Category Archives: history

Why Iraq is America’s new Vietnam

From the Star

“If you break it, you own it,” warned U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to President George W. Bush just before the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

Powell knew that the president had no clue what unpredictable forces he was about to unleash. Bush now knows. We all do.

As we witness the inexorable, slow-motion collapse of Iraq in the face of viciousIslamic State extremists, let’s remember Powell’s private caution to Bush: “You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people. You will own all their hopes, aspirations and problems. You’ll own it all.”

This has been an awful week in the troubled history of Iraq. The stunning seizure last Sunday night of the pivotal provincial capital of Ramadi by Islamic State fighters took everyone by surprise.

Until last weekend, the United States and Iraqi view was that ISIS rebels were on the defensive and that Iraq’s questionable military had learned to hold its ground. But at Ramadi, even though they outnumbered the rebels, Iraqi soldiers abandoned the city in the face of the ferocious attack. Many of the ISIS fighters were equipped with American weapons captured earlier from fleeing Iraqi soldiers.

Once again, the debacle has called into question the country’s future as a unitary state. Not only is the Iraqi military’s will to win in doubt, but the Iraqi government is also showing itself to be divided and inept. As for the Americans, whose military intervention has been limited to largely ineffective air strikes, their strategy to “defeat” ISIS is floundering.

However, it is not as if these Islamic State jihadists, who are now roaming freely in Iraq and Syria, were invented out of thin air. They have a history.

They are largely the remnants of the Al Qaeda movement operating for years in Iraq, as well as veterans from Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. Shortly after the Americans deposed Hussein, the U.S. foolishly disbanded Iraq’s Baath army. It was a move that put more than 200,000 angry young men out of work. Is it a surprise that many of them are now are working for ISIS?

Paul Krugman says the invasion of Iraq was criminal.

Why did they want a war? That’s a harder question to answer. Some of the warmongers believed that deploying shock and awe in Iraq would enhance American power and influence around the world. Some saw Iraq as a sort of pilot project, preparation for a series of regime changes. And it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there was a strong element of wagging the dog, of using military triumph to strengthen the Republican brand at home.

Whatever the precise motives, the result was a very dark chapter in American history. Once again: We were lied into war.

Now, you can understand why many political and media figures would prefer not to talk about any of this. Some of them, I suppose, may have been duped: may have fallen for the obvious lies, which doesn’t say much about their judgment. More, I suspect, were complicit: they realized that the official case for war was a pretext, but had their own reasons for wanting a war, or, alternatively, allowed themselves to be intimidated into going along. For there was a definite climate of fear among politicians and pundits in 2002 and 2003, one in which criticizing the push for war looked very much like a career killer.

On top of these personal motives, our news media in general have a hard time coping with policy dishonesty. Reporters are reluctant to call politicians on their lies, even when these involve mundane issues like budget numbers, for fear of seeming partisan. In fact, the bigger the lie, the clearer it is that major political figures are engaged in outright fraud, the more hesitant the reporting. And it doesn’t get much bigger — indeed, more or less criminal — than lying America into war.

But truth matters, and not just because those who refuse to learn from history are doomed in some general sense to repeat it. The campaign of lies that took us into Iraq was recent enough that it’s still important to hold the guilty individuals accountable. Never mind Jeb Bush’s verbal stumbles. Think, instead, about his foreign-policy team, led by people who were directly involved in concocting a false case for war.

So let’s get the Iraq story right. Yes, from a national point of view the invasion was a mistake. But (with apologies to Talleyrand) it was worse than a mistake, it was a crime.

The White House’s Extreme Makeover

Some fun history from the New York Times

The White House Under Rennovation

In 1947, the White House was in danger of internal physical collapse. One day, while President Harry S. Truman took a bath upstairs, a great Blue Room chandelier threatened to crash down on his wife, Bess, and her guests from the Daughters of the American Revolution. The president later joked that he might have unexpectedly dropped through the ceiling naked on the ladies below, and he confessed that the incident made him nervous. The upstairs floor, he noted, “sagged and moved like a ship at sea.”

Upon investigating the situation, Truman was told that hasty renovations, demanded by various impatient presidents in the past, had led to the weakening or removal of load-bearing walls and other supporting structures. Beams were “staying up from force of habit only,” he was informed, and the mansion had become a firetrap. Truman later wrote that with so many thousands of visitors and presidential guests, “My heart trembles when I think of the disasters we might have had.”

