Those who should hear, they hear no more,
Destroyed is the army that went to war,
With thirteen thousand their trek began,
Only one came back from Afghanistan.
These lines weren’t written by Andrew Motion or Carol Ann Duffy but by the 19th-century German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane. Between 1855 and 1859 he was the Prussian ministry’s foreign correspondent in London: he found himself increasingly frustrated by the local fondness for drinking and dancing (‘Music, as many have pointed out, is England’s Achilles heel’) and the class system (‘England and Germany relate to one another like form and content’).
One thing, though, aroused his pity rather than contempt. In 1857, he read about the humiliating defeat of William Elphinstone’s army during the First Anglo-Afghan War: as many as 16,000 British and Indian soldiers were killed in January 1842. The poem Fontane wrote in response, ‘The Tragedy of Afghanistan’, turns the military defeat into a story of Victorian imperial decline, though it’s also a specific warning against military engagement in Afghanistan. A full translation can be found here.
Fontane is extremely uncool these days, but the Afghanistan poem is doing the rounds again. Even the godmother of German punk, Nina Hagen, has been singing it at concerts. One explanation might be that pity, with all the distance that implies, best sums up the German public’s attitude to the conflict: Afghanistan is seen as an Anglo-American problem. Britain and America have criticised Berlin’s reluctance to commit more troops to the country – the ones that are out there have been ridiculed as lazy, drunken and overweight. One of the US embassy cables leaked last week revealed that Joe Biden thought Germany had ‘completely dropped the ball on police training’ in Afghanistan.
The German government and mainstream news outlets never talk about a ‘war’ in Afghanistan, but the ‘Einsatz am Hindukusch’, the engagement in the Hindu Kush. All the same, Germany has the third-largest presence in the country after the US and Britain. Earlier this year Horst Köhler resigned as president after he got himself into a tangle trying to explain what exactly German troops were still doing there. Forty-five German soldiers and three policemen have died in Afghanistan since 2001.