This was a recount of a WWI German war veteran that was sharing about his experience when he had to kill someone from the enemy sidelines. His name was Stefan Westmann and he was a corporal in the German 29th Infantry Division. He fought at Verdun and the Somme. If you have a few minutes to spare, I can assure that this is a very enlightening read . For me personally, I found it profound that he says that it is easier to kill someone if we detached ourselves from seeing the other like ourselves but once we start to do so, we would find it repulsive to kill.
Here is the transcript of the video interview that was taken as part of the BBC series, Great War in 1964. I have decided to write it down here for you to read because I think it is a very impactful one especially the way we conceptualise the idea of war. The notion of war is impersonal when we see battleground strategies, military uniforms and weapons but contrarily to all that facade, it is quite an intimate affair of which I will allow you to read so in this brief interview.
One day we got the orders to storm a French positon. We got in and my comrades fell right and left of me. But then I was confronted by a French corporal. He with his bayonet at the ready, and I with my bayonet at the ready. For a moment, I felt the fear of death. And in a fraction of a second I realised that he was after my life exactly as I was after his. I was quicker than he was. I tossed his rifled away and I ran my bayonet through his chest. He fell, put his hand on the place where I had hit him and then I thrust again. Blood came out of his mouth and he died.
I felt physically ill. I nearly vomited. My knees were shaking and I was quite frankly , ashamed of myself. My comrades – I was a corporal there, then were absolutely undisturbed by what had happened. One of them boasted that he had killed a Poilu with the butt of a rifle. Another one had strangled a captain, a French captain. A third one had hit somebody over the head with his spade. And they were ordinary men like me. One of them was a tram conductor, another one a commerical traveller, two were students and the rest were farm workers. Ordinary people who would never have thought to do any harm to anyone. How did it come about that they were so cruel?
I remembered then that we were told that the good soldier kills without thinking of his adversary as a human being. The very moment he sees him as his fellow man, he is not a good soldier anymore. But I had infront of me the dead man, the dead French soldier and how I would have liked to have him to have raised his hand. I would have shaken his hand and we would have been the best of friends, because he was nothing, like me, but a poor boy who had to fight, who had to go in with the most cruel weapons against a man who had nothing against him personally, who only wore the uniform of another nation, who spoke another language but a man who had a father and mother, and a family perhaps, and so I felt.
I woke up at night sometimes drenched in sweat, because I saw the eyes of my fallen adversary of the enemy and I tried to convinced myself what would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have been quicker than he? What would have happened to me if I wouldn’t have thrust my bayonet first into his belly? What was it that we soldiers stabbed each other, strangled each other, went for each other like mad dogs? What was it that we, who had nothing against them personally fought with them to the very end and death ? We were civilised people after all. But I felt that the culture that we have boasted so much about is only a very thin lacquer which chips off the very moment we come in contact with cruel things like real war. To fire at each other from a distance , to drop bombs, is something impersonal. But to see each other’s white in the eyes and then to run the bayonet against a man, it was against my conception and against my inner feeling.
This interview was nothing short of powerful and one thing that I have absolutely learned about war, is that there are no victors.
All credits and reference goes to : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XruYsAmKLyU