The Bay of Pigs Invasion (1961) 

In April 1961, an American-sponsored contingent of 1500 Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, intent on overthrowing Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  The attempt failed miserably.  Most invaders were captured and imprisoned.  The invasion further undermined U.S.-Cuban relations and heightened Cold War tensions, particularly Soviet-American relations.  It also stands as a conspicuous blemish on President Kennedy’s presidency. 

Historian Andrew Preston calls it the “biggest failure of his [Kennedy’s]  Presidency.” (89). Other scholars like John Rasenberger refer to the invasion as the “fiasco.” (xvii). What compelled the United States to organize and sponsor such an invasion? How did Cuban-American relations deteriorate to the point where Washington would risk political humiliation and cold war conflict to depose Fidel Castro?

Cuba and the United States

Some background history of Cuban-American relations helps us contextualize the Bay of Pigs invasion.  Cuba, located 90 miles south of Florida, had been a Spanish colony coveted for its natural resources – particularly sugar.  In 1808, Spain refused U.S. President Thomas Jefferson’s offer to purchase.  However, Spain was a declining power, and as Spanish influence receded from the Americas during the 19th century, the U.S. became increasingly involved in Cuba’s sugar, fruit, and molasses production.” (7)  In 1898, the United States defeated Spain and annexed Cuba as a colony. 

Washington promoted a Cuban resource-based economy dependent on US investments and buyers and sponsored successive Cuban governments who supported its broader Latin American policies. This arrangement continued throughout the 1950s as successive Eisenhower administrations backed Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban leader from 1952-1958.  A dictator, Batista fostered domestic discontent through corruption and repressing political opposition. Americans continued to control Cuban finances, rail, electricity, and sugar, while many Cubans lived in poverty and lacked access to education, healthcare and decent incomes.  

Cuban people resented Batista’s pandering to American commercial interests while callously ignoring Cuban people’s welfare.  

The groundswell of discontent fed Fidel Castro’s revolution that overthrew Batista in 1959. The new leader “nationalized” the economy by imposing widespread government controls. Castro also “invested in housing, schools and public works.  Salaries were raised, electric rates were cut, and rents reduced by half.” (Rodriguez, 25)

These changes reflected Castro’s goal of replacing an American-controlled Cuba with an independent regime.  On May 17, 1959, Cuba implemented the Agrarian Reform Law, which drastically reduced American ownership of Cuban land.  As Christina Fisanick points out, Castro’s reforms reduced American-controlled land from over 2 million to 1,000 acres.” (8). A charismatic speaker, Castro publicly identified as a revolutionary nationalist taking Cuba from imperialist America and giving it back to the Cuban people.  His actions backed his words.

Washington Responds

Not surprisingly, Washington did not welcome Castro’s rise to power or nationalist policies. Castro presented unprecedented challenges, at least in Latin America.  Historian Louis A. Perez Jr. writes that the most immediate was “the Cuban leader’s unprecedented and unrelenting condemnation of the United States for nearly sixty years of deeds and misdeeds in Cuba.” (229).  Some state officials dismissed Castro’s vitriol as the ravings of a mad dictator, while others saw him as a motivated communist.  Most seemed to settle on the latter explanation and framed Castro’s victory as a “Cold War problem.” 

Cold War

Washington’s assessment of Cuba grew out of the Cold War that evolved after World War Two (1939-1945) and centred on a global conflict between communism and democracy.  This bipolar view saw the Soviet Union leading the communists against the American-led democratic powers in a battle for international dominance.  While this paradigm didn’t give due justice to the complexities of the global environment, it still informed foreign policy. 

In 1947, only two years after the end of World War Two, the United States established the Truman Doctrine, which committed the U.S. to assist any country threatened by Communism. Washington showed further commitment by adopting the policy of “containment” that would compel American intervention in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba, to stave the spread of communism. 

For his part, Castro denied being part of a global communist movement.  However, he turned to Moscow for economic and political support as Cuban-American relations deteriorated. Cuba signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in February 1960, and Moscow agreed to exchange the oil for sugar no longer purchased by the US.   By January 1961, Cuba established formal diplomatic ties with Moscow and “in early January 1961; the US terminated formal diplomatic relations with Cuba.” (Rodriguez, 26)

Washington saw Castro’s ties with Moscow as a serious threat to American security goals in the Americas and the world. Washington officials feared that the Cuban revolution offered the rest of Latin America an example that could undermine American hegemony in the region.  Eisenhower’s domino analogy now seemed applicable to Latin America. In a broader sense, Castro’s presence and aggressive reforms undermined American status at home and abroad.    As Perez Jr. writes, “if the United States could not contain the expansion of communism 90 miles from its shores, how could it be expected to resist communism in Europe, Asia, and Africa?” (239)

It can be argued that the American isolation of Castro and its history of exploiting the island and its people encouraged a nationalist revolution and an alliance with Moscow.  Some Americans acknowledged these factors, but regional security and Cold War priorities would prevail.  

