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What the Body Remembers
Excerpt

Rawalpindi, Undivided India, 1937

Satya's heart is black and dense as a stone within her. She tells herself she pities Roop, but hears laughter answering her--how difficult it is to deceive yourself when you have known yourself a full forty-two years.

She has a servant summon Roop to her sitting room in the afternoon, when Sardarji has gone to a canal engineers' meeting. When she comes before her, Satya does not speak, but rises from the divan and takes Roop's chunni from her shoulders, as if in welcome, so she can study the girl. She takes Roop's chin and raises her face to the afternoon sun, willing it to blind her, but it will do her no such service. She studies Roop's features, her Pothwari skin, smooth as a new apricot beckoning from the limb of a tall tree, her wide, heavily lashed brown eyes. Unlike Satya's grey ones, they are demurely lowered, innocent.

A man could tell those eyes anything and they would believe him, a man could kiss those red lips for hours and they would look fuller and more luscious for the bruising.

Roop's hair is long, to her thighs, softened by amla and scented with coconut. Unlike Satya's, it has no need yet for henna. Satya lifts Roop's plait around her shoulder and examines the tip--too few split ends; it has felt the scissors once at least, if not more.

Roop is a new Sikh, then, an uncomprehending carrier of the orthodoxy resurging in them all. Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, they are like the three strands of her hair, a strong rope against the British, but separate nevertheless.

She unbinds Roop's hair. It falls, a moonlit river, down the valley of her spine.

She examines Roop's teeth and finds all of them whole, the back ones barely visible. She hopes that as they come they will bring pain. Roop's tongue is soft and a healthy pink and from it a man will hear no truths he cannot explain away. She presses her fingers to Roop's cheekbones, they are high, like her own. Some remnant of Afghan blood in their past; in other circumstances she might have been Roop's aunt or cousin.

Satya's hands drop to Roop's neck and encircle it lightly, for she is not trying to frighten her. And she sees Sardarji has given her a kantha necklace, one of her own. She knows the gold of this one well; she ordered it from the goldsmith herself, she knows every link in it and the sheen of its red enamel. She wore it last to a party full of Europeans. Its brilliance and its weight had comforted her, compensation for her tongue-tied state; the European ladies ignored her once they found she spoke no English.

She sees her kantha now, covering the hollow at Roop's neck and she wants to press her thumbnail in that hollow till Roop's red blood spurts and drips over them both.

She wants this.

She moves her hands, with no sign she recognizes the kantha, no hint she knows that Roop standing before her is a silent thief.

With such a tremulous placating smile.

Satya examines Roop's brow. Time is ploughing her own in three horizontal furrows, deepening by the day, but Roop's is still smooth. She pulls Roop's hair back over her ears and sees her own earrings. They are the ones Sardarji gave Satya, after her first pilgrimage to the first ineffectual sant, pleading for prayers. Satya knows these earrings well: three tiers of Burmese rubies surrounded by diamonds--real diamonds, not white sapphires--red-hearted flower shapes ending in large Basra teardrop pearls.

And Roop is wearing them.

Satya wants to tear them from the girl's ears, watch as Roop's tender lobes elongate and rip apart, wants to take back what is hers, rightfully hers.

But she moves her hands away.

"Come lie with me in the afternoons. You are alone on your side of the house, I am alone on my side. My pukkhawalla is better--he's from my village, our men are strong."

Roop stands, uncomprehending. If she had been a blood-niece, or a cousin-sister, Satya would shout at her to stay away, to turn now and run before she gets hurt. And if Satya had been Roop's mother, Roop would be her daughter and none of this would have been necessary.

"Come," she says again. "It is useless for me to fight Sardarji's will; he is my husband, he has married you. Somehow I must accept that--and you."

Roop's face lights up like a diya at Diwali.

"Oh, Bhainji."

Sister.

Satya does not feel sisterly at all.

"Oh, Bhainji," Roop says. "I'm so glad. I told Sardarji, I will be no trouble, I will be just like a younger sister."

And her silly tears fall on Satya's hand as she leads the girl to the bed.

