War Letters of German Students - pages V - 4


More than ever we are convinced that a German war brings about enormous achievements based on the dictates of the German intellect, of the German soul, and of the essence of being German. We smile upon this belief, that the unifying power of scientific, technical, and military prowess can be prompted by external mechanisms and militarism. And the more we are gripped by the war and the heroism of the German spirit in all its tragedy and beauty, the more we yearn to know not just about the deeds but wish to have the testimony of witnesses. We think about how deciding battles were poeticized into great epics seemingly created by the people out of oppressive sorrow, mighty battles, newly realized consciousness of self and final victories. And we are certain that today internal conditions are similar in form to those of the epics.

This war is a great heroic poem of the German people and the German spirit. To what extent over the long years these conditions will lead to great songs and mythos we cannot know. But we can understand the materials currently at hand — letters from field posts of our warriors where the spirit and soul of the German people reside in the words and deeds of those in battle and those who have died. The war letters of German students: if we were to incorporate the common elements in these letters into a epic in hopes of identifying a national character wouldn't there be a unity and uniqueness of symbolic import? The circle of German students contains a full range of occupations, of social classes sprouting up next to each other, with intersecting pasts and futures, subjective tendencies and objective insights, sensual alertness and mental agility.

Soon after the beginning of the war I started assembling this collection not according to their points of view and not according to their interesting anecdotal events and military incidents, but according to the deepest, most secret expression of spiritual inquisitiveness, according to adept internal recognition,

which — to express it the way Herder would have — are born out of "the dire stress of the content, the sensations" and which create the poet. In the words of Goethe, "the heart completely filled with sensations."

I have categorized the individual letters in accordance their strongest sentiment. No words have been changed or added.I merely condensed nonessential elements, cutting a sentence here, a word there for the sake of increased clarity or intensity. Individual sentences were sometimes regrouped. Most of the letters came to me via personal exchanges with the senders. Many came via the senders' parents and friends, others through student associations. I only present a portion of them here. The entire work, which shall become an enduring national monument, will be published for the first time after the end of the war. I ask all students, all their parents, friends and associations, to work with me on it by forwarding more letters in their original format (which will immediately be returned), exact copies, or print versions from student association periodicals. Intimate letters containing confessions of the soul, which were not intended for publication by the writer, are of particular interest to me.

These letters most deeply address the nonpersonal, the ultrapersonal: the times and the people. They lack the embarassment of personal exposure and revelation prevalent in the artist. A student wrote, "I would consider it an honor if I could contribute something which you might promote as a great and beautifully thought-out undertaking. In these times everything one does and thinks and even what one writes down is not just his own but a portion of the wealth of society at large. For those who have already fallen their letters shall become a monument to memory and honor, a legacy to their love, which was true unto their deaths.

Freiburg im Breisgau, Jägerhäusleweg 2.

              Dr. Philipp Witkop,
     Professor of the history of modern German literature.

              Poland, November 4, 1914

For me certain passages quoted from Baroness Suttner's works are truly spoken from the soul. But the way in which I use them are different. First of all, I am a confirmed transcendental idealist and as such rejoice in the thought that the war liberates humanity from its bondage to the material world. Ideas and power beyond realistic levels are placed in sharp contrast with existence and worth, and millions who do not heed their own lives step into the fray risking their welfare and blood. That is the first reason. The second one is more significant for it leads to the root of all of life's problems.

First of all it's worthwhile to establish what kind of existence is truly tenable in human terms. There are only three situations: existence as an individual, existence as a nation, and existence as a citizen of the world. Now subtract everything in your experience which cannot be considered without the concept of a German nation. Perhaps you don't foresee how much you had to subtract, how many self-evident truths you'll have to subtract from your daily life. A great commonality of behaviors and attitudes and ways of looking at the world in which you engage with every expression of your being and with every spoken and written word

could only have developed under the influence of a socially closed system and a national identity. It's scarcely conceivable how many climatic and racial conditions color every word you speak. Just as man is bound to the deepest and most precious elements of his environment, can he really change his relationship to his surroundings? And even when the individual wanted to withdraw into an ultimate seclusion would he not be alone with himself? Would he just have exchanged circumstances, surrounding himself with the dream visions of things and people rather than reality? (These dream figures might be more lifelike and real than the false so-called reality of the material realm.) Man is only tenable as a social being.

There's another question: How wide should this social system extend? Should the circle encompass the entire earth? That won't happen. There would always be special circumstances created by new characteristics and behaviors which to others would be incomprehensible, untenable, and insubstantial. Man as a world citizen is a colorless, abstract concept. To keep one's distance from abstracton in one's existence is a sign of healthy, thriving, and vital times and people. The world can never give our ideas and our beliefs a final form which enables us to see through to its innermost core. Any relationship which can solely bind us to a great ideal exists only with those who have exited a singular, vital nation. The nation as such exists as a tenable and "real" element between

occasional and untenable individuals and the colorless, abstract citizen of the world. The human being can only be tenable in the nation and then be tenable in the world. The nation is the boundry where the individual abuts to the whole.

Dwell for a moment on the idea of a united humanity! But instead of taking in every form of humanity you burn for what is most familiar and trusted by you, the German contingent. And you're not even aware of that.

However when the concept of nation becomes of vital import, don't the roots of our innermost nature branch out and operate? Certainly the unique mixture of Beethoven's titanic power amid the Mozart's sublime pain come into play. The blending, by which Bismark and Goethe supply the nourishment, is always animating. But the basis of all inner experience, the nation, becomes the most vital force of all when everything is dedicated to it, when all existence is placed on this basis, when hundreds of thousands offer up their lives for it. It is the triumph of the firmament from which all power originates; it is the triumph of devotion and self-contemplation over individual losses. It is the great calling which creates celebratory zeal out of stoicism. We were all small and entrenched in supportive comfort before the campaign. And now each individual has become great and grown past his ego! How deeply our little joys and sorrows have disappeared as each senses the proximity of a great destiny! Especially those of us in the battle field. We are bonded to this destiny with the coldness and the vigil, the pain and the necessity. We are able to experience the nervous pulse through proximity

to the physical reality in a way that others may only experience intellectually or in imagination.

This is how I have understood the war from its beginning. I trembled the first four weeks when we never came under fire and did nothing. Since then I've trembled under stress which has never ceased. We are three officers with our troops. Do you believe that we bicker, seriously bicker when a dangerous assignment comes for one of us? Mostly fate must decide. Here we feel a blissful suspension of being, an undreamt-of elation. At best I may say, a husbandly feeling towards our work despite the crudity that surrounds us — a renewed dedication to death or life.

This is the war! And only those who are not able to go beyond purely material concerns can see it differently. Perhaps this was never as clear to me as in East Prussia, when I (during the pursuit of Rennenkampf) passed by several wagons filled with moaning wounded men during a patrol. It was a revelation : how the idea of national power rose above these individuals' difficult hours and left individual fates far behind it. Truly, no hero's drama should obscure misery. No one can tell these men about a "fresh and happy war." However one should never forget that this month of war in which life and death are located in close quarters, is so full of concentrated life, that it almost has a symbolic glow and a thousand times greater reality than the broad stream of balanced life in which we use to dabble.

                                       Walther Harich

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks