sandgrains: last letters VII: don’t forget me too quickly

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.




sandgrains: last letters VI: heaven or Siberia

Stalingrad had become a gigantic prison for the German soldiers in the winter of 1942. There was no escape. No way out. No hope of rescue.

This must have been a difficult realization for them, given how they had been fed this diet of propaganda asserting the racial superiority of the Germanic peoples over the Slavs. Yet here they were. Trapped. but also suffering from a crisis of faith and belief, and struggling to reconcile the reality of their situation with the messages they had imbibed.

How did it come to this? I mean, how could this have happened?

This combination of cognitive dissonance and being trapped creates powerful emotions in the mind of the soldier, as he faces the likelihood of his own death and feels the sense of betrayal by those who who had promised him quick victories and inevitable triumph.

Letter VI gives us a mixture of anger and resignation, an interesting somewhat paradoxical combination of emotions.

He is resigned to his fate, “It is perfectly useless to rebel against it; I would most certainly find a way out if there were one. of course I have tried everything to escape from this trap but there are only 2 ways left: to heaven or to Siberia.”

He is angry at the complacency back home, the lack of awareness of what is really going on, and how people have been duped into believing the propaganda that still spews forth from the regime.

“ many newspapers you will find beautiful, high-sounding words in big black borders. They will always pay us due honour. Don’t be taken in by this idiotic to do. I am so furious that I could smash everything in sight, but never in my life have I been so helpless.”

He talks longingly about staying healthy to return to his job as an academic in a German University. But he knows this will never happen.

The shift was a dramatic one.

From the most powerful army the world had ever seen, to trapped within a ruined city.

A soldier with the power of life and death had become a helpless powerless individual with no control over his own destiny.

And maybe this is a realisation that all of us will one day experience. the sense of powerlessness in the face of our own mortality.

But will we meet it with anger or resignation?


sandgrains: last letters V: is freedom the opposite of hope?

When we write about the war (or anything in the past I guess, but war in particular) we are afforded an incredible luxury that the protagonists never had. Hindsight. We know the outcome. They did not.

This creates a constant sense of uncertainty. What will happen? What will the outcome be? Is today the day I die? Will I ever get home?

How do you live with such existential uncertainty? I guess that is something we should perhaps all consider if we were to live wisely, but war provides a sense of urgency and immediacy to these feelings. Our soldier writes a letter in which he moves from uncertainty to certainty and in so doing watches all hope disappear.

He talks not of the agony of uncertainty, but the hope that uncertainty can bring too:

“For a whole week I have avoided writing this letter; I kept thinking that uncertainty, painful though it is, still keeps a glimmer of hope alive. I was the same way in thinking about my won fate; every night I went to sleep not knowing how the scales might tip – whether we would get help here or would be destroyed.”

Uncertainty is painful, but it allows for hope even if it is only a faint glimmer.

But he now realises that they will not be getting out. Their fate is sealed. They are not going to be rescued. Hitler has let them down. Its over.

So how does he respond to this situation?

The death of uncertainty leads to the death of hope, but this is also welcomed as being freeing. “Now things are different; since this morning I know how things stand; and since I feel freer this way, I want you also to be free from apprehension and uncertainty.”

This is the paradox of human emotions at war. That nothing is ever straightforward; nothing is ever black and white. And what we think we know, we may have to be open to rethink and reconsider. For war pushes humans to the limits of both our reason and our emotions, and often beyond. And in doing so, it undermines many of our categories and lenses which we use to make sense of the world.

For we tend to think in these simple polarities: hope/despair; freedom/captivity; death/life.

But what if the opposite of hope is freedom, not despair?

The acceptance of the inevitable outcome of the battle of Stalingrad was a welcome moment of certainty, a moment of liberation. He was going to die. He was ready to die.

And that was OK.

“When Stalingrad has fallen, you’ll hear and read it. And then you’ll know that I shall not come back.”


sandgrains: last letters IV: if only….

War always intensifies feelings somehow. Memories become more vivid and meaningful. Separation brings intense longing. Letters from home could bring exquisite moments or profound despair. Or anger.

Or regret.

Regret and anger come through very strongly in letter number 4.

The letter writer is responding to a letter from home. We do not know the identity of the person to whom he is writing. But we do know there is a good deal of anger about the war, the Nazi regime and how to get rid of Hitler.

The soldier berates them for failing to understand the situation they were in, for their naivete, for thinking that if they just lay down their weapons, the Soviets would treat them well and that they would be safe. That is was somehow easy to change what was happening by some collective act of disobedience.

