As little kids back in the sixties in suburban West Coast Canada, my best buddy and I would spend a lot of our classroom time drawing war scenes on pieces of paper. Our depictions were filled with fun explosions and gunfire. Traditionally, the good guys always defeated the bad guys. That was less than twenty-five years after World War Two, which meant Americans against Nazi Germans. (“Achtung! Schweinehund!”) Sargent Rock and Sargent Fury were two of the action comic books that I’d sometimes read under my blankets at home when I was supposed to be sleeping. The world seemed so clearly laid out in black and white, and we were the triumphant heroes. Could I have imagined back then that I would marry and move to Europe decades later, and live a pleasant life in enemy territory?
In 2003 my wife inherited a cottage and property on a creek in the Vienna Woods from a deceased friend of her grandmother (these women had survived two world wars in Vienna, losing all their material wellbeing twice in one lifetime) in a small valley with seven hills that had established inns for travellers (twelve in its heyday!) and farms from way back in the twelfth century AD. Ten years later we received a surprise visit here by an old man who’s father had built the one room structure out of hand-sawn wooden beams, bricks and improvised mortar, and dug the six meter well, back in 1934. They had received the property because the father was employed on the railroad that ran through the village. This is where our visitor had happily grown up as a child. But then Hitler rose to power and all hell broke loose. At the end of the devastating war they moved to Vienna. But young Kurt experienced the relief from oppression of the evil regime here in his rural corner of Austria. When news of the fall came, in the one desperate night before the Russians swarmed in, the impoverished villagers broke into the Nazi headquarters and SS officer training centre* (that existed on an ancient country estate then, just a few blocks from the house where we now live in the village of ‘Eichgraben’, Oak Gully) and stole everything they could carry away. Apparently some homes in the area still have oak floorboards that were made off with that night from the Herrenhof. Even cobblestones from the new Autobahn (freeway/motorway) that was commissioned by Hitler nearby were stolen. A teenage friend of Kurt was caught with an unlicensed motorcycle by the police that were later assigned to come and inspect the village and it’s inhabitants. The boy was worried that they would confiscate it, but the friendly officer simply took a hammer and whacked a dent into it, declaring that it looked broken and that he could keep it! (They still use the old wartime civil-defence siren system here to alert the volunteer fire department members in cases of emergency, giving the haunting impression every time that bombs are about to fall.)
*(The dreaded SS had many secretive training centres throughout the Vienna Woods, where young men were brain-washed into becoming cold, calculating killing machines. Young ladies from the nearby farms and villages would sometimes be invited for dance evenings at the Herrenhof to pump the egos of the budding officers.)
It took a long time for me in Austria (where I arrived in 1986 to marry my sweet Viennese Fräulein … whom I had met in India!) to realize that every war memorial statue and roll of honour here praised the so-called bad guys killed in action. The fact really came home to me one day when I helped fill a scene full of SS officers as an extra in an American Broadcast Corporation television series called War and Remembrance. I was in Vienna’s Rathaus Keller (City Hall cellar) at a make-believe banquet, dressed as a Nazi (they paid me extra to have my blond hair shaven down to a crew cut) with two hundred other scary looking men, and a Hitler look-alike raving up on the podium. (What a jerk!) This was daily life here not long ago, and it’s been equally brutal in many other countries since.
In 1989 I spent a few weeks working in a one-hundred-and-fifty year old family-run shop in the heart of Frankfurt. My boss, like his parents and grandparents before him, did exclusive picture framing work. They had also all been Nazi supporters. So many times I had to listen to his assertions that the Allies did worse things than Hitler’s well-meaning assistants. Some evenings on the bus ride home I couldn’t help crying, so intense was the physical pain in my heart from those tangible, torturing vibrations.
My father-in-law, a very kind and intelligent, now retired, government official, was spared the fate that met most of the servants of das Dritte Reich. When, as a teenager in 1941, he was drafted and forced to quickly chose between serving as a Luftwaffe gunner or an aircraft warning observer, he was able to choose the safe position. His guardian angel placed him in an observation tower** outside of Paris where he saw no fighting. (His comrade fired some shots towards the ground one night, only to discover the next morning that it had been cows moving around down there in the dark.) Then, on the way to Hamburg to deliver a package, he put his hand through a train compartment window when their car jerked, and was declared unfit for battle because of a stiff thumb. He still remembers the moaning of wounded soldiers from the Soviet front in that Hamburg military hospital where he lay until his mother, undertaking the long journey from Vienna, rescued him and took him home. (It was about this time that my Dad lost his brother, Cliff, as the plane carrying him and other young recruits disappeared from the radar screens — see letter below.) She had organized his transfer through an important doctor that she knew. After his convalescence he was allowed to continue his studies, and heard about the end of the war over the radio in a friend’s apartment in Vienna’s fourth district on the eighth day of May, 1945 (where he was staying because the Allied Forces had been carpet bombing his neighbourhood near the main train station — my first home in Europe from 1986 till 1999). If the Germans had developed their radar technology sooner, or if that train hadn’t made a sudden stop, my wife may never had been born, as her father would certainly have been sent to battle and been killed, or died slowly as a prisoner-of-war in Russia, like his father.
**(By the time of the Battle of Britain in mid-1940, the Royal Air Force had fully integrated radar as part of the national air defence. By contrast, the German Funkmessgerät was neglected, partly due to Adolf Hitler’s prejudice against defensive measures, and failings by the Luftwaffe in coherently incorporating the new technology.)
Papa went on to serve his country for one and a half decades as head of the Regional Land Use Commission, receiving the national Decoration of Honour in recognition of his outstanding integrity and dedication, from the Chancellor, when he retired in 1987.
We might not experience all-encompassing war in Europe again*** (if the Western neocons don’t provoke Russia into further defensive measures) but a similar firestorm is brewing in Asia and the Middle East as I write these words. May mankind soon choose enlightenment and benevolence over baser motivations. Surely we have been deeply prepared for that higher destiny.
***(Almost one-and-a-half centuries before the last world war, here in Eichgraben, some of Napolean’s troops — actually Bavarian soldiers, speaking German like the locals — bullied one of the innkeepers, stealing his goods and insulting him. Seven of them were murdered in their drunken sleep by a few pitchfork wielding farmers, but one escaped to report back to his commanding officer in nearby Purkersdorf. A squadron came here to punish the locals with brutality and a high fine, which was mostly paid by a Viennese merchant who lived in this area.) (A couple hundred years before that, Europe was filled for thirty years with terrorist armies and mercenaries that raped, pillaged and murdered each other and innocent women and children in the name of Jesus Christ, mostly Protestants against Catholics, but even some who were on the same side — France against the, mostly Austrian, Holy Roman Empire. The terror is carried forward genetically to countless suffering descendents, even today.) (… And who knows what the Romans and Celts, and the occasional barbarian from north of the Danube, got up to here one-and-a-half millennia before that!)