Washington Plans

In his 1996 book, Confessions of a Cold Warrior, former CIA Deputy Director Richard Bissell writes that “A Communist government in Cuba, ninety miles from the US mainland, was unacceptable.” (Bissell, 152) Accordingly, American officials grappled with how to undermine Castro’s influence and, ultimately, oust him from power.  Some options were untenable. Washington dismissed calls for an open American military invasion of Cuba.  Such an overt act would escalate Soviet-American tensions and undermine Washington’s image as a promoter of freedom and self-determination. 

Instead, Washington chose political isolation, economic sanctions and covert sabotage.  As already mentioned, Washington set about isolating Castro diplomatically and economically by severing diplomatic relations and imposing a trade embargo on Cuba.  Besides these public tactics, President Eisenhower ordered the newfound Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to create a covert plan to invade Cuba by arming, training, and transporting anti-Castro exiles. Historian Raul Rodriguez writes that if all went to plan, “the invading exiles would be greeted as heroes when they landed” and “all private sector assets would be returned,” as a US friendly replaced an ousted Castro. (Rodriguez, 26).  

However, Eisenhower would not remain in power long enough to see the plan through. His second presidential term was coming to an end, so it would be up to his Vice-President Richard Nixon to win the upcoming election and deal with the Cuba problem.   In Nixon’s way stood a formidable political challenger.

John F. Kennedy. (1961-1963)

The 1960 U.S. presidential election saw Republican Richard Nixon pitted against up-and-comer Democratic Senator John F. Kennedy, and Cuba was one of the election’s main issues.  Kennedy campaigned on a hard stance against communism and criticized the Eisenhower government for being “soft” on Cuba.  The Democratic candidate went so far as to publicly insist that Castro be removed.  As historian Howard Jones points out, Nixon had to “remain silent on the invasion plan and thereby unable to counter his adversary’s charge that the administration was soft on Castro.” (Jones, 36).

Kennedy won the election and was inaugurated in 1961. He immediately set about making an impression as an action-oriented President.  By this time, Castro had been in power for a year and had implemented many changes to Cuba that Washington perceived as reflecting Communist ideals.  On January 28th, CIA Director Allen Dulles formally briefed Kennedy and his senior advisors, warning that “Castro was converting Cuba into a Communist state,” and detailed the American plan to topple Castro’s government. (Jones, 46)

Kennedy knew the plan held profound risks, and some of his senior advisors rigorously opposed it.  Chester Bowles and William Fulbright, for instance, both stressed “the invasion pitfalls,” including the potential impact on Soviet-American relations and Washington’s claim as a promoter of political self-determination. (Rasenberger, 394) However, a strong lobby of American officials wanted to follow through, and as historian Mark J. White points out, Kennedy’s campaign promises “delimited his policies as president.” (Fisanick, 10). Besides reneging on a campaign promise, White adds, “Cuba would have exposed him to Republican accusations of “softness” of communism.” (Fisanick, 10). In short, the new President’s public and private commitments to topple Castro compelled him forward.  Once he committed, a core challenge involved executing the invasion in a manner that disguised American involvement. 

Fallout.

The plan failed.  Most of the invading Cuban exiles were captured and imprisoned.  Some historians suggest that American air cover could have swayed the results, but Kennedy did not want to expose Washington’s involvement.  It didn’t work.  Despite the denials, the American government’s involvement was exposed.   Cuban-American relations continued to deteriorate as Soviet-Cuban ties strengthened.

Interestingly, the Bay of Pigs debacle did not deter Kennedy from Washington’s overarching Cold War agenda. After the invasion failed, President Kennedy reinforced the need to respond to communism.  As Rodriguez writes, “The lesson he drew from the Bay of Pigs was the need for escalated adventurism, not caution.” (Rodriguez, 27)

Historical Interpretations.