Anger merged with hypocrisy too. Why didn’t the friend back home make all their friends stop working in the factories? Refuse to co-operate? Talk was cheap.

Ironically, as a dissident and a critic of the regime, the soldier recognized that there was nowhere safer for him than Stalingrad. Who could touch him there? And how could they punish him anyway? He was already living in hell, and was doomed to either die or be sent to the gulag when the inevitable surrender came.

The relationship between people at home and people at the front was at times very fraught. The war – or opposing the war – all seemed so simple when you were thousands of miles away. All the complexity and difficulties get smoothed out. There just seemed to be this immense gulf between the different experiences of soldier and home front citizen. This gulf was often unbridgeable after the war. Spouses and relatives just had no idea what the soldier had been through. The trauma of war meant they felt unable to share what they had been through. Often it meant the permanent breakdown of relationships.

War continued to destroy even after the shooting had stopped.

The final few lines are bitterly poignant to read. For they talk of the regret at not having done more to stop the rise of Nazism early on. It could have been stopped. But not enough people had spoken up, acted, protested, made the effort to stand out against the tide of hatred and division. And now it was too late.

“The time to act was in 1932; you know that very well. Also, that we let the moment go by. ten years ago, the ballot would still have done the trick. Today, all it will cost you is your life.”

There is a universal truth here that transcends the history of Stalingrad.

We must speak out now while we can.

In today’s world, this is something we cannot afford to ignore.


sandgrains: last letters III: A Grand Piano in Stalingrad

The third letter I am going to write about might be my favourite (although maybe that is not the right word). It is one that struck a chord with me, because it throws light on the bizarre things that happen in war, and the extraordinary unexpected and beautiful moments that can interrupt even a hell on earth like Stalingrad.

The letter is written by a soldier to his wife (Margaret is her name). He describes himself as husband, lover and pianist. He speaks to of the deep longing they have to be together again, and of the resignation he now feels that this will never happen.

His melancholy is rooted in more than just separation though, because he has a secret he has not been able to bring himself to tell his beloved Margaret. he will never play the piano again.

“I do not know whether I shall have the chance to talk to you once more. So it is well that this letter should reach you, and that you know, in case I should turn up some day, that my hands are ruined and been since the beginning of December. I lost the little finger on my left hand, but worse still is the loss of the three middle fingers of my right hand through frostbite. I can hold my drinking cup only with my thumb and little finger. I am quite helpless; only when one has lost his fingers does one notice how much they are needed for the simplest tasks. The thing I can do best with my little finger is shoot. Yes, my hands are wrecked.”

My hands are wrecked.

War wrecks things. But its not just the fighting. The environment of war – hunger, cold, heat, starvation, thirst, disease, punishment, neglect, torture – takes its toll on the human mind and the human body, on the capacity to endure suffering, to keep fighting, to stay alive, to preserve your sense of self, to maintain your humanity in the face of unspeakable atrocities and deprivation.

Wrecked hands. He would never be the same again. Never be able to do the thing he loved most.

But this is not the end of the story.

The letter takes an unexpected turn.

He begins to talk about his fellow soldier Kurt Hahnke, who had been with him in the Conservatory in 1937. Hahnke found a grand piano lying in the streets of Stalingrad. It had been moved out of a bombed out building, and was just lying in the streets. Lots of soldiers cam along and smacked the keys. But Kurt could play.

So he sat down and played.


The Appassionata.

Can you imagine? Surrounded by death and grief and suffering and explosions and gunfire, Beethoven’s music soared through the streets. An audience of 100 soldiers huddled in their greatcoats with blankets over their heads.

Has there ever been a more ridiculous disjuncture between the art and its context?

“Everywhere there was the sound of explosions, but no-one let himself be disturbed. They were listening to Beethoven in Stalingrad, even if they didn’t understand him.”

A transcendental moment.

A brief escape from the horrors of war.

A poignant  reminder of something our soldier would never be able to do again.

A Grand Piano in Stalingrad.



sandgrains: last letters II: no longer together

The second letter is a meditation on loss, separation, time and memory.

The soldier talks in very emotional terms about the profound sense of loss that war has brought to his life. This is a common theme in these letters because loss is so central to the human experience of war.

Loss of life.

Loss of hope.

Loss of innocence.

Loss of limbs.

Loss of a future.

Loss of friends.

