Rudolf Witzig 1943-44 Part I

By the summer of 1943, Rudolf Witzig had returned to Germany. As he prepared himself for a new command, the Third Reich’s military prospects continued to crumble. In July, Hitler launched Army Groups Centre and North against the Soviet salient at Kursk in an attempt to eliminate it and shorten the Wehrmacht’s defensive line, while at the same time inflicting such heavy casualties on the Red Army as to regain the strategic initiative on the Eastern Front. The Kursk offensive sought to encircle and annihilate the Soviet troops in the salient, end German fears of a flank attack and set the conditions for a follow-on offensive east of Kursk towards Moscow and to the south-east towards the Don and Volga.

After the battle’s opening on 5 July, there followed a slugging match between German and Soviet tanks, artillery and infantry of unprecedented proportions and intensity. By 12 July, the German advance had stalled against intense Soviet resistance. The following day, Hitler called off the offensive to send German reinforcements to deal with the Allied landings in Sicily on 10 July and the imminent collapse of Italian resistance. Losses on both sides were heavy. Between 12 July and 23 August, the Red Army lashed back with a series of stinging counter-offensives against Army Group Centre that hurled the Wehrmacht back almost 150 km and liberated the city of Kharkov. As a result of their defeat at Kursk, Hitler and the Wehrmacht had lost the initiative on the Eastern Front forever. ‘With the Kursk offensive I wanted to reverse fate,’ Hitler bemoaned afterwards to one of his long-time personal aides, SS Sturmbannführer Otto Günsche. ‘I would never have believed the Russians were so strong.’ Stalin followed the battle of Kursk by launching new offensive operations in August and September, throwing the Germans back in the south an average of 240 km over a 1,000-km front and inflicting heavy casualties.

In October 1943, Witzig temporarily took command of the newly reconstituted Corps 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, which was in the process of being formed, and of the regiment’s fully formed 1st Battalion, which had been formed around his Corps 11th Parachute Engineer Battalion:

I gathered what remained of my battalion once again in Wittenberg. There we reconstituted the battalion once more and, soon afterwards, were deployed to the centre of France. During the training phase we had to deal with French partisans and maquis, who were gaining in strength. They received their equipment and weapons from British agents, who also supported and led them.

Predominantly rural guerrilla bands of the French Resistance, the Maquis were primarily composed of men who had escaped into the mountains to avoid being conscripted by Vichy France into working as forced labourers in Germany. What began as loose groups of individuals became increasingly organized, initially fighting the Vichy French and the Germans to remain free. They evolved, however, into active resistance groups.

The spring of 1944 found Witzig’s Corps 11th Parachute Engineer Battalion deployed around Moulins in central France, conducting training of new personnel as well as engaging in anti-partisan operations. The Parachute Engineer Replacement Battalion in Decize had been subordinated to Witzig’s regiment. According to Witzig there were no other strong German formations in the area. The widespread presence of the Maquis had become a continuing source of irritation and frustration to the Vichy and German authorities and in the third week of March the Wehrmacht launched large-scale operations with massive air support against one group on the plateau of Glières after an attack by French Vichy militia had failed.

The fight with the partisans demanded [our] attention [wrote Witzig in his postwar history of the regiment], but was, however, limited to small engagements, which were conducted by individual companies. But at the beginning of the [Allied] invasion battle along the Channel coast, strong partisan formations made themselves felt in our area, which was under the control of the Vichy Government – tied to Germany by treaty – but which only the German military had the power to confront.

According to Karl-Heinz Hammerschlag, who served with Witzig in France, the two formations that formed the core of the battalion’s antipartisan operations were the 1st and the 4th Companies. A particularly strong group of French Maquis had established themselves at St-Amand, located approximately 60 km west of Moulins. St-Amand had previously been under the control of a Vichy French battalion. Witzig’s battalion received orders to quell the partisan force and ensure security and stability in the area. Using wood-burning buses with French drivers, Witzig prepared to deploy his battalion, but was certain the partisans had been tipped off to the operation. On 16 June 1944, the battalion deployed to St-Amand and advanced against the town on two sides in a double envelopment with orders to link up in the marketplace. Most of the partisans, though caught unprepared, managed to escape the trap. However, some equipment was left behind, including a rucksack, which Witzig appropriated and later used for hiking trips after the war. After the operation, while Witzig was speaking to the chief of police in front of the police station in St-Amand near the market square, a shot rang out, killing the Frenchman standing next to him: ‘A partisan probably shot from one of the houses around the marketplace. Perhaps the shot was aimed at me.’

According to Hammerschlag, another noteworthy incident took place at about the same time. A group of suspected partisans had been captured by Witzig’s men and these were brought to the market square to be presented to him. Before this could be done, however, the paratroopers, wearing Wehrmacht uniforms due to a shortage of their unique airborne smocks, came under fire and the prisoners bolted. Witzig’s men began firing at the escaping prisoners and, after they disappeared, into the bushes and trees close to the edge of town. After the firing died out, Witzig and his men laid out the dead policeman in the police station. ‘It remained only for me to visit the Vichy battalion and warn its commander to prevent such occurrences in the future,’ wrote Witzig. ‘Then we left St-Amand. As long as we remained in Moulins the peace in St-Amand held.’ As the battalion received notice to prepare to deploy to Lithuania and East Prussia the incident was quickly forgotten. Nonetheless, it would have serious repercussions for Witzig and haunt him long after the war.

In the meantime, the much-awaited Allied invasion of France, Operation Overlord, began just after midnight on 6 June 1944, when paratroopers of the American 82nd and 101st and the British 6th Airborne Divisions landed on the flanks of five invasion beaches in Normandy. The paratroopers were followed by assault landing forces totalling eight divisions on five beaches. By the end of the day, those divisions were firmly established on the European continent. And by the end of June, the Allies had landed more than 850,000 men in France. At the beginning of the invasion, the newly formed II Parachute Corps had been ordered to move to the St-Lô area. The corps had been formed at the end of 1943 and placed under the command of Generalleutnant Eugen Meindl. At the time of the invasion, Meindl commanded the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Parachute Divisions, in addition to various support units, including intelligence, reconnaissance and assault-gun detachments and a parachute training depot of battalion size. Meindl positioned the 3rd and 5th Parachute Divisions to the north-east and west of St-Lô, respectively, while the understrength 2nd Parachute Division was ordered by General Student to defend Brest in Brittany.

Shortly after the Allied landings in Normandy, the German situation on the Eastern Front turned even more desperate. In June, Stalin had unleashed his summer offensive in Belorussia, Operation Bagration, catching Army Group Centre and the entire German High Command by surprise. On the morning of 22 June, the third anniversary of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, some 2.4 million Red Army soldiers, supported by 36,400 artillery pieces and mortars, 5,200 tanks and assault guns, and 5,300 aircraft, opened an attack aimed at nothing less than the encirclement and complete annihilation of Army Group Centre. Stalin’s marshals expected to encounter some 1.2 million German soliders, supported by 9,500 artillery pieces, 900 tanks and assault guns, and 1,350 Luftwaffe aircraft. The Red Army thus outnumbered the Wehrmacht by at least six-to-one in tanks, four-to-one in artillery pieces and combat aircraft, and two-to-one in personnel.

Within days, the Soviets had hurled the Germans back and, by the end of July, Hitler’s armies were in headlong retreat, fighting desperately to avoid encirclement and complete annihilation. Bagration had torn a 400-km gap in the German front and only the wings of the reeling Army Group Centre, in the southern Baltic States, were still able to resist the Russian onslaught. In the north, the Third Panzer Army and the Second Army were all that remained between the Russians and East Prussia. In a frantic attempt to shore up faltering German resistance, Hitler sent out Field Marshal Model to take command of the remnants of Army Group Centre. At the same time, Model retained command of Army Group North Ukraine. Model, the Wehrmacht’s youngest field marshal, was known as ‘The Führer’s Fireman’ for his ingenuity in salvaging apparently hopeless situations. He was one of the few officers remaining who enjoyed the complete trust of Hitler. Colonel-General Heinz Guderian praised Model as ‘a bold inexhaustible soldier . . . the best man possible to perform the fantastically difficult task of reconstructing a line in the centre of the Eastern Front’.

Hitler also directed all available German forces northward. The Führer and his commanders assessed the situation on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army was advancing as fast as its logistics allowed, as much more threatening than the Allied force trying to break out from Normandy. Hitler had hoped to concentrate Germany’s newly mobilized formations and manufactured weapons on defending Western Europe against an Allied assault, while the Eastern Front took care of itself. ‘The threat from the East remains, but an even greater danger looms in the West: the Anglo-American landing! In the East, the vastness of the space will, as a last resort, permit a loss of territory even on a major scale, without suffering a mortal blow to Germany’s chances for survival!’ he had proclaimed, in Führer Directive 51 of 3 November 1943. ‘Not so in the West! If the enemy succeeded in penetrating our defences on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time.’ But Hitler’s policy of concentrating his forces in the West was now in shambles. Thus, even as the Allies were fighting to break out of the lodgement they had established, the Germans were transferring elite formations eastwards towards the Baltic states.

While three of Student’s elite Fallschirmjäger divisions had been committed to containing the Allies in Normandy, other paratrooper formations were diverted to the Eastern Front in an attempt to stop the Soviet advance. These included Rudolf Witzig’s battalion:

After the start of the Anglo-American invasion we were not transferred to Normandy, but to Lithuania. The Russians had succeeded in breaking through there and separating Army Group North in the Baltics from [Army Group Centre] in East Prussia. This problem had to be solved quickly; therefore, once again, units were moved and transferred to get it done.

Witzig’s command would fight as part of Lieutenant-Colonel Gerhard Schirmer’s 16th Parachute Regiment, which had been virtually annihilated near Kiev earlier in the year and then reconstituted. Schirmer had commanded a parachute company as part of the German airborne assault on the Corinth Canal in Greece. Afterwards he commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Parachute Regiment in the Peloponnese and on Crete, landing near Heraklion as the strategic reserve. For capturing Hill 296, a piece of key terrain in the battle, Schirmer was awarded the Knight’s Cross. In Tunisia he commanded the 5th Parachute Regiment’s 3rd Battalion in heavy fighting and later assumed command of the regiment after Colonel Koch had been put out of action. On 1 January 1944 Schirmer had been appointed to command the 16th Parachute Regiment. The regiment, deployed around Abbeville in France, had been brought up to full strength with four battalions in May and then received parachute training in June, with special emphasis on night drops.

The 954 soldiers of the 16th Parachute Regiment entrained for Vilnius, in the south-eastern corner of modern Lithuania, in July. The German High Command considered the defence of Vilnius imperative. If the city fell, it would be impossible to maintain contact between the two German army groups in the Baltic States and to stop the Red Army’s advance towards East Prussia. It had thus been declared a ‘fortress’ city by Hitler and was to be held to the last man. Schirmer’s regiment was subordinated to Field Marshal Model’s Army Group Centre and the Third Panzer Army. Under the direct control of Major General Stahel, an air-defence officer and commander of Vilnius, the 16th Parachute Regiment joined a hotch-potch of units in defence of the city, including the 399th and 1067th Panzergrenadier Regiments, an independent panzergrenadier brigade, the 16th SS Police Regiment, the 2nd Battalion, 240th Field Artillery Regiment, the 256th Anti-Tank Battalion and the 296th Flak Battalion. In addition, elements of the 731st Anti-Tank Detachment, with 25 Hetzer tank destroyers were also available, as well as the 103rd Panzer Brigade with 21 Panther tanks, the 8th Assault Gun Detachment and the 6th Panzer Division with 23 Panzer IV tanks and 26 Panthers.

Poised to advance on the Lithuanian capital were elements of the Soviet 5th and 5th Guards Armies of the Third Belorussian Front. The Soviet attack on the city began on 8 July, with Russian tanks and infantry attacking across Lake Narocz towards the airfield, which was defended by the paratroopers. After bitter fighting, the Soviet 35th Tank Brigade took the airfield. Intense street fighting then commenced as the Soviets attempted to reduce German defences. By midday, the Red Army had fought its way into the city, overrunning the initial line of anti-tank obstacles and destroying a number of the ad hoc German battle groups. The following day, the Germans reported 500 dead and another 500 wounded. By 9 July, Vilnius was encircled. Two days later, the German High Command ordered a break-out. The following night, the defenders broke contact with the enemy and crossed the Vilnia River. Some 2,000 Landsers made it across. With the fall of Vilnius the Wehrmacht’s position in the Baltic States became untenable.

