The chances are you’ve seen this video by Tribes. The counter is currently showing 44 million views, but, as it is simply the most powerful message I’ve seen recently about the futility of war, given the current predilection for (what will hopefully be only another round of) sabre-rattling, I’m including it here.
Estimating the number of deaths in all those conflicts is an impossible task, the numbers from World War Two are mind-boggling enough. But each of those 80 million deaths was an individual tragedy, and it’s on the individual level that we feel the pain more acutely.
I left Heinrich Böll as he was leaving high school entering the book trade, seeking ways to avoid becoming another cog in the Nazi machine. In the years between then and the publication of Where were you, Adam? in 1951, he was conscripted into the Wehrmacht. He survived 4 wounds and typhoid fever to distill those experiences into this short and powerful novella.
With no preamble Böll pitches the reader onto the Eastern Front. Hungary 1944. The war is lost and the German army is retreating from the advance of the Russians. Except the words defeat and retreat are forbidden – all movement must be packaged as redeployment. Call it what they will, the horrors and absurdities of war still prevail. Generals knowingly send men without enough firepower into battle to buy time. Amidst the carnage, Nazis still have resource and energy to clear the ghettos.
So much for the big picture. Individual stories break down abstractions and generalisations and this is where Böll’s story excels. He relates the story of the German defeat through a collage of experiences: those of the different ranks in the Wehrmacht together with representatives the civilian population. Each episode is depicted realistically with sufficient detail to engage this civilian reader’s senses and emotions without overdoing it. (Unlike this one.)
The first episode begins with the general inspecting his battalion shortly before sending them into battle:
First came a face, large, yellow, tragic, moving past their lines; that was the general. The general looked tired. The face with puffy blue shadows under the malaria-yellow eyes, the slack, thin-lipped mouth of a man dogged by bad luck, moved hurriedly past the thousand men. … Each of the three times three hundred and thirty-three men into whose faces he looked was aware of a strange feeling: sorrow, pity, fear, and a secret fury. Fury at this war, which had already gone on far too long …..
Those emotions were key to my reading because in the course of the 134 pages, I felt all of those (although there’s nothing secret about my fury). For while the German army is staging its retreat – sorry, redeployment – the body count still rises. And these men – conscripts, in the main – are destined to fall. But they aren’t just statistics. Their backstories render them human and in some cases, more vulnerable because of a chronic health condition. Another man is a wine merchant, conscripted and sent by the whim of some delusional maniac to source 50 bottles of the finest Hungarian wine. Amidst the madness there are fine examples of courage: doctors and medical orderlies who remain with patients in post-operative recovery to give them a chance of survival.
Civilian life is represented by the Hungarian landlady who quarters the German troops. She makes a good living out of the war and is sorry when her time of bounty is over. Conversely there is the Catholic Jewish teacher, Ilona, who makes an unwise choice to visit her parents in the ghetto.
The episodic structure is held together by the figure of Feinhals, whose movements take us from one story to the next. Wounded in the opening battle (much to his relief) , he is taken to the medical station, the location of the second and third chapters. Post recovery he meets Ilona, but their love affair is short-lived as he receives further redeployment orders. And so it continues with increasing absurdity and meaningless sacrifice until the end of the war when Feinhals is decommissioned and on the threshold of his parent’s home.
I’m struggling to identify the most absurd moment of them all. Could that be poor Fleck’s death who dies on the battlefield, pierced in the chest by one of those 50 wine bottles.
“In the chest?”
“That’s right – he must have been kneeling over his suitcase.”
“Contrary to regulations”, said the second lieutenant.
How macabre is that?
But there is further absurdity to follow including a bridge that is rebuilt only to be destroyed by the builders the day after completion. You couldn’t make it up, and I suspect Böll didn’t. As for meaninglessness, the apex is reached in the last chapter, in the last gasp of the war. It is an incident that is well-signalled, and has been subtly foreshadowed throughout. Nevertheless it resurrected all those emotions highlighted in the first chapter. It also made this reader raise a white flag in the face of human stupidity.