The World War I Effect
Western civilization, and Europe in particular, have been dominated for several millennia by the heroic ideal of warfare, whether Judaic, Greco-Roman, or Norse. The seminal images of David defeating Goliath, of Hector and Achilles in mortal combat on the plains of Troy, of Valkyries carrying fallen heroes up to Valhalla are icons deeply embedded in our collective unconscious. In the Age of Augustus they were reinforced by the mythic narrative of Aeneas cutting his way through sword- and spear-wielding Latin tribes to reach his arch-enemy and, in slaughtering him, enable the founding of Rome itself.
In the middle ages, in Britain, France and the German states, these heroic archetypes were overlaid with explicitly nationalistic models such as Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, and the Nibelungenlied. In addition, all three cultures embraced and contributed to the centuries-long popularity of Arthurian romance, specifically Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, the long anonymous poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur in England; Chretien de Troyes’ tales of Lancelot, Perceval, and Yvain in France, and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival in the German-speaking world of the 12th century. One might even argue that the stories of Arthur’s brave and virtuous knights functioned as recruiting propaganda for the German, English and French aristocracy that were needed to lead the series of crusades called for in 1095 by Pope Urban.
The influence of romantic images of military combat was sustained among the literate classes right up through the 19th century, largely by the requirements of a classical education. At Heidelberg, the Sorbonne, Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca and Bologna, knowledge of these epic tales of war, read in the original Greek and Latin, was the common heritage of European gentleman.
Against that dominant vein of pro-war propaganda, there have, however, always been countervailing influences. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata comes first to mind, along with the New Testament of the Bible. Other contrasting examples are scattered across the literary landscape of the last 800 years: the gentle, ethereal Galahad versus the muscular Gawain, the simple truth of Falstaff’s pronouncement over the battlefield dead in Henry V (“Honour is he that died o’ Wednesday”), Swift’s depiction of Liliputian bluster and bravado in the opening book of Gulliver’s Travels, Goya’s nightmarish canvases, Stendhal’s decidedly unheroic picture of the fog of war in the Waterloo scenes in The Charterhouse of Parma, Thackeray’s duplicitous Captain Osborne in Vanity Fair (pointedly subtitled A Novel Without a Hero), Tolstoy’s deconstruction of the Great Man Theory of History in War and Peace, and Buechner’s vision of the cruel absurdities of military life in Woyzeck.
But, I would argue, it is only in the latter stages of the industrial revolution, particularly in the grisly mechanized horror of World War I, that anti-war sentiment in Europe gains the critical mass of a literary movement. More important, it is only after the 1914-1918 conflict that the reaction against heroic idealism—in novels, non-fiction, poetry, drama, film, music and painting—achieves sufficient currency to significantly counteract the prevailing glorification of war in mainstream thinking. It is only then, in the decades immediately following the Great War, that Germany, Britain and France, the chief participants in the fighting, begin, in a broad cultural sense, to look seriously at the truth about war.
Let us focus first on the English at the outbreak of hostilities. They greeted the change of circumstances almost blithely, as a kind of spirited adventure, likely to be over by Christmas. Recruiting offices were swamped by volunteers, and the popular songs in the late summer of 1914 reflected the general euphoria. A couple of examples: “We’re all going calling on the Kaiser,/and we all wish the Kaiser would be wiser” and “Goodbye-ee, goodbye-ee, /Wipe the tear, baby dear, from your eye-ee, /Tho’ it’s hard to part I know, /I’ll be tickled to death to go…/Bonsoir, old thing, cheerio, chin, chin, /… Goodbye-ee!”—such lyrics suggest the mood of the moment. Posters, too, from each country’s propaganda bureaus portrayed soldiers in full, clean khaki dress, often on horseback, beloved by their womenfolk, defending the pastoral beauty of their land.
