“We Have Survived This Terrible War Alive”: Letters from World War I Germany in the Dittmar Family Papers
For the past several months, DRT Library volunteer Lore A. Senseney has been translating more than fifty German-language letters in the Dittmar family papers. Thanks to Lore’s efforts, we now know the contents of letters sent to Emmy Dittmar from relatives and friends living in Germany during and after World War I.
We’re highlighting some of these materials in honor of Armistice Day, which ended World War I on November 11, 1918. Additionally, more than ninety years after the conflict, Germany paid the last of its war reparations just two months ago.
Letters from German relatives and friends contained within the Dittmar collection are filled with news of births, marriages, deaths, and other significant events in the lives of Emmy Dittmar’s loved ones. The letters document the extent to which all were greatly affected by World War I and its aftermath, and the authors describe and offer opinions about the general course of the conflict.
In letters written during the early years of World War I, Emmy Dittmar’s relatives celebrated German victories but also expressed desire to see the “brutal,” “terrible,” and “gruesome” conflict end and wondered how anti-German war propaganda in the United States would affect their German-American relatives. For example, a portion of a letter written on November 17, 1915 states:
Now the terrible war has gone on for one year and four months, and still no end in sight. But we stand unshakably tight in the belief for a total victory, even if it costs so many sacrifices for us. Until now we have shown our friends what German strength and toughness can do. We have thrown over the enemy which fought against us in greater number, defeated everywhere and taken over great stretches of their lands, Belgia, Northern France and a great stretch of Poland are in our hands, Serbia will stop existing in a few weeks. Now comes still the accounting with our enemy till death, the English…Before England, the driving force of this horrible war, is not destroyed on the ground, the world will not have peace. How infamous the deceitful English through their bribed press has deceived the whole world and gave us the whole blame for the gruesome murders. Sadly, even America sided against us through war deliveries and worked towards our downfall, which made us very sad and killed all sympathy for this land for a long time…How must our German brothers in America have felt, who still have kept the love for their fatherland faithfully in their heart, when they read again and again about the huge masses of ammunition which were delivered to our enemies to ruin our homeland. God be thanked that it has not helped our enemies, even with American help at the huge offensive, to even then have little success. God will keep helping us with success for our victory…Pray for our beloved fatherland and fight all its enemies as far as it is possible for you, through word and deed.
Only one letter in the collection dates from 1917-1918, the final year of World War I following the entry of the United States. However, several post-war letters describe the hardships Germans faced, including illness; scarcity of food, fuel, clothing, and other necessities; and skyrocketing inflation. Despair and distress are evident, as Emmy’s sister Linchen wrote on November 2, 1919, “what terrible things we may still have to live through, sometimes I lose the will to live, [although] when I feel better and can work it is bearable again.”
October 14, 1919
…Sadly of the good things which you sent, nothing has arrived yet, even though they have been on the way almost 1/4 year. If only something arrives, we need it so badly. The whole summer we had almost rotten margarine and moldy bread. I got thoroughly ill from it and have been again for quite a few weeks. The whole body covered with painful sores, lots of fever and no appetite. I am still not well, but I can do some things again. A lot of anemia and malnutrition and spoiled food gave me the rest. There are never any eggs, milk or butter. Our boy wanted to bring me 1/2 lb. butter when he came Sunday and it was confiscated as contraband. You cannot imagine how it is here and what difficulties we have to bear. Petrol and candles are rarely to be had. In April we had no gas for the whole month and since we have no electric light, we sat in the dark and could not cook anything warm in the evening, because the coal had to be saved also. How will it be going this Winter – coal we have now in the basement, it was extremely expensive. Our landlord has raised the rent again and Lili and the boy have changed the whole apartment around, so that we can at least rent out one room, because moving is unthinkable, it would cost many thousands now. It is not going to get much better…
In response to this information, Emmy Dittmar sent multiple packages to several relatives containing things such as soap, chocolate, tea, coffee, rice, corned beef, cream of wheat, wool, and money. “There is almost no day where I don’t think of you with gratefulness,” wrote Emmy’s sister Marie in May 1920. “I am so glad about everything you sent to me.” Care packages to Germany were apparently common, as Emmy’s cousin reported in February 1921 that “there were, according to newspaper articles, a very large amount of care packages in Hamburg from America, which they could not deliver all at once,” which caused delays.
While the vast majority of the materials in the DRT Library’s archival collections document the history of Texas communities, particularly San Antonio, some items describe other places in the United States and around the world, as San Antonians recorded their travels and received news from friends and relatives living elsewhere. When conducting historical or genealogical research about an individual, be sure to check for archival collections of his or her relatives, friends, neighbors, and business associates, even if they are in a distant location.