The Devil And His Details – Eichmann In Lvov

Official statistics state that the Lviv Railway Station handles 1.6 million passengers a year. Using this number as a benchmark it is possible to make a very rough guess at the number of people who have used the station during its long and eventful life.  Over its one hundred and seven year history, the station has witnessed the comings and goings of more than 50 million visitors, citizens, passers through, passers-by and every other type of traveler imaginable. From Emperors to Kaisers to killers, the famous and infamous, a withering array of humanity has passed through or by the station. One of these included a man who was neither using the station as a point of arrival or departure. This man was one of the most infamous war criminals of the 20th century, his name forever synonymous with the phrase “banality of evil.” The phrase was famously used by the philosopher Hannah Arendt to describe Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Adolf Eichmann in 1942

Adolf Eichmann in 1942 – the year he traveled from Minsk to Lvov

The Road To Lvov
What Arendt was saying when she used the term banal to define Eichmann was that he was an average, ordinary person rather than a psychopath or madman. His actions were the product of career ambition and stupidity. Part of his stupidity was on display at the trial as he relied on clichéd defenses to explain away his behavior. He was the living embodiment of the “just following orders” line of defense. He followed orders to the point of aiding and abetting in the murder of millions. The fact that Eichmann was so utterly ordinary made him seen even more chilling. The Eichmann trial in Jerusalem was a fascinating study in human psychology.  It was during this trial that Eichmann also revealed what would seem to be a rather banal detail from his experiences during the war, a sighting he made of the train station at Lvov (during the trial Eichmann referred to Lviv by its Soviet/Russian name). This cold blooded, seemingly emotionless bureaucratic killer mentioned the train station in his testimony. It was the bizarre context in which he mentioned this at the trial which was not banal, but revealing.

Eichmann’s road to Lvov first ran through Minsk where he witnessed the shooting of Jews by Nazi murder squads. He recounted this at the trial. When I got there I only managed to see how young marksmen, I think there were these marksmen with the death-heads on their coat collars…they were shooting into the pit, which was quite a large size, let us say four or five times this room, perhaps even six or seven times. I have…I have…all my recollections of this instance are unreliable for I only saw this thing without any thoughts, without forming any thoughts about it whatsoever. I simply saw – and nothing more than that: they fired into the pit, and I can still see a woman…with her arms behind her…and then her knees buckled and I made off.”

Jews being murdered by Nazi killing unit in Ukraine

Jews being murdered by Nazi killing unit in Ukraine

Transit Points – A Stationary Moment
According to Eichmann, this unsettled him to the point that he drove all the way to Lvov with his mind clouded by the horrors he had just seen. The reader of these transcripts gets the idea that Eichmann was in a state of shock. Conversely, one cannot help but remember that it obviously did not rattle him enough to reconsider his role in the growing atrocities. Eichmann had been and would continue to be a point man for the Nazi regime. He was an integral part of the movement from coerced emigration to deportation to extermination of the Jews. He could have stopped at any time, but did not. Eichmann was not just a fellow traveller in this murderous regime, he was also an instigator. He could have driven back to Germany and resigned, but instead he drove on to Lvov. His destination was not really Lvov, but somewhere much more hideous. It was just a pass through point, albeit a memorable one.

“I got in and started driving (at Minsk) – I drove to Lvov. I had no orders to go to Lvov…even this I remember now but apparently the road passed through Lvov. Somehow I came to Lvov and saw the first encouraging picture, after the awful things I had seen there: This was the railway station building, which had been erected to mark the Sixtieth Anniversary of the reign of the Emperor Franz Josef. And seeing that I personally was overwhelmed with joy regarding this period of Franz Josef, possibly because I had heard an abundance of wonderful things in my parents’ home about this period, or about events that occurred during this period. My relatives on the side of my step-mother were, at this time, as you would say, of a high social standing…It was painted yellow.

This chased away for the first time – I still remember this today otherwise I wouldn’t have realized this, that this sixtieth jubilee…that the figures of this Jubilee were engraved on the wall of this station building – those terrible thoughts which had not yet departed from me since Minsk.”