Ernst Juenger, who fought for the Kaiser as a many-times decorated officer, describes the enthusiasm of the German recruits in those first days of war in the opening pages of his published diary, In Stahlgewittern:
“Wir hatten Horsaele, Schulbaenke und Werktische verlassen und waren in den kurzen Ausbildungswochen zu einem grossen, begeisterten Koerper zusammengeschmolzen. Aufgewachsen in einem Zeitalter der Sicherheit, fuehlten wir alle die Sehnsucht nach dem Ungewoehnlichen, nach der grossen Gefahr. Da hatte uns der Krieg gepackt wie ein Rausch. In einem Regen von Blumen waren wir hinausgezogen, in einer trunkenen Stimmung von Rosen und Blut. Der Krieg musste es uns ja bringen, das Grosse, Starke, Feierliche. Es schien uns maennliche Tat, ein froehliches Schuetzenfecht auf blumigen, blutbetauten Wiesen. ‘Kein schoenrer Tod ist auf der Welt…’ Ach, nur nicht zu Haus bleiben, nur mitmachen duerfen!”
As for the poetry of these pre-bombardment, pre-trench days, it was just as enthusiastic and romantic about war, assuming traditional Homeric-Virgilian attitudes reminiscent of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” sixty years earlier.
Rupert Brook’s sonnets best represent that spirit—one that demanded war be seen as a kind of “higher peace,” a chance for “holy dying,” that the dead themselves be regarded as “rich” and “golden,” that the blood of adolescents be glorified as the “red sweet wine of youth.” Brooke sees the battlefield as a playground for the exercise of moral athleticism, a release from the boredom and corruption of civilian life. His sentiments echo the tired “God and Country” rhetoric of countless generations of Englishmen, and seem almost childlike in their eager acceptance of front-line death and maiming: “Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there/But only agony, and that has ending.”
Other poets joined the chorus that welcomed the start of war, including Edward Thomas, and even Siegfried Sassoon. Most of the prominent prose writers seconded the government’s decision as well, notably Galsworthy, Bennett, Chesterton and Ford Madox Ford. Only a handful of socialists and free-thinkers wrote against the war from the first rifle shot: Bertrand Russell, Gilbert Murray, and especially George Bernard Shaw, who warned that the conflict might last 30 years and advised the enlisted men to “shoot your officers and go home.”
Julian Grenfell, a young poet killed in the first spring offensive, catches best the naivete that dominated the earliest months of fighting. In a letter home, he gushes: “I adore war. It’s like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well or so happy. Nobody grumbles at one for being dirty.” In “Into Battle,” one of Grenfell’s last poems, he boasts that Orion in the night sky, and even the blackbirds of France envy his chance for glory.
The first among the British to undergo a change in attitude was a young captain from Scotland, Charles Sorley. His first poems are standard enough, reflecting the allegiance among the educated officers to classical models that glorify war. “A Letter from the Trenches,” one of his earliest poems, begins: “I have not brought my Odyssey /With me here across the sea…But now the fight begins again, /The old war-joy, the old war-pain, /Sons of one school across the sea /We have no fear to fight.” Into the first battles on the Marne, he carries the same blithe spirit:
“All the hills and vales along,
Earth is bursting into song
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die perhaps...
On, marching men, on
To the gates of death with song…
Strew your gladness on earth’s bed,
So be merry, so be dead.”
But it is Sorley who first articulates a new skepticism about the moral purposes of war. In “To Germany,” he declares the violence from both sides to be senseless and, at a personal level, regrets what it has done to the friendships he’d forged just before the war, during a year spent in Germany: “You [Germans] are blind like us…/In each other’s dearest ways we stand, /And hiss and hate. ../We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain, /When it is peace. But until peace, the storm, /The darkness and the thunder and the rain.”
On the other side of no-man’s-land, among the German ranks in the war’s first year, the poetry that has survived is in many instances better described as doggerel intended to keep up regimental morale. Still, like its English counterpart, that early German verse projects a stubborn optimism in the face of an experience much grimmer than anyone expected. Two examples, the first intended to steady a Bavarian company’s rattled nerves:
“Nun heist es kaempfen, Leiber, wohl auch sterben,
Was liegt daran? Wenn nur der Sieg uns winkt!
Und vorwaerts stuermen sie, die Bayernsoehne,
Kein Klagelaut—wer auch zu Boden sinkt!”
