Category Archives: Germany

What happened to the French army after Dunkirk

File 20170713 11780 dtkewf
French POWs being led away from the battlefield in May 1940.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Nina Wardleworth, University of Leeds

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in May 1940 from Dunkirk by a flotilla of small ships has entered British folklore. Dunkirk, a new action film by director Christopher Nolan, depicts the events from land, sea and air and has revived awe for the plucky courage of those involved.

But the story of the French army after Dunkirk is altogether less glorious, and perhaps because of that, less widely remembered. Of the 340,000 allied soldiers evacuated by boat from Dunkirk, 123,000 were French – but thousands more were not rescued and were taken prisoner by the Germans.

French media coverage of the premiere of Nolan’s film has presented the events as a British story in which French soldiers were involved, not a shared wartime narrative.

Operation Dynamo (the code name for the Dunkirk evacuation) took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940. The Germans entered Paris on June 14, but fighting continued in the east of France until June 24. General Charles De Gaulle made his now famous radio broadcast, calling on the French public not to accept defeat, on the BBC on June 18 from London, but very few of his compatriots are likely to have heard it on that date.

It is estimated that between 50,000 and 90,000 soldiers of the French army were killed in the fighting of May and June 1940. In addition to the casualties, 1.8m French soldiers, from metropolitan France and across the French empire, were captured during the Battle of France and made prisoners of war (POWs).

That early summer of 1940 in France was also marked by a mass exodus. At least six million civilians took to the roads to escape the advancing German troops, with frightening World War I stereotypes of German brutality at the forefront of their minds. They moved south and west through France, although most returned home following the June 22 armistice with Nazi Germany.

Such mass population movement both helped and hindered the French army. It made moving men and equipment much more difficult on crowded roads and railways. However, for the ordinary soldier who could procure civilian clothes, it allowed them to slip away from their units and rejoin their families.

Colonial troops massacred

The French army of 1940 included soldiers from across its empire in north, west and central Africa, the French West Indies and Indochina. These troops found it more difficult to disappear into the crowds. There were numerous massacres of west and central African troops in eastern France by the German army, who after separating them from their white officers, shot them.

There were 120,000 colonial prisoners of war captured during the Battle of France. They were housed in different camps from their white, metropolitan French counterparts, all on French soil and French run, because of Nazi racial fears of them mixing with German civilians.

Colonial POWs from the French empire under guard by German soldiers, June 1940.

French POWs were sent to camps in Germany where they were quickly set to work on farms, in industry, mines and on the railways, to replace German men away fighting. The POWs lived and worked alongside the German population, leading to both tensions and friendships. The fate of these POWs became central to the propaganda of the French collaborationist government, based in Vichy.

Numerous government programmes tried to encourage young French men and women to sign up for work in Germany in exchange for the return of a POW to France. But, most prisoners – about one million – only returned to France following the end of the war in May 1945. They were often greeted by widespread indifference, even sometimes hostility because of their supposed links and sympathies to the Vichy regime. In reality, they were no more pro-Vichy than many other parts of French society.

A difficult history for France

The very swift German victory in May and June 1940 and the humiliating armistice that followed, meant that post-war French society and the state sought to minimise and forget the defeat, preferring to concentrate on more glorious stories of the Resistance and the Free French. There was an unsuccessful campaign in the French press in 2015 for a state commemorative event and memorial to honour the war dead from France and its then empire, who the campaign labelled as “the first Resistance fighters”. Former French president, François Hollande, increased the number of state commemorative events for key moments from France’s 20th century history, but still ignored the events of 1940.

Despite official silences, the fighting of the summer of 1940 has been the subject of French novels and films ever since. Robert Merle’s 1949 novel Weekend at Dunkirk was adapted into a successful feature film, with an audience of three million on its release in 1964. The protagonist, Julien, is a French soldier desperate to make it onto one of the boats of the British evacuation in a town shattered by bombing. Claude Simon’s 1960 novel, The Flanders Road, painted a picture of an outdated French army, ground down by months of a phoney war, fighting against a much better equipped, more modern German enemy.

