Blogging from deep down beneath the Greater L. A. hipsterpolitan region….

I’m a writer, but there are zillions of writers, perhaps you’ve noticed. This here is a bunch of my stuff. I hope you dig it.

I try to blog at least once daily so there’s a lot of stuff here. You can browse by category or look at some selected essaysstories (non-fiction), neuroscience pieces, jazz writing or smartassery. Some flash nonfiction even.

My LA Weekly stuff can be found here.

My email is brickjazz@yahoo.com. My phone is 323-420-7410. I do a lot of short writing on my Brick Wahl page on Facebook, and really short writing on Twitter. I get all professional on LinkedIn, all pensive on Pinterest, and all whatever the hell it’s for on Google Plus. You can even look through my library at Goodreads. I’m all over the goddamn internet and all over this goddamn town.

The real campaign

“Obama still was able to convey a sense of progressiveness and realness that was nonetheless very exciting. You don’t think of the middle as being an exciting place…”

Depends on your point or view. Most candidates on the left of the Democratic party have been spinning essentially the same hackneyed ideas since Adlai Stevenson, just as those on the right of the GOP are still tossing the same raw meat that was tossed to their ancestors in the fifties. Almost invariably new ideas come from the center, where workable plans have to be developed out of compromise. On either end of the spectrum the candidates know there’s no real hope of attaining almost anything they promise so they promise the moon because the audience out there loves it and to be honest doesn’t care if any of it ever passes or not, they’re just there for the show. Only twice in the last hundred years has revolutionary reform been possible after an election: under FDR and then under Reagan. After that you have various candidates pretending it’s 1932 and 1980 again respectively. Just like now, with Bernie Sanders on our side making impossible to implement proposals and nearly all of the GOP cast of crazies on their side promising to do exactly what Sam Brownback is doing to Kansas now. It’s complete crap on both sides, but it’s good theater, and it sure gets Facebook worked up. But you ask any of these Bernie Sanders fans just how his proposals will be implemented in real life they will not be able to answer…nor will they care. And it goes without saying that the GOP is the same. This campaign is not about change, it’s about show biz. Once the press begins focusing on Bernie Sanders for viable explanations for how to pass, fund and implement his proposals, that’s when it gets hard. Right now he and all the GOP are playing to Facebook. This is still recess. The real campaign hasn’t even started.

Not Fade Away

Back in 1952 it was obvious that after twenty years the Democrats would at last lose the White House. The public wanted a change, and there were no Democratic candidates with the stature (“presidential timber” was the phrase of the time) of any of the Republicans like Thomas Dewey or Robert Taft, or Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur. Dewey and Taft were arch-enemies. Dewey was an internationalist and Taft was more an isolationist. He wanted us out of Europe. As things went, Taft began edge past Dewey in the standings. As nominations were still primarily backroom arrangements–primaries were just beginning–such standings were difficult to glean, but the press and politicos seemed to think that things were leaning in Taft’s direction. There was a draft-Eisenhower movement in the works–he was, after all, the big American hero of WW2, the architect of victory–but he would rather not be president. He’d done his bit and wanted to retire. But he was worried about Taft’s isolationist tendencies…Ike was worried that it was basically handing over Europe to Stalin. Stalin gave him the creeps. So he told Taft that if Taft stated that he would continue the current American policies in Europe–NATO, the Marshall Plan, etc.–that he, Eisenhower, would make a Shermanesque declaration of his lack of presidential ambitions (“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”) Taft refused. Ike jumped in. It looked neck and neck heading into the convention. So Taft decided to jump the gun on normal procedure and announced his choice of running mate before the convention. He chose Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur was the other big American hero of WW2. He was an impressive general, usually (though his Philippine fiasco in 1942 is the worst battlefield defeat in American history), and he made sure of his hero status with a publicity machine worthy of a movie star. People loved or hated him. He had also been the big hero in the Korean War, reversing a desperate situation with a brilliant counterstroke, though a strategic blunder in the end forced his removal (our rout at the hands of the Chinese at the Yalu River might be the second worst battlefield defeat in American history, up there with Chickamauga in 1863). President Truman mistakenly claimed at the time that MacArthur advocated using nuclear weapons against the Chinese. MacArthur actually hadn’t. But the damage was done and he now had the reputation of having an itchy nuclear trigger finger. Though at the time, much of the American public liked the idea. MacArthur, though dismissed and shamed, returned from Korea a hero to Republicans, lionized with praise not even Eisenhower had received. And unlike Eisenhower, MacArthur believed every word of it. Robert Taft had gone so far as to demand the impeachment and conviction of Truman for firing MacArthur. That went nowhere, of course, but it lead to Taft choosing MacArthur as his running mate. And in the political climate of 1952, having Douglas MacArthur on the ticket virtually guaranteed a win in November.

