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Remembering the Beginning
August 31, 2009 10:20 PM   Subscribe

At dawn on September 1, 1939, the German Luftwaffe began the indiscriminate bombing of the Polish town of Wieluń and a German battleship, the SMS Schleswig-Holstein, shattered the dawn breaking over the Westerplatte by unleashing a barrage of 280mm and 170mm shells at a Polish fort. At Mokra, the Polish Calvary staved off two Panzer Divisions. A day of commemorations has begun in Poland to mark the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. posted by shoesfullofdust (61 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
It's always bothered me that the "official" beginning of the war is considered to be the invasion of Poland.

It's always seemed to me that it should have been the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937, or even the invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

This doesn't detract from the terrible losses suffered by Poland or the suffering of her people, of course. But they weren't the first.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:29 PM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Polish Calvary, huh? They were Canadian horses?

sorry
posted by polyglot at 10:31 PM on August 31, 2009


It's always bothered me that the "official" beginning of the war is considered to be the invasion of Poland.

The War never really began. War never really ends.
posted by philip-random at 10:49 PM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Chocolate Pickle, that is a debate that has gone on in history circles forever. Frankly i don't get it. If you know enough about world war two history to care, then you’re enough of a thinker to realise that sometimes dates are somewhat arbitrary. However, if you were to pick one single date, then the initiation of hostilities by Germany against a whole bunch of countries is a pretty good one. This isn’t really euro-centrism, it was the defining moment. Some historians try to refuse the distinction between WW1 and WW2, saying they were the one conflict in two phases. I don’t think these debates are fruitful.
posted by wilful at 10:50 PM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Peace in our time!
posted by Artw at 10:54 PM on August 31, 2009


Very strange in the footage of the S.M.S. Schleswig-Holstein to see large approximatedly 6 foot long brass casings from what I think must have been the 28cm guns being ejected. British, American and Japanese naval guns all used variable charges in silk powder bags to fire naval guns, both to allow variable shot power ballistics, and to avoid the issue of large brass casings needing to be unloaded after firing the guns.
posted by paulsc at 10:59 PM on August 31, 2009


WW2 was huge. There is no definitive history. There never will be. As always at moments such as this, I can think of only one word:

STALINGRAD
posted by philip-random at 11:01 PM on August 31, 2009


Not to continue the derail, but while I've tended to fall in the "WWII started in 1937" camp, I've lately come back to the logic in the 1939 start date. Basically, while the Sino-Japanese war was a conflict that lasted from 1937-1945 and formed a critical theatre of World War II, it was for the most part a regional conflict confined between two principal players. It's possible if, say, Hitler managed to be die in the trenches of WWI, and Germany remained a docile European power, that the entirety of the Sino Japanese war could have been fought without drawing in the other powers. However, the invasion of Poland directly led to the involvement of France and Britain and has a greater causality to the overall sequence of events that opened the Second World War II. Hell, it's possible for some else to trump the 1937 start date by saying that the war really started in 1936 with Franco's coup against the Second Spanish Republic.

More to the point -- as romantic a notion as it may be, I always found it mildly disappointing when it's revealed that the statement of "the Polish Cavalry staved off two Panzer divisions" owes more to the historical names attached to the military units involved than it does to actual horsemen using clever A-team like tactics to stymie an advancing tank army.
posted by bl1nk at 11:03 PM on August 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


I live in Poland. There's been A LOT of commentary and debate lately (as always!) about the role of the war in, well, everything, especially its outbreak. This week and last, the focus has been on Russian interpretations of the months leading up to the breakout of the war and the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, which a recent TV show in Russia claims Moscow signed to avoid a joint German-Polish invasion.

An untold story: that of the defenders of the Polish Post Office in Gdansk/Danzig.

A lesser-known fact: the country with the highest percentage of dead civilians in the war was not Russia or Poland or even Germany, but what is now Belarus, and was then eastern Poland and the Belarussian SSR, where one in five civilians, including Jews, was killed by the Germans. The Baltics, Belarus and Ukraine were rolled over, entirely, by invading and retreating armies twice.

