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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The introduction provides a short discussion of the importance and uses of war letters as historical documents, followed by a biography of the letter writer.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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Introduction: War Letters



War Letters

The Second World War began on September 1, 1939 with the German Army’s invasion of Poland and subsequent declaration of war on Germany by France and England. It ended in Europe on VE-Day, May 8, 1945 and in Asia, on September 2. Although it involved many nations, the main belligerents were the Axis powers (Germany/Italy/Japan) and the Allies (England/France/Soviet Union/the United States. Over the almost five years of its duration, the conflict took more lives and destroyed more property and land than any previous war. Among the estimated 60–80 million people killed were 54,770,000 men in uniform.

The literature on World War II is large, varied, and still growing. It focuses on all aspects of the war, military, civilian, economic, social, political, and human. In addition to the large volume of scholarly works, it includes popular history as well as memoirs, personal accounts, diaries, and letters. In the context of the history of ordinary people, “history from below,” diaries and war letters of ordinary soldiers have gained increasing attention in recent years (Wette 1995, Knoch 1989, Carroll 2001, Adler and Quinn McLennan 2003). This is particularly true of the millions of letters written by soldiers and their loved ones on both sides of the conflict during the Second World War.←xix | xx→

On the personal, human level, war letters provide a tangible connection between the soldiers at the front and their families left behind, bridging emotional...

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