Vaterland: Letters From German Soldiers in World War I

The following essay was originally written on February 19, 2019 for a college course, and has been edited according to the professor’s notes. It is posted here because, well, words.

Perhaps one of the least liberal of terms which denotes the paternity of one’s nation over oneself is that of “Fatherland.” I’ll take care of you, it says. You belong to me. But much like the gray-green uniform coat of the German infantry with its brass buttons to lock the collar around the throat, a uniform that marked one for harm rather than offering protection, the seemingly unconditional love for “my Fatherland” compelled a trove of young German men in 1914 from their homes and universities and into firing lanes of foreigners. Yet these students and apprentices were neither blind nor naïve for serving their country. They were as they saw themselves: they were protectors. A plethora of letters saved by mothers and salvaged by comrades from the bodies of those killed in action reveal again and again the themes of love and protection of the Fatherland.

On September 24th, 1914, Franz Blumenfield was on a train headed for war (p. 18). Ranging through the villages and hills of the Fatherland, he penned a letter to his mother to explain to her why he volunteered for the military despite having the privilege of being a law student. Blumfield likened his participation in the war to the act of saving a drowning victim, and reasoned that sacrifice was warranted regardless of who may be the beneficiary. In this case, Blumenfield saw the beneficiary of his efforts as “my Fatherland and its people.” (p .20) Many students like Blumenfield were driven by an instinct to protect those things which they found nurturing. Germany, with its deep valleys, broad pastures, industrious hamlets where bakers and butchers peddled mouthwatering foodstuffs from street level shops, and cities with their utilitarian designed homes surrounding high steepled churches in the shadows of aging castles–that very Germany was threatened by war. The century-old, nationwide celebration of Oktoberfest would have been at the end of its first week as Blumenfield wrote this letter. The festivities had been cancelled that year and would not be celebrated through the duration of the war. Blumenfield vowed that if he survived the war, that he would do “everything in my power to prevent such a thing from ever happening again in the future…” (p. 20)

It was a song that Alfons Ankenbrand was thinking of as he wrote home from a muddy trench in Souchez, France on a late winter day in March, 1915. (p. 72) It was the kind of song the soldiers bellowed in unison to the rhythm of hundreds of clean, shiny combat boots smacking the cobblestone streets of cities like Berlin and Munich: So fare you well, they’d sing, for we must now be parting. Pressed by the notion that any coming day could be his final “parting,” Ankenbrand used his free moment not to lament the inhumanity of the war, but to protect its truths. According to him it was common for German units on mission in Souchez to lose thirty or more men per mission. But the German media under-reported those truths. “Shells roar, bullets whistle; no dug-outs, or very bad ones; mud, clay, filth, shell-holes so deep one could bath in them,” he wrote. And then, “…the newspapers have probably have probably given you quite a different impression. They tell only of our gains and say nothing about the blood that has been shed.” (p. 73) Before joining the war, Ankenbrand was a student of theology. (p. 72) It’s no surprise that this man sought to protect the beliefs of his loved ones from the messages of the media. He ended his letter stating that as long as he remained alive that he would belong to “the Fatherland.” On April 25th of that year he would be killed somewhere in the vicinity of Souchez. (p. 74)

Other letters give us similar impressions of German students turned soldiers. They openly rebuke the war, and some, war in any form, yet extol the virtue of sacrifice on behalf of their country. Though the end of the war would mark the beginning of some of the darkest times for Germany, the nation would remain intact because of those willing to protect it. If people are willing to take care of the Fatherland in times of war, perhaps it is because the Fatherland really does take care of them in times of peace.

 

“GERMAN STUDENTS’ WAR LETTERS.” In German Students’ War Letters, edited by Witkop Philipp, by A. F. Wedd and Jay Winter, 1-376. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1929.

 

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