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"The Last Soldiers of the Great War": Article from Die Zeit (October 13, 1955)

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Two scenes from the “welcome place” should also be recorded: “Man, Jupp, old buddy – that you also came on this transport!” – “Man, Paul, old goofball, I’ve already been here two years.” – The other, who is wearing a blue quilted jacket, slaps his forehead. “Right, Jupp! I was taken off the transport again two years ago. Well, how are things here? You are all spruced up, Jupp.” – “It’s what it is, Paul. And when you come to Bochum, you always have a place to stay. . .”

An elderly man with white hair and a woolen jacket stands next to bus number 15; he has a bouquet of wildflowers in his chapped hand, carries the flowers upright, and it looks as though he is holding onto them. Stared at by those around him, he cries uncontrollably and groans: “We drove through my homeland, and now I am here.” – “And why not,” Paul comforts him. “You’ve got your family in the West! Man, you were completely sensible during the trip. And now you’re flipping out?” – “I hadn’t though about it,” says the sobbing soldier, “I drove through our district city. I kept thinking: home is home. . .” – “Yeah, you don’t need to think.”

Slowly the contact between “soldiers” and “civilians” broke off. The returnees stood around in groups. They retrieved their belongings in groups from the parked buses; they walked over to the barracks in groups. For them, the war has just now ended. We others watched them. Their movements, their posture, their groupish togetherness were at once familiar and simultaneously alien to us. We were seeing once more the final stage of the Great War.

“Boys, you’re lucky,” called a brisk voice. “You’re getting 6,000 Marks and a Kulturbeutel [toiletry bag].” – One of the men in a blue cotton wool jacket stopped, looked at the man who had called out, and tapped his forehead . . . (The 6,000 Marks, of which those who came to welcome the returnees spoke fairly often, are state grants. “Kulturbeutel” must be a term that came to Friedland from the Russian language: it contains soap, a sponge, shaving supplies, toothpaste, and the like, and the phrase reminds me that the Russians call a park with monuments and lemonade stalls a “culture park,” and that they call a water closet a “culture loo”.)

Between the barracks and behind the camp fence, elderly, shy gentlemen are walking about, wearing, not wool jackets, but quilted blankets, or faded uniform jackets, but blue . . . “Sunday suits” with hats: from that you can recognize the returnees from the general transports from camp Voikovo. Thus dressed up in bourgeois guise, they had been allowed to go on a tour of the city at the transit stop in Moscow, and experienced that representatives of the Soviet authority quickly tried to make nice with them. It is not only that in the classless state the generals’ ranks were marked by bourgeois suits and packets of caviar – some of the men, who were thought to be prominent individuals, were even asked to sign a guestbook. One of the generals responded: “Since when do hangmen ask their offenders to sign the guestbook?”

Only Seydlitz thanked the Soviets for their benefactions, Seydlitz, about whom one was warned at parties during the “Third Reich”: “Not a word against Hitler, Seydlitz is coming: he is loyal to Hitler!,” and who then, in captivity, signed the black-white-red bordered flyers that called upon German troops to defect to the Soviets. Having arrived in Friedland, he then gave those now all-too-well-known speeches about the “German Reich” and Soviet-German friendship, which he supposedly discovered a decade before Adenauer did . . . In Friedland he said: “I want to become a politician,” in Verden: “I have no intention of becoming a politician.” – But one of the returnees, a former colonel, said about all of this: “There are more of these gentlemen, who once wore black-white-red with the swastika and today think that black-white-red with the hammer and sickle is a flag with a future. They then talk about Rapallo and the Seeckt tradition. Oh, my friend, there is much in the making that is more interesting than the idle question of why we – we, of all people – were kept for ten years in penal and hush-camps. . .”

The matadors among the first transports were Baur, because he was the “Führer’s” pilot, and a harmless and shabby-looking little man who had been Hitler’s valet and who now promised the foreign journalists that he would soon write his memoirs. And he was already eagerly writing down addresses of people he should contact once his work was finished. . .

Incidentally: the Soviets keep their word. About 2,000 returnees have come to Germany by now; the majority came to the West; many, who belonged to central Germany [i.e. East Germany] kept going westward when they saw that the officers of the People’s Police forbade the population from welcoming their last soldiers of the Great War. One said: “I calmly told the policeman who wanted to keep me in Fürstenwalde: ‘There are twenty punches hanging in the air. How many shall I pick for you?’ . . . But now? What do we do now? I don’t know a soul here in the West, nobody.’” – “There is plenty of work.” – “Good, then we’ll see,” said the soldier and gave his soldier’s cap to a child: “Do you want a souvenir? Here you are . . .”

Source: “Die letzten Soldaten des Großen Krieges” [“The Last Soldiers of the Great War”], Die Zeit, October 13, 1955.

Translation: Thomas Dunlap

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