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Imperium Germanicum

by Frank Hebben

We will defend ourselves to the last breath of every man and mount. And we will win this war even against a world of enemies. Germany has never been conquered when it stood as one. Forward with God, who will be with us as he was with our fathers.

Wilhelm, 6 August, 1914, Berlin

The grindstone has been working thirty years now, grinding down nations: war, war, eternal war for honour and glory, for an all powerful German empire, though Europe has long since been laid to waste. The earth has been torn asunder and bloodied, bomb craters yawn where there once stood cities and villages, where forests once grew. A bullet for every Russian, a bayonet for every Frenchy, the saying used to go, a rhyme now blown away in the wind like mustard gas and nothing more than a bitter aftertaste. No rattling in the lungs, as yet, no tanks lumbering over the bob-wire fences; no gasoline, no supplies from the munitions factories either – not since the Wilhelm’s-bombs fell on Prussia and Bavaria: Presents for the Kaiser.

Death has become the machinist, pestilence the chemist, and we soldiers are the rats digging tunnels across a radioactive fatherland, from Alsace-Lorrain to the Elbe, further up towards the Skagerrak Strait, east to St Petersburg – veins that criss-cross the Tzar’s empire, that bloody pump which took Hindenburg’s life in 1923.

Ground fog, night is coming. I put down my pencil and look up.

The distant thunder of artillery fire rolls across the river, then explosions light up the night like lightning. They are only small calibres. I count the detonations, and soon quiet returns. The French are bled as dry as we are, their reinforcements exhausted as ours when the Tommies and Yanks crept from the battlefields to quietly divide the colonies amongst themselves, while we go on tearing each other apart.

I check my Geiger counter for radioactivity and hear a feint static crackle: it’s still safe outside. For tonight. Would much rather be out here than in a bunker, anyway, with the wounded, the irradiated, those brought back from no-man’s-land on carts with fevers or typhus or internal bleeding. This horrible suffering, I can’ bear it anymore. Every day more of the poor devils die.

I’m getting hot wearing the gasmask and tear the rubber from my face, and breathe deeply, gulping in mouthfuls of air. I accidentally let my steel helmet clatter across the wooden boarding. Still wheezing, I stoop to pick it up.

When will this goddamned war finally be over? I peer into the whirling fog. Over there, what is that? Up on the hill, on the edge of a bomb crater, are those patrols? Raise the alarm, wake our commanding officer? Easy, soldier, keep the quiet.

Silently I slip my bayonet-tipped rifle into a cement embrasure and wait, but no, it’s not the enemy. Through the naked dead woods, behind which we’ve been fortified for months, a German cavalry trudges towards our frontline. It’s moving so quietly, so unbelievably slowly, that I have the unshakeable impression that they’ve come from beyond the grave, faceless wraiths, apocalyptic riders, their gasmasks framed by a fiery white halo.

Four of their horses pull a forty-pound cannon behind them. Down a steep slope they whinny and snort with the effort. Their platoon leader is wearing a spiked helmet like a crown, thick furs thrown around his shoulders, and when the fog tears open to reveal their colours, I finally recognise them: the wolf brigade, of whom it’s whispered in the dug-outs that they are men without a drop of honour in their bones, blunted by an everlasting war; no morals, no sympathy, just brutal killers who live by their own rules. Free Corps.

A shiver runs down my spine. I creep along behind the stinking sandbags and reach for a mirror I keep on a clink to peer over the edge of the trench. For a moment I catch sight of a dirt-encrusted face, haunted eyes, bedraggled hair; a ghost I don’t recognise as myself anymore – just yellowed skin and bone left now.

In the half-light they ride past us, eight soldiers in all, one carrying a flamethrower on his back, another with a Russian machine gun on his lap, then my eyes fall on a crippled soul so shell-shocked he can’t keep his arms still. The reins of his horse dance in his hands, and his head ticks erratically from side to side. A ghastly sight, that.

