Here is another part out of Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History. This is a quotation from the memoir of Antoni Eckart, a Pole educated in Switzerland, describing how the Western prisoners were frequent objects of fascination to the mainly Russian prisoners.

At specially organized, carefully hidden meetings with some of the more trusted among them, I told them of my life in Zurich, in Warsaw, in Vienna and other cities of the West. My sports coat from Geneva, my silk shirts, were most carefully examined, for they were the only material evidence of the high standard of living outside the world of communism. Some of them were visibly incredulous when I said that I could easily buy all these articles on my monthly salary as a junior engineer in a cement factory.

“How many suits did you have?” asked one of the agricultural experts.

“Six or seven.”

“You’re a liar!” said one man of not more than 25, and then, turning to the others: “Why should we tolerate such fantastic stories? Everything has its limits; we are not children.”

I had difficulty making it clear that in the West, an ordinary person, taking some care of his appearance, would aim at having several suits, because clothes keep better if one can change from time to time. For a member of the Russian intelligentsia, who seldom has more than one suit, this was difficult to grasp.


Horse thieves and bread thieves

Most people in the United States have probably heard at some point that in the Wild West (which was not actually so wild) the penalty for horse theft was death because of how important horses often were to survival; a man robbed of his horse might very easily die in a hostile landscape as a result. I don’t have documentation on this, but it has a ring of truth to it.

Anne Applebaum’s so-far-excellent book Gulag: A History records a similar custom spontaneously arising in the Soviet concentration camp system. From pp. 213-214:

In the hungrier camps, in the hungrier years, bread took on an almost sacred status, and a special etiquette grew up around its consumption. While camp thieves stole almost everything else with impunity, for example, the theft of bread was considered particularly heinous and unforgivable. Vladimir Petrov found on his long train journey to Kolyma that “thieving was permitted and could be applied to anything within the thief’s capacity and luck, but there was one exception—bread. Bread was sacred and inviolable, regardless of any distinctions in the population of the car.” Petrov had in fact been chosen as the starosta [“elder”/boss] of the car, and in that capacity was charged with beating up a petty thief who had stolen bread. He duly did so. Thomas Sgovio also wrote that the unwritten law of the camp criminals in Kolyma was: “Steal anything—excepting the holy bread portion.” He too had “seen more than one prisoner beaten to death for violating the sacred tradition.” Similarly, Kazimierz Zarod remembered that

If a prisoner stole clothes, tobacco, or almost anything else and was discovered, he could expect a beating from his fellow prisoners, but the unwritten law of the camp—and I have heard from men from other camps that it was the same everywhere—was that a prisoner caught stealing another’s bread earned a death sentence.

B.H. Liddell Hart (unintentionally) on unintended consequences and capital non-homogeneity

I just picked up B.H. Liddell Hart’s The German Generals Talk at a used book sale, and reading the first sections I found two interesting passages to discuss here.

First, the author recounts some key ideas from a book by Hans von Seeckt, the man most responsible for the shape and organization of the German armed forces in World War II. The book was published in 1928, five years before the Nazis came to power. In one paragraph of interest he writes how Seeckt, influenced by the wide open spaces on the Eastern front, emphasized small and highly mobile forces over large masses on conscripts. A few pages later:

At the same time a brief period of compulsory military training should be given to all fit young men in the country, “preceded by a training of the young, which would lay less emphasis on the military side than on a general physical and mental discipline.” Such a system would help to link the army with the people, and ensure national unity. “In this way a military mass is constituted which, though unsuited to take part in a war of movement and seek a decision in formal battle, is well able to fulfil the duty of home defence, and at the same time to provide from its best elements a continuous reinforcement of the regular, combatant army in the field.” It was a conscript levy of this kind which filled the bulk of the Germany infantry divisions in 1940. They merely followed up the decisive armored spearheads, and occupied the conquered regions. Later, as their own training improved, they were available to expand and replenish the striking forces in the way that Seeckt had foreseen.

Does the concept of unintended consequences come to mind? Surely Seeckt did not have in mind a Nazified German youth population such as would peak between his own death in 1936 and the invasion of Poland in 1939 and would form the backbone of the war effort on behalf of a genocidal totalitarian regime. In retrospect, however, it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise; this was half of the recipe for an aggressive dictatorship awaiting a dictator to supply the other half. Likewise, this kind of pre-military training also existed in the Soviet Union and its satellites. The main reason it was not widely used for war was that military technology had changed so much after World War II.

There is a second point about this passage: one man’s unintended consequences are another man’s mission in life. The Nazis were very dedicated and methodical about incorporating Nazi principles and organization into the life of German youth. If they had had to build from scratch, who knows how long it would have taken? As it happened, they were able to subvert or absorb a large number of existing organizations for their own purposes. The fact that Germany’s top military thinker of the 1920s had laid out a blueprint for them was nothing but welcome to them.

Second, the unintended consequences of the Versailles Treaty:

The triumphs of German tactics and of the German armoured forces in the first two years of the war cast an ironical reflection on the measures taken to disarm the defeated country after the previous war. Materially, they proved effective. For the numerous evasions that German military chiefs practised were on a petty scale, and in themselves amounted to no considerable recovery of strength. Germany’s actual progress in material rearmament constituted no serious danger up to the time when the Nazi Government openly threw off the restrictions of the peace treaty. It was the hesitancy of the victors after that time which allowed Germany again to become formidable. Moreover, an important result of her forced disarmament was to give her a clear start, by freeing her army from such an accumulation of 1914-1918 weapons as the victorious nations had preserved—a load of obsolescence that tended to bind them to old methods, and led them to overrate their own strength. When the German Army began large-scale re-armament, it benefited by having more room for the development of the newer weapons suggested by a fresher current of ideas.

The development of such fresh ideas was, in turn, helped by another of the measures imposed by the victors—the suppression of the General Staff. If it had been left to carry on in its old form, and its old cumbersome shell, it might have remained as routinely inert and overwhelmed by its offices as other General Staffs. Driven underground, its members were largely exempted from administrative routine, and impelled to concentrate on constructive thinking about the future—thus becoming more efficient for war. Any such military organization can be destroyed insofar as it is a physical substance, but not in respect of its activities as a thinking organ—thought cannot be suppressed.

Thus the net effect of the sweeping disarmament of Germany after the First World War was to clear the path for the more efficient modernization of her forces when a political opportunity for re-armament developed. Limitations on the degree of modernization were due more to internal conservatism and conflicting interests than to the external restrictions that had been placed on her.

Obviously, if the victorious Allies could have foreseen these consequences in 1919, they would not have written the treaty the way they did. Alternatively, if they had realized that capital is not homogenous, they would have written a different treaty as well, one that recognized the importance of ideas—about strategy, tactics, organization—and not just physical things an advanced nation can rebuild.