My grandmother says, Das Militär steckt in unserem Blut. My grandmother says, The military runs in our family. What is lost in translation is the word steckt. The verb steckt suggests something active, positive or negative, but a presence nonetheless. Hides, is stuck, is plugged. Somehow the military lingers in our blood. Her father, forced to fight in both World Wars, lived most of his life as a soldier. Even when he wasn’t on the battlefield he wore his uniform, or wore his pyjama pants in the garden which would make my grandmother and her siblings extremely embarrassed – but would also make them laugh. Visitors would come, and they would bow and address him as Mr. Dr. Bargheer, even in his dirt-stained garden clothes. I am at a loss of words for the men who were old enough to fight in the First World War and just young enough to fight in the Second. A timely disaster, being eaten and spat out, and then having to serve again, to repeat it all once more.
My grandmother tells me of her twin brother. They were inseparable. She was a minute older than he, which she would repeat to gain authority and allegiance. Eike und Elke. Mischievous twins who deeply loved each other. She became an architectural engineer and he a tank commander in the German army. I do not know what motivated him to join the military, nor what drew him to a military environment defined by tremendous harm and defeat. They were children during the war. Maybe there was an odd comfort found in commands, order, and the unmistakable sounds of objects you couldn’t really control.
My grandmother had a lover. A Jewish weapons handler from Switzerland. He loved ammunition and guns, and sold weapons of war. Everybody would buy. He also loved my grandmother. She had seen his eyes from the door of her art school studio. He had originally been there to visit someone else. His parents bought a Swiss mountain, and underneath all the stone and all the wealth he built a shooting range deep into the rock. He even had moving targets, and invited customers to shoot with him, to drink, to do their business. He sold handguns to businessmen in Munich, submarine missiles to the German Navy, and was trading with arms dealers in the Middle East: which my grandmother was gently reminded of when the police would be at her doorstep asking questions about a certain Reinhart.
My father, growing up with an eccentric mother, was allowed to have a pile of sand in his room. They simply bought bags of sand and poured them out on his bedroom floor – he was allowed to do with it what he wanted. The dunes became a battlefield. He would invite his friends, sons of doctors and businessmen and architects to his house and they would turn off the lights and play with tanks. For hours they waged war on a small bit of sand, fighting while seated on the bedroom floor of a young boy. I assume that Eike was a role model, the way people close to children tend to become their role models. A tank commander and an uncle. A young boy who liked to draw military ships.
My mother told me of my grandfather. He was a paratrooper, jumping from airplanes into the forests of the north. When he was drafted, he was asked whether he smoked. He didn’t, but he thought it was better to say that he was a smoker than a non-smoker in case he wanted to have a cigarette sometime. He became a young father and a painter, often smelling of turpentine. My mother would be wrapped up in a blanket and in the back of the car the cold air and smoke joined in cocooning themselves around her. Her parents in front of her, her father’s hand leaning out the window, cigarette dangling, going home from a neighbourhood party.
When I turned eighteen I received a document stating that I was a member of the first generation in Sweden who could be drafted again in case of a national emergency. My generation had to provide their personal information in a questionnaire and submit it to a military database. Were you ever bullied? Do you have a drug habit? Do you enjoy social and group settings? How often do you do physical exercise? How much do you weigh? What did you study in high school? Do you have difficulties following orders? What are your interests? From a list of potential jobs, select roles you think could interest you in the various military divisions. Line cook on a submarine. Paratrooper. Soldier. IT. At some point I began to worry about my responses. I worry that I don’t have problems following commands. I regularly exercise. What does it mean that I care about groups of people? I wonder whether my answers are too positive, somehow urging me to do something I do not care for. My father said: you know there is a lot of military history in our family. Don’t lie, but you don’t have to be completely honest in your answers.
I am walking on the dock in Kiel, a northern German harbour city. There are seals in a pool, part of the marine biology institute which lays along the water. I have walked along this ocean since I was a child. The seals are the same, they look like sweet wet dogs and the water remains one of five shades of steel, iced blue and dark green. The only difference is that my legs are longer than when I was five, and the older I become, the further I walk along the pier. Kiel is famous for its naval yards. If I look across the water, I see the outlines of industry. Huge machinery, melding, and the hidden grey contours of submarines and warships. Radars, landing platforms, piles of materials and views which are blocked by the passing cruise ships which dock deeper into the harbour when leaving and arriving from Finland. On the 3rd of November 1918, there was a demonstration here, by workers and sailors. They raised the slogan “Frieden und Brot” (peace and bread) demanding the end of the war and the improvement of food provisions. They say that the Kiel Mutiny ignited the overthrow of the Prussian Empire and helped stop the First World War. I walk in a city destroyed by war which now produces its necessary tools.
I wonder about love, and families deeply entangled in the military. I wonder whether I will have children and if I will let my children fight with weapons. Hypothetical guns, pain passed through symbols made of plastic. War whispering through generations and holding the hands of many. A father who grew up without a father figure, children who worried. I wonder if I am the fragments of my family, their memories. The dunes of sand and the choice of a paratrooper’s cigarette. I am not someone else’s experiences, and yet what remains of myself and my own thoughts on war when surrounded and composed by these stories. They say Sweden is a neutral country, always has been. Europe is free of war. I assume they are not counting the proxy-wars, the Yugoslav wars, or the countless wars along borders. All these lives and love lived around the military, implicitly, but there nonetheless. I look at the ice blue water. Memories and daily memories immersed in steel and cogs and ignition.
Hanna Bargheer is a 4th-year HAST student who enjoys painting and is learning how to bake (like most at the moment).