Tag Archives: berlin

The Soviet Soldier of World War Two by Philippe Rio

This book is an absolute gem!

As somebody who was brought up on D-Day and Arnhem, my knowledge of the Eastern Front is pretty limited. Sure, I know about Stalingrad,  the Kursk, Berlin, that kind of thing. But to say I know very little about the Red Army is an understatement indeed.

In concept this book is very similar to the ‘handbook’ series produced by Sutton, but bigger, shinier, and more detailed. My first thought was, how the hell did they get hold of all this militaria and ephemera? If it’s somebody’s personal collection, it must have taken them years – and a decent bank balance – to acquire. Some of the photographs in particular have never been seen before.

Im also glad to say its not just a nerdy look at trinkets. If there is one thing that you can say about the Red Army, it is that it was very much a child of its contexts. And those contexts are very important – Lenin and the 1917 Revolution, the Civil War, Stalin and the Great Purges, and the Spanish Civil War. The fact that Russian -and indeed Soviety – history, culture and society are so different from what we know in the west make it all the more important for us to come to terms with peculiarities such as the commisar and womens service.

It’s jammed full of statistics – hardware, manpower and units – and also gives good coverage to the different arms of service – infantry, cavalry, ski troops, parachutists, armour, and services such as the signals, medics, engineers, NKVD and partisans. But it is in medals, orders, badges and insignia where things get really crazy. For what was supposed to be a classless society, the USSR had an unbelievable amount of decorations, rank distinctions and identifying marks! The possibilities for different arm of service colours on headwear, sleeves and shoulder boards are mind boggling!

The amount of different headgear and uniforms is also interesting – in particular my personal favourite, the Ushanka. Of course, the Red Army also developed much specialist equipment and clothing for cold weather fighting, such as warm footwear and greatcoats. Personal Equipment and small arms are also covered, and the book finishes with a number of portrait studies and interpretations of Red Army figures. An Infanty Kapitan in Brest-Litovsk in 1941, for example, or a Serzhant of the Guards Infantry in Poland in July 1944.

I should imagine anyone wanting to re-enact the Red Army would find this absolutely invaluable.

The Soviet Soldier of World War Two is published by Histoire et Collections

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New Year’s Resolution – learn German!

My new years resolution this year…. is to brush up my German.

I learnt French at School, and to be honest, I can remember very little. The quality of teaching was merde, as they say, but then again you can’t blame the teachers as they were more occupied with crowd control and anti-social behavious than la belle francais.

I knew hardly a word of German before I first went there in 200o. Since then I’ve been to Berlin, Nuremberg, Munich (twice), Duisburg, Dusseldorf (three times), Cologne (twice), Hamlin (as in the pied piper), Paderborn, and the Rhine Valley down near Koblenz. Its true what they say, that you learn a language much better from going there and practicing it and hearing it. I’ve picked up German a lot easier than I ever did French.

As a modern military historian I reckon having a good grasp of German must be an advantage, and it can’t exactly look bad on the CV. I know the basics – hello, goodbye, how to order a beer, where is the Football Stadium, can I have a currywurst and chips please, the Panzers are coming etc, but you could hardly say I can speak German. Therefore I’ve signed up to the BBC’s new German Steps course, to learn German in twelve weeks. They send you an email every week, and you work through the modules.

I’ll let you know how I’m getting on!

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Matt Frei’s ‘Berlin’

Matt Frei

Matt Frei

Regular readers will know that I have a bit of a soft spot for Berlin, where historical cities are concerned. Therefore I was excited to see Matt Frei’s recent series on the German Capital, which was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As his name suggests, Frei is is of German ancestry. Born in 1963 in Essen, West Germany, he left Germany at the age of 10, studied at Oxford and became the BBC’s Washington correspondent. As such he is ideally placed to commentate on the complex and unique story of Berlin. This isnt somebody commenting on Berlin from the outside, but from the inside.

Rather than taking a purely chronological approach – as Andrew Marr has done recently in his ‘Making of Modern Britain’ – Frei quite wisely avoids this easy but confusing option. Berlin has such a twisted and complex history that it makes much more sense explained thematically. That is, to take a theme, and follow it through the ages. As such, the three programmes in the series are each themed on Politics, Architecture and Society. And it makes for quite a balanced and well structured approach.

