My end on earth
During the sensational, emotionally laden weeks, in which it became clear to everyone that we would be unlikely to be able to keep the war outside our borders, many, torturing questions occurred to me.
I had become a professional soldier at the time, because I wanted to get out of Rotterdam, away from the oppressive environment, where I had had such a hard time with myself.
Without having succeeded in making me a soldier in heart and soul, the army had still attracted me.
I did my work with enthusiasm and saw a good way of gathering young people around me whom I could support and inform with my knowledge from the books.
Certainly in the army, where so many moral dangers threaten, which could put someone completely out of balance, many a young man looks for support from someone who is older and more experienced.
I drew these young people to me, I won their trust and could very often help them with their emotional difficulties.
However, during those weeks, I suddenly saw appallingly clearly that the aim of the army did not lie there, but that it had the task in the first instance of training soldiers who would be capable of destroying the enemy with their weapons.
It had never actually struck me that the weapons, which I taught the boys to use, would one day really serve to kill people.
Now, in those days that the war appeared to be a bitter reality for our country as well, I came to this fateful realisation, in all its threat.
Any day we could receive the order to advance against the enemy, we would have to kill then, we, soldiers!
To kill, but I did not want to kill, for that matter, never, ever would I be able to raise my hand to a fellow human being.
Should I become a conscientious objector, now, in the face of the enemy?
No, I certainly did not want to do that, I did not want to be a coward.
Then was I just to go along and take up position and kill people?
The state, which had fed and clothed me all those years, my own country, which was dear to me, the boys, whom I commanded, were counting on me.
Should I let them down?
And were there not my wife and child, should I not defend them then?!
But – terrible question – should I obey them and smother the voice of my conscience, which told me that it was better to be a coward in the eyes of people than a murderer in the eyes of God?!
Amidst this chaos in my emotional life I called upon father.
He had once told me that I should call him if I needed him.
‘Father’, I prayed to him, ‘tell me what I should do, tell me how I should act when our country is attacked soon.
Should I fight?
Should I kill for Queen and country?
What do you advise me, father, would it be better for me to become a conscientious objector?
Help me, father, and give me the right answer!’
These words kept surfacing within me, during the hours of service, at home, the problem would not let go of me anywhere.
One evening, I was lying in bed, I felt father really close to me, so close, that I would have liked to have talked to him out loud.
He bent over towards me, I felt, and then – I could have shouted for joy – the saving answer came to me.
‘I was not allowed to kill, I must never kill!
I had to go along if the war came.
But never and under no circumstances was I to commit deeds of violence.’
Now I knew my position, father had spoken.
But strangely, I reflected that night, when I looked very deeply into myself, I knew that I had really already decided for myself to act like that.
I knew that I was not allowed to kill, my conscience spoke to me clearly enough on this point, but neither did I want to avoid the battle which would come, something in me forced me to remain at my post and search for the bustle of the battle.
I was not the only one who was now trying to determine his standpoint with regard to the war which threatened.
The boys whom I had spoken to so often, looked for me and the questions troubling them were the same questions I had.
‘What will you do, major, if there is a war, will you shoot, or will you object?
Or is it okay to kill in war?’
They wished for a clear answer from me and in my heart I thanked father that I was ready to give them that.
That evening became the happiest evening of my life.
When I started to speak, a sacred seriousness came over me, I felt solemn and my voice sounded warm and convincing, when I said:
‘Listen, boys, thank you for having such great trust in me that you want to present me with such serious questions, questions of life.
I have also struggled with this question the past few days, but now I know what to do.
I have become convinced, we may never ever kill in war.
We are never justified in front of God if we kill His life.
If we kill we are murderers.
We are murderers, even if we kill as soldiers.
Even if we kill on command, we will never be able to count on God’s mercy.
God will show no mercy when we stand before Him and have to say that we killed a fellow human being.
God will ask us, why did you do that?
God will ask us, why did you destroy My life?’
I myself heard that while I was talking my voice had taken on another tone, a feeling of joy flowed through me.
It was father, who was talking, they were his words.
In order to thoroughly convince the boys of the seriousness of it, he said the same thing twice.
I did not need to search for the words, he put them in my mouth.
‘These are the facts, boys, we ourselves shut God out if we forget ourselves and murder His life.
Everyone must therefore decide for himself what he does.
This decision will affect your soul, it will affect your life after death.
Therefore take time to think about it.
We must serve our Queen and follow her orders.
And God commands: ‘Thou shalt not kill!’
No one can enter a heaven if he has the death of a fellow man on his conscience.