Historians continue to study the Bay of Pigs invasions to understand what happened and why.  Various interpretations abound, and new evidence offers opportunities for fresh insights.  Some scholars focus their criticism on the CIA, suggesting the agency pushed a misleading agenda on the President.  Others point to anti-communist fervour in Washington as the main culprit. In his excellent book, Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs (2011), John Rasenberger acknowledges Washington’s “nearly hysterical” approach to containing Communism while challenging claims that the CIA pulled the strings.   The Bay of Pigs, he writes, “was a collaboration of both Presidential administrations, numerous legislators and the CIA, who “either did know or should have known, what they were agreeing to.” (xv)

Recent scholarship pushes beyond the bounds of American foreign policy to explore the broader context of the Americas. Rodriquez and Trog, for instance, present the Cuban-American conflict as a “fundamental contradiction between Cuba’s revolutionary ferment in search of national realization and the US hegemonic quest for maintaining a status quo throughout the Western Hemisphere. (17)

The Bay of Pigs invasion fascinates us, and future studies will offer fresh and exciting insights. 

Bibliography

Bissell, Richard M. Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. Neultaven, 1996.

Fisanick, Christina. Ed.   The Bay of Pigs.  Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2004.

Friedman, Rebecca R. “Crisis Management at the Dead Center: The 1960-1961 Presidential Transition and the Bay of Pigs Fiasco.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 41, no. 2, 2011, pp. 307–33. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23884834. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Gleijeses, Piero. “Ships in the Night: The CIA, the White House and the Bay of Pigs.” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 27, no. 1, 1995, pp. 1–42. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/158201. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Gott, Richard. Cuba: A New History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Jones, Howard. Bay of Pigs.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.  

Oakes, James.   Of the People: A History of the United States Since 1865. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Pérez Jr., Louis A. “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba.” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, 2002, pp. 227–54. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3875788. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Preston, Andrew. “Kennedy, the Cold War, and the National Security State.” in Andrew Hoberek ed. The Cambridge Companion to John F. Kennedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 89-102. 

Rasenberger, Jim.  Brilliant Disaster: JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. New York: Scribner, 2011.

Rodríguez, Raul and Harry Targ. “US Foreign Policy towards Cuba: Historical Roots, Traditional Explanations and Alternative Perspectives.” International Journal of Cuban Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015, pp. 16–37. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.13169/intejcubastud.7.1.0016. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Samson, Anna. “A History of the Soviet-Cuban Alliance (1960-1991).” Politeja, no. 10/2, 2008, pp. 89–108. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24919326. Accessed 22 Aug. 2022.

Stern, Sheldon M. The Week the World Stood: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976)

From 1966 to 1976, Communist leader Mao Zedong led a “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” that renewed the Chinese Revolution that Mao felt had lost its way. Mao and his followers drastically altered the country’s political, economic, and social structure.   Historian Paul Clark calls it “the biggest non-wartime, concentrated social upheaval in world history. (1). Rhoads Murphey and Kirsten Stapleton describe it as “perhaps the great cataclysm in world history, measured by the hundreds of millions of people in mass persecution and suffering. (377).

During this period, Mao used strong imagery to promote himself as the “father” of the people and China as the world’s communist leader. By 1976, and after Mao’s death, moderates like Deng began to guide the country down a different path that invited economic incentives, western technology, education, and industrialization.

The Great Leap Forward and Soviet “revisionism.” A series of events leading to 1966 undermined Mao’s position in the Chinese Communist Party. First, his “Great Leap Forward” (beginning in 1958) was a disaster. Proclaiming that China would exceed British industrial production, Mao abolished private ownership and established communes throughout China to focus on manufacturing and bring industrialization to China’s rural areas. These peoples’ communes lacked organization and adequate equipment, expertise, and resources to succeed. Peasant resistance, administrative problems and bad weather also lead to unproductive food production. As many as 30 million starved or died from malnutrition in what Murphy and Stapleton describe as the “worst famine in world history.” (376). The program undermined Mao’s credibility and opened more opportunities to the moderate elements of the Communist Party, such as Lin Shaoquoi, who wanted to invite foreign technology and reinstate profit incentives.

Foreign developments also undermined Mao’s status. Mao had “portrayed Soviet policy-makers as ‘capitalist roaders’ and as betrayers of Marxism for seeking to cooperate with the West. (Rossabi, 386) The subsequent break with Moscow led to increasing political isolation and the withdrawal of much-needed Soviet technical support and economic assistance. In short, Mao’s zealous ideology furthered China’s isolation.   

