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An Artist as Soldier

Seeking Refuge in Love and Art


Barbara Schmitter Heisler

At the center of this book are the World War II letters (Feldpostbriefe) of a German artist and art teacher to his wife. While Bernhard Epple’s letters to his wife, Gudrun, address many of the topics usually found in war letters (food, lodging conditions, the weather, problems with the mail service, requests for favors from home), they are unusual in two respects. Each letter is lovingly decorated with a drawing and the letters make few references to the war itself. In addition to many personal communications and expressions of love for his wife and children, Epple writes about landscapes he saw as well as churches, museums and bookstores he visited. Epple’s letters give testimony to how a particular German soldier who was drafted and survived the war did his best to remain a civilian in uniform; distancing himself from a reality that was not of his choosing, seeking comfort and refuge in his love for art and his ability to share this love with his wife, herself an artist. While Epple’s letters are deeply personal, this book is about the human experience of war and the separation from civilian life and from family and friends.

The introduction provides a short discussion of the importance and uses of war letters as historical documents, followed by a biography of the letter writer. The letters make up the two central chapters. e drawings form an integral part of the letters; each is reproduced and accompanied by an English translation of the letter. In addition to the drawings, the text includes several photographs of the letter writer and his family.

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Chapter II. 1940–1942: The Early War Years



1940–1942: The Early War Years

As indicated in the previous chapter, although Germany had already occupied Czechoslovakia and annexed Austria, the Second World War began when Germany attacked Poland on September 1, 1939 provoking a declaration of war from France and Britain. After a lull of several months, the war began in earnest in the spring of 1940, when Germany invaded Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. In July 1940 Hitler launched air attacks on Britain—the battle of Britain—in the hope of invading that country, but abandoned his plan September 30. Instead, in an attempt to sever Britain from her supply lines, German U-boats battled against British surface ships in the Atlantic.

Although the United States had supported Britain with supplies, it actively entered into the war only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. In the same year, Germany and her allies (Italy, Hungary, and Bulgaria) invaded and occupied Yugoslavia and Greece. The war spread to North Africa where Italian adventurism soon led to setbacks in fighting against the British Empire and Germany felt compelled to come to the aid of its ally in February 1941. Despite initial successes against British and American forces, Germany’s Afrika Korps campaign ended with German surrender in May 1943.←15 | 16→

The largest German military operation, the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa) began in June 1941. Although the Soviets were initially caught off guard,...

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