Friday, March 31, 2006

Der Stahlhelm as image in Paul Celan's "Encounter"

Yesterday, while discussing image clusters in Paul Celan's poem "Encounter", I mentioned that Celan ties two images together- "bell" and "helmet"-through their similarity in design.

I thought it might be instructive before I explicate the second stanza to include a picture of the emblematic helmet worn by German soldiers.

This design was developed and adopted during World War I.

In that regard, I have written a novel, unpublished, about a World War I German war hero. The novel is based loosely on the life of Ernst Junger, who, coincidentally, wrote a memoir entitled Der Stahlhelm.

I am including a segment of the novel, which discusses the change in design.

“When the war started, the Germans thought that they would repeat their victories of 1870. Over the years, prior to 1914, they had worked out a plan to bypass French strongholds, strongholds that were constructed specifically to forestall any quick German victories. The plan was called the von Schlieffen Plan, a strategy designed to have the German army encircle Northern France and take Paris rapidly. The plan, however, failed when the German army was stopped and the French immediately counterattacked. The two armies, then, locked in a deadly struggle, began to dig trenches. The trenches grew and stretched northward toward the sea, as each army tried to outflank the other. An elaborate trench system evolved and ran from Switzerland to the English Channel. On the allies’ side, the French occupied the south, while the British took up positions in the north. At the beginning of the war, the British had a small standing army of approximately 100,000. It was a professional army that operated primarily in the British colonies but by 1915, the British were expanding their army, filling it with civilians and colonial troops. As I told you, I did not want to fight the French because I loved Paris and the French language. Luckily, I was sent north, where the British were entrenched.

“My first stop was in the village of T, which was being used as a supply station and a makeshift headquarters. I had not been assigned to a specific unit yet and my orders were to report to a Colonel Siebert, a friend of my father’s. When I arrived, men wandered the streets, awaiting an assignment or, in some cases, a re-assignment after recovering from wounds, and a constant stream of lorries and wagons delivering munitions and supplies clogged the cobble stoned arteries of the small town.

“World War I began as a 19th Century war and ended as a 20th Century one. When I arrived, I wore the Pickelhaube, the spiked helmet of a 19th Century Prussian soldier. When it ended I was wearing the Stahlhelm of the Stormtrooper. Colonel Siebert ordered his orderly to assign me to some housing and told me to look around and report to him the next day.

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