Letters from a German Soldier, July 1, 1915




Yes, do rouse my indignation and my anger, which brings the tears to my eyes; rouse it -- that is what I want! Wake my sleeping powers so that they may strengthen, so that I can put my thoughts in order, and, if I should return from this war, fling them once for all in the faces of men -- men who deceive themselves, and find a justification even for this murdering -- who are still seeking some -- heaven knows what -- great moral after-effects from wholesale slaughter. I will never conceive that men, [civilized] men, friends in time of peace, can as a result of any principle whatever suddenly fall into the madness of letting loose on one another with instruments of murder, to behave like wild beasts. Man takes man as the target for his bullets. "Thou shalt not kill." How can a man of any feeling make sense out of such contradiction! Now, indeed, "thou shalt kill," for your country says that friends are now enemies; for the Press fills the masses with hate so that the war may be brought about at all. War -- so in war "thou shalt kill," because that is the custom, or because death for one's country is especially rewarded by God as a hero's death. The Church agrees: "Be loyal even unto death." So if I am loyal to my country, and if I, from love of my country, with a bullet for ever part other men, just as loyal and just as [civilized], from their fathers, mothers, sweethearts, sisters, and sons (though according to the Press they are the barbarians and we are the innocent lambs), whether or not they slowly breathe out their poor enemy lives, hideously wounded, it is all the same; I am a hero any way. And if finally I, too, at last get the bullet that I richly deserve, and it puts an end to my beastly [behavior], then I shall have been loyal unto death; then men will [honor] me as a hero, if they don't forget me among the thousands of other heroes; and they will bury the hero's body out there, if there is time enough, or if they can find it -- otherwise the scent of the dead hero's body must help them to find the former hero. But the main point is, God will at once raise him to the seventh heaven, the hero, the murderer. No, I can't really take that in; I am either too stupid or too clever for that. Murderer! For against war the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" does not count, so long as our nation and other people's nations get material advantages from it. It is indeed explained that it is not a question of material advantages, but that war is based on the idealism of the peoples, that this is the fact once for all, that unluckily it is not possible to alter it at all. So from the moment that anyone says that there is war, I kill my friend, my fellow-man, with whom under normal circumstances an unbreakable tie binds me. So he is to be a hero, this murderer. How can one man look another in the face after? No, if this bestial business is not attacked with the utmost energy, then I give up all hope in men's desire to advance in [civilization]; then I do not desire to live any longer; then I would rather have less intelligence, so that my soul may not any longer have any consciousness of itself; then I [page 2] will kill myself so that I may not see -- may not be forced to see -- this world any more. Murderer, suicide, hero!


I will make use of the short time for rest to report to you. About ten days ago we left our quarters, and were packed off to the railway station. One day and night passed, then the train came to a final stop. Getting out at the station we were greeted by shrapnel. After a march of several hours we took our stand in a wood, our headquarters being a small town, which was daily under fire from the enemy. Right away on the first day two were wounded, one of them died. Then we took up our position, work was carried on day and night, changing off in shifts. The way to our position was partly among trees and partly across open fields. Grenades annoyed us very much; the nearer we got to our position the more grenades there were. We went forward crouching, and making no noise. It is night; fireballs flare up, lighting the surroundings for a moment with a dazzling glare; grenades explode with a regular crash; it sounds like breaking wood, only a thousand times louder, with a metallic clang. You hear the steel break into a thousand bits. Now and then a foot soldier is asked: "How far is the enemy from here?" Answer, "200 [meters]." You go further, and ask again; "50 [meters]"; still nothing stirs. Five [meters], all is quiet. I look through loophole; close in front of it are lying dozens of corpses, and parts of what were once men. No one can bring them in; often they lie in the line of fire, a single step away, just as they came out of the trench for a charge. At one place Germans and French lay all together by a half-shot-away trench, with heads or legs hanging into the ditch. The fighting made it impossible to clear them away; they had been lying there for days already. Now at least we have been able to get them away, but the ones that are lying in front of the trench are decomposing more and more, and are more and more torn to pieces by the grenades. There lies one; I push him, for I don't know whether he is asleep or dead. The dead and living often lie peacefully side by side, waiting for release or to be carried to the cemetery. Hand grenades are flung, bombshells fired, work is carried on in the mines.

I go back to quarters. Everything is repeated as it was when I left. Now and then a grenade goes off, behind or before us, but there comes over one a sense of relief; atrocity lies behind one for one day.

Recently we buried a comrade, almost all of whose head had been torn away by artillery shot, so that only a little of it was to be seen. I never was at a burial where I felt so cold, so without feeling, so indifferent. It is as though I despised something, perhaps myself and all fellow-men, or life, or all ideals. Who can take the responsibility for this war? Why are men told to be good? What is good? No, anything like this must never happen again; such a war must be crushed in the embryo. Here you have a picture of a little bit of the European war; but it is not yet at an end, but goes on with greater force. Indeed, it has the greatness, the disagreeable character, of a siege; it has gradually become a guerilla war, and can go on for years yet if the right personality does not appear and make an end to the thing. This time of human, of animal, baseness needs only the right spirit, who, through a highly developed sense of responsibility, could put an end to this horrible, indecent business. Unfortunately, we have no one in Europe who possesses the capacity, and therefore the European people in the course of time will just have to make peace for itself, for it cannot go on so.

These letters have been sent by the young soldier's fiancée with the following letter: --

"I lived in Austria-Hungary till I was seventeen; I have been here in Holland, my parents' home, only for a few years. When the war broke out, the letters of my young friends brought a perfect storm of enthusiasm for the action of the fatherland. This was unintelligible to me; here from Holland it all looked quite different to me. Could it be that there they did not see the madness of this war of the peoples? Did not the women see it either, or was it only impossible for them to express themselves freely?

"When I heard of the idea of wanting to hold an international congress of women here in Holland, great happiness came to me. I followed the acceptances as they came in from the different countries with the greatest eagerness. Yes, women have at least one advantage over men, in that they cannot be compelled to that patriotism that commands killing; that they are not obliged to take part in this crime of hate and enmity between the peoples. If only they would all [realize] this one [page 3] freedom of theirs which is now so significant, and say to themselves: 'It is now our task to uphold the common ideals which unite the peoples, the ideals of a noble humanity, to protect them from going under, to fight for their life.' I know that these ideals are still alive in many a soldier. In the trenches there is other pain than that caused by bodily wounds. What must be suffered by a proud and yet humble spirit, conscious of himself, when he is forced into such carnage, and sees all his moral powers [paralyzed]?

"So you see that I come in this young man's name also to express my gladness and my gratitude to you; and how many others would like to do the same if they only could! But those women who feel that they have in them even a glimmer of a higher human self must not keep silence; they must not agree that in our time, in which Christianity has set its seal through centuries of influence, the only true patriotism is the patriotism that commands their sons and brothers and husbands to kill, and which makes brutes of them in the literal sense of the word. No, they must raise their voices for a nobler love of country if they do not want to be accomplices in a hideous crime.

"If only I could help in the work! What I can do through letters and sending pamphlets is so little. And yet it is so bitterly necessary that women should rouse themselves, and be conscious of the duty that now lies on them."

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