Faces from the past

Jan 10th, 2010 | By | Category: International

Graffiti in college days was more intellectual than the scrawls on the walls that appear everywhere now. Thirty years ago, the First World War was still in living memory and people would still have remembered names from those times. A graffito in one toilet read, “Archduke Ferdinand found alive – First Word War a mistake”.

The assassination of the Austrian archduke in June 1914 by a Bosnian nationalist in Sarajevo triggered a cataclysmic chain reaction across Europe. The Austrians declared war on Serbia; the Russians declared war on the Austrians; the Germans declared war on the Russians, even though they had not liked Archduke Ferdinand; and the downward spiral into hell continued.

The war depended on the demonisation of the enemy, otherwise its pointlessness would have quickly become apparent to anyone not seized by an insane appetite for blowing working men to pieces. Fraternisation of any sort threatened the propaganda from both sides that they were fighting on the side of God against the forces of evil, German army belt buckles were even inscribed with the words, ‘God with us’. Moments like Christmas 1914, when the soldiers realized those on the other side of No Man’s Land’ were not much different from themselves, contradicted the images sown by the high commands.

When the enemy is made of the same flesh and blood, with the same hopes and dreams, and shares the same anxieties and fears, it is hard to inculcate a desire to run him through with an 18 inch bayonet.

The reality of the First World War ‘enemy’ comes home in the church porch at Bad Hofgastein. The First World War memorial differs from most found elsewhere in the world. The losses of 1914-1918 obviously had a profound effect upon a traditional, rural community: the village organized itself to procure photographs of each of the fallen and to incorporate them into the memorial. Dozens of youthful faces stare out across the decades, eyes staring through history.

No graffiti or protest could be a more poignant protest against war than the faces of so many boys.

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