Iconic Photos

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Archive for the ‘War’ Category

Tim Hetherington (1970-2011)

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Tim Hetherington, tireless and lyrical raconteur of global conflicts, is dead, a victim of a Libyan mortar shell.

Many will remember Tim Hetherington as a great photographer, but to call him such would be to pigeonhole his contributions. He himself acknowledged his changing role in a new topography of media: “If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.”

And he did. He covered various conflicts in West Africa and contributed to two documentaries on Liberia and Darfur. In 2007, he began a yearlong assignment documenting a battalion of American troops stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley as bait to the Taliban. He published a touching book Infidel, won his fourth World Press Photo award for his coverage, and was nominated for an Oscar for his resulting documentary, Restrepo, which was all too human for it was palpably apolitical. His broad experiences were also recorded an ethereal webvideo, “Diary”.

To the very end, he was determined to reach out to as many people as possible; he began using twitter eight months ago, and his first and last tweet from Libya — posted just hours before he himself was hit  – read: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO”. It was fitting, if heartrending, epitaph.

Excepted from the Times of London:

When he was hit he was with [Chris Hondros of Getty], Guy Martin, a British freelance journalist and Michael Christopher Brown, an American photographer. They were covering the bitter fight for control of a bridge over Tripoli Street, which Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are trying to retake to give them a clear route into the heart of Misrata.

The group, escorted by a Libyan guide, were on the front line when the regime forces spotted them and fired a mortar round. Hetherington suffered massive blood loss by the time an ambulance managed to reach him and take him through the cratered streets to the Hikmeh hospital, where doctors did their best to revive him. Hondros, who was due to marry soon, also died late last night, while Martin suffered serious injuries to the abdomen. Brown was hit in the arm and was not believed to be in danger.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 21, 2011 at 12:11 am

Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields

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1.7 million Cambodians died during those bloody years

For five seemingly endless years, a former school in Phnom Penh codenamed S-21 was death’s antechamber. During the worse excesses of the Khmer Rouge, over 16,000 people were tortured and imprisoned in the rooms of this prison before being carted off to their executions in the nearby killing fields. And most of them passed in front of an expressionless teenager’s camera.

Nhem Ein was just ten when he left the family farm and joined the Khmer Rouge with his four brothers in 1970. In 1975, he was sent to Shanghai to study photography and filmmaking, and was subsequently made chief photographer at S-21. Using looted cameras, he meticulously chronicled life inside Pol Pot’s abattoir (New York Times)

If Brother Number One’s killing machines worked perfectly, it was due to the help of thousands like Nhem Ein who worked tirelessly to keep cogs well-oiled. As he removed their blindfolds and adjusted lights, Nhem Ein would lie to the newly arrived prisoners that “I’m just a photographer; I don’t know anything.” He would photograph hundreds of people a day, processing his film overnight to be attached to individual dossiers, comfortably cocooned from terrible realities of the Killing Fields from inside his isolated darkroom. He was careful not to let screams from torture chambers disturb his sleep, for he had to get up early to photograph the next batch of prisoners, he later recalled. As Arendt said of Eichmann, it was banality of evil personified, and like Eichmann, Nhem Ein had since retreated into bureaucratic doublespeak that he merely did what was asked of him.

That said, life was definitely not easy working for mercurial Pol Pot. When Nhem Ein accidentally damaged during development a negative of Pol Pot’s visit to China — there were spots on the eyes of the leader — he was sent to a prison farm. Only by convincing his interrogators that the film had been damaged before it reached him, Nhem Ein was spared the fate of thousands whose portraits he had taken.

Nhem Ein’s original negatives were left behind inside S-21 after the fall of Khmer Rouge. In 1997, two photographers, Douglas Niven and Chris Riley, discovered some 7,000 of them in S-21 and published 78 of them in a book called ”The Killing Fields.” Identifying them is next to impossible.