If you're ever in Warsaw, stop by the Warsaw Uprising Museum - it's an amazing monument to the resistance in a once-doomed city, and a fine museum to boot, full of personal effects, first-person narratives, and a wealth of information about the details of life during the uprising itself.

Thanks for this post.
posted by mdonley at 11:28 PM on August 31, 2009 [8 favorites]


I didn't really mean for my first comment to become a derail, so sorry about that. Anyway, it's possible to make a good case that it really was "World War I, the next generation."
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:39 PM on August 31, 2009


And here's a timeline of fall 1939 in Poland for those curious about the Polish defensive war's individual battles.
posted by mdonley at 11:39 PM on August 31, 2009


The Polish Cavalry had a Bicycle Company too.
posted by tellurian at 11:41 PM on August 31, 2009


When I was a kid I was a bit of a war buff, but too young to understand what war really was. As such, I was always a little disappointed that Germany couldn't have waited an extra day so that World War II could have started and ended on my birthday.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:55 PM on August 31, 2009


Photo: This guy was there. The caption says he's 94, and that he's one of the last three surviving defenders of Westerplatte. It doesn't look like he was there during the invasion - perhaps he's one of the three living defenders of the fortress ever?
posted by mdonley at 12:15 AM on September 1, 2009


Nope, I was wrong - he was (got my prepositions confused!). He was stationed there from March 1939.
posted by mdonley at 12:16 AM on September 1, 2009


While I was sitting in the front garden yesterday, a motorcade shot past our house, probably on the way to the airport. It scared a butterfly off the Buddleja, so I went in to get another cup of tea, casually mentioned Putin, and started WWIII in my kitchen.
posted by pracowity at 12:34 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Invasion of Poland began this morning. Warsaw bombed. General mobilization proclaimed in England, ditto in France plus martial law.
posted by moonbiter at 1:02 AM on September 1, 2009


The BBC has an interview with the soldier who was there.

WWII anniversaries, particularly related to Poland, make me think of my father, who was a Polish soldier in 1945 and ended up in a slave labour camp before making it to England.

They also remind me how lucky I am to be living in the age of the EU and comfortable European stagnation rather than seventy years before.
posted by athenian at 1:11 AM on September 1, 2009


Auden's "September 1, 1939"
posted by bardic at 1:40 AM on September 1, 2009


They also remind me how lucky I am to be living in the age of the EU and comfortable European stagnation rather than seventy years before.

Indeed; people in *cough* certain other countries who like to mock "Euro-weenies" for not spending more time kicking arse and taking names ought to try a couple of wars leaving a large proportion of their populations dead or maimed and their cities levelled before they mouth off about European reluctance to fund huge armies and play empire builders.

Some knowledge is won by very bitter experience.
posted by rodgerd at 1:44 AM on September 1, 2009 [20 favorites]


An untold story: that of the defenders of the Polish Post Office in Gdansk/Danzig.

A good link, but watch out for that "Gdansk/Danzig" either/or language and the "country with the highest percentage of dead civilians" sort of statistics. That stuff brings out the freaks on all sides.
posted by pracowity at 3:16 AM on September 1, 2009


.
posted by Sova at 4:34 AM on September 1, 2009


For the last year or so, I've gotten utterly addicted to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast. They're fanatically well-researched, and he's just got a zeal for history that really comes across in his delivery. The last three episodes, over an hour each, have been on the Eastern Front, with the third episode culminating in Stalingrad. Archive of recent podcasts including links to source material. They only come out every month or 6 weeks, but he's working on part IV which will cover the german retreat to Berlin.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:03 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Basically, while the Sino-Japanese war was a conflict that lasted from 1937-1945 and formed a critical theatre of World War II, it was for the most part a regional conflict confined between two principal players.

