Unser Leben Gleicht Der Reise Eines Wandrers In Der Nacht

While idly spending some time this afternoon, I came across the following poem, originally written in 1792 by Karl Ludwig Giesecke, a Swiss poet, and attached to the tragic tale of the fate of Swiss mercenaries during the Russian invasion of 1812 at the Battle of Berezina, where only 300 of the Swiss survived the Russian assault (1,000 did not survive that day), out of 8,000 who had begun the campaign. This grim context stands in stark contrast to the optimism of the text, given first in its original German and then in translation:

Unser Leben gleicht der Reise
Eines Wandrers in der Nacht;
Jeder hat in seinem Gleise
Etwas, das ihm Kummer macht.

Aber unerwartet schwindet
Vor uns Nacht und Dunkelheit,
Und der Schwergedrückte findet
Linderung in seinem Leid.

Mutig, mutig, liebe Brüder,
Gebt das bange Sorgen auf;
Morgen steigt die Sonne wieder
Freundlich an dem Himmel auf.

Darum laßt uns weitergehen;
Weichet nicht verzagt zurück!
Hinter jenen fernen Höhen
Wartet unser noch ein Glück.

***

Our life is like a journey
Of a wanderer through the night;
Everybody carries something on his way
That causes him to grieve.

But then unexpectedly do fade
Night and darkness before us,
And the sorely troubled find
Solace to their sorrow.

Fearless, fearless, dear brothers,
Abandon the anxious worries;
Tomorrow the sun will rise again
Friendly in the sky.

Therefore let us move on;
Do not retreat disheartenedly!
Beyond those far heights
A new happiness awaits us.

***

Throughout military history, mercenaries have often been the target of a great deal of slander. For example, the United States depended on mercenaries, who were called contract employees, during the occupation of Iraq, largely on account of there being insufficient volunteers for that unpleasant and dangerous duty. The case of the Swiss is a particularly poignant one. For much of their history as an autonomous and independent nation, the Swiss lived in serious poverty in their landlocked forests and Alpine valleys, and those who wanted a better life would individually and en masse sign up as mercenaries to fight in the militaries of their neighbors, whether that meant being pikemen or musketeers for the French or various German monarchs, or whether it meant serving as part of the Papal Guard, which still hires flamboyantly dressed Swiss mercenaries as a ceremonial guard to this day. Shortly before Napoloen seized power in France, the Swiss were conquered by the French, and the previous Swiss Confederation was changed into the Helvetic Confederation, with some border changes to reduce the power of previously dominant cities like Bern. During this time, Swiss men, like the men of all territories under French domination, were sent to fight and die for la glorie, and sometimes that meant being butchered in a horrible Russian winter far from home, where one’s opponents showed no mercy or kindness.

For the brave but mostly doomed Swiss mercenaries during that deadly day, their fate must have seemed particularly unjust. They had left their homeland, itself suffering under French domination, for the lure of a better life or under coercion. Yet the Russians who found them in order to avoid falling under the same oppression themselves, some of whom had possibly fought in the unsuccessful attempts in 1798 to preserve Swiss freedom, saw in the Swiss mercenaries only their enemies, retreating and vulnerable, with a frozen river to their backs and outnumbered several times to one, hungry and still deep in enemy territory. In times of war and conflict we are particularly prone to not seeing the common humanity in our enemies. To be sure, it is hard to see the humanity in those who have hurt us, those who have attacked us, those who may seek our harm, and it is often even more difficult to be compassionate to those who we are afraid of when we find them weak and vulnerable. In the rush of anger, we forget that those whom we attack, that those whom we hate, that those whom we are the same sort of beings as we are, and furthermore that they may be closer to us by far than those who are really our enemies, but who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so those Swiss soldiers fought as a rearguard so that others may escape the trap of the Russian winter and the armies of the Russian empire.

For the Swiss who, for whatever reason, left their farms and villages for service in Napoleon’s army, many of them would never return home. Their bodies would cover the path to and from Moscow, and few of them would return to their families, earn their promised pay so that they could settle down with some lovely fraulein and make their own families. They would never again see the familiar sights of home, but would die unmourned and perhaps even unburied among the savagery of warfare. Yet at least a few of those men lived and died with a song on their tongues, a song that reminded them that while life is full of sorrow, full of the grief that we carry along our long journey in darkness like the baggage of a soldier on the march, hungry from poor logistics, often lonely, and with a mind full of images that can never be erased that one has to live with somehow for as long as our time has been allotted on our life’s journey, at the end we await a new happiness, whether that happens to be better times in this present world, or the world yet to come. No matter how dark the nights we know, eventually the sun will rise again and shine down on us like a long-forgotten friend [1]. Long may that light shine, for we all know the darkness deeply enough.

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/my-peace-i-give-to-you/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Unser Leben Gleicht Der Reise Eines Wandrers In Der Nacht

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Faces Of Neutrality | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Non-Book Review: Mercenaries And Their Masters | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Are You A Swiss Army Knife Or A French Army Knife? | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Betraying Our Troops | Edge Induced Cohesion

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