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1918: The Turn of a Coin

On 8 August 1918, one hundred years ago on Wednesday, it finally became clear who was going to win the First World War. Nine Canadian and Australian divisions, almost 200,000 men, attacked the German trenches near Amiens, deep in France – and for the first time in the war, the German troops ran away.

By the second day of the battle the Germans were resisting fiercely again, but the German commander, General Ludendorff, called it “the black day of the German army.” After that Germany did nothing but retreat, and the armistice was signed only three months later.

Yet just a few months before, Germany nearly won the war. The Bolshevik Revolution took Russia out of the war in 1917, and Germany was able to shift half a million troops to western Europe. For the first time it had numerical superiority over the British and French troops, and the great German offensives of spring 1918 tore the old Western Front apart.

But the German offensives ran out of steam without permanently splitting the French and British armies, and the war might have ended there, in a draw. Everybody was exhausted by 1918. Half the French army had mutinied in 1917 and was still not fit for combat. British divisions were down to half their strength.

Only the Canadians and the Australians still had full-strength divisions (20-25,000 men), and they were very experienced troops by 1918. That’s why they spearheaded almost every attack in the ‘Hundred Days’ offensive that ended the war. But the real reason German morale collapsed was that 10,000 more American troops were landing in France EVERY DAY.

The inexperienced American troops didn’t play a starring role in the ‘Hundred Days’, but their presence was decisive. Everybody knew there would be 3 million American soldiers in France by the end of the year, and they’d gain combat experience fast enough. Once Germany’s last-chance offensives of spring 1918 failed, it was bound to lose the war.

That’s the real history, and the result was a catastrophic defeat for Germany and a peace treaty so harsh that it laid the foundations for the rise of Hitler and a second, even worse world war. But change only one decision, and it could all have come out very differently.

That decision was taken in January 1917. At that point there seemed no way for Germany to beat the far larger numbers of its enemies on the battlefield, and a German admiral persuaded the government to launch unrestricted submarine attacks on ships bringing supplies to Britain – including ships of neutral countries like the United States.

That would bring America into the war, of course, but the admiral promised that Britain would be starved into making peace long before any American troops reached Europe. He was wrong: Britain didn’t starve, and the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917. By mid-1918 US troops were flooding into France, and the game was up.

But the first Russian revolution happened just after Germany decided on unrestricted submarine warfare. If that decision had been delayed by only two months, people in Berlin would have known that Russia was probably going to leave the war. Then they would never have taken the desperate gamble that the admiral was urging on them.

The German U-boats would never have sunk American ships, the US would have stayed out of the war – and Germany might have won in 1918.

That would have been a good thing, because Germany would not have won a huge, decisive victory. It would just have won on points: OK, our spring offensives didn’t succeed, but they came close. Our troops are standing up to your counter-offensive (no masses of American troops to demoralise them). So maybe we should all just quit and go home.

After four years and ten million deaths, that would have been hard to do, but continuing the fighting into 1919 or 1920 would have been even harder. With Russia out of the war and America never in, neither side could hope for a decisive victory. They were all terrified of having revolutions like Russia’s if the carnage went on. So stop now.

There would have been no ‘peace’ treaty like Versailles that heaped all the blame for the war on one side and made the losers pay the entire cost of it (‘reparations’). Germany would presumably have got its colonies back, but no territory would have changed hands in western Europe. And there probably would not have been a second world war.

Hitler came to power because Germany was punished so severely for a ‘war guilt’ that was really a shared responsibility. A ‘no-score draw’, by contrast, could have focussed people’s attention more sharply on the basic lunacy of an international system that fostered such wars.

By the turn of a coin we got the 20th century that’s in the history books instead. Too bad. It’s hard to think of a different 20th century that would have been worse.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 13. (“The inexperienced…war”; and “After…now”)

Non-Linear

Here are two interesting facts. One is that the winter temperatures in the Arctic this year were the highest ever recorded. On two days in February, it was actually warmer at the North Pole than it was in Zurich, Switzerland. At one location in Greenland, the temperature rose to 36 degrees C higher than the usual average for that time of year.

The other interesting fact, revealed last month in two articles in ‘Nature’, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, is that the Gulf Stream is slowing down. In fact, it is now moving more slowly that at any time in the past 1,600 years (which is as far back as studies have gone). This could be very bad news for Western Europe.

The difficulty comes in figuring out what these facts mean – if they mean anything at all, and are not just random variations of an unusually extreme kind. And this is the point in the discussion at which you start to hear the climate scientists use the word ‘non-linear’ all the time.

Most people think of global warming as a smooth, gradual process. It might end up doing a lot of damage, but it will sort of creep up on you, not smack you in the face. Unfortunately, that is not how climate change has proceeded in many past cases of warming or cooling.

The change can be abrupt and quite extreme – and once it has happened, it becomes the new normal, perhaps for a very long time. Like many complex systems, the climate is non-linear: it stays the same for a long time, and then suddenly some ‘tipping point’ is reached, and the whole thing flips into a different configuration.