 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 12, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Politics, Society, War

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As Saddam falls

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As viewers watched on television, Marine Gunnery Sergeant Leon Lambert and Corporal Edward Chin prepared to bring down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square. Photograph by Alexandra Boulat.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue on April 9th 2003 quickly became one of the enduring images of the war in Iraq. But it was a controversial moment; in a 2004 documentary, “Control Room”, Al-Jazeera reporters argued that the toppling was merely “a show … a very clever idea,” and that Iraqis had been brought to the square like actors delivered to the stage. This sentiment was echoed by Los Angeles Times, citing an internal army report, and later by a New Yorker/ProPublica investigative report.

Since then, the issue had devolved into a series of he-said, she-said’s and it is hard to remember that it all happened only eight years ago, and all records are online and out there to review. Analysis of broadcast news with regards to this pivotal moment had been done before, but I would like to turn the focus here into how major news outlets covered it.

The BBC correspondent, who was in the square said, his impression was of “a newly free people” expressing their “overwhelming joy”. CNN’s coverage (in print at least) was monotonously factual: “A Marine draped the American flag over the head of the statue — a gesture that drew a muted reaction from the crowd, gasps in a Pentagon briefing room and anger from a commentator on the Arab news network Al Arabiya.”

The newspapers’ coverage, perhaps because it was immediate, was effusive.  The Times wrote, “It was a momentous day, reminiscent of the fall of the Berlin Wall and with it the communist empire in 1989. And no image of it will be more enduring than the toppling of that 20ft Saddam statue by a US tank egged on by a cheering, excited mob which then stamped with undisguised glee on the fallen idol.” The New York Times was equally enthusiastic: “Cheering ecstatically, a crowd of Iraqis danced and trampled on the fallen 20-foot high metal statue in contempt for the man who had held them in fear for so long. In scenes recalling the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraqis hacked at the statue’s marble plinth with a sledgehammer.” Meanwhile, the Guardian files in a confusing report.

The foreign press, according to BBC, was equally prone to sensationalism. Even the left-leaning Liberation says there were no regrets when the statue fell. Bild, too, made comparisons with the fall of other personality cults of Hitler and Stalin. Throughout the Arab World, however, TV coverage played down the fall of Baghdad, focusing on scenes of chaos and looting.

In the weeklies that were published a few days later, the tone became more tempered. The Economist noted “If the fall of a regime has a single moment of collapse, it came on April 9th.” But it also emphasized that “This was not the Berlin Wall. The crowd in the square was small.” Time magazine, too, echoed those sentiments, wryly dismissing TV stations’ more sentimental reporting.

It is my personal opinion that while the media did not deliberately exaggerate the events, its presence didn’t help either. Observation often changes the phenomenon being observed, and the toppling was perhaps a mere victim of this. While the original reportage was frenzied, I also think the subsequent accusations are equally cavalier.

The crowd was mostly reporters and journalists.

 

 

 

 

 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 10, 2011 at 9:30 am

Death of Zapata

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For all the narrowness of his goals, Emiliano Zapata surprisingly came to represent that decade-long struggle known as the Mexican Revolution. While others were fighting for the complete overthrow of the government, Zapata originally fought merely for agricultural reform and land repatriations. When the land reforms were not discussed after the initial revolution in 1911, Zapata fought on.

Although much had been made of his bravery and strategic insight these days, the fortunes of Zapata’s ragtag band was vacillating at best. Only frequent coups and governmental disarray saved his army from being annihilated. But by 1916, Zapata’s peasant revolution was faltering; Venustiano Carranza, an erstwhile rebel who was now in power, was determined to root out other rebel efforts; Carranza found Zapata and Villa’s movements most politically embarrassing and threatening for their proximity to Mexico City.

Facing defeat, Zapata tried unsuccessfully to form alliances with other revolutionaries who he had haughtily turned down years before. In 1919, while trying to lure a government colonel to his side, Zapata fell into a trap; when he arrived at the secret meeting place, Zapata was shot and killed by federal troops. Unfortunately for the government, in spranging this trap, they created a martyr in Zapata. Outside world, which had considered Mexico’s revolution as a comic nuisance before — and since — quickly condemned the assassination of a man who give it the oft-quoted phrase, Tierra y Libertad.

