Monday, February 25, 2008

4th Crusade: Christians vs Christians

The Crusades, or the fact of giving a religious meaning to the fights that, all along the Middle Ages, happened between Christian and Muslim princes, led somehow to the internationalization of warfare. The first action related to the idea of Crusade was in the Spain of the "Reconquista". Alfonso VI of Castille, after his crushing defeat in Zalaca against the Almoravids, asks for help from foreign knights to defend Toledo and the Tajo basin against the continuous Muslim attacks.

The Crusades' origins come from an spontaneous feeling from pilgrims to Holy Places. They went there more and more often in armed groups, although the tolerant Arabs did not oppose any obstacle to them. This feeling was used by the pope Urban II, who preached for the first Crusade in 1095, with the aim to deviate the warlike actions of feudal lords. Besides, this way he would show a force exhibition to his weakened enemy, the Eastern Orthodox Church, as mercenaries went sent as aid for the Byzantine Empire. It had an extraordinary success, thousands of crusaders from all over Europe gathered in Constantinople and conquered Jerusalem, and military orders were found that maintained it for almost a hundred years.

However, during the following Crusades, kings played a progressively decreasing role, sometimes even opposing the pontifical rule. Italian businessmen financed the unsuccessful expeditions led by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and later Richard Lionheart together with Frederick Barbarossa.

The 4th Crusade's financial problems

The Pope Innocent III tried to change this situation with the preaching of a 4th Crusade. While carefully avoiding the kings to assume its rule, he planeed a very organised attack into Egypt, the heart of Saladdin's empire. He hired the Venetians for the transport, logistics and reinforcement of troops, and designed the Italian Boniface of Montferrat, descendant of crusaders, as the army leader. In 1202, more than 30,000 crusaders, mostly French, promised to be ready to set sail to Cairo, something that however never happened.

Only a third of the promised soldiers appeared in Venice, and with her little more than half of the silver marks needed to pay. As the Venetians were demanding the payment for their accomplished building of the vessels, a mutual agreement had to be reached. Fainally, the doge Enrico Dandolo, a skillful diplomat and specially a very practical man, managed to attract the Crusade towards his own interests.

Despite the Pope's express ban to the crusaders to "cause atrocious acts against other Christian neighbors", the Venetians demanded as a payment to capture the city of Zara, rebel to Venice and protected by the king Emeric of Hungary and Croatia, who had previously supported the Crusade. Some of the crusaders, disappointed, returned home, while most of them faced a menace of excommunication after taking the city.

Meanwhile, the theoretical leader Boniface, aiming to take initiative back and save the Crusade, met Alexius Angelicus, brother-in-law of his cousin, and son of the Byzantine emperor Isaac, ovethrown some years before by his uncle -also Alexius- who now held the crown of Constantinople. Alexius promised financing and reinforcements for the expedition if they helped him to have the throne back. Most of the crusaders accepted, and specially did the Venetians, as the usurper had expelled their merchants when he came to power.

The nonsense

The city fell when the emperor quickly fleed, and Alexius IV was crowned in Constantinople. However, he soon found huge problems to find the gold and silver promised to his partners, despite melting large amounts of valuable objects in the city. This attack to the possessions of the population, together with the growing hate towards foreigners who occupied their city, caused many fights between Greeks and crusades in the streets and in the court.

In January 1204, a courtesan leader of the anti-Latin movement eventually strangled the emperor -the favorite manner to overthrown in Byzantium- and proclaimed himself emperor as Alexius V. The first thing he did was terminate the contract with the crusaders and expel them from the city. These assaulted it, but were driven back due to the fierce resistance of the Greek population.

The Christians' demoralization nearly made them retreat. However, the clergy that accompanied them used an effective speech, ignoring the continuous orders from the Pope Innocent to cancel that attack against Christians: this action was not God's punishment for their sins, but a test to their spirits. It was the Greeks, murderers and treacherous for killing their patron, and literally "worse than Jews", who deserved to die. The result of this was effectively the conquest of the city some days later, but followed from a sack that is considered as the History's most violent and humiliating one.

During three days, and despite the Venetians trying to keep calm, French knights went on killing the population, destroying art pieces, burned books, murdered priests and raped nuns. The Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates tells in his chronicle of the sack of Constantinople that the crusaders spent several days getting drunk in the throne room in the imperial palace, while a prostitute occupied the throne. The Pope Innocent, in his 1205 letters, writes about the shame he feels because of the crusaders' actions, and the ultimate schism between the Roman and Orthodox Churches takes place: "How could the Greek Church get back (...) to an ecclesiastic union and devotion to the Apostolic See, when it has been seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and darkness, and now, with reason, detests them more than dogs?"

