Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Long before I visited Brest last week, I had heard about the fortress in that town and what happened there on the early morning of June 22, 1941.
Brest (not to be confused with the coastal French town of the same name) is in the far western extremity of today’s Belarus. In 1941, it was on the western frontier of the USSR. On that fateful morning, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviets. And Brest Fortress was one of the first targets of the assault. The Soviet soldiers garrisoned in the fortress put up a stubborn defense against the much superior German force. Soon they became a symbol of Soviet resistance.
That much everyone can agree. But the full story of Brest Fortress is much more complicated and disputed than official Soviet and Belarusian accounts would have it. That in turn made me think about another war story that I grew up hearing about.
First of all, until less than two years before Barbarossa, Brest was in Poland, and the Soviets were the invaders.
In medieval times, Brest was a part of Poland and then the Grand Duchy Lithuania. With the tripartite partition of Poland in 1795, Brest became part of the Russian Empire. It remained so until the First World War, when the German army captured the city. Inside Brest Fortress in 1918, the new Bolshevik government that had taken over Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, withdrawing Russia from the war. A new Polish Republic formed after the war, and Brest was a part of it.
In 1939, however, Hitler and Stalin reached accord under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. Poland would be divided among them. A Nazi army marched on Brest, and Polish troops defended the fortress for some time before withdrawing. The Germans then handed Brest over to the USSR. The official website of the Republic of Belarus describes the events of 1939 only thus: “In 1939 Brest Fortress was assigned to the Soviet Union.” Assigned.
Accounts of the fighting that began on June 22, 1941 also differ depending on whether you read the Soviet/Belarusian version or international accounts. According to the former, the Soviets continued resisting until August, fighting to the absolute last man with no one surrendering. According to the latter, the fighting continued for a week, with almost 7,000 Soviet troops surrendering.
The fact is that, through wartime propaganda and subsequent romanticized accounts, the defense of Brest Fortress has become Soviet legend. And myths, once they take hold, rarely allow facts to get in the way.
Discussing Brest Fortress, Lonely Planet (which accepts the Soviet claim to a month-long defense) calls it “a Soviet version of the Alamo or the Charge of the Light Brigade.” Fitting comparisons: “Remember the Alamo,” goes the American saying, though the fictionalized version of the battle dominates over reality. And we are all far more likely to know the Charge of the Light Brigade through Tennyson’s poem than historical accounts.
As I wandered the fortress grounds, I remembered another war story that a kid growing up in 1980s Taiwan was guaranteed to hear: the tale of Sihang Warehouse in Shanghai.
In August 1937, Japan attacked Shanghai. By the end of October, even though they had put up a good fight, the Chinese were forced to retreat from the city. As they began to fall back, the Chinese placed a battalion inside a strategically located warehouse named “Sihang” or “Four Companies.” The battalion’s mission was to cover the retreat and to hold back the Japanese for as long as it could while other units made their escape.
Shanghai had semi-colonial status then with half of it under Chinese control while the other half was divided among foreign powers as “concession zones.” The Japanese army had to limit itself to the former, while international journalists were mostly congregated in the latter. Sihang Warehouse happened to be located on the edge of the Chinese zone, right across a river from the international zone, which had several implications. The first was that the Japanese army couldn’t use heavy artillery or gas against the warehouse for fear of hitting the white people nearby. Another was that, as the Japanese army attacked the building, all the foreign correspondents could see exactly what was happening. They wrote up dispatches about the battle and filed them back in New York and London.
One night, a girl scout traversed the devastated city alone to visit the beleaguered battalion. Inside her scout’s uniform, she carried with her a flag of the Chinese Republic. The lieutenant colonel in command gave her a list of all the soldiers in the battalion for her to take back and publicize. About 800 names appeared on that list, and so in Taiwanese textbooks the defenders of Sihang Warehouse are called “the 800 Warriors.” And the girl scout’s name was one that we all knew growing up.
Such is the official account, the myth, the legend. Only years later did I wonder: Was it really heroic to risk your life to bring someone a flag? Only years later did I learn all the complicating facts.
There weren’t 800 warriors. The battalion began with about 800 men, before the Battle of Shanghai began. By the time they took up position in the warehouse, only 400-odd remained. The colonel circulated the original list of names as a tactic to make his unit look tougher than it was.
The girl scout, despite the practical dubiousness of her actions, became the poster child of Chinese wartime propaganda. The Chinese government sent her to the US and Europe to meet Western leaders to try to win their sympathy. One of them was Adolf Hitler.
She then managed to personally offend China’s top spymaster, who had her arrested on trumped up charges. She languished in prison for four years and was only released after her persecutor died. Depressed and unable to bear her own celebrity, she changed her name and tried to live out a quiet life. Her own son didn’t know that she was the same girl scout that he read about in textbooks.
Such are the heroic myths that we want to hold onto. Such are the unflinching facts that undermine them.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."