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Stefan Zweig: Idea of human brotherhood buried by the grave-diggers of 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

The events of August 2, 1914, broke Europe into fragments. Therewith collapsed the faith which the brothers in the spirit, Jean Christophe and Olivier, had been building with their lives. A great heritage was cast aside. The idea of human brotherhood, once sacred, was buried contemptuously by the grave-diggers of all the lands at war, buried among the million corpses of the slain.


In Jean Christophe, Romain Rolland had delivered his message to this fated hour. To make the confession a live thing, he had to give something more, himself. The time had come for him to do what Jean Christophe had done for Olivier’s son. He must guard the sacred flame; he must fulfil what his hero had prophetically foreshadowed. The way in which Rolland fulfilled this obligation has become for us all an imperishable example of spiritual heroism, which moves us even more strongly than we were moved by his written words. We saw his life and personality taking the form of an actually living conviction. We saw how, with the whole power of his name, and with all the energy of his artistic temperament, he took his stand against multitudinous adversaries in his own land and in other countries, his gaze fixed upon the heaven of his faith.

Rolland had never failed to recognize that in a time of widespread illusion it would be difficult to hold fast to his convictions, however self-evident they might seem. But, as he wrote to a French friend in September, 1914, “We do not choose our own duties. Duty forces itself upon us. Mine is, with the aid of those who share my ideas, to save from the deluge the last vestiges of the European spirit…Mankind demands of us that those who love their fellows should take a firm stand, and should even fight, if needs must, against those they love.”

For five years we have watched the heroism of this fight, pursuing its own course amid the warring of the nations. We have watched the miracle of one man’s keeping his senses amid the frenzied millions, of one man’s remaining free amid the universal slavery of public opinion. We have watched love at war with hate, the European at war with the patriots, conscience at war with the world. Throughout this long and bloody night, when we were often ready to perish from despair at the meaninglessness of nature, the one thing which has consoled us and sustained us has been the recognition that the mighty forces which were able to crush towns and annihilate empires, were powerless against an isolated individual possessed of the will and the courage to be free. Those who deemed themselves the victors over millions, were to find that there was one thing which they could not master, a free conscience.

Vain, therefore, was their triumph, when they buried the crucified thought of Europe. True faith works miracles. Jean Christophe had burst the bonds of death, had risen again in the living form of his own creator.


We do not detract from the moral services of Romain Rolland, but we may perhaps excuse to some extent his opponents, when we insist that Rolland had excelled all contemporary imaginative writers in the profundity of his preparatory studies of war and its problems. If to-day, in retrospect, we contemplate his writings, we marvel to note how, from the very first and throughout a long period of years, they combined to build up, as it were, a colossal pyramid, culminating in the point upon which the lightnings of war were to be discharged. For twenty years, the author’s thought, his whole creative activity, had been unintermittently concentrated upon the contradictions between spirit and force, between freedom and the fatherland, between victory and defeat. Through a hundred variations he had pursued the same fundamental theme, treating it dramatically, epically, and in manifold other ways. There is hardly a problem relevant to this question which is not touched upon by Christophe and Olivier, by Aërt and by the Girondists, in their discussions. Intellectually regarded, Rolland’s writings are a maneuvering ground for all the incentives to war. He thus had his conclusions already drawn when others were beginning an attempt to come to terms with events. As historian, he had described the perpetual recurrence of war’s typical accompaniments, had discussed the psychology of mass suggestion, and had shown the effects of wartime mentality upon the individual. As moralist and as citizen of the world, he had long ere this formulated his creed. We may say, in fact, that Rolland’s mind had been in a sense immunized against the illusions of the crowd and against infection by prevalent falsehoods.

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