The following year, his daughter Margaret’s piano broke through the floor of the family quarters. In August, Truman recorded in his diary that with his wife away, he had been “moved into the Lincoln Room — for safety — imagine that!” He wrote to his sister that the White House was “about to fall in.” That November, after the president won a full term over Thomas E. Dewey, the first family was whisked across Pennsylvania Avenue to reside in the presidential guest quarters called Blair House.

Had someone other than Truman been president, there might be almost nothing left of the original White House today. The cheapest, most efficient solution was to build a whole new presidential mansion. Some even suggested a different Washington location on a tract of land larger than the current 18 acres, as would befit the commanding new post-World War II stature of the United States.

As one of the most voracious readers of history ever to serve as president, Truman recoiled from that prospect. He also felt that witnessing the old White House being torn to the ground would wound Americans’ psyches. He instead approved a plan to shore up the outer walls, tear out everything inside and install a new internal steel superstructure (“of skyscraper strength,” The Washington Evening Star said) above a large new, poured-concrete basement. (The basement included a shelter from nuclear attack, where President George W. Bush was taken on the evening of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.)

The historian in Truman consoled himself with the expectation that after the gut renovation, much of the original mansion — paneled walls, hardwood floors, ceiling fixtures and other decorations — could be grafted onto the new steel skeleton so that the White House would remain authentically historic.

Of course like all renovations, it went over budget

With his renovation over the original budget, Truman and the commission that ran the project made a deal with the New York department store B. Altman & Company to fill the empty rooms — “at absolute cost” — with reproductions. As for other spaces of the mansion, ones away from public scrutiny, little effort was made to disguise the fact that they were completed in 1952. When Jacqueline Kennedy toured the mansion in December 1960 after her husband’s election victory, she became distraught. Referring to a dreary chain of city convention hotels, she observed that the ambience of the reconstructed White House was “early Statler.”

As Mrs. Kennedy pointed out, the White House is “the setting in which the presidency is presented to the world.” Thus she obtained expert help and appealed for donations of money and historical artifacts to help make the building, or at least its public floors, a treasure chest of American history. Her efforts were so successful (and enhanced by the work of later first families) that it is no wonder that someone visiting today’s White House might presume that the mansion has always been meticulously redolent of early American history.

But Mrs. Kennedy’s restoration left some backstage spaces in the White House untouched, and to this day those spaces look much as they did when created during the Truman renovation.

For example, adjoining the second-floor Treaty Room — which presidents from George H. W. Bush through Barack Obama have used as a home office — is a small, brightly lighted bathroom with exposed plumbing and a green-and-white checkerboard tile floor that looks as if it belonged to a 1952 hotel.

I really hope that Prime Minister Harper does the same with 24 Sussex Drive.  It is in serious need of repairs according to the National Capital Commission.  I know there are politics at play (and there should not be with 24 Sussex Drive) but I think the Prime Minister’s Official residence should reflect our country’s pride as well.

The Top 10 Secrets of Grand Central Station

From Untapped Cities

Like the rest of Grand Central, the Campbell Apartment serves as a testament to the grandiosity of another era. But this testament is one that can be imbibed. If appropriately attired, enter a room resplendent from paraphernalia of the past and sip on cocktails from the fin de siècle in this virtual museum to the opulence of New York’s high society of the past.

Though it did have a kitchen and butler, this was once the office, not apartment, of tycoon John C. Campbell. President of the Credit Clearing House, Campbell rented the space to be closer to the hub of the New York Central Railroad (Cornelius Vanderbilt’s train empire), of which he was a major stockholder. Rumor has it that he used to sit behind the massive desk (that to this day takes up much of one side of the gorgeous 25 by 60 foot room) half nude, as he detested wrinkles in his trousers. The Campbell Apartment deteriorated drastically after its namesake vacated it in the ‘50s, and like everything else in the terminal, it fell on hard times. Metro North claimed the space as first a signalmen’s headquarters and later a police station, temporarily detaining criminals in what was once Campell’s wine cellar and storing their firearms in his curio cabinet. It was restored to its original glory in the late ‘90s, and is an excellent place to get a real taste of the decadence of Grand Central’s past.

Grand Central Station also holds a tennis court, a top secret room, and a secret railway line that is only used when the President is in town. 

What is Obama’s Legacy?

