“The tragedy of war is that it uses man’s best to do man’s worst”Henry FrosdickINTRODUCTIONMy name is Peter Hoffman. Presently, I am stuck in Stalingrad. Waiting for an end, of this war or of my life.
That is not for me to decide, as I am just a tool which has been trained to kill and destroy whatever lies between us and the enemy’s total desolation, which by war’s sight is success- complete and total destruction.Before this war I was happy, something that I rarely feel anymore. Although the aftermath of the first World War caused great problems, Father did his best to keep us going. I lived with my parents and sister in Bautzen, East Germany, we had enough to keep ourselves healthy and fit. I loved my sister tremendously. She was just three years younger than me. We used to roam the woods by our house all day when we had the chance to be together.
It was so calm, sitting by the stream, eating away at sandwiches made by our mother. The pine trees surrounding us made a lovely atmosphere, and those moments made us forget all the difficulties we were undergoing at that time. We had everything we needed to prosper.
But it wasn’t to last.One year, the crop failed. The winter was too harsh. The fields had frozen for miles. We salvaged as much as we could, but it just wasn’t enough.
We were starving- Mother wanted us to move to somewhere else like all the others in the village. Father tried his best to make this possible, but money was a huge problem. If we moved, where would we go? I kept myself alive, often giving my share to my sister. But one day she had about enough. She went to sleep and never woke up. This was a huge blow to me, I cannot explain the pain in words. I was angry, at what I did not know.
It was as if she had taken all my love for the world with her. About a month after that, Hitler rose to power. He was the one who would turn my anger into hatred. At that time, I did not understand that this was a trap which I was falling into. He blamed our misfortunes on the British, the French- he told us that they underestimated us. That they tortured us for our predecessor’s faults. He convinced me that it was their fault that my beloved sister had to die at such an early stage.
He turned me and many others into his tools with which he would conquer all of Europe. He turned me into a merciless machine who was ready to kill people he did not even know. My spark of anger was now a burning fire of pure hatred. We could no longer be called men because we had no heart. That is what war can do to mankind.
So on January 15, 1939 I signed up for the army. I left home in the early morning. I can still remember the weeping face of my mother and the blank face of my father. I guessed that memories of the horrors he faced in the first World War were all coming back to him slowly. For some reason he never shared them with me, maybe because it cannot be explained in words. In the training camps, I made a few friends named Karl and Freidrich. We were all alike; ready to conquer the world, ready to gain glory and honor. We were actually excited about the war, an attitude that now seems twisted.
I alongside with Karl and Freidrich were joined by many others to make our 554th Infantry Division. I was given a Karbiner 98 k rifle. It was as if I could feel the power in my veins- not physical but a certain power I did not understand. From there, my journey begins.PRESENTSeptember 15,1942.
Stalingrad.I am sitting in a room half turned to rubble by the frequent explosions. Karl is by my my side. We lost Freidrich back at the Russian border. Nearly the whole division is wiped away. The remaining were sent to the heart of the city as backup. It’s quite a story behind how Karl and I were left behind.
The Russians had some really fine snipers, and they were knocking us out pretty quickly. One day, our sergeant walked up to me, thrusted a scoped KAR98k towards my chest, said, “Heard you are a pretty good shot”, and nothing else. It took me some time to even understand what he was talking about in the first place. I guessed that either the sergeant thought it was a waste to use detailed sentences towards soldiers who are expected to die in the next 24 hours anyway, or that was what he thought about every soldier he saw.
I looked at Karl and asked the sergeant, “Can I take Karl as my spotter”? His response was a “ja” which had a “given up on life” tone to it. So that’s how we ended up in the middle of nowhere, too scared to peek out of the window for the fear of getting shot. The distant sound of gunfire can be made out. I continuously check the window with a mirror for patrols that might be passing through the street. “What are we supposed to do again?” Karl chimes in, breaking the silence.
“Fight the war,” I replied simply.”C’mon, I’m serious.” “We’re supposed to eliminate any patrol we see.””Two men against patrols? This is suicide!” Karl moaned, dropping his head into his hands.”Hm,” I replied, not paying attention. Ignoring my response, Karl shakes his head thoughtfully. Then he starts again, “Tell me something, Peter.
” “What?” “What’s the difference between two schoolboys fighting over different opinions, and nations fighting over different opinions?”I stare at him with a blank expression for maybe a minute until it comes out of me, “Ehh?” The reality of the statement strikes me like lightning. Karl goes on, “Men have always taken….” He stops dead, his face grows pale, and the faint sound of footsteps can be heard from downstairs. I grab Karl and dive under the bed on the other side of the room. The sound of the footsteps grows louder as the person climbs the stairs leading to our room. Karl points the gun towards the doorway, but I quickly lower it and whisper, “There might be others nearby, if they hear the shot and come, we are a pair of dead men.
Only shoot if he spots us.” Karl nods reluctantly. The soldier walks in, only his feet can be seen.
