Tag Archives: World War II

A Frozen Hell

51m1TGDWHPL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgFinland alone, in danger of death—superb, sublime Finland—shows what free men can do. —Winston Churchill

And Trotter, the author of the superb book A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, shows what fine historians can do. Not sure how I found this book, but after visiting Finland last summer I wanted to learn more about the history of my distant ancestors. When this one popped up on Goodreads and had a good rating, I checked it out from the library, and am glad I did.

Like the “Phony War” of mainland Europe, which was playing out at the same time, the Winter War was a kind of prelude to the main events that would devastate the rest of the hemisphere. Trotter posits that Stalin didn’t actually want to go to war with Finland. Considering Russia’s close relations with Finland in the past and seeing Germany’s advance through Europe, Stalin saw Finland’s value as a buffer between Russia and Scandinavia, and thought his demands for some of Finland’s Baltic islands reasonable.

But Finland thought otherwise. After the rejection of Stalin’s ultimatum and a “who shot first?” controversy (it was Russia, who then claimed it was Finland to publicly justify their preemptive belligerence—they were expelled from the League of Nations for it) the Winter War was off and running. Or rather, lumbering. Though equipped with far more soldiers, artillery, tanks, and supplies, the Russians were an unwieldly force in unfamiliar terrain, making them easy targets for the dug-in Finns, who were well-acquianted with the snowy forests and much better prepared for the frigid siege. The Red Army had also been gutted of its senior officers and commanders thanks to Stalin’s “Great Purge” of the late 1930s, so it was partially a self-inflicted debilitation.

The Finns’ homefield advantage made sabotage and survival the keys to survival. The Finnish commander Mannerheim didn’t even expect total victory, knowing the disparity of men and munitions was against the Finns; “the most honorable annihilation” was what he expected. After a long battle of attrition between two armies unprepared for sustained combat—and a Russian surge months after they expected to win once Stalin was sufficiently fed up with the incompetence—that’s what they got.

But even on so brutal a battlefield, there were some funny moments:

Propaganda efforts by both sides were amateurish and negligible in effect. During the so-called January lull in the Isthmus fighting, the Russians began using loudspeaker trucks to broadcast propaganda programs toward Finnish lines. The Finns started looking forward to them, since the music was refreshing and the Red artillery had orders to cease firing during the playing of Kuusinen’s speeches so the Finns would not miss a word. The Finns used these interludes to “make a break for the head.”

The Finns also weren’t very impressed with the paper the propaganda was printed on:

Leaflets by the million were airdropped all over Finland, promising an improved standard of living. They were printed on such grossly inferior paper stock that the Finns, many of whom knew a thing or two about the paper industry, disdained to use them in their latrines. In the leaflets Finnish workers were promised an eight-hour day, something they had already enjoyed, by law, for the past twenty years.

Also thought it was funny how even on the frontlines the Finns wouldn’t be denied their saunas:

For many of the encircled Soviet troops, just staying alive, for one more hour or one more day, was an ordeal comparable to combat. Freezing, hungry, crusted with their own filth (while the besieging Finns, a thousand meters away, might be enjoying a sauna-bath), for them the central forest was truly a snow-white hell.

The war ended once the Soviets changed tactics and were finally able to overwhelm the exhausted Finnish troops. Though Finland had to cede some land, Stalin’s dream of annexing Finland as a whole wasn’t to be, and Finland would remain the only Baltic state to remain independent from the Soviet Union. Hostilities would renew three months later in the Continuation War, which coincided with Operation Barbarossa and would see Finland fighting with Nazi Germany as “co-belligerents” against Russia. The enemy of their enemy was their friend, I guess.

Like many a military history, A Frozen Hell often gets too far into the weeds of troop formations and movements for my taste. But it shines when focusing on the grander strategies and diplomatic endeavors of the belligerents, and especially the ground-level experience of the men in the trenches. Highly recommended.

The Man In The High Castle

Not long after we subscribed to Amazon Prime did I check out the pilot of The Man in the High Castle. I’d heard some good regard for the show, but didn’t think to seek it out until it was suddenly available to me. Boy am I glad I did.

Set in 1962, the show exists in a world where fifteen years previous the Allies lost World War II, the U.S. was atom-bombed, occupied, and divided between Germany and Japan into the Greater German Reich (east of the Rockies) and Japanese Pacific States (west of the Rockies). Times Square is blanketed with swastikas (but no ads), Judaism has been outlawed, and with Hitler close to death the Japanese and German empires are bracing for war. Amidst the political and societal intrigue, the stories of the characters we follow orbit around the pursuit of mysterious film newsreels that show alternate histories of the war and its aftermath. The source of the reels, the unseen Man in the High Castle, seems to be head of a guerrilla resistance force trying to undermine the authoritarian states — for all we know.