Satya places herself in the path of the light from the inner courtyard, dismissing the servants hovering in attendance on the gallery that runs past her rooms. She lowers the reed chics past the casement till the sitting room, cool and dark, holds the sun at bay. The jute sack covering the block of ice in the corner slips to the floor. Exposed, the ice absorbs afternoon heat, weeps a dark puddle over the polished wood.

On the gallery, a pukkhawalla spits a red stream of paan, squats, his back to the wall. With a rope over one shoulder, he leans into pulling rhythm.

Back and forth, back and forth.

The rope worms through the wall and over a pulley near the ceiling, sets the huge wing of silk above the two women creaking.

Back and forth, back and forth.

The breeze from the pukkha moves from Satya to Roop and back again, doing nothing to cool Satya. She is white-hot inside, though if she could speak it out loud, it would be better to call it hurt or pain.

"Come, lie down," Satya says.

She leads Roop from the sitting room to her bedroom and places a soft pillow beneath Roop's head to cradle her ruby earrings. She hears Roop's jutis plop to the floor behind her as the young girl draws her feet up, kundalini-snake on Satya's bed. She leans over Roop the way Sardarji leaned over Satya the years she cried for children, brushing tears from Roop's heavy lashes with her lips. She strokes her head as a mother would, says, "Sleep, little one, we are together now."

And Roop sleeps, overcome by the afternoon heat.

While Satya watches her.

So trusting, so very stupid.

On Roop's arm, thrown back over her head, are Satya's gold bangles, and on her fingers, Satya's rings. Her feet are small and narrow for her height. Around her ankles she wears Satya's gold panjebs. On her toes, Satya's toe rings.

Satya could unfasten them from Roop while she sleeps, but thievery has never been a trait in her family.

Why is Roop so trusting? How can she be so confident she will produce a child? How can Roop not look at her, Satya, and think, "This is what I might become"? How can she not see danger in blundering deep into the tigress's den to steal her chance of ever bearing a cub?

Had Satya been like her once? Had she ever been so witless and yet so charming?

Young women these days think they are invincible, that they have only to smile and good things will happen to them.

Look at me, she wants to tell her. Barren, but still useful; she manages Sardarji's whole estate. Does Roop think it an easy task? Does Roop think it means just giving orders?

"No, little 'sister,'" she will say, "Sardarji's mukhtiar, Manager Abdul Aziz, does my bidding because he respects my judgment, he knows he cannot cheat me, I am too watchful. Not a pai of Sardarji's money is spent on mere ornamentation or given to the undeserving."

The money she gave to the sants, though . . . that was a contribution to their future.

Perhaps Sardarji felt she gave the holy men too much--then he had only to say one word! One word in her ear and she would not have spent another pai on intercessors, but would have prayed to Vaheguru herself.

Only, she has never felt that Vaheguru listens to a woman's prayers.

When Sardarji's sister, Toshi--that churail! that witch!--when she began her insinuations that Sardarji should marry again, Satya laughed. Said, "Yes, what a good idea!"

And she said she would find a good Sikh girl herself, a woman for her husband.

She said this for ten years while her heart sank lower and lower and her body betrayed her every moon-month with its bleeding. And in that time, the man who could best protect her, her father, lost his power. Thin, maudlin, lazy--that is not a man. When the British turned land rights to paper, he could prove nothing, not even fitness for working! He lost the land. Never even knew it until he tried renewing his land pledges for more liquor, more opium, then more liquor. By then it was too late. In the end he locked himself in a room with all the British-supplied gin he could muster and drank himself to death--one gulp, one drink, next drink, next gulp.

When he was gone, Satya's only brother sold the last of the land to buy a lorry and sent their mother, practical, accepting old Bebeji, to live with a cousin. He lived in that lorry only three days before a band of dacoits drove him from it and left his robbed, bleeding corpse half hidden in a wheat field by the roadside. A Sikh tenant-farmer's wheat field, not even some high-up landowner's wheat field! What a way to die: young, and for no reason. Not even a martyr's death, or a soldier's. Just a useless, meaningless death.

Satya will not die that way.

No, when she dies there will be a reason.

