My great-great-grandparents, August and Marie Wanderer, celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary on May 15, 1918. August, a retired policeman and former bugler, was 74 while Marie was 77. Although no one looks terribly happy (my working hypothesis is that smiling hadn't been invented yet - judging from old photographs) it seems like a nice portrait of an older couple enjoying their golden years in the embrace of their family. But the picture also tells another, less pleasant story, which it tells by omission.
The grandparents are seated in the middle row, flanked by their daughters on either side. On the far right in their granddaughter, Else, still unmarried at the age of 25. In the front of them sit their three youngest grandsons - Fritz (aged 11), Bruno (13) and Gerhard (10). In the back row are five more grandchildren (aged 14-23), two daughters-in-law, a son-in-law, a granddaughter-in-law and an unnamed friend of the grandfather's (my grandmother is the blonde girl in the very middle of the back row, between her mother and her aunt). So what does the picture omit? Well...a lot of the men in the family.
Look at the date: May 15, 1918. The Great War had raged across Europe for almost four years, and had another 4 months to go before the November 11 Armistice. Both sons are absent - my great-grandfather was on the front lines, and I suspect his brother and brother-in-law were as well. Two grandsons - Else's brothers - were dead, one of the Western Front, the other in the Carpathians. Another grandson, August, in the back left corner, is home after having his face blown up by a mine. The facial reconstructive surgery was, apparently, groundbreaking, and spent the rest of the war as an exhibit in talks about surgical techniques.
Also absent is Else's fiancée, Hermann Enke. A World War I pilot, he is said to have flown with the Red Baron (and survived not only that war, but also the Second World War followed by stints in both American and Russian prison camps). Although Hermann and Else were engaged, his family would not allow them to get married until after the war was over, because they did not want her to have a claim to the family farm if he had died during the war.
Of course, the 'war to end all wars' did no such thing. Twenty-one years later Germany would be on the very of another, far more destructive war. Bernhard, my grandmother's brother (back row, second from the right) would end up spending years in a Russian prisoner-of-war camp. Her younger brother, Bruno (the little boy in the centre of the front row) would go on to join Hitler's Brownshirts, and die (along with as many as 9000 others) when the Wilhem Gustloff was torpedoed by the Russians in 1945. Her cousin Kurt (fourth from left) would die in the closing days of the war in Europe: despite having a heart condition, he was proclaimed fit in the final days of the Nazi regime and sent to the front lines where he died of a heart attack.
There are probably other stories of wartime tragedy and loss among the children and grandchildren of August and Marie. It is perhaps telling that out of all those grandchildren, only two of them - my grandmother and her cousin Gerhard, the 10-year-old boy in the front row - left any descendants.
I grew up with my mother's stories of World War II - stories of air raids, of evacuation to mountains, of being shelled and strafed, of deaths, and refugees and second-hand tales of Russian prisoner-of-war camps. I also grew up with the knowledge of what Germany did in World War II - of the Holocaust, of the terrible things done in Eastern Europe...I knew that my family, though they paid a price for the war (victims, but not innocent victims) were complicit in even worse things being done to others. I don't know if there is such a thing as just war, but I do know that there is no war that does not exact a terrible price on all involved. Winners or losers, victims or aggressors, there is no "us", there is no "them"...there are only people, trying to live their lives in the inhumane cruelty we label war.