The diary of Hermann Abraham

Night under open sky.”

With this sentence Hermann Abraham finishes many entries in his diary. He was a German-Jewish teacher, born on July 10th 1887, who lived in Niedenstein, near Kassel. For almost 80 nights, Abraham was part of the German army that invaded France through Luxembourg and Belgium. Now, after more than a century, his diary was donated to the archive of the Leo Baeck Institute by Daniel Formberg, the granddaughter of Hermann’s wife, Jenny Perlstein.

Just 3 days after the assault in Sarajevo in summer 1914, Hermann Abraham writes “mobilization” on the first page of the small blue book. One week later, he picks up his gun and leaves his hometown. The soberly written diary in German delivers an astonishing picture of his experiences in the war through short, daily entries.

On August 22nd Abraham faces the harsh reality of the war for the very first time. Having just crossed the Belgian border, he finds himself in a battle with French soldiers which will later be known as the battle of Neufchâteau:

“Fetching water in the evening, the villages shot on fire. The prisoners, the franc-tireurs, the carriage with which we fetched water, the burning cemetery, overnight under open sky, the joy when we saw the comrades and officers again, field prayer before the battle, the sight of burning villages, 50 men of our compagnie missing, dead soldiers, injured, captives.”

His compagnie moves on until they arrive in Laimont. Here, on September 11th 1914, they lose a battle for the very first time. What Abraham did not know is that this would be the first big turning point of the war. Simultaneously in Paris, the Battle of the Marne was happening. On September 4th Abraham even mentions: “Message: Paris is being attacked.”.

Plans from 1914 for the 4th German army to invade France (red arrow) and Hermann`s route (blue).
Plans from 1914 for the 4th German army to invade France (red arrow) and Hermann`s route (blue).

Every place that he passes through is written down in the diary, therefore it was possible to recreate his exact route. Until Laimont, his compagnie (4th army) follows the plan on the basis of Alfred Graf von Schlieffen.

On the map, the turning point is clearly visible. After having been in trench warfare in Servon for 23 days, Abraham and his compagnie get transferred north to Belgium. He is part of a parallel troop movement, in which Germany and the Entente want to outrace each other and envelop the northern flank of the opposing army, later known as the Race to the Sea.

Of course, there has been much research on World War I and Hermann witnessing the failure of the Schlieffenplan is an important empirical source that, together with many other ones, delivers a picture of the whole. However, what is really captivating about his diary, is the personal aspect to it. The reader accompanies him every day, witnesses battles and burning villages, finds oneself on long marches, improvising places to sleep, playing cards with the compagnie and drinking alcohol in the trench. His words are just part of a simple diary. Everything is written down how Hermann Abraham personally perceived it.

When in the middle of the battle in Laimont he writes: “Quite pleasant day, chicken plucked and gutted by myself, with potatoes and peas, sparkling wine etc, weather brightened up”, one can see that is not only the German soldier but also a simple, relatable person that is somehow thrown between the fronts. The authentic, human and subjective character of Abraham’s handwritings is somehow beautiful but shocking. The diary illustrates perfectly that it is exactly these subjective voices, individuals with their own personal narrative, that are exposed to the horror of war.

What is remarkable: In the last night before his death, he breaks his system of daily entries. Never before he wrote in the night, never before he did not start with the date. “Cold, rainy night. In front of us a small night-battle. So long we wait.”. Of course, this makes you wonder if Abraham suspected something. What did he think in this night?

On the next day, he writes his last words before he dies from a bullet: “An attack on the English is planned. Nobody is supposed to be spared, not even those who want to surrender.”

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