His movement was weakened and localized, but continued nonetheless. Carranza publicly displayed Zapata’s remains to convince people that Zapata was truly dead. It was on this occasion that the famed chronicler of the Mexican Revolution Agustin Casasola was invited to take the photo, which was widely circulated but failed to achieve the results Carranza had hoped. The claims that he was still alive persisted long after Zapata’s death.

 

 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 5, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Christmas Truce

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During the First World War, drafts created the armies that were drawn from remarkably similar societies for the first time in modern warfare. Along the Western Front, on both sides there were industrial workers and farm laborers. On both sides there were aristocratic senior officers and middle-class junior officers. For Catholics, Protestants and Jews fighting for separate armies, they sometimes identified more with their religious brethren on the opposing side than with their fellow soldiers.

The soldiers, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans and Italians were equally irreverent about what they were supposedly fighting for. Over the longer period of trench warfare, a kind of ‘live and let live’ attitude developed in certain relatively quiet sectors of the line; war was reduced to a series of rituals, as with the Greeks and Trojans. English pacifist Vera Brittain noted about a Scottish and a Saxon regiment that had agreed not to aim at each other when they fired. They made a lot of noise and an outsider would have thought the men were fighting hard, but in practice no one was hit. Robert Graves — in his pivotal memoir of the Great War, Goodbye to All That — recollected about letters arriving from the Germans, rolled up in old mortar shells: “Your little dog has run over to us, and we are keeping it safe here.” Newspapers were fired back and forth in the same fashion. Louis Barthas spent some time in a sector where the Germans and the French fired only six mortar rounds a day, ‘out of courtesy’.

Nothing symbolized this easygoing attitudes more than the informal Christmas truce of 1914, when opposing soldiers in many sectors joined together to sing carols, and exchange Christmas greetings and gifts. Soccer games were played in no man’s land with makeshift balls. Of course, there were some who refused to participate in the truce; among those was a German field messenger named Adolf Hitler, who grumbled, ““Such things should not happen in wartime. Have you Germans no sense of honor left at all?”

At Diksmuide, Belgium, the Belgian and German soldiers famously celebrated Christmas Eve together in 1914, drinking schapps together. One year later, ad hoc ceasefires took place again, this time in northern France. No man’s land was suddenly transformed into ‘a country fair’ as lively bartering began for schnapps, cigarettes, coffee, uniform buttons and other trinkets. More worryingly for their superiors, the soldiers sang the Internationale.

Yet socialist hopes that soldiers would ultimately repudiate their national loyalties for the sake of international brotherhood were proven to be futile. Christmas Truce was almost the last hurrah of a bygone era; as the war went on, mutual hatred grew, expunging the common origins and predicament of the combatants. War, too, has lost its mystique; soon, only fools would celebrate it or enter it with excited patriotic fervor. After August 1914, when thousands of red-trousered Frenchmen and white-gloved officers in full dress and plumes were decimated by German machine guns, France eschewed her pride and switched to neutral-colored service uniforms — the last world power to do so. Soon, there will be no more sabres and Sam Browne belts, no more centuries-old habits of chivalry, no more leaving civilians out of war.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 27, 2011 at 8:48 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Libya, Jack Hill

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As I have noted previously, I am on vacation; when I am on vacation, I do not blog, but I broke that rule yesterday and I am breaking it again. As I type this, sitting in my room in St. Moritz, sipping my apres ski Hot Toddy, and reading the Daily and the Times on iPad, I feel somewhat sad and disillusioned about the situation in Libya. I have many comments, but cannot bring myself to write them down from safe and cozy distance of my hotel room. I wonder whether many other commentators feel this way.

