German Students' War Letters

German Students' War Letters

German Students' War Letters

German Students' War Letters


Originally appearing at the same time as the pacifist novel All Quiet on the Western Front, this powerful collection provides a glimpse into the hearts and minds of an enemy that had been thoroughly demonized by the Allied press. Composed by German students who had left their university studies in order to participate in World War I, these letters reveal the struggles and hardships that all soldiers face.

The stark brutality and surrealism of war are revealed as young men from Germany describe their bitter combat and occasional camaraderie with soldiers from many nations, including France, Great Britain, and Russia. Like its companion volume, War Letters of Fallen Englishmen, these letters were carefully selected for their depth of perception, the intensity of their descriptions, and their messages to future generations. "Should these letters help towards the establishment of justice and better understanding between nations," the editor reflects in his introduction, "their deaths will not have been in vain." This edition contains a new foreword by the distinguished World War I historian Jay Winter.



There has been a burst of interest in recent years in “war literature,” understood as a genre of writing in which soldiers display the authority of direct experience in telling their “truth” about war and combat. In the process, they offer reflections on much else besides—on comradeship and masculinity, on the image of the enemy, on national sentiment, on the burden of survival when so many others failed to come back, and on the “lies” that those who weren’t there told about those who were.

Much of this discussion centers on memoirs written long after the Armistice of 1918, but it also refers directly to a vast body of evidence published during and after the war derived from soldiers’ letters. To Samuel Hynes, these letters were “war memoirs of the dead.” This massive body of correspondence is an essential but relatively unexplored part of the cultural legacy of the Great War.

Never before had soldiers created such an avalanche of letters and postcards. Estimates vary, but the number of items sent by soldiers to their families in wartime must be calculated in the tens of millions. Most such items were ephemeral; indeed, the British army had a standardized form for soldiers to tick off boxes as to their being well, in good spirits, and so on. Censorship lay behind this effort to restrict soldiers’ comments to the absolutely anodyne; officers were obliged to read handwritten missives and eliminate any information potentially of value to the enemy. But the sheer deluge of letters written home defeated army efforts to sanitize correspondence. To be sure, soldiers engaged in their own form of self-censorship and took pains to . . .

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