By Paul Canning (cross-posted from his blog)
London will have an opportunity June 10 to hear and question a prominent Ukrainian journalist on the European Union and Ukraine.
Co-founder of Hromadske International and and 2016 fellow at FCO’s International Leaders Programme Maxim Eristavi will be discussing if we are prepared for Ukraine’s arriving into Europe “whether Europeans want that or not.” Eristavi will debunk popular misconceptions about Ukraine and Eastern Europe and expose the shortcomings of European policy towards this region.
Ukraine has become an issue in the EU Referendum campaign as a number of leading ‘Brexiters’, such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, have claimed that the Union is somehow responsible for the war in that Eastern European country. The latter is also a popular narrative used by ruling elites in Russia.
When Johnson’s remarks hit the headlines last month I got so angry at the rubbish I was seeing on social media about Ukraine that I did a tweet series and Storified it.
— Paul Canning (@pauloCanning) May 9, 2016
This event provides an opportunity to hear from someone who was there during Ukraine’s ‘Revolution of Dignity’, as Eristavi documented in ‘What happened on the Maidan in Kiev?‘ (video after the jump).
|Eristavi on the Maidan|
The event is at 7pm, June 10 at the London Ukrainian Club, 154 Holland Park Ave, London W11 4UH.
You don’t need to register – just turn up!
Google Maps: https://email@example.com,-0.2108675,15z *NOTE* The nearest underground station, Holland Park, is closed at the moment. Use Shepherd’s Bush or Notting Hill Gate.
Maxim Eristavi biography
Civil rights advocate, media professional and writer. Co-founder of Hromadske International.
One of the most famous English-speaking journalists and civil rights advocates working and based in Eastern Europe, Ukraine, He specializes in new media expertise, politics, breaking news coverage and civil rights advocacy.
Featured as contributor to:
BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera America, HuffPost TV, CTV, ITN News, the Daily Beast, Fusion, CJR Magazine, Reuters, Politico, The New Republic and Foreign Policy.
Essential Twitter source for Ukraine, according to Mashable, Bild, CTV and The New York Times.
He is the only openly gay journalist in Ukraine and has been an outspoken voice in raising civil rights issues of the region abroad. In October 2015 he was featured among 10 most prominent LGBTI people in Ukraine during the first ever queer project at the country’s biggest modern art center, The Pinchuk Art Center.
Eristavi is a 2015 Poynter fellow at Yale University with a focus on informational wars and pan-regional LGBTI civil rights movements. He is also a 2016 Fellow at International Leadership Program, UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office and a 2016-2017 fellow at Millennium Leadership Program, Atlantic Council.
By Eric Lee
There can be little doubt that the murderous ideology of Islamic State is a form of fascism. In discussing how the Left should react to it, it is therefore necessary to return to our sources, to learn how earlier generations of socialists understood – and fought – fascism.
In that fight, Trotsky was of course an inspiring and authoritative figure. As opposed to the Stalinists, who saw no difference between the Nazis and the Social Democrats (and indeed sometimes preferred the Nazis), Trotsky understood fascism to be a mortal danger to the working class.
And while Trotsky’s deconstruction of the Stalinist argument was brilliant, like most socialists of his time, he understood fascism as a form of bourgeois society, one in which one section of the ruling class crushed all others. The classical Marxist understanding of fascism, however, could not explain, and sometimes did not even try to explain, the tremendous appeal of fascism to the working class itself.
Which brings us to the brilliant Austrian Jewish psychologist Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957). Reich was one of Freud’s outstanding disciples, but in the 1920s he moved increasingly to the left, eventually joining the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). There he engaged in theoretical work in an attempt to bridge the gap between Marxism and Freudianism. By 1929, he was able to get the official KPD journal, Under the Banner of Marxism, to publish his essay “Dialectical Materialism and Psychoanalysis.”
Reich also moved beyond theory with field work in working class communities, setting up clinics, carrying out sex education, and on, in the course of which he created a mass movement of young people engaged in a new politics of sexual liberation.