Anyway, onwards to photos. No matter what you may think of the Libyan Campaign, it cannot be denied that a lot of great photos are coming out of it; I don’t know why but Iraq and Afghanistan produced not that many memorable/iconic images, considering that there were so many photographers working there. On the cover of yesterday’s Times, there was a beautiful (if carnage can be described as such) photo of a tank explosion (above). Immediately, I told myself, wow, there was one iconic image. Many people felt this way, I guess, for today’s Times featured a piece by the photographer, Jack Hill:

About 30 km south of Benghazi, we came across the site of a huge airstrike. One tank was destroyed and another was burning. There were abandoned self-propelled guns and charred bodies covered with blankets.

Slightly farther down the road was more destruction: a munition truck was burning heavily and the ordnance was exploding out of it. It was a dramatic sight.

I moved carefully towards the burning truck. I was captivated by the smoke and the colours within it, and the exploding shells wee an impromptu fireworks display. How to photograph such a scene? It was hard to know where to look or start.

I added a 1.4 converter to my longest lens, a 70-200 mm and I filed the frame, aiming to illustrate the power and destruction of the strike. Edging as close as I felt comfortable, I compared a picture just as contents of the truck started exploding again. I started shooting, not even checking my exposures. I was shooting 1/6400th of a second at F5.6. That was accident rather than design, but the exposure was good. As I was shooting a young ran across the frame. At the time, I though “if that works out, it won’t be a bad picture”. It was hard to know what to shoot. There was so much to take in.

I chose this picture over the others because it gives a human scale to a scene that I couldn’t have imagined.”

Other great photos on Libya are courtesy of Goran Tomasevio, Suhaib Salem and Finbarr O’Reilley for Reuters, and Anja Niedringhaus for AP. (shameless ad: I recommend getting an iPad, if only for photos; its resolution is great for viewing photos, and photo sections of the Times, the Daily, Paris Match, and the New York Times really make iPad an aesthetic device).

 

 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 22, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Posted in Politics, War

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The Kill Team

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a drop in the bucket of 4,000 images

(click to see enlarged photos at Der Speigel)

In 2010, there operated in the southern province of Kandahar, Afghanistan, a US Stryker tank unit that called itself a “Kill Team”. Twelve members of that team are now currently on trail in Seattle for their role in the killing of three civilians. In one incident in May 2010, when the team arrested a mullah who was merely standing by the road, they took him into a ditch and ordered him to kneel down. The group’s leader, Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, threw a grenade at the mullah, ordered his men to shoot him, and then cut off the mullah’s fingers and a tooth. Then, he reported to his superiors that the team had no choice but to shoot the mullah because he threatened them with a grenade.

Now, Gibbs and his men are being charged for this incident, and other crimes, which included drug abuse, and possession of images of human casualties (I didn’t know that was a crime). The U.S. military had tried hard to prevent these images reaching into the public domain, but Der Speigel had obtained nearly 4000 photos and videos taken by the men; last Sunday, it has decided to publish three, editorializing that since there are collections of pictures which pointed to other heinous crimes committed, in addition to the crimes these men were on trial for, it would only be fair for a news outlet to draw attention to them.

I agree. While publishing all 4000 images will be repugnant and unnecessary, reproducing a small number of photos is informational. Like shocking images from Vietnam, these photos will spur the conversation on all too real human casualties of wars we fight, collaterals we often forget. I believe the perpetrators of these acts are merely rogue agents and bad apples, but sometimes it is healthy to examine, like in the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, whether the systemic failures of the barrel prompted these apples to go bad.

