In an earlier essay, I wrote that perfectionism, or, more specifically, our expectations of perfection, can be the enemy of goodness. This essay is about other, earthly enemies. It’s also about the autumn of life, the nature of death, and the power of love. I also touch on commitment, courage, and compassion. That’s a lot big topics for such a short essay, but we won’t dwell too long on any one of them, I promise. In this essay, I will relate to you an epic road trip. Along the way, I’ll introduce you to old German soldiers, describe World War II battlefields, revisit some of Hemingway’s writings, relate brief anecdotes about autumn leaves and an old stone church, and consider the meaning of a song by the Goo Goo Dolls.
In autumn of 2012, I finally took a trip that I’d been eagerly anticipating for ten months. Y’all know I’m a history nerd, but perhaps you don’t realize just how far I take my nerdliness. In late 2011, my friend Jon and I visited the Hurtgenwald Museum in Vossenack, Germany. Jon is a professional historian who works for the Department of Defense. The Battle for the Hurtgenwald (“Hurtgen Forest” in English) was a topic of particular interest to us for two reasons. First, almost seventy years after the battle, historians still disagree about what the results of the battle were and whether it was even necessary at all. Second, those men who fought both in Normandy and in the Hurtgenwald are in agreement that the Hurtgenwald was worse. In the shadows of hundred foot trees, small units fought at extremely close ranges – often 30 to 50 meters – in mud a foot deep that concealed mines and booby traps, and in near-freezing temperatures. Frostbite, trench foot, and pneumonia caused casualties on both sides. Overhead, artillery shells – fuzed to detonate on contact – exploded among the tree tops, showering the men of both sides with shrapnel and huge, javelin-like splinters, which were prone to deadly infections. Ernest Hemingway, attached to the 22d Infantry Regiment as a war correspondent, described the Hurtgenwald as “Passchendale with tree bursts,” recalling one of World War I’s most horrific battlefields. Later, Hemingway used his experiences in the Hurtgenwald as material for his novel, “Across the River and Into the Trees.” But the American soldiers who fought there simply called Hurtgenwald “The Death Factory.” And it was: the American Army suffered around 33,000 casualties (about eleven times as many men as were lost on the first day of the Normandy Invasion; picture “Saving Private Ryan” times ten), and inflicted about 22,000 casualties on the Germans – all for a sparsely inhabited forest on a high ridge south of Aachen.
Anyway, while Jon and I were at the Hurtgenwald Museum in 2011, we had met an elderly German gentleman who assisted us in translating some of the exhibits. My German is functional, but I don’t usually understand lengthy descriptions and complex terminology, so I welcomed his assistance. However, since this gentleman did not give me permission to identify him by name on Facebook, I’ll call him “Herr Schmidt” in this essay. As we talked with Herr Schmidt, we found out that he had been a soldier in the German army and had fought in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest with the Wehrmacht 353rd Infantry Division. We also found out that Herr Schmidt now worked part time as a tour guide for military units, historians, and others who wanted to tour the battlefield.
So, by autumn 2012, I had been anticipating returning to the Hurtgenwald and touring the battlefield with Herr Schmidt. I had read a few English-language histories of the battle, but I knew from experience that even the best of historians often take a victor’s liberty with the truth, and a tour with Herr Schmidt would be a rare opportunity to see the battlefield from the perspective of a former enemy. I corresponded with Herr Schmidt and found, to my pleasant surprise, he not only remembered me and Jon, but he also said that he was available that very weekend. Jon and I put together a road trip, since Hurtgenwald is about a three hour drive from Ramstein, and we even roped our mutual friend Andy, also a professional historian, into going along with us.
Friday I was off work, so I spent the morning preparing for the trip. As I did laundry and packed and mapped out our routes, I listened to one particular song over and over again. The song is “Without You Here.” by the Goo Goo Dolls. The Goo Goo Dolls are a great band with an awful name, by the way, so don’t let that awful name become an artificial barrier that prevents you from enjoying their songs. Here is an excerpt from “Without You Here:”
And I’m trying to believe
In things that I don’t know
The turning of the world
The color of your soul
That love could kill the pain
That truth is never vain
It turns strangers into lovers
And enemies to brothers
That song was still playing in my head as I drove the three hours through the autumn-tinged forests of the Eifel plateau and into the cold shadows of the Hurtgen. The Hurtgen Forest is just as dark and ominous as its southern cousin, the Black Forest, but less famous. Jon navigated and Andy provided humor from the back seat. It was a good road trip.
