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

One result of Chancellor Adenauer’s trip to Moscow in the fall of 1955 was the release of the last 10,000 German prisoners of war from Soviet labor camps. Their arrival at the Friedland reception camp in Lower Saxony more than ten years after the end of the war was an emotional moment, not only for their families, but for many West Germans as well. However, this report in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit suggested that integrating the former soldiers would be challenging, given the profoundly altered conditions of postwar society.

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The Last Returnees from Soviet Prisoner of War Camps Came to Germany in the Fall of 1955

A Report by Jan Molitor

Did we think there was peace? Peace for ten years already? The last soldiers of the Great War are only returning home now.

On Sunday at noon, when thousands of people waiting at camp Friedland suddenly turned their eyes to the distant country road on the hillside, they saw seventeen heavy buses slowly approaching, followed by a long line of private cars. The bell began ringing in the camp. The waiting crowd did not move. Tears were rolling down some of the faces. One after another, the buses finally reached the “welcome site” and circled around; now one could clearly see the passengers. They looked down out of the windows at us with serious expressions, young and old men, some had flowers in their hands; all waved with small, tight, helpless movements, held their lower arms stiffly and turned their hands at the wrist. One heard the scream of an old woman who recognized her son . . .

Was it this that made you choke up? Suddenly a man stood there in worn-out pilot’s blue and looked at you, said something, too, some kind of meaningless soldier’s words. One should have answered him! But one was all choked up. He turned away. I looked down at my suit. . . it’s not that I was embarrassed about the creases in my pants, but . . .

When I had caught up with the man in pilot’s blue, other returnees joined in the middle of the throng, and we pushed ourselves forward through the crowd; somebody would now give a speech of welcome. Finally, the men stood in fairly closed ranks. Suddenly the knot in the throat relaxes, because one finally understands that incomprehensible thing that had made everyone remain quiet at the sight of these men: they were still under the law of their soldiers’ habits – ten years after the war. “In that outfit,” I said very unnecessarily about the pilot’s blue, “I ran around and flew around for years myself. Strange that the stuff lasts so long.” – “It was lying in some box; I’m not a flier, am a tank man . . .”

He listened attentively to words of welcome from the Minister President of Lower Saxony, Hellwege, folded his hands when Bishop Lilje had the “Lord’s Prayer” recited, nodded when the honorary president of the Bundestag, Mrs. Lüders, said: “Do not be impatient with your family members,” and applauded excitedly and called “Bravo” and “Yes” when Vice-chancellor Blücher spoke of the need to thank the chancellor.

“We are the last soldiers of the Great War,” said the speaker of the returnees. “We cry and are not ashamed of our tears. . . ,” and he spoke of the many, many graves into which they placed their dead, and said that they themselves, the few survivors, had been sustained by the love of the Germans back home. When the national anthem was sung, the man standing next to me joined in with a strong voice: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” and then stopped suddenly when a young girl sang in a loud soprano: “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit.” He looked around and turned his old soldier’s cap in his hand. He had missed ten years . . .

The pilot blue tank man, as well as all the others, tried to strike up a conversation with everyone who stood nearby. They were trivial conversations. “It’s nice that the sun is shining. You have some fine warm weather here . . . When we left Sverdlovsk ten days ago, it was twenty degrees below zero. . .” Such were the conversations. People spoke about the weather. Common soldiers spoke with civilians outside over the barracks fence: this is how it was. Women and children, and men with handmade signs on poles walked through the crowd as well: “Who knows something about . . . ;” followed by the name, rank, field post number. Sometimes women approached the last soldier: “Please, please, is Karl Müller among you?” – “Can’t be here, my dear woman. We are the letters A and B and W and H-G.” The last soldiers were released according to the alphabet, the Russian alphabet; and since the Russians have no H, but always use a G instead, they ended up with the combination H-G. The very last core of the German eastern forces, kept back for ten years, mostly against any human law, often thrown together in the penal camps with people of all the nations on Russian soil, in a confusion that nobody, not even the Russian jailers, could keep track of, and then released according to the alphabet: thus was barbarism married to bureaucracy.

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