Reich grasped that fascism had its basis not only in the economic contradictions of a decaying, over-ripe capitalism, but also in the psychology of the masses.
His 1933 book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, was an attempt to find out what made millions of workers who should have been a bulwark against fascism into its most fanatical supporters. Reich’s book was so outrageously controversial that it led to his expulsion from the KPD. A year later, he was kicked out of the International Psychoanalytical Association as well. It goes without saying that the Nazis too banned the book.
So what explained the appeal of fascism to people who would be its victims? Reich looked for what could make a child “apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense” and he found it in the family.
In particular, Reich linked the development of this kind of personality to the “suppression of the natural sexuality in the child”. He explained the lack of rebelliousness in such children – and later in adult life – by this. Sexual repression, he believed, “paralyses the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties.”
“In brief,” he wrote, “the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.”
This was the basis for authoritarian society. “At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family,” he wrote, and “this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety.”
Reich’s expulsion from both the Communist and Psychoanalytical movements left him isolated, and over the remaining two decades of his life he drifted far away from both the Marxism and Freudianism which he had worked so hard to bridge.
But his work over the course of a decade made a real and enduring contribution to a socialist understanding of fascism and how to fight it. That contribution can teach us much about the sources of Islamo-fascism today and how to defeat it.
Vulgar Marxists (and Trotsky was not one of those) are quick to point to simplistic class analyses to explain the rise of groups like Islamic State. Imperialism and colonialism left a legacy of poverty and inequality, and it was from a sense of powerlessness and despair that Islamism arose. This argument has been somewhat undermined by the fact that so many of the more prominent terrorists (such as the 9/11 murderers) were educated, middle class Muslims who lived in the West. Even today, there is no evidence linking young Muslims who run off to Syria to join IS with a personal experience of poverty or even oppression.
Wilhelm Reich’s description of the patriarchal, authoritarian family as the incubator of fascism was correct in Germany in 1933 and it is correct today. There can be little doubt that the suppression of “sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child” is part of the reactionary character of most Muslim societies.
Muslim societies are obviously not the only sexually repressive societies in the world, which is why fascism can find roots in other places as well. But Islamism is today a particularly aggressive and expansionist variant of fascism, one which threatens the entire world.
If Reich’s analysis is correct, what can socialists do to defeat fascism? Obviously, it is not enough to simply propose “class against class” as the answer. This was the view of the German Communists and it failed miserably as millions of ordinary Germans either supported the Nazis or accepted their rule with barely a murmur of protest.
Instead, the Left should directly confront the sexually repressive character of Islamo-fascism and prioritise the fight on that level. That means that it should no longer be possible to say that our first task is building support for, say, workers organisations in Iran and that support for gay rights in that country is secondary.
Gay rights, women’s liberation, and sexual freedom are not by-products of the revolution that is coming to that part of the world – they are the revolution.
Because of Reich’s later decline, a result in part of his expulsion from the both the Left and the psychoanalytical movement, his works have been largely forgotten and ignored, certainly by socialists. This is unfortunate, because a book like The Mass Psychology of Fascism can contribute so much to our understanding of Islamism and how it will be defeated in the end.
Rest in Power, Grace Lee Boggs
Grace Lee Boggs passed away peacefully on Monday morning aged 100. We are so grateful for the vision of justice and human connection that she gave us and feel incredibly privileged to have been able to share her story with others [writes her namesake, film-maker Grace Lee]
JD adds: In her youth, Grace Lee Boggs was a member of the ‘Shachtmanite’ Workers’ Party and a key figure in the CLR James/Raya Dunayevskaya “Johnson-Forest Tendency”, playing a pioneering role in the development of ‘Third Camp’ revolutionary politics. She remained firmly and actively on the left for the rest of her life, though she moved away from Trotskyism, towards (as I understand it) a more “Third-Worldist’ political philosophy and community activism in Detriot, where she and her auto-worker husband lived from the 1950’s. Anyone who knows more about her is welcome to comment below.
New York Times obit, here
A more detailed appreciation from Comrade Coatesy, here
H/t Daniel R
Yevgeniy Zhuravel interviews Kirill Medvedev (above), a Moscow-based poet, translator, and activist. He is the founder of the Arkady Kots band.
