Honour and duty.
Humans fight and die in war for a variety of reasons.
What motivates people to keep fighting? To risk everything? To endure hardships? To keep taking the lives of others?
Letter VII tells of a career soldier who has lost faith in the cause but keeps doing his duty out of honour: the honour of the uniform and the honour of the family name. And he expects his wife to uphold the honour of the family too in her life after the war without him.
They seem to have had a relationship that was light on emotion. He did not write often and he did not write very much. There is a stunning absence of feeling in this last letter. It is incredibly cold, detached, buttoned-up.
“…You are the wife of a German officer; so you will take what I have to tell you, upright and unflinching, as upright as you stood on the station platform the day I left for the East…If all goes well we shall be able to talk about it for a long time, so why should I attempt to write much now, since it comes hard to me. if things turn out badly, words won’t do much good anyhow.”
He then reveals the desperate situation he was in, something he had never mentioned during his time on leave: misery, cold, hunger, renunciation, doubt, despair and horrible death.
Note the prominence of doubt in his litany of horrors. Doubt. Doubts about what I wonder? The outcome of the battle? the war? The regime? the leadership? The war itself? In a regime that prided itself on the absolute certainty of the correctness of its ideology, the infallibility of its leader, doubt was unthinkable. But the harsh reality of military defeat brought doubt to the surface, and now it won’t go away.
Not just doubt but also guilt and bitterness and betrayal. He expresses guilt – small but real – for his part in the war. He does not want to evade his responsibility, but he is bitter about the war and the reasons for it “I am not cowardly, only sad that I cannot give greater proof of my courage than to die for this useless, not to say criminal cause. you know the Von H__’s family motto: guilt recognised is guilt expiated.”
Honour and duty require him to keep fighting, but he feels betrayed by having to fight for this regime and its criminal activity. It must have been such an internal conflict for him; the weight of family tradition colliding with the abhorrent ideology.
He finishes with perhaps the most heart-wrenching sign off line of all,
“Augusta, in the hour in which you must be strong…don’t be bitter and don’t suffer too much from my absence…Don’t forget me too quickly.”
Don’t forget me too quickly.
Such is the lament of the lovers, involuntarily separated and facing the end of their love and unable to hold each other one last time and unable to look into each other’s eyes and whisper goodbye.
The letter, of course, would never arrive.
And we will never know whether he was forgotten or not.