In the meantime, the 16th Parachute Regiment had been followed to the Baltics by Witzig’s 1st Battalion of the 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, which arrived from France. The battalion, which had an authorized strength of 21 officers and 1,011 other ranks, had been conducting night parachute training at the Salzwedel airbase when it was alerted for movement to Lithuania. ‘By means of a railway movement of several days duration via Berlin and through the peaceful and marvellously sunny summer countryside of Brandenburg and West Prussia and then through East Prussia the battalion reached the border with Lithuania,’ wrote Witzig. ‘The first deployment took place in the Kaunas area.’ Witzig’s battalion reached their planned defensive positions between Schescuppe and Wilkowischen, located only 10 km from the East Prussian border, at the end of July and began to entrench. Within a few days of arriving, the unit was reinforced with an artillery detachment and elements of an assault gun brigade.

Due to the length of the front we were deployed from right to left as follows: Parachute Engineer Battalion, 2nd Battalion, 1st Battalion, and the 3rd Battalion with the 13th Company in reserve and an assault gun brigade [recorded Witzig]. After a while the regiment, which was only equipped with its infantry weapons, received four 75-mm anti-tank guns, which were distributed among the frontline battalions. This position was held the whole of August and September 1944.

Initially the Russians were nowhere in sight. Instead, the men of Witzig’s battalion witnessed the massive westward exodus of Nazi civilian leaders and their families fleeing for their lives to escape the advancing Red Army. The German population in the path of the Russians was thus left leaderless. ‘This was the beginning of the breakdown of law and order,’ remembered Witzig.

After changing positions several times, the battalion finally made contact with the Russians. Witzig’s 3rd Company relieved the 500th SS Parachute Battalion, a punishment battalion:

Only the commander and a few members of the staff had the required rank. All of the company, platoon, and squad leaders were demoted SS officers and NCOs, who wore only an arm badge with their official position. These men had conducted a jump in a coup de main against the headquarters of Yugoslav partisan commander Marshal Tito, only a few weeks earlier. Only with great effort and at the very last moment had he managed to escape.

On the day of their relief, the SS paratroopers bloodily repulsed a Russian tank attack.

On 20 July 1944, a bomb planted at Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters barely missed killing the leader of the Third Reich. In the confusion that followed the attempt, the vast majority of the Wehrmacht’s leaders swore their loyalty to the Führer, while those opposed to the regime were hunted down, cruelly tortured and brutally murdered. A small number committed suicide; only a few survived. Hearing the news at an impromptu parade complete with loudspeakers, Witzig and his men were stunned and felt betrayed. ‘Can you imagine how you would feel if you learned, fighting in the middle of a war, that someone had tried to kill your president?’ one veteran asked the author, when recounting the incident.

But the war went on. According to Witzig, the Red Army attacked his positions about once a week, usually in division strength. Twice Soviet armour, in regimental strength, broke through the German positions:

The majority of tanks, and especially the accompanying infantry, were destroyed by our forward companies in close combat, while the tanks which penetrated deeper were shot by our assault gun brigade. The position was reformed after each attack.

Witzig noted that the Soviets had a large superiority in artillery, which they used liberally. As a result, the terrain surrounding the German defensive positions ‘looked liked the World War I Verdun battlefield’. From time to time the artillery detachment attached to the regiment neutralized a Soviet battery, but it was a losing battle. Nonetheless, Witzig’s battalion, which was deployed as infantry, fought with great determination.

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Rudolf Witzig 1943-44 Part II

In one particularly hard-fought battle, Witzig’s battalion was mentioned in communiqués for destroying 27 Soviet tanks and stopping the advance of an entire Red Army tank division. On 25 July, the battalion covered a movement to, first, the Kaunas–Daugavpils road and, later in the evening, still further to the north-east to Jonava and entrenched there. ‘A few days ago a strong concentration of enemy tanks was observed and reported in this area,’ reported Witzig, ‘so it was assumed a major attack was imminent.’ The 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, was attached to a battle group commanded by a Colonel Theodor von Tolstorff for this deployment. Tolstorff was, according to Witzig, an excellent officer, and he would win the Swords and Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross the following year as commander of the 340th Volksgrenadier Division.

As had been so often the case, one of Witzig’s companies was detached from the battalion and Witzig was forced to defend with his three remaining companies. The ground on which the battle was fought was open, although the battalion’s flanks were covered by a large forest. The 1st Company, commanded by Lieutenant Kubillus, deployed on the left of the Kaunas–Daugavpils road, while the 2nd Company, commanded by Lieutenant Walther, deployed on the right as it was clear that the Soviets would focus their attacks on this road. Elements of Lieutenant Schürmann’s understrength 4th Company were attached to the 2nd Company, while the remainder served as a battalion reserve. The 3rd Company, commanded by Lieutenant von Albert, was detached from the battalion to serve as a corps reserve in the rear. According to Witzig, several assault and anti-tank guns were deployed with the battalion, located at the edge of a wood and in battle positions in a cornfield, but were not attached to it. The battalion’s own T-mines, stored in stacks of a hundred, had been left in the woods in forward positions. Witzig notes that every squad was equipped with anti-tank weapons of some sort, including at least one Panzerschreck and three to five Panzerfausts.

The Panzerschreck (‘Tank Terror’) or Ofenrohr (‘Stovepipe’) was similar to the American Bazooka rocket-launcher. More than 1.5 metres long and weighing more than 11 kg it was a handful for any soldier to carry, much less use effectively. However, its 88-mm, 3-kg, anti-tank rocket was capable of stopping any Allied tank at ranges of up to 120 metres. The Panzerfaust, on the other hand, was the world’s first truly disposable anti-tank recoilless launcher. Weighing only 6 kg and easy to use, this shoulder-fired launcher shot a hollow-charge anti-tank grenade, which could pierce 200 mm at ranges of 30–80 metres. This was literally point-blank range against a tank and it took a great deal of raw courage, steady nerves and patience to use the weapon effectively. By 1944, both weapons had acquired a fearsome reputation. In the last year of the war, the Allies would find themselves losing hundreds of vehicles a week to the Panzerschreck and Panzerfaust.

During the night of 25/26 July, Witzig’s companies entrenched in fighting positions optimized for anti-tank defence, with two to three men in each position. To defend against surprise attacks, a string of forward outposts had been established, especially in the 1st Company sector. These preparations all took place against a backdrop of the constant sound of Russian tanks moving into place just forward of the battalion’s positions. ‘The defensive position was too exposed,’ complained Witzig, who was convinced that the Russians would attack in strength. The battle began that night, with a combat patrol by the 4th Company, which surprised and captured a Soviet tank crew and a commissar. A short time later, a Russian patrol evened the odds by capturing two outposts of the 2nd Company. Shortly afterwards, a third outpost disappeared. ‘Another outpost was gone,’ remembered Witzig. ‘Only the soldier’s rifle was left in his foxhole.’ The sound of tanks massing continued throughout the night and at the crack of dawn the next day they were visible across a wide front some 1,200 metres from the battalion’s positions.

At the break of dawn on July 26, 1944 the men of the battalion were aware that a day was starting that would demand the greatest efforts from them. With a provoking directness an armada of steel and iron, aware of its superiority, deployed so that even the bravest individual felt depressed. Countless T-34 tanks, artillery pieces and the dreaded ‘Stalin Organ’ [multiple rocket launcher] and assault guns were deployed to break through the defensive positions of the parachute engineers. Yet not one round was fired. There was an uncanny silence on both sides, the calm before the storm.

The silence, however did not last long. ‘And then, flashes from the other side, from thousands of barrels simultaneously’, and shells were pounding the German positions unmercifully: ‘Again and again, pounding, hammering, shattering, pulsating, bursting and cracking,’ recorded Witzig. The incessant barrage lasted for an hour without any reduction in intensity, inflicting numerous casualties on the battalion. As it began to lift, Witzig’s men noticed that the German assault guns had abandoned their battle positions and were nowhere to be seen. But there was nothing that could be done, for the Russian tanks, heavily laden with foot soldiers, were already advancing on the paratroopers through the smoke and the dust with more infantry running alongside the tanks.

Witzig’s men held their fire until the first line of enemy tanks were only twenty metres away, then unleashed a devastating barrage of antitank rounds. At this range, nothing, not even the thickly armoured Josef Stalin tank, was immune from the deadly German volley:

The men of the 1st [Company] took heart and set themselves against this colossus. It came to furious fighting directly on the highway. Lieutenant Fromme fired his Panzerfaust at a T-34 which ground to a halt, engulfed in flames. He himself was wounded. Then Lieutenant Kubillus, the company commander, who had hastened to the highway after realizing the focal point of the attack, went down seriously wounded. Sergeant Weber took command of the company. He himself blew apart three tanks, which stood burning and shattered in front of the company foxholes. Then he saw Sergeants Scheuring, Hüchering and a few other engineers, whom he could not recognize because of the dust and smoke, obliterate another three tanks. Within a short period, the men of the 1st Company, using Panzerfausts and Ofenrohr, had turned fifteen tanks into burning, smouldering iron.

As the enemy tank attack was broken up, leaving dozens of T-34s and Soviet assault guns engulfed in flames, the Russian infantry sprang from their carriers to the ground, intent on making the paratroopers pay. Instead, they were cut down at close range by MG 42s. Caught in the open and without their tanks to suppress the machine guns, the Red Army soldiers were slaughtered. Within minutes, the first Russian attack had collapsed under the massed and accurate anti-tank and machinegun fire of Witzig’s parachute engineers. But the battalion, in turn, suffered heavy losses, with the 1st Company reduced to thirty men.

In the meantime, to the south of the Kaunas–Daugavpils road the 2nd Company, reinforced with the understrength 4th Company, was having a more difficult time containing the Russian assault. A group of some fifty T-34s succeeded in fighting their way through the company positions and cutting off the road behind the two companies. ‘The mounted infantry were taken under fire first and forced to jump off,’ wrote Witzig. ‘Engineer Stauss engaged a tank with his Ofenrohr and suddenly a second tank was also on fire. But the remainder rolled westward without bothering about their infantrymen left behind.’ The German assault guns, which might have defeated the Russian tanks, had already left the battlefield and these had been followed by the surviving anti-tank guns, leaving the paratroopers to fight unsupported. ‘I engaged the tanks which were passing close by my right as the Russians did not attack head on,’ remembered Sergeant Hans-Ulrich Schmidt, from Hamburg, relating his escape in the midst of the advancing Red Army:

After the first echelon passed by, I discovered about five Russian soldiers on every T-34. At the same moment another T-34 showed up about 100 metres to the right of me. I fired one shot with my Ofenrohr and hit it, but after two minutes it began moving and firing again. I charged my Ofenrohr with a second shell immediately as I heard the noise of battle behind me. I tried to establish contact to the right and left of me, but no one had remained in their positions. So I left the position and ran back into the cornfield behind me. Here I found myself between several Russian tanks, which surrounded me. I raised my Ofenrohr, aimed and fired, but the electrical firing trigger failed. One of the tanks discovered me and fired with its gun. I was knocked to the ground by the blast of the shell and hit my forehead against the Ofenrohr. That was my salvation. I pretended to be dead and the tanks moved on. After they were out of sight I ran as fast as I could to the rear, concealed by the cornfield.

By this point in the battle, there were Russian soldiers to the front, on the right flank and behind the battalion’s position. Now it was only a matter of breaking contact with the Soviets as quickly as possible, withdrawing before the battalion could be encircled and annihilated, and regrouping on defensive positions to the west. But the Soviet tanks which had broken through had been followed by masses of Russian infantry, which attacked the German paratroopers as they sought to cross the 2 km of open ground to reach the safety of the forest and cover. Now it was the Russian machine guns which fired unremittingly, mowing down the German paratroopers as they sought to escape. Few made it. Only twelve unwounded survivors of the 1st Company made it to the battalion rally point, along with only ten men from the 2nd Company. Major Witzig led the remnants of his battalion through the forests, bypassing the Soviets and avoiding battle until the survivors reached the German lines.