YZ: Can you tell a bit about yourself and how did you became a leftist? It seems that in Russia till recently it was not a common political choice.
KM: I became a self-conscious leftist at the beginning of the 2000s. There is a rather typical scenario for that generation of the Russian left, which emerged mostly from the Soviet intelligentsia of different levels of prosperity. Many of us were still able to spend our childhood under still rather comfortable conditions, so we were able to absorb the humanistic code of the Soviet intelligentsia, and then suddenly found ourselves in the historical hole of the 90s, when this code turned out to be not only redundant, but simply made survival difficult. Some of our parents had believed that shock therapy and total privatisation are the necessary stages on the way to democracy, others voted for the failed Communist Party, and some became quickly disappointed and depoliticised. The new left emerged from this trauma, but not out of a desire for revanche, but with the feeling that both nostalgia for Soviet times and jolly anti-Sovietism, which brought most of the intelligentsia to support Putin, are dead ends; that if one wants to be a citizen and a political subject, some hard work is required in order to build a new political culture and environment. Sometime during 2003-2004, I started getting an idea that maybe this thankless job—being part of the left—is not the worst way to spend the next decade or two.
YZ: The band that you are a part of is called Arkadiy Kots, after the Russian translator of “The Internationale”. Who are the people in the band, why this particular name was chosen and what musical and political traditions do you follow?
KM: The name seemed to be appropriate because Kots was simultaneously a poet, a translator, an activist and a sociologist; he wrote a study on the Belgian unions from the beginning of the 20th century. Such synthesis is interesting to us. Oleg Zhuravlev, with whom we founded the group, is a well-known young sociologist, member of the “Public Sociology Lab” collective, which does research on the recent protests in Russia and Ukraine. They just published a book in Russia, which will be released in Holland soon. Nikolay Oleynikov is a member of the renowned art-group “What has to be done?”(Chto Delat?). His work is related to antifascism and gender problems. In fact, in the Free Marxist Press, we published his collection “Sex of the Oppressed”, the discussions of sex and politics. If Oleg brings to the group the spirit of research, Nikolaj the spirit of militant queer carnival. Anya Petrovich and Misha Griboedov are more professionally connected to music: they are practically the musical directors of the group, fighting, for example, with my horrible unprofessionalism. Gosha Komarov, an activist of the Worker’s Platforms, which unites the most workerist (proletarian) part of the left radicals, is a multi-instrumentalist. This is the backbone of the group, we are all convinced communists, but, as it happens, we occasionally end up playing with people who do not share our views, which gives us some openness and a chance not to turn into a sect.
We translate a lot to Russian – from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to old Italian anarchist songs. We write songs based on poems of Russian poets and write our own: “Be Involved in Political Struggle”, “It is not shameful to be a worker” etc., which hide uneasy reflections about our own political subjectivity.
Overall we try to juxtapose maximised aesthetic openness with a clear political message, to get out of the boundaries of the radical left, subcultural milieu. Right now we are working on an album devoted to the history of the worker’s movements, from Luddites to Zhanaozen, with a support of Confederation of Labour of Russia, whose congress we recently opened with our Russian versions of songs “Bread and Roses” and “Power in a Union”, and gave a concert after the end of it.
YZ:You started the Free Marxist Press publishing house back in 2008. How did it evolve? What did you print recently and what are the plans?
KM: It all had started with samizdat (DIY?) books – “Why I am a Marxist?” by Ernest Mandel, Pasolini’s “Communist Party – to the Youth”, “Marxism and Feminism” by Marcuse etc. Later on we started making small press runs at print shops. Producing a book from A to Z—translation, formatting, cover design, printing, binding, distribution – for me personally was an important experience, though a little bit exotic, mixing the spirit of completely unalienated creative work a la William Morris, on the one hand, and the productionism of the 20s, on the other. Being engaged in the material production of a book one gets into a very special relationships with a text which it contains. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: female Kurdish fighters
From a BTL comment by Lamia at That Place:
Kurdish forces, having linked from east and west to take Tal Abyad and thus cut off the main ISIS supply route to Raqqa (from Turkey), are moving steadily towards the ISIS capital itself. Today they have taken a military base, Brigade 93, outside Ain Issa, which ISIS seized last summer. Reports are of ISIS forces and civilians fleeing to Raqqa itself (which is also the subject of ongoing allied air strikes). Kurdish forces are now only 30 miles from Raqqa. They also have US air support which is of course an advantage in case of ISIS attempts to counter attack on the growing Kurdish front.
