Possibly the worst movie poster in history.
Poster for “Waterloo”

In the days before CGI, epic war films were massive and costly undertakings. You wanted a shot of 10,000 guys marching across a field in full battle uniform? Well, you had to get them! You couldn’t just have Johnny the Computer Whiz draw them in after the fact.

As in actual warfare, there are innumerable logistical difficulties with re-creating these battles. You’ve got to have men in position, knowing how to use their equipment, and then film them as they maneuver in the field.

All that’s quite hard enough.  But when you are making a film for wide release, you have to have all that plus a story the audience can follow, structured so as to play out in a coherent and satisfying way over the course of two hours.

It’s this last bit that’s really tricky, because while history offers plenty of incredible and compelling stories, they rarely fit into neat three-act schemes that can be concisely portrayed in a couple of hours.

Waterloo starts out well, showing Napoleon’s abdication to Elba in 1814 and subsequent return in 1815.  Especially memorable is the moment when the Emperor walks alone to face his former soldiers, now under orders to kill him, and through sheer bravery and charisma wins them back over to his side. This is one part of the Napoleonic legend that seems made for the movies, and it certainly is a high point of the film.

After that, however, problems arise in this dramatization of the final chapter of Bonaparte’s career.  There are unnecessary voice-overs in which Napoleon (Rod Steiger) thinks in exposition for the benefit of the audience.  Many lines of dialogue uttered by officers on both sides seem like they were lifted from history books and changed to the present tense.

An inordinate amount of time is spent on Wellington’s staff at the Ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond.   This scene also includes the introduction of a totally fictional and pointless love story that goes nowhere.  The only upside is the chemistry between Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and the Duchess (Virginia McKenna).

Wellington and the Duchess
“Old Boney’s advancing on Quatre-Bras… IF you know what I mean.”

The film dwells on things like this, Napoleon’s illness, and some peculiar episode involving a British soldier stealing a pig, and yet glosses over incidents like the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny with a couple lines of dialogue.

It’s not that the film is inaccurate–indeed, they seem to have gone to some lengths to describe things in historically correct fashion. (Except for the romance and a reminiscence about Major-General Ponsonby’s father) The problem is that the film depicts these events in a strange and sometimes incoherent manner.

The biggest technical flaw is probably the mud.  The battle was famously delayed by wet ground after a rainy night, and indeed the film states this correctly. Where it falls down is the fact that the ground we see on screen is demonstrably dry, as evidenced by the huge clouds of dust kicked up by the columns of cavalry and infantry.

The end result is the comical visual of a frustrated Napoleon sinking in an obviously artificial mud puddle while all around him is a vast expanse of dry land. The fundamental historical fact is correctly depicted, but not in a dramatically effective way.

There are lots of issues like this.  After Marshal Ney’s ill-fated cavalry charge against the famous infantry squares, Napoleon rushes back to the field from his sickbed, crying, “What is he doing?  Everyone knows not to make a cavalry charge without infantry support!”

While completely factually accurate, this seems unlikely to be what Napoleon actually said at the time. It comes across as a line delivered for the benefit of audience members who aren’t familiar with the battle of Waterloo.

And this is the other difficult thing about making historical movies: balancing the history lesson aspect with the need to depict real characters, as opposed to instructional puppets designed to illustrate a historical lecture.

Chances are, if someone is watching the movie Waterloo, they are already a Napoleonic history fan. Sure, there might be the occasional viewer who is an ardent follower of Rod Steiger or Christopher Plummer, but if I were overseeing the production, I would make the executive decision that any viewer who doesn’t already know how the battle went is just going to have to piece it together as best they can–no reason the script should go out of its way to help them out.

Waterloo_1970_06Despite all of that, the movie isn’t horrible.  As an instructional device, it is not bad, and there is something inherently impressive about seeing huge lines of soldiers and horses advancing across a smoky field.  It gives you some vague hint of what it might have felt like to be in the battle.

It’s just that the film lacks a dramatic narrative.  Napoleon and Wellington don’t “come alive”; they just repeat their famous quotes and stoically watch the battle.  Because of this, it feels more like a recording of an elaborate re-enactment rather than a truly epic historical drama.

