The reason for fighting
I never got straight
But I learned to accept it
Accept it with pride
For you don't count the dead
When God's on your side.

 

 

With God On Our Side - Bob Dylan

 

 

 

Chapter 1   PAPA, GOD ALMIGHTY AND ADOLF HITLER

 

Sometime in the late 1930’s, a factory worker in the German industrial city of Ludenscheid poured molten metal into a dye. He pulled a lever on a hydraulic drop forge tamping a design into the metal. Further along the assembly line, a second drop forge bent the sides and curved the metal. It was stamped with a maker’s mark to identify the manufacturer (N & H) Noel & Hueck. Then it joined thousands of other buckles on pallet racks ready for distribution to soldiers.  The end result of this process was a soldiers belt buckle. Germany was preparing to go to war.

That belt buckle would eventually come into the possession of Ernest Hemingway, one of the great writers of the 20th century. Numerous pictures and biographical references attest to the fact that the buckle and belt was a favourite of Papa's.

‘Ernest's attire was very restricted, and, in a manner of speaking, constituted a uniform; the leather vests, the knitted tan skullcap, the GOTT MIT UNS leather belt which had been appropriated from a dead Nazi and was religiously worn with all raiment.’ (it was too wide for the loops of any of his pants, but he wore it anyway outside the loops).

A.E. Hotchner - PAPA

 

 

Fishing aboard the Pilar, drinking at the Floridita Bar in Havana, on safari in Africa, at the bullfights in Spain, and hunting in Idaho, he wore it for the rest of his life.

He thought of it as a good luck charm. He carried around such talismans throughout his life; a rabbits foot, horse chestnuts from Paris, a piece of shrapnel that had been removed from his leg during surgery in World War One.

It is also likely that he wore the Gott Mit Uns buckle to remind himself of something quite serious, his own mortality, or as Hemingway put it in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “eternity, or the lack of it.”

 

 

                            photo courtesy JFK Library Boston

The buckle manufactured in Ludenscheid, the buckle that became Hemingway’s, was standard issue, made of pot metal with a pebble finish. The crest included the inscription Gott Mit Uns (God is with us) and was similar to buckles German soldiers had worn in World War One.  The royal crown of Prussia in the center encircled by oak leaves had been replaced with an eagle, a swastika clutched in its talons, a symbol of the National Socialist Party, the Nazi party.The Gott Mit Uns inscription remained. Symbolism was important.

The suppression of free speech and ideas through censorship was another tactic of the Nazis. In 1933,Joseph Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda staged a ‘book burning‘, to cleanse the country of “un-German” thoughts. Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, published four years earlier and translated into German, was among books thrown into the flames during the Berlin demonstration.

Hitler needed the support of the Christians, the Catholics and Protestants. Hitler and Goebbels were careful to manipulate the country’s strong religious beliefs to the advantage of the Nazis. Relations with the Vatican were good. Hitler made sure Pope Pius XI got red carpet treatment on his visits to Berlin.

 

It is one of the ironies of World Two that Nazi storm troopers jack booting their way across Europe, invading other countries, killing millions of people wore belt buckles proclaiming God’s endorsement.

 

The Germans certainly weren’t the first army ever to go to war claiming they had the support of the almighty and they haven’t been the last. They were especially good at waging war and came close to achieving Hitler’s bid to rule the world. Pre-war Germany was a devoutly religious country. Arrogance born of xenophobia and anti-Semitism were rampant.

Hitler was a Christian, a committed Catholic who had been an altar boy in his youth and had seriously considered entering the priesthood. Instead he became a religious and political zealot, a man who tried to exterminate a race of people, and who today is remembered as a meglomaniac, possibly the most evil person of the 20th century.

“I am fighting for the work of the Lord,“' Hitler declared, and a whole lot of German Christians, Protestants and Catholics, believed him.

Like Hitler, Hemingway ’s attitude toward religion was also rather pragmatic and at times, contradictory. Consider,for example, Hemingway's relationships with his wives.

Pauline, who was to become his second wife, wanted to be married in the Catholic Church. That was also the strong wish of her wealthy parents and her 'Uncle Gus' who was picking up the tab.  The problem was that Ernest was already married, to Hadley. To receive the blessing of the Catholic Church, not only did Ernest have to get a divorce, he had to renounce his marriage to Hadley as well, no doubt adding to the guilt he felt for abandoning her and their son Jack.

That guilt was probably a catalyst for what happened next. Shortly after the newlyweds took up residence  in their Paris apartment, Ernest found himself impotent.  This was extremely embarrassing for a man not yet 30, an insult to his machismo, and certainly ironic in light of the fact that Ernest and Pauline had enjoyed  sex  when they were having an affair behind Hadley’s back.

Ernest went to several doctors. A mystic prescribed a glass of calves liver blood every day. Ernest and Pauline tried everything. Nothing worked.

Finally, in desperation, Pauline suggested that Ernest ‘go and pray’. He walked to a small Catholic chapel a few blocks away and said a brief prayer.  He returned to the apartment and joined Pauline in bed. They made love as if they had invented it. And that, according to Hemingway, was when he became a Catholic!

Years later, when he left Pauline to pursue a relationship with wife-to-be number three, Martha Gelhorn, he attributed the failure of his marriage to Pauline in part to her ardent Catholicism.

In Spain, during the civil war it troubled Hemingway greatly that the Church had sided with the enemy, the Fascist Franco regime. Before the bullfights, he prayed for the bullfighters, many of whom were his friends. He wore a St. Christopher’s medal when he was a war correspondent in World War two, but he did not pray saying that to do so would be hypocritical. He did not believe in an afterlife.

 "All thinking men are atheists.

. — Ernest Hemingway

He did believe in war.

It provided the crucible to test a man’s bravery, man’s ’grace under pressure,’ recurring themes in Hemingway's writing. and the measure by which he judged himself and others.

In World War I, fearing rejection as an army volunteer because of poor eyesight, Hemingway made it to the Italian front as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. . Severely injured by shrapnel in a bomb blast, he went home to Oak Park a decorated war hero.

 

He earned his credentials as a front-line correspondent in the Spanish Civil War, and wrote about what he witnessed in For Whom the Bell Tolls, one of his most acclaimed novels. When World II broke out, he outfitted his fishing boat Pilar as a sub chaser and patrolled the Gulf stream in search of Nazi U-boats, those adventures fictionalized in Islands in the Stream.

He could read a terrain map, had a thorough knowledge of military history and battle tactics. According to soldiers who were there with him, Hemingway was calm and fearless in dangerous situations.

The general asked Ernie why he had come to the war when he didn't have to.

“Oh." he said, " I got war fever like the measles."

                        - John Carlisle - THE TRUE GEN

 

 

Hemingway was 44 years old when he went to Europe as a war correspondent for Colliers magazine. He was in the midst of a less than amicable parting of ways with his third wife Martha Gelhorn, and already selected wife number four, Mary Welsh from the ranks of the London overseas press corps. For Whom The Bell Tolls had been published to wide acclaim. It was a popular read among soldiers and Hemingway took pleasure in autographing their copies.

Hemingway covered the D-day landing from a landing craft but did not go ashore. It was mid-July before he set foot in Normandy and it would be 7 months before he went home to Cuba. The time Hemingway spent in the war zone was intense. He was in the thick of some of the bloodiest fighting in Europe, and by his own account, he loved every minute of it. He was living on the edge, tempting fate, flirting with what he called ‘that old whore death‘.

 Sometime during these seven months in 1944 Hemingway acquired the Gott Mit Uns buckle and belt.

 

And so it was that I began my search for information.

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