Mao “revives” the revolution. Mao Zedong lost his position as head of state but somehow remained the most powerful and popular leader of the Communist party. He wanted to renew a revolution he felt had lost its vision and integrity. He insisted that China would fall into the complacency and Westernization he believed was happening in the Soviet Union without drastic changes. The Chinese revolution needed a revival.

Persecution. Supported by ideologically driven Party members and youth movements, Mao set about to “cleanse” Chinese society by targeting those deemed enemies of the campaign. The list of enemies proved long, but Mao and his supporters began with moderate party members like Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997). A Red Guard Student Brigade ridiculed and abused Mao’s political rivals such as Liu Shou (killed), Deng Xiaoping (imprisoned), and Zhou Enlai (driven to seclusion).  

Mao closed China’s schools and universities, labelling them as breeding grounds for rightist dissenters. Intellectuals, including writers, educators, and academics who criticized Party policies, were removed or detained, sentenced to forced manual labour or killed. Persecutors identified these targets as “rightists,” “enemies of the revolution,” or people of “bourgeoisie” inclination. In 1968, Zhou Enlai finally convinced Mao to bring in the army to suppress the Red Guards, many of whom felt betrayed by Mao, who had encouraged their radical actions. 

Mao’s Economic Revolution. Mao and his supporters altered the economy to reflect their ideological goals. They criticized Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiangping’s welcoming of foreign technology to grow the economy. Mao preferred to depend on labour rather than machinery and favoured the competence and dedication of the proletariat over capital investment in technology. In other words, China would achieve progress and prosperity through domestic efforts without foreign inspiration or assistance. Like the Great Leap Forward, rural communes produced mediocre and low-quality items such as iron, steel, and agricultural goods.  Once again, the economy faltered.

The Moderates Regain Power. By the 1970s, the revolution lost momentum, mainly under the weight of its extremism and archaic economic policies. The violence of the Red Guard and other groups had gone further than even Mao saw fit. People coveted stability. Not surprisingly, Mao’s economic policies did not revive the economy, and China seemed again immersed in a weakening economy inspired by ideology rather than practical guidance. 

The Cultural Revolution received its final blow when Mao died on September 9, 1976. Again, the moderates moved to consolidate control. One of the first steps was to purge the Gang of Four from the Party and sentence them to life imprisonment. Deng Xiaoping would lead the moderates to shift China away from Mao’s ideologically driven plan to a more pragmatic approach that blended modernization and capitalist ingenuity into the Party’s communist agenda.

In future blogs, we will take a closer look at various elements of the Cultural Revolution and the preceding Great Leap Forward. As always, feel welcome to contact us with ideas about future blog topics you would like to see.

Bibliography

Clark, Paul. The Chinese Cultural Revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Dikoter, Frank. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2016.

MacFaquahar, Roderick and Michael Schoenhals.  Mao’s Last Revolution.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Murphey, Rhoads and Kristen Stapleton. A History of Asia. Eighth Edition, New York: Routledge, 2019.

Rossabi, Morris. A History of China. West Sussex, Blackwell Publishing, 2014.

Germans and the Nazi Persecutions (1933-45): Coercion or Complicity?

Complicity. Partnership in a crime or wrongdoing.

Coercion. Persuade or restrain (an unwilling person) by force or threat of punishment.

Introduction. Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party gained power in 1933 and would govern Germany until the end of World War Two (1945). By 1934, his Nazi government had become a dictatorship, with Hitler as the Fuhrer. With bolstered state powers, they persecuted  “enemies of Germany,” such as Communist Party members, Social Democrats, and labour groups. Hitler also targeted those deemed unfit according to the Nazi racial hygiene agenda – people of colour, gypsies, criminals, the mentally and physically challenged and above all, Jews. The Nazis dismissed people from their jobs, confiscated property, locked people in prisons and concentration camps, sterilized the “unfit,” and executed millions. 

A Debate. How was it possible for the Nazis to persecute various groups – especially- Jews without significant resistance from German citizens? Many historians have addressed this question. Some scholars argue that German citizens complied with and supported and even initiated the persecution and slaughter of Jews and other groups. Others insist that most Germans disapproved of Nazi domestic persecution and terror but did not speak out for fear of Nazi retribution, including loss of property or career, imprisonment, and execution. 

