Oh, the flowers of indulgence and the weeds of yesteryear,
Like criminals, they have choked the breath of
conscience and good cheer.
The sun beat down upon the steps of time to light the way
To ease the pain of idleness and the memory of decay.
–Bob Dylan “Every Grain of Sand”
Christmas Day December 1914 World War One
In December, 1914 the First World War had been raging for a few months. German forces had swept across Belgium, Luxembourg and part of France where they were met by allied forces and stopped. Each then tried to outflank the other and kept moving north in what was called the “race to the sea.” Once the battle lines had reached the sea, troops began to dig in and build trench systems to protect themselves from machine guns and artillery. Often there were very short distances between the trench lines, in some cases there were only yards separating them. Sometimes troops would communicate across the lines by shouting at each other, or after a barrage signs would appear reading “missed a bit,” or “more left”.
Life in the trenches was hard; they were often filled with water that was a mix of filth and decomposing bodies. Between the lines was the infamous “no man’s land” strewn with barb wire, and pockmarked with shell holes and littered with corpses of the fallen. These conditions were shared by soldiers of both sides, and there must have a certain amount of sympathy across the lines as a result.
But on on Christmas Eve in 1914 tannenbaum, or Christmas trees decorated with candles began to appear at many points along the German line. Continue reading
This is not an original thought, but life seems to go through two distinct stages for people in more or less the same age group. If you are not one of the participants in that stage, you tend to lose friends as they move the next. The stages begin after everyone has gotten through the post-high school years. Continue reading
“I do not know how future generations will judge our actions or what they will think of me, but I know for a fact that none of us acted from baser motives. Only the desperate situation forced us to risk everything to save Germany from complete destruction. I’m convinced that one day, posterity will recognize this and understand.”
General Friedrich Olbricht, July 20, 1944
My grandfather served in World War II. He took part in the great push by allied forces across Europe to Berlin, and I take pride in knowing that. If you grew up in Germany, you might be able to say the same thing, but you would not necessarily do so with pride. Even if your grandfather had served honorably (as many German soldiers did), that fact is so overshadowed by the horror and cruelty of the Third Reich you probably wouldn’t dare to say anything.
If you’ve watched any educational channels you know there’s no lack of documentaries on Hitler and the Nazi party. I think most people watch those programs, or movies like Schindler’s List, and wonder what they would have done if they lived in Germany at that time. It’s human nature to think that you would do the morally upright and correct thing. However, if you look at what actually happened, the vast majority of people at the time did not do the morally correct and upright thing. That is not to say that those people actively participated in the atrocities of the Third Reich, but that through a combination of inertia, willful ignorance, and shame everyone ended up with some dirt on their hands. So the hard truth is that if you were put into the same set of circumstances you would most likely do nothing, and hope it would all go away. Most people, I think, really just want each day to be the same as the last, and are willing to overlook a great deal to make that happen. That is the same today as it was then.
We tend to have a monolithic vision of the German people during the war that is a combination of movie portrayals, video games and countless melodramas on TV. In fact there were pockets of resistance to National Socialism both before and during the war. Most are largely unknown in the US at least until the film Valkyrie came out in 2008. Continue reading
“All the pathos and irony of leaving one’s youth behind is thus implicit in every joyous moment of travel: one knows that the first joy can never be recovered, and the wise traveler learns not to repeat successes but tries new places all the time.” – Paul Fussell
In my last post I stole a lyric from The Smiths which asks “Has the world changed, or have I changed?” That was partly trying to be clever, but partly a serious question. I approached coming back to Germany like the anticipation of meeting an old friend you haven’t seen for a very long time and had a lot of the same thoughts running through my head: Will we still get along? Have the paths our lives have taken made us such different people that we no longer know, or want to know, each other? Was I going to be able to move past my idealized, nostalgic version of Germany and be able to accept the reality?
Something I felt
Or maybe something I thought
Like yesterday’s over
Something I took
Something I sought
Like yesterday’s gone
— The Cure
I’m preparing to go on a trip that I have been looking forward to for some time. We are going to visit Germany (specifically Berlin, Dresden and Munich) and the Czech Republic (Prague). We will be extending our trip for three days to visit the place I was stationed in Germany for two years in 1986 and 1987. From time to time I have looked in on where I lived via the Internet, and I know that there have been changes and that some places are essentially the same (or at least are still there). I have no illusions about what I will see when I get there. But while I intellectually know what is there, I’m not sure that I’m prepared for what I’ll experience emotionally. Even though it was only two years out of a lifetime, the experience has had an abiding affect on my life.
We recently purchased the movie Forrest Gump on Blu Ray. This is a movie I was surprised that I didn’t own already. For the few that have been living in a cave or in a commune in Vermont, I’ll sum up the movie. Actually I’ll let Wikipedia do it: “The story depicts several decades in the life of Forrest Gump, a naive and slow-witted native of Alabama who witnesses, and in some cases influences, some of the defining events of the latter half of the 20th century.” That is a pretty succinct summary of the plot of the film. I have come to realize that all I need to know about a person can be summed up by how they feel about Forrest Gump.
“A boy doesn’t have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn’t like pie when he sees there isn’t enough to go around. ” EW Howe
I’m lead to believe that at least a dozen people have glanced at this blog (or quite possibly one person a dozen times, and if so hopefully that person wasn’t me). I’ve made a pact with myself, and now you I suppose, that I will update this blog regularly. So I need to come clean about something before I go on much longer. I’m a person who has heroes. I suppose that I’m kind of ashamed to admit this publicly since at my age that is probably something I should have outgrown, but there it is. Most likely a number of posts I’m going to make are about people who are heroes of mine, and possibly about why they should be yours too.