This unknown soldier talks in very moving terms about the love he has left behind, “I took out your picture once again and looked at it for a long time.” Its an easy thing to imagine. the soldier staring at the photograph of the love he left behind. Evoking powerful memories of his home, his life before the war, of the long summer walk in 1939 that they shared together. He talks wistfully of the plans they made for their future together during the golden summer evenings.

But the war has stolen all of that away. The future together is lost.

“The summer evening is no longer there, and neither is the blooming valley. And we are no longer together….there is no more summer, but only winter, and there is no future, at least not for me, and consequently not for you either.”

We are no longer together.

The words echo across time and space. The agony of separation and the unquenchable desire to connect, to hold each other one last time, to hear the other’s voice.

This letter embodies the millions of separations that world war 2 produced. The regrets. The memories. The stolen futures. The longed for connections.

But the letter also shows how the war eroded any sense of meaning for this soldier. He no longer believed that this was some great national crusade, a project to make Germany great again.

Instead it was now just this meaningless sacrifice.

“But there are only a few here who believe that this meaningless sacrifice could be of use to our country.”

A profound loss of faith, a spiral into disillusionment and despair.

This personal anguish – no longer together – proved far more powerful than years of propaganda, than the siren song of patriotism, than devotion to the cause.



sandgrains: last letters I: stars and star-gazing

The first letter was from a star-gazer and a meteorologist. It provides a rather cruel contrast between the thing he loves – staring into the vast infinity and beauty of space and time – and the desperate immediacy of the struggle to stay alive.

He was writing to his best friend – Monica – of whom we know nothing. The letter also offers a tantalising glimpse into his pre-war life too: “I had no friends, and you know why they wanted to have nothing to do with me.” But although Monica knows, we don’t know, do we? And Monica never read these words.

This is a common feature of these letters of course. So much we don’t know, or we half-know. What was the relationship with Monica? Why were there no friends back home growing up? We have a mere fragment. Partial. Incomplete. Hints of a life.

But maybe that’s all we have of most of the people we encounter in our lives too. We encounter them, but partially and incompletely, so much of them we don’t really know that well.

We do know that he loved to gaze at the night sky, that he was “allowed to play with the stars,” and that he found comfort in his army job: checking the weather “Here too I have much to do with the weather…what we do is very simple. Our job is to measure temperature and humidity, to report on cloud ceilings and visibility.”

The letter – although fragmentary – still reveals much of the inner world of this unknown soldier. We read of his emotional connection to Monica, “Monica what is our life compared to the many million years of the starry sky!…My peace and contentment I owe to the stars, of which you are the most beautiful.”¬†

He describes the chaos, death and destruction of Stalingrad, in the midst of which he has to carry on with the task of monitoring temperature and cloud ceilings. It all seems so absurd to him. He finishes by reflecting that he has never killed anyone, nor even fired his weapon, but he feels betrayed by the lack of concern the army has shown for him and his comrades-in-arms.

What I love so much about these letters is their ability to humanise, to place before us a real person, not just a faceless uniform with a weapon. To glimpse their inner world, their feelings, hopes, regrets and loves.

So, in this first letter we find a military meteorologist trapped in Stalingrad. But we also find a dreamer and a star-gazer caught up in a nightmare not of his own making. And destined never to see his Monica again.

“I should have liked to count stars for another few decades, but nothing will ever come of it, I suppose.”

sandgrains: last letters (intro)

I recently came across a series of letters written by German soldiers who were trapped in Stalingrad. The German army was trying to gauge the level of soldiers’ morale on the front-line and in particular their attitude towards the leadership. The letters were seized by the army, the names and addresses were removed and then they went through the channels of the army bureaucracy. They were grouped according to content and general tenor.

The Bureau of Army Information classified them into 5 different attitudes:

– Positive attitude towards the leadership (2.1%)

– Doubtful Attitude (4.4%)

– Negative Attitude (57.4%)

– Actively Opposed (3.4%)

– Indifferent (33%)

The result were horrifying for the German leadership (they described the letters as “unbearable”). So the letters were suppressed. Rather than finding in the letters information which would exculpate them from blame, the German High Command realized that they could not allow anyone to see how the German soldiers were feeling.

The letters were sent to the German army archives in Potsdam and were removed by the allies just before the fall of Berlin in 1945.

As part of my research for my book on the human experiences of WW2, I will be writing some blog posts on these letters, looking most closely at the emotional, personal and human dimensions of the war as revealed in these letters, and what they tell us about war, what it means to be human and the loss, separation and hurt that comes with conflict on this unimaginable scale.

Much of the material is deeply poignant and almost unbearably sad of course. But then that is the very nature of war, and especially a war like WW2.