Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Prussian Who Helped Make the U.S. Army

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (Wikimedia)

In a previous post, I outlined the role of Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British in the American Revolutionary War. But plenty of Germans fought for the Patriots, too, of whom the most famous is Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.

Born in Prussia, he joined the military at age 17, and saw combat in the Seven Years’ War, then one of the biggest conflicts in European history. By the end of the war, he had risen to become captain, and even served as one of the right-hand men of Frederick the Great, one of history’s most brilliant military reformers.

Discharged from the Prussian Army once the war was concluded, Steuben found himself unemployed and deeply in debt. Through a chance meeting with the French minister of war, he was introduced to none other than Benjamin Franklin, the noted Francophile and diplomat who was trying to garner support for the Patriots in Europe. The French believed that the Americans could use an experienced soldier from one of the continent’s leading military powers, and doubtless Franklin agreed.

Steuben’s credentials and force of personality made such an impression on George Washington, that he was immediately appointed as Inspector General. Though a temporary post, it would grant the Prussian considerable influence in managing the training, logistics, and discipline of this ragtag, unprofessional, yet spirited Continental Army (which consisted of various local and provincial militias slapped together). Continue reading

Foreigners of the American Revolution: The Hessians

Hessians. (Landofthebrave.info)

During the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain tried to shore up its small troop numbers in North America by hiring German mercenaries, known collectively as Hessians, after the state that contributed the largest contingent, Hesse-Kassel. (King George III had German roots, including a royal title within the Holy Roman Empire, and was thus able to pull some strings with various German princes.)

Numbering around 30,000, the Hessians made up one-quarter of Britain’s forces in the war, and fought as distinct units led by their own commanders, albeit under overall British control. Participating in almost every major campaign, they were a visible presence in the conflict, and were proficient fighters with a fearful reputation (among both Loyalists and Patriots).

But despite their military advantage, and the fact that mercenaries were standard in European warfare at the time, the Hessians were a huge public relations disaster for the British. In fact, their use was one of the main factors that convinced many Americans to fight for the Patriot cause (at the start of the war, the majority of colonials, including many Founding Fathers, merely wanted greater rights and autonomy, rather than outright independence).

The reasons for this are twofold. Continue reading

Lessons From Germany About Effective Prisons

While Norway appears to be the prevailing model for how to run an effective criminal justice system, the New York Times highlights another northern European country with a promising track record — this one far larger and comparatively more diverse than its more famed Nordic example. A mere glance at the typical German prison makes it resoundingly clear that Europe’s economic and political powerhouse, a nation of nearly 88 million, takes a very different approach to incarceration and rehabilitation.

The men serving time wore their own clothes, not prison uniforms. When entering their cells, they slipped out of their sneakers and into slippers. They lived one person per cell. Each cell was bright with natural light, decorated with personalized items such as wall hangings, plants, family photos and colorful linens brought from home. Each cell also had its own bathroom separate from the sleeping area and a phone to call home with. The men had access to communal kitchens, with the utensils a regular kitchen would have, where they could cook fresh food purchased with wages earned in vocational programs.

It would be scandalous to many Americans to treat prisoners so well. Everything from what they wear to the ambience of their cells suggests that German convicts have it far easier than they, or any criminal, should deserve. But the results bear out, with Germany doing far more than offering cushy and stimulating accommodations.  Continue reading

Germany’s Anti-Amazon Startup

For all its indisputable convenience and cost-saving Amazon’s business model has contributed to the shuttering of small businesses and a massive carbon footprint via its vast delivery network. One would think that this is the price we pay for hyper-efficiency, but one German company is hoping to challenge that formula.

As FastCoexist.com reports, a startup company is offering the same sort of online shop as Amazon, only instead its wares come from local stores, and are delivered the same day by bike, usually ridden by senior citizens (a large demographic in fast-aging Germany that can benefit from the extra income and exercise). Continue reading

A (Rightly) Unsettling Holocaust Memorial

Designed by architect Peter Eisenman and engineer Buro Happold, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, officially known as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, is intended to evoke a chaotic, cold, and uneasy atmosphere — which I feel it accomplishes quite effectively, even based on this photo by Gerd Ludwig.

