Finally, in the mid-sixties, after two of my colleagues at the institute tried and failed several times, I managed to bring the two elderly gentlemen together. Perhaps I had better luck because I was a young woman, and Swiss to boot, that is, I had the bonus of neutrality. My letters, despite the objective tone I used to describe the object of my research, were meant as a sensitive if not timid knock at the door. The acceptances arrived within a few days and at nearly the same time.

I characterized them to my colleagues as an impressive, if slightly fossilized pair. I had booked them quiet rooms in the Zum Storchen. We spent much of the time in the Rôtisserie there with its view of the Limmat, the Town Hall directly opposite, and the Zum Rüden house. Herr Remarque, who was sixty-seven at the time, had come from Locarno. Clearly a bon vivant, he seemed more fragile to me than Herr Jünger, who had just turned seventy and made a sprightly, pointedly athletic impression. He lives in Würtemberg, but had come to Zurich via Basel after making a foot tour through the Vosges to the Hartmannsweiler Kopf, the scene of severe fighting in 1915.

Our first session was anything but promising. The conversation of my “witnesses of an era” centered on Swiss wines, Remarque preferring Ticino vintages, Jünger those of La Dôle in the canton of Vaud. Both made a show of plying me with their well-conserved charm. I found their attempts to use Schwyzerdütsch amusing but tiresome. It wasn’t until I quoted the opening of “The Flemish Dance of Death,” an anonymous song popular during the First World War—“Death rides on a raven-black steed, / Wearing a stocking cap over his head”—that things changed. First Remarque, then Jünger hummed the haunting, melancholy melody, and both knew the lines that brought the refrain to a close: “Flanders is in danger. / Death is there no stranger.” They looked off in the direction of the cathedral, its spires towering over the houses along the embankment.

Following this meditative interlude, broken only by some clearing of throats, Remarque said that in the autumn of 1914—he was still on a school bench in Osnabrück while volunteers at Bixschoote and Ypres were lying in their own blood—the Langemarck legend, that is, that German soldiers had responded to English machine-gun fire by singing “Deutschland über alles,” had made a great impression on him. That, together with their teachers’ exhortations, had moved many a class to enlist in the war effort. Every second soldier did not return. And those who did—like Remarque, who was not allowed to continue his education—were tainted to this very day. He still thought of himself as one of the living dead.