December 20, 2018




On this day in 1917, Lenin appointed Felix Dzerzhinsky as director of Cheka, the first secret police organization in the Soviet Union. The Cheka imposed drastic measures during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). Tens of thousands of political opponents were shot in the basements of prisons and in public places without trial. Dzerzhinsky had said: "We represent in ourselves organized terror—this must be said very clearly." At the end of the civil war, the Cheka was disbanded, but its succesor, the GPU, was created in 1922, albeit with lesser powers.  Eventually the GPU became whas was known as the NKVD, whose powers superceded the law. The NKVD was Stalins' instrument to wage the Great Terror of the 1930s.


Would-be Assassin Arrested:   Helmut Hirsch, a German-Jew arrived at Stuttgart train station on the evening of December 20, 1936, with the mission of assassinating Adolf Hitler.  When his "friend" failed to meet him at the station as was expected, Hirsch checked into the Hotel Pelikan, across the street.  In the early hours of the morning of December 21,  Gestapo agents converged on the hotel and arrested Hirsch in his hotel room. He was charged with conspiracy to commit high treason, and was indicted for possession of explosives with criminal intent, though he was not in possession of explosives at the time of his arrest.  He was tried, found guilty, and condemned to death. Hirsch's family and friends began a campaign for his freedom. Despite international intervention ( The International Red Cross,  association of international lawyers, human rights organization in Norway,  and appeals to the League of Nations,  House of Commons in England, and a request that the United States grant Hirsh American citizenship -  all were for naught.   On June 4, 1937 at 06:00 am, Helmut Hirsch was executed by decapitation.


The Siege of Bastogne took place in the Belgian town of Bastogne from December 20  to 27, 1944 and ended with an American victory. German forces attempted to reach the harbour at Antwerp by capturing the roadways through eastern Belgium (All seven of the main roads converged on Bastogne, and were just a few miles away from the border with Luxembourg, so control of this crossroads was vital).  American troops were outnumbered by about 5-1 and lacked sufficient cold-weather gear, ammunition, food, and  medical supplies. Moreover, many senior officers,  including the US 101st's commander, Major General Maxwell Taylor, were stationed elsewhere.  U.S. forces were surrounded and could not be resupplied by air, nor provided with air tactical support, during the worst weather in memory. Eventually the American troops were relieved by elements of General Patton's Third Army. In the period from December 19, 1944 to January 6, 1945, the 101st Airborne Divisions casualties were 341 killed, 1,691 wounded, and 516 missing.


New communist party leader:  When the 1970 Polish protests were violently suppressed, Gierek was appointed by communist authorities to replace Gomułka as first secretary of the party.  Gierek took office on December 20, 1970 and became the most powerful politician in Poland. He was known for opening communist-controlled Poland to Western influences and for his economic policies based on foreign loans, which ultimately failed. The standard of living increased markedly in Poland in the first half of the 1970s, and Gierek was hailed as a miracle-worker, Polish citizens were elated to be able to purchase consumer items such as compact cars and travel to the West. In hindsight, it was the most prosperous of times in communist Poland.  However, the economy began to falter as a result of the 1973 oil crisis. By 1976 prices began to rise, sparking mass protests. Authorities forcibly suppressed the demonstrations and decided to cancel the planned price increases.  Poland's foreign debit soared during the late 1970s.   High foreign debts, food shortages, and an outmoded industrial base were among the factors that forced a new round of economic reforms.  Again, price increases were implemented in the summer of 1980 price setting off mass protests across Poland, especially in the Gdańsk and Szczecin shipyards.  In the Gdańsk Agreement, and other accords reached with Polish workers, Gierek was forced to concede their right to strike, and the Solidarity labor union was born.  Gierek was removed from office because of this outcome and was replaced by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who imposed martial law in Poland on December 13, 1981. Gierek was promptly arrested and interned for a year, and he ended his political career in disgrace.

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