Dead Men Walking
When you stay in a foreign place, no matter how amazing, unique, and charming it is, you can become adjusted and lose a bit of that spark.
For me, it always comes back when I get ready to leave... and my departure from Bavaria is five short days away. Having had a very in-depth conversation with a friend from school and church days in Europe about my own journey of faith - how my faith led me out of the Marine Corps... and how my knowledge of war reduced the best hopes and promises of theology to rubble. It was a meaningful conversation I hadn't had and stirred up feelings and emotional places I hadn't visited in eons.
So on today's walk, I put on my headphones and walked out into a beautiful yet almost sad Bavarian landscape... snow still on the peaks, but lots of mist and a very grey hue in the sky.
And as I walked up the footpath to the center of Berchtesgaden, it began raining...
I turned and headed into the cemetery to pay a visit to the dead.
Since I was a child I was fascinated with cemeteries, and after I discovered the compelling story of warfare, I became fascinated with military cemeteries... and it is something I have shared the beauty of with countless clients and travelers. The one in Berchtesgaden is especially moving for me... for I have fallen in love with this tranquil, peaceful Alpine oasis - it remains my own personal favorite retreat.
Across the little river valley from the hill where the town and cemetery lie sits the mountain where Adolf Hitler took up residence after World War I. And on the inside of the stone wall that rings the little town cemetery are plaques for the many sons who died in two major world conflicts.
It is a tragedy to behold these dead...
There are no bodies which came home. Most, as sons growing up in the mountains, became members of elite mountain fighting units - and they were chewed up in that brutal cauldron of the Eastern Front. Not a family was spared the loss of a father, a brother, or son in the Second World War... and many met the same fate in the First. Some plaques portray a father who died in the First and a son in the Second... one is of twin brothers... one has a brother who died in the First and his baby brother who died in the Second... Some families have chosen to remember their son - not by his rank in the German military but what he did as a civilian before being called up to serve... a simple, somber protest. Some graves have details... "heavily wounded in location X on date X, and died in a hospital in location Y on date Y..."
Others show an even more brutal and senseless side of the war. One plaque is especially moving... Name. Died in Russia
Nothing more... Nothing else was known during a year when Soviet troops began rolling back the German advances with masses of tanks and heavy artillery. Germany was done - and still more men were thrown into the shredder.
Dates of birth and death are especially gripping too. So many of these boys were born right after WWI, when peace had finally been established and so much of Europe thought it would never see such senseless slaughter again. Born in 1919 - Died in 1942. ***
There's a common saying about religion and war: "There are no atheists in foxholes."
But as I dug deeper into my military studies, it broke my heart to see so many nations at war with one another, all in the name of God.
The USA has always invoked God in times of war, going so far as to place "In God We Trust" on its currency.
On the German soldiers' belt buckles reads the inscription: "Gott mit Uns." God with Us.
And as a kid with a big heart and all of the best wishes in the world, I began to grow confused and saddened that such nations and people would pray to the same god - and come away with completely different opinions to disastrous results.
Albert Schweitzer once said:
"Soldiers' graves are the greatest preachers of peace." *** Perhaps Europe and the United States have started listening better, though there is a sad, growing trend of discord - a fatal legacy of the human condition when we grow stagnant and brittle, forgetting the ghastly end results of fears and hatred when they explode among us every generation or so...
My favorite quote, which I stumbled upon while visiting the mass grave of British soldiers killed in the most violent and active sector of the Western Front in World War I says it best. From the shaken heart of King George of England upon visiting this hallowed burial ground of so many of his fallen subjects in Flanders, Belgium:
We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.
We travel for a multitude of reasons - often to escape a heavy work routine and the normal stresses of life.
Some people wonder why anyone would go to places of such desolation and sadness... A valid point. But after taking in the horrors of war, seeing places with cherub-faced teenagers and young men who were cut down in the flower of their youth, one can also step away from that heaviness with a profound sense of gratitude for peace and harmony - and endeavor to be a bridge among people; not a thorn.
A lesson I will never learn enough, anyway...