Romania: Trying to recover from bad luck, bad choices

antonescu and hitler

The 20th century was, to be blunt, pretty crappy for citizens of many countries. Those of the Soviet Union, who were forced to endure two world wars, civil war, the onset of communism and Stalin’s murderous regime, had it particularly bad, for example.

Other nations that had a rather rough go of it during the 20th century include:

  • Poland (the loss of 450,000 men in World War I even though it was not independent at that point, a war with the Soviets from 1918-1921, invaded and decimated by Nazi Germany with a huge loss of life – estimated at more than 6 million, including 3 million Jews – then placed under Soviet hegemony for 45 years);
  • Korea (annexed and brutally subjugated by Japan from 1910 to 1945, divided and then involved in a ruthless civil war from 1950-53, and both North Korea and South Korea still at daggers with one another); and
  • The former Yugoslav republics (cobbled together in part through Woodrow Wilson’s machinations after World War I, invaded by the Nazis – who set up a brutal puppet state – commandeered by Tito after the war, and finally rent asunder by brutal internecine conflict in the 1990s).

Another country that would probably like a do-over for the 20th century is Romania, which didn’t acquit itself very well in either world war and suffered under the whip of two particularly odious dictators during the Cold War.

Romania chose to remain neutral for the first two years of World War I before joining with the Entente Powers in the summer of 1916. Unfortunately,  Romania then quickly found itself overwhelmed by the Central Powers, which occupied two-thirds of the country.

When Russia capitulated to Germany following the Russian Revolution, Romania found itself surrounded and was forced to sign a harsh peace treaty. Although it was ultimately able to acquire territory under the Treaties of Saint Germain, Trianon and Paris, total Romanian military and civilian losses between 1916 and 1918 were estimated at nearly 750,000.

Things turned out even worse in the Second World War for Romania. Originally loosely affiliated with Great Britain and France, Romania opted to align itself with Nazi Germany after the start of World War II when the Nazis made quick work of most of Western Europe.

Seventy-five years ago this week, the Romanian government, under the control of fascist Ion Antonescu, officially threw its lot in with the Axis Powers, signing the Tripartite Pact.

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Back in the GDR; You don’t know how lucky you are

Honecker

Reality experience vacations are increasing in popularity, with folks taking time away from the grind to herd cattle at dude ranches, go to sea on fishing boats or spend time working the land on farms.

One vacation scheme that seems geared toward those with more money than common sense is set in Germany, where tourists can “experience the life of a German communist soldier.”

Smart Meetings magazine attempts to make the Cold War-themed retreat sound intriguing:

Imagine marching through a forest in central Germany at the command of the Stasi secret police. Once you reach a 1970s-era bunker – concealed by a hut with army tanks camped outside – there is a lot of work to be done. Bunk beds need to be made, women must peel and chop potatoes for dinner and men are made to stand guard and prepare a hearty roast made from local spiced sausages.

Uh, I think not.

But wait: Visitors get to wear People’s Army trousers, jackets, belts, caps and gas masks.

The hotel, located in the town of Frauenwald, is said to be very popular with those who want a “taste of historic, post-World War II Germany.”

Yes, that was a delightful time, wasn’t it? I’m sure the 2 million East Germans who poured into West Germany in a 48-hour period after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 were only doing so to tell their brethren in the west about the utopia that was the German Democratic Republic.

No word on whether, in keeping with the reality of East Germany, the hotel has torture cells in the cellar, vacationers must barter with or bribe the staff for goods and services, and every other individual is an informant on the payroll of the Stasi.

Also unclear is whether an Erich Honecker lookalike will be running the operation, stationing border guards around the perimeter of the hotel grounds with orders to shoot guests who try to flee before their pre-arranged departure times.

(Top: Erich Honecker, leader of the German Democratic Republic, salutes East Germany troops in the early 1980s.)

Living in a world shaped by World War I and its aftermath

verdun cemetery

As the centennial marking the beginning of the Great War nears, we would do well to remember the sea change brought about by the 1914-18 conflict.

Beyond the more than 10 million killed, the onslaught of the Spanish influenza in 1918 which claimed an additional 50 million lives worldwide and the collapse of four major empires, World War I reshaped the world, and continues to impact us today.

The seeds for a second, much great world clash a generation later were planted in the peace treaties following the Great War; boundaries were drawn that still exist today, with countries created along arbitrary lines that served as catalysts for future tension and strife; and government control over areas such as trade and travel were forever altered and often restricted.

As Margaret MacMillan of Oxford College, the author of The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914, writes in the Wall Street Journal, the conflict not only changed the course of history but sent the world down a dispiriting path that likely didn’t have to happen.

Before 1914, Russia was a backward autocracy but was changing fast. Its growth rate was as high as any of the Asian tigers in the 1960s and 1970s; it was Europe’s major exporter of food grains and, as it industrialized, was importing machinery on a massive scale. Russia also was developing the institutions of civil society, including the rule of law and representative government. Without the war, it might have evolved into a modern democratic state; instead, it got the sudden collapse of the old order and a coup d’état by the Bolsheviks. Soviet communism exacted a dreadful toll on the Russian people and indeed the world—and its remnants are still painfully visible in the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin.

The war also destroyed other options for Europe’s political development. The old multinational empires had their faults, to be sure, but they enabled the diverse peoples within their boundaries to live in relative harmony. Both Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were trying to work out ways of encompassing the demands of different groups for greater autonomy. Might they have succeeded if the war had not exhausted them to the point of collapse? We will never know, but since then, the world has suffered the violence and horrors of ethnic nationalism.

The armistice of 1918 ended one gigantic conflict, but it left the door open for a whole host of smaller ones – the “wars of the pygmies,” as Winston Churchill once described them. Competing national groups tried to establish their own independence and to push their borders out at the expense of their neighbors. Poles fought Russians, Lithuanians and Czechs, while Romania invaded Hungary. And within their borders, Europeans fought each other. Thirty-seven thousand Finns (out of some 3 million) died in a civil war in the first months of 1918, while in Russia, as many as a million soldiers and many more civilians may have died by the time the Bolsheviks finally defeated their many opponents.

The war had brutalized European society, which had grown accustomed during the largely peaceful 19th century to think that peace was the normal state of affairs. After 1918, Europeans were increasingly willing to resort to other sorts of force, from political assassinations to street violence, and to seek radical solutions to their problems. The seeds of the political movements on the extremes of both the right and the left – of fascism and communism – were sown in the years before 1914, but it took World War I to fertilize them.

The war aided the rise of extremism by weakening Europe’s confidence in the existing order. Many Europeans no longer trusted the establishments that had got them into the catastrophe. The German and Austrian monarchies were also overthrown, to be succeeded by shaky republics. The new orders might have succeeded in gaining legitimacy in time, but that was the one thing that Europe and the world didn’t have. The Great Depression at the end of the 1920s swept the new regimes away and undermined even the strongest democracies.

The death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, was, sadly, just one of a number of high-profile assassinations that had taken place in the previous few decades, including those of US President William McKinley, Czar Alexander II of Russia and King Umberto I of Italy.

But by the time Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on a street in Sarajevo, the world was, quite simply, bound on a course for destruction.

One hundred years later we would do well to study the Great War and the world it made.

(Top: Cemetery at Verdun, France, scene of some of the worst fighting of World War I.)

North Korea: Proof that Hell does exist

Statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang

Continuing its decades-long effort to give tyranny a bad name, North Korea has reportedly executed a former senior official by “flamethrower.”

O Sang-hon, a deputy minister at the Ministry of Public Security was recently executed with the incendiary device, a source told South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

The report came amid a crackdown on loyalists of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s purged uncle, Jang Song-taek, according to The Independent.

As many as 11 senior party officials with close ties to Jang have apparently recently been executed or sent to political prison camps.

Jang was publicly purged in December and “executed by machine gun” after being found guilty of corruption and activities that ran counter to the policies of the Workers’ Party of Korea. It has been reported all Jang’s relatives, including his children, were rounded up and executed, as well.

O was executed because he purportedly worked with Jang to turn the ministry into a personal security division to help safeguard business dealings, according to the South Korean publication.

While the execution-by-flamethrower report could not be immediately confirmed, previous executions suggest that the North Korean leadership can be inventive when it comes to ridding itself of those no longer in favor.

