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Marcel Proust: Every day war is declared anew


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

French writers on war and peace


Marcel Proust
From Time Regained (1927)
Translated by Stephen Hudson

“The war continued indefinitely and those who had announced years ago from a reliable source that negotiations for peace had begun, specifying even the clauses of the armistice, did not take the trouble, when they talked with you, to excuse themselves for their false information. They had forgotten it and were ready sincerely to circulate other information which they would forget equally quickly. It was the period when there were continuous raids of Gothas. The air perpetually quivered with the vigilant and sonorous vibration of the French aeroplanes. But sometimes the siren rang forth like a harrowing appeal of the Walkyries, the only German music one had heard since the war — until the hour when the firemen announced that the alarm was finished, while the maroon, like an invisible newsboy, communicated the good news at regular intervals and cast its joyous clamour into the air.”

“…Be frank, my dear friend, you yourself exposed the theory to me that things only exist thanks to a perpetually renewed creation. You used to say that the creation of the world did not take place once and for all, but necessarily continues day by day. Well, if you said that in good faith you cannot except the war from that theory. It is all very well for our excellent Norpois to write (trotting out one of those rhetorical accessories he loves, like ‘the dawn of victory’ and ‘General Winter’) ‘now that Germany has wanted war, the die is cast’; the truth is that every day war is declared anew. Therefore he who wants to continue it is as culpable as he who began it, perhaps more, for the latter could not perhaps foresee all its horrors. And there is nothing to show that so prolonged a war, even if it has a victorious issue, will not have perils. It is difficult to talk about things which have no precedent and of repercussions on the organism of an operation which is attempted for the first time…”

“Nevertheless, what may not happen after such an exhaustion as that induced by an uninterrupted war lasting for several years? What will the men do when they come back? Will they be tired out? Will fatigue have broken them or driven them mad? All this may turn out badly, if not for France, at least for the Government and perhaps for the form of Government.”

“To return to the war itself: did the Emperor William begin it? I strongly doubt it and if so, what act has he committed that Napoleon, for instance, did not commit? Acts I, personally, consider abominable but I am astonished they should inspire so much horror in the Napoleonic incense-burners, in those who, on the day of the declaration of war, shrieked like General X: ‘I have been awaiting this day for forty years. It is the greatest day of my life;’ Heaven knows if anyone protested more loudly than I when society gave a disproportionate position to the Nationalists, to soldiers, when every friend of the Arts was accused of doing things which were injurious to the Fatherland, when every unwarlike civilisation was considered deleterious. Hardly an authentic social figure counted in comparison with a general.”

“And yet Germany uses so many of the same expressions as France that one might think that she’s copying her. She never stops saying that she is fighting for her existence. When I read: ‘We are fighting against an implacable and cruel enemy until we have obtained a peace which will guarantee our future against all aggression and in order that the blood of our brave soldiers should not have been shed in vain,’ or ‘who is not with us is against us’, I do not know if this phrase is Emperor William’s or M. Poincaré‘s, for each one has used the same words with variations twenty times, though to tell you the truth I must confess that the Emperor in this case was the imitator of the President of the Republic. France would not perhaps have held to prolonging the war if she had remained weak, but neither would Germany perhaps have been in such a hurry to finish it if she had not ceased to be strong…”

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