Monday, April 28, 2008

Burn, baby, burn!

From an eBay auction currently in progress:


[. . .]


Mmm, nicely basted with oregano oil, then singed :)

P.S. How on earth did a person as illiterate as this get into the business of selling books on eBay?



Saturday, April 26, 2008

BOOK: G. R. Elford, "Devil's Guard" (cont.)

George Robert Elford: Devil's Guard. London: New English Library, 1973. (First ed.: New York, Delacorte Press, 1971.) SBN 450013367. 349 pp.

[Continued from last week.]

More of Wagemueller's political ideas

He also has a very annoying tendency to refer to the Viet Minh as ‘terrorists’ — he uses this term pretty much interchangeably with ‘guerrillas’. Apparently then this regrettable inflation of the use of the word ‘terrorist’ is not just a characteristic of the present Bush regime but goes back much farther in time. Anyway, I think it's silly to regard the Viet Minh as terrorists — they were a perfectly decent guerrilla force, leading a perfectly ordinary guerrilla war. Terrorism consists of acts of violence against innocent people, carried out with the purpose of intimidating the population of a certain area (or a part of that population). If, on the other hand, you are simply killing foreign soldiers and colonial administrators that are occupying your country, this isn't terrorism but a perfectly ordinary struggle for national liberation. Not that there's anything inherently wrong with terrorism, of course — it depends on its goals; in most instances it's entirely reasonable — but I'm annoyed at this silly blurring of the distinction between the words ‘terrorists’ and ‘guerrillas’.

He doesn't hide his admiration for the way that totalitarian systems can impose an illusion of order. After praising WW2-era Japanese maps of the Indochinese peninsula, he rants on: “There was good order in Japan — as there used to be in Germany. The French housekeeping was nothing but a giant whorehouse from maps to machine guns. Nothing ever functioned properly. Not even the water closets.” (P. 107.)

The communist press

Wagemueller often whines about the fact that the communists have much better PR than their enemies. See e.g. pp. 91, 250. His French commanding officer, colonel Houssong, approves of Wagemueller's methods but says (p. 179–80): “Your methods might pass occasionally and locally, but they would never survive for a week on any large scale. I know that your Heinrich Himmler would have settled the Viet Minh problem a long time ago with Zyclon-B (poison gas used by the Nazis in the extermination camps) and the crematorium but France is supposed to be a democracy. The terrorists are firmly entrenched in the world's opinion as resolute heroes who are fighting a modern military power with bows and spears, striving only for independence and human rights. No one has ever protested against any Viet Minh outrage, although I could show them a list of thirty thousand civilians slaughtered by the Communists in cold blood. All the same when we execute a terrorist with the blood of a hundred people on his hands, the execution is headlined even in America, let alone Europe and its Communist press, as another French war crime. Whenever we touch a filthy killer, there are demonstrations and protests. They would even call us Nazis, Wagemueller.”

It's a pity that Wagemueller and Houssong don't draw the obvious conclusions from these observations. The communists get better PR because they are in fact fighting for a good cause. It's the French that are the morally bankrupt side in this war. Despite what Wagemueller says on p. 78, it was not the Viet Minh who started this — no Vietnamese communist had ever attempted to colonize France. No, it was the French who started it, more than a hundred years earlier, when they began interfering in Indochinese matters.

And the other conclusion that they should have drawn is that if you want to seize another nation's land you should take care to exterminate (or assimilate, but that's more difficult) its previous inhabitants. Since this is obviously a horrible thing to do, it's far better to not seize other nations' lands in the first place. But whatever you do, don't just proclaim that they're a colony of yours, set up a handful of bureaucrats and officers and then whine when the local population starts shooting at them. It's tiresome, annoying and the imperialist tends to lose in the long term anyway.

Also on the subject of communist PR, Wagemueller complains that the communists had a habit of rearranging the corpses of their dead so as to make it seem that the French had murdered innocent civillians, which of course made for great propaganda photos (pp. 249, 265). And, eventually, it was communist PR that led to the international pressure that caused the French to disband Wagemueller's unit (pp. 347–8; “ ‘SS marauders in the French Foreign Legion massacre innocent civilians,’ the Communist press screamed. [. . .] And what the regiments of Ho Chi Minh could not achieve in five years the international Communist fifth column accomplished in five weeks. We were ordered to return to Hanoi.”)


There are also a couple of rants about the conditions in postwar Germany, pp. 16, 331–2.

Chapter 12 is interesting — Wagemueller and his men organize a ‘panel discussion’ with a captured communist agitator (whom they subsequently release), to argue for and against the merits of communism in front of a group of simple Vietnamese villagers. But I must admit that I wasn't particularly impressed with either side in this debate. The communist agitator mostly contents himself with trotting out lots of tired over-the-top communist propaganda and repeatedly pointing out that his opponents are colonialist imperialist murderers. Wagemueller's side mostly content themselves with pointing out that their opponents are communist murderers and that communism has already degenerated into tyranny in the Soviet Union and in China.

But, surely, it's all so simple — there's no very good reason why communism should necessarly descend into tyranny. In my impression it has historically usually done that because of the presence of external and/or internal enemies. If it wasn't for that, no tyranny would really be necessary. You just have to point out to the peasant what proportion of his income is seized by the rich landowner, and point out to the worker what proportion of his income is seized by the capitalist and the factory bosses; once they realize this, the vast majority of the people will support land reform and a nationalization of the economy, and that's pretty much it. No tyranny required. At the very worst you might have to kill the rich classes, but that's just a handful of people (especially in a country with huge inequalities in wealth, such as Vietnam no doubt was at the time), and nobody is going to miss them. Once that is over with, there's no very good reason why everyone wouldn't be able to get along just fine, and everything would continue pretty much the same as before the revolution, except that it isn't necessary to feed a class of parasitic capitalist exploiters any longer, so that a lot more stuff is left for everyone else.