Another, from Ludwig Streil, focuses on the heroism of the 1st company’s mortally wounded officer:
“Unsern Leutnant haben sie durch die Lunge geschossen,
Manch anderer wurde zu Tode getroffen;
Doch der kleine Leutnant hat sich noch einmal gestreckt
Und hat den Mut seiner Leute geweckt
Und sprang an die Bruestung, tat Schuss um Schuss!
Schiesst zu, Kameraden, durch kommen sie nie—
Hier steht Leutnant Rauscher und die erste Kompagnie.”
Except for Georg Trakl, a suicide in the first months of the war, there were no German poets actively protesting the early months of the fighting. And Hermann Hesse, who warned his fellow intellectuals against unthinking patriotism in a newspaper editorial in November 1914, was attacked by the German press and ostracized by his friends. Today, his article, “O Freunde, nicht diese Toene” seems exactly the alarm that should have been sounded.
The nature of war, after all, was rapidly changing from Napoleonic adventure to mechanized horror. A single machine gunner and his assistant could wipe out whole companies of attacking infantry, leaving the ground in front of them (as Wilfred Owen later said), “all wormy with the wounded.” At the end of 1914, Rudolf Binding, a German officer at Ypres, said, “The war has got stuck into a gigantic siege on both sides.” And so it was to remain for nearly four years. The two armies were entrenched one or two hundred yards apart along a line stretching 350 miles from the North Sea to Switzerland. Never before had such massive armies, millions of men, faced each other on such a long front nor remained in such continuous contact for so long. In 1915, as both sides attacked each other at great cost and without gaining ground, the reality of the war became painfully apparent. An example was the British assault on Loos in September: at the end of the first day, the British had suffered 15,740 casualties, one sixth of the attacking force. Nevertheless, they continued the offensive until the middle of October, at a total cost of 61,000 casualties and not a single German trench overrun. In the end, in one great mass grave at Loos, the English buried all 35,000 of their dead.
The surviving soldiers found themselves in a sensory world altogether foreign to their past and to their storybook expectations: the incessant noise of shells; the putrefaction of corpses, unwashed bodies, sulfurous air and human waste; the sight of blasted trees, acres of mud and dismembered comrades; the itch of lice in hair and clothes; the companionship of rats fattened on corpses in no-man’s-land; the strain of sleeping in water above the knees, or simply not sleeping at all through intense bombardment; finally the continual terror of dying, most acute before an attack. Add to this the futility of a war which seemed, for the first time in history, both unwinnable and unstoppable, and the censorship which made it nearly incomprehensible to those at home, and one begins to see how difficult the business of telling the truth became.
The poets who experienced this reality had not only to embrace a new way of seeing—one directly contrary to a 3000-year tradition of glorifying war—but to find a new vocabulary and rhythm which would catch the rough language and terrible dissonance of mechanized battle.
One of the earliest examples of a poem which breaks decisively with the school of innocents is from the same Charles Sorley who had arrived in France a few months before, having forgotten his copy of Homer, but eager for the “old war-joy.” The following sonnet, scrawled in pencil, was recovered when his knapsack was returned to Cambridge in October, 1915. Sorley was shot in the head by a sniper during the first attack at Loos:
“When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead….”
So, for Sorley, no names, no elegies, no tears. Just the gashed, mouthless millions every time he closed eyes.
He was considerably ahead of his fellow Brits in turning that ideological corner. Sassoon, Rosenberg, Owen and the rest were barely in khaki when Sorley fell, and knew nothing of his work till the war’s end. It was left to a Frenchman, Henri Barbusse, to first tell his countrymen how grim the Western front was. Wounded in September, 1915, Barbusse spent his convalescence writing Le Feu (known in English as Under Fire: The Story of a Squad). The novel, an unflinching 350-page narrative of trench life, appeared in France the following spring, and became a best-seller in England and America by 1917. Sassoon, Graves and Owen all credit Le Feu with having accelerated their own development as anti-war writers. Ernest Hemingway called it the best book on the war published during the war, describing Barbusse as “the first to show us that you could protest, in anything besides poetry, the gigantic useless slaughter that characterized the conduct of the war.”