One of the nice things about writing for a blog, as opposed to writing for a newspaper, is that I don’t really have to care much about censors. (But, I have decided to link them because they are too brutal to be depicted on my homepage). But I don’t deny that these photos won’t have any consequences; they do — in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 22, 2011 at 5:59 am

Posted in Politics, War

The End of the Thousand-Year Reich

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As the Second World War came to a close, a wave of suicides swept Berlin and other parts of Germany. Hitler was a lifelong admirer of Wagner and his climatic opera, Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) where the heroine Brünnhilde returns the stolen cursed ring to the River Rhine and hurls herself onto her dead lover Siegfried’s funeral pyre. This immolation unleashes a fiery conflagration that topples the stronghold of the gods, Valhalla. According to a dispatch from a Japanese diplomat in Berlin, Hitler initially planned “to embark alone in a plane carrying bombs and blow himself up in the air somewhere over the Baltic” if the Allies enter Berlin. His motive was to suggest to his supporters “that he had become a god and was dwelling in heaven” — a Brünnhildean self-sacrifice, in a Messerschmitt.

In the end, his suicide was less grandiose and ignominious — although it didn’t stop some of his fervent followers from believing that Hitler had escaped unharmed from the wreckage of his 1000-year Reich. But Hitler was not the only Nazi to follow Brünnhilde’s example. Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler all committed suicide, as did Justice Minister Otto-Georg Thierack and Culture Minister Bernhard Rust. Eight out of 41 regional party leaders, seven out of 47 senior SS and police chiefs, fifty-three out of 553 army generals, fourteen out of 98 Luftwaffe generals and eleven out of 53 admirals killed themselves. Housing Commissar Robert Ley strangled himself awaiting trial at Nuremberg. Goering would follow him when the Nuremberg judges denied him the firing squad he requested.

This suicidal impulse was not confined to the Nazi elite. Ordinary Germans in untold numbers responded to the prospect of defeat in the same way. At the Berlin Philharmonic’s last performance, which coincidentally but not too surprisingly was Götterdämmerung, the audience was given potassium cyanide pills. In April 1945 there were 3,881 recorded suicides in Berlin, nearly twenty times the figure for March. Untold numbers of victims of rape by the Soviet Red Army also committed suicide, and news of violence and rape further propelled mass suicides in villages all over Germany. Although the motives was widely explained as the “fear of the Russian invasion”, the suicides also happened in the areas liberated by the British and American troops.

Mass suicides that created a sensation were those of Leipzig burgomaster’s family, that was captured by Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller. The photos showed a different approach between this two great female war-photographers. Bourke-White, a meticulous observer as always, kept her distance from the tragedy, even taking photos from the gallery above. Miller moved in closer; a fashion photographer covering the war for Vogue, Miller’s photo of the body of burgomaster’s daughter was almost a fashion shoot of a wax mannequin — her Nazi armband immaculately displayed, her lips parted as if waiting for a true love’s kiss that would revive her.

Bourke-White's pictures are on the left, and Miller's on the right.

 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 18, 2011 at 2:57 am

Posted in Politics, Society, War

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Arkan and the Tigers

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I have always squirmed at the expression “the photograph that changed history” for better part of last two years. Titling my blog “Iconic Photos” rather than “Photos That Changed History”, I have always insisted that vast sociopolitical decisions, rather than trinkets, that inspired historical changes. You can almost believe all that, right up until that moment you come across the one.

Ron Haviv’s photograph of a Serb gunman about to kick a bleeding woman in the head was perhaps that one for many. Ron Haviv remembers how he took that photo in The Guardian (Nov. 2009):

During the Balkans conflict, I took a photograph of the Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan holding up a baby tiger. He liked it very much, so when I met him, in March 1992, I asked if I could photograph his troops as they fought. “Sure,” he said.

Later on, I was following some of his men when I heard screaming. Across the street, they were bringing out a middle-aged couple. The soldiers were telling me not to take any photographs when, suddenly, some shots rang out and the man went down. The woman crouched down, holding his hand and trying to stop the blood. Then her sister was brought out: more shots rang out and both women were killed.

As I stood there, I realised that it would be my word against the soldiers’ unless I could get a photograph of Arkan’s men in the same frame as these three people. So as the soldiers set off back to headquarters, I waited behind for a moment. As they moved past the bodies, I lifted my camera.

