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Arnold Zweig: War of all against all, jaded multitudes of death

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

German writers on peace and war

Arnold Zweig: Selections on war

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Arnold Zweig
From Education Before Verdun (1935)
Translated by Eric Sutton

b-08

“I call everything good that prolongs my life and destroys my enemy,” said Kroysing shortly, carefully electing a green pencil to sketch in the position of the new mine-throwers – he had used blue for the German line, red for the French line, and brown for the contours of the country – and continued: “This isn’t a girls’ school. The lies about the spirit of the front and the comradeship of war may be all right, and they may be necessary to keep the show going for the benefit of the chaps behind, and the chaps across the way. Sublime self-sacrifice, you know, excellent pabulum for war-correspondents, members of the Reichstag, and the reading public. But as a matter of fact we all grab all we can reach. It’s a war of all against all – that’s the proper formula.”

“Yes, I’ve felt that,” said little Sergeant Süssman dryly.

“Quite,” said Kroysing, and blinked at him. “And so has every man of us, though not so drastically as you have. And anyone that hasn’t felt it doesn’t know anything about the war.”

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Surely it was ancient respectable tradition that the soldier should lay hands on what he could while risking his life for the Fatherland? Did their masters do otherwise when they swallowed up whole provinces – Belgium, Poland, Serbia, and that lovely bit of country called the ore-deposit of Longwy-Briey? If a man did not make his fortune out of war, he never did; and what a waste it would have been to let the lovely watches and chains and bracelets and necklaces be melted down when the towns were burned out…

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To Bertin’s vision, as they thronged the fort, they seemed like animated fragments of the wrecked defences, fragments that looked as though disease had eaten them away and broken down their powers of resistance. The shell-holes were almost edge to edge, though scraps of ochrous turf still remained in the shadows of the ramparts; but the brickwork had everywhere been flung outward into the entrenchments or inwards where it blocked the tunnel mouths. The ramparts were no more than mounds of earth dotted with steel splinters – a strange ruin when compared with the subterranean fortress, still unshaken and impregnable. Unshaken also were the fighting men. They looked like jaded multitudes of death, workers in the factory of destruction, marked with the listlessness that industry and the machine impresses on humanity.

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“…More lies will be told about this war than any other international shooting-match. The survivors must tell the truth, and some of those who have a story to tell will survive…”

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“I was with our Rhinelanders in Belgium when force was put upon neutrality and justice. What I saw, and what our men proudly did, as being the whole duty of a soldier, was murder, robbery, outrage, arson, sacrilege – every crime that can burden the soul of man. They did these because they were ordered to do them, and they joyfully obeyed because the devil of destruction had possessed himself of men’s souls – German souls not excepted. I have seen the corpses of old men, women, and children; I was there when towns were burned, merely to terrorize a nation weaker than our own into allowing us to march through their country. As a German I was horror-struck, as a Christian I wept…Not a war of Christian powers against each other, but a barbarian foray into a Catholic land. How can this end without lasting damage to the soul of Germany? Thousands of innocent men murdered; thousands of houses burned; the inhabitants kicked into the flames and priests hanged in their own church towers. Huddled hordes of peasants massacred by machine-guns, bayonets, and rifle butts. And the flood of lies we let loose upon the world in our own defence. The brazen face we showed to a world that knew the truth, in an effort to persuade our own poor country that the Belgian atrocities were a fairy-tale. Me dear man…we have outraged our own soul in a way that only a cultured nation could do…We shall be very sick men when we come out of this war. We shall need a cure that is now beyond our imagining. True, the other nations are not in a position to reproach us – the Americans with their Negroes, the English with their Boer war, the Belgians with the Congo, the French with Tongking and Morocco, and the Russians are hardly guiltless. But that does not acquit us…”

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