Eventually, we arrived at our hotel. Naturally, I went to the bar as soon as I had dumped bags. I settled into a warm corner booth with a cold Weissbier while Jon, Andy and I waited for Herr Schmidt to arrive. We didn’t have to wait long. An elderly gentleman soon walked up to us and greeted us in German and in English. I did not recognize him at first. You see, much had changed in the year since Jon and I first met Herr Schmidt. He had lost at least thirty pounds, stood with a stooped posture, and had lost all of his hair, even his eyebrows. Herr Schmidt was obviously undergoing chemotherapy. He seemed in good spirits, however, and we immediately moved from the bar to the dining room to take nourishment from Schweinebraten, roasted potatoes, and more beer. Over dinner, we talked about the next day’s activities.
Saturday morning, we awoke to a dusting of snow on the ground, even though it was not yet Halloween. Old Man Winter comes early to these damp highlands along the Belgian border, and he often overstays his welcome. Much like an annoying guest after a party, Old Man Winter often lingers well into early April in these parts. Nevertheless, we scraped the ice from the car and started our ride around Hurtgenwald with me at the wheel and Herr Schmidt riding shotgun while he narrated the events of the battle.
One of our stops was at a German military cemetery. At one point I paused to read an inscription on a headstone, and when I looked ahead, I saw Jon and Andy walking alongside Herr Schmidt, who was hobbling along at a slower pace, in part because of the cold. No one had to say anything, but all four of us knew that this might be the last battlefield tour that Herr Schmidt ever conducted. I might have been witnessing this old soldier’s swan song. A faint breeze caused a flurry of brown, withered leaves, cast off by the trees they had nourished, to drift to the ground around the three men ahead of me. In that moment, I saw the world with tremendous clarity.
In that moment, I saw a dying man walking across the face of a corrupt and dying world, leading two younger men on a walk through a cemetery. The two younger men would eventually follow the older man to their respective graves, just as they followed slightly behind him now, listening to his words – words that could nourish their minds with wisdom, but words that could do nothing to stop the slow advance of time or the slow withering of the flesh that we call aging. To make matters worse, the cemetery that they were walking through honored men killed in a battle that could have been avoided; brave men who fought for the country they loved, but for a political regime they did not trust.
Herr Schmidt was 85 years old, and, although he moved a bit slowly at times, he walked up steep trails that many men of forty would have found challenging. As I wrote earlier, he is also undergoing chemo, but he insists on showing people around the battlefield as well as he is able, even when the snows come early. Rarely have I seen such commitment and such discipline.
I was still pondering the nature of commitment and discipline about an hour later, when we left the forward battle positions of the American 28th Infantry Division and visited a memorial to another German soldier, Lieutenant Friedrich Lengfeld. Lieutenant Lengfeld was killed in the battle for Hurtgenwald, but he was not killed in action in the usual sense. You see, Lieutenant Lengfeld responded to the cries of an American soldier who was wounded, entangled in barbed wire, and stuck in a minefield between the American and German forces. The American soldiers could not rescue this poor man, and the Germans refused to shoot a wounded, entangled soldier. In trying to rescue his erstwhile enemy, Lieutenant Lengfeld himself struck a mine and was killed.
The inscription over Lieutenant Lengfeld’s grave reads:
No man hath greater love than he who layeth down his life for his enemy
In memory of Lieutenant Friedrich Lengfeld 2nd.co fues.bn.275 th inf.div
Here in hürtgen forest on November 12.1944 Lt Lengfeld, a German officer, gave his life while trying to save the life of a American soldier lying severely wounded in the Wilde Sau minefield and appealing for medical aid.
If you read the Bible, you probably know that John 15:13 tells us that “Greater love has no one that this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” But what about the verses that come just before and just after John 15:13? Here’s all three verses together, for context.
John 15:12 – 14. “(12) My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (13) Greater love has no one that this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (14) You are my friends if you do what I command.”
