Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Last Letter From Stalingrad

[Long time readers of this blog will get what I'm up to again here. Over the past few years, I've rolled out a letter or two from the book "Last Letters  From Stalingrad." This year, I'm bringing the focus back to one in particular: Letter 39 in the series of 39 letters. I got my hands on a German language edition and have tweaked the translation and added footnotes to the original text.]

The following letter is from a young German officer on the front lines in Stalingrad, written to his father in the winter of 1942-43. The letter captures the break in the chain of command in the German General Staff. Before Stalingrad, unbroken generations of German Wehrmacht had defended their country and fought with professional honor (that they were politically betrayed at times is another matter). After Stalingrad, the esprit de corps would never be the same. The whole fighting spirit of the future German Bundeswehr died as well.
Dearest Father:1 
The division has been trimmed down2 for the big battle, but the big battle won't take place. You will wonder why I write to you and in care of your office. But what I have to say in this letter can only be said among men. You will transmit it to Mother in your own way. The word is out that we can write today.3 For one familiar with the situation that means that we can do it just once more.
You are a colonel, my dear Father, and a member of the General Staff.4 So you know what this means, and I needn't go into explanations which might sound sentimental. This is the end. It will last perhaps another week, I think, then the game is up.5 I do not want to look for reasons which one could marshal for or against our situation. The reasons are altogether unimportant and pointless. But if I am to say anything about them, it is this: Do not look to us for an explanation of the situation, but to yourselves and to the man who is responsible for it.6 Don't knuckle under7 --you, Father, and all those who think like you. Be on guard, so that a greater disaster8 does not overtake our country. The hell on the Volga should be a warning to you. I beg you, don't brush off 9 this experience.
And now on to the present. Of the whole division only 69 men are still of use. Bleyer is still alive, and so is Hartlieb. Little Degen lost both his arms; he will probably be in Germany soon. It is also the end for him. Ask him for any details you would like to know. D___ has lost all hope. I would like to know what he is thinking at times of the situation and its consequences. We still have two machine guns and 400 rounds of ammunition. One mortar and ten shells. Besides that, only hunger and fatigue. Without waiting for orders, Berg broke out with twenty men. Better to know in three days how things will end, than in three weeks. Can't blame him.
Finally, on to personal matters. You can be sure that everything will end decently. It is a little early at thirty, I know. No sentiments. Handshake for Lydia and Helene. Kiss for Mother (be careful, old man, think of her heart trouble). Kiss for Gerda, regards to all the rest. Hand to helmet, Father. First Lieutenant ____ respectfully gives notice of departure.
The original German has Liebster Vater! The usual way to greet a loved one in German would have been Lieber Vater or "Dear Father."  The author's use of the superlative, Liebster, instead of Lieber, or even Liebester immediately sets a familial tone to the letter.

2 The original has Die Division ist ausgeschlackt... which is much harsher than "trimmed down." Ausgeschlackt (infinitive: ausschlacken) means "cannibalized" or more literally, "butchered out."  The "trimmed down" translation sounds like an obese corps had been made fit; in reality a fit corps had been eviscerated.

3 Originally: Wir dürfen heute schreiben, heißt es bei uns: To us, that means we must write today.

4 Du bist Oberst: Army colonel. His father was a higher-ranked officer, but they were both professional soldiers.

5 The original idiom was: Dann ist der Kragen zu: "then the collar is closed."

6 He's referring to Hitler.

7 Originally, "greater disaster" was written as: Größeres Unheil. "Unheil" seems ironic in view of the well-known Nazi salute.

8 Originally, the idiom "don't knuckle under" was "halten die Nacken stief: keep the neck stiff.
This idiom rhymes with the last two lines of the letter.

9 Originally, the idiom "Don't brush off" was ...schlag deise Erkenntnis nicht in den Wind: don't strike this insight into the wind.
A key to understanding this ongoing series is here, and here. Each letter (39 in all) was written by a different and anonymous German soldier who knew he was going to die. I associate these letters with Christmastime for reasons explained at the links.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

We Should Recognize Legal Legerdemain When We See It

According to Politico, the whole Paris Climate Treaty almost got hung up on parsing the difference between the words "shall" and "should."  Apparently, US lawyers threw a hissy fit over contract language invoking what America shall do vs. what America should do (full disclosure, I am no stranger to litigious battles over the meaning of single words in the context of intellectual property disputes). But, my interest is deeper: According to Politico, "shall" has a binding, obligatory legal meaning that "should" lacks (they're fighting over modals!). "Shall" would have meant getting the US Senate involved; "should" just means namby-pamby-only-while-Obama-is-in-office.  "America shall do this" was too serious for Kerry et al. and they insisted that it be changed to "America should do this."  In other words, '"should" is "shall-lite."  I call bullshit on that.

Consult any American or British lexicon and you learn that "should" carries the moral imperative that "shall" lacks.* Shall is more or less just a modal verb indicating future action.

Kerry et al. just morally obliged us to future actions.
* I'm still confused over whether "should" is the subjunctive form of "shall."  Any thoughts?

[added]  More on "should" here. And Victoria responded to me on Twitter!