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Arnold Zweig: Military strips nation of all that is worthy of defense


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

German writers on peace and war

Arnold Zweig: Selections on war


Arnold Zweig
From The Crowning of a King (1937)
Translated by Eric Sutton


“Sophie, do you know what she was like? She was good. A good sort. A fine creature. The best we can produce. Why couldn’t she survive all this horror? She had stood it for four years. Wasn’t it possible to get through what was left of it? It couldn’t have lasted much longer – of course it couldn’t. And then she wanted to have a baby, because there was going to be peace long before Christmas, and then our life would really begin; and then she had to catch this influenza, and go to her grave, and take the child with her. A pretty grave of clean yellow sand; you saw it. But it would have been better to have stayed above the earth. Or so we used to think. But now I’m not so sure, Sophie. Every day a whole army goes down beneath it. Perhaps it is more agreeable to take a header out of existence and leave these good folk to themselves?”

“Not more agreeable,” replied Sophie in a deep and ringing voice. “It is nothing.”

“So you think, and I think so, too. We were taught differently in our catechism, but we don’t believe all that now, even if we ever did. I don’t know what made us so sceptical. My father used to think that the machines could not get on without the older forces. The piston-rod of a locomotive, an electric sweeper, and the telephone accustomed mankind to a totally different level of thought. And the machine-gun, the quick-firing gun, and the gas shells did the rest. And yet, you see, something within does long for the survival of the good, and that longing seems to persist in us, like the appendix; a longing that the good and beloved hearts among us may be spared. As it was doubtless her wish to care for us, and fight for us, and stand beside us all through life. And we naturally wanted the same thing. It is so frightfully hard when all that is suddenly thrust outside reality; it hurts so frightfully! It must be like losing a hand, something that was there and belonged to you from the first day of your life, the thing that grips with the five moving fingers. And then one morning it is gone, and you can’t button your coat with it anymore.”

“…And on one point you were wrong, Adjutant, only I did not want to interrupt you: it is not true that men love war. Headmasters love war, so do country parsons, and the ladies of the Patriotic Women’s Associations. But take a vote today in the trenches or the hospitals, among the peasants hereabouts or the townsfolk of Küstrin or Berlin, and how many companies could you form out of the remnants?”


The horrible thing about it all was, as he kept on emphasizing, not what he experienced in detail, what he saw and heard and had been told. The horrible thing was that beneath the ordered German reality, this Service world with its stern notions of legality and Prussian soldierly tradition, there was an underworld of lawlessness, brutality, deliberate exploitation of the weak, full of contemptuous violence, that made mock of the defenceless and looked with gusto on the helplessness of prisoners. That was the aspect that the occupying power presented from beneath, from a place where public supervision and control did not exist. And it seemed to him just as evil that a minority of knaves and brutes could carry on such a regime while the majority of decent people – even in that camp they were a majority – dared make no other protest than ignore what they saw.


“And have you ever thought, Sir, of all the cheerful obedience, all the true admiration and affection lavished on you, that turned a very ordinary young student into a convinced soldier? And when you, and those like you, were already putting a strain on the country that it could not bear, and my own father was warning of what was going to happen to me, I stood up for you, Sir; because you were what you are, my eyes were not opened. But now the spell is broken. I have been bitterly deluded, and so has Germany; and all that remains of the dreams of youth is the conviction that you are a dangerous and disconcerting luxury that we cannot afford, nor have you the faintest notion of the ruin caused by your antics. Have you the right, then, to punish anyone? You don’t understand the simple truth: that your fatherland is defended by an army of civilians, that fatherland which you are stripping of all that is worthy of defence. And when things go wrong, you retire on a pension.”

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