Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pennsylvania, land of sects

Have you ever seen "Witness"? Amish and Mennonites are Christian communities that reject certain aspects of modern society and, by own decision, do not follow its pace of life nor many of the habits related to technology and progressis ideas. But where did they come from, and how their particular way of understanding religion arose? And, why did they settle such deep roots in Pennsylvania (USA)?

Religious unrest in Europe

It all started in the Swiss city of Zurich, in January 1525. They were the years of the religious reformation started by Luther. In every European city, new Christian theologies, interpretations and trends arose that questioned the Roman doctrine. The priest Ulrich Zwingli, leader of the reformist movement in Zurich, had a quarrel with a group, led by Conrad Grebel, that wanted a faster, more radical reform. They called theirselves "anabptists" (re-baptizers), as they opposed children baptism for considering that unvolunteer, and claimed all baptism to be made during the adult life. However, they also defended the total separation between Church and State, and this led them to problems. The Zurich Council supported Zwingli and banished them from the city.

Faced with the bad welcome from the governors towards the new community, in 1527 the "Martyrs Synod" was held in Augsburg, where the main followers of the movement settled the theological bases for the Anabaptism. Little after its celebration, most of its participants were arrested and executed.

From this moment, Anabaptists (called thereafter Mennonites, on behalf of Menno Simons, one of its Dutch spiritual leaders) were persecuted as much by Catholics as by Lutherans, and murdered by thousands. This forced them to gather in secrecy at night, in caves or in their homes. Little by little, they closed their minds towards society, and changed their intention for evangelization to living in a humble way, "evangelizing with the example". One of its groups joined, during the 17th Century, the official Swiss State Church, and achieved a ceasement of prosecutions. Because of this, the rest of the Mennonites split. In 1693, the young Jacob Amman broke up with his community, accusing it of being tolerant with the Mennonites integrated in the Church. He eventually formed, together with some followers, the Amish community, representing since then the radical trend of Mennonite ideology.

America: freedom and fiscal exemptions? Let's go then!

During the 17th Century, the existence of Amish and Mennonites in Europe was more or less accepted, but never ceased to disturb the princes, and in fact, in some territories prosecutions lasted until 1710. These comunities roamed from country to country, subject to the tolerance of Gonvernments and the usefulness they could see in them. In effect, Mennonites were famous by their tenacity in work, their pacifism and lack of interest in politics. Thus, if they could be conveniently isolated from society, they would become useful to recover empoverished soil and plow wild lands. Governors just had to invent laws to force them not be seen from the public: they were forced to build their churches in the back streets, and were forbidden to toll the bells before the masses. Higher taxes than the rest of the population finished to cut off their influence power.

In the middle of the 17th Century, most Mennonites fled the Netherlands, were they had enjoyed a relative calm for years. Harder living conditions led them to move to Germany, in the regions of Westphalia, Saxony and Hamburg, where they joined a group of existing Quakers, also confined to those lands. Quakers were had recently appeared in puritan England, as a movement that defended a free, personal meditation about religion, and were appropiatedly persecuted by the Anglican Church.

It was among this group of discriminated Quakers and Mennonites that land owner William Penn (also a Quaker) asked for settlers for his new colony. Penn had received in 1681, thanks to his influential family, the lands of the region named Sylvania by him (later switched to Pennsylvania on his name), and he there created a territory with its own laws that guaranteed freedom of cult and an equitative tax fee. The first American colony of this kind was a Mennonite family and twelve Quaker ones, who founded Germantown, outside Philadelphia, in 1683. During the next years, 2500 Mennonites and 500 Amish reached the region, slowly moving to the western Lancaster County, of wilder and cheaper lands. A variant of Dutch and German was, and is still today in some groups, their official language.

Among these communities, new splits soon happened, contrary to their European analogues, who eventually merged into a single Mennonite Church. In America, the Old Order Mennonite eventually differentiated from other communities. Those became the typical, simple farms inhabited by long-bearded characters, reluctant to the use of technology, even using buttons, and the high education of their children. Their values have always been the feeling of belonging to a community, love for the land, and a religious education oriented to craft jobs.

Amish have been, since their appearing, exempt from military service and out of the social security system, as they believe themselves as the only ones with the right to take care of the community. This also happens in other services, almost every church has a life insurance for the community members. Mennonite Disaster Service is an American network of volunteers who act in national or local emergencies. The example of Amish Lancaster County is curious, as they created their own firemen brigade in 1885.

Dissident Mennonites

The rest of Mennonite groups (Hutterites, Mennonites of the Church of God in Christ, Brethren in Christ) , some more puritan and others more progressist, share most of their doctrine with th first, but varying some behaviours or interpretations from some Bible versicles. Probably, the oddest of these is the one that founded the Ephrata Cloister, in Lancaster County (Pennsylvania) in 1732. These descended from a pietistic branch of German Mennonites settled in Germantown, from which in 1728, the Seventh Day Dunkers had split. They only differentiated from the first in their use of Saturday as sacred rest day.

