His men began to fall into line—all except for one young soldier, who stood his ground, looked his superior in the eye, and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but I don’t shoot civilians. It’s not right.”
The Allies had just landed at Normandy, and the news from the Eastern Front was increasingly grim: reports of “strategic withdrawals with heavy enemy losses” and “over-extended Russian advances out-flanked and surrounded,” the flimsy rhetoric of an army in full retreat. To the officer the young man’s defiance was another crack in the iron shell of die Festung Europa. He erupted in rage, shouting, “You have no choice! You are a German soldier, and I am giving you a direct order!”
“I’m a German, and a soldier, but I’m also a man – a human being,” the soldier replied calmly. “And as a human being, I’m telling you, I won’t do it. Never.”
The officer’s voice was shaking with anger. “Since you no longer consider yourself a member of the Wehrmacht, you are a deserter, and the penalty for desertion is death. Is that your final decision?”
“It is,” the young man said.
The officer pulled his pistol from its holster.”
“Then you can join these Dutch friends of yours and die with them.”
The other soldiers stared in horror and awe as their comrade looked his superior straight in the eye and spoke softly: “So be it.” Without another word, he let his rifle fall to the ground, walked over and joined the prisoners.
Now think about it. There were so many ways out for the young soldier that he could have easily taken. The prisoners were already doomed, and his death would do nothing to save them. He could have joined his comrades in the firing squad, but aimed his weapon to one side, so that his bullet was not one that did the killing. His country that he loved, despite the evil that had possessed his soul, was fighting for its very life. And he was young, so very young, with so many dreams still unrealized. Was there a young woman, a girl, waiting at home, praying for him to return home safely?
And yet he couldn’t, wouldn’t, go home a murderer. In his heart, he would rather die, right here, right now. He stood with the prisoners, his nation’s enemies, and faced the firing squad. His face was perfectly at peace; perhaps he was even smiling.
The officer raised his arm above his head. “READY,” he screamed. The soldiers hesitated, and then shouldered their weapons and raised them.
The final moment seemed to drag on forever and ever, as if it would never end.
There was an explosion of sound, and bodies toppled to the earth as eyes wept invisible tears, mouths screamed silently, and the blood of the dead spread and mingled on the ground.
This is a true story, and back when I spent much of my time in war zones and other black places I always carried it with me in the back of my mind. It was as vital to my survival as the blood type tattooed on my left bicep, the knife in my boot and the good luck amulet I wore on a string around my neck. As vital but much, much more so, because surviving is really nothing, at all if we don’t survive as human beings, with our hearts and souls intact.
We should all carry something like that with us in our lives, like the priceless gift that nameless German soldier, so incredibly, amazingly, heartbreakingly courageous, gave his life to leave for us.
Note: I am leaving the country on January 8 for three or four weeks; during my time away I will be sending in columns from time to time, hopefully every week but if not, whenever possible. When I return I will write my regular weekly columns while I prepare to return to Afghanistan to start up a couple of micro-aid projects and work on a book, The Republic of Silence, on the sufferings of the Hazara tribe, the minority group that has suffered so much at the hands of the Taliban and al-Qaeda.