The Depths of Despair: Long Winters and their Effect on History

General Winter by Louis Bombled (1862–1927), via Wikimedia Commons

In this era where there is a lot of talk about the climate and its effect on our lives, and as a signal of what we have done to the planet we inhabit, it is also worthwhile to discuss its effect on history.

There are several notable situations that had repeated impact on historical events, most notably in Russia.  It was in a Russian winter that Napoleon’s forces were halted and nearly 150 years later the same force halted Hitler.  In the latter case, the arrival of winter was earlier than expected and the Axis powers were stuck; without the rapid victory of blitzkrieg, the war on the Eastern Front, as they called it, bogged down Axis forces until the end of the war and was arguably a key reason for Soviet success.

Additionally, the relatively new reliance on automotive transport halted.  The type of oil that was used gummed up and rather than enabling jeeps, trucks and tanks to go, prevented them from doing anything except staying where they were.  Different types of oil were later developed that were intended to function in different types of climate but this was not yet the case in Easter Europe in the 1940s.

On the other side, according to Richard Pipes, an early end to a particularly brutal winter hastened the February Revolution in Russia.  In his analysis, first the poor weather led to shortages of fuel and kept the denizens of Petrograd indoors, except to go to and from work, and to shop.  When it warmed up, people spilled out into the streets and,in conversations, realized that they were not along in their suffering.  Also, suffering from cabin fever, they were eager to interact, and were more willing to demonstrate and protest en masse.  In his take on the February revolution, the change in temperature was as much a player as other factors.

The question of course, is how can you use such arguments?  It is much easier than the personality arguments that are presented (e.g. World War II happened because Hitler was crazy), as the climate and/or weather are measurable and their effect on the technology, means of fighting and shortages of fuel can be given.  And that is the key: an argument can always be made about the weather as long as there is measurable, clear supporting evidence.

This brings us to supporting arguments more broadly.  Most arguments on their own are nebulous at best. For example, let’s look at the argument that the Axis powers lost due to the combined military strength of the Allies, and the USSR and USA in particular.  The reason this makes perfect sense to you is that your teachers and the books you have read explain this, and include concrete, verifiable examples that demonstrate this.  We can look at productivity of Soviet and US factories, assess production, we have the size of their armies and their preparedness.  And these reasons provide support for your argument.

So—when presenting an argument, make sure that you have the concrete facts needed to back up your opinion.  That is the key difference between an assertion and a supported argument, and will make all the difference in the quality of your response.

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