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Willi Heinrich: A people proud of its war dead has learned nothing from war

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

German writers on peace and war

Willi Heinrich: If the women had their own way there would be the death penalty for making or bearing arms

Willi Heinrich: “It’s quite enough that I know it”

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Willi Heinrich
The Crumbling Fortress (Alte Häuser sterben nicht)
Translated by Michael Glenny

“For the French Verdun is something like a national shrine, but in the wrong sense, it seems to me. Instead of pointing a warning the military achievement is glorified. But that is not the way to speak for those who paved the road to Verdun with their bones. When we sing the national anthem in a military cemetery it is, of course, a very moving event, but it distorts the true nature of the matter. We should rig up giant loudspeakers and relay recordings of the screams of the wounded and dying and then no one would ever forget that cemetery….”

“Monsieur Vieale,” said Knopf, “is afraid that you’re bored when we talk about the war.”

“No.” She shook her head. “No, I’m not bored. I was just wondering in what way soldiers nowadays differ from those who fought in the First World War.”

“In their armament,” said Vieale. “Today their equipment is better and more modern.”

“In what other way?” asked the girl.

“That is a difficult question,” said Vieale. “Look at me. I fought in both wars; only for a few days in this one, it’s true, but even that was enough.”

“I don’t think the question is so difficult to answer,” said Knopf. “Would you have volunteered in this war too?”

Vieale laughed. “No, Monsieur, certainly not. I remembered the first war only too well. But with young people it’s a bit different. Why should they be any more sensible than I was thirty years ago?”

“Somebody should have told them,” threw in Anna.

“Some tried to. But when you shout against the wind no one hears you.”

“It’s the tragedy of inevitability,” said Knopf. “If self-destruction is our destiny, the force of reason is powerless against it.”

“Is that your philosophy?” asked Vieale.

“”I said: if! I don’t know. But if it ever came to the point where we had nothing more to live for except for ideologies and the motherland, then it wouldn’t be too difficult to die.”

“Haven’t we reached that point already?”

“I don’t think so,” said Knopf. “Until now it was always a kind of intoxication: they stumbled into death like a drunkard falling under a car. Nobody really went to war to die. They all hoped to escape death and when they realized that it could run faster than they could, they cursed it. We ought not to play anthems over their graves or make solemn speeches in remembrance of them. A people which is proud of its war dead has learned nothing from the war. This is only my personal opinion, but as long as we have no stronger feelings than a bad conscience about our dead when we talk of them, then there will always be other wars. It all began with falsehood and it will one day finish with falsehood: that is what I mean by inevitability. Lies breed death, death breeds lies and so it goes. By distorting the meaning of our existence we have legitimized mass murder.”

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