And then a machine-man. Both his arms and a leg were amputated; all he has now are prosthetics of steel strapped to his stumps with lengths of leather. What do these wretched creatures want? The enemy lies in wait to the north, also lacking the strength to attack. Both fronts are stuck in a stalemate.

The platoon leader dismounts and marches in the direction of the command post, Freytag’s dug-out, with the rest following: a medic carrying a tattered stretcher, then a grunt, by the looks of him a hardened veteran in his sixties with all his limbs still attached, though his face is peppered with shrapnel scars. The last soldier in the party is hardly more than a boy with matted hair, and carries one of those new cordless radio sets with an impressive range. A troop out of a picture book, they are; all that’s missing is a man of God impelling them to march ever onward.

Again that clammy feeling comes over me, that all this is just a nightmare, an unearthly painting by Breughel. But my wet boots chafe, the lice bite incessantly, sucking my blood, and I know that it’s all a bitter truth … since I climbed aboard the wooden troop transport, filled with pride and eagerness to enter the battle for fatherland and Kaiser. Paris by breakfast! It all seems a dog’s lifetime ago.

Tired, my bones ache. I’m freezing and only notice that my teeth are chattering when I climb down from the look-out point to take a piss; I know the latrine’s position at the end of the trench well enough, but with the biting stench wafting towards me, I’d be able to find it even if I was blinded by gas. With my rifle slung over a shoulder, I head down Section D, greeting Heidrich or Paulus, or whatever their names are, reinforcements from some town. One soldier is snoring, his head half buried in the black muck of a trench wall, another is singing some song about home – and stops singing when he sees me coming.

“All’s quiet on the front,” he coughs and salutes.

I stop and offer him moist tobacco, which he thankfully stuffs into his pocket. He is deathly sick; I can hear it in his breathing. I hand him some matches and move on.

That uneasy feeling won’t leave me alone. What does the wolf brigade want with us? I turn around and head back down the length of the trench, my head tucked deep inside my tunic’s up-turned collar, until I find the command post and squeeze into a nearby recess.

By candlelight they sit: three figures and the colonel huddled around a bottle of schnapps, and shovelling pea soup into their mouths, a thin hot brew into which they dunk rock-hard bread that’s been stretched with wood flour.

Why such hospitality? Most of us are starving! Freytag’s face is unreadable where he is leaning against a beam and smoking a pipe. The machine man sits on a pallet, the platoon leader with the animal skins over his shoulders stands opposite from the colonel, still wearing his black leather mask. I listen, but no one speaks for minutes.

“I can’t spare any grenades,” Freytag finally says, and knocks ash out of his pipe into the sodden hay on the floor. “No more munitions for your Bertha, no provisions, either.”

Muffled, as though from far away, the platoon leader’s words drift through the air cartridge of his gasmask; the black goggles reflect the light. “We intercepted a radio message. A regiment of Frenchmen have crossed the Rheinland and are force-marching on Madeburg, to break through to Berlin. A Caesar-battalion is coming to their aid from the South, veterans, hardened men all of them, colonel. The scissors will close on us, exactly on this spot. Without more fire power you’ll be bombed to kingdom come, like that dead forest on your doorstep.“

“We also have our scouts, Mr Reuthers,” Freytag replies, and scratches dirt from his beard. “And no one has reported such news, not yesterday, not the day before. Even the telephone is quiet. So why should I believe you? Who are you, anyway? Deserters, traitors, that’s who. I should lock you up! If the Kaiser wasn’t –

“The Kaiser is dead. He fell in the third battle of Tannenberg. The frontlines have been shredded and all that’s left are splinter battalions.”

“Empty talk, that. A cock-and-bull story, nothing else. And for it you want rations? We barely have enough to feed ourselves.”

Damn! My boot slipped from the parapet when I wanted to lean a little further toward the conversation; mud splatters over the wooden walkway, loud enough to attract their attention. If it had been the enemy, they’d have sighted me long ago and I’d have gotten a bullet or hand grenade. A recruit’s mistake. Shit!

“Petersen?” my commander asks and looks at me surprised. “Didn’t I give you watch duty in Sector 32?”

