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Georg Brandes: Two million men held in readiness to exterminate each other

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

Georg Brandes: Selections on war

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Georg Brandes
From Recollections Of My Childhood And Youth (1906)

erez

1870

I was very deeply impressed…by the suicide of Prévost-Paradol. I had studied most carefully his book, La France Nouvelle; I had seen in this friend and comrade of Taine and of Renan the political leader of the future in France. No one was so well acquainted with its resources as he; no one knew better than he what policy ought to be followed. If he had despaired, it was because he foresaw that the situation was hopeless. He had certainly made mistakes; first, in believing that in January it had been Napoleon’s serious intention to abrogate personal control of the state, then that of retaining, despite the long hesitation so well known to me, his position as French Envoy to North America, after the plebiscite. That he should now have turned his pistol against his own forehead told me that he regarded the battle as lost, foresaw inevitable collapse as the outcome of the war. When at first all the rumours and all the papers announced the extreme probability of Denmark’s taking part in the war as France’s ally, I was seized with a kind of despair at the thought of the folly she seemed to be on the verge of committing. I wrote to my friends, would have liked, had I been permitted, to write in every Danish paper a warning against the martial madness that had seized upon people. It was only apparently shared by the French. Even now, only a week after the declaration of war, and before a single collision had taken place, it was clear to everyone who carefully followed the course of events that in spite of the light-hearted bragging of the Parisians and the Press, there was deep-rooted aversion to war. And I, who had always counted Voltaire’s Micromégas as one of my favourite tales, thought of where Sirius, the giant, voices his supposition that the people on the earth are happy beings who pass their time in love and thought, and of the philosopher’s reply to him: “At this moment there are a hundred thousand animals of our species, who wear hats, engaged in killing a hundred thousand more, who wear turbans, or in being killed by them. And so it has been all over the earth from time immemorial.” Only that this time not a hundred thousand, but some two million men were being held in readiness to exterminate each other.

The Paris I saw again was changed. Even on my way from Calais I heard, to my astonishment, the hitherto strictly forbidden Marseillaise hummed and muttered. In Paris, people went arm in arm about the streets singing, and the Marseillaise was heard everywhere. The voices were generally harsh, and it was painful to hear the song that had become sacred through having been silenced so long, profaned in this wise, in the bawling and shouting of half-drunken men at night. But the following days, as well, it was hummed, hooted, whistled and sung everywhere, and as the French are one of the most unmusical nations on earth, it sounded for the most part anything but agreeable.

In those days, while no collision between the masses of troops had as yet taken place, there was a certain cheerfulness over Paris; it could be detected in every conversation; people were more lively, raised their voices more, chatted more than at other times; the cabmen growled more loudly, and cracked their whips more incessantly than usual.

Assurance of coming victory was expressed everywhere, even among the hotel servants in the Rue Racine and on the lips of the waiters at every restaurant. Everybody related how many had already volunteered; the number grew from day to day; first it was ten thousand, then seventy-five thousand, then a hundred thousand. In the Quartier Latin, the students sat in their cafés, many of them in uniform, surrounded by their comrades, who were bidding them good-bye. It was characteristic that they no longer had their womenfolk with them; they had flung them aside, now that the matter was serious. Every afternoon a long stream of carriages, filled with departing young soldiers, could be seen moving out towards the Gare du Nord. From every carriage large flags waved. Women, their old mothers, workwomen, who sat in the carriages with them, held enormous bouquets on long poles. The dense mass of people through which one drove were grave; but the soldiers for the most part retained their gaiety, made grimaces, smoked and drank.

One could hardly praise the attitude of the French papers between the declaration of war and the first battles. Their boasting and exultation over what they were going to do was barely decent, they could talk of nothing but the victories they were registering beforehand, and, first and last, the entry into Berlin. The insignificant encounter at Saarbrücken was termed everywhere the première victoire! The caricatures in the shop-windows likewise betrayed terrible arrogance. One was painfully reminded of the behaviour of the French before the battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare’s Henry V.

It was no matter for surprise that a populace thus excited should parade through the streets in an evening, shouting “A Berlin! A Berlin!”

People seized upon every opportunity of obtruding their patriotism. One evening Le lion amoureux was given. In the long speech which concludes the second act, a young Republican describes the army which, during the Revolution, crossed the frontier for the first time and utterly destroyed the Prussian armies. The whole theatre foamed like the sea.

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