Our Country

I found this postcard among old family photos:

It is postmarked October 10, 1917. On that day, we were still 13 months away from the armistice that would end World War I. Oscar, my relative, wrote on the reverse that he was in Houston waiting to get on a train, presumably to head into basic training and then to the war in Europe. I know by looking at the card he picked out that Oscar believed in his cause.

Our Country — right or wrong

OUR COUNTRY

It was supposed to be the War to End All Wars, but of course it wasn’t. Some 12 years after the armistice the world plunged into a great depression, and Germans needed a wheelbarrow full of Deutschmarks to buy a loaf of bread. Through the chaos of insane inflation and joblessness and political disorder stepped a dynamic young man who would restore unity and stability and a patriotic pride to Germany. Unfortunately, he was Adolf Hitler, and he brought a new kind of chaos with him.

I wonder how Oscar felt when he saw newsreels chronicling the rising Third Reich. How must it have felt to have dedicated himself to his country, right or wrong, to have participated in mass destruction justified because it would end all war, only to see war starting in the same place all over again?

On October 10, 1917, the day Oscar sent this postcard to his father, Erich Maria Remarque was convalescing from a leg wound in a German army hospital. He had begun the war as a young man who believed in his cause.

Ten years later he wrote Im Westen Nichts Neues, a devastating novel published in 1929 in the United States as All Quiet on the Western Front. It was a best-seller in chaotic Germany. Five years after its publication the book was banned under Germany’s new order. After Goebbels declared him a traitor, Remarque escaped to Switzerland. His sister was not so lucky; she was executed in 1943. The German judge who sentenced her said, “Your brother has unfortunately escaped us. You, however, will not.”

How must it have felt for Erich to dedicate himself to his country, right or wrong, only to see that country disintegrate? And then to see it rise from the ashes not as the triumphant Phoenix, but as some monstrous perversion that would eat so many lives, so many dreams, so many hopes?

Two young men who lived across an ocean from each other shared a belief:

Our country, right or wrong. OUR COUNTRY.

The Great War and its aftermath stripped away illusions. We love our country, but we will support it only if it is right.

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Categories: History

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3 replies

  1. “Our country, right or wrong” — who the heck came up with that and what exactly was it supposed to mean?
    The very notion of it seems ludicrous and arrogant. I suppose it could mean that you can love your country and consider yourself a patriot, even if you disagree with the government. But that interpretation may be cutting it too much slack.

  2. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana, “The Life of Reason”.

    One thing that was impressed on me by events in my class this week was just how much we are affected by the epoch we call home. Even a difference of ten years can be massive. I entered the study of business in the aftermath of Enron and Worldcom and Arthur Andersen; to me, knowing how to make good decisions and how to manage and analyze a business is critical to the point of being sacrosanct. By comparison, most of my students never experienced the insanity that signaled the end of the dotcom boom. Their analysis of the business world is only the last couple of years; before then, they were concerned with the trials of growing up.

    I point this out because World Wars I and II were a study in generations. While old men may unleash the dogs of war, it is the youth who are the hounds. Young, impressionable, full of energy, they never experienced the horrors of the previous war. They are the energy – the lifeblood – of any conflict. They are then chewed up, spit out, and those that survive have to rebuild themselves again.

    In the case of War II, a few of those former young men tried to rebuild themselves by making their sacrifice right somehow, by taking back what War I lost and then some. In their mind, the war was never over, because they hadn’t won; consider that Hitler’s manifesto was called “Mein Kampf” – My Struggle. And, in the irony of ironies, they sent far more than another generation to the slaughterhouse.

    Santayana wrote “The Life of Reason” a decade before War I. After War I, another, just as poignant quote came from his “Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies”:

    “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

  3. The original quote was from Commodore Stephen Decatur, and it went like this:

    “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” The idea being, that as a Navy officer, he would always hope that the country would be in the right, but right or wrong, he would be true to the country.

    I prefer “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” which is attributed to Senator Carl Schurz, who was a German revolutionary, US Civil War Union General and was elected to the Senate in 1869 from Missouri.

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