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Stefan Zweig: War, the ultimate betrayal of the intellectuals

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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

While the masses, deceived by words, were raging against one another in blind fury, the artists, the writers, the men of science, of Germany, France, and England, who for centuries had been coöperating for discoveries, advances, ideals, could combine to form a tribunal of the spirit which, with scientific earnestness, should devote itself to extirpating the falsehoods that were keeping their respective peoples apart. Transcending nationality, they could hold intercourse on a higher plane. For it was Rolland’s most cherished hope that the great artists and great investigators would refuse to identify themselves with the crime of the war, would refrain from abandoning their freedom of conscience and from entrenching themselves behind a facile “my country, right or wrong.” With few exceptions, intellectuals had for centuries recognized the repulsiveness of war. More than a thousand years earlier, when China was threatened by ambitious Mongols, Li Tai Peh had exclaimed: “Accursed be war! Accursed the work of weapons! The sage has nothing to do with these follies.” The contention that the sage has naught to do with such follies seems to rise like an unenunciated refrain from all the utterances of western men of learning since Europe began to have a common life. In Latin letters (for Latin, the medium of intercourse, was likewise the symbol of supranational fellowship), the great humanists whose respective countries were at war exchanged their regrets, and offered mutual philosophical solace against the murderous illusions of their less instructed fellows. Herder was speaking for the learned Germans of the eighteenth century when he wrote: “For fatherland to engage in a bloody struggle with fatherland is the most preposterous, barbarism.” Goethe, Byron, Voltaire, and Rousseau, were at one in their contempt for the purposeless butcheries of war. To-day, in Rolland’s view, the leading intellectuals, the great scientific investigators whose minds would perforce remain unclouded, the most humane among the imaginative writers, could join in a fellowship whose members would renounce the errors of their respective nations.

Such was the mood in which Rolland took up his pen for the first time after the outbreak of war. He wrote an open letter to Hauptmann, to the author whom among Germans he chiefly honored for goodness and humaneness. Within the same hour he wrote to Verhaeren, Germany’s bitterest foe. Rolland thus stretched forth both his hands, rightward and leftward, in the hope that he could bring his two correspondents together, so that at least within the domain of pure spirit there might be a first essay towards spiritual reconciliation, what time upon the battlefields the machine-guns with their infernal clatter were mowing down the sons of France, Germany, Belgium, Britain, Austria-Hungary, and Russia.

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During these days, Rolland may well have recalled sacred memories of the time when Leo Tolstoi‘s letter came to give him a mission in life. Tolstoi had stood alone in the utterance of his celebrated outcry, “I can no longer keep silence.” At that time his country was at war. He arose to defend the invisible rights of human beings, uttering a protest against the command that men should murder their brothers. Now his voice was no longer heard; his place was empty; the conscience of mankind was dumb. To Rolland, the consequent silence, the terrible silence of the free spirit amid the hurly-burly of the slaves, seemed more hateful than the roar of the cannon. Those to whom he had appealed for help had refused to answer the call. The ultimate truth, the truth of conscience, had no organized fellowship to sustain it. No one would aid him in the struggle for the freedom of the European soul, the struggle of truth against falsehood, the struggle of human loving-kindness against frenzied hate. Rolland once again was alone with his faith, more alone than during the bitterest years of solitude.

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To understand the ethical import, the heroic character, of these manifestoes, we must recall to mind the frenzy of the opening year of the war, the spiritual infection which was devastating Europe, turning the whole continent into a madhouse. It has already become difficult to realize the mental state of those days. We have to remember that maxims which now seem commonplace, as for instance the contention that we must not hold all the individuals of a nation responsible for the outbreak of a war, were then positively criminal, that to utter them was a punishable offense…Men were still so drunken with the fumes of the first bloodshed that they would have been fain, as Rolland himself has phrased it, “to crucify Christ once again should he have risen; to crucify him for saying, Love one another.”

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This faith in a lofty ideal soars like a sea-mew over the ocean of blood. Rolland is well aware how little hope there is that his words can make themselves audible above the clamor of thirty million warriors. “I know that such thoughts have little chance of being heard to-day. I do not speak to convince. I speak only to solace my conscience. And I know that at the same time I shall solace the hearts of thousands of others who, in all lands, cannot and dare not speak for themselves.” As ever, he is on the side of the weak, on the side of the minority. His voice grows stronger, for he knows that he is speaking for the silent multitude.

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