hitler.  Rommel was recuperating following being severely wounded in an air attack in Normandy on July 17th 1944.

Rommel had been awarded the Pour le Merite, sometimes known as the Blue Max, Imperial Germany’s highest award for valor in the First World War. He was never an official member of the Nazi Party, but like many Germans he believed Hitler’s promises and propaganda. As Hitler rose to power he like many others was carried away by early Nazi successes, the bloodless conquests of the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the spectacle of the Olympics.

He was also an opportunist. With the rise of the Nazis came the expansion of the German military. Rommel was already well known due to his exploits as a platoon and company commander during the First World War in France, Romania, and Italy. In Italy he captured an entire Italian infantry division during the Battle of Mount Cosna, which was part of the Caporetto in October 1917. His company of 150 troops, exploited terrain and weather to surprise and capture 9,000 soldiers and 81 artillery pieces at the cost of 6 men killed and 30 wounded. Rommel used infiltration tactics, flanking maneuvers, and even disobeyed the orders of his superiors during the battle. Less than two weeks later at Langarone using the same tactics, his company surprised the 1st Italian Infantry which thinking it surrounded by superior forces surrendered to Rommel. For these actions Rommel was awarded the coveted Blue Max. 

Rommel was retained in the 100,000 man Reichswehr, but he had refused to attend the course that would have made him part of the elite General Staff. As such he was not assigned to the critical billets that would normally lead to high command. Instead he served in company command and as an instructor at the Infantry School in Dresden. While assigned to the school he wrote a manual of infantry tactics and training based on his experience. The book, Infantrie Greift an, or Infantry Attacks is still considered a classic book on infantry tactics and leadership, and was highly influential in his rise to high command. He was promoted to Major after serving 14 years as a Captain in 1932. In October 1933 he was assigned to command the 3rd Jaeger Battalion of the 17th Infantry Regiment where he first met Hitler when the latter reviewed his troops on an inspection visit.

Rommel, like many officers was caught in the thrall of Hitler. His wife, Lucy was caught up in the moment and was a Hitler supporter. Rommel was never a Nazi party member, but that did not keep him from supporting the overtly nationalist and militarist actions of the Hitler regime. In 1935 he was assigned to the Military Academy at Potsdam where as a Lieutenant Colonel he published Infantrie Greift an. In 1937 Hitler appointed Rommel as the liaison officer from the War Ministry to the Hitler Youth. Rommel clashed with the head of the Hitler Jugend, Baldur von Schirach and twiced proposed removing the organization from the Party to the War Ministry.

The conflict resulted in Rommel being quietly reposted from that assignment, promoted to Colonel and assigned to command the former Austrian Theresian Military Academy  in Wiener Neustadt. He was then selected by Hitler to command the Führer-Begleit-Battalion (Escort battalion) which served as the force protection unit for Hitler’s headquarters during the Polish campaign.

Following that campaign, Rommel, now a Major General was appointed to command the newly formed 7th Panzer Division which he commanded with great distinction during the Battle of France, 1940. When the campaign ended the division was placed in reserve where it readied to become part of the planned invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion. When that operation was postponed due to the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Mussolini’s Italian army in North Africa was routed by the small British Western Desert Force, Rommel was assigned to command the Deutsches Afrika Korps, composed of the 5th Light Division, which would soon be re-designated as the 21st Panzer Division and the 15th Panzer Division.

Over the next two years in North Africa built a reputation as an energetic and often risk taking commander who fought against long odds in a campaign which his own high command gave little support. The isolation of North Africa and its purely military significance in supporting a weak ally made it a different war from the concurrent, racially driven German invasion of the Soviet Union. Fighting the British and later the Americans, Rommel built a reputation of being a noble and chivalrous opponent. Unlike most of Europe and especially in Russian there was little to no influence of the SS in theater and the Jewish population of Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria suffered little under Nazi occupation, which many North African Jews attributed to Rommel.

