Issue n. 2 (2019) of CEIWJ is online

Close Encounters, Displacement and War

We are delighted to announce that the second issue of the Close Encounters in War Journal has been published online. This issue marks the real start of our project and is devoted to a topic that seemed relevant to us both for its historical meaning and its topicality. In fact, the issue hosts five contributions by authors who consider the theme of close encounters, displacement and war from a great variety of angles and in different disciplines.

The Issue and single articles can be downloaded here: http://issue-n-2-(2019):-close-encounters,-displacement-and-war

Displacement and forced migration represent some of the most worrying issues of the contemporary world: according to data published by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) there are currently 70.8 million forced migrants globally (Figures at a Glance, 2019) and its reports also show that wars, persecutions, violence and human rights violations are among the main causes of current forced migrations. The current crisis is unprecedented and calls for a deep reflection on how to face its urgency, particularly in relation to the situation of the people involved and the humanitarian emergency. In this special issue we look at displacement and forced migration caused by war and conflict in the contemporary era, with a particular focus on the challenges met by those who experienced it.

The five articles collected in the present issue cover a number of case-studies of displacement that vary as to geographical and chronological context, methodological approach, and specific disciplinary field, as far as they range from oral history to cultural history, and cultural studies.

The author of the first contribution, Christoph Declercq, focuses on the “odd case” of Belgian refugees in the United Kingdom during WW1, a small community of displaced people who were warmly welcomed and rather well absorbed in the British daily life, but who were soon after their repatriation forgotten. As Declercq claims, “the destitute Belgians had been used as a tool of warfare and when the war was finally over, those tools were hastily discarded, and all the stories that came with them suppressed” (infra, p. 14), which was one of the reasons why this group of displaced people remained so long forgotten by historians. Actually, as the author shows, the story of this group was more complex than a simple mass movement from Belgium to UK, and the figures of the mobility are therefore analysed thoroughly in order to understand what actual perception the Britons had of this phenomenon of displacement.

In the second article, Simona Tobia presents a number of case-studies deriving from oral history interviews that cover the displacement of Jewish Europeans fleeing from Nazi Germany to the United States before and during WW2, facing very challenging experiences of adaptation and integration. The author opens her article by discussing a number of methodological issues of oral history in order to theoretically frame her work and the use she makes of her sources. Tobia’s main concern is the emotional impact that displacement has on those who experience it, which often affects their ability to remember and share effectively the most traumatic aspects of their journey. She therefore claims that any oral history of displacement must take into account not only the cultural issues related to oral narrative but also the emotional impact of being displaced in terms of identity-building and memory, because “the strategies of memory composure that the narrators in these case studies used revolve around cultural knowledge, on the one hand, and emotions and feelings, on the other” (infra, p. 44).

The author of the third article, Barbara Krasner, touches upon another rather neglected scenario of displacement, namely that of Polish citizens who were caught between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes in 1939, when Poland was invaded by the Wehrmacht from the west and by the Red Army from the east. This form of displacement concerned above all the Jewish population of the town of Ostrova, who found themselves trapped between two invaders who equally threatened their survival. Thus, “the decision to cross or not cross the border in the first three months of Nazi and Soviet occupation of Poland had longer-term consequences for the Jews of Ostrova” (infra, p. 63), which reminds us that displacement is a multi-faceted phenomenon that can be very different from case to case. Displacement can turn itself into a deadly condition for those groups of people that for racial, ethnic, religious or political reasons are particularly exposed to persecution both in the place they flee from and in those they try to enter.

The fourth article by Elisheva Perelman takes us in Japan in 1945, when the country is occupied by the American troops and the encounter between the soldiers and the civilians gives birth to the need for normalizing gendered relationships between America and Japan. To cover this topic, Perelman chooses to focus on a well-known post-war product of American pop culture, i.e. the cartoon Babysan, first published in 1951 and depicting the regime of occupation in a palatable way, which means in a sexually hegemonized way. Babysan made thus an ideal ethnographic object through which the Americans could look at defeated and occupied Japan in terms of naivety and objectification. Perleman also shows that the experience of displacement can occur without being removed from one’s own place. Babysan depicts a culture that has been displaced by the very glance that the occupiers have cast on it. As a “symbol of occupation and subjugation, of racism and misogyny” (infra, p. 81), Babysan reveals much about the complex reality of displacement in war.

The fifth and last article considers a more recent scenario, i.e. the worldwide diaspora of Somali citizens in the wake of the Somali civil war. Natoschia Scruggs takes into account testimonies of Somali displaced people resident in the United States, some of whom, though, have had previous experience of displacement in Europe and other countries in Africa or the Middle East. Once again, this article shows that displacement triggers a long chain of identity-related issues in those who are involved, in particular for people coming from cultural milieus where “clan affiliation and one’s immediate family are significant sources of personal identity and security” (infra, p. 92). What emerges is that generalisation is not useful when one attempts to understand the impact of displacement on such aspects as identity-building, self-perception, or social relationships, which are largely dependent on the cultural milieu of origin.We wish to extend a warm thank you to all the people who work with us to realize this project: our Editorial Board, the many scholars who accept to act as peer reviewers, and all those who have supported our project with counsel, criticism and constructive dialogue. And above all, the contributors, who have allowed us the privilege to read and publish their excellent academic work.

Forms, History, Narrations, Big Data: Morphology and Historical Sequence

International conference, Turin, 21-22 November 2019

The conference will address issues in the field of historiography, literary criticism and the wider area of interpretative practices of artistic and literary works organizing a dialogue among various disciplines and perspectives. The aim is to resume the critical and philosophical debate on the issue of form and its modern variations or developments, first articulated in the works of Georg Simmel, André Jolles, Aby Warburg, Roland Barthes, Paul Ricoeur, and others. This debate revolved on the dialectics of sequence and simultaneity, diachronic succession and system, in order to gain a richer understanding of the notions of transformation and structure (central to structuralism, post-structuralism) as well as literary and artistic interpretation (central to hermeneutics).

Primo Levi’s hundredth birthday

31st July 1919 – 31st July 2019

By Gianluca Cinelli

Primo Levi (Turin, 1919-1987) was a writer known to the world for his works of testimony on deportation to Auschwitz. He was born from a Jewish family and he graduated in chemistry in 1941, despite the restrictions imposed by racial laws to Jewish students. He received from chemistry a first fundamental lesson of life: that in the struggle with matter, humans get a hint of what their own limits and strengths are. Levi realised that imperfection and asymmetry are fundamental aspects of reality, which is not dominated by the Spirit (as the fascist school, marked by distinction between humanistic culture and technical culture, taught). At the same time, chemistry was for Levi a school of rigor and precision, of patience, and of rejection of approximation. It was an apprenticeship that consolidated a background of culture acquired by young Primo not only through his broad literary readings (Rabelais, Melville, Conrad and many others) but also scientific and philosophical knowledge, attained thanks to the books that his father collected. In an age of cultural provincialism, such a complex, rich and pragmatic formation moulded the mind of young Primo, opening it to curiosity and above all to the belief that there are no separate cultures (humanism vs science), but only one single culture, for knowledge is made of the blending of its diverse parts. And since the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts, such a culture promised to be far more fruitful than the stagnating idealism that dominated Italian cultural environment in the 1930s. The idea of a unitary culture went back to Aristotle, Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, and Isaac Newton. For these thinkers, science, technology, philosophy, art, ethics, mathematics, physics, biology made one single and uninterrupted horizon of knowledge.