The Lviv Railway Station during the Soviet years

The Lviv Railway Station during the Soviet years

Between Civilization & Depravity
These were Eichmann’s memories of his arrival in Lvov. What he talked about before and after this bit of testimony was nothing less than horrific. The juxtaposition of the beautiful, art nouveau railway station between his description of the ghastly acts he witnessed and commiserated in makes the whole incident seem rather unreal. Eichmann recognized the beauty and elegance of the station. He felt the power of its grandeur, but never considered making a comparison between the empire that had built it and his own depraved Third Reich. Perhaps he lacked the capacity to understand the difference between civilization and depravity. How could Eichmann not distinguish between Nazi occupied Galicia and the Kingdom of Galicia ruled over by Emperor Franz Joseph for sixty-eight years largely peaceful years. Austria-Hungary was an empire that offered unprecedented freedom to the Jews of Galicia. It co-opted their abilities and skills to the Empire’s advantage. The Jews had not brought the empire down they had lifted it up economically, culturally and militarily. Too many Jews in Austrian Galicia had been unable to escape poverty, but they never came close to being herded into extermination camps either.

Eichmann’s reference to the railway station as “that first encouraging picture” was a tragic irony lost on him. It had been the design of an ethnic Pole, its platforms constructed by Czech masters. They were members of Slavic races which had been attacked by the Nazi regime without remorse. The designers of the station were representative of the brilliance and refinement these people could attain. They had created an architectural wonder. Meanwhile the Third Reich was creating devastation and destruction. The difference between the depravity of the Nazis and the civilization created by the Habsburgs – even if it had been fatally flawed – stared Eichmann right in the face, but he failed to comprehend this vast difference.

Railway line into Auschwitz Concentration Camp

Railway line into Auschwitz Concentration Camp (Credit: Bundesarchiv, B 285 Bild-04413 / Stanislaw Mucha)

The Ultimate Destination
The moment that Eichmann experienced obviously made an impression upon him, though it did not have any effect on his behaviour. Eichmann’s initial impression of Lvov was a momentary escape from the horrors that he was helping perpetrate. He went on to visit with a German commander in Lvov. He recalled I paid a visit there to the commander since I was passing the place, and said to him: “Yes,” I said to him “this is terrible, what is going on there,” I said to him, “these young men are being brought up as sadists.” This is exactly what I said…he said to me: “Exactly so, this is also happening with us here, they shoot here, too. Do you want to see it once? Do you want to see it once?” I said: “No, I don’t want to see anything. He said “Anyhow we are going to pass by.”

Then I saw something else which was terrible: there was a pit, perhaps it was already closed. There welled up like a geyser blood…how should I say this…a jet of blood. I have never seen anything like it. As far as I was concerned this assignment was enough and I drove to Berlin and related this to Gruppenfuehrer Mueller.”

It is telling that despite what Eichmann says he witnessed and felt, he never stopped anyone, most of all himself from carrying out the Final Solution. His actions would lead to the deaths of millions. After leaving Lvov and those fleeting memories of Austria-Hungary behind, Eichmann would travel back to Berlin. His next trip abroad was not long in coming, it was to Auschwitz.


The Only Thing New In The World – Galician Slaughter 1846

Harry Truman, the United States President from 1945 – 1953, once remarked that “the only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.” This is certainly appropriate when it comes to Eastern Europe. It is quite easy to find interesting historical topics from this overlooked region that readers of this blog might find fascinating. Part of this is due to the fact that Eastern Europe, other than Russia, is a backwater in the western consciousness.  There is a lack of knowledge concerning the nations that were sealed off by the Iron Curtain. The region had been stereotyped at times as pseudo-civilized, corrupt and comparatively backward. Even before the rise of communism in Eastern Europe the area was viewed as primitive by westerners. The level of development historically has lagged behind both Central and Western Europe. It also seems that the area has been suffering from one long bout of extremism. This has been especially true over the past two centuries with rebellions, revolutions, wars and interethnic conflict that tended towards the lethal. Some have said that Eastern Europe has traditionally suffered from a deficit of democracy. It is more like a deficit of moderation. Historically, this has been exacerbated by the wide chasm between the haves and have not’s. Serfdom has a long tradition throughout the region and so does exalted nobility. Aristocrats exploited the masses, followed by the masses revolting and murdering the aristocrats, only then for the masses to murder one another. The region is defined in many respects by its unpredictability.

City center of Tarnow, Poland - it was a much different scene in 1846 (Credit: Jakub Hałun)

City center of Tarnow, Poland – it was a much different scene in 1846 (Credit: Jakub Hałun)

Disloyal To The Loyal
The unpredictable nature of Eastern European history fascinates as much as it surprises. Case in point, the following incident I discovered for the first time while reading Simon Winder’s Danubia, “At the beginning of 1846 Krakow and western Galicia rose in revolt, and this was easily and ferociously crushed by the Habsburg armies…In the Enlightenment spirit with which the region had been acquired, they accused the aristocrats of disloyalty and of representing an old, discredited past. They urged the region’s peasants to stay loyal and to turn on their masters. The result was a grotesque one. The region’s principal town, Tarnow had its attractive main square transformed by the arrival of innumerable peasant carts heaped with murdered Polish aristocrats – at least a thousand were killed and their manor houses burned down. Somehow, it had become rumored that the best way for the peasants to show their loyalty was by bringing their corpses into the town. The Galician authorities were horrified but also pleased.” As horrific as this incident was, it also illuminates.

