Dear René, dear Vincent,
If you should find in this the slightest trace of glorying in Germany’s survival and reconstruction, cross it out, laugh at it, put it down to irony or anger; but believe me, I don’t intend to fall into the tone of the older generation, always out to tell their young listeners what a hard time ‘we’ had of it, and how easy it really is for them and always will be. Oh, those plucky types with their sleeves polled up: they’ve still got them rolled up, even now–as I write, the notorious Amnesty Bill is being pushed through Parliament by the most brazen of them–even now the crooks are busy rolling over the Federal Republic.
No, it’s no easier for you than it was for us: don’t let them tell you otherwise. It was possible to survive the last war, and that’s what I want to tell you about: our experience of the end of the war. ‘Telling a story’ is a risky business–in every story-teller there invariably lurks a braggart or a show-off; but in actual fact he’s a true hero as well or at least a true sufferer. Even the Odyssey is full of boasting, and what I want to tell you about is like a little Odyssey. I’ve written enough about the war; read it with a forgiving eye, and if you detect–as you may here–anything accusatory in the tone, it’s only the German Reich that I’m accusing, its leaders and its people, never the victorious powers, never the Soviet Union. I wouldn’t have any grounds anyway on which to accuse the Soviet Union. I was ill there a few times, and I was wounded there, but that’s war, and it was always clear to me: no one asked us over there. It just so happens that in a war you get shot at–they had those mortars, ‘Stalin’s organ pipes’, and the like; and sometimes you had to eat and drink things that were unsafe or unfit for consumption. When you’re half crazy with thirst (one lesson I will pass on to you–thirst is always worse than hunger!), you do drink from puddles and you forget all the warnings about germs and bacteria. You can tell I wasn’t keen to fall into Soviet hands by the way that, from the autumn of 1944 onwards, I managed to keep to the west, although they would have liked to send me back eastwards. I did what I could. Anyway, soldiers–and I was one–shouldn’t complain about the people they’ve been sent to fight against, only about those who sent them there.