Nazi Terror and Retribution. When Hitler and the National Socialist Party took power in 1933, they began centralizing control of Germany. According to Richard Evans, the main instrument of coercion was the law. The Nazis passed laws and decrees that broadened what constituted treason and people’s options for freedom of expression. For instance, it became legal to ridicule Hitler, to make derogatory remarks against the Nazi party, or to “discuss alternatives to the political status quo.” (Evans,101)  

Speaking out against Nazi policies or assisting the persecuted could result in severe retribution. In Why? Explaining the Holocaust (2017),  Peter Hayes points out that “overt assistance to Jews constituted sabotage punishable by death”  and cites the example of Nazi Anton Schmidt, who facilitated the escape of at least 100 Jews after witnessing the execution of Jewish infants. After being exposed, he was court-martialed and executed. (145-146).   

Surveillance and intimidation proved effective deterrents to dissent. The Nazi secret police (Gestapo) did not have many men at their disposal but still “infiltrated people’s lives – directly, indirectly and psychologically.”  (Childress, 319).   Gestapo agents performed late-night arrests and interrogations. Germans were encouraged to report transgressions of Nazi law by their peers, neighbours and even family. Those charged faced a dubious legal process through what Richard Evans describes as a “whole system of regional Special Courts, crowned by the National People’s Court, the Volkgerichlen, was created to implement these and similar laws. (Evans, 101)

These historians argue that the Nazis organized an effective program of intimidation and coercion that effectively discouraged Germans from resisting the Nazi racial hygiene program.  

Citizen Complicity. Other scholars believe such interpretations overstate the extent of Nazi control while neglecting the willingness of German citizens to facilitate and even initiate the persecutions. In Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997), Daniel Goldhagen acknowledges Nazi government coercion but argues that the main driving force behind the Holocaust was deep-seated, specifically German antisemitism.  

Goldhagen relates a story about Captain Wolfgang Hoffman, “a zealous executioner of Jews” who led “ordinary men” to slaughter tens of thousands of Jews in Poland. (3). Hoffman, he points out, refused to sign a declaration that his group would not plunder and steal from the persecuted Jews. Why did he refuse? Hoffman took offence that he and the men under his charge would steal. Besides the irony that Hoffman enthusiastically killed people, Goldhagen points out that Hoffman was not punished for refusing a direct order. In order words, Hoffman had a choice. By extension, his persecution of Jews came not from fear of retribution but from personal conviction—a willing executioner. 

Goldhagen goes on to argue that historians have focused on the leaders of the Nazi regime while neglecting people like Hoffman who facilitated the execution not from fear of Nazi retribution but out of a conviction that stemmed from “a particular type of antisemitism that led them to conclude that the Jews ought to die.”

Goldhagen’s thesis hinges on pervasive  German-specific antisemitism – a point of controversy among historians.   In Hitler and the Holocaust (2001), Robert S. Wistrich argues that Goldhagen overstates the role of German eliminationist antisemitism in the Holocaust. Germans certainly facilitated the killings, but this didn’t stem from a longstanding eliminationist mindset in the mid 19th century. Before Hitler, Wistrich argues, “racist antisemitism had not made great inroads in Germany” and was “still a state based on the rule of law, where Jews achieved remarkable economic success, were well integrated into society, and enjoyed equal rights.” (4)  

Selective Nazi Terror. In Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans (1999), Eric Johnson agrees with Goldhagen that many ordinary Germans willingly facilitated terror campaigns, persecutions and genocide. He also acknowledges the role of Nazi coercion but disagrees with Evans on the extent of Nazi coercion. He argues that Hitler’s government did not terrorize most Germans but instead focused the terror against “enemies of the state” – especially Jews. Most German citizens were not directly impacted by Nazi terror and “enjoyed considerable space to vent their everyday frustration with Nazi policies and leaders without inordinate fear of arrest or prosecution. (19)

Richard Evans disagrees with Johnson’s presentation of selective Nazi coercion and persecution. Nazi violence focused more on particular groups but “operated across the board.”(199). In 1933-4, for instance, the Nazis targeted the political leaders of the Social Democratic and Communist parties, such as Social Democrat Johann Steller, who “was tortured to death. (93).   Together, Evans notes, “the Social Democrats and Communists had won 131 million votes in the Reichstag election of 1932.” (94). “Hardly,” he points out, “members of a despised minority of social outcasts.”(94)

