06 October 2015

The Holocaust in Ukraine: a new history

My maternal family came from Ukraine, one half from Berdyansk, Mariupol and Grafskoy, and the other half from Odessa and Simferopol. My parents in law and their siblings came from towns (Chust, Nizhniy Verecki, Mukachevo) that were Czech before WW2 but Ukrainian after the war.

So I was very keen to read The Holocaust and the Germanisation of Ukraine, written by the British historian Eric Steinhart and published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. Until the book arrives in Australia, my own comments and questions will have to come after Roger Moorhouse’s review that first appeared in in History Today, July 2015.

Ukraine stood at the very heart of Hitler's perverted vision for Eastern Europe; the centrepiece of the Nazi Lebensraum project and an economic powerhouse, it was also home to nearly three million Jews. Such a subject would be difficult to cover in a smallish book. But since this book is not about Ukraine in its entirety, it is actually a micro-study of German policy in the district of Trans-nistria, a small territory in SW Ukraine (between the River Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border). Trans-nistria is a region that fell under Romanian control following the Nazi invasion in 1941.

This excellent and rigorous study used a wealth of archival sources, many of which have only recently been released. The author showed how Nazi racial policy was recreated in a district that had a significant ethnic German minority. This is important! The existing German minority had promis­ed heaps of sympathetic collaborators to push forward the planned Germanisation programme.

The collaboration called Sonderkommando R was spurred by the arrival of a team of experts and facilitators from Berlin. The programme was not slow to emerge, and soon extended to the mass execution of the Nazis' perceived enemies. In one four-month period, local ethnic German militias murdered 50,000 Jews, just in this small part of Ukraine.

Of course it was not all plain sailing from the Nazi perspective. The Black Sea Germans, though the largest ethnic German community in the Soviet Union, were considered racially rather dubious. Apparently they had long been isolated from mainstream German influence and evidently had intermarried with their Jewish neighbours.

Moreover, while welcoming their new rulers when it suited them, local ethnic Germans were also not above hiding Jews or being creative with their own genealogy. As a result, Steinhart said, normal Nazi criteria had to be jettisoned, leaving Berlin's administrators with the task of making up racial policy as they went along.

Steinhart's 2015 book

Steinhart examined the factors that made those ethnic Germans into such willing and murderous tools of Nazi policy. He concluded that anti-Semitism was rather low on their list of motivators, behind ant­icipatory obedience, venality and especially anti-Soviet sent­iment. As in the example of the Baltic States, recent persecution at Soviet hands meant that the Nazis' local collaborators were often primarily anti-Soviet and only secondarily anti-Semitic. Indeed Steinhart suggested that many of the perpetrators in Trans-nistria only became anti-Semites after participating in the Holocaust.

The book cited other researchers who also found that anti-Soviet sentiment as a central motivator for the Nazis' local collaborators.


3,000,000 Ukrainian citizens were killed as part of Nazi exterm­in­at­ion policies, 900,000 being Jewish Ukrainians and 2.1 million of them being Christian Ukrainians. Most of these three million were exterminated by German soldiers. In explaining this catastrophe, I am grateful for three factors specified in the book that I would not have thought of myself:

Firstly the author examined Nazi racial policy in a specific prov­ince with a “large ethnic German minority”. 

Secondly that the in­vading German soldiers would not have had enough manpower to ach­ieve their programme alone, and thus needed the warm support of Nazi sympath­isers within the Transnistrian community. 

Thirdly that anti-Soviet sentiment was the central motivator for the Nazis' local collaborators, not anti-Semitism.

map of Transnitstria and its ethnic German settlements, 1942
credit: Steinhart's book

But was this a province with a “large ethnic German minority”? The 1936 census for Transnistria gives the German ethnic minority as 2% while the Russians accounted for 10% and the Jews accounted for 8%. (The vast majority were either Ukrainians or Moldovans). Unless the population changed between the census of 1936 and the Nazi invasion of 1941, the ethnic German population of Transnistria did not seem to be a large minority at all.