But it wasn’t up to the voters yet–this was before the primary system–and it wasn’t good enough to beat Eisenhower at the convention. Ike was nominated and then, in November, won handily. Adlai Stevenson was no match for a genuinely great American hero in the classic mold (the likes of which we haven’t seen since.) Nor would Adlai be a match in 1956. Stevenson was the first in the proud and so far unbroken line of unabashedly liberal Democratic presidential candidates who win the nomination only to lose the election. (Even the slogans tell the tale–I Like Ike versus Madly for Adlai….) But getting back to Robert Taft, who but for Eisenhower would have been president of the United States. Taft began to complain of pain in his hips in early 1953, and after a game of golf in April with the now President Eisenhower, he checked into a hospital. He was dead of pancreatic cancer by the end of July. Had Eisenhower not decided to run for President–and it took a tremendous amount of convincing, it was not something he wanted to do–Taft would have died as president and Vice President Douglas MacArthur would have become the 35th president of the United States.

Now that is something both weird and terrifying to think about. Perhaps the fact that we are here at all is because Douglas MacArthur was never president of the United States. Then again, it might be unfair to think he’d want to use nuclear weapons more than Eisenhower. He did not even like the fact we’d dropped the bombs on Japan, and he was no bleeding heart. He just didn’t like the whole idea. But a nuclear war would not have been started by a nuclear bomb loving maniac president. Rather it would have been set off by a president who saw war with Stalin and his heirs–who were incredibly scary people, remember, these guys were not Gorbachev–as a policy option. MacArthur in 1951 had had no issue at all seeing war with Red China as an option in the Korean conflict…and he was willing to disobey direct orders from the President to wage it. Eisenhower on the other hand, never saw war with the Soviet Union as an option. It was a last resort, to be avoided at almost any cost. And unlike MacArthur, we know for a fact how much Ike hated war, and how much he mistrusted the military industrial complex. That there was no World War Three in the fifties, when it would have been militarily possible without instant mutual annihilation, is almost entirely due to Dwight Eisenhower. He sounds now almost like a pacifist. I hate war, he said, “as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity”. He even went so far as to say that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Imagine that, a president saying that the sheer existence of the military and its infrastructure and industries is an affront to true New Testament values. You cannot imagine a president saying that now. Not even Bernie Sanders. Yet Eisenhower’s letters, memoirs and speeches are full of such language. And because of his public pronouncements, the leaders in Moscow knew that Eisenhower was not likely to start a new world war no matter how tense the Cold War became. But I’m not sure what they would have thought of MacArthur. While he did not openly love war, like Patton, he certainly gloried in its drama and opportunity. There was no way to tell just how far you could push a Douglas MacArthur. You weren’t guaranteed a measured, logical response as with Eisenhower, or be assured that he did not believe a surprise attack was a possibility. Ike would never start a war. But a President and Commander-in-Chief Douglas MacArthur?  The danger in a stalemate is not what you know, but what you don’t know.

Which is what made the Cuban Missile Crisis so terrifying. Khrushchev had no way of knowing how far JFK would go. Nor did we. We still don’t. That was the only time in the history of the world when a several hundred million people faced instant death, and a couple billion others would have died slowly. We came so close. I would have died for sure. We were living outside Norfolk, Virginia, in October of 1963, and I would have been incinerated in the heat flash of an exploding hydrogen bomb, one of several targeted for the immediate area. My last experiences would have been the howling air raid siren, my family huddling together in an interior hallway, praying and crying and waiting. We might have survived the blast a second or two. Anybody alive then remembers this, thinking that this was how we would all go. That this is how the world would end.