But his shoes and ends of the trousers are enough to let us know that he’s Russian. He goes towards the window and shouts something in Russian, maybe to men down below. Then he slowly edges towards the bed and sits down. I turn towards Karl and see him praying with both eyes closed. Then, the soldier does something completely unexpected. He starts sobbing quietly. Karl lifts his head in astonishment, and I slowly understand why this feeling has come over us.
Till this moment, we never knew who we were killing, the person’s past, or how much he has been through in his life. We began to understand that he, like us, has feelings; that he also wants to go home. He is no different than us. We are all, beneath our uniforms, human. Someone bellowed from the streets, “What’s taking you so long?” “You go on, I’ll catch up,” our new roommate replied. After about a minute, he stood up and started edging towards the stairs.
Once we thought he was out of earshot, we discussed. Karl spoke first. “We have to kill him.” “We can let this one go.” “What? This is war, Peter, what if he kills our guys later on? We can’t just let him go, think about your countrymen you’re condemning just by letting him walk free.” I shove my rifle towards him. “You do it then.
” Karl gives the rifle back, muttering, “I am not that good of a shot.”I stare at the rifle, hoping that the soldier had gone and I wouldn’t have to shoot him. I reluctantly walk towards the window. He was still there running, hoping to catch up with his squad- which he never would.Three days pass, and Karl continuously tunes the radio for any signs of communication from our division. Finally, on the afternoon of the third day a faint voice of a soldier is heard, saying, “If anybody can hear this, please reach the south side of the town. We need men to watch our right flank, and keep a lookout for enemy snipers.” Karl turns towards me.
“Sounds like they are getting hit pretty hard, sending urgent messages like that.” “We should go, right?” I reply with little confidence. He replies slowly, “Well it be hypocritical to say no after I made you kill the Russian just for our men’s sake”. I say nothing more, and we silently pack our stuff and leave for the south side of the city. After a long silence, Karl says, “Wouldn’t it have been better if we had travelled at night?” “Nah, it would have been tough to spot enemies.” There isn’t much fighting in the area we are travelling in, because our army has reached the edge of the city by now and all the fighting is concentrated over there. So it was a long walk towards the south side of the city without much happening.
The streets are strewn with bodies, shoved aside carelessly to make way for tanks and small vehicles. Almost a day passed by the time we reached the south, where gunshots now came within earshot. We find other soldiers who heard the message also. There we ask for our division’s location and set out towards that direction. After about an hour, Karl asks, “You want to hear a joke?” “Of all the times Karl, you want to tell a joke when we are passing enemy sniper territory?””C’mon, there’s no harm in listening to a joke,” he says defensively.”Later Karl.”No sooner did I say that, a bullet smashes into the concrete rubble in front of me.
“GET DOWN KARL,” I yelled, not even realizing how loud my voice is. We were flat on the ground taking cover behind heaps of concrete which was once someone’s home. “I did not hear the shot- he must be using a silencer,” I say breathlessly.
“Thanks to the strong wind, that bullet swerved in front of you rather than in you,” Karl replies. I laughed. “That sniper must be cursing himself.” “You find it funny? You should be thanking your lucky stars that you didn’t get hit there!” Slowly my senses return to me.
“Let’s flank him from the left,” I say quietly, afraid that the sniper might hear us. We start crawling slowly and steadily till we reach a sort of raising like a defilade. I slowly raise the rifle and search the buildings far away for the sniper. Then, far away, I see a flash and then instantly the sound of bullet hitting metal. I duck below quickly.
“Wow, he really isn’t hitting anything today.” But this time I realize the bullet isn’t meant for me. Karl lay on the ground, facedown with a gaping hole in his helmet through which blood was flowing everywhere. I did not move or shake him, I was in utter shock and stared, frozen. Someone I knew for so long, finished in seconds. The feeling is horrible, and hatred began to flow through me. First my sister, now Karl- this can’t be real.
The people who never hurt a soul, why did they have to be the ones? Why? Hatred and anger took control of my body. I stand up and run towards the direction where I saw the flash. Another bullet whizzes past my right ear. I dive behind a fallen statue with a missing head.
He shoots twice more above my head. Five shots. He has to reload. I take the chance and run up to his building and enter. Suddenly everything is quiet. I climb the stairs stealthily and approach the third floor where he should be. I enter the room cautiously.
There is no one in the room. He must have ran to the top floor. I start leaving the room, when in an instant a sharp pain strikes my stomach as a knife enters and leaves. Of course, he was hiding behind the door- how could I be so foolish? I stumble backwards, struggling not to collapse onto the ground, and when he comes in for a second strike, I manage to stop his hand with my rifle and throw him to the side with a kick. I will finish him if it is the last thing I do. I knock away his helmet with a blow from my rifle butt, and then I come face to face with my evil doppelganger. I just stand above him for a minute, with my rifle pointing straight at his forehead.
He makes no attempt of movement either, just staring emptily back at me. He killed Karl, but I had killed multiple of them, and slowly sanity returned to me. It was not his his fault Karl was dead. He, like me, was just a tool in this war- no better than the guns we held in our hands. My finger trembled on the trigger.
“This is war.”