Enemies no more

The Mosel Valley and Mosel River in Germany. Photo: Delpixart/iStock

The Mosel Valley in Germany attracted my wife’s attention as an ideal place to visit. We heard that it was one of the loveliest places in Europe and that the people were friendly. 

It was the summer of 1986. I was on active duty as a Navy physician. I took leave, and we rented a car in Germany. Our leisurely pace took us along the Mosel River from Koblenz to Trier, visiting ancient castles and cathedrals. Marketplaces, with their colorful flowers, farm-fresh produce, cheeses, and charcuterie, beckoned to us everywhere. Vineyards lined the hills along the banks of the Mosel, creating an ideal environment for wine growing, for which the Mosel Valley is well known. The villages with their cobblestone streets and public places were beautifully maintained; my wife quipped that it took her three days to find a dirty window.

One afternoon, we toured a small town on foot. After visiting a medieval castle and a marketplace, we sought relief from the heat and bright sunlight. On a lovely side street, several family-operated wine cellars competed for our patronage. We chose one at random, descended the stairs to the cellar, seated ourselves at a table, and ordered two glasses of white wine. 

The coolness of the dimly lit cellar provided the respite we needed. While enjoying the crisp, chilled fruitiness of a glass of the local vintage, we noticed two tall and robust men having a conversation at the wine bar. After a short while, they would speak to each other, look our way, then speak some more. They repeated this several times. My wife and I became apprehensive. We wondered what they were saying, given the appearance that their conversation somehow involved us.

The two men made their way to our table and asked if we were Americans. I affirmed that we were. They noted my military appearance. Both of them towered over us. They were muscular and in great shape, as if they might have been fitness trainers. Both had blue eyes and graying blond hair. Then they politely asked if they could speak with us. We agreed, still not knowing what to expect.

They told us that they had been soldiers in the German army during World War II. They shared that they had opposed the war, but if they refused to participate, they would not have lived to tell about it. They wanted us to know that neither of them had been a member of the Nazi party or the SS (a Nazi paramilitary organization). 

Both were captured by U.S. Army personnel and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Colorado. As prisoners, they were required to raise crops to be sent overseas to our troops. They admitted that they were treated well by the guards — and that the warmth of a forbidden friendship slowly evolved between the guards and the prisoners. The men learned to speak English; they got to know the names of their captors and even some things about their personal lives. The two men acknowledged, however, that as long as the war continued, neither the guards nor the prisoners could allow themselves to be friendly toward each other. 

All German combatants had standing orders to make every effort to escape if taken captive. Working in the fields in Colorado raising crops offered occasional opportunities for escape, but these two men and their comrades chose to remain prisoners of war and not flee. All of the prisoners hoped that the war would end soon so that all parties could return to their loved ones. 

During times of war, enemies can be hateful and malevolent. A former U.S. Navy fighter pilot who fought during the Vietnam War told me that when facing one’s enemy, hatred just gets in the way. It impairs one’s perception and clouds one’s vision. One of the most effective ways to resolve a dispute is to have a clear vision of your opponent, do what is needed, and leave hatred out of it. In the case of the two former German soldiers, I think they knew who the real enemy was even before they donned their uniforms.

After the war ended, the barriers to friendship were removed. It would take a few months before the POWs were able to return to Germany, and during that time the prison guards invited them to Thanksgiving dinner and to their Christmas celebrations. The two former German soldiers exchanged addresses with the guards before they returned to their homeland, and they kept in touch. Over the years, their families visited each other, and even their children became lifelong friends.

After sharing their stories with us, the two men thanked us for allowing them to speak with us. They told us not all Germans were our enemies during the war. By the time our conversation ended, we were all smiling, even as tears welled up in our eyes. The four of us shook hands as they departed. Our Christlike concept of “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27 and Matthew 5:44) had been changed forever.

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