17. When the Germans Tried to Economize on the Manpower Necessary to Guard the Belgian-Dutch Border in World War I
In World War II, Germany invaded both the Netherlands and adjacent Belgium in order to get at France from the northeast. However, in the First World War, the Germans invaded only Belgium, and the Netherlands remained neutral. That left a lengthy border between the two countries, through which smugglers, spies, and saboteurs, slipped back and forth, and prisoners of war escaped to freedom. By the end of 1914, over a million Belgians had crossed into the Netherlands as refugees. The task of guarding the porous border tied down many German soldiers. Soldiers who were desperately needed elsewhere.
When the war began in August 1914, it was greeted with great enthusiasm by millions, who expected that it would last for only a few weeks or months at most, and would be over by Christmas. Instead, the conflict turned into a horrific bloodbath. It was stalemated in attritional combat in the trenches of the Western Front, which stretched for hundreds of miles from the Swiss border to the North Sea. So the Germans wracked their brains to come up with ways to economize on the manpower necessary to guard the Belgian-Dutch border. The results were tragic for many.
Early in 1915, the Germans erected an electric fence along a stretch of the Swiss border in order to isolate some Alsatian villages from Switzerland, and it proved effective. So they decided to replicate it on a grander scale, along the border between German-occupied Belgium, and the neutral Netherlands. Construction commenced in the spring of 1915 of an electric fence that stood five to ten feet high and covered over 125 miles of the Belgian-Dutch border from the Scheldt River to Aix-la-Chappelle. It was charged with 2,000 to 6,000 volt wires that ran through it.
Those caught within 100 to 550 yards of the fence who could not explain their presence were summarily shot. By war’s end, about 3,000 people had been killed along what came to be known as “The Wire of Death”, and newspapers in the southern Netherlands carried almost daily reports of unfortunates who had been “lightninged to death“. Nonetheless, while the fence reduced border crossings, it did not eliminate them. Many managed to cross the border with creative methods such as tunnels beneath the fence, the use of extra high ladders, pole vaulting over it, or tying porcelain plates to their shoes in order to insulate them.
The Great War, or World War I as it became known after it was followed by an even greater just two decades later, was a tragic, horrific and brutalizing experience for the millions of soldiers who found themselves stuck fighting in it. For those engaged in the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, in Flanders, “stuck” took on a literal meaning when unusually wet weather conditions morphed much of the region into a sea of mud deep enough to swallow soldiers, and even horses.
Flanders is a low-lying coastal region along the North Sea in Belgium, where the water table is seldom far below the ground. The area is naturally prone to muddiness, but 1917 saw relentless rains that enhanced its already muddy norms. Artillery barrages churned the ground and made it even muddier. Thousands of horses and mules died from exhaustion as they tried to drag gun carriages and wagon loads through the mire, and sometimes it took over six hours to move an artillery piece a mere 250 yards.
14. Mud Made the Already Tragic and Miserable Conditions of WWI Trenches Even More Miserable and Tragic
Stuck in the mud of Flanders amidst the Battle of Passchendaele, it often took six men to stretcher a single casualty over the muck. Men stumbled through glue-like mud that sucked the boots from their feet, and that was often as deep as their waists or deeper. Soldiers no longer thought of those in different uniforms as the enemy: that honor, or dishonor, went to the deep and all-devouring mud. Wounded men often faced a tragic end when they were swallowed up by the slime, and hale men were frequently buried when sodden trench walls collapsed around them.
Soldiers came to fear the mud even more than they feared their opponents’ shells, bullets, and bayonets. As a British officer described his men’s suffering: “Covered with mud, wet to the skin, bitterly cold, stiff and benumbed with exposure, cowed and deadened by the monotony of 48 hours in extreme danger and by the constant casualties among their mates, they hung on to existence by a thin thread of discipline rather than by any spark of life. Some of the feebler and more highly strung deliberately ended their lives.”