Chapter 14 is also very interesting — Wagemueller is interviewed by a group of French journalists and takes the opportunity to advocate the use of his Nazi methods (“We met guerrillas in Russia. When they gave us too much trouble within a specific area, we carted off the entire male population to Germany. Two days later there was no terrorist movement in the district.” (p. 277)) and indulge in yet more anti-communist rantings and general geopolitical bloviation (pp. 278–81).

Here's an example of a particularly rich anti-communist rant from p. 78: “Genocide is a Communist specialty. Even Hitler's extermination camps were modeled after Stalin's death camps in Siberia.”

He brags on p. 109, commenting on a successful move against the Viet Minh: “encirclement had always been a German specialty.” Yup, it worked marvellously at Stalingrad... :)))

Bibliographic history

Incidentally, this book is somewhat hard to get at an affordable price. I found this somewhat surprising; after the first hardcover edition (NY: Delacorte, 1971), there were a number of trade paperback printings (Dell in the US, and New English Library in the UK), the last of which were published as late as 1988. So one would expect that there should be plenty of copies of this book; and yet apparently there is such a shortage of copies and such a high demand that secondhand copies on eBay are actually attracting bids in the $50–$100 range, and you can see copies for sale for as much as £100 on, Amazon and similar sites; I suppose someone eventually buys those as well. I'm surprised that it doesn't get reprinted in larger quantities if there's so much interest in it. There was a new printing in 2002 by Hailer Publishing, but as far as I can tell, this is also out of print and secondhand copies on ABE aren't really much cheaper than those of the earlier paperback copies from the 1970s and 80s. I managed to buy my copy on eBay for just $14 — it was buried in a lot of 17 military paperbacks and I guess that the seller didn't know that it's potentially worth much more, nor did any of the people interested in this book notice it mentioned in the auction description.


What to say at the end? This wasn't a particularly edifying read. I suppose that military fiction is a well-established genre, but this is the first book of that sort that I've read, so I can't say how it compares to other books in that genre. I've found it interesting as a novelty, but I don't think I'll be wanting to read more in this genre. It was sort of interesting to read about various military techniques, tactics, and tricks; I don't care much about warfare, and until now I've always read about it from a large-scale perspective, rather than on the level of a smaller unit such as the one described in this book. But sooner or later it would probably get boring to read more about people wading through the jungle and committing atrocities upon each other.

Another aspect in which this book is interesting is as a plausible speculation about how a diehard anti-communist zealot and ex-Nazi such as Wagemueller might have seen the first Vietnam war. But, again, Wagemueller is such an unlikeable character that one doesn't particularly care to read more about him. Elford later wrote two sequels to this book (Recall to Inferno, 1988, and Unconditional Warfare, 1991), but I doubt I'll read any of them.

All in all, buying and reading this book was a positive experience for me, but if I had paid $50 or $100 for it, rather than $14, I would consider it a disappointment.


  • See also this blog post about the book — a longish appreciation of the book by someone who, alas, thoroughly shares Wagemueller's ideology and approves of his methods. I do find it amusing, though, to see a Portuguese so keen on Nazism and white supremacy — I don't doubt that your typical WW2-era German Nazi would regard the Portuguese as seriously racially inferior to himself :))

  • Elfort wrote two sequels to The Devil's Guard, (Recall to Inferno, 1988, and Unconditional Warfare, 1991), but I doubt I'll read any of them.

  • F. Spencer Chapman: The Jungle is Neutral (London: Chatto & Windus, 1949). Memoirs of a British officer that had fought with Malay guerrillas against the Japanese during the WW2. Mentioned here on pp. 83–4.

  • Jean Lartéguy: Yellow Fever. A 1965 novel that also takes place in Vietnam but at a later point in the war (1954). See this page. But where I first heard of this book was in George Adams' delightful Great Hong Kong Sex novel (1993).

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Komu bo zavdala?

Kakšni čudaki se odločijo poimenovati dišeče robčke po slovanski boginji smrti? In ali dišijo po mandljih? :)


Idealno darilo za nadležne hipohondre, ki vas s svojim smrkanjem in kašljanjem spravljajo ob živce :)


Saturday, April 19, 2008

BOOK: G. R. Elford, "Devil's Guard"

George Robert Elford: Devil's Guard. London: New English Library, 1973. (First ed.: New York, Delacorte Press, 1971.) SBN 450013367. 349 pp.

I first heard of this book a few weeks ago, mentioned among the endnotes in Perry Biddiscombe's Werwolf. The author, G. R. Elford, says in a preface that the book is based on a manuscript given to him by one Hans Wagemueller, who had been an officer in a Waffen-SS anti-partisan unit in Russia during the WW2 and later joined the French Foreign Legion, for whom he fought in Vietnam. Elford supposedly met him in some unnamed small Asian country, which might be Nepal from the description given in Elford's introduction (pp. 12–13). The rest of the book is Wagemueller's first-person account of his five years of very brutal warfare in the jungles of Vietnam. Supposedly, Elford didn't change anything substantial except for the names of the people involved (including Wagemueller). However, see the Wikipedia page about this book, as well as and this article; there seem to be good reasons to consider this book to be a work of fiction rather than as possessing much of a factual basis.

