Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Context and Culture

Afghanistan in World Literature (I): Only One Came Home from Afghanistan

Thomas Ruttig 5 min

A not too serious Essay: It wasn’t always the case that Afghanistan was a household name around the world as it is today. Before 1979 when the Soviet invasion suddenly brought Afghanistan to everyone’s attention, even world-class writers would rarely touch upon Afghanistan at all. A few exceptions will follow in this series.


It wasn’t always the case that Afghanistan was a household name around the world as it is today. Open your newspaper, switch on TV or radio and there will be a report about Afghanistan almost certainly. Here in Germany (I don’t know about elsewhere), it even goes further. Already a couple of crime serials took up the issue of former soldiers traumatised by their experience in Afghanistan. In November, Polizeiruf 110, a Saturday evening prime time crime series in public TV, run a (fictional) episode called It made click (‘Klick gemacht’) around a cover-up of the death of a German soldier by a landmine in Afghanistan.

Also Jerichow, one of the best German movies in 2009, (director: Christian Petzold), features a former Bundeswehr soldier who was dishonourably after serving in Afghanistan. In another very popular 2009 German movie Cloud 9(‘Wolke 9’, director: Andreas Dresen), the main protagonists sit in front of the TV set – and what do the news report about? — Afghanistan. Says she, an elderly lady nicely: ‘Oh I wished there would be peace all over the world.’

As you could imagine, Afghanistan features highly in German political comedy (we call it cabaret) which is also broadcasted on public TV. In my favourite show – News from the Mental Asylum (‘Neues aus der Anstalt’) on ZDF – there is even a character, Lieutenant-Colonel Sanftleben, an extremely suave Bundeswehr public relations officer who talks about Afghanistan almost in every show, in a way that you stop laughing rather soon. ‘Our NATO partners’, he says for instance, ‘openly bring up with us that our casualty rates in Afghanistan are too low. Who wants to have a say in world politics, must be ready to accept casualties. … We have to rethink…. because death is the logical closure of a soldier’s working day’ (see the clip here, in German).

Sanftleben (played by the magnificent Georg Schramm) actually was the first one who proved that Germany was indeed at war in Afghanistan – a fact still denied by most politicians – using footage showing chancellor Angela Merkel, in the company of the than Defence Minister (who later had to step down for his role in the Kunduz bombing of two fuel tankers during which a high number of civilians was killed, still subject to investigation), decorating German soldiers coming back from Afghanistan with a newly-introduced medal for valour. With razor sharp analysis (he actually should be an AAN member), Sanftleben/Schramm argues: According to the German Basic Law (we still do not have a constitution), it is the prerogative of the Defense Minister to hand over such medals because he is the Bundeswehr commander in peace time. Again according to the Basic Law, the Chancellor is its commander in times of war. Accordingly, when she hands over such medal Germany must be in a war. Quod erat demonstrandum.

No doubt, Afghanistan has become a topos even in the entertaining media.

But before 1979 when the Soviet invasion suddenly brought Afghanistan to everyone’s attention, even world-class writers would rarely touch upon Afghanistan at all. A few exceptions will follow in this loose series.


In the beginning, there was Theodor Fontane. At least for the author of this essay. When I started studying something that was called Afghanistics (a term met with utter disbelief nowadays but I have a diploma to prove it), the first piece of literature my professor came up with on the country to be discovered was a poem of this German poet.

Now, Fontane (1819-98) is famous in Germany for his Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg (‘Walking through the Mark Brandenburg’), a very beautiful forested but not very lively rural area around Berlin – and guess how it looked like in Fontane’s times.

At some point, he must have been tired of walking through Brandenburg’s sandy pine forests. Lying comfortably on his sofa and possibly having a drink, he was reading (old) English newspaper that inspired him for some of the ballads he also is famous for. That’s how The Tay Bridge (German: ‘Die Brück’ am Tay’) originated, John Maynard (about a shipping disaster on Lake Erie) and, perhaps, also The Tragedy of Afghanistan (‘Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan’) in 1859. This ballad describes the doom of a British army trying in vain to subdue the country in the Hindukush during the first Anglo-Afghan War. Famous closing line: ‘With 13,000 the track began – one came home from Afghanistan’.

