I don’t know much about the First World War. I know about Ypres and the Somme, and that it was started with Gavrilo Princip’s assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand… but the details are sketchy and vague… my knowledge of The Great War is a fraction of what I know about The Second World War.

The Second World War is generally considered somehow more exciting. It’s certainly more cinematic; there are hundreds of films set during WWII, and hundreds more that feature Nazis as the villains. I suspect this is largely because the Nazis are easily identifiable villains locked in a clear battle between good and evil. The Waffen SS— literally Nazi death squads— wore, as well as the black uniforms with sinister slashes of red on the left arm, skull and crossbones on their uniform in an almost comical caricature of villainy.

The start of WWII is also easier to understand. Although a lot of Hitler’s military actions were driven by the desire for revenge over the terms of the German’s surrender and Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, put simply the Nazis invaded Poland, Britain declared war on the Nazis, and every country in Europe (aside from Ireland and Switzerland) picked a side. Once the party was in full swing the US turned up fashionably late, just in time to inject new life into proceedings.

Although a lot of British people still don’t like to accept it, the Allies would have lost the war without American intervention. Without their troops, funding, or munitions we would have run out long before the end and we wouldn’t have been able to keep mass producing the Spitfires and Hurricanes that won the Battle of Britain.

The high involvement of the US in WWII probably explains the high ratio of Second World War to First World War films. The U.S contribution to WWI was vital, but their role always seems less prominent. They were also much more reluctant to get involved the first time around. Although these days American foreign policy has ramifications on a global scale, under Woodrow Wilson the U.S government followed a policy of isolationism. Essentially this made their foreign policy ‘well, that’s not our problem…’

I feel quite guilty about my WWI knowledge gap, particularly given the vast amount of time— in and out of school— I’ve spent learning about WWII. I’ve been to Nuremburg, seen the sight of the Munich putsch, and I’ve been inside the attic that Anne Frank hid in. I’ve spent hours at the Imperial War Museum marvelling at Spitfires, and recreations of the trenches.

I watch a lot of documentaries. I’ve seen one about a man who broke into Auschwitz and survived. He still has nightmares some sixty years later. I’ve seen a documentary about four Jewish men who escaped by stealing SS uniforms, equipment, guns, and a car. It was one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen.

War is a terrible thing, but it unites and brings out the best in people. Whilst the Nazis were displaying the absolute worst humanity was capable of, so many in the Allied forces were demonstrating the absolute brilliance humanity was capable of.

That brilliance lives on, even today in the 21st century. There aren’t many left, but those who are meet up occasionally— men from both sides. One of the best things I’ve ever seen is a wheelchair bound ninety-four year old Englishman called Henry Allingham sitting in a room with a ninety-four year old German man sharing memories of the war. At one point they realized they were both fighting in the same battle, firing shots across no-man’s land at each other. And they both laughed; they found it hysterically funny, and joked that neither of them could have been much good with their weapons.

They laid a wreath together at a local war memorial to remember the fallen. I’m sure that even if Henry had the mobility to dance he wouldn’t have danced to the deaths of the German’s former comrades. I’m fairly confident that when the Allies finally won the war Henry danced to the end of the war, not celebrating the end of people’s lives… revelling in the end of the suffering, rather than the thought of it.

We have Remembrance Day in Britain primarily to remember those who sacrificed themselves in the World Wars. There are very few towns in the country that don’t have memorials to those who died. Some are bigger than others. In the village where my parents live there’s a very small plaque and although there are fifteen different Christian names, there are only four different surnames. The majority of the names are from the First World War.

The guns fell silent across no man’s land twice during that war— once on Christmas day when the two sides played a game of football, and for a final time at eleven a.m on the eleventh of November 1918.




There was one surviving veteran of World War One.


He was Claude Choules, a British man who was known by his comrades as ‘Chuckles.’ He joined the Royal Navy at the age of fifteen, and served on the HMS Revenge where he personally witnessed the surrender of the German Imperial Navy.

He later transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and saw active service in the Second World War. 

He died in the early hours of Thursday May 5th 2011.


And now there are none.




Shortly after writing this I learnt that Claude Choules never celebrated the Armistice, and refused to participate in memorial marches. After witnessing so much suffering and death he became a pacifist; he objected to violence and the glorification of war. I don’t really know what to make of that. I just know that it makes me feel incredibly glad that the last man standing was a good man.

One of our best. 