The plot

There isn't very much of a plot here, really — the book is rather picaresque from that point of view. In the first chapter he describes how, at the end of the WW2, his unit was stranded in Czechoslovakia and decided to fight their way to the U.S.-occupied zone in Germany rather than surrendering to the Czechs and Russians. Once they get into Germany, the unit disperses and Wagemueller eventually reaches his native town near the Swiss border. Apparently there exists a well-established organization for smuggling fugitive Nazis into Switzerland, although he is deliberately vague on the details. Soon afterwards he ends up joining the French Foreign Legion and, after a bried period of training in North Africa, is sent to Vietnam.

There the commanding officers, impressed by the performance of Wagemueller and other Nazi veterans, eventually agree to form a separate battallion consisting only of these Germans. The rest of the book then describes various episodes from their fighting, and the individual chapters could be rearranged almost arbitrarily without really making any difference. In the end, the notorious reputation of his unit leads to protests in the international press and the French decide to disband it some time in 1952.

The leading character

The main thing that makes this book interesting, I guess, is Wagemueller's attitude and character. He retains many of the Nazi opinions that presumably influenced him in the years before and during the WW2: above all, there's his extreme, blunt, brutal hatred of communism; additionally, there's his appreciation of brutality and aggression in warware, and the contempt for the sort of things that the Nazis used to call ‘false humanitarianism’. He also agreed “that Germany needed Lebensraum” (p. 15). He doesn't, however, seem to be terribly keen on the nationalist and racist ideas that had formed such a major part of the Nazi ideology. For example, in the few passages where he refers to his WW2 activities as a ‘partisan hunter’ in Russia, he justifies them on the basis of the fact that these were guerrilla insurgents and communists, but not on the fact that they were Russians. And he's getting along just fine with the French, whose Foreign Legion he entered just a few years after the end of the WW2.

Well, of course it's also possible to see these things as a kind of adaptation and self-justification in the face of the new circumstances after the war (cf. pp. 42–5). And he does have a tendency to dehumanize the Viet Minh (i.e. the Vietnamese communist guerrillas): “ ‘the mechanized hordes of a space-age Genghis Khan.’ If there was a spark of truth in the Hitlerian credo about the existence of superior and inferior races, we met the real subhumans in Indochina.” (P. 11.) “They aren't human”, p. 293. “They are not human. . . You are killing sharks, rats, bacteria. . . [. . .] I regarded the Viet Minh as the real prototypes of the Hitlerian subhumans.” (P. 299.) “Deprived as they are my troops would sooner rape a female gibbon than some of those tribal wenches with their betel-stained gums and withered skin infected with tropical ulcers and festering insect bites.” (P. 261.) “ ‘Those guerrilla bitches [. . .] they aren't human’ ” (p. 295). He often points out their short stature and slight build (p. 257), presumably because this makes them seem more subhuman in comparison to his stalwart German comrades, and it makes it easier to regard them as vermin (“those ratlike little Red gnomes in Indochina”, p. 299).

But he always hastens to rationalize his contempt by referring to the atrocities committed by the Viet Minh (“The Viet Minh kills only to spread terror and to intimidate its victims”, p. 299), both against the French and against the Vietnamese civillians when the latter weren't sufficiently cooperative with the communists (pp. 134–5).

And, admittedly, he doesn't show contempt towards those Vietnamese civillians who really stayed out of the war, nor against the really primitive tribal peoples that apparently still lived in the remoter parts of the Vietnamese jungles at the time (“With some effort and by using at least as many signs as words, Noy succeeded in making contact with a female human being from the Stone Age”, p. 343); when a Vietnamese collaborator joins his unit and makes himself useful as a guide and interpreter, Wagemueller speaks of him in the highest terms (pp. 187–8); he goes out of his way to help a young biracial (Anglo-Chinese) refugee (pp. 112–26); he is supportive of the relationships between some of his comrades and three Vietnamese nurses from their battallion, and even goes so far as to perform an unofficial wedding ceremony for one of these couples (much as a captain on a ship would) when it turns out that no priest can be found in their corner of the jungle (pp. 221–5); and he absolutely refuses to tolerate the idea of men under his control raping native women (pp. 221, 294–6). He has a pretty good opinion of himself as a German officer and a man of honour, and makes a point of keeping his word in circumstances such as e.g. when they promise to release a captured Viet Minh guerrilla fighter (whom they otherwise tended to kill) if he provides them with information (pp. 133, 286).

At the same time, these few good characteristics of his are more than outweighed by his all-round brutality and inhumanity in warfare. His only concern seems to be whether a method works. He observes that while the Viet Minh ignore the principles of civilized warfare, the French regular army doesn't and, as a result, it isn't doing well in the war at all (p. 183). His own unit, however (consisting mostly of ex-Nazi soldiers like himself), is quite successful in its military objectives because it doesn't hesitate to commit against the Viet Minh the same sort of atrocities which the latter performs against the French or against recalcitrant Vietnamese civillians. Wagemueller often rationalizes his unit's atrocities by saying that it was just ‘a tooth for a tooth’, as the Viet Minh had started it (pp. 78, 84, 99, 126–7).

There are a couple of quite graphic scenes in which Wagemueller and his men torture captured Vietnamese guerrillas to obtain information (pp. 127–33, 286–7). On p. 133 Wagemueller's men freely admit they couldn't take the sort of treatment that they were dealing out to the captured guerrillas: “ ‘[. . .] How long do you think you would have stood up to what he was getting?’ ‘Me? I would have pissed you between the eyes in the first five minutes [. . .]’ ‘You would have given us away all right.’ ‘Given you away? [. . .] I not only would have told them everything but would have helped them to put the rope round your neck, Karl.’ ” (P. 133.)