Primo Levi in the late 1930s

Then, on 8th September 1943, everything changed. Fascism had already been overthrown on 25th July of the same year. Italy had lost the war and now the Germans, who had been allies until the day before, became enemies and occupiers. For Italian Jews the situation quickly collapsed because while the military and political alliance between Italy and Hitler’s Germany had protected them (albeit in segregation), now the SS could deport them along with the other Jews of Europe. Primo left Turin and, urged by a generous albeit vague will to fighting, reached the partisans in the mountains. He was captured almost immediately and to save himself from a death sentence, he declared not to be a partisan but rather a Jew.

In February, after a period of internment in a concentration camp near Fossoli, he was deported to Auschwitz, where he worked as a forced labourer in the synthetic rubber factory (run by the large industrial group IG-Farben), annexed to camp 11 Buna-Monowitz. He remained there until the liberation on 27th January 1945. After his youthful and adventurous apprenticeship under the sign of chemistry, this new experience completed his education and human training to the point that Levi declared in the 1970s that Auschwitz had been his university. Surviving in an extermination Lager was no minor feat that prompted the young man to recount his adventures as soon as he returned to Italy in 1945. However, it was not a question of narrating facts in the fashion of romantic adventures, because the matter was too serious and incredible. Levi told his story through an original lens of lucid and almost detached, scientific observation, as if Auschwitz had been a huge laboratory in which the Nazis had conducted a horrible social and biological experiment. Described as a primordial struggle for survival, captivity is told in Se questo è un uomo (1947) as a journey to self-discovery by fathoming the human capacity to reach unexpected depths of abjection. Hence the question, at the end of the journey, whether the survivor is still a human creature.

Primo Levi after WW2

But Primo Levi was not only an Auschwitz-witness, although he dedicated to this theme numerous books after Se questo è un uomo (La tregua, Lilìt e altri racconti, and I sommersi e i salvati, as well as a number of essays and articles). In the 1960s his multifaceted interest in science and technology prompted him to reflect on the problems of modernity through a form that was underdeveloped in Italian literature of those years, i.e. science fiction. He published two volumes of short stories, Storie naturali in 1966 (under the pseudonym of Damiano Malabaila) and Vizio di forma in 1971, exploring many an aspect of modernity and translating into “fantabiological” contexts (the expression was forged by Italo Calvino) the discourse about the Lager. With these stories, he reflected on the risks of electing technique to absolute paradigm of organization of life and human progress, and incorporating in his writing non-literary models borrowed from science.

And above all there was chemistry that since the end of the war had constituted the main job of Primo Levi. Not theoretical chemistry but rather industrial chemistry that is made with the five senses, with hands, by struggling to tame matter, yet without forgetting the immeasurable force of nature that never yields to human will. In 1975 Levi published Il Sistema periodico, a kind of autobiography in which he retraced the stages of his own human and cultural development by choosing chemistry as a criterion (and metaphor) to organise the book. After the mortifying experience of the Lager, where work was designed to murder the forced-labourers, Levi now recounted the uplifting experience of vocational work that makes life worthwhile and makes individuals aware of their own strengths and limits.

This book was followed in 1978 by La chiave a stella, anther work devoted to the theme of work that ironically bridged between the “chemical” and “literary” aspects of professional achievement. The result is a reflection on work as a fundamental experience for human happiness, coupled with a new kind of reflection that would occupy Levi more and more in the following years: the awareness of being now a full-time writer (Levi retired from his chemist job at the end of the decade). The “two souls” – the chemist and the writer – coexisted (Levi called himself a “centaur”) as the two faces of one single, complex personality capable of creating and manipulating reality with chemical and verbal processes. No matter if he combined molecules or words, the effect remained the same: life is an endless exploration of reality with the tools that we possess, the senses, the body, the mind and knowledge that over thousands of years of cultural evolution has permitted us to undertake the daily struggle for life.

The 1980s marked a return to the past. As Levi increasingly wrote in newspapers about literature and reviewed books of other writers, he was invited by his publisher to edit an anthology of readings of special importance for his intellectual education, a kind of autobiography through readings (La ricerca delle radici 1981). Nonetheless, his focus remained fixed on the Lager experience. Revisionism spread over Europe, Faurisson’s thesis received consensus and a growing number of people were inclined to deny that Lagers, crematoriums, and even the great Nazi massacre had ever occurred. The memory of the “unhealable offence” faltered, partly under the blows of the negationists, and partly because of its own physiological decadence. Years passed by, memories changed or faded, witnesses disappeared. In the same year Levi published Lilìt e altri racconti, a collection of stories about the Lager combined with science-fiction tales. Then, in 1983, he translated Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess, a demanding endeavour that brought Levi back to struggle with the nightmare of deportation and senseless persecution. It was the beginning of the depression, against which Levi fought over the last years of his life. In 1982 he published his only novel, Se non ora, quando?, a story inspired by real facts and centred on the adventures of a group of Russian Jewish partisans: as if to say that not all Jews passively succumbed to the massacre, that there was also those who, although in absolute minority, fought back.

But the most important work that fermented in those years was I sommersi e i salvati, the last essay that Levi published in 1986, one year before committing suicide. The title had already appeared in a chapter of Se questo è un uomo, but this work was new and rather different. This book largely consisted of memory and therefore must be defended from memory itself, because recollections change over the years and end up replacing the original “raw” ones. In the end – Levi claimed – the survivors of the Nazi extermination, both the perpetrators and the victims (yet on opposite principles and with different aims), produce “prosthetic memories” by which they can rework their past experiences in a way that makes them bearable. The true integral witnesses of the Lager, Levi says in one of the most controversial passages of the work, are those who died there, for they “saw the bottom”. One year later, like other survivors such as Paul Celan or Jean Amery, Levi committed suicide without providing any explanation.

Primo Levi was one of the most “multifaceted” Italian intellectuals of the twentieth century. Able to explore the literary field ranging from ancient classics to foreign literature, including distant genres and little-known authors, Levi was able to interpret his role as an intellectual without forgetting his work as a scientist and technician. His scientific culture was comparable to that of Renaissance intellectuals, for whom it was natural to integrate poetry, mathematics, music, physics, metaphysics, etc. into one single, broad cultural horizon. Twentieth-century Italian culture experienced rare moments of similar integration of the humanistic and technical cultures, thanks to such intellectuals as Carlo Emilio Gadda, Italo Calvino, Mario Rigoni Stern and a few others, who were able to cross disciplinary boundaries and to understand the world as complexity.

What impresses Levi’s readers is the expressive clarity, the lucidity with which he tackles serious themes without indulging in psychologism or morbid aestheticization of graphic details. With the scientist’s detached gaze, Levi struggled to understand what happens when a sophisticated and deeply articulated form of life like the human being is placed in conditions of extreme danger, suffering, or severe stress. Under the dire circumstance of rationally programmed extermination – as that carried out in Nazi Lagers – the magnificent and progressive fortunes of humanity invoked by the Enlightenment are shaken to the foundations and what remains is the Pascalian image of a hybrid creature, half angel and half beast, unable to turn itself into the former or the latter, but dangerously tending downwards, towards its dark side, from which it must keep away through a constant moral and rational effort.

