Obsessions can lead to places you would never imagine. The urges that give rise to obsessions are unexplainable and undeniable, they have a magnetic allure that is as seductive as it is sinister. Obsession leads to compulsion and compulsion to uncontrollable impulses. Self-help gurus and life coaches will advise moderation as a necessary antidote to obsession, offering moderation as the key to a happy life filled with contentment. That may well be true, but an obsessive ignores this advice. They must take their passions to the greatest extremes. The journey may be fraught with danger, but the destination is worth the risk. Perhaps that is because the pursuit of an obsession is a portal to another world, one that allows the obsessive to supersede the world in which they have been confined for far too long. Obsessions can lead to the most extraordinary of emotions and the strangest of places. The obsessive may be at a loss to explain why they continue pursuing their passion well beyond the limits of reason, but they will continue that course no matter the cost in time, money, and energy. The obsession overrides all concerns.
On the Eastern Front – Inn at Usdau on fire during the Battle of Tannenberg
Time of Troubles – On the Eastern Front
My obsession with World War I on the Eastern Front began during one of the worst periods of my life. That time period can be summed up in two words, high school. Rather than enjoy it, I endured those three years of frustration and humiliation by seething mostly in silence. High school altered the course of my life to such an extent that I can scarcely think about it without feeling complete contempt for the experience. Much of my life since then has been informed by an urge to overcome people’s preconceived notions and the invisible hierarchies that govern both our personal and professional lives. High school provided me an education in class systems. My high school had its own aristocracy (football players and cheerleaders), the bureaucracy (administrators and teachers), plutocracy (rich kids), autocracy (the bullies), and meritocracy (academic achievers). There was not much for the rest of us to do other than engage in the illicit consumption of booze, absurd acts of delinquency, and mini rebellions against anyone trying to exercise authority.
And yet from that time of troubles came one of the great obsessions of my life, the Eastern Front of World War I and specifically the Battle of Tannenberg. It is not without irony that one of the most catastrophic conflicts in human history came to me in a school library located thousands of kilometers and an ocean away from battlefields seventy-years after the fact. I was sitting safely sequestered among the school library’s modest stacks gaining an intense interest about a front that Winston Churchill deemed “The Unknown War: The Eastern Front.” The future British Prime Minister felt compelled to author an entire volume with that title about the front in his magisterial multi-volume history of the First World War. The Eastern Front may have been forgotten by the west, but that was yet another reason I found it so intriguing.
Into oblivion – Russian soldiers charge forward at the Battle of Tannenberg
Nightmares & Dreams – Battle Lines Are Drawn
I discovered the Eastern Front in the voluminous Marshal Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I. In what I still consider to be the greatest reference work ever created, I found thousands of pages on every aspect of the war. This was one of my first true loves and as such I can still recall it with misty eyed nostalgia. Somehow among the unending succession of nightmares found on those pages, I began to formulate a fascination. This fascination then turned into a dream. That dream had a name, Tannenberg. It was a titanic battle, with clear winners and losers. The Somme and Verdun may be more famous, but trying to grasp those seemingly never-ending battles which raged for weeks or months on end is extremely difficult. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were killed and wounded with no decisive result. The futility of war defined those battles and many similar ones on the western front. Tannenberg could not have been more different.
I first came to understand Tannenberg as a glorious German victory and crushing Russian defeat. This made it easy to grasp. Only later would I learn that the battle did not play a decisive role in the war’s outcome. This realization did not deter my interest. Tannenberg had lodges itself in my memory to such an extent that I have never been able to let it go. Mentally, Tannenberg was my way of escaping from frustration. It had nothing to do with popularity contests or peer pressure. No one else at my school would have found it of interest. Tannenberg became a secret that I only shared with myself.
The battle became an inspiration and aspiration to learn more with the ultimate goal of possibly visiting the battlefield one day. I could always dream. And like the most powerful dreams, this had the potential of becoming reality.
Looking back – Memorial stone at Usdau for fighting during Battle of Tannenberg (Credit; Bauernfreund)
Boots On The Ground – Digging Graves & Saving Grace
Learning about the battle started in that high school library. It continues to this very day and will probably never end. For that I am grateful. My curiosity for Tannenberg has manifested itself to the point that I now feel an overwhelming urge to finally visit the battlefield in person. The circumstances are such that I can find my way there. A strange sort of affinity for the battle has been buried deep within me for decades. From time to time, it comes back as an all-consuming obsession. One that must be satisfied. This idea possesses me, turns my thoughts to the blistering heat and choking dust in the final days of August 1914. The earth transformed into a haze by horses’ hooves and the boots of hundreds of thousands of men taking their first footsteps towards the darkest of destinies. They are headed for a reckoning and so am I. The time has come to visit Tannenberg. To see the place where General Samsonov effectively brought the battle to an end and his life along with it. To see the battle that destroyed so many lives and provided me with an escape during one of the most difficult times of my life. To see the battlefield where two empires began to dig their graves and paradoxically became my saving grace.
To be continued…