“I was on duty, but I had to step out for a moment, sir! Lost my way in the trenches and the darkness.” I announce myself and stand to attention. I’m already turning to leave, when Freytag calls me back.

“Come in and warm yourself. Some soup?”

“I’d love some.”

Hesitantly, I duck under the groundsheet strung across the entrance and sit down next to the scarred veteran, who looks me over disparagingly before turning away. The sick and the weak have their heads caved in with a sharpened trench tool it’s been said about these men. I have to fold my hands to stop them from shaking. The presence of the wolf brigade puts a knot in my throat; I’m sweating and freezing simultaneously.

Does Freytag feel that way too? Is that why he asked me to join them? Deep shadows dance against the walls of the dug-out, despite the paraffin lamp, the candlelight. There’s a sweetly smell in the air, like white phosphorous. A need to put on my gasmask overcomes me. The shell-shocked man I saw earlier comes to mind; maybe it’s just superstition, but … I spoon in some soup for myself and concentrate on swallowing the stuff. I stir it around in my bowl, bent on not making eye contact.

“Who is this?” the platoon leader asks roughly, and turns his reflective goggles on me. I pull my head in between my shoulders as if I’m about to be executed. “Tell him to leave.”

Freytag sticks a cigar in his mouth and digs in his tunic for a light. “Lieutenant Petersen. He can hear what I hear, secrets and rumours aren’t tolerated here. This conversation has reached its end anyway. You’re dismissed.”

“You’re making a mistake, Herr Commandant.”

“Let that be my problem,” says Freytag. “The way I see it, you’ve eaten. Then I bid you good night.”

“We still have something to offer you in exchange.” The medic who had been sitting quietly on a grenade chest and playing with a rat opens a satchel by his feet and places a brownish ampoule on the wooden table. “Medicine. Smuggled from England.”

“What!” Enraged, the colonel sweeps the medicinal bottle from the table; it clatters across the floor. “I don’t deal with war criminals. I said get out!”

The platoon leader indicates a slight bow, then pulls the wolf furs tighter around his shoulders and marches out the dug-out. Outside it has started to drizzle, a fog-like rain that glistens on the sandbags like dew.

“Enjoy what’s left of your Sunday,” the grunt growls at me as he helps up the machine man and exits with the rest of the troop. At the entrance he turns back to me. “Don’t let them take you down, boy.”

I stay where I am until they disappear down one flank. But when I want to leave the command post, Freytag holds me back. He stares at me, his face painted with exhaustion.

“Follow them, Albert. Take a few men with you and see what they’re up to. If they try to steal anything, shoot them on the spot. Understand?”

“Understood, sir!”

I grab my rifle and helmet and hurry after the troop. I run splashing through knee-deep water past sentry posts, down a walkway, till I come to a wheezing stop to find my bearings. Where have they gone? Flushed, I look up and down the trench, back the way I came. But they’ve disappeared, as if swallowed by the mud.

What a mess!

On the lip of the trench I spot Ludwig and Paul who share a camp with me, setting barbed wire along the perimeter.

“Have you seen unfamiliar soldiers come this way?” I call to them. “German cavalry?”

“Yeah, sure, lieutenant,” Paul lifts his helmet by way of greeting. “People are mumbling something about the wolf brigade wanting to speak with Freytag. As for spotting them…”

“It’s too dark out. It’s the devil’s night, this,” whispers Ludwig, who has deep hollows in his cheeks like soot, and hammers a nail into the Spanish Rider he is repairing. “Should rather be playing a round of cards, what say you?”

“That’s just the thing for you, isn’t it?” Laughter has long since escaped me. “Get down from that redoubt, by direct order, and follow me. Now!”

They groan a “yes, sir, understood,” and grumblingly drop their tools. Ludwig reaches behind a chest and brings out his pack, and shoulders the Mauser. Then he scrambles down the embankment back into the trench.

“Get going, men, don’t fall behind!” I shout and hurry them along. “They can’t have gone further than Sector 16. The trench-linings are dense, they’d have to fight their way through them and that can only lead to bloodshed. It’s only along the west flank that they can get out.”