Levi teaches a profound lesson in critical thinking because he, as a technician, knew the advantages and dangers of technology. As an instrument it facilitates the life and progress of the species, but as an ideology it produces a cruel and mechanical world, where the ends prevaricate the means and where the human is only one of the many tools that can be exploited to death. As to such consideration, Levi bridged between classical and contemporary paradigms. His ideology was deeply rooted in nineteenth-century positivist thought and his humanism traced perhaps even further back to the great moralistic masters of the seventeenth century, to the scientist-poets of the Renaissance. The challenges of modernity took place for Levi on the border between humans and world, where the two terms meet and collide: for humans too often fail to conceive themselves as part of the world, while the world does not yield to their will of power.

Levi’s moral lesson is invaluable because human history shows a certain tendency to repeat itself. Levi’s analyses and diagnoses, exposed with the seriousness of the doctor who has well considered the symptoms of his patient, remain exemplary and enlightening to understand and recognise dangerous human behaviours: the marginalization of minorities, manipulation, the construction of artificial myths and truths on which opinions are based, the twisting of experience into forms of false knowledge. All these aspects concern us as well because these are cognitive, evolutionary and psychological mechanisms of human life, both individual and collective.

Levi’s confidence in reason, in humanity’s ability to dwell in the light (according to a traditional metaphor dear to the writer), which is to prefer to darkness just as clarity is preferable to incomprehensibility, made of him the writer who, since his youthful and romantic struggle with Matter to his deadly fight with the Gorgon, never lost his faith in the human. And because of that – or in spite of it all –, it never ceases to surprise how deeply Levi could grasp the humorous side of life, even in the most horrible circumstances.

One hundred years after his birth there is still much to understand and learn from this multifaceted writer.

An unusual close encounter with the enemy

Nuto Revelli’s Il disperso di Marburg after 25 years. Marburg, July 18, 2019

Nuto Revelli.

Nuto Revelli (Cuneo 1919-2004) was an officer of the Italian Royal Army and fought in Russia in 1942-1943. Following the armistice of September 8, 1943 between Italy and the Allies, Revelli joined the anti-fascist partisan groups and fought as commander of the 4th GL Band (later renamed “Carlo Rosselli” Brigade) until the liberation of Italy in April 1945. The experience of war engendered deep hatred against the Germans, which Revelli had met on the Russian front as allies and then as enemies in the mountains of his region (Piedmont). For decades this hatred remained unchanged and the intensity of such feeling was captured in the first books that Revelli published in the post-war period, Mai tardi (1946 and then republished in 1967) and La guerra dei poveri (1962). In these books the Germans are represented as cruel beasts, enemies to hate and despise.

In the 1980s, while collecting oral accounts from peasants in the Alpine valleys of Piedmont, Revelli heard from a former partisan a strange war story, the legend of a German officer who rode off in the countryside and who was kind to the local inhabitants and children, a peaceful and apparently “good” man. One day of 1944 this man disappeared, possibly killed in an ambush of partisans, and since then no one knew anymore about him. This legend disturbed Revelli because it challenged his memories of war and seemed too lenient to be true. Nevertheless, it was the story of a missing-in-action soldier. The memory of soldiers missing in Russia during the retreat from the Don River had tormented Revelli since the end of the war. A missing soldier, the writer said, is the cruellest legacy of any war.

Thus, he decided to engage in the search for the identity of this missing man, and after ten years of work, oral interviews with witnesses and research in German military archives, he succeeded. He discovered that the missing man was a 23-year-old German officer, a student who had not joined the National Socialist Party, who was not enthusiastic about the war and had already lost his older brother in Russia. A young man like so many others, who had been involved into the enormity of the war and had been overwhelmed by a cruel fate.

Fifty years after the war, Revelli thus found the way to reconcile with the hated enemy through a historical quest that in the end also turned out to be an experience of friendship, as far as he befriended the German historian Christoph Schminck-Gustavus, who remained close to Revelli. And, above all, this was a story of reconciliation with the human side of the so-called enemy. The book that tells this story, Il disperso di Marburg, was published in 1994 and for the occasion Revelli visited the German town of Marburg where Rudolf Knaut, the missing officer, was born. This year, on July 18, Marburg hosted an event dedicated to Revelli and to Il disperso di Marburg to celebrate the centenary of the writer’s birth (July 21). Gianluca Cinelli gave two lectures at the Institut für romanische Philologie at Philipps-Universität Marburg and at the Technologie- und Tagungszentrum in the presence of a large audience.

Announcement: Experiencing War at the Library of Congress

For the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Library of Congress published a webpage titled Experiencing War. Researchers and anyone who is interested can access 12 collections with diaries, photos and oral histories of men and women who experienced that event.

The page can be accessed at this link: https://www.loc.gov/vets/stories/ex-war-dday75.html

The materials are part of one of the Library of Congress’ special projects: the Veterans History Project (VHP), part of the American Folklife Center, which collects personal accounts of American war veterans with the aim to preserve the memories of war and conflicts in which the United States took part, from the First World War up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The VHP’s materials provide a wealth of sources for researchers who work on experiences of war, and many of those can be accessed remotely through their website: https://www.loc.gov/vets/

New article: “Das Bild des italienischen Soldaten im deutschsprachigen Diskurs über die Vergangenheitsverwaltung”

Das Bild des italienischen Soldaten im deutschsprachigen Diskurs über die Vergangenheitsverwaltung, in Aufgeschlossene Beziehungen. Deutschland und Italien im transkulturellen Dialog. Literatur, Film, Medien, ed. by Tabea Meineke, Anne-Rose Meyer-Eisenhut, Stephanie Neu-Wendel and Eugenio Spedicato, Würzburg, Verlag Königshausen & Neumann, 2019, 67-80

Among the contributions appeared in the book Aufgeschlossene Beziehungen (Open-minded Relationships), devoted to the exploration of the way in which the Italian and German cultures have built their transcultural dialogue since WW2, one chapter by Gianluca Cinelli investigates how German post-war narratives, both literary and historical, represented the Italian soldiers in a very negative way, thus paving the way to the consolidation of an old anti-Italian prejudice spread all over Germany. The German combatants came across the Italians during WW2 as allies between 1940 and September 8, 1943, when Italy surrendered to the Allies. What emerges from this contribution is that little attention has been paid in Germany to this topic. Nonetheless, Italian soldiers were represented as lazy and unfit for war, unworthy in battle and unreliable as allies, cowardly and too soft to endure the hardship of modern warfare. And even worse, they were depicted as traitors following Italy’s withdrawal from the conflict in 1943, after which a remarkable number of Italians began to fight against the Germans as partisans.

The chapter builds on historical and literary sources, by combining the testimonies of former German cambatants (from privates of the Afrikakorp to memoirs of such Whermacht higher officers as Rommel or Kesselring) with historic evidence collected by mainly German scholars (from Hammerman to Klinkhammer and Schlemmer). The main thesis of the chapter consists in claiming that the anti-Italian prejudice largely depended on the effectiveness of Nazi propaganda and on the circulation of a number of testimonies that depicted the Italians as inferiors not only as for their military virtues but also on a racial basis. In the end, only the massive integration of Italian immigrants starting from the 1950s began to challenge the dominant stereotype and to rehabilitate the memory of the former allies-and-enemies as human beings and fellow citizens.