In addition to having one of the more haunting title sequences I’ve ever seen (above), the show blends three of my interests—historical counterfactuals, dystopia, and World War II—seamlessly into the background of a narrative arc that lets us see the inner workings of a tenuous alliance between the two Axis powers. The show is ingenious at working in small world-building details, either through dialogue or in the background—like when a Nazi police officer mentions offhand how the elderly are regularly euthanized and exterminated so as not to be a “burden on the State.”

To me, the most interesting character of season one—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—is the Nazi. Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, a high-ranking SS officer charged with tracking down the remaining film reels and quelling the Resistance. Sewell’s icy, devilish demeanor, mixed with his character’s white-picket-fence, all-American (or rather all-German) lifestyle, provides ample ground for a fascinating character study. Frank (Rupert Evans) is another intriguing character: a downtrodden laborer concealing his Jewish identity who gets tangled up with the newsreels and has to make some brutal decisions after being imprisoned by the Japanese military police.

What I love about counterfactuals is pondering the questions they conjure. Is there anything better about this show’s reality than ours? What does ours share in common with it, and how it is vastly different? It also made me better sympathize with societies that have been occupied, subjugated, and made to accept a new culture. Americans have never experienced that; in fact, throughout history we’ve always been the occupiers and the subjugators, imposing our values and military might in other lands under the banner of liberty. Optimists will say our actions were justified for the sake of spreading democracy, but realists know otherwise. Of course, I’m not equating U.S. foreign policy to the Nazi and Japanese empires in The Man in the High Castle. But I am inspired to decide how and why America is different.

It’s a dark show, no doubt about it. But after some key points in the first few episodes, the gears propel toward a climax and the next season’s continuation that I’m really looking forward to.

(Also, I had no idea how much of the show was CGI-generated, which this video illustrates; I really couldn’t tell while watching it, and even wondered how they got away with displaying so much Nazi paraphernalia.)

The Weight Of History

We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiraling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies.   —Shirley Abbott

Today, as on every veterans’ themed day, I thought of my grandfather. A lieutenant in Patton’s Third Army in World War II, he earned a Bronze Star for bravery. It is now on display at my parents’ house, encased with the citation letter and his other decorations and badges. He later served under Hoover in the FBI, stationed in Superior, WI, because he could speak Finnish.

It’s funny how something small like that – being able to speak a foreign language – can affect the future so drastically. Had he not been assigned to northern Wisconsin, my grandparents would have never built the cabin on the lake I cherished visiting as a kid. And if we go Back to the Future Part II alternate-reality on this, maybe I would not have even been born. It’s a scary thought.

But that’s why I’m so grateful to my grandpa and all of those in my family line who lived as they lived, for better and for worse. We cannot escape history, as Lincoln said seven score and ten years ago. Everything our family was and is, we are too. This thought may disturb some, but for me it’s a blessing. I consider myself fortunate to have a grandfather from whom I most assuredly inherited my love of history, desire to learn new words, and my penchant for crossword puzzles and squinting.

So more than a simple thank-you for military service, let’s take days like Memorial Day to remember our ancestral heritage and cherish all that our progenitors gave us.

The War by Ken Burns

I’m still working my way through it, but I’ve already come to appreciate Ken Burns’ seven-part 2007 miniseries The War.

Burns explains in the making-of feature that he wanted to show the war not through historians but through average citizens, men and women and children from every corner of the country who endured the front lines abroad or did their part at home. He focuses on four towns—one in California, Minnesota, Alabama, and Connecticut—and uses interviews with the veterans and their families from those towns to make the enormous scope of World War II more intimate.

It’s a great historical record of the American involvement, delving deep into topics that are not often discussed like Japanese internment and the segregation of minorities in the Army. Burns employs his trademark use of photos, footage, and interviews in each scene. Some photos we’ve seen before, but most are new and show us a different view of what has become a very familiar war.

Norah Jones’ “American Anthem,” the series’ theme, is very good, though not as good as the theme for Burns’ The Civil War, called “Ashokan Farewell.” And while I really love David McCullough’s narration in The Civil War, actor Keith David’s here has quickly grown on me.

So if you have 15 hours to spare one these days, fill them with The War.

Forty-One

I’m watching the video tribute to George H. W. Bush at the Republican National Convention. It reminded me how great a person and American he is. World War II fighter pilot, Congressman, Ambassador to the U.N., envoy to China, Director of the CIA, Vice-President, and finally, President — there are few public servants with such a record.

Seeing him at the ripe age of 84, he reminded me of my grandpa Cliff, both by his appearance and by his resume. Grandpa Cliff served as a lieutenant in Patton’s Third Army, trudging through the Battle of the Bulge, then through decades of service in the FBI. Both men are decorated members of the Greatest Generation.

I watched the Bush Sr. episode of American Experience a while back and it explained that regardless of some of Bush Sr.’s decisions in office, he held true to his own code of honor and dignity. That code guided him through some tough times and hard decisions. Even when the decisions were unpopular. Perhaps we’ll be thinking the same things about 41’s son Dubya one day. Or not.