Home > Uncategorized > Stefan Zweig: Opposition to war, a higher heroism still

Stefan Zweig: Opposition to war, a higher heroism still

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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

He only who had contemplated the coming European war as an abyss towards which the mad hunt of recent decades, making light of every warning, had been speeding, only such a one could command his soul, could refrain from joining the bacchanalian rout, could listen unmoved to the throbbing of the war drums. Who but such a man could stand upright in the greatest storm of illusion the world has ever known?

Thus it came to pass that not merely during the first hour of the war was Rolland in opposition to other writers and artists of the day. This opposition dated from the very inception of his career, and hence for twenty years he had been a solitary. The reason why the contrast between his outlook and that of his generation had not hitherto been conspicuous, the reason why the cleavage was not disclosed until the actual outbreak of war, lies in this, that Rolland’s divergence was a matter not so much of mood as of character. Before the apocalyptic year, almost all persons of artistic temperament had recognized quite as definitely as Rolland had recognized that a fratricidal struggle between Europeans would be a crime, would disgrace civilization. With few exceptions, they were pacifists. It would be more correct to say that with few exceptions they believed themselves to be pacifists. For pacifism does not simply mean, to be a friend to peace, but to be a worker in the cause of peace, an εἱρηνοποιὁς, as the New Testament has it. Pacifism signifies the activity of an effective will to peace, not merely the love of an easy life and a preference for repose. It signifies struggle; and like every struggle it demands, in the hour of danger, self-sacrifice and heroism. Now these “pacifists” we have just been considering had merely a sentimental fondness for peace; they were friendly towards peace, just as they were friendly towards ideas of social equality, towards philanthropy, towards the abolition of capital punishment. Such faith as they possessed was a faith devoid of passion. They wore their opinions as they wore their clothing, and when the time of trial came they were ready to exchange their pacifist ethic for the ethic of the war-makers, were ready to don a national uniform in matters of opinion. At bottom, they knew the right just as well as Rolland, but they had not the courage of their opinions. Goethe’s saying to Eckermann applies to them with deadly force. “All the evils of modern literature are due to lack of character in individual investigators and writers.”

Thus Rolland did not stand alone in his knowledge, which was shared by many intellectuals and statesmen. But in his case, all his knowledge was tinged with religious fervor; his beliefs were a living faith; his thoughts were actions. He was unique among imaginative writers for the splendid vigor with which he remained true to his ideals when all others were deserting the standard; for the way in which he defended the European spirit against the raging armies of the sometime European intellectuals now turned patriots. Fighting as he had fought from youth upwards on behalf of the invisible against the world of reality, he displayed, as a foil to the heroism of the trenches, a higher heroism still. While the soldiers were manifesting the heroism of blood, Rolland manifested the heroism of the spirit, and showed the glorious spectacle of one who was able, amid the intoxication of the war-maddened masses, to maintain the sobriety and freedom of an unclouded mind.

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Of a sudden it seemed as if his whole life had become meaningless. Vain had been his exhortations, vain the twenty years of ardent endeavor. He had feared this disaster since early boyhood. He had made Olivier cry in torment of soul: “I dread war so greatly, I have dreaded it for so long. It has been a nightmare to me, and it poisoned my childhood’s days.” Now, what he had prophetically anticipated had become a terrible reality for hundreds of millions of human beings. The agony of the hour was nowise diminished because he had foreseen its coming to be inevitable. On the contrary, while others hastened to deaden their senses with the opium of false conceptions of duty and with the hashish dreams of victory, Rolland’s pitiless sobriety enabled him to look far out into the future. On August 3rd he wrote in his diary: “I feel at the end of my resources. I wish I were dead. It is horrible to live when men have gone mad, horrible to witness the collapse of civilization. This European war is the greatest catastrophe in the history of many centuries, the overthrow of our dearest hopes of human brotherhood.” A few days later, in still greater despair, he penned the following entry: “My distress is so colossal an accumulation of distresses that I can scarcely breathe. The ravaging of France, the fate of my friends, their deaths, their wounds. The grief at all this suffering, the heartrending sympathetic anguish with the millions of sufferers. I feel a moral death-struggle as I look on at this mad humanity which is offering up its most precious possessions, its energies, its genius, its ardors of heroic devotion, which is sacrificing all these things to the murderous and stupid idols of war. I am heartbroken at the absence of any divine message, any divine spirit, any moral leadership, which might upbuild the City of God when the carnage is at an end. The futility of my whole life has reached its climax. If I could but sleep, never to reawaken.”

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