Home > Uncategorized > Anna Seghers: War enthusiasm, brewed from equal parts of age-old memories and total oblivion

Anna Seghers: War enthusiasm, brewed from equal parts of age-old memories and total oblivion

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

German writers on peace and war

Women writers on peace and war

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Anna Seghers
From The Seventh Cross (1939)
Translated by James A. Galston

portraetserghers

The very pavement began to vibrate. Shouts of acclamation could be heard from the end of the street. The Sixty-sixth Infantry Regiment had been quartered in the new barracks for several weeks. Whenever it marched through any section of the town it was given a new reception. Here they came at last: trumpeters and drummers, the drum major whirling his stick, the showy horse ambling. Here they were at last! People were jerking their arms up, holding them out in stiff salute…

What magic was this, brewed from equal parts of age-old memories and total oblivion? One could have believed that the last war these people had fought had only left happy memories, had carried in its wake nothing but joy and prosperity. Women and girls were smiling as though their sons and lovers were invulnerable.

How well the boys had learned the step in just a few weeks! At the sound of that march, mothers who were justified in scrupulously counting their every penny and in asking, “What for?” would readily give up their sons, or pieces of their sons. What for? What for? That was the question they would ask themselves softly as soon as the music died away…

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“Oh, I can’t complain,” answered Paul. “Two hundred and ten marks a month. That’s fifteen marks more than I got in ’29; that was the best year since the war, and then I only got it for two months. But this time it’ll last…”

“Why,” said George, “it’s obvious even on the street that everything’s going full blast.” His throat grew even more constricted; his heart felt heavy.

“Well,” said Paul, “what do you want? That’s war.”

“Isn’t it a funny feeling?” mused George.

“What?”

“What you said. Just think that you are manufacturing the things that will kill thousands of others over there.”

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Only once in her life had Liesel had anything to do with the police. When she was a child of ten or a little more, one of her brothers – perhaps the one who had later fallen in the war for the family never spoke of it again, it had been buried with him in Flanders – had gotten into some mischief. But the fear that had gnawed at her heart at that time was still in her blood: the fear that is entirely dissociated from the conscience, the fear of the poor, the fear of the chicken before the hawk, the fear of being pursued by the State…

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To many of us the enemy had seemed all-powerful. The strong can afford to be wrong at times without loss of prestige, because even the most powerful are after all only human – yes, their mistakes make them all the more human – but he who claims omnipotence must never be wrong because there can be no alternative to omnipotence except insignificance. If one stroke, no matter how tiny, proved successful against the enemy’s alleged omnipotence, everything was won…

The damp autumn cold struck through our covers, our shirts, and our skin. All of us felt how ruthlessly and fearfully outward powers could strike to the very core of man, but at the same time we felt that at the very core was something that was unassailable and inviolable.

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