We set out towards the north under heavy fire along a small trail [remembered Private Anzenhofer]. For some time we strayed through the forest in column formation led by Major Witzig, meeting remnants of the battalion. The commander led us, through Russian tank and crowded troop formations, back to our own lines without further losses. To this day, everyone who survived still gives him credit.

Witzig himself had only praise for his men, especially his medical personnel, as he wrote after the war:

Their sense of duty saved the lives of hundreds of German and Russian soldiers. Only someone who has been in the inferno of death and destruction can measure how these men fought. Selfless and fearless, animated by the thought of helping their wounded comrades, no matter which uniform they were wearing and bringing them back safely as quickly as possible.

Many of the German medics were killed or seriously wounded, while others disappeared, never to be seen again.

Over the course of the next several days, other paratroopers rejoined the battalion, which, according to Witzig’s account, numbered sixty-five men. Witzig used these to establish blocking positions and prevent the Russians from breaking through. This remnant of Witzig’s battalion was committed again and again in a futile attempt to stop the Red Army. By the end of August, the 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, had a total strength of 8 officers and 274 men. Of these, however, only 4 officers and 184 men were frontline soldiers. Karl-Heinz Hammerschlag, who fought under Witzig in Lithuania, remembered that from a battalion of more than 1,000 men in the summer of 1944, only 30 remained by September. ‘We had no tanks, no field artillery, no anti-tank artillery and no Luftwaffe,’ he told the author. ‘We fought mostly with Panzerfausts and anti-tank mines.’

Still, other intense battles followed near Memel and elsewhere in October. In the end, the unit’s losses were so heavy it had to be pulled out of the line. Its few surviving officers were sent to fight on the Western Front, while the surviving rank and file were dispersed among the other parachute battalions. Witzig bade farewell to his men in order to take command of the newly formed 18th Parachute Regiment of the 6th Parachute Division. Lieutenant Tiemens, Witzig’s adjutant for many years and the commander of the intelligence platoon, departed with Witzig, as did Lieutenant Heise, the medical officer and other officers, NCOs and soldiers who had served with Witzig. At the same time, Lieutenant von Albert departed to take command of the 2nd Replacement and Training Battalion in Güstrow. Others, including Lieutenants Fromme and Ackermann and Officer Candidate Wehnart, were sent to form the core of the newly reconstituted 2nd Parachute Engineer Battalion, to be commanded by Captain Siegfried Gerstner. The remainder, including the bulk of Witzig’s 3rd Company, formed the core of the new 6th Parachute Engineer Battalion, commanded by Major Stipschütz:

This was the end of the battalion, which endured along with the 1st Parachute Engineer Battalion, as the Corps Parachute Engineer Battalion, then as the 1st Battalion, 21st Parachute Engineer Regiment, for the longest time of all. Elements deployed to El Alamein under Ramcke and Rommel and it was one of the strongest and most reliable units during the long-lasting defence in Tunisia and on the Eastern Front in Lithuania.

In another account Witzig recalled that:

Schirmer stayed there [in the Baltics] with his battalion until the very end, when he was attached to the Fallschirmpanzerkorps Hermann Göring . . . while I and the rest of my battalion were detached in the late autumn of 1944. My battalion, the pieces of it, was dissolved. They used it to build three new battalions that were necessary for the Fallschirmjäger divisions in Holland.

Witzig’s elite parachute engineers had fought their last battle and learned that raw courage and skill were simply not enough in the face of the massive firepower and numbers the Red Army was hurling at the Germans. Even the Führer’s elite Fallschirmjäger had proven unable to stop the relentless westward onslaught of Stalin’s legions.

Nor was the damage confined to Army Group Centre’s front. On 20 August, while Witzig and his battalion were defending against the Red Army in the north, two German and two Romanian armies of Army Group South Ukraine disintegrated almost totally between the Black Sea and the Carpathian Mountains in the face of another overwhelming Russian attack. Romania now lay open to an advance by the Red Army, while German troops in Greece were cut off altogether from the Reich. The collapse of Army Group Centre and Army Group South Ukraine made August 1944 the Wehrmacht’s worst month of the entire war in terms of losses, with almost 278,000 German soldiers killed on the Eastern Front. Almost 170,000 more had been killed in July. And the number of Wehrmacht soldiers killed on the Eastern Front from July through September 1944 totalled almost 518,000, or 5,750 dead a day, the highest daily loss rate of the war.

Now Hitler’s network of alliances, from Scandinavia to the Balkans, began to unravel. On 25 August the Romanian people overthrew Marshal Antonescu, renounced their alliance with Germany and declared war upon Hitler and the Reich. This meant the loss of the desperately needed Ploesti oilfields to the Wehrmacht at a time when the German oil industry was being obliterated by the Allied air forces. To make matters even worse, on 25 August, Bulgaria began negotiations with the Russians for an armistice and demanded the withdrawal of all German military personnel from its territory. At about the same time, a serious insurrection broke out in Slovakia, while Finland prepared to declare its alliance with Germany at an end, as it too sought an armistice with the Soviet Union.

Soviet casualties were equally horrendous. The Red Army and 1st Polish Army had lost 180,000 men killed and suffered another almost 600,000 sick and wounded in Operation Bagration alone. But they had succeeded in shattering the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front and that success, in turn, forced the German High Command to transfer some 40–45 divisions to stem the Soviet onslaught and defend the Reich’s increasingly vulnerable eastern borders.45 In the meantime, the Western Allies were racing through France and into the Low Countries. On 25 August they moved into Paris; by 4 September they were in Antwerp, capturing the vital port undamaged. More ominously, Bagration also uncovered the roads to East Prussia and Berlin to an army fed on hate for the Germans and bent on vengeance. ‘Murder, arson, rape and devastation marked the trail of the Russian armies, excited as the latter had been by an unimaginable propaganda of hate,’ wrote Walter Goerlitz, in his authoritative history of the German General Staff:

Huge columns of refugees were moving westward. Often they were overtaken by Russian tanks, in which case they were massacred or crushed beneath their tracks. Ships carrying thousands of refugees were sunk by Russian submarines. All the horrors perpetuated in Russia by the S.S., all the deeds of shame committed in this ‘degenerate war’ of Weltanschauungen which Hitler had so impiously declared, were now revenged a hundred and a thousand fold, the innocent population of the German East being the victims. The culture which had taken centuries to build was buried within a matter of days.

But it was much more than ‘an unimaginable propaganda of hate’ that drove the Red Army soldier. It was unadulterated rage for the tremendous scale of death and destruction Germany and the Wehrmacht had inflicted on the Soviet Union and its people. ‘Everything, from the deaths of beloved friends to the burning of cities, from the hunger of the children back at home to the fear of facing yet another hail of shells,’ writes Catherine Merridale, in her masterful and uniquely insightful book on the Red Army soldier at war, ‘everything . . . was blamed on the Germans.’ One Russian soldier summed up what awaited the inhabitants of Hitler’s Third Reich: ‘We will take revenge, revenge for all our sufferings.’ Another wrote home: ‘We are clenching our fists and moving unrelentingly towards the west.’ With the Americans and British advancing in the west and the Russians pressing forward virtually unhindered in the east, the German people were about to reap the hate-filled whirlwind Hitler and his Wehrmacht had sown.

Frederick II, called the Great (reigned 1740-1786)

An 18th-century portrait of Frederick the Great by Johann Heinrich Franke.

Prussia as a kingdom dated only from 1701, but the heart of this state was Brandenburg, and Brandenburg had begun a slow upward march as early as the fifteenth century, when the Hohenzollerns came from South Germany to take control of it. In the sixteenth century the possessions of this family were scattered from the region of the Rhine to the borders of Russia. How to make them into a single state, responsive to a single will, was the problem. In each section there were feudal estates, asserting their rights against their ruler. But the Hohenzollerns had a very clear notion of what they wanted. They wished and intended to increase their own power as rulers, to break down all opposition within, and without steadily to aggrandize their domains. In the realization of their program, to which they adhered tenaciously from generation to generation, they were successful. Prussia grew larger and larger, the government became more and more autocratic, and the emphasis in the state came to be more and more placed upon the army. Mirabeau was quite correct when he said that the great national industry of Prussia was war. Prussian rulers were hard-working, generally conceiving their mission soberly and seriously as one of service to the state, not at all as one inviting to personal self-indulgence. They were hard-headed and intelligent in developing the economic resources of a country originally little favored by nature. They were attentive to the opportunities afforded by German and European politics for the advancement of rulers who had the necessary intelligence and audacity. In the long reign of Frederick II, called the Great (1740-1786), and unquestionably far and away the ablest of all the rulers of the Hohenzollern dynasty, we see the brilliant and faithful expression of the most characteristic features, methods, and aspirations of this vigorous royal house.

The successive monarchs of Prussia justified the extraordinary emphasis they put upon military force by pointing to the fact that their country had no natural boundaries but was simply an undifferentiated part of the great sandy plain of North Germany, that no river or no mountain range gave protection, that the way of the invader was easy. This was quite true, but it was also equally true that Prussia’s neighbors had no greater protection from her than she from them. As far as geography was concerned, invasion of Prussia was no easier than aggression from Prussia. At any rate every Prussian ruler felt himself first a general, head of an army which it was his pride to increase. Thus the Great Elector, who had ruled from 1640 to 1688, had inherited an army of less than 4,000 men, and had bequeathed one of 24,000 to his successor. The father of Frederick II had inherited one of 38,000 and had left one of 83,000. Thus Prussia with a population of two and a half millions had an army of 83,000, while Austria with a population of 24,000,000 had one of less than 100,000. With this force, highly drilled and amply provided with the sinews of war by the systematic and rigorous economies of his father, Frederick was destined to go far. He is one of the few men who have changed the face of Europe. By war, and the subsidiary arts that minister unto it, Frederick pushed his small state into the very forefront of European politics. Before his reign was half over he had made it one of the great powers, everywhere reckoned as such, although in population, area, and wealth, compared with the other great powers, it was small indeed.

As a youth all of Frederick’s tastes had been for letters, for art, for music, for philosophy and the sciences, for conversation, for the delicacies and elegancies of culture. The French language and French literature were his passion and remained his chief source of enjoyment all through his life. He wrote French verses, he hated military exercises, he played the flute, he detested tobacco, heavy eating and drinking, and the hunt, which appeared to his father as the natural manly and royal pleasures. The thought that this youth, so indifferent or hostile to the stern, bleak, serious ideals of duty incumbent upon the royal house for the welfare of Prussia, so interested in the frivolities and fripperies of life, so carelessly self-indulgent, would one day be king and would probably wreck the state by his incompetence and his levity, so enraged the father, Frederick William I, a rough, boorish, tyrannical, hard-working, and intensely patriotic man, that he subjected the Crown Prince to a Draconian discipline which at times attained a pitch of barbarity, caning him in the presence of the army, boxing his ears before the common people, compelling him from a prison window to witness the execution of his most intimate friend, who had tried to help him escape from this odious tyranny by attempted flight from the country. In such a furnace was the young prince’s mettle steeled, his heart hardened. Frederick came out of this ordeal self-contained, cynical, crafty, but sobered and submissive to the fierce paternal will. He did not, according to his father’s expression, “kick or rear” again. For several years he buckled to the prosaic task of learning his future trade in the traditional Hohenzollern manner, discharging the duties of minor offices, familiarizing himself with the dry details of administration, and invested with larger responsibilities as his reformation seemed, in the eyes of his father, satisfactorily to progress.

When he came to the throne in 1740 at the age of twenty-eight he came equipped with a free and keen intellect, with a character of iron, and with an ambition that was soon to set the world in flame. He ruled for forty-six years and before half his reign was over it was evident that he had no peer in Europe. It was thought that he would adopt a manner of life quite different from his father’s. Instead, however, there was the same austerity, the same simplicity, the same intense devotion to work, the same singleness of aim, that aim being the exaltation of Prussia. The machinery of government was not altered, but it was now driven at unprecedented speed by this vigorous, aggressive, supple personality. For Frederick possessed supreme ability and displayed it from the day of his accession to the day of his death. He was, as Lord Acton has said, “the most consummate practical genius that, in modern times, has inherited a throne.”