Among them, charismatic Conrad Beissel founded the hermit community of which he self-proclaimed the leader. This community tried to live as similarly as possible to the imagined life in Heaven. Living in the monastery was subject to a very harsh discipline, involving a six hour sleep per day in a wooden box, and eat a single vegetarian meal per day (although the Bible never mentions that in Heaven one must eat, it was thought that without that, the community would not last long). Life expectancy in the cloister was always quite low. Beissel was convinced that Christ would come back to the World while he would still be alive, and He would do it "as a robber in the night". So, every night, the whole monastery had to wake up from 0 AM to 2 AM to watch fir His arrival. At the leader's death in 1768, the community lost its meaning and most of its members were integrated into the Baptist Seventh Day Church, which actually was the closest to their doctrine.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Caporetto: The battle that changed Italy

The dawn of October 24th, 1917, started with huge explosion sounds. A bombardment by the Austro-Hungarian artillery in the Caporetto area (Kobarid in Slovenian) starts the 12th Battle of Isonzo. The attack, lead by German special troops -"Sturmtruppen"- , quickly breaks the front and threatens to isolate the 3rd Italian Army defending it, forcing the enemy to withdraw in total disarray. The fleeing troops are overwhelmed with panic and they cannot hold a proper resistance anymore. Only at the Piave River, 100 km away from the place where the offensive started, and the last defense line before Venice, the front is finally established after the Germans and Austro-Hungarians have stretched their supply lines for too long. In only 15 days, German and Austro-Hungarian armies achieve one of the greatest victories in the war, causing more than 30,000 casualties to the Italians, and making 275,000 prisoners.

During the battle, a young German captain, Erwin Rommel, stands out when leading a 250 men company to the Mount Matajur, capturing more than 9,000 prisoners and thus receiving the greatest German medal, Pour le Mérite.

A demoralized army

The day before the battle, the Italian soldiers formed a tired, demoralized army. Since May 1915, Italy had launched up to eleven offensives at the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovenian), with minimal territorial gains at a terrible cost (around half of the 600,000 Italians fallen in combat during the Great War died at the Isonzo). The area is particularly easy to defend, because of its high cliffs and passes behind a wide water flow which usually floods.

Despite all that, the Italian High Command chose this place to launch their attacks, mainly because it offered the best chances for territorial expansion. The great losses, together with the harsh discipline imposed by the officers, the long duration of this endless war, and the unpopularity of an offensive war, made an antiwar national feeling arise in the country.

A victorious army

The Russian Revolution in February 1917, and the decision of the Russian provisional Government to continue the war with a catastrophic offensive during the summer eventually brought down the Russian army's ability to continue fighting. After that, mutinies, mass desertions and surrendering of whole units with no resistance become normal. In this context, Germany and Austria-Hungary decide moving a large amount of units to the Italian front for the great offensive.

Besides, Germans came from the Eastern front with new efficient combat techniques, called infiltration tactics. Conceived by general Oskar von Hutier to break the stalemate caused by the trench war, they pursued surprise and quickness in the attack. They started with brief, intense bombings, followed by an attack lead by "sturmtruppen", supported by aircraft, with the aim of trespassing and disorganizing the rearguard, suppressing artillery support and communication lines. Then, the bulk of the infantry forces would clean the remaining pockets of resistance. These tactics had been successfully tested in September ending the siege of Riga, but they were used in large scale for the first time in Caporetto.

After their success, they were further used in the Western front, where the Germans almost reached the total victory at the Ludendorff Offensive. These tactics eventually settled the base of the German doctrine developed during the inter-war period, resulting in the principles of the Blitzkrieg, the tactics that kept Nazi Germany undefeated during the first half of the Second World War.

Italy reacts

The first consequences of the battle of Caporetto in Italy were the replacement of field marshal Luiggi Cadorna by Armando Diaz as the army chief commander, and also the formation of a new Government, somehow unavoidable after the continues quarrels between the defenders of neutrality and those for intervention.

However, the most influent change during the following years was the transformation of public opinion about the war. Before that, the army had fought in foreign territory with the aim of obtaining territorial acquisitions. Caporetto, on the contrary, was almost completely fought inside Italian land, switching the war objective to a matter of patriotic defense. This fact, together with the extent of the Italian defeat were skilfully exploited by some public figures, such as nationalist poet Gabrielle d'Annunzio, precursor of ideals and techniques in Italian fascism, and specially Benito Mussolini, then editor in chief of Il Popolo d'Italia. They called for patriotic feelings, discipline and fight against invaders and managed to rise the spirits of more than half a million new recruits, who contributed with the necessary strength to hold Austro-Hungarian attacks at the Piave and save Italy from occupation.

