Estimated reading time — 25 minutes
When I was a kid, I never really knew my grandfather Karl. Not only was he an ocean away, living in his home country while I grew up American, he had died a few years before I was born, nixing any chance of a meet up. Grandma kept his house and his things locked away for a long while, until she too, finally kicked the bucket about six years ago. We managed to get a little money they had set aside, but more important than that was all the old stuff collected over the years.
You see, grandpa was a fighter, through and through. He’d spent a good portion of his adult life as a soldier in both World War One and Two fighting for Germany, collecting a few medals to his name. My mom told me he never liked to talk about it though. Said he always had this vacant, depressed look in his eyes, even when she was a little girl. There was more than one time she would get up in the middle of the night for a cup of water, only to see him sprawled on the living room couch, a bottle in one hand and his weeping face cradled by the other. I could only imagine what he went through.
Like millions of other people in the current circumstances, I found myself stuck at home without a whole lot to do, waiting for college to re-open and life to get back on track. With so many people comparing the current pandemic to past ones, the Spanish Flu getting namedropped the most, it got me wondering how my grandfather dealt with it. So I went up into the attic to go through some of his old things for some kind of clue, not really expecting to find anything. Pouring through old files and documents, I came across a battered envelope, unmarked. Opening it up revealed a handwritten note. I still retained enough German from my mother and school lessons to read some of it, so I started without asking for help.
The contents of the note were far different from anything I expected. When I finished it, I didn’t know if I should have got someone to make sure I had read it right. Queasily, I took it upon myself to be the sole translator, for I do not know how others would feel, and would not like to be publicly associated with its contents. Thus, I share it here, with you folks, in the hopes that someone can make sense of this insanity, and perhaps someone else out there could tell me whether or not they’ve ever heard of something like this before.
The first time I remember dying was in the fields of Flanders, in September of 1917. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My life was unremarkable before my time in the army. My family used to own a little farm out in the countryside, where we grew wheat and potatoes, toiling for hours a day to scrape by. When I was about nine our father sold the farm, and we moved into an apartment in the city, where we took up work in snarling, pollution ridden factories melting steel or making textiles. Back in those days even the small children were expected to work, so I went too. Sometimes I would have vivid, agonizing nightmares of heavy machinery searing my flesh to the bone or crushing my skull to a bloody pulp, instilling a terror to do my best and make no mistakes. Maybe that’s where all this started. I don’t know.
When the war first broke out, I was fifteen years old. In those days there were few alive who had seen what war really meant. Most people only had vague notions of our crushing victory over France decades prior or of insurgencies in the African colonies; quick, easy victory. When things stalled out, we were assured that the stalled situation was only a setback, even as this dragged on for years, and as foodstuffs became more scarce from British blockades.
I got called up for service a little after my eighteenth birthday, in August of 1917. Training was expedited, and in September I was shipped to the front at Flanders. Our train stopped at some French or Belgian town, we were shaken awake, and then marched off to the front. We were sent in under the cover of darkness, as artillery strikes in the daylight made things too risky.
Immediately I wanted to go back home. Within the first few hours my ears were ringing painfully from all the artillery shells. Every time a flare shot into the night sky, I and the other new guys could see the long lines of dead and wounded getting carried out from behind the frontline trenches. Each time I got a peak, I wanted to vomit. In some way though, the darkness was worse, because all you could hear were screaming agonized wails and unheard pleas to God.
Our CO sent us to our different positions. I entered my assigned dugout with three or four others, where by dim candle light we were face to face with aged veterans. One older man, thin and wrinkly with jowls hanging down his cheeks stared at us the same way a normal person would stare at a flea ridden rat.
“So, these are the new fucks?” he said to us. A few hesitant affirmations and the man averted his gaze and took a swig from a cup. “Fucking bastards are just dead weight.”
