Home > Uncategorized > Erich Maria Remarque: War, mass production of corpses

Erich Maria Remarque: War, mass production of corpses

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

German writers on peace and war

Erich Maria Remarque: Selections on war

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Erich Maria Remarque
From A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954)
Translated by Denver Lindley

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The cemetery lay in the bright sun. Graeber saw that a bomb had hit the gate. A few crosses and granite headstones were strewn over the paths and graves. The weeping willows had been turned upside down; as a result the roots seemed to be branches, and the boughs long, trailing green roots. They looked like some strange growth that had been thrown up, decked with seaweed from a subterranean sea. Most of the bones from the bomb-wrecked graves had been gathered up and heaped in a tidy pile; only small splinters and fragments of decaying coffins hung in the willows. No longer any skulls.

A shed had been put up beside the chapel. An overseer and his two helpers were at work there. The overseer was sweating. When he heard what Graeber wanted he waved him away. “No time, man! Twelve more burials before lunch! Dear God, how should we know whether your parents are here? There are dozens of graves without headstones and without names. This has turned into mass production! How can we know about everybody?”

“Don’t you keep lists?”

“Lists!” the overseer replied bitterly, turning to the two assistants. “Lists he wants to see, did you hear that? Lists! Do you know how many corpses are lying outside? Three hundred. Do you know how many were brought in after the last air raid? Seven hundred. How many after the one before? Five hundred. There were just four days in between. How are we going to catch up with that? We’re not equipped to do it! We need steam shovels instead of gravediggers to handle what’s still lying out there. And can you tell me when the next attack is coming? Tonight? Tomorrow? And he wants to have lists!”

***

They walked down to the city. The streets engulfed them once more, the cold stench of old fires drew about them, and the blank, black windows accompanied them again like a procession of catafalques. Elizabeth shivered. “Once upon a time the houses and the streets were full of light. We were so used to it that we thought nothing of it. Today we’re beginning to understand what we have lost – ”

Graeber looked up. The sky was clear and cloudless. It was a good night for fliers and so for his taste too bright. “They say it’s this way almost everywhere in Europe,” he said. “Only Switzerland is supposed to be still full of light at night. They keep the lights burning there so that fliers will see it’s a neutral country. A man who was in France and Italy with his squadron told me that. He said Switzerland was like an island of light – of light and peace, for one means the other. Beyond it and around it as though covered by endless funeral palls lie the dark countries, Germany, France, Italy, the Balkans, Austria, and the rest that are at war.”

“Light was given to us and it made human beings of us,” Elizabeth said vehemently. “But we have murdered it and become cave men again.”

Did it make human beings of us? Graeber wondered. That seemed to him exaggerated. But maybe Elizabeth was right. Animals had no light. No light and no fire. And no bombs.

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