The Good Comrade
"Ich hatt' einen Kameraden,
Einen besser'n find'st du nicht"
"I had a comrade,
A better one you won't find"
- traditional German military funeral song, "Der gute Kamerad"
"Thank you, folks. It was a great seminar, and I'm very much looking forward to your term papers. Papers with bottles of fine rum included will be treated preferentially." In the traditional gesture of University students, the six men and three women knocked on their desks a few times before they left. One, Detlef Böhmer, wanted to throw around an idea for his term paper. It was a beautiful summer day, Mr Böhmer was quite bright, and so I asked him to come with me. We were walking through the old town. The magnificent buildings of Bamberg always seemed to get my intellectual juices flowing, and I told Böhmer I was sure he could make his idea about Wittgenstein and Sellars into an excellent paper. At the Markusplatz, I had to turn left towards the Regnitz, while Böhmer was to go right. I watched him take a few steps, and stop, and turn around. "Doctor Schreiber..." He hesitated. "Yes?" A small convoy from the Bundeswehr passed us, two five-ton trucks led by an Iltis jeep-type vehicle. Böhmer had to wait to ask his question for all the noise the old Diesel engines were making. "You're a reservist, right?" I nodded - I had mentioned the fact in passing during one of the seminar sessions. "I am." "So am I." he replied. "Have you gotten new papers?" I nodded slowly. Discussing the alert papers one got from time to time could get one into lots of trouble, but this time, they had come out of turn. I hadn't told Hannah yet, it was no use frightening her over nothing... "I have, too. I think...I think it might be serious. Did you hear Gorbachev yesterday? The language he's using? And Kohl...he used the word Vaterland nine times in the Bundestag when he spoke last week, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that."
I nodded in response. He wasn't the only one worried. "It seems Gorbachev is under a lot of pressure. NATO might just have overdone it with the additional field exercises. And really...if I were the Soviets, I would be worried too. They must know that the balance of power is shifting the West's way militarily. It's always hard to tell, but from what I get from the GDR, the "old guard" communists are upset by that. General Keßler has been on East TV a lot, and Mielke, and I haven't seen Krenz in a while..." Here, near the Inner German Border, we could easily get East German television, which was obviously under tight censorship, but over the years, one learned to read the signs, just as I thought the East Germans had. Keßler was the Minister for Defense and Mielke the leader of the secret service apparat, the "Staatssicherheit" or Stasi. Both were extreme hardliners, and they were shown in some form almost every night, often very close to Honnecker himself. That meant that they were gaining influence or that Honnecker wanted them to grow more powerful. Krenz was a bit more reform-oriented at least in reputation, but things had gotten quiet around him. Böhmer hesitated again before he spoke. "Herr Doktor...if your action word comes up on the radio, will you go?" I would hear that question again and again in the next weeks, but Böhmer, 20 years old and fresh from his conscripted service, was the first to ask. I looked up to the sky, where an airliner peacefully made its way west, towards Frankfurt. "It's hard to imagine...but if it comes under the kind of circumstances we see now, where it's not some sort of posturing, but real, actual defense against an armed invader...yes, I think I will." He nodded thoughtfully. "I've never been a pacifist. Defending yourself is morally correct, even a duty at times. Still...if I had any doubt that this whole crisis wasn't mostly the Soviet's fault..." His voice trailed off and he looked at me the way he must have looked at the Feldwebel, his Sergeant in the Bundeswehr. He probably thought I was an officer of the reserve, but I really wasn't. I hadn't been much good in the army, and just did my best to get quietly through my time with the Parachute Bataillon 262. "You can only use your best judgment, I guess." For a university teacher in Philosophy with a "Doktor" degree, it wasn't a particularly bright answer. But it was all I had for my student that day, before I went left and he went right.
