What did we learn from W.W.1 100 years on?


When Europe spiralled into war in 1914, there was an almost euphoric, gleeful, delightful jolly mood throughout Europe. What a jolly thing they all said. It will be all over Christmas and we’ll be having pudding on the table, with presents under the tree and a roast for dinner.

So off they all rushed to war, this jolly good European jaunt. The Commonwealth nations excited to be supporting Mother Britain all began to mobilize. The Canadians, the Australians, the New Zealanders, Indians and South Africans all put out calls for troops.

Within weeks the first casualty counts were coming in. The Germans had somehow stalled on the banks of the Marne River. No worries everyone thought. Things will get going again soon. The days turned into weeks. The weeks into months. The nights began to become longer and the days colder. The trenches that were supposed to be temporary were starting to take on a degree of permanence.

No peace would descend on Earth in 1914. Instead the first of many bloody battles up and down the Western Front over which a few square miles of land would be fought with fanatical savagery had begun. Battles costing thousands of lives a piece had happened at St. Quentin, the Marne, Albert, Yser, Ypres (No. 1 of 5) and a host of other places. The ground that would become a muddy hellhole over the next four years was starting to be ground up.

The mincing machines of the Somme, Verdun and Passchendaele were still over a year away. But as the mass of pill boxes, bunkers, tunnels and barbed wire accrued on both sides of no mans land the men who sat in water logged dug outs eating, washing, and otherwise trying to live in close quarters to many other men, the task of finding ways to break the stalemate and win the war became a priority.

The plane as a weapon of war was still in its infancy. The tank was still years away. But other sinister developments were taking shape. Desperate to gain the military initiative, the Germans, French and British had begun experimenting with chemicals as weapons. The initial attempts were unsuccessful, but in 1915 the Germans introduced chlorine.

Tactics were changing too. The creeping barrage that moved in front of advancing soldiers had been introduced. A moving wall of exploding shells would proceed the soldiers across no mans land, chewing up and spitting out already mangled land and bodies. Another one, the bite and hold strategy of biting a small chunk out of the enemy lines, consolidating and moving on was another.

By the time the Somme and Verdun, two blood baths with a combined total of nearly 2 million Allied and German dead between them, were over, the French were ready to mutiny. The Russians, sick to death of their wealth hoarding Tsar and no longer able to stomach any further fighting against the Germans were ready to revolt. Food shortages in Germany and Britain were dire and no one knew how or when this giant mangling machine would end.

Conditions were no better in the Commonwealth countries. New Zealand and Australia were permanently scarred by their experiences in Gallipoli in Turkey where they had been trying to take the Dardenelles and secure a supply line to Russia. Canada, South Africa and India were also bleeding steadily. All had further bloody confrontations awaiting them at Passchendaele (Ypres III), and elsewhere.

And so, Passchendaele got underway with the misgivings of just about everyone involved. Only the Generals seemed to be keen for it to happen. The 100 days of mud and blood that followed earnt it a special place in the collection of hell’s that World War 1 was.

Whilst that was happening the Russians had the second of two revolts that toppled the Tsar. Communism became a new term in the language of politics and within months, Russia and the Germans had cut a deal that enabled the Germans to flood the western front with fresh forces.

The German offensive of 1918 temporarily terrified the Allies, moved rapidly west for a month and then, unable to sustain their supply lines, failed. Another 688,000 Germans and 863,000 British, Commonwealth, French and American lives later and it was over for Germany. Before they could recover, the Allies 100 days offensive that would end with the Kaiser abdicating and Germany calling for an armistice began. It took back everything the Germans had taken and was closing on the German border when the Kaiser abdicated.

So what did we learn from World War 1? Apparently not a lot, other than that type of war is criminal. Suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was apparently cowardice, for which one could be shot. Soldiers went home and suffered permanent mental break downs as a result of what they had seen and done with no redress of any sort. And in that 4 1/4 years, enough progress was made on the technological front to unleash horrors unheard of in 1913. Historians to this day argue over the true meaning of the battles that took place, though all are in agreement that it was a truly appalling time in human history.

It was meant to be the war that ended all wars. The Germans would be vanquished, and unable to conduct offensive wars ever again. It would be punished and made to pay huge reparations. Yet on 01 September 1939 World War 2: The Really Really Dreadful Sequel started.

The pill boxes and the grave yards that litter fields in Belgium and France are silent testament to four years of abject madness where political pride and military prestige were more important than the lives of millions of soldiers and civilians. If nothing else, on this 100th Armistice Day Anniversary, we would do really well to remember that. They did not die for nothing.

Learning the lessons of Kristallnacht: 80 years on


80 years ago today one the most appalling pre-war acts of the Nazi German regime occurred. Kristallnacht which is Crystal Night or Night of the Broken Glass is an incident in that period when the full force of the German state and its supporters was unleashed against Germany’s Jewish population. Thousands of businesses, synagogues, homes, memorials, graveyards and sites of cultural importance to the Jewish population were trashed; 30,000 or more healthy Jewish males were rounded up to be sent to labour camps. Thousands more were injured.