In the visionary opening of Le Feu, news is brought to wealthy patients in a sanatorium near Mont Blanc that war has begun—needless to say, there are parallels with Mann’s Der Zauberberg, which was in progress throughout and immediately following the war. In any case, the company of tuberculosis sufferers, “watchers on the threshold of another world,” look down on a spectacle of “crawling things…some kind of men…on a great livid plain…made of mud and water, while the figures…fix themselves to the surface of it, all blinded and borne down with filth, like the dreadful castaways of shipwreck. And it seems to them that these are soldiers.”
Twice in the novel—once in that unsettling first chapter and again in the more didactic final one—Barbusse reminds us that “two armies fighting each other is [in fact] one great army committing suicide.” He vehemently rejects the traditional rhetoric about war: it is not, he says, “the bayonet glittering like silver, nor the bugle’s chanticleer call to the sun” but rather “frightful and unnatural weariness…befouled faces and tattered flesh, it is corpses…floating on the ravenous earth…that endless monotony of misery.”
Barbusse, who was deeply involved in socialist causes and much older than his English counterparts, needed no radical shift in sentiments to see the conflict as a cynical war among capitalist powers. He dedicated the book to comrades fallen in the first year of the war—enlisted men all, working-class friends—and the novel closes with a ringing appeal for class justice: “War is made up of the flesh and the souls of common soldiers. It is we who make the plains of dead and the rivers of blood. The people—they’re nothing, though they ought to be everything.” He then speaks directly to the masses, to those “30 million slaves, hurled upon one another in the mud of war”:
“Against you and your great common interests…there are not only the sword-wavers, the profiteers and the intriguers… not only financiers, speculators great and small, armor-plated in their banks and houses, who live on war and live in peace during war, with their brows stubbornly set upon a secret doctrine and their faces shut up like safes…there are those who hail like women the bright-colored uniforms; those whom military music and the martial ballads poured upon the public intoxicate as with brandy….With them are all the parsons, who seek to…lull you to sleep with the morphine of their Paradise, so that nothing changes….They are your enemies, wherever they were born, however they pronounce their names, whatever the language in which they lie.”
There’s nothing to match that revolutionary, proletarian spirit in the British officer-poets who protest the war, but in his last two years at the front, a disillusioned Siegfried Sassoon does single out civilian and military blunderers—especially the complacent generals, colonels and majors sampling claret at French Chateaux well removed from the shelling. In the verse collection, Counterattack, published early in 1918, Sassoon launches a concentrated, systematic offensive against members of parliament and “smug-faced crowds”; editors of tabloids and “gross, goggle-eyed fathers” who pretend to envy their sons’ sacrifices—“Arthur’s getting all the fun /At Arras with his nine-inch gun”; mothers and daughters who “make shells” and “worship decorations”; priests who pontificate about “the ways of God” and the “last attack on Anti-Christ”; and of course the high command who nonchalantly murder whole battalions with their plans of attack. A single example will do:
“If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the roll of honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.”
The re-creation of the soldiers’ peculiar world required, of course, something more than invective and spare reporting. To catch the note of a tough new reality, Sassoon includes monologues and snatches of trench dialogue in the accents of common soldiers in several of his poems for 1917-1918. But Wilfred Owen achieves even greater success than Sassoon with the English vernacular. In “The Chances,” an experimental poem in pure cockney, he reviews the losses after an attack:
…Now me, I wasn’t scratched, praise God Amighty,
(Though next time please I’ll thank ‘im for a blighty).
But poor young Jim, ‘e’s livin’ an’ ’e’s not;
‘E reckoned ‘e’d five chances, an’ ‘e ‘ad;
‘E’s wounded, killed, an’ pris’ner, all the lot,
The bloody lot all rolled in one. Jim’s mad.”
After the unimaginable horror of the Somme, in which more than a million men were slaughtered in the space of three months, the best English poetry strikes one of two attitudes—either that of protest or of pity—and Owen, a Welshman killed just a week before the armistice, is best at evoking sympathy for “those who die as cattle.” In the final stanza of “Insensibility” he moves from anger to fellow-feeling, his mood turning it seems on the very word “pity” itself:
“But cursed are dullards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones…
By choice they made themselves immune
To pity and whatever mourns in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores;
Whatever shares the eternal reciprocity of tears.”
