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Dead Letter File
By Art Dorland (reviewer)
German Students' War Letters
by Philipp Witkop, A.F. Wedd (Translator)
This publication, The Veteran, has engaged my attention the past several years I've been a VVAW member. I have read its many reviews of current books on war and warfare, including one describing a volume composed by an acquaintance of mine, Frank C. Nelson. "Blind Nation," reviewed last issue by John Ketwig, documents the insidious development of an American cultural and political mindset that, escaping all notice, treacherously vacuumed this country into the Vietnam war.
But I would like to draw attention to a book long out of print and fading sadly beyond the reach of memory. This November we mark the centennial of a day that closed out the bloody record of one of the most appalling events of European history. "German Students' War Letters" published in 1929, is a beautifully humane and moving entry in that record. The tattered, disintegrating copy I read was only available at the reference section of my city library, so I sat down at a table there for a couple of days and laboriously copied into a wide-lined notebook excerpts of these letters I wished to take home. Technology be damned, this is the way we did when we were young students ourselves, gathering material for college term papers. How liberating the experience, and I recommend it to others. I have, for a few short days at least, reversed the engine of time. I have disembalmed the past.
The letters, comprising 206 pieces by 92 writers, are gathered and translated from a larger contemporaneous collection published in Germany, that collection itself culled from some twenty thousand submissions sent in by still grieving German families. The young soldier authors wrote only for themselves and for loved ones, never foreseeing wider circulation. They were all students, many of Theology and Philosophy, and they all died in the war. Furthermore, they believed, or wanted to believe, that their sacrifice meant something. They gave their lives for Kaiser and Fatherland.
We are universally conditioned to despise the enemy, even an enemy of long ago. And here this old, neglected, worn book creates its own victory, not unintentional: try to read some of these pieces without swallowing hard, without choking up; try to picture the Terrible Hun composing such touching letters by the light of a miserable candle in a trench under shellfire. Try.
September 24, 1914
My dear, good, precious Mother, I certainly believe and hope that I shall come back from the war, but just in case I do not I am going to write you a farewell letter. I want you to know that if I am killed, I give my life gladly and willingly. My life has been so beautiful that I could not wish that anything in it had been different. And it's having been so beautiful was thanks above all to you, my dear, good, best of Mothers. And for all your love, for all that you have done for me, for everything, everything, I want to thank you and thank you. . .
Why should I have volunteered for the war? Of course it was not for any enthusiasm for war in general, not because I thought it would be a fine thing to kill a great many people or otherwise distinguish myself. On the contrary, I think that war is a very, very evil thing. . .But now that it has been declared, I think it is a matter of course that one should find oneself so much a member of the nation that one must unite one's fate as closely as possible with that of the whole. . .For what counts is always the readiness to make a sacrifice, not the object for which the sacrifice is made.
This war seems to me, from all that I have heard, to be something so horrible, inhuman, mad, obsolete, and in every way depraving, that I have firmly resolved, if I do come back, to do everything in my power to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. . .
—Franz Blumenthal, Student of Law, killed on the Western Front December 18, 1914
You can picture the stricken Mother, this letter engraved on her heart, all the promise swept away. With trembling hands she smooths the dress tunic that has been sent back with Franz's personal effects. It is Christmas. That uniform will never need laundering again.
Many German soldiers composed last letters to their families and entrusted them to a faithful comrade in case of their death, Otto Heinebach, Student of Philosophy, wrote the following on the eve of his mortal wound at Verdun, February 19, 1916:
Farewell. You have known all the others who have been dear to me and you will say goodbye to them for me. And so, in my imagination, I extinguish the lamp of my existence on the eve of this terrible battle. I cut myself out of the circle of which I have formed a beloved part. The gap which I leave must be closed, the human chain must be unbroken. I, who once formed a small link in it, bless it for all eternity. And till your last days, remember me, I beg you, with tender love. Honor my memory without gilding it, and cherish me in your loving, faithful hearts.
What is the sum and balance of all this loss? Like all soldiers sacrificed then and since, these young men lost their lives, their futures, their budding, carefully nurtured promise. The families, thousands upon thousands, lost what all such victims of war lose, and for which there is no compensation. More than half of all soldiers killed in WWI were never identified nor given proper burial. Loved ones beyond counting had not so much as a place to come to and lay flowers. Reading these letters a century later, we may be faintly disconcerted by the unmistakable strain of patriotic nationalism threading beneath and throughout. Yet it is hard to believe that any of these literate young men, taken so soon, would have been the sort to welcome the violent, vicious regime that entered at stage right a few brief years after. Sad to say, but maybe it is as well that they did not live to see that.
Available on Kindle and used paperback and harback editions online. - Ed.
Art Dorland was an E-4 plenipotentiary with US Naval Support Activity Saigon, 1966-67.