The Good German
It was a particularly cold February in Germany. The air was sharp, and piles of snow and compacted ice edged the road, while a monochrome wash of white fields and dark, skeletal woods shrouded the countryside. All along the autobahn from Berlin the landscape seemed hardly to change at all, but then, south of Leipzig, as I finally left the motorway behind and wound my way through the Thuringen, a different countryside emerged – one of fairytale woods, old world houses and villages seemingly less touched by the modern world.
I was in what, just fifteen years before, had been part of Communist East Germany, and the quiet little town of Ludwigsstadt, although pretty enough, still seemed grey and impoverished, as though time had somehow stood still. The town had been thriving a hundred years before, when it had been the centre of the local slate trade. Most of the male inhabitants worked in either the nearby quarries or the factories in the town; indeed, the man I had come to see had once owned one of three factories there. In the heyday of the business, before the First World War, the BÃ¼chner family had been the town’s biggest employer.
Friedrich BÃ¼chner still lived in the family home, a large, square wooden house that stood in an imposing position overlooking the main street that ran through the town below. He had been born there eighty years before and had, except for a few brief years during and after the war, lived there all his life. Now just he and his wife remained; his children had long since grown up and flown the nest. Nor were they likely to ever come back. The quarries were empty and the factories closed. The industry that had brought prosperity to the town had died.
I was there because Herr BÃ¼chner had responded to an advert I had placed in a magazine for German veterans of the war. I was hoping to speak to people who had been involved in the Italian campaign for a book I was working on, and he was the first of a number of interviews I was conducting that week. From the outset, he was charming and courteous, and ushered me and my friend Sarah, my translator, into his living room and brought us coffee. However, it was clear that he was a little apprehensive too; after all, we were complete strangers, and English too.
I began by asking him about his childhood. This brought a smile to his face. He had been too young to know about the hard times of the 1920s and instead remembered the contented and prosperous days of the thirties, when the town – and his father’s business – had been thriving. The factory had specialised in manufacturing slates for schools – miniature blackboards for the children to write on. His childhood had been happy, he told me, very happy. He had plenty of friends, a younger brother, and parents who loved him. In Ludwiggstadt they had lived a sheltered life, largely cut off from the rest of the world.
Like nearly all teenagers during that time, he had joined the Hitler Youth, but had enjoyed it well enough. The camaraderie was good and the outdoor pursuits – hiking, camping, making things, and so on – was fun and interesting. But he knew little about what was going on. â€˜I was thirteen when the war began,’ he explained. â€˜I didn’t really know very much about it.’
Later, the war began to impact on his life more directly, as it did everyone man, woman and child in Germany. There was less of everything: less food, less petrol, fewer clothes; and fewer men, as the war claimed them for duty. There was no more slate industry. The BÃ¼chner family business turned over to manufacturing wooden ammunition boxes. â€˜My father aged a lot,’ Friedrich admitted. He himself would help his father whenever he could – at weekends and in school holidays.
So when did you join the army, I asked. Were you called up? Friedrich shook his head, then confessed that he had volunteered when still only seventeen – not because he was itching to join the fight, but because he knew that if he volunteered he had a better chance of becoming an officer and was more likely to have some choice over which unit he eventually joined. Sure enough, after completing his basic training, he was sidelined to become an officer and then sent off to become an instructor – in part because they were so short of instructors by that time, but also because it was considered good experience for aspiring officers.
It was at this point that his wife appeared and told us lunch was ready – something I had not been expecting – and so we moved into the dining room and sat down to eat a meal that had clearly been prepared with great care. Afterwards, Friedrich suggested we continue the interview upstairs, in his study at the top of the house. I sensed that it was only now, after several hours talking to us, and having decided we could be trusted, that he felt comfortable about leading us into this inner sanctum. The room was full of books about the war, and small mementoes and objects of militaria.
We began talking about Italy. He had been a gunner, an aspirant officer in charge of a battery of anti-tank guns with the 98th Infantry Division. When he arrived at the front in March 1945, the division was positioned along the River Senio, dug in and waiting for the launch of the Allied spring offensive that they knew would soon come.