“Is the eastern flank closed?” asks Ludwig from behind me; his breathing is laboured. The egg-shaped hand grenades on his waist belt clang together dangerously with each step he takes. “Or why –”

“They went west when –”

Shrill signal whistles drown out my words, first to the left, then to the right of us, then along the entire earthworks. Flares rise up into the air and burst into green light: every man to his post! We throw ourselves against the trench embankments and cautiously stare out into the darkness; nothing moves in the network of barbed wires. The moon hangs limp in the sky, as though gunned down. Pale clouds float across the wasteland.

Why the alarm? Large assaults at night are rare. But then I see them: three Zeppelins looming on the horizon, black and threatening against the sky, no emblems discernible on their fuselage.

“Give me that!” I grab the rabbit-ear binoculars from Ludwig, with which he’s been watching from behind cover, and refocus it: the aircraft have begun to turn broadside, their rudders angling; rotors accelerate and swirl through the fog, then they bear down directly on our position while rising steadily to evade the occasional salvos fired indiscriminately at the monstrosities.

When I lay the binoculars aside and rub my teary eyes, my gaze lands on a black line beneath the airships, a wholly closed line of enemy soldiers advancing in their shadow like a dark nightmare. I see infantry and cavalry and tanks, the latter accelerating towards us from the flanks to create a rumbling spearhead. Gooseflesh crawls up my neck; for years I haven’t seen a single operational tank …

“My God, I don’t believe it! They’re flying banners as if they were on their way to a parade!” Paul enthuses, though his lips twitch nervously. “Look at them, with their standards flapping in the wind! Have you ever seen something like that?” He points with the tip of his bayonet.

“What?” I turn to look at the spot on the horizon where the blade is pointed: hoisted on steel poles are fabrics and furs that undulate in the rising storm, bloody flags that look freshly skinned from some creature.

Suddenly it’s all clear to me. That’s no enemy advancing on us; it’s the wolf brigade, half a division of them, thousands. My God, how could there possibly be so many of them?

Ludwig’s haggard face tears itself up in horror, his cheek bones growing even more pronounced. “They’re attacking us, those honourless dogs. We have to man the guns! Are the batteries armed?”

I can’t get a word out. Spellbound, with my mouth hanging wide open, I follow the path of the Zeppelins, sailing close to the cloud cover, silent as a ghostly wind. They’ll be dropping mines and high explosives soon, a thought burns through my head.

“We need to take cover!”

An enormous blast presses me forward a second before all hell breaks loose. Stinging smoke washes over me, spotted with the brown of tracers that give our artillery detachments the signal to fire. I leap back from the loam embankment, Ludwig and Paul close behind, and am immediately swept along by an officer barking orders and hurrying down the line with his squad. My shoulder is painfully dashed against the trench wall. I swear out loud, then a second explosion rocks our section and large clods of earth and broken wood rain down on our steel helmets.

“Did you hear mortar fire?” I yell at my men. “We’re not under attack!”

I barely find the time to think about my words, when a fresh detonation throws me off my feet and against a sandbag. I come up coughing. A messenger sprints past me, but I grab him by the arm and pull him into a crevice.

“What’s going on, soldier?” A young man, blond hair, fear writ large in his face. “Speak up, man! Open your mouth!”

“A … it was a bomb attack!” He stammers vaguely, finding it difficult to pull himself together. “Someone blew up three munitions depots.”

“Damn it!” I scream, while the earth shakes under our feet. “How could this –?”

A sinking feeling fills my gut as a thought comes to me: what if they –

“Spies, the wolf brigade. They received their parole today and were let in at the Siegfried’s Gate,” coughs the youngster and pulls away from me. As he runs off with one hand firmly clamped on his helmet, he turns back, “Sorry, Lieutenant, pressing orders!”

