The bombing of Rotterdam

After the swift capitulation of Denmark and Norway, it was assumed by the Wehrmacht that the low countries would be easy to defeat. Whilst Belgium and the Netherlands stood no chance of victory in the long run, the Dutch Army showed surprising resiliance against the German invaders and fought tenaciously. It was this resistance that partly explains the decision to bomb the civilians of Rotterdam. The Dutch Government had already decided to surrender, realising that there was little prospect of anything other than mass civilian casualties if the fighting persisted and this has raised questions about the decision to bomb the city for decades. In the memoirs of several German officers following the end of the war, it seems clear that miscommunication between the ground and air forces was partly responsible for the failure to call off the bombing, once it was known that the Dutch authorities were prepared to surrender the city. Two wings of bombers flew over Rotterdam, one turned back when seeing red flares lit by the Wehrmacht, the other carried on with the attack, missing the signal in the columns of rising smoke. The attack killed over 900 civilians and echoed on a far more limited scale the bombing of Warsaw and later the bombing of British, Greek, Yugoslav and Russian cities. Paris would be spared the destruction that Hitler had planned, perhaps to ease the creation of a collaborationist Vichy ally.

Lebensraum, Genocide and Nazi Racial Colonial Utopianism

Hitler, a cautious dictator for the first couple of years of his rule, had become reckless by 1941, and had gambled everything on a swift victory in the USSR. If Stalin’s regime could be crushed and thirty million Russians starved to death as a result, then there would be enough living space for Aryan German settlers and the resources to defeat any enemy in the west. The defeat of the USSR would have to be swift and decisive, an outcome that was only possible in the racial imaginings of Hitler and his inner circle. The first three to four months of the campaign looked propitious, and there was every reason to imagine in August 1941 that the USSR would soon collapse, but by December a decisive counter attack that nearly overwhelmed the German Army at the gates of Moscow saw these dreams crumble. As a result the imagined racial utopias began to seem faint and distant, but a more achieveable racial goal, the murder of all of Europe’s Jews became the number one objective. Hitler had always intended some major action against Europe’s Jews and between 1939 and 1941 a general policy of mass killing was carried out in territories occupied by the Nazi regime, but it was the collapse of colonial dreams in Russia that made the final solution a necessity, as Hitler’s lieutentants sought to please him and work towards the vision he had articulated.

Everyday life and terror – 1937

What often gets overlooked in the examination of the great terror (and other 20th Century terrors) is the experience of ordinary people and their thoughts, fears and survival strategies. During the Cold War an immense amount of scholarship went into fathoming the internal workings of the soviet state and the reasoning of Stalin and his inner circle. Historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has done an immense amount of work and scholarship into discerning the experience of the everyday. This week I look at her brilliant book Everyday Stalinism to explore the Great Terror of 1937-38:

Putting dictators to shame

One key aspect of British imperial nostalgia is the argument that most former colonies from the 1950s onwards were mired in corruption.

Whilst countries like Kenya and Uganda saw wealth from natural resources and loans from western banks syphoned off into the accounts of presidents and generals, the purpose of this article isn’t to offer an explanation of African corruption; it is to explore the implications of British grift.

On Friday, the Good Law Society, a U.K. based not for profit organisation won a pivotal case against the government. It established that Health Secretary Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully when he did not reveal the details of Covid contracts worth tens of billions of pounds.

Spending watchdog, the National Audit Office highlighted the lack of transparency in November last year, but it took until February for a court ruling to confirm what many already knew.

So far, with the help of a sympathetic right wing media in Britain, Hancock has remained in his job, despite the fact that the contracts in question were frequently handed to party donors and friends of ministers, and in some cases faulty PPE equipment and other essential items were delivered.

Long after the virus has been brought under control, essential aspects of British soft power will struggle to recover.

Historian David Edgerton in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nation said that the Iraq invasion of 2003 demonstrated that Britain had lost any capacity for sound policy judgement.

Brexit cemented suspicions internationally that the Britain many remembered as a reliable international partner was long gone. However the scale and scope of covid looting has demonstrated a deep rot in the heart of civil society.

The kinds of financial malfeasance normally associated with Berlusconi’s Italy is now connected intimately to Britain. This will have long term costs in terms of future inward investment opportunities, and more intangibly in how Britain in perceived.

It will be harder for British political figures to lecture other countries on probity and good governance, and this will accompany other Brexit related threats to the U.K.’s world standing.

The sums of money handed out to friends and donors are historically unprecedented in Britain. It is safe to assume that the consequences of this, and the lack of any intention to punish the guilty parties, will also have long term and profound consequences.

Problematic Histories: Teaching Civil Rights in the UK and the BLM moment

History teaching is within the confines of a curriculum and under the pressure of examinations is riven with unfortunate compromises and unintended outcomes. The question of the civil rights movement in America is a case in point. Textbooks in the UK tend to focus on the 1950s and 1960s, centring mainly around the story of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the south. The narrative becomes more complex after the passage of the Voting Rights Act 1965 and then after 1968 most textbooks shift to an examination of the black power movement and nod towards progressive changes that happen during the 1970s. We learn that America saw a generation of black sports stars and entertainers in the 1980s and a smattering of politicians, judges and civil servants. Most students are left with the firm impression that the civil rights struggle ended in success, that black America’s problems were largely resolved by the advent of civil rights and freedoms and that liberalism triumphed. Would that it were.

Most UK teaching of the civil rights movement ignores the fact that many of the gains of the 50s and 60s were stripped away in the 80s and 90s by Reaganite welfare cuts and urban decay in black neighbourhoods (the blame for the resulting deprivation and criminality being dumped on impoverished black communities), and mass incarceration under Bill Clinton. The explosion of anger against endless police brutality last summer has reawoken interest in Britain on the subject of systemic injustice and state violence against black Americans and here I talk with Larry Auton Leaf about the problems of teaching a truncated and ahistorical view of the civil rights movement:

The Eighth Airforce Over Germany: In Conversation with David Dean Barrett

Last year, David came on the Explaining History Podcast to discuss the last days of the Pacific War and the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tonight, David was kind enough to return to the show to share his expertise with me on the American air war over Europe. We discussed American strategic goals, the differences in strategic outlook with the British, the importance of degrading Germany’s military infrastructure and Roosevelt’s vision of a war fought from the air. Watch and remember to subscribe to the Explaining History YouTube Channel.

Why did Stalin choose collectivisation?

In the late 1920s Stalin faced a seemingly unsolvable economic dilemma. How did the USSR industrialise, build defence industries and protect itself from a hostile world when its weak agriculture could not provide enough grain surpluses for export or to create cheap food to feed the cities? The NEP had produced a social class that, in Marxist Leninist discourse, was hostile to the Soviet regime, the Kulaks (though in reality, they posed no threat at all). Therefore, in order deal with the problems of food shortages, and the threat of an enemy class emerging, Stalin chose collectivisation, the forceful transfer of food resources from the peasantry to the workers, facilitated by the state using violence. Check out my quick video for students on Stalin and Collectivisation here:

Conspiracy theories old and new

One of the defining features of American political discourse in the 21st Century is the almost unstoppable rise of political lying. Throughout the Obama presidency an ecosystem of right wing think tanks, commentators and of course Fox News has propagated everything from willful distortions of events and selective readings of policy to outright fabrication. Donald Trump recognised the political potential of this when he became the centre of the ‘birther’ movement, which alleged that Barack Obama was not born in the USA and was ineligible to be president. Conspiracy theories in American politics have deep roots, however and one of this week’s podcasts explores this. In 1951 Senator Joseph McCarthy accused Truman and the Democrats of ‘twenty years of treason’, claiming that every event since Roosevelt’s election in 1932 had been part of a plot against America. The end goal was to enable communist regimes to take power internationally and to allow a cabal of hidden communists to seize power in the White House. When McCarthy acused Dean Acheson and George Marshall of having been complicit with Stalin (a ludicrous assertion, had it been meant with any seriousness), he selectively interpreted key moments in their wartime and post war service, such as Marshall speaking with Stalin at the Yalta Conference (quite what McCarthy believed generals should do at wartime conferences remained unclear). There are uncanny similarities between the conspiracy theory playbook of the 1950s and the 2020s, and a dearth of meaningful social or economic offers to the Republican base in either time period. It seems sensible to conclude that fear and paranoia and wild accusations have filled the emotional space that policy once inhabited. Between Hoover and Reagan, the Republicans never had a coherent economic argument of their own. During the 1980s, despite the shortcomings and failings of Reaganomics, they were able to tell a particular story about the functioning of the state and the cause of America’s ills, in essence that government was the problem. The era of deregulation that followed led to an economic catastrophe in 2008 which America has yet to emerge from. Again, the party exists without any meaningful economic offer to the millions who they purport to serve, other than discredited trickle down economics that nobody takes remotely seriously. In the absence of a message of hope or the promise of a more balanced and equitable society, a culture of paranoia, Qanon, anti mask conspiracies run riot (quite literally). Here is the latest podcast, exploring McCarthy, the Korean War and anti Communist conspiracy theories:

Korea, McCarthy and Anti Communism

The concentration of media ownership in Britain and the resulting corruption of British politics.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of interviewing journalist Mic Wright, whose newsletter Conquest of the Useless critiques the British media landscape. We explored the accumulation of media power by a tiny coterie of oligarchs and the broken state of British politics.

This Week’s Podcasts

Hi everyone, as I might have mentioned on the podcast, I’ve now got the time and the long covid recovery to start blogging again. Here’s a rundown of everything I’ve podcasted this week:

Poverty, Caste and recruitment to the Indian Army during the Second World War: https://play.acast.com/s/explaininghistory/poverty-casteandrecruitmenttotheindianarmyduringworldwartwo

France, Britain and the Road to Suez 1952-56: https://play.acast.com/s/explaininghistory/france-britainandtheroadtosuez1952-56

The ethnic cleansing of German civilians in Eastern Europe after 1945: https://play.acast.com/s/explaininghistory/theethniccleansingofgermanciviliansineasterneurope-1945

Anti Communism in Europe 1917-21: https://play.acast.com/s/explaininghistory/anticommunismineurope1917-21

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