On this day in 1943, inmates at the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland led a revolt, killing 11 SS officers. The inmates were led by Alexander Pechersky, a Soviet Jew who had been captured exactly two years prior during the Battle of Moscow.
Pechersky was an unlikely soldier, the son of a Jewish lawyer who studied music and literature and worked at an amateur theater. But like tens of millions of his countrymen, he was thrust into the Second World War following the Axis invasion and conscripted into the Soviet Army, where he quickly served with distinction, saving a wounded commander during an attack.
As a POW, Pechersky had already miraculously endured a series of close calls, including a painful seven-month battle with typhus; imprisonment in a cellar called the “the Jewish grave”, where for ten days he sat in complete darkness was fed only a few ounces of wheat every other day; and an attempted escape from a POW camp in 1942, where he was recaptured.
Pechersky was transferred to Sobibor a month before the uprising, in a cattle car packed with over 2,000 Jews. Upon arrival, he and just 79 other prisoners were selected for work, while the remainder were immediately led to the gas chamber. Continue reading →
Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Story, which centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)
A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)
A lot of people forget that the Second World War, by definition, involved a lot more countries than the U.S. and U.K.
Increasingly better-known, but still underappreciated, is the role of the Soviet Union, which took on 90% of Axis forces, dealt the first decisive blow in Stalingrad, and ultimately took the fight to Berlin, ending the war at the cost of 25-27 million citizens — about half of whom were civilians.
China, which is barely acknowledged as a combatant, served a similarly morbid but crucial function: its large population, tenacity, and willingness to be as brutal as the enemy meant that it took up the bulk of Japanese manpower while losing tens of millions of people in the process, including many civilians. Hence why it is one of only five countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, as acknowledgement of its role as one of the “Big Four” during the war.
Beyond these two juggernauts — whose importance was acknowledged by the Americans at the time — were dozens of other countries and factions who contributed to the Allied cause, often at great sacrifice. Continue reading →
It looks like American anxiety about a rising Russia might be warranted; according to the 2016 Power Index conducted by Global Firepower (GFP), the Russians command the world’s second most powerful military, after the United States — and that is without factoring in nuclear capabilities, which includes over 8,500 warheads, of which 1,800 were operational. (The U.S. has 7,500 nukes, with close to 2,000 ready to deploy.)
Moreover, the gap between the two countries is surprisingly narrow: the Power Index judges 126 countries against a perfect score of 0.0000, drawing data from a variety of public sources ranging from the C.I.A. to news outlets. The U.S. enjoys the top rating of 0.1663, with Russia just two hundred points lower at 0.1865.
In third place was China — widely regarded as a rising superpower and America’s main rival — which scored 0.2318. India, another contender for future superpower, came in fourth place at 0.2698, following by a former superpower, the United Kingdom (0.2747). Continue reading →
Wikipedia’s latest Featured Article highlights an unusual episode of the early 20th century: Brazil’s acquisition of two of the largest and most cutting-edge battleships in the world: the Minas Geraes and São Paulo(former pictured).
Brazil was only the third country, after the U.K. and the U.S., to have the revolutionary “dreadnought” class (called the Minas Geraes class in Brazil) — ahead of major powers like France, Germany, Japan, and Russia. Its high profile purchase not only reflected the country’s growing wealth and prestige, but its aspirations of becoming a respected world power.
The ships were an international media sensation, not only for their power and sophistication, but out of surprise that Brazil, of all places, should come to possess them. (In fact, it was initially widely speculated that Brazil was only purchasing the ships on behalf of another power, with each major power pointing fingers at one another as the true buyer.) Upon their completion and delivery in 1910, the U.S. and other powers began courting Brazil as a potential ally, no doubt giving the country the sort of national pride that had partly motivated this move.
This event sparked another lesser known event in the 20th century: the great South American dreadnought race, wherein rivals Argentina and Chile — among the richest and most powerful countries in Latin America — worked to acquire powerful battleships of their own (other participants included Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela). Like Brazil, each country acquired two powerful dreadnoughts of their own, but ultimately these behemoths would remain as white elephants: symbolically impressive, by strategically unnecessary. After seeing little action, all the ships built in the race would end up being sold or scrapped by the mid-20th century — but not without giving their respective countries a significant, though costly, boost in global prestige and status.
Some of the largest and most sophisticated fortresses in the Western Hemisphere can be found in Haiti, of which the most famous is Citadelle Laferrière. Located in the north of the country, this defense network was built not by the powerful French Empire that ruled this lucrative colony with an iron first, but by the newly freed Haitians themselves.
Citadelle Laferrière (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Shortly after achieving independence in the early 19th century, Henri Christophe, a former slave and key leader in the Haitian Revolution, briefly took control of the northern part of the country as a self-appointed king. Like most Haitians, he knew full well how shaky the country’s newfound freedom was: it was second only to the United States in liberating itself from European colonialism in the hemisphere. It was history’s first successful slave revolt and first black republic, having managed to fight off three leading powers (France, Britain, and Spain). Needless to say, these factors did not endear the Haitians to the European-dominated global system.Continue reading →
During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)
Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).
But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).
To mark the anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Australian historian and author Paul Ham penned an article at The Atlantic that explores the debates and discussions among U.S. scientists, officials, and military officers regarding the fateful use of these new weapons of mass destruction.
It is both fascinating and chilling to see all the different ways in which the participants justified one position or another, and how this juxtaposes with their own private remarks or writings (for example, despite the cold calculus and pragmatism that characterized the decision-making process, at least some of those involved admitted privately to concerns about the moral and ethical consequences). Continue reading →
History has not been kind to Haiti. As the world’s first black republic, and the only nation founded by a successful slave revolt, it was regarded with contempt by world powers from the very beginning. From France’s onerous debts, to the U.S.’ repeated interference in domestic affairs, this poor yet proud nation has endured countless threats to sovereignty and prosperity — and little recognition of it.
It would likely surprise most Americans to know that their small Caribbean neighbor, rarely more than a footnote in public consciousness let alone government policy, has been repeatedly invaded, occupied, or otherwise meddled with by the U.S. since the early 20th century. In fact, as the Washington Post reminds us, it was 100 years ago today that President Woodrow Wilson — who had then-recently championed liberal, democratic values, such as self-determination, in Europe initiated an almost two-decade-long occupation of Haiti.
Perhaps to its credit, the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian is pretty candid about America’s longstanding interests in the country, and the true motivations of its intervention. Continue reading →