Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Georg Bücher - In the Line 1914-1918

A recent visit to the World War One battlefields of Flanders has awakened an interest in that horrific conflict, but having read a number of books written by British authors that contained eyewitness accounts from Allied troops, I was pleased to find this book by a German soldier. Georg Bücher's In the Line was a well known book when it was first published, but has been out of print for many years and this new edition seems timed for the 100th anniversary of the end of the war.

German accounts of World War One are always tainted by the Second one. This is in part because of the way that Hitler used Germany's defeat as a corner-stone of his propaganda. In particular the punitive Treaty of Versailles and the idea that Germany's army was "stabbed in the back". So Bücher's account is interesting on two levels.

The first of these is his own experiences. Bücher was the only one of a group of friends who made it all the way through the war. Given the scale of the slaughter this in itself is incredible. He fought at Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele among other major battles, and saw his best friends killed. For those who know their military history of the War there is a lot here in terms of the experience of soldiers in the opposite trenches. This was little different to that of the Allies, though it got worse towards the end of the war. Mud, lice, shell-shock, dirt and the constant discussion of women and the quest for alcohol. Bücher also describes some other events, including this shocking account of a counter-attack against French-Senegalese troops to, Bücher says, "avenge" dead German soldiers "brutally mutilated by the Senegalese". Bücher also uses language that is offensive to us today, perhaps reflecting his politics (more on that later):
With death before us we drove the howling Senegalese back into our old trenches, where lay the comrades, foully mutilated and still shuddering... what mutilations! Eyes gone, dirt and mud in their mouths and noses, bayonets through their wrists and cheeks. The sight was more than we could bear - it turned us into madmen. Yet we did not-murder: we only fought with the fury of annihilation...drive the drunken bellowing, stinking black horde into the dug-outs. There was no mercy...
Bücher's racism here, becomes combined with anger at the madness of war and those who make men kill each other,
At Lorette we were avengers; but our vengeance was taken only on the black beasts. The pity was that Riedel's spade could not batter in the heads of those who were actually responsible: the white-skinned officers by whose permission and orders the blacks had been soaked in absinthe before the attack.
Either deliberately, or accidentally, Bücher frequently is guilty of double-standards. Enemies who are drunk must have been forced to drink by their officers, though he and his friends are frequently drunk. He claims his forces are not murdering, yet his best friend prefers to use a spade to kill the enemy. This is hypocrisy, but it gives a sense of the reality of total, industrial slaughter.

The account follows Bücher's war, including a period when he is hospitalised. It is a very personal war, and he and his comrades frequently set out to avenge the death of a friend. They debate the progress of the conflict, but actually care only for events in their small section. Hatred is reserved for the enemy, and cynicism for their own generals.

The second reason this book is interesting is that it is produced in the 1930s response to accusations that the German army was cowardly. Frequently Bücher denies this, but one wonders where his political sympathies lay at this point. He often notes how Social Democrat propaganda is sapping the morale of his comrades (though he conflates this sometimes with enemy propaganda) and one of his friends, who is a pacifist, redeems himself in Bücher's eyes by dying bravely in battle. Bücher condemns those behind the lines who fail to understand his experience and concludes
In the unspeakable horrors of the western front we had heard something more than the voice of death...no life without struggle; no life without death; no security without weapons... Avalanches may roll, winds of fury rage, unchained powers hold mastery for a time. As with nature, so is it in the life of the individual, of the masses, of a nation: one hour passes, another follows and with it the sun may shine again. Therefore: Si pacem vis...
By the time he writes this, has Bücher come under the influence of the Nazis? His language seems to echo their language of destiny and the importance of war in shaping the population. If so, it seems strange that Bücher even mentioned that he was elected a "chosen member of the soldier's council" in the revolutionary wave that ended World War One.

I've not been able to find out more about Bücher's life - it would be interesting to know where he ended up. His politics are not of the left, and perhaps he was influenced while writing by the increasing right-wing atmosphere in the late 1920s. So these memoirs are interesting in that they depict the experiences of an ordinary German soldier in World War One, but they also give us an insight into how some of the veterans felt a decade after the war ended. Certainly one can imagine Hitler approving of some of the sentiments in Bücher's book.

In a review in the Spectator in 1932 Graham Greene mocked the author's writing. The book is terribly over-written in places, but to me that underlines the authenticity of the book. One wanders what Greene made of the politics...

One final thing. Potential readers should be aware that this book is full of typographical errors. Many of them seem like errors from the scanning of the text. It is a shame that the publishers didn't correct these.

Related Reviews

MacDonald - Passchendaele
Zurbrugg - Not Our War
Kershaw - To Hell and Back
Sherry - Empire and Revolution
Stone - The Eastern Front

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