I enjoyed the next few days; the semester had ended, so I was free to do pretty much whatever I wanted. I mostly read a couple of crime novels while drinking copious amounts of sweet coffee on the small balcony of our apartment. In the evenings, when Hannah would come home, we went out a lot - per bicycle to our favorite Biergarten, on foot to our Italian restaurant of choice in the old town, or driving Hannahs old Opel to the countryside. The weather remained great. However, sunlight did not seem to reach Bonn, Washington, Berlin-Pankow or Moscow, because the political rhetoric on both sides remained very inflammatory. Russian and East German Politburo members kept denouncing NATO's additional summer exercises, calling them an "aggressive act" and, in prime 50's language, "an Imperialist plot to strengthen the forces of counterrevolution in our socialist fraternal countries in Central Europe." That was interesting enough, because it was the first time they acknowledged the existence of the Polish, Hungarian and East German popular reform movements in so overt a way.
The day I became really worried was about a week after the short discussion with Böhmer. We were watching the Tagesschau, the fifteen-minute news show on state-financed (West German) TV, and Hannah was biting my ear as a photograph of GDR Defense Minister Army General Heinz Keßler came on. "...additionally, the Minister once more commented on the NATO exercises 'Kindred Spirit' and 'PlanEx XVI', stressing that the forces of the Warsaw Pact were prepared to 'nip any Imperialist aggression in the bud'. Asked whether that might include preemptive action, he replied that 'any action to protect of the Socialist accomplishments of the workers and peasants' would be taken as necessary." The anchor was about to start the next report when an assistant appeared and put a sheet of paper on her desk. "A report just came in about an apparent crackdown on the political opposition in the GDR." I put a hand on Hannah's shoulder. "Wait, I want to hear this." The picture changed to a very grainy black and white film of a cobble-stone street with a medieval tower in the background. Green-clad Stasi troops (I recognized their uniforms) and workers' militia, called "Betriebskampfgruppen", were forcing their way into one of the old houses in the street. Pistols and AK-47 rifles (called "machine pistols" by the Warsaw Pact) were in evidence, and two young people with long hair were having the crap beaten out of them by the Stasi. The TV anchor's voice explained: "This secretly filmed amateur material shows the Junge Gemeinde in Jena, a center of dissident youth in the southern GDR, led by Protestant preacher Lothar König, who was identified as the bearded man now being dragged out by armed members of the Ministry for State Security. According to our sources, this incident occurred yesterday. König and several other members of the Junge Gemeinde as well as visitors to the Junge Gemeinde are said to have been arrested and taken away, presumably to prison facilities run by the MSS. Observers called the involvement of Betriebskampfgruppen militia a deviation from usual peace-time security protocol in the GDR. The GDR government denied comment earlier today, while West German Foreign Minister Genscher called on the GDR to respect the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-Operation in Europe, which includes protection of religious belief and free speech. A draft speech by Chancellor Helmut Kohl for a press conference tonight is even harsher, calling the action 'extremely imprudent and contrary to the law and Human Rights', also announcing a German-Belgian military exercise to start in two weeks decided upon 'in light of recent developments'."
I leaned back; the news show went on to other matters. Hannah noticed my silence, and that I didn't make any move to re-start her seduction attempts. "Can the Bund draft you back into service if there's a crisis?" She had never shown much interest in my less-than-glorious conscription, because I had finished it years before I met her and as a physicist, her interests were quite far away from the military. "I'm way, way down on their list, dear. Getting too old, and I was never that much good anyway." It wasn't exactly a lie, but still far from the truth. I wasn't in the highest reserve category, but in the second, which would probably still be activated before war was actually inevitable. "Hey, you didn't get tangled up in the parachute..." I forced a grin. If she was prepared to take things lightly, I would love to play along. "Yeah, but only because I was afraid of what the Spieß, sort of the boss asskicker in a Company, would do to me after I hit the ground."
We ended up having sex after all. When I lay on the bed, panting, my arm around Hannah, my mind wandered back to Hauptfeldwebel Zittau, my Spieß or First Sergeant for most of my active service. He had just hated me in the beginning, but once I had found my stride as a Paratrooper, he hadn't singled me out any more. I almost felt nostalgia for my time in the Bundeswehr, for the first time really. Some things had been alright. The rush of the mad jump from an airplane...the exhilaration after a successful landing...relaxing with the others from my Platoon after the exercises, when the NCO's would give us some leeway... I looked down my body and grinned quietly. Being fit beyond belief hadn't been too bad either. That was far away now...