And that end would have been brought on by one of my Irish-American heroes, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He nearly destroyed the world, not wanting to. The irony of a zero-sum world. And what would an egomaniac former generalissimo with a Caesar complex have done? We don’t know. We’ll never know. Eisenhower decided to run for president and rendered all things MacArthur moot. The only thing left for Douglas MacArthur was writing his memoirs. Reminiscences he called them and like U.S. Grant, he wrote the last passages and quietly died. But an old soldier never dies, MacArthur told Congress in 1951, he just fades away. Which he did, thankfully, instead of going out with a nuclear bang.

Progressive scorecard

1968. The Democratic party, bitterly divided between liberals and way liberals, blows up.

1972. George McGovern is elected in a landslide victory and America is changed forever.

1984. Water Mondale is elected in a landslide victory and America is changed forever.

1988. Michael Dukakis is elected in a landslide victory and America is changed forever.

2000. Voters, disgusted at Al Gore’s sell out conservatism, elect Ralph Nader in a landslide victory and American is changed forever.

2004. John Kerry is elected in a landslide victory and American is changed forever.

2008. Barack Obama, reaching out to black and moderate voters, is defeated in a landslide and America is unchanged forever.

2012. See 2008, but way worse even.

2016. Bernie Sanders is elected in a landslide victory and America is changed forever.

Artistic license

I always get Céline and Ezra Pound confused, I said. I was being snide. You can be snide discussing Louis Ferdinand Céline and Ezra Pound. But I had to explain this time. How I’d only made that comparison because both were vicious anti-Semites and fascists. Céline was pro-Nazi (but not necessarily pro-Hitler) to the point of being a collaborator. The only thing that kept him from the firing squad–which he deserved–was his reputation as a writer. He was a seminal figure in Holocaust Denial as well. Just an evil bastard all around. Loathesome. Not that he cared what other people–aside, perhaps from his fellow collaborators–thought. The more one is hated, he said, the happier one is. I believe the Resistance had him marked for assassination but the war ended first and he became something for the liberated and restored judicial system. They let him go.

Ezra Pound was not much better, though unlike Céline at least he was certifiably mad. It probably saved him from the gallows. He spent the war in Mussolini’s employ, delivering viciously treasonous and unhinged anti-Semitic broadcasts. He was captured after the war by a literary-minded American officer. Bad luck. They kept him in a cage and he railed and ranted. The worm had turned.

But what writers they were, both of them. Pound one of the finest ever in the English language, certainly in American English. His stuff utterly mystifies me, I could spend years trying to crack it. It’s bare boned, gorgeous, magnificent. Céline was one of the greatest of French writers, we had nobody like him in American literature till Burroughs, who in fact idolized Céline. It’s weird how so many Americans took Céline to heart–but then the United States had never experienced a Nazi occupation. We could read his prose and separate the writer from the times, I suppose. (Ginsberg befriending him, though, remains a little hard to figure out.) I know that my rule has always been you have to separate the art from the asshole. I know a lot of literary types like to excuse Céline and Pound’s “excesses”, as if writers are different than you and me. But a war criminal is a war criminal. Some just write really well.

In his defense at his trial Céline composed Réponses aux accusations formulées contre moi par la justice française au titre de trahison et reproduites par la Police Judiciaire danoise au cours de mes interrogatoires, pendant mon incarcération 1945–1946 à Copenhague. You’ll find it in his canon, in English, titled Reply to Charges of Treason Made by the French Department of Justice. I’ve never seen it, though I’d love to, as its prose apparently swept the judges off their feet. He never served another day in jail. Céline should have hung but he wrote so well. Pound too. They hanged that hack Lord Haw Haw (real name William Joyce) even though his copy was nowhere near as vile as the spew that came from Pound’s pen and mouth during the war, nor as corrosive as any of Celine’s wartime pamphlets. But Céline got off with a one year sentence, suspended, and later an amnesty. Genius has its perks. Artistic license. The Americans, not so literary minded, were a little harsher on Pound, who was locked up in a psychiatric hospital for twelve years. Not that he was actually insane, he was just eccentric and vile and hypergraphically talented, yet weird enough to pass for a lunatic. He wrote The Pisan Cantos during his stay. Hot wind came from the marshes and death-chill from the mountains.

Lord Haw Haw, a lousy writer, received no mercy. His fellow Englishmen, who’d listened to him on Nazi radio every day till the end of the war, felt no pity. Nor did anyone clamber to save his scrawny neck as they had Pound’s and Céline’s. The sentence was death. May the swastika be raised from the dust! he yelled artlessly. His neck snapped seconds afterward.

