War Letters of German Students - pages 56 - 65

I resigned myself to my unavoidable fate. A peculiar sense of peace enveloped me and the every word spoken by a Bremen minister kept ringing in my ear as he sent me off into the field: "Daily fortify yourselves in the conviction that you are the bearers of the greatest things on earth. In your soul you carry everything you believe. With your fists you battle against the enemy. God is with you — move forward and defend. In any event it means life in Him!" That was it — "Life in Him", for the German fatherland — in any event! — I had fulfilled my self-imposed duty to the fatherland — that was my pride; I had rediscovered my faith in the highest value — that was my joy.

Shortly thereafter we came upon a group of trees. A light veil of haze hung above the trees in light colors. Deep green spruces mixed with golden maples. Right through the treetops a deep blue sky edged with rose-colored clouds. We walked past a forest cemetery— there was a gate of brown spruce with a golden inscription above the timbers: "I know that my Redeemer lives." Here all the comrades rested on foreign soil under evergreen treetops which gave and received homeland greetings from the wind. Wonderous, almost like a fairytale. I experienced a holy hour.

                                                Rudolf Dünnbier

From the East

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                                 In Czenstochau, September 27, 1914

In those days one saw all the people of southeast Prussia in the roadway ditches. One saw them on their endless journey to the west from the war zone. Families of craftsmen and farmers moved along down the streets. A few possessions saved in their carts with leashes attached to dogs, old horses and cattle. A milk cow leashed to the back of the cart. Women in hiked up skirts with children in their arms, on their backs, holding hands. Entire villages merged together by the troops and led into the ditches, where they set up house. All day long, right up into September. The days were beautiful but the nights were already cold with a fine rain. People pressed up against each other for shared bodily warmth and the comfort of an embrace. It was always the same, no matter where we went, the same old bible image. The same shaking old people who stepped alongside their carts with their cows, asking about the path which endlessly leads to a strange land and poverty. Then we no longer saw individuals. Instead we saw entire families on the move. The army pushing the enemy ahead of them. Behind the army the scared, the infirmed, and the underaged.

All roles seemed to be properly distributed: men carried flintlocks and women protectively blanketed their body warmth over the homeless. We saw nothing unredeemed and nothing overdone. We laughingly thought back to the days when we instinctively sought our own redemption and completely forgot that we are all confused humans. One group there to fight the difficult battle and the other group to give away their bodily warmth. Here no one knew about love and desire because they all were love and desire. And we all felt that within the individual the fountain of life is not viable.

                                                Walter Harich


                                      Marienburg, August 25, 1914
For August 28th (Goethe's Birthday)

This time it seems truly special to celebrate the great day. Indeed it will indicate how much education influenced us. I can truly say everything else has been dispersed like chaff and only Goethe's memory has remained. I have attempted to put my gratitude into words. I've sent you a manuscript. It was difficult to assemble this collection amid the crazy, daily activities but it was crucial, thus I completed it. This is very important to me. So important that I have decided to send a copy to a newspaper. I have great hope that it will be published. Since I'm here on the battlefield protecting our border I think I have the right to speak before the people and declare openly what I hold for truth.

Just in the past few days as I have seen the transport for the wounded and the fleeing residents of the east Prussian provinces with their meagre bundles and holding the hands of their scared children it has become clear to me what has happened and what is required: The strong must build a chain to prevent an invasion. For that reason the weak fled. Now I must count myself among the strong.

If I withdraw into the culture of an earlier time, it's not to segregate myself and be rid of it. Rather it is to strengthen myself for what is to come. Something new has been initiated. Taken another way these words arise: "For so long you don't have it, this death and rebirth."

                                      August 28, 1914

I am very confident. More than ever today on Goethe's birthday. As I awoke up at the same time as my corporal, we laid on the straw matress in the gray morning light. It was quiet. I was aware of the significance of the day. I grabbed my copy of West-Eastern Divan, which really did lay next to my pistol.

                                                Fritz Klatt

                                      September 4, 1914

There are no more days, and hours are not counted in this great round dance of death and misery. — At Marienburg I woke up quite unexpectantly one night, jarred from a deep sleep by the alarm.