By casting a spotlight on that most backward of Habsburg provinces, Galicia, with its violence and resistance, wretched inequalities and rigid class structure, was defined by a divided society. This reputation was reflected in the title given to the aforementioned incident, “Galician Slaughter.” In just two months, between 1,000 and 2,000 nobles were murdered and 470 manor houses put to the torch. There were worse cases of violent insurrection to come in Habsburg lands – the 1848 revolution two years later for example – but the method of murder made the result just as memorable as the outcome. In many cases, peasants severed the heads of nobles, than brought them to Tarnow. This act of primitiveness casts a frightening shadow over Galicia. A nightmare of history so to speak, occurring in the far reaches of an eastern netherworld. The sheer brutality of the incident overshadows the harsh treatment of the rural peasantry by the nobility for centuries on end.

Galician Slaughter (Rzeź galicyjska) by Jan Lewicki

Galician Slaughter (Rzeź galicyjska) by Jan Lewicki

All That Glitters Is Not Galicia
All of this has echoes in similar revolts in European history. Was this bit of history “the only thing new in the world” because it was unknown or overlooked? In my historical knowledge base it was new, but in European history- for example the French Revolution- it has many historical antecedents. Possibly the most fascinating aspect was what the incident says about the Imperial Habsburg administration. It demonstrates the cynical realpolitik they practiced to quell threats to the empire. This was not the first or last time they would find such a strategy useful. Just two years later the Habsburgs would do something similar to put down the greatest threat to their power that would arise during the 19th century. They whipped up resistance to the revolution of 1848-49 in Hungary by turning the disparate nationalities of the empire against the Hungarians. Once the Hungarian revolt was crushed, the Austrians reneged on promises they had made to Croatians, Serbs and Romanians among others.

In the case of the Galician slaughter they used the peasants to help put down the nobles incipient revolt. Then in a chilling double cross, the Habsburgs turned on the peasants who had demanded greater freedoms in return for their murderous service. In the end, the peasants lost nearly as much as the nobility, the lone victor turned out to be the Austrian Habsburgs. It is interesting to note that despite such cynicism, the Habsburg’s have come off smelling like a rose in the public’s historical consciousness. This has much to do with the glittering beauty and culture of Vienna, that urban charm offensive that obscures the violent excesses fomented by the Habsburgs in their near abroad. For their supposed higher level of civilization, Habsburg authorities failed to make Galicia little more than a semi-developed frontier borderland. Whatever fit their political needs was the policy promulgated with little regard to the best interests of the inhabitants. For all the baroque wealth and haute bourgeoisie sophistication associated with the Habsburgs, the truth is they kept power using the most insidious of means when necessary.

19th century map of Galicia

19th century map of Galicia – Tarnow was in the eastern portion of the Kingdom. Today it is located in southeastern Poland

Slaughtering Ignorance
The “Galician Slaughter” is no longer history that you (or I) do not know. Once ignorance is stripped away by knowledge the consequences are profound. We find that Eastern Europe is not that much different from the rest of Europe. Its peoples have been manipulated by the great powers, sacrificed on the altar of duplicitous interests and prone to the excesses of imperialism. The “Galician Slaughter” is but one example of many that can be found all across the continent. It is not the only thing new in the world. It is just the history we have come to know for the first time.

The Unknown Centenary – Gorlice-Tarnow: World War I’s Forgotten Breakthrough (Part One)

The centenary of the Great War is now in its second year. After highly publicized ceremonies to commemorate the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and the resulting lead up to and outbreak of war, remembrances have been much fewer. There has been an uptick of late with the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign and the Armenian Genocide, but by and large commemorative events are no longer front and center in the media’s or public’s consciousness. To be sure 2016 will be host to major ceremonies that commemorate the centennials of the Battles at Verdun and the Somme. Conversely, the current year 2015, lacks many signature events. Look a bit closer though and a century ago, in May 1915, a landmark offensive took place. The centennial of that event offers an opportunity to reflect on both the most successful advance and greatest retreat of the war.  The offensive occurred on the often overlooked Eastern Front, between the Galician cities of Gorlice and Tarnow. These localities proscribed the boundaries of a stunningly successful attack, that exploded and expanded from a narrow start into an offensive the likes of which would never be seen again in the war. The consequences of the Gorlice-Tarnow campaign were long lasting and led to an event that would change the war forever.

A plaque in Gorlice commemorating the victims of the  World War I battle

A plaque in Gorlice commemorating the victims of the World War I battle

The Unknown War – Gorlice-Tarnow & The Eastern Front
A Google search of “Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive” yields only 10,500 results. By way of comparison, a search of “Gallipoli Campaign” gives 426,000 results. The 2nd Battle of Ypres and the Battle of the Isonzo both show 229,000 results. To say that the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive has been overlooked is a classic understatement. Unknown might be an even better description. No less a personage than Winston Churchill named his 1931 history of the Eastern Front in World War I, The Unknown War. This was an apt description both then and now. Conversely, historians that have studied the Eastern Front are aware of the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive’s importance. Norman Stone in his seminal work The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 says, “The six weeks’ campaign turned out to be one of the greatest victories of the war.” Hew Strachen in The First World War makes the bold statement that, “Mackensen and Seeckt (the Commanding General and Chief of Staff of the offensive) were the most successful double-act in the German Army in the First World War.

The fact of the matter is that Gorlice-Tarnow was an unmatched achievement. Yet the gulf between knowledge of the war and the offensive’s shattering ramifications are huge. Of course, the Eastern Front of World War I is scarcely studied by English language historians. Places such as Gorlice and Tarnow seem to belong to another world. Perhaps it is the size of the front that swallows all attempts to comprehend it. Language is a strikingly difficult barrier for even the most gifted of historians to overcome. Then there is the fact that the three empires involved: the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian all ceased to exist by the end of the war. Despite such obstacles to historical knowledge, the offensive was a landmark at the time and still stands out today.

Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces on the move during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

Germans and Austro-Hungarian forces on the move during the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive

Tough, Sturdy & Totally Helpless – Peasants To The Slaughter
The name given to the offensive comes from the city of Tarnow and the town of Gorlice. The war did Gorlice no favors as it was utterly destroyed in battle and would later have to be rebuilt. The main thrust of attack came in the area between these two locales. It was delivered by the German 11th Army with help from the Austro-Hungarian 3rd and 4th Armies. The German 11th Army was created prior to the offensive. It was a fine example of the German High Command’s ability to improvise in order to provide the troops needed to carry out operations. The soldiers used to create the 11th Army were taken from existing Western Front regiments and supplemented with new recruits. Though the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were greatly outnumbered by Russian forces, the Gorlice-Tarnow Offensive mitigated these factors with a high degree of innovation. The German and Austro-Hungarian commanders selected an area of weakness to attack, the Russian 3rd Army.

On the verge - soldiers look up at smoke rising above Gorlice in 1915

On the verge – soldiers look up at smoke rising above Gorlice in 1915

These Russian troops were largely illiterate, ill-equipped and incompetently led. This was an army made up primarily of peasants, tough, sturdy and totally helpless when confronted by industrial weaponry on the field of battle. Many were raw recruits, lucky to even have a full uniform. Tens of thousands did not carry rifles, simply because they had not been given one. At this point in the war, for every four recruits there was one rifle being produced by the Russian war effort. The only option was for soldiers to take a rifle from one of their dead or wounded comrades in the midst of battle. Then there was the Russian trench system along this part of the front. These were little more than rifle pits. If this was not bad enough, the attackers had a tremendous advantage in artillery. According to historian Hew Strachan, “The Central Powers collected 334 heavy guns to 4 Russian, 1,272 guns to 675 and 96 trench mortars to none…the densest concentration of the war so far: one heavy gun every 132 yards and one field gun every 45 yards.” The result would be a massacre, quickly followed by breakthrough and breakout.

Click Here To Read The Unknown Centenary – Gorlice-Tarnow: World War I’s Great Retreat (Part Two)

Miracle of Illogic – The Austro-Hungarian Empire In Hindsight

Deep within the dusty tomes of long forgotten history books, hidden nuggets of illuminating information have been known to arise. The old saying that the truth is stranger than fiction can have a much deeper meaning when a fresh light is cast on a once obscure past. As we happen to be on the cusp of the 100th Anniversary of the First World War I have been doing some research on one of my favorite subjects, the Austro-Hungarian Military. Lately I have had the distinct pleasure of reading through Austria-Hungary’s Last War 1914 – 1918 prepared by the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Army and War Archive. This seven volume set was first published in 1930. Up until just a few years ago there was no English translation available. In 2010, a translation was finally completed by historian Stan Hanna. What an incredible achievement! The seven volumes run to several thousand pages in length. One hazards to guess how Hanna was able to do it all. With this translation English speaking military history buffs now have a window into nearly every facet of the Austro-Hungarian military apparatus during the Great War. A panoramic view is now available of the most multi-cultural empire in European history.

