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Georg Brandes: Abrupt about-face, the glorification of war

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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 French Youth (1913)
Translated by Catherine D. Groth

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The first group of great writers who came after the Franco-Prussian War, men like Zola and Maupassant, hated war and wrote about it to inspire hatred of it.

They expressed the general opinion of their time. As the eighty-year-old Michel Bréal, the great philologist, said, “Those who approve of war are those who never have seen it.”

This generation was followed by one which, no matter how it looked upon war in the abstract, feared a war with Germany. This feeling found expression in a most humiliating way at the time of the Dreyfus affair. Again and again officers of importance remarked that if such and such an imaginary secret (Emperor William’s annotations on the Dreyfus papers, for instance, and other absurdities of the same sort) were divulged, war would ensue and French soldiers would be “led to slaughter.”

After Agadir this feeling disappeared and a more martial spirit took its place. It spread like wildfire throughout the French nation. Statesmen, obviously professing the desire to “maintain peace,” knew they could count on a strong current of public opinion if their pacifist efforts proved fruitless.

In 1912, however, the foreigner visiting France found that the finest of the younger men and the most important functionaries appreciated Germany, and were familiar with German conditions. They had a decided aversion for war and sincere doubts as to its advantages.

In 1913 all this was changed. The men one had looked upon as the most determined pacifists, men who had expressed themselves unreservedly about France’s military preparation and who had worked for peace; authors, whose training was half German; young functionaries in the ministries whose environment was known to be broadminded and liberty loving — one and all had changed. They spoke of war, considered it unavoidable and even looked upon it as a purifying force. War would renew France within her boundaries and increase her prestige without. As war was felt to be inevitable, it could only be awaited with calm.

Yet it is strange to read a recently published book by a young Frenchman, Ernest Psichari: L’appel des Armes — The Call of Arms. War and the military career have probably never been praised as highly as by this author, whose environment, birth and education would seem to have pitted him against them. Ernest Psichari is Renan’s grandson. His grandfather, the greatest French writer of his day, was a sort of mediator between France and Germany during the war of 1870 (letters exchanged with David Strauss), and while a great patriot he was a decided pacifist. At the time of the Dreyfus affair the young author’s mother, Renan’s only daughter, protested more passionately than any other Frenchwoman against the glorification of the army and its traditions, under the cover of which General Piquart (an intimate friend of the family) had been vilely attacked. Ernest Psichari had almost a vice-father in the childless Louis Havet, who was, perhaps, the most radical of all French men of science. If ever a young man was not brought up to admire war it was Ernest Psichari.

And now comes this book, every page radiating respect for the army and its traditions. Its subject is the soldier’s vocation. It is portrayed as the highest and the most beautiful of all, and the book, in fact, is nothing but a sort of hymn to war, against Germany.

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