WWI Correspondence—Karl Henschel, a Volunteer from Berlin

Karl Henschel Collection, AR 6433

Karl Henschel Collection, AR 6433

During the first year of the war, German soldiers sent six million letters every day, and received another 8.5 million. Soldiers’ letters were almost immediately instrumentalized to shape public perceptions about the war, and the publication of letters quickly became an important way of memorializing the fallen, who came in unprecedented numbers.

Among the first volumes of published letters was Eugen Tannenbaum’s Kriegsbriefe deutscher und oesterreichischer Juden (1st ed. Berlin, 1915. Call No. D 640 T4 K7). This collection highlighted the service of Jewish soldiers at a time when an anti-Semitic canard that Jews were shirking duty at the front was gaining currency.

Published collections, carefully curated with political, literary, and emotional criteria in mind, can only hint at the full breadth of experience in the war, however. At least 100 collections in LBI archives contain original correspondence that presents different views.

Karl Henschel was just 20 years old when he enlisted and had this portrait taken at the Kaufhaus Des Westens photo studio in Berlin. The 212 pages of correspondence in his archival collection include the first letter he sent his mother while still stationed in Furstenwalde, Brandenburg, and the first letter he received, from a friend named Gerhard who was stationed in Berlin. The tone of these early letters is light-hearted. To his mother, Henschel jokes that the lilac-colored handkerchiefs his family had given him had spooked his horse: “The animal told me it was a sophisticated and dignified steed and had never seen such tacky handkerchiefs.” Gerhard shares his excitement at serving alongside so many fellow Jews, “Our room in the barracks is looking wonderful—two Christians, otherwise we are a minyan!”

It is impossible to say whether the tone of these letters reflects genuine good spirits or an effort to assuage his family’s fears. Any misgivings they might have had were not misplaced; Henschel was killed on the Eastern front the next year at the age of 21.

Karl Henschel Collection AR6433


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