Italian cataclysm forged on Pact of Steel

pact of steel photo

The three main Axis powers of World War II made for an improbable combination. Imperial Japan seemed an unlikely partner for Nazi Germany, considering the latter’s focus on racial purity and the “master race.”

Both nations, however, were militaristic and bent on expansion, and both were at opposite ends from a common foe – the Soviet Union – so there was much in the union that made sense.

Germany’s alliance with Italy, however, was much less logical, at least from the Italian point of view.

Outside of being led by a pair of dictators who embraced fascism, there was actually a great deal of difference between Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany when the Pact of Steel uniting the two countries was signed 75 years ago this month.

The two nations had fought on different sides in World War I, with Italy being a member of the victorious allies that laid down what Germans saw as the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. And while Germany lost the First World War, it acquitted itself well while Italy’s performance was seen by many as less than spectacular.

Despite having invaded and captured Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia) in the mid-1930s, assisted Franco in the Spanish Civil War and taken over Albania in 1939, Mussolini knew his country suffered from a number of military shortcomings.

It had relatively few tanks and those it did have were of poor quality; its artillery was of World War I variety; and the nation’s primary fighter was a biplane that was obsolete compared to monoplanes used by the other major countries. Also, while the Italian navy did have several modern battleships, it had no aircraft carriers.

Italy recognized its military inadequacies. Under terms of the Pact of Steel it was stipulated that neither country was to make war without the other earlier than 1943.

But recognizing his military was ill-prepared Mussolini declined to get involved when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.

Italy finally joined the conflict on June 10, 1940, mostly because Mussolini, having seen the lightning speed with which Germany was dispatching its European foes, was afraid he’d get none of the spoils.

On June 17, 1940, the day France sought surrender terms from Germany, Mussolini ordered an Italian invasion of southern France.

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Italian author, survivor of Russian Front, dies

italian prisoners of war on the eastern front

From the standpoint of the average soldier, there have been some pretty miserable military alliances over the past century.

The Australians and New Zealanders who ended up at Gallipoli in World War I at the behest of the British; Newfoundlanders cut down at the Somme, also fighting for the British; and most Arab soldiers who found themselves going up against Israelis between 1948 and 1973, would all have likely wondered what their nations had got them into.

But probably no group of Allies was more poorly served in the 20th century than those of Nazi Germany.

Hitler, who was only too happy to feed his own divisions into the seemingly endless maw of death that was World War II in his attempt to take over Europe, had absolutely no compunctions about frittering away the troops of collaborating nations.

Hundreds of thousands of Italian, Hungarian and Romanian soldiers, for example, perished in miserable conditions on the Eastern Front alongside their German partners.

One of the more striking accounts of this lesser-known aspect of the war was written by Eugenio Corti, an Italian officer who died earlier this month at 93.

Corti is best known for The Red Horse, a 1,000-page novel based on his experience during and after World War II. First published in 1983, it has gone through 25 editions.

But in his 1947 work Few Returned: Twenty-Eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1943-1943, Corti vividly described the utter hopeless of a soldier’s life on the Russian Front during the war.

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Flemish altarpiece undergoes major restoration

Adoration of the mystic lamb ghent

An elaborate Renaissance altarpiece that has transfixed churchgoers and art lovers alike for centuries is undergoing its most ambitious restoration in its nearly 600-year history.

Flemish masterpiece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is the work of masters Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. A $1.6 million, five-year project to restore it is unusual in that it taking place in full public view at the Ghent Fine Arts Museum.

The work, designed for Ghent’s Saint Bavo Cathedral, was completed in 1432. It is believed that Hubert Van Eyck designed it before his death in 1426 and Jan Van Eyck executed much of it.

Made of 12 oak panels painted on both sides, the 11-foot-by-15-foot work has attracted attention since its unveiling, though not all of it good.

During the Reformation, Protestants attacked Ghent in the 16th century and the altarpiece was hauled up to safety in the cathedral tower.

Following the French Revolution, the altarpiece was among a number of art works plundered in today’s Belgium and was later exhibited at the Louvre. Those panels seized by the French were returned to the church by the Duke of Wellington after his victory at Waterloo against Napoleon in 1815, according to Agence France-Presse.

Several of the painting’s wings were sold in 1816 to an English collector living in Berlin, Edward Solly. Among panels not sold was one with Adam and another with Eve, which were the first known nudes in Flemish art.

Solly’s panels were bought in 1821 by the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, and were displayed in a Berlin art museum.

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Remembering World War II’s first victim

gleiwitz radio station

Historians estimate that as many as 70 million people were killed in World War II. The first, it would seem, was a 43-year-old Catholic farmer selected by the Nazis as part of a ruse intended to create the appearance of Polish aggression against Germany in order to justify the subsequent invasion of Poland.

Franciszek Honiok, a Silesian known for sympathizing with the Poles, was arrested by the notorious SS on Aug. 30, 1939, in the Silesian village of Polomia.

Early the following evening, seven SS officers posing as Polish partisans seized a radio station in the city of Gleiwitz, then just over the border from Poland in eastern Germany, and broadcast a short anti-German message in Polish.

Before the SS team left, they shot Honiok – who had been drugged prior to the raid – and left his body, dressed in a Polish army uniform draped across the entrance steps, according to The Telegraph.