See a clip of the German punk singer(!) Nina Hagen singing a version of ithere.

Here the original version of Fontane’s ballad, followed by a raw, unrhymed English line-by-line translation (by me because I couldn’t find any on the web):

Das Trauerspiel von Afghanistan

Der Schnee leis stäubend vom Himmel fällt,
Ein Reiter vor Dschellalabad hält.
»Wer da!« – »Ein britischer Reitersmann,
Bringe Botschaft aus Afghanistan.«

»Afghanistan!« er sprach es so matt;
Es umdrängt den Reiter die halbe Stadt,
Sir Robert Sale, der Kommandant,
Hebt ihn vom Rosse mit eigener Hand.

Sie führen ins steinerne Wachthaus ihn,
Sie setzen ihn nieder an den Kamin,
Wie wärmt ihn das Feuer, wie labt ihn das Licht,
Er atmet hoch auf und dankt und spricht:

»Wir waren dreizehntausend Mann,
Von Kabul unser Zug begann,
Soldaten, Führer, Weib und Kind
Erstarrt, erschlagen, verraten sind.

Zersprengt ist unser ganzes Heer,
Was lebt, irrt draußen in Nacht umher,
Mir hat ein Gott die Rettung gegönnt,
Seht zu, ob den Rest ihr retten könnt.«

Sir Robert stieg auf den Festungswall,
Offiziere, Soldaten folgten ihm all,
Sir Robert sprach: »Der Schnee fällt dicht,
Die uns suchen, sie können uns finden nicht.

Sie irren wie Blinde und sind uns so nah,
So laßt sie’s hören , daß wir da,
Stimmt an ein Lied von Heimat und Haus,
Trompeter, blast in die Nacht hinaus!«

Da huben sie an und sie wurden’s nicht müd’,
Durch die Nacht hin klang es Lied um Lied,
Erst englische Lieder mit fröhlichem Klang,
Dann Hochlandslieder wie Klagegesang.

Sie bliesen die Nacht und über den Tag,
Laut, wie nur die Liebe rufen mag,
Sie bliesen – es kam die zweite Nacht,
Umsonst, daß ihr ruft, umsonst, daß ihr wacht.

Die hören sollen, sie hören nicht mehr,
Vernichtet ist das ganze Heer,
Mit dreizehntausend der Zug begann,
Einer kam heim aus Afghanistan.

The Tragedy of Afghanistan

The snow is falling quietly
When a horseman stops at Jalalabad
‘Who’s that?” – ‘A British horseman,
I bring a message from Afghanistan.’

‘Afghanistan!’ – He says it in a flat voice;
Half of the town gathers around him,
Sir Robert Sale, the commander,
Helps him from his horse with his own hand.

They take him into the fort’s guardhouse,
They put him next to the fireplace,
How does the fire warm him, how does the light revive him,
He sits down, thanks, and reports:

‘We were 13,000 men,
Our track began in Kabul,
Soldiers, officers, women, children,
Frozen, clobbered, betrayed.

Dispersed is the whole army,
Who survived, is lost in the night,
God has given salvation to me only,
You see whether you can save the rest.’

Sir Robert mounted the fort’s wall,
All officers and soldiers followed him.
Sir Robert said: ‘The snow is falling densely,
Those who look for us can’t find us,

They are like blind but they are close
Let them hear that we are here,
Intone a song of home and hearth,
Trumpeter! Sound it into the night!’

There, they started and did not tire,
Song followed upon song,
First English songs in a blitheful tone,
Then highland tunes like laments.

They played through the night and through the day,
Loud, as only love could call,
They played – the second night came,
In vain you are calling, in vain you are waking.

Those supposed to hear can’t hear anymore,
Destroyed the entire army,
With 13,000 the track began,
One came home from Afghanistan.

But why a tragedy? Who is Fontane grieving for? His sympathies are undoubtedly on the side of the British. Look at the heart-rendering way he describes how the Jalalabad garrison stands on the city’s walls and sing, in order to show the lost corps the way home. What did the widows of those Afghans say who were killed in the defensive fight against the invaders? Fontane who was one of the poets praising the 1848 German revolution, a sympathizer of colonialism? This, perhaps, is ‘too broad a field’ (‘ein weites Feld’), as master himself says in a famous quote.

To be continued