Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Battle of Agincourt

St. Crispin’s Day, 25th October 1415.

After the siege and fall of the French city Harfleur, the English king Henry V decided to march to Calais through Normandy with the bulk of his army. On October 8, 1415, he set forth on the journey which took an unexpected turn when the French army blocked their way across river Seine. The English army was extremely fortunate for they found a crossing several days later after marching up-stream along the southern bank. But the French army still followed the exhausted English. This left Henry V with no option but to make a stand and fight. This he did on the 25th of the same month near Agincourt. This battle turned out to be one of the most successful battles in the British military history. In a battle lasting for around 3 hours, it is said that a depleted and exhausted army of around 5,500 routed an army at least 3-4 times its size (the claims of the sizes of the armies is a point of debate which we will not consider for now). The French losses were staggering with 7,000-10,000 deaths and more than a thousand captured. The losses on the English side were comparatively much lower.

The English had nothing to lose from the battle. The bulk of their small army was archers whereas the French army mostly comprised of heavily armed knights and men-at-arms. The English could only hope that the accuracy and range of their longbows would give them an advantage before the French cavalry pounced on them. But, given the numerical superiority, the French could easily negate that slim advantage.

However, there was one distinct advantage for the English army over their opponent, which proved to be decisive. It was the unity of command. The English were led by their king, who inspired his army to stand up to the challenge whereas the French did not have a single leader who could unite their army. The mentally ill king Charles VI and also the Dauphin were absent from the battle and the army was led by several lords such as Charles d’Albret. The competition between the lords and the absence of unity greatly hampered the French cause.

On that historic day, the English army lined up near the village of Maisoncelles, where they had camped for the night, expecting an imminent attack. The French stood facing them about three quarters of a mile away between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt and contrary to the expectation of the English, they were willing to wait. Henry V expected the French to attack at daybreak and exhaust themselves in doing so. However, three hours after daybreak, when the expected attack did not come, the king began to lose his confidence. He knew that the battle had to be fought that day. For his exhausted army, there would be no tomorrow. With no food, they could not keep their hopes for another day. Taking this into consideration, Henry V and his advisors took the decision to take the initiative themselves.

The English army moved forward in their formation of men-at-arms at the centre and archers flanking them in lines curving in. This enabled the archers to shoot at the French at the centre of their line. When the French were within the range of the longbows, the English stopped and the archers planted long stakes they had carried with them in the ground in front of them. These were intended to hinder the cavalry. It was these archers who shot their arrows at the heavily armored French thus prompting them to advance.

The French were in a formation of three lines of men-at-arms, the third line mounted. Between the first two lines there were some archers. Flanking the main lines were more mounted men-at-arms and some guns.

It was these mounted men in the flanks who made the first move against the English. They galloped the 300 yard stretch separating the two armies bravely. The archers hit many horses and wounded them. This infuriated the animals and they either rolled to the ground or ran off in all directions. Many horses ran back towards the French men-at-arms who were now moving forward and created havoc in their lines. However, some of the cavalry managed to reach the English line. Upon reaching it, their horses were impaled on the fence of stakes the archers had erected. The riders were thrown off, soon to be hacked to death by the archers.

The dismounted men-at-arms reorganized themselves and moved forward. The same factors that seemed to be advantages to the French army turned out to be the opposite. Their armour impeded their movement and the mud in the field made it worse. Once they reached the English men-at-arms, the French found little room to fight. The front was too narrow for such a large army and they were too congested. The English on the other hand had a smaller army and could fight effectively as their colleague did not hinder their movement. What followed is reported to be the annihilation of the French army. When they fell, the heavy armour prevented them from getting up and others fell upon them. Many died due to suffocation rather than battle wounds and many more were captured while lying under the bodies of other men. Thus in a short while a large number had been taken prisoner.

The third line of the French, consisting of mounted men-at-arms watched the scene helplessly. They were at first not willing to join the battle. But, they did not leave their positions either. So, there was the possibility of them making a charge at the English. If this happened the English were going to be forced to abandon their prisoners. In such an event, the prisoners could easily take up arms and attack from behind or just escape. It is said that because of this threat, Henry V ordered the majority of the prisoners to be killed keeping only the most valuable men such as the Duke of Orleans alive. What followed was a cold blooded murder which may be attributed to something done out of necessity. However, knowing there was no hope of victory, the mounted French knights decided to leave.