Kristallnacht revolted the world. Jewish emigration to Israel and Palestine as well as other nations sky rocketed. But as bad as it certainly was, it was just a prelude to much worse. 80 years later, with far right politicians on the rise, the world showing significant indifference to humanitarian crises in the Middle East, Myanmar, and an increasingly toxic political debate with ethnic overtones surfacing, have we really learnt the lessons of this act of barbarism?

I do not believe New Zealand is at risk of such a horrendous act as Governments and the authorities have gone to lengths to ensure that all ethnic groups can feel safe in this country. The Police encourage people who have been subject to racist abuse to contact them. New Zealand communities would at all levels frown upon on such conduct. That was not the case in Germany in 1933 in that that Kristallnacht was stoked by Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels, and that the violence and vandalism was carried out by members of the S.S. and S.A. It was enabled by the Enabling Laws and was part of a much more systemic campaign to rid Germany of its Jewish population.

New Zealand however is not free of racial and other types of intolerance. On social media, in pubs and elsewhere casual racism can be seen on a daily basis. It might be subtle or not so subtle, but it is nonetheless the first step on the way to stoking worse offence. The causes are largely what they have been in the past – deliberate stoking of injustices, perceived or otherwise, the use of history against particular groups.

In the case of Jews, the idea that they somehow control the banking system, that physical characteristics about them such as “crooked noses” all contribute to the problem. So do the deliberate misuse of images such as photos of the gas chambers, the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at Auschwitz. But who will police this?

We however owe it to the generation that fought in World War 2 and saw the hell of the death camps and the concentration camps. We owe it the survivors of those camps to ensure that there is no chance of such wanton destruction being repeated.

If one wants to see where such a systemic campaign of abuse can lead, they need look no further than the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar. The Government there headed by Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has used the military to empty communities and create a physical and social environment that is inhospitable to Rohingya. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk and have been displace in Myanmar and Bangladesh. They live in refugee camps with minimal food, no water, bedding or shelter, with the United Nations grossly under equipped to handle such huge numbers.

The political climate in some countries is leaning towards open hostility towards minority groups. In the United States, Brazil and other countries heads of government and heads of state a developing sense of fear and division that leads to violence and eventually all out conflict is at grave risk of taking hold. Once the public are mobilized against such groups, a mob mentality can potentially exist in which instead of asking questions, everyone turns on an unfortunate group or individual. And just as Germany did in the 1930’s the power of the state can be mobilized.

What happens after that is a very slippery, very dangerous slope with dreadful consequences if one loses their footing.

Sroubek must go now, Jacinda


Dear Prime Minister

Re: Karel Sroubek

I am writing this to you regarding the activities of Czech national Karel Sroubek.

You are as well aware as I am that lying to border officials or any officials for that matter is a serious offence. Mr Karel Sroubek would have been aware of it himself when he approached New Zealand border officials for the first time back in 2003 that he must be honest with the authorities.

As we have now seen that was not the case. Mr Sroubek has conducted himself in a way that opens valid questions about his intentions. He claimed to be getting away from corrupt Czech authorities and that his life would be in danger were he to go back. He arrived on a false passport under the name Jan Antolik and was granted residency in 2008. He built a new life as a kick boxer, a gang associate – something that would immediately generate police interest – and as a businessman importing drink.

Yet Mr Sroubek continued to commit offences. He was caught importing 5kg of MDMA, which is used to make ecstasy and sentenced to 5 years and 9 months. A Parole Board hearing in October declined him release from prison, saying his story was long winded and manifestly untruthful.

Now, I have no idea what you heard or when you heard it. I am trusting that you have been and will continue to be totally honest about Mr Sroubek and the allegations surrounding him. I am trusting that Mr Lees-Galloway was totally truthful in his conduct as the Minister responsible in this matter so far and that he, like you, will continue to be totally honest about what has happened and is going to happen. New Zealanders have been quite clear that they are not impressed with this case. As Prime Minister you told New Zealanders to read between the lines. They did and found that they have doubts about the whole case.

Mr Lees-Galloway sent Mr Sroubek a letter stating the conditions of his and warned Mr Sroubek. The warning was that should evidence of activities contrary to what the Minister had been told come to light, his residency would be void and he would be potentially eligible for deportation again.

I accept that when people leave countries where they allege persecution one has to consider the severity of the danger they are in. I accept that hasty departures in such situations mean one might not have had time to get their immigration documentation in order.

But as a New Zealand citizen, tax payer and law abiding person I want to be very clear with you and your Government, including Mr Lees-Galloway now. Mr Sroubek had had multiple chances to come clean about his activities and history in past brushes with immigration authorities. Mr Lees-Galloway gave Mr Sroubek a final chance to come  clean. He has failed to do so.

Mr Sroubek has had his chances. He lied multiple times. He has committed crimes serious enough to give him significant jail time and the Parole Board in October declined his release How and why would New Zealanders, the authorities or the Government of New Zealand want to trust him now?

