30 October 2006

Poles Seeking to Settle German WWII Territorial Claims

Sounds like a headline from August 1939.

This time, it is the Poles who are pushing the German government to have its citizens finally renounce property claims from the end of WWII. Ever since Poland was shifted west to accommodate Stalin's larger Soviet Union, German private citizens have maintained claims on the property that they left behind in the now-Polish territory.

Now that Poland and a reunified Germany no longer have issues of larger Cold War politics dominating policy, a newly nationalistic Polish government would like to see these claims renounced. With the exception of ongoing issues with the Kurile Islands, this seems to be one of the few WWII territorial issues still floating around.

It seems like more festering territorial issues of the 21st century were born at Versailles, than at Tehran, Yalta, or Potsdam.


27 October 2006

Royal Navy X-Men

No, I'm not talking about the Marvel Comics mutants here.

Instead, I'm referring to the volunteers who served aboard the British Royal Navy's experimental midget submarines. The four-man submarines were known as X-Craft, and hence their crews as X-Men. I hadn't heard the term used until recently when I saw a BBC documentary on the 'Lost Heroes' of Operation Source.

Three 50-foot midget submarines traversed over a thousand miles (much under tow), infiltrated a Norwegian fjord under heavy guard, and managed to damage the German battleship Tirpitz so badly that she didn't put to sea for over six months.

All 3 subs used in the attack were lost, and the commanders of two of them were awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry.

It seems to me that WWII is unique for being so full of astounding actions by all parties. While Source was certainly one of the war's greatest raids, it was not the only one. The list of such actions, both long-planned and performed extemporaneously, seems at times absurdly long.

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24 October 2006

They Just Don't Build Them Like That Anymore...

Happy United Nations Day!

Today, I feel I must take a moment to praise the designers of the Russian T-34 tank. Wehrmacht forces were very unpleasantly surprised to discover this advanced and highly capable design in Russian hands when they invaded in 1941. The highly touted German Panther tank was built in response to the hard lessons that the T-34 taught.

But did anyone rushing these machines off of assembly lines during war-time really expect them to still work in 50-60 years? Protestors in Hungary's capital of Budapest apparently had the gumption to try it out. There is something very strange about having Hungarian protestors use a Russian T-34 tank against what they feel is a corrupt government during the 50th anniversary celebration of the Hungarian Uprising. But who thought the thing would still work?

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20 October 2006

'Flags of Our Fathers' Receiving Positive Reviews

So far, everyone seems to be giving nothing but praise for Clint Eastwood's new movie about the men in the famous flag-raising photo on Iwo Jima.

I am very glad to hear that the movie does recognize that its central image of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi was in fact the second such flag-raising. The central part of the story revolves around the three surviving men from the photo who were whisked home to sell war bonds and their various ways of dealing with their special treatment.

Long discussions of Eastwood's "elegant filmmaking technique with an almost experimental storytelling structure" leave me rather cold. I was in no way a fan of "Unforgiven" or "Million Dollar Baby".

The default setting of showing heroism (or propaganda about heroism in this case) only through flashback is a bit troubling. Yes, America is losing more WWII vets a day now than during the height of the fighting, but this storytelling trope has the unnerving affect of forcing more recent generations (especially the Baby Boomers) into a narrative that never truly involved them in the first place. Is the GI Generation so foreign to Americans now that we can only empathize with them through an intermediary generational gap?

One reviewer called 'Flags' an unrepentant 'old man's movie.' But which old men are we talking about, those of the generation who were there, or a younger generation who is suddenly feeling their age?

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18 October 2006

Mystery Bullet in Remains of HMAS Sydney II Crewman

One of the unanswered mysteries of WWII, the final fate of the Australian light cruiser Sydney II, has just gotten a bit stranger. As this article states, Australian authorities have finally exhumed the remains of a man assumed to have escaped from the Sydney before she sank. No one seems to know why he would have a bullet from a handgun in his head though.

The accepted story is that in November 1941 the German merchant raider Kormoran on a patrol in the Indian Ocean, lured the more heavily armed Sydney into a point-blank engagement and left the Australian ship burning as she sailed away to the south. The Kormoran herself was so badly damaged that she was scuttled shortly after.

The wreck of the Sydney has never been found and no survivors were located.

Those with a more conspiracy and pulp-fiction bend of mind wonder if in fact the ship didn't sink, but instead was captured by the dreaded Antarctic Space Nazis!

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13 October 2006

Echoes of WWII

A scan of today's news brings up a few interesting parallels between events today and and those of sixty-odd years ago.

First, the play "In Times of War" by David Alan Moore is playing in Chicago. Most Americans now are going to come out of this portrayal of the military tribunal trial of would-be Nazi saboteurs with thoughts of Guantánamo Bay and recent Congressional legislation on the handling of terrorism 'detainees'. However, the story itself, of a reluctant Nazi commando and his pricipled Jewish defense attorney, stands fine on its own. Most Americans have never heard of this story or even suspected that German agents had been landed on American soil.

Elsewhere, Adam Gadahn has the dubious honor of being the first U.S. citizen to be formally charged with treason since the immediate post-WWII era. With the recent passing of Iva Toguri D'Aquino, who was convicted of treason (and later pardoned) for her role as Tokyo Rose, the issue of the use of treason law to punish propagandists is once again before us all.

WWII parallels don't magically make today's news clearer, but we should know that many have been down these paths before. It is worthwhile to examine the maps that they drew for us.

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12 October 2006

Why a blog on WWII?

When I was a kid, I was a sucker for the epic, the grand, the titanic battle between good and evil. That's World War II in a nutshell. Especially WWII as it's represented by most of the media right now.

As I grew up, I realized that the topic was much more complex -- even fractally complex -- and much more interesting because of it. From the sweeping strategies of world empires locked in a duel to the death to the thoughts running through the mind of the 19-year-old kid who was the first off the boat at Normandy, it's infinitely nuanced.

Alas, a lot of the scholarship on WWII these days is ... fawning. Brokaw's paeans to the "Greatest Generation" and Clint Eastwood's facile movies are unfortunate because they reduce what was a real, human, and subtle conflict to a cheap (if grand) myth.

I don't mean to demean the roles of the soldiers -- my two grandfathers both served, one in each theater. But I think that a deeper understanding of the world they lived allows me to appreciate their courage and sacrifices more thoroughly than I would if I just accepted the Hollywood gloss on the war. There are more stories than we can possibly cover in one movie -- from the purely evil (beheading contests on the streets of Nanking) to the nearly saintly (the fishermen at Dunkirk). But most of them are somewhere in between and I don't think it's demeaning to point out that it wasn't all good and evil back then. It was much more interesting.