From a Soldier of the Kaiser to a Soldier of Christ
AT ABOUT the turn of the century, in a certain German settlement in southwest Russia, people stood patiently in two rows outside a modest church on Sunday mornings. Only after a bearded elderly gentleman and his wife walked between the rows of people into the church would the others enter.
The elderly couple were my grandparents. They received the weekly respect of the congregation because their religious devotion was so great that it had moved them to build the church out of their own finances. My father was their eldest son, and he, in turn, did what he could to impart the same devotion to his seven children.
My Early Religious Training
Each morning before the farm work began, father called the entire family and all the farm help around our big table for Bible reading. God’s blessing was humbly asked, and appreciation was expressed for the new day and the Creator’s loving care.
Such was the atmosphere of my childhood—perhaps not what you might expect for one who was to spend most of his life as a soldier.
When the time came for the children to begin school, father immigrated to Germany so that we could be educated there. Learning was a pleasure for me, except when it came to religious instruction. I suppose one could say that I could not ‘get to first base,’ religiously speaking.
Not that I was without faith; it was the manner in which we were taught about God and his purposes that turned me away from religion. Even education for confirmation into the Lutheran Church was boring to me. The pastor appeared only to be doing his duty. Whether we children understood or not seemed to be of no interest to him. Although I was confirmed as a member of the church, I never attended the services. However, what my father taught me I kept in my heart.
World War I
During those worry-free years, there came a change that sent me into my career as a soldier. When I was eleven years old, Germany went to war. How it thrilled us boys to see the first soldiers marching with their flower-decorated guns!
Soon father became a soldier, leaving mother to care for seven small children. Her health was not strong, so much of the hard work fell on my shoulders as the eldest son.
One year after another passed, and still father did not return from the Army. I would often miss school to help the family. Constantly I was asking myself: What can I do to relieve our hardship?
I went to the military district adviser and requested to serve as a soldier in place of my father. The adviser turned me down because I was only fifteen years old. Yet I wanted so badly to relieve my father that I wrote a letter to the German kaiser, Wilhelm II, making my request known. How happy I was when permission was granted! And so, in the spring of 1918, I became the youngest soldier in the German army.
When the war ended in November of that year, I was still too young to estimate its damage or to see clearly the wounds it left in so many families. To me, those few months as a soldier had made a a child into a man. It was the beginning of my military career.
Pursuit of a Military Career
The war was lost and the Army was dissolved. I began training as a machinist, determined to become a master in the trade. However, the hard conditions of the postwar years made this a difficult goal to attain. Then came news that a 100,000-man army would be allowed for Germany. Here was an opportunity to master my trade; I could continue my training and at the same time be a soldier.
Once again I joined the infantry. While the order and discipline appealed to me, the compulsory Sunday church attendance did not. How ridiculous, it seemed, that as soldiers we were united until Sunday, when we were separated, Catholics sent here and Protestants there!
Did we not have one God? Did we not read the same Bible? Why should we separate for one special hour in the name of service to God? Even the ceremonies seemed childish to me, with nothing of value in the sermons.
Military Career Interrupted
An injury to my knee forced an interruption in my military career. Instead of returning to the church, however, I had two experiences during this period that turned me even farther away.
Through very sad circumstances, my wife and I lost our first child at the age of six months. The pastor asked if he should give a sermon for 20 marks or 25 marks. He explained that for the five extra marks he would ring the bells and give a better sermon. “So it is the money you want,” I thought. How sad, indeed!
This conclusion was confirmed by the second experience that involved my neighbor. He was in great need because of severe unemployment in the country. No matter how hard he tried, he was unable to pay the church taxes. In spite of pleas to the pastor for understanding, his furniture was seized to pay the taxes. It was too much for me. Immediately I went to court to cancel legally all ties with the church, a necessary step in Germany where Church and State are closely linked. This was in 1931.
A Soldier Again
In 1934 I was again accepted into the Army to continue my military career. A short time later I became an officer. It was not until 1936, when I was transferred to Spain on the outbreak of civil war there, that once again I came in contact with Christendom’s religion—the monasteries in Spain had become forts and warehouses of weapons!