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

Ethnic map of Austria-Hungary

To the Ends of an Empire
Consider that it was almost exactly one hundred years ago when the Austria-Hungary went to war with a polyglot group of Central and Eastern Europeans who were tied together for better or worse by an old and faltering monarchy. The empire was home to 51 million people, consisting of nine different ethnic groups of at least a million or more in population. This demographic breakdown still has the power to amaze and confound. How such a multi-cultural, ethnic stew stayed together as long as it did, has become the subject of many debates.

Even more astonishing is the fact that during World War One, the army fought on three separate fronts, suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties, numerous setbacks and yet still somehow held together until the very last months of the conflict. Seemingly against all logic, a motley collection of ethnicities carried on a war in some of the most undesirable circumstances and locales experienced by any army in the modern age. Yes there were mutinies at times, yes there were disgruntled soldiers, desertions and surrenders, yes the empire disintegrated at the end of the war. These facts are all indisputable. Yet the empire also lasted for nearly the entire duration of the war, despite a panoply of competing cultures and nationalities vying for freedom, respect and independence.

All for One, One Against All
Perhaps the best way of trying to understand the miracle of illogic that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire is to breakdown just one of the many fascinating statistics found in the seven volumes. On page 42 of Austria-Hungary’s Last War, 1914 – 1918, Volume 1 is the following sentence: “Out of every 100 soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army there were 25 Germans, 23 Magyars, 13 Czechs, 9 Serbo-Croats, 8 Poles, 8 Ruthenes, 7 Romanians, 4 Slovaks, and 1 Italian.” This breakdown is quite compelling when viewed with hindsight. Today we know what became of the empire’s ethnic constituents.

Start with the fact that all of the above ethnic groups were squeezed within the borders of a single governing entity. The pressure of that squeeze caused fissures and faults along ethnic lines. The cracks exposed new nations and states, some of which have stood the test of time and others that have long since been resigned to the dustbin of history. A look at what became of these peoples in the aftermath of the empire’s dissolution is revealing. The Germans were predominantly from what would become the nation of Austria. It has been a successful state by any measure, excepting the period when it was sucked up into the vortex of Nazism. Other groups of Germans were scattered in several areas further east. Following the Second World War, luck, fate or a combination of both led them back to Germany via expulsion. The Magyars became a nation, now that they were no longer allowed to be the Kingdom of Hungary. For those Hungarians who still long to right the injustice of the Kingdom’s dismembering by the postwar Treaty of Trianon, they need to keep in mind that in the kingdom, Magyars were barely half the populace. In Hungary today they make up over 90% of the population. The war tore apart the Kingdom, but gave them a nation they can always call their own.

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

Austro-Hungarian soldiers in 1915. Ready for war or the end of an empire

A Constant State of Becoming
The Czechs united with the Slovaks, creating a state which only lasted until the next war. It rose again after the war, but was peacefully sundered from within. Less than five years after the iron curtain ceased to exist so did Czechoslovakia. The Serbo-Croats started a South Slav state of their own, which descended into warring statelets due to the Second World War. Afterwards it was put back together again, but fell apart once and for all time following the end of communism. Freedom had a strange and unsettling effect on became known as the former Yugoslavia. The Poles finally got their nation back following the Great War, only to have it blown into near oblivion by the Nazis. Somehow it survived. Today it represents a successful, if precarious example of a successful post-communist state.

Then there was the Ruthenes, a people who have become the heart of Ukrainian nationalism in the western Ukraine today. Turning towards the west and then forced east, they are in a constant state of becoming. The story is much the same today as it was during the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Galicia playing its stereotypical role as impoverished backwater has been Europeanized with some success. The Romanians already had their nation, but to them it was never complete without Transylvania. They have pretty much had it that way – with one notable Hungarian forced exception – since the Great War. They have Transylvania, but will they ever have prosperity? And then there were the Tyrol Italians, caught between the Germanic and Latin worlds. They say you can’t have your cake and eat it too, but freed from the shackles of empire these Italians were gluttons who managed to escape the punishing legacy of a post imperial world.

Vanishing Act
In a nutshell, this is the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s constituent parts. What had been all for one prior to the Great War, became every ethnicity for itself at the end of the war. It was self-interest over collective interest. This was the ultimate betrayal of Austria-Hungary and led directly to its ruin. The results were or still are today: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Yugoslavia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Poland, Greater Romania, the Soviet Union, Ukraine and Greater Italy. The loosely unified yet fatally flawed empire is today twelve disparate nations. A whole new world has come into being, born from a vanished one.