New open-access book

Lo sguardo lontano. L’Italia della Seconda guerra mondiale nella memoria dei prigionieri di guerra

For those who are interested in Italian history and the memories of prisoners of war (and for those who can read the Italian language), we are pleased to announce the publication of a new open-access book:Lo sguardo lontano. L’Italia della Seconda guerra mondiale nella memoria dei prigionieri di guerra, by Erika Lorenzon (Edizioni Ca’ Foscari Digital Publishing).

The book can be downloaded at http://edizionicafoscari.unive.it/it/edizioni/libri/978-88-6969-268-0/

Encountering violence and crimes in autobiographical narratives of Operation “Barbarossa”

By Gianluca Cinelli

On 22nd June 1941, the German armies overcame the Russian resistance on the river Bug and started to penetrate in depth in Russia in a drunken state of exaltation. It was the triumph of the Blitzkrieg which many generals considered the only true form of military art, according to the legacy of Clausewitz and Schlieffen: the dimension of the attack was such that the commanders ignored what other units were doing, and the common motto was “forward, no matter what the others do”, in order to annihilate the enemy before this could strike back. For many a soldier this unstoppable advance was just a leap into the void, because after leaving the last villages of the Reich they found themselves alone in the vastness of an unknown land. Erich Kern remembers that people in Silesia greeted the marching troops in frenzy: old veterans of the Great War advised about the way to annihilate Cossacks and Russian infantry, women threw flowers and the girls kissed the soldiers and gave cigarettes and food. Nonetheless, smoke on the horizon and the feeble thunder of guns began to shake the hearts.

The encounter with war was, according to published memoirs that account for those events, first of all an exploration of an unknown, hostile land. The soldier’s life in the very first weeks of the campaign was reduced to a handful of actions mechanically repeated: advancing, resting, fighting, again and again, without knowledge of the final destination. Passing from a victory to another, German soldiers advanced in a state of exaltation and self-confidence. Thus, the narratives concerning the first stage of the Operation “Barbarossa” present several characteristics of romance: “we were advancing into the gliding day – wrote Erich kern – we kept going on and on along the road that stretched through a scary land” (Kern, p. 55). These warriors believed to bear a new order. The “gliding day” was the time of conquest and self-affirmation, and such an expression corresponds to that symbolism which Northrop Frye called “apocalyptic”, typical of high-mimetic romance that narrates the adventures of heroes and expresses the force of desire through the archetypes of the journey into a land of foes and dangers, of the fight with chaos and finally of the apotheosis in victory and triumph. The exaltation of the hero is one of the main characteristics of the memoirs of the early stage of the Operation “Barbarossa”, although many a witness remembers that the endeavour was also fearful and deadly.

The protagonists of these narratives struggle with the enemy and with the elements, dust and heath in summer, cold wind and snowstorms in winter. Operation “Barbarossa” is depicted as a quest for conquer and domination, as the victory on a bestial enemy and as the liberation of the world from the deadly Communist menace. The conquerors often looked at the vanquished with feelings of superiority and pride, and one of them remembers that the exaltation and the disgust were the most common emotions in those days, when “one could see everything as if half-asleep” (Pabst, p. 20). The march into enemy land also brought the German soldiers to an unexpected encounter with misery and violence: devastated villages full of dead bodies, churches converted into hospitals and piles of rotting corpses were the daily “images of horror and madness” (Pater-Mater, p. 391).

On the other hand, the steppe is represented as a mysterious and mythical land: like the sea, it is immense and prompt to suddenly change itself into a deadly and inhospitable place. The advance into this land is also an ethnographic and geographical exploration of outer borders between Europe and Asia, a barbaric and ancestral world of extreme contradictions, from the unlimited plains to the highest peaks of Caucasus; from the most advanced industrial area of Donetsk to the deep poverty of rural population. Eastward of Lemberg, “the last city of Europe” (Bauer, p. 34), Russia shows a “barbaric beauty” (p. 78) that almost makes the soldiers forget what they are there for. But war is inside the landscape, it is its “abuse” (p. 86): every hut and country house conceals a bunker and although the peaceful peasants look harmless they are instead partisans and soldiers ready to fight. For some authors such as Bamm, the penetration into Russia was also a voyage into myth: when he arrived in the Caucasus, he found out that the most humble hut of peasants was probably the same as Adam’s nest (Bamm, p. 93). Thus, when he went back to Germany in leave, he described that journey as Ulysses’ voyage to Ithaca. So far, the German war in Russia appears as a juvenile and heroic adventure, as the epic of the German people’s struggle for the conquest of its “vital space”.

Nazi myths and mythologies, such as the defence of the Arian race and Western civilization from the Asiatic hordes or the anti-Bolshevik crusade, permeate these narratives. Some witnesses depict Russia and its people from the point of view of the fanatical conqueror: the huts with the straw on the roofs are compared with dogs-lairs and their inhabitants are described as ragged, dirty beasts (Prüller, p. 84):

The passive Slav acceptance was annoying to the more agile and questioning Teuton mind and the ordinary soldiers could not comprehend how human beings could be so lacking in human dignity or spirit that they could accept to live in the primitive conditions which were encountered throughout the conquered regions. In letters, diaries and reports the German word Sauberkeit (cleanliness) was the most frequently recurring one when the writer dealt with the living conditions of the Russian peasant. (Lucas, p. 17)

Also in the letters from the front the invasion was initially presented as a just war waged in self-defence against communism and the “Judaic-Bolshevik” plot (Buchbender, p. 72). An NCO wrote on 10th July 1941: “the German people owes a great debt to our Führer, because if these beasts that here are our enemy only reached Germany, we would have such a slaughter like the world has never before experienced” (p. 74). Propaganda imprints letters with its racist arguments: Russians are called “Reds” and “Judaic-Bolshevik gang”; Russia is depicted as a miserable, backward land, and the soldiers portrait themselves as liberators and bearers of civilization (Golovchansky, pp. 18-19). Soon enough, though, the war became brutal: “dogs” and “beasts” were among the most common epithets for the enemy, the metaphor of hunting began to form the core of a new way of self-representation of the German soldiers, who also had to justify the daily slaughter of political commissars, POWs, Jews and civilians. The most fanatical combatants were students, above all those raised as Catholics. Their first letters describe destroyed churches, ragged young people who “bear the guilt of Communism” (Schleicher/Walle, p. 181), and crowds of Russians who greet and cheer the German liberators (p. 182). These “crusaders” glorify the death of their comrades as martyrdom, which is connected with “heroic death” (Heldentode), “loyalty” (Treue) and “sacrifice” (Opfer) (204). Nonetheless, when the Blitzkrieg failed in autumn 1941 these champions of the faith vacillate (199), and the rhetoric of the “crusade” completely disappeared from their letters by the end of December, when the Wehrmacht was defeated in front of Moscow.

