I’m currently reading “A Stranger to Myself: The Inhumanity of War : Russia, 1941-1944″, a unique testimony from Willy Peter Reese, a German soldier in WWII, of the horrors of the Eastern Front. Death is a constant and terrible presence throughout the author’s time there; in 1944 he also eventually fell to this omnipotent and omnipresent companion. The author lived long and closely with death, and he is observant and eloquent; the book is thus a rare opportunity to virtually experience the awesome transformative power of death, in its positive and negative effects.
I am reading it in the German original, and have freely translated a short passage here on the vicinity of death to the soldiers on the Eastern Front.
“We lived in death’s vicinity. But it was not death itself that was grievous. Its indecision, its omni-presence, constituted its horror and and its greatness. It was not the long-spared whom it loved but the quickly-felled. Yet, it transformed us with each passing year, led us through the secret chambers of the soul, awakened the angel in the good and the spirit of Cain in the bad. It filled us up and boarded us over, cast out fruit from us and created a sea of misery from a drop of melancholy. Thus it grew up over us like a triumphant tree.
To the weak man, it presented itself as a shadow, plunged him into the hysterical laughter of desperation, awakened feverish desire for ardour and lust for life, extinguished the last flames of renunciation and goodness, devotion and faith, then it ripped off his mask and let him fall like a piece of wasted carrion.
Some inclined to death as to a ripened fruit. The far-traveled spirit gladly anchored himself in his own Hades, and preparation for it became his happiness. There death was like an inner light. No spirit world could be shattered by it, and time crowned its persistence.
But in its vicinity all values were renewed. Gold became vanity, while every slice of bread appeared precious. Books became flat or found deeper meaning, love found its completion or trickled away. Only the essential survived. And so death made us into new and better people.”