Note that the words here are the actual words of Christ. Note also that verse 14 ends with the word “command.” In other words, laying down one’s life for one’s friends is not a suggestion, or a darn good idea for other people, or something to get around to someday if you have the time. Laying down one’s life is a command from higher headquarters.
Sixty eight years earlier, there, on that sorry field of carnage that we call Hurtgenwald, fighting for a lost cause, a young German officer gave his life, not for his friends, but for his enemy. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that Lieutenant Lengfeld heard the cries of the wounded American soldier, and for a moment he overcame all the artificial barriers put upon him by this corrupt and dying world, and in that moment, he focused only on helping out a wounded brother. And I don’t know if Lieutenant Lengfeld was a Christian, but I imagine he was. Or rather, I have a hard time imagining any non-Christian living with such commitment, courage, and conviction that he would lay down his life for his enemy. Even though Lieutenant Lengfeld was deprived of living a full life, in death he has the honor of being the only German officer honored with an American-funded monument after the war. His final act of heroism may have inspired others to give the full measure of devotion to improving this corrupt and dying world. It certainly inspired me.
Not far from Lieutenant Lengfeld’s grave, we took a few minutes to visit the old stone church in Vossenack. Inside, Herr Schmidt pointed out a metal plaque underneath a cross made from spot-welded pieces of shrapnel. The plaque was donated by the officers and enlisted men of Germany’s 116th Panzer Division. It reads:
“Der Tod is das Pforte zum Leben,” which means “Death is the gateway to Life.”
Herr Schmidt smiled when he showed us the plaque. He seemed to be approaching death with the calm stoicism of an old soldier moving off toward a new posting.
As we talked with Herr Schmidt, we learned that, after surviving the horrors of the Hurtgenwald, he had been transferred farther east. And in early 1945, he had the good fortune to be captured by American soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division. Had he been just thirty miles or so farther east, he would have been captured by the Russians, and his life probably would have turned out very differently. When Herr Schmidt spoke of being captured, his face actually lit up, and he smiled broadly. While in captivity, he was happy simply to get food. In addition to eating regular meals, however, Herr Schmidt learned enough American English so that he was able to get a job at the American hospital in Frankfurt as an Orderly. There, he provided medical care to his former enemies.
I wondered what would have happened if Herr Schmidt had fallen into the hands of the Russians, whose cruelty to captives was well-known. I also wondered what would have happened if, instead of feeding Herr Schmidt and helping him to learn English, the men of America’s 2nd Infantry Division had mistreated him and instilled in him a life-long hatred for all things American.
In war, it is easy to dismiss the soldiers of other countries as evil men. Such dismissals are convenient, but they are oversimplifications. Herr Schmidt was simply a young man fighting for the country and way of life he loved. He also said very plainly that after 1942, everyone knew that the ruling regime was hopelessly corrupt and was leading the country into ruin. He said that fighting for the regime was a lost cause, but that individuals, living in the big machine, were powerless to do anything except comply.
When the war ended, Herr Schmidt, picked up his life with many regrets, but without any malice. From his job at the American hospital in Frankfurt, Herr Schmidt’s next earthly posting was, ironically enough, in the metal-working industry. He worked his way up into management, learned all he could about the business, and travelled all over the world as his career progressed. Herr Schmidt became a very successful businessman and an amateur historian. Not bad for a man who was the enemy to my grandfather’s generation. Not bad for a man who, sixty-eight years ago, was a scared sixteen-year-old infantryman, fighting for his life, for a lost cause, in a dark forest that Americans called “The Death Factory.”
So, how does all of this connect? Well, could it be that any cause we fight for in this dying and corrupt world, except the cause of Christ, is a lost cause? Could it be that we oversimplify the truth when we dismiss our earthly enemies as evil men? Could it be that other people are not our enemies at all, but that humankind’s common enemy is simply that old, biblical enemy of God? Could you make a cross from the old pieces of shrapnel in your own life; not literally, of course, but symbolically? Could you face death with the stoicism and confidence of an old soldier going off to a new duty post? Could you lay down your life for an enemy? Could it be that death is simply the gateway to eternal life, and that if we would only see it that way, then commitment and discipline, courage and compassion, would all come more easily to us? Can love and truth turn enemies to brothers? Call me naive or even crazy, but I believe that they can. Better yet, instead of calling me naive or crazy, you can call me Christian.