The Words of War

A French writer fleeing Paris in June 1940 has a nervous first encounter with the enemy. 



“Never during the war of 1914 had I seen Germans from this close except as prisoners. None are the fleshy German type, grossly made. They look at us while passing. We look at them, too. Later, my wife said to me, ‘I couldn’t believe that they were Germans; they looked like Japanese fighters to me. . . .’ This poetic logic was accurate. Their features are contorted, taut. Their wincing makes them look Asian below the helmet. This is understandable. They are afraid, and they push on. This mixture of worry and resolve is, strictly speaking, military courage. They push on, and nothing impedes them. They are no doubt as astonished about it as I am. They are no doubt expecting some trap. They number no more than about thirty. The column halts. One of the soldiers stops in front of the car door. His face becomes visible, framed by the window. This face-to-face, this proximity, is uncomfortable. And this discomfort goes beyond worry or fear. I have the urge to kill this man, or to talk to him about the weather or his health. My wife murmured a few words I don’t recall, to ward off silence, or death. Rather stupidly I tell her, ‘This man has no desire to kill us.’ For a few seconds the three of us form a group at the margins of the war. Perhaps even some fleeting sympathy passed between him and us like a ripple on water. And it seemed to me that the shadow of a smile glided across his clenched features.”

– Leon Werth, 33 Days, page 29

The above passage tells of a nervous first encounter with the enemy by French writer Leon Werth, a Parisian civilian fleeing the invading German army in June 1940. What makes the passage memorable is not only its account of searching for a universal element, as Werth attempts to make or at least imagines a common human connection between himself and the soldier, but that the reader already knows something about the author that puts this encounter in an entirely different, chilling, historical context: the author is Jewish.

Werth’s passage packs a huge amount that is worthy of reflection within just a short paragraph. First is the historical comparison. In World War I, the French halted the German lines north of Paris, and the enemy’s face was never seen in full confrontation, but only in defeat as prisoners. Here there is menace, and fear. But what is remarkable is that Werth almost immediately attempts to understand their position, and what the German soldiers must be feeling at the same time. He thinks that they must be feeling the fantastic nature of the encounter themselves, that they are as unprepared for the moment as he is, that they are operating on their military training alone without reflective thought of the situation. He thinks that they must fear a trap. His wife’s later comments that the soldiers looked more Japanese than German in their features seems to make sense in consideration of their faces being taut with worry, concentration, and the strains of anticipating danger as they fight and advance in a foreign territory, amongst an enemy people. When the soldier approaches the car, Werth’s own response is confused, as he admits that he doesn’t know whether to fear, kill, or make small talk with the man. When he realizes that there is no immediate danger to their lives, he then also imagines that he, his wife, and the soldier are sharing a bond outside of the war among themselves.
And this is perhaps what makes the German soldier’s face at the end so chilling. Werth sees in it the shadow of a smile. Perhaps he is correct in his suggested interpretation that the smile was the recognition of a common humanity. But for a perceptive reader aware of the historical fate of more than 330,000 French Jews that followed the Nazi conquest of France and the Final Solution, another interpretation is entirely possible at the end of this passage: The predator has caught its prey, and death is now inevitable for many people, including intelligent and open-minded people such as Leon Werth, who at that moment cannot imagine the unthinkable fate behind the clenched features.

Leon Werth survived World War II in Vichy France, and his manuscript detailing his 33 days spent fleeing the Nazis in summer 1940 was lost until 1992.  It is a remarkable account of the war from the perspective of a civilian facing an invading and occupying foe. In my next posts, I’ll present the viewpoint of the war from a German soldier’s experience, although in a very different place and time during World War II. 


“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
 – Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum 


Keith Huxen

Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.    

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