The Nazis themselves had no soft spot for wayward intellectuals. Thus they tortured and shot without compunction one of the greatest historians of modern times, Marc Bloch. Though his influence is imperceptible in the United States, he had revolutionized the study of history when he co-founded (with Lucian Lebvre) the Annales School of thought. Bloch and Lefebvre’s methods were to narrative history what Thucydides was to Homer. To the Nazis, however, Bloch was just another resistance member who wouldn’t talk. Not that they were unaware who he was. No mercy was shown despite his brilliance. Klaus Barbie himself is said to have tortured him. You can imagine their conversations. Yet Bloch still wouldn’t talk. Then, with the Americans already in France, Barbie had a squad take him into the courtyard of the Gestapo building and execute him. Vive La France! Bloch cried out. He was 57 and looked like a rumpled college professor. He’d been working on Apologie pour l’histoire ou Métier d’historien. In English they titled it The Historian’s Craft, seeming to utterly miss the point. Bloch wrote his last pages in his cell. 

Barbie was finally caught in 1983. He’d been in Bolivia since the war, surrounded by like-minded Nazis and enchanting successive dictators. He helped to overthrow a democratically elected government or two, dealt in arms, taught torture. It was a good life. Then his luck ran out and he was extradited to France in chains. It was a huge trial, every day in the papers. The Butcher of Lyon, they called him. He had killed, either by his own hand or his own direct order, fourteen thousand people. Men and women. The elderly and children. Entire families. He never wrote anything that I know of, but he performed exquisitely painful tortures. He literally–not metaphorically–skinned men alive during interrogations. In an era of abundant state sanctioned sadists, Barbie stood out for the quality of his work. If pain were literature he was a Céline. If pain were poetry he was an Ezra Pound. He was that good.

The evidence against Barbie was overwhelming–the Germans kept accurate, detailed records of everything they did, no matter how horrible–and he was convicted of crimes against humanity, among them the killing of Marc Bloch. They threw him in jail for the rest of his life. That life lasted till 1991, when cancer ate up his insides and he died at aged 77 in agony and awfulness and alone. When I stand before the throne of God, he said, I shall be judged innocent. 

What a strange little essay this was. It just gushed out while I was watching Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis, you know, he can do that. I saw a photo of his headstone once. A Greek friend translated it for me. I don’t hope for anything, it read, I don’t fear anything. I’m free.

Convergence

Wow. Twelve declared Republican presidential candidates as of today, and another four expected. Sixteen total. That’s seems nuts.

But thinking back to my college days when I had dreams of being another Theodore White and read every campaign history I could lay my hands on, I remember doing a rather long paper on the 1976 presidential election campaign. It’s probably stuffed in a box around here somewhere. That was the first election after Watergate, and the Democrats had blown the GOP to smithereens in the previous midterms. Watergate, you’ll remember. If you were a Democrat and breathing you were elected that year. And as 1976 approached, the excitement was too much for many Democrats and fifteen of them declared themselves candidates for president, and another sixteen considered but decided against it, which means at one point nearly thirty Democrats were picturing themselves in the Oval Office, signing bills and giving orders. I’ve seen no list yet of the Republicans who were thinking about running this year but changed their minds. But if the last four Republicans expected to announce this year do join the herd, they will have officially beat by one candidate the Democrat’s total in 1976, which I believe was the most ever. That was a helluva campaign on the Democratic side, the 1976 nomination race. Fast paced, fluid, full of surprises. The histories–I remember reading two of them, though the titles escape me–read like fast paced novels. The underdog, a peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter, won in a happy ending that made Americans feel warm all over. It was the most exciting election since 1968, the histories of which (An American Melodrama was one) also read like a novel, though a tragic one, full of death and betrayal, the ending just sad.

(The Republican race in 1976 was a desperate, angry match between damaged incumbent Gerald Ford and the rising star of the conservatives, Ronald Reagan. The delegate count was close, and finally got down to the convention, which was a squeaker. Ford was nominated, but barely. Reagan’s supporters, angry, promised never to let that happen again, and went out to take over the party from the ground up. But that was another election to come.)