After the end

The creation of the Eastern Latin Empire, divided in a series of states belonging to Venetian and French lords, was saluted as a decisive element to the success of future Crusades. Actually, treasons, banishments and murders followed one another during the half century the empire lasted, and the Latin emperor showed always unable to obtain the support of the Greek population, and resist the attacks from Turks and Bulgarians. It is, in fact, from a Greek territory, Nicaea, that Michael Paleologos eventually assures the reconquest of Constantinople in 1261 and restores the Byzantine Empire. However, the always great Eastern city never recovered, and the Empire became a degeneration of its ancient meaning until it fell in Turkish hands.

From the 13th Century, the idea of Crusade decays, as something old-fashioned. It is often used as an excuse to make war against heretics or enemies of Rome, so that its moral power finally runs out in Europe except in Cyprus, seat of the knights of Jerusalem, and Rhodes, base of the Hospitaller, who will still dream obsessed with the idea for two centuries.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The hell of Kursk

The battle of Kursk was not only the greatest armored confrontation in History, but also the turning point at World War II. From this point, Hitler's Germany ceased to hold the initiative in the East and passed to defend, which would not change during the rest of the war.


The invasion of Russia -operation Barbarossa, started on 22th June 1941 and planned to be a rapid conquest, before winter arrived- had gone well for the Germans in the first months of campaign. Despite the too late beginning of the campaign -Russian winter would arrive anyway- and underestimating the defensive power of the Soviet Union, the German army was far more ready and had better logistic support. The surprise factor, air support and Soviet lack of organization allowed an advance of 50 daily kilometers. In August, the Wehrmacht was almost 100 km from Leningrad, Kiev and Smolensk. But an unexpected planning changement altered the course of the invasion.

Hitler had always believed himself a militar genius, and some strategic achievements during the war -largely, taking big risks- convinced him to personally take the command of the Eastern front troops. The initial plans of the campaign were, besides conquering Leningrad, to send the Southern Army sector to take control of the rich Caucasus oil wells, and the Central one to Smolensk and directly towards Moscow, which should be occupied before the winter. However, Hitler took a dicsoncerting decision, against the opinion of the whole High Command: he made stop the advance to the capital to reinforce the Southern Army, fighting harshly in Kiev.

Hitler had in mind that the Ukrainian city had to be taken, but due to the rugged resistance from the population, the siege finally lasted until October, slowering the whole progress towards the Caucasus oil fields. The result was that, upon the winter arrival, the important access to the oil had not been achieved. At the same time, the bulk of the Central sector, the 4th Wehrmacht Army, was at the gates of Moscow, but weakened because of this unexpected reinforcement, had wasted too long time in Smolensk, and also lacking of supplies, could advance no more.

From attackers to attacked

After the Soviet re-organization, the expulsion of the nazis from Moscow, and relative stabilization of the front during the winter, in 1942 the Germans finally tried to occupy the Caucasus. However, new conflicts between Hitler and the High Command made the Operation Blue to become a clumsy advance that eventually trapped the Germans in the battle of Stalingrad, where they lost their major elite force, the 6th Army.

Field marshal Von Manstein managed though to counteract the counteroffensive from Stalingrad, and even advancing on Kharkov during March 1943. He then proposed the High Command to tend a trap that, attracting the Red Army to the rests of the German 6th Army, would make an evolving movement that would envelop the Russians at the Donets Basin. Hitler, reluctant to envolving attacks, did not approve the plan and centered in Kursk, an area entering in the straight Russian front.

The objective was too obvious: the Russians predicted the attack, and the delay to July gave them further advantage -Hitler wanted the new Panther tanks to arrive to the front-. Generals Rokossovsky and Vatutin had set up tens of deffensive belts, and had progressive retreat plans while the Germans would be advancing. The Russians knew the offensive would come from the huge amount of tanks there accumulated. When they started Operation Citadel on 5th July, more than one million antitank mines decimated the armored columns. Russian artillery and air force, after two years of campaign, were comparable in number and readiness to the German ones, and destroyed the German artillery support.

Although Panzers were still a formidable weapon supported by the Luftwaffe, they lacked the proper infantry support, and Russian soldiers were able to easily destroy them with antitank guns or simple molotov cocktails. Besides, the new models -Tiger and Panther- were very scarce and did not whos the expected results. More than half were out of operation the first day because of problems with their cooling system.

On 12th July, the Germans believed to be near the end of the Russian defensive belts. However, when entering Prokhorovka, the SS-Panzerkorps found itself in front of a whole armored division of Soviet T-34. The greatest armored combat in History (400 German tanks against 900 Soviet ones) ended up as a technical draw, but was a huge moral defeat for the Nazis, who thought to be close to victory. On 17th July, when the Wehrmacht soldiers saw all the Panzers being retired and moved to the new Sicily front, they realised that they would pass to a defensive role. Soviet counterattacks started immediately. The attackers became attacked.