Not all witness rets in this illusion of the beautiful adventure. The campaign was not like the former ones in Poland and France: the loss were high and a general crisis of the Wehrmacht was avoided only by pouring more and more replacements in the decimated ranks (Alvensleben, p. 190; Steets, p. 112). Many a veteran who had fought in the Great War noted that this new conflict was much worse (Keppler, p. 62). The first harsh impact with such horrifying nature of the war of annihilation consisted in encountering the huge mass of Soviet POWs, in a scene that recurs in many a narrative:

Without exception, they all begged for a scrap of food or a cigarette. They whined and grovelled about us to wheedle something out of us, they were like whipped dogs, and it mingled pity and disgust became too much for us and we did give them something, they would kneel and kiss our hands and babble words of thanks which must have come from their rich religious vocabulary, and then we just stood, we simply could not believe it. These were human beings in which there was no longer any trace of anything deserving the name human, they were men who really had turned into animals. We found it nauseating, utterly repellent. (Zieser, pp. 58-59)

The clash with the Red Army is mostly remembered as a struggle with enemies more similar to beasts than to humans:

Kahl geschorene Asiaten sind unsere Gegner, Menschen fast aus einer anderen Welt; vorkämpft und trotzig, die Fäuste geballt, liegen sie zahllos im Tod, furchtlose Soldaten, aber verschlagen und hinterhältig. Sie schießen noch, wenn wir schon 50 Kilometer weiter sind, aus den Kornfeldern und Wäldern. Aber man muss einmal vorn bei einem Infanteriekampf gewesen sein, um das zu kennen, was hier Kampf ist; sich gegenseitig steigernde Raserei, Gefangene werden nur selten gemacht auf beiden Seiten. (Pater-Mater, p. 388)

Witnesses mostly pass over war crimes in silence and so does the official documentation (Bartov). Similarly, “the Einsatzgruppen reporters for the most part did not simply record the killings, but felt the need to use euphemisms in their report as to cover up the act of murder. In the same way they always gave ‘reasons’ for their actions in order to justify them” (Headland, p. 72). Among commanders, General Manstein wrote in his memoirs Verlorene Siege that the “Kommissarbefehl” was “non-military” in nature, and for that reason he prescribed his officer not to carry it out (Manstein, pp. 176-177; see also Guderian, p. 138). Nonetheless, he ordered on 20th November 1941, to persecute the Jews, who were accused of being the juncture between the Red Army and the partisans (Wette, p. 188). It seems less hard to come across some criticism on war crimes in private writings such as letters (despite censorship) and diaries.

In general, the soldiers found it disturbing to show themselves in the garb of brutal and insensible killers, especially because they were fighting in a war largely justified by ideological hatred and contempt for the enemy, as well as by racial prejudice. Self-censorship in letters – but also in diaries and later on in autobiographical memoirs – was as a defensive strategy against discouragement, after reality had destroyed the false perspectives of propaganda. Therefore, shootings, hangings, deportation, forced labour, mass mortality from starvation and disease among the Russian POWs hardly make their way into the letters. When the witnesses wrote about crimes, they often regarded them as something for which “others” bear responsibility. Peter Bamm, in his memoirs, calls the SS “the Others” (die Anderen) to distinguish them from the ordinary (and honourable) German soldier of the Wehrmacht. In other witnesses, a fortunate rhetorical device consists in pointing out the “moral dilemma” of military obedience:

If our unit had been given some hardcore Nazi troops, they would have received a rough time from the other men. We were patriotic soldiers fighting for Germany, not a bunch of Nazi brown shirts fighting for Hitler. Most of the soldiers I knew did not support the Nazi Party, even if the practical result of our military effort was to maintain the Nazi regime in power. It is an irresolvable dilemma. When you want to serve your country, yet oppose its political leadership. (Lubbeck, p. 194)

Also the extermination of Jews rarely comes into the discourse (especially in the letters) (Manoscheck; Letzel, p. 203) and it is quite rare to come across explicit testimonies (Jarausch, pp. 291, 315, 316 and 341; Hartlaub, p. 73):

Vor und unter den Bastionen del Flußseite liegt ein altes Werk, das wohl einst den Dünaübergang sperrte. Und dort unten hat man fünftausend Juden eingepfercht, Männer, Frauen und Kinder, die, wie es heißt, mit Abfällen ihre Tage und, wie die Gerüchte gehen, ihre letzten Tage fristen. Wir sehen sie jeden Tag dort unten auf den Kasemattenhöfen wimmeln. Ein furchtbares Menschengerücht dringt herauf. Das also ist der Gestank der Weltgeschichte. […] Sieh dir das mit deinen Augen an: was dort unten vor sich geht, versteckt und halb unter das Erde, das ist mit anderem Gesicht, doch ebenso dumpf und verkrochen, zu allen Zeiten gesehen, sooft Macht, Gewalt und Herrlichkeit über die Erbe rasselten. Und was tust du, wacker Soldat, da oben auf dem Wall der Zitadelle von Dünaburg? Du tust, was alle braven Söldner Babylons, alle redlichen Legionäre Roms in solchen Augenblicken taten: du trittst von einem Fuß auf den andern, du greifst mit zwei Fingern hinter die Halsbinde, um dir Luft zu machen. Und schüttest nachher einen Becher Wodka hinunter. Mir steht der Wodka in diesen Tagen bis zum Hals. (Matthies, p. 19)

From Matthies’ point of view, the German soldier appears as the perpetrator of a crime against mankind: “ich schäme mich nicht meines Volkes, ich schäme mich nicht meiner Uniform, aber ich schäme mich, hinter diesem Stacheldraht der Weltgeschichte, meiner selbst bis in den Grund” (Matthies, p. 26). It is rare to come across allegations directly written in diaries or memoirs. Some witnesses refer to crimes by attributing them to the allied, namely the Rumanians (Keppler, p. 82), others recall those days by using the rhetoric of the “vagueness”:

Real poverty was evident everywhere, and it did not need scientific knowledge to realize that the harassed-looking people were starving en masse. SS, German Field Police and Polish militia were patrolling the streets, obviously working closely together and chasing people on wherever they had collected in groups. Hollow-eyed children, often in rags, came begging for bread. Not having any on us, we were of course in no position to give them any, and though we had been told in special little lectures before we were let out of our train that they were enemy children, dangerous breeds, some of us found it hard to have to shut our hearts. Some who still believed in the basics of Christ’s teaching, must have wondered what had happened. A large part of the population was Jewish who, we were told, lived together in the poorest part of the city, the ghetto. The latter was no German creation, it had been set up by the Polish authorities long ago and walking around the town, we found that the Poles hated the Jews […]. Many of us had seen the odd Jew wearing the yellow star in a German city; but this was all so different, so incomparable in scale, and seeing them walking around in their abject misery we did not know anymore whether we should hate these people or feel pity for them. […] When the train later pulled away from us and we saw the eerie, staring eyes from every one of the passing openings, many of us felt uncomfortable, if not guilty, but none of us said anything about the encounter. All of us had heard about concentration camps, but the generally accepted understanding was that only anti-social and anti-German elements, like Communists, homosexuals, gipsies and such like, were being kept in there and forced to do a decent day’s work for the first time in their lives. Though we were not far from it, I am sure that most of us at that time had ever heard the name Auschwitz. (Metelmann, pp. 30-31)

As far as war crimes represent the darkest side of the German war in Russia, the witnesses found no better way to deal with this disturbing experience than understatement: “we knew, but only to a certain extent…”, “we would have done something about that, but we could not…”, “we supposed that Lagers existed only to re-educate antisocial individuals…”, and so on. By pretending to be ignorant or by diverting their attention from an uncomfortable truth, the witnesses claimed to be innocent or at least not guilty, insofar as they claimed having fought honourably for their country and not for the Nazi cause. But one of them, recalling the image of a Russian child tore in pieces by a grenade wrote: “though trained to be arrogant and overbearing, I knew I was guilty” (Metelmann, p. 70).