During the North African campaign Rommel soared to the heights of international fame due to his exploits. The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Josef Goebbels sent one of his aides, Lieutenant Alfred Berndt to serve on Rommel’s Staff.  Berndt sent reports to the Propaganda Ministry which became the staple of Nazi propaganda to build Rommel into a German hero. Despite serving in a remote theater and commanding a relatively small number of troops, Rommel became the poster child for Goebbels’s propaganda machine. He was revered by the German people, and at the same time despised by many of his Army contemporaries and superiors.

His fame also earned the resentment of many fellow officers who because he was not an officer of the General Staff regarded him with jealous envy and distain. Even so, Rommel was a soldier’s soldier. He believed in sharing in the suffering of his troops. He once said: 

“Be an example to your men in your duty and in private life. Never spare yourself, and let the troops see that you don’t in your endurance of fatigue and privation. Always be tactful and well-mannered, and teach your subordinates to be the same. Avoid excessive sharpness or harshness of voice, which usually indicates the man who has shortcomings of his own to hide.”

Rommel basked in the praise of Hitler but as time wore on in Africa he became disillusioned by the course of the war, and while maintaining faith in Hitler, he openly despised many of the Nazi elite and his own High Command. While in Africa, Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal but denied the troops and supplies that he needed to successfully hold out in Africa. He opposed efforts to send more troops to Africa and recommended withdrawing his German and Italian soldiers before the Allies closed the door on withdraw across the Mediterranean.

As his troops were being chewed to pieces at El Alamein he requested permission to withdraw to the west. The request was refused and Hitler issued and order to stand in place and not withdraw. Rommel’s words are revealing for a man who had previously trusted Hitler and taken every opportunity from the dictator to advance his career.

“The order demanded the impossible. Even the most devoted soldier can be killed by a bomb. In spite of our unvarnished situation reports, it was apparently still not realized at the Fuehrer’s H.Q. how matters really stood in Africa.  Arms, petrol, and aircraft could have helped us, but not orders. We were completely stunned, and for the first time during the Africa campaign I did not know what to do. A kind of apathy took hold of us as we issued orders for the existing positions to be held on instructions from highest authority. I forced myself to this action, as I had always demanded unconditional obedience from others and, consequently, wished to apply the principle to myself. Had I known what was to come I should have acted differently, because from that time on, we had continually to circumvent orders from the Fuehrer or Duce in order to save the army from destruction. But this first instance of interference by higher authority in the tactical conduct of the African war came as a considerable shock.”

Like most other officers Rommel had served the Hitler regime as it spread its dark pall over Europe without protest. Yet, unlike so many other officers when he suffered a crisis in conscience about the Nazi leadership and their policies, he refused to obey orders that he knew were both illegal and immoral, and then risked his life by joining the conspiracy to kill Hitler.bundesarchiv_bild_146-1991-031-25a_nordafrika_vor_tobruk_rommel

It was at El Alamein that Rommel discovered the emptiness of Hitler’s promises as the troops of the Afrika Corps found themselves subjected to constant privation from lack of supply, air support and reinforcements. As commander of the Afrika Corps and later the Panzer Armee Afrika he and his troops achieved amazing success against an enemy that was always better supplied, equipped and which always had air and sea superiority. Battling the British as well as the political machinations of Mussolini and Germany’s Italian Allies as well as opponents in the German government such as Hermann Goering, Rommel saw his troops crushed under the press of the British as well as the Americans who landed in French North Africa. Eventually, sick and worn out, Rommel was sent back to Germany to recuperate.

rommel-with-soldier

Rommel had a sense of honor and humanity that many other German generals lacked. He refused to allow anti-Jewish measures in areas occupied by German troops in North Africa, ensuring that the approximately 425,000 Jews living in Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco were spared the fate of the Holocaust. He refused to execute Jewish POWs, including members of the Jewish Battalion serving with the British 8th Army. Likewise, Rommel refused to follow the notorious “commando order.” In June of 1994 he protested the massacre of the people of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane by units of the 2nd SS Panzer Division directly to Hitler and asked for the authority to punish those responsible, but was refused.