Not exactly. The Japanese were trying to wrest control of the mineral rich lands from the European powers and US that were really calling the shots in China and trying to control the price and flow of industrial materials and economically (if not outright) colonize the Pacific rim, so it could be argued that it was an even more global conflict that the regional squabble over territory that followed in Europe.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:08 AM on September 1, 2009


Indeed; people in *cough* certain other countries who like to mock "Euro-weenies" for not spending more time kicking arse and taking names ought to try a couple of wars leaving a large proportion of their populations dead or maimed and their cities levelled before they mouth off about European reluctance to fund huge armies and play empire builders.

a) The U.S. Civil War was pretty much as you described.
b) Fifty years is a pretty low standard for proclaiming an entire region enlightened with respect to empire.

Indeed if bitter experience has told us much, it is that the active participants in global King of the Hill is a pretty damn capricious list and almost always occupied by those you think would know better.
posted by Bokononist at 5:12 AM on September 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


chocolate, i think the war started in 1914, with the assination of the grand duke. this was just the opening of the european battle, phase 2.

oh, and it didn't end until the 1990s. cold war and all that.
posted by lester at 5:20 AM on September 1, 2009


i think the war started in 1914, with the assination of the grand duke. this was just the opening of the european battle

I think it started when Homo sapien sapien entered the Neander valley and thought he deserved that choice cave more than Homo neanderthalensis. As far as the end goes, well, we'll let you know when that comes.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:27 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


Polish Calvary, huh?

In the figurative sense ("any experience that causes intense suffering"), perhaps.
posted by pracowity at 5:45 AM on September 1, 2009


Indeed; people in *cough* certain other countries who like to mock "Euro-weenies" for not spending more time kicking arse and taking names ought to try a couple of wars leaving a large proportion of their populations dead or maimed and their cities levelled before they mouth off about European reluctance to fund huge armies and play empire builders.

Europe may not spend on the scale of the United States, but it still ranks in the top of the world in military spending compared to everyone else outside of Europe.

Back to topic, thanks for the links, mdonley. The Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty is a pivotal moment in the history of the Second World War. Until Hitler ordered the invasion of the USSR, we would have counted the Soviet Union as one of the bad guys of the war (instead of quasi-bad guy?). Not only did they invade and claim half of Poland (still upset about Poland kicking Russia's butt a few centuries earlier), they also attempted to invade Finland (they tried again, more successfully later).

One of the atrocities that happened in Poland was the Katyn Forest massacre. An event the Soviets sought to deny and tried to pin on the Germans.

Also, one last support for Dan Carlin's recent "Ghosts of the Osfront" series in Hardcore History. The savagery between the Germans and the Soviets is breathtaking in its vindictiveness and brutality.
posted by Atreides at 6:01 AM on September 1, 2009


According to today's Wikipedia version o'history, the Germans had the Slovakian forces on its side when the attack began.

Slovak Invasion of Poland. 50,000 Slovakians were involved. One division moved almost 30 km inside Poland and took 1,350 prisoners with minimal losses.

Learn something new every day. It's not that I find this hard to believe. It's just that Wikipedia doesn't make it clear whose version of history we are being asked to accept. Maybe this is a really good thing in the long run-- but it will take a while to sort out all the stories on each side.

I can't wait to find out what happened next.
posted by notmtwain at 6:13 AM on September 1, 2009


I never recall anyone in my family complaining much about the Nazis, just about the Russians. But both sets of grandparents came here before 1920, so they managed to get out before the Nazi ascendancy. I was too young to ask so I can only wonder what they thought of the Soviets as our "ally" but I doubt they were surprised by what happened either during or after the war.
posted by tommasz at 6:25 AM on September 1, 2009


But everyone knows the Poles attacked Germany first! Amirite?!
posted by markkraft at 6:38 AM on September 1, 2009


markkraft: "But everyone knows the Poles attacked Germany first! Amirite?!"

Shows what a poor tactician Hitler was. He didn't need to stage an attack. All he had to do was claim that Poland was developing the ability to attack Germany.
posted by Joe Beese at 6:52 AM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


still upset about Poland kicking Russia's butt a few centuries earlier

Heck, make that pissed off about the Polish-Soviet War around 1920. The way the Red Army putzed that one off at the end always looked like me uncannily similar to how they were stomped over by the Nazis previous to the first winter's bog-down.
posted by Iosephus at 7:25 AM on September 1, 2009


But everyone knows the Poles attacked Germany first! Amirite?!
posted by Pollomacho at 7:27 AM on September 1, 2009


like -> to
posted by Iosephus at 7:31 AM on September 1, 2009


State-run Russian TV just aired a massive documentary that claimed that Poland was about to invade Russia, and the only way that Stalin could stave off the massive Polish menace was to ally with Nazi Germany.