Frei makes use of some very interesting eyewitness accounts, and some moving interviews. Overall it is very watchable indeed. I hope this isnt his last attempt at history-making. Although a political correspondent, he doesnt dwell too much on high politics. The statesmen and ordinary people do not compete for air time, their experiences complement each other – as seen in JFK’s famous speech in Berlin in 1963.

Like perhaps no other city on earth, Berlin WAS the 20th Century in case study. It is incredible how much change, tension, bloodshed, division, but also creativity and freedom can fill one city in such a short space of time. Its quite a unique place with a character all of its own, and this is something that Matt Frei puts across very well.

The series is still available to view on BBC iplayer, and you can also obtain a free acompanying guide to Berlin from the Open University.

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Filed under Architecture, News, On TV, politics, social history, World War One, World War Two

The Berlin Wall: 20 years on

the fall of the Berlin Wall

the fall of the Berlin Wall

Monday marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989. I can remember my mum and dad waking me up to watch it on tv, and not really being sure what it was about. My how things change, now its me explaining things to them!

The fall of the Berlin wall, in hindsight, seems to have been inevitable, with Reagan’s ‘tear down this wall’, Lech Walesa’s soliarity in Poland, and Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies. But it was anything but inevitable. While there was a growing movement for change in Eastern Europe, the East German regime was still relatively Stalinist in outlook. But communism had always sat uneasily in Germany. Although it was the most prosperous communist state in eastern europe – not that that is saying much – there was widespread discontent at living conditions, archaic restrictions and the arbitrary division of a country.

Matters came to a head in 1989. Widespread protests gave the regime a dilemma. Refugees had found a way of escaping to the west via Czechoslovakia. To ease the complications and attempt to stop the flood the politburo agreed to lift restrictions on the border crossings with West Germany, including in Berlin. The Govenrment spokesman making the announcement made a critical error, and informed the media that this was with immediate effect. This unleashed a tide of humanity, East German citizens who flocked to the wall and eventually crossed over to the west. The Border Guards, overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and the situation, were ordered to let them pass.

Within a year, East and West Germany were reunified once more.

But how did the wall come about in the first place?

Since its inception shortly after the end of the second world war, the east had suffered a flood of people leaving to go to the better living conditions in the west. Millions of people fled. It was estimated that in a short time there would be hardly anyone left in the east. In particular, most of the refugees were young, skilled and educated people – exactly the kind of people the east could ill afford to lose.

The regime in the east were faced with a dilemma. The situation could not continue, but could they risk appearing so draconian under the worlds gaze? Berlin was already a miscroscopic view of the wider Cold War. In June 1961 the East German Leader Walter Ulbricht said ‘No one has any intention of building a wall’. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, this was giving the game away.

In August 1961 construction of the Berlin wall started. Miles and miles of barbed wire were installed, and eventually transformed into a three metre high concrete wall, with wide killing zones, look out towers and anti-personnel mines. Although the East would call it an ‘anti-fascist barrier’, they were not fooling anyone. It was to keep people IN, not OUT. However, it also effectively sealed West Berlin inside East Germany.

There was little the West could do. In 1961 American tanks faced down their Russian counterparts at Checkpoint Charlie, before both sides withdrew diplomatically. Kennedy visited in 1963 to lend his moral support, and spoke those famous words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’. But he was also pragmatic about the wall, saying ‘its not a nice solution, but a wall is sure better than a war’.

136 people died attempting to cross the wall, out of around 5,000 escape attempts. Among them were Peter Fechter, who was caught in no mans land, shot and left to bleed to death in full view of the worlds media. Conrad Schumann, an east German border guard, found his moment to escape across the wire, and was captured in one of the most famous photographs of all time.

In the end, the Berlin Wall was probably one of the events that put a nail in the coffin of global communism. If you need to build a wall to keep people in because they are so unhappy, it says a lot about the life you are making them live.

Berlin is one of my favourite places in the world to visit, and the Berlin Wall is such a fascinating story in world history. But, I have to stress, anyone who goes to Berlin and buys what they think is a piece of the Berlin wall, congratulations, you’ve just purchased a piece of the Tricorn!

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