Fear had many, many faces in WW2.
It came in all shapes and sizes. It affected everyone.
And fear remained with you long after the war was over.
The prolonged exposure to fear gets lodged in your memory. Emotional intensity – a central feature of war is the way that all feelings are intensified, condensed, telescoped – burns feelings into your brain and your soul, imprints moments directly onto your memory.
Fear makes unbreakable associations in your mind.
Fear transports you right back to that moment in an instant. And it is not just this instant recall or playback of the event. It is a breathless, panic-inducing, heart-stopping fear. It is a re-living, an excruciating encounter with a fear long gone but still real.
Svetlana Alexievich – a phenomenal writer and scholar – has written of the experiences of Soviet women at war between 1941 and 1945, derived from interviews she undertook with the survivors of the horrors of the Eastern Front. She recounts numerous tales of the war close up, capturing the war in both its tiniest details and also its broad panoramas. Here are some vignettes on fear from her wonderful book, The Unwomanly Face of War:
FEAR DOES TERRIBLE THINGS
Fear produced truly monstrous choices, and unthinkable outcomes. The fear of death – the need to survive, the need to just live for a few moments longer – can cause you to do terrible things. The stories are heartbreaking,
The Germans found out where the camp of our partisan unit was. They cordoned off the forest… we hid in the wild thickets, we were saved by the swamps where the punitive forces didn’t go. A quagmire. It sucked in equipment and people for good. For days, for weeks, we stood up to our necks in water. Our radio operator was a woman who has recently given birth. the baby was hungry…It had to be nursed..But the mother herself was hungry and had no milk. The baby cried. the punitive forces were close..With dogs..If the dogs heard it, we would all be killed. The whole group. 30 of us… You understand? … The Commander makes a decision. Nobody can bring himself to give the order to the mother, but she figures it out herself. She lowers the swaddled baby into the water and holds it there for a long time…The baby doesn’t cry anymore. ..Not a sound…And we can’t raise our eyes. Neither to the mother nor to each other…
War presents these horrific dilemmas, these heart-wrenching choices in the face of capture and violent death. At this very moment what did the mother think? What swirl of emotions and possibilities were racing through her mind? Was she thinking of herself? Her comrades? Did she have other kids? Was she thinking of the children of all the people she was with? Was she fearful of how this small baby would be treated if they were all caught? Did she fear the judgement of the others if she did nothing, or if she did this most terrible thing?
And was this deed ever spoken of again, or did she hold the pain inside her until she died?
EVEN THE RATS WERE AFRAID
Fear of death and suffering was universal and ubiquitous. Animals too were subject to its particular torments. And the effects of fear on animals only served to compound the feelings of fear experienced by the humans in the war. Horses – who were normally fearful of dead human bodies – just saw so many bodies in the carnage at Stalingrad that they stopped fearing them, stepping on them with increasing regularity. Rats were everywhere in war. They feasted on the dead and dying. They devoured everything they could. But even the rats fled in the face of a bombardment. And they seemed to have a sixth sense…
Not even in the most horrible film did I see how the rats leave before the bombing of a town. This wasn’t at Stalingrad. this was already near Vyazma…In the morning swarms of rats went through the town, heading for the fields. They sensed death. There were thousands of them..Black, grey…People watched their sinister spectacle in horror and pressed against the houses. And precisely at the moment when the rats disappeared from sight, the bombing began…
An early warning sign of bombing, the mass exodus of rats served to heighten the anticipation of fear. People knew what was coming, and they also knew that if the rats were terrified and fleeing, then what were the next few hours going to be like if you were trapped under the bombs?
FEAR IN WARTIME MAGNIFIES OUR EXISTING FEARS
New fears come along and add to our existing fears. fear of the dark. fear of death. fear of snakes. fear of the forest. And the results were paralysing, physical, immediate…
We crossed the front line and stopped by some cemetery. we knew the Germans were 3 miles away from us. It was during the night and they kept sending up flares. With parachutes. These flares burn for a long time and light up everything far around. The platoon commander brought me to the edge of the cemetery, showed me where the flares were fired from , where the bushes were that the Germans might appear from. I’m not afraid of dead people, even as a child I wasn’t afraid of cemeteries, but I was 22, I was standing guard for the first time…In those 2 hours my hair turned grey…It was my first grey hair, I discovered a whole streak in the morning. I stood and looked at those bushes, they rustled and moved , I thought the Germans were coming from them…And something else…Some monsters…And I was alone…
FEARS TOOK WEIRD AND UNEXPECTED FORMS AT TIME
Some were afraid that they had to wear men’s underwear. Some saw wounds and worried that they would not be able to wear particular types of clothes again, if their legs or hands were maimed. One woman hid her legs and her face in battle, lest they be damaged.
FEAR WAS SENSORY
The sounds and sights and smell of war brought horror and terror,
Heavy combat. Hand to hand. ..That is a horror. Not for a human being…They beat, they stab with a bayonet, they strangle each other. They break each other’s bones. There’s howling, shouting, moaning. And that crunching..That crunching! Impossible to forget it..the crunching of bones..You hear a skull crack..Split open. Even for war its a nightmare; there’s nothing human in it. I won’t believe anyone who says war isn’t terrifying.
FEAR DID NOT END WHEN THE WAR ENDED:
It was impossible to escape the war after the war. There was nowhere to go. It inhabited dreams, and so sleep was no escape. Fear haunted the dreams of the survivors. Pilots dreamt of the plane falling to the ground and perishing in the crash.
Fear snatched away people’s hopes of a normal life. People were afraid in case the war returned,
For a long time I was afraid to get married. Afraid to have children. What if there’s war suddenly and I leave for the front?
And even the natural world was tainted. For nothing escaped the shadow of fear, a shadow that cast long into the future…
For a long time after the war I was afraid of the sky, even of raising my head toward the sky. I was afraid of seeing ploughed up earth.