The Kurdish campaign in the north of Syria has been the one clear ongoing success in recent months in the fight against ISIS. To think: the heroic Kurds at Kobani were almost written off last October by governments and media alike. Now they are pressing ISIS hard in its own heartland. It’s hard to tell what the outcome will be – even if Raqqa falls, there is still Mosul in Iraq, and ISIS have a habit of taking territory then moving out when under pressure and striking elsewhere. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that they might try setting up a capital in another country entirely. But in the long term that is not a recipe for maintaining a state, keeping up recruitment or scaring your enemies into giving up without a fight.
Kurdish progress in the past couple of weeks alone has been wonderfully fast. Let us hope it is not a false dawn, and keep our fingers crossed for them and their allies.
Over at That Place, Gene has noted the lack of coverage on leftist blogs and websites, of the wonderful news of the defeat of the ISIS (aka Daesh) occupiers of the Syrian border town of Kobane, at the hands of heroic Kurdish forces.
Gene mentions That Place’s own coverage (fair enough), and quite correctly gives credit to Tendance Coatesy‘s coverage, which has been exemplary. I found myself nodding along in agreement, hoping that the silence of much of the left is not symptomatic of any residual sympathy with Islamism, “blow-back” nonsense, or a lingering belief in that highly sophisticated Tariq Ali-ish political philosophy “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
Then it dawned on me that over here at Shiraz we’ve so far said nothing. So, for the record:
Shiraz Socialist unreservedly apologises to the heroic fighters of the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, for our delay in celebrating your marvellous victory over the fascists and mass rapists of Daesh / ISIS in Kobane. We can only offer you our assurance that this delay is not the result of any political reservations about the justice of your struggle or the need for all principled leftists to give you unqualified support.
Your victory in Kobane is a huge physical and symbolic blow to Daesh’s ambitions.
We celebrate reports that Daesh have lost more than 1,000 fighters since it began its advance on Kobane in September 2014 in an attempt to control the border between Syria and Turkey. At one point the fascist-rapists had taken over most of the city.
Air raids by the US-led coalition undoubtedly helped the anti-fascist struggle, but the credit for this great victory must go the Kurdish forces. The role of women fighters is especially glorious and must be celebrated. As Gene notes:
“One way of countering Islamic State propaganda and recruitment in the West is the widest possible distribution of photos and videos of the female fighters who helped defeat IS– living proof that not only is IS losing, it is losing to women who will fight and die rather than submit to the forced marriage and sexual slavery which IS claims is its right.”
Death to fascism in all its forms! Victory to the Kurds! Victory to democratic, secular socialism!
This article is republished from the website of the American International Socialist Organisation, a group once associated with the British SWP, but who broke their links with them some years ago. I think it’s an important contribution to the debate around identity politics, ‘intersectionality’ postmodernism and the relationship between class and oppression. It’s a longish piece, but quite accessible and well worth taking the trouble to read – JD:
Sharon Smith is author of the forthcoming Women and Socialism: Marxism, Feminism and Women’s Liberation  and Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States . At the Socialism 2014 conference last June, she spoke at a session that took up the discussion about the politics of privilege theory and the practice of privilege-checking.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I THINK it’s important to make clear at the outset of this presentation that recognizing and appreciating the degree of gross inequality in capitalist society–which is a necessary feature not only of exploitation, but also of oppression–is much more important than the term you use to describe it. That is, whether you call it “privilege,” or “benefits” or “advantages” is not the main issue.