They have a standard practice of killing captured guerrillas rather than taking them as prisoners (pp. 86, 150, 273; sometimes they go out of their way to make the executions extra brutal and painful, pp. 110–111, 262). Sometimes they kill civillians too, if they seem to be guerrilla supporters or if they are found to possess weapons (pp. 259, 263). He cites with approval an instance of a former Gestapo torturer who ends up working for the French secret police in Indochina, not despite but because of his Gestapo experience: “ ‘[. . .] Boys,’ he chuckled, ‘they have everything that belongs to the trade at Hué. Only the Fuehrer's picture is missing from the walls.’ ” (P. 79.)

Wagemueller's anti-communism

I guess what annoyed me most about Wagemueller was his annoying tendency to rant against communism all the time, and his unwillingness to consider the deeper underlying causes of the war. He is firmly convinced that communism doesn't work and that it invariably degenerates into tyranny of the sort that could have been observed in the Soviet Union under Stalin or in China under Mao. He is also convinced that communists are aggressive and are trying to conquer the whole world, and that his fighting in Vietnam is just a continuation of the same big war against communism that he had already fought in Russia during the WW2 (“the same enemy wearing a different uniform”, p. 12).

But he apparently never takes the trouble to ask himself what are the sources of communism — where does its strength come from, what makes it appealing in the eyes of its supporters? The answer, of course, is poverty, inequality, and exploitation. The way to prevent the spread of communism is not by fighting it but by abolishing its causes. Of course, he's probably one of those people who think that inequality, poverty and exploitation are unavoidable and natural parts of society and the economy.

He observes, probably quite accurately, that most of the Vietnamese guerrillas against whom he fought didn't really know or care much about communism. The party leadership did, but they were just in it to seize the power for themselves. What they used to attract support among the people, however, was to advocate the distribution of land and the property of the rich (this was the way to win support among the poor peasantry), and to call for the independence from the French (this won them supporters among the urban middle classes); pp. 274–5. Wagemueller even admits that the French regime in Indochina was corrupt and that Ho Chi Minh had been supported by the allies during the war in order to fight against the Japanese, then he was betrayed by them after the war when they allowed the French to return and ignore the Vietnamese demands for independence (p. 76).

Now it's obvious from this that the French could trivially prevent the spread of communism in Vietnam by carrying out land reform, introducing a welfare state, and then getting the hell out of there, rather than being goddamned colonialist bastards and occupying a country where they had no right to be in the first place. And that, I guess, is the main reason why I felt like such a Viet Minh sympathizer while reading this book: they were fighting against a foreign power that was occupying their country. Basically, whatever atrocities the Viet Minh had committed during the war, I cannot really consider any of that to have been their fault. The French should never have been in Vietnam in the first place, and in that case this war would probably never have occurred at all.

[To be continued in a few days.]

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Monday, April 14, 2008

OMG Latest Theory Fashions

I was browsing around eBay, searching for secondhand books as usually, when I noticed an ad for ‘Latest Theory Fashions’. Naturally my first thought was that somebody is poking some well-deserved fun at fashionable postmodernist nonsense or something of that sort.

However, I was a bit disappointed. It turns out that Theory really is a fashion brand name. And this stuff ain't cheap — they want $200 or more for a pair of pants! :)))

Well, I guess that's the sort of thing that upper-middle class hipsters and latte liberals like to wear while arguing about the latest postmodernist theories :)


Saturday, April 12, 2008

BOOK: Leonardo Bruni, "History of the Florentine People" (Vol. 1)

Leonardo Bruni: History of the Florentine People. Vol. 1: Books I–IV. Edited and translated by James Hankins. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 3. Harvard University Press, 2001. 0674005066. xxiv + 520 pp.

This is a history of Florence, mostly covering the period 1250–1400 (Bruni wrote in the early 15th century). It consists of twelve books, of which this volume contains the first four.

Book I

For me, Book I was the most interesting part of this volume; it's about the history of Florence in the ancient times and in the early middle ages. Although he says that the city was only founded in the time of Sulla, who gave the area to his veterans to settle down in, the region was previously inhabited by Etruscans, and Bruni seems to be quite keen on the Etruscans — much of book I talks about them, their reputation for learning (“Livy says that he has sources to show that Roman boys, before the period when they were given instruction in Greek literature, were commonly taught Etruscan literature”, 1.20), their struggles against Rome, etc.

Unlike many Renaissance authors, who seem to have been quite fond of the Roman empire, Bruni seems to have preferred the republic: “If one considers the savagery of Tiberius [. . .] the fury of Caligula, the insanity of Claudius, and the crimes of Nero with his mad delight in fire and sword; if one adds Vitellius, Caracalla, Heliogabalus, Maximinus and other monsters like them who horrified the whole world, one cannot deny that the Roman empire began to collapse once the disastrous name of Caesar had begun to brood over the city.” (1.38) And later in the same paragraph, when enumerating the crimes of the emperors in yet more detail: “Caligula, the successor of Tiberius, killed just about everyone!” :))) “Nero [. . .] made such a slaughter of patricians [. . .] that when he died the artisan class was beginning to fear for their lives” because they saw that “the tradesmen were all that was left for him to rage at and ravage” (ibid.).