13. When French Settlers in Algeria Were Angered by the Natives’ Celebration of the End of WWII
WWII in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, with Germany’s surrender. It was a day of celebration in the victor nations, but the celebrations took a tragic turn in the French colony of Algeria. In the eastern Algerian town of Setif, thousands of native Algerian men, women, and children, held a parade to commemorate the victory. Over 200,000 Algerians had been conscripted by their French colonial overlords during the war, and the marchers planned to lay a wreath at a monument erected in honor of Algerians killed in the conflict.
However, the parade, whose numbers included many Algerian veterans recently returned from the front lines, angered French settlers and French police. The French feared both the march’s undertones of Algerian nationalism, and the assertion of a right to equality with French settlers. Algeria was considered a part of metropolitan France, but it was governed with a form of apartheid in which French white settlers were privileged above native Algerians. Any attempt by the natives to seek equality with French settlers was bound to upset the latter, and when that happened in Setif, things took a horrific turn.
Roughly 5,000 native Algerians marched in Setif to celebrate the end of WWII, and some of them carried placards that stated “We Want Equality“, and “End the Occupation“. Others called for the release of Algerian political prisoners held by the colonial authorities. When the marchers with placards refused to get rid of them, French settlers and police opened fire on the unarmed crowds. The result was an outbreak of riots, followed by attacks on French settlers throughout the region, in which about 100 were killed.
The head of the French government in Metropolitan France, General Charles De Gaulle, ordered the colonial authorities in Algeria to restore order by all means possible. The French military responded to the unrest in Setif with a campaign of collective punishment that entailed the indiscriminate use of heavy weapons of war against Algerian civilians. From the sea, French battleships and cruisers opened fire on native Algerian neighborhoods in Setif and its surrounding environs. From the air, French dive bombers struck and flattened over 40 Algerian villages.
11. The French Indulged in Violent Reprisals at Setif
After the unrest was suppressed in the Setif region and order was restored, French authorities carried out brutal reprisals against native Algerians. French soldiers performed a ratissage, or “raking over” of Algerian rural communities suspected of involvement in the unrest, in which thousands were shot in summary executions. Simultaneously, French settlers went on a vigilante rampage in which they lynched Algerians seized from local jails, randomly shot natives out of hand, tortured them to death, or doused them in fuel and set them on fire.
Humiliation routinely accompanied the repression. Algerian men were frequently forced to kneel in front of a French flag, then made to shout “We are dogs” before they were led away, never to be seen again. By the time the violence finally came to an end weeks later, thousands of Algerian natives had perished. The exact numbers are unknown, but most historians put the death toll of the tragic events at Setif within a range of 6,000 to 20,000, while some contemporary news sources put the figure as high as 45,000.
10. The Tragic Fate of the Congo Under King Leopold II
King Leopold II of Belgium is not one of the first names most people associate with massive atrocities. However, his name belongs in the same league as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao: from 1885 to 1908, Leopold ran a colonial empire so vile and cruel that it rivals or exceeds the worst of most twentieth-century monsters. The Belgian king’s colonial victims numbered in the millions, with ten million dead the most commonly cited figure, although some scholarly estimates go as high as fifteen million.
It began in 1885 when Leopold painted himself as a humanitarian philanthropist and convinced other European powers then gathered at the Berlin Conference to award him a large state in central Africa. So they gave him what is today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo. That was tragic for the locals. Leopold named the new colony the Congo Free State. It did not belong to Belgium but was Leopold’s private property, and he squeezed the locals hard to enrich himself. He did not uplift the natives and develop the region as he had promised. Instead, he transformed his African possession into a living nightmare that claimed millions of lives in widespread atrocities that came to be known as the “Congo Horrors“.
9. Leopold II Promised to End Slavery in the Congo, Then Allied Himself With its Biggest Slaver
King Leopold II consolidated his power in the Congo River basin through an expedient alliance with a powerful Arab slave trader named Tippu Tip. That was awkward, given that the Belgian monarch had convinced the Berlin Conference to award him the Congo with a promise that he would combat its endemic slave trade. Leopold made Tippu a provincial governor in the eastern Congo and gave him a free hand in exchange for the slaver’s promise not to compete with the king in the western Congo.