One year later, taking advantage of the high visibility and leadership he had managed to reach, Mussolini founded the Fascist movement, starting the darkest stage of Italian modern History.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Artistic geniuses of Austria-Hungary

Vienna, at the dawn of the 20th Century, was a huge city, capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the fourth World political and financial centre. It is the classical era of Franz Joseph and Sissi, valses and operas, and viennois luxurious palaces and eclectic buildings. However, near the antiquated atmosphere led by the decadent Habsburg aristocracy and the close-minded artistic rationalism, there was an avant-garde hive of artists in the shadows, bursting with intellectual and sensual energy. This "clandestine" generation's works, progressist and provocative, constantly clashed with the conservatism in Austro-Hungarian culture. Nowadays, our modern point of view considers this one of History's most creative movements.

Symbolism vs Realism

During the last years of the previous century, the influence of symbolist trend arrived in Austria. This style had arisen as opposition to the prevailing realism and naturalism, which had stopped making sense after the spreading of photography. Symbolism rejected the mere representation of apparency in favor of ideas, a neo-romantic, spiritual new way of thinking. Thoughts are depicted about life and death, love, divinity, nature, the seasons of the year, etc. Specially the woman's figure is generally painted, itself symbolizing both desire and death (Klimt), a sensual being that becomes nearly magic (Mucha) and finally, simply provoking (Schiele).

Surrounded by this atmosphere between academism and symbolism, by old and new generations of artists from the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, the young Gustav Klimt, son of a Bohemian immigrant, made his studies. He grew up in a poor, but close to art, family, and became an admirer of classicist painter Hans Makart. However, his experiments with allegoric motifs and his golden works in architectural decoration shaped his personal style, together with the search of the symbology transmitted by feminine sensuality.

In fact, he had trouble with the latter, when he performed the paintings called Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna in 1894. The conservative personalities in politics, arts and religion from the Empire were scandalized by the explicit sexual language in these works, openly considered as "pornographic". Klimt never accepted assignments from public institutions anymore.

The secession of Vienna

Meanwhile, in France and Britain, Art Nouveau appeared. Directly related with symbolism, but much more focused on aesthetics than concepts, one of its greatest representatives was the Czech painter and designer Alfons Mucha, born in Moravia. After his failure in Vienna, he moved to Paris, where he achieved great prestige and an unexpected commercial success, specially designing the posters for actress Sarah Bernhardt and in symbolist magazines (La plume, 1898). Even without being related to Klimt, he also pursued spirituality through sensually depicting the feminine body, while treating woman as an untouchable character from a fairy tale.

The Austrian version for this kind of arts was represented by the movement of the Secession of Vienna, founded by Klimt and other artists in 1897, as a copy of those in Munich and Berlin. Years later, this would eventually have more influence than the latter in Art Nouveau trends. The aim for this institution was opposing the insipid prevailing eclecticism and encourage experimentation in new materials and decorative forms that, again, broke the classic trends of that time. In fact, they built their own exhibition pavilion, designed by one of its members, architect Joseph Maria Olbrich. Other artists in the institution were architects Otto Wagner and Joseph Hoffman, and painter Koloman Moser.

For five years, the company effectively created a new style, seceded from anything else existing at that time, by using purer, more abstract shapes and motifs in their works. Besides, they managed to mix different decorative arts in a single one -architecture, painting, metal work, decoration- nearly reaching the pursued idea of "total work of art".

In 1903, three of the main artists of the movement, Klimt, Hoffman and Moser, could not coexist with a faction opposed to the fusion of decorative arts anymore -the so-called naturalists-, and founded the independent Wiener Werkstätte. This institution eventually created the most truly distinctive style of Art Nouveau, by applying beauty to practical objects, characterized by simple shapes, minimalist decoration and use of geometric patterns.

Some years before, in 1899, in his Nuda Verita, Klimt had introduced a quote from Schiller: "If you cannot please everybody with your facts and arts, then just please a few". In effect, the arts produced at the Werkstätte defended the value of being manual and unique, in opposition to industrialist tendencies from schools of Arts and Crafts all along Europe, progressively more oriented to mass production. This elitist spirit was confirmed by Hoffman, when quoting that "as it is not possible to work for all the market anymore, then let us concentrate in those that can afford it".

Clashing with the surrounding social trends had a price: Both Hoffman and Olbricht were banished, the first to Brussels, the latter to Darmstadt (Germany), where he continued taking an active part in the city's modernist school. Meanwhile, Hoffman went on pursuing the practical application of arts into everyday objects, eventually creating the bases for the future Art Deco.