Sulphurous gun smoke swallows him. My eyes burn. I tear off my helmet and pull on the gasmask. My breathing feels blocked, and with the greatest of effort I manage to suck air through a filter which I should have replaced a long time ago. Dizzy, dots dance in front of my eyes, and slowly the filter cartridge frees up and sends a glowing stream of air down my throat. I retch and almost throw up.

Paul gives me a violent smack between the shoulders. “Albert, stop messing around, man. Fall back. We have to evacuate the line.’

With his rifle slung over his shoulder, he drags me into an underground shelter; inside I see pallets, tinned food, wine, books, through blurry eyes. Smaller detonations, obviously hand grenades, deafen me in those confines, but then thunder rips loose again, overlaid with heavy fire from the flanking battery as it throws one grenade salvo after the other at the enemy in a booming staccato. A second and third battery soon fall in with the first, more follow, all of them increasing their shelling until there is nothing but the drumming of a full barrage, a noise so absolute that a kind of silence falls over us. My ears hurt, and I can see Ludwig yelling something, though I can’t understand a word.

Stretcher-bearers and doctors swarm over us. Rudely I force my way past them to reach the next sentry point, only to find a dead comrade. A stun grenade has shredded his face, and I cannot bring myself to look away from that awful wound until Paul pushes me against a wooden ladder. He’s also shouting something at me, but I … can’t –

Too loud! It’s all too damn loud! A headache hammers my head, my thoughts race, sing, scream, as if I’ve gone raving mad: Heil, you soldiers wearing your crowns of glory! Warriors of the Fatherland! Glory by sword and watch! Heil! Heil! Heil! Blood pours out of my nose; my arms convulse so hard that my rifle slips out of my hands and splatters into the mud.

Paul knocks me roughly on the chin and I’m forced to glance up, and like creatures in a gloomy nightmare world, I see the black zeppelins hanging directly over the trenches. From high up amongst the rain clouds they drop fragmentation bombs on us, which tumble and spiral down to the earth. I count the seconds, one, two, three, then a pressure wave breaks through the walls and the embankment to the left of me is blown apart, taking three men with it.

I turn my eyes away and examine the rifle lying at my feet in a daze. Cold sweat runs down my temples. How did the orders go again? What should I do? Undecided, I reach for my diary; it should be in my shirt pocket, that’s where I put it a moment ago, isn’t it? Where is it? Where!

Paul reaches down, picks up my rifle, and shakes out the filth that has accumulated in the barrel. The shelling has subsided and I can finally hear something, although there is a high-pitched whine in my ears.

“We’ll blow them to pieces, Lieutenant!” he urges me on, and his gruff tone brings me back to reality. “They’ll bite the dust, all of them!”

I nod and reach for a bandoleer of bullets as he pulls me up onto a grating. “We’ll … smoke the devils out,” I add, but I can barely hear my own voice. “They’re not getting any closer!”

It’s only when I grit my teeth that I manage to drum up enough courage to peer out from behind our cover. The wasteland beyond the barbed wire fencing is overblown with poison, brownish war gas, clouds so thick that there can’t be any oxygen left to breathe. But still, I spot figures moving through it towards us: a tank, a horseman moving forward without any protection, more shadows creeping over the earth like animals, watchful eyes caught in the glow of return fire. Shrapnel flies around our ears and splinters the wooden walls.

“Down!” I yell, a moment before the glowing hot nozzle of a machinegun rakes across our position and forces us to duck down. Behind me, men are screaming for medics; the metallic rattling of a punctured lung reaches me from the battlefield noise. Agitated I load my weapon, push it into an embrasure, and fire indiscriminately at the shadows.

A loud crash startles me. The batteries are firing again, sending hundred-weight grenades screaming over our dug-outs to explode in the no-man’s-land, where fountains of shredded earth are thrown sky-high. Within seconds, the wasteland before us has been churned over; pressure waves have blasted holes into the fog; torn-up bodies lie everywhere, limbs like mannequin parts are strewn across the field, partly buried and exposed to the blackened and bloody night rain. My trembling knees give in, and I cling onto a munitions chest.