I'm definitely glad to see finally somebody agree with my belief that switching from republic to empire was a disastrous move for Rome. When reading Gibbon's history of the decline of Rome, I was positively impressed that the empire managed to survive as long as it did, given the abysmally poor qualities of most of its rulers.

Anyway, after these initial pages about the Etruscans, Bruni then practically skips over most of the period of the Roman empire and hurries into the late antiquity when the area was overran by a number of ‘barbarian’ invaders: Huns, Goths, Vandals, Langobards, Franks. He then skips a few centuries again and ends the book with the death of Emperor Frederick in 1250.

As I've already written in an earlier blog post, one thing that often annoys me in the work of Renaissance Italian authors is their tendency to refer to the ancient Romans as ‘we’, as if renaissance Italy and ancient Rome were one and the same thing. So from that point of view I was glad to see Bruni identify just as much with the Etruscans as with the Romans, but nevertheless there's an instance where he says “our forces” (1.48) referring to the Roman army under Stilicho (late 4th century AD).

Book II

The rest of this volume (and I suspect that volumes 2 and 3 will be much the same) proceeds at a much slower pace, and I didn't find it as interesting as the first book. But for Bruni, this latter period, the last two centuries before his own time, seems to be what he is the most interested in. After Frederick's death, the ‘people’ of Florence took over the government of their own city, and it's from that point onward that Bruni is really interested in their history — it isn't called “The History of the Florentine People” for nothing. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that he used the word ‘people’ much differently than we do nowadays — he really only means the middle classes, while the poor people should be kept away from political power at all costs (p. xix). So for him, when he says that the people took over the power, he really just means that it was no longer in the hands of a monarch or of the aristocracy.

(Now admittedly, this fact that the ‘people’ excluded the lower classes did have its good sides. For example, in the incessant party struggles between Guelphs and Ghibellines and the like, he frequently mentions that when one party gained control of the town, they would expel the members of the other party and typically also seized their assets. But it seems that these things mostly affected just the ‘people’, not the lower classes, for whom this change of masters didn't necessarily mean much. Bruno actually comments explicitly on this fact, saying that the lower classes cannot be relied upon in these party struggles because to them both parties are much the same (2.63) and “[t]hey considered the exiles their fellow-citizens no less than those who were staying inside the walls” (ib.).

Anyway, once the ‘people’ of Florence started to govern themselves, they were seized by an apparently insatiable appetite for glory and power, and embarked upon an endless series of wars against more or less every nearby town and city they could think of. A few times in the beginning part of book II, it really seemed almost as if they had directly asked themselves every year “whom are we going to wage war against this year?” Numerous conflicts also raged elsewhere in Italy at the same time, with the pope, one or two members of the Hohenstaufen imperial family, and the French king Charles (invited into the country by the pope) all trying to assert or reassert control over various bits of territory. The Florentines were mostly on the side of the guelphs, i.e. the opponents of the emperor's authority over Italy.

Book III

Most of the events described in Bruni's History aren't really momentous enough that they would be still widely remembered today or be considered as having a big influence on later periods. In book III, the only event there that had I heard of before reading Bruni's history are the Sicilian Vespers, i.e. the uprising of the Sicilians against the tyrannous rule of the French king Charles. They invited king Peter of Aragon (in Spain) to intervene, convincing him that he had a good claim on Sicily, owing to the fact that he was the son-in-law of the last German emperor who had controlled Sicily before Charles. Peter did manage to drive away the French, and Sicily then passed under Spanish control; but it's a sad thing when you have to invite one foreign master to drive away another one — I wonder how much happier the Sicilian people were after this change.

Anyway, Bruni doesn't use the term ‘vespers’ to refer to the uprising, nor does he imply that they started at that time of the day (3.64); but he does describe a curious sequence of events that directly precipitated the uprising, namely “the Palermitans were holding a festival outside the city when the French came up to check them for weapons, and on that pretext began fondling the breasts of their women”; a riot ensued and turned into a large-scale rebellion. It seems that people (well, men) will never learn — first Tarquin the Proud was driven out of Rome because his son raped a Roman noblewoman, and now the French lose Sicily because they just can't leave the local women alone.

Actually, there's another familiar event in book III — in the quarrels between Florence and Pisa, Bruni mentions Count Ugolino (who was a notable figure in Pisan politics) several times, and briefly describes how he was eventually imprisoned by his enemies and left to starve to death (3.88), an event which was the basis for the celebrated passage in Dante's Inferno (canto 33).

Book IV

This book talks more about internal affairs of Florence than the previous ones, and there's a bit less warfare, especially in areas far remote from Florence. There are a few interesting paragraphs about various institutional reforms carried out in Florence in the late 13th and early 14th century, with a view to curtailing the influence of the nobility and strengthening the position of the ‘people’ (4.26–34). The strength of the nobility was partly due to the fact that each noble family could rely on a large network of supporters, friends, clients, allies, who would defend its interests even by violence and thus enable it to defy even the public magistrates, to say nothing of being able to trample an individual commoner with impunity. An interesting measure was passed to deal with this situation: the commoners were organized into twenty companies, each person belonging to one of them; then, if he was threatened or abused by some member of the nobility, his entire company was required to come to his aid: thus “each commoner had many more allies to avenge his injuries than anyone from the great families” (4.80–82).

But most of this book deals with party strife in Florence, which I didn't find very interesting. The Guelph party disintegrates into two factions, the Whites and the Blacks, who promptly begin to regard each other with as much hatred as the Guelphs had previously shown for the Ghibellines (and vice versa).

