Captain Wesreidau often helped us to endure the worst. He was always on good terms with his men, and was never one of those officers who are so impressed by their own rank that they treat ordinary soldiers like valueless pawns to be used without scruple. He stood beside us during countless gray watches, and came into our bunkers to talk with us, and make us forget the howling storm outside. I can still see his thin face, faintly lit by a wavering lamp, leaning over, beside one of ours.
“Germany is a great country,” he used to tell us. “Today, our difficulties are immense. The system in which we more or less believe is every bit as good as the slogans on the other side. Even if we don’t always approve of what we have to do, we must carry out orders for the sake of our country, our comrades, and our families, against whom the other half of the world is fighting in the name of truth and justice. All of you are old enough to understand that. I have done a good deal of traveling-to South America, and even to New Zealand. Since Spain, I have fought in Poland and France, and now Russia-and I can tell you that everywhere there are the same dominating hypocrisies. Life, my father, the example of former times-all of these taught me to sustain my existence with rectitude and loyalty. And I have clung to these principles in spite of all the hardships and follies which have been my lot. Many times, when I could have responded with a thrust of the sword, I only smiled, and blamed myself, assuming that I myself was the cause of all my troubles.
“When I had my first taste of war, in Spain, I thought of suicide-it all seemed so vile. But then I saw the ferocity of others, who also believed in the justice of their cause, and offered themselves up to acts of murder, as to a purification.
I watched the soft, effete French shift from terror to toughness, and take up the arms they couldn’t use when they needed them, once we had restored their confidence, and offered them the hand of friendship. In general, human beings don’t accept the unaccustomed. Change frightens and upsets them, and they will fight even to preserve situations they have always detested. But a slick armchair philosopher can easily arouse a rabble to support an abstract proposition-for instance, `all men are equal’-even when the differences between men are obviously as great as the differences between cows and roosters. Then those exhausted societies, drained by their `liberty,’ begin to bellow about their `convictions’ and become a threat to us and to peace. It’s basic wisdom to keep people like that well fed and content, if one wishes to extract even a tenth of the possible return.
“Something of this kind is happening on the other side. As a people, we are fortunate in being somewhat less indolent than they. If someone tells us to examine ourselves, we at least have the courage to do it. Our condition is not absolutely perfect, but at least we agree to look at other things, and take chances. We are now embarked on a risky enterprise, with no assurance of safety. We are advancing an idea of unity which is neither rich nor easily digestible, but the vast majority of the German people accept it and adhere to it, forging and forming it in an admirable collective effort.
This is where we are now risking everything. We are trying, taking due account of the attitudes of society, to change the face of the world, hoping to revive the ancient virtues buried under the layers of filth bequeathed to us by our forebears. We can expect no reward for this effort. We are loathed everywhere: if we should lose tomorrow those of us still alive after so much suffering will be judged without justice. We shall be accused of an infinity of murder, as if everywhere, and at all times, men at war did not behave in the same way. Those who have an interest in putting an end to our ideals will ridicule everything we believe in. We shall be spared nothing. Even the tombs of our heroes will be destroyed, only preserving-as a gesture of respect toward the dead-a few which contain figures of doubtful heroism, who were never fully committed to our cause. With our deaths, all the prodigies of heroism which our daily circumstances bring and the memory of our comrades, dead and alive, and our communion of spirits, our fears and our hopes, will vanish, and our history will never be told. Future generations will speak only of an idiotic, unqualified sacrifice. Whether you wanted it or not, you are now part of this undertaking, and nothing which follows can equal the efforts you have made, if you must sleep tomorrow under the quieter skies of the opposite camp. In that case, you will never be forgiven for having survived. You will either be rejected or preserved like a rare animal which has escaped a cataclysm. With other men, you will be as cats are to dogs and you will never have any real friends.
Do you wish such an end for yourselves?
“Anyone who wishes to go but is hesitating from fear of our authority should speak to me; I will take as many nights as it needs to reassure you. I repeat: those who wish to leave should do so. We cannot count on men who feel that way, and our efforts cannot gain from their presence. Please believe that I understand your sufferings. I feel the cold and fear as you do, and I fire at the enemy as you do, because I feel that my duty as an officer requires at least as much from me as your duty does of you. I wish to stay alive, even if it’s only to continue the struggle somewhere else. I wish my company to be united in thought and in deed. Once the fighting begins, I will not tolerate doubt and defeatism. We shall be suffering not only in the interests of ultimate victory, but in the interests of daily victory against those who hurl themselves at us without respite, and whose only thought is to exterminate us, without any understanding of what is at stake. You can feel certain of me, in return, and certain that I will not expose you to any unnecessary dangers.
“I would burn and destroy entire villages if by so doing I could prevent even one of us from dying of hunger. Here, deep in the wilds of the steppe, we shall be all the more aware of our unity. We are surrounded by hatred and death, and in these circumstances we shall daily oppose our perfect cohesion to the indiscipline and disorder of our enemies. Our group must be as one, and our thoughts must-be identical. Your duty lies in your efforts to achieve that goal, and if we do achieve it, and maintain it, we shall be victors even in death.”
-The Forgotten Soldier, Guy Sajer.