Why are they attacking us? Aren’t we comrades, brothers in arms? One people, one majestic nation! Fame and honour! Might! Beauty! Now in ruins, bombed to smithereens, irradiated.

“From the Maas to the Memel, we’ll rule! From the Etsch to the Belt! Hurra! Hurra!” I shout an old song as though in a fever, until my voice breaks. Tears of fury course down my face, I choke and struggle to breathe.

An unknown soldier helps me up, a child’s face, with little more than down on his cheeks. “Lieutenant, don’t you hear the sirens? It’s a full frontal attack, we need to go.”

“What?” I look about, confused. The trench is empty, the rear-guard largely broken. The dead lie in puddles of muddy water, a ladder burns. The sight is so unreal, so strange to me, it’s as if I’m dreaming. High above, a last zeppelin circles, but without dropping more bombs. Our batteries have also stopped firing. A peculiar quiet surrounds me. Cordite everywhere. An unexploded bomb smoulders nearby in a barbed wire fence.

Stunned, I pick up my rifle and climb out from the watch post. From far away orders sound, interspersed with machinegun fire. I start running, hoping to catch up with with Paul and Ludwig and the rest of my company, who stormed ahead without me.

A number of Spanish Riders were moved in the attack or blown to pieces, and without much effort I reach the first bomb crater, only to discover corpses piled high inside: a mass grave, sparsely sprinkled with lime. Some of the bodies are burning, and an acrid black smoke wafts towards me as I trot past. Something blinks down there and catches my eye. I take a closer look to find that one of the dead soldiers still has an iron cross pinned to a tunic crawling with rats – a hero’s death!

My legs grow weak but I keep moving, crater to crater, dodging mantraps and soft clumps of smoking phosphorous until I come upon a wounded man, who shows me his smashed leg. A member of the wolf brigade.

“Help me, friend.” He whispers. I want to bind his leg when I notice the ice-blue colour of his lips. There is no helping him.

I run onwards, shaking off his cries for help, and before I know it, I’m in the midst of an engagement – more explosions, heavy machinegun fire. A hand grenade explodes close by, the shockwave pressing my face into the mud.

I crawl towards a tree stump, press my shoulders up against the charred hot wood, and try to catch my breath so that I can get up again. That’s when the fog lifts like a brocaded curtain and reveals to me the dark host lying behind it, still one solid line, hundreds of thousands of men, over whose heads flap pennants of animal skins and blood-red swastikas, dripping with rain. Like an army of the Roman Empire, it advances on me, the earth shivering and shaking under those boots. Riding high on a steed, the commander leads his troops, the reins of his horse gripped tightly in hand, his spiked helmet polished into a glittering crown, and finally I understand:

This is the new Kaiser, sovereign of a hell we have created for him, with heresies and bombs and grenades and radiation and gas. This is the Führer of Germany, a country that lies at his feet like a shattered mirror. Look at them, those living dead, the sores, the scars on their bodies. In glory they shall perish, for God and fatherland! Heil! Heil to you soldiers wearing your crowns of glory! You are the exalted warrior race!

“And die you will!” I screech into the brownish smoke. With nothing holding me back anymore, I pull myself up and begin to fire at anything that moves. I immediately take down two soldiers rushing forward with clean headshots before a fragmentation grenade explodes at eye level and sprays me with a cloud of needle sharp steel fragments. Too late I throw myself down, and pain burns through my shoulder. It floods my arm, my hand cramps, and I can no longer move the fingers holding my rifle.

Swearing, I crawl towards a medic who was felled by one of my shots, and recognise the satchel lying beside him in the mud: the man with the medicine. A number of the ampoules lie strewn around him. Barely able to read the labels, I grab one to examine it more closely, my chest still pressed against the earth.

Penicillum – the word floats through my head as the lettering suddenly begins to burn. I drop the medicine in fright, and when I look up my gaze meets that of a concerned nurse, whose contours grow sharper by the second – her eyes, nose, uniform, cap – while everything else seems to fade out, dissolving into nothing more than a strip of gauze covering my eyes and head. Cold electrodes are pressed against my temples; surrounding me are beeping sounds and plasma screens. Clean air burns like pure oxygen in my lungs.