New secessions. Expressionism

Together with his disciple, Egon Schiele, Klimt created the Vienna Kunsthalle (Arts Hall) in 1917, in order to attract local artists and prevent them from fleeing abroad. Klimt became very interested in the young painter, introduced him to the Wiener Werkstätte, and in 1908 he got his first exhibition. Together they experimented with new symbolist trends, more focused on dreams and darker aspects of human conscience, such as anger and loneliness. Schiele's style, however, got increasingly different from his master's, as he overlooked the aesthetics of his works in order to concentrate in the pure expression of the idea. Expressionism had arrived.

We should not forget, with more a personal style, the genial, eccentric Hungarian painter Csontváry, also in the middle between symbolism and expressionism, and his mysterious paintings full of metaphors and dramatic sentiments.

Schiele abandoned Klimt to completely focus on the new style. Same as his master, Schiele gained great reputation all over Europe despite disliking traveling, in fact he preferred installing in his studio, far from the noises of Vienna. However, he did not cease to observe the neurotic behaviors of the population in the city, decadent and closed on itself, which were described by Sigmund Freud and depicted by Schiele and his contemporaneous Oskar Kokoschka, also disciple of genial Klimt. The latter became, after the premature deaths of the master and Schiele in 1918, arguably the most intense expressionist painter during the 20th Century, whose works, declared "depraved" by the Nazis and persecuted, showed the darkest, most heart-rending aspects of the hard period he lived.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Intrigues of the Umayyad

Under the rule of the Umayyad caliphs, the then young Muslim world reached its maximum expansion and the greatest levels of culture and creativity. However, it was a highly unstable empire, in which the caliph's power was continuously questioned by rebel factions. During about one hundred years, from 644 to 759, up to fifteen caliphs reigned, of which six were eventually murdered. There were three great civil wars and more than ten generalised revolts.

The family descended from Umayyad, who shared a great-great-grandfather with Muhammad, from the Hashemite family. As both families belonged to the same tribe -the Quraysh-, and close to power, they hated each other. In fact, the Umayyad were the main opposers to the new Muslim religion, until they were subdued by Muhammad and converted in 630.

The first Umayyad caliph was Uthman, elected in 644 by a community of tribal leaders (shura) according to the Quraysh tradition, as he was one of the first to be converted to Islam, with the opposition of his entire family. Nevertheless, when caliph, he started creating a dynasty, prioritizing Umayyad members to become governors. His prosperous and politically liberal reign gave place to the first intrigues, caused by tribal fights, personal enemies of the caliph and foreign powers afraid of the Islamic expansion -Uthman multiplied by three the Empire's territory-. But it was especially Ali, another disciple of the prophet, who denied the validity of shura decisions and defended Muhammad had personally designed him as successor before his death. A revolt appeared in Egypt eventually finished with the caliph's assassination in 656.

Sunnites, shiites and kharijites

Officially, Ali was proclaimed caliph by the families from Medina. However, Muawiyah, governor of Siria and Uthman's cousin, accused Ali of inspiring the murder and doing nothing to convict the murderers. After supporting, but not participating, in the rising led by Aisha, Muhammad's widow, which eventually failed, he organised his powerful Syrian army and confronted Ali in Siffin. The battle was a draw, and Ali finally bargained with Muawiyah a truce -Adroj arbitration (658)-, by which both kept their former positions. This caused a faction of Ali's followers, belonging to Hanifa and Tamin tribes, consider him a traitor and separate, named kharijites and under the motto "there is not rule but God's", defendind the caliph cannot decide the partition of power in the World. Ali could not crush all the rebels during the mutiny, and they eventually killed him three years later.

Muawiyah, already self-proclaimed caliph in 660, hurried to the capital, Kufa, with his reorganised army from Damascus, to get the throne. Ali's first-born son, Hasan, not counting with enough forces, fled to Medina and left free space to Muawiyah. His brother Husayn tried to get his rights back, but was defeated and killed in Karbala in 680. At his death in the beginning of that same year, the caliph Muawiyah had officially created the Umayyad dynasty, when forcing the noblemen to accept his son Yazid as his successor. This allowed him to consolidate caliphal power, but he also gained many enemies that continuously fought for the throne.

From this moment on, authority was always divided in the Islamic World. Opposing Muslim orthodoxy, or sunnism, the defeated followers of Husayn constituted the Shiite sect, that would be back to war several times, specially in Arabia and Irak, and was eventually a key element in the fall of the dynasty. Basically, shiites did not accept Umayyad authority, and created the Imam title instead, as spiritual leader -in order to differentiate it from the more terrenal caliph title- for Ali's heir. Centuries later, an imam died without any descendants, which made the Shiism break into several rival sub-sects.

