by Elaine Greensmith Jordan
Last April I found a collection of letters handwritten by solders on the battlefield. They were from young German warriors fighting in World War I, the “War to End All Wars.”
The letters had been filed among my books for many years, translated from the German and typed on onionskin paper. The pale type is like the faded idealism that emerges from the words. I feel I’ve uncovered the cries of children. Like toddlers, these letters interrupt my cleaning project. They make me sad, wanting to eat or watch television so I can forget that our youthful warriors still bleed and hope on battlefields today.
Letter One: Before he was killed in December 1914, Emil wrote that he was fighting for “a pure, true, honorable Germany, without baseness and deception.” He added that Germany’s victory in that war will “make people inwardly better.” Emil was 22.
Letter Two: Martin believed he’d return triumphant. An infantryman, Martin believed he was an instrument in God’s plan. “I will live on and on. I am calmed and protected,” he proclaimed before he was killed at 21. He wrote that he’d rather die to make Germany more honorable, pure and true, than win a war that had no purifying effect.
Letter Three: Wilhelm — killed at age 20 — wrote in the midst of “burning villages, the moaning of the wounded,” saying, “God’s goodness will always create a compensation, a completing and fulfilling.” He too was convinced of the sacred nobility of the fight and its final triumph.
It’s as if I’ve found these patriotic words of hope written on papyrus in some ancient cave instead of in my bookcase. I hold Emil’s letter on its thin paper, astonished at its religious sentiments from a soldier of an army that had smashed through Belgium and advanced on Paris. The German army wanted to crush the nations that allowed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne to be assassinated.
By the time ofWilhelm’s letter, they’d fought in grueling trench warfare and used poison gas. With their defeat of the Russians at Tannenberg, Emil and the others may have felt new aspirations, inspiring the hope we find in their letters. Or perhaps the “moaning of the wounded” forced them to turn to their religious and patriotic convictions for support.
Years ago I’d put the letters away unread. I was a busy young mother when they were handed to me by Helena Nye, who was living at that time in a retirement complex in my neighborhood. A former scholar of the German language at Stanford, Nye had been tutoring me in German.
When I visited Miss Nye I could leave behind the trials of raising children and the sorrows of a bleak marriage. I found comfort in her spirit and in the quiet of the gardens at her residence. She gave me the translated letters one afternoon after our walk around the adjacent nursing home. She’d visited the bedridden while I sat in hallways and listened to the murmuring of the people she patted and encouraged.
Miss Nye died shortly after she gave me the letters, but I kept them safe, knowing the ideals in them touched her heart. I’m sure she intended to publish them, perhaps in some pacifist manifesto. “And now the letters of fallen students,” she says in an accompanying comment. “Note the earnest and pitiful searchings . . .. These soldiers have an idealism of soul, yearnings for democracy, for humanity, for God.” She made each dead youth a blameless victim and his loss tragic. Her notes vibrate with heartache.
Miss Nye called war wicked and stupid. I imagine she hoped her angry message would influence her young American pre-meds at Stanford — all male in her day — cautioning them to think before waging senseless wars of “terrible carnage.”Her passion may have helped inspire the dissent of the decade that followed, after she retired, when students marched to protest the Vietnam War. I like to think her spirit marched with them.
Those German letters seem not only from the past but also from another planet. War as the refining fire? God’s protection in battle? War making people inwardly better? It amazes me that these warriors of 1914 believed their fight was part of a noble cause ordained by God. They actually believed they could keep evil from the gates with their heroic sacrifices because they were on the side of the angels.
The kind of triumphal high-mindedness we find in those German letters is what I see here in America, where our nation is proclaimed to be part of God’s plan and our perceived enemies the “axis of evil.” I’m shocked by religious leaders who preach American exceptionalism, characterizing the United States as a place ordained by the Bible. They mistakenly bathe American schemes in a light of glorious rectitude that resembles the idealistic glow emanating from my 1914 letters.
Had Emil lived beyond his twenties, he'd have learned that his enemies would triumph. Perhaps he would have acquired my cynicism, his idealism seeping away into the bloody dirt of war. I can imagine him with Martin and Wilhelm on a wide porch in rocking chairs as they puff on pipes, sip their schnapps and despair at fallen dreams of their god’s protection in a righteous war.
We’re all on that porch, I think, trying to make sense of military interventions and speculating where God is in all the suffering.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.
Drawing by Mark Jordan