New York Magazine asked 53 historians what Barack Obama’s legacy will be

Almost every respondent wrote that the fact of his being the first black president will loom large in the historical narrative — though they disagreed in interesting ways. Many predict that what will last is the symbolism of a nonwhite First Family; others, the antagonism Obama’s blackness provoked; still others, the way his racial self-consciousness constrained him. A few suggested that we will care a great deal less about his race generations from now — just as John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism hardly matters to current students of history. Across the board, Obamacare was recognized as a historic triumph (though one historian predicted that, with its market exchanges, it may in retrospect be seen as illiberal and mark the beginning of the privatization of public health care). A surprising number of respondents argued that his rescue of the economy will be judged more significant than is presently acknowledged, however lackluster the recovery has felt. There was more attention paid to China than isis (Obama’s foreign policy received the most divergent assessments), and considerable credit was given to the absence of a major war or terrorist attack, along with a more negative assessment of its price — the expansion of the security state, drones and all. 

Spell check. Someone run a spell check.

George Cooper

So I was looking for some information on Keeler, Saskatchewan, where my family is from and I came across this family history of my family.  My grandfather and I weren’t that close after my dad left in 1982 but I couldn’t help but notice he spelled my name wrong in the family history.  And if this is accurate, my father is now 62 years old.  I had no idea.

In case you are interested, this is his old house (and post office), this is the bar I hung out in when I was six and this is his old garage.  Also when I was six, I may or may not have held up the general store.

Lucky Dollar General Store

I had my trusty dog Tip, a pop gun, a cowboy hat and what I thought was a reasonable demand that she gave me some ice cream.  I would have gotten all of the ice cream if I hadn’t fired my toy gun (she thought it was real).  When nothing appeared to have been shot, she told my grandmother.  Crime never pays kids.  Crime never pays.

Interesting trivia note is that I have the till from that General Store in my house today.  It weighs a ton and everywhere you can grab it has very sharp edges.  I also think that the book is incorrect as I have memories of Mrs. Garry running the store when I was older than three.  

Of course as I am reading, it just clicked in that these must be my great grandparents.

Christopher Cooper

Totally unrelated note: A well known lawyer in town has told me that he think the reason that he is in Canada is because his great great grandfather possibly killed one of my ancestors in a drunken fight back in the U.K.  Even weirder is that we have known each other for years before and he found this out while researching his own family’s genealogy.  Its stuff like that gets left out of small town history books.

I guess I am glad that we don’t come from an honour based society where I would have to kill one of his family and so on and so on.  If I remember correctly, he did buy dinner the night that he told us this so we could be even.

Not only did RFK think the Warren Commission had flaws but Warren had doubts as well

From Politiico

What else did Bobby Kennedy know? Last year, the son and namesake of the late Attorney General Robert Kennedy revealed publicly that his father had considered the Warren Commission’s final report, which largely ruled out the possibility of a conspiracy in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, to be a “shoddy piece of craftsmanship.” Robert Jr. said his father suspected that the president had been killed in a conspiracy involving Cuba, the Mafia or even rogue agents of the CIA. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a close friend of the Kennedy family, would disclose years later that he was told by Robert Kennedy in December 1963, a month after the president’s murder, that the former attorney general worried that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was “part of a larger plot, whether organized by Castro or by gangsters.” Schlesinger said that in 1966, two years after the Warren Commission report, Kennedy was still so suspicious about a conspiracy that he wondered aloud “how long he could continue to avoid comment on the report—it is evident that he believes it is was poor job.”

Newly disclosed documents from the commission, made public on the 50th anniversary of its final report, suggest that the panel missed a chance to get Robert Kennedy to acknowledge publicly what he would later confess to his closest family and friends: that he believed the commission had overlooked evidence that might have pointed to a conspiracy.

The documents show the commission was prepared to press Kennedy to offer his views, under oath, about the possibility that Oswald had not acted alone. An affidavit, in which Kennedy would have been required to raise his right hand and deny knowledge of a conspiracy under penalty of perjury, was prepared for his signature by the commission’s staff but was never used. Instead, the attorney general became the highest ranking government official, apart from President Lyndon Johnson, who was excused from giving sworn testimony or offering a sworn written statement to the commission.

The decision to scrap the affidavit is another example of the extraordinary deference paid to the attorney general and his family by Chief Justice Earl Warren, the commission’s chairman. In an unsworn August 1964 letter to Warren—already public and long seen by historians as evasive, if not as an effort to mislead the commission outright about what he really knew and suspected—Kennedy said he was aware of “no credible evidence to support the allegations that the assassination of President Kennedy was caused by a domestic or foreign conspiracy.” Kennedy’s private papers, however, suggest he struggled over signing even the unsworn letter to Warren.