No, seriously.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:35 AM on September 1, 2009


I've been watching some Mad Men lately and it seems like WWII is the 800-lb gorilla in the room. Knowing what we now know about the horrors of war and PTSD, is it any wonder that a generation of men came back scarred? There was a collective societal silence on just what had happened over there.

Today we take for granted to the media coverage of skirmishes around the globe. 4336 US servicemen killed in Iraq. But when you look at WWII casualties, it is measured in percentage of total population. Germany alone lost 10-20% of their total population.

I don't have so many direct connections to that war - my grandfather was a pilot but never saw any combat. I have stood on Normandy beach and looked out over the horizon - that place will silence even the most cynical pacifists. So here were are 70 years out - and we've not seen anything remotely as devastating as what was unleashed in '39. Certainly there are great depths to human nature - and we see violence every day. But you can't even begin to compare the losses everyone suffered during WWII - and in light of those sacrifices I pray we never see anything like it ever again.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 7:36 AM on September 1, 2009 [2 favorites]


.
posted by ruelle at 7:37 AM on September 1, 2009


It's interesting to me that it was the Schleswig-Holstein, as that region was the subject of the conflict that allowed Bismark to consolidate power and pursue the domestic course which effectively brought Austria under Prussian control. In the context of WWII, it would have been the last uncontested German victory. (It's also interesting how pro-Germany the Wikipedia page on the conflict is, ignoring that Bismark goaded Prince Christian into attempting a formal annexation, and ignoring that German had been in violation of the treaty of London as well.)
posted by klangklangston at 8:30 AM on September 1, 2009


I didn't really mean for my first comment to become a derail, so sorry about that. Anyway, it's possible to make a good case that it really was "World War I, the next generation."

The Next Generation? Surely more like The Empire Strikes Back?
posted by kersplunk at 8:42 AM on September 1, 2009


So here were are 70 years out - and we've not seen anything remotely as devastating as what was unleashed in '39.

The European perspective on the WW1 and WW2 has always intrigued me. As a Canadian, I find that we view these cataclysms as horrible human screw-ups that nevertheless serve us in terms of historical perspective. That is, the Canadian nation "came of age in these two great conflicts" etc.

Not so Europe where the years from 1914-45 are best thought of as one long Armageddon (with a prolonged rest-break in the middle) or, as one writer put it, a hell-scape beyond the scope of imagination (or words to that effect). In other words, the horrors were too huge for perspective, historical or otherwise. And thus, there were no real winners, only those who lost more and those who lost less.

Such is the case with all wars, I guess. But in the case of WW2, it's as if nobody of any credibility has even bothered arguing otherwise. Certainly not in Western Europe. And now, 70 years later (pretty much an entire lifetime), it seems that there is now one region of the world where War, as an option, simply does not exist.

Here's hoping.
posted by philip-random at 9:08 AM on September 1, 2009


To put this in a perspective that modern kids can understand:

During the Blitz in England, London and the surrounding cities suffered the equivalent of 9/11 every other day for a year.

That's just one battle in one area of the war. The scale really is incomprehensible.
posted by pjern at 9:48 AM on September 1, 2009


So, while we're talking about Russian losing to Poland, WTF is up with the Finns and Swedes and Japanese also kicking Russian butt? I know a lot about Russia but I've never understood this.

Also, I have a German friend who lives here in the US. One day, I asked her what her grandfather did during the war (I do stuff like that. I permanently alienated my Polish-born Russian teacher by innocently inquiring whether she ever felt shamed by Poland's role in dooming the Jews). My friend said, very breezily, "Oh, you know, I've never really thought to ask him. He was in some kind of battle somewhere, though. Stalingrad, I think it was?"

Agh!