Now, the warming in the Arctic is not non-linear. It’s a trend that has been continuous for decades, although it has accelerated greatly in recent years: the amount of sea-ice coverage at the point of maximum freeze-up, in late March, has been far lower in 2015-18 than ever before.

Indeed, we’re almost certain to see an ice-free Arctic Ocean at the end of the summer melt season at some point in the next decade. Some of the ice will reform in the following winter, but less and less of it as the years pass. Without ice cover the water will be warmed directly by sunlight, so one day the whole ocean will be mostly ice-free year-round.

The focus of concern for the moment, however, is on what the warming is doing to the Greenland ice-cap. This ice is on land, and when it melts it raises the sea-level. More importantly for the near term may be the fact that it is putting a large volume of fresh water into the northern North Atlantic Ocean.

That may be part of what is slowing the Gulf Stream down. It’s a surface current of warm water from the tropics that travels at an average speed of six km per hour, contains as much water as there is in all the world’s rivers, and moves it all the way up to the seas between Iceland and Norway. Then the water cools off, drops to the bottom, and returns southwards as a deep-water cold current.

The Gulf Stream helps keep north-western Europe warm: England is at the same latitude as Labrador, but the average temperature is more than 10 degrees C higher. Norway, with 5 million people, is about the same latitude as southern Greenland (pop. 50,000). But the Gulf Stream has stopped entirely a number of times in the distant past, sometimes for centuries.

To be more precise, it stops going so far north: it ‘overturns’, dives to the bottom and heads back south long before it reaches the latitude of European countries like Ireland, Britain and Norway. And when it has done that in the past, the average temperature in those countries dropped by up to 10 degrees C.

There is reason to suspect that what was happening in these incidents was that a global warming trend was melting a lot of cool fresh water into the northern seas and blocking the Gulf Stream from getting so far north. So is that about to happen again? Nobody knows, but according to the latest studies the Gulf Stream has already slowed by 15% in the past 50-150 years.

When it shut down in the past it was abrupt and fast: non-linear, in other words. The 15% slowdown is not necessarily an indicator that the whole northern branch of the current is on the brink of shutting down. But then again, it might be.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“Indeed…year-round”)

What North Korea Wants

What does Kim Jon-un want? One thing: security.

He doesn’t want to conquer the world. It’s impractical: only one out of every 300 people in the world is North Korean. He doesn’t even want to conquer South Korea. It’s twice as populous as North Korea and ten times richer: eliminate the border and Kim’s regime would crumble in months. And he certainly doesn’t want to attack the United States.

King Kim III (as we would have called him a couple of centuries ago) declared last week that North Korea has now completed the task of building a nuclear deterrent to ward off a possible American attack. It will return to the task of building its economy and prosperity instead. Indeed, it will “ stop nuclear tests and launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” and even shut down a nuclear weapons test site.

He’s obviously laying out his negotiating position for the summit meetings that are planned for this month with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and for next month with US President Donald Trump. He clearly wants a deal, but he has long been afraid of an American attack. There could be a deal, but only if Washington and Seoul acknowledge that his fear is real.

A little story from the Cold War. I only realised how deeply I had been affected by the propaganda I had heard all my young life when I attended my first NATO military exercise in Europe as a journalist. It was the same exercise scenario as always, with Russian tanks surging forward to overrun Western Europe and outnumbered NATO troops struggling to halt the attack.

I did know that NATO wasn’t really outnumbered. It had almost twice as many people as the Soviet Union and its allies, and at least four times the wealth. It just chose to have smaller armies because soldiers are very expensive to maintain, and relied instead on the early use of nuclear weapons. But I had never questioned the threat of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. Nobody did.

Then one day, I was interviewing a senior British army officer and for some reason I asked the obvious question I had never bothered to ask before. What scenario did the Russians use when they ran their military exercises?

Oh, he said airily, their scenarios imagine that we have invaded East Germany, but after a few days they manage to turn it around and start pushing us back west. When their tanks are breaking through the Fulda Gap we use nukes to stop them, and the whole thing rapidly escalates into a general nuclear exchange.

Well, of course. Would the Russians tell their troops that they were launching a deliberate attack on the West that would end in a full-scale nuclear war? No. As the weaker side in the long confrontation, would they ever even consider doing that? Probably not. But I had never considered the fact that the Russians were afraid of us.

It had simply not occurred to me before that a country that had been invaded by everybody from Napoleon to Hitler, and had lost at least 20 million killed in the Second World War, might be obsessed about the threat of being attacked by us. We were the good guys: surely they must realise that we would never do that. But OF COURSE they didn’t.

Maybe we were ‘the good guys’ in that confrontation, in the sense that our countries were democracies and their countries were dictatorships, but in terms of threat perception and over-reaction the two sides were identical. The situation in the Korean peninsula is the same story in microcosm.

