The Story of Corporal Tischbein
Created | Updated Nov 21, 2010
Last week, there was a holiday. Some of us got to talking, and discovered that there was some confusion about the meaning of the day – whether we called it Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, Poppy Day, or Veterans' Day.
In response to the unknown and ignorant person who told a German Hootooer she shouldn't wear a poppy, I offer this true account. Only one detail has been changed.
The Story of Corporal Tischbein
The other day, I was watching Claude Chabrol's film L'Oeil de Vichy, a collection of newsreel footage from the Second World War which chronicled the French experience in the years 1940-1945. The film began, of course, with shots of the 1940 Blitzkrieg invasion of France: the dive bombers, the refugees, the Dunkirk Miracle. And then, of course, one of the most famous scenes from 1940 – the massive German military parade through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Those stormtroopers goose-stepping down the Champs Elysees always send a chill down the observer's spine.
Not mine, of course. I always have to think of Corporal Tischbein.
Corporal Tischbein1 was a short, slight young man in the bloom of his youth who came from the German town of Euskirchen. He spoke dialect, and had never been anywhere much before. But now, courtesy of the vast Nazi war machine, he was about to see Paris. Not only to see it, but to participate in one of the iconic moments in history.
Corporal Tischbein hadn't seen any fighting. The invasion had moved too swiftly for that, and he was a recent draftee, an unwilling participant in history. All he knew how to do, so far, was march. And march he did, in the direction of the French capital, as fast as his legs would carry him, driven not by military necessity – the opposition was already on the run – but by...
...a movie director.
The newsreel crews, you see, were busy creating that iconic moment. They knew just exactly what the Führer wanted to see. He wanted to see an overwhelming triumph. And a triumph he would have. They needed many, many troops – fresh, clean, orderly, military – to march under that arch. So Corporal Tischbein and his fellow soldiers were being force-marched the final fifty miles to Paris.
Tischbein was tired. Tischbein's feet hurt. Above all, Tischbein needed to go to the latrine. But the sergeant wouldn't stop. He couldn't stop. The Germans have a saying, 'Befehl ist Befehl.' Orders are orders. No potty breaks on the road to conquest. (At this point, I think of my mother's dictum, 'You should have gone before we left home.')
On to the centre of Paris, row upon row, rank upon rank. Roll out the German war machine. Roll the cameras. Record History with a capital H. No time to check out the sights. No time to look up at the Eiffel Tower for the young man from the Eiffel Mountains. March, march, march. Have we mentioned exactly what goose-stepping does to the kidneys?
Through the Arc de Triomphe. Into the history books. Finally, finally, the sergeant: 'Dismissed.' Hundreds of soldiers with one thought. Was it victory? The desire to loot the famous city? The yen for wine, women, and song? No. It was the need to find a Public Convenience.
The Champs Elysees. Hotels. Aha. Hotels have toilets, surely. Hundreds of booted soldiers, storming the hotels. Scores of terrified desk clerks, looking for somewhere to hide. What did these menacing, well-armed troopers want? Corporal Tischbein approaches the trembling concierge. Oops. I should have paid more attention in school. Who knew we were going to invade France, the land of the partitive?
Où est...verdammt nochmal, wie heisst es2?...où est...le lavabo?
Bewildered clerks point upward, to the premièr etage...hundreds of pairs of boots stamping mud on the carpet...
Bitter disappointment: lavabo means washroom. No relief in sight. These boys are well brought up. (The German Army, as was well known, had trouble getting them to stop wearing nightshirts to bed rather than those new-fangled pyjamas they were issued.) Back down to the desk.
The others, desperate, were on the verge of vulgar mimicry, but Corporal Tischbein thought hard. Oú est...la TOILETTE? Comprehension dawned on the face of the clerk. Pointing occurred. The correct door was located. The historical moment was saved.
Er, not quite. As Corporal Tischbein and his comrades exited the hotel, they heard giggling in the background. The dignity of the war machine had slipped a notch. (It is possible that Corporal Tischbein was responsible for planting the idea in the minds of the French that resistance might not be futile. We won't tell the Gestapo, though.) It seems to have dawned on the desk clerks that these were just a group of lost boys, far from home, who were having trouble remembering their school French, and who had to go to the toilet, just like everybody else.
So whenever I see the German Army marching under the Arc de Triomphe in 1940, I think of Corporal Tischbein. And of his daughter, who told me the story, with laughter, over a cup of coffee at her place.
I am glad Corporal Tischbein made it through the war. And if I were to wear a poppy, I'd wear one for him.
Let's keep our sense of perspective. Truth is the first casualty of war. But a sense of humour, and common decency, might leave a light in the window for it to come home to.
Fact and Fiction by Dmitri Gheorgheni Archive