Unsurprisingly, Tippu ramped up his slaving activities in his province, until Leopold, under pressure from European public opinion, turned on his slaver ally. He double-crossed Tippu, and raised a mercenary force that expelled him from the Congo. Leopold then reorganized his mercenaries into an occupation army named the Force Publique, and turned it loose to visit a reign of terror and horrors upon the natives. The result was the transformation of the Congo into a massive dystopian plantation and the Congolese into Leopold’s de facto slaves.
Under the rule of King Leopold II, Congolese natives were given quotas of rubber, ivory, diamonds, or other goods, to produce. Men who fell short of their quotas were mutilated by having their hands or feet amputated. If a man escaped, or it was deemed necessary that he keep his limbs in order that he continue to produce for the Belgian king, Leopold’s goons would mutilate his family instead, and amputate the hands of his wife and children. Millions ended up mutilated for failure to meet production quotas.
Millions more were murdered, starved, worked to death, or perished from various forms of mistreatment and misgovernment. Numerous villages were wiped out when they dared to protest the colonial tyranny, with all their inhabitants massacred. When the Belgian monarch was awarded the Congo in 1885, it contained an estimated twenty million people. When a census was conducted in 1924, that figure had fallen to ten million. The exact number of victims is unknown and likely unknowable, but with estimates going as high as fifteen million deaths, Leopold II qualifies as one of history’s worst monsters.
7. The Residential School Scandal Was Not the Only Tragic Event That Involved Canadian Authorities and Children
The indigenous residential school scandal was not the only tragic event visited upon Canadian children by the authorities. In the twentieth century, in a bid to curb an admittedly problematic religious sect, Canadian officials forcibly seized its members’ children, separated them from their families, and raised them in foster care or state institutions. Their targets were the Doukhobors, or “Spirit Warriors”, a pacifist and anti-materialist Russian Christian sect that formed in the seventeenth century. Their belief that a divine spirit resides in everybody raised eyebrows in Russia.
What got them in serious trouble, however, was their penchant for nudity to emulate Adam and Eve, a tendency to swap wives, plus a notion that nobody has any right to worldly goods. The result was centuries of persecution. Officials especially detested the Doukhobors’ pacifism, which led them to refuse conscription into the Russian military. The persecution’s intensity waxed and waned over the years, and ranged from beatings to imprisonment to exile to death. In the nineteenth century, the Doukhobors won Leo Tolstoy over as a patron, but his patronage was not enough to shield them. So they headed to Canada.
6. The Start of the Tragic Chain of Events That Got the Spirit Warriors In Trouble in Canada
Early in the twentieth century, the Doukhobors emigrated to Canada in search of religious freedom. Things began well, but misunderstandings soon set in motion a tragic chain of events. The end result was that the Spirit Warriors morphed in Canada from an odd sect and into a dangerous one, famous for mass nudist protests, and infamous for arsons on a massive scale. The Doukhobors first arrived in Saskatchewan in 1902, their emigration facilitated by Leo Tolstoy and the Society of Friends, or Quakers.
At first, the Canadians saw the industrious Spirit Warriors as ideal settlers. At the time, the Canadian government granted 160 acres of land for a nominal fee of $10 to any male homesteader, provided he established a farm within three years. However, because of their religious beliefs, the new arrivals could not swear allegiance to the Crown. That disqualified them for the land grants, which they viewed as a breach of promises made by the authorities. Embittered, they trekked to British Columbia, where they established drab little communal villages.
The Spirit Warriors’ leader, a charismatic figure named Peter Verigin, maintained a semblance of control over his nudist followers by flogging them with brambles. Then some Doukhobors blew him up with dynamite in 1924. With their leader’s demise, the Spirit Warriors fractured into rival factions, and things swiftly spun into a downward spiral of crazy. After Verigin’s assassination, a radical splinter broke off from the Doukhobors. This radical splinter of what was already a radical splinter of the Russian Orthodox Church eschewed the modern world.
More accurately, they eschewed what little there was of the modern world in the Canadian sticks, where they dwelt. They encouraged their brethren to avoid the trappings of modern society in everything, from the exploitation of animals to the use of electricity. In a tragic twist, their “encouragement” went beyond the adoption of a simple life for themselves. Like a deranged Quaker Al Qaeda in Canada’s back of beyond, they paraded nude to emulate the simple lives of Adam and Eve, and terrorized, burned the homes, and destroyed the material goods of other Doukhobors who dared partake of modernity.