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The Danger Tree

The Danger Tree

Memory, War, And The Search For A Family's Past
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Summer Gone
Excerpt

When Dr. Alistair Laird fell suddenly ill early one spring, not long after his seventy-first birthday, his wishes were that no ceremony attend his death. He was a handsome, crag-faced man. He was known as Laird to everyone, including his wife, Nora, and his three stepdaughters, Julia, Pru, and Sarah. He was kindly, in his way. He was also bombastic, in his way. And for someone who was dying, and dying rather quickly, Laird made his exit plans known with some force.

"Perhaps," said the hospital chaplain, who ventured once and only once into Laird's room, "a memorial service, a gathering of family and friends . . ."

Laird moved his dry lips.

"I beg your pardon." The chaplain leaned forward.

A gasp of stale breath. "Get out."

It was Bay who witnessed this. During those unsettled and sad days, it was Bay who was often there, in the hospital room.

Of course, it was Laird's wife who bore the brunt. Nora, whose round, open face had taken on a strained expression no one had seen before. Nora, who always wore the perfume Laird liked, and who always had a kind word for the nurses, and whose substantial weight was beginning to bear down on her tired legs, as she paced the corridor in her comfortable old cardigan when the doctors came into Laird's room. It was Nora, of course, who was in the hospital for long bedside shifts, but when, finally, she was exhausted, when finally she went home, to a bath, to some food, to the blankness of the sleeping pills she was using for the first and only time in her life, she wanted someone to be there. Julia and Pru, and their husbands and young families, lived far from downtown. It was the busiest time of the publishing year for Sarah — three children's novels, two nursery rhyme anthologies, and the usual raft of Learning to Read paperbacks were coming out of Children's Press. And so it was Bay who was sitting in the hospital room, across from the end of Laird's bed, beside the window, when Laird made his wishes so clear to the chaplain.

Bay was a little taken aback — not nearly as taken aback as the chaplain — but not particularly surprised. The views that Laird held on the subject of religion and its attendant ceremony were well known to his family and his friends. And his views on these matters — and on the subject of funerals — had not softened in the least now that he was face to face with the green walls, plasma drips, fish sticks, and plastic pill tumblers of his own mortality.

"Nothing," Laird had said. "I'd like. Nothing."

This was when the subject first came up. Or rather, when it came up for the first unwhispered time. For although Laird, by then, had known for a week what was quickly to come, his family had been floundering from doctor to doctor, hope to hope. As families will.

The family meeting took place in Laird's hospital room. Sarah was sitting at the foot of the narrow bed. Her mother was in a chair at the head. She was holding Laird's hand. Sarah's two younger sisters, and their husbands, were standing by the large, unadorned window. Bay was at the closed door.

Beside Laird's bed were piled a few of the history books he had always enjoyed reading. They were now too heavy for him to hold. Beside the books was the Walkman the family had bought for him in the hospital, and which he said he hated. Tapes of his favourite Schubert, his favourite Beethoven sat there, ignored. "Music," he had said, "must echo around things.To be alive. Can't be injected."

Laird's feet were pale. He complained of how cold they were. Sarah was massaging them. She said, "We can't do . . . nothing."

There was a faint echo of Laird's old, gruff growl. It was a very characteristic growl. The growl his family had heard so often when they were growing up — when they came back from school to report that they were memorizing Psalm 23 for an assembly, or that their teacher liked to start the day with the Lord's Prayer. From his pillows, Laird looked at Sarah fiercely. "Why not?" he asked. "Why not do nothing?" His eyes gleamed for a second with the old fire of the debates he had so often waged at the dinner table. "'Nothing' seems fitting. Under the circumstances."

"Well," she said. "There's Mom."

Nora's eyes were wide and attentive. Her fine skin, her abundant white hair, her long, pretty lashes, her unbearable concern were all poised there. She was on the edge of something. She was unable to speak.

Laird said, "Nora is a big girl." He gave a feeble pat to the back of his wife's hand.

"And there's your friends. And there's us . . ."

"Look." Laird wheezed. He coughed. "I'm the one. Who's bloody well dying."

It was the first time the word had been spoken openly. So matter-of-factly. It hung there, amid the leafy cloy of the delivered flowers, the odour of untouched dinner, the scent of moisturizer cream and soap and disinfectant, the dim smell of bedsheets.