The only way we can hope to build a movement that fights oppression in all its forms, and also includes all oppressed people within it, is not by minimizing the degree of oppression that exists, but by recognizing its many manifestations–no matter which oppressed group you are discussing.
It is also the case that a solid proportion of people, especially young people, who have become radicalized in recent years have done so precisely because of their recognition of and opposition to oppression–be it racism, sexism, LGBTQ oppression, disability oppression or any number of other forms of oppression that exist today.
This makes sense. On the one hand, the dramatic growth in class inequality since 2008 has led to a sharp rise in class-consciousness–most recently demonstrated by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. But this class-consciousness is mostly limited to anger at class and social inequality–without an obvious connection to a working-class strategy to transform society.
This is completely understandable, since anyone in the U.S. who became politically aware after the mid-1970s will have had little to no opportunity to experience firsthand the solidarity that is palpable among workers who are fighting shoulder to shoulder in an open-ended mass strike. So while the misery caused by the system is obvious to all those who are radicalizing today, the potential power of the working class is not.
Recent generations of young radicals have often gotten their first introduction to the issue of combatting oppression through reading the very influential Peggy McIntosh essay of 1989, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
The best thing about this essay is that it forces its white readers to appreciate the many manifestations of racism in everyday life. But the essay itself primarily focuses on individual awareness, rather than putting forward a particular strategy for ending racism. I also find that it tends to conflate the meaning of “white” people with white middle-class people, without actually integrating a class analysis.
For its intended purposes, though, this essay raises awareness and does some good–mainly arguing that white people looking at themselves in the mirror should realize the many ways that people of color are victimized in ways that white people do not experience. And McIntosh certainly doesn’t call for privilege-checking as a strategy for social change. This strategy arrived to the radical left much later on. Read the rest of this entry »
The Berlin Wall, erected in 1961 by the East German state, was a symbol of the totalitarian Stalinist systems. The wall was a monstrosity and we are glad it was torn down by Berliners on the night of 9 November 1989. The collapse of Stalinism was a victory for freedom. Despite a wave of capitalist triumphalism that followed, the workers of the former Stalinist states are now able to meet, discuss and form their own organisations. Here, an editorial in Workers’ Liberty magazine of July 1990 examines the reasons behind Stalinism’s collapse in Eastern Europe.
For over 60 years the typical totalitarian Stalinist society — in the USSR, in the USSR’s East European satellites, in Mao’s China, or in Vietnam — has presented itself to the world as a durable, congealed, frozen system, made of a hitherto unknown substance.
Now the Stalinist societies look like so many ice floes in a rapidly warming sea — melting, dissolving, thawing, sinking and blending into the world capitalist environment around them.
To many calling themselves Marxists or even Trotskyists, Stalinism seemed for decades to be “the wave of the future”. They thought they saw the future and — less explicably — they thought it worked.
The world was mysteriously out of kilter. Somehow parts of it had slipped into the condition of being “post-capitalist”, and, strangely, they were among the relatively backward parts, those which to any halfway literate Marxist were least ripe for it. Now Stalin’s terror turns out to have been, not the birth pangs of a new civilisation, but a bloodletting to fertilise the soil for capitalism.
Nobody foresaw the way that East European Stalinism would collapse. But the decay that led to that collapse was, or should have been, visible long ago.
According to every criterion from productivity and technological dynamism through military might to social development, the world was still incontestably dominated by international capitalism, and by a capitalism which has for decades experienced consistent, though not uninterrupted, growth.
By contrast, the Stalinist states, almost all of which had begun a long way down the world scale of development, have for decades now lurched through successive unavailing efforts to shake off creeping stagnation.
The Stalinist systems have become sicker and sicker. The bureaucracies tried to run their economies by command, and in practice a vast area of the economic life of their societies was rendered subterranean, even more anarchic than a regular, legal, recognised market-capitalist system.
The ruling class of the model Stalinist state, the USSR, emerged out of the workers’ state set up by the October 1917 revolution by way of a struggle to suppress and control the working class and to eliminate the weak Russian bourgeoisie that had come back to life in the 1920s. It made itself master of society in a series of murderous if muffled class struggles. Its state aspired to control everything to a degree and for purposes alien to the Marxism whose authority it invoked. And it did that in a backward country.