So will the Republican presidential campaign be as wild and exciting as the Democrat race in 1976? Will it turn into a donnybrook? The  signs of campaign madness are already emerging, and Ted Cruz demanding Supreme Court elections today was especially fun. When you have more candidates on the field than a football team, you do what ya gotta do, say what you gotta say. And who knows where the Confederate flag controversy will go, especially as South Carolina, the follow up primary to New Hampshire, traditionally a make or break state for Republican candidates, has the meanest Republican intra-party politics in the land. You have never seen mean until you’ve seen South Carolina Republican mean. You’ll be hearing all about this next February, believe me. Oh boy, this will be fun. I’m just wondering which candidate will have the first sex tape. My money’s on Bobby Jindal. He was young, he needed the money. But then they all need money. PACs don’t come cheap, you know.

As a sidenote, I remember running into Jack Germond at a wedding maybe fifteen years ago. He was a bit of a hero of mine, as he’d co-written (with Jules Witcover) a long out of print history of the 1968 presidential campaign that was so good I’d read it two or three times. A genuine classic of political literature, and I wish I could recall the title of it. It’s around here somewhere. Anyway, we had a nice conversation in the restroom about presidential primaries while side by side taking a leak. You don’t get to meet a lot of people you admire that way. I told him I loved that book. Those were the days he said. We both agreed nomination races weren’t (at the time) what they used to be. They weren’t. 1984 had been beyond dull (Wake Us When It’s Over was Witcover’s history of the thing). 1988 was Michael Dukakis in a tank. We both snickered at poor Dukakis. Hard to think of anything sadder than being laughed at by two guys taking a leak. Nice chatting with you, Jack said, and I went to shake his hand but thought better of it. At the sink I asked him who he figured would be the nominees in 2000. Vice President Gore, he said, and George W. Bush, but he wasn’t too excited about either, or the race. Not what they used to be I said, and we both sighed and went back to our separate tables, he with the grown ups, me with the musicians.

But thinking back now it seems maybe we were wrong about nomination races not being what they used to be. 2016 is starting to look a lot like 1976. Exciting, fun, crazy, ridiculous, expensive and American as, well, Jackson Pollack. His paintings don’t seem to make sense either, but if you stare long enough, there is order. Or so they tell me. And no matter how nuts it looks now, or how anarchic and ludicrous it’s going to be, eventually the presidential campaign field converges into just two, and then to one, and it’s all over but the inauguration.

Convergence by Jackson Pollock...if you look at it long enough it seems to make sense.

Convergence by Jackson Pollock…if you look at it long enough it seems to make sense.

The glass half full

I cannot remember two days in a row like this before…this is profound stuff. Affordable health care is now the constitutional right of every American citizen, bar none, and that cannot be changed ever. This is as profound as some of the most glorious events in American history, like banning slavery forever, or giving women the right to vote, or establishing social security. This is that big a deal. Health care, in this country, is now as much your right as voting is. It is as much a right as is anything in the constitution. If you are an American citizen, the government is required to see that you receive health care. And that is profound. The Supreme Court laid that on us yesterday. It’s still sinking in. People haven’t quite grasped the absolute significance of that yet. That if you are sick, it is unconstitutional for you not to have access to affordable health care.

And then today the Supreme Court declared that the last legally sanctioned discrimination against citizens of the United States was unconstitutional. Gays can marry, just like my wife and I are married. There can be no legal differentiation between same sex and opposite couples. No one can claim that their right to discriminate against somebody just because they are different is protected by the constitution. And it will be interesting to see how this is expanded. It could go incrementally in all directions. Undocumented immigrants, religious groups, women in the workplace, gun owners, marijuana smokers, white supremists, nudists, hunters, Hare Krishnas, the homeless, Scientologists, you name it. All will see this decision as precedent for protection of their own many and varied rights under the constitution. Will they all succeed? I have no idea, except I can’t see how we’re not looking at a remarkable expansion of the rights of minorities–and I don’t mean just ethnic, or racial, or gender, but any kind of minority. Just imagine, for instance, a guy covered head to toe in tattoos being denied a job at Disneyland. You couldn’t imagine that being considered discriminatory before. But now, I think, you’ll see the creeping effect of this decision making this possible. Because if a predominantly conservative Baptist state like, say, Oklahoma can no longer prevent gays from marrying, why, then, can a private company in California be allowed to discriminate against a qualified applicant just because he has freely expressed art all over his skin? I’m not saying he’d win his case. I’m just saying that courts will be much more likely to let these cases go to trial. Or not go to trial–indeed the blatantly discriminatory jailing (with a million dollars bail each) of those bikers in Waco, Texas because they were bikers just about screams unconstitutionality now. They were jailed, all of them, not on suspicion of assault or murder (which some, but not all, were involved in), but because they rode motorcycles and belonged to motorcycle clubs and looked big and mean and ugly. In ten years time the Waco case will look stunningly egregious. It doesn’t now, not yet. But as the legal concept of just what is a minority expands, circuit court by circuit court, their rights will follow. It’ll be interesting to see how this Waco mess works its way through the legal system. All those freaky, scary looking biker dads in court may look weird and even illegal. But I can’t see the justice system falling back on the old fashioned Norman Rockwell template of just what is legally acceptable looks and behavior, not anymore. Squaresville is out, idiosyncrasy in.