A stocky man, wide shouldered and tall and with a big black beard hugging his face, stood up and said “Don’t mind Rudolf. He’s been in since the very beginning. I’m Max.” He shook all of our hands and gave us a quick rundown on what to expect out there. He was a kind, funny man, and we could tune out the drone of shells blowing chunks out of the landscape while he told us about how he used to box. I think he knew we weren’t going to be able to get any sleep that night, even if some of us tried. We were all on edge, sitting around waiting for something to happen.
In the afternoon the shelling suddenly stopped in our area, moving further behind the lines and giving our battered ears some respite. Max and the other veterans jerked their heads upwards, listening intently, the piercing sound of a simple order filling all of us with dread.
“It’s an attack! Assume defensive formation!”
We rushed out of our dugout and filed into our firing positions. I didn’t think I had any adrenaline left to expend at that point, yet my racing pulse informed me otherwise. Some mortars were still going off all around us while we could see British troops, bug sized at our distance, streaming towards us. Thousands of rifles all went off at once and machine guns rattled away. If my hearing wasn’t damaged before, it certainly was now.
Despite all the firepower we could muster, the British advanced further on, which shook me to the core. I didn’t think it would be possible to live through a barrage so deadly. What before appeared as cockroaches slowly crawling along the ground now looked like men, and they were starting to shoot back. I heard a couple people cry out in pain as bullets hit them, and out of the corner of my eyes I saw a man collapse, dead.
Frantically I fired, worked the bolt, inserted more clips. The more I fired, the more I felt like I was doing something, even if I wasn’t aiming near half the time. In a split second I saw one of them toss something, and it landed right behind me. I spun around recklessly, seeing it only seconds before a white hot flash enveloped me. Just enough time for my brain to think “grenade”.
And then I felt myself getting shaken awake again, back on the train. Startled, I jolted upwards, blurting out “Where am I? What kind of hospital…” I promptly shut up, taking in all my surroundings. It was the train car alright, and everyone I had disembarked with.
“The asylum’s further down the tracks, buddy.” someone joked, prompting some cruel chuckles. I had no idea what was happening. Touching my face and the rest of my body, I couldn’t feel any wounds, so I reasoned the blast must’ve knocked me out somehow. But my head didn’t hurt either. Had I been comatose?
I pushed the whirlwind of confusion down into the back of my mind and dumbly proceeded as our COs told us. We marched again, went down the same trench again, and went to the same exact dugout. Rudolf was waiting for us just as before, and recited, word for word, what he said to us the first time.
“So, these are the new fucks?” he said. Even though he was older and a veteran, I was still pissed. How could he be so stupid as not to recognize me?
“What are you talking about? I was with you guys just yesterday…I think. Nobody told me what happened.” I spotted Max, and pointed at him. “Max, you remember me, right? The farm boy? You told me about your days as a boxer…”
I stopped, because everyone was looking at me with wide open eyes or cocked eyebrows. Max had practically turned white. He visibly swallowed, like there was something stuck in his throat, and he asked me, “How do you know all this?”
Nervous energy sending waves of static through my body, I told him plainly “You told me all this, before the attack in the afternoon.”
“What the fuck is this? What the hell are you trying to pull on us?!” Rudolf shouted, frantic movements sloshing the beer out of his cup. “Fuck this, I’m getting out of here before you bring bad luck to me.”
He pushed his way past all of us, muttering about witchcraft and dark magic. Stunned, I slumped into a corner while everyone else just stared, like I was a filthy beggar trampling into a noble ballroom. All of us spent the night in relative silence.
Just as before, we were ordered to take our positions in the afternoon. Everyone was spooked, me especially. Why was everything the exact same way? I couldn’t dwell on such matters for long, as the British came forward. I hammered away, once again spraying lead into the air with reckless abandon. As before, I caught a split second glimpse of a soldier tossing a grenade at my position. Having more awareness of the initial threat, I tossed myself to the side, but regrettably it wasn’t enough.
After a deafening boom I was thrown hard to the ground, my legs blown off, rendered into bloody mulch scattered across the trench walls. Disoriented, I could also feel a stinging pain in my right arm and my stomach, shrapnel aggressively lodged in. As the chaotic sounds of battle raged around me, I could only moan in pain, hoping that someone would take me out of my misery. I do not know how long I had laid there, my perception of time and space getting hazy from blood loss and agony, until mercifully the darkness enveloped me.