Over the next three weeks, chance, human weakness and folly seemed to conspire, I thought. The GDR government continued its ever more brutal assault on everything resembling an opposition. Even the Christian denominations, formerly a covert haven of free expression, lost what little safety they had enjoyed from state repression.
On July 28th, Hannah was working late, so I had settled down with a beer for the Tagesschau, which was becoming more and more the harbinger of bad news. The first image was of a completely destroyed car on a North German country road, I recognized the flat landscape and characteristic vegetation. The charred, twisted remains of the car, I learned from the voice-over, had contained the equally mangled remains of Erich and Margot Honecker, the GDR's political leader, and his wife, the Minister for Education. The weapon that had killed them was a Carl Gustaf recoilless rifle, in essence a sophisticated grandchild of the Panzerfaust of World War II. I had fired such a weapon myself in the Bundeswehr. A sixty ton main battle tank would survive a hit nine out of ten times, but a civilian car might as well be a cardboard box for all the protection it offered...
A Neo-Nazi group claimed responsibility. Part of their (rather professionally filmed, I noticed) video was shown. The anti-Communist rhetoric was almost muted, the focus was on the national identity of the Germans purportedly "suppressed by all Imperialist forces". My beer was growing warm as I kept watching the coverage. The GDR government was livid with rage, and called the terrorists "agents of the Bonn regime". Both the assumption of the West's guilt and the 1950's expression ("Bonn regime") deeply worried me. There was no attempt at keeping calm, no call on the NATO countries to explain, not even the slightest opening for a reconciliatory gesture... This is belligerent language, I thought. The latin expression "bellum gerere" meant one thing, and it was as unequivocal as the Honeckers' destroyed Lada: to wage war.
Later that evening, an urgent report came in, talking about shots exchanged at the Berlin Wall between West Berlin Police and GDR border guards during a protest on the Western side of the Brandenburg gate. I used the last hour before Hannah's return to look at my military papers, checking whether they were all in Ordnung. They were, but that did nothing to calm me down.
On July 30th, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Brussels, Belgium, announced that it had activated the plan just rehearsed a few weeks earlier in the additional REFORGER exercise: almost 90.000 U.S. soldiers were beginning to be flown across the Atlantic to link up with their pre-positioned equipment in West German depots.
Again watching the evening news and some GDR TV, I noticed the conspicuous absence of Mikhail Gorbatchev from both. There hadn't been any news about him for a few days, and sure enough: On July 31st, the NATO governments started to call on the Soviet Union to guarantee his personal safety. The response was ominous silence. Within days, it became clear that there had been a silent coup, and that Gorbachev was most likely dead. It took another few days before "speculations" and "rumors" became fully fledged public truth, and the extreme caution employed by even the most boisterous political commentators (like the notoriously right-wing Gerhard Löwenthal) made me very, very uneasy. Nobody, it seemed, wanted to be that one voice to tip the balance. The rhetoric by politicians became more muted as well. The U.S. President, who had earlier in his career scared the world with anti-Soviet invective, spoke calmly, reasonably, and most of all, slowly whenever he commented on the current situation. Things hung in the balance, it seemed; Hannah agreed, but she still did not know what an end to that balance might mean for me personally.
I still spent his days lounging around, half-heartedly reading this philosophical journal or that, watching too much TV. On August 5th, GDR TV ceased all reports on the strength of the Nationale Volksarmee and the other Warsaw Pact armies. Two days later, West German ARD TV reported "an unprecedented build-up of military power" in two general areas of the GDR - the flatlands on the border of the West German state of Niedersachsen and the hilly space between the Harz and Thüringer Wald mountains, the Fulda Gap. Someone from CIA leaked to the German press that the latest batch of Soviet and GDR conscripts had not been inducted, while the one that was supposed to end its usual three-year term had not been dismissed from active duty.