“Your punishment has been deferred,” she nods and begins to strip off the head-dressing. “Come on, I’ll help you up.”

At the press of a button and a whirring sound my care-cocoon moves into an upright position. Along with hundreds of others, I’m lying in a vast hall lit by bright daylight shining through high windows. How long has it been since I saw the sun?

“Your fascist tendencies have been wiped,” explains the nurse as she takes me by the arm. “With you the re-mapping procedure has been exemplary.”

“Gentle woman,” I cough and swallow the rest of my words. My body feels as though there isn’t a single bone left in it: soft, without any substance. I ball my right hand into a fist but I don’t feel any of the pain that was there moments before.

She smiles at me. “We need to modify your speech centre before you can go. From tomorrow you are a free man.”

“How long have I been away?” I ask hoarsely.

“Three years. You’re the first one we’ve been able to take out. The others still need time.”

I look around. In the cocoon next to mine I spot Ludwig, who is covered up to his neck with porcelain armour. He sleeps, dreaming our nightmare. I wonder what his real name –

“Ah, it’s our star student!” A voice echoes through the ward. “Please leave us, nurse, I’ll look after him personally. Do me a favour and upload the dead one more time.”

A senior doctor marches towards me, his coat fluttering behind him like fire, and then I recognise him: the commander of the wolf brigade, Reuthers.

Three years of this hell, four years, and every day like a year and every night like a century. Our bodies are earth, and loam are our thoughts, and we sleep and eat with Death!

All’s Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque (Original film adaptation: 1930; resynchronisation, 1984)

Alternative Ending:

Penicillum – the word is still floating through my head when the lettering begins to burn. With a fright I let the medicine fall and look up at the sky, where the sickly pale clouds are being torn open as though hit by flak artillery fire, and sunlight floods the battlefield. Tears come to my eyes. The rays are so bright and so warm that I have to cover my face. For a moment that glare surrounds and penetrates me, then shadows descend on me once more and I’m able to see the battlefield again. But it’s empty, completely deserted. I’m alone. No bomb craters, no enemy. It’s deathly quiet; I hear the wind ripple through the grass. As I survey the unharmed countryside, dumbfounded by how this could have happened, I reach for my weapon, but even that is gone – same as my comrades, same as the wolf brigade.

The pain has fallen from my limbs. Was I sleeping? Was it all just a nightmare? My gaze wanders over trees and blooming shrubs, the silhouettes of villages to the east, and suddenly, like a punch to the face, a new image hits me, a battlefield portrait:

Flags painted with swastikas in the sky, amidst fire and smoke; a motorized army, a death’s-head moth; frozen horses and corpses in the snow. The starving clinging to wire fences, a burning pile of books, rockets. Flying machines criss-cross the sky and drop bombs on cities, one of which is a flash of ice blue lightning.

“Enough!” I shout, over and over again, till the word burns in my throat. I stare down at the wholesome earth, the vegetation and insects, and grow quiet.

The air is fresh. I feel light-hearted, my head is clear. A dragonfly whirrs around my ears and I follow its flight towards a stone jutting from the foliage. No, it’s a skull with a bullet hole in its forehead. Albert Petersen, fallen 1916 at Verdun. That’s my skeleton, I realise. With grim certainty I nod towards it.

Rest in peace, soldier.

Translated by Richard Kunzmann
First published as „Imperium Germanium“ in:
Prothesengötter, Wurdack Verlag, 2008
Copyright © 2008 by Frank Hebben

Frank Hebben was born in Neuss in 1975 and lives in Bielefeld now. He studied Philosophy and German Philology and today works as an advertising copywriter. Deeply influenced by Cyberpunk and especially the writings of William Gibson, he emerged in recent years as of the most promising talents in German science fiction. His first collection Prothesengötter was published in 2008. He is co-editor of the German sf magazine Nova. His homepage is at www.neonrauschen.de

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