In the days of Stalin’s forced collectivisation and crash industrialisation, the whole of society could be turned upside down by a central government intent on crude quantitative goals and using an immense machinery of terror as its instrument of control, motivation, and organisation.
When the terror slackened off — and that is what Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin essentially meant: he told the members of his bureaucratic class that life would be easier from then on — much of the dynamism of the system slackened off too.
To survive, the bureaucracy had to maintain its political monopoly. It could not have democracy because it was in a sharp antagonism with most of the people, and in the first place with the working class.
So there was a “compromise formation”, neither a self-regulating market system nor properly planned, dominated by a huge clogging bureaucratic state which could take crude decisions and make them good, but do little else. State repression was now conservative, not what it was in the “heroic” days either in intensity or in social function.
The USSR slowed down and began to stagnate. And then the rulers of the USSR seemed to suffer a collapse of the will to continue. They collapsed as spectacularly as the old German empire collapsed on 11 November 1918.
Initiatives from the rulers in the Kremlin, acting like 18th century enlightened despots, triggered the collapse of the Russian empire in Eastern Europe. But it was a collapse in preparation for at least quarter of a century.
The Stalinists had tried nearly 30 years before to make their rule more rational, flexible and productive by giving more scope to market mechanisms. Now, it seems, the dominant faction in the USSR’s bureaucracy has bit the bullet: they want full-scale restoration of market capitalism. Some of the bureaucrats hope to become capitalists themselves. But with its central prop — its political monopoly — gone, the bureaucracy is falling apart.
The fundamental determinant of what happened in Eastern Europe in the second half of 1989 was that the Kremlin signalled to its satraps that it would not back them by force: then the people took to the streets, and no-one could stop them.
It is an immense triumph for the world bourgeoisie — public self-disavowal by the rulers of the Stalinist system, and their decision to embrace market capitalism and open up their states to asset-stripping.
We deny that the Stalinist system had anything to do with socialism or working-class power. Neither a workers’ state, nor the Stalinist states in underdeveloped countries, could ever hope to win in economic competition with capitalism expanding as it has done in recent decades The socialist answer was the spreading of the workers’ revolution to the advanced countries; the Stalinists had no answer.
The Stalinist system was never “post capitalist”. It paralleled capitalism as an underdeveloped alter ego. Socialists have no reason to be surprised or dismayed about Stalinism losing its competition with capitalism.
The bourgeoisie has triumphed over the Stalinists, but it has not triumphed over socialism. And genuine socialism receives the possibility of rebirth as a mass movement from the events in Eastern Europe.
The picture below should shame anyone and everyone in Britain (and the rest of the West) who doesn’t bother to vote …
Men show their fingers after the ink-stained part of their fingers were cut off by the Taliban after they took part in the presidential election, in Herat province June 14, 2014.
…but even more, it should shame those on the so-called “left” who have ever expressed (publicly or privately) any degree of sympathy for the rural fascists of the Taliban. You know who you are (and so do we), you scum.
Ernest Mandel once proposed that World War Two should be seen as, simultaneously, an inter-imperialist dispute and an anti-fascist struggle. The two elements are difficult to disentangle, even in retrospect, but both should be recognised and, insofar as we can, distinguished between. D-Day was, I’d contend, indubitably part of the anti-fascist struggle. The young workers who fought and died then, and the dwindling band of elderly survivors, deserve our profound respect and gratitude.