So this Supreme Court decision kicks wide open a door that has been blocked with various degrees of success since the nation began. The ban on same sex marriage was the last edifice of legally sanctioned bigotry in the United States. Remember–the laws this overturns were not just laws, they were even written into state constitutions. Think about that. The laws banning same sex marriage were not just laws, they were state constitutional amendments. And now they’re gone. A couple decades from now June 26 might well be a national holiday. I’m serious. It is that big of a deal.

And one more somewhat unrelated thing. Over the past seven years I’ve been hearing so many progressives tell me that electing Barack Obama hasn’t made a bit of difference. But it has. Things are so much different now than they were before he took office. Obviously this country is still a work in progress, with vast changes needed. We have to restore income parity for one thing. You could name a zillion others. But we have come a helluva long way since the nation’s modern nadir under George W. Bush. And I don’t understand how people can’t see that. I guess some people look at a glass half full, or even more than half full, and see no water at all.

Operation Bagration

An abandoned German Panther tank in Belarus after Operation Bagration.

An abandoned German panzer in Belarus.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the beginning of Operation Bagration, when the Russians broke the back of the mighty Wehrmacht, the German army. It’s not very well known in the West, partly due to the drama of D-Day, partly because of the Cold War and perhaps mainly because until perestroika the records of the Red Army were inaccessible to historians outside the USSR. But it’s well known to Germans. More of them were left there than on any other field with the possible exception of the Stalingrad campaign. Bagration was the most massive defeat ever inflicted on the Wehrmacht, the most massive success ever achieved by Russia’s Red Army, and probably the most underappreciated war changing event of WW2.

German column attacked by Russian aircraft in Belarus, 1944.

German column attacked by Russian aircraft in Belarus, 1944.

Military history isn’t easy to understand. It’s complicated, the terminology difficult, the concepts counter-intuitive. Plus people get killed. Sometimes lots and lots of people, and you can see why that bothers the average reader. So basically it’s difficult to comprehend for the vast majority of people because there’s no way to visualize it without being confused or grossed out. So let’s picture it this way. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany are teams in the National Football League. It’s been a rough game. The Germans blitzed the Russians in the first quarter. The Russians held their own in the second and scored big as the clock ran out. The third quarter was a brutal slugfest but the Russians wound up dominating the field. In the fourth, after the kickoff the two teams met at the fifty yard line. The Nazis misread the Russian signals, the ball was snapped, there was a cloud of dust, and the only German players left standing were running for their lives towards their own end zone. That play was Operation Bagration.

Soviets-bagration-06

Russian infantry aboard T-34 tanks approaching German positions somewhere in Belarus during Operation Bagration.

The Russians managed a surprise attack along a front of several hundred miles–the entire central portion of the Russian Front, what the Germans had designated as their Army Group Center–and blitzed through with remarkable speed. The Red Army achieved massive superiority wherever they attacked (ten Russian tanks to every one German tank, for example) and the German army units facing them were annihilated. Many divisions were completely destroyed. Nearly all the rest were reduced to remnants. Vehicles–from Tiger tanks to trucks to horse carts–were destroyed or abandoned.  There are stunning photos of roads littered with equipment that had been left pell mell as the retreating columns were overrun by Russian tanks and blown apart by waves of Russian aircraft, like negatives of photographs taken on the same roads in 1941.