That is very natural, it is a law of nature, that anyone who does wrong, cannot expect any good!’
I was silent for a moment at this point in order to give them the opportunity to absorb my words.
I saw that they were reflecting deeply.
One of them suddenly asked: ‘But if we are attacked, should we not defend ourselves then, should we just let ourselves be slaughtered, after all, it concerns our country, our wives and children?’
It became very quiet after this deep, serious question, everyone looked at me in tense expectation.
‘Father’, I prayed, ‘father, let me say the right words, do everything to inform them correctly, there is so very much at stake here!’
Then I said, and my voice sounded even more powerful than before: ‘Whatever the reason is for killing – whether we kill for our wives and children, for our country, people, Queen – we are still murderers, because we are assaulting God’s own life.
There is no way out of this.
To God a country is just a piece of ground, on which we awaken, live and develop.
God does not recognize any countries and people, God only recognizes the earth and He only recognizes His children who live on it.
He teaches them to tolerate each other, actually to love them.
This is why we may not kill, even if we are attacked.
Instead, we should let ourselves and our loved ones be killed rather than acting against His Divine law.
We must trust in Him, what will happen to us is exactly what He thinks necessary!
We must therefore not kill, but place our fate in God’s hands, trust in Him and bow to Him!’
‘So what should we do, major?
Should we refuse to go to war?’
‘Each one of you must decide for yourselves what you do.
Nobody else can decide this for you.
What will I do?
I will go along if it comes to war.
But I will not shoot or give the order to shoot.
I know that this will be difficult under those circumstances.
The temptation of reaching for weapons when your comrades are being killed all around you will be great and perhaps irresistible.
But I will go anyway, boys, I cannot tell you why, because I do not know myself, but go I must.
Something is drawing me there.
Now choose your own position, boys, and may God let it be the right choice!’
My wife wanted to go to Rotterdam for a week with our daughter.
I was not keen on this idea, the situation was becoming more uncertain and more dangerous with each day, so that I did not consider it responsible to let them make this trip.
But my wife wouldn’t give up and my daughter was apparently looking forward to the trip so much that I agreed in the end.
I took them to the train station and meanwhile I blamed myself for letting them go.
A dark, threatening premonition took hold of me.
Something was going to happen, I felt, suffering and sorrow awaited them, I should not let them go.
I scolded myself for a fool, but when I looked at my wife and child while we were walking, I would have wanted to stop to hold both of them in my arms.
Standing on the platform in front of the train, I implored them to come back quickly, I would not be at ease until I had them back beside me again.
I kissed them impetuously.
They boarded the train and we talked a bit more through the window.
I reiterated that they be extremely careful on the way and, if the situation was to worsen at all, to come back quickly.
But what had got into me, I could have wept, wept without stopping, without really knowing why.
My wife and child gave me strange looks, they wondered what could have got into me.
My daughter assured me with her sweetest smile, in order to comfort me: ‘We will not stay away for long, father, we will come back in three days’ time if you cannot bare to be without us.’
Then the train left.
Tears came to my eyes... my feelings told me that I would never see them again ...
The following day we were given the order to take up position on the Grebbe-line.
A nervous tension took hold of us.
Is it actually really going to happen now, will the Germans really dare to attack us?
With the passing of the hours, these questions became more urgent.
We looked at each other, we tried to be calm, to hide our tension, to act normal, but we did not quite manage it.
We wanted to talk, to talk about all the things which were occupying us, under the danger which threatened us, we sought support from each other, we talked, we swore, we were enthusiastic – which became easier and easier for me – and gave each other cigarettes.
‘It won’t come to that’, one person said.
‘I am sure it will!’ another person said, deeply convinced.
‘We’ll show them ...’, many people threatened.
But no one can really imagine what it means to have to fight.
No one can imagine what it is like to wage war.
However, in just a few hours’ time, we will know what it means.
Because then the disturbing news reaches our lines that the Germans have crossed our borders in the early hours of the morning.
We are paralysed by shock, we are speechless for a moment, then we start to react, the moment has finally arrived, what we have feared all that time, had become a lugubrious fact!
The time passes under a strangulating tension.
Those of us on the Grebbe- line are waiting for contact with the enemy.
Then the first shots resound, the violence increases, all hell has broken loose!
A stream of aeroplanes passes overhead.
The horror which overcomes us when we see the victims is soon replaced by a cold, bitter attitude.
We see the enemy approaching.
Furious firing is the response from within our lines.
The Germans attack in wide ranks, but our carefully aimed artillery makes considerable inroads into their position.
