Review of FIPS

FIPS, the title of Werner Fürbringer’s WWI memoirs, comes from the nickname Fürbringer earned while becoming one of Germany’s greatest U-boat aces (101 ships sunk).  During the interbellum years, he was instrumental in rebuilding the German Navy.  His memoirs came out during those years and have fascinated readers by both the intimate portrayal of the U-boat service and the picture of WWI submarine warfare.

It has ever been my opinion that Germans should take pride in their U-boat service.  Their history in both WWI and WWII displays great gallantry in face of the enemy, and they carried out their duty aggressively despite appalling loss rate of 80% and 75% respectively.  These memoirs show Germans adhering closely to prize warfare in the early days of the war (capturing merchantmen before sinking their ships) despite the many more dangers this poses to submarines than to surface warships.  Even after unrestricted submarine warfare was declared, they generously helped their victims however they could.

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Book Recommendation – Germany: Memories of a Nation

I learned about Neil MacGregor when I saw his name in the History Book Club catalog.  Searching for his name in the local library did not bring me the same book, but I was intrigued by the title Germany: Memories of a Nation.  Reading the memoirs of Heros von Borcke, a famed Prussian cavalryman who served under Jeb Stuart, brought to my attention how little I knew of Germany’s history between Charlemagne and the Renaissance and between the Renaissance and World War II.  With the thought that this book would help fill in those gaps, I plunged into it.

One of the considerable problems with writing a history of Germany is that Germany only first existed as a state in 1871 when Otto von Bismarck brought about unification.  Prior to this point, the land we refer to today as Germany existed as a federation of states known as the Holy Roman Empire.  Though having a ruler, the Holy Roman Empire, the individual states often pursued their own political and economic goals.  How does one create anything like a comprehensive history such a loosely united principalities?

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Teddy Suhren’s Memoirs

Suhren’s memoirs, Teddy Suhren, Ace of Aces: Memoirs of a U-boat Rebel, stands as a very interesting, but all too short, German submariner’s reminiscences of the Second World War.  Suhren’s real first name is Reinhard.  His nickname Teddy comes from his days in basic training, when his comrades noticed that he marched like a teddy bear.  And so, the name stuck.  The officer in charge of his training remarked to Suhren later in the war that he succeeded in training many thousands of young men, but Suhren was the one recruit in whom he did not succeed!  Despite his lack of polish, Suhren excelled in his U-boat training, became one of Admiral Karl Dönitz’s best U-boat captains, and was promoted out of the boats to be a section commander in Narvik, Norway during 1942.

teddy-suhren

Suhren’s promotion occurred just when the Battle of the Atlantic turned against the U-boats.  For this reason, Peter Cremer’s U-boat Commander is a much more compelling memoir: in warfare which claimed the lives of 75% of German submariners, Cremer became one of only two captains made in 1942 to survive the war.  Cremer’s memoirs also contain far more detail about the difficulties posed by Allied destroyers and anti-submarine planes and the progress in U-boat technology.

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Thoughts on A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War

Studying World War One has been on my mind for the past while.  The Great War set the course for all the events which came after it and deeply altered Western culture.  The part this war played in shaping the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis has also aroused my curiosity.  And so, this book supplies for both of my wants, since it describes the world prior to the war, the attitudes of Tolkien and Lewis to WWI, their careers during the war, and how it shaped their lives and works.  The book contains an impressive amount of information in its short two hundred pages.

HWGW

The early chapters inform the reader of the important intellectual movements prior to the war.  These movements proposed that science, technology, and the state could build a superior society without reliance upon God.  Eugenics and Social Darwinism played a huge role in these Utopian schemes, which all crumbled in the cataclysm of 1914-1918.  World War I ushered in an era of pessimism with patriotic and religious values being suspect and often disowned.  Former soldiers often led the way in literature by sucking all the glory and meaning from war.  The book attempts to answer the question why Tolkien and Lewis defended traditional values in a world where most intellectuals were turning against them.

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The Plague of Eugenic Thinking

Having just finished G. K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils, I wished to write some thoughts of mine in response to his ideas while I am yet chewing on them.  Call this article the Bordeaux I’m using to wash them down.  (At least, I hope it comes off as having such quality and not that of Budweiser.)  Chesterton wrote this work in response to the craze for Nietzschean ideas he saw prior to the First World War.  Many people wished to produce a society of Übermenschen through the use of Eugenics.  Chesterton starts with talking about the Feeble-Minded Act of 1913, which targeted people who lacked mental vigor, i.e. not being able to competently look after their own interests, for removal to mental asylums.  Chesterton linked this into one of his favorite themes: how easy it might be to declare anyone insane.  Within the U.S.S.R., a certain Russian poet was sent to Siberia for insanity because he believed in God.