Deport him. That is all.

I thank you for your co-operation on this matter.

 

Remembering Le Quesnoy: 100 years on


There is a little village in northern France called Le Quesnoy. It is a few kilometres from the Belgian border and has a population of 5,000. During World War 1 it was occupied by the German forces, starting on 23 August 1914.

In early November 1918 as the war drew to a close the Allies 100 days offensive saw the western allies making rapid progress through Belgium and northern France across land where the front line had been largely stagnant for the past four years. At the start of the month, the New Zealanders tracked east along a railway towards the town. On 3 November fighting between New Zealanders and Germans began in earnest in the town, whose residents had been told to evacuate in anticipation of a battle. During the battle New Zealanders approached the outer ramparts of the fortified town and mounted a ladder on a narrow ledge next to a sluice gate. They climbed up 13 metre walls to reach the top of the fortifications, which were poorly defended. These actions by New Zealand soldiers liberated it from Germany. To this day Le Quesnoy have not forgotten what happened. It was the last significant action of New Zealand of World War 1.

The Kaiser, realizing the war was going to be lost, abdicated five days later after the liberation of Le Quesnoy on 09 November. The Armistice that ended the war was signed two days later.

During World War 2 it was occupied by the Germans in May 1940 shortly after the invasion of France and the low countries started. It was not freed until late 1944.

Over the decades following World War 2 various nations of the Commonwealth have established their own war memorials. So have non Commonwealth countries. Even if it is just a big graveyard at Langemarck in Belgium, Germany has a memorial of sorts too for 44,000 of its World War 1 dead.

But there is not a New Zealand specific site, which is really quite appalling. Australia spent $100 million on a great memorial to theirs. Canada likewise have a magnificent structure at Vimy Ridge. The South Africans have a war memorial at Delville Wood in France, and the British have the massive Menin Gate, whose walls are filled with the names of dead.

Old notions that war memorials somehow glorify the war dead are simply wrong, misleading and disingenuous. A war memorial has one purpose and that is to recognize the loss in war of a nations service people. In the case of a country like New Zealand, so far away from the major battlefields of World Wars 1 and 2 it is at these places we are finally able to connect with past generations and acknowledge their service.

The people of Le Quesnoy are well versed in the New Zealand liberation. When one identifies themselves as a New Zealander, those who have been there report a great warmth. The people take you in and treat you as one of their own.

They have not forgotten what happened on 04 November 2018, 100 years ago today.

Nor should New Zealand.

 

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Tourism – Part 2


Continued from Part 1.

Generally the old town quarters of Ghent, Brugge and Ypres was cleaner than you would expect to find cities in New Zealand. I do not know what litter ordinances any of these places had in place, but little evidence of litter was found around them. This is important for all three, as tourism is a significant part of their economy.

Belgium towns have a lot of bars and cafes with a different culture to New Zealand. Namely if anyone drinks alcohol – and I did see a lot of people doing so – they would generally order something to eat as well. It could be something simple such as fries or a proper meal. All of them are bike friendly, and one could hire scooters for several hours or a day. Canal tours of various descriptions existed and seem to be well patronized.

The Hop on/Hop off bus is a well developed concept in all of the big cities – London, Stockholm, Goteburg, Brussels, Amsterdam and Singapore all have their own versions. The number of routes varied from one location to the next – Brussels had two lines – the No. 1 and No. 2 lines; Singapore has the Red, Brown, Yellow and Blue lines. All operated a pass system where one purchased a pass that would give them access to the network for 2-3 days or 5 days. It was an easy way to get around the city. The European cities also have a “_______” (enter name of city) City Pass that gives you access to the major attractions. Like the Hop on/Hop off passes they were set to last 2-3 days or 5 days.

I do not know if such passes exist in New Zealand, but it would be an easy way to ensure tourists used the public transport networks if it was too difficult for them to hire a rental car. In Auckland for example an “Auckland City Pass”, might include the Sky Tower, Auckland Museum, Auckland Zoo, Kelly Tarlton Sea Life Aquarium and so forth. The Hop on/Hop off route would have no trouble covering all of those in a reasonably quick time.

One thing that was notable in European cities was their charge for using the toilet. Many public places charged and I assume it was just their way of funding the up keep. Given – even if it was not necessarily said so – that it was polite to purchase something in the bars, cafes and restaurants that one would find themselves ducking into to relieve themselves, it did result in some otherwise unintended beverage and food purchases. On the other hand the bars, restaurants and cafes that I/we ducked into were not so fussy but we repaid them by having a round, a small bite or something whilst on the premises.

Given in some districts there is a small rate payer base, but high tourist numbers, such as the Mackenzie District in the South Island, a 0.50c fee for using the toilets would not be out of place. It would enable the charging council to keep a tighter rein on council rates as user pays would be a fairer model than simply making the whole district pay. With the summer tourist season coming up and local government elections due again next year, it will be interesting to see whether councils think about such approaches or elect to make the rate payers cough up more money.