The battle of Agincourt was undoubtedly a decisive military victory for the English. But the English could not follow up on the victory. It took another campaign several years later for Henry V to gain control in France.

There seemed to be a lot of points to be clarified in the historical accounts written. Many were undoubtedly written to glorify the English king. What is clear is the fact that many French lords were either killed or taken prisoner on that day. But the facts such as the claims about the extent of numerical superiority of the French and whether Henry V was a good general are points of debate and will be so for years to come.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Romania 1989-A Violent Christmas

As the revolutionary year of 1989 approached its final month, the Communist regimes in the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe had fallen one after the other. But, in one country the government was still in firm control, mainly due to the omnipresent security police, the Securitate. But, by the end of the year, a revolution had taken place and the regime had fallen.

For two dozen years, Romania had been the domain of its despotic ruler Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. It was the most oppressively ruled Eastern European country except Albania under Hoxha and the most independent of the USSR in the Warsaw Pact. Initially his regime gained popularity in the West due to the refusal to severe diplomatic ties with Israel after the Six Days War and for opposing the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by the Warsaw Pact. But, especially in the latter years of his rule, Ceausescu turned into a dangerous megalomaniac. He acted not as the leader of a “developed socialist experiment” but as an African tribal prince, attributing all achievements of his nation (both real and fabricated) to his personal genius. The sycophantic media lauded him as Romania’s “Great Conductor”, “Herald” and “Polyvalent Genius” among other things. As if it was not enough, Ceausescu was elevated to the level of a saint and a living, secular god.

These flamboyant terms could not deceive the Romanian public. Infant mortality was high and medication was scarce. While food was scarce at home, Romania exported food and other produce to pay the staggering debts. The government had razed more than a score of villages to build grandiose “agro industrial complexes” in the countryside, mainly in Transylvania where ethnic Hungarians resided.

Ceausescu regime was characteristic for its nepotism. Nicolae, Elena and their family members occupied important positions in the government and the Communist Party. It was as if Ceausescu was going one step further than Stalin, advocating “socialism in one family” instead of “socialism in one country.”

While he was idolized by his state media, Ceausescu was an outcast for many foreign leaders. In early 1989, when Sweden brought up a motion against Romania’s treatment of ethnic Hungarians at the UN Human Rights Commission, it prompted the first ever quarrel between two Warsaw Pact countries at the UN. Hungary vehemently opposed Romania in support of the Magyars across the border and even the USSR abstained from voting. Ironically it was the “Hungarian question” which started the chain reaction of the revolution.

The events started in the small town of Timisoara on the 16th of December when the government attempted to evict a dissident Hungarian Reformist pastor, Laszlo Tokes. His parishioners gathered around his residence to protect him. Later, as others joined in, the gathering turned into an anti-government protest and the initial cause was largely forgotten. Protest marches, riots and strikes spread in the region.

Romanians in other regions were largely ignorant of the upheaval until Ceausescu’s speech on the national television on the 20th. Back from Iran from what was to be his last official trip, he accused foreign elements for the events in Timisoara. On the next day, a rally was called in Bucharest. From the balcony of the Communist Party Central Committee building, he spoke to a crowd exceeding 100,000. The vast majority of the gathering resented Ceausescu but he totally misunderstood the people. When a commotion rose in a section of the crowd and Ceausescu lost control of them. Although the live telecast on television was stopped, the nation had already witnessed glimpses of the unprecedented event. Meanwhile in the capital itself, a riot developed and the Securitate and other loyalist forces began shooting at the crowd. But the popular movement spread like wild fire. The Ceausescus fled Bucharest and were later captured and executed on Christmas day after a show trial.

Fighting continued for a few more days between the Ceausescu loyalists and the new regime of National Salvation Front led by Ion Iliescu. But by the end of the year Iliescu was firmly in control. It was not the return of democracy to Romania in a true sense as Iliescu also was extremely authoritative and undemocratic. But the hated Ceausescu and his even more hated wife was no more, ending up as two of the thousands of casualties in the only violent revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989. It reminds what John F. Kennedy said once: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

The Velvet Revolution

The Berlin wall was the ultimate symbol of the suppression of civil liberties by the Communist regimes in the Eastern Europe. Therefore when it fell on the 9th of November 1989, the fate of all the Eastern bloc regimes was decided. When and how they would fall were questions to be answered by the passage of time. But the fact that they would eventually fall like a pack of cards was a forgone conclusion after that remarkable day.

