In front of me lies a pile of sheets of paper between two pieces of cardboard, tied up in a strange way, by the kind of thick iron wire on soldiers’ mess kit, instead of normal book-binding thread.
The sheets are blue, printed forms: Post Received on Recorded on Forwarded on. Telegram forms for the position Neuflise, from 30. 9. 1918 at 11:56, until 30. 9. 1918 at 23:50.
On 1st October 1918, at 17:00, a French officer near the Chemin des Dames was ordered to reconnoitre the straw-covered trench between the two sides’ listening posts in no-man’s land. They were about thirty metres apart at this point, the trenches about a hundred. It was already dark as the patrol set off.
In the trench, a German telegraph operator was working. As he saw the stranger, he raised his revolver. The Frenchman was quicker, and shot first. „He was a big, red-haired man“, said the officer, who is sitting next to me. “He was wearing glasses, and was dead on the spot. I took this pad off him.“
The pad contained no military secrets, and the Frenchman had kept it as a souvenir. Requests for leave, granted and refused. In the middle was one of those mendacious reports from the German supreme command, which was continuously victorious for four and a half years, from the battle of the Marne until the final day, until the desertion of its commander-in-chief and his son. “Local incursions were cleaned up by counter-attacks… „What cleaning ladies!
All the service reports, except for the Baron Münchhausen[P1] one from headquarters, which was recorded by teletype, were written neatly by hand. “private brannhalter requests extra leave death of brother mayor sprottau”, is one entry. Some piece of misery in uniform has the right to watch his family die, but to be able to attend their funeral he first had to go to a government office and testify all kinds of things[P2] : that he existed, that the government office existed, that the dead are dead, and need burial. Serial number, name, rank, everything was faultless. The pad was exemplary: all notes by superior officers or commanding officers were present and correct. Even the rubber stamp, without which no one can fight a war, was present and correct: 1st Artillery Battalion. And it would have been fine as it was, if it hadn’t been for the last page.
On the last page, the columns are all filled out: the time and place, the name of the telephone operator, the date – and below, it says, “Return to sender, specifying which…” and then no more. Instead of text, there are a lot of unevenly shaped brown stains, traces of a liquid which must have sprayed onto the page. “What is that?” I ask the officer. He tells me. The telegraph operator must have had the pad in his hand at that moment. He apparently fell onto the pad. Where there should be text, there are now stains. He had nothing else to note down on that day.
The murderer is sitting next to me. He is an honest man, the manager of a textile company, a decent businessman of respectable appearance, a man whom nobody would believe capable of murder. He neither. He dos not relate the events of the 1st October boastfully. „It was simple self-defence“, he said. „Him or me – one of us was going to get it. You would have done exactly the same thing in my position.” Yes I would.
It was an anonymous, collective murder. If a mass murderer kills eight people, he has an idea, probably a crazy one. This here was the lack of ideas gone mad. You get back from patrol, get a medal, get de-loused, and have a slightly dark recollection. Him or me.
And had I known the victim, if he had perhaps been my friend, I would now be standing next to a murderer, to whom I couldn’t do a thing, because it is peacetime now. „The man had done his duty“. And God need only have arranged things a little differently, and I could now be in Sprottau, next to a big, red-blond guy with glasses, who was telling me, “Well, on the afternoon of the 1st October, three Frenchmen came into my trench…“ And a woman in Paris would be carrying her broken life along in Paris, just like one now in Sprottau.
It started fourteen years ago, and is already half-forgotten. Not quite, though, because the administrators of war on all sides are diligently building up new structures, and are lubricating the old attitudes and beliefs with the dirty oil of patriotism. Parades, medals, gas, policemen with the rank of General. Dangerous madmen running around free. And just as it must have deeply offended the feelings of a witchcraft court when Friedrich von Spee shook the foundations of the state by fighting against their orgies of blood, today it is not just those who profit from the cover-ups[P3] who believe that it has to be this way, it’s philosophers, journalists, poets and businessmen as well. And it has to be this way because business depends on it.
No tabloid, no broadsheet, no publisher dares to speak against the interests of industry. What do the young generation know of the horrors of war? Who tells them as often as necessary, which is all the time? Subtly formulated resolutions give evidence of the tactical skill of the wordsmiths, but the trivial, the effective, banal details are nearly always hidden over the page.
There is an intellectual solution, it is Victor Hugo’s recipe, “Let’s dishonour war!”
[P2]This is difficult for Anglo-Americans to understand: Central European states had a bureaucracy which was a serious impediment to personal freedom. See the Hauptmann von Köpenick: a released prisoner could not find work without a fixed address, and could not find accomodation without work, etc.