“In 2012, a vice minister of the army was executed with a mortar round for reportedly drinking and carousing during the official mourning period after Kim Jong-il’s death in December of the previous year,” according to The Independent.

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Ex-Communist official stands trial for killings

hungary revolution

While thousands of Nazis were rightly tried for their crimes following World War II, relatively few Communist thugs have ever had to face the music for their actions.

However, a former senior-level Communist Party official went on trial in Hungary this week, charged with his role in the shooting of civilians during protests surrounding the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Prosecutors have charged 92-year-old Bela Biszku regarding his role on a committee of the Communist Party they say was involved in ordering the shootings of civilians during protests in Budapest and in the town of Salgotarjan in December 1956, according to Reuters.

The case is important because it may enable Hungary to begin to face up to its communist past, something no former Soviet satellite state has done.

Biszku was one of Hungary’s most powerful leaders in communist times, and he is the first former Communist official to stand trial in the nation.

Biszku, who has previously denied all accusations against him, responded to the judge in a firm voice Tuesday, stating, “I do not wish to testify.”

The 1956 Hungarian Uprising was a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the Soviet-backed government of the People’s Republic of Hungary, lasting more than two weeks, from Oct. 23 through Nov. 10.

The event marked the first major threat to Soviet control since the USSR drove Nazis forces from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II more than a decade earlier.

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Remembering the notorious ‘Uranium Gulag’

Joachimsthal mine

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Soviet Gulag was the brutal slave labor camps located in the mountains of Czechoslovakia following World War II, where prisoners were exploited in order to provide uranium for the Soviets’ nascent atomic warfare program.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – recognizing the advantage the US had with its possession of atomic weaponry – sent the Red Army to capture one of the few areas then known to possess material that could be used in the construction of atomic bombs.

The Ore Mountains, which then marked the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, first gained fame in the late 15th century as the site of a major silver discovery, with the Bohemian town of Joachimsthal taking on special significance as a source of the metal.

Also discovered around this time was pitchblende, a radioactive, uranium-rich ore, which early miners discarded as a waste byproduct.

Only at the beginning of the 20th century was it learned that pitchblende was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Within pitchblende, a variety of uraninite, Marie Curie discovered the element radium, and until the First World War Joachimsthal pitchblende was the only known source of radium in the world.

Also found within pitchblende is uranium. Like other elements, uranium occurs in slightly differing forms known as isotopes. The most common form of uranium is U-238, which makes up more than 99 percent of natural uranium found in the Earth’s crust.

However, another uranium isotope, U-235, while it is makes up less than 1 percent of the Earth’s uranium, is important because under certain conditions it can readily be split, yielding a tremendous amount of energy.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 derived its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium-235.

In late 1945 Stalin pressured the Czechoslovak government to sign a confidential treaty that would give Moscow the rights to material from mine, according to Tom Zoellner’s outstanding 2009 work “Uranium.”

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Georgians wrestle with Stalin’s legacy

GEORGIA-STALIN-STATUE-HISTORY

One wouldn’t imagine that there’d be much controversy over how a tyrant who orchestrated the deaths of tens of millions of individuals would be regarded in his native land.

Not so in former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Joseph Stalin died 60 years ago.

When Stalin loyalists restored a statue of the former Soviet leader recently on a hilltop overlooking the provincial town of Telavi in eastern Georgia, it was quickly attacked by vandals, who covered it in paint and scrawled slogans on the wall behind it, one of which read, “Stalin is a murderer.”

The incident – the latest of several in the past year – highlights not only the deep political divisions in Stalin’s homeland but also a struggle over his legacy, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Some sort of nostalgia for Stalin still exists in a certain segment of the Georgian society,” political analyst Gia Nodia said.

The Telavi monument was torn down several years ago as part of staunchly pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili’s campaign to eradicate all traces of Georgia’s Soviet past.

Stalin, born in 1878, was a Bolshevik revolutionary who took part in the Russian Revolution of 1917. He managed to gain control of the Soviet leadership following Lenin’s death in 1924 and held power until his own death in 1953.

Among his actions, he deported millions to the Gulag, where many died, and relocated many others to remote areas of the vast Soviet empire.

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