I was in the middle of the street and I was shaking. When people are in the throes of killing it’s like they are on drugs: their adrenaline is so high. It would have been very easy for any of those guys to just shoot me and say the Muslims did it. Then, just as I was about to take the picture, one of the soldiers, a brash young kid in sunglasses who was smoking a cigarette, brought his foot back to kick the bodies as they lay there dead, or dying. As he did it, I took a couple of pictures, then put my camera down. All the soldiers turned and looked at me, so I smiled at them and said: “Great. Let’s go.”

I was really nervous. I wanted to leave town before Arkan found out what I had photographed, but I couldn’t leave without his permission, so I hid a couple of rolls of film in my car, and a couple down my pants. Then Arkan arrived.

After he heard what had happened, he came up to me and said: “Look, I need your film.” We proceeded to have this whole conversation about whether or not I should give him the film. I made a really big push to protect the film in my camera so he wouldn’t think there was anything else.

In the end, I had to give him the film. Then he let me go and I immediately drove to the airport and sent my film to Paris. That night, I was very emotional about what I had witnessed, and how these people had died. But at least I knew I was able to document it. I truly believed that my pictures could have a real effect in preventing a Bosnian war.

When my photos were published in magazines around the world they caused a bit of an uproar, but not as much as I had hoped. Instead I think they made a difference on an individual level. One general specifically attributed his decision to fight for the Bosnian side to this photograph, and he was one of the people largely responsible for saving Sarajevo.

I’ve been back to Bijeljina and met people in the town who have told me how important it was. The pictures from that day were also used by the war crimes tribunal to indict Arkan, and as evidence in other indictments.

A few weeks after the pictures were published, I heard that Arkan had put me on a death list, and publicly stated that he looked forward to the day when he could drink my blood. After that, I spent the rest of the war, right through to the end of Kosovo, narrowly missing him in different places. Though during the Nato bombing of Belgrade, a friend of mine actually spent time with the kid in this picture. The kid said he was very proud of it.

It made him famous.

 

Haviv also made Arkan — nom de guerre of Zeljko Raznatovic — an erstwhile juvenile delinquent and bank robber, who grew up to become a politician, famous too. The photo Haviv originally took of Arkan holding up a baby tiger became a mythic icon for Arkan’s paramilitary group, nicknamed the Tigers, whose members included some of Belgrade’s most notorious hooligans. The Tigers committed some of the most heinous atrocities during the Balkan Wars, including the Vukovar hospital massacre, in which hundreds of patients, mainly Croats, were bussed to a deserted field and executed. In the end, Arkan reaped the whirlwind of what he had sown; the man, who even Serbian President, and no angel himself, Slobodan Milosevic said he was afraid of, was unceremoniously gunned down in a Belgrade hotel in January 2000. With war-crime trials in the Hague looming, someone high-up somewhere decided that Arkan simply knew too much.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 16, 2011 at 12:25 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Roger Casement

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The prison courtyard of the Bow London Court during a recess in the Casement Trial. Roger Casement was with a leaf of paper in his hand on the extreme right.

(continuation from the Congo post)

When the news about atrocities in the Congo spread, the British government dispatched a junior civil servant in the Colonial Office named Roger Casement to investigate it. Casement, an Irishman who spent two decades as the British consul in various African colonies sent back a damning report, and became involved in the humanitarian efforts for the Congo. Knighted for his diplomatic services, Sir Roger Casement became deeply involved in Irish nationalism too. In 1914, he travelled to the United States to collect funds from Irish Americans for the purchase of black market firearms to be used in an anti-British insurrection.

Casement took a steamer from New York to Germany to make an offer to the Kaiser’s government: in exchange for support for Irish independence, Casement proposed forming a brigade of Irish freedom fighters from prisoners of war held in Germany, a unit that would battle on the German side during those tumultuous days of the Great War. Having landed in Ireland in 1916 from a German submarine, he was arrested and brought to London, where he was held in the Tower, no less.

