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Arnold Zweig: In the war you’ve lost all the personality you’ve ever had


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

Arnold Zweig

As he looked back on the whole period, he realized that in some strange fashion the books on art that he had read had served to sharpen his sense of reality. The painter’s images did not deceive; their respect for reality, their passionate search for form, had made him all the more sensitive towards the prevarications, the lies, and the quarter-truths, with which, in politics as in the war reports, day by day and month by month, men were satisfied. But he was no longer satisfied. When faced by the incredible he had begun to investigate. And now that his eyes had been opened he would not shut them. Then at last he had to face the fact that he had played his part and must retire from the stage. His loathing of the world he lived in was more than he could bear. He took no interest in women nor the usual masculine enjoyments and distractions. His relation to his father had taken the place of such diversions. He had been fond of travel, but after all the devastations of the war what country could a German visit unashamed?


That – so it was said – was war. From the point of view of legal theory – Mertens smiled to himself as he grew warmer – two strata could be distinguished: the unassailed sanctity of justice, existing objectively, and a right of retaliation and revenge, ultimately based on the interest of any given unit or group – both elements cunningly blended, so that formally, and in the eyes of the outer world, a facade of European civilization was maintained, though behind it reigned untrammelled all those impulses and passions the restraint of which was the process and purpose of civilization. One kind of justice was dictated by the Bible and by the conscience of humanity. Quite other kinds were permitted by contemporary thought and the customs of war. What was rather furtively provided for in the legal practice before 1914, now reign unashamed and undisguised, and nowhere was there any effective force that dared restrain or punish or abolish it…

The world had become an abode of horror, and it must inevitably grow more horrible; there was no appeasing or cleansing force now left within the world; no church, no prophets, no moral life whatever – nor the faintest suspicion that without them civilization must die. The world was besotted in its own self-complacency, and would so remain when the war was over.


“You must realize, my young friend, that you have not merely lost your place in the running; you’ll have to start afresh. Our hands have lost their skill, our brains are dulled, our judgment has deteriorated, and our technical knowledge has gone. We shall have to find out the meaning of civilization all over again, and that won’t be easy, let me tell you. And you’ll have lost all respect for human life after what you’ve seen and done. Won’t you find yourself reaching for a pistol when the landlord refuses to repair the shutters? I know I shall. And when the postman comes in the morning I shall want to throw my water jug in his face as I open the door. But you, my young friend, who’ve spent your time standing to attention and saying ‘Very good, sir,’ for the last two years, you’ll end up as a sort of coolie. Let us assume that nothing happens to you, that you finish the war as a private in the A.S.C. When you are released you’ll find that you’ve picked up the habit of obedience. You won’t grumble, whatever you’re asked to do, and if you’re asked politely and nicely, you’ll melt away like butter. You’ll find people who’ll save you the trouble of making up your own mind. And if you do manage to get a job, in an office or somewhere, one fine day you will realize that in the war you’ve lost all the personality you’ve ever had…”

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