On August 7th, Chancellor Kohl appeared in an international press conference. The imposing figure looked tired to me, his complexion doughy, his eyes reddened. Kohl was a very bulky man, tall, strong and quite fat, and he clearly was doing everything to put his full political and physical weight behind the message he was about to announce. There was little trace of his regional accent from his Palatian home region, which never seemed to leave his speech at other times. "I address myself today to the recently appointed leaders of the Warsaw Pact alliance in Moscow and their allies in the capitals of Eastern Europe." An historian by trade, I thought. On important matters, he always assumed that old-world, elegant yet wordy style German historians use... It was also the first overt acknowledgment that there was a new leadership in the East. "The NATO countries' governments have noted with disappointment your failure to react substantively to the approaches made to you over the last few weeks, via your embassies, your Foreign Ministries and the United Nations Security Council. We have only our Intelligence information and the aforementioned lack of communication on which to base our view of the situation. We see the largest concentration of military forces perhaps ever in the history of the world. We see East German workers taken from their jobs to be called back into the Armed Forces. We urge you in the spirit of cooperation that has served us so well over the last few years: Do not continue this course of action. Enter with us into negotiations about a reduction of both sides' military state of readiness. Unfortunately, it is the opinion of my government and the opinion of the NATO Council, backed by our allies across the world, that the situation does no longer warrant the restraint heretofore exhibited by my country and our Western, Northern and Southern neighbors in the NATO alliance. Therefore, it is my duty to put you, the leaders of the Warsaw Pact, on public notice: if you fail to contact a NATO government or NATO international body of your choice with the demonstrable intent to start negotiations by August 8th, 1 a.m. International Standard Time, I will ask of the parliament of my country the immediate implementation of a State of National Defense as mandated by the Grundgesetz of the Federal Republic of Germany." Turning to the assembled journalists, Kohl added a quick "Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen" and retreated to the bowels of the Bundeskanzleramt without answering questions.
Hannah had already heard the news when she came home from work. "Joachim...how bad is this?" she asked after the briefest of welcome. I looked at her for a long time, my heart still pounding from Kohl's address two hours earlier. "Extremely so. I'm really, really afraid it's going to happen this time." Ever-pragmatic Hannah was visibly flustered. "We should get out before everything's going downriver here." I shook my head. "There will be no safe place anywhere on this side of the Atlantic." There was also the little fact that I would be committing a criminal offense if I left the country or even Bamberg when the Verteidigungszustand, the state of defense, was declared. But I had still not told Hannah that. "We should go to my parents. They won't attack villages in the Schwarzwald, will they?" "I doubt it. We really might be safer there as long as the whole thing doesn't go nuclear." And even then, I thought, chances in the country were a little better than in Bamberg, barely an hour's drive from the border and a major U.S. military garrison. "Look..." I added. "Let's wait. They're bound to start talking now. The Soviets don't want to die either. Let's...let's leave the city tomorrow, spend a day in the countryside. We can take the car, take some clothes if things go to shit quickly. We can leave the radio on." As would be my duty under the Wehrpflichtgesetz, the Law on Mandatory Defence Service, if the Verteidigungszustand was declared. "We can relax for a few hours and then decide what to do." To my relief, Hannah nodded. "Okay. Let's do that."
I got the mail before we left the next morning. There was a warning about a possible mobilization, and a reference to my codeword chart.
The strength of the German summer can be unparalleled in August. Hannah and I found a place under a large oak tree on a meadow, deep in the Moorwald forest east of the city. The sky was cloudless. I could see American fighter planes circle overhead every now and then, in neat groups of two or four. They were mostly F-16s, but once the bulkier frames of F-15s passed. I still could tell the different types apart from the recognition charts I had studied in the Bundeswehr.
