May 16, 2016
By Arthur H. Gunther III
Weiden, Germany — On a recent walk here in the centuries-old farmland of this Bavarian region while visiting family, I came upon a war memorial, a bit worn and not as cared for as when it was dedicated perhaps 20 years ago. Such remembrances often suffer that fate because life moves on, and the “now” is for the living.
Every town in every nation has a war memorial, if only in the books of the churches, synagogues, mosques or in family Bibles. Somehow, lists are made, notations entered, prayers said, heads bowed, and then daily tasks take over. Life moves on.
And it has in Weiden, a small, prosperous community in prosperous Bavaria, not far from Munich or the large World War II Wehrmacht and First World War Bavarian Army training bases, some held — still — by the U.S. military. Neatly kept homes surround the platz or town square with its ancient buildings, people go about their work matter-of-factly, and there is a hum that contents. Residents enjoy strolling in the square, shopping, eating. The sounds of war are so very distant now, and generations are removed from its horror.
Who can argue against that? Certainly the war dead would have wanted such living, having sacrificed for it.
Yet on my quiet walk, which is the best walk, passing winter straw in fields just like those in my boyhood in Rockland County, N.Y., listening for the freight train so easily heard in the stillness, looking at barns that survived bombing, the Weiden war memorial seemed at once out of place. It seemed an intrusion in that bucolic scene. But quick guilt took over, and I walked to a block of stone on which appeared the names of the men — young mostly — of Der Erste Weltkrieg (First World War). I read the many names with reverence, as you must do, and then looked at an even bigger column of names from the Der Zweite Weltkrieg, the second world war. It was then that I stood without any movement, for a very long moment. I stared at one family name, a family which had lost three men in 1914-1918 and then seven in 1939-1945. Ten gone. One family.
Walking back to my son’s temporary home in Weiden (his wife is a U.S. Army physician posted to the base at Grafenwohr), I glanced at a very old farmstead and wondered if one of those first three German men had dressed field horses with plowing harness or had wrestled with each other in the hay. Did their fathers or sons or uncles do the same just before 1939? Had any of them seen the winter straw or heard the far-off train whistles in those quiet moments of boyhood?
And in America, in any small town, in Rockland County, in France, England, Allied nations, Axis countries, did those young people whose names now stand out on war memorials do any of the things you do in peaceful times? And what of the civilian casualties, especially those in the Holocaust?
“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”
– General Dwight D. Eisenhower
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.