It’s Remembrance Day again, and I’m not out there in the rain with the others, saluting at the cenotaph. I’m not out there listening to the Last Post, the moment of silence, and then the forlorn reveille. I’m not even hiding behind the screen of my computer, thanking veterans for their “service”. It isn’t my place to do so.
I guess, given my family history, that’s to be expected. I’m German, not Anglo. “My” side lost the last war it fought in. And the one before that, too. There is no proud military tradition in my family, and like most Germans, we scoff at the very notion. After all, ours is a history of conscription. “Tradition”? That might be for upper-class families, who could afford to send their sons into officer training, and so spare them the worst ravages of the battle front (officers invariably “lead” their troops from well behind the frontlines.) The rich and high-born can afford to prance about in gold-braided uniforms, and boast of their exploits. Common soldiers, which both my grandfathers were, could not. (Well, there was one great-grandfather, on my mother’s side, who was a hussar in the Austro-Hungarian army, and who prided himself and his mustache immensely on that, but that was before the turn of the last century. I don’t think it really counts for much. If he lived to brag about it, he probably didn’t see any heavy action. There were an awful lot of peacocks in that regiment.)
So there you have it. Nothing to boast of, no heroics to remember. What I do know of my family’s World War II history is either heavily ironic, or just plain sad. There aren’t many stories of my grandfathers’ glorious wartime adventures (because they didn’t have any), and most of what I know didn’t come from them. They didn’t like to talk about it; that, I found out, is a common thing for soldiers who’ve actually seen combat, or in the case of my paternal grandfather, fled it when it became obvious that their side was losing.
Opa was a teamster for the Kriegsmarine, driving horse-drawn supply wagons. He’d been conscripted while still in hospital for surgery on his foot (he’d had polio as a child, and the foot was deformed as a result). If he didn’t “volunteer” to go to the western front, he’d be sent to Siberia, so his “choice” was clear. He’d drive supply wagons for the German navy until there was no longer any point to his doing so…and by 1945, when that happened, there no longer was. When he heard that the British front was passing through, he let the horses run, and simply walked home. During one bombing raid, he hid in a manure pile on a farm. The farmer, who had seen him take refuge in the only place he could, gave him fresh civilian clothes when the raid was over, and he was off on his way. He saw truckloads of his former comrades go by, taken prisoner, while he, limping and in civvies, picked up cigarette butts from the roadside to stave off his ever-present nicotine demon. He was never caught, and the one time he was menaced by a group of Russian escapees, he managed to convince them he was not a soldier — by showing them his kaputt foot! And that was how he got home to his wife and four children: by deserting, ducking, dodging, lying…and occasionally, landing in deep shit.
So much for irony. Now for sadness:
My other grandfather arguably had it even worse. In 1944, the Russians overran Yugoslavia, where my mother’s family had lived for over 200 years. Suddenly, the whole family were refugees. “Fortunately” (and there’s an additional layer of irony for you), my mother’s father was conscripted into the SS, and the family got a small measure of support that way. (Conscripted, mind you, NOT volunteered.) He certainly wasn’t an “Aryan” type; he had black hair, brown eyes, and an almost-olive complexion that tanned if he only stuck his head out the window on a sunny day. He also wasn’t a Nazi, either as a member of the party or by conviction. But he was tall, had prior military experience (three years’ compulsory service in the Yugoslav army during his late teens and early twenties), and spoke three languages fluently: German, Hungarian, and Serbian. Just what was needed in a POW-camp guard, which is what he became. He never fired a shot; he never had the slightest animosity toward the prisoners he guarded. He wasn’t an antisemite, and it is unknown whether any of “his” prisoners were even Jews. They were all prisoners of war, and his sole duty was to see to it that none of them got away. One time, a Hungarian prisoner asked him in German for a cigarette. When thanked, he replied “Don’t mention it” — in Hungarian. That’s the sort of person he was: he did his duty, but never to the point of hurting anyone. And he held no animosities, either.
But if anyone thinks he had a choice in the matter, there’s the story of what happened to my mother’s baby sister. Gerda was 11 months old when she died of malnutrition and dysentery in a refugee camp in Silesia. My grandfather was not allowed to visit her while she was sick, and was only relieved of duty when she had died. And then, he was offered the “choice” between a Lutheran pastor, or the Nazi camp commandant, as officiant at the funeral. My mother’s baby sister, the aunt I never knew, was buried in a tiny casket under a swastika flag. The “choice” was strictly pro forma, and anyone who didn’t want to come under questioning by the Gestapo would have “chosen” the same.
It was an ignominious time, when you ducked your head and didn’t make waves. And when the war finally ended, and it was time to demobilize, there was nowhere to report. So Opa and his comrades turned themselves over to the Brits, hoping they would just give them the necessary papers and let them go. Not a chance. They wound up (and here, again, is irony) at a POW camp in Scotland for the next three years. The work was hard and the food was crappy, but they weren’t badly treated. And it was during that time that he saw a tailless cat for the first time — a Manx, most likely — and wondered if there might in fact be some truth to that old tale that the Scots cut their cats’ tails off to save on heating everytime the cat went in or out. That was about all he had to say about that experience. I didn’t get to ask him anything else; he died before I had a chance.
If you wonder why I don’t glorify war or wartime service like everyone else, you can stop wondering now. There’s just nothing there to salute. And I’m not one for pulling the idiot stunt that Ronald Reagan did at Bitburg, either. Honestly, the best way to honor the dead — and the veterans who survived — is to retell their stories with an emphasis on peace. Tell how people suffered and died for capitalism, for imperialism, and for fascism, and not for noble causes.
And if you must march anymore, do it for peace, and use your gift of free speech to make sure no one else gets sent to war and tortured and killed for a whole lot of nothing.