Friday, November 11, 2011

Absent Comrades

Today is the day that most people either commemorate Veteran's Day or Remembrance Day, to honor the veterans of the armed forces and also to commemorate the end of the First World War, probably one of the more horrific wars that mankind has ever been involved in.  An entire generation of young men was virtually wiped out, and entire societies were dramatically changed by the events that transpired during the war or afterward.

It's not a real secret that the First World War is one of my primary interests in history.  The war marked the real end of the nineteenth century and shook Europe and the world out of the nineteenth century and brought everyone into the twentieth century.  Everything that we associate with the modern world has direct roots in the First World War, from the Berlin Wall to the troubles in the Middle East.  The world was forever changed and there was no turning back.

What really keeps my passion going is the fear that it will become a forgotten conflict.  In the United States, WWII and Vietnam are the two wars that have lasted in the public memory.  Korea has been relegated to a dustbin but has seen a resurgence in people pushing it back into the forefront, as evidenced by the presence of a Korean War memorial on the National Mall.  But the First World War has not seen the same treatment, save for a little known memorial tucked away in the woods lining the National Mall (which I had written about previously).

Go and visit it.

In this talk about the nations who commemorate this day, we forget about the other side, the other players in the war.  We forget about the Germans who faced the Allied Powers in those mucky trenches, who faced similar conditions and the same terrifying specter of a twentieth-century war death from a nineteenth-century mindset.  The soldiers on the front also deserve the same honor that those who came from the US, UK, France, Belgium (heck yeah Belgium), Italy, and elsewhere received from their home countries.

Sometimes all you need are wooden crosses and a field of poppies.

Which is why it troubled me to discover that those soldiers who did not have the opportunity to return home have been figuratively been buried in the collective memory of Germans.  They had the misfortune of being overshadowed by the only thing that could top the horror of the First World War: the Second World War, the Holocaust, and everything else that came afterward.  These are men with names and ages.  Men such as Martin Heidrich, a 20 year old musketeer, and August Hütten, a 37 year old lieutenant from Aachen.  Yet they live on in relative anonymity, most likely forgotten by whatever family survived them and most definitely forgotten by the nation as a whole.

Being forgotten is a terrible thing for anyone, but especially those who decided give it all.  I find it especially tragic that those German soldiers suffered the horrors of artillery bombardments, poor living conditions, and chemical warfare to only become buried in the mud of the trenches and the sands of time.  One can only hope that no one forgets any veterans from any war.