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Stefan Zweig: “How much rottenness there is in war”


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

Stefan Zweig: Selections on peace and war

Romain Rolland: Selections on war


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

Le temps viendra is the third, the most impressive variation upon the earlier theme, depicting the cleavage between conviction and duty, citizenship and humanity, the national man and the free man. A war drama of the conscience staged amid a war in the material world. In Le triomphe de la raison, the problem was one of freedom versus the fatherland; in Les loups it was one of justice versus the fatherland. Here we have a yet loftier variation of the theme; the conflict of conscience, of eternal truth, versus the fatherland. The chief figure, though not spiritually the hero of the piece, is Clifford, leader of the invading army. He is waging an unjust war – and what war is just? But he wages it with a strategist’s brain; his heart is not in the work. He knows “how much rottenness there is in war”; he knows that war cannot be effectively waged without hatred for the enemy; but he is too cultured to hate. He knows that it is impossible to carry on war without falsehood; impossible to kill without infringing the principles of humanity; impossible to create military justice, since the whole aim of war is unjust. He knows this with one part of his being, which is the real Clifford; but he has to repudiate the knowledge with the other part of his being, the professional soldier. He is confined within an iron ring of contradictions. “Obéir à ma patrie? Obéir à ma conscience?” It is impossible to gain the victory without doing wrong, yet who can command an army if he lack the will to conquer? Clifford must serve that will, even while he despises the force which his duty compels him to use. He cannot be a man unless he thinks, and yet he cannot remain a soldier while preserving his humanity. Vainly does he seek to mitigate the brutalities of his task; fruitlessly does he endeavor to do good amid the bloodshed which issues from his orders. He is aware that “there are gradations in crime, but every one of these gradations remains a crime.” Other notable figures in the play are: the cynic, whose only aim is the profit of his own country; the army sportsman; those who blindly obey; the sentimentalist, who shuts his eyes to all that is painful, contemplating as a puppet-show what is tragedy to those who have to endure it. The background to these figures is the lying spirit of contemporary civilization, with its neat phrases to justify every outrage, and its factories built upon tombs. To our civilization applies the charge inscribed upon the opening page, raising the drama into the sphere of universal humanity: “This play has not been written to condemn a single nation, but to condemn Europe.”

The true hero of the piece is not General Clifford, the conqueror of South Africa, but the free spirit, as typified in the Italian volunteer, a citizen of the world who threw himself into the fray that he might defend freedom, and in the Scottish peasant who lays aside his rifle with the words, “I will kill no longer.” These men have no other fatherland than conscience, no other home than their own humanity. The only fate they acknowledge is that which the free man creates for himself. Rolland is with them, the vanquished, as he is ever with those who voluntarily accept defeat. It is from his soul that rises the cry of the Italian volunteer, “Ma patrie est partout où la liberté est menacée.” Aërt, Saint Louis, Hugot, the Girondists, Teulier, the martyrs in Les loups, are the author’s spiritual brethren, the children of his belief that the individual’s will is stronger than his secular environment. This faith grows ever greater, takes on an ever wider oscillation, as the years pass. In his first plays he was still speaking to France. His last work written for the stage addresses a wider audience; it is his confession of world citizenship.

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