When people doesn’t understand the world around themselves, huge mistakes can be made that affect the world, or at least a good part of it, for a long time. In 1958, Mao Zedong, the leader of the People’s Republic of China was about to make just such a mistake. In a move he called The Great Leap Forward, designed to reconstruct the country from an agrarian economy into large-scale industrialization. Part of this was the Four Pests campaign against flies, mosquitoes, rats, and sparrows. Now I can understand why Zedong considered flies, mosquitoes, and rats pests, but sparrows not so much, although, I suppose some people might disagree with me.
Zedong basically told his nation to take pots and pans to kill all the sparrows. His campaign was successful. Millions of sparrows were killed, but this left crops vulnerable to locusts…normally kept under control by the sparrows. This agricultural policy, poor weather, and famine led to the deaths of 45 million people. Among all the incidents of mass murder caused by states in the 20th century, probably the least known in the English-speaking world is the Great Leap Forward of Mao Zedong. For some reason, the Great Leap Forward was considered somehow important enough to earn a place in the Black Book of Communism, in a description so horrifying it would haunt anyone who read about it.
Looking back on the process, so many things were done wrong. First, the rulers presumed to know a better path, when indeed, they knew nothing about what they were doing. Then, to make matters worse, they beat the population into submission in order that the plan could be implemented. The plan was intensified by a wild political enthusiasm among the population. For some reason, or maybe like the Nazis, the citizen enforcers were often worse than the tyrants at the top. In the famine that followed…well, most of us have no idea what went on. For example, all livestock was eaten or died, and the pillaging of property effectively ended the possibility of domesticating animals. Before long, there were no animals. Something we don’t think about, nor will I go into detail, there was no fat for cooking whatever food was left. People were dying, and well…corpses were used for fat as needed. Think about this the next time you prepare dinner. Think of cooking without oils at all, no butter, corn oil, bacon, or any other fat at all. Be thankful for markets that make oil, butter, and such. Things shouldn’t be taken for granted.
China’s “Great Leap Forward” in 1958-1961 became one of the worse disasters in human history. The dis hewn of deeply misguided industrialization and food procurement policies led to the deaths of around thirty-five million people from starvation and prevented the births of perhaps forty million more. Weather conditions were not unusual in these years; the famine was entirely man-made. Zedong and his fellow leaders were determined to show the superiority of communism, to quickly overtake production levels in Russia and in Britain, and to establish Mao’s leadership of the communist world. Outlandish production targets were set to match the food needs of rapidly industrializing cities and to earn foreign exchange through exports of food. Under the totalitarian system maintained by the Communist Party of China, rural communes competed to exaggerate their output, further inflating the already unattainable procurement quotas and leaving nothing for the people to eat. The Communist Party caused further chaos in the countryside by ordering that all private land be turned into communes, confiscating private property and even private cooking utensils, and making people eat in communal kitchens.
That, as well as the enormous increases in production that were confidently expected, peasant labor was diverted to public works projects and rural steel-making plants, which achieved nothing. Travel restrictions stopped communication, meaning word of what was going on, didn’t out from getting out. The penalties for disobedience were clear. In all, three-quarters of a million people were executed in 1950-51. Still in the early years, of the revolution, the Party was widely trusted. When Zedong learned of the disasters, you would have thought he would have taken measures to save the people, but his goal was to hide the facts. He doubled down on the policies, purging the messengers, labeling them “right-deviationists,” and blaming peasants for secretly hoarding food. Anything else would have made him look like a bad leader…at least in his own mind.
If Zedong had changed course when the extent of the mass starvation first became clear to the leadership, the famine would have lasted one year and not three, and in any case there was more than enough grain in government stores to prevent everyone from starving. Life expectancy in China, which was nearly 50 in 1958, fell to below 30 in 1960; five years later, once Mao had stopped killing people, it had risen to nearly 55. Nearly a third of those born during the Great Leap Forward did not survive it.
Zedong was born December 26, 1893, Shaoshan, Hunan province, China. In his political career, he was the principal Chinese Marxist theorist, soldier, and statesman who led his country’s communist revolution. Mao was the leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from 1935 until his death, and he was chairman (chief of state) of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1959 and chairman of the party also until his death on September 9, 1976 in Beijing, China. I guess he survived the Great Leap Forward, unlike many of his people.
It was a big move for a Milwaukee, Wisconsin girl, but in the end, it would be her undoing. Mildred Fish was born in Milwaukee in 1902, and upon her high school graduation, she studied and then taught English at UW-Madison. It was there that she met Arvid Harnack, a Rockefeller Fellow from Germany. They soon fell in love, and were married in 1926. Because she was a progressive woman and proud of her name, Mildred chose to hyphenate her name, and became known as Mildred Fish-Harnack.
A few years later, she and Arvid both moved to Germany, where she taught and also worked on her doctorate while he worked for the German government. It was during those years that Fish-Harnack became interested in the Soviet Union, where women could choose where to work and also had other rights that women in the United States did not have…a situation which would very soon sound absurd. Nevertheless, at that time, it was so. Throughout the 1930s, Mildred and Arvid, who became increasingly alarmed by Hitler’s rise to power, began to communicate with a close circle of associates who believed communism and the Soviet Union might be the only possible stumbling block to complete Nazi tyranny in Europe. As the Hitler and the Nazi regime began to come into power, Fish-Harnack and her husband joined a small resistance group, which the Nazi secret police…the Gestapo…would later call the Red Orchestra. This resistance group smuggled important secrets about the Nazis to the United States and Soviet governments and helped Jews escape from Germany. When war was declared in 1941, she did not leave with other American expatriates.
