As evident by the enthusiasm, the initial shock and anger over the assassinations had subsided. At this early stage only a few shots had been fired. What was there to worry about? War? War, war, war, and there was going to be a war, and it wouldn’t amount to much.
Along the route the family’s train had to wait on sidings. Troop trains had a higher priority. Now and then, through open windows, toasts and then wine bottles were exchanged. Pauline felt proud of this display of military strength. She had no reason not to trust the military machine, while her husband Fritz knew differently. He dreaded having to report back to his unit.
Czechs, Hungarians, Poles, Rutheniums, Italians, Bosnians and Croats, all of these nationalities made up the ranks of the Austrian army. Out of all of those nationalities, who could be trusted? Why trust anyone? But with the declaration of war, everyone was expected to declare his loyalty. That meant some of them had to make up their minds whether they’d change sides or not.
Young Fritz knew he’d have to put his life on hold. He didn’t have an option. Already a family man, he’d hoped to find security in a firm with a pension at the end. Having attended the Gymnasium, and among the best scholars of his form, he had easily landed a job. He hoped he’d secure his future by working hard. Love of German literature from Goethe to Schiller also helped. With enthusiasm and diligence and devotion to duty, he’d secure for himself a reputation that seemed well tailored for his position. Besides that, he had excellent connections; and his income seemed generous for the times. Now all of that had to be placed on hold.
Fritz felt indebted to his wife and to his detriment placed her on a pedestal. In those days, he enjoyed her companionship. Having come from a wealthy family, she introduced him to the good life. In turn, he showed her his love. Hence, there was nothing surprising about the two of them, with their two sons and a nanny, returning home from an excursion.
From the outset of the war, without notice or without apologies, the army commandeered trains. For the first time in their lives, the family had been bumped to second class; and having been delayed time and time again, Fritz sat in his seat impatiently. They had been scheduled to reach Vienna at 2:18 in the afternoon. However, the train was so delayed that it was after dark before it arrived.
The activity at Westbahnhof Station resembled a beehive. Normally it was a crowded, busy place, but now it was even more so. Upon arrival, the family immediately stepped down from the train but, due to the crowd, could only take a few steps at a time. In a hurry, they pushed their way passed couples kissing and holding each other, hoping to delay the inevitable goodbye. The clinging, the kissing, the waving, and the crying, the whole process seemed more hurried than it had to be. Many plans had to be interrupted. Lives had to be placed on hold. Promises were hastily made without any guarantee that they could be kept. Wives had to be strong. Sweethearts would have to wait without ever knowing whether their lovers would return or not; but in spite of all the uncertainties, on the whole, most of the soldiers were able to say goodbye with some degree of optimism. Many of them had not thought about the danger. Suddenly they were thrust into something bigger than any individual. Soon they would be fighting to win the war to end all wars.
When his time came, Fritz would wait with great anticipation for letters from home. “The beauty of our hearth,” the beloved mother of his children would write to him about home. With a word about herself and their boys, upon whose love he depended, she would try to reassure him; but her words left him unconvinced. Naturally enough, the hurried manner in which they said goodbye only contributed to his anxiety.
While the Kaiser continued to gather his army, Pauline had nightmares, some of which involved her children; others involved the destruction of the world. She saw a game for which no one bore any responsibility. Add to this scene Kaiser Franz Joseph, conspicuously dressed in wine-stained civvies. Just as he stepped down from his carriage, Pauline’s fascination focused on his long whiskers. It would be hard for her to forget the gaze with which she felt maligned her.
She took lovers, hoping to forget her sorrow; but memories of her last lover only compounded her grief. More and more often she found that she couldn’t sleep. The radiance of her lover’s face acted as a lamplight, as she relived their carriage ride through The Prater. As the cycle of loss turned into a pattern, she found little incentive to live.
It was shortly after midnight when Fritz’s loneliness seemed most acute. At last, silence; and with no more artillery fire came less apprehension. Fritz, and the troops on both sides tried their best to sleep. It was a night for wearing galoshes, and to wear them not only to protect your feet but to also feel civilized.
Snow fell all night. Near daybreak, in the trenches, no one escaped the wet and the cold. Each morning the watch surveyed a new landscape, since violent fusillades during the night tore up the land without regard for houses or trees. With open land sloping down from the trenches, it was an excellent position. To help fortify it, barbed wire was strung along in front of the trenches. This morning Fritz had the task of digging a deeper hole for himself. Suffering from misery and fear, he’d be condemned for months to burrowing as an animal.
Fritz had enlisted to fight a lovely war and, at first, had been trained to fight from a horse. To him, a sign of his fall came when he had to dig a hole to survive. If he had suddenly been killed on a horse, imagine the difference that would’ve made. Here was an example of how hysteria and insanity preyed on a soldier’s inner defenses.
Before long certain designated men climbed out of the trenches and, shortly thereafter, returned with the day’s provisions. It was a good meal, soups or a stew of some sort. By nine the day’s tedium would’ve begun with the precise and scientific struggle of the artillery. Field batteries and siege guns generally sent shells whistling over their heads and were unmistakable for the lesser report of their explosions. Exploding contact shells were far more impressive. Shrapnel, shattering trees, snapped good size trunks as if they were twigs, while the sniping went on all the time.
Packed elbow to elbow in the trenches, and as one became habituated, one could expect to spend the whole day standing. Too often, they also thought that the war was harder for them than for anyone else. It was surely unfair. But in the middle of all the discomfort, Fritz longed for an attack, the barbed wire, the baronets, and the rifle butts, anything for a change. In fact, along with the monotony, he felt as if he were cheated. But he quickly realized that there was nothing noble about the war.
Death he already knew well. He had seen the worse side of humanity, as they still talked about the glories. There were cowards among them. They were men everyone knew, recognizable even before they’d seen any action. Cowards were everywhere, as the fraternity of cowards grew. The possibility of having to depend on one then was pretty certain. Then, as a means of defense, one had to rely on them. The enemy might’ve been superior; though counted among them were many cowards too.
The whole battlefield, which Fritz never had an opportunity to see, once had been poor rocky farmland and wasn’t worth a single life. It was true that since the stalemate, there didn’t seem to be a reason to attack. With nothing critical at stake, it seemed as if all of the parties had agreed to allow the artillery to do most of the fighting.
It had been different in the Balkans. But few fighters could match, as a whole, the Turks. No one could equal them in the open field or with bayonets. Having first fought in the Balkans, Fritz fretted over inaction. “In the name of Civilization, let’s get on with it,” he cried, but the truth of the matter was that he had forgotten many of the reasons why he was fighting. But desertion would’ve been impossible. It would harden him. He never had the strength to either endorse the war, or to walk away from it.
“But after all,” Fritz would say with a serious tone, “there are very few great men left. Nine times out of ten, it’s the weak that stay alive. And if it weren’t for my dearest Pauline, there wouldn’t be a reason to live. Perhaps, before long, we’ll all be back in Vienna, with no more than colds. And when the sun comes out, we might even get to dry our socks out and start feeling half civilized again.”
It was the winter of 1915, a year full of fire and smoke. “Those swine over there, which we never see, would just love to smash us; but not today!”
In reality, nothing prepared him for the boredom. He had time on his hands, time to be philosophical. Time to piece together fragments of thought. Time to feel sympathy. Time to think about those he loved. He came up with a condensed version of living, which was in contrast with his memories of living in Vienna, or more specifically those first months with Pauline. Along with a shovel, he also clung to a small volume of Goethe called, Zarathustra. From it, he gleaned ideas about feeling superior. With these distractions, Fritz could ignore the dangers around him.
Fritz fooled himself into thinking that suffering proved that he was alive. It would’ve been cruel to tell him the truth. He was as sensible as he could be, but the reality of war drove him deeper and deeper into the realm of insensibility. He tried to disguise it, but he couldn’t hide from it for very long.
The night sky offered Fritz the same array of moon and stars he had often observed in Vienna. The stark beauty of that night extended way beyond the vast tracks of the barren wasteland. Then the order came to give up their position, which broke his heart.
The enemy may have gotten the trenches, but at least they hadn’t been defeated. In fact, movement gave them renewed hope, for conditions couldn’t have been worse. In so large an operation, the loss of some men was compensated by a change of scenery.
Their retreat couldn’t have escaped notice. If nothing else, the constant grinding of motors would’ve given them away. With the moon flooding the hillside with light, there was no effort made to fool the enemy. The big question then was why had the enemy permitted so much?
It seemed as if fools led the army, or else they wouldn’t have made so many mistakes. Or perhaps their retreat was a mere gesture, inviting an attack. But not a round was fired.
Rations were distributed to all of the troops. Everybody got his share of wine. Nobody would consider celebrating the Kaiser’s birthday without some. They rightly expected trouble. Why not settle accounts on the Kaiser’s birthday? It would be the best time Fritz had since he left Vienna.
The schloss had been mostly gutted; but in spite of the damage, it still reflected its owner’s wealth and taste. The palace was given to the soldiers for their use. Here there was what remained of a library and a few shelves of books, remarkably untouched by fire. It was here that Fritz found relaxation in the works of Kant, Heider, Schiller, and Humboldt, all of whom seemed to point the way to an ideal civilization.
Fritz appropriated as many volumes as he could carry. As much as he could, he dove into them. They offered an escape and fed into his intellectual side. He happened upon Goethe and chose to read about evil. For instance, in Goethe he found all the imaginable things that gave meaning to a God-forsaken world. He read aloud verses about tragic sacrifice.
All of the authors were German. Fritz was ready for the poem “Wandrers Nachtlied.” In his heart, he knew that Austria fought for an ideal and not so much for territory or even principles but for honor. The poem thus gave meaning to misery and reasons for the mundane. It also gave a rationale for not giving up.
The night seemed short, while Fritz slept a long stretch. Some of the men tended fires. Others were on sentry duty, while each of them would have a turn at that. Most of his unit enjoyed an unaccustomed degree of comfort. Before going to sleep, Fritz proposed a toast to the Kaiser from what he had left from a bottle of wine and celebrated the progress of the campaign. But in spite of the camaraderie, each man felt he was fighting a private war.
Fritz couldn’t stop thinking about Pauline and their sudden separation. So many things were left unsaid. In the most general terms, he wanted to reassure her. He wanted to tell her that he planned to return in one piece. However, he knew he couldn’t control his destiny.
Pauline also knew about risks. As her sympathies shifted, her feelings for her husband cooled. By this time, she had become her own worse enemy. She hadn’t foreseen this, nor could she avoid it.
As he thought of recent victories, Fritz managed a smile. Again, everyone thought in terms of a short conflict, in terms of months rather than years (and forgetting that it had already been a year). But rather than jinks everything, he returned to Goethe’s “Zarathustra.” As he read phases such as “whirling wind and dried up dirt,” the imagery was as clear as the morning. With luck, maybe he could keep the shadows away. He seemed determined to not let the reality of his situation affect his mood.