After his return from Africa, Rommel’s honest and open assessments of the chances of the Germans winning the war made him persona non grata in Berlin and Berchtesgaden. He was posted to France in early 1944 according to some accounts he became a part of the plot to end the war and overthrow Hitler. Rommel’s Chief of Staff at OB West, General Hans Speidel, was a key man in the conspiracy and Rommel had contacts with a number of key conspirators. There are arguments about Rommel’s connections and activities in regard to the anti-Hitler plot among respected historians.

When the invasion came Rommel was away from Normandy visiting his wife. On learning of the invasion he sped back to Normandy. When he arrived he fought a desperate battle against the Allied forces. His outnumbered forces were under constant assault from the land, sea and air received paltry reinforcements compared to the Allies. Even so, German troops inflicted many local defeats and exacted a heavy price in allied blood in Normandy but were ground to dust. Even so, many American and British infantry regiments suffered 100% casualties but remained in action because of a continuous stream of replacements. Rommel urged Hitler and the High Command to withdraw German forces from Normandy before the allies broke through his front. By doing so he found that he was now considered a defeatist.

If Rommel had joined the plot to topple Hitler, he did not stop working to defend Germany against the coming Allied invasion. He believed that the war was lost if his forces failed to repel the Allies on the beaches of France, and he worked feverishly to bolster the beach fortifications. He recommended that the Panzer Divisions be deployed near the coast where they could immediately counterattack Allied invasion forces while they were still vulnerable. But his advice was not taken. He was given command of the Army Group but was not given control of most of the Panzer Divisions, which Hitler kept under his direct control. Neither did he approve of an assassination attempt but realizing that his front was about to collapse he was in favor of independent peace negotiations with the Allies on the Western Front.

Many commanders in the west, including Waffen SS commanders were in agreement Rommel was severely wounded in an air attack on his vehicle by a just days before the attempt on Hitler’s life. Hitler survived the attempted assassination and exacted a terrible revenge on anyone connected with the plot. Show trials and public hangings of officers who had served valiantly at the front were common. Thousands were killed and thousands more imprisoned. Many of those arrested, imprisoned, or killed, were those who knew Rommel’s views on ending the war.

Various conspirator’s testimony exposed Rommel as part of the plot. Leading Nazis, including Martin Bormann, and Heinrich Himmler urged Hitler to deal with Rommel. Likewise, some in the High Command, including Heinz Guderian turned upon Rommel. After a secret hearing it was recommended by the “Court of Military Honor” that Rommel be expelled from the military and tried by the “People’s Court” of Judge Roland Freisler. During the purge that followed the attempt on Hitler’s life, many noted German military commanders were hauled before this court and humiliated by Freisler before they were sent to their deaths. Freisler, a fanatic Nazi judge was a participant at the infamous Wannsee Conference which planned the details of the Final Solution was killed when his courtroom was bombed in February 1945.

On 27 September, Martin Bormann submitted to Hitler a memorandum which claimed that “the late General Stülpnagel, Colonel von Hofacker, Kluge’s nephew who has been executed, Lieutenant Colonel Rathgens, and several … living defendants have testified that Field Marshal Rommel was perfectly in the picture about the assassination plan and has promised to be at the disposal of the New Government.”

Rommel’s fate was sealed, but because of his fame and popularity in Germany Hitler decided to offer Rommel a choice of being tried by the People’s Court or committing suicide. Goebbels who had spent so much time building up the Rommel legend The latter with an offer to ensure his family’s safety, which he would not guarantee if Rommel choose to defend himself in open court. Hitler dispatched Generals Wilhelm Burgdorf and Ernst Maisel from Berlin to personally deliver the message.