Thanks a lot for the podcast link Devil's Rancher. I love stuff like this.
posted by staggering termagant at 9:52 AM on September 1, 2009


And now, 70 years later (pretty much an entire lifetime), it seems that there is now one region of the world where War, as an option, simply does not exist.

It only seems that way if you don't pay attention to the eastern part.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:38 AM on September 1, 2009


Adolf Hitler declares war on Poland: „Seit 5.45 Uhr wird zurückgeschossen”
posted by homodigitalis at 11:01 AM on September 1, 2009


philip-random: "In other words, the horrors were too huge for perspective, historical or otherwise."
They were also, in a way, very personal - if you hear your grandparents tell you first-hand accounts of those times it connects you more directly to it than reading about in a history book. And everyone who lived through those times had stories to tell.

My grandfather had been studying to become a Catholic priest; he was wounded by a British bullet and lost the use of his right arm. He could not fight anymore, but he couldn't go back to doing what he loved; as he put it "a priest has to be of sound mind and body", and as he didn't fulfill that requirement anymore he dropped out of seminary. In a way a good thing, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this now; but still, he was a pious man, forced to fight in a war he did not believe in.

Even my parents still remember the time after the war, when they grew up - so many essential things just were not there anymore, stuff we take for granted had been drained away by the war effort, infrastructure had been destroyed, and while there was no real famine food like meat and eggs were rare treasures.

Hearing something like that stays with you, and I hope it makes us think twice before going down a path like that again. The worst thing about war is that it is such a colossal waste; of human lives, of energy in all forms and of potential.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 11:15 AM on September 1, 2009


During the Blitz in England, London and the surrounding cities suffered the equivalent of 9/11 every other day for a year.

Approximately 43,000 civilians died in the Blitz. Approximately 360-370,000 German civilians and 500,000 Japanese civilians (not including the atomic bombs) were killed by strategic bombing. Almost 9,000 Japanese civilians were killed in a singe attack on Kobe. At least 24,000 people were killed in the bombing of Dresden.

Strategic bombing never really achieved its stated objectives of crippling industry and subduing civilian morale, and the technology in the early years of the war was so primitive that they couldn't be sure they were hitting the correct town, let alone the correct target. Germany would have had more success if they'd stuck to bombing RAF bases. The British bombed Germany mainly to feel like they were hitting back. According to the 1941 Butt Report only 1/3 of bombers got within five miles of their targets, and 49% of bombs were dropped in the open countryside.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:04 PM on September 1, 2009


So, while we're talking about Russian losing to Poland, WTF is up with the Finns and Swedes and Japanese also kicking Russian butt?

In fairness, the Russians pretty much won the Battle of Nomohan (Khalkhin gol), which was the largest engagement the Soviets had with the Japanese in the Second World War. If you're referring to the whole 1905-06 thing, well, it was the Russian Empire that should have collapsed, but didn't, and had to wait about 12 years to do it.
posted by Atreides at 1:51 PM on September 1, 2009


Trying to find a start date for WWII is misguided, I think. We might do better to think of WWII as a whole collection of overlapping wars. If we include

Start dates would have to include:

1931 - Japan occupies Manchuria (Mukden)
1935 - Italy vs. Ethiopia (league of nations discredited)
1936 - Spanish Civil War (in part a proxy war between Germany, Italy and Russia)
1939 - Germany invades Poland
1939 - France and the British Empire honor their alliance with Poland, declaring war on Germany
1939 - USSR invades Poland, the Baltic States and Finland
1941 - Germany attacks the USSR
1941 - Japan attacks the USA
1941 - USA declares war on Germany
1950 - Korean War

All of these are semi-independent historical events. They don't necessitate each other. Even if there were no Nazis, some of these wars were likely going to happen anyway.

Before the German invasion of Poland, there might have been some way to put out the little brushfire wars (of course that only could have happened if the Nazis were not the Nazis). I think that's why people call this the start of WWII.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:26 PM on September 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's Westerplatte this morning. In Polish, but you can get the idea.
posted by mdonley at 3:01 PM on September 1, 2009


...WTF is up with the Finns and Swedes and Japanese also kicking Russian butt?

