Podcast 18: Why Does the Middle East have Straight Line Borders?

Drawing the Middle East’s modern borders on map with a ruler certainly seemed simple. Perhaps that’s why the lines, set in 1916 by Englishman Sir Mark Sykes and Frenchman Francois Georges-Picot were straight ones. The infamous Sykes-Picot Agreement was a pact between Great Britain and France, made in the middle of World War I (with Russia’s blessing). With it, they planned to dismember the Ottoman Empire. It led to the division of the Turkish-held Middle East into 5 French and British-administered countries.

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The ‘Lost Cause’ of the American Confederacy

REL statueWe hear a lot these days about the Lost Cause of the Southern Confederacy.  But what exactly was it?  Today, we can see historical threads of it in the defense of displaying the Confederate battle flag, the so called “Stars and Bars,” as well as opposing the removal of statues of Confederate generals.  The Lost Cause was a post-U.S. Civil War Southern movement meant both to redefine the South’s reasons for Secession, as well as reconcile their defeat.  It said the Confederacy was forced to surrender to the Union, not due to any lack of will, skill or right, but simply because they were outnumbered.

The Lost Cause spoke of  the ‘chivalrous’ Confederate leaders and ‘noble’ soldiers in grey, defending state’s rights and the very Southern way of life, against the cruel industrial North – much like the Founding Fathers did during the American Revolution. They claimed the plantation economy and the inherent necessity for black slavery factored little into their reasoning.  This is at odds with history, since when the 11 Southern states seceded in 1861, they were very clear about why.

In each Confederate state’s declaration of secession, they explicitly stated the need to deny abolition and preserve slavery. 

The Lost Cause argued they only fought soley for state’s sovereignty, rights, and independence.  They were fighting to hold back the industrialization of the North, and preserve their Southern agrarian economy.  So as you can imagine, the Lost Cause also became a fight over who wrote the Confederate history. The true causes of the American Civil War, has been contested for decades ever since … even to this day.

Although Confederate General Robert E Lee accepted full responsibility for his defeats, Southern leaders refused to blame him. When General Lee died 5 years after the war, a Lee Legend was created, promoting him as a Christian soldier who fought to preserve the Confederate States of America, rather than slavery.  The Lost Cause even gave Lee a scapegoat: former General James Longstreet. According to this new narrative, Lee lost the Battle of Gettysburg because Longstreet had betrayed him.

Northern leaders argued the Confederate generals were all traitors to America. Robert E Lee, a West Point graduate, betrayed his oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States.”  Southern leaders countered that during the Revolution, the British considered Washington and Jefferson traitors as well.  So from this new, reimagined point of view, seceding from the US was staying true to the Founding Fathers’ vision of liberty.

This linkage to the Founders was an essential part of the Lost Cause new narrative. Confederate President Jefferson Davis proclaimed that the Confederacy had ‘perpetuated the principles of our Revolutionary forefathers.’  The Founders had left slavery intact in the Declaration of Independence, so he said it was Abraham Lincoln’s Party that had in fact betrayed the Constitution!

Lee, Jefferson Davis and General Stonewall Jackson became knight-like heroes in the decades after the war.

Just look at the Stone Mountain, Georgia carving for one very large example.  They were contrasted with the ‘low moral standards’ of Union generals like Grant and Sheridan who engaged in vicious campaigns against Southern cities.  Ulysses S Grant weighed in and rejected the Lost Cause argument.

The term Lost Cause first appeared in articles written by Lt. General Jubal Early in the 1870’s for the Southern Historical Society.  The Lost Cause ideal was then taken up in the 1890’s by groups like the Sons of Conferate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.  It helped Southern leaders rationalize their defeat, cope with forced Reconstruction, and with the slaves now freed – defend a political and economic system, known as Jim Crow.  Decades after the war, Confederate statues conspicuously began appearing in town squares across the South, sending a clear message.

When slavery was brought up to Southern leaders, they pointed out that Washington and Jefferson were ‘benevolent slave owners’ and they were two of America’s greatest Founding Fathers.   However, in setting apart some people as “good” slavemasters and others as a few “bad apple” slavemasters, they conveniently leave out the inherent evil of slaveholding itself and owning another human being.

Following Reconstruction, came decades of Southern systemic racism known as Jim Crow.

What exactly was it?   Jim Crow was a series of state and local laws in the South that basically legalized racial discrimination.  Jim Crow was never a real person, but rather a comic black minstrel show character.  These laws marginalized freed slaves and their descendants by denying them jobs, loans, land, education, medical care and the right to vote. Those blacks who dared defy Jim Crow were terrorized, jailed, and all too often lynched from the nearest tree, even if that tree was outside their church.

By the 1890’s, the Lost Cause had evolved into a racial justification for white supremacy. Southern leaders defended slavery as a ‘gentile institution’ that benefitted the slaves, who’d been well cared for by their ‘compassionate masters.’  They claimed emancipated blacks, on the other hand, were unable to handle their own freedom, leading to negative black stereotypes that still persist over a century later.

As the South replaced Reconstruction policies with Jim Crow laws, the narrative stopped being about loss of the war, but rather a victory over reform.  They’d defeated the North’s Reconstruction, and along with it – black rights.  Southern leaders made sure Southern textbooks portrayed the Confederacy’s goal as righteous and noble. It worked so well, the strategy influences US education to this very day in some Southern schools.

By the turn of the century, most Americans wanted to put the past behind them. For white northerners, this meant abandoning the federal enforcement of freed blacks’ rights — ceding politics back to white, southern leaders, who then erected Jim Crow laws.  Many white Americans felt it necessary to leave the Civil War to history and reunify the nation — even if it meant leaving systemic racism intact and the rights of African Americans forgotten.  

