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Stefan Zweig: The idealism which sees beyond blood-drenched battlefields

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

Stefan Zweig: Selections on peace and war

Romain Rolland: Selections on war

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Stefan Zweig
From Romain Rolland: The Man and His Work
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

Romain Rolland’s work cannot be understood without an understanding of the epoch in which that work came into being. For here we have a passion that springs from the weariness of an entire country, a faith that springs from the disillusionment of a humiliated nation. The shadow of 1870 was cast across the youth of the French author. The significance and greatness of his work taken as a whole depend upon the way in which it constitutes a spiritual bridge between one great war and the next. It arises from a blood-stained earth and a storm-tossed horizon on one side, reaching across on the other to the new struggle and the new spirit.

It originates in gloom. A land defeated in war is like a man who has lost his god. Divine ecstasy is suddenly replaced by dull exhaustion; a fire that blazed in millions is extinguished, so that nothing but ash and cinder remain. There is a sudden collapse of all values. Enthusiasm has become meaningless; death is purposeless; the deeds, which but yesterday were deemed heroic, are now looked upon as follies; faith is a fraud; belief in oneself, a pitiful illusion. The impulse to fellowship fades; every one fights for his own hand, evades responsibility that he may throw it upon his neighbor, thinks only of profit, utility, and personal advantage. Lofty aspirations are killed by an infinite weariness. Nothing is so utterly destructive to the moral energy of the masses as a defeat; nothing else degrades and weakens to the same extent the whole spiritual poise of a nation.

Such was the condition of France after 1870; the country was mentally tired…

How can a vanquished nation be solaced? How can the sting of defeat be soothed? The writer must be competent to divert his readers’ thoughts from the present; he must fashion a dialectic of defeat which shall replace despair by hope. These young authors endeavored to bring help in two different ways. Some pointed towards the future, saying: “Cherish hatred; last time we were beaten, next time we shall conquer.” This was the argument of the nationalists, and there is significance in the fact that it was predominantly voiced by the sometime companions of Rolland, by Maurice Barrès, Paul Claudel, and Péguy. For thirty years, with the hammers of verse and prose, they fashioned the wounded pride of the French nation that it might become a weapon to strike the hated foe to the heart. For thirty years they talked of nothing but yesterday’s defeat and to-morrow’s triumph. Ever afresh did they tear open the old wound. Again and again, when the young were inclining towards reconciliation, did these writers inflame their minds anew with exhortations in the heroic vein. From hand to hand they passed the unquenchable torch of revenge, ready and eager to fling it into Europe’s powder barrel.

The other type of idealism, that of Rolland, less clamant and long ignored, looked in a very different direction for solace, turning its gaze not towards the immediate future but towards eternity. It did not promise a new victory, but showed that false values had been used in estimating defeat. For writers of this school, for the pupils of Tolstoi, force is no argument for the spirit, the externals of success provide no criterion of value for the soul. In their view, the individual does not conquer when the generals of his nation march to victory through a hundred provinces; the individual is not vanquished when the army loses a thousand pieces of artillery. The individual gains the victory, only when he is free from illusion, and when he has no part in any wrong committed by his nation. In their isolation, those who hold such views have continually endeavored to induce France, not indeed to forget her defeat, but to make of that defeat a source of moral greatness, to recognize the worth of the spiritual seed which has germinated on the blood-drenched battlefields.

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In ultimate analysis, his thirty years’ work may be regarded as one continuous attempt to prevent a new war – to hinder the revival of the horrible cleavage between victory and defeat. His aim has been, not to teach a new national pride, but to inculcate a new heroism of self-conquest, a new faith in justice.

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