Berlin Elegy

By Stefan Kiesbye

Essay

During the summer of ’89, I took my lover on walks along the Wall. I failed to tell her I had another girlfriend and she kept quiet about her affairs. Susie’s hair was dyed black, and her skin was so pale it almost looked green. Both of us were Grufties, Goths, black swans, sad to the bone, dwelling in a deep and peaceful melancholy mixed with profound half-truths and shiny morsels of philosophy. We were grouchy children of the Cold War, knowing that if Russians and Americans decided to go to war against each other, they would do so in Middle Europe. We were self-indulgent, sorry for the times we were living in, pitying ourselves and taking for granted that the world would soon come to a violent death. Sex we gave freely, as if handing out tissues to mourning friends.

I had met Susie three months before. Getting off the subway train at Leopoldplatz after a day of working as a movie extra, I saw a girl in front of a poster for a pedigree show. She stood slightly stooped, her head raised to inspect the two dogs. Her knees were slightly bent and knocked together. I stopped at the photo booth to check on the blood in my hair and on my forehead. The blood lent me a dramatic air, I decided, as if I had just barely survived a car-crash. It had been my last day as an extra for a TV mini-series about the Third Reich. In the past two weeks I had been a boss of industry supporting the development of the radio, a soldier in the German Navy, and today I had played a servant being killed in a bombing.

“Which dog do you like best?” the girl asked me. I answered that I didn’t like the dog with the bow on its head, but she disagreed.

“I think it’s a beautiful red; it’s a rather beautiful bow.” She nodded her head slowly and smiled as children do when they let you in on a secret. She had a high forehead and her black hair looked like a fantastic crown, a dark version of the Statue of Liberty. She smiled as though embarrassed when I asked her where she lived, and pointed vaguely in the direction of my own apartment. She bared her gums ever so slightly in a smile that ended abruptly.

As it turned out, we lived only a block away from each other. Walking along the cemetery on Turiner Straße, I pointed to my building, which stood overlooking the park-like yard. Bullet holes from the war, which nobody had cared to repair, were still showing in the facade.

“I have a grave here,” she said, a smile touching her face. “I’m taking care of it. It was in really bad shape, and I thought, ‘This grave needs some care.’ Maybe you’ve seen me before.”

Her apartment, to which I followed her without invitation, was cold despite its being a warm evening. Susie took pink champagne from the fridge, crunching bread crumbs and cereal with every step. A dried pancake with a face drawn on it hung above the stove. Greasy spots had soaked the white paint.

Three walls of her bedroom were covered with flowered wallpaper, orange and yellow blossoms. The fourth wall, a bed at its foot, had been left bare except for an enormous eye, taking up the whole space, painted in black and white. A large tear hung in its corner.

Clothing lay humped on the small black desk, on every chair, on the bed and all over the floor. Worn pantyhose, sweaters, and a dirty-white bra. Half-empty bags of gummi bears and potato chips were scattered on and around the mattress.

Sitting down on her bed, I pulled her closer, but she wriggled free of my embrace and laughed. Something in that laugh made me push her onto her back. Susie kept laughing till her head landed on the mattress, then her face froze with anticipation. I put my tongue in her mouth, but she bit me and started laughing again. I pressed her face to one side and bit her neck. Suddenly her arms were around me, and she gave little moans.

Pressing her down with one hand, I pulled off her long skirt with the other. Then I grabbed her pantyhose and slip and pulled them down too.

Stop,” she said, sitting up and panting. When I did, she unbuttoned my shirt, undid my pants, watching me curiously. “You have a good body,” was her judgement, “but your stomach could be flatter.” Then she took off her black sweater and shirt and pulled me close, further inspecting me. “You have nice hair; it’s soft. Like a little duckling’s fuzz,” she whispered. Her body was lazily curved, her skin colorless, showing blue veins. She seemed as naked as someone’s laughter in church.

***

Susie had attended a high school for the super-talented, for those students who in normal institutions perform poorly because they grow bored with the pace of their classes. After receiving her diploma, her Abitur, she enrolled at the Free University of Berlin, in German and Philosophy. But there, her struggles started all over again. Reading Adorno or Kant over the course of weeks bored her into drowsiness; writing papers which were not challenging enough and which she could draft in minutes, led her to never finishing them. She never handed in a single one, then dropped out.

I had dropped out for other reasons. I wanted to become an actor, yet didn’t want to do away with my Robert Smith hairdo and make-up. I was undisciplined and worked in obscure off-off-mainstream projects where young and not-so-young men and women worked without pay or success.