Czechoslovakia was a unique member among the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe. It was the only Eastern European democracy until Nazi Germany occupied it. During the Second World War, the country was not subjected to heavy bombing and not many battles were fought on its soil. Therefore, unlike much of continental Europe, the infrastructure of the country remained largely intact. After the war, democracy returned with the Communist Party having more influence than before the war. This was partly due to the presence of Soviet troops and partly due to the part played by the party in the anti-Nazi struggle. Their influence culminated in February 1948 when they seized power.

For two decades, the Communists ruled the country strictly following the Soviet model. Then everything seemed to change during the ‘Prague Spring’ which resulted in the invasion by the Warsaw pact countries. The Soviet style control was reestablished and Czechoslovakia was effectively an occupied country until 1989. Due its strategic location and its industrial capabilities, Czechoslovakia was vital for the defense of the Soviet Union. Therefore the ‘big brother’ wanted the ‘little brother’ in total control, whatever the cost may have been. The Communist Party ruled the country effectively as the organ of Soviet occupation. It tried to appease the population by increasing the living standards with little success. The feeling of despair of the Czechoslovak people was epitomized by the sacrifice of Jan Palach who burned himself to death in January 1969.

The Soviet way of thinking began to change with the ascendancy of Gorbachev in the Kremlin. The cost of maintaining satellites was considered an impediment to the economy of the Soviet Union. Rather than confronting the West, Gorbachev strived for more understanding between the superpowers intending to end the Cold War, so that he would be able to drastically reduce the staggering defense expenditure of his country.

The reforms introduced in the Soviet Union called for more open criticism of the regime and the past mistakes. This eventually undermined the firm hold on power of the Communist Party. In Eastern Europe, no Soviet satellite was willing to follow the example from Moscow. Initially, Gorbachev was expected to be replaced by the more hard-line Communists unhappy with the sweeping reforms he introduced. Therefore, no leader of the Eastern bloc wanted to follow his lead knowing that his possible successor would prosecute them for it later. But, ‘Gorby’ managed to survive and yet the Eastern Europeans were still reluctant to follow him. The major reason for this reluctance was the fact that many leaders of these countries had been in power for at least more than a decade. To criticize the past meant criticizing themselves, which they were not willing to do.

However, the new thinking of the Gorbachev camp in Moscow was a staggering blow to the Eastern European countries. Their economies were organized on the Soviet method and therefore heavy industry was given the priority and consumer goods were in a short supply. The foreign debt had now become a huge burden because the market for the industrial products had fallen in the West due to recession. The combination of mismanagement, low production and the fall of the markets for the industrial products resulted in the effective crippling of the economies of Eastern Europe. With the Soviet Union not willing to help out, the Eastern bloc was in dire straits.

The people of Czechoslovakia, living in an occupied country with a nominal independence, longed for true independence and liberty. They were not entirely silent after 1968. The suicide of Jan Palach was but one act of defiance. Later, Charter 77 became the base of the fight for liberty, which was signed by Czechoslovak intellectuals in January 1977. Some of the signatories were prosecuted harshly, including Vaclav Havel who became the first post Communist President of the country in 1989, at the end of the Velvet Revolution.

The Velvet Revolution was the process which started with student demonstrations on the 17th of November 1989, a week after Berlin wall had fallen and the Bulgarian leader Zhivkov had been replaced. Actors of theatres and other people joined in the protests soon, and the government found itself in difficulty to control the situation. With media personnel also joining the opposition ranks the Communist regime gradually fell apart, first in Slovakia and later in the country in general. The revolution ended with the Communists stepping down and Vaclav Havel becoming the president in the Federal Republic in late December 1989, ending 41 year domination by the Communists.