An amusing strand of story that runs throughout this book are the popes' rather amusingly unsuccessful attempts to get these bickering politicians to calm down and stop quarrelling. A steady stream of papal legates trickles into Florence and other cities, all of whom, after accomplishing nothing, promptly leave in a huff and place the city under an interdict (4.53, 4.65, 4.85, 4.96). The poor legates just couldn't get anybody to take them seriously: when another legate threatened the city of Cesena with an interdict, he found that “the city had long since grown used to such measures and had contempt for them” (4.101).

Incidentally, Dante is mentioned several times in this book; Bruni always refers to him as “the poet Dante”, but otherwise doesn't say anything about his literary work; all these mentions of Dante are due to his involvement in political activities. Bruni also mentions Petrarca's father in 4.83.


I'm afraid this is mostly history of the sort that I'm not terribly interested in — the sort that gives history its bad reputation as a boring topic. What Bruni describes consists almost entirely of war and diplomacy (but mostly war) with a bit of politics thrown in occasionally as well. He hardly ever mentions anything outside these areas (for example, he mentions a comet in 2.84, seen for three months in 1264; but Bruni promptly connects it with his preferred topics by describing the important political and military events which the comet apparently foretold). There's another comet in September 1301 (4.62). He also mentions floods several times (3.19, 3.60, 3.86), and the collapse of a wooden bridge “under the weight of a crowd that had gathered there to watch a spectacle” (in 1303; 4.86).

Of course one shouldn't blame Bruni for his focus on war, diplomacy and politics; in his time, historians weren't interested in such a wide range of things as now. He even says explicitly (4.16): “history has two parts or limbs, as is were—foreign and domestic affairs—and it should be understood that domestic conditions are as important to comprehend as foreign wars”.

And as far as war-and-diplomacy type of histories go, I don't see any good reason to complain against his. He tells the story coherently enough, he has clearly studied lots of sources, and he even tries to enliven his narrative by including bits of speeches every now and then. And partly his choice of topics may be influenced by the fact that his work was also intended to be as a kind of official history of Florence, sponsored by the city authorities (p. xi), so it would be natural that he would focus on the sort of things that politicians are interested in and like to brag about.


In 1.14 Bruni mentions that the Adriatic sea is named after the town of Atria.

He says of the time of pope Leo, mid-5th century AD: “in those days popes presided with humility and holiness, not with the intolerable arrogance that has crept into the pontificate today” (1.58).

A curious phrase in 2.13: “The Florentines (they said) had conquered the city [of Volterra] by the will of the gods”. This war took place in 1254 — I was surprised that neither the Volterrans nor Bruni thought the mention of the plural gods a bit blasphemous.

At some point (in 1261), the Ghibellines were, by dint of luck in war, in a position to seriously contemplate the idea of completely destroying Florence (traditionally a Guelph stronghold). A certain Farinata, a Ghibelline from Florence, was outraged at this idea and shot it down in a good speech (reported by Bruni), but what I found particularly amusing was this passage (2.71): “ ‘But let me ask you what it is that you hate. The city itself? But what wicked acts have walls and houses ever done? [. . .]’ ” So I was inspired to draw an example of a house involved in the indisputably wicked act of street mugging:


At some point (in 1266), the Florentine state tried to mend the quarrels between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines by encouraging marriages between people from two different parties (2.110). On the one hand, this approach seems charming in its naiveness; but at the same time, one cannot help being horrified at the idea — how could anybody have seriously expected such marriages to be stable and well-functioning? I'm afraid they did this by assuming that the wife either has no political ideas of her own (thus doesn't mind being married to a husband from the opposite party), or that she's little better than a piece of furniture anyway and her political opinions can be completely ignored. Anyway, I guess nobody will be surprised to hear that this policy did not succeed in bringing the two parties closer together.

There's a charming story in 4.11 about how news of the Florentine victory in the battle of Campaldino (11 June 1289) reached Florence miraculously: “there came a great pounding on the doors and a messenger's voice was heard [. . .] But when the author of the tale was sought for, no one came forward, so the story collapsed as an empty and unproven rumor. Yet on the following night when the true report at last arrived from the army [. . .] it was discovered that victory was achieved in the very same hour it was announced to the sleeping priors. This seems marvellous, but we have read of this happening in other places, too.”

Translator's note 59 to book 4 (p. 502): “The word expeditio used by Bruni here is a common humanist equivalent of passagium, the barbaric medieval word for crusade.”

[To be continued with Vol. 2 and Vol. 3.]

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

BOOK: Perry Biddiscombe, "Werwolf!"

Perry Biddiscombe: Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialis Guerrilla Movement 1944–1946. University of Toronto Press, 1998. 0802008623. xi + 455 pp.

Werwolf was the Nazi effort, in the last years of the WW2 (and immediately afterwards), to conduct guerrilla warfare activities in the areas no longer under Nazi control. It wasn't particularly successful, which is probably why one doesn't hear about it all that much nowadays. Anyway, I was curious to learn more about Werwolf, and when I saw that a whole book has been written about it, I eventually ordered it from amazon and read it.

It's a good and thorough book, and I have no real complaints about it. I did, however, find that I'm not really that interested in Werwolf — the book is fairly detailed, and most of the time I didn't really find it all that interesting to read. But if I disregard the things that I wasn't interested in, such as about details of its bureaucratic organization or specific Werwolf operations in this or that part of Germany, there still remain a lot of interesting things that I did learn from this book.

