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
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.