492px-Erwin_rommel_death

Rommel suspected that he would be identified and killed and told that to his friends and family in the days leading up to the arrival of Generals Wilhelm Burgorf and Ernst Maisel from OKW with the ultimatum. They met with Rommel for a short time before giving him the opportunity to say goodbye to his family. Rommel told them of his choice and left his home for the last time. 15 minutes later the Generals called his wife to say that he had died of a heart attack. Rommel was given a state funeral and the German people were lied to about his cause of his death.

Winston Churchill wrote of Rommel:

“He also deserves our respect because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, chivalry finds no place … Still, I do not regret or retract the tribute I paid to Rommel, unfashionable though it was judged.”

Rommel was just 52 years old when he died. I find in the story of Rommel some commonality in my own life. Before Rommel went to Africa he believed that Germany would win the war, during his command there he discovered that what he believed was lies and that Hitler had little regard for him or his troops.

Rommel is a complex character. His attitudes towards Hitler waxed and waned. He was no Nazi. He conducted his battles in an honorable manner and displayed much chivalry towards his opponents. His views on race were not at all Nazi like. In North Africa he faced down a White South African commander who did not want to be imprisoned with his Black troops. Rommel told the officer: “For me, soldiers are all equal. Those black people wore your same uniform, fought on your side, and so you will be in the same jail.”

But from the beginning he willingly served Hitler’s regime and basked in the fame that he enjoyed due to Goebbels’s propaganda machine. At the same time while he was according to the Chief of the German Navy in the West, Admiral Friedrich Ruge, as well as his Rommel’s letters to his wife, indicated that Rommel’s mood fluctuated wildly regarding Hitler: while he showed disgust towards the atrocities and disappointment towards the overall military and strategic situation, he was overjoyed to welcome a visit or praise from Hitler, only to return to depression the next day when faced with reality.

The example of Erwin Rommel is a cautionary tale of what can happen when a brilliant and honorable man comes under the spell of a demagogue. Rommel believed Hitler and blindly followed him until he ran into the hard face of reality in Africa at which point he had the moral courage to do the right thing, but many others didn’t.

Sadly there are otherwise honorable men and women in the current United States military that blindly support a delusional madman who happens to be the President: a man who promises to order soldiers to commit war crimes, who threatens to jail political opponents, who condemns whole races of people and religions, who incites violence against his opponents, a man who has no respect for the courts, the law, or the Constitution to which they are sworn to defend.

But I think that we also have to remember the men like Rommel who though not a true believer in the Nazi cause and polices, not only willingly served the Reich, but basked in the adulation lavished on him by friends and foes alike.

To me this is not about partisan politics but something that is bigger than politics, bigger than temporary political advantage, bigger than any single political issue, for which in our country, at least for the moment, that there are many ways to express dissent which were not available to most Germans of Rommel’s era. It is about the Constitution, the rule of law, and the foundational principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Personally, as a historian I cannot understand the blind obedience in the face of the evidence; but then I blindly followed President George Bush into the ill-advised and criminal invasion of Iraq. It was in the desert of Iraq’s Al Anbar Province that I had my own revelation that the man I supported had led the country into a war that could not be won. Like Rommel at El Alamein, it opened my eyes to things that I had never seen before.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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The High Cost of Two Battleships: Churchill, Turkey and a Decision that Still Effects us Today

churchill1914

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One of the more interesting and overlooked factors in the days leading up to the First World War, which had significant ramifications in the Middle East involved Winston Churchill. Churchill was serving as First Lord of the Admiralty and made a decision which ensured the Ottoman Empire would be pushed into an alliance with Germany.

For many years Britain had been the chief supplier of ships for the Ottoman Navy. In fact in the years leading up to World War One the Ottomans had purchased over 40 ships from Great Britain and on August 2nd 1914 was expecting to take delivery of two, extremely modern Dreadnoughts, the Sultan Osman I and the Reshadieh. The Sultan Osman was armed with fourteen 12” guns, the Reshadieh with ten 13” guns, making them the equal or superior to most battleships afloat. The Turkish Government had paid over 4 billion Pounds for the ships and made the final payment on August 2nd shortly before the Turkish Captain and 500 crew members were to come aboard for a ceremony formally handing over the ship to the Turkish Navy.