The Werwolf wasn't a particularly strong movement, nor all that well organized. This is due to several reasons. First of all, suggesting that a movement such as this should be organized means that you consider it likely that at least some German territory will become occupied by the enemy at some future point, at least temporarily. Few people in Nazi Germany dared to suggest this as it might get them prosecuted for defeatism. In 1944, when the German situation in the war finally got bad enough that they started setting it up, it was already getting a bit late. The new organization didn't have any sufficiently influential backers to compete for resources and recruits with other institutions such as the army, the SS, or the Volkssturm.

Another reason is in the way that German leaders tended to think of guerrilla movements. They mostly saw them as something that exists in addition to a regular army and helps it (p. 277), and as a result the Werwolf wasn't set up in a way that would focus on its survival after the complete collapse of Nazi Germany.

Additionally, for a guerrilla movement to function, it needs some support from the local civillian population, and in many parts of Germany this support was rather lacking (p. 71). After Germany had been occupied by the allies, any guerrilla activity would just make the allied occupation harsher, cause reprisals etc. Many Germans just wanted to get along somehow with the occupiers and weren't happy to see the ‘werewolves’ destabilizing the situation. Nor were matters helped by the fact that the Werwolf's targets were often not just allied occupiers but also Germans who hanged out white flags or accepted administrative positions under the allied administration. In some parts of Austria the locals took active steps to neutralize the Nazi guerrillas and make sure that the area would come under allied occupation with a minimum of fuss (pp. 183–4).

But perhaps most importantly, a guerrilla movement needs hope in its eventual success, and after the end of the war it soon became clear to more or less everyone that there weren't any chances of resurrecting the Nazi regime, so there wasn't much point in prolonging any guerrilla activity (p. 280).

“Hitler and his cohorts had confidently assumed they were building a state to last a millennium; no preparations were made for defeat [. . .] the party was woefully unprepared for defeat, either organizationally or psychologically” (pp. 133–4).


It's interesting how things repeat themselves. The Germans, when setting up their Werwolf organization, studied various anti-German partisan movements that had been active during the war (pp. 12–13). The allies, when trying to suppress Werwolf after they had occupied Germany, studied how Germans had suppressed those movements during the war (p. 257).

Many members of Werwolf were teenagers, people who had been too young to be drafted into the army but had spent their entire lives under the pressure of Nazi propaganda, so they were perhaps one of the few remaining groups in which the dying regime could find a few fanatical defenders (pp. 68–9). For many, “Werwolf warware was a kind of extended rebellion” against their parents (p. 72). Thus many a youngster in a Werwolf uniform may have been just a somewhat psychologically scarred child or adolescent, which sometimes led to funny situations: “in Halle, an elderly woman disarmed two sixteen-year-old Werewolves, stripped them of their uniforms and clad them in bathrobes, and then buried their bazookas in her backyard” (pp. 71–72). “At Minden [. . .] young HJ-Werewolves emerged on the rooftops at night, whence they disturbed the sleep of British soldiers by howling.” (P. 75.)

In the spring of 1945, the “drowning regime also arranged the ruination of the nation's cultural treasures” to match “the destruction of the material basis of the Reich” (p. 43); in compliance with this, “teenage fanatics” blew up a large cache of artwork from the Berlin Museum (p. 44).

In some instances, Werwolf leaders used the government's money to set themselves up as businessmen in order to have a basis for their organization's postwar activities (pp. 80–81). But this sometimes assumed a rather hilarious aspect: “Lohel and company wasted their time with amateurish plans to support subversive activity through bee-keeping, selling hand-made crafts, and running a travelling puppet show” (p. 82).

Hypocrisy is always amusing. When the war started going really badly for them, the Nazis started organizing their civilians into the Volkssturm militia organization, and soon became worried that the allies would regard the Volkssturm as irregular partisans to whom various humane requirements of the Hague conventions need not apply — this, of course, is the same position that the Nazis had taken regarding the anti-German partisan movements in the areas they had occupied during the war. Anyway, as the Volkssturm was being set up, Nazi propaganda promptly started to emphasize that it would be a disciplined formation, not a partisan movement; and “the Germans were also careful to apply the Hague Convention to members of the Polish Home Army captured in the Warsaw Uprising, and they became increasingly lenient with prisoners taken from Yugoslav Partisan formations [. . .] German units in action against guerrillas were told to stop describing the enemy with pejorative expressions” (p. 120).

Werwolf also had a radio broadcasting station, which was more or less entirely under Goebbels' control. “[T]he Propaganda Ministry admitted in mid-April [1945] that ‘we know little or nothing of what is happening in these [occupied] areas,’ [. . .] Goebbels himself was the first to admit, at least privately, that Werwolf Radio's output was not actually the news, but ‘the news as it should be.’ In fact, the propaganda minister personally dictated many of the station's fictional reports” (p. 140). “Goebbels himself wrote much wild-eyed copy for the station”, which “far surpassed the regular propaganda in which Goebbels's authorship was openly acknowledged. This was a great psychological release for the propaganda minister who, after being muzzled since 1934, was finally able to vent his own brand of leftist extremis.” (P. 141.) “In line with Goebbels's opinions, Werwolf radio found the war almost immaterial compared with the fact that a pan-European, anti-bourgeois revolution was under way.” (P. 142.) “Only Werwolf Radio had sufficient gall to refer to the situation in April 1945 as a ‘victory.’ ” (P. 143.)