Meanwhile, kharijites were a faction self-declared as the defender of Islamic purity. This sect, now practically disappeared, argued the caliph should not be designated in an hereditary way, but it should arise from the community. After killing Ali, they constituted an important opposition focus against the Umayyad, causing several local revolts specially among berbers of recently conquered Maghreb, in Mesopotamia, Irak and North Arabia, although Shiism became a larger problem.

Caliph at the caliph's place

Yazid died in 683 while besieging Mecca, trying to defeat Abdallah ibn Zubayr, who had supported Husayn and, at his death, proclaimed himself caliph in Arabia and Egypt. Abdallah caused great headaches to Damascus caliphs, as he had the main Islamic pilgrimage place under control. In order to compete with it, the Umayyad built the Mosque of the Rock in Jerusalem. The existence of two caliphs lasted for ten years, as one of the main Syrian tribes, the Qaysites, supported him against the Kalbites, allied to Damascus. The fight between these tribes was a long civil war, which a third faction joined, that of rebel al-Mukhtar, strong in Irak and defending the rights of another Ali's heir -Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya- without his permission.

The new Damascus caliph, al-Malik, chose to wait until both rebel factions destroyed each other, instead of attacking openly. Eventually, al-Mukhtar was defeated in Kufa by Abdallah in 687. That was the momento to attack his weakened army, that fell in Mecca five years later, after a harsh siege which destroyed the Holy Place of the Kaaba. Abdallah was beheaded, and his body exposed for potential rebels. The new sovereign of the whole Islamic world had a reign of centralization and internal peace. Thanks to the governor of Irak and personal lieutenant, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, no revolt was succesful during those years. This allowed carrying on the conquests and reaching the maximum extension of the Empire, from Spain to India.

When great al-Malik's sons, less authoritary, reigned, rebels stroke back. When inheriting such a large and heterogeneous Empire, in which Arabs enjoyed privileges and tax exemptions over non-Arabs, union was progressively more difficult to keep. Although one of the sovereigns, Umar, tried to abolish this differentiation, the consequent tax income drop became impossible, and going back to tax raising led to general revolts, specially in Transoxiana in 734. To make things worse, the caliph Hisham was defeated all along the Empire borders (Tours, Samarkand, Akroinon, etc.) and more unhappiness caused new rebellions in a territory impossible to control: Zayd's shiites in Irak, Berbers in North Africa -Morocco and Spain were lost in 740-, kharijites in Iran, and the feuds of conflictive Syrian tribes bleeding each other. Meanwhile, decadence and palace intrigues were increasing: the family members, togethers with generals and governors, were fighting each other for the power -the drunkard, corrupt al-Walid II was murdered by his own cousin Yazid, who proved no more brilliant-.

The Abbasid executioners

The end of the Umayyad came from the hand of the Abbasids, descendants of Abbas and -far- political family of Muhammad. It is in fact believed that they were not Arabs, but converse Persians, which explains why they had the support of non-Arab citizens from Iran. Using the excuse that the Umayyad had betrayed the Islam spirit, they attracted shiites and kharijites, gathering all possible opposition -needless to say that, after the dynasty overthrown, they kept opposing the new caliphs-.

The Abbasids consolidated their power in Khurasan, North-eastern Iran, far from central power, and started an open revolt in 747. In 749, the Abbasid Abu proclaimed himself caliph in Kufa. Next year, they defeated the Umayyad in Zab, and the caliph Marwan II was persecuted and killed in Egypt. Liberating all the resentment of a century, the winners outraged the tombs of the Umayyad and killed the remaining members of the family. Only one saved, Abd al-Rahman, who fled to the border province of Cordoba, and there extended the dynasty, but that is a different story.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Science and technology in Nazi Germany

That should be admitted. Germany during the years 1932 to 1945 became une of the main World centres, maybe even the main one, in scientific and technologic research. During that period, the bright German engineers created more than 300,000 patents, which, after the war, were appropiated by the Allies, who took advantage from them in further developments, that lead to many products we use nowadays.

This post is not at all a support or identification with National-socialist ideology or Hitler's regime. It just tries to show the technological advances achieved during this time and political context.

Military advances

Considering Hitler's military objective, there was a strong financial support to war oriented research. However, many of the achievements in weaponry were unused because of confrontations between different factions of the army, as well as Hitler's unstable planning abilities. Many resources were wasted in politically impressive but unrealistic projects, while little effort was made to make the new inventions practical. Despite all that, the Germans had technological advantages in the war, as they used inventions such as the first automatic rifle and the first railgun type guns.

