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War Diary

By Daniel Hubbard | June 22, 2014

We got an email from Germany this week. It said that after 2 1/2 years of work, they had finished the graphic novel that contains part of my children’s great-grandfather’s diary from WWI. The goal is to interest young people in their history, something that we as family historians deal with often. It tells the story of the war that was supposed to end all wars through the eyes and with the words of four people who experienced it—two french, two German, two soldiers, two civilians.

It amazes me not just that we still have those diaries a century later. It amazes me that he kept notes under the conditions that he did and that they survived the rain, the mud, the shooting and the panic.

Walter Bärtel's sketch of the barbed wire along the Western Front at Arras.

Walter Bärthel’s sketch of the barbed wire along the Western Front at Arras.

It is not always easy for people to comprehend their past. The younger we are, the harder it can be. In some cases we should be glad when it seems so alien to us. The First World War should seem unthinkable, but we still need to understand the unthinkable in our past. Having grown up in the Midwest, I had seen the occasional Civil War statues and plaques in village squares here and there. I have visited Gettysburg with its seemingly never ending monuments. When I moved to France, I soon got the feeling that every village had its monument with name after name running down the sides. It felt familiar and yet more intense, especially knowing that there were people alive at the time who could remember those men whose names were written there.

The email contained a link to a part of a German television program that discussed the book. It was, as I expected, an extraordinary experience to see images of my wife’s grandfather. They were drawn both to tell his story and to let his story represent so many other stories. I felt an even more personal connection when I saw a couple images, made on our scanner, being used to tell a story far bigger than those pictures. Not all family history works that way but it is amazing how often our “little” stories tell stories far, far bigger than themselves.

You can watch the video “Tagebuch:14-18” (Diary: 1914-1918). Even if you don’t understand German, the pictures convey quite a bit and I can almost imagine that the speaker’s tone at the beginning conveys, “History? What has that got to do with us?” even if you don’t understand that he is saying exactly that.

In the end, I was reminded of a line spoken in a Ken Burns documentary that I can paraphrase as something like—sometimes we do things to each other that serve to turn us into the kind of people that can no longer imagine how such things were possible.

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