For further reading

U. von Alvensleben, Lauter Abschiede. Tagebuch im Kriege, Frankfurt am Main, Propyläen, 1971

P. Bamm, Die unsichtbare Flagge. Ein Bericht, München, Kösel, 1964

O. Bartov, The Eastern Front, 1941-45. German Troops and the Barbarisation of Warfare, Basingstoke, Macmillan in association with St. Antony’s College, Oxford, 1985

J. M. Bauer, Die Kraniche der Nogaia. Tagebücherblätter aus dem Feldzug im Osten, München, Herbig, 1942

O. Buchbender, and R. Sterz, eds., Das andere Gesicht des Krieges. Deutsche Feldpostbriefe 1939-1945, München, Beck, 1982

W. Chales de Beaulieu, Der Vorstoß der Panzergruppe 4 auf Leningrad – 1941, Neckargemünd, Vowinckel, 1961

S. G. Fritz, “We are trying… to change the face of the world”. Ideology and motivation in the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front: The view from below, «The Journal of Military History», 60, 4 (1996)

C. Gerlach, Verbrechen deutscher Fronttruppen in Weißrussland 1941-1944. Eine Annäherung, in Wehrmacht und Vernichtungspolitik. Militär im nationalsozialistischen System, ed. by K. H. Pohl, Göttingen, Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1999

H. Geyer, Das IX. Armeekorps im Ostfeldzug 1941, Neckargemünd, Vowinckel, 1969

A. Golovchansky and others, eds., “Ich will raus aus diesem Wahnsinn”. Deutsche Briefe von der Ostfront, 1941-1945, aus sowjetischen Archiven, Reinbeck, Rowholt, 1993

H. Guderian, Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, Heidelberg, Vowinkel, 1950

F. Hartlaub, Von unten gesehen, Stuttgart, Koehler, 1950

R. Headland, Messages of Murder. A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943, Rutherford, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992

K. Jarausch, and K. J. Arnold, eds., “Das stille Sterben…”. Feldpostbriefe von Konrad Jarausch aus Polen und Russland. 1939-1942, Paderborn, Schöningh, 2008

J. Keppler, Überwindungen. Tagebuch und Aufzeichnungen aus dem Kriege, Stuttgart, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1958

E. Kern, Der große Rausch. Russlandfeldzug 1941-1945, Weiblingen, Leberecht, 1950

K. Letzel, Deutsche Soldaten – nationalsozialisticher Krieg? Kriegserlebnis – Kriegserfahrung, 1939-1945, Paderborn, Schöningh, 19982

W. Lubbek and D. Hurt, At Leningrad’s gates. The story of a soldier with Army Group North, Barnsley, Pen & Sword Military, 2007

J. Lucas, War on the Eastern Front 1941-1945. The German Soldier in Russia, London, Jane’s Publishing, 1979

W. Manoscheck, The Holocaust as recounted in Wehrmacht soldiers’ letters from the front, in The discursive construction of history. Remembering the Wehrmacht’s war of annihilation, ed. by H. Heer and others, Basingstoke, Palgrave MacMillan, 2008, pp. 27-49

E. von Manstein, Verlorene Siege, Bonn, Athenäum, 1955

K. Matthies, Ich hörte die Lerchen singen. Ein Tagebuch aus dem Osten, 1941/45, München, Kösel, 1956

H. Metelmann, Through hell for Hitler. A dramatic first-hand account of fighting on the eastern front with the Wehrmacht, Staplehurst, Spellmount, 2003 (1990)

H. Pabst, Der Ruf der äußersten Grenze. Tagebuch eines Frontsoldaten, Tübingen, Schlichtenmayer, 1953

Pater-Mater, Heinz. Ein Menschleben im Krieg geboren – im Krieg verloren, 1915-1942, Heidelberg, Schneider, 1947

K.-T. Schleicher and H. Walle, eds., Aus Feldpostbriefen junger Christen 1939-1945. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der katholischen Jugend im Felde, Stuttgart, Steiner, 2005

H. Steets, Gebirgsjäger in der Nogaischen Steppe. Vom Dnjepr zum Asowschen Meer. August-Oktober 1941, Heidelberg, Vowinckel, 1956

W. Wette, “Rassenfeind: die rassistischen Elemente in der deutschen Propaganda gegen die Sowjetunion, in Deutsch-russische Zeitenwende. Krieg und Frieden 1941-1995, ed. by H.-A. Jakobsen and others, Baden-Baden, Nomos, 1995, pp. 175-201

B. Zieser, In their shallow graves, London, Elek Books, 1956

War as Moral Experience in Wittgenstein’s Secret Diary

by Patrizia Piredda

When he stopped his studies of engineering in Manchester, Wittgenstein moved to Cambridge to study logic under the guidance of Bertrand Russell because he believed that by comprehending the fundamentals of language, and therefore the limits of language, he would understand its essence,   as well as that of human beings, in primis, himself. 

For Wittgenstein, knowing oneself was indispensable because only the man who knows himself can improve himself and become morally decent. When World War I broke out, Wittgenstein volunteered in the Austrian Army because he trusted “the fact that the experience of war would permit him to understand, beyond any fiction and illusion, who – which kind of man, so to say, – he really was. Thus, it was clarity and truth about himself that Wittgenstein expected from the war” (Perissinotto 13).

Wittgenstein spoke about the experience of World War I in two different diaries: the first one is a work-notebook in which he wrote his thoughts, questions and the progress of his work on logic (which was eventually published under the name of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus), as well as his reflections on ethics, the function of philosophy, and such concepts as the will, the good, evil and suicide. The second one is a personal diary, composed of three notebooks which begin on 9 August 1914 and end on 19 August 1916, written in a secret code so that none of his comrades could read it. During the war years, in contact with other soldiers and immersed in the military life, Wittgenstein went on working on the problems of language, but he slowly changed the focus of his research and broadened his interest beyond logical problems: in a letter of 22 May 1915 to Russell, Wittgenstein wrote that the problems in which he was interested “have become more and more precisely and general”, and that his method “has drastically changed” (Wittgenstein, Lettere 75): now, it was fundamentally oriented toward ethics. 

For Wittgenstein, the encounter with the other in war was an existential experience that allowed him to look within the depths of himself in order to question himself and understand who he was.  This in turn would allow him to correct errors in his thought, to eliminate prejudices, faults and erroneous judgments and, finally, to act well. To reach this state of deep knowledge, Wittgenstein had to understand which role the passions and reason play in making moral decisions, so as to put the former under the control of the latter: in other words, at this time in his life, acting as a decent and moral person meant for Wittgenstein being able to understand and control his own passions which, generally, lead a person to make practical decisions in order to satisfy private and egoistic desires without considering whether the action is good or bad. At first, Wittgenstein believed that the war would make men better; however, early in the conflict the promiscuity that he saw in other soldiers made him start to believe that war cannot change the nature of human beings: if possible, it makes people’s moral tendencies even worse. Wittgenstein changed his mind because, in his opinion, his comrades did not attempt to understand what was happening to them, even though they were going through a new and traumatic experience that demanded understanding; instead, they kept on following irrational passions and base desires. If, as Wittgenstein wrote on 12 August 1916, “a bad life is an unreasonable one”; if living in sin – i.e. living enslaved to passions and desires – means living “in discord” (Wittgenstein, Diario 118); and if a life without knowledge is evil, then his comrades could not logically appear to him as good persons. 

