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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

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Sunday, December 12, 2004

searching for an ultimate shelter

From Stalingrad: Memories of a Survivor by Jocham Wieder, a harrowing eyewitness account of the destruction of the German Sixth Army trapped in the Stalingrad pocket 1942-43:

We experienced two more pensive evenings in the bunker... Our circle was enlarged by a Protestant pastor, a Catholic convent priest and a philosophically inclined orderly officer from the division's 1a department. After initial discussion of our situation during which bitter words and open criticism were voiced, the talk soon turned to more fundamental matters.

The catastrophe that was threatening to swallow us up unveiled itself to us in many ways as the natural conclusion of a long trail of errors from which our inner misgivings had not pulled us back. The mental roots of our misfortune arose before our eyes, as did the crisis of true soldiery which here in Stalingrad was degenerating into a soulless materialism with a misunderstood sense of duty and mechanistic concepts of honour; despite all the personal commitment and sacrifice of individual soldiers. What higher insights did these virtues serve, and for the achievement of which ethical objectives were they being employed? We reminded ourselves of the unchangeable, true ranking of values and of the respect for human dignity that appeared to have been buried long ago.

We made one another realise that the impending military catastrophe was also a political catastrophe, the result of presumptuous beliefs and actions that had long shaken the healthy foundations of our intellectual, cultural and national life. Had the power that we served as citizens and soldiers bent its knee before the law that was rooted in the code of ethics? Or rather had not a new gospel of violence been proclaimed and introduced that, in a fatal reversal of all values, had ceased to differentiate between right and wrong?...

By means of a destructive battle against the universal educational and cultural powers of classic antiquity, humanism and Christianity, an anti-intellectual political religion of power had successively extracted the German people from the best of the commonly-held European body of human thought and thereby also out of any commitment to the objective concepts of truth, compassion and justice...

National Socialism had unleashed those fatal forces with their inborn drive towards excess. In despite of our possibly best personal beliefs and intentions, had we not since then all marched along a road leading into error? Were not the German armed forces the instrument of National Socialist power politics and had they not shared in the disregard for international treaties, foreign borders and the lebensraum of others? All of us who wore a uniform were entangled in a fabric of developments and circumstances that we certainly had not sought or desired. We surely could not believe that our employment here in Stalingrad was part of a noble, legitimate battle for German interests. Painfully, we felt that the soldierly virtues of bravery, commitment, loyalty and obedience to duty in their objective sense, were being despicably misused. This deepened the tragedy of the cruel events in which we now would have to atone for much that we had never wanted.

The two priests read to us from Holy Scriptures. They spoke about divine justice before which the fate breaking in upon us would receive its ultimate sense of purpose. Would we have the strength truly to accept such a sense of purpose and submit to it with humility? In the proximity of death things appeared in their true light and proper order. In such a situation the Bible speaks to us with an insistence and clarity, the like of which we had never felt or understood before. In our circle we sat together not only as brothers in adversity over whom the same fate hung. We were also a small congregation, brought together by the need of true comfort and unambiguous support. The fear and misery at the edge of our existence had given us a religious experience whose strengthgiving power bound us together.

A fair number of books had been my trusty companions throughout the war so far. They contained much of the wisdom of the world. In silent communication with some of the noblest of poets and thinkers, I had often found strength, comfort and inner freedom amidst the crushing and unfeeling reality of harsh, cruel, everyday life.

Among my favourite books in the little private library I had taken with me to the eastern front was a copy of Marcus Aurelius's self-observations. The slim leather-bound volume dated from 1675... It was a French translation of the wise Stoic on the Roman imperial throne… It contained the ex libris of a French general from the time of the great revolution and of Napoleon. What must this little book have witnessed in the way of fates over almost nine generations! And to how many long-forgotten human beings had it given peace and imperturbability in many of the storms and vicissitudes of life! I too had often found support and comfort in it. It had contributed markedly to completing my equipment for war, by serving me as a suit of armour that protected me from all too frequent woundings by events, and by giving me an inner equanimity.

Now this book too, like several others, had become meaningless. The wisdom of the world, with its merely human-temporal comfort, had failed. It did not penetrate into the ultimate and most profound, and could no longer stand firm in the terrible shock and helplessness at whose mercy I felt myself to be. In extreme distress, with the ground shaking underfoot and a menacing abyss of nothingness seeming to open before me, there was only one last support; the comforting strength of the Christian belief. In our small contemplative circle at Gorodishche, while faced with the hopelessness of our situation and in the heartrending feeling of being lost, we mutually tried to deepen one another's awareness of the existence of an ultimate shelter. This gave us comfort and supportive help against the heaviness and bitterness we still would have to face. Perhaps we could pass on some of this comfort and support to other comrades who, bewildered, were reeling towards the abyss.

In their desperation, faced with the destruction of a whole world of concepts, and in view of the senselessness of the catastrophe, many a soldier on the staffs as well as with the fighting troops, had reached for his pistol and put an end to his life. There was no way back and no escape. Others disguised their secret fear and inner feeling of emptiness behind a contrived soldierly stance... If they themselves were doomed to go under, they would at least sell their skin dearly to the end, and take as many Russians as they could with them.

We agreed that suicide was out of the question for religious and ethical reasons. If within our own small area of responsibility, we were no longer to be enabled to take any saving action against the downfall ordered from above, we at least wanted to attempt to maintain the human being in the uniform of the soldier to the end.

We wished to labour against despair and to try to accept with silent dignity the extreme misery into which we were being led. We also wanted to try to influence other brothers in fate and to prevent them from simply throwing away their lives in their final despair. As normal, weak human beings, caught up in error and guilt, there was nothing left to us but to drink the cup of suffering to the last bitter dregs.

9:52:00 pm