Home > Uncategorized > Stefan Zweig: I would never have believed such a crime on the part of humanity possible

Stefan Zweig: I would never have believed such a crime on the part of humanity possible

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

Stefan Zweig: Selections on peace and war

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Stefan Zweig
From The World of Yesterday
Translated by Benjamin W. Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger

For the first time, I saw the “enemy.” In Tarnow I came upon the first transport of captured Russian soldiers. Fenced within a large square, they sat about on die ground, smoking and chatting, guarded by two or three dozen mature, bearded Tyrolese militia who were as tattered and tom as then: captives, and had but little in common with the smart, clean-shaven, brilliantly uniformed soldiers we saw pictured in the illustrated papers at home. But the guard had nothing martial or severe about it. The captives did not display the slightest desire to escape, nor the Austrian militia the slightest inclination to be strict about their duties. They sat about in a neighbourly fashion with then: captives, and the very fact that they could not understand each other s language caused huge enjoyment. They exchanged cigarettes and laughed at each other. A Tyrolese militiaman was just taking some pictures of his wife and children out of a very old and dirty pocketbook and showing them to the “enemy,” who passed them about amongst themselves asking the Austrian by means of their fingers if this child was three, or four. I could not escape the feeling that these simple, primitive people had understood the war more truly than our university professors and poets: namely, as a disaster that had come over them with which they had had nothing to do, and that everyone who had happened into this misfortune was somehow a brother. This knowledge comforted me on my entire trip past the shelled cities and the plundered shops, whose contents lay about in the middle of the streets like broken limbs or tom-out entrails . Then, too, the well-tilled fields in between the war areas made me hope that in a few years all the destruction would have disappeared. Obviously at that time I was unable to conceive that just as quickly as the traces of the war would disappear from the face of the earth, the memory of its horrors would also as quickly disappear from the minds of men.

I did not face the actual horrors of war during those first days, and when I did they exceeded my worst imaginings. As there were practically no passenger trains, on occasion I rode on an open artillery car, sitting on a caisson, or in one of the cattle cars where men, completely tired out, slept alongside and on top of each other in the midst of stench and filth, and while they were being led to the slaughter, already looked like slaughtered cattle. But the worst of all were the hospital trains which I had to use two or three times. How little they resembled the well-lighted, white, carefully cleaned ambulance trains in which the archduchesses and the fashionable ladies of Viennese society had their pictures taken as nurses at the beginning of the war! What I saw to my dismay were ordinary freight cars without real windows, with only one narrow opening for air, lighted within by sooty oil lamps. One crude stretcher stood next to the other, and all were occupied by moaning, sweating, deathly pale men, who were gasping for breath in the thick atmosphere of excrement and iodoform. The hospital orderlies staggered rather than walked, for they were terribly tired; nothing was to be seen of the gleaming bed Iinen of the photographs. Covered with blood-stained rags, the men lay on straw on the hard wood of the stretchers, and in each one of the cars there lay at least two or three dead among the dying and groaning. I spoke with the doctor who, as he admitted to me, had been nothing more than a dentist in a small Hungarian village and had had no surgical practice for years. He was in despair. He had already telegraphed ahead to seven stations for morphine. But none was available; he had no more cotton, no fresh bandages, and it was still twenty hours away to the hospital in Budapest. He asked me to help him, for his own people were too fatigued. I tried, clumsy as I was, and found that I could at least be of some use in getting out at each station to fetch a few pails of water (bad, dirty water intended for the locomotive, but still refreshing), so that the men could be washed a bit, and the blood which was constantly dripping on the floor could be mopped up.

Since all nationalities had been thrown together into this rolling coffin, the soldiers suffered additionally from the Babelish confusion of tongues. Neither the doctor nor the orderlies understood Ruthenian or Croatian. The only one who could be of some help was an old white-haired priest who – like the doctor who was in despair for want of morphine – complained for his part that he lacked the oil for the Last Sacraments. In all his long life he had never administered to so many people as during the past month. It was from him that I heard the words that I was never to forget spoken in a hard, angry voice: “I am sixty-seven and I have seen much. But I would never have believed such a crime on the part of humanity possible.”

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It was only now that the true impulse was given me: one had to fight against war! The material lay ready within me, only this last visible confirmation of my instinct had been lacking to make me start. I had recognized the foe I was to fight – false heroism that prefers to send others to suffering and death, the cheap optimism of the conscienceless prophets, both political and military who, boldly promising victory, prolong the war, and behind them the hired chorus, the “word makers of war’’ as Werfel has pilloried them in his beautiful poem. Whoever voiced a doubt hindered them in their patriotic concerns, whoever uttered a warning was ridiculed as a pessimist, whoever fought against the war in which they themselves did not suffer was branded as a traitor. It has always been the same, the eternal pack throughout the times, calling the prudent cowardly, the humane weak, only to be supine themselves in the hour of catastrophe which they themselves wantonly conjure up. It was always the same pack, the same who derided Cassandra in Troy, Jeremiah in Jerusalem, and never had I sensed the greatness and the tragedy of those figures as in these all too similar hours. From the very beginning I had no faith in victory and was certain of but one thing: that even if it could be achieved by immeasurable sacrifice, it could never justify that sacrifice.

 

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