His first important act revealed the character and the intentions of the ruler. For this man who as a youth had loathed the life of a soldier and had shirked its obligations as long as he could was now to prove himself one of the great military commanders of the world’s history. He was the most successful of the robber barons in which the annals of Germany abounded, and he had the ethics of the class. He invaded Silesia, a large and rich province belonging to Austria and recognized as hers by a peculiarly solemn treaty signed by Prussia. But Frederick wanted it and considered the moment opportune as an inexperienced young woman, Maria Theresa, had just ascended the Austrian throne. “My soldiers were ready, my purse was full,” said Frederick concerning this famous raid. Of all the inheritance of Maria Theresa “Silesia,” said he, “was that part which was most useful to the House of Brandenburg.” “Take what you can,” he also remarked, “you are never wrong unless you are obliged to give back.” In these utterances Frederick paints himself and his reign in imperishable colors. Success of the most palpable sort was his reward. Neither plighted faith, nor chivalry toward a woman, nor any sense of personal honor ever deterred him from any policy that might promise gain to Prussia. One would scarcely suspect from such hardy sentiments that Frederick had as a young man written a treatise against the statecraft of Machiavelli. That eminent Florentine would, it is safe to say, have been entirely content with the practical precepts according to which his titled critic fashioned his actual conduct. The true, authentic spirit of Machiavelli’s political philosophy has never been expressed with greater brevity and precision than by Frederick. “If there is anything to be gained by being honest, honest we will be; and if it is necessary to deceive, let us be scoundrels.”

If there is any defense for Frederick’s conduct to be found in the fact that his principles or his lack of them were shared by most of his crowned contemporaries and by many other rulers before and since, he is entitled to that defense. He himself, however, was never much concerned about this aspect of the matter. It was, in his opinion, frankly negligible.

Frederick seized Silesia with ease in 1740, so unexpected was the attack. He thus added to Prussia a territory larger than Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined, and a population of over a million and a quarter. But having seized it, he was forced to fight intermittently for twenty-three years before he could be sure of his ability to retain it. The first two Silesian wars (1740-1748) are best known in history as the wars of the Austrian Succession. The third was the Seven Years’ War, a world conflict, as we have seen, involving most of the great states of Europe, but important to Frederick mainly because of its relation to his retention of Silesia.

It was the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) that made the name and fame of Frederick ring throughout the world. But that deadly struggle several times seemed about to engulf him and his country in utter ruin. Had England not been his ally, aiding with her subsidies and with her campaigns against France, in Europe, Asia, America, and on the high seas, thus preventing that country from fully co-operating against Prussia, Frederick must have failed. The odds against him were stupendous. He, the ruler of a petty state with not more than 4,000,000 inhabitants, was confronted by a coalition of Austria, France, Russia, Sweden, and many little German states, with a total population perhaps twenty times as large as Prussia’s. This coalition had already arranged for the division of his kingdom. He was to be left only Brandenburg, the primitive core of the state, the original territory given to the House of Hohenzollern in 1415 by the emperor.

Practically the entire continent was united against this little state which a short time before had hardly entered into the calculations of European politics. But Frederick was un-daunted. He overran Saxony, a neutral country, seized its treasury because he needed it, and, by a flagrant breach of international usage, forced its citizens to fight in his armies, which were thus considerably increased. When reproached for this unprecedented act he laconically replied that he rather prided himself on being original.

The war thus begun had its violent ups and downs. Attacked from the south by the Austrians, from the east by the Russians, and always outnumbered, Frederick, fighting a defensive war, owed his salvation to the rapidity of his manoeuvres, to the slowness of those of his enemies, to his generally superior tactics, and to the fact that there was an entire lack of co-ordination among his adversaries. He won the battle of Rossbach in 1757, his most brilliant victory, whose fame has not yet died away. With an army of only. 20,000 he defeated a combined French and German army of 55,000 in an engagement that lasted only an hour and a half, took 16,000 prisoners, seventy-two cannon, and sustained a loss of less than a thousand men himself. Immense was the enthusiasm evoked by this Prussian triumph over what was reputed to be the finest army in Europe. It mattered little that the majority of the conquered army were Germans. The victory was popularly considered one of Germans over French, and such has remained its reputation ever since in the German national consciousness, thus greatly stirred and vivified.

Two years later Frederick suffered an almost equally disastrous defeat at the hands of the Austrians and Russians at Kunersdorf. “I have had two horses killed under me,” he wrote the night after this battle, “and it is my misfortune that I still live myself. … Of an army of 48,000 men I have only 3,000 left. … I have no more resources and, not to lie about it, I think everything is lost.”

Later, after another disaster, he wrote: “I should like to hang myself, but we must act the play to the end.” In this temper he fought on, year after year, through elation, through depression, with defeat behind him and defeat staring him in the face, relieved by occasional successes, saved by the incompetence and folly of his enemies, then plunged in gloom again, but always fighting for time and for some lucky stroke of fortune, such as the death of a hostile sovereign with its attendant interruption or change of policy. The story is too crowded, too replete with incident, to be condensed here. Only the general impression of a prolonged, racking, desperate struggle can be indicated. Gritty, cool, alert, and agile, Frederick managed to hold on until his enemies were ready and willing to make peace.

He came out of this war with his territories intact but not increased. Silesia he retained, but Saxony he was forced to relinquish. He came out of it, also, prematurely old, hard, bitter, misanthropic, but he had made upon the world an indelible impression of his genius. His people had been decimated and appallingly impoverished; nevertheless he was the victor and great was his renown. Frederick had conquered Silesia in a month and had then spent many years fighting to retain it. All that he had won was fame, but that he enjoyed in full and overflowing measure.

Frederick lived twenty-three years longer, years of unremitting and very fruitful toil. In a hundred ways he sought to hasten the recuperation and the development of his sorely visited land, draining marshes, clearing forests, encouraging industries, opening schools, welcoming and favoring immigrants from other countries. Indeed, over 300,000 of these responded to the various inducements offered, and Frederick founded more than 800 villages. He reorganized the army, replenished the public treasury, remodeled the legal code. In religious affairs he was the most tolerant ruler in Europe, giving refuge to the Jesuits when they were driven out of Catholic countries France, Portugal, Spain and when their order was abolished by the Pope himself. “In Prussia,” said he, “everyone has the right to win salvation in his own way.”

In practice this was about the only indubitable right the individual possessed, for Frederick’s government was unlimited, although frequently enlightened, despotism. His was an absolute monarchy, surrounded by a privileged nobility, resting upon an impotent mass of peasantry. His was a militarist state and only nobles could become general officers. Laborious, rising at three in summer, at four in the winter, and holding himself tightly to his mission as “first servant to the King of Prussia,” Frederick knew more drudgery than pleasure. But he was a tyrant to his fingertips, and we do not find in the Prussia of his day any room made for that spirit of freedom which was destined in the immediate future to wrestle in Europe with this outworn system of autocracy.

In 1772 the conqueror of Silesia proceeded to gather new laurels of a similar kind. In conjunction with the monarchs of Russia and Austria he partially dismembered Poland, a crime of which the world has not yet heard the last. The task was easy of accomplishment, as Poland was defenseless. Frederick frankly admitted that the act was that of brigands, and his opinion has been ratified by the general agreement of posterity.

When Frederick died in 1786, at the age of seventy-four, he left his kingdom nearly doubled in size and with a population more than doubled. In all his actions he thought, not of Germany, but of Prussia, always Prussia. Germany was an abstraction that had no hold upon his practical mind. He considered the German language boorish, “a jargon, devoid of every grace,” and he was sure that Germany had no literature worthy of the name. Nevertheless he was regarded throughout German lands, beyond Prussia, as a national hero, and he filled the national thought and imagination as no other German had done since Luther. His personality, his ideas, and his methods became an enduring and potent factor in the development of Germany.

A Spectacular Raid

Capture of Aguinaldo, March 23, 1901

Starting in the autumn of 1899, the time Emilio Aguinaldo decided to inaugurate guerrilla war, the Filipino leader became a marked man. American units vied with one another for the glory of capturing the insurgent leader. None surpassed the zeal of Batson’s Macabebe Scouts. “I hunted one of his Generals to his hole the other night,” Batson wrote his wife, “and captured all his effects as well as his two daughters.” Such relentless pursuit forced Aguinaldo to keep on the move. He and his small band of loyal staff endured exhausting treks across rugged terrain. They were often hungry, reduced to foraging for wild legumes supplemented by infrequent meat eaten without salt. Sickness and desertion reduced their ranks. Aguinaldo’s response was periodic exemplary punishments, drumhead courts-martial, firing squads, and reprisal raids against villages that either collaborated with the Americans or failed to support the insurgents. “Ah, what a costly thing is in dependence!” lamented Aguinaldo’s chief of staff.

Aguinaldo took solace from the occasional contact with the outside. In February 1900 he received a bundle of letters including a report that the war was going well with the Americans suffering “disastrous” political and military defeats. A correspondent in Manila affirmed that the people “were ready to drink the enemy’s blood.” The high command’s ignorance of outside events was startling. For example, Aguinaldo and his party learned from a visitor that five nations had recognized Philippine independence. However, his chief of staff reported that “we do not know who these five nations are.” Indeed, the chief of staff candidly recorded that since fleeing into the mountains “we have remained in complete ignorance of what is going on in the present war.”

During his exodus Aguinaldo was unable to exercise effective command of his far-flung forces. This did not change after he sought refuge in the remote mountain town of Palanan in northern Luzon. All Aguinaldo could do was write general instructions to his subordinates and issue exhortations to the Philippine people. His efforts had scant effect on the war. What was important was his mere existence. He was the living symbol of Filipino nationalism. In addition—and this mattered to the ilustrados who managed the war at the regional and local levels—as long as he remained free the insurgents could say that they fought on behalf of a legitimate national government.

Aguinaldo’s efforts to maintain a semblance of command authority led to his downfall. In January 1901 an insurgent courier, Cecilio Sigis-mundo, asked a town mayor for help getting through American lines. His request was standard practice. The mayor’s response was not. He happened to be loyal to the Americans and persuaded the courier to surrender. Sigismundo carried twenty letters from Aguinaldo to guerrilla commanders. Two days of intense labor broke the code and revealed that one of the letters was addressed to Aguinaldo’s cousin. It requested that reinforcements be sent to Aguinaldo’s mountain hideout in Palanan. This request gave Brigadier General Fred Funston an idea.

Funston interviewed Sigismundo to learn details about Aguinaldo’s headquarters (and, according to Aguinaldo, subjected him to the “water cure,” an old Spanish torture whereby soldiers forced water down a prisoner’s throat and then applied pressure to the distended stomach until the prisoner either “confessed” or vomited; in the latter case the process started again). Palanan was ten miles from the coast, connected to the outside world by a single jungle trail. Although Americans had never operated in this region, obviously the trail would be watched. Funston conceived a bold, hugely risky scheme to capture the insurgent leader. He selected eighty Tagalog-speaking Macabebes who disguised themselves as insurgents coming to reinforce Aguinaldo. Funston armed them with Mauser and Remington rifles, typical weapons for the undergunned insurgents. To make the reinforcements seem more believable, four Tagalog turncoats performed the role of insurgent officers. To make the bait even more enticing, five American officers acted as prisoners and accompanied the column. Nothing if not personally brave—he had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1899—Funston was one of the five.

MacArthur approved of the desperate plan—his chief of staff wrote the secretary of war that he did not expect ever to see Funston again—and on March 6, 1901, a navy gunboat sailed from Manila Bay to deposit the raiding party on a deserted Luzon beach sixty straight-line miles from Palanan. So began the most celebrated operation of the guerrilla war. No mission like this could unfold seamlessly. A harrowing 100-mile trek that called upon physical stamina and quick-witted improvisation brought the column to Palanan on March 23, 1901. To allay any possible suspicions, Funston sent runners ahead to deliver two convincing cover letters. They were written on stationery that had been captured at an insurgent base. Not only did they bear the letterhead “Brigade Lacuna” but they were signed by the brigade’s commander, an officer whose writing Aguinaldo was certain to recognize. In fact a master Filipino forger who worked for the Americans had signed the letters. The letters informed Aguinaldo of the impending arrival of the reinforcements he had requested along with a special bonus of captured American officers.