Max Hastings (yes, I know he’s a Tory, but he’s also a damned good military historian), wrote in his superb book on WW2, All Hell Let Loose (Harper Press 2011):
Meticulous planning and immense armaments promised Overlord‘s success, but the hazards of weather and the skill of the German army fed apprehension in many British and American breasts. The consequences of failure must be appalling: civilian morale would plummet on both sides of the Atlantic; senior commanders would have to be sacked and replaced; the presige of the Western Allies, so long derided by Stalin for feebleness, would be grievously injured, likewise the authority of Roosevelt and Churchill. Even after three year’s attrition in the east, the German army remained a formidable fighting force. It was vital that Eisenhower should confront von Rundstedt’s sixty divisions in the west with superior combat power. Yet the invaders were supported by such a vast logistical and support ‘tail’ that, even when they reached their maximum strength in 1945, they would deploy only sixty American and twenty British and Canadian combat divisions. Air power, together with massive armoured and artillery strength, was called upon to compensate for inadequate infantry numbers.
For the young men who made the assault on 6 June 1944, however, such grand truths meant nothing: they recognised only the mortal peril each one must face, to breach Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The invasion began with drops by one British and two American airborne divisions on the night of5 June. The landings were chaotic but achieved their objectives, confusing the Germans and securing the flanks of the assault zone; paratroopers engaged enemy forces wherever they encountered them with an energy worthy of such elite formations.
Sgt. Mickey McCallum never forgot his first firefight, a few hours after landing. A German machine-gunner mortally wounded the man next to him, Private Bill Atlee. McCullum asked Attlee ‘if he was hit bad’. The soldier replied, ‘I’m dying Sergeant Mickey, but we’re going to win this damn war, aren’t we? You damn well A we are.’ McCallum did not know where Atlee hailed from, but thought his choice of words suggested an east coast man. He was passionately moved that this soldier, in his last moments, thought of the cause rather than himself. In the hours and days that followed, many other such young men displayed similar spirit and were obliged to make a matching sacrifice. At dawn on 6 June, six infantry divisions with supporting armour struck the beaches of Normandy across a thirty-mile front; one Canadian and two British formations landed on the left, three American divisions on the right.
Operation Overlord was the greatest combined operation in history. Some 5,300 ships carried 150,000 men and 1,500 tanks, scheduled to land in the first wave, supported by 12,000 aircraft. On the French coast that morning, a drama unfolded in three dimensions such as the world would never behold again, British and Canadian troops poured ashore at Sword, Juno and Gold beaches, exploiting innovative armoured technology to overwhelm the defences, many of them manned by Osttruppen of Hitler’s empire. ‘I was the first tank coming ashore and the Germans started opening up with machine-gun bullets,’ said Canadian Sgt. Leo Gariepy. ‘But when we came to a halt on the beach, it was only then that they realized we were a tank when we pulled down our canvas skirt, the flotation gear. Then they saw we were Shermans.’ Private Jim Cartwright of the South Lancashires said, ‘As soon as I hit the beach I wanted to get away from the water. I think I went across the beach like a hare.’
The Americans seized Utah, the elbow of the Cherbourg peninsula, with only a small loss. ‘You know, it sounds kind of dumb, but it was just like an exercise,’ said a private soldier wonderingly. ‘We waded ashore like kids in a crocodile and up the beach. A couple of shells came over but nowhere near us. I think I even felt somehow disappointed, a little let down.’ Further east at Omaha beach, however, Americans suffered the heaviest casualties of the day — more than eight hundred killed. The German defending unit , while no elite, was composed of better troops than those manning most of the Channel front, and kept up vigorous fire against the invaders. ‘No one was moving forward,’ wrote AP correspondent Don Whitehead. ‘Wounded men, drenched by cold water, lay in the gravel … “Oh God, lemme aboard the boat,” whimpered a youth in semi-delirium. Near him a shivering boy dug with bare fingers into the sand. Shells were bursting on all sides of us, some so close that they threw black water and dirt over us in showers.’
A private soldier wrote: ‘ There were men crying with fear, men defecating themselves. I lay there with some others, too petrified to move. No one was doing anything except lay there. It was like mass paralysis. I couldn’t see an officer. At one point something hit me on the arm. I thought I’d taken a bullet. It was somebody’s hand, taken clean off by something. It was too much.’ For half the morning, the Omaha assault hung on the edge of failure; only after several hours of apparent stalemate on the sands did small groups of determined men, Rangers notable among them, work their way up the bluffs above the sea, gradually overwhelming the defenders.