Home > Uncategorized > Arnold Zweig: From the joy of the slayer to being dimly aware of the man on the other side

Arnold Zweig: From the joy of the slayer to being dimly aware of the man on the other side


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

German writers on peace and war

Arnold Zweig: Selections on war


Arnold Zweig
From The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1927)
Translated by Eric Sutton


In those days the War was gripping Central Europe in a hoop of steel. With titanic force, in a welter of savagery, degradation and cruelty, thirty nations, bent on bringing peace to a distracted Europe, surged against those lands which only the narrow wall of the front protected from their onslaught. The struggle was at a standstill. Against all the peoples of the earth, the German troops, with the help of the loyal Austrians, Turks, and Bulgars, held their ground, grey, haggard men, without tanks, with only a few airplanes, and a dwindling fleet of submarines. In Palestine, in Macedonia on Lake Doiran, in Roumania and Italy, athwart France and Belgium, and facing England along the Channel and the North Sea; thence through the Baltic to Libau, and on land again through Russia from Windau down to Bukovina, they fought, sickened, cursed, and died…far, far indeed from the clinking spurs of Emperors, Kings, Princes, Field-Marshals, and Generals at the Base.


Meanwhile the deadly work went on: throughout Champagne and Flanders grenades and machine-guns whizzed and clattered, the limbs of men hurtled bleeding through the air, tunnels filled with dynamite exploded under teeming dug-outs, bombs from airplanes hissed down upon the heads of scurrying men, and rattling machine-guns hemmed the borders of the nation’s garments with the chain-stitches of death. The scales of decision, trembling gently, hung level.


Only a few weeks ago he had held the rifle lightly in his hands, a pleasant and familiar thing. The joy of the slayer, slaying from afar, as though he could puff out a human life like the flame of a candle, a full thousand yards away, had filled him with exultant ardour; then he was the man with the bayonet, the fighting man, thrusting and lunging, in the passionate splendid fury of his wild limbs revelling in their strength. But now he was dimly aware of the man on the other side, not only as one who could fire a bullet at him, but also as one who could be hit, whose flesh could be gashed and pierced and could feel the blow and the agony in every fibre of him. When he was splitting logs with his axe, outside Posnanski’s door, his soul went out not only to the swinging blade and the steel wedge of the axe behind it, wielded with all the sundering strength of wooden haft and human sinew, but also to the patient wood which split so silkily, and fell apart into smooth-faced fragments. He thought – nay he saw – with his unreflecting, groping vision, the slender, mangled body of the pine or fir, which he was now converting into lifeless logs, and in his disgust he kicked away the block and spat on the haft of his axe as he picked it up again, for that, too, had been hewn out of a tree, and both of them were conspiring traitorously to destroy their brother that had once, like them, been living wood.

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