While Funston and his fellow officers hid in the nearby jungle, the column’s sham insurgent officers went ahead. A last obstacle remained: the unfordable Palanan River. Two “officers” crossed in a canoe and gave instructions for the Macabebes to follow. The two “officers” approached Aguinaldo’s headquarters to see a uniformed honor guard formed to greet them. The cover letter had done its work. Aguinaldo was completely deceived. For a very nervous thirty minutes the two “officers” regaled the insurgent commander with stories about their recent ordeal. Finally the Macabebes arrived. They formed up across from the honor guard as if in preparation to salute Aguinaldo. Then at a signal they opened fire at the startled headquarters guards. Inside Aguinaldo’s headquarters, the two “officers” seized Aguinaldo. Meanwhile, Funston and his band emerged from the jungle to take charge. The effect of the surprise was so overwhelming that Funston’s commandos managed to escape with their prize and rendezvous with the waiting gunboat.

Funston took Aguinaldo to Manila, where MacArthur treated him with great courtesy, even to the point of having his staff dine with the insurgent leader. Within a few days Aguinaldo was exploring terms of surrender. Within a month he issued a proclamation calling on all insurgents to surrender and for Filipinos to accept United States rule.

In a campaign suffering from slow and indeterminate results, Aguinaldo’s conversion was something concrete. MacArthur and the War Department took full advantage, proclaiming the incident the most important single military event of the year. Among the skeptics were the midshipmen of the Naval Academy standing in the left-field bleachers at the first Army-Navy baseball game ever played. Arthur MacArthur’s son Douglas was Army’s left fielder. The midshipmen heckled Douglas with the chant:

MacArthur! MacArthur!

Are you the Governor General Or a hobo?

Who is the boss of this show?

Is it you or Emilio Aguinaldo?

Indeed, the claim that Aguinaldo’s capture was decisive overstated the facts. Instead, although it was not clearly apparent at the time, MacArthur’s stern policies had already begun to erode insurgent strength significantly. While his conversion did inspire the surrender of five prominent insurgent generals, and hundreds of soldiers either turned themselves in or ceased active operations, his removal from the scene had little practical impact for many insurgents. They were accustomed to recognizing the authority of their local commanders. Those commanders, in turn, had been acting like regional warlords for some time and consequently were used to a high level of autonomy.

Aguinaldo’s capture was a brilliantly conceived and boldly executed coup. As had been the case when Otis proclaimed victory after dispersing the regular insurgent forces, senior American leaders anticipated a prompt end to the war. Unfamiliar with the ambiguous nature of counterinsurgency, they again overestimated the value of a single “decisive” success. On July 4, 1901, as MacArthur neared the end of his tour of duty in the Philippines, he reported that the armed insurrection was almost entirely suppressed. The army had squashed armed resistance in nearly two thirds of the hostile provinces. In the United States a pleased President McKinley began a domestic victory tour designed to heal the sharp political divisions created by the war.

Again the general commanding the field forces and the commander in chief were wrong. The insurgency survived the loss of its leader and persisted for more than another year.

Stupor Mundi I

Frederick II (26 December 1194 – 13 December 1250; Sicilian: Fidiricu, Italian: Federico, German: Friedrich) was King of Sicily from 1198, King of Germany from 1212, King of Italy and Holy Roman Emperor from 1220 and King of Jerusalem from 1225. His mother Constance was Queen of Sicily and his father was Henry VI of the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Frederick’s reign saw the Holy Roman Empire reaching its all time territorial peak.

A few days after the Empress Constance had given birth in the village of Jesi on the day after Christmas 1194,1 she and her son continued their journey to the south. It was in Palermo, on the premature death of his father just four years later, that the child – named Frederick Roger, after his two grandfathers – was in his turn crowned King of Sicily.

There it was that he spent his childhood, receiving an education as far removed from that normally given to German princes as could possibly be imagined. Latin, Greek and Arabic were all official languages of Norman Sicily; to these Frederick was to add German, Italian and French. Ever since the days of his grandfather Roger II, the court had been the most cultivated in Europe, the meeting place of scholars and geographers, scientists and mathematicians, Christian, Jewish and Muslim. His personal tutor was very possibly Michael Scot, translator of Aristotle and Averroes, who is known to have spent several years in Palermo and was to become his close friend. It was impossible to find a subject which did not interest him. He would spend hours not only in study but in long disputations on religion, philosophy or mathematics. Often, too, he would withdraw to one of the parks and palaces that, we are told, ringed the city like a necklace, watching the birds and animals that were to be a constant passion. Many years later he was to write a book on falconry, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, which became a classic, displaying a knowledge and understanding of wildlife rare indeed in the thirteenth century.

The physical energy fully matched the intellectual. A contemporary, who clearly knew him well, wrote:

He is never idle, but passes the whole day in some occupation or other, and so that his vigour may increase with practice he strengthens his agile body with every kind of exercise and practice of arms. He either employs his weapons or carries them, drawing his shortsword, in whose use he is expert; he makes play of defending himself from attack. He is a good shot with the bow and often practises archery. He loves fast thoroughbred horses; and I believe that no one knows better than he how to curb them with the bridle and then set them at full gallop. This is how he spends his days from morn to eve, and then begins afresh the following day.

To this is added a regal majesty and majestic features and mien, to which are united a kindly and gracious air, a serene brow, brilliant eyes and expressive face, a burning spirit and a ready wit. Nevertheless his actions are sometimes odd and vulgar, though this is not due to nature but to contact with rough company … However he has virtue in advance of his age, and though not adult he is well versed in knowledge and has the gift of wisdom, which usually comes only with the passage of years. In him, then, the number of years does not count; nor is there need to await maturity, because as a man he is full of knowledge, and as a ruler of majesty.

This description was written in 1208, when Frederick was thirteen. He came of age on his fourteenth birthday, 26 December, and nine months later was married to Constance, daughter of Alfonso II of Aragon, ten years older than he and already a widow, her first husband having been King Imre of Hungary. She was the choice of Pope Innocent III, and at least in the early days of the marriage Frederick does not seem to have altogether shared the papal enthusiasm for her; but she brought 500 armed knights in her train, and in view of the continuing unrest throughout the kingdom, he needed all the help he could get. She also introduced, with her knights and ladies and troubadours, an element of worldly sophistication which had hitherto been lacking in Palermo. To Frederick, always alive to every new stimulus, there now opened up a whole new world, the world of courtly love. The marriage itself remained one of political convenience – though Constance duly presented her husband with a son, Henry, a year or two later – but it removed the rough edges; long before he was twenty, Frederick had acquired the social graces and the polished charm for which he would be famous for the rest of his life.

Early in January 1212 an embassy arrived in Palermo with a message from beyond the Alps. Once again, western Europe had been shown the perils of an elective monarchy; since the death of Henry VI, Germany had been torn apart by a civil war among the various claimants to the imperial title. One of these, Otto the Welf, Duke of Brunswick, had actually been crowned Emperor by Pope Innocent in 1209, and two years later had taken possession of south Italy, the entire mainland part of Frederick’s kingdom. Unfortunately for him, however, he went too far: his invasion of the papal province of Tuscany led to his instant excommunication, and in September 1211 a council of the leading German princes met at Nuremberg and declared him deposed. They it was who had despatched the ambassadors, with an invitation to Frederick to assume the vacant throne.

This invitation came as a complete surprise, and created a considerable stir in the Sicilian court. Frederick’s principal councillors strongly advised against acceptance; so too did his wife. He had no ties of his own with Germany; indeed he had never set foot on German soil. His hold on his own kingdom was still far from secure; it was scarcely a year since the Duke of Brunswick had been threatening him from across the Straits of Messina. Was this really a moment to absent himself from Sicily for a period of several months at least, for the sake of an honour which, however great, might yet prove illusory? On the other hand a refusal would, he knew, be seen by the German princes as a deliberate snub, and could not fail to strengthen the position of his chief rival. Both in Italy and in Germany, the Duke of Brunswick still had plenty of support. Having renounced none of his long-term ambitions, he was fully capable of launching a new campaign – and he would not make the same mistake next time. Here, on the other hand, was an opportunity to deal him a knockout blow. It was not to be missed.

Pope Innocent, after some hesitation, gave his approval. Frederick’s election would admittedly tighten the imperial grip to the north and south of the Papal States, and it was in order to emphasise the independence – at least in theory – of the Kingdom of Sicily from the Empire that the Pope insisted on Frederick’s renunciation of the Sicilian throne in favour of his newborn son, with Queen Constance acting as regent. Once these formalities – and a few others of lesser importance – had been settled, Frederick’s way was clear. At the end of February he sailed with a few trusted companions from Messina. His immediate destination, however, was not Germany but Rome; and there, on Easter Sunday, 25 March 1212, he knelt before the Pope and performed the act of feudal homage to him – technically on behalf of his son the King – for the Sicilian Kingdom. From Rome he sailed on to Genoa in a Genoese galley, somehow eluding the fleet which the Pisans (staunch supporters of the Duke of Brunswick) had sent to intercept him. The Genoese, unlike their Pisan rivals, were enthusiastically Ghibelline, none more so than their leading family, the Dorias, who put their principal palace at the disposal of the Emperor-elect until such time as the Alpine passes were once again open to enable him to complete his journey. Meanwhile, an agreement was reached, to the benefit of both sides, by the terms of which Frederick promised – in return for a substantial subsidy – to confirm on his accession as Emperor all the privileges granted to Genoa by his predecessors.

Even then his path to Germany was not clear. On 28 July he was given a warm welcome in Pavia; but the Lombard plain was being constantly patrolled by bands of pro-Guelf Milanese, and it was one of these bands that surprised the imperial party as they were leaving the town the next morning. Frederick was lucky indeed to be able to leap on to one of the horses and, fording the river Lambro bareback, to make his way to friendly Cremona. By which route he finally crossed the Alps is not recorded; it was certainly not the Brenner, for we know that the Duke of Brunswick and his army were at Trento. By the beginning of autumn Frederick was safely in Germany.

On 25 July 1215, in the cathedral at Aachen upon the throne of Charlemagne, the Archbishop of Mainz crowned Frederick King of the Romans, the traditional title of the Emperor-elect. He was just twenty-one. All that he now needed for the full imperial title was a further coronation by the Pope in Rome. Almost exactly a year before, on 27 July 1214, the army of Philip Augustus of France had defeated that of Otto of Brunswick and King John of England on the field of Bouvines, near Lille, effectively destroying all Otto’s hopes of opposing him. From that day his supremacy was unquestioned, and it was now – perhaps as a thank-offering to God, perhaps as a way of winning further papal approval – that he announced his intention of taking the Cross.

Few acts in Frederick’s life are to us today more incomprehensible. He had never been particularly pious; moreover, he had been brought up among Muslim scientists and scholars, whose religion he respected and whose language he spoke. Nor at this time was he under pressure from the Pope or anyone else. Indeed, there is plenty of reason to believe that he soon regretted his promise; he certainly showed no eagerness to fulfil it. He was in fact to remain in Germany for another four years, spent largely in ensuring the imperial succession of his son Henry, who in 1217 arrived with Queen Constance from Sicily. In the late summer of 1220 his parents made their way back to Italy, leaving their disconsolate little eight-year-old behind them. There followed a solemn progress through Italy, during which Frederick dispensed royal grants and diplomas with his usual largesse. In mid-November he arrived in Rome, and on the 22nd Pope Honorius III laid the imperial crown on his head.

Just sixty-five years before, his grandfather Barbarossa had been obliged to undergo a hole-and-corner coronation which had been followed by something not far short of a massacre. Those days, however, were long past; this time Rome was at peace – Frederick’s boundless generosity had seen to that – and the ceremony was perhaps the most splendid that had ever been seen in the basilica. When it was completed, and Pope and Emperor emerged into the winter sunshine, it was noted that the Emperor – unlike Barbarossa – unhesitatingly grasped the Pope’s stirrup as he mounted his horse, which he then led by the bridle for a few paces before mounting himself. Such gestures meant little to him. Not only was the Empire his own; he had also extracted from the Pope an undertaking which he valued very nearly as much – the restoration to him of his Sicilian realm. After eight years in Germany he longed to return to Palermo.