There you go, some JFK conspiracy content for you on an early Tuesday morning.

A new report shows nuclear weapons almost detonated in North Carolina in 1961

Eric Schlosser has a new book out about how close the U.S. came to blowing off it’s own eastern seaboard during the Cold War

At the height of the Cold War, the Air Force feared that the Soviet Union could launch a surprise attack on the United States and destroy all of our air bases, and we’d have no way to retaliate against the Soviets. So the Air Force came up with this idea of having about a dozen B-52 bombers airborne 24 hours a day, with nuclear weapons on board. That way, if we were attacked, those dozen planes might escape the destruction on the ground, head to the Soviet Union, and blast the Soviets with hydrogen bombs.

The planes were sort of an insurance policy. They were meant to deter the Soviets from trying a surprise attack. But this Air Force program, called the “airborne alert,” also posed some serious risks for the United States. The B-52 was designed in the late 1940s–and it wasn’t designed to be flying 24 hours a day. So the airborne alerts put enormous stress on these aircraft. It really wore out the planes and made them more likely to crash.

Nobody realized, at the time, that some design flaws in our nuclear weapons made them vulnerable to detonating in an accident. There was an illusion of safety. In the book, I explore the safety problems with our nuclear arsenal. We were putting planes that were at risk of crashing into the air over the United States with nuclear weapons that were at risk of accidentally detonating. The airborne alert was finally ended in 1968, after a B-52 crashed in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs and contaminated a stretch of the Arctic Ice with plutonium.

How close was this to detonating?

Well, for most of the Cold War, there was no code or anything that you needed to enter. All you needed to do was turn a switch or two in the cockpit to arm the bomb, and then release it. There were mechanisms on the weapon to prevent it from detonating prematurely and destroying our own planes. There were barometric switches that would operate when they sensed a change in altitude. There were timers that delayed the explosion until our planes had enough time to get away. The Goldsboro bomb that almost detonated was known as Weapon No. 1. As the plane was spinning and breaking apart, the centrifugal forces pulled a lanyard in the cockpit–and that lanyard was what a crew member would manually pull during wartime to release the bomb. This hydrogen bomb was a machine, a dumb object. It had no idea whether the lanyard was being pulled by a person or by a centrifugal force. Once the lanyard was pulled, the weapon just behaved like it was designed to.

The bomb went through all of its arming steps except for one, and a single switch prevented a full-scale nuclear detonation. That type of switch was later found to be defective. It had failed in dozens of other cases, allowing weapons to be inadvertently armed. And that safety switch could have very easily been circumvented by stray electricity in the B-52 as it was breaking apart. As Secretary of Defense McNamara said, “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.” That’s literally correct, a short circuit could’ve fully armed the bomb.

I interviewed McNamara before he passed away. The Goldsboro accident occurred just a few days after he took office. He wasn’t an expert in nuclear weapons; he’d been head of the Ford Motor Company. And this accident scared the hell out of him. It would have spread lethal radioactive fallout up the Eastern Seaboard–and put a real damper on all the optimism of the Kennedy administration’s New Frontier. And this wasn’t the only really serious nuclear weapons accident that the United States had. There were others that were dangerous and yet kept from view.

So yeah, try not to think about this thought by Schlosser before you go to bed.

Any country that wants nuclear weapons has to keep in mind that these weapons may pose a greater threat to yourself than to your enemies. These weapons are complicated things to possess and maintain, especially if you keep them fully assembled and ready to use. If you’re only going to put them together when you’re about to go to war, then there’s a higher level of safety. But if you keep them fully assembled, and mated to a weapons system, and ready to go, then there are limitless ways that something could go wrong.

The Near-Death of Grand Central Terminal

It’s amazing how close New York came to losing Grand Central Station

Many consider the destruction of New York’s original Pennsylvania Station in 1963 to have been the architectural crime of the twentieth century. But few know how close we came to also losing its counterpart, Grand Central Terminal, a hub every bit as irreplaceable. Grand Central’s salvation has generally been told as a tale of aroused civic virtue, which it was. Yet it was, as well, an affirming episode for those of us convinced that our political culture has become an endless clown-car act with the same fools always leaping out.