And I ended up right back where I started. At the train again. If I hadn’t been disturbed before, I certainly was now. When they shook me awake I came up screaming and grabbed my rifle.
“Calm down boy, calm! You’re not at the front yet!” an officer said. With shaky hands I lowered the rifle and slung it over my shoulder.
“I’m…sorry.” I said. “I…just had a nightmare. That’s all.” The officer walked away, shaking his head. No doubt they all thought I was crazy. It certainly felt like it, the more I went on, going down the same exact path, to the same dugout I’d been to twice now, to meet the same people I’d met already.
“So, these are the new fucks?” Rudolf said. This time I kept my mouth shut while the other new guys nodded their heads. He took a drink from his cup and said “Fucking bastards are just dead weight.”
Right on cue, Max got up, saying “Don’t mind Rudolf. He’s been in since the very beginning. I’m-”
“Max.” I finished. “You’re Max, and you used to box back in Cherbourg. I know.” I felt everyone’s eyes on me again, but no longer cared. Frustrated after having had such a horrible death, I turned towards Rudolf and angrily told him “I am not a fucking witch you old bastard, so don’t even think about pulling that shit with me again.” While everyone else was visibly shocked, Rudolf’s face turned beet red and his grip over the cup tightened.
“You don’t get to talk to me that way!” he shouted. Getting out of his chair and spilling his beer in the process, he made a beeline towards me, but was stopped just in time by Max. The larger man held the skinnier one back while the former tried to temper the latter’s rage. I just stared right back into Rudolf’s mean, beady brown eyes with silent contempt. Eventually, he settled down, and Max turned back to me, a bit angry himself.
“Listen,” he said to me, “I don’t know what it is that’s going on here, but whatever it is you’ve got no right mouthing off like that.” Max pulled up a chair and crossed his meaty arms.
“Tell us what the problem is.” he said. I obliged. I went through everything as best I could, trying not to miss any important details while Max stared me down, stoic, the others (sans Rudolf, who sulked with a new cup of beer) staring in wide eyed wonder.
When I was finished, Max let out a long sigh, and asked “So why is this happening to you?”
“I don’t know!” I said, exasperated. “I’ve never gone through anything like this before, it only started after I came to the front.”
“Goddamn Gypsy curse, I tell ya.” Rudolf sneered. “Those fuckers collect grudges the same way a little kid collects bottle caps or tin men. I bet you or yours did something to piss one of them off, and now you’re screwed.” He finished his cup, then got up to leave.
“Well,” Max said, “can you think of any…strangers you might’ve aggrieved? Or has anyone in your family done something?”
“I can’t think of anything…” I said, deflated. “Oh God, I don’t want to keep going through this, I don’t want to get my legs ripped off again!” My limbs trembled at the thought and I struggled to keep my breathing under control. Max stood up and grabbed my shoulders with his huge hands.
“Hey now, don’t think like that,” he said, continuing with “the more panicked you get, the more likely you are to make mistakes, the more likely you are to die.” And so he told me a few things he’d already taught before my first death, about taking cover and taking carefully placed shots. I listened as intely as I could, mentally went over it until it was all I could think of. The other new guys listened to him too, and a couple of the other older guys there supplied their own knowledge.
By the afternoon’s attack I took everything he said to heart. With newfound resolve I found my nerves cooled, my aim steady. Everything I touched felt more real, the air smelled sharper, the sounds of the dead, injured, explosives and gunfire just background noise.
Despite my second wind, the British managed to reach our trench anyway. A man to my right was crouched over, about to jump in, when without skipping a beat I shot him in the hip. He half groaned, half screamed when he fell in ungracefully. Without thinking I ran over to him and slammed the business end of my boot into his face until I was satisfied that he had been subdued.