Those years had brought him the greatest secular title the world could bestow, but they had also showed him that he was at heart a man of the south, a Sicilian. Germany had been good to him, but he had never really liked the country or felt at home there. Of his thirty-eight years as Emperor, only nine were to be spent north of the Alps; throughout his reign he was to do all he could – though without conspicuous success – to shift the focus of the Empire to Italy, and it was in Italy that the main body of his life’s work was to be done. He began it in late December 1220 even before he had crossed the Straits of Messina, in the first important city within his northern frontier: the city of Capua.

About the state of Sicily he was under no illusions: for over thirty years – ever since the death of William the Good in 1189 – it had been in chaos. His father’s reign of terror had only increased the unruliness and dissatisfaction; then there had been his own minority – his mother as regent had barely succeeded in holding things together – followed by his long absence in Germany, during which the state had survived more in name than anything else. As the most urgent priority, order must be restored; it was with what are known as the Assizes of Capua that Frederick took the first steps in doing so, promulgating – in no less than twenty chapters – a series of laws that he must have pondered for many months before, laws which laid down the foundations for the national regeneration that was to continue for the rest of his reign. Essentially, they involved a return to the status quo existing at the time of William’s death, and a recentralisation of power under the Crown. The most far-reaching law of all was the de resignandis privilegiis, which decreed that all privileges, however small or seemingly insignificant, granted to any person or institution since that time should be submitted to the Royal Chancery for confirmation before the spring of 1221. Obviously, this edict fell hardest on the chief recipients of such privileges, who also constituted the most serious threat to the supremacy of the Crown: the nobility and the Church. For the nobility, moreover, there were two additional blows. No holder of a fief was permitted to marry, nor his children to inherit, without the consent of his sovereign. And all castles built anywhere in the kingdom since King William’s death were automatically forfeit to the Crown.

The proceedings at Capua were repeated, if on a slightly more modest scale, in the following months at Messina, Catania and Palermo; the Emperor then moved on to Syracuse, where he had serious business with the Genoese. Genoa had always been his friend, but as long ago as 1204 Genoese merchants had virtually taken possession of the city, from which they had spread their influence all over the island. One of the chief causes of the decline of Sicilian trade over the previous thirty years had been the fact that most of it had fallen into the hands of foreigners; there was no chance of a return to prosperity while outsiders remained in control. And so, despite the help that he had received from the Genoese on his journey to Germany, Frederick acted with characteristic firmness. He threw them out. His new laws gave him all the authority he needed. All the concessions that had been granted to Genoa, not only in Syracuse but in Palermo, Messina, Trapani and other trading centres across the island were summarily withdrawn, all Genoese depots and warehouses declared confiscate, with their contents, to the Sicilian Crown. Similar action was taken against Pisa, although the Pisan presence in Sicily was insignificant and her losses were relatively small.

But alas, there was another, far greater enemy than Genoa to be faced: the Muslims of western Sicily. Three-quarters of a century before, in the days of King Roger, the Arab community had been an integral and respected part of the kingdom. It had staffed the entire treasury and had provided most of the physicians, astronomers and other men of science who had earned Norman Sicily its outstanding reputation in the field of scholarship. But those days were long gone. Already during the reign of William the Good much of the semi-autonomous Arab region had been granted to the Abbey of Monreale; with the final collapse of Norman power, the Arabs had found that they were no longer appreciated or even respected. They had consequently been forced back, entrenching themselves in the wild and mountainous west, where Arab brigands and freebooters now constantly terrorised the local Christian communities. Frederick’s first campaign against them, in the summer of 1221, proved inconclusive; not until the following year did his troops capture the Saracen fortress of Iato, and with it the Muslim leader Ibn Abbad, who soon afterwards ended his days on the scaffold.

Not even his execution, however, marked the final solution to the problem. This came about only between 1222 and 1226, when Frederick adopted a still more drastic measure. He decided to remove the entire Muslim population of the rebellious western region – perhaps fifteen or twenty thousand people – altogether from the island, and to resettle them at the other end of his kingdom: at Lucera in northern Apulia, which became effectively a Muslim town, virtually every one of its Christian churches being replaced by a mosque. This was not, it must be emphasised, in any sense a penal colony. Its citizens enjoyed complete liberty and the free exercise of their religion, and Frederick, who had been brought up with Muslims from his cradle, ultimately built his own palace there – a building in distinctly oriental style which was to become one of his favourite residences.

The Saracens of Lucera, for their part, showed their new loyalty by providing him with his personal bodyguard. They also manned his principal weapons factory, their swordsmiths producing blades of damascened steel that only Toledo could equal, their carpenters constructing those vast engines of war – catapults, trebuchets, mangonels and the like – without which effective siege operations were impossible. Meanwhile, their women provided the Emperor with his harem: the Saracen dancing-girls who lived in considerable luxury in a wing of the palace, with their own staff of female servants and a body of eunuchs to see that they came to no harm. A number of these girls would accompany the Emperor on his constant travels, and although it was always maintained that they existed only to provide innocent entertainment for the imperial court there can be little doubt – as Gibbon remarks on the similar establishment kept by the Emperor Gordian – that they were in fact intended for use rather than ostentation.

Stupor Mundi II

Medieval Prints by Graham Turner

At the time of his imperial coronation in November 1220, Frederick had confirmed to Pope Honorius the promise that he had made after his coronation as King of the Romans: that he would personally lead a new Crusade to Palestine, to recover the Holy Places for Christendom. He could hardly have reneged upon it; yet the confirmation remains surprising, since an expedition gathered by the Pope from various sources had in fact sailed for the east some two years before. It had initially been led by the sixty-eight-year-old John of Brienne, titular King of Jerusalem, but on the arrival – four months late – of the papal contingent under the Spanish Cardinal Pelagius of St Lucia, Pelagius had insisted on assuming the overall command.

This so-called Fifth Crusade had had as its object the capture of the Egyptian city of Damietta, which it was hoped to exchange later for the Holy City itself. The siege of Damietta had been a good deal harder than expected. It lasted in all for seventeen months, and just before its end the Egyptian Sultan al-Kamil in desperation offered the whole Kingdom of Jerusalem west of the Jordan in return for the Crusaders’ departure; idiotically, as it turned out, this offer was refused by Cardinal Pelagius, who was determined to conquer Cairo and the whole of Egypt. Damietta duly fell on 5 November 1219, but the war dragged on for nearly two more years, and would have continued even longer had not the Crusading army been trapped by Nile floods – from which it extricated itself only by surrender. The Crusade, so nearly a success, proved a disaster, thanks entirely to the pigheadedness of its leader.

With its failure, the Emperor found himself under still greater pressure to initiate another – and also to take another wife. The Empress Constance had died in June 1221, and a year later the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Hermann of Salza, Duke of Swabia, arrived from the Pope with a proposal that Frederick should now marry Yolande de Brienne, the hereditary Queen of Jerusalem, now twelve years old. Her title came from her mother, Maria, the granddaughter of King Amalric I, who at the age of seventeen had married the sexagenarian John of Brienne. John had promptly assumed the title of king. After his wife’s early death a year or two later his claim to it was clearly questionable, but he had continued to govern the country as regent for his little daughter Yolande – and, as we have seen, had led the disastrous Fifth Crusade.

Frederick was not at first enthusiastic. His proposed bride was penniless, and little more than a child; he was more than twice her age. As for her title, few were emptier: Jerusalem had now been in Saracen hands for half a century. There was, on the other hand, at least one strong argument in favour of the idea. The kingship, purely titular as it might be, would greatly strengthen his claim to the city when he eventually left on his long-postponed Crusade. And so, after some deliberation, he agreed to the match. He agreed too, in the course of further discussions with the Pope, that his Crusade – to which the marriage was indissolubly linked – would set out on Ascension Day, 15 August 1227; any further delay, Honorius made clear, would result in his excommunication.

It was in August 1225 that fourteen galleys of the imperial fleet arrived in Acre – the last surviving outpost of Crusader Outremer – to conduct Yolande to Sicily. Even before her departure she was married to the Emperor by proxy; next, at Tyre, being now deemed to have come of age, she received her coronation as Queen of Jerusalem. Only then did she embark on the journey which was to take her to a new life, accompanied by a suite which included a female cousin several years her senior. Frederick, together with her father, was waiting for her at Brindisi, where a second marriage took place in the cathedral on 9 November. It was, alas, ill-fated. On the following day the Emperor left the city with his bride and without previously warning his father-in-law; by the time John caught up with them he was informed by his tearful daughter that her husband had already seduced her cousin. When Frederick and Yolande reached Palermo the poor girl was immediately packed off to his harem. Her father, meanwhile, had been coldly informed that he was no longer regent. Still less did he have any further right to the title of king.

Whether John’s fury was principally due to the Emperor’s treatment of his daughter or to the loss of his titular kingdom is not clear; at any rate, he went at once to Rome, where Pope Honorius predictably took his side and refused to recognise Frederick’s assumption of the royal title. This could hardly have failed to exacerbate the strain in imperial– papal relations, already at an abysmal level owing to Frederick’s continued dilatoriness over the long-delayed Crusade – originally promised eleven years before – and to his refusal to acknowledge the Pope’s authority over north and central Italy. The quarrel took a further downward plunge when Honorius died in 1227 and was succeeded by Cardinal Hugo of Ostia, who took the name of Gregory IX.1 Already an old man, Gregory started as he meant to go on. ‘Take heed,’ he wrote to Frederick soon after his accession, ‘that you do not place your intellect, which you have in common with the angels, below your senses, which you have in common with brutes and plants.’ To the Emperor, whose debauches were rapidly becoming legendary, it was an effective shot across the bows.

By this time the Crusade was gathering its forces. A constant stream of young German knights was crossing the Alps and pouring down the pilgrim roads of Italy to join the Emperor in Apulia, where the army was to take ship for the Holy Land. But then, in the savage heat of an Apulian August, an epidemic broke out. It may have been typhoid; it may have been cholera; but it swept relentlessly through the Crusader camps. Frederick had taken the now pregnant Yolande first to Otranto and then to the little offshore island of Sant’ Andrea for safety, but now he too succumbed to the dread virus. So too did the Landgrave of Thuringia, who had brought with him several hundred cavalry. The two sick men embarked nonetheless and sailed from Brindisi in September, but a day or two later the Landgrave was dead, and Frederick realised that he himself was too ill to continue. He sent the surviving Crusaders ahead, with instructions to make what preparations they could; he himself would follow when sufficiently recovered, at the latest by May 1228. Ambassadors were simultaneously despatched to Rome, to explain the situation to the Pope.

Gregory, however, refused to receive them. Instead, in a blistering encyclical, he accused the Emperor of having blatantly disregarded his Crusading vows. Had he not, after repeated postponements, himself set a new date for his departure? Had he not agreed to his own excommunication if he did not fulfil his pledge? Had he not foreseen that, with thousands of soldiers and pilgrims crowded together in the summer heat, an epidemic was inevitable? Had he not therefore been responsible for that epidemic, and for all the consequent deaths that it had caused, including that of the Landgrave? And who was to say that he himself had really contracted the disease? Was this not just a further attempt to wriggle out of his obligations? On 29 September he declared Frederick excommunicate.

In doing so, however, he created for himself a new problem. It was self-evident that excommunicates could not lead Crusades, and as the weeks passed it became increasingly clear that this was precisely what Frederick intended to do. Another awkward fact, too, was beginning to emerge: the Pope had badly overplayed his hand. Frederick had replied with an open letter addressed to all those who had taken the Cross, explaining his position quietly and reasonably, appealing for understanding and conciliation – setting, in short, an example to the Holy Father of the tone which he would have been well advised to adopt himself. The letter had its effect. When, on Easter Sunday 1228, Pope Gregory launched into a furious sermon against the Emperor, his Roman congregation rioted; hounded from the city, he was obliged to seek refuge in Viterbo. From there he continued his campaign, but whereas only a few months before he had been urgently calling Frederick to leave on the Crusade, he was now in the ludicrous position of preaching equally urgently against it, knowing as he did that were the Emperor to return victorious, papal prestige would sustain a blow from which it would take long indeed to recover.