The raid was part of Operation Himmler, a series of operations undertaken as propaganda measures to pave the way for Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Almost immediately after the “Gleiwitz incident,” every German radio station, in a carefully coordinated move, broadcast the words used by the “invaders,” and claimed that bodies of Polish regular soldiers who were killed in the incident remained at the scene, according to The Telegraph.

The next morning, Sept. 1, 1939, an enraged Adolf Hitler used the Gleiwitz ruse as his excuse to declare war on Poland, initiating World War II. Addressing the Reichstag, he claimed that the violation of German territory by “Polish Army hooligans had finally exhausted our patience.”

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NHL veteran sees logic in Stalin’s actions

2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic - Practice Sessions

Ilya Bryzgalov is a better at hockey than history – fortunately for him.

The Philadelphia Flyers goaltender recently raised some eyebrows when he said he could “see logic” in actions taken by Joseph Stalin during the dictator’s vise-like rule over the Soviet Union.

Bryzgalov, a native of the Russian city of Togliatti, on the Volga River, recently gave an interview to the Russian sports outlet Championat in which he was questioned on his views on Stalin, who had many millions killed between 1922 and 1953.

“Positive. I see logic in his action,” Bryzgalov said, according to a translation by Yahoo!’s Dmitry Chesnokov. “Not without going too far, of course. But he came to power in a country that had just lived through a revolution. There were so many spies, enemies, traitors there. A lot of people still had guns after the civil war. The country was in ruins, (people) needed to survive somehow. The country needed to be rebuilt, and in order to do that it needed to be held in iron hands.

“… He knew what he was doing. He is described as a ‘bloody tyrant.’ But at the time it couldn’t be any other way. Yes, there were innocent people who were victims of repression. But it happens.”

This may be nit-picky, but a word of advice to whichever public relations firm is advising Bryzgalov and/or the Flyers: when discussing the deaths of millions, avoid phrases such as “but it happens.”

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Last survivor of July 20 plot to kill Hitler dies

Hitler-Attentat, 20. Juli 1944

Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist, the last surviving member of the July 20, 1944, plot to kill Adolf Hitler, died earlier this month at age 90.

Von Kleist had joined the Wehrmacht as an infantry officer in 1940 at age 18, but he did so out of an allegiance to country, not to the Führer. He came from a long line of Prussian landowners who had served the state for centuries in high-ranking military and administrative positions, according to the Associated Press.

However, von Kleist’s father, a Christian, conservative and monarchist, resisted Hitler, and the Nazi flag never flew from the Kleist castle in Pomerania nor was the Nazi salute ever given there, according to The Economist.

As the war progressed and its true nature was revealed to the younger von Kleist, he grew increasing troubled. Stationed on the Eastern Front, he saw some of the conflict’s most brutal action and was wounded in 1943.

In early 1944, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of a group of anti-Nazi plotters, asked von Kleist to undertake a suicide mission to kill Hitler.

Von Kleist hesitated, according to The Economist, hoping that his father would object and save him. But his father paused for only a moment before he told him he must do it: “A man who doesn’t take such a chance will never again be happy in life.”

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Anschluss: A good time was not had by all


Seventy-five years ago today, Germany marched into, occupied and annexed Austria in what became known as the Anschluss.

As the above photo shows, many turned out to joyously greet Wehrmacht troops as they rolled through the Austrian countryside and cities, including Vienna.

Not all were advocates of the union, however.

Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg was committed to his country’s independence despite several years of bullying from Austrian and German Nazis.

Prior to the actual German annexation, Schuschnigg had scheduled a plebiscite on the issue of unification for March 13, 1938, expecting his fellow countrymen to reject the idea.

Adolf Hitler, ever the proponent of fair and honest elections, declared the vote would be tainted by fraud and stated that Germany would not abide by the results.

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Nazi artillery found in Russian mountains

How remote is the area around Mount Elbrus, located in the western Caucasus Mountain range in Russia, near the border with Georgia?

Recently, five Nazi World War II artillery guns were discovered, along with ammunition and other explosives, where they’d apparently sat undisturbed for the past 70 years.

The guns – 76-mm cannons – are in good condition, according to police in Kalbardino-Balkaria region, the location of Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe.

“If they fell into the wrong hands, they could be used as intended,” Elbrus police chief Muslim Bottayev said. Military engineers would soon remove the weapons and ammunition to a safe location.

The German Wehrmacht occupied the area surrounding the mountain from August 1942 to January 1943, during World War II, according to a history of Mount Elbrus.

During the period, a team of German high mountain troops scaled Elbrus, planting a swastika at its peak, according to the Indo-Asian News Service. “Intended as a propaganda coup, the stunt reportedly enraged Hitler, who viewed it as a frivolous diversion of effort.”

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Age catching up with Hitler’s last bodyguard

Adolf Hitler’s last surviving bodyguard has stopped responding to the flood of fan mail the 93-year-old receives, citing old age.

Rochus Misch, who uses a walking frame to move around his apartment, told the Berliner Kurier that with the deluge of letters he receives asking for autographs, it was “no longer possible” to reply because of his age.

“They (letters) come from Korea, from Knoxville, Tennessee, from Finland and Iceland – and not one has a bad word to say,” said Misch, who is believed to be the last man alive to have seen Hitler and other top-ranking Nazis in the flesh.

In the past Misch used to send fans autographed copies of wartime photos of himself in a neatly pressed SS uniform, according to Reuters. Now the incoming fan mail, including letters and packages, piles up in his flat in south Berlin’s leafy Rudow neighborhood.

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