One soon accustoms himself to the rigors which must generally be endured without exception. The worst things are the tortures to the soul committed by the great destruction and annihilation of all living things: the villages and the towns through which we came are so devastated that each individual structure is shattered. Panes of glass and porcelain shattered; farm machinery systematically twisted and destroyed. On one estate I saw scattered and shredded family papers going back many hundreds of years.

Endless numbers of refugees with damaged carts filled with various belongings fill the roads. The army moves in the opposite direction, going towards the enemy, with all manner of weaponry in interchangable divisions amid clouds of silver dust. Yesterday I was in a position to look over the many winding roads. There were countless masses of people.

The past eight days as a last support unit we took part in an apparently victorious battle. At a rapid march we had to always keep the rear. We only heard the thunder from the cannons without reaching the arena of death. Each night there was much excitement and alarm. I made several important observations concerning the true nature of emotions. Seldom have I thought as clearly as in these times.

Every terrible experience of war came to mind in its harshest reality. I seem alright and I'm happy that I am at peace with myself living from day to day.

                                                Fritz Klatt

                                      September 14, 1914

The battle seems inclined towards a victorious end. The first days our regiment stood in reserve. On the third day it was deployed. We crossed very difficult terrain. Our Major died right at the start of the battle. There were also many wounded. The whistling of the gunfire through the woods was awful. I experienced more wondrament than fear about the course of events. I couldn't quite imagine that the whistling around me could be deadly for me. Finally the enemy was driven from the woods by supportung machine gun fire.

The sight of the battlefield was dreadful. It was filled with the dead and the groaning wounded, the dead horses, the torn apart knapsacks, weapons and splintered trees.

These are life experiences which will greatly shadow my existence.

One doesn't view all these things in one glimpse. Perhaps one sees a handkerchief that's purple and damp with blood and nearby there's an arm from which the blood originated. One sees the light shade of yellow of a completely caved-in face. Above all else one sees over and over again the open and half-opened eyes of the dead, still glistening with the moisture of life and yet already fixed in death. One also sees unforgettable beauty: I saw young soldiers, wartime volunteers who looked as though they were asleep in the pose of Ariadne of Naxos, who quietly and amicably awaited the rapid approach of death.

It was as though they were reenergizing for many deeds in life.

All this unites into a horrible image of ruination which displays power and beauty in its desiccated form. Then again I was there as well, not as one who observes but as one who is suspended into the iron framework. It's something beyond art and image. I don't know what it is. Even the madness of mutual blood letting remains utterly mysterious to me. A hundred other thoughts go through the head and above it all is the notion of unconditional sacrifice to the necessities of fate: "According to the law which applies to you."

                                                Fritz Klatt

                                      September 26, 1914

Homeland: For the first time now I can treasure the word as I find myself among the strangers in a foreign land. You are right. In the future much would be requested from those remaining behind. It would be laughable if anyone did not fully develop his abilities. Even more, he'd be committing a sin. The country has lost so much blood that each drop which still flows in life must flow to serve the whole. I fully believe that one's life and death is dispensed towards this general purpose. For myself I can predict nothing. The proximity to physical and spiritual death changes daily with the measurements one uses.

Recently on a particularly difficult day, as we

had been marching since early that morning and in the evening it had begun to rain, the enemy held the villages ahead of us. We wanted to attack at night and this seemed tolerable to me. My body moved easily and quickly, my voice was strong; I didn't feel the rain and the dampness because my body maintained sufficient warmth. Only I was thirsty. I knew that all day long I drank sparingly. My canteen was still half-full of lemonade. Now I reached behind and realized that while running through the fields the stopper had come off and all the liquid had flowed out. It was like my entire psyche had folded in on itself. Suddenly I had to cry because I felt so miserable. My thirst, which before was tolerable, grew to be somewhat unbearable. I had to summon up all my strength just to overcome this minor accident. This serves as an example. Little things become big and big things become small. Comprehension remains silent and instinct speaks loudly.

We had already marched well into Russia but we still knew little about the enemy. Yesterday we moved up to Czenstochau. Today we went through an area of limestone. Thin patches of grass extend over the bald surface; so thin that they were often pulled up and the white rock showed through. The mountains in rounded formation held my eye the entire day amid all activities. I found a petrified shell during the march lightly covered in limestone. The tiny ridges were significantly accentuated. I was rather proud of it. During a long march one usually sees nothing other than his own boot tips, which tread heavily over the ground.

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Imaging and translation by Susan Kriegbaum-Hanks