His wife arrived with coffee, and I noticed that as he then poured out the drink, his hands had started to shake. As he passed us a cup, the china rattled against the saucer. He then began to tell us about those final battles: the overwhelming Allied air forces, the bombs and shells that rained down upon them; the ignominious retreat to the River Po. There, they had ditched their guns and been ordered to shoot their horses and mules. Tears began to stream down his cheeks as he confessed they had been unable to do as they had been ordered and so had instead let the animals loose. Thousands of men had drowned trying to swim across this wide river, their screams carrying across the water. It was a scene of utter carnage – burning vehicles and houses, dead men, slaughtered horses. Friedrich escaped by managing to get on one of the ferries making the crossing. His voice was catching.
â€˜Don’t feel you have to tell me this,’ I told him. â€˜Not if it’s too painful.’
â€˜No, no, I want to,’ he replied, then apologised for his tears. The story, inevitably, grew worse. Eventually, in the foothills of the Alps, they were captured by Italian Partisans, and taken to a mountain hut where there were a number of other captured troops. Among them were three Russians who had been fighting for the Germans. These were singled out and the Italians then shot them in turn. But they made a hash of the execution and did not kill them cleanly so that the mortally wounded men were screaming in pain and fear.
At this point, Friedrich broke down again. It had been his nineteenth birthday, and was also the day they found out that Hitler had killed himself. â€˜These Russians – their screams,’ he said. â€˜It was terrible.’ Again, I told him that he did not need to tell me this if it was too difficult, but again, he insisted he wanted to. Two days later, he said, the war in Italy was over, and he became a prisoner of war. When he eventually returned home, in March 1947, his father was ill and worn out and so Friedrich took over the running of the family business. â€˜The war,’ said Friedrich, â€˜it took its toll. It killed him really.’
He then made the most startling comment of all. He had never, he confessed, told anyone about his war experiences before. I then realised how different it must be for German veterans – after all, they were the losers of the war, tarnished by the evil of Nazism and the horrors of the Holocaust. There were no annual parades with banners flying for Friedrich and his fellows; no television documentaries, no films, no books exalting their bravery. Yet in so many respects, Friedrich’s story was so very similar to many of those I had interviewed on the Allied side – the childhood, the motivations, the fears, the sense of camaraderie he had experienced. He, like so many of that generation, had had his youth ripped away from him, yet for sixty years those experiences had been bottled away, never far from his thoughts, but secret and undisclosed all the same. Talking about it at long last on that cold February day had clearly been cathartic for him, however painful.
Sure, Friedrich had once been Britain’s enemy, but he had also been a young man very much like our own young men – boys who had gone off to war not because they had wanted to, but because they had had to. And his experiences and his suffering were worthy of both respect and understanding.
I recall reading a book many years ago: “The Forgotten Soldier” by Guy Sajan , a young man from Alsace who fought with the German Army on the Russian front. I t was published in the US. I don’t know if it was published in Germany.
Guy Sajer (a pseudonym) is now a cartoonist for a French local newspaper. There are a number of interviews with him on the net. As far as he is concerned it was a true story of his experiences.
I’ve always been of the belief that soldiers of both sides need a chance to tell their stories, good and bad, as much for the sake of future generations as for theirs. My granddad served in a conversion squadron in Manchester before being picked to join a black squadron in Burma. He survived the war but didn’t speak of it until shortly before his death.
Reading this story drew out the same emotion as when i first read “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The book is about a young German boy, Paul Baumer, who fresh out of high school enlists because of his teacher’s wishes to see Paul and his friends serve in the German army during World War I. Although he volunteered, many of his fellow soldiers were forced into the war, and shortly after seeing the horrors of war, he wanted to leave but could not.
At one point in the story, Paul becomes disoriented after an artillery strike and gets lost between the trenches. He takes shelter in a crater only to encounter a frightened Frenchman who has also apparently become separated from his unit. The French soldier attacks Paul out of fear, and Paul bayonets him. The Frenchman does not die immediately and Paul gives him water and thinks to himself, ‘If only we could have understood each other, perhaps I wouldn’t have had to defend myself.’ Paul feels remorse for having killed the Frenchman, and realizes under different circumstances, the two could have been friends.
I suppose the point I’m driving at is many of the Germans in both World Wars were not bad men, just men forced to fight for unjust causes. ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ remains one of my favorite reads because it was the first to really point this truth out to me.