Home > Uncategorized > Arnold Zweig: Pro-war clerks and clerics are Herod’s mercenaries

Arnold Zweig: Pro-war clerks and clerics are Herod’s mercenaries


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


He had endured the war for three years without a break, but under the counterfeit presentment of a natural force, as it might have been a moral earthquake or the eruption of a social volcano. Thus had it been put before him by his teachers, all of them the best intellects of the best schools in Germany. Immersed in such ideas from the educational kitchens of middle-class society millions, like himself, had gone forth to war. For more than one thousand days he had piled up his impressions, seen and suffered many horrors, of which he strove to make some sense; to endow them with a meaning seemed to him an exalted task. Since the onset every magazine and every paper, every verse and every work of German literature, had enforced the spirit of war. The authors whose works he had loved before the war, before whom he had bowed down in admiration for their conception of art and the beauty of their style, these, the finest and most independent spirits, now increased the confusion. Not one of them before the war had spared the Kaiser, the Princes, the military caste, the arrogance of the great ages, nor palliated the repression of the lower classes. The whole of literature, so far as it meant anything, stood in conflict with public life in politics and in the great cities…But since the beginning of the war the whole world of literature had swung over like one company, with the single exception of one man, who had thenceforward been silent. Even the poet who stood most sternly aloof had put forth a few pages in which he solemnly exalted fame and death in battle as an escape from the abominations of every day.

A locksmith learns only from his fellow-craftsmen, and a housewife learns best from another housewife. To a young writer the word must come from other writers, that is, to interpret what his subconscious self has long since known, and draw through word channels his dim horror into consciousness. Within Bertin for three days past a blank dark wall of terror had been revolving over what he had lived through, but never understood, like a funnel of raging waters. The vortex of the maelstrom had leapt forward within him out of his former mental world, and surged into what was henceforward to fill his consciousness: the true designation of war as a whole and in its details. Here for the first time was the beginning written down, so far as ascertainable. Even in free Switzerland people had to keep their eyes open – there were hangers-on of every belligerent embassy always ready to threaten, flatter, and blackmail; and caution, fear of giving offence, and the true bourgeois leaning to moderation induced a tendency to extenuate or say nothing at all. But a number of documents had appeared, in the shape of diaries and the like, that dealt with the origin and conduct of the war, and indicting the Central Powers; also certain works of imagination, more especially a novel and several volumes of short stories, in which the horror is laid bare without any deification of natural law or heroism, but under the inexorable obligation to serve truth and clear the conscience: to unmask the fearful fraud that the military interests are able to practice through the backing of the churches and the intellectuals.

Oh, those writers! Bertin sat before them and looked towards them like a man in a dark church when the dawn is breaking and the light filters through the stained-glass windows in a confusion of dim colour that slowly brightens into clear outlines and the rich interplay of figure and design. All his life long he would never forget those hours; for him these men would be symbols, emblems of freedom, who had saved themselves by exile. The fame and greatness of many literatures and languages preserved them from the hideous degradation of exploiting the agony of millions as a death dance round the abyss into which the enemy is to fall…You were the first – all blessings upon him who comes first! You loosened the world’s tongue – all hail to him who did so! And since they would not listen to you at home in your own lands, happy he that goes into exile. For banishment is often the only means of saving the nobler possessions of the world…For what are we here? Herod’s mercenaries, slaves that carry his train, scribes charged to set down his annals and falsify his deeds for posterity.

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