Half of a Great Book

Danzig, Birthplace of Gûnter Grass

He was born in a fairy tale Polish city in 1927 of German and Kashubian parents. As the Second World War got under way in September 1939, Gûnter Grass found himelf in the Waffen SS and fighting on the Russian front just as the Wehrmacht was beginning its final descent into the maelstrom. In 2006, Grass, famous for his novel The Tin Drum, wrote an autobiography covering the 1940s and 1950s called Peeling the Onion: A Memoir.

The first half of the book is brilliant. As a young German soldier trying to keep the Red Hordes out of Berlin, Grass was essentially told where to be and what to do. German soldiers who wandered the battlefield without written orders found themselves hanged in droves from tree branches, many of which the young Grass passed as he wandered separated from his unit. People around him kept dying, but he somehow got back to Germany with minor wounds and spent time in military hospitals before being released into the chaos the followed the war.

His mother and younger sister had been raped by Russian troops, but refused to ever talk about the experience. The young Grass knew he wanted to be an artist of some sort, but took several years before his thinking began to jell.

The First Volume of Grass’s Autobiography

Peeling the Onion loses its focus during the years that Grass tries to find out what he is to do with his life. It takes a while for him to find that his parents and sister are still alive, and he joins up with them.

I strongly recommend the first half of this book. The second half? Not so much. Uncertainty is not quite so winning a literary trait. There are some excellent moments, but for the most part, I could have done without them.



It Was the Greatest Tank Battle in History

People in the United States know very little about World War Two as it was fought in Europe. The real war in Europe was waged on the Eastern Front, after Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941. At first, it was all blitzkrieg, with German victories on all fronts and horrendous Russian losses. Things began to change after Stalingrad, however, when the entire German 6th Army surrendered to the Soviets.

The next big battle was at the Kursk salient. Hitler and his generals planned to attack the salient from two sides, take Kursk, and trap several Soviet armies. This was the intent of Operation Citadel, as shown in the map below:

Operation Citadel as the Germans Planned It

The German General Staff thought the Russians would take fright at the Nazis’ technologically superior tanks and surrender in droves. But the Russians—beginning with Stalin himself—learned their lesson in 1941 and 1942. In July 1943, Stalin realized he had more human and industrial resources to draw on than the Germans. This was similar to Ulysses S. Grant realization during the American Civil War when, after the Battle of the Wilderness, realized that he could afford to take more casualties than Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and still win.

Instead of pinching off the Russians in the salient, General Walter Model advanced only 10 miles on the north, where he was beaten by Rokossovsky’s Central Front. The real battle was in the south, where General Erich von Manstein battled with Nikolai Vatutin’s Voronezh Front over the town of Prokhorovka. Vatutin kept throwing rifle regiments, tanks, and artillery at von Manstein’s Army Group South until, after a 30-mile advance, the Germans could go no further.

The Russians had a very good idea of what the Germans were planning with Operation Citadel, and they had more men (at a 2.5:1 ratio) than the Germans, and more tanks (though not as good). So they planned carefully to fight to the last man, if necessary.

The Battle for Prokhorovka (The Germans in Blue)

By the time Vatutin and Rokossovsky had finished with the German army, there was no more blitzkrieg. Hitler didn’t know it yet, but from this point his armies were in retreat.

Living in a Marmalade Nightmare

Here Are Some German Terms That Will You Understand the World Trumpf made

The following text appeared in Salon.Com, which was quoting a site from Alter.Net. Since Our Fuehrer’s family hails from the Vaterland, I thought it was appropriate to let you in on it.

1. Fernweh 

Fernweh, or “distance pain,” is like the opposite of homesickness. It’s the feeling of wanting to be elsewhere, anywhere but where you are at this moment. The fernweh many Americans feel today is a bit like wanderlust, minus the glamour, and with the added fear that you may be harshly judged as an American traveling abroad in the time of Trump.

2. Weltschmerz

Weltschmerz translates literally to “world pain,” and boy oh boy, does that say it all. It’s the state of weariness one feels at the state of the world. Some of us may have felt a constant state of weltschmerz since Nov. 9, 2016.

3. Kummerspeck

If your state of weltschmerz has been really getting to you, it’s possible you’ve put on a few extra pounds of kummerspeck, or literally, “grief bacon.” Know that you’re at least in good company: last year, Barbra Streisand, Judd Apatow and others complained they’d gained a “Trump 10” in the months following the election. Eat your feelings, indeed.

4. Kuddelmuddel

This wonderful heap of syllables evokes chaos or a hopelessly messy, unstructured state. Sounds like the White House as told by Michael Flynn.

5. Fuchsteufelswild

This is a state of unfiltered, primal rage. You may have felt it over the past year while listening to any White House press conference, hearing Trump describe Haiti, El Salvador and many African nations as “shithole countries,” seeing the president troll Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on social media…or really, any time at all.

6. Fremdschaemen

Ever felt ashamed on behalf of a member of the Trump White House? Like the time Kellyanne Conway told Fox viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff”? Or when Trump claimed his inauguration speech literally made the clouds part and the sun come out? That’s fremdschaemen.

7. Backpfeifengesicht

In German, this means “a face that deserves to be punched.” Insert your own joke here.

The Race to Germanistan

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó

Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó

As you may know, I am sympathetic with Hungary’s decision to close its borders to the prospect of uncontrolled mass migration. In doing so, it took a lot of heat from the European Community as well as the U.N. For some quixotic reason, Germany’s Angela Merkel has opened the doors wide to hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. (Whether the German people will be quite so welcoming remains to be seen.)

