Map with bullet hole from the remains of Walter Flex

The memory of the First World War, its events and consequences, its victims and victors, remains very much alive today. It has become part of the individual and collective memory of Europe and of countries across the world – the stories of soldiers and their families continue to be told and published from generation to generation. To mark the centenary of its outbreak in 2014, a consortium of national libraries and other partners from eight European countries that found themselves on different sides of the historic conflict will make an unparalleled collection of more than 400,000 digitised items relating to the First World War freely available to the public for the first time through the Europeana online portal.

As part of the Europeana Collections 1914-1918 project, the consortium members will be adding a new blog post every month that looks at some of the stories behind just a few of these 400,000 images. This month, the Berlin State Library shares the story of a map containing a bullet hole and the death of an extraordinary man.

The corners of this handcrafted map are covered with mud. And it has a hole – apparently a bullet hole. This bullet probably brought an end to the life of one of the most outstanding German writers during the First World War, Walter Flex. Flex was a war volunteer and author of the widely-read war novel Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten (The Wanderer between Two Worlds), written after his best friend had been killed in the field.

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The place and field names on the map reveal the location: it shows trees, swampland, lakes, villages and cottages on the Baltic island Saaremaa just off the shore of Estonia, which at that time belonged to Russia. Walter Flex and his division had landed on this island in October 1917 to attack the Russians. After three days of struggling, the Russians capitulated and delivered their weapons, but one of the soldiers refused to yield and shot Walter Flex. The bullet tore his right forefinger off, entered his body and got stuck near the stomach. He left a last line: ’Dear parents! I dictate this postcard as I’m slightly wounded at the forefinger of my right hand. Besides this, I am well off. There’s no room for worry whatsoever. Love, Walter.’ The next day he died, at the age of just 30, from his internal injuries.


In his bag there was this map of the island Saaremaa. Today this map is part of the literary remains of Walter Flex kept in the manuscript department of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.

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The Europeana 1914-18 portal—bringing together the Collections material profiled in this blog digitised material from great film collections of Europe, and personal unpublished documents about the War still held by the families of participants—will launch in Berlin at the end of January at the international ‘Unlocking Sources’ conference. For more information about this conference, including registration details, see the conference site.

An den Ecken einer handgefertigten Landkarte klebt Erde. Und sie hat ein Loch – offenbar das Einschussloch einer Kugel.
Diese Kugel hat wahrscheinlich das Leben eines der bedeutendsten deutschen Schriftsteller des Ersten Weltkrieges beendet: Walter Flex, Kriegsfreiwilliger der Ersten Stunde, schrieb die millionenfach gelesene Erzählung „Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten“, nachdem sein bester Freund gefallen war.
Die Orts- und Flurnamen auf der Landkarte verraten es: sie zeigt Bäume, Sümpfe, Seen, Dörfer und Häuser auf der baltischen Insel Ösel, die Estland vorgelagert ist, aber damals zu Russland gehörte. Walter Flex war im Oktober 1917 mit seiner Division auf der Insel gelandet, um die Russen zu schlagen. Nach drei Tagen waren die Kämpfe beendet, die Russen ergaben sich und sollten ihre Waffen abliefern. Nur einer weigerte sich und schoss auf Walter Flex. Die Kugel riss ihm den rechten Zeigefinger ab und drang dann in seinen Leib ein. Sein letztes Lebenszeichen: „Liebe Eltern! Diese Karte diktiere ich, weil ich am Zeigefinger der rechten Hand leicht verwundet bin. Sonst geht es mir sehr gut. Habt keinerlei Sorge. Viele herzliche Grüße Euer Walter.“ Am nächsten Tag starb er, gerade 30-jährig, an seinen inneren Verwundungen.

In seiner Tasche steckte eine Landkarte der Insel Ösel. Sie ist heute Bestandteil des Nachlasses Walter Flex in der Handschriftenabteilung der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin.


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