His friends and supporters — including Arthur Conan Doyle and Geroge Bernard Shaw — organized a campaign for Casement’s defense. The trial was swift, if not tragicomic. Casement was charged under the Treason Act of 1351, which was written in Norman French, unpunctuated, and contained these words:

If a man be adherent to the king’s enemies in his realm giving to them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere …

Casement’s defence argued that Casement had not been adherent to the king’s enemies “in the realm” and therefore Casement was not guilty. Blithely ignoring the fact that Casement was clearly condemned by the phrase “or elsewhere”, regardless of how you punctuate it, the contentious sentence became the central point of the trial. Two judges were sent to the Public Record Office to examine the Act with a microscope. They discovered a faint virgule after the second “realm”, making the phrase “giving to them aid and comfort in the realm” appositionary. Casement was sentenced to death.

All efforts to commute his death sentence into life imprisonment were quickly and discreetly thwarted by the police, who showed influential figures in Parliament and London’s clubland incriminating entries in Casement’s diaries about his homosexual liaisons. Treason was a grave offense indeed, but to be a homosexual was virtually unforgivable back then. The appeals for clemency were promptly rejected.

Casement was hanged on the morning of 3rd August 1916. A few days before his execution, he wrote to a friend: “I have made awful mistakes, and did heaps of things wrong and failed at much — but … the best thing was the Congo.”

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 8, 2011 at 8:10 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Kurt Waldheim

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May 22, 1943. Podgorica, Yugoslavia. From left to right, Italian Cdmr. Escola Roncagli; Waldheim; German Col. Hans Herbert Macholtz and General of the 7th SS-Division, General Artur Phelps.

In 1986, four years after his tenure as the UN Secretary General, Kurt Waldheim made a bid to lead his native Austria. During his presidential campaign, the press released documents indicating that he had, contrary to his claims, been aware of and perhaps involved in war crimes, including the deportation of Jews to death camps when Waldheim was a lieutenant in the German army during World War II. For decades, the charming, worldly diplomat insisted that by serving in the German Army, he was protecting his family; and that he never even knew that the Jews of Salonika — who accounted for one third of the city’s population – were being shipped off to Auschwitz.

But as an adjutant on the staff of Alexander Löhr, an Austrian General who was executed for war crimes, Waldheim must have known more than he admitted. Waldheim nonetheless denounced the scandal as a conspiracy to defame Austria, and as directly motivated by the UN’s denunciation of Zionism as racism during his tenure. Selective memory, on Waldheim’s part and on many Austrians’ part, would prove to be very dangerous indeed: some of his own generation felt that he was, like them, simply a man who had been conscripted into the Nazi German army and forced to serve. His utterances, “Ich kann mich nicht erinnern” (“I cannot remember”) and “Ich habe nur meine Pflicht getan” (“I only did my duty”) resonated. They saw the attack on him as an attack on Austria. They did not want outsiders telling them whom they could or could not vote for. For many Austrians, Waldheim’s tales — no matter how tall they seemed to outsiders — aligned with their own recollections, and he won the election in a nation that remained unsure how to confront its demons.

While Germany bore the brunt of the blame for the Holocaust, other villains and collaborators slipped away unnoticed. In a country of less than seven million, there were more than 500,000 registered Nazis in Austria at the end of the war. Austrians were greatly overrepresented in the SS and among concentration-camp staff. Over 38% of the members of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra were Nazis, compared with just 7% of the Berlin Philharmonic. Jane Kramer notes in her book Europeans (1988) that although most Austrians today have never met an Austrian Jew, polls repeatedly show that about 70% of Austrians do not like Jews and a little over 20% actively loathe them. A poll by the London Observer, conducted shortly after Waldheim came to power, revealed that almost 40% of Austrians thought the Jews were at least partly responsible for what happened to them during the war and 48% of Austrians still believed that the country’s 8,000 remaining Jews — about 0.001% of total population — still enjoy too much economic power and influence.