Unfortunately, my victory was short lived, as another Brit had climbed in behind me in the melee, and I felt a bullet painfully tear its way from my back to my chest. I fell against the trench wall in pain, just in time for a second bullet to hit me.
And so went a third life on that day. But when I returned to this Earth again, I didn’t lose my composure or my resolve, as I had before. This time I knew for a fact that the course of events could be changed, that even if by some cosmic force of nature I didn’t understand had stacked the deck against me, there was still a potential way out. And I was determined to find it.
This time, upon entering the dugout I chose not to reveal my secret, and instead presented an affable facade that had the rest of them convinced that there wasn’t anything troubling or unusual about me. I even decided to hold out my hand for that cantankerous asshole Rudolf, which he reluctantly shook.
Events proceeded along the same lines as they had before. I successfully picked off several of them before they started to stream in like usual. One of them had pounced on a young man, Lars, who had come in with me off the train. The Brit was older and sturdier than the skinny Lars, the latter bleeding from a cut on his head while the former punched the kid’s face over and over.
In a split second I got off a shot at the Brit, hitting him in the side of the face and eviscerating his head in a slurry of brain matter. Lars looked at me in appreciation, only for his eyes to widen with shock and for him to quickly point off to my side. I twisted my head around and saw another Brit who had jumped in readying his rifle against me. But determined not to keep reliving the day forever, I slammed the but of my Gewehr right into the other man’s face, hitting him at least twice more before eyeing the top of the trench again, anticipating another one coming in.
Instead, a half dazed, walking wounded Brit stumbled in from another part of our trench, and jabbed his knife into my left arm. Crying out in agony, I battered the enemy on the head with my rifle stock, which he grabbed. Withdrawing the knife from my arm, the red-black inner liquid dripped down the blade and onto my uniform as the Brit shoved my against the wall and directed the knife towards my face.
Before the man could fillet me, Lars shot him in the back. I threw the Brit to the ground, where he simply laid there, breathing labored, then turned and nodded to Lars. Just then, the reserve units started to pour into the trench, providing us with reinforcements. Near immediately, the British raid collapsed in our sector. An officer took one look at us and told us to go get some medical treatment behind the lines. While the two of us waited in the procession of screaming, bloodied men, Lars spoke up.
“I just want to say thank you for saving me back there. I should’ve been more careful.”
“Don’t mention it,” I told him, “you’re…we’re new here, I think we should just be grateful to still be alive.” As soon as that last part slipped out, I had a smile from ear to ear. I had made it! My fate was not inevitable after all!
“Do you drink Lars?” I asked, still a bit lightheaded with jubilance. He shook his head no, and I said “Well you do now. Where’s Max? I’m going to buy everyone a drink tonight, to commemorate our survival. From here on out, we enjoy every moment like it’s our last!”
Lars’s face turned pale, and he opened his mouth but closed it quickly, biting down on his lower lip.
“What? What’s the matter?” I asked. A sinking feeling rolled around in my guts, and my prior joy was fully torpedoed when Lars spoke next.
“Max is dead.” he said. When I just stood there, glued to the ground in horror, he went on. “Some British guy threw a grenade into our section. He got killed. Some of the shrapnel gave me my head wound.” Chewing on his bottom lip again, he offered a small apology while my mind just stayed blank.
Our wounds weren’t serious compared to so many others, so we got stitched and bandaged and sent back the same day. Sitting in the corner of a dugout, I stared at the ground in uncomprehension. The man who had done more to keep me alive than anyone else was gone, and I was on my own. I got up to grab some rations to eat when my Gewehr fell to the ground; I’d accidentally dropped it.
I stared at that rifle for a good few minutes. I could go back, I thought to myself. I could save him. I grabbed the rifle in both hands, removed the bayonet from the top, and placed the barrel against my forehead.
It was just then that Lars came back from getting his own food. He shouted “No! Don’t!” which caused the others inside who hadn’t noticed what I was doing to look over. They grabbed me just before I could reach the trigger.
“Wait, you don’t understand!” I pleaded. “I have to go back!” For hours they sat there, restraining me, and all I could do was weep. They did let me go eventually, to rest, and I was only allowed my weapon back after repeated assurances that I wasn’t going to try anything like that again.
I lied, of course, and when I found a much more suitable spot to die alone I took the opportunity. But rather than finding myself back in the train car where my journey had started, I re-woke back in the area I had slept last; on a mattress in our dugout, watched over by one of the guys who had volunteered to watch me. That put an end to my suicidal inclinations, at least for the time being. But the idea that I could make sure things go their proper course was too alluring to be disregarded.
Whenever we went on an offensive or counter-offensive, I’d purposely die several times in a row in order to get a good feel for the layout, then chart a course of progress that went through the path of least resistance. I was always the one to find the thinnest section of the wire, the least guarded section of the enemy’s trench, and could tell where all the snipers and machine gun nests were with perfect accuracy.
Defensive operations were different. The trick that took me a long while to learn was to always let events proceed in a very specific way. If I changed my behavior too much, then the enemy soldiers would change their behavior in turn. However, if I stuck to a rigid pattern and retraced my steps exactly, then the enemy would never deviate too much. With time and patience I got good at leading them into ambushes, like chess pieces.
Every time I saved a man from a sniper’s bullet or perfectly predicted where an artillery or mortar shell would land, people took notice. Rumors were whispered in the nights that I had an angel watching over me, and by extension the rest of them. Men who I had seen die or get maimed in one of my prior lives would come up to me and jokingly ask if they were going to make it. Try as I might though, casualties were inevitable, and despite my best efforts I could not save everyone. It was haunting.
At some point or another someone in the higher ups must’ve taken notice of my actions on the battlefield, because once the worst of the fighting around Ypres had stopped I was selected to become a Sturmtruppen. It was a mixed blessing, as while I could more readily utilize my ability in their ranks I’d have to go through even more lives and expose myself to greater danger than ever before. It was easier to forget how much I’d endured when fighting was happening because I could disconnect from it, feeling perfectly hollow and empty.
In the spring of 1918, the trepidation I held within me was finally realized. We were to go on the offensive, with us Sturmtruppen naturally taking the lead. My unit – still stationed in Flanders – took to offensive operations in April. At first we did stunningly well. I hadn’t even needed to throw many lives away in the first few days, maybe only two or three in total, and only to perfect our already good margin of victory. It felt like we could take the whole world.
But the more the offensive continued the more I realized something was going wrong. We kept outrunning our supply lines, having to wait for the rest of the army to catch up with us. The British kept regrouping every time we had to go through a delay, and it was starting to show. Resistance to our attacks only increased more and more, and us Sturmtruppen were the ones who had to deal with it.
One day, my friend at the time, Volker, prodded me awake. “Karl,” he said, “we’ve got the order to move up again. Grab everything.” I had only managed to get a couple hours worth of sleep, having decided to take a nap in between assaults, so upon getting up I was still exhausted. My limbs felt heavy, my mind was foggy and scattershot, my eyes were dried out and stung. With all this weighing me down more than my equipment, I advanced.
Immediately things went bad. Running straight through the battlefield as I usually did in order to cover as much ground as I could and memorize the layout quicker failed, as each and every time I was riddled with bullets. I decided to take a more measured approach in subsequent attempts. Me and my comrades had to approach at a snail’s pace and keep our heads down every step of the way. It felt like the British were throwing all they could at us.
Even crawling around like a rat had its difficulties though. I noticed that no matter how far I managed to crawl I would still get shot. The first couple times I thought I was the victim of an unlucky ricochet, but I kept getting killed even after some slight changes to my advance. So I deduced that my adversary was a sniper.
Reasoning that I was never going to get ahead with that fucker hunting us every step of the way, I subjected myself through multiple deaths in order to find his position. It was no wonder he kept getting us; his nest was hundreds of meters away in a half-destroyed brick house, flanking our entire company. I sprayed bullets in his general direction with my Bergmann MP18, but it was certainly no long-range tool even in the best of times. And with my body weak and mind impatient and on edge, it was certainly not the best of times.
After about three deaths foolishly focusing on trying to take out the sniper I settled for an occasional burst of gunfire in his general direction to keep him suppressed. But that still left the wall of British guns firing at us. My exhausted mind couldn’t focus on the sniper and the frontline trench at the same time, and I died multiple times to both. Impatience was giving way to rage, and I ended up stupidly getting killed many times after trying to rush things.
In one death I had been screaming curses at our adversaries and wildly shooting in their general direction, then took a bullet to the spine and fell face-first into a puddle inside a shell hole. Unable to move my limbs, my lungs filled with muddy water, burning in incredible pain before I died. When I came to again my anger broke and gave way to pure fear. I started to wonder if I would ever be able to escape this madness or I would be doomed to cycle through lives, endlessly.
Halfway into my next attempt I hid inside of a shell hole, and found myself unable to move. The fear had paralyzed me, utterly. Volker arrived at my side, and tried to snap me out of what looked like the onset of shellshock.
“Karl, come on!” he said, grabbing me by the shoulder and shaking me. “We’re getting shredded out there. We need you now more than ever!” With real desperation in his voice, he said softly “You can’t break down now. Please Karl…”
That’s about when the mortars started hitting us. I hadn’t experienced them until now, as I had died too soon in each case. One went off close enough to catch us both. My vision went blank and I felt waves of pure agony rolling over me. When I did not come back to the spot of my nap and the pain did not subside, I came to the horrified conclusion that my face had been blown off by the bomb. Indeed, I found that I couldn’t work my mouth anymore, instead feeling pain like thousands of glass shards were stuck in me while my tongue tasted the sickening copper taste of blood. I could feel that my right arm still worked, so I retrieved a grenade from my pouch to kill myself with. My left arm was horribly mangled and my fingers wouldn’t work, so I held the grenade down with my left arm while the right pulled the string.
After successfully killing myself this way, I threw up the minute I woke back up. Volker was concerned, asking “Are you sure you’re good to keep going?”
“Yes,” I assured, “I just ate something bad. It’ll pass, I’m good to go. Come on.”
Sighing, the older man pressed his hand against my head to make sure I wasn’t feverish, and upon confirming that I wasn’t we rejoined the others and prepared for our assault.
Shamefully, I abandoned my unit when the mortars came down around us again. As I dashed back to our own lines and the perceived safety it would bring, a mortar tossed me into the air. I fell on my arm, which produced an unholy crunching sound indicating a fracture. As I pushed myself up to continue running, I felt a pulse of pain jolt through my right leg. A piece of shrapnel had got stuck there, below the knee. I limped the way back and collapsed in front of fellow Germans while begging for help.
When I came to next, groggily I noticed I was in an actual bed, and to my sides were others in mutilated condition occupying beds of their own. I was in a hospital. I breathed a sigh of both relief and sorrow. I had failed my friends and abandoned my duty, but at least I would be able to live. I later learned from one of the nurses that out of sixty seven of us, only fourteen, all wounded, survived the failed assault. Volker had died too, and I grieved for him while damning my own cowardice.
Indeed, failure hung over the air in a dusty cloud. While I loafed around listening to the wails of those less fortunate than I and learned how to walk with crutches – my leg wound would never fully heal – we heard story after story about offensives stalling out, then getting pushed back. Correspondence with my family turned sour as well when I learned my youngest brother Edmund and my father had both died from an outbreak of influenza. My oldest brother Fritz was working tirelessly every day in the factories to support our aging mother, and I could do nothing from my hospital bed.
When the war ended in our bitter defeat, and I was discharged from the hospital, I left for home right away and started looking for work. But with everyone else demobilizing, and our country in political and economic chaos, it was not easy. For my part I took to drinking. Heavily. There were times where I would wake up after a night of slamming back as many whiskeys as I could take, only to realize that it was still yesterday and I had died from choking on my own vomit. Out of intense self-loathing there were times I stuck my head in a self-made noose and died, forlornly hoping that one day I’d stop coming back from death.
One day during the early twenties, when I was busy trying to kill my liver at the local tavern, a couple of Reds stormed in.
“Comrades!” they shouted, “we are looking for revolutionary volunteers for the KPD!” They went around, passing out fliers for the communist party and repeating far-left phrases to anyone willing to listen. Finally they came over to me, and one of them tried to slip a flier under my elbow.
“Worker’s literature, comrade.” I remember him saying. I grabbed the flier and crumpled it into a ball, tossing it behind me. The Red took offense to the gesture and said “If you’re a reactionary type, then maybe it’s best if you get out of town. We don’t need another bootheel over the necks of the workers.”
Rage cooked my body in an inferno, and impulsive I said to him “Maybe it’s you who should get out of town, bastard. If it wasn’t for lazy, entitled fucks like you, maybe we would’ve won the war.” I gave my money to the tavern keeper for the liquors I had drank and shoved past the Reds, disgusted.
“Hey!” they shouted at me. I was halfway down the street before one of them grabbed me by the shoulder. Before I could tell them off again, I felt a brick slam into my cheek. I felt teeth come loose and blood run down my throat. I was assailed with clubs, fists, kicks when I fell to the ground. After my head was bludgeoned a few more times I came to in my bed.
My rage from before had turned to pure wrath. To murder me over something as petty as politics…it defied belief. I wanted revenge. Instead of drinking myself into a stupor I waited in an alley outside the tavern and waited with a knife in hand. When I saw the two Reds coming down I pounced.
I stuck the first one in the stomach and sliced him open. He had just enough time to look at me in wide eyed shock before he sputtered to the ground, clutching his intestines. His partner turned and ran, but I followed. Even though my leg protested vehemently at the strain, I caught up to him. Tackling him to the ground and pressing my knees into his back, I slammed my knife into his neck over and over again. He died gurgling on the crimson tides that flowed from his injury.
When I stood up, I looked around, dazed. It’s not every day that one commits murder in broad daylight. I looked to my left to see a grinning man on the sidewalk. He came up to me, gently took the knife from my hands, and just as gently pressed a flyer of his own into my hands.
“Get out of here before someone sees you.” he said. And just like that, he walked away. Fearing prosecution for the murder of the two Reds, I ran away, fast as I could, back home. Hours later, after frantically trying to wash off all the bloodstains from my clothes, I took a look at the flier the bystander had handed me.
It contained a picture of a blonde haired man clad in a brownshirt uniform, holding up a red flag, with a white circle in the middle that held a black swastika.
Not long after that I started going to their rallies instead of drinking myself stupid. Fritz and I drifted apart. All I wanted was a confirmation that the torturous deaths I went through and the comrades I failed to save along the way despite my gift – or curse – were not for nothing. And when they started winning elections and annexing neighbors without a shot fired, I felt vindicated.
I was part of the Ersatzheer – reserve army – when the second war began, training others and carrying out administrative tasks on the home front. As things dragged on and millions were swallowed up in the fighting, we all wondered which of us would be next. When I received orders to go to Italy, I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.
I was stationed in what was supposed to be a quiet sector, leading a small company of men in an Italian backwater hamlet. We were third rate replacements for people sent to more pressing fronts, and knew it. Locals stared at us with daggers in their eyes and hate in their hearts. Discipline amongst the men was poor; everyone knew the war would be ending soon, so many took to drinking, ogling women, and what have you.
It was under these conditions that a private went missing. After a fifteen minute search, we found his body covered in bruises and stabbed dozens of times, dumped in a ditch like garbage. After I heard the news I excused myself, found a quiet spot away from prying eyes, and blew my brains out. When I came to again I frantically shouted to the men to do a headcount. They didn’t understand my urgency until they noticed the missing man. Just as frantically I had them run to the spot where I had found him last. Unfortunately, he was still dead.