Self Interest and Opportunism Another historian who does not see antisemitism as the main factor in Holocaust is Joseph D. Bendersky. In A Concise History of Nazi Germany (2014), Bendersky argues that “the Jewish question had not been important to most German” who were more concerned with “moral degeneracy, crime, political subversion, and public order.” (139). Accordingly, the persecution of Communists, sexual deviants, and violent criminals received public support. He places more weight on other factors, including economic self-interest and the “terror of the police state.” (141)  Regarding self-interest, Bendersky notes how although a “Large segment” of German were shocked by Nazi violence, many opportunistically filled the Jewish vacancies in various professions, civil service positions, and businesses as Nazis pushed Jews out of their jobs. “Profit at the expense of the Jews was a temptation too many could not resist.” (139). Like Evans and Hayes, he adds that the Nazi use of terror deterred resistance and many who persisted paid the price. “Countless individuals,” Bendersky writes, paid with their lives for speaking out or for attempting to save others from Nazi tyranny. (141)

Conclusion. The role of German citizens in Nazi persecution, and particularly the Holocaust, remains a contentious topic and one that scholars will grapple with for many years to come. Hitler’s Nazi regime indeed used terror and reward to encourage German complicity. Some Germans, of course, engaged in the persecutions of “German enemies” with horrific enthusiasm. The longstanding question remains. Which factored more, coercion or complicity?

Bibliography

Aly Gotz, Peter Chrousti and Christine Ross. Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Barnet, Victoria J. Bystander: Conscience and Complicity During the Holocaust. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999

Bendersky, Joseph W. A Concise History of Nazi Germany. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2014.

Benz, Wolfgang. A Concise History of the Third Reich. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006

Bergen, Doris L.  Twisted Cross. The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich. Chapel Hill, 1996.

Childress, Thomas. The Third Reich. A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon Shuster, 2017.

Marc Dewey, Udo Schagen, Wolfgang U. Eckart & Eva Schoenenberger, “Ernst Ferdinand Sauerbruch and His Ambiguous Role in the Period of National Socialism”, in Annals of Surgery 244 (2006), pp. 315- 321.

Friedlander, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1 The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939. New York: 1997.

Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah.  Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. New York: Random House Inc., 1997.  

Hamerow, Theodore S. On the Road to the Wolf’s Lair. German Resistance to Hitler. London, 1999

Hayes, Peter. Why? Explaining the Holocaust. New York: W.W. Norton Inc. 2017.

Johnson, Eric A. Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews, and Ordinary Germans. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Lifton, Robert J. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York, 1986.

Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictators: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation. (London, 1993).

Proctor, Robert N. Racial Hygiene: Medicine Under the Nazis. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. 

Schmidt. U.H. Karl Brandt: The Nazi Doctor. New York: Continuum, 2007

Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1960.

Stern, Fritz. Five Germans I have Known. New York: Farar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006. 

Thomas, Gordon and Gary Lewis. Defying Hitler: The German Who Resisted Nazi Rule. New York: Random House, 2019. 

Wistrich, Robert S. Hitler and the Holocaust. London, The Orion Publishing Group, 2001. 

Wistrich, Robert. Who’s Who in Nazi Germany. London, 1995.

Eugenics: An Introduction

Eugenics. The science of improving the population by controlled breeding for desirable inherited traits. From the Greek eugenes, meaning well-born.

Animal Husbandry.  The science of breeding.

In 1883, Francis Galton, first cousin to Charles Darwin, coined “eugenics”, a pseudoscience that advocated controlled reproduction to ensure the healthy evolution of human societies.  Eugenics became increasingly popular in the early 20th century, solidifying racial hierarchies and categories of the unfit – criminals, the mentally ill, and the feebleminded.  Programs in various countries encouraged the “fit” to reproduce while discouraging the unfit through measures ranging from segregation to elimination.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) Francis Galton grew up in England and inherited a significant fortune after his father died.  His extensive travels to places like Africa reinforced his sense of a rigid hierarchy of human categories.  He was not alone in this thinking as racial and ethnic determinism pervaded Western thought during the 19th century.  Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species (1859) further inspired Galton to pursue social betterment through selective breeding. Galton believed that humans evolved through the natural selection of inborn traits, and parents transmitted intellectual and moral qualities to their children. He acknowledged social factors but insisted that inherited talent (or lack of) persevered.  

