The first days of May are always a good time to look back at World War II, to remember and to commemorate, even though that has been up for discussion lately. The Chessmen Museum has several chess games that have a link with the Second World War.

One of the most impressive chess games at the museum to me is the one from the Second World War, which people in hiding made of clothes pins. When you look at this game, knowing that they touched it as they hid from the Germans, history all of a sudden comes very close…

Another game with a Second World War theme has recently been added to the museum´s collection and is part of the Rademaker Collection. On the board, the Nazis face the Red Army of then Russia. Neither were paragons of virtue and millions of people died by atrocities committed by both sides.

Nazi’s in the back, the Red Army in the front. Rademaker Collection

Different view on war
I recently read a book on the war that had quite an impact on me and I had to think about it when I was having a look at the Nazis<>Red Army game. The book is called The Unwomanly Face of War, by Svetlana Alexievich. She received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2015 for her exceptional history books, full of personal stories of eye-witnesses. War books are usually written by men. Heroic deeds, facts about battles, the kind of ammunition and the number of soldiers that took part… Not my favourite kind of books, I must say.

But this book tells the stories of Russian women who fought in the Red Army during the Second World War and came face to face with the Nazis. Women who, by their own account, said they found it more difficult to kill than men. But when you feel enough hatred towards the other party, for example because your mother and sisters were burnt right in front of you on the village square, it becomes a lot easier. Alexievich spoke to hundreds of women in the late 1970´s and wrote down their violent accounts, with a lot of attention for detail and for the feelings of the women.

During the communist regime, no publishing house wanted anything to do with her manuscript because Alexievich showed the misery of the war instead of the glorious victories. Under the Soviet regime, which was a bit more flexible, she succeeded although some parts of her script were still censored. As one of the censors put it: “Who’s going to go to war after reading such a book? You humiliate women with your primitive naturalism. You dethrone our war heroes. You turn her into an ordinary woman. But to us they are sacred.”

Last year saw the re-release of the book (in English and Dutch), now with all the previously censored pieces. As a little preview I will introduce you to Maria Ivanovna Morozova, corporal and sniper of the Red Army.

When the war began, she was not yet eighteen. Because the victory over the Germans took a bit longer than expected, she and her friends reported for duty at the recruitment office. She entered the office with long braids and came out with a closely shaved head. In good spirits and full of bravado the girls got aboard the freight train, headed for the frontline. I quote:

“It wasn´t just me, all of the girls wanted to go to the front. Every suitable man was already fighting at the frontline, including my father. Soon, the call came to defend the homeland, because the German troops had already reached Moscow. The commanding officer, Colonel Borotkin, got angry when he saw us. ‘Who dumped this bunch of girls on us? Are we going to ballet dance!? There´s a war going on here, not a dance party!'”

But the girls were better at shooting than the men, because they had had a longer and more extensive marksman training than the male soldiers. But actually shooting someone turned out to be a different story. “My first victim was a German officer. When I had him in sight all of a sudden I thought: he is the enemy but he is also a human being! Somehow my hands began to shake, my body quivered and shuddered. But I pulled myself together and then I pulled the trigger. After that I started to shake even more, overcome by a kind of terror: did I just kill a man? I had to get used to that idea, yes… In short, it´s horrible, it is something you will never forget.”

The war left a scar on Maria, and on all of those other veterans, for life. She married another former soldier, because they understood each other… “Even if you return from the war alive, your soul gets sick. Now I think: it is better to injure an arm or leg, because then your body suffers. Otherwise it is the soul that suffers, and that is really unbearable. Because we went to the front as little girls. I even grew ten centimetres during the war.”

There is nothing heroic about war. If you think differently, I recommend you read these stories. Only this way we will prevent atrocities from happening time and again.

By Marjolein Overmeer