Source: National Geographic

According to Eisenman himself, “The sculpture represents a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” One critic noted that the memorial “is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust’s horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion”.

Moreover, it stands out for lacking the symbolism that is typical of traditional memorial designs, although many have argued that the sculpture resembles a cemetery (which in any case is still an effective invocation in my opinion).

I personally could not think of a more apt approach to representing the senselessness and wanton cruelty that characterized one of history’s largest genocides. The scale of the memorial, which is better captured in the photo below, must make it a powerful experience (one that I hope to understand when I visit Berlin one of these days).

The Most Popular Country in the World

Nations are often spoken of as if they were individuals: Russia and Ukraine are fighting, China says Japan should stay out of its territorial waters, Iran is unfriendly to Americans. A lot of this comes down to basic expediency: it is a lot easier to refer to countries as monolithic entities than to get into the specifics (“Brazil says” rather than “the Brazilian government says”, for example).

But countries have long been personified for reasons other than simple ease. Everything that they embody — their political institutions, culture, people, climate, geography, etc. — amounts to a cohesive identity or national character of sorts. And countries, like individuals, can be loved, hatred, admired, and in some way or another related with. (Within International Relations, we study the phenomenon of “nations as persons” and whether it has any legitimacy or basis.)

They even have to worry about social standing: just as we worry about our image and status among a community of people, so too do the countries of the world content with how they are perceived by the international community. Hence why governments engage in public relations — whether through formal diplomatic channels, the funding of cultural institutions, or the launching of state news broadcasters — and why things like the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index exist.

Spearheading the fascinating world of nation branding — which has only become more relevant in our increasingly globalized and interconnected world — the survey asks over 20,000 people across 20 countries their perceptions of 50 countries. Each nation is scored on factors ranging from exports and governance to culture and people.

As The Atlantic reported, five-year first-place winner America has been overtaken by Germany, which had previously occupied the top spot in 2008. Here is the top ten as of 2014:

1. Germany

2. United States

3. United Kingdom

4. France

5. Canada

6. Japan

7. Italy

8. Switzerland

9. Australia

10. Sweden

Interestingly, the top ten has not changed much since 2010, which was as far back as I could find data (the survey was launched in 2005). The same countries more or less occupy the same spots, rising or falling by only a point or two (but never falling off entirely).

You can read the methodology of the report here. According to an official press release, Germany’s burgeoning international image can be attributed to several factors, including — of all things — “sport excellence”, which was “the largest gain seen this year for any single attribute across the 50 measured nations”.

Simon Anholt, an independent policy advisor, explains, “Germany appears to have benefited not only from the sports prowess it displayed on the world stage at the FIFA World Cup championship, but also by solidifying its perceived leadership in Europe through a robust economy and steady political stewardship. Germany’s score gains in the areas of ‘honest and competent government’, ‘investment climate’, and ‘social equality’ are among the largest it achieved across all the aspects covered by the NBI 2014 survey.”

In contrast, the USA has shown the least impressive NBI gain among the developed nations. While it still is seen as number one in several areas, including creativity, contemporary culture, and educational institutions, its role in global peace and security only ranks 19th out of 50 nations.

Meanwhile, here is why the U.S. (as well as nascent rival Russia) fared less well this time around.

Xiaoyan Zhao, Senior Vice President and Director of NBI at GfK, comments, “In a year of various international confrontations, the United States has lost significant ground where tension has been felt the most acutely. Both Russia and Egypt have downgraded the U.S. in an unprecedented manner, particularly in their perception of American commitment to global peace and security, and in their assessment of the competence of the U.S. government.  However, on a global level, it is Russia that has received the strongest criticism from public opinion.”

In previous years, Russia had shown upward momentum – but in the 2014 NBI study, it stands out as the only nation out of 50 to suffer a precipitous drop. Russia’s largest decline is registered on the Governance dimension, especially for the attribute of its perceived role in international peace and security. This is the most drastic score drop seen for any single attribute across the 50 nations. Overall in this year’s study, Russia has slipped three places to 25th, overtaken by Argentina, China, and Singapore.

The two countries cannot seem to shake off their legacy of global meddling and the subsequent negative impact it is having on their international standing, although Russia seems worse affected by it than America; subsequently, I am curious about the national breakdown of the respondents and how much certain nationalities dragged down or pulled up the overall score for certain countries.