So a reunified, segregated nation, that failed to address the legacy of slavery, was only justifiable if the War Between the States (in which of thousands of brothers had killed brothers), had not been about slavery in the first place.   So successful was this rewriting of history that we still experience its ripple effects, over a century later, in today’s defense of Confederate statues and the Stars and Bars battle flag.

In the 20th century, the Lost Cause was helped by Gone with the Wind, the famous 1939 novel and film.

Southerners were portrayed as noble heroes, in a highly civilized society, who tragically succumbed to the destructive forces of the Union. Another Lost Cause use was in D.W. Griffith’s controversial movie Birth of a Nation in 1915.  In it, the Confederacy is seen as defending Southern culture against the exploitation of Yankee Reconstruction. The new Ku Klux Klan fraternity is a shown a part of the noble traditions of the South, rather than the violent, white supremacist hate group that it was.

‘Separate but Equal’ became the new mantra.  Segregation could be found in schools, housing, churches, hospitals, hotels, sports, even the military.  The problem was, segregation was anything but equal.  It marginalized and discriminated against family after family of African Americans for decades.  These various state laws existed for almost 100 years, all the way up to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement.  Only the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and subsequent ones, put them largely to an end.

So in this reimagining of history, Southern leaders, with slavery blinders firmly in place, could justifiably celebrate the service of former Conferate generals and white Southern soldiers with monuments and flags.  100 years later, the true reason for them has been burred into protecting Southern heritage.  This is why those who wish to take down those flags and statues today have such a hard time ahead of them.  Opponents to their removal argue that opponents to the statues are trying to rewrite history … but you see it already has been done, over a century earlier, in the Lost Cause.

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The Forgotten Graf Zeppelin, the Hindenberg’s predecessor

IMG_0999While the Hindenberg is the most notorious airship that ever flew, its predecessor, the Graf Zeppelin, was the most successful.  Over a period of 9 years, the Graf flew on 590 flights, over a million miles, carrying thousands of passengers with both speed and safety.  It circled the globe, explored the Arctic, and became world famous, inspiring the ‘Zeppelin Fever’ of the 1930s.

German Count (Graf) Ferdinand von Zeppelin patented the rigid dirigible in 1895.  His airship’s outer envelope was held in place not by internal pressure, but by a rigid metal skeleton. The lifting gas, flammable hydrogen, was housed in a series of gas bag ‘cells’ within the ribs. The first Luftschiffs (airships) became so successful that the word Zeppelin was used to describe them all.

During WWI, the German military notoriously used Zeppelins to bomb British cities.

While the air raids did cause damage, their main effect was psychological.  Brits dreaded hearing the rumble of Zeppelin engines in the night sky, to be followed by air raid sirens. When Germany surrendered in 1918, its airships surrendered as well.  Under the Treaty of Versailles, all Zeppelins were turned over to the Allies and production stopped.  Count Zeppelin died and was succeeded by Dr. Hugo Eckener who’d been with Zeppelin for years.

Restrictions were lifted in 1926 and Eckener quickly began building airships again. After just two years, the LZ-127 was launched – the largest dirigible ever constructed.   In 1928, Countess Helga von Brandenstein-Zeppelin, daughter of the Count, smashed champagne on her nose, christening it the Graf Zeppelin in honor of her father.

Everything about the Graf was bigger.  It measured 775 feet long, over two city blocks long and 10 stories high.  The German public loved the silver giant. No one would fail to recognize the huge dirigible, with its large red letters “Graf Zeppelin” on the nose.  The Graf was not only an airship, but also a graceful masterpiece.

The Graf Zeppelin’s support girders were made of a light aluminum alloy called duralumin, strong as steel yet only one-third as heavy. The Graf had 33 tons of it.  There were 17 gas cells held in place by a spider’s web of rings and girders. The cotton gas cells were lined with oxen intestines to hold the air – 50,000 to line just one.

Hydrogen provided buoyancy, while propulsion was supplied by five Maybach propeller engines, mounted in their own gondolas, big enough for a man to crawl inside for in-flight maintenance.  A 98-foot-long gondola was mounted underneath.  It housed the control room, chart room, radio room, galley, dining room, and 10 sleeping cabins. The Graf’s keel, inside the envelope, housed the crew bunkhouse, mess, and cargo hold. Its cotton skin was protected by 6 layers of silver paint to reflect the sun’s rays.

The Graf Zeppelin made its first passenger flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928.

It departed from Friedrichshafen Germany to land at a US naval base in Lakehurst, NJ.  The flight, carrying 40 crew and 20 passengers, almost ended in disaster when it encountered a strong squall over the Atlantic.  Black cumulus storm clouds caused the Graf’s nose to rise upward suddenly. Furniture was knocked over and people slid across the floors. Terrified passengers, eating breakfast at the time, fell on each other in an avalanche of food and crashing plates.

Eckener managed to regain control, but the Graf had sustained serious damage. Wind turbulence had shredded the port stabilizing fin.  Ripped pieces floated outward like streamers, threatening to jam the rudders.  Eckener reluctantly sent out a distress call, knowing he risked his ship’s and company’s reputation.

He slowed the Graf to half-speed, and called for volunteers to repair the damage.  It would be dangerous as they’d have to crawl out onto the naked girders of the stabilizer, exposed to high winds.  Four crew members — including Eckener’s son Knut — went out and successfully repaired the damage.