4. In a Tragic Twist, Spirit Warriors Began to Persecute Other Spirit Warriors
The Canadian authorities had their hands full trying to deal with the radical Russian religious migrants. Mass nude parades would probably raise eyebrows today. Back in the early twentieth century, the Doukhobor splinter faction – who eventually named themselves The Freedomites – shocked sensibilities when they conducted mass protests in the buff. In one nudist epidemic, police sprinkled itching powder on the protesters. In 1932, the Canadian Parliament criminalized public nudity, and the courts began to penalize the Spirit Warriors’ naked protests with prison sentences of about three years per offense.
When yet another mass nude march scandalized British Columbia in 1932, over 600 Doukhobor men and women were banished to serve prison terms in Piers Island, BC. In a way, the naked protesters’ passive resistance exasperated Canadian authorities like Gandhi’s passive resistance exasperated the British in India at the time. More worrisome and tragic, however, was when the Freedomites went from passive protest and began to actively persecute other Doukhobors. Specifically, those whom they judged to have become too worldly, and to have abandoned the simple life appropriate for Spirit Warriors.
3. To Curb the Radical Spirit Warriors, Canadian Authorities Seized Their Children
Time after time, Freedomites raided the villages of other Doukhobors to burn their homes and dynamite their factories to punish them for straying from the simple life. For decades, the Freedomites waged a virtual guerrilla war in British Columbia against the modern world, and especially against other Spirit Warriors, they viewed as backsliders. From 1923 to 1962, the Freedomites were responsible for over 1,100 bomb and arson attacks. The authorities fought back with harsh sentences of up to three years imprisonment for nude protesters, and seized the sect’s children, separated them from their families, and sent them to be raised in foster care or at state institutions.
The violence continued, however and culminated in a series of 259 bombings in 1962 in just one region of British Columbia. Targets included ferries, railways, power lines and stations, hotels, courthouses, and the destruction of entire villages. The authorities finally decapitated the sect in March, 1962, with the arrest of sixty of its leaders, whom they charged with conspiracy to intimidate the Canadian Parliament and the Legislature of British Columbia. With their leaders locked up, the rest of the Spirit Warriors rapidly assimilated into Canadian society. Relative peace has reigned since, and Canadian Doukhobor numbers dwindled from a peak of 40,000 in the twentieth century to about 2,200 in 2011.
2. The Tragic Fate of Quebecois Orphans in the Care of the Catholic Church
Tragic as the Canadian authorities’ handling of Indigenous and Doukhobor children was, for sheer venality, those episodes are eclipsed by the authorities’ handling of what came to be known as the Duplessis Orphans. Until the mid-twentieth century, the Catholic Church held significantly, and sometimes pernicious, sway over Quebec. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Church predominance. In those dark days, Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic, became premier of Quebec. He immediately proceeded to place the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of various Catholic religious orders.
He then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program to the provinces. The idea was to divert as many taxpayer dollars as possible into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church. Canada’s federal subsidy program incentivized healthcare and the construction of hospitals, more so than other social programs and infrastructures. Provinces received a federal contribution of about $1.25 a day for every orphan, but more than twice that, $2.75, for every psychiatric patient. So Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church decided to transform $1.25-a-day orphans into more profitable $2.75-a-day psychiatric patients.
1. When the Church and a Dirty Politician Conspired to Ruin the Lives of Orphans for Money
In order to exploit the Canadian federal government’s subsidy program, Duplessis and Quebec’s Catholic Church conspired to turn orphans into psychiatric patients. To implement their idea and siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers, they set up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly transformed Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately the Catholic Church of Quebec – to receive the higher subsidy rates for hospitals.
It took decades before the tragic and scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 otherwise mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just a paperwork technicality. Once misdiagnosed as “mentally deficient”, the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions. There, the children were often subjected by nuns and lay monitors to physical, mental, and sexual abuse.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading