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Wolfgang Borchert: It was war; stories from a primer


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

German writers on peace and war

Wolfgang Borchert: Only one thing to do, say No!


Wolfgang Borchert
Stories From a Primer (posthumous)
Translated by David Porter


Everybody has a sewing machine, a radio, a refrigerator, and a telephone. What shall we make now? asked the factory owner.
Bombs, said the inventor.
War, said the general.
Well, if there’s nothing else for it! said the factory owner.

The man in the white smock was writing numbers on a piece of paper.
He made little delicate letters to go with them.
Then he took off the white smock and for an hour tended the flowers in the window-box. When he saw that one flower had withered away, he grew very sad and wept.
And on the paper stood the numbers. With half a gramme, according to these, one could kill a thousand people in two hours.
And the sun shone on the flowers.
And on the paper.

Two men were talking.
Your estimate?
With tiles?
Of course, with green tiles.
Forty thousand.
Forty thousand? Right. You know, my dear fellow, if I hadn’t gone over in time from chocolate to T.N.T., I wouldn’t have been able to give you this forty thousand.
Nor I you a bathroom.
With green tiles.
With green tiles.
The two men parted.
They were a factory owner and a building contractor.
It was war.

Skittle-alley. Two men were talking.
Hallo, schoolmaster, dark suit? In mourning?
Not a bit of it. Had a ceremony. Boys off to the front. Made a little speech. Recalled Sparta. Quoted Clausewitz. Gave ’em a few ideas:
Honour. Fatherland. Had some Hölderlin read. Touched on Langemark. Gripping ceremony, quite gripping. The boys sang: God, who made the iron grow. Eyes lit up. Gripping. Quite gripping.
My God, schoolmaster, stop! It’s horrible, horrible.
The schoolmaster gazed thunderstruck at the other. As he told his story he had been making lots of little crosses on a piece of paper. Lots of little crosses. He stood up and laughed. Took a new wood and played it down the alley. There was a soft rumbling sound. Then the skittles at the end crashed over. They looked like dead men.

Two men were talking,
Well, how’s it going?
Pretty badly.
Many many have you left?
If all goes well, four thousand.
How many can you give me?
Eight hundred at the outside.
They’ll be no change out of that.
Well, then, a thousand.
The two men parted.
They were talking about people.
They were generals.
It was war.

Two men were talking.
How old?
Eighteen. And you?
Me too.
The two men parted.
They were two soldiers.
Then one fell down. He was dead.
It was war.

When the war was over, the soldier came home. But he had no bread.
Then he saw a man who had. He killed him.
You mustn’t kill people, you know, said the judge.
Why not, asked the soldier.

When the peace conference was over, the ministers walked through the city. They came to a shooting-gallery.
Would the gentlemen like a shot? shouted the girls with red lips.
Then all the ministers took a rifle and shot at little cardboard men.
In the middle of the shooting an old woman came and took their rifles away. When one of the ministers wanted his back, she boxed his ears.
It was a mother.

There were once two human beings. When they were two years old they hit each other with their hands.
When they were twelve, they hit each other with sticks and threw stones.
When they were twenty-two, they shot at each other with rifles.
When they were forty-two, they threw bombs at each other.
When they were sixty-two, they used bacteria.
When they were eighty-two, they died. They were buried beside each other.
When, a hundred years later, a worm ate its way through their two graves, it never noticed that two different people had been buried there. It was the same soil. All the same soil.

When in the year 5000 a mole peeped out of the earth he was comforted to observe:
the trees are still trees.
The crows still caw.
And the dogs still lift their legs.
The fish and the stars,
the moss and the sea
and the midges;
all have remained the same.
And sometimes –
sometimes you meet a man.

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