In early 1945, the Nazis made some not very effectual efforts to establish ‘redoubts’ in the Alps. “[T]he Alps were overrun by an influx of military and civilian bureaucrats — which the Bavarians and Austrians called contemptuously ‘the northern invasion’ [. . .] ‘I never knew there were so many staffs and so few fighting troops,’ noted a bewildered gas-station attendant” (p. 180). This reminds me of a rumour I've heard about Chiang Kai-shek, namely that when his army finally retreated to Taiwan after losing the mainland to the communists, it had more generals than ordinary soldiers :)

After the war was over, the few Werwolf guerrillas and similar characters who hadn't yet been mopped up by the allied forces quickly tended to lose interest in active guerrilla fighting, and were mostly content to just try to avoid getting caught. “The Carinthian hills were also a temporary home to a polyglot assortment of Axis collaborators and allies, most of them seeking to escape vengeful pursuers back in their homelands [. . .] Many such bands were mounted, and the damage done to pasture meadows by their horses was a considerable factor hindering recovery of the economy in rural areas of southern Austria.” The allied “anti-partisan patrols rarely found themselves involved in gunplay. ‘In the summer weather,’ remembered one British officer, ‘[such forays were] more of a pleasure than a business,’ and they provided endless opportunities for sightseeing and hunting.” (Pp. 189–90.)

In some areas, the Werwolf also dabbled in poisoning, e.g. leaving poisoned drink in locations where Soviet soldiers would find it; they carefully selected a poison with a delayed effect, to make sure that a number of enemy soldiers would drink it before anybody became suspicious about it (p. 211).

The author lists many instances where the allies treated Germans, either civilians or Volkssturm and Werwolf members, rather more harshly than I can really approve of. See e.g. p. 161 and the whole of chapter 7. The British seem to have been the most gentlemanly of the four major allied powers (p. 257); the Americans and the French were significantly harsher, and the Soviets were absolutely infamous (“when the Red Army slashed its way across the frontiers of eastern Germany, its personnel were overtaken by a frenzy of bloodlust and a savage craving for destruction”, p. 269). Also fairly disagreeable were the policies of the Czech authorities in the Sudetenland after they resumed control of the area in 1945, and which eventually led to the wholesale expulsion of the German minority from the country (pp. 226–244). But, of course, I cannot really blame the Czechs for that; if little else, although this sort of expulsion would of course be unacceptable nowadays, I'm glad that they (the Czechs, Poles, etc.) took this opportunity to do it back then when it was still possible, otherwise there'd still be all these German minorities all over central and eastern Europe, and it would hardly be reasonable to expect them to ever assimilate.

On p. 231 there's a very interesting paragraph about “the experience of an SS counter-insurgency company, which was stranded at Reichenberg, some 200 miles behind Soviet lines. [. . .] the SS and some German Army dissidents decided to launch a desperate trek to the west. After a final battle with a nearby Soviet unit, the SS group destroyed their tanks and artillery, and resolved to break through by using only their light weapons. Seven weeks of fighting and walking followed. In the course of this odyssey, the SS company plundered a Czech village, liberated more than twenty German POWs from a forced-labour detail, wiped out four Soviet and Czech patrols who had the misfortune to cross their path, and overran numerous enemy checkpoints and blockades. At the height of the summer, they finally reached the Bavarian Forest, where they quickly captured several members of an American patrol, and then just as quickly released them. After a final bivouac near Cham, the group broke up, with each member resolved to reach home on his own. There were only 42 survivors from a band that originally numbered 360.” This is quite an amazing story, enough so that I decided to look at the endnotes to see where he'd picked it up from (this book is very thoroughly documented, but most of the endnotes are quite boring and I didn't try to read all of them). Well, he cites “George Elford, Devil's Guard (New York 1988), 15–48” (p. 389, n. 88). This seems to be quite a fascinating book; see its wikipedia page; but there seem to be very serious concerns about how much of it is fact and not just fiction; see also this article. I'm surprised that an otherwise carefully documented work of history such as this one casually cites a suspect book such as the Devil's Guard without any comments as to its reliability. But anyway, I'm not complaining — I'm glad that this fascinating title has been brought to my notice.


  • Hermann Löns: Der Wehrwolf (1910), “a romantic saga about seventeenth-century guerrillas on the Lüneburg Heath” [. . .] “the basic book of the folkish movement, and its sales were rivalled only by Hitler's Mein Kampf” (p. 13). It seems to have been translated into English as Harm Wulf (Minton, Balch & Company, New York, 1931).

  • G. R. Elford: Devil's Guard. Mentioned here on p. 231 (see above). This book was first published in 1971 in hardcover (NY: Delacorte), and reprinted by Dell several times in paperback, one printing as late as 1988. Anyway, since then there has apparently been so much interest in the book that these twenty-year old mass-market paperbacks cost absolutely ghastly sums on ABE — well over $100. I'm surprised that the book doesn't get reprinted again and again if there's so much interest in it. In 2002 there was another printing by Hailer Publishing, but this also seems to be out of print and secondhand copies no cheaper than those of Dell's earlier editions.

    Anyway, I was very lucky to find on eBay a lot of 17 military paperbacks with a buy-it-now price of $14, and it included the Devil's Guard — I guess the seller wasn't aware of how rare and valuable it is, nor has any of the people who are bidding $50–$100 on other Devil's Guard auctions noticed it. I guess they just search through the auction titles, not the descriptions. So, I bought the whole 17-book lot for $14 and asked the seller to just send me the Devil's Guard and keep the other books, to save on shipping costs. It arrived yesterday. I'm so happy — one of the best deals I've ever gotten on eBay.

  • Nikolai Tolstoy: Victims of Yalta (London, 1979). Sounds interesting. Mentioned here on p. 379.

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