“In New York then, I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance,” said Le Corbusier of Grand Central. “It is so well done that you could believe it to be genuine. It even has a strange, new firmness which is not Italian, but American.” It was not seen as such by its owner, New York Central Railroad, which viewed it mostly as a cash cow. As early as 1954, the Central proposed replacing the terminal with something called The Hyberboloid — an I. M. Pei monstrosity that, at 108 stories and 1,600 feet, would have become the world’s tallest building at the time. There was enough public outcry that a scaled-down Hyberboloid was built instead just north of Grand Central, where it was retitled the Pan Am (later the Met Life) Building. Even at a lesser height, it proved every bit as grotesque as promised.

Still unsatisfied, New York Central proposed in 1961 to build a three-level bowling alley over Grand Central’s Main Concourse, which would have required lowering the ceiling from sixty feet to fifteen and cutting off from view its glorious blue mural of the zodiac. This, too, was stopped. Foiled again, New York Central resorted to plastering the terminal with ads and bombarding travelers with canned Muzak, complete with commercials, over the public address system.

Meanwhile, in the angry atmosphere that followed the demolition of Penn Station, New York City finally got a Landmarks Preservation Commission, which designated Grand Central a landmark in 1967. But the terminal still wasn’t safe. Now hemorrhaging money as Americans turned away from trains and the passenger rail system began to collapse, the New York Central merged with its old rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad. The chairman and CEO of the new “Penn Central” was one Stuart Saunders, former CEO of the Pennsy, and the man who had torn down Penn Station to build the latest Madison Square Garden.

Bear with us here, as we trace how the troubled new railroad nearly succeeded in tearing down Grand Central — for it says much about how we conduct business and politics in America today.

The Vast Right Wing Media Conspiracy

The story of the vast right wing media conspiracy is worth a read.

At the time, my then colleague (and current business partner) Mark Fabiani and I were working at the White House as lawyers in the counsel’s office and began to receive calls from mainstream media outlets asking us to respond to various bizarre items related to the late Vince Foster, a fellow White House lawyer who had tragically taken his own life in the summer of 1993. At first, we ignored the calls, as there was nothing to the story beyond the terrible loss of one of the president and first lady’s friends. However, as the calls continued without letup, and the nature of the questions became even more bizarre—to the point where we were asked to comment on alleged eyewitness sightings of Foster—we knew we had to get to the heart of the matter and began asking the reporters the basis for their questions.

All roads led to a mysterious source—the newly exploding Internet.

One Saturday morning in the midst of an oppressively hot D.C. summer weekend, Mark and I found ourselves squirreled away in a stuffy room on the fourth floor of the Old Executive Office Building, where there was a bank of computers from which you could access the “World Wide Web.” Remember—this was the pre-Blackberry, pre-Google, dial-up world of 1995, when only around 10 percent of the public had Internet access and the White House had just barely launched its own web page.

Eight hours later, we emerged from our warren of cubicles having seemingly been transported to a parallel universe. Online we found early versions of chat rooms, postings and other information showing there was an entire cottage industry devoted to discussing conspiracy theories relating to Foster’s death, including numerous online reports of people claiming to have seen him. Those reports would be picked up by so-called news sources that most Americans at the time had never heard of—conservative outlets such as Eagle Publishing’s Human Events or Richard Mellon Scaife’s the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. From there, the story would migrate to right-leaning outlets we were familiar with, such as the New York Post, the Washington Times and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal—all before eventually ending up in the mainstream press.

What we learned in those eight hours became the basis for our 332-page report, written so that those of us in Clinton White House responsible for fielding questions about these bizarre rumors could apprise mainstream reporters of what we called the “media food chain”—basically, so that we could show them how such a wacky conspiracy theory like the supposed murder of Vince Foster had even become a news “story” at all. We would simply hand the memo to the reporter asking questions, tell him to review it and to come back to us with any remaining questions. Few did.

But we also realized that this was just the beginning. Like the scene in Bugsy where Warren Beatty, playing the mobster Bugsy Siegel, arrives in the Nevada desert and the sees the future of gambling (modern Las Vegas), those eight hours in the White House computer room were our eureka moment about the future of media and politics. We saw the transition from an electorate that passively consumed the information put before it (a joke at the time was that a political rally was a family watching a political commercial on television) to an electorate that could use technology to actively engage in the creation, distribution and self-selection of information.