I had brought three books, two of them novels instead of my usual feed of scholarly works, but none of them were really able to capture my attention, not even Heinrich Mann's "Der Untertan", the insightful and hilarious satire on Wilhelm II and German "manhood" in general. I pretended to be reading nevertheless. Hannah was buried deep in one of her crime novels and there was no purpose in worrying her now, not when we were here to relax. I looked over to her. She was lying back on the blanket we had brought, a cheap, slightly rough tan one. Her green dress contrasted with the colorless blanket, as did her skin with its deep, rich brown. She had one foot set on the ground and the seam of her dress was resting high on her thigh. Supporting myself on one arm, I put down my book and reached over, sliding my hand up the underside of her leg, past the knee. She often preferred a direct approach to a slow build-up to seduction. She also set her book aside, looking at me over her sunglasses. "Aren't you afraid our friends up there are watching?" she asked, but her voice already husky. We hadn't had sex for over a week, and that was too long for either of us. "Those are fighter planes. They don't have cameras." She smiled. "Well then...don't make me wait too long today." "I won't."
It was intense that day. I don't know what made it so. Maybe it was the unusual setting. Maybe the radio we had on just played the right kind of song, or our hormonal systems were in perfect sync or something like that. I was still panting slightly half an hour later, as the 2 p.m. news came on. "...Bundestag and Bundesrat have, in a joint session and in accordance with the Grundgesetz, passed a motion by Bundeskanzler Helmut Kohl declaring that as of 15:00 today, the Federal Republic of Germany is in a state of national defence, citing an 'immediate threat and high probability' of an attack on the territory of the FRG by the Warsaw Pact. The armed forces of the Federal Republic are now under the command of the Chancellor. All citizens are requested to keep their radio or TV on at all times. As of 21:00 this evening, all civilian air travel will be suspended. The use of Autobahns will be restricted to German and allied military forces. Further traffic restrictions may be imposed as necessary." A few related items followed. I turned up the volume. "Damn...this is really happening, isn't it?" Hannah asked. "'fraid so." I beckoned her to be quiet. "Sorry, but I need to hear this."
"Some messages from the Federal Ministry of Defence for all Defence Areas: Grüner Vogel. Blauer Hirsch. Schwarzes Edelweiss. Gelbe Magnolie. Lila Pferd." "What are these?" Hannah asked. "Code phrases. Sorry, but I really need to hear this, so please shut up for a moment," I replied tersely. "But why..." "Hannah, please!" I didn't know a lot about these messages, some would be red herrings to distract outsiders, but it sounded to me like about the whole list of activation orders was being given. The voice on the radio carried on. "Steile Berge. Eiserne Eiche. Roter Adler..."
It hit me like a punch to the stomach. Roter Adler, red eagle. That was my word. My word. I fell on my back, staring up at the sky. There was another flight of Eagles up there. The F-15. The Eagle. Hannah was kneeling now and grabbed me by the shoulders, her face scared and furious, her eyes wide with the shock of understanding. "Don't tell me you're being called up!" she screamed directly at me. "Damn you! You told me this was impossible! Just two weeks ago, you said this could not happen!" I swallowed, but couldn't reply, couldn't look into her brown eyes. She slapped me across the face, hard. "Don't tell me you're going there!"
She screamed some more, and I screamed too to calm her down, and we cried, and drove back to the city in complete silence. I had to pack.
The main streets of Bamberg were packed with vehicles of all sorts. Owners of trucks were heading to collection points to hand them in to the government. The city population was fleeing in thousands, to the West and South mostly, while military vehicles were heading North and East. The insignia of the United States Army were everywhere, with vehicles from the Bundeswehr added here and there. For the first time, I saw actual tracked vehicles, a U.S. Company of Anti-Air Artillery, use the streets. The police were out in force, but they could do little to alleviate the congestion. Loudspeakers were giving warnings about not leaving home, but nobody seemed in a mood to listen anymore.
We finally made it home. As we headed for our door, I could see a drunk leaning against it. He stumbled towards me. I recognized Böhmer, my student. "They called you up too, didn't they?" he yelled, his whole body wavering from one side to the other. "They did." I said quietly. "I'm not going, you know!" he said loudly. He stood just inches from me, and his breath stank of cheap liquor. "I'm not going, Herr Feldwebel! Not going anywhere, and certainly not to fight the goddamn Russkies because Helmut had to piss with the big guys!" Anger surged within me quite suddenly. I grabbed him by the arm and shoved him in the direction of a tram stop down the road. "I don't care what the hell you do, but get out of my sight, I have other shit to worry about." My words reverberated within me. I hadn't spoken like Doktor Schreiber, scholar of the Analytic and the Philosophy of Mind. I had sounded just like a Herr Feldwebel. Like a Prussian NCO of old.