"So what I want," Laird said. "Is. After the cremation. Throw out my ashes. With the garbage."

He had forbidden a funeral, forbidden a memorial service, forbidden his family the expense of anything beyond the most rudimentary disposal. He was a doctor. A stubborn pragmatist. A faithful atheist. A Scot.

Laird frowned. He said, "And I mean. Regular pickup. No goddamn recycling."

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The Angel on the Roof

The Angel on the Roof

The Stories of Russell Banks
edition:Hardcover
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Excerpt

Dancing With My Eyes Closed

When I began writing nearly forty years ago, I wanted to be a poet, but had not the gift and fell in love instead with the short story, the form in prose closest to lyric poetry. Unable to court successfully the queen of the arts, I turned my attention to her lady-in-waiting. This is not a rare form of abandonment (as Faulkner famously observed, "All fiction writers are failed poets"), but in any event, it's clear enough to me why I abandoned poetry early, almost too early to have failed at it, for the short story. Too many of my close friends at college and shortly afterwards obviously had the gifts (of language, wit, personal charm, good looks--whatever it took to woo and win the favors of the queen's main muse), and by unavoidable comparison to poetry-writing friends like William Matthews, James Tate, and Charles Simic, I was tongue-tied, humorless, bad-mannered, and homely. No wonder I turned to prose fiction.

Before leaving, however, I did publish a fair number of those early poems in obscure--but not obscure enough- literary magazines and journals and published two chapbooks of poetry in small--but not small enough--editions. They show up now and then in the hands of collectors at book-signings, and it's all I can do to keep from tearing the book from the collector's hands and starting an auto-da-fe with it right there in the store. I'm not so much ashamed of those poor poems as embarrassed by the vanity of my youthful ambition, by its evident (to me, now) transparency, and am comforted a bit only by calling to mind Nathaniel Howthorne's first book, an absolutely awful bodice- ripper entitled Fanshawe, self-published in an edition of perhaps 500 copies that he spent his life afterwards quietly seeking out, purchasing, and destroying by fire, in the process (since he got all but a handful of copies) making it one of the rarest, most expensive books in American literature.

Unable to cohabit with lyric poetry, I, like my illustrious ancestor, took up temporary residence instead with her nearest neighbor, the short story, and only later moved across town as he did, to settle more or less permanently, I thought, with the novel. In the intervening years, though I've written a dozen or so novels and remain faithful to the form and its power, it's nonetheless the story form that thrills me. It invites me today, still, as it did those many years ago, to behave on the page in a way that is more reckless, more sharply painful, and more stylistically elaborate that is allowed by the steady, slow, bourgeois respectability of the novel, which, like a good marriage, demands long-term commitment, tolerance, and compromise. The novel, in order to exist at all, accrues, accretes, and accumulates itself in small increments, like a coral reef, and through that process invites from its creator leisurely exploration and slow growth. By contrast, stories are like a perfect wave, if one is a surfer; or a love affair, if one is a lover. They forgive one's mercurial nature, reward one's longing for ecstasy, and make of one's short memory a virtue. They keep an old man or woman young, so to speak.

A year ago, last winter, after a decade and a half of writing only novels--four of them, actually, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter, Rule of the Bone and Cloudsplitter- arduous years uninterrupted by my usual, earlier practice of following a novel with a wild and crazy year or two of short-story writing (as a respite, I suppose, but also merely to release my brain from the sort of obsessional thinking that goes with novel-writing), I finally sat down and over the course of the next six months wrote nine new stories. I felt almost wanton and promiscuous. My delight, however, was tinged mysteriously with guilt. Maybe I'd been having too much fun, or perhaps, as if dancing wildly with my eyes closed, I had inadvertently made a fool of myself in public, revealed too much of my secret, subconscious self. Troubled and intrigued, I decided to examine and evaluate earlier instances of this reckless behavior and went back and, for the first time in many years, re-read my four previously published collections of stories, Searching for Survivors, The New World, Trailerpark, and Success Stories, a group of nearly one hundred stories in all.

