The War to End All Wars?

The impact of World War I is largely underestimated by the general public.  Historians sometimes classify both the World Wars as two segments of the same conflict.  The end of the war proved particularly chaotic for the newly formed republic in Germany, ruled by Chancellor Ebert of the Democratic Socialist party.  Tasked with negotiating with the militant right wing while simultaneously staving off a communist revolt called the Spartacus Rebellion, the republic was in danger of collapsing before it was ever truly born.

***

Berlin, 1919

Clang!

Karl twitched involuntarily, his eyes closing instantly.  Immediately, he was transported back to a different world: a world of explosives, trenches, and screaming Frenchmen.  Even now, months after the end of the war, he had to remind himself that there was no threat of battle.  Taking a deep breath, Karl slowly reopened his eyes and scanned his surroundings.  Other members of his troop were strewn about the small, shabby tavern in which they were waiting.  He immediately saw that Markus, who had accidentally dropped his cup as he reached for his rifle, was responsible for the noise.

Karl then realized that Kurt and Christian were looking at him with guarded apprehension.  His cheeks burned; he knew that the others had similar episodes, but it was still a source of shame when it happened to him.  Abruptly, Karl got up and walked to the window.  Cold, brooding mist clung to the shapes of Berlin’s buildings.  Beyond that, Karl knew, the world was burning.  Occasionally, the mist would take on an orange glow, and he knew that the fires were still raging.

Christian silently walked up beside him, a sneer painted on his face. “They could have supported us out on the front.  Instead, they waste their energy overthrowing the Kaiser.  Now look, the place is in chaos.”

Karl heard the disgusted voice of Markus behind him. “The new government is weak.  The Spartacus movement pounced on this perfect moment to strike.”  Karl nodded his head uncomfortably.  So many of his comrades were angry with the new government.  They all blamed it for the defeat in the war.  Karl did not know if this was true or not.  He was not bothered with politics; he was a farmer before the war, and an unwilling soldier during it.  Personally, he was not too upset about the fact that the Kaiser that pulled him into the fray was gone.  He was tired of dancing to the whims of nobility.

Despite this, Karl knew where his fellow soldiers’ anger was coming from.  Unlike Karl, who had his farm and his family, many people had no place to go now.  They returned from the hostile front to face a hostile and demoralized citizenry.

The door to the tavern opened, and everyone looked up in anticipation.  However, they realized that it was just Elias, returning from having a smoke outside.  Without an inkling of humor on his face, he said, “Don’t worry, the commies haven’t come yet.  It’s just me.”  Nodding to him, Karl left the window and sat back down.  Elias’s tired and prematurely lined face said it all.  He was one of the men that actively blamed the home front.  Not a day went by without him saying, “If only those damn commies hadn’t acted on their pathetic agenda…”  When the army disbanded, as it was sure to do soon, Elias would have no home and no skills for a job.  His anger was understandable.

Boom!

The explosion was louder than should have been possible.  Karl’s hair stood on end, and once again he was transported elsewhere.

His rifle felt slippery with his sweat.  The trenches were filthy, Kurt was wounded, and the whole troop looked impossibly exhausted.  Smoke billowed as if coming from an infernal dragon, blotting out the night sky above.  Frenchmen were pouring in, rifles in hand…

But no, that was years ago.  Karl forcefully pulled himself back to Berlin, trying to steady his shaking hands.  Alsace-Lorraine was far to the west, and he would never go there again.

This time, he could tell that he was not the only man that was affected.  Others had stricken expressions.  Elias, though, scowled defiantly, “What’s the matter?  All those years in the trenches, and you’re not used to a little explosion?”  When no one answered him, he made an impatient gesture and strode to the window.  He muttered darkly, “I wonder how that American President Wilson would react to this? ‘The War to End All Wars.’  I would love to grab any fool that believes that line and show this to them.”

Again, Karl’s cheeks burned.  He had no dealings with politicians, and when he had heard the term, he had sincerely hoped that it would be true.  It didn’t matter that his enemy had used the term.  He had no overbearing love for the Kaiser that he was defending.  Nothing would please him more than everlasting peace.

Again, the tavern door opened.  This time, though, everyone straightened up and saluted.  Their superior officer, Major Baden, had just arrived.  Curtly nodding to the salute, he said, “It’s time to go, men.  General Groener has talked to Chancellor Ebert.  We’ve agreed to put down the communist uprising.”

There were a few surprised murmurings, but people grabbed their weapons and dutifully formed ranks.  Nervous tension bubbled in Karl.  Battle once again.  Battle in the streets of Berlin.  Battle against a very different foe.

Thick, unforgiving fog surrounded the troop as it made its way quietly toward the blockaded street up ahead.  Suddenly, Karl’s thoughts drifted to the young Frenchmen, whom he had fought out years ago.  The war was so damaging.  I’m glad it’s done.

Barricades appeared ahead, lit with the glow of many torches.  There was not much movement; the rebels must have been drowsy from their night’s activities.  Quietly, the troop formed ranks.  They moved too much like a well-oiled machine; there were too many hours of practice for these maneuvers.  When everyone was in position, Baden yelled, “Light ‘em up, men!  Fire!”   The old rhythm of battle took over.  Karl pulled the trigger and ducked to reload, without even thinking.  Bursts of gunfire tore into the clumsily made barricade, causing the communists to panic and counter-attack in a very haphazard manner.  The troop was ready once more, and they fired their weapons.  This time, Karl noticed the ferocious gleam in his fellow soldiers’ eyes, and the flash of their clenched teeth.  They were not just sending bullets to the enemy, they were releasing their anger. The soldiers were squeezing their vengeance from the people that they held solely responsible for their loss.  The idea chilled Karl to the bone.

Twice more, the troop fired at the barricade.  Not much remained, and a large number of the communists had scattered in a panic.  Major Baden yelled, “Now, men!  Just like the trenches; we charge!”

Gritting his teeth, Karl sprinted forward, as he had done so many times in Alsace-Lorraine.  He climbed over the remnants of the barricade, selected his target, and clubbed the rebel in the stomach.  He then pulled up his rifle to finish the man off.

Then, the rebel’s hat fell off, and dark brown hair showed itself in the harsh torchlight.  No, not again… Karl felt his arms drop, even as his enemy raised his own pistol.  A sharp crack! sounded, and Karl felt a sharp pain in his shoulder.  He stumbled backward, and stumbled to the ground.  Through the shock, he saw the rebel fainting from some unknown injury.  Suddenly, Christian was looming over him, helping him dress the wound. “It’s not so bad, Karl.  You’re lucky; it missed all the vital stuff.”

“Lucky?” Choked Karl.  How was he lucky?  How were any of the soldiers lucky?  Christian helped him to his feet, and then went to secure the building that the Spartacus rebellion had overtaken.

It was the same scene with different people.  The same pain, just a different enemy.  Karl’s mind tried to reject his surroundings, but he had to admit that Elias was right.  The war was not really over, and neither were the wounds that it caused.

Karl took a deep breath and looked around.  The sky burned orange as the rebellion was being crushed all over the city.  The war to end all wars… Karl shook his head and picked up his rifle.

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