When the second world war began in 1939, I was given the responsibility to inspect airplanes made ready for the German air force. One day, early in the war, a large decorated platform was installed at one of the military airports. Flags were flying, airplanes and weapons were on display, and the entire battalion was on parade. A limousine arrived with the guests of honor—a Catholic priest and a Protestant clergyman!
How impressive were their speeches! We were assured that we were fighting for a righteous cause. At the end of the ceremony, they blessed all the weapons.
World War II Ends
Six long years passed before the war ended. The god to whom those clergymen prayed apparently had not been listening, for we lost again. Along with my companions, I was a prisoner of war.
Following my release, I looked to my homeland, which had received the best years of my life. Although I had reached the rank of major as a soldier, when I asked for work I was pushed aside as being too old. My possessions were gone and I had lost my marriage partner in death. Without a place to live, I decided to go to France to look for work.
While in France, I worked at a city that had a library for German prisoners and anyone else who wished to use it. One day my eyes glanced from shelf to shelf until they rested in one corner where a few Bibles stood. I tucked one under my work jacket and went home, not wanting anyone to see it and laugh at me.
For several days, I read in it again and again without understanding. During working hours I found myself praying one moment and swearing the next. Never had I lost faith in God, but now I was looking for knowledge that I could not find.
Learning Bible Truth
After three lonely years, I remarried and moved back to Germany. One beautiful Sunday morning my wife and I noticed a small group of men and women who had come from a neighboring town on their bicycles. Soon there was a knock on our door, and we invited a young man to come in.
He had a Bible and he talked about things we had never heard before, not even my wife who had been a faithful churchgoer. We had many questions, and the young man answered them all from the Bible. He offered us a book that he said would help us to understand God’s Word. We declined his offer, but we were so impressed with what we had learned that we never forgot his visit.
A winter passed. One day I had some business in the same town from which the young man had come to visit us the previous summer. It was already noon when I started for home on my bicycle. As I rode along, I noticed a man standing in a public place, holding two magazines in full view. I turned around as if someone were steering me.
The magazines were The Watchtower and Awake! I had never seen them before. Their cost was 25 pennies, the exact amount of money I had with me. I obtained both magazines from the man, who was so surprised at my determination that he offered to come and visit me. Two hours later he arrived at our home.
Before he came, my wife and I had time only to eat a small meal and arrange our little room. My wife had not read any more than the title of one magazine—“‘The Watchtower’ Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom”—when the man knocked at our door.
She almost fell over him with the questions, “Who is Jehovah? Isn’t he the God of the Jews?”
Instead of presenting a long explanation, our visitor produced a book from his bag. Why, it was the same book we had declined to take the previous summer—“Let God Be True,” published by the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society!
We sat around the table and read together the chapter entitled “Who Is Jehovah?” We learned that He is the God who made heaven and earth.
Week after week the man returned to study the Bible with us, using the book “Let God Be True” as our guide. As our study progressed, we came to feel that we were similar to the apostle Paul when the scales of blindness fell from his eyes. (Acts 9:17-19) The scales of spiritual blindness were also falling from our eyes.
Becoming a Different Kind of Soldier
Our teacher became a dear friend. He was materially poor, perhaps even more so than we were, but he was spiritually rich with good things from God’s Word, which he shared with generosity. He had been a full-time proclaimer of the good news of God’s kingdom since the end of the first world war, supporting himself by part-time work. Yet when we had progressed to the point of dedicating our lives to Jehovah God, he kindly gave us 10 marks so that we could travel to a convention of Jehovah’s witnesses, where we symbolized our dedication by baptism.
So once again I became a soldier, but this time a soldier for Christ, as described at 2 Timothy 2:3. Since then, I have given with all my heart to wage a ‘fine warfare’ against spiritual darkness and to help all those who seek Jehovah and want to serve him. After my retirement, we moved to Canada, and here my wife and daughter continue to ‘pioneer,’ spending their full time preaching and teaching others about Jehovah’s marvelous purposes for a paradise earth in the near future.
Although my health is not as good as it once was, I continue to do what I can in Jehovah’s service. When I was a soldier for the kaiser and his successors I served wholeheartedly and sacrificed much. Should it be any different now?
As a military soldier, I thought that I learned much and became a man. But I did not find true wisdom until I studied God’s Word, the Bible. Now I serve with a real reward in view: everlasting life in God’s righteous new order.—Contributed.