As I started to pack my things, Hannah was quiet. But just as I zipped the last bag and straightened up, she came into the bedroom. There were no tears in her eyes, but she was pale and her hand shook as he touched my face. "I'm sorry I hit you." she said dramatically, as if it was the only important thing in the world. I couldn't help feel I had never deserved anything as much as her slap in the face earlier. "I'm sorry I lied to you. We're even." We both started crying simultaneously. "Listen, call or write or whatever when you can. I'm going to my parents. I can still make it before the roads close." I was a bit shocked to hear her say that. "Of course I will call." "Where will you be?" "I don't know. If I'm going back to my old outfit, I'll be somewhere West and North of here. They call that the Fulda Gap. The fighting there will be bad, but I'll be on the fringes of it. So don't worry if there's bad news from there. It doesn't necessarily concern me." I explained hastily. If she wanted to make it to Freiburg before 21:00, she really had to get going soon. She understood, and we kissed, and she left.
As I myself got ready to go to the train station, a particular image from my time in the Bundeswehr came to my mind. A guy from a different platoon in my company had gotten tangled up in his parachute's risers and fallen to his death. I remembered the funeral, as we had all stood, lined up in order. A military band had played the song, and we had not sung the words, but we had all thought them, all felt how close Death was.
"Ich hatt' einen Kameraden, einen bess'ren find'st du nicht
Die Trommel schlug zum Streite, er ging an meiner Seite
In gleichem Schritt und Tritt, im gleichen Schritt und Tritt.
Eine Kugel kam geflogen, gilt es mir oder gilt es dir?
Ihn hat es weggerissen, er liegt zu meinen Füßen
Als wär's ein Stück von mir, als wär's ein Stück von mir.
Will mir die Hand noch reichen, derweil ich eben lad'
Kann dir die Hand nicht geben, bleib' du im ew'gen Leben
Mein guter Kamerad, mein guter Kamerad."
"I once had a comrade, a better one you won't find
The drum called to the struggle, he walked right at my side
In the same stride and step.
A bullet came flying, is it mine or is it yours?
It was him it ripped away, he's lying at my feet
Just like a piece of me.
He tries to grab my hand, just as I stand to load
I cannot shake your hand, you remain in Eternal Life
My good comrade."
Unable to join his assigned unit, Dr Joachim Schreiber was redirected to a Jäger or Light Infantry unit, the Jägerbataillon 761, and promoted to Feldwebel. These Territorials were soon engaged in an attempt by NATO to stop the 3rd East German Army sweeping to the West along the Inner German Border. Fighting alongside US VII Corps, they had to abandon Bamberg after about forty-eight hours of fighting under pressure from a Czechoslovakian attack to their right. A new defense line Würzburg-Frankfurt was established. Seventy-two hours after hostilities started, it became clear that the Warsaw Pact offensive was stalling in two key places: in the outskirts of Frankfurt (the right bank of Main river), and twenty kilometers outside Hannover. The Soviet Supreme Command decided that the use of tactical nuclear weapons was essential to victory. A number of weapons in that first salvo of about thirty warheads was aimed at US VII Corps and its German attached units. JgBtl 761 was annihilated. Feldwebel Dr Schreiber's body was never found. A NATO retaliation warhead hit Bamberg, where deserter Böhmer was killed in his hiding place.
At 0234 that same night, the US President ordered the Strategic Air Command to execute MAO (or Major Attack Option) "Skyfall", having gained incontrovertible intelligence regarding an imminent strategic nuclear strike by the Soviet Union. At 0251, the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles left their silos both in the central United States and the plains of Russia. That is the end of recorded history.