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Arnold Zweig: War transforms rescue parties into murder parties


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

German writers on peace and war

Arnold Zweig: Selections on war


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


“[T]he allegation that this little business of war, which we started two years ago, has anything to do with Christianity, is really more than I can let pass…We live in plain and honest pagan times. We kill with every means at our disposal. We’re up to all the tricks of our trade, sir; we make use of the elements, we exploit the laws of physics and chemistry, we calculate the trajectories in the most elaborate parabolas. We make learned investigations into wind-forces that we may control our own poison gas. We have mastered the air that we may rain down bombs upon the earth; as my soul lives, I would hate to die from so cowardly a cause…”


“That was once a trench,” observed Süssman, as they changed direction and made for a dark smudge upon the landscape that was called Douaumont village, once a group of neat houses and a little church, and now an indistinguishable heap of ravaged earth. Moreover, that earth was beginning to smell; first the sickly odour of decay, and then the scorched, sulfurous reek of poisoned earth. Süssman, in his level boyish voice, called out: “Wire!” under which they had to duck; indeed the whole hillside up to the fort was thick with it. He also interpreted the smells; corpses buried too near the surface, stale excrement not properly dug in, gas-shells with which the soil had been riddled thereabouts, incendiary shells, and piles of putrefying tinned foods. He explained to Bertin that the stench was much worse on days of sun and wind, when the whirling dust brought out all the manifold reek of that rotting, viscous soil…At the moment a sinister silence reigned, except for hordes of rats that dashed out indignantly as they approached; in the barbed wire on either side of them scraps of stuff and paper fluttered in the wind. At one point, just before they left the trenched road and took another turn, a shapeless, black mass was hanging in the wire.


Yonder, in the void, as here, an Order went forth for the gathering up of shock troops, which were then flung against the line, men anxious not to be killed, but, who, when the Order bade them, leapt out to stab and shoot their enemy. And Bertin reflected bitterly how these men of 1916 had, in the spring of 1914, met these same Frenchmen and Belgians and English in peaceful sporting encounters and learned gatherings; and how they had thrilled with pride and pleasure when German fireman hurried across the frontier to help in a mine disaster, or French rescue parties appeared on German soil. They were murder parties now. What shameful enchantment had bewitched the world?


The air was thick and smoke-laden. The faces of the sappers, the gunners and the Saxon riflemen made him feel almost ill. Hitherto he had seen them against a background of glorious illusion; but here no illusion could survive. Here, in this clay and boarded tomb, were men for whom all hope had ended, throw-outs from the world market now glutted with human material…The sausage machines were in full swing, turning out sausages and gut for sausage skins, and on the door hung the new regulation about the use of human flesh, grey-skinned human flesh…


Outside, the trench was packed with men, all peering behind them. An organ roar of thunder, many-voiced, filled the night, but from the next sector came a burst of flashes, methodically scattering a fiery downpour over the approaches and all the familiar heights and hollows of that land. Where the shells dropped, earth and fiery gases shot up in cloud-like pillars. The hiss and scream of hurtling missiles, all the hellish, overmastering uproar of the bombardment, made Bertin’s heart quiver, while, in that same moment, he clutched Süssman’s arm in ecstasy, exalted by the fury of the human impulse to destruction – the joy of omnipotence in evil…


Those were the long tens, observed the Saxon; they had obviously just got up a fresh supply of ammunition and wanted to get rid of it. “Naturally,” agreed his neighbour, “otherwise they’d have to carry it all home again, if peace breaks out tonight.” The young sergeant waved the suggestions aside. “You may make up your mind to pour out a few good pots of coffee before that day comes, There’s too much doing in the Iron Cross trade for peace to be allowed to break out yet.”


Go back, you German soldiers, you have striven enough. What the French had planned to take in four hours, they partly took in two, but part only after four days’ savage struggle. They made seven thousand of you prisoners and killed and wounded thrice as many more; you have paid enough for your 53 pfennigs a day, and the ore deposits of Briey and Longwy. In the impenetrable mist you put forth the last of your strength, in obedience to orders that you could not understand. Poseners, Lower Silesians, men of the mark and Westphalia, Pomeranians or Saxons, peace is what you need, and peace is what you have – the peace of death. Protestants, freethinkers, Catholics, and Jews, from the clay of Verdun and from the mist your agonized corpses come forth, and vanish once again; your deeds of gallantry are too soon forgotten; scarce a pale reflection of your suffering hovers in the memory of those who were once your comrades…

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