Turn of the Century:  Eugenics takes off. Various factors played into eugenics growing popularity into the 20th century.  The “rediscovery” of Gregor Mendel’s claims of heredity as the dominant determinant in human life bolstered eugenic claims of biological determinism.  Visible signs of poverty, crime, and mental illness accompanied urban growth evoked concerns about societal “degeneration” – an oft-used term at the time.  As Diane B. Paul writes, “Middle-class people of every political persuasion – conservatives, liberals, and socialists, were alarmed by the apparent profligate breeding of what in Britain was called the “social residue.” (Paul, 235)

Alarmed by these developments and confident in their theories of selective reproduction, eugenics advocates began implementing practices to realize their visions.  Scholars have identified these practices as “positive” and “negative” eugenics. 

Positive Eugenics. Positive eugenics involved the promotion and practice of the selective breeding of the “fit.”  He pointed to the example of animal husbandry as a model to follow.  “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains,” he said, “were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breeding of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of geniuses might we create!  (Larson 180).

Negative Eugenics in Practice. The early focus on positive eugenics would give way to prohibitive measures in the twentieth century.  In the United States, Canada, and much of Northern Europe, as well as Britain, the central question was how best to discourage breeding by moral and mental defectives.” (Crook, 235)  The practice of eugenics ranged from segregation to extermination.  Practices also varied over time and from country to country.  Generally, the initial approach involved the segregation of male and female “defectives”. Some feared another option, sterilization, would promote images of extremism—however, institutional expenses coupled with improved sterilization technology made this alternative a more popular choice.  Accordingly, governments legalized the practice. Sterilization laws, for instance, had been passed in 30 American states and 3 Canadian provinces. (Paul, 236) 

Not surprisingly, the worst expression of eugenics occurred in Nazi Germany.  The Aktion T-4 programme and subsequent programs “euthanized” up to 200,000 of the country’s institutionalized mentally and physically disabled, some with the tacit consent of the families. (Paul, 236)  

Opposition.  Predicably, eugenics attracted virulent opposition from the Catholic Church, labour groups, liberal politicians, and scientific community members. The Catholic Church, already opposed to abortion and contraception, vehemently opposed sterilization. Labour groups spoke out against eugenics, knowing that many working and lower classes, especially immigrants, fell into eugenic categories of unfit.  Scientists readily challenged eugenic claims and the Mendelian foundation by highlighting the nurture side of the nature vs nurture debates of the time. 

Conclusion.  Blatant Nazi atrocities in the name of racial hygiene, coupled with scientific exposures of its falsities, undermined eugenic claims.  However, it did become one of the most influential and devastating of the broader social Darwinist movement.

This blog offers a rudimentary introduction to eugenics.  Future blogs will address more specific aspects of this topic.

Selected Bibliography

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. Francis Galton and the Study of Heredity in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Garland, 1985.

Crook, Paul. Darwin’s Coat-Tails: Essays on Social Darwinism.  New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc., 2007.

Larson, Edward J.  Evolution: The Remarkable History of a Scientific Theory.  New York: Modern Library, 2006. .

Paul, Diane B. “Darwin, Social Darwinism, and Eugenics.”  Jonathan Hodge and Gregory Radick eds.  The Cambridge Companion to Darwin.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009

World War 1 Begins

The Great War, also later known as World War 1, began in 1914 as a European conflict between the major powers and spread to almost all European states except Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Spain.  Countries outside of Europe like Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Japan, and India joined the fray, usually due to political obligations or strategic concerns.  Many believed the war would be short-lived. Fighting, however, lasted until 1918, taking many lives and forever changing the global landscape.

How did the war begin? The origins of the conflict are complex and contentious.  Historians have cited numerous causes, including the Alliance System, nationalism, imperialism and militarism. As eminent historian Jacques Barzun pointed out, “No conclusion has been agreed upon.” (68). We will explore the causes and other topics of The Great War in other blogs.  For now, we will focus on the events leading to war. 

European Alliances and Rivalries The alliance system refers to the two opposing camps that entered the war in 1914 after a series of war declarations.  On one side, the Triple Alliance comprised Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary.  The other, the Triple Entente, included France, Great Britain and Russia. These alliances reflected a “strength in numbers” approach to security.    

All of the countries had reasons to ally. France feared a Germany that, since its unification in 1870, became a formidable economic and military power, in part at France’s expense. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), Prussia defeated France, annexed Alsace-Lorrain, and made France pay reparations.  An invigorated Germany bolstered its military power and, through French eyes, remained the primary threat.  Britain and Russia agreed.  Germany’s military growth, particularly its Navy, threatened Britain’s traditional naval hegemony.  Russia, still recovering from their 1905 loss to Japan and reeling from an internal revolution, saw a growing Germany as a threat to Russia’s western border.   