On Wednesday, 28 June 1228, the Emperor Frederick II sailed from Brindisi with a fleet of about sixty ships, bound for Palestine. He was now fully restored to health, but his relations with Pope Gregory had not sustained a similar improvement; indeed, on discovering that he really was preparing for departure, the Pope had fired off another excommunication on 23 March. (Yet another was to follow on 30 August.) Frederick, meanwhile, had once again become a father. Two months earlier, the sixteen-year-old Yolande had given birth to a boy, Conrad, only to die of puerperal fever a few days later. Poor girl: she had never wanted to be Empress, and had wept copiously when she had had to leave Palestine. Intellectually she had nothing to offer to her dazzling polymath of a husband, and he in turn had shown little enough consideration for her, at least until he knew that she was carrying his child. She seems to have spent the thirty sad months of her marriage pining for Outremer; would Frederick have allowed her to accompany him there, had she lived? Did he grieve for her at all? We shall never know. His mind was probably more occupied with the fact that her death had seriously weakened his claim to the Kingdom of Jerusalem, for he was now in precisely the same position as old John of Brienne: if, as he had so stoutly maintained, John had held the title only as a consort of the rightful queen, then so had he; with her death it should properly pass to her son, the baby Conrad.

Conrad, however, was hardly likely to question his father’s claim in the foreseeable future, and the Emperor had more pressing diplomatic problems to consider. Saladin’s empire was at that time controlled by three brothers of his own tribe, the house of Ayub: al-Kamil, Sultan of Egypt; al-Ashraf, generally known as the Sultan of Babylon, with his seat in Baghdad; and al-Mu’azzam, governor of Damascus, with direct authority over Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Al-Mu’azzam, who suspected (with good reason) that his brothers were planning to unite against him, had recently allied himself with the Khwarazmian Turks and besieged al-Ashraf in his capital; al-Kamil in Cairo, fearing that he might be next on the list, had secretly appealed to Frederick: if the Emperor would drive al-Mu’azzam from Damascus, he himself would be in a position to restore to him the lost territory of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Frederick had replied sympathetically; it was obviously in his interest to encourage as much division as possible in the Muslim east, and as one who had spent his youth in a partially Muslim environment, understanding the Arab mentality and speaking the Arabic language, he was in an excellent position to do so. Just as he was leaving on the Crusade, however, word reached him of al-Mu’azzam’s death; it looked in consequence as though al-Kamil’s enthusiasm for an alliance was likely to fade.

Frederick (left) meets al-Kamil in this 14th century miniature.

A little over three weeks later, on 21 July, the imperial fleet dropped anchor in the harbour of Limassol in Cyprus. Richard Coeur-de-Lion, having captured it in 1191, had subsequently tried to sell it to the Knights Templar, but on finding that they could not pay for it had passed it on to Guy of Lusignan, the dispossessed King of Jerusalem. Guy had founded a feudal monarchy which – surprisingly perhaps – was to last until the end of the Middle Ages. Technically, there can be little doubt that this monarchy was a fief of the Holy Roman Empire: Guy’s brother and successor, Almeric, had done homage for it to Frederick’s father Henry VI. But there were complications, among them the fact that the present king was a minor and that the effective regent, John of Ibelin, was also Lord of Beirut and one of the richest and most powerful magnates of Outremer. Several other members of the Cypriot nobility also possessed considerable estates in Palestine and Syria, and it was important that they should not be antagonised.

Frederick, however, could hardly have handled them worse. At first he was all kindness and consideration, inviting John of Ibelin with the young King and the local lords and barons to a great banquet in the castle of Limassol. It began quietly enough, then suddenly a body of soldiers with drawn swords entered the hall and took up positions round the walls. In the hush that followed, the Emperor rose to his feet and, in a voice of thunder, informed John of Ibelin that he required two things of him. John replied that he would happily comply, so long as he deemed it right. Frederick then demanded, first, the city of Beirut, to which he claimed that John had no title, and second, all the revenues of Cyprus received since the accession of the young King. These demands were unreasonable enough; the arrogance with which they were pronounced, the obvious attempts at intimidation while all concerned were – or should have been – protected by the laws of common hospitality, made the effect far, far worse. John replied, giving as good as he got. He held Beirut from the King of Jerusalem. It had no connection with Cyprus; though he readily acknowledged the Emperor’s authority over the island, he could not admit similar suzerainty over Syria and Palestine. As for the Cyprus revenues, they were regularly and correctly handed over to the King’s mother, Queen Alice, in her capacity as regent.

Frederick was angry, but he did not insist. The legal position where the mainland was concerned was indeed far from clear. The Kingdom of Jerusalem had been seriously truncated – one might almost say decapitated – by Saladin’s conquest of the Holy City, and had been further weakened by a series of disastrous minorities; several of the barons, including the Ibelin family, were now considerably richer and more powerful than their king and very often acted accordingly. He could not afford to get involved too deeply in such matters. Besides, he was in a hurry. He was well aware that the Pope had his eye on the Sicilian Kingdom, and that if he were to prolong his stay in the east an invasion would not be long in coming. His only hope was to move fast, strike his blow and return home as soon as possible. He therefore had no choice but to continue his journey – taking the young King of Cyprus with him.

He landed in Tyre towards the end of 1228. Impressive detachments of Templars and Hospitallers were there to greet him, still further swelling the ranks of what was already a considerable army; but Frederick had no intention of fighting if his purposes could be achieved by peaceful diplomacy. An embassy was despatched to Sultan al-Kamil, who was gradually gaining possession of his dead brother’s lands and deeply regretting his former offer. It pointed out that the Emperor had come only on the Sultan’s invitation, but that the world now knew that he was here; how then could he leave empty-handed? The resulting loss of prestige might well prove fatal, and al-Kamil would never be able to find himself another Christian ally. As for Jerusalem, it was nowadays a relatively insignificant city, defenceless and largely depopulated, even from the religious point of view far less important to Islam than it was to Christendom. Would its surrender not be a small price to pay for peaceful relations between Muslim and Christian – and, incidentally, for his own immediate departure?

There were no threats – none, at least, outwardly expressed. But the imperial army was on the spot, and its strength was considerable. The Sultan was in an impossible position. The Emperor was there on his very doorstep, waiting to collect what had been promised and unlikely to leave until he had got it. Meanwhile, the situation in Syria, where al-Kamil’s continued attempts to capture Damascus were having no effect, was once again causing him increasing alarm. Perhaps an alliance would be no bad thing after all. Finally the Sultan capitulated, agreeing to a ten-year treaty – on certain conditions. First, Jerusalem must remain undefended. The Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque opposite it, might be visited by Christians but must remain in Muslim hands, together with Hebron. The Christians could have their other principal shrines of Bethlehem and Nazareth, on the understanding that they would be linked to the Christian cities of the coast only by a narrow corridor running through what would continue to be Muslim territory.

On Saturday, 17 March 1229, Frederick – still under sentence of excommunication – entered Jerusalem and formally took possession of the city. On the following day, in open defiance of the papal ban, he attended Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, deliberately wearing his imperial crown. He had effectively achieved everything he had set out to achieve, and had done so without the shedding of a drop of Christian – or Muslim – blood. Among the Christian community, a degree of rejoicing might have been expected; instead, the reaction was one of fury. Frederick, while still under the ban of the Church, had dared to set foot in the most sacred shrine of Christendom, which he had won with the collusion of the Sultan of Egypt. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, who had studiously ignored the Emperor ever since his arrival, now showed his displeasure by putting the entire city under an interdict. Church services were forbidden; pilgrims visiting the Holy Places could no longer count on the remission of their sins. The local barons were outraged that they had not been consulted, and more furious still when they found that the newly restored lands in Galilee were being mostly bestowed on the Teutonic Knights in the Emperor’s suite, rather than on their traditional family owners. How anyway, they asked themselves, were they expected to retain all these territories that Frederick had so dubiously acquired, once the imperial army had returned to the west?

The last straw, to priests and laymen alike, was the Emperor’s obvious interest in – and admiration for – both the Muslim faith and Islamic civilisation as a whole. He insisted, for example, on visiting the Dome of the Rock – of whose architecture he made a detailed study – and the al-Aqsa Mosque, where he is said to have expressed bitter disappointment at not having heard the call to prayer. (The Sultan had ordered the muezzins to be silent as a sign of respect.) As always, he questioned every educated Muslim he met – about his faith, his calling, his way of life or anything else that occurred to him. To the Christians of Outremer, such an attitude was profoundly shocking; even the Emperor’s fluent Arabic was held against him. With every day that he remained in Jerusalem his unpopularity grew, and when he moved on to Acre – narrowly escaping an ambush by the Templars on the way – he found it on the verge of open rebellion.

By this time he too was in a dangerous mood, shocked by the apparent ingratitude of his fellow Christians and ready to give as good as he got. He ordered his troops to surround Acre, allowing no one to enter or leave. Churchmen who preached sermons against him were bastinadoed. Nor was his temper improved by reports of the invasion of his Italian realm by a papal army under old John of Brienne – yet another reason to leave this ungrateful land as soon as possible. He ordered his fleet to be made ready to sail on 1 May. Soon after dawn on that day, as he passed through the butchers’ quarter to the waiting ships, he was pelted with offal. Only with some difficulty did John of Ibelin, who had come down to the quayside to bid him farewell, manage to restore order.

Stupor Mundi III

Stopping only very briefly in Cyprus, the Emperor reached Brindisi on 10 June. He found his kingdom in a state of helpless confusion. His old enemy Gregory IX had taken advantage of his absence to launch what almost amounted to a Crusade against him, writing to the princes and churches of Western Europe demanding men and money for an all-out attack on Frederick’s position both in Germany and in Italy. In Germany the Pope’s attempts to establish a rival Emperor in the person of Otto of Brunswick had had little effect. In Italy, on the other hand, he had organised an armed invasion with the object of driving Frederick out of the south once and for all, so that the whole territory could be ruled directly from Rome. Furious fighting was at that moment in progress in the Abruzzi and around Capua, while several cities of Apulia, believing the rumours – deliberately circulated by papal agents – of Frederick’s death, were in open revolt. To encourage others to follow their example, Gregory had recently published an edict releasing all the Emperor’s subjects from their oaths of allegiance.

The situation could hardly have been more serious, yet from the moment of Frederick’s arrival the tide began to turn. Here was the Emperor, once again among his people, not dead but triumphant, having recovered without bloodshed the Holy Places for Christendom. His achievement may not have impressed the Christian communities of Outremer, but to the people of south Italy and Sicily it appeared in a very different light. Moreover, with his return to his kingdom, Frederick himself instantly became a changed man. Gone were the anger, the bluster, the insecurity, the lack of understanding; he was back now in a land he knew, and deeply loved; once again, he was in control. All that summer he spent tirelessly on campaign, and by the end of October the papal army was broken.

Gregory IX, however, was not, and the final reconciliation between the two was a long, difficult and painful process. In the months that followed Frederick made concession after concession, knowing as he did that the obstinate old Pope still retained his most damaging weapon. He was still excommunicated: a serious embarrassment, a permanent reproach and a potentially dangerous diplomatic liability. As a Christian, too – insofar as he was one – Frederick would have had no wish to die under the ban of the Church. But still Gregory prevaricated; it was not until July 1230 that, very reluctantly, he agreed to a peace treaty – signed at Ceprano at the end of August – and lifted his sentence. Two months later still, the two men dined together in the papal palace at Anagni. The dinner, one feels, must have been far from convivial, at least at first; but Frederick was capable of enormous charm when he wanted to use it, and the Pope seems to have been genuinely gratified that the Holy Roman Emperor should have taken the trouble to visit him, informally and without pomp. So ended yet another of those Herculean struggles between Emperor and Pope on which the history of medieval Europe so frequently seems to turn.

In 1231 Frederick was in a position to promulgate what came to be known as the Constitutions of Melfi – no less than a complete new codification of the law on a scale unattempted since the days of Justinian seven centuries before. The Emperor took full control of criminal justice, instituted a body of itinerant judges acting in his name, curtailed the liberties of the barons, the clergy and the towns, and laid the foundations of a system of firm government paralleled only in England, with similar representation of nobility, churchmen and citizens.