The Messerschmitt Me 262 -called "Schwalbe", the swallow- was the first oprational jet plane in History. After a series of changes and failures, technically due to the lack of alloy able to resist the overheating due to high velocities, but also to Hitler's conviction in a quick victory and the unnecessarity of the new model, in May 1943 the prototype was ready. During the test flights, it reached nearly 900 kmph, what made Adolf Galland, chief of the Fighter Aviation, exclaim: "It looks like pushed by the angels!". However, Hitler's obsession for turning it into a bomber delayed its production in one year, and suppressing the great advantages it provided, speed and fire power against bombers. In the end, less than 300 units ever engaged in combat. Despite some punctual successes, such as the legendary actuation of the JV44 squadron, involving J. Steinhoff and Galland himself, which shot down more than one thousand planes, the jet fighter had no repercusion due to the general lack of fuel and expert pilots -it became a deadly trap for novices-. Besides, the confrontations of Göring with Galland caused it not to be built at the necessary scale. After the war, the Allies took possession of the remaining intact models, from which directly they developed the American F-86 Sabre and the Soviet MiG-15.

The U-boot, German submarines, were the most operative naval weapon they had during the whole war. Specially, the U-boot VII model was the most advanced model of the time, armed with five torpedo launchers while reaching 18 knots at surface. The tactics proposed by the Kriegsmarine commander Dönitz, the "wolf pack", was based in night group attacks to English convoys, which led to huge losses to the Royal Navy. Anyway, it took too long to the admiral to convince Hitler of the convenience of submarine war considerably decreased its scale. From 1943, the Allies learnt to face the U-boot by means of radar detection and torpedo launcher planes.

However, the major German innovation in submarine warfare was the U-boot XXI. This new-generation submarine, directly related to the design of the first American nuclear ones, combined novel technologies that could have made it into one of the greatest challenges for the Allied navy and decisively influence the war outcome. It included a new hydraulic reloading system, which granted a fire power six times larger than the VII type U-boot. On the other side, its sonar system allowed non-periscope-aided shooting, thus increasing its stealth. But mainly, the combination of its stylish hull design with the wide electric battery capacity, granted a higher speed when inmersed than on surface -17 knots vs 15- and a larger inmersion time, what made it specially difficult to hunt. From 1943 to 1945, 118 units were built. However, only two of them -U2511 and U3008- took part in combat missions before the end of the war, due to the large period needed to crew training in such a novel technology.

The first ballistic missile, the Vergeltungswaffe 2 ("Weapon of Revenge"), or V-2, was developed by a group of engineers led by Wernher von Braun in 1942, after a decade working on alcohol and liquid oxygen propulsion. But, even if it had all the support from Hitler, its mass production did not begin until the end of 1943. The rocket had its huge speed as an advantage, which made it virtually impossible to locate and destroy by the Allies. However, its short autonomy (little more than 300 km) and no precision, made it only useful for the indiscriminate bombings Hitler carried out in the English south coast. Until the beginning of 1945, almost 1500 rockets fell into British territory. Once the war was finished, both the USSR and the USA rushed to take the rocket specialists back to their countries. Among them, the team of Von Braun himself created the Saturn V rocket for the NASA, which -supposedly- took the man to the Moon in 1969.

V-1 should also be mentioned, developed in parallel to the V-2, and considered the first guided missile. Same as V-2, traditional defense measures used by the Allies -interceptor fighters, anti-aircraft guns, balloons, ...- proved uneffective for these new threats. The only adequate defenses were the destruction of launching bases and counterinformation activities (in which souble agent actions of the XX system, and specially the Spanish spy Juan Pujol, "Garbo", were of vital importance-.

It is also suspected that the Germans carried out nuclear tests in Thuringia in March 1945, two months earlier than the Americans. However, the classification of the documents that supposedly prove it has made it impossible to find out the degree of development they had.

Other inventions

In 1935, the engineer Fritz Pfleumer developed the K1, first magnetophonic recorder. This provided, the first concerts and political speeches in History were the German ones. Its military use was extensive, as a recording medium of both friend and intercepted transmissions. The Allies knew that the Nazis had such a device, but did not find it out until they invaded Germany in 1944. There, the American engineer Jack Mullin analyzed the device, a great invention for its time, which was commercialized by the firm Ampex and revolutionized the American media industry of the '40s and the '50s.

The first machine working with binary arithmetics, the Z3, including programming capacity, was developed in 1941 by the German engineer Konrad Zuse, and became in essence the first digital computer. Although it was destroyed in a bombing in 1944, it meant a step forward to the development, in 1948, of the famous American computer ENIAC, that added decimal arithmetics.

Infra-red devices were included in German interceptors that proved very usefil in night missions, while the Americans were starting to wonder if such a technology was possible.

In medicine, we will not point out the infamous pseudo-scientific experiments Dr Mengele carried out with concentration camp prisoners. From a more constructive side, German scientists of the time achieved the first direct relation of tobacco with lung cancer -and smoking was even banned in the Luftwaffe for several years-. They also were the inventors of methadone and modern pesticides.