The Fall of the Berliner Mauer

The fall of the wall which divided the city of Berlin in 1989 shook the world completely despite the wave of protests sweeping through East Germany at the time. Germans in both East and West had by then accepted the wall as an inevitable political reality. In September 1987, when the East German leader, Erich Honecker, paid a historic official visit to Bonn, his West German counterpart, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, treated him as if they would be conducting ‘business as usual’ as leaders of two countries for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, in January 1989, when Honecker claimed that the wall would stand for another hundred years, many people did not doubt his prediction. But within months, things took a turn from which there would be no return. The fall of the wall was neither the beginning nor the end of the collapse of the Eastern European Communist regimes. However, it gave a clear and unmistakable indication of the outcome of the revolutionary year of 1989.

Even though the end of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe came in 1989, the beginning of the end was the beginning itself, because these were largely artificial creations orchestrated by Stalin in the latter half of the 1940s. In many of these countries, the communist parties were too weak to seize power either by democratic or revolutionary means. It was the presence of the Red Army which enabled the creation and the continuation of these Communist states. Stalin obtained a buffer zone between the West and the Soviet Union, which was essential for the national defense of his country. Also, it became an added burden to the Soviet regime as their comrades to the East could not take care of themselves.

This was largely the case in East Germany where the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was proclaimed on the 7th of October 1949. The Socialist Unity Party (SED) was the ruling party in the country. If there was a free election in the Soviet occupation zone in Germany, there could not have been much doubt over the result. The Western powers wanted a Germany united on their terms but the Soviet Union wanted a united Germany, on their terms. Both parties were not prepared to compromise as neither of them wanted to lose the potential advantages of having an ally such as Germany in Central Europe and this attitude did not allow any solution other than division. In May 1949, after the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was proclaimed in Trizonia (British, French and American zones) the Communists proclaimed the GDR in the Soviet zone.

Therefore in Germany a situation arose in which a nation was divided due to decisions of the superpowers. Furthermore, the Germans now had the opportunity of comparing the two alternative social systems; democratic politics and the market economy in the West and Communist rule and Stalinist central planned economy in the East.

In Western Germany, the Federal Republic enjoyed the cooperation of the Western powers and received aid under the Marshall plan to the extreme regret of the East German regime. The German Democratic Republic could not receive Western aid because Stalin did not allow his satellites to do so. This was only one incident where it became obvious that the policies of the GDR were not decided in Berlin. They were decided in Moscow.

Stalin’s decision making favored the Soviet Union over its satellites. After the war, the Soviets transported a large quantity of livestock and industrial plants located in their occupation zone to their own country. The GDR had to follow the Soviet economic directives. Land was collectivized; heavy industries were started following the Stalinist policy with little or no consideration of their applicability and sustainability. Less attention was given to the production of consumer goods and the development of small scale industries. Being a more agricultural area than West Germany, these policies never favored the East Germans. The GDR could not match the abundance of commodities in the West. The Federal Republic was becoming more and more attractive to the GDR citizens with the passage of time.

Thus they began to ‘vote by their feet.’ A large number of East Germans left for the West, mainly through Berlin. The inner German border between the German states was closed off by a barbed wire fence in 1952. But it was different in Berlin. Although a city already divided into two political entities, there was no physical barrier dividing East Berlin and West Berlin. The two parts were connected by streets and waterways. Public transportation was functioning between East and West. To get to the West, you could get a bus or a boat or sometimes simply walk your way. West Berlin served as a small enclave in the midst of hostile territory behind the iron curtain. It was a huge loophole in the prison called the GDR and many ‘prisoners’ took the advantage to the utmost. Between 1949 and 1961, around 3.5 million people, nearly 20% of the population of the country left the GDR and many of them left through Berlin. Among these were a large number of doctors, engineers, technicians, teachers and skilled workers who were vital for the development of a nation. This brain drain and staggering loss of manpower had a negative impact on the development of the socialist state for which the Communist statesmen could find no answer. Or it seemed so, until that fateful night in August 1961.

As almost all of the major policy decisions of the GDR government, the idea of erecting a wall as a physical barrier to curb the emigration of its citizens-to seal off the prison state for good-may have come from Moscow. Walter Ulbricht signed the order on the night of the 12th of the month and after midnight, police and military units of the GDR got to work. A barbed wire fence was erected enclosing West Berlin completely, including the 43 km stretch which divided the city itself. East German citizens who went to bed on Saturday woke up in a virtual prison on Sunday morning.