A cauldron of anger bubbled inside me. I was done losing people needlessly. As was standard procedure back then, we took hostages – twenty three in all – and demanded that the partisans who killed our man reveal themselves. When none came out, we filled the screaming, crying, begging hostages with lead. When it was all over and I had a chance to calm, my throat tasted bitter, and I felt self-contempt.
I ramped up security and instilled a sense of discipline into the men under my command. The tit-for-tat with the local partisans continued, and so did our hostage taking. We must’ve killed well over a hundred from our reprisals. My insides felt like they were churning knives, so I started taking to the bottle again. I had to dull the pain.
Things were getting terrible going into 1945. The partisans had become bolder than ever, and the skies were dominated by American planes. One night I couldn’t sleep well and decided to get through some paperwork via candlelight. An hour and a half later I heard frenzied shouting and gunfire. Grabbing my coat and my sidearm I dashed out there, asking anyone who could hear what was happening.
“Partisans!” I was told. “There must be dozens of them!”
I tried my best to lead a proper defense, but events were chaotic in the darkness. A bullet hit me in the stomach, and I dropped to the ground in agony. A familiar dance.
Returning to this mortal coil, I remembered which direction the partisans struck us from. Accordingly, I had a platoon set up well hidden firing positions and booby traps. When the wannabe freedom fighters came into the kill box they didn’t know what hit them. Some were killed running into our traps, but most were simply shot. They were routed without a single casualty on our side. When it was over and we inspected the battlefield, we counted twelve bodies and eight prisoners, five of whom were injured.
Darkly energized by victory, I had all the prisoners stripped naked. The wounded ones – those too crippled to walk – were doused with water and we left them to freeze. That left six. We took them to the cellar of some farmer’s house and we interrogated them. We wanted names, locations, everything. They spat in our faces and called us names. Fascist pigs. Butchers. Sons of whores. We unleashed our hatred upon those young men, whipping them raw, burning their skin with hot iron pokers, and gave out old fashioned beatings with fists, clubs, and boots. We had them executed the next morning, hung to death.
God, it makes me sick now, thinking about it.
The last partisan attack I went through, a sniper shot me right in the ribcage. I ended up having to go to an actual hospital to get the bullet out. When I was sent back, the war was in its last months. The company I led was a shadow of its former strength, at only 44 men, and we were getting put near the front.
Artillery hit us everywhere. There were no German canons left to contest them. Likewise, American planes flew unimpeded, bombing and strafing whenever they liked. Under these conditions one of our soldiers tried to desert. We captured him though, and the men asked me what should be done. At this stage desertion could be punishable by summary execution, and after having put myself through hell to make sure everyone got back home safely, this man’s attempted desertion felt like a slap to the face.
Despite my anger I couldn’t bring myself to punish him. I knew all too well what it was like to lose one’s cool under fire, and showed mercy to the poor man. Had my more fanatical superiors found out, it could’ve meant my job, but I was prepared to take the risk. I feel as though that moment made me realize that there was a way of making sure those under my command could come home. When Americans advanced on our position and demanded our surrender, I had the men disarm. Not long after that the war ended and we slowly got to be repatriated back to Germany.
There was occupation, rebuilding, restructuring. The post-war years for me felt unreal at first. I feared, constantly, that the next war was right around the corner, that I’d relive yet more deaths again, and when West Berlin was blockaded and the Korean War broke out, I felt like I was counting down the seconds.
But it never came.
In ‘54, when things looked calmer, I decided that I could not live in fear forever. I married. Had a child. Raised a family. And though I always had the fear of a new conflict I didn’t let it dominate my life.
I do think often about my gift, or curse, or whatever you want to call it. Looking back on my life, I wonder if perhaps there was some higher purpose that I was supposed to fulfil that I did not, or if it was supposed to function as penance, of a sorts. I researched precognition throughout the interwar years and after, but records of anyone with quite the same experiences as me are scarce, much less a meaning to it all.
Here, at age ninety-two and with Germany now reunited, I have hope for peace in future generations, and while I can’t say for certain I have a feeling that the next death will be my last.
Credit : BranF1akes
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