As a small boy I often asked Dad to tell me about his war service in 1914-18. I was sorely disappointed. He had no stories of charging enemy machine guns singlehandedly nor of being decorated by the Kaiser.
I complained: “So you were not a hero in that war, Dad?”
“If I had been, you would never have been born” was his – in my view – most unsatisfactory reply. Others in my class at Breslau had dramatic tales of their fathers’ exploits though our class suspected some of these were freely invented.
What stopped me inventing similar tales about my father? I was too aware of the risks. There was a boy in class whose father had, at least some of the war years, served in the same regiment as my father. He might have exposed my fibs. Mockery in class would have been … unbearable.
Years later I changed my mind. My father did have a certain Zivilcourage, which I translate as ‘civic courage’ – but the German term was in current usage, my English translation is not.
The date? Late 1918: Germany defeated and suing for an Armistice.
The place: Belgium. Sergeant Hans Fraenkel was marching a dispirited gun crew back in the direction of home. Years of propaganda had long convinced them what proud warriors Germans had always been, so the humiliation was difficult to bear. A Belgian girl on a bicycle approached. On her handlebar she displayed a British Union Jack – the victorious enemy’s flag. One of the disgruntled defeated soldiers stepped in front of her and wrestled the flag away from her.
Sergeant Fraenkel bawled: “Attention! Trooper! Give that flag back to the girl! “
The trooper hesitated. Mutinies had broken out in the German army. The Kaiser had fled ignominiously. Would the trooper obey? Or might he turn his rifle on my father?
“At once, do you hear me? The war is over. Has that not penetrated that thick skull of yours?”
Surprised, the trooper handed back the flag. The girl nodded her thanks.
And I, at long last, had a story about my father at war that I could tell – and hold up my head.