Funny Eugenics

In response to people who believed that less competent persons ought to be sent to asylums, he juxtaposes feeble-mindedness against real insanity.  Real insanity is simply refusing to adhere to the facts.  He states that five different poets might see a tree five different ways–including the melancholic poet who sees it as a good place to hang himself.  However, all five see a tree.  The lunatic will see a lamp-post or something else.  The reason we so worry about the lunatic hurting himself or others lies in him having superimposed his fantasies over true reality.  A feeble-minded person sees reality, but is merely not able to profit himself or society as much as the strong-minded fellow, who might even be more of a pain to others than the poor feeble-minded fellow, as Chesterton amusingly points out.

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History’s Most Interesting Executioner

It’s been a while since I last posted here, hasn’t it, my dear readers?  To get back into the habit, I simply want to endorse an excellent history written by Joel F. Harrington titled The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century.  In this work, we read about the life and times of Meister Frantz Schmidt, who served as Nuremburg’s executioner from 1573 – August 10, 1618.  (The author forgot to note how ironic it is that a person whose main line of work is torture and execution retired on the feast day of the early Roman martyr reputed to have suffered the most painful martyrdom: St. Lawrence.)  Aided by the discovery of the first edition of Frantz Schmidt’s journal in an old German bookstore (published under the title A Hang Man’s Diary) and using many primary sources, Harrington deftly brings both the so-called long sixteenth century, aka the Golden Age of the Executioner (1480- 1620), and the work’s main subject to life.

The only attempted portrait of Frantz Schmidt as he prepares to send a poor sinner to God.

The only attempted portrait of Frantz Schmidt as he prepares to send a poor sinner to God.

First, I had no idea that Europe also had a caste system of sorts.  Sure, I knew that there were classes of people and some classes held more honor than others; but, I did not know that associating with certain classes of people were considered to contaminate one!  Executioners stood as one of these classes, and clans of executioners formed in Europe precisely because other people would not associate with them.  However, Frantz Schmidt was not born into such a clan: his father was pressed into service as an executioner by the Margrave Albrecht Alcibiades.  (Who names their son Alcibiades?  Did his parents want him to turn out to be a villain?)  After this, Schmidt’s father and his male offspring could find no work besides that of executioner.  When still a young boy, Frantz Schmidt learned the techniques of how to hang people, break someone upon a wheel, torture, maim, decapitate (by practicing on dogs, cats, and livestock), and–oddly enough–heal wounds, broken bones, and other ailments.

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Review of Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700

Having recently finished Furies: War in Europe 1450 – 1700, I cannot be more pleased by all the details of Renaissance warfare provided by Lauro Martines.  Martines augments our understanding our the everyday realities of war for the common soldier and civilian as well as the logistical and financial problems posed by the great armies and numerous conflicts of this time.  On one hand, this history is a poor choice for those who wish to learn the political motivations behind these wars and about the actual battles.  But, no other work likely covers as well the dark side of warfare during this era.

furies-war-in-europe-1450-1700

A friend of mine tells me that the officer class was created as a means to restrain the soldiers after victory.  Rulers and generals began to fear the atrocities soldiers may commit against the civilian populace of cities taken by siege or the massacre of defeated soldiers.  Martines’s description of the outrages committed against civilians both by foraging parties of troops and soldiers who had taken a city by storm corroborate my friend’s assertion.  The order to sack a city almost seemed like blanket permission to pillage, muder, torture, and rape.  Of course, not every soldier would be inclined to do the last three; but, by the rules of war, the property of the losing side was forfeit.  Also, the soldiers, likely maddened by starvation, might be driven to the extremes of ferocity for a bite to eat.

Landsknechts

Martines expends perhaps most of the book explaining the logistical difficulties of war.  Soldiers commonly went unpaid and unfed.  These and other hardships lead to mass desertions.  It was a common thing for countries to default because of the expenses of war: Spain did so five time over the course of a century, and France was about equally guilty.  (Interestingly, this gives me hope for my own country should America ever default.)  The best country in terms of paying its soldiers was the Netherlands, which fact no doubt helped in its struggle for independence from the Hapsburg monarchy.

Musketeers on the March

Yet, the most striking thing about this history, outside of the cases of singular barbarity and savagery, is how mean a position the Renaissance soldier held.  The understanding of the soldier as a hero who risked his life for his country was lost during this period.  Romantic literature like The Three Musketeers presents too rosy of a picture by far–even if that makes for a great novel!  Obviously, war did offer the possibility of fame for the nobility, but most people avoided soldiering like the plague.  (The Scots and the Swiss seem to be the sole exceptions.)  Many of my readers are familiar with the practice of impressment.  The idle poor and vagrants were particular targets of captains recruiting for their units, and condemned men might have their sentence commuted to military service.  Yes, military service was equated to a death sentence.  Some families even adopted children so that their natural born sons could escape the draft!

Highland Soldier

Can it be any wonder that the common soldiers of this time were especially vicious when not only were the worst criminals included in the ranks but even the outcasts of society?  Both of whom civilians society expected war to cleanse from its ranks?  How easily might these factors destroy the least shred of empathy in a human heart?

So, though this examination of the dark side of history is not my favorite kind of work, I appreciated how well Martines covered these details.  The effect was to create a much more complete picture of the period.  This work is a must read for those who wish to understand the grim side of early modern Europe.  The Renaissance was not all art and belles-lettres!