Martine and I watched an interview on BBC with Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó, a young well-spoken diplomat. The interviewer, Stephen Sackur, kept trying to pillory the Hungarians for acting in a way reminiscent of the darkest days of World War II. (All the while, Britain is less than willing to accept the onslaught of migrants waiting in Calais to stream through the Chunnel.)

Szijjártó correctly sees mass disorganized migration as a violation of sovereignty. He doesn’t want to see his country trashed, its crops trampled down, and its law enforcement officials beaten up for trying to restore order. You can see the 20-minute interview by clicking here.

My own opinion is that the mass migration of 2015 will not end well, neither for the participants, nor the countries along the way, nor for the ultimate destination: Germanistan.


I Don’t Blame Hungary

Afghan Men Are Controlled by Hungarian Border Police

Afghan Men Are Controlled by Hungarian Border Police

For the last two weeks, the news has been full of a mighty onslaught of hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries to Northern Europe, where the streets are paved with gold. The numbers of refugees are almost comparable to those of the Huns, Vandals, Visigoths, Lombards, and Ostrogoths during the later Roman Empire.

That’s why many smaller Balkan and Central European countries have had enough. Rather than be inundated by invasion-strength numbers of mostly Islamic refugees, they have elected to close their borders. Even Germany has to revise its original open borders policy: There are far more than 800,000 refugees currently enroute to being second class citizens in western and northern Europe.

According to a chart published on the BBC website, only a plurality of the migrants between January and August of this year seeking asylum in Germany are from Syria:

Note the large Number of Balkan Refugees

Note the large Number of Balkan Refugees (Source: BBC)

Hungary has been widely attacked for its decision to seal its southern borders and attack crowds trying to break through with tear gas and water cannons. Even Serbia, whose hands are far from clean (note the large number of Serbians seeking refuge) went so far as to call Hungary “uncivilized” for attempting to divert the invasion.

Don’t forget that all of these countries on the road to Austria and Germany had been attacked and occupied by the Turks, in some places until only a hundred years ago. Budapest and other Hungarian cities are still full of Turkish baths and fortifications, with an occasional minaret breaking the skyline. Hungary is one of the two main invasion paths to Western Europe (the other is Poland), and fearful memories among my people are still raw after half a millennium.

Many if not most of the refugees will eventually find homes in Western Europe. Some will find their dreams coming true; some will be poor and unemployed, a prey to jihadist recruiters; some, as in Italy, will sell themselves into prostitution.  The refugees are a diverse bunch, and will undoubtedly be a political football for decades to come.

Welcome to the Weimar Republic of America

We’re Bringing Back Those Cheery Days of Yesteryear

We’re Bringing Back Those Cheery Days of Yesteryear

Last month’s midterm election has soured me on American politics.What with the growing inequality between the rich and … everybody else; with the increasing police violence and “open carry” of firearms; with the growing respectability of organizations such as the NRA and the Ku Klux Klan—with all this and more I think we as a nation are transitioning toward a really, really bad time that is just now waiting in the wings, waiting for the Confederate battle flag to be hoisted on the Capitol Building in Washington, perhaps?

I’m not so simplistic as to think that a Hitler-like dictator is next. But with such a small number of Americans exercising their right to vote, maybe we’re just not that interested any more. We have our own cabaret: We take it with us on our smart phones and MP3 players. Maybe we won’t replicate German history of 75 years ago, but we may come close. As long as Taylor Swift is cooing in our ears, we just don’t give a rat’s patoot about anything else.

Look Familiar to You?

Look Familiar to You?

We call the ultra-wealthy the 1%, and they’re much like the mustachioed tycoon in George Grosz’s illustration above. Note that the poor man on the left is getting the boot. Today’s styles might be different, but the direction is substantially the same.

I will of course resist. I vote in every election, even when I don’t detect a clear demarcation between the varying candidates. We live in the world described by William Butler Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


The Phantom Lands of Eastern Europe

Map of Galicia

If you’ve read any of the literature of Eastern Europe, you will see names of provinces and whole countries that you have difficulty in locating on a map. Names like Galicia (not to be confused with the Galicia region of Northwest Spain), Bukovina, Volhynia, Moldavia, Moldova (this one’s currently a country in its own right), Wallachia, and Silesia—just to name a few.

Most are pawns in the endless historical struggles between Russia, Poland, Germany, the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Balkans. Most of the time, they were absorbed into an adjoining larger country (such as Wallachia into Romania), or split between countries (such as Galicia going to Poland, Russia, Austria, or the Ukraine). Only Moldova, the former Moldovan SSR ( Soviet Socialist Republic), is an independent nation today—at least for the time being.

Much of the problem is in the shifting borders affected by the partitions of Poland and the vagaries of fortune of the Ukraine, which was in recent history a political football between Poland, Germany, and Russia.

When one thinks about it, there are only a relatively few countries in the area that have maintained their independence, albeit with constantly shifting borders and political affiliations, over the centuries. Germany and Russia are two examples of relative stability, with just about everyone else being stretched, shrunk, or absorbed multiple times.

Much of the Eastern European emigration to the United States, Canada, and other Western countries is a result of this constant instability. It would be difficult for me to walk down certain streets in Los Angeles without encountering the children of immigrants from these phantom lands of Eastern Europe.