The world is a much smaller place than we are aware. Things we do, actions we take, can have far-reaching effects that come back to us in ways we can never imagine. While events, places, and the flowing rush of time are shifting and transitory, the power of virtue is such that it transcends time and place. I was reminded of this recently after reading the Second World War memoirs of Col. Hans von Luck, a German commander who fought in all the major theaters of the European war.
He also served in North Africa was very close to Erwin Rommel, that tragic figure whose stature only seems to increase with time. Von Luck relates the following story about the capture of a fellow officer named Major Willi Kurz. Kurz is described as a “highly decorated commander admired by all and with whom I had bonds of true friendship.” Von Luck only learned of this story in 1986, when he had a chance to meet his old friend again in Toronto, Canada; both of them were, of course, old men by that time, but certainly knew something about survival and tenacity. As the war was winding down in 1944, Kurz found himself in the hands of the Americans, who had overrun his sector in the Western front. He was detained along with many of his comrades, grateful, no doubt, that they had not been captured by the Russians.
A few days after his capture, Kurz was standing around the courtyard of the detention center, talking with some people. Suddenly, an announcement came over the camp’s loudspeaker: “Major Willi Kurz, report to the gate!” A military police detachment appeared to retrieve him; they told him he was to be taken for an interrogation. He was brought before an American officer. The passage below describes, in Kurz’s words (as related by Von Luck), what happened next:
I still wore all my medals and insignia of rank. On stepping into the large room I saw American officers lined up on either side to form a long aisle, down which I was led to a huge table, at which sat a general and a row of senior officers. A court-martial, I thought, but what for? As I arrived at the table, the general and his officers stood up.
“Are you Major Willi Kurz of the 21st Panzer Division?”
“Yes, I am.” I still didn’t know what was going on.
“Did you belong to Regiment 125 under Colonel von Luck and were you in action at Rittershoffen, in Alsace?”
“Yes, that is so. They were probably the hardest fourteen days I went through on any front.” Were they going to punish me now for Rittershoffen?
“I am the commanding officer of the 79th U.S. Infantry Division, which fought against you in Rittershoffen; these men here are my staff and behind you my officers have formed an aisle in your honor. In the name of all my officers and men, and myself, I should like to show your regard and appreciation for the brave conduct of your men. We owe you our respect.”
I was speechless and struggled to hold back my tears. After the heavy fighting at Rittershoffen and the last difficult months and my wound, now suddenly this great gesture by our enemy. I finally pulled myself together and replied.
“May I also express our respect for you, General, and you division. We admired your courage and the doggedness with which you defended the villages of Hatten and Rittershoffen, although three of your battalions were encircled at times for days on end. We were particularly impressed by the way you finally managed to disengage, by night, without our noticing. When you had gone, we were all of the opinion that in Rittershoffen there had been no victor and no vanquished. In the morning after your withdrawal, my commander, Colonel von Luck, played a chorale on the undamaged organ of the church, at which our men and the sorely tried civilians were moved to tears.”
“In the next few days,” the General resumed, “I should like you to talk over with me and my officers how you on the German side conducted the engagement at Rittershoffen, what your problems were, and your tactics. I believe we can learn something from you.”
This is the moving anecdote of Willi Kurz as it is related by Von Luck. I cannot help but be affected by this story; out of all the carnage and devastation of the war, there emerges moments of true chivalry, worthy of some engagement between combatants of the medieval period. Kurz’s exemplary conduct had not gone unnoticed; it was remembered, and it made a big difference in his treatment as a captive. We may be only creatures of flesh and blood, of corporeal substance; but such substance can produce things of great value. Plutarch reminds us of this in the following quote from his essay On Moral Virtue (4):
And they say that Zeno on one occasion, going into the theater when Amoebeus was playing on the harp, said to the pupils, “Let us go and learn what music can be produced by guts and nerves and wood and bones, when they preserve proportion and time and order.”
Now what Plutarch meant to illustrate by this quote was this: even bodies composed of lowly corporeal substance are capable of producing the most sublime, beautiful things. So it is with us; the music generated by each man is his conduct, and how he reveals himself to the world. Each man’s music is generated by the vibrations of his soul; and that music may be either sonorous and sublime, if his soul is good, or it may be foul and wretched, if his soul be corrupt. Three influences drive the soul forward: power, passion, and habit. And if these three components are under the restraint and guidance of reason, the natural result is an unbalanced, corrupt soul, capable of nothing but evil. Right conduct always confers greatness on those who practice is. The medieval Arabic writer Al-Mustanjid once wrote to the epistolary Ibn Rabada,
If you aspire to command, act uprightly; then, even if you wish to reach the heavens, you will succeed. The [Arabic letter] alif (l), one of the written letters of the alphabet, is placed at the head of the others because it is upright.
These words are most assuredly true. Great actions reverberate more loudly in a small container, than in a larger one; and no one should doubt that the world we live in is a small one. We all know many anecdotes that confirm this. Colonel Von Luck was himself captured by the Russians in 1945 and was shipped off to a prison camp in the Caucasus. There he once had the opportunity to speak to the camp commandant. This commandant asked him where he had fought in Russia, and with what units. Von Luck recalled the conversation as follows:
“In the middle sector, with the 7th Panzer Division, via Smolensk and Vyazma to Klin and Yakhroma, north of Moscow.”
“Tell me about Yakhroma,” he went on, “exactly when were you there?” [said the commandant]
I was surprised by is interest but told him. “In December 1941 I advanced with my tank reconnaissance section via Klin to the Moscow-Volga canal and was able to cross it, the first unit to do so, at Yakroma, about 30 to 40 kilometers north of Moscow. I can well remember how we went into a little Russian inn to get warm. On the table stood the steaming samovar and an almost untouched breakfast, which we ate up with a good appetite.” I was interrupted by a roar of laughter.
“That was my breakfast. I was a colonel in the reserve and during your surprise attack I had to leave Yakhroma and my breakfast rather abruptly. So small is the world, polkovnik, now you are here as a prisoner of war, and I am the boss of this town, in which I found myself at the end of the war…”
See, reader, how these two men crossed each other’s path as enemies at one time, and then, some years later, met again in entirely different circumstances! So small is the world! And yet this fact should serve as an encouragement and an incentive. For it reminds us that we can truly make a difference in this world through great deeds of character, and nobility of virtue.
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