HMS_Agincourt_1915

HMS Agincourt 

Much of the money the Turks used to pay for the ships came from the donations of ordinary Turkish citizens. Money came from taverns, from cafes, schools, Mosques and markets. Those that donated were awarded a commemorative medal, the ships were the pride of Turkey and the empire. The nation awaited the delivery of the ships which would ensure the superiority of the Turkish Navy against its traditional foe, Russia.

HMS_Erin

HMS Erin

As War approached Churchill began to prepare, keeping many of his plans and actions even from the government. Less than an hour before the ceremony Churchill ordered the ships seized and and the Royal Navy kept the Turkish Captain and crew locked aboard a nearby transport. The Turkish Captain later wrote:

“… We paid the last installment (700.000 Turkish liras). The manufacturer and we agreed on that the ships would be hand over on 2 August 1914. Nevertheless, after we made our payment and half an hour before the ceremony, the British declared that they have requisitioned the ships… Although we have protested, nobody paid attention.”

Churchill had gained two modern Dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy, and the British shipyards kept the money, the Turks were never compensated for the loss. The ships were renamed HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin. Both served throughout the war and at the Battle of Jutland, and bother were scrapped in the early 1920s due to the restrictions of the Washington Naval Treaty.

SMS_Goeben-ptbow3

SMS Goeben

But in the process whereby the British gained the ships, ensured that Turkey would ally itself with Germany. The positive effects were mitigated by the Germans providing the very modern dreadnought type  Molkte ClassBattlecruiser Goeben and Light Cruiser Breslau to the Turks, giving them the edge over the Russians. Breslau was mined and sunk in 1918 but Goeben served in the Turkish Navy as the Yavuz Sultan Selim until she was decommissioned in 1954, and scrapped in 1973.

Likewise, Churchill’s decision meant that when Turkey entered the war that the strategically important Bosporus strait which was Russia’s only year round access to foreign shipping was closed, keeping Britain and France from being able to supply their Russian ally. The ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, launched by Churchill was the attempt to break the Turkish stranglehold, and the costly failure of that operation helped ensure the defeat of Russia and the overthrow of the Czar..

In the long term it had affects that we are still feeling the today. The entry or Turkey into the war and the subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the catalyst for the arbitrary borders drawn by the allies across the Middle East. We still suffer the result today.

Had Turkey remained neutral throughout the war, or even sided with the allies the course of history might be far different. We don’t know, but the Ottoman Empire might have endured or it might have peacefully morphed into something different.

Churchill’s decision turned out to be one of the more important, and less known events before the war broke out, and certainly we still feel the ramifications today. Actions have consequences, and sometimes what seems expedient to give a tactical edge, sometimes has far reaching strategic consequences. Consequences that sometimes linger for generations. In particular, the Trump administration needs to wake up to how their present policies will effect the world for the next century or more.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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The Night the Lamps Went Out in Europe: August 3rd 1914

Sir Edward Grey Addresses the House of Commons

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One hundred and four years ago the political and military leaders of Europe embarked on a catastrophic war, the results of which are still with us over a century later.

The mobilization of millions of soldiers across Europe was moving rapidly as the sun set on the night of August 2nd 1914 when the German Ambassador to Belgium Klaus Bulow-Selaske delivered an ultimatum to the Belgian government. The ultimatum gave the Belgians 12 hours to decide if they would allow the German armies free passage through the country. The Belgians, treasuring their independence and led by a truly heroic leader, the young and humble King Albert, refused the German ultimatum and vowed to fight.