Destroyed German column

Destroyed German column in Belarus, 1944

Indeed by 1944 the Russians had such control of the skies on the Russian Front that German units could move only by night, and in June the darkness lasted only a few hours, leaving the retreating Germans visible for twenty hours a day. The Russian air force was merciless. Tank busting Sturmovik ground attack aircraft destroyed German vehicles by the hundreds. And then behind German lines in the woods and marshes were hundreds of thousands of partisans, organized, well armed and devastatingly effective. Between the Red Army, Red Air Force and the partisans, the Germans were under assault by Russian forces on all sides, front, flank, rear, from above and even from inside, where partisans popped up out nowhere.

Russian partisans behind German lines somewhere.

Russian partisans.

Some of the German forces took refuge in towns and cities, giving them some respite from tanks, planes and partisans, but trapping them far behind the advancing Russian armies. They either surrendered–fifty thousand were taken at Minsk–or were destroyed by Russian infantry and artillery in vicious urban conflict. Among the units making their escape west, the renowned German military discipline often disintegrated, turning a thorough defeat into a panicky rout. The degree of the collapse is borne out by the losses among general officers–never before had so many German generals–thirty one of Army Group Center’s forty seven division and corps commanders–been killed or captured in one campaign. Three weeks into the offensive a triumphant Stalin had those fifty thousand German prisoners from Minsk paraded, twenty abreast, through Red Square. The humiliation must have been total, even surreal. Afterward the streets where they’d marched were washed down, an insult if there ever was one.

German prisoners paraded through Moscow, July 17, 1944.

German prisoners paraded through Moscow, July 17, 1944.

Those prisoners were but a fraction, though, of the German losses throughout the offensive. In a two month period, from June 22 though August, a half million German soldiers of Army Group Center were lost–killed, captured, wounded. That is a loss of fifty percent. And the damage went deep. When divisions surrendered en masse, and when Russian tanks overran rear areas, officers, non-coms, specialists, skilled mechanics, logistics experts, administrators, instructors, and medical personnel were killed or captured. The bones and sinew of a military machine, lost forever. You can’t replace those people with 17 year old conscripts. Conscripts don’t know anything, and the people who would have taught them were dead or being paraded through Red Square.

Looking at the Warsaw Rebellion from the far bank of the Vistula.

Watching the Warsaw Rebellion from the far bank of the Vistula.

The Russian offensive ran out of steam two months later outside Warsaw, hundreds of miles west of where it started. Russian casualties (as always) had been high, the soldiers were exhausted, tanks worn out, supply lines over reached. The Red Army units settled down on the eastern bank of the Vistula river to regroup and rest and rearm. It had reconquered all of Belarus–left utterly ruined by the Nazi administration and the retreating Wehrmacht, evoking promises of revenge by the Red Army–and half of Poland. That’s a lot of Lebensraum. To the south the Balkan front caved in throughout autumn all the way to Hungary. And in the west, the Allied forces at last broke into the open and virtually annihilated another German army, the survivors running till they reached the German border and dug in. Meanwhile in Prussia an attempt was made on Hitler’s life (Operation Valkyrie they called it) by Wehrmacht officers who could read the writing on the wall. It failed. Retribution was savage. And in Warsaw Stalin let the Nazis put down the rebellion by the Polish Home Army. The Russians watched it all from across the Vistula. It would have been so easy to intervene, but Stalin had no use for the Poles in charge. He had his own plans for Poland. The Germans leveled Warsaw block by block, adding it to the long list of cities utterly destroyed during Operation Bagration. Nazi nihilism and Soviet realpolitik came together that summer on the banks of the Vistula. But Warsaw, like Valkyrie, was but a sideshow.

Replacements for the Eastern front, November, 1944.

Replacements for the Eastern front, November, 1944.

After Operation Bagration Hitler no longer had any way to prevent the Russians from conquering Germany. It was simply a matter of time. So it’s a lucky thing for the western allies that we did land on June 6. Luckier still that we broke out of Normandy when we did and in such spectacular fashion. We’d been bogged down in the hedgerows while the Russians were moving twenty miles a day through the German armies. It is said–you heard it over and over this past June 6–that D-Day was the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. It wasn’t. The beginning of the end was June 22 in Belarus. We helped. Operation Overlord was hard fought, costly, and in the long run, a decisive Allied victory and complete humiliation for the German Army in France. But in terms of scale, Operation Bagration, like everything on the Russian Front, was much larger, the fighting more violent, the destruction more total, the losses much larger. It was war on a scale that matched all the other theatres of WW2 put together. When two giant totalitarian civilizations fight to the death, everything else pales. And with Operation Bagration the Soviets delivered the mortal wound. The Reich would survive ten more months, and would even manage one last offensive in the west, the Battle of the Bulge, and attempt one disastrously around Budapest, but they were like the thrashings of a dying animal.