The ConversationFor French POWs, Dunkirk and those battles of May and June 1940 marked the beginning of five years of humiliation and hardship, before many returned to a country that wanted to forget them and their fighting experiences.

Nina Wardleworth, Teaching Fellow in French, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Animated History of Germany

Adolf Hitler

Germany: Hitler’s Rise to Power

The astronomer and the witch – how Kepler saved his mother from the stake

Ulinka Rublack, University of Cambridge

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) is one of the world’s most famous astronomers. He defended Copernicus’s sun-centred universe and discovered that planets move in ellipses. A planet, NASA mission and planet-hunting spacecraft are named after him.

Yet in recent years Kepler and his family have appeared as dubious, even murderous people. In 2004 for example, a team of American journalists alleged that Kepler systematically poisoned the man he succeeded at the court of Rudolf II in Prague: Tycho Brahe. He may well be the scientist with the worst reputation.

But the majority of slurs concern the astronomer’s mother, Katharina. Arthur Koestler’s famous history of astronomy, The Sleepwalkers, where Katharina features as a “hideous little woman” whose evil tongue and “suspect background” predestined her as victim of the witchcraze.

Kepler, 1610.

Then there’s John Banville’s prize-winning historical novel Kepler, which vividly portrays Katharina as a crude old woman who makes a dangerous business of healing by boiling potions in a black pot. She meets with old hags in a kitchen infested with cat smells. Outside in her garden lies a dead rat. Kepler desperately tries to hide his mother’s magical arts from his wife as they visit and Katharina searches for a bag filled with bat-wings. This horrendous mother is scary, disgusting, and probably a witch.

There is something behind these hints: the portrayals stem to the astonishing fact that 400 years ago, when her son was at the very height of his scientific career, Katharina Kepler was accused of witchcraft. It is because of this that it has become commonplace in Anglo-American writing to depict Kepler’s mother as a difficult, bizarre and half-crazed old crone.

But what is the real story? Kepler certainly must rank as one of the most influential scientists to come from a disadvantaged background. Whereas Galileo’s father was a noted scholar of music, Kepler’s was a soldier who kept running away from the family. His parents argued and the only brother close to him in age suffered from epilepsy. This made it difficult for the brother to attend school or learn a trade.

Johannes Kepler, by contrast, soon emerged as an extremely talented boy. He was picked up by one of the most advanced Lutheran scholarship systems in Germany at the time and lived in boarding schools. He once fought against a boy who insulted his father, and was in his teens when the father disappeared for good.

Kepler’s model of the solar system.

Kepler wrote bleak little characterisations of his parents and paternal family around the time that he finished university. He also wrote about himself as a flawed young man, obsessively interested in fame, worried about money, unable to communicate his ideas in a straightforward way. These pieces of writing have principally served as evidence who want to depict Kepler and his family as horrendous, even murderous.

Yet these writings need to be put into context. Kepler wrote them very early in his life, and he did so in order to analyse his horoscopes. The whole convention of astrology was to point to character problems, rather than to laud lovely people. Kepler was a deeply Christian man, and one of his most impressive characteristics is how optimistic he soon began to feel about the world he lived in, against his odds and despite looming war. He built his own family and deeply cared about his wife and children. Kepler was confident about the importance of his discoveries and productive, even though he was never offered a university position.

Statue of Katharina Kepler in Eltingen.
Harke, CC BY-SA

Then came the accusation against his mother. The proceedings which led to a criminal trial lasted six years. The Imperial mathematician formally took over his mother’s legal defence. No other public intellectual figure would have ever involved themselves in a similar role, but Kepler put his whole existence on hold, stored up his books, papers and instruments in boxes, moved his family to southern Germany and spent nearly a year trying to get his mother out of prison.

Local records for the small town in which Katharina Kepler lived are abundant. There is no evidence that she was brought up by an aunt who was burnt for witchcraft – this was one of the charges which her enemies invented. There is no evidence either that she made a living from healing – she simply mixed herbal drinks for herself and sometimes offered her help to others, like anyone else. A woman in her late 70s, Katharina Kepler withstood a trial and final imprisonment, during which she was chained to the floor for more than a year.