Historians are familiar with the “Miracle of Dunkirk”: the fact that Hitler ordered a halt to the Nazi advance, allowing the British time to evacuate men from the port.  Some argue that had the British been annihilated at Dunkirk, they would have surrendered to Germany.  At any rate, saving all those men was obviously a huge boon for the Allies.

What’s less clear is the reason for the Nazi “halt” order.  Some say it was given because Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, wanted a chance to demonstrate that air power could annihilate the enemy, and wanted ground forces to halt so eh could make his point. (Which he then failed to do.)

Others argue that the order was given because Hitler, being a megalomaniac, wanted to make it clear that he was the one in charge, and by ordering his generals to halt, he could demonstrate supreme authority.

Still others say it simply came down to a matter of logistics.  German armor had advanced so far so rapidly that their supply lines were stretched too far, and they needed to stop to be re-supplied.

Still others argue it was because the Nazis, caught up in their pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical racial delusions, saw the British as being of the same or similar “race”, and were reluctant to annihilate them, preferring they should surrender with few casualties and become part of the Aryan empire they envisaged.

Whatever the reason, the order was given, and it was obeyed.  And that’s the part I find interesting.

Heinz Guderian
Image via Wikipedia

The German advance through France had been led by the rather sinister-looking fellow pictured at right, Heinz Guderian. Guderian was famously a proponent of advancing very fast and unrelentingly surprising the enemy with speed. It’s probably partially thanks to his style that the term blitzkrieg got so famous.

Guderian was also not hesitant to ignore orders.  Higher-ranking officers were shocked by just how quickly he was moving through France, and ordered him to halt.  Guderian would ignore them and advance anyway, looking to press his advantage and not give the French time to regroup.

So, my question is: why did Guderian finally obey the order to halt at Dunkirk, when he had a golden opportunity? It seems wildly out of character for him. Was it simply that an order from Hitler himself he felt he had to obey? Had he in fact stretched his supply lines to the breaking point, and really was incapable of continuing to press the attack?

It’s nothing more than a footnote in the larger historical context, but it’s very interesting to me.

For the second time in a week, I’m posting something I wrote years ago.  This one isn’t nearly as fun as “The King”, though. 

But first, some background: I got into a debate with someone the other day about the treatment of Germany after each of the world wars.  To summarize: her position was that Germany was treated harshly after World War I, leading to the rise of the revenge-based Nazi party, which in turn led to World War II. After that war, the Allies didn’t punish Germany as harshly, to avoid another Nazi-like revenge effort. The lesson, she argued, was that it was better to be charitable to defeated enemies, rather than being vengeful and vindictive.

My view is a little different.  And I know a bit more than most about this, because I had to write a term paper about it in college. I’m going to post a section of it here to give my thoughts on this topic. (Be warned, it’s full of irritating jargon as a 19-year-old undergrad tried to write like the professors he’d been reading.)

***

There are several potential reasons for the differences in the treatment of Germany after World War II compared with World War I. The first and most obvious is that Germany suffered far more direct damage as a result of World War II. Many German cities were destroyed in addition to the number of lives lost. In addition, the destruction of the German government was more complete than after World War II; the elites could not be said to be left intact this time. These facts alone may explain in large part why the allies felt the need to aid the German recovery more than they did post-World War I. Also, it may have been thought that in the wake of this utter defeat, the German people had, in essence, learned their lesson. The allies may have felt they had “finished the job”, unlike after World War I.

Another reason is the dynamics of Europe after World War II. The Soviet Union and the United States, though allied in the war, immediately were at odds by the end of it. As the Soviet Union comprised Eastern European countries and even had control of East Germany, the U.S. felt that West Germany was an important strategic zone in the coming “Cold War”, and that Germany could not simply be abandoned but needed instead to be rebuilt in order that the West could have a presence in Europe to counteract the Soviet Union.

A third potential reason is the results of the treatment of Germany in the aftermath of World War I and the now apparent results. The harsh treatment of the German population after the first war had been a major factor that led to the second one, and the allies did not wish to repeat those mistakes by once again giving Germany a reason to want to acquire more territory. Of course, it is questionable, in my opinion, whether this would have been a realistic goal of Germany no matter how they were treated after the war. The devastation brought upon the infrastructure during the war was such that it would have suppressed German aggregate supply. This would mean that, far from wishing to acquire more resources, the Germans would have, without considerable help, been reduced to a poor, almost less-developed country that would be unable to rebuild for war. Furthermore, the demise of much of the population would have a decreasing effect on aggregate demand—the opposite of the scenario described above, in which a growing population increases aggregate demand, thus fueling the desire for “lebensraum”.