German soldiers, somewhere on the eastern front 1944-45, captured by Russian soldiers and stripped of their boots.

Young German POWs in 1944-45, stripped of their boots by their Russian captors. Military age had dropped to fourteen after the losses in Operation Bagration, and uniforms weren’t always to be had.

I say it was lucky for the Allies that we landed when we did because I think the real significance of the Normandy invasion was that it put the western democracies back on the continent. And just in time. After Bagration the Third Reich was effectively over, it was just a matter of when. It still functioned as a state, the Final Solution roared full blast, and it kept churning out cannon fodder (another million of whom died, mostly in Poland and the eastern provinces of Germany), but there was absolutely nothing the Germans could do that would keep the Red Army from rolling all the way to the Rhine. Even if Overlord had never happened and all the panzer divisions and Waffen SS and veteran infantry units in France had been transferred east, the Russians would only have been delayed. Perhaps the remnants of Army Group North trapped on Latvia’s Courland Peninsula till the end of the war would have managed to escape before the Red Army reached the Baltic and cut them off. Perhaps East Prussia and Silesia could have held out a little longer. Perhaps. But at most that would have delayed the Russians two or three months. The remaining German armies in the East–full of old men and Hitler Youth armed with rifles captured from the Belgians and French and Dutch and whomever–were just stopgaps. In January of 1945 the Red Army rolled from Warsaw to the outskirts of Berlin, annihilating another German army group. In April they attacked again, taking Berlin and stopping only when they came into contact with the western armies. It was only then that Germany surrendered. But Germany would not have surrendered after the fall of Berlin had the western allies not been on the continent, or more realistically had we invaded later in the summer or early autumn and still been fighting in France. Hitler would not have shot himself in the Fuhrerbunker, not with all his wonder weapons and fantasies and SS and Hitler Youth fanatics. He would have had Himmler and Goebbels and Goering and Bormann and all the rest with him, he would have had Speer to keep the last factories running, and V-2 rockets and ME262 jet fighters, and some excellent generals. They would have put together one last rag tag line west of Berlin to defend the string of bombed out cities, concentration camps, frightened people, slave laborers, and Nazi officials that made up the Third Reich. And then the Russians would have utterly destroyed that line in the middle of summer and pushed on to the Rhine. All of Germany would have been under Stalin’s control, one big German Democratic Republic. That is something to wonder about. East Germany went from Nazism to Stalinism almost instantly…it proved a far easier transition than denazification and democracy. Would it have been the same though out a united Germany under Soviet control? We had to build up West Germany’s institutions from the ground up. In East Germany all they did was change the name on the door.

Geman Panzers IVs with crews in a vision of unimaginable violence.

German Panzers IVs with silent crews in a vision of unimaginable violence.  Atop the tank, a Russian soldier.

Seventy years later all that remains of Hitler’s empire in the east are the dead. The Russian dead fill graveyards by the millions, soldiers, civilians, entire populations of Jews. There are also hundreds of thousands of German soldiers buried in cemeteries in the former Soviet Union. That’s remarkably decent of the Russians, considering. Belarus hasn’t been quite so forgiving. Nazi rule was especially brutal there. A quarter, maybe even a third of the population died. Virtually all the Jews were murdered. Nearly half of the population forced from their homes. Nine thousand villages reduced to scorched earth. If you had to pick one land where the Third Reich reached its zenith of barbarity, that place would be Belarus (with Poland a close second). Even so, hundreds of thousands of German soldiers’ remains have been located and disinterred and reburied. Some go home. Some go to cemeteries established in Russia just for German war dead. And they find another forty thousand a year. It’s all done quietly, no parades, no speeches. The authorities in Minsk say they know the whereabouts of another hundred thousand or so German remains. The vast majority would have died during Operation Bagration. Belarus must be thick with them. They must litter the forest, those German bones. I suppose they must be buried. Loose bones seem to make us nervous, no matter what side they were once on.

Operation Bagration. The Russians in red, the Germans blue.

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