I just finished reading your story in the book All Quiet on the Western Front. After being urged by some of my friends, I was finally convinced to pick up the book and read it in the original German. The book was a 1958 edition and has been collecting dust on my bookshelf for many years.
Reading it in my native German, I sensed a bond with you. The expressions you used with your comrades were so familiar to me. I hadn’t read a book in German for so long. Reading your story in my own language made it even more real.
You were a few years older than my maternal grandfather was at that time. He was born in 1902 and 12 years old when the war started. Like you, he wanted to go to school and learn. It has always been his wish to get an education. He went off to a boarding school. He told me about it many times. When the war started in 1914 he had to come home and help on the farm. His older brother had to go off to fight in the war, but like you, he never came back.
I’ve heard about war since I was very young. My grandmother told me about the bombings and the "fires" she saw in the dark sky. The war she talked about wasn’t even the one you were in. It was a war that started not long after you died in 1918.
All the peace talk you heard about during the summer of 1918 did come to pass, only it didn’t last very long. The treaty that was signed in Versailles just set the stage for another disaster. Only this time it was real psychopaths who took advantage of a bad situation and made it worse. But what else is new, when it comes to leaving decisions to people who have no clue about real life?
You describe a lot of gruesome scenes on the battlefield. You saw your fellow soldiers die in agony and misery as they lay in the dirt screaming in pain. You saw bodies that no longer even resembled human form. During all this suffering, you did not lose your ability to feel. I cannot even come close to imagining being there myself. Your accurate descriptions of the scenes along with your honest commentary let me see that you were still able to empathize. What a triumph when the war machine is so merciless!
The enemy you described was not so much the French, the British, or the Russian soldiers. You readily recognized that they, too, were just regular men like you and your friends. Some were farmers, craftsmen, bookmakers, and mathematicians. They all had something they valued that they left behind — family, friends, home, and life. It was the desire to live that gave you men the will to survive. And, it was those youthful memories of better days that caused a temporary loss of sanity in the midst of machine guns, hand grenades, and gas attacks. Who can blame you? Nobody wants to live under these circumstances for four long years.
Who was the enemy, Paul?
Even in 2004 we don’t seem to have an answer. Our governments still wage war with other nations. Warlords rule countries that are at the verge of starvation and chaos, exploiting their own people. Our Western governments tell us it’s the other side that is evil. The evildoers want to destroy our democratic way of life, they say. After closer analysis it seems that our democratic governments get involved in other people’s business far too often, creating links that lead to further conflict. The West is not innocent in the progress of world affairs. Oh, when will the nations repent of their sins?
Now we have terrorism, a cowardly way of killing innocent people that is not fought by the rules of warfare. Strange, even our democratic governments have lost their roots. They have forgotten the natural law and returned to a stone-age mentality. It is all so sad, Paul. Nothing changed.
Maybe now you’re wondering why you had to die so young. You shouldn’t have died; not for an impersonal system that made you into a number, a war casualty. It was for your friends, and your eagerness to drink in what your short life had to offer. You laid your life down for your friends in the trenches. You died for love of friendship, Paul.
I want to assure you that your story has touched many. It reached beyond Germany, beyond Europe and even across the ocean. High school kids in America are even required to read your story. My son read it. Our new war eagerness may eliminate it from the summer reading list. But don’t give up, Paul. We are keeping your story alive.
Now I am glad that I finally found the dusty black book. You remind me so much of the boys back home when I lived in a small town in Germany. Really, you weren’t much different. We could have easily met and drank a beer under an elm tree during a sunny summer day, dancing around the Maypole and sharing a laugh or two.
As you recalled your trip home for a short vacation, you described a familiar feeling that I know. There is an uncomfortable strangeness to a place that used to be familiar when time and life has put a wedge between the old and the new. One is no longer the same person any more. You’ve experienced the smell of death and seen the darkness of war. Nothing can bring one back how it was before. Too much has happened to regain that innocence. You knew then that nobody can remove those images from your mind and the pain you felt in your heart. You turned into an old man at 18.
Paul, I am so thankful that I finally met you in your story. Even though it’s been many decades since you died on the battlefield of WWI, you became real to me when I read your thoughts and impressions. You showed me that relationships are what this life is all about. That sharing a simple meal with friends is possible even while bombs are dropping all around you. Your love for your comrades shines out. It was when you were the only one left of all your former schoolmates that life let go of you.
There are people out there, Paul, who continue to speak out against this senseless murder. Theirs are nagging voices. A minority if you will. These are good people who have the mind and heart of a real human being. Their individuality is what makes them powerful. And they all listen to a different drummer boy, Paul.
By default our human nature seems to drag us into the abyss of pride, arrogance, death and destruction. But by grace there’s always an opportunity to end that spiral of evil. The people who woke up to this serve a different kingdom, one that’s not of this world. Maybe that is where our hope lies in getting out of the mess we keep finding ourselves in. Worldly authority hasn’t had much success in saving us from our own destructive patterns.
So, there’s nothing new here in the West where government is concerned. The only difference is that people are starting more and more to seek the truth. It’s a slow process since it has to reach one person at a time.
May you finally rest in a Peace you’d never known.
Sabine Barnhart [send her mail] moved to the US in 1980 and lives in Fort Worth, TX with her three children. For the past 15 years she has been working for an international service company.