Germany, of course, had its concernsWith France and Russia on its west and east borders, Germany stood pinned between two powers. Berlin met this challenge in two ways. First, in 1880, German Chancellor Otto Von Bismark solicited Austro-Hungary and Italy to create a Triple Alliance. Second, they adopted the Schlieffen Plan – an offensive strategy where Germany would attack France first in the hope of defeating them before Russia mobilized – in what they estimated to be forty-two days. (Storey, 21-22) 

Berlin’s primary ally, Austria-Hungary, included a significant German population and coveted a solid supporter to back it against Balkan uprisings, particularly from Serbia.  Italy, less enthusiastic about allied commitments, would not enter the war until 1915 – alongside the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia! Neither Russia nor France matched Germany’s economy or military, but together they offered a viable threat.  Neither Berlin nor Vienna wanted to stand alone. 

So, how did these countries come to war?

The Balkans – Instability Spreads. As William Kelleher Storey writes, the war  “was touched off by a crisis over nationalist aspirations in the Balkans,” a region of unrest and instability. (29)  The Ottoman Empire once controlled the Balkan Peninsula but, after a steady decline, relinquished control of the region that broke into several countries  – Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Romania, Montenegro and Greece.   Competing nationalities and religions exacerbated political divisions and lead to perpetual struggles for regional control and independence, leading to many local conflicts and longstanding hostilities.

Serbia became the peninsula’s dominant country and took center stage leading to the Great War. Serbia gained independence from a weakening Ottoman Empire in 1878 and coveted a Greater Serbia.  Austria-Hungary feared Serbian nationalist fervour might encourage the southern Slavic population in Austro-Hungary to separate and join Serbia. 

On the other hand, Russia coveted a strong Serbia as a base of influence in the Balkans and Constantinople and the Dardanelles that would link the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.   These ambitions, coupled with its Slavic heritage, lead Russa to offer itself as sponsor and protector of the Slavs in the Balkans, particularly Serbia.  

Vienna’s annexation of Bosnia and its significant Serbian population in 1908 widened the rift between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.  Russia, still recovering from its 1905 loss to Japan and warned off by Germany, did not intervene, undermining its status as Slavic protector.  As tension grew between Serbia and Austria-Hungary, it seemed more likely that regional strife would spill over into the rest of Europe.  All that was needed was a catalyst – that occurred on July 14th, 1914. 

The Catalyst. On July 14th, 1914, Serbian nationalist Gavril Princip assassinated Austro-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife- shooting them both in the car as they toured the streets of Sarajevo.   Emboldened by German support, Austria issued an ultimatum to Serbia that would effectively deny Serbian independence.  Serbia accepted all but one of the demands.  Seeing an opportunity to deal with the “Serbia problem,” Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28th.  

The entangled alliances and competing interests encouraged a series of Great Power decisions that lead to a much broader conflict.  Here is a very simplified sequence of events. Russia, supporting Slavic Serbia and protecting its influence in the Balkans, declared war on Austria-Hungary and mobilized its forces.  Germany, alarmed by Russian mobilization and in support of Vienna, declared war on Russia then France.  Germany’s attack plan on France required them to cross Belgium, a neutral country.  This action leads to Britain, obligated to protect Belgian neutrality, to declare war on Germany.  Now, the prominent European nations were at war, and soon, soldiers from around the world would join the fray. 

Conclusion. Could the war have been averted?  Some historians insist that the alliance system meant that one declaration of war leads to the diplomatic equivalent of dominoes falling.  Others maintain that leaders could have made different choices and averted war.  These are discussions for future blogs.  Historians, however, do agree that World War 1, drastically changed Europe and the world. 

Selected Bibliography

Barzun, Jacques.  From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.  New York: Harper Collins, 2000.

Black, Jeremy.  The Great War and the Making of the Modern World.  London: Continuum International Public Group, 2011. 

Davies, Norman. Europe: A History.  London: Oxford University Press, 1997. 

Ferguson, Neill.  The War of the World Twentieth Century and Descent of the West.  Penguin Books, 2006. 

Meyer, G.T. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918.  New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. 

Roberts, J.M.  The Penguin History of the World.  New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

Storey, William Kelleher.  The First World War.  London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.