Many of them, most of them, were terrible, as bad as my poems, and evoked in me the same embarrassment and shame as had the poems--for the vanity of my youthful (and in many cases not-so-youthful) ambition and its ability to cloud my mind and warp my judgement. Why, I wondered, had I even published them? Why couldn't I have made such terrible mistakes in private? It was a depressing and humbling read. Not that they were technically inept. In general, the stories were skillfully executed, stylish in the several popular modes of the 1960's and 1970's--minimalist after Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie, meta-fictional after Barthelme, Barth, Gass, and Coover, sometimes braiding the two formalist tendencies in a single story, as if the tendencies were not, as their respective adherents claimed, opposed to one another.

No, what depressed and humbled me was what I saw lurking behind the surface of the story--the personality and character of the author himself, the young writer whose all-too-evident rage, pride, and insecurity were sabotaging his attempts to write stories that stood a chance of outliving him. Obviously, I knew a great deal about him already, his difficult childhood, his turbulent adolescence, his failed (as he viewed them) first and second marriages, and so on; but it was the stories themselves that gave him away. So many of them, it seemed, had been written to obscure the degree to which their author had no idea of who he was or what he was doing or whether he was any good at it. Preoccupied with the self, rather than with the world, they were the work of a young man who too often judged his characters, especially the characters who most closely resembled the author himself; and when he did not judge them, he idealized them, hovering like a custodial parent above the same character he'd just condemned, the one resembling the author. His characters were stand-ins for his shifting, unreliable opinions of himself. Thus his reliance on fashion, on the popular story-telling modes of the time.

A few of the stories, once I gave them a second look, did not embarrass me. Quite the opposite. They were the real thing, freed, it seemed to me, from the authorial vanity and literary self-consciousness. And I could see that, with a snip here, and a tuck there, if I sucked in their stomachs and adjusted the lighting a bit, they might, even to me, seem capable of successfully courting the nearest relative of the queen of the arts. These were, for the most part, stories about single mothers, blue-collar working men and women, elderly people, a retired army colonel, a gay bank clerk, and so on-characters who did not much resemble their neurotic young author. The few whose demographic profile did match the author's portrayed him only as a child or adolescent, twenty or more years earlier, beyond judgement, beyond idealization, no longer subject to his rage, pride, or insecurity. Forgiven.

Of the nearly one hundred stories previously published in book form, I selected twenty-two that I wanted to revise and keep into my old age. The rest I decided could and should be consigned to the dustbin of juvenilia, even though some of them had been written when I was in my forties. With those twenty-two revised early stories and the nine new ones now in hand--and ample, mixed bouquet displayed in my publisher's handsome yet unpretentious vase--I might knock at the muse's door and be let in. I might be almost-a-poet yet.

In June when this new book is published, I will have just turned sixty. And while re-reading, rejecting and finally revising the best of them has been a little like visiting with my past and all-but-forgotten selves, re-acquainting myself with the man I was in my twenties, thirties, forties, and so on, it has also revealed to me the man I was not. Not then, anyhow, and maybe not now or ever. Unsurprisingly, the kid in his twenties who wrote "Searching for Survivors," one of the earliest stories included, a somewhat melancholy, dreamy, self-dramatizing fellow with a lyrical impulse running through his every perception, turns out to be not significantly different than the more ironic, bemused, and plain-spoken, late-middle-aged man who at the age of fifty-nine wrote the most recent stories in the collection. I have come to see that most of the stories I left behind, like my earlier selves, were failed experiments which at the time of their composition were necessary for me to have attempted, for I would not have learned my craft if I had not written them. And while I now wish that I had not afterwards submitted them for publication, I nonetheless must admit that had I not published them, first in magazines and later in books, I doubt that I'd be able today to recognize them as failures. If I'd tossed them out while they were still in manuscript form, if I'd strangled my darlings in their beds, as Flannery O'Connor advised young writers to do, I would not have learned from them as much as I have. In cold print, in black and white, wildly dancing eyes-closed in public for all to see, those experiments, like my early poems, like my early selves, taught me what I have no talent for and, in the end, no abiding interest in.