Kepler’s defence was a rhetorical masterpiece. He was able to dismantle the inconsistencies in the prosecution case, and show that the “magical” illnesses for which they blamed his mother could be explained using medical knowledge and common sense. In the autumn of 1621, Katharina was finally set free.

Johannes Kepler and his mother lived through one of the most epic tragedies in the age of the witch-craze. It’s high time to re-evaluate what kind of man Kepler was: he does not deserve to be the scientist with the worst reputation. And nor does his mother deserve to be portrayed as a witch.

The Astronomer And The Witch by Ulinka Rublack was published by Oxford University Press on October 22. A talk by the author will be part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas.

The Conversation

Ulinka Rublack, Professor of Early Modern European History, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Catherine the Great’s ‘greatness’ doesn’t grate

Judith Armstrong, University of Melbourne

The current Hermitage exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) is subtitled – quite rightly – The Legacy of Catherine the Great. As per the gallery’s blurb, it:

showcases one of the world’s greatest art collections. Featuring works by artists including Rembrandt, Rubens, Velázquez and Van Dyck, the exhibition offers a dazzling array of works including the finest group of Dutch and Flemish art to come to Australia.

But who, exactly, was Catherine II, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia?

None of those titles were known, or even likely, when she was born in 1729 in Prussia. In reality, she was connected only rather remotely to Russia, through her mother’s cousin’s husband, and was named Sophie Friederike Auguste, Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst.

But her marriage, arranged by the childless Russian Tsarina, Elizabeth (1709–1762), was to a boy who was both her own second cousin and the only living grandson of Peter the Great (1672–1725).

This orphaned fiancé, Karl Peter Ulrich, was also brought up in Prussia, and stood to inherit the Russian throne as Peter III.

Portrait of Catherine II 1776–77 by Alexander Roslin 1718–93. Oil on canvas.
Courtesy The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg., Author provided

When brought to St Petersburg in 1745, aged 14, Sophie’s charm and intelligence boded well for her future as Peter’s consort. She was also astute enough to change her name to Ekaterina, and be received into the Russian Orthodox Church; and even to note, along with many others at the court, that childish, sickly Peter constantly failed to impress as Elizabeth’s nominated heir.

Although the marriage went ahead, Catherine would only have to let external events take their course to see Peter abdicate, and die six months after mounting the throne in 1762. She then allowed herself to be proclaimed Tsarina in her own right.

By that stage her Russian was excellent, whereas Peter’s had been almost non-existent. And therein lay the first key to her popularity and her greatness.

It was apparent long before Elizabeth died – also in 1762 – that her long-term plans were not working. Nine years after the wedding of Peter and Catherine, the much-vaunted marriage had failed to produce a child. Why then frown upon Catherine when she discreetly acquired a lover and gave birth to a boy?

Elizabeth snatched the child, Paul, and brought him up as her own. Honour, so to speak, was saved.

In all of this, Catherine’s behaviour was never questioned. By the time Peter came to his unhappy end, she’d had three relationships, all conducted according to established protocol, and she would have several more “favourites” after taking power in 1762.

Catherine II 1773, by Jean-Antoine Houdon.
The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, Author provided

But – and this is another of the reasons she was (including in the modern sense of the word) “great” – they were all in their turn sent away with a bag of money, a smile, and a promise of ongoing friendship.

Sometimes, as in the case of Grigory Potëmkin, her most ambitious, powerful and passionate lover, Catherine continued to seek their advice and companionship long after she’d stopped sleeping with them.

Wise and generous enough to retain former lovers as valued friends, she was nevertheless too single-minded to share her power or position with any one of them.

Five years into her reign, she completed a huge rewriting of Russia’s inadequate legal code to present to her government. She called it her Nakaz (1767), or Instruction. In gratitude for a labour of which they would have been incapable, her officials thought to bestow on her a new title.