It is Owen, however, in anger at the continuing war propaganda from home, who fashions what has come down to us as the ultimate anti-war poem. Owen will have no more of the romance of battle death, no more of “the old lie” epitomized in the Latin words of Horace: “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori”—in English: “Sweet and fitting it is to die for the fatherland.” As antidote, he describes in all its horror a phosgene attack:
“Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime…
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.”
Such was the change of heart among the British officer class in the last years of the war. But enlisted men, whose time in the trenches was longer, whose furloughs home were shorter, were also transformed from blind patriots to realists. Ivor Gurney’s elegy to a friend is hardly the stuff for polite company: “Cover him, cover him soon!.../Hide that red wet /Thing I must somehow forget.” And Isaac Rosenberg, a private suffering from tuberculosis, is nearly nihilistic in his vision: the fetid air of the trenches is for him the “miasma of a rotting God,” the incidental sights of a winter morning include “a man’s brains splattered on a stretcher-bearer’s face.”
And as for the songs sung by the British soldiers after the summer of 1916, they are very different as well: “Gassed last night, and gassed the night before…/When we’re gassed we’re sick as we can be, /’Cos phosgene and mustard gas is much too much for me…/When we’re bombed we’re scared as we can be, /God strafe the bombing planes from High Germany”; or “If you want the old battalion, we know where they are, /Hanging on the old barbed wire..”; or simply, “I want to go home, I want to go home, /I don’t want to go in the trenches no more, /Where whizzbangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar. /Take me over the sea, where the alleyman can’t get at me; oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.” Hans Leip’s “Das Maedchen unter der Laterne,” written in 1915 and better known thereafter as “Lili Marlene,” is among the first German trench songs that treat the tragic effect of war on personal relationships. Its English counterparts, such as “I Don’t Want to be a Soldier,” are more explicit about war’s disruption of the sexual imperative. For example:
“…I don’t want a bayonet in my belly,
I don’t want my bollocks shot away,
I’d rather stay in England,
In merry, merry England,
And fornicate my bleeding life away.”
Many of the songs sung at the front also seem to reflect the distrust of standard religion that Henri Barbusse voices in Le Feu. To the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” the British enlisted men sang instead “Forward Joe Soap’s army, marching without fear, /With our old commander, safely in the rear”; and the well-known Protestant hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus,” became the irreverent “When this lousy war is over, /No more soldiering for me…” At home in England, the government and media kept most of the grisly details of trench life from the civilian population, but the long casualty lists in each morning’s edition of The Times, told truths no propaganda could counter. Instead of the march tunes and jingling patriotism of 1914, wives and daughters now sang melancholy laments like “There’s a long, long trail a-winding /To the land of my dreams…” and “Let no tears add to their hardship,/ As the soldiers pass along, /And although your heart is breaking /Make it sing this cheery song: /Keep the home fires burning /While your hearts are yearning, /Though the lads are far away, /They dream of home.” On the streets, fathers who had thrown their straw hats in the air when war was declared, now wore poppies in their lapels for their sons killed at the Somme or at Paschendaele.
Even the tone of recruiting posters changed. In England, they became increasingly urgent and accusatory as fewer able-bodied men volunteered to replace those killed; on the streets of London the poster campaign was reinforced by women who pinned white feathers on any young man they saw in civilian clothes; in France, quite early on, the posters appealed for money for the “Mutiles de la Guerre” and spoke explicitly of “les horreurs de la guerre.” In Germany, with the more tightly controlled propaganda machinery of a military dictatorship, newspapers and posters acknowledge the grimness of battle and its casualties, but there is no admission of lost enthusiasm either in the ranks or at home.
