Georg Brandes: War, uninterrupted series of horrors, atrocities, and slaughter
From The World at War (1917)
Translated by Catherine D. Groth
He who remarks how, on the sixteenth month of the war, the conflicting peoples, each and all, are convinced they are fighting for justice and truth against falsehood and oppression, while they all simultaneously massacre each other by means of most frightful inventions, cannot help feeling that man by nature is a vastly more sophisticated devil than the one whom Goethe characterised in Faust by the celebrated lines:
“Ein Theil von Jener Kraft
Die Stets das Böse will und stets das Oute Schaft.”
Man, or at least the spirit of the nations, is quite different and much more terrible. He and they are part of that force which
“Stets das Gute will und stets das Böse schafft.”
For all belligerent statesmen, strategists, officers, and soldiers, as well as generals and admirals, colonels and naval commanders, all, without exception, day in and day out, only ask to do the right — but their good intentions are expressed day in and day out by an uninterrupted series of horrors, atrocities, and slaughter in proportions the world never dreamed of. The fight for the good has had the certain result of causing the most awful evil which one would think inspired only by the wildest lust of bloodshed and destruction.
The actors as well as the spectators of the huge tragedy have been taught from childhood that a supernatural and wise destiny directs the world. And they believe that everything, even that which seems most desperate in our eyes, is for the best. They ask in deep anxiety: What good is to come out of this?
Theologists and philosophers have ready answers.
They say a new era will come over the world, courage and virtue will take the place of luxury. From the thunder of canons, the clash of firearms, from bursting grenades and exploding mines, from machines that spread burning liquids or poisonous gas over what was previously called fellow men, now the enemy, they claim, will come what is called justice.
Most people believe this because philosophers as well as ministers and poets have impressed it on them. And young people wishing to appear thoroughly up to date are convinced they are “modern” when they profess optimism.
Few are they who know that humanity is worth more than nationality. Few who know that where hatred is sown nothing but hatred can be reaped.
Few they are who feel, as it says in a little Swedish verse I have read:
“I saw innocence crushed under foot,
I heard might admired,
Then my blood boiled.
Now I have quite ceased to be surprised,
When everything flouts simple, common sense,
I know right is crushed under foot
In spite of prayers and tears,
I know life’s law is hard and not good.”
War — cultural power, it is claimed to be! — has made everything poorer and more sordid — everything is brutalised, militarised, clericalised, nationalised, over all the earth.
During the war, the press of the belligerent countries has succeeded in exciting to an unknown degree the most horrible of all powers, national hatred — hatred which is not founded on a person’s faults or crimes, but on his race or birthplace — idiotic race hatred and national hatred. This hatred is the political factor which prevents peace.
But behind the nations and over the nations stands humanity and humanness.
And behind national hatred and above the national hatred the love of humanity still exerts itself.
It is human love that strives to diminish the sufferings which national hatred has caused, and to heal the wounds it has caused.