The East German regime tried to justify the wall as an “anti fascist rampart” and a protective wall against Western agents. However, the fact that citizens of the Western countries including the West Germans were not prohibited from traveling to the East while the East Germans were forbidden to travel to the West made these arguments obsolete. The fact that West Berliners were not permitted to travel to East Berlin was an exception arising from the fact that the Soviet bloc did not recognize it as an integral part of the FRG.

Although the wall was successful in curbing the emigration of East Germans, it could not kill their longing for freedom. Numerous escape attempts were made and some of them were successful while others were not, including the notorious incident involving the 18 year-old Peter Fechter, who was shot and let to bleed to his death by the guards in full view of the Western world.

After taking the most important decision of its lifetime-albeit at the Soviet overlord’s prompting-the GDR regime could now turn its attention to the development of the socialist economy. This was largely based on the centrally planned model although there were some minor reforms attempted occasionally. Although not immune to the inherent problems of central planning, East German economy improved. The GDR could boast of the largest per capita income of the Soviet satellites. Social conditions improved and even by early 1989 when other Eastern bloc nations were facing economic difficulties, business was as usual in East Germany. Food and other commodities were available in stores although the consumer demand was rising faster than the supply. The regime had total confidence in its stability and Erich Honecker could claim that the wall would remain for another hundred years if the conditions which made the wall a necessity did not change.

But, the conditions changed abruptly within the year.

The dramatic turn of events started because of several decisions made outside East Germany. Surprisingly, it was not in the Soviet Union, although the Gorbachev regime must have given its blessing to these developments. In early 1989 the Hungarian government took the surprising step of allowing other political parties to function. Then on the 23rd of August 1989, the Hungarian government dismantled the barbed wire fence on the border with Austria. The iron curtain was breached. The East Germans people, among others in the Eastern bloc, took full advantage of it.

Initially only a small number of East Germans, mainly people who were spending their holiday in Hungary, took advantage and traveled to West Germany through Austria. However, when more and more people joined the procession, it became a serious issue. Hungary eventually stopped the East Germans from crossing the border to Austria. The East Germans flocked to the West German embassy in Budapest refusing to leave for the GDR. They could not leave and the GDR allowed the people to return. Meanwhile in Czechoslovakia too, the East Germans demanded passage to the West. This time, the SED regime allowed them to leave for West Germany, but the trains which carried them had to go through the GDR. East Germans tried to board these trains clashed with the Volkspolizei (Peoples’ Police). These events triggered demonstrations first in Dresden and Leipzig and initial crackdown by the government only managed to increase the number of protesters. By early October, when the GDR was celebrating its 40th anniversary, the regime was in its worst crisis ever. Gorbachev visited the country to participate in the celebrations and made it clear that unlike in the past, the Soviet Union would not come to the defense of its satellites. The GDR had to deal with her internal affairs herself.

Things were moving faster than all expectations. Honecker was replaced by Egon Krenz, who tried to implement some reforms. But, it came far too late. Protesters flooded the streets in a number of cities and the SED was losing control rapidly. Then, they took the decision from which there could be no return. On the 9th of November, they opened the wall.

Actually, it was not intended to open the border immediately but the official who announced the decision, Gunther Schabowski, had not been briefed properly. Upon hearing the news, East Berliners flooded the checkpoints in the wall and there was a lot of confusion because the border guards had not been informed. Of course, there was no East German official who dared to countermand the announcement and the wall had to be opened. The dramatic celebrations might not have occurred if the wall was opened as the GDR government had intended.

The intention of the Communist regime was to win the support and confidence of the people by allowing them the freedom to travel. They wanted the population to stay and rebuild the country following the virtuous, humane aspects of Communism. However, the vast majority of the East Germans were not prepared to make the sacrifices which were required to rebuild the shattered economy. Living under the autocratic rule of the SED for 40 years, the people had lost the interest in making sacrifices for the country. Also, life in the West seemed easier and therefore more people left the East. Apart from that the change of political currents became obvious in March 1990, when the East German Christian Democrats swept the first free elections in the country. In July, the failed GDR Mark was replaced by the Deutsche Mark in an attempt to arrest the further collapse of the economy of East Germany. Thus, with the two economies linked, the reunion of Germany was to be only a formality. On the 3rd of October 1990, the GDR ceased to exist and the two German nations became one.

Completed on: October 25, 2009.