(Of course, had we been just a little more business-savvy, we would have immediately relocated to Silicon Valley instead of writing that report.)

Germany 1945

I am reading Germany 1945: From War to Peace right now.  Here is a quick review from the New York Times

We have rarely felt sorry for what the Germans suffered at the end of World War II, in part because the Germans have done a superb job of feeling sorry for themselves. Most Germans in 1945 (and long afterward) believed that their own suffering freed them from any obligation to ponder what Germans had done unto others. Historians, therefore, have hesitated to exploit this material, for fear of seeming to endorse the repellent spectacle of German self-pity. The distinguished British historian Richard Bessel, however, understands the difference between suffering and atonement, and with “Germany 1945” he has produced a sober yet powerful account of the terrible year he calls the “hinge” of the 20th century in Europe.

The decisive blow came in January, when a Red Army invasion force, nearly four million strong, poured into eastern provinces that would soon cease forever to be German. (The Anglo-American invasion from the west paled by comparison.) They killed with dreadful efficiency. German military deaths that month exceeded the total wartime losses of either the United States or Britain. Millions of civilians fled in terror from what they had long been told were savage Slavic hordes. Hitler’s government, deep in denial, did little to ease the refugees’ distress. Nor did it permit the orderly surrender of lost territories. While some soldiers and civilians enthusiastically embraced orders to fight to the death, the rest were kept in line by roving SS death squads that hanged deserters from lampposts. But the formidable Wehrmacht was hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.

Bessel leaves no doubt about who was to blame for the suffering: Hitler, who chose to destroy his country rather than surrender and face defeat. For the German people — many bombed or chased out of their homes, all at the mercy of the occupying armies — this was the legacy of the Third Reich: not conquest and glory, nor genocide and guilt, but betrayal and ruin, rubble and grief.

Although the Allies faced a tough job in imposing order, one thing they needlessly feared, as it turned out, was resistance from dead-enders. Rumors of a “Werewolf” underground proved groundless (contrary to the claims of those who argued a few years ago that postwar Germany was just as bad as postwar Iraq). The occupiers were surprised to find a docile people, preoccupied with finding shelter, food and missing family members.

With death all around, the invaders sought vengeance. Soviet soldiers pillaged and raped the most, but the French were not much better. The British and Americans, with fewer grievances, committed fewer atrocities. While Germans resented the inevitable injustices of Allied denazification programs, when the most prominent surviving Nazis went on trial in Nuremberg in November 1945, few could summon any sympathy for these pathetic men who had led their nation into the abyss.

If you have a chance and an inclination to look at a rarely looked at part of World War II, the book is worth reading.  If you don’t want to read the book, you may want to check out these photos posted to The Atlantic’s In Focus blog.

Using Hitler to prove a point

From Joe Posnanski

Rule 1: It is never a good idea to invoke the name of Hitler to make an unrelated sports-related point — or any unrelated point.
Rule 2: However, if you plan going to bring up Hitler in historical context, see Rule 1.
Rule 3: In certain rare cases, when you are interested in using Hitler to prove a larger truth, see Rule 1.
Rule 4: The one exception to this is … See Rule 1.
Rule 5: Yeah. Rule 1. Always.

Life inside a German POW camp

French POW’s filmed their time in the camp with camera parts smuggled in sausage.

The Austrian camp, close to the border with Czechoslovakia, was originally built for troops taking part in military exercises.

There were 40 barracks, 20 each side of a central aisle. The land was bound by two lines of barbed wire, the perimeter illuminated by floodlights.

Escape seemed almost impossible. Almost…. and it is remarkable that we can see it.

Through some extraordinary ingenuity – and cunning – the men filmed their efforts.

Their rarely seen footage is called Sous Le Manteau (Clandestinely). So professional is it that on first viewing you would be forgiven for thinking it is a post-war reconstruction.

It is in fact a 30-minute documentary, shot in secret by the prisoners themselves. Risking death, they recorded it on a secret camera built from parts that were smuggled into the camp in sausages.

The prisoners had discovered that German soldiers would only check food sent in by cutting it down the middle. The parts were hidden in the ends.

The camera they built was concealed in a hollowed-out dictionary from the camp library. The spine of the book opened like a shutter. The 8mm reels on which the film was stored were then nailed into the heels of their makeshift shoes.

It gives an incredible insight into living conditions within the camp. The scant food they were given, the searches conducted without warning by the German soldiers. They filmed it all, even the searches, right under the noses of their guards.