They do not give up, new troops continually attack our positions, however, their attacks are unsuccessful in the deadly barrage which is kept up by our soldiers.
That gives our men courage, after their initial astonishment, they fight back like devils.
For many of them, shooting, felling the enemy has become a sport.
They shout and rejoice when their shots hit target.
It is a terrible experience to see how new troops of Germans are continually forced by their commanding officers into our line of fire, they seem to want to get hold of our positions at any price.
At any price! ... it results in a massacre.
Over the bodies of their friends, over their wounded, they storm forwards, fanatically, jumping, stumbling, they run forward, more and more new rows, but they do not come far, the piles of bodies and wounded become higher and higher ...
Now their aeroplanes intervene, with a shrill whistle they dive down to just above our positions and drop their barrage of bombs.
But among them there are also those who fall victim to our men, the giant birds plunge downwards like burning torches.
The world seems to be ending in fire and violence, the earth is ploughed up by the explosions; earth, stone and iron is flying around.
People fall and are torn apart; they scream in their desperation.
They call for their mothers, their wives, they swear.
And above this hell, above this insane violence shines the sun, and the flowers of the new spring drink the blood which is streaming like rivers.
My God, my God, I repeat again and again, while I walk round, lost, in this horror.
I know that I am holding the others back, I am getting in their way, but I can not behave any differently, I am not able to.
I can only be a spectator, my arms are as heavy as lead and I have lost my memory.
My God, my God, what am I doing here, why am I here?
I do not want this, I do not want to kill, everything is so terrible, so beastly.
Here, people are shooting people, in cold blood, cruelly, murderously.
I want to shout, I want to make them stop, but my voice does not even reach my own ears ...
Next to me a friend falls, a bullet bored through his head, I see him fall, he has a strange, surprised expression on his face.
I have to go on, to walk on.
My throat is closed, my heart is racing, but my legs carry me away to new horrors.
There lies a leg, a trunk, a head, a wounded person is moaning there, he has lost an arm and he is foaming at the mouth.
There are dead bodies lying everywhere, there are torn-off limbs.
And people did that, people ...
‘Oh God, do something, do something!’
I feel as though I’m going to suffocate, will it never come to an end, must this continue then?
Hour after hour passes and the violence keeps on, the horrors continue.
I have become calmer, I am empty inside, my feelings have ebbed away, I can no longer pray, no longer think.
Suddenly I stumble, I look sharply, our commanding officer is lying in front of me, I think.
I turn the body – there are only parts of it left – in order to be sure.
It is him, his face is also horribly mutilated, part of it has been shot away.
He was once a person, who could think, act, speak, a person with his own world, a wife, children, family.
Now he is lying here, shot to bits, one great bloody wound.
The victim of the noble soldiery, which he held so dear in his life.
None of the officers whom I had known had drilled their soldiers as he had, nothing escaped his eye, and woe betide the soldier who did not polish his food flask: he would never become a good soldier and he would never be able to amass immortal fame on the battle field.
This commander had spoken highly of the battle, wherein men of steel could prove what they were worth.
And now a treacherous missile had felled and mutilated him ...
I carry on walking, my eyes do not miss a thing, they must see, I cannot avert them.
It is a horrific sight.
I become nauseous and the urge to scream returns, to put an end to this madness.
The missiles claim more and more victims from both sides, their moaning reaches my soul, and meanwhile new grenades fall, large-bore bombs explode and the machine guns rattle uninterrupted.
My head is thumping, my eyes are burning, how can it be that I had not yet gone mad?
Other people have already gone mad.
To my horror, I see how several boys leave the trenches in insane anger and run towards the enemy in order to destroy them.
They do not get far, a volley of bullets tears them to pieces.
Two of them are friends of mine, honest, good comrades, both married, both fathers, now they are dead, removed in cold blood by a satanic enemy, whom we had never wronged.
Something inside me breaks, a mad outrage enflames me because of so much cruelty, so much injustice.
God knows that I did not want to kill, that I did not want to hate, but I can bear all of this no longer.
These murderers have to be stopped.
My God, forgive me, but this butchering, this moaning, this desperate suffering ...
I position my rifle and want to shoot.
But – I feel – my weapon is suddenly pushed downwards with an irresistible force and I clearly hear the voice of my father, above the crazy noise, which calls to me:
‘Not that, my son, not that, Theo!’
‘Father’, I shout, ‘Father, but father, where are you?’
But I do not get an answer, I can only hear the terrible whistling of a whizzing grenade, a terrible shock and then my body being torn apart.
I am no longer aware of anything, but I am still calling out: Father, father, father!
I continue to call.
Then my eyes close ...