Today’s Brief and Brutal Yet Truly Morbid Fact!
Prior to the implementation of nitrogen production plants, Germany relied on shipments of nitrate from South America for fertilizer and for weapon production. This led to one of the stranger moments of World War I when, on November 1, 1914, the first major sea battle of the war began – halfway around the world from Germany and France, off the coast of Chile. It was brief and brutal. In heavy seas, with darkness falling, a squadron of Germany’s most modern warships led by Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee engaged and sank several older, badly outgunned British warships. The battle continued by moonlight, with the Germans aiming at the fires that were burning on the British ships. The British lost two cruisers and sixteen hundred sailors and officers. The Germans did not lose a ship; their casuaties totaled two wounded. It was the Royal Navy’s first significant defeat since the days of Napoleon.
More important than the blow to British pride was the practical result: The Germans, during the critical early months of the war, cleared the British navy from west coast of South America. Germany, at least for the moment, controlled the shipment of nitrates from Chile. Spee’s success was so total, the German danger to British shipping so great, that insurers refused to extend coverage to British nitrate ships. The British depended on the Chile trade for their gunpowder and explosives too, and Spee’s imposition of what amounted to a German blockade started exerting a slow stranglehold on the United Kingdom’s war-making capability. As a U.S. military expert of the day said, “To strike at the source of the Allied nitrate supply was to paralyze the armies in France. The destruction of a nitrate carrier was a greater blow to the Allies than the loss of a battleship.”
It provided Germany a respite while the government raced to get its own nitrate plants started. But it did not last long. Within weeks the Allies dispatched a powerful squadron to hunt down Spee. Knowing that superior forces were en route and that any help from home would arrive too late, the admiral tried to make a dash back to Germany while he still could, leading his ships around Cape Horn, heading for the north Atlantic. On the way he needed fuel, which led to a raid the British coal bunkers in the Falklands. It was a move the British had foreseen. On December 8, 1914, the British opened fire and blew the Germans from the sea. Among the nearly two thousand dead were Spee and two of his sons.
The Worst Of Germany
And speaking of old Deutschland, I finally finished my travelogue on the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Germany which I visited last July. As I was putting the finishing touches on the travelogue, I stumbled across this photograph in a book:
This image depicts SA men publicly humiliating Hermann Weidemann, a local council member for the SPD (Social Democratic Party – i.e., enemies of the Nazis) who had been taken into “protective custody”, Hofgeismar, May 2, 1933. Like many of his political co-horts, Hermann was sent to the Oranienburg Concentration Camp (which later evolved into the larger Sachsenhausen Camp) in 1933. Unlike many, he survived his incarceration – having endured over a decade (1933-1944) in unimaginable horror. As someone who doubts I could survive even a week in such conditions, I am impressed by his strength and character – as well as the strength and character of every survivor of concentration camps. It’s to those resilient survivors that I dedicate this travelogue. “Enjoy.”