The Kim dynasty inherited a devastated country at the end of the Korean War in 1953. Its cities were levelled and at least a million people had been killed. The Chinese troops who had helped North Korea went home after the war, but the American troops stayed in South Korea. Moreover, the Americans had nuclear weapons and would not promise not to use them – and there was no peace treaty, just an armistice.

The Kims built a very big army as a partial and unsatisfactory counter-threat to US nuclear weapons, and started working on their own nukes as soon as the economy had been rebuilt to the required level. However, that big army created a threat perception in the US and South Korea as real and acute as North Korea’s own fears.

So how might you negotiate your way out of this futile and dangerous confrontation? Pyongyang won’t give up the nuclear deterrent it has worked so long and hard to build: there’s not enough trust for that. But Kim is saying that he is willing to leave it at its current small and technologically primitive level. It’s no real threat to the US in its present form.

Concentrate instead on a peace treaty that gives North Korea a sense of security at last. Demand as a quid pro quo that Pyongyang reduces its ridiculously large army to the same size as South Korea’s. And promise that once those cuts have been made, the US troops in South Korea will go home.

It might work. It’s certainly worth a try.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“I did…did”; and “It had…didn’t”)

Congo: Drifting into Dangerous Waters

You have to admire Joseph Kabila’s cheek, if nothing else. On Saturday, at his first press conference in seven years, the long-serving president of the Democratic Republic of Congo said: “We have to have elections as scheduled.” But they were scheduled for December of 2016.

Kabila had been in office for fourteen years by then, but somehow he had forgotten that you need an up-to-date voters’ list before you can hold an election. So he generously offered to stay in office as president for another year while this was done, even though he was not allowed to run for a third term as president.

The various opposition parties and the Catholic Church, which has immense influence in the DRC, were not greatly pleased by that. However, they reluctantly agreed to go along with it and the election was rescheduled for December 2017 – last month.

As it became clear that the deadline would not be met the demonstrations and protests multiplied, and the ‘security forces’ grew more repressive: a recent UN report found that state agents had carried out 1,176 killings in 2017. And late last year Kabila declared that the elections would have to be postponed again, to December 2018.

“Kabila does not have any intention to leave power,” said Felix Tshisekedi, a prominent opposition leader, after the latest postponement. “His strategy is to spread chaos across the country and then delay elections because he’ll claim there is too much violence.” The violence is certainly increasing, and there is a serious risk that Congo is sliding back towards civil war, but it’s too simple to blame it all on Kabila.

Joseph Kabila came to power when his father Laurent-Desire Kabila, a warlord who had emerged victorious in the first civil war in 1997, was assassinated in 2001. He was only 29 at the time (although his father had already made him army chief of staff), and he had no political following of his own.

He has subsequently become very rich, but he is still not a powerful figure in his own right. He was put in office by the security forces, now dominated by the men who led his father’s rebel army, and he remains largely a figurehead while they make the real decisions. The problem is that they can’t decide who should replace him.

Kabila didn’t actually forget to change the law that restricted him to two terms of office. Doing that would have been simple enough if the men who really run things had all wanted him to stay in office. (Three other African leaders have changed the rules on term limits so they could stay in office in just the past year.)

Nor is there much doubt that Kabila would have won if there had been an election last year or the year before. It’s the regime’s own people who are slowly compiling the voters’ lists, and the choices they make will doubtless guarantee a victory for the regime. The situation is drifting towards chaos because the various factions within the security forces cannot agree whether to keep Kabila in power or switch to another figurehead.

It’s all about who has access to resources (for which read money) within the regime, but meanwhile 81 million Congolese are being dragged towards another civil war. The last one, in 1998-2003, killed at least 5 million Congolese, mostly from hunger and disease. They do not need another.

There is already heavy fighting between militia groups and the army in the east and south-east, with the majority of the casualties, as usual, being civilians. It would be comforting to believe that an election could stop all this, but it can’t. What is required is a strong and reasonably honest government that can reassert control over this huge country, the poorest in the world.

It is sheer fantasy to imagine that a country bigger than all of western Europe, but with less in the way of all-weather roads than tiny Luxembourg and a per capita income of about a dollar a day, can be saved by a free election. Communications are so poor that there is no genuine ‘public opinion’, and beyond Kinshasa, the capital, almost all political loyalties are tribal.

Democracy is important, and for most African countries – for most countries anywhere – it is the best solution. But the Congo is too big, too poor and too ethnically fragmented for that to work yet. Elections are symbolically important because they embody the principles of popular sovereignty and the rule of law, but everybody who might actually get elected belongs to a small privileged elite.

A relatively small part of that group, the ‘security elite’, have actually been running everything since the turn of the century, and the first order of business must be for them to make a deal on who their candidate will be at the next election. Whoever that is will certainly win, and it hardly matters whether it is Kabila or somebody else. Those behind the scenes will still pull the strings.

But until they reach an agreement about the regime’s candidate, the country will continue to drift, and it is drifting into dangerous waters.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Kabila…figurehead”)