From the first notes of his diary, Wittgenstein wrote that he was horrified by his comrades’ vulgarity: he did not consider them stupid, but he believed that they were limited by the “typical attitude of the majority of men, according to which they mirror themselves in what they have instead than in what they are” (Gargani, 11). Since, in his opinion, his comrades chatted only about “nonsensical” things based on prejudices and superficialities, Wittgenstein felt deep disquiet (Unheimlichkeit), and as a result he depicted them as scoundrels dominated by the most selfish instincts and lust, which led them to a loss of self-control and to immorality. On 21 August 1914 Wittgenstein wrote: “The lieutenant and I have spoken about many different things. He is a very kind person. He can cope with the worst scoundrels and be kind to them. If we hear a Chinese speak, we tend to consider his speech an inarticulate gurgle. The person who understands Chinese will recognise the language. Thus I often cannot recognise humanity in man, etc. […] all concepts of my work have become ‘foreign’ to me. I cannot really SEE anything!!!” (Wittgenstein, Diario 54). 

In contact with the other soldiers, Wittgenstein could no longer see what might be called humanity, nor could he recognise in others his own human essence, i.e. a rational creature who strives to know himself in order to be morally good. Therefore, Wittgenstein was not able to perceive others as friends, because friendship for him could only arise between good men: he had an elitist sense of friendship, founded on respect, dialogue, loyalty, love and a deep sense of ethics which, in his opinion, his comrades seriously lacked. On 15 August 1914 he wrote: “The crew is a gang of scoundrels! No enthusiasm, incredible vulgarity, stupidity and cruelty. Therefore, it is not true that the great common cause necessarily makes man nobler… According to all our external conditions, our duty on the boat should provide us with a wonderful and happy time, but alas! As a result, it will be very difficult to communicate with the others” (Wittgenstein, Diario 52-53).

Moreover, two days before, on August 16 1914, he wrote that “the stupidity, the insolence and the evil of these people have no limits” (Wittgenstein, Diario 53). Beyond these severe and tranchant judgments, Wittgenstein did not believe that he was a better man than his comrades, but that he had a stronger will to become better. In fact, one of the major differences that Wittgenstein perceived between himself and the other soldiers was the awareness that he was not yet a good man. In the letter of 3 March 1914 to Russell he wrote: “we both have our weaknesses, but I do especially, and my life is FULL of the most awful and miserable thoughts and actions (and this is no exaggeration)… Until today my life has been full of filth” (Wittgenstein Lettere 67); on 7 March 1915 he moreover wrote: “I feel like a completely burnt out stove, full of impurities and filth” (Wittgenstein, Diario 101).

Nevertheless, during the war Wittgenstein went on trying to improve himself, to control his body’s weaknesses and get close to the order that derives from reason, which however belonged in its pure form only to God. At that time young Wittgenstein believed that such an order is located in our language: for him, there was a correspondence between good use of language and good action, thus it followed that thinking well is acting well. According to this correspondence, thanks to a constant effort to free himself from linguistic errors (prejudices, common statements, nonsense, false and erroneous reasoning) a person might aspire to live a decent life: on 20 July 1916 Wittgenstein wrote to himself in his diary: “continue to work and you will become a good man” (Wittgenstein, Diario 116).

The will moves man to strive for absolute good, beyond the partiality of a mundane ‘good’ corresponding to private desires. To reach absolute good, one needs a full view (Überblick) of things even if this seems to be a desperate attempt: on 12 November 1914 Wittgenstein wrote: “I have worked quite a lot, but without seeing very clearly (Wittgenstein, Diario 79); on 13 November 1914: “I cannot see clearly” (ibid.) and on 16 November 1914: “no clarity yet. Although I am right in front of the solutions to the deepest questions, so near as to almost crash into them with my nose!!! Now my spirit is simply blind to these things! I feel as if I am RIGHT IN FRONT OF the door to the solution, but I cannot see clearly enough to open it” (Wittgenstein, Diario 81). Moreover, if on 29 July 1916, in a moment of desperation after being shot at, Wittgenstein wrote that he was afraid of dying and losing the pleasure of life, some days before, on 8 July 1916, he had written that such a fear was a misleading feeling because “fear of death is the best sign of a false life, i.e. a bad life” because “he who is happy must not fear.  Not even death” (Wittgenstein, Quaderni 219). Even if it is a desperate attempt, one always should (or better, must) try to go beyond  one’s own limits because only in this way is it possible to fight the irrational fear in which lies the sin that leads  men to believe that a false conception is true.

 Contrary to the common experience of war, wherein a soldier considers his comrades to be his friends and the opponents, the unknown soldiers, the enemy who must be fought, Wittgenstein considered his comrades his principal enemy, from whom he had to defend himself. Wittgenstein’s concept of friendship, however, was embodied in David Pinsent with whom he was in a close contact during the war: they had become friends when both of them were studying in Cambridge.   During the war, since Wittgenstein was fighting in the Austrian Army and Pinsent was fighting in the English Army, they should have considered themselves enemies. Pinsent died on 8 May 1918. Wittgenstein was informed of his death by a letter from Ellen Fanny Pin, David’ mother, sent dated 6 July 1918, to which he replied, writing that Pinsent had been his first and only friend: “I have indeed known many young men of my age and have been on good terms with some, but only in him did I find a real friend; the hours I have spent with him have been the best in my life, he was to me a brother and a friend. Daily I have thought of him and have longed to see him again. God will bless him” (Monk 155).

To him Wittgenstein dedicated his Tractatus logico-philosophicus

For further reading

Gargani, Aldo, Il coraggio di essere, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Diari segreti, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1987, pp. 1-45

Marconi, Diego, Wittgenstein e la filosofia, in Ludwig Wittgenstein, La filosofia, Roma, Donzelli, 2006, pp. vii-xxxvii

Monk, Ray, Ludwig Wittgenstein. The Duty of Genius, New York, The Free Press, 1990

Perissinotto, Luigi, Wittgenstein. Una guida, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2010

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Diari segreti, Roma-Bari, Laterza, 1987

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Lettere. 1911-1951, Milano, Adelphi, 2012

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Quaderni 1914-1916, in Tractatus logico-philosophicus – Quaderni 1914-1916, Einaudi, Torino, 2009, pp. 127-299

Encountering war in the letters from the front

By Gianluca Cinelli

The letters sent from the front during WWII constitute a broad universe which we are just partially familiar with (tens of thousands of letters out of billions). Only a very small portion of the immense corpus of letters from and to the fronts has been published, which means that such a form of testimony constitutes an important but also distorted means of encounter with war. Do therefore letters constitute a good means for encountering war? Do people at home really come across war, when they read the letters received from their loved ones at the front? The testimony provided by a letter from the front is complex and ambiguous insofar as it differs both from autobiographical texts written after the events in the form of a narrative and from diaries, which are basically private writings with an open and discontinuous narrative structure. Letters from the front imply the presence of a defined reader, normally the family, relatives, friends etc. of the combatants who write. Letters are first of all life-signals that combatants exchange with their families back home. Therefore, they also imply a sort of dialogue dislocated in space and delayed in time, which affects communication and the flow of information. Moreover, letters from the front are subject to censorship, which limits the freedom of the writers to express their minds openly. Finally, combatants tend to present themselves in their letters as individuals who struggle to balance their experience of violence and suffering with the ideas, expectations and sets of values of their relatives at home. Combatants cannot and dare not report the reality of their daily life in war directly to their relatives without applying some language-filter. Letters from the front line must first of all keep the dialogue between combatants and their society as it existed before the war alive (Letzel 1998: 30). Such a dialogue is irregular and ambiguous, though, because, on the one hand, censorship prevents it from being spontaneous and, on the other hand, self-censorship represents the psychological device by which the system of values shared with family and friends is protected from the potential harm resulting from direct representation of the war. Insofar as censorship prevents the combatants from expressing freely their own thoughts and from revealing classified or secret aspects of the war, the relationship between combatants and censorship has two faces: on the one hand the soldiers try to escape control by avoiding prohibited topics; sometimes, conversely, they use the keywords of propaganda in order to “smuggle” opinion and information which should not be put into writing. This is the reason why one often comes across letters which appear oddly propagandistic, discordant with private communication. Most of the times, such an attitude is a subtle way of “cheating” censorship, which urges the recipient to read between the lines.