The truth was that, of all his dominions, the Regno (as the Kingdom of Sicily was generally known) was the least troublesome. He had been born there; he knew every inch of it; he understood its people. Things were very different in the two other great regions subject to his rule, north Italy and Germany, in which imperial power – having no solid basis of the kind which England and France, with their firmly hereditary monarchies, were rapidly building up – had declined dramatically over the previous hundred years. In north Italy in particular, the great Lombard cities and towns had been a perennial thorn in the flesh to successive Emperors – none of whom had suffered more than Frederick’s own grandfather, Barbarossa, soundly defeated at Legnano little more than half a century before. To maintain their independence, their most successful policy had always been to play Pope and Emperor off against each other; news of the reconciliation of 1230 had consequently filled them with dismay. The Lombard League had been hastily revived, its members closing ranks against the coming danger.

They had been right to do so. Had Frederick been willing to divide his empire, allotting Germany to himself and entrusting Sicily to his son Henry – or even vice versa – north Italy might have been left to its own devices, but that was not his way. Determined as he was to rule both territories himself, he knew that a safe overland route between them was essential. And there was another reason too. For him, Italy was more important than Germany would ever be. This was after all the Holy Roman Empire, not the Holy German. Its capital belonged in Rome – and to Rome, one day, he hoped to transfer it.

As a first step towards this objective, the Emperor summoned his son Henry, all the principal German princes and the representatives of the great cities of north Italy to a council, to be held in Ravenna on All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1231. He did everything he could to allay Lombard fears. He undertook to bring no military escort, only a small personal suite; the proceedings would be dedicated to ‘the honour of God, the Church and the Empire, and the prosperity of Lombardy’. Doubtless he meant every word, but for the Lombard leaders the alarm signal was unmistakable. They did not want him; still less did they want a horde of truculent German barons. Instantly, they closed the Alpine passes. The measure was not entirely successful – a good many of the delegates managed to circumvent the blockade and make their way round by an eastern route through Friuli – but it delayed the conference by a good two months.

For all that, the delegates celebrated Christmas with a round of elaborate festivities and displays, including special exhibitions of the Emperor’s famous menagerie, which accompanied him on all his travels and which included not only his unrivalled collection of falcons but lions, panthers, camels, apes and monkeys and even an elephant – whose effect on the local peasantry is not easy to imagine. Frederick was always good at putting on a show; he was conscious, however, that one delegate remained absent, and that delegate the most important of all: his son Henry, King of the Romans. Henry had sent no message of explanation – let alone of apology – and it soon became clear that he had made no effort to answer his father’s summons.

The cause may well have been sheer embarrassment. This is not the place to discuss the imperial administration in Germany. Suffice it to say that Henry had been left by his father as titular sovereign at the age of eight; in consequence, when he came of age at eighteen, he felt little affection or loyalty towards a father of whom he had only vague childhood recollections. By adopting towards the German princes a confrontational policy diametrically opposite to that followed by Frederick he had already succeeded in dangerously antagonising them, and when matters came to a head in 1231 they had extracted from him a whole series of rights and privileges, thus seriously weakening imperial power in Germany.

Furious, Frederick called another council for the following summer in Aquileia, making it clear that his son would ignore the summons at his peril. This time Henry dared not disobey, and was forced to swear an oath that he would henceforth defend the rights and standing of the Emperor, dismissing those counsellors who had encouraged him in his disastrous policies. But if Frederick thought that with a submissive son and well-disposed princes he could subdue Lombardy, he was wrong. Most of the last nineteen years of his life were to be spent in warfare up and down the Italian peninsula, striving, as his grandfather had striven before him, to establish his authority. There was, however, an important difference between them. Frederick Barbarossa had been a German through and through; his empire was a German empire. For Frederick II, Italy always came first; despite the occasional temporary reconciliation this guaranteed the hostility of the Pope, uncomfortably squeezed as he was between the two nominally imperial territories, Lombardy and the Regno.

Over those last years, many of the leading characters would be replaced. Henry, King of the Romans, after further acts of disobedience, was dethroned in 1235 and was succeeded two years later by his half-brother Conrad. (That same year Frederick himself remarried, taking as his third wife Isabella, sister of King Henry III of England.) Pope Gregory, having excommunicated Frederick yet again in 1239, died in 1241. If his successor – the hopeless old Celestine IV – had lived, Frederick’s worries might have been almost at an end, but after just seventeen days Celestine had followed Gregory to the grave. For the next year and a half the Emperor, while simultaneously preparing a huge fleet to sail against Genoa and Venice, did everything he could to influence the next election, but in vain; the Genoese Cardinal Sinibaldo dei Fieschi, who in June 1243 became Pope Innocent IV, proved if anything an even more determined adversary than Gregory had been. Only two years after his accession, at a General Council in Lyons, he declared the already excommunicated Frederick deposed, stripping him of all his dignities and titles.

But Emperors could not be thrown out so easily. The Hohenstaufen name retained immense prestige in Germany, while in the Regno Frederick’s endless peregrinations had ensured him a consistently high profile, to the point where he seemed omnipresent, part of life itself. Loftily ignoring the papal pronouncement, he continued the struggle; it was still in progress when in December 1250 he was seized by a sudden violent attack of dysentery at Castel Fiorentino in Apulia. He died a few days later on Tuesday, 13 December, just thirteen days short of his fifty-sixth birthday. Inevitably there were rumours of poison, but no real evidence has ever been put forward. His body was taken to Palermo where, at his request, it was buried in the cathedral, in the magnificent porphyry sarcophagus that had been prepared for his grandfather Roger II at his own foundation of Cefalù but had till then remained unoccupied.

As his heir in Germany and the Regno Frederick had named Conrad, son of Yolande of Jerusalem, and during Conrad’s absence in Germany he had entrusted the government of Italy and Sicily to Manfred, the favourite of his eleven illegitimate children. Manfred proved a worthy scion of his father. He recreated Frederick’s brilliant court, founded the Apulian port of Manfredonia and married his own daughter Helena to Michael II, Despot of Epirus, an alliance which gained him the island of Corfu and a considerable stretch of the Albanian coast, including the historic city and port of Durazzo. Another daughter, Constance, became the wife of Peter, heir to the throne of Aragon (the second Constance of Aragon to rate a mention in this chapter).

Even after his half-brother Conrad died in 1254, Manfred did not – to the Pope’s inexpressible relief – seek authority over northern or central Italy; nevertheless, his increasing power in the south could not but reawaken anxieties in Rome, and these became greater still when, in August 1258, he prevailed upon the Sicilian baronage to proclaim him king. Ever since Frederick’s theoretical deposition in 1245, Pope Innocent had been seeking an ‘athlete of Christ’ who would rid south Italy once and for all of the house of Hohenstaufen and lead the army of the Church to victory in the peninsula. Richard Earl of Cornwall, the brother of King Henry III and the richest man in England – he had been elected King of the Romans in 1257 – had at one moment seemed a possibility, but Innocent had been unable to persuade him to take up the challenge. The Pope was still trying to find a suitable candidate when he died in 1261, to be succeeded by Urban IV, the first Frenchman to occupy the papal throne. Urban’s eye soon fell on a compatriot, Charles of Anjou.

The brother of King Louis IX, Charles was now thirty-five. In 1246 he had acquired through his wife the county of Provence, which had brought him untold wealth; he was also lord, inter alia, of the thriving port of Marseille. To this cold, cruel and vastly ambitious opportunist the Pope was now offering a chance not to be missed. The army which Charles was to lead against Manfred, and which began to assemble in north Italy in the autumn of 1265, was to be officially designated a Crusade – which meant that it would be as always something of a ragbag, with the usual admixture of adventurers hoping to secure fiefdoms in south Italy, pilgrims seeking the remission of their sins and ruffians simply out for plunder. With them, however, was an impressive number of knights from all over western Europe – French, German, Spanish, Italian and Provençal, with even a few Englishmen thrown in for good measure – who, Charles firmly believed, would be more than a match for anything that Manfred could fling against them.

On 6 January 1266 Pope Urban crowned Charles of Anjou with the crown of Sicily; less than a month afterwards, on 3 February, Charles’s army crossed the frontier into the Regno. This time there was to be no long campaign. The two armies met on the 26th outside the old Roman city of Benevento, and it was all over quite quickly. Manfred, courageous as always, stood his ground and went down fighting, but his troops, hopelessly outnumbered, soon fled from the field. The battle had been decisive: the Crusade was over. And so – or very nearly – was the house of Hohenstaufen. Two years later King Conrad’s son Conrad IV – better known as Conradin – and Prince Henry of Castile made a last desperate attempt to save the situation, leading an army of Germans, Italians and Spaniards into the Regno. Charles hurried up and met them at the border village of Tagliacozzo. This time the battle, which was fought on 23 August 1268, proved a good deal harder, resulting in hideous slaughter on both sides; eventually the Angevins once again won the day. Conradin escaped from the field, but was captured soon afterwards. There followed a show trial in Naples after which, on 29 October, the young prince – he was just sixteen – and several of his companions were taken down to the marketplace and beheaded on the spot.

Manfred and Conradin were both, in their own different ways, heroes. It was hardly their fault that they were overshadowed by their father and grandfather; so, after all, was much of the known world. Fluency in six languages was an even rarer accomplishment in the thirteenth century than it is today; in addition, Frederick was a sensitive lyric poet at whose court the sonnet was invented, a generous patron of the arts, a skilled general, a subtle statesman and the greatest naturalist of his time. A passionate intellectual curiosity gave him a more than passing knowledge of philosophy and astronomy, geometry and algebra, medicine and the physical sciences. Not the least remarkable of his qualities was his talent for showmanship. His force of character alone, the sheer dazzle of his personality, would always have ensured that he impressed himself on everyone with whom he came in contact, but he deliberately built up his image still further: with that extraordinary menagerie, with his personal regiment of Saracens, even with his harem. These last two attributes were regularly held against him by his enemies, but they too carried a clear message: the Emperor was not as other men. He was a giant, a demigod, to whom the accepted rules of conduct did not apply.

In a word, he had style – and style has always been, as it still is today, a speciality of the Italians. Frederick was probably one of the first men – and in all history there have been surprisingly few – to have had a foot in both worlds, the Italian and the German, and to feel equally at ease on either side of the Alps; but his heart remained in Italy where he spent most of his life, and it is as an Italian that he finds his place in this book. Culturally, he gave the country much. Had the Provençal troubadours, fleeing from the horrors of the Albigensian Crusade, not found a warm welcome at the court of Palermo and fired the local poets with their ideals of courtly love, Italian literature might have taken a diametrically different course and the Divine Comedy might never have been written. In the field of architecture, too, he was an innovator. The immense fortified gateway to his frontier city of Capua, built to defend its bridge across the Vulturno river and designed by the Emperor himself, no longer stands; but much of its sculpture is preserved in the local museum, from which it is clear that the Emperor drew liberally on the decorative language of ancient Rome, pre-echoing the Renaissance well over a century before its time. Classical pediments and pilasters appear even more remarkably in his magnificent hunting-box of Castel del Monte, a vast turreted octagon in limestone crowning a remote Apulian hilltop. But perhaps we are wrong to be surprised. Frederick was after all a Roman Emperor, and he was determined that we should not forget it.

Politically, on the other hand, he was a failure. His dream had been to make Italy and Sicily a united kingdom within the Empire, with its capital at Rome; the overriding purpose of the Papacy, aided by the cities and towns of Lombardy, was to ensure that that dream should never be realised. It was unfortunate for the Emperor that he should have had to contend with two such able and determined men as Gregory and Innocent, but in the long run the struggle could have had no other outcome. The Empire, even in Germany, had lost its strength and cohesion; no longer could the loyalty of the German princes be relied upon, or even their deep concern. As for north and central Italy, the Lombard cities would never again submit to imperial bluster. Had Frederick only accepted this fact, the threat to the Papacy would have been removed and his beloved Regno might well have been preserved. Alas, he rejected it, and in doing so he not only lost Italy; he signed the death-warrant of his dynasty.