Photographs and graphic footage from the front were taken as well. Almost none of it, however, made its way out of military files and private collections and into the public domain before the armistice. But thanks to the artistic talent and moral courage of one Englishman, Paul Nash, the contemporary public in Britain did gain a pictorial understanding of that ruined landscape in its last year. Sent to the Western front in November 1917 by the War Propaganda Bureau as its official war artist, Nash decided instead to use the opportunity to paint the unvarnished truth of what he saw. In a letter to his wife that autumn, he declares he “is no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.” The wasteland images in his most memorable oil paintings (The Menin Road, We are Making a New World, The Ruined Country, and others) had both immediate and lasting impact on the English consciousness of war.
In France, the carnage and futility of the war’s final years brought the enlisted men to the point of despair. They expressed their despondency not only in songs like “Adieu la vie, adieu l’amour, adieu les toutes les femmes, c’est bien fini, c’est pour toujours…” but also in one of the few large-scale examples of rebellion in the ranks. In December 1917, all along the French sector of the Western front, the infantry refused orders to spring out of the trenches and dash into the German machine-gun and artillery fire. To the command, “En avant, pour la republique, pour la gloire, pour la france!” the men responded: “It is stupid to attack. We are simply lambs to the slaughter.” Finally, prodded by their officers with bayonets and on the point of being shot in the back, wave after wave of French infantry did at last go over the top, but they walked slowly into the hail of bullets and shells, “baa-ing” like sheep as they fell.
A new French poetry came out of that experience, too. Among those at the front there were many ready to add to Barbusse’s early vision of “one great army committing suicide.” Andre Breton, infantryman, devout Marxist, and later a friend of the exiled Trotsky, published his first collection of poems, Pawnshop, in the middle of the war. Later credited with the founding of the Surrealist movement, Breton is less concerned in his war verse with pictorial accuracy and more with the extreme, Rimbaud-like passions that terror in the trenches excites. Guilliame Apollinaire takes a similar oblique approach to his war experience, seeing the whole of it, in one of the last of his poems published before his death in 1918, as a great emptiness coming at him from “an inhuman future world.” For Apollinaire the war confirms “the huge emptiness of my own soul: /there isn’t any sun, there’s nothing that gives light.”
Charles Vildrac, in Songs of a Man without Hope, and Pierre Jean Jouve, in Poems Against the Great Crime, are perhaps the best examples of French poets speaking out explicitly against the war while it was in progress. Vildrac (heavily influenced by Tolstoy) argues for the redemptive power of poetry, challenging the horror with his own equally fierce sympathy: “It’s the never-ending agony, it’s the delight…/Filled with death and filled with love…/Always burying and faithful /And ready to burst forth /This white beam that powders /Every suffering…” Jean Jouve, on the other hand, is as uncompromising and direct in his poems as Barbusse or Owen, though he’s clearly less gifted. The vision he offers is apocalyptic—of a human race entirely lost. An excerpt from “Les Enterres,” (The Buried) typifies his perspective: “This man in his foxhole buried alive /is barely breathing. /With his bare hands he digs out the earth…/The earth collapses, cracking limbs…/Soon he scratches out other matter, spongy and wet…” Jouve is referencing in that poem a peculiar phenomenon of the Great War. It rained incessantly throughout the war, turning the trenches, already fetid with corpses, into lakes of mud, waist deep and viscous enough to drown living men where they stood.
German verse published in the last years of the war, though never so lurid as the French and English, took on a distinctly elegiac tone. Ludwig Streil, quoted earlier in a more sanguine mood, now no longer talks of heroism and victory, but simply of carnage on both sides:
“In Stroemen muss das Leiberblut
Den schwarzen Boden netzen.
Es trifft wohl auch der Gegner gut,
Mit Blei und Eisenfetzen.
Es zuckt Graf Moy, das Blut rinnt rot,
Sein Kopf sinkt auf das Knie,
Und einer ruft ‘der Leutnant tot,’
Es stuermt die Kompagnie.”
Another poem near the end of the war, “Unserm Fuehrer,” by Josef Haag, epitomizes in almost childlike rhythms exactly that pity Wilfred Owen talks about – “the pity war distills”:
“Es war um die achte Stunde,
Die Sonne am Himmel stand.
Da empfing er die Todeswunde,
Von den Schicksals grausamer Hand.