Because of the factors outlined above, it was imperative that the allies, led by the U.S., aid in the reconstruction of Germany. In the aftermath of World War II, the allies ordered many businesses in Germany to close. These only slowly, after a licensing process, were reopened. (Berge & Ritschl, 1995, p.9) Initially, a program of “de-Nazification” was implemented, though scholars have questioned both its effectiveness and the allies commitment to it in view of the Soviet threat. (Herz, p.1) The allies disbanded the German army in 1946. The Morgenthau plan was proposed, which essentially would have “returned Germany to a rural state”, in the words of Jeffry Diefendorf.  (Diefendorf, p. 244.)  The goal of this plan had been to make all industrial centers of Germany “international zones”, with all German territory becoming farmland. This plan was implemented to some extent initially, though later it was phased out, in favor of the Marshall plan. From 1948 to 1951, the U.S. contributed an estimated $1.4 billion to west-occupied parts of Germany under the Marshall plan. (Delong & Eichengreen, 1991, p.14)

[NOTE: I’ve cut out a lengthy section on the economic details of Germany both pre- and post-war. It uses a bunch of jargon and data unrelated to my present point. If you wonder why you see some stuff in the references that’s not cited in-text, that’s why.]

As mentioned above, after World War I, the United States’ desire to get out of the war quickly had led to a Peace that left the German elites intact, with the burden of the punishment for the war falling mainly on the civilian population. In contrast, in the wake of World War II, the German leadership was forced to suffer much more, and the population was given aid to rebuild. This is another key shift in attitude that contributed to the difference in treatment.

It would be remiss to omit the Soviet policy towards East Germany form this paper altogether. The Soviet Union’s treatment of East Germany was fairly harsh, as dismantling programs—discontinued in the West after 1947—continued past that point in the East. From this alone it appears that the Soviet Union, whether due to the nature of economic limitations, or else an unwillingness to do so out of a desire to punish Germany—the Soviet Union approved of and benefited from the harsh Morgenthau plan (Dietrich, p.14)—it appears that the Soviet Union’s treatment of East Germany was unable produce them same results as those produced in the West.

My own analysis, very broadly speaking; is that there are two points of view with regard to the reasons for the difference in treatment—one is of a more optimistic tone, the other pessimistic, or at least cynical. The optimistic explanation is that the allied forces decided that it was necessary to help the Germans to avoid again fostering a sentiment that they had been unjustly punished in some way. In this view, the lesson is that simple defeat is not enough; it is necessary to build relations and help the defeated enemy.

The pessimistic view is that it was necessary that Germany first be indisputably defeated militarily. While it may have helped matters, in the wake of the first War, if, for example, France had not demanded such exorbitant reparations; it would nonetheless be true that Germany had not suffered direct, total defeat, and thus any armistice would have seemed like a surrender. In this view, it was necessary that Germany suffer firsthand the effects of a large war on its own soil, and be defeated completely. In economic terms, the costs of war needed to be extremely high before Germany would ever abandon it. Only after this had occurred could Germany be rebuilt.

References

Berger, Helge & Ritschl, Albrecht. Germany and the political economy of the Marshall plan. 1947-1952: a re-revisionist view. In Europe‘s Post-war Recovery by Barry J. Eichengreen 1995. Published by Cambridge University Press,

Bessel, Richard. Germany after the First World War 1993. Published by Oxford University Press. Page 96.

Burdekin, Richard C.K. & Burkett, Paul. Money, Credit, and Wages in Hyperinflation: Post-World War I Germany. 2007. Economic Inquiry. Volume 30 Issue 3, Pages 479 – 495

DeLong, J. Bradford & Eichengreen, Barry. The Marshall Plan: History’s Most Successful Structural Adjustment Program. In Postwar economic reconstruction and lessons for the East today by Rüdiger Dornbusch. Published by MIT Press

Diefendorf, Jeffry M. In the wake of war 1993. Published by Oxford University Press. Page 244.