Media quickly termed the inability to remember what you did during the war “Waldheimer’s disease”. An international panel concluded that Waldheim was not guilty of any war crimes, but seriously cast doubts of his claims of ignorance. It also pointed out that he was guilty of lying about his military record. In his memoirs Recht, nicht Rache, Simon Wiesenthal, the Jewish Nazi hunter, devoted a whole chapter to the Waldheim affair, noting Waldheim was neither a Nazi nor a war criminal. Regardless, Waldheim became a pariah on the world stage. His European neighbors had shunned him, and in 1987 he was put on America’s ‘Watch List’ of undesirable aliens — a signal humiliation. Thus, he became the first leader of a friendly nation to be barred from entering the U.S. He decided not to seek re-election for a second term, and quietly faded away.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 2, 2011 at 10:37 am

Bloody Sunday, 1905

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The 20th Century opened with Russia slowly teetering towards disenchantment and chaos. Emancipation of serfs in 1861 left many landowners at a loss — unable or unwilling to implement better administration and more efficient farming methods, they rapidly ran up crippling debts. Directly or indirectly, this led to series of poor harvests and a widespread famine in 1891, which revealed the inadequacies of the Tsarist government. Demonstrations, strikes and general unrest were slowly gathering momentum as Russia commenced a long anticipated war on Japan in 1905.

The war was initially viewed as an opportunity to improve Russia’s domestic situation, but its navy suffered humiliating defeats in the Far East. The Interior Minister Vyacheslav Plehve, who predicted that the impeding war with Japan will be a ‘victorious little war’ was assassinated. In January 1905, as military disaster unfolded, dissatisfaction erupted into revolution in St Petersburg. The immediate spark was the dubious dismissal of three workers, and the leader of the demonstration was the factory chaplain named Father Georgi Gapon. Gapon was himself no revolutionary, though he was subsequently represented as one. He wrote, “I went to the Tsar in the simple-hearted belief that we would receive pravda …. I went … to purchase with my blood the renewal of Russia and the establishment of pravda.”

At the Winter Palace, the protestors were met not by the Tsar, who was in his retreat outside the city, but by the Preobrashensky Regiment which opened fire on the procession. Above photo of the line of soldiers in their long winter coats taking aiming at a crowd on the other side of a brilliantly white square was thought to have been the only photo taken that fateful day which would go down in history as Bloody Sunday. The protestors had approached the regiment believing that the soldiers would not fire upon people carrying religious icons and images of the Tsar. They did. In the photo, demonstrators scrambled to safety as a sole isolated figure intriguingly was left alone in the no man’s land.

At the end of the Bloody Sunday, Gapon had fled, 130 demonstrators had been killed and 300 wounded according to official estimates. Foreign journalists reported as many as 4600 casualties. Its consequences were even more far reaching: as the news of the massacre spread, strikes broke out all over Russia, demanding shorter hours and higher wages. Aboard the battleship Potemkin, indignant sailors hoisted the red flag because of maggots in their meat. In Volokolamsk, peasants formed their own successionist ‘Markovo Republic’. Elsewhere, peasants looted and burned down their landlords’ residences, or cut down timber from landlords’ forests. For the first time since 1721, a Russian Tsar was forced to create a legislative assembly, the Duma. Although this Duma would prove to be ineffectual and short-lived, the other legacy of the Bloody Sunday was more indelible: before 1905, socialists, anarchists and many members of the bourgeoise had no possibility of breaking the hold of nobility and clergy in Russia. After Janaury 1905, it finally seemed their time had arrived.

(N.B. Even as I wrote this, I was aware of the controversy over the authenticity of the image. Some contend that the all-powerful Soviet TASS news agency took a still from a 1925 film by Vyacheslav Viskovski called Devjatoe Janvarja (The Ninth of January) — which was also known confusingly by another title Krovavoe voskresenje (Bloody Sunday). However, it is unknown whether the scene was created for the film, or the film used an earlier still photograph. Most scholarly books I have encountered view the photo as authentic.)

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 24, 2011 at 10:57 am

Posted in Society, War

Tagged with , ,

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