Wir waren so treu ihm ergeben.
Wir hatten ihn Alle so lieb.
Und gaeben so gern unser Leben
Wenn nur das Seine uns blieb.”
There were several German poets who reacted to the war’s carnage in that other mood that Wilfred Owen thought appropriate—namely anger or protest. Arnold Zweig and Ernst Toller were the best of the lot, but since both were Jewish, they suffered persecution during and after the conflict, then suppression of their work, and ultimately exile in the 1930’s. Toller, in fact, supported the Spartakus uprising of January 1919, spent five years in prison, and escaped execution only because Thomas Mann and Max Weber intervened on his behalf. Both men are remembered today chiefly for anti-war works published long after the armistice and popular mostly in English. They belong properly to the crowd of writers who, years after the guns went silent, refused to let the obscenity of the slaughter and its lessons for future generations be forgotten.
It would be disingenuous, however, to suggest that pacifist voices dominated the literary debate that followed the Treaty of Versailles. Especially in Germany, in the immediate wake of the armistice, came war diaries of a decidedly blood-thirsty and patriotic sort. August Stramm’s Dripping Blood (1919) and Ernst Juenger’s best-selling first edition of In Stahlgewittern (1920) caught the popular fancy for lurid detail and, I suspect, the appetite among a defeated people for tales of heroism and battles won.
Juenger, to his credit, does not sugar over the grim realities of the Western Front, but rather—like Hitler himself, who was earning his Iron Cross in a different sector—he seems to glory in the violence, to see the new, more lethal instruments of slaughter not as impediments to war’s romance, but simply as more challenging obstacles for the traditional hero. His descriptions of hand-to-hand combat are brutally explicit, but even-handed in assessing courage. During one attack, for example, a British sergeant is tangled in the barbed wire just beyond Juenger’s trench and has his legs blown off by a hand grenade: “trotzdem behielt er mit stoischer Ruhe seine kurze Pfeife bis zum Tode zwischen den zusammengebissenen Zaehnen. Auch hier hatten wir wieder wie ueberall, wo wir Englaendern begegneten, den erfreulichen Eindruck kuehner Maennlichkeit.” Writing of his last battle in July 1918, Juenger waxes nostalgic for the long series of battles in which he has participated, that immersion in a heightened and testing world that he firmly believes elevates him and all warriors above the common human experience:
“Es ging zum letzten Sturm. Wie oft waren wir in den verflossenen Jahren in aehnlicher Stimmung in die westliche Sonne geschritten! Les Eparges, Guillemont, St. Pierre-Vaast, Langemarck, Passchendaele, Moeuvres, Vraucourt, Mory! Wieder winkte ein blutiges Fest.”
Juenger’s cultural influence can hardly be discounted. In Stahlgewittern and Feuer und Blut (1925) sold in the hundreds of thousands in both Germany and France well into the thirties. Over a long life he wrote another 50 books and came to be recognized as a spokesperson for Prussian militarism, an advocate not for Nazi racism but rather for more traditional ideals of stoicism and manliness. That arch-conservative mindset did not go away in the face of modern warfare, but instead, after 1918, it co-existed in the mainstream of European literature and culture with a new anti-war consciousness. Guenter Grass clearly recognized that fact and the historically significant role that Juenger played in the battle of ideas. In his recently published memoir, Mein Jahrhundert, Grass pits Juenger against Erich Remarque in an imagined debate on the morality of war. Juenger did, however, near the end of his life, condemn Germany’s military policy as “a calamitous mistake.” Still, he did not renounce anything he had written, and he clung always to the belief that modern warfare, although grotesque, is nevertheless a fitting opportunity for individual glory.
