Home > Uncategorized > Arnold Zweig: The meaning, or rather the meaninglessness, of war

Arnold Zweig: The meaning, or rather the meaninglessness, of war


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


Such matters are the test of a good sergeant-major (Records). Against the ground-bass of chronological sequence, he plays skillfully on the key-board of urgency. For thanks to the most tyrannical of all social organizations, the Army, which uses all the inventions of the twentieth century and the exultant cruelty of the human animal to rivet its yoke upon men’s souls, the comfort of the High and Mighty Ones, even their daily moods, is the law of life to their poor subjects. Their displeasure falls like thunder, their goodwill brings fortune and the bread of favour. The whole duty of the Subordinate is to make himself agreeable to his Superior.


“We are not boys. We must not act upon impulse. It is quite clear that in times like these Schieffenzahn regards the life of the individual as of about as much importance as that of a black beetle. If you question the justice of this point of view, you strike at the very foundation of the War, which would be an odd proceeding for a Court-Martial Officer and a General on active service in 1917. For thousands of years thinkers have expressed strong views on the meaning, or rather the meaninglessness, of war. War had been demonstrated to be madness, and in proof of it here we sit in our uniforms and on the ground-floor Siegelmann sits tapping away at the latest report from Headquarters. A man who says you can’t change human nature must be in favour of war.”


Grischa saw his company, his regiment, and the lines massing for the attack, he heard the scream of the shells, whining and shrieking hideously as they approached; he heard them burst, and again he saw his comrades, torn and mangled, with half an arm, or with their faces blown away and spurting blood from many wounds. He beheld whole regiments, divisions, fields black with the heads of marching men, and behind them stretches of broad plough-lands, cities, and forests, spread out as on a map, the whole vast countryside full of men and women cutting corn, children on their doorsteps playing marbles, and dribbling greybeards – with a strange exaltation he saw, and saw clearly, the Empires and peoples of the earth…


Every week and every day brought fresh triumphs. But every day German youths and men fell in their thousands; scraps of falling iron pierced and tore their wholesome flesh, blood gushed forth, men spun around and fell shrieking to the earth or plunged forward, silent, on their faces.

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