Once in the US, Eckener showed-off the Graf Zeppelin by flying low over the Washington, Philadelphia, and New York City skylines, before bring his damaged ship to a safe landing at Lakehurst, NJ.  Its return flight to Germany took just 3 days.  Steam ships of the day took twice as long to cross the Atlantic.

To keep his airship in the public eye, Eckener undertook a series of demo flights around Europe and the Mediterranean. Word spread that a voyage on the Graf was a marvelous experience, with breathtaking scenery and first-class service. But to Eckener, the Graf Zeppelin was just a demo trial. The public loved the Graf, but the jury was still out on the future of airship travel.

So Eckener decided he would take Graf Zeppelin on an around-the-world flight.

This was something no aircraft had ever attempted.   Such a big dream would require big money.  American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst offered to bankroll the project with $100,000. Hearst insisted only on exclusive story rights, and that the journey begin and end in the US.  Additional revenue came from the sale of thousands of commemorative postage stamps.

The flight would carry 60 men and only one woman, Hearst newspaper reporter Lady Grace Drummond-Hay, whose reporting only increased the public’s interest.  Other passengers included military officers, politicians, millionaires and journalists from around the world. Passengers paid $9,000 for a ticket on such a historic flight, and competition was fierce

The flight began on August 8, 1929 with an Atlantic crossing first to Germany.  Then in tiny villages around the world, an unfamiliar rumbling filled the air. Villagers looked up and saw a great silver behemoth floating in the sky. The beast moved against the wind, big as a hillside, its shadow eclipsing an entire village.  Panic gripped some, with peasants rushing into homes and barring doors.

Up in the silver colossus, reporters radioed stories and passengers played card games. A phonograph in the dining room allowed guests to dance the Charleston. Passengers would gather at the elegant lounge/dining room to feast on fine food and wines all served on Bavarian china with the Zeppelin logo.  All smoking was strictly verboten of course on a ship filled with flammable hydrogen.

For the next few days, the Graf traveled across Siberia, floating over an eternity of taiga forests stretching for thousands of miles.  This far north, the sun barely disappeared at night, leaving a pink dawn-like horizon. It was cold as well. Passengers looked like skiers, bundled up in coats and sweaters.

The ship landed in Tokyo to a massive welcome and Japanese press coverage.  A crowd of 250,000 greeted the ship, even in the heat of an August summer.  Emperor Hirohito entertained Eckener and guests at tea.  The Pacific crossing was largely uneventful. Light clouds wisped past as the Graf raced along at 70 mph.  With a view of either clouds or ocean, passengers lapsed into boredom.

The airship’s arrival in San Francisco was nothing short of dramatic. Emerging from a cloud bank, the late afternoon sunlight glinted off her silver sides.  Eckener made sure the airship made quite an impression.  The Graf didn’t need to worry about the Golden Gate Bridge, because it wasn’t built yet.

When the dirigible finally arrived in Los Angeles, it had logged a trans-Pacific flight time of 79 hours. The route next took the Graf across the hot summer deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, then northeast to Chicago. When the Graf reached New York City, it floated over Manhattan to the delight of millions.  It ended its record breaking flight in Lakehurst on August 29 1929.  The round the world voyage had taken 3 weeks and just 12 days of actual flying time.

Captain Eckener was given a ticker-tape parade on Broadway that rivaled Charles Lindbergh’s.

HEPresident Hoover praised the globe-trotting argonaut, comparing him to Columbus. The trip brought worldwide fame to both the Graf Zeppelin and Hugo Eckener.  So what next?  In the summer of 1931,  the Graf Zeppelin carried a team of international scientists on an Arctic exploration, measuring the weather and the earth’s magnetic field.  Its size and stability allowed heavy scientific instruments to be used with an accuracy not possible in the small airplanes of the day.

By 1933, Eckener was asked to fly the Graf over the Chicago World’s Fair.  He agreed only if the US Post Office issued a stamp commemorating the event.  President Roosevelt was opposed to the idea, but reluctantly agreed. The Graf Zeppelin’s appearance was one of the highlights of the Fair, however, the now swastika-emblazoned ship lowered the enthusiasm of its earlier visit.

Like the Hindenberg, the Graf Zeppelin was used as a Nazi propaganda tool.  The Graf flew to Rome with Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ for a meeting with Italy’s fascist government. It flew over the 1933 Nuremberg Rally to herald Adolf Hitler’s appearance before the crowd.

After capturing the world’s enthusiasm, the Graf Zeppelin began regularly service between Germany and South America.  The country had strong business ties with Brazil and Argentina.  By 1934, the Zeppelin Company advertised a regular service to South America, departing Germany every two weeks. The Graf would safely cross the South Atlantic an amazing 136 times.

Graf Zeppelin was on the last day of a South American flight from Brazil to Germany in 1937 when it received news of the Hindenburg disaster.  On its first trip to the US, just as the Hindenburg was mooring in Lakehurst, NJ, it shockingly burst into flames and collapsed, killing 36.  The Graf’s captain did not tell his passengers in flight, waiting until his ship landed safely in Germany.

The Graf Zeppelin never carried passengers again.

The ship made one last domestic flight in June 1937 to Frankfurt.  There she was prematurely retired, her hydrogen removed, and she sat there on sad display.  The Nazis were now in power and Luftwaffe chief, Herman Goring, hated airships, even before the Hindenburg disaster.  Two years later, WWII began.  In 1940, on Goring’s orders, Graf Zeppelin was dismantled and its metal skeleton used to build radar towers.

The Graf was the first aircraft to fly more than 1 million miles; the official total being 1,060,000. A frequent visitor to both North and South America, the Graf Zeppelin crossed the Atlantic 144 times and carried some 13,000 passengers in its long career.