In any case, the U.S. is hardly in bad shape, all things considered, and much of that clearly has to do with the heft of its “soft power” — from its music and entertainment media (especially film), to its top-notch universities still-attractive (if not weakening) civil values, America projects a lot of influenced and a positive image around the world. It is little wonder that so many other countries, including China, are seeking to emulate this soft power approach by promoting cultural and ideological products.

I would wager that the rest of the top ten ranks highly for similar reasons: all of them either have strong, globally-exported cultures (especially the U.K., France, and Italy), or enjoy a reputation for good governance, high-quality of life, and benign foreign policy (Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland).

In any case, Germany’s status as a brand champion is hardly surprising, all things considered. From its robust (if still shaky) economy and (relatively) pacifistic foreign policy, to policies like free college tuition and strong arts funding, the country has a lot going for it across different sectors. Its well-trained workers and less-indebted homeowners seem better off and happier than counterparts elsewhere in the world, and while political cynicism is as high among the German populace as it is anywhere else in the post-recession world, national pride — and with it a sense of purpose as a global role model — is growing (albeit with a degree of restraint, given the lingering shadow of the early to mid-20th century).

In the end, countries — again, like people — can learn a lot from one another with respect to national performance, be it in the real of politics and economics or even in sports. Not only is excelling in these areas a valuable end in itself, but as the study’s press release observes:

“International diplomacy clearly reaches beyond the realm of public opinion – however, policy makers need to be keenly aware that the way in which a country is perceived globally can make a critical difference to the success of its business, trade and tourism efforts, as well as its diplomatic and cultural relations with other nations. As our partner Simon Anholt often says, the only superpower left in today’s world is global public opinion.”

What are your thoughts?

Forgotten Hero: Henning von Tresckow

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus [a source of misfortune from which there is no escape]. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.

Last words of Henning von Tresckow, a Generalmajor in the German Wehrmacht who organized German resistance against Adolf Hitler, most famously the Valkyrie plan to overthrow the Nazis (known as the July 20 Plot).

Born into a Prussian noble family with 300 years of military tradition, he was the youngest lieutenant in the German Army during the First World War, earning the nation’s highest military honor — the Iron Cross — for outstanding courage and independent action against the enemy.

The young Tresckow (Wikimedia Commons).

A worldly man well versed in poetry, foreign languages, economics, and law, Tresckow nonetheless remained a career soldier, rising to the General Staff after graduating best in his class in 1936. He opposed many of Hitler’s military and foreign policies, such as the Anschluss with Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, even predicting that Germany would fall from an overly aggressive foreign policy.

Although once an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism due to its opposition to the harsh Treaty of Versailles, he became quickly disillusioned following the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when the nascent SS murdered numerous political opponents and rivals. He regarded the infamous Kristallnacht, the state-sanctioned pogrom against Jews, as personal humiliation and degradation of civilization. He immediately sought out civilians and officers who opposed Hitler, proclaiming to a loved one that “both duty and honor demand from us that we should do our best to bring about the downfall of Hitler and National Socialism to save Germany and Europe from barbarism”.

During the campaign against the Soviet Union, he became further appalled by Nazi brutality, including the treatment of Russian prisoners of war and the mass shootings of Jewish women and children. When he learned about the massacre of thousands of Jews at Borisov, Tresckow appealed passionately to a fellow officer: “Never may such a thing happen again! And so we must act now.”

Thus, as the chief operations officer of Army Group Center, he took great risk to seek out other officers who shared his views and place them in key positions to build up a strong base for internal resistance. He tried to persuade other high-ranking officers to join his conspiracy, to little avail (notably, all those he did manage to recruit cited the massacre of Jews and others as the catalyst for their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis).

Ultimately, he teamed up with several dozen fellow resisters — chief among them Ludwig Beck, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Colonel Hans Oster, General Friedrich Olbricht, and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — and devised the Valkyrie plan to kill Hitler, seize control of the government from the Nazis, and make peace with the Allies. A few days before the coup attempt, Tresckow confided to a friend that “in all likelihood everything will go wrong”, and when asked whether the action was necessary nonetheless, he replied, “Yes, even so”.