Dietrich , John The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet influence on American postwar policy 2002. Algora Publishing.

The Economist. Loads of money December 23, 1999. http://www.economist.com.hk/diversions/millennium/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=347363 Accessed May 3 2009.

Statisitsche Reichsamt, Zahlen zur Geldentwertung in Deustchland 1914 bis 1923. Quoted in Bessel, Richard. Germany after the First World War 1993. Published by Oxford University Press. Page 95.

Fischer, Conan. The Ruhr Crisis, 1923-1924 Oxford University Press, 2003

Eichengreen, Barry. Institutions and economic growth: Europe after World War II. In Economic growth in Europe since 1945. Crafts N. F. R, Toniolo, Gianni. 1996 Cambridge University Press.

Heinz-Paque, Karl. Why the 1950s and not the 1920s? Olsonian and non-Olsonian interpretations of two decades of German economic history. In Economic growth in Europe since 1945 by Crafts, N. F. R, Toniolo , Gianni 1996.

Herz , John H. The Fiasco of Denazification in Germany. 1948 Political science Quarterly. Vol. 63. No. 4. pp. 569-594

Keynes, John Maynard. The Economic Consequences of the Peace 1920. Harcourt, Brace & Howe. Inc.

Klein, Fritz. Between Compiegne and Versailles: The Germans on the way from a Misunderstood Defeat to an Unwanted Peace. In The Treaty of Versailles: A reassessment after 75 years. By Manfred Franz Boemeke, Gerald D. Feldman, Elisabeth Gläser Pages 203-220.

Myerson, Roger, B. Political Economics and the Weimar Disaster Journal of Institutional and Theoretical Economics 160 (2004), 187–209

Ritschl, Albrecht. An exercise in futility: East German economic growth and decline 1945-90. In Economic growth in Europe since 1945 by N. F. R, Toniolo , Gianni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1996.

Ritschl, Albrecht. The Pity of Peace. Germany’s economy at War 1914-1918 and Beyond. December 2003. In The Economics of World War I by Broadberry, S.N. and Harrison, Mark. 2005. Cambridge University Press.

Svenson, Jakob The institutional economics of foreign aid Swedish Economic Policy Review Vol.13 (2006) 115-137

Shuster, Richard J. German disarmament after World War I: the diplomacy of international arms inspection, 1920-1931 2006. Published by Routledge. Page 56.

Taylor, A. J. P. The origins of the Second World War 1996. Simon and Schuster

Footnotes

  1. MV = PY where M = Money in circulation, V = the Velocity of money, P = the Price level, and Y = index of goods. i.e. GDP.
  2. “Militaristic Keynesianism” is the concept of boosting aggregate demand through increasing military expenditures.

 

J.F.C. Fuller (Image via Wikipedia)

Recently, I have been reading a nice old set of military history books by a fellow named J.F.C. Fuller. It’s called A Military History of the Western World. I was reading it in preparation for a possible post I’ve been working on about Napoleon Bonaparte. Then I looked up Fuller, and decided that he was worth a post all by himself.

Fuller was a Major General in the British Army in the First World War.  He also came up with idea of using lights to aid with maneuvering troops at night. He was also called “Boney” for his admiration for Napoleon.

So far, this seems pretty normal for a military historian.  But then I got to the weirder bits of Fuller’s bio.  He was also really into the occult, and a follower of Aleister Crowley.  Says Wikipedia: “While serving in the First Oxfordshire Light Infantry he had entered, and won, a contest to write the best review of Crowley’s poetic works – he was apparently the only entrant to the contest.”  You can read it if you want–I tried, but it’s the most over-written, incoherent mythological babble I ever read, and I’ve read Clark Ashton Smith.

At this point, it’s pretty clear that Fuller was not really the very model of a modern Major-General.  It gets worse: thanks to his influential theories on mechanized warfare, “Fuller was an honoured guest at Adolf Hitler’s 50th birthday parade.”  During the war, the British government did not call him back to serve, due to his suspected Nazi sympathies.

Needless to say, after reading all this, I was a little less enthusiastic about his military history than I had been. You don’t expect to find out that the author of a rather dry history was also an occultist Nazi.  I mean, if I read a story with a character like that, I would say it was over the top. But now, I am tempted to write something with such a character as a villain.  It offers some interesting possibilities.