The next morning the British House of Commons met and for the first time since 1893 every member was present, with many spectators also in attendance. It was a dramatic event, as for the first time in 100 years Britain’s participation in a war on the European Continent was being debated. Britain was divided between those who wanted to intervene and non-interventionists. In a high pressure situation where the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, France, Germany, and little Belgium were mobilizing for war the was on His Majesty’s Government to make a decision.

The British Foreign Minister, Sir Edward Grey urged giving support to France. He told the assembled Members of Parliament about, British military understandings with France, and the German ultimatum to Belgium. Grey asked them whether Britain “would quietly stand by and witness the perpetration of the dirtiest crime that ever stained the pages of history, and thus become participators in the sin.” He added that “we are going to suffer, I am afraid in this war, whether we are in it or stand aside.” If Britain dis stand aside, forfeiting her “Belgian Treaty obligations” the she would “sacrifice our respect and good name and reputation before the world.” Grey had not convinced everyone, but he had carried the day. However, the Germans did not believe that Britain would go to war over Belgium.

At seven that evening the German Ambassador to France Baron Schoen delivered a declaration of war against France, his counterpart in Berlin, the French Ambassador was given his passports.

As Grey pondered the content of an ultimatum to be sent to Berlin he returned to his office in Whitehall. “Watching with his failing eyes, the lamps being lit in St. James Park, Grey was heard to remark that “the lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them again in our lifetime.”

The next morning the German army began its assault on the Belgian fortress city of Liege. That afternoon Poincare and Foreign Minister Viviani addressed the combined houses of the French Parliament, asking for war credits, discussing German violations of French territory and “implored the deputies, and the French people “to help us in bearing the burden of our heavy responsibility, the comfort of a clear conscience and the conviction that we have done our duty.”

The members of all parties, from the nationalists, the Catholic right and the Socialists overwhelming committed themselves to a sacred union. Poincare recalled later “Never has there been a spectacle as magnificent as that which they have just participated….In the memory of man, there has never been anything more beautiful in France.”

Bethmann-Hollweg Addresses the Reichstag

In Berlin Prime Minister Bethmann-Hollweg accused the French of violating German borders and of the Russian mobilization. He asked the Reichstag deputies “Were we to wait in further patience until the nations on either side of us chose the moment for their attack?” He was interrupted with cries of “No! No!”

Bethmann went on and admitted that Germany had violated Belgian territory and that it was a “breach of international law” ironically what he had just accused the French of doing, but Bethmann promised that “this wrong- I speak openly-the wrong we thereby commit we will try to make good as soon as our military aims have been attained.” Grand Admiral Tirpitz considered the admission of wrongdoing “the greatest blunder ever spoken by a German statesman.”

Bethmann called the nation to stand behind the military and as in France “Reichstag party leaders rose as one to vote war credits.”

A similar ultimatum was delivered to Russia by the German Ambassador and a similar scene repeated as Russia declared war.

That evening the British Ambassador to Germany Sir Edward Goschen paid a visit to Foreign Minister Jagow with a British ultimatum for the Germans to withdraw from Belgium within twelve hours, or face war. Bethmann, who had helped lead his nation into war believing that the British would remain neutral was stunned. Likewise, none had counted on the Russians to fight. The Germans had given Austria-Hungary a “blank check” and that nation’s leaders cashed it with grave consequences for the world. Austria’s actions led to Czar Nicholas making the fateful decision to mobilize on July 29th, which set Europe on course for war.

There was no turning back, in four hours the two greatest military powers in the world, Great Britain and Germany would be at war.

All all of the leaders in their speeches had left out information that would be embarrassing to their claims in their addresses, duplicity was the order of the day. The lights were going out across Europe. And the leaders of all of the nations, with the exception of Belgium shared some degree of responsibility.

The questions for us today are similar: Will all of our leaders allow the lights to go out again, not just in Europe but the Middle East and Asia? and will world leaders allow some foolish action somewhere to bring about more war?

Admittedly the situation is not identical, but there are troubling similarities. It is something to think long and hard about.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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