Of course, their activities were espionage and would eventually cost them their lives. For his part, her husband, Arvid was hanged in December 1942. Mildred was given a six year sentence, but Hitler refused to endorse her punishment and she was retried and condemned on February 16, 1943. She was beheaded by guillotine. Because of her connection to possible communist sympathies and post-war McCarthyism, her story is virtually unknown in the United States. She was the only American woman who was ever put to death on the direct order of Adolf Hitler for her involvement in the resistance movement. Her last words were, “And I have loved Germany so much.” In the Cold War years after World War II, Fish-Harnack’s name and legacy were not honored in the United States, because she and her husband were believed to have been connected with Communism. For a time they were hated by both of their home countries. Once the truth came out in 1986, that changed and Mildred Fish-Harnack Day was established in Wisconsin. It takes place every year on her birthday, September 16th.
The ending of a war, does not always mean the beginning of peace, or even the end of fighting. Those who lost, don’t usually like the fact that they lost. As World War I drew to a close, angry rebels in both Germany and Austria-Hungary carried out a revolt on November 3, 1918, raising the red banner of the revolutionary socialist Communist Party and threatening to follow the Russian example in bringing down their imperialist governments.
By the last week of October 1918, three of the Central Powers…Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire…were in talks with the Allies about reaching an armistice, while the fourth, Bulgaria, had concluded talks in September. On October 28, approximately 1,000 sailors in the German navy were arrested because they refused to follow orders from their commanders to launch a last-ditch attack against the British in the North Sea.
The rebels soon immobilized the German fleet. Then, the resistance spread to the German city of Kiel, where some 3,000 sailors and workers raised the red flag of communism on November 3. Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, the governor of Kiel, quickly called on naval officers who were loyal to the government to suppress the revolt. During the ensuing battle, eight rebels were killed, but the general resistance continued.
Meanwhile, the revolution was spreading in Vienna, as well as in Budapest, where the former Hungarian prime minister, Count Istvan Tisza, was assassinated by members of the communist-led Red Guard on October 31. By now, the empire was in shambles, so the Austro-Hungarian government secured an armistice with the Allied powers on November 3rd, ending its participation in World War I. That same day in Moscow, at a mass rally in support of the Austrian rebels, the communist leader Vladimir Lenin declared triumphantly: “The time is near when the first day of the world revolution will be celebrated everywhere.” It seems that evil will try to reincarnate, wherever it can find a group sympathetic to its cause.
On August 13, 1961, in the hours just after midnight, the East German soldiers began laying down barbed wire and bricks as a barrier between Soviet-controlled East Berlin and the democratic western section of the city. It was a day that would change life in Berlin for the next twenty eight years. In the days that followed, a wall was built to permanently close off access to the west. The citizens of East Berlin became prisoners in their own homes and city, in a prison that was built around them. The road between East and West Berlin had become a one way street. If you wanted in, you couldn’t come back out. Families were separated from each other, and those in the West had to make the choice to go be with family in East Berlin…and captivity, or not. The wall became the symbol of the Cold War. It was a literal Iron Curtain, dividing Europe.
When World War II ended in 1945, Germany was divided into four Allied occupation zones. Berlin, the German capital, was likewise divided into occupation sectors, even though it was located deep within the Soviet occupation zone. The future of Germany was a source of contention. Disagreements brought tensions which grew when the United States, Britain, and France moved in 1948 to unite their occupation zones into a single autonomous entity known as the Federal Republic of Germany or West Germany. In response, the Soviet Union launched a land blockage of West Berlin in an effort to force the West to abandon the city. The United States and Britain responded with a massive airlift of food and supplies to West Berlin, and in May of 1949, the Soviet Union ended the blockade in defeat.
That didn’t remove the tensions that plagued the area, however. By 1961 the Cold War tensions were running high again. The East German people became very dissatisfied with life under the communist system. West Berlin was a gateway to the West and Democracy. Between 1949 and 1961, about 2.5 million East Germans fled East Berlin to West Germany. By August of 1961, East Germans were crossing into West Germany at a rate of 2,000 people per day. Many of the refugees were skilled laborers, professionals, and intellectuals, and their loss was having a devastating effect on the East German economy. The Soviets had to figure out a way to stop the exodus, and its devastating effect on the economy. Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev made the decision to close off access from East Berlin to West Berlin.
Then came the night of August 13, 1961. The citizens of East Berlin could no longer freely pass into West Berlin. The West was taken by surprise, and threatened a trade embargo against East Germany as a retaliatory measure. The Soviets responded that such a measure would bring new blockades. The West did nothing, and the East German authorities grew more and more bold. They began closing of more and more checkpoints between East and West Berlin. On August 15, they began replacing barbed wire with concrete. The wall was supposedly designed protect their citizens from the influence of decadent capitalist culture. In realty, it protected the East German authorities from scrutiny as they did what they wanted with out retaliation.
Once it was up, the only way for East Berliners to escape the oppression of their government was to take their chances to get across in whatever way they could dream up. People attempted escape by train, tight rope, zip lines, hot air balloons, through old tunnels, impersonating soldiers, a stolen tank, and swimming. Many of these attempts ended in death for the person attempting escape. It didn’t stop them. They were so determined to live freely. About 5,000 East Germans managed to escape across the Berlin Wall to the West, but the frequency of successful escapes dwindled as the wall was increasingly fortified. Thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings and 191 were killed.
On June 12, 1987 President Reagan made his great “tear down this wall” speech, but the wall remained until 1989, when the democratization movement began sweeping across Eastern Europe. On November 9, 1989 travel restrictions were eased. Jubilant Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, painted graffiti on it, and removed fragments as souvenirs. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. In 1990, East and West Germany were formally reunited. For those in the free world, it would be almost impossible to completely understand just what Communism was like, but those who lived it, would never forget it, if they even lived through it, which many didn’t.