Today when we think of airships, only quaint blimps come to mind, floating harmlessly over sports stadiums, emblazoned  with corporate ads. The Graf Zeppelin is just a fleeting memory, forever overshadowed by the Hindenburg tragedy.  But in its day, during the Roaring Twenties, the Graf was the successful symbol of the world’s brief, bygone Airship Era.

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The World’s Worst Maritime Disaster – the Nazi’s Wilhem Gustloff


The sinking of MS WILHELM GUSTLOFF was the worst maritime disaster in the history of the world, with more dead then the Titanic AND Lusitania combined.  Never heard of it?  Not surprised, as it was a German refugee ship, fleeing the advancing Russians near the end of World War II.

It sank in the Baltic Sea after being torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S-13 on a wintery night, January 30, 1945. The WG’s final voyage was part of a German evacuation operation.  It was sunk while evacuating Nazi officials, military personnel, wounded soldiers and thousands of civilian refugees.  Amongst them are 4 thousand infants, children and youths on their way to safety in Kiel, far from the Eastern Front. The former East Prussia was rapidly being surrounded by the advancing Soviet Red Army.

The William Gustloff was filled to the bursting point with over 10,000 panicked Germans fleeing the approaching Russians.  The vessel was designed to hold a maximum of 1,880 passengers and crew. In the dead of night, in the Baltic Sea, the WG was hit by three torpedoes from the S-13 and sank in an hour.

An estimated 9,400 people perished, over half of them children and infants.

At the beginning of the war, the cruise ship was requisitioned into the German Navy and in 1940, it was repainted from pleasure ship white to naval grey and assigned as a floating barracks in the port of Gdynia, located in Nazi occupied Poland, formerly East Prussia.  And that’s where it floated until 1945.

On Tuesday, January 30th, temperatures of 0 degrees F (-18C) grip the Oxhöft Pier in Gotenhafen (Gdynia).  For the first time in four years, the captain will order the sleeping engines to start. Icebreakers work to carve a narrow path through the frozen Bay of Danzig to allow them passage through the winter waters of the Baltic Sea.

On the bridge, two senior officers command the ship, Friedrich Petersen, captain of the Gustloff and Lieutenant Commander Wilhelm Zahn, head of the naval division of 2000 men who occupied the ship for the last 4 years.  The two officers butt heads immediately and cannot agree on much.  Two young captains from the merchant marine are also on the bridge, adding their voices to the mix.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was far from ready for such any voyage. Most critically, 10 of her 22 lifeboats were gone. After 4 years as a floating barracks they’d gone missing – requisitioned for other harbor duties. Captain Petersen ordered the crew to search the docks rounding up boats, dinghies, anything that floated, and strapping them down on the Sun Deck. Captain Petersen worried the engines would even turn over!

Down in the streets, people flooded into Gotenhafen, tired and desperate refugees waiting their turn to climb the gangplank to safety.  The deep booms of the Red Army artillery could be heard in the distance, causing panic to set in.  Rumors spread amongst the refugees that the Russian soldiers committed unspeakable atrocities on the German people they captured.  Families bartered what they had, pleading for precious boarding passes. Mothers with babies and small children were given preference. ​​

​At the docks, a mass of humanity rush onto the Wilhelm Gustloff.

High level Nazi officers demand entry, threatening sentries with death. By nightfall, tickets and boarding passes were no longer checked as the crowd forced its way onto the docks. The Gustloff’s First Officer could no longer maintain control and count the thousands streaming onto his ship. The true number of those on board that day will never be known.

Once on the Wilhelm Gustloff, refugees had to navigate standing room only lounges and crowded passageways on every single deck. The spacious upper deck rooms were turned into infirmaries for the wounded soldiers and the Arbor turned into a maternity ward due to the high number of pregnant women on board. Every possible space on the ship is occupied.

The Gustloff would be leaving in a small convoy of 3 other smaller ships on their way to Kiel in western Germany.  With fueling complete, her Chief Engineer turned on her dormant engines for the first time since 1940. Even after being silent for so long, her engines churned to life and black smoke begin belching out of her single funnel.  Finally, at 12:15am, the Wilhelm Gustloff began to pull away from Oxhöft Pier.

Below deck, thousands of passengers attempt to settle in to their assigned areas.  All are instructed over loudspeakers to wear the lifejackets and under no circumstances remove them. Above deck, wind and snow pelt the decks. The seas become rough as the quiet bay is left behind. Seasickness begins to set in. Unable to relieve themselves overboard, onboard toilets quickly become clogged.  The growing stench overwhelming.

Refugees find an area of the ship to hunker down for the voyage. Cabins usually assigned 4 passengers were cramped with triple that number. Hallways only 6 feet across were virtual log jams of humanity. The Gustloff’s restrooms were quickly maxed out and clogged. Excrement flowed out of the toilets and splilled to floors. Combined with the heat, sweat, and filth of those who hadn’t bathed in weeks, the smell was suffocating. Even so, it was a small price to pay for their safety.

On the bridge, heated arguments continued among the four captains.

They debated the route, the speed, and the course. One thing they all agreed on: the minimal escort provided by the German Navy was not enough.  The Gustloff is accompanied only by the Hansa (another smaller ocean liner) and two aging torpedo boats.  Soon the Hansa radioed that she was having engine trouble and had to turn back. Next, the TF-1 torpedo boat had the same issue and also had to turn around. It was now just the WG and Löwe left to finish the journey.