Monday, February 25, 2008

4th Crusade: Christians vs Christians

The Crusades, or the fact of giving a religious meaning to the fights that, all along the Middle Ages, happened between Christian and Muslim princes, led somehow to the internationalization of warfare. The first action related to the idea of Crusade was in the Spain of the "Reconquista". Alfonso VI of Castille, after his crushing defeat in Zalaca against the Almoravids, asks for help from foreign knights to defend Toledo and the Tajo basin against the continuous Muslim attacks.

The Crusades' origins come from an spontaneous feeling from pilgrims to Holy Places. They went there more and more often in armed groups, although the tolerant Arabs did not oppose any obstacle to them. This feeling was used by the pope Urban II, who preached for the first Crusade in 1095, with the aim to deviate the warlike actions of feudal lords. Besides, this way he would show a force exhibition to his weakened enemy, the Eastern Orthodox Church, as mercenaries went sent as aid for the Byzantine Empire. It had an extraordinary success, thousands of crusaders from all over Europe gathered in Constantinople and conquered Jerusalem, and military orders were found that maintained it for almost a hundred years.

However, during the following Crusades, kings played a progressively decreasing role, sometimes even opposing the pontifical rule. Italian businessmen financed the unsuccessful expeditions led by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and later Richard Lionheart together with Frederick Barbarossa.

The 4th Crusade's financial problems

The Pope Innocent III tried to change this situation with the preaching of a 4th Crusade. While carefully avoiding the kings to assume its rule, he planeed a very organised attack into Egypt, the heart of Saladdin's empire. He hired the Venetians for the transport, logistics and reinforcement of troops, and designed the Italian Boniface of Montferrat, descendant of crusaders, as the army leader. In 1202, more than 30,000 crusaders, mostly French, promised to be ready to set sail to Cairo, something that however never happened.

Only a third of the promised soldiers appeared in Venice, and with her little more than half of the silver marks needed to pay. As the Venetians were demanding the payment for their accomplished building of the vessels, a mutual agreement had to be reached. Fainally, the doge Enrico Dandolo, a skillful diplomat and specially a very practical man, managed to attract the Crusade towards his own interests.

Despite the Pope's express ban to the crusaders to "cause atrocious acts against other Christian neighbors", the Venetians demanded as a payment to capture the city of Zara, rebel to Venice and protected by the king Emeric of Hungary and Croatia, who had previously supported the Crusade. Some of the crusaders, disappointed, returned home, while most of them faced a menace of excommunication after taking the city.

Meanwhile, the theoretical leader Boniface, aiming to take initiative back and save the Crusade, met Alexius Angelicus, brother-in-law of his cousin, and son of the Byzantine emperor Isaac, ovethrown some years before by his uncle -also Alexius- who now held the crown of Constantinople. Alexius promised financing and reinforcements for the expedition if they helped him to have the throne back. Most of the crusaders accepted, and specially did the Venetians, as the usurper had expelled their merchants when he came to power.

The nonsense

The city fell when the emperor quickly fleed, and Alexius IV was crowned in Constantinople. However, he soon found huge problems to find the gold and silver promised to his partners, despite melting large amounts of valuable objects in the city. This attack to the possessions of the population, together with the growing hate towards foreigners who occupied their city, caused many fights between Greeks and crusades in the streets and in the court.

In January 1204, a courtesan leader of the anti-Latin movement eventually strangled the emperor -the favorite manner to overthrown in Byzantium- and proclaimed himself emperor as Alexius V. The first thing he did was terminate the contract with the crusaders and expel them from the city. These assaulted it, but were driven back due to the fierce resistance of the Greek population.

The Christians' demoralization nearly made them retreat. However, the clergy that accompanied them used an effective speech, ignoring the continuous orders from the Pope Innocent to cancel that attack against Christians: this action was not God's punishment for their sins, but a test to their spirits. It was the Greeks, murderers and treacherous for killing their patron, and literally "worse than Jews", who deserved to die. The result of this was effectively the conquest of the city some days later, but followed from a sack that is considered as the History's most violent and humiliating one.

During three days, and despite the Venetians trying to keep calm, French knights went on killing the population, destroying art pieces, burned books, murdered priests and raped nuns. The Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates tells in his chronicle of the sack of Constantinople that the crusaders spent several days getting drunk in the throne room in the imperial palace, while a prostitute occupied the throne. The Pope Innocent, in his 1205 letters, writes about the shame he feels because of the crusaders' actions, and the ultimate schism between the Roman and Orthodox Churches takes place: "How could the Greek Church get back (...) to an ecclesiastic union and devotion to the Apostolic See, when it has been seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and darkness, and now, with reason, detests them more than dogs?"

