01 September 2009

It Was an Overcast Day in September

and, for Europe, the clocks were striking thirteen. George Orwell's diary for seventy years ago today rather starkly says it:

Invasion of Poland began this morning. Warsaw bombed. General mobilization proclaimed in England, ditto in France plus martial law.

This leads to two interesting bits of historical ignorance.

On one hand, most Americans think of Poland as a little country that was quickly and inevitably swallowed by Germany (or, if they know a little bit more, Germany and the Soviet Union together) as a prelude to the also-inevitable French surrender, the Battle of Britain, and the "real" beginning of the war when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Those same Americans forget that the area conquered in Poland (about 300,000km2) was comparable to the area conquered in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands eight months later (about 280,000km2 prior to the surrender).

On the other hand, Europeans still think of immense distances like the 1616km between Berlin and Moscow as defining their continent... without realizing that those distances (and terrain!) pale next to those at issue eighty years earlier in the American civil war, when the battlefield axis from Gettysburg to New Orleans of 1600km was covered without either air transport or motor vehicles... in less time. And that Sherman's march through Georgia did everything without high explosives.

It was overcast in Berlin with a light 1m/s wind, but rather warm (up to 25°C); not yet a bright cold day in April, but perhaps Orwell's thoughts were already turning that way. And in any event, it was not a good day for history.