I agree that the Germans could not have succeeded with their prog­ramme without the helpful collaboration of local Ukrainians. It has been documented that 100,000 locals voluntarily joined police units that provided key assistance to the Nazis. Even more explic­itly, a company of Tatar volunteers was established in Simferopol under the command of Einsatzgruppe 11. This company participated in anti-Jewish manhunts and murder actions in the rural reg­ions. Many other Ukrainians staffed the local bureaucracies or participated in the mass shootings of Jews.

Was it possible that 900,000 of the executions (30% of all the Trans­nistrian deaths at Nazi hands) were randomly Jewish when Jews accounted for only 8% of Transnistria’s total population? I don’t think so.

Could the modern and independent nation of Ukraine have tried to acknowledge their role during the Holocaust, in some way cleansing an awful part of history? According to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in January 2011 (page 36) "Ukraine has, to the best of our knowledge, never conducted a single investigation of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone prosecuted a Holocaust perpetrator.”

My guess is that anti-Soviet sentiment, so powerful during the Holocaust, was always deeply steeped in anti-Semitism. Right wingers believed in the Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy back then and seem to be­lieve in it today. Thus modern governmental acknow­ledge­ment of the massacres that took place during the dark days of Holocaust are not likely to be forthcoming.

03 October 2015

Lasseter's Gold: fool's errand or con artistry?

Simon Caterson’s book Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds examined different hoaxes planned during the decades of Australian history; he analysed the events, publications and cultural ephemera that were later unveiled as elaborate hoaxes. Clearly, thought Caterson, the history of Australia must have always been marked by falsified accounts. My personal favourites all relied on literary trickiness eg as found in the Ern Malley affair, and the Norma Khouri and Helen Demidenko scandals. So Caterson was the perfect writer to review a book about a grand hoax.

Of all the great Australian hoaxes, none seemed more darkly absurd than the Lasseter’s Reef Legend. And the timing is perfect - the book Lasseter’s Gold was written by Warren Brown and published by Hachette Australia in 2015.

In 1897 a teenage Harold Bell Lasseter (1880-?1950s) staggered out of the desert almost dead, his pockets bulging with gold, claiming to have found a 15 kilometre gold reef. Not long after the find, his horses died; he became lost and would have perished but for the intervention of an Afghan camel rider and surveyor named Harding.

In 1929, Lasseter wrote to Government ministers about “his” fabulously rich reef of gold in Central Australia, but this attempt to gain funding was unsuccessful. Next he asked the Australian Workers’ Union to fund his project. In Depression-blighted Australia, the resulting expedition in 1930 was the best equipped gold-seeking exploration in Australia’s history.

However, it was a failure in all regards. The terrain was unsuitable for trucks, and the airplane he employed crashed; its replacement was unsuitable. There was dissension between Lasseter and the project leader, Fred Blakeley, about Lasseter’s credibility. In fact Lasseter refused to divulge the exact location of the reef, saying merely that it was “somewhere near the MacDonnell Ranges”.

Following the abandonment of the motorised expedition, Lasseter decided to venture out with a dingo trapper, Paul Johns. Again there was dissent, and Lasseter decided to go it alone, perhaps reaching as far west as Lake Christopher in Western Australia. On his return trip the camels bolted, leaving him stranded in the Petermann Ranges where he died, despite nurturing by the local Aboriginal people.

A well equipped expedition, 1930
Team leader Fred Blakeley and the biplane (top photo)
Harold Lasseter on top of the Thornycroft truck (bottom photo)

Caterson believed the author did a brilliant job in piecing together a coherent and convincing narrative from the welter of first-person accounts, some less reliable than others. Brown also drew on the often puzzling documentary record. It seems almost everyone who became involved in the search for Lasseter’s Reef had an agenda, and indeed greed and paranoia flourished under the desert sun.