In the case of the Nordics, one of the big factors was that Sweden had an excellent code-breaking organization and was able to read Soviet codes and ciphers readily. (It has to be pointed out that Soviet cryptography was pretty miserable for most of the war.)

For instance, one of the big reasons the Finns did so well in the Russo-Finnish war was because the Swedes were giving the Finns decryptions of all of the Soviet radio traffic they could pick up, so the Finns knew what the Soviets were going to do most of the time and could prepare for them.

As to the Japanese, they didn't kick Russian butt, at least in WWII. The Japanese got their own asses kicked by the Soviets in 1939, and after that the two nations maintained a truce until 1945, because both of them were too busy elsewhere. After Germany surrendered, the Soviets moved a lot of troops from the west out to Siberia and began to attack the Japanese there, and the Japanese got their butts kicked again.

It's important to keep in mind that there was a lot of difference between Czarist Russia and the Soviet Union, especially militarily.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:52 PM on September 1, 2009


Well, by then Russia basically had infinity T-34 tanks as well.
posted by Artw at 10:01 PM on September 1, 2009


/Remembers WWII Japanese tank he saw in a museum, chuckles.
posted by Artw at 10:02 PM on September 1, 2009


I like 1939 mainly because it's the point at which the great powers of Europe were drawn into direct conflict by virtue of treaty obligations, which is as good a definition of "world war" as anything else.

But largely what wilful said about arbitrariness is true. One could easily just clarify that it was the start of war in the European theater. After all, there were both a V-E and a V-J in the end.
posted by dhartung at 10:46 PM on September 1, 2009


Well, by then Russia basically had infinity T-34 tanks as well.

A lot of good those would do in craggy volcanic island invasions.

Remembers WWII Japanese tank he saw in a museum, chuckles.

Except, they were great for craggy volcanic island invasions.

Heavy armor is great for rolling across the Ukranian steppe or fields of Flanders, but just try rolling a 20 ton Panzer off a landing craft and up Mt. Suribachi. What you need there is a Toyota Corrola that can deflect small arms fire. In other words the Soviets would have done great in fighting the Japanese all the way to Pusan and then they would have to have figured some way to get across the sea of Japan without LST's or a Pacific fleet.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:40 AM on September 2, 2009


Pollomacho, the Soviets managed to take the Kuril Islands from Japan somehow in 1945.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:12 AM on September 2, 2009


Yes they did, by invading with two corps of troops vs. the 20,000 Japanese at the same time the Japanese were signing the surrender papers on the Misouri. It's pretty easy to take an island when the overwhelming resistance force drops their weapons and leaves five days into the campaign by order of the Emperor.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:42 AM on September 2, 2009


Except, they were great for craggy volcanic island invasions.

And how many of those did the Japanese actually participate in?
posted by Atreides at 11:23 AM on September 2, 2009


And how many of those did the Japanese actually participate in?

They took over nearly everything west of Midway and east of Mandalay from Darwin to Kamchatka, so you you can do the count of how many rocky atolls, sweaty jungle roads, and narrow hutongs that is where a light tank would be useful.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:01 PM on September 2, 2009


A lot of the islands that were captured back weren't exactly Iwo Jima, but pretty flat places where American tanks operated without too much problem (no black sand issues). I believe there was also a problem with the tanks and jungles. Interestingly, Wikipedia has an article on the development of the Japanese tanks, which essentially states they didn't see much action, especially after Nomohan, where the Soviets rocked 'em silly.

I think the premise is that the Japanese might have had smaller tanks, but they rarely used 'em due to the fact their battles were in places where tanks generally weren't useful or well built for (no matter how small and agile). Further exploration reveals that the Japanese realized that their standard tank, the Type 97 was essentially their main tank going into the 39-40 time period, which was later realized to be inferior for its purposes (simple anti-tank weapons could knock 'em out). The next to tanks to be designed and produced apparently never even saw combat.

Course that's all based off good ol' Wikipedia, so feel free to offer better sources. ;)
posted by Atreides at 5:44 PM on September 2, 2009


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