Unfortunately, as we all know, it did go wrong, with many of the plotters later being caught and executed. When Tresckow, who was stationed on the Eastern Front, learned of this failure, he opted to commit suicide after issuing the last words quoted above to his liaison. In order to protect his co-conspirators from suspicion, he staged his death to look like an enemy attack, firing several bullets from his pistol before detonating a grenade beneath his chin. His words from months before ring true to this day, if unfortunately forgotten:

The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.

It is a shame that his story, like that of so many other resisters to the Nazis, remains widely unknown outside Germany (recent attempts by Hollywood notwithstanding).

Tresckow c. 1943 (Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archives).

 

 

The Power of Stumbling Blocks

A stolperstein (German for “stumbling block”) describes one of several monuments created by German artist Gunter Demnig that commemorate a victim of the Holocaust. Stolpersteine are small, cobblestone-sized memorials for an individual victim of Nazism. The idea apparently arose from an old custom among non-Jewish Germans, who, upon stumbling over a protruding stone, would say, “There must be a Jew buried here.” A stolperstein is intended to similarly divert one’s attention. 

Demnig manufactures a concrete cube of four inches that he covers with a sheet of brass and stamps with the following details: the name, year of birth, and fate, if known. The stolperstein is then laid flush with the pavement or sidewalk in front of the last residence (or sometimes workplace) of the victim. The costs are covered covered by donations, collections, individual citizens, contemporary witnesses, school classes, or communities.

Stolperstein in Bonn for Ida Arensberg “Here lived Ida Arensberg. née Benjamin *1870 – deported 1942. Murdered in Theresienstadt on 18.9.1942”. Via Wikipedia.

As one historian noted: “It is not what is written [on the stolpersteine] which intrigues, because the inscription is insufficient to conjure a person. It is the emptiness, void, lack of information, the maw of the forgotten, which gives the monuments their power and lifts them from the banality of a statistic.” Simply seeing them in pictures, I can concur. 

Here are a few more examples, many of which can be found in cities across Europe — a grim reminder of the Holocaust’s scope and scale.

You can read more about these powerful artistic works here.

The Canadian Model

Canada has distinguished itself as one of the few countries in the world, especially among developed nations, to have weathered the recession virtually unscathed. It accomplished this unique feat through comprehensive financial regulation, fiscal prudence (including the paying down of government debt over the last decade), and economically sound policies, such as promoting the immigration of skilled and educated people, or providing cash transfers that boost spending power for the unemployed (which thus drives demand and, subsequently, economic growth).

NPR offers a brief but interesting report (the transcript of which I’ve posted below).

As Europe works to solve its financial problems, closer to home and with a little less fanfare, America’s biggest trading partner is thriving. Canada has built an impressive track record throughout the recession. It’s got low unemployment, little government debt and some of the healthiest economic growth in the industrialized world. Brian Mann traveled to Toronto for WBEZ’s Chicago’s Front and Center project and has this story.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: It’s early morning and Toronto’s central business district is in high gear with people crowding into street cars, heading to work.

MANN: This city of five million people sits just a few hours’ drive from America’s rust belt – from Buffalo and Detroit. While those cities have shed population and are struggling to reinvent themselves, Toronto is on fire. Matthew Mendelson heads the Mowat Center for Policy Innovation.

MATTHEW MENDELSON: Our financial sector, our financial institutions are the healthiest in the world. And so that creates enormous opportunities.

MANN: Canada has some of the strictest banking rules in the world. While hundreds of banks failed in the U.S. during the recession, this country hasn’t seen a single major bank failure – not one. In fact, banks here are posting record profits. There’s also no mortgage crisis in Canada. And while U.S. politicians feud over government spending, Mendelson says political parties on this side of the border have done the hard work of balancing budgets.

MENDELSON: The last decade has been one of Canada paying down debt, while it’s been one of the United States ratcheting up debt. And so that creates much more flexibility for Canada to invest and make choices when a recession arises.