Of the many suggestions that were put forward, “Catherine the Great” received the most votes but, though flattered, she rejected it, insisting it was unearned. Looking at the 20 chapters written in French (her secretary translated them into Russian), posterity might disagree with that modesty.

The Nakaz is proof both of great intellectual ability and a capacity to spend long hours combing through political, historical and philosophical treatises from all over Europe, sifting a multitude of ideas into one cohesive document.

A fourth aspect of Catherine’s individual greatness is visible in the fabric and contents of that part of her city whose classical green and white edifices still grace the banks of the river Neva.

Hermitage Museum, the Winter Palace in Winter, St Petersburg. Photo by Andrey Terebenin.
NGV/Hermitage, Author provided

The huge Winter Palace in St Petersburg, completed in 1761, was baroque. Most of its buildings were there already, but Catherine had it rebuilt to harmonise with the neo-classical style she imposed on all the buildings she commissioned, and filled it with works and objects of art from all over Europe.

Her famous collections, both legendary and now publicly accessible, should be seen not as mere displays of her enormous wealth, but as an astute, consummate and successful effort to undo her country’s (justified) reputation for barbarism.

The art was only an example, comprehensible to foreigners, of more extensive projects relevant to her own people: there was also her encouragement of reading, through the distribution of printing presses which multiplied the number of books published; her setting up of Russia’s first magazine, which in turn gave rise to the “thick journals” so influential in the 19th century.

Her Academy of Language was founded in 1783, producing the first Russian dictionary. And she also funded many schools, including some for girls.

Meanwhile, she forged ahead with what many history books see as her most significant contribution to the greatness of her country: her expansionist foreign policy. Under Catherine, Russia continued every year to push out its frontiers to the East and South by acquiring tracts of territory as large as Holland.

Of course there were also shocking lacunae in Catherine’s program, in particular her forthright rejection of political ideas which she refused to promote because of their unpopularity with her cherished “noble landlords”.

Yet even the benighted peasants passively accepted her greatness, because to them, as well as to the nobility, the inequalities of the status quo in Russia were overwhelmingly taken as given.

Greatness is, after all, more like a dimension than a virtue. And Catherine had it in spades.

The main source text for this article was Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman (2011), by Robert K Massie, published by Random House.

Judith Armstrong will speak at the NGV on Sunday September 6 as part of a special four-part lecture series for Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great. Details here.

The Conversation

Judith Armstrong is Honorary Associate Professor in Arts and Languages & Linguistics at University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Only One Occupied Country in Europe Rose to the Defense of Jews During World War II


History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Seventy years ago this year World War II came to an end. Alongside the collective sigh of relief in Allied countries that the most brutal war humanity had ever witnessed was over, there was as well a sense of disbelief at the sight of the concentration camps, the existence of which to be sure had been well-known to the Allies.

Humanity had not witnessed anything resembling the Holocaust. A systematic, rational, industrial plan designed to eliminate completely an entire people from the face of the earth, the Holocaust was to become an exceptional phenomenon in History. Carried out by one of the most cultured nations the world had ever known, the Holocaust would turn out to be a distinctive…

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Poland: ‘Torpedownia’

The link below is to an article that takes a look at a German torpedo testing facility that is still standing off the coast of Poland.

For more visit:

Why the World War II ‘Dambusters’ Mission Was So Important


The last living pilot who participated in the Dambusters operation in May of 1943 died on Tuesday, the BBC reports. Les Munro, a New Zealander who continued to take to the skies even in old age, was an impressive survivor from the start: the renowned World War II mission—in which Royal Air Force planes attacked German dams—sent out more than 100 flight crew, of whom only about half returned. (Two non-pilot crew members survive today.)

But why was that particular mission so important?

As TIME reported in the week that followed, the mission was “one of the most daring and profitable exploits of the air war against Germany” because the industrial region around the Ruhr valley was seriously hurt after the loss of the dams caused the river to flood:

The biggest damage was done to railway communications. Actual industrial damage was secondary but no less important: entire townships…

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WWII: The Battle of Norway

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