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September 16, 2019

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Short Rounds

“I’m Sorry, Your Imperial Majesty, but . . . .”

During Tsar Peter the Great’s famous tour of western Europe in the late 1690s, King William III graciously sent a squadron of warships to escort the Russian emperor to England. On January 9, 1698, the Tsar boarded HMS Yorke at Helvoetsluis, in the Netherlands, bound for England. Yorke was the flagship of Adm. Sir David Mitchell. Sir David was an old sea dog who had made a considerable reputation for himself during the Nine Years’ War. He took pains to make the Tsar and his party comfortable.

The Tsar, of course, was an intensely curious man, and asked an enormous number of questions. Sir David patiently answered every one, at times having his officers, petty officers, and even common seamen supply technical explanations of the ship’s construction and equipment, while providing a running commentary on the organization, policies, technology, and tactics of the Royal Navy.

At one point, the Tsar inquired as to what methods were used in the event that a sailor required corporal punishment. Sir David patiently explained the various degrees of physical penalties that could be inflicted, describing them in order of severity until he reached keel hauling, the most severe possible punishment short of hanging (the infamous “bird cage” having been abolished a generation earlier).

Keel hauling piqued the Tsar’s interest. He asked a number of detailed questions. Sir David endeavored to answer them as best he could. But the Tsar was not satisfied. He asked if a demonstration could be arranged. The Admiral demurred, observing that there was no one in the fleet at the time who merited so severe a penalty.

The Tsar thought about this for a moment and then said, “Well in that case, take one of my men.”

It took a great deal of persuasion on Sir David’s part to convince the Tsar that the laws of England would not permit such a demonstration.

 

Poison Gas Usage During World War I

The Germans initiated the use of chemical weapons at Ypres in 1915. By the end of the war, the major combatants were all using gas to vary degrees. And despite the greater industrial resources of her opponents, Germany maintained its advantage in chemical weapons until the end of the war, expending more agents than all of the Allied powers combined.
Chemical Agents Expended, 1915-1918
(in thousands of tons)
Country 1915 1916 1917 1918 Total
Britain -- 2.0 4.0 8.0 14.0
France -- 4.0 6.0 15.0 25.0
Italy -- 0.5 2.5 3.0 6.0
United States -- -- -- 1.5 1.5
Allied Total -- 6.5 12.5 27.5 46.5
Austria-Hungary -- 1.0 2.5 6.0 9.5
Germany 4.0 6.0 15.0 30.0 55.0
Central Powers Total 4.0 7.0 17.5 36.0 64.5
Total 4.0 13.5 30.0 63.5 111.0

When first introduced gas caused considerable panic, a characteristic of its use that continued until the end of the war. But in fact it was among the least lethal of the many weapons used in the war. Even the most deadly of the agents used, yperite, was fatal in less than 4-percent of cases.

 

The Volga Germans Meet the Hitler-Stalin Pact

As part of her efforts to modernize Russia, in the early 1760s Tsarina Catherine the Great decided to recruit colonists from Germany to settle some of the sparsely populated steppe along the River Volga. By making many favorable concessions, such as freedom of religion, immunity from serfdom, lower taxes, and exemption from military service, she managed to attract a great many settlers. This success was aided by the fact that Germany had just emerged from the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), and life was hard in some ravaged districts. Thus, between 1763 and 1772 about 30,000 colonists, mostly from the Palatinate and Hesse, were settled in over 100 villages and towns along the Volga.

Initially the colonists found life difficult. Conditions were primitive, the winters were much more extreme than they had been back in Germany, there were occasional raids by marauding Kalmuk and Kirghiz tribesmen, and, worst of all, there was Pugachev’s Rebellion of 1773-1774. But gradually life got better, and the communities thrived. By the late nineteenth century the “Volga German” settlements were among the most prosperous communities in Russia. Then came World War I.

By 1914 the Volga Germans numbered perhaps two million people. Because they had retained their German language and culture, their loyalties were called into question by many Russians, despite the fact that many of them were serving loyally in the ranks of the armed forces (the exemption from military service having been rescinded many years earlier). A number of new legal restrictions were imposed and some communities were relocated further eastwards. On top of that came the overthrow of the Tsar in early 1917, and then the Communist takeover the following October.

The Soviets instituted a special “Autonomous Socialistic Soviet Republic of the Volga Germans,” with its capital at a town renamed in honor of Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s collaborator. But they also instituted a severe persecution of the Volga Germans, both for their staunch religious beliefs and because they all seemed to be “kulaks – wealthy peasants” – and thus automatically exploiters of the working class. Then came the Soviet-induced famine, which cost many lives. Soviet persecution increased during the 1930s, with the rise of the Nazi regime in German, and regional autonomy was abolished. But this all changed rather suddenly on August 23, 1939.

On that date the Soviets concluded a pact with the Nazis, by which the two allegedly hostile regimes allied themselves for the purpose of plundering Europe. Since Hitler was now Stalin’s partner, the pact brought an abrupt end to Soviet persecution of the Volga Germans. The community was “rehabilitated.” Volga German regional autonomy was restored, and Marx’s German roots highly touted.

For a time, the German-Soviet alliance looked quite solid. In both Germany and Russia there was even talk of Hitler and Stalin exchanging state visits at some point. The Soviets actually prepared an itinerary for Hitler, which quite naturally included a tour of some of the more prosperous Volga German communities. This, of course, never came to pass. On June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded Russia and changed the whole program. Once again, the Volga Germans came under enormous suspicion.

Alarmed by a few instances of actual subversive activity by some Volga Germans (an infinitesimal percentage of the population), the NKVD decided to “test” the loyalty of the Volga Germans.

In August of 1941, even as Hitler’s hordes were shattering the Red Army at the front, some Soviet airborne troops were provided with German uniforms and dropped near German villages. If the local people welcomed the apparently German troops, whole villages were wiped out. On the other hand, villages that resisted the “German” attackers were considered to be loyal, though not for long. Red Army troops soon spread through the region in search of hidden arms, radios, and other evidence of treason. It was often found. In fact, many swastika flags turned up in the villages, demonstrable proof of “treason.” Of course, no one in the NKVD cared to point out that the flags had been provided by the Soviet foreign ministry during the period of friendship with Germany, in anticipation of the planned visit by the Führer!

By the end of 1941 many thousands of Volga Germans had been executed, while c. 800,000 more had been exiled to Siberia, where many more would die. It was not until the mid-1950s, after Stalin’s death, that the Soviet government lifted the worst restrictions on the surviving Volga Germans, perhaps a million people, and not for another decade was anything resembling an apology offered.

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