Susie seemed to make her own time, was never distracted and always gave me the feeling I was her only lover, even when I knew I wasn’t. On run-down heels, she staggered along the Wall, pausing to slip a hand down my pants, or show me that she wasn’t wearing a bra. Time followed her awkward steps, never running off or out.

To us, the Wall was like an odd, but good friend. We had been born twenty years after the war and unlike older generations or people with relatives in the East, we had never had any trouble with the existence of the two Germanys.

The German Question, as everyone called it, was no question for us. What kind of question was it anyway? In my eyes, Germany had not deserved any better. Time had slowed down after the war, leaving the country, its culture and arts, in shambles. It should have stopped once and for all in Germany, but time, just because she wasn’t trained to do anything else, went on, aimlessly and off pace, like a disappointed runner who knows that she has already lost.

What had happened to Berlin after ‘45, we appreciated deeply. West Berlin was a country of its own. The presence of the Allies’ armed forces, the division of the city into sectors, assured me that the Germans were kept at bay. “The Germans” were those who did not live within the confines of the Wall, those who were responsible for the Holocaust and two World Wars. West Berliners felt that the war had been forced upon them and that the Nazis had conquered and raped the Weimar metropolis. Now they stood surrounded by the Evil Empire, and were therefore absolved from all guilt. Their city was the last holdout of the free world, the last enclave of the brave and undefeated in the heartland of communism.

A strip several yards wide in front of the Wall — on the western side — was still Eastern territory. This was mostly ignored by Westerners, but to Susie and me it made our walks all the more exciting; it added the flavor of danger. We would ride the subway to a point close to the border — often to Gesundbrunnen in the north — and then walk, sometimes for hours, until we’d be close to another subway or Stadtbahn station.

At certain intervals, there were tiny doors in the Wall, which East German soldiers could open from their side to patrol in front of the Wall, and Susie assured me that, in fact, they did this frequently at night.

I was shocked to hear this, I didn’t want to imagine that my island had porous walls. The sense of peace I had felt during the walks with Susie vanished. Like a King being told that the Barbarians are threatening the borders, I had to see for myself how bad the situation was. So one night we decided to walk to the Reichstag and take a close look at the Wall.

During the day, people played soccer on the huge lawn in front of the Reichstag, called the Place of the Republic, and Turkish families held their barbecues there in summer. Busloads of tourists came every day to have a look at the museum inside the Reichstag and at the Wall. The city had even erected wooden scaffolds to give tourists a better view of the Wall and what lay behind it. At night, however, what was left of the crowd were empty film-wrappers and overflowing trash cans. The area was dead, with only an occasional police car patrolling.

Susie wore a black skirt, fishnet-stockings and black pointed shoes with several straps and shiny buckles, which gave off a jangling sound. She looked like a queen, dark and regal. We walked halfway around the Reichstag and closer to the Spree river, so we could see the Wall running directly behind the building. A Death Strip stretched between the Wall, as could be seen from the West, and a smaller, less imposing inner wall, which stood entirely on Eastern territory.

We climbed the stairs of one of the scaffolds facing a concrete watchtower

inside the Death Strip and waited. To the right, through the trees, we could make out the gleam of lights where the Brandenburg Gate stood, and we could also see the torchlights of the nearby Soviet Honor Monument. Even though the monument was placed in West Berlin, two Soviet soldiers paraded in front of it, day and night. In front of us, jeeps were patrolling the Death Strip, going back and forth between the numerous towers along the Wall. Yet none ever stopped near us.

Susie had brought along a bottle of Valpolicella, and we drank and watched the watchtower, and, when nothing happened, she crawled over to me, sat down in my lap and asked, “Do you think they’ll come if we do it?”

They didn’t. But during the second night we went to the Reichstag, three soldiers in a jeep took off from the watchtower driving toward the Wall. When they came close to reaching it, they disappeared from our view. After several minutes we saw the Wall open in a place where I hadn’t been able to see the door. Two soldiers, their weapons tightly gripped, came through the low opening. For a moment Susie and I stood frozen, expecting the soldiers to shout at us. But they walked a few yards to the left to inspect something we couldn’t see, while a third soldier guarded the hole in the Wall. This man lifted his eyes and he must have seen us, but didn’t show any reaction. After only a few minutes, his two comrades returned, and one soldier after the other passed through the door and disappeared. The door was shut; the Wall was seamless again.

My favorite graffiti was one near Bernauer Strasse. It read “Fighting for Germany’s reunion is like fucking for virginity.” This walled-in city was my place and nobody would be able to take it away from me. Any other thought was ridiculous.