Given the sheer isolation, the physical difficulty of moving through the mulga country with its soaring temperatures, and Lasseter’s vagueness about the location of the gold (which meant the 1930 expedition had no clear direction to follow), it is a wonder the whole enterprise did not disintegrate much earlier than it did.

Several key people involved in the expedition seemed to have been duplicitous if not downright malevolent in intent. Brown left open the question that Lasseter was lying about the existence of a fab­ulous reef of gold. Furthermore he may have been murdered by Paul Johns, a somewhat sinister German bushman later deported from Australia and interned in Britain during WW2 as a Nazi sympathiser.

At the bitter end, it seems that Lasseter had been left deliberately by Johns to die in a desert cave. He was found by Aboriginal trackers and buried near where he died. The body was later exhumed and interred in the Alice Springs cemetery in June 1958. Or perhaps Lasseter faked his own death and fled overseas. In any case, no official investigation of the ill-fated expedition to find the reef was ever carried out, apparently because it would have revealed the sheer ineptitude and deceptive conduct at the heart of the doomed enterprise.

Newspaper headline, 
the Sydney Mirror, 
April 1931

In Lasseter’s Gold, the author focused on the hardware the searchers used and the conditions they faced. The main vehicle used to traverse the treacherous mulga country and shifting desert sands was a huge six-wheeled truck imp­orted from England called the Thornycroft. It was a state-of-the-art all-terrain vehicle, having a portable radio transmitter that was capable of sending messages from the most remote locat­ion. The expedition also had aerial support in the form of a biplane.

As things turned out, the Thornycroft was a fire hazard as well as being difficult to handle, the radio did not work and the aeroplane tended to crash on landing. So the expedition party made mind-numbingly slow progress.

The journey to find the reef was conducted by the grandly named Central Australia Gold Exploration Company. And it was the largest inland expedition in Australia since Burke and Wills left Melbourne for the north in August 1860. In fact, Brown argued that the project proved to be a folly as big as that of those ill-fated explorers Burke and Wills, though without the heroic element.

With a remarkable set of archival photos, the book gave a compelling account of the weird outback adventure that was the unsuccessful original search to locate the Australian El Dorado. The book provided an excellent companion piece to Luke Walker’s superb recent docum­ent­ary Lasseter’s Bones, which concentrated on the ongoing efforts by Lasseter’s 90-year-old son to find his father’s reef.

It was unfortunate for Lasseter that he was already known as a sailor, prospector, bigamist, fantasy-based story teller, con man and attention-seeker. Lasseter’s Gold has been the gripping story of an outback legend for decades and just “might” have been true. But nowadays most people are certain there was no massive gold reef out there, just waiting to be discovered.

 Lasseter's body was reinterred in Alice Springs cemetery
in June 1958.
But was it really Lasseter's body buried here in 1958?

29 September 2015

Spain: Chipiona's religion, gorgeous beaches and fish dinners

Chipiona (pop 18,000) is a Spanish village in the southern province of Cádiz, near the cities of Cádiz, Jerez and not far from Seville. The town had a fortress that had belonged to the Ponce de León family. In 1251 Chipiona was reconquered by King Fernando III who soon rebuilt the old fortress into a more modern structure. Over time, the fortress became a monastery for different Catholic orders.

The town's famous statue of the Virgin was possibly commissioned by St Augustine and was possibly brought by Saint Cyprian during an invasion of the Vandals into Spain. The statue was placed in Chipiona and was venerated in the local monastery by the Augustinians. Times were good. The Virgin enjoyed a peaceful life in her Augustinian hermitage for three centuries; then it was time to flee again. This time the invaders were Muslim Saracens and she went under ground. The monks hid her in an underground cistern next to a fig tree where she remained for 500 years.