After the end

The creation of the Eastern Latin Empire, divided in a series of states belonging to Venetian and French lords, was saluted as a decisive element to the success of future Crusades. Actually, treasons, banishments and murders followed one another during the half century the empire lasted, and the Latin emperor showed always unable to obtain the support of the Greek population, and resist the attacks from Turks and Bulgarians. It is, in fact, from a Greek territory, Nicaea, that Michael Paleologos eventually assures the reconquest of Constantinople in 1261 and restores the Byzantine Empire. However, the always great Eastern city never recovered, and the Empire became a degeneration of its ancient meaning until it fell in Turkish hands.

From the 13th Century, the idea of Crusade decays, as something old-fashioned. It is often used as an excuse to make war against heretics or enemies of Rome, so that its moral power finally runs out in Europe except in Cyprus, seat of the knights of Jerusalem, and Rhodes, base of the Hospitaller, who will still dream obsessed with the idea for two centuries.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The hell of Kursk

The battle of Kursk was not only the greatest armored confrontation in History, but also the turning point at World War II. From this point, Hitler's Germany ceased to hold the initiative in the East and passed to defend, which would not change during the rest of the war.


The invasion of Russia -operation Barbarossa, started on 22th June 1941 and planned to be a rapid conquest, before winter arrived- had gone well for the Germans in the first months of campaign. Despite the too late beginning of the campaign -Russian winter would arrive anyway- and underestimating the defensive power of the Soviet Union, the German army was far more ready and had better logistic support. The surprise factor, air support and Soviet lack of organization allowed an advance of 50 daily kilometers. In August, the Wehrmacht was almost 100 km from Leningrad, Kiev and Smolensk. But an unexpected planning changement altered the course of the invasion.

Hitler had always believed himself a militar genius, and some strategic achievements during the war -largely, taking big risks- convinced him to personally take the command of the Eastern front troops. The initial plans of the campaign were, besides conquering Leningrad, to send the Southern Army sector to take control of the rich Caucasus oil wells, and the Central one to Smolensk and directly towards Moscow, which should be occupied before the winter. However, Hitler took a dicsoncerting decision, against the opinion of the whole High Command: he made stop the advance to the capital to reinforce the Southern Army, fighting harshly in Kiev.

Hitler had in mind that the Ukrainian city had to be taken, but due to the rugged resistance from the population, the siege finally lasted until October, slowering the whole progress towards the Caucasus oil fields. The result was that, upon the winter arrival, the important access to the oil had not been achieved. At the same time, the bulk of the Central sector, the 4th Wehrmacht Army, was at the gates of Moscow, but weakened because of this unexpected reinforcement, had wasted too long time in Smolensk, and also lacking of supplies, could advance no more.

From attackers to attacked

After the Soviet re-organization, the expulsion of the nazis from Moscow, and relative stabilization of the front during the winter, in 1942 the Germans finally tried to occupy the Caucasus. However, new conflicts between Hitler and the High Command made the Operation Blue to become a clumsy advance that eventually trapped the Germans in the battle of Stalingrad, where they lost their major elite force, the 6th Army.

Field marshal Von Manstein managed though to counteract the counteroffensive from Stalingrad, and even advancing on Kharkov during March 1943. He then proposed the High Command to tend a trap that, attracting the Red Army to the rests of the German 6th Army, would make an evolving movement that would envelop the Russians at the Donets Basin. Hitler, reluctant to envolving attacks, did not approve the plan and centered in Kursk, an area entering in the straight Russian front.

The objective was too obvious: the Russians predicted the attack, and the delay to July gave them further advantage -Hitler wanted the new Panther tanks to arrive to the front-. Generals Rokossovsky and Vatutin had set up tens of deffensive belts, and had progressive retreat plans while the Germans would be advancing. The Russians knew the offensive would come from the huge amount of tanks there accumulated. When they started Operation Citadel on 5th July, more than one million antitank mines decimated the armored columns. Russian artillery and air force, after two years of campaign, were comparable in number and readiness to the German ones, and destroyed the German artillery support.

Although Panzers were still a formidable weapon supported by the Luftwaffe, they lacked the proper infantry support, and Russian soldiers were able to easily destroy them with antitank guns or simple molotov cocktails. Besides, the new models -Tiger and Panther- were very scarce and did not whos the expected results. More than half were out of operation the first day because of problems with their cooling system.

On 12th July, the Germans believed to be near the end of the Russian defensive belts. However, when entering Prokhorovka, the SS-Panzerkorps found itself in front of a whole armored division of Soviet T-34. The greatest armored combat in History (400 German tanks against 900 Soviet ones) ended up as a technical draw, but was a huge moral defeat for the Nazis, who thought to be close to victory. On 17th July, when the Wehrmacht soldiers saw all the Panzers being retired and moved to the new Sicily front, they realised that they would pass to a defensive role. Soviet counterattacks started immediately. The attackers became attacked.