MANN: It’s a huge turnabout for a country that in the 1990s was an economic basket case. In those days, the Canadian dollar was so weak that it was known as the northern peso. Now, Canada’s dollar trades on par with American greenbacks and economic growth here is a third higher than in the U.S. Unemployment remained relatively low during the recession and people who do lose their jobs in Canada can expect to be out of work for half as long, compared with jobless workers in the U.S. Economists credit Canada’s prosperity to a wide range of factors, including the rapid expansion of the country’s oil industry and a very different approach to immigration.

MARIO CALA: We’ve instituted a managed, point-based immigration system.

MANN: That’s Mario Cala, head of a nonprofit that runs a network of immigrant welcome centers for the Canadian government. While the U.S. grants most of its green cards on the basis of family connections, Cala says Canada actively seeks out immigrants who can bring money, high tech skills or new businesses to boost the economy.

CALA: Canadians understand that while these people coming from other countries may be very different from us, they’re coming with great talents and skills.

MANN: As a consequence, Canadian cities have emerged rapidly as high tech international hubs with deep ties to China and India. Not everything here is perfect. Canada has seen government debt creep up during the recession, and there’s a growing environmental debate here and in the U.S. over the impacts of Canada’s booming oil industry. But many economists in Canada say their biggest economic vulnerability long-term may be an over-reliance on the United States, which now buys more than 70 percent of Canadian exports. Matthew Mendelson with the Mowat Center says Canada is racing to diversify.

MENDELSON: We are in the process of a historical pivot. Our future can not only be tied to exports to the United States. It also has to be tied to the emergence of Asian economies.

MANN: That pivot will take decades, and for now, Canadian exporters are watching nervously to see if the American economy and American consumers will continue to bounce back. For NPR News, I’m Brian Mann.

Of course, Canada isn’t all idyllic – no country is. Canadians are  pretty indebted individually, and there seems to be a growing housing bubble that may burst in a few years, which may adversely affect the economy. But given the government’s track record, and the fact that neither Canadian society nor its politicians are paralyzed by partisanship and polarization, they seem far better suited to handling future issues than they otherwise would be. The US could certainly try to learn something from it’s banking rules or socioeconomic policies.

Germany, Australia, and South Korea are other developed nations that have done well through this recession, and offer valuable lessons to consider (Scandinavia, Singapore, and a few others have remained economically healthy, but I’m focusing on comparatively larger countries). Each had stringent but fair rules for banks, practiced sound spending and taxation policies, and undertook innovative programs to address economic contagion. The Korean government, for example, funded pubic works programs that kept people employed while also improving infrastructure (which helps economic growth); Germany, meanwhile, had it’s politicians, employers, and workers unions come together to hash out compromises that demanded sacrifices from each, yet kept unemployment low and economic growth high. The Australians, meanwhile, practiced fiscal integrity by maintaining a rainy day fund of cash reserves in the event of an economic slowdown.

Perhaps most importantly, their politics, like Canada’s, haven’t become so partisan and ideological so as to obstruct vital decision making. The civil service of each country is largely competent, technocratic, and un-politicized.  Laws governing taxation, lobbying, and fiscal policy, among other things, are relatively more streamlined and less exploitable. Public discourse is more conducive to compromise and dialogue, which are vital in forging the national unity needed to better the economy.

To be sure, these examples, and any other, are hardly perfect. These countries have numerous socioeconomic and political problems as well. They too contend with creeping cynicism and indifference towards politics, and looming economic and fiscal threats. Furthermore, each of them have different societies, political systems, and demographics, which renders some comparisons unfair.

But my point isn’t to copy them entirely, or hold them up as perfect models to naively glorify. We simply need to look closely at alternative models and approaches, and see what we can learn and implement. What are these nations doing that we aren’t? How are they running things more effectively? What are the pros and cons of any given policy or system? Given the persistence of economic malaise, and the dearth of either leadership or sound ideas, it’s seems like the sensible thing to do. We wouldn’t have to look to far either.

The White Rose Movement

Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don’t dare express themselves as we did.

– Sophie Scholl, leader of the White Rose

They were known as the White Rose Movement, and they were the courageous yet often forgotten resistors of one of history’s most evil regimes: Nazi Germany. They were a collection of university students and their professor who were disgusted by the rise of fascism in Germany and the apparent complacency of their people. They were determined to sacrifice their lives in the name of justice and morality, and to do so nonviolently and intellectually. Continue reading