In the German letters sent home from Russia in 1941, the invasion at first appears as a just war waged in self-defence against communism and the “Judaic-Bolshevik” plot. For many German soldiers, the war and the annihilation of the Red Army would impede the “red beasts” to reach Germany, thus they represented that total annihilation-war as a cause worth fighting and death. The soldiers of the Wehrmacht often considered themselves as liberators and restorers of Catholicism in Russia, which they depicted as a backward country populated by uncivilised inhabitants. Nonetheless, perplexity and fear do emerge from the letters of these combatants as long as they advanced deeper into enemy territory and witnessed a cruel war conducted relentlessly against civilians, POWs and Jews. No writer openly refers to these misdeeds, which was prohibited by censorship: they just write that the war is demanding more than mere physical effort and courage in battle: obedience, faith, endurance and determination therefore assume a secret meaning, insofar as the combatants try to tell (ambiguously and indirectly) that they are experiencing unexpected war crimes from which they cannot call themselves off. Shootings, hangings, deportation, forced labour, mass mortality from starvation and disease among the Russian POWs hardly made their way into the letters, because any admission that the conflict in the East was a criminal extermination war, would undermine the moral link between the combatants and their families, from which the former received the signal of a normal life, so they made every effort to send back a representation of their daily life as much normal, by removing all reference to violence and horror.

But the brutality of the war in Russia took its toll on the soldiers. Beside the restrain of censorship, self-censorship represented a constant attitude of the combatants to face a moral crisis, as soon as they began to recognise in their comrades a glimpse of the bandit and raider, or to understand that the series of victories was turning into defeat. The language of letters bears the scars of such internal conflict. The combatants, by writing that their condition was “beyond description” and by promising that one day they would tell everything in person at home, put a distance between themselves and the events, thus concealing their moral struggle. Silence was therefore all but mute: if blackened lines in censored letters show that the State could control and transform dissent into coerced consent, silence imposed by self-censorship was rather a blank to fill with interpretation.

Silence as refusal to speak about the war means that the encounter with war was so shocking that it had to be framed within a discourse of apparent normality. Which also means that the language of letters would deny people at home the possibility to actually encounter war and to understand what was going on at the front. In situations of extreme danger like in Stalingrad or in other great battles in 1943-1944, combatants found it very difficult to conceal reality. In the letters written under life-threatening conditions of extreme suffering and fear, the combination of censorship and self-censorship became highly problematic, because the attempt to escape through writing stood in open contradiction with experience, and this created violent swings in language. One can find, in fact, strong oppositions between expressions of hope and despair, or between appeals to calm, often dictated with a strained enthusiasm, and crude descriptions of a hopeless condition.

Silence therefore became a form of complicity. It occurred first of all as ellipsis (denial), but it could also occur as understatement and irony. There were two different types of self-censorship: the first was a rational precautionary reaction to the presence of the military censorship and to its restrictions. Silence or the displacement of information was not aimed at interrupting the communication totally; the writers wanted to be understood by their recipients but not by censors. This was the reason for the promises to speak in person at home, for cryptic symbols (e.g. a circle with a point inside, to mean the encirclement of the German 6th Army in Stalingrad) and other allusions.

The second case was that of total and impenetrable silence, when the combatants passed over entire parts of their daily life and experience in silence simply by writing about other things, until their letters conveyed an image of the war tampered with as though those aspects of violence and horror had never existed at all. Adjectives like “inconceivable”, “indescribable” and “unimaginable” represent the limit beyond which silence became total. It was no longer a matter of “I cannot say this because it is forbidden”; the war had to be radically transformed into a bearable experience that the reader at home could handle, comprehend and eventually justify in order to believe that their loved ones would eventually come back home as they once were.

The readers of letters encountered war through a thick filter of linguistic and ideological manipulation: they encountered the “soft” version of the war depicted and tampered with by the combatants themselves, who quite usually arranged their representations as a compact pack of standardised communication, in which life-signal appeared as the most important and urgent content to communicate. “I am still alive and in good shape and spirit” was likely to be in the end the most useful and consolatory thing to write and read.

But war, despite its distorted images, changes and affects the combatants for the rest of their lives and urges them to constantly arrange the story in order to make sense of it and to make it bearable and acceptable. Self-censorship in the letters is first of all a symptom of the pursue not much for a true and authentic account but rather for consent and self-acknowledgement aimed at permitting, after the war, the return of the veterans into the circle of their community as civilians. Therefore, one can see the letters from the front as a first stage of the attempt to stretch a bridge over the gap between war and those civilians who, away from it at home, can only imagine it through the official representations of propaganda and those unorthodox of letters and first-hand oral accounts made by veterans when they come home on leave. Many Germans became aware of the actual situation in the East by listening to the accounts that the veterans made in secret: crimes, extermination of the Jews, the defeat in Stalingrad, the general retreat in 1944 were taboos that the Nazi propaganda tried to keep secret. Through the letters from the front many German families encountered a war that they had never imagined, although a war still tampered with. Perhaps, only after 1945 silence in the letters began to make sense, when defeat opened the eyes of the majority, as one veteran wrote:

“In retrospect, I realized that I – and countless others like me – had helped Hitler start and fight a world war of conquest that had left tens millions of people dead and destroyed our own country. I wondered now whether I would ever question these things if we had won the war. I had to conclude that it was unlikely. This was a lesson taught by defeat, not by victory” (Knappe 1993: 298).

Further reading

  • Buchbender, Ortwin and Reinhold Sterz, eds., Das andere Gesicht des Krieges. Deutsche Feldpostbriefe 1939-1945, München, Beck, 1982
  • Ebert, Jens, Feldpostbriefe aus Stalingrad. November 1942 bis Januar 1943, Göttingen, Wallstein, 2003
  • Golovchansky, Anatoly and others, eds., “Ich will raus aus diesem Wahnsinn”. Deutsche briefe von der Ostfront, 1941-1945, aus sowjetischen Archiven, Reinbeck, Rowholt, 1993
  • Knappe, Siegfrid and Ted Brusaw, Soldat. Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949, Shrewbury, Airlife, 1993
  • Letzel, Klaus, Deutsche Soldaten – nationalsozialisticher Krieg? Kriegserlebnis – Kriegserfahrung, 1939-1945, 2nd ed., Paderborn, Schöningh, 1998
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