It is in the early twenties, however, that a mind-set diametrically opposed to Juenger’s “war-joy” begins to emerge across the literary and intellectual landscape of Europe. In The Wasteland (1921), T.S. Eliot depicts the exhaustion of spirit that followed the War, evoked in references to Tristan’s dashed hopes (“Oed und leer das Meer”), the degeneration of culture (“OOOO that Shakespeherian Rag--/It’s so elegant/So intelligent”), and the casual adultery of demobilized British troops housed again with their wives (“…think of poor Albert,/ He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,/And if you don’t give it to him, there’s others will…”). In two of Virginia’s Woolf’s novels, Jacob’s Room (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925), the central character is either killed in the war, or so shell shocked and guilt-ridden when he returns to civilian life that he commits suicide. Septimus Smith is, in fact, the first fictional representation of a veteran suffering from neurasthenia or PTSD—common enough today among survivors of mechanized combat, but never diagnosed and treated until the First World War. Jaroslav Hasek’s satirical novel, The Good Soldier Schweik (1923) had an even more profound effect on the artistic community on both sides of the Atlantic. Inducted into the Austro-Hungarian army, Schweik’s absurd, decidedly unheroic wanderings inspired Brecht, who first encountered the narrative in a stage adaptation in 1927 and later brought him back to life in one of his own plays. Joseph Heller, the American author of Catch-22, said he would never have written that best-selling anti-war novel if he hadn’t read The Good Soldier Schweik.
And of course, out of Germany comes Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp. The protagonist of Der Zauberberg (1924), though safely tucked away in a Davos sanatorium for most of the novel, is ultimately seen staggering out into the muck of no-man’s-land, shells exploding all around him, “limping on his earth-bound feet,” “treading on the hand of a fallen comrade” where others lie scattered and lifeless, “their noses in fiery filth.” Mann refuses to console us with images of war’s romance, or any promise of its redemptive power: “In the tumult, in the rain, in the dusk” Castorp—like the youth of Europe itself—simply “vanishes out of our sight.”
The full flowering of German anti-war literature, however, comes several years after Der Zauberberg. Inhibited first by the Kaiser’s dictatorial regime, and then from 1919 to 1924 by both violent civil unrest and economic catastrophe, the movement only gains critical mass in the last half of the 1920s. The relative stability and freedom of speech in the middle years of Weimar Germany may account for some of that, but I suspect another contributing factor—a factor that explains a similar outburst of anti-war novels and memoirs in the same period in England. D.H. Lawrence, looking at the psychological condition of the war generation in Europe, sees the impact of trench experience as “a bruise of fear and horror” that took nearly a decade to rise to the surface and manifest itself in a clearly articulated body of literature. In any case, the late 1920s represents the high-tide of German pacifist writing and no one is more prominent in the movement than Erich Maria Remarque.
In Im Westen Nichts Neues (1928), Remarque, like Juenger, accurately reports the reality of the front, but unlike Juenger who seems to glory in the violence, Remarque—chiefly in the person of his protagonist, Paul Bauemer—considers it a symptom of wholesale human depravity, and measures the psychological damage it has done to a generation of ordinary soldiers. In reporting a visit to a field hospital, Bauemer offers uncompromisingly gruesome images, the farthest thing from romance: “Bei manchen Verletzten haengt das zerschossene Glied …frei in der Luft: unter die Wunde wird ein Becken gestellt, in das der Eiter tropft….Ich sehe Darmwunden, die staendig voll Kot sind.” Not content with lurid descriptions, simply for their sensational value, Remarque drives home the moral point:
“Und dabei ist dies nur ein einziges Lazarett, nur ein einzige Station—es gibt Hunderttausende in Deutschland, Hunderttausende in Frankreich, Hunderttausende in Russland. Wie sinnlos ist alles, was je geschrieben, getan, gedacht wurde, wenn so etwas moeglich ist! Es muss alles gelogen und belanglos sein, wenn die Kultur von Jahrtausenden nicht einmal verhindern konnte, dass diese Stroeme von Blut vergossen wurden, dass diese Kerker der Qualen zu Hunderttausenden existieren. Erst das Lazarett zeigt, was Krieg ist.”
Nor does Remarque hesitate to contrast the soldiers’ circumstances to those of the manufacturers and war profiteers at home—a commentary Juenger would likely see as both unmanly and tantamount to insubordination:
“Wir aber sind mager und ausgehungert. Unser Essen ist so schlecht und mit so viel Ersatzmitteln gestreckt, dass wir krank davon werden. Die Fabrikbesitzer in