Petersen and Zahn argue over their course to Kiel. They could sail close to the shore, where there was danger of mines, but the waters were too shallow for Russian subs. OR they could use the shipping channel where there would be no mines, but Soviet submarines could be lurking.  Wrongly assuming that submarines could not operate in such foul winter weather, Captain Peterson ordered them into the open channel.

They next argued over running lights, ON to avoid collisions with other ships or OFF to avoid detection by submarines.  Zahn wanted to follow standard war protocol and run dark.  However they’d received a radio message that a convoy of minesweepers was also in the channel, so the Captain ordered the lights turned on.  Unfortunately, a second radio message, stating that enemy submarines were spotted in the area, did to not get through due to the storm.

Approximately 1½ hours after leaving port, the Gustloff settles into a course farther away from the coast in a minesweeped channel – Lane No. 58. They also decided that rather than a zig-zag pattern to confuse subs, the ship would run a straight line course to reach Kiel as fast as possible. All of these decisions sealed the Wilhelm Gustloff’s fate.

​ The weather deteriorated as the two ships pressed on. Heavy snowfall was mixed with hail pelting the ships. The wind howled at near gale strength. Foam from breaking waves is blown onto anyone standing on the decks, where the temperature is far below zero. As cold as the weather was, few could stand for long on her decks.

In the meantime, Soviet submarine captain Alexander Marinesko slips the S-13 into the Gulf of Danzig. Having patrolled with other Russian submarines off the coast, opportunities were scant. Aware of German activity around ports in the Danzig , he hopes for better odds. It is a calculated risk for the bold captain and his crew of 47 men.

Despite the bitter cold outside, heat and humidity from thousands of bodies rises below decks. Many ignore the Captain’s order to keep lifejackets on – a risk they’re willing to take to for some comfort. Cries from the thousands of unhappy children fill the corridors.  Soup and sandwiches and offer to those able to keep it down.  Some are even lulled to sleep. The Hitler Suite, meant for the Führer, is occupied by the Gotenhafen mayor and his family. ​

Sometime before 8pm, the first officer on the S-13 submarine spots lights on the distant horizon.

Captain Marinesko quickly makes his way up to the conning tower. When the snow clears, he spots the silhouette of an enormous ocean liner, with its lights showing!  He decided with excitement that it was about 20,000 tons. He felt quite sure it was packed with German men who had trampled Mother Russia and were now fleeing for their lives. It had to be sunk.

Over the next two hours, Marinesko shadows the Wilhelm Gustloff, planning his attack. His crew begins grinning at one another, sensing that their luck is about to change for the better.  Finally the Captain orders the S-13 to dive.

On the bridge of the Gustloff, no one is aware of the danger lurking in the dark waters. The sensing equipment on board the Löwe has frozen and is useless.  German music playing through the ship’s speakers is interrupted at 8pm. Adolf Hitler, live on the radio, makes a typical, impassioned speech commemorating the 12th anniversary of the Nazi Party. It echoes throughout the corridors of the ship, providing little comfort to the fleeing refugees.

The S-13 overtakes the Wilhelm Gustloff on her on the port side in the shallower water near the coast. This was a daring move as they risked running aground. ​ Minutes after the Führer’s speech ends, around 9pm, Marinesko gives the command: “Fire all Torpedoes!”  Each of the 4 torpedoes has been hand painted with a dedication:  1: FOR THE MOTHERLAND, 2: FOR STALIN, 3: FOR THE SOVIET PEOPLE, 4: FOR LENINGRAD

Three torpedoes speed toward the WG. One torpedo – the one FOR STALIN – remains behind, primed and stuck in its launching tube – threatening to blow up the submarine. Thanks to the quick and delicate actions of the crew, it is disarmed in time.

On board the WG, cheerful music resumes from the ship’s speakers – accompanied by the continued whimpering of unhappy children. On the bridge, a round of cognac is poured to toast their good fortune so far. And then at 9:16pm, the 1st torpedo strikes the front of the ship, blowing a hole in the port bow. Moments later, the second hits where the empty swimming pool is located. Finally, the third scores a direct hit in the engine room below the funnel.

Passengers and crew are thrown off their feet. Those killing instantly are the lucky ones.

The 1st torpedo struck the forward crew cabins and cargo areas in the bow, a huge water plume shooting up in the night air. Many crew members were killed instantly.  Survivors thought they had hit a mine. The first reports of damage come to the bridge.  Petersen orders the watertight doors closed, sealing off those crew still alive in the bow. They were the few on board who knew how to operate the lifeboats.

The 2nd torpedo hits at the drained swimming pool which had become the accommodations for the Women’s Naval Auxiliary. The blast creates a shower of splintered mosaic tiles, cutting the girls to pieces where they slept. The large glass ceiling over the pool shatters, raining down onto the women.  For the first time in years, water rushes into the pool. But this time, floating corpses and life jackets swim in the icy water, turned red with the blood.  Only two of the 373 girls will escape alive.

The 3rd torpedo hits on the engine room, knocking out engines and power. Lights go out throughout the ship and communications go dead. Not that there is silence. The mayhem of screaming, shouting, and rushing water fills the corridors. Passengers can already feel the ship list to port. Emergency lights flicker on – illuminating only indescribable chaos.

Captain Peterson tries to call the engine room, but there is no reply. The radio room operator has to use an emergency transmitter to transmit an SOS. With a range of just 2,000 meters, only the escort ship Löwe receives it. Without delay,  the Löwe turns about towards the damaged ship, and re-transmits the Gustloff’s SOS.

Thousands do not survive the frenzied charge up to the decks.