Only in the C13th did Our Lady finally reveal where the precious treasure was to be found. Rediscovery of the statue, chalice and lamp encouraged new devotion to Our Lady of Rule and the first known miracles were being recorded by 1330. Pilgrims flocked to see her from all across the country. The Black Madonna apparently freed prisoners, saved sailors from shipwrecks, prevented children from drowning in wells and healed the sick.

Although devotion to Our Lady of Rule reached its peak in the C18th, the monastery and sanctuary fell somewhat into decline and were not restored until the middle C19th. A small chapel near the great sanctuary marks the place where Our Lady of Regla was found centuries ago, and the cistern and fig tree are still looked after carefully.

Today 8th of September is still celebrated each year as the feast day of Our Lady of Rule, the birthday of the Virgin. Festivities begin with a vigil the night before, followed by fireworks, processions and wine.

 Our Lady of Rule Sanctuary

Our Lady of Rule statue

Our Lady of Rule's influence lasted! Today Chipiona is still only a small seafaring town on the Atlantic coast, yet it is boxing above its weight. The key facilities still have a connection to the sea and are mostly found close to the beaches. The port, for example, is located in the west of the town and has moorings for hire, as well as a sailing school. The long stretches of white sandy beaches are very attractive, and full of Seville-ites topping up their city tans.

Apparently there was an old Roman lighthouse situated near the mouth of the River Guadalquivir, built by Quinto Sevilius, 40 years before Christ. It was located on Punta del Perro, a projection of land into the Atlantic Ocean, only 6 kilometres south-west of the river mouth. Even that far back in history, the lighthouse was built to warn ships of the large rock named Piedra de Salmedina. So why did ships approach the river? Because it led to the important centre of Seville.

Chipiona lighthouse, 69 ms tall 
set right on the beautiful beach
Note the keeper's house and facilities, at base of lighthouse tower

Modern Chipiona’s lighthouse stands on the exact spot where the Roman lighthouse stood. It was designed by Jaime Font and built between 1863-7, still with the goal of warning ships away from a large dangerous rock. The only time the light was turned off since the 1860s was during the years of the Spanish Civil War.

The round cut stone tower with lantern and gallery on top is mounted on a 4-storey square stone base. As you can see in the photos, the tower rises from the front of a 2-storey keeper's house. The lighthouse itself is unpainted; the keeper's house is partially painted white. The lighthouse is 69 metres high and there are 344 steps to climb to reach the top. Although the beacon still has a formal role, the lighthouse is open to visitors; those who climb all the steps will be rewarded with magnificent views stretching for 40 ks on clear days. All of Chipiona's architectural treasures, eg the cloister of the Sanctuary and the Cuzmán el Bueno Castle, can be beautifully photographed from the top.

But be warned: wear sensible shoes! This is the tallest lighthouse in Spain and it is claimed to be the third tallest in all of Europe.

On the map of the Costa de la Luz, in the very south of Spain, press to identify Cadiz and Seville. Chipiona is located 35 kilometres from Cádiz on the coast, and 150 kilometres from Seville.

Fishing is the oldest trade in Chipiona; the citizens have been making a living from the sea for a very long time. The industry in this town is is characterised by its traditional fish traps, expertly built stone walls that begin at the coast and become higher as they stretch out to sea. The fish are trapped here by the tide. 

The city's own home page says Chipiona produces a wide variety of products, from fish and crustaceans to fruit and vegetables. Shrimps are farmed in the rivers and the area yields huge white claw crabs. Chipiona is famous for its lobsters and nowhere in Spain will you find lobsters quite like here! At the seafront, particularly during the summer months, the bars and Mediterranean seafood restaurants are very popular. The main agricultural activities in the region are tomatoes and wine growing. Since spouse and I don’t eat meat, we can assure you we tested the fish meals many times, just to be certain. They are very very good!

This is my type of coastal city: clean beaches, seafood, wine, fruit, vegetables, preserved medieval architecture, religious parades and sea views, not necessarily in that order.