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The First World War
Excerpt

From Chapter One: A European Tragedy

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots. The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the First. On 18 September 1922, Adolf Hitler, the demobilised front fighter, threw down a challenge to defeated Germany that he would realise seventeen years later: "It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain . . . No, we do not pardon, we demand--vengeance!"

The monuments to the vengeance he took stand throughout the continent he devastated, in the reconstructed centres of his own German cities, flattened by the strategic bombing campaign that he provoked, and of those--Leningrad, Stalingrad, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London--that he himself laid waste. The derelict fortifications of the Atlantic Wall, built in the vain hope of holding his enemies at bay, are monuments to his desire for vengeance; so, too, are the decaying hutments of Auschwitz and the remnants of the obliterated extermination camps at Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. A child's shoe in the Polish dust, a scrap of rusting barbed wire, a residue of pulverised bone near the spot where the gas chambers worked, these are as much relics of the First as of the Second World War. They have their antecedents in the scraps of barbed wire that litter the fields where the trenches ran, filling the French air with the smell of rust on a damp morning, in the mildewed military leather a visitor finds under a hedgerow, in the verdigrised brass of a badge or button, corroded clips of ammunition and pockmarked shards of shell. They have their antecedents also in the anonymous remains still upturned today by farmers ploughing the bloodsoaked soil of the Somme--"I stop work at once. I have a great respect for your English dead"--just as the barely viewable film of bodies being heaped into the mass graves at Belsen in 1945 has its antecedents in the blurred footage of French soldiers stacking the cordwood of their dead comrades after the Second Battle of Champagne in 1915. The First World War inaugurated the manufacture of mass death that the Second brought to a pitiless consummation.

There are more ceremonial monuments. Few French and British communities lack a memorial to the dead of the Second World War. There is one in my West Country village, a list of names carved at the foot of the funerary crucifix that stands at the crossroads. It is, however, an addition and an afterthought. The cross itself was raised to commemorate the young men who did not return from the First World War and their number is twice that of those killed in the Second. From a population of two hundred in 1914, W. Gray, A. Lapham, W. Newton, A. Norris, C. Penn, L. Penn and W. J. White, perhaps one in four of the village's men of military age, did not come back from the front. Theirs are names found in the church registers that go back to the sixteenth century. They survive in the village today. It is not difficult to see from the evidence that the Great War brought heartbreak on a scale never known since the settlement was established by the Anglo-Saxons before the Norman Conquest and, thankfully, has not been known since. The memorial cross is, the church apart, the only public monument the village possesses. It has its counterpart in every neighbouring village, in the county's towns, where the names multiply many times, and in the cathedral of the diocese at Salisbury. It has its counterpart, too, in every cathedral in France, in each of which will be seen a tablet bearing the inscription, "To the Glory of God and in memory of one million men of the British Empire who died in the Great War and of whom the greater number rest in France."

Nearby, certainly, will stand a memorial to the locality's own dead, itself replicated in every surrounding town and village. France lost nearly two million in the Great War, two out of every nine men who marched away. They are often symbolised by the statue of a poilu, defiant in horizon blue, levelling a bayonet eastward at the German frontier. The list of names on the plinth is heartrendingly long, all the more heartrending because repetition of the same name testifies to more than one death, often several, in the same family. There are similar lists to be seen graven in stone in the towns and cities of most combatant nations of the Great War. Particularly poignant, I find, is the restrained classicism of the memorial to the cavalry division of the Veneto that stands beside the cathedral of Murano in the lagoon of Venice, bearing row after row of names of young men from the lowlands of the River Po who died in the harsh uplands of the Julian Alps. I am touched by the same emotion in the churches of Vienna where severe stone tablets recall the sacrifice of historic Habsburg regiments now almost forgotten to history.

The Germans, who cannot decently mourn their four million dead of the Second World War, compromised as the Wehrmacht was by the atrocities of the Nazi state, found a materially, if not morally equivalent difficulty in arranging an appropriately symbolic expression of grief for their fallen of the First, since so many lay on foreign soil. The battlefields of the east were closed to them by the Bolshevik revolution, those of the west made at best grudgingly accessible for the retrieval and reburial of bodies. The French and the Belgians found little room in their hearts or in the national soil for the creation of German war cemeteries.

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