Appeals from the P.A. system to maintain calm and orderly are ignored amongst the alarm sirens. Stairwells instantly jam as mobs of people attempt to escape the rushing waters. To trip and fall means certain death from trampling. Many trapped in the throng can barely breathe – unable to move in any direction.  The luckier ones find ways to the upper decks.

On deck, the poor weather and lack of trained crew exacerbates everything. The ship lists more and more to port with each minute. People slide off the icy decks and into the freezing sea. Lifeboats are frozen to their davits. Crew smash at them with bare hands trying to free them.Crew members and civilians alike attempt to free the ship’s lifeboats.

Once one is freed, there’s a mad rush to get on, while others jumped in from upper decks. Several lifeboats capsize into the water, dumping their people into the Baltic Sea. Others have cables snap and fall.Some armed officers use their pistols to keep control, shooting in the air to get attention. Only one lifeboat is ever lowered correctly. 

The glass enclosed promenade deck is jammed with desperate women and children. People trapped behind the glass struggle to break it before they drown.  The windows should slide down, but are frozen shut. Survivors in boats watch through the glass as the water rises and claims hundreds.  Other gun shots begin to ring out as officers took their families into their cabins to kill them.

The Löwe launches her few lifeboats and begins to pick up survivors.  Her SOS was picked up by the cruiser Admiral Hipper which steams in their direction. The Wilhelm Gustloff is listing heavily onto her port side. The infirmary wounded, unable to get off their beds, slide across rooms and into walls, unable to save themselves as the water rushes in. 

On the submarine S-13, Captain Marinesko watches the death throes of his victim through the periscope.

As the Admiral Hipper arrives the Gustloff’s funnel was almost touching the water. All 4 captains abandon the bridge.  The Wilhelm Gustloff was in her final moments. Thousands of screams filled the night air.  Seventy minutes after the torpedoes struck, the WG slips below the surface of the icy Baltic, taking thousands of trapped souls with it. Eerily, the emergency lights and wailing sirens drown out as it descends. The Gustloff was gone, taking 9,343 souls with her in 70 minutes. 1,252 survived.

Those left flailing in the cold stormy waters of the Baltic don’t last long. Many try to grasp at lifeboats or rafts – only to be beaten off by desperate occupants. Bodies of victims, buoyant in their lifejackets, bobbed on the sea. Corpses of younger children float upside down, as the ill-fitting military lifejackets were not designed for them.

With the Gustloff gone, the Löwe continues to rescue survivors (472).  It’s no easy task as waves were several meters high. Another torpedo boat T-36 arrives and starts rescuing survivors (564). After picking up the sound of the S-13, the captain of the Admiral Hipper decides to flee rather than risk getting sunk. ​The captain of the T-36 orders depth charges dropped in an attempt to destroy the killer sub.  

Satisfied with the kill, Captain Marinesko and the S-13 submarine are able to slip away into the deep.

Perhaps because after 4 long years of war, costing the lives of so many on both sides, the sinking of the Wilhem Gustloff, though tragic in its scope, did not garner many international news headlines.  As the decades pass, its place in history is all but forgotten, except in Germany.

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Similar themed posts: The SS St. Louis Jewish Refugees ​, The Lusitania Sank in just 18 minutes


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The Bubonic Plague, AKA the Black Death


The Bubonic Plague, better known as the Black Death, was one of the worst catastrophes in recorded history.  From 1347 to 1351, it ravaged kingdoms across Europe, eradicating one- third of Europe’s inhabitants. It destroyed a higher proportion of the population than any other single known event. At that time in the Middle Ages, no one was sure what caused the plague.  The living were barely enough to bury the dead.  Over the next four years, the Black Death killed more than 20 million people in Europe.

The Bubonic Plague arrived in Europe in October 1347, when 12 trading ships from the Black Sea docked at the Sicilian port of Messina. Sicilians were horrified to discover most sailors onboard were dead, and those still alive were covered in putid black boils that oozed blood and pus.  Sicily hastily ordered the fleet of “Death Ships” out of the harbor … but it was too late.

Europeans had heard disturbing rumors of a “Great Pestilence” spreading across the trade routes to the Far East. In the early 1340s, the disease had already struck China, India, and Persia.  It may have originated in the Qinghai Plateau of Central Asia.  After landing in Sicily, the Black Death creeped northwest into Italy, Spain, France and England.  The plague then spread northeast into the Germanic states, then on to Scandinavia and Russia. It’s thought the Black Death spread at a rate of about eight miles a day, the rate a horse-drawn wagon could travel in a single day.

Medieval physicians noted it took as little as 5 days to cause death. 

And these were 5 very bad days.  European doctors were ill equipped to deal with the Black Death. Swellings in the groin and armpits grew from the size of an egg to an apple, becoming infected plague-boils, called buboes.  The disease attacks the body’s lymphatic system, causing swelling in the lymph nodes clustered there.  Blood and pus seep out of the swollen boils when they burst, followed by a host unpleasant symptoms—fever, vomiting, diarrhea, terrible pain—and in short order, death. The infection spreads quickly to the lungs causing pneumonia, and in some cases sepsis.

Medieval folk believed the Black Death was a curse from God.  There was no known remedy, but people wanted something – anything.  Physicians relied on crude treatments like bloodletting and boil-lancing. Doctors wore long-beaked plague masks, filled with dried flower petals to mask the bad air.  The superstitious looked to gypsy practices like burning herbs and bathing in rosewater.

Meanwhile, panicked, healthy people ran from the sick. Some doctors refused to see them; priests refused to administer last rites; and shopkeepers shut their doors. The only true remedy for the plague was to run away from it.  Many fled cities for the countryside.  Some, so desperate to save themselves, even abandoned their sick loved ones.  But even in the countryside they could not escape the plague, as it affected livestock as well.

The Bubonic Plague was a quick, indiscriminate contagion, merely touching the clothes of the sick appeared to pass the disease.  It was also terrifyingly efficient. People who were perfectly healthy one day could be dead the next.  The elderly and the children, male and female, royalty and peasants  – ALL were affected.  No one had immunity.  Many wealthy convents and monasteries lost more than half of their members, with some closing. There were shortages of people to till the farms and tend cattle and sheep.

This pandemic was caused not by a virus, like COVID-19, but rather a bacteria, Yersinia pestis. 

The plague bacteria was identified in the 1890s connecting it to animal fleas.   It was transmitted by, of all things, the bite of the fleas of rats. And there was no shortage of rats it the Middle Ages, especially on trading ships.  Its lethality arose from the onslaught of two phases: first bubonic, transmitted by rat fleas, and then pneumonic (transmitted airborne, person to person).  It’s worth noting that modern antibiotics can combat plague.

50 million people may have died over the course of its 4 year run. It killed from 30-60% of the population in both rural and urban areas. Some communities were wiped out; others abandoned.  The term ‘quarantine’ originated in Venice, based on a 40-day Biblical period of isolation.  Sailors were kept on board their ships and not allowed to leave.  Cities that managed to keep the plague at bay were those that implemented quarantines, city gate & dock controls, health passports, and spy networks to signal when plague erupted in other cities.

Survivors decried the abandonment of the sick, and labelled clergymen and doctors who escaped the plague as cowards. They praised those who stayed on to nurse the afflicted, often losing their lives in so doing.  Looking for a scapegoat, some municipal governments, bishops, and kings accused Jews of spreading the Black Death by poisoning food and water.

They massacred entire communities of Jews for the supposed crime of causing the plague.

Because they didn’t understand the biology, many people believed the Black Death was divine punishment—retribution for sins against God such as greed, blasphemy, heresy, and even fornication.  By this logic, the only way to beat the plague was to win God’s forgiveness for their community.  How to do this? They purged their communities of ‘heretics’ and other troublemakers—like the aforementioned Jews.

Some wealthy men joined processions of Flagellants, traveling from town to town, engaging in public displays of penance and self-punishment. They would beat themselves bare chested with leather straps, studded with metal, while the townspeople watched. For a month, the flagellants repeated this ritual 3 times a day. They would then move on to the next town and begin the process all over again.

The plague never really ended and returned in smaller outbreaks decades later. There have actually been 3 Bubonic Plague Pandemics. The first was a international epidemic in the sixth century AD, the Plague of Justinian.  Second, starting with the Black Death, then breaking out every 20 or so years, until it disappeared after the Great Plague of London in 1665. Third, the disease broke out once more in Asia in the 1890s, where it’s still found in animals today.

One can surely expect that our current public health has improved to such an extent as to erdicate bubonic plague, especially through our modern sanitary regulations.  Right? While antibiotics are available to treat the Black Death, according to the World Health Organization, there are still up to 1,000 cases of plague globally every year.  An outbreak in the city of Surat in western India in 1994 caused mass panic in the country.  52 people died, and with limited antibiotics available, 300,000 residents fled the city in just 2 days.

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Podcast 17: Castle Bravo – a Human-made Armageddon

On Monday March 1st, 1954, at 6:45 am, the U.S. carried out its largest nuclear detonation ever – CASTLE BRAVO – at the Bikini Atoll in the south Pacific Marshall Islands. Both military servicemen and Marshall Islanders got to experience first-hand what Armageddon would truly be like. The explosion turned out to be 2.5 times bigger than planned and caused far higher levels of radioactive fallout than ever predicted. Castle Bravo was the worst radiological disaster in American atomic history.

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The Forgotten ‘Great Chinese Famine’ of 1959-61


From 1959 to 1961, the Chinese people were decimated, not by the coronavirus and COVID-19, but by a devastating famine. The death toll, concealed by the Communist government at the time, is still a matter of debate. The consensus however is that at least 30 million people died, though some estimates take it as high as 50 MILLION. The death toll is staggering,  greater than all the people killed in World War I. The root cause of the famine remains a taboo subject in China even 60 years.

With its huge population and historically agricultural economy, China is no stranger to famines. Its food production is easily susceptible to droughts, floods, population growth, and wars.  The Great Chinese Famine of 1958-61 however, was deadlier than any in China’s long history. The causes and numbers of dead have long been hidden by the communist government.  Though exacerbated by drought, the GCF was worsened by the strict actions of the government in Beijing.

According to the Chinese Communist Party, the GCF was caused by a string of natural disasters, referred to as the “Three Years of Difficulties.” In 1959, the Yellow (Huang Ho) River flooded, causing ruined crops and thousands of deaths. Almost 100 million acres of farmland was destroyed.  The flood was followed by a severe drought, several typhoons, more flooding, and a plague of insects. In 1960, the prolonged drought caused crop failures in 6 provinces, cutting their food production by more than half.

China’s coastal and southern provinces also bore the brunt of major typhoons. In 1961, the northern provinces suffered another drought, while the south endured more river flooding.  The bad weather and climate were fairly localized however. Only 10% of Chinese farmland was destroyed. While there is no doubt all these natural disasters had an impact on China’s agriculture, communist mismanagement and bad Maoist policies were far more responsible for the famine to come.

In 1959, Chairman Mao launched his “Great Leap Forward.”

This was a mass mobilization of China’s huge population to achieve, in just a few years, the economic growth it took the West decades to accomplish.  Mao Zedong believed Josef Stalin who stressed steel production was key. Peasants were forced to abandon private farming and agricultural communes planted less grain. Tens of millions of peasants were ordered to mine of iron ore, cut trees for charcoal, build clay furnaces, and make steel. This ill-conceived effort produced mostly brittle cast iron unfit for even hand tools.

The population now ate in commune kitchens, pots and pans were confiscated, and much farming was simply stopped.  Local Chinese officials exaggerated the effects of those natural disasters in order to justify their low farm yields and appease the Beijing government. At the same time, provinces reported record grain hauls — exaggerating their figures to meet the high government targets.

Under Mao, Chinese farmers were required to give all their grain to the government. Some of this grain was then ‘redistributedback to the farmers as their food source. Most, however, was either sent to the biggest Chinese cities or sold as exports to create the illusion of superior Maoist policies.

With the state commandeering all the grain, peasant communes were left with not enough food of their own. Some communes didn’t ration, believing the government would simply send them food relief.  That did not happen.  In reality, grain harvests plummeted due to the shift in manpower to steel.  By 1959, food shortages reached a critical point. Millions in the countryside began starving to death, with famine in a third of China’s provinces.

Chairman Mao then hid or ignored the failings of his own policies.

His response was to attack any critics, rather than solve the problem. History was rewritten and the truth covered up.  Taking away private farming, forcing peasants into communes, preferentially supplying food to large cities and continuing grain exports were all Communist Party acts.  To make matters worse, in never acknowledging the famine, China’s rulers failed to ask for any foreign food aid.

In some communes, a third of the inhabitants die of starvation. Survivors are beaten for refusing to hand over what little food they have, or for stealing from the government to survive. Millions of Chinese were dying of hunger.  Villages became ghost towns — no chickens, no dogs, even the trees were stripped of bark and eaten.  Those who complained or tried to leave their province were sent to forced labor camps.

Without a doubt, the drought in 1960 didn’t help, but caused only a fraction of the nationwide famine. Meanwhile, in the countryside, the peasants starved. Many resorted to eating grass, leather, even sawdust and dirt. Dogs, cats, rats, mice and insects were all eaten until they too were gone.  The birth rate sank as malnurished women could not carry to term. Insanity and suicide became common place.  2.5 million people are believed to have taken their own lives.

Overwhelming hunger made humans behave in desperate ways, including cannibalism.

Government records reported cases where people ate dead bodies and even fought over corpses.  Parents ate their own children. Children ate their parents. Cannibalism was punished by the authorities but continued nonetheless.  There were also many cases of child abandonment and even child selling. Some starving parents murdered their children or elderly relatives to relieve them of their misery.

Movement out of affected regions was banned, while communications were prohibited or censored. The Communist Party arrested or killed those who sought to tell the truth. Propaganda posters celebrated the Great Leap Forward, showing bountiful harvests, happy peasants and fat livestock. The reality, of course, was very different.

No one imagined there was still grain in the city warehouses, that the government was in fact still exporting. The Red China government concealed the famine, both from its own people and the world.  Food supplies in the cities then began to dwindle, causing urban death rates to double.  Even these were attributed to the natural disasters.

The Chinese government continued to export grain, sending 7 million tons offshore during the 3 famine years– an amount that could have saved 16 million Chinese lives. The International Red Cross offered food, but this was turned down by Beijing.  Only a return to more reasonable farming policies and food distribution after 1961, including importing grain, finally ended the GCF.

At the time, the Great Chinese Famine was virtually ignored by the press and politicians in the US and Europe.  Eyewitness stories of refugees who had fled to Hong Kong were dismissed and rarely reported during the 3 years of famine.  What are we to make of the Western indifference to the suffering of Red China’s population at the time?  Remember, this was at the height of the super power’s Cold War.  

Today’s China is lightyears from Mao’s.   It’s grown from its agricultural and military past into a technology and manufacturing super power.  There is hope that new generations of Chinese leaders may be willing to revisit the country’s past and acknowledge its mistakes. The archives of the Chinese communist party will hopefully be opened and yield those long hidden secrets. Even then, we will perhaps never know exactly how many millions Chinese perished due to starvation during those three terrible years.

Please SHARE this blogpost via an option below.  For more by historical writer Paul Andrews, click on BOOKS in the main menu.

Similar themed posts: The Cuban Missile Crisis – the Day Russia Blinked

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Podcast 16: Ten Theories about the Never-Aging Count Saint-Germain

So who exactly was le Comte de Saint-Germain, this never-aging man of mystery who left us so few clues behind?  How could he hobnob around Europe throughout the 1700’s and never appear to grow old?  That’s right, he looked the same in London in 1743 as he did in St. Peterburg in 1762, as he did Paris in 1789!  Was he a clever charlatan, a skilled alchemist, a royal spy, or perhaps … something more?  The answer lies in which theory and which source you trust.

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Podcast 15: Typhoid Mary Mallon – Villain or Victim?

Over the past 100 years, Typhoid Mary’s name has became synonymous with any carrier or spreader of an infectious disease. But there was a real-life woman and a tragic story behind that infamous name.  Who was she and had how did she become so notorious?

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Podcast 14: Who Drained Russia’s Vast Aral Sea?

14th in a Series of PODCASTs on Forgotten History.

To answer the question, it was the Soviet Union, that’s who.  The Aral Sea is actually situated in Central Asia, between Northern Uzbekistan and Southern Kazakhstan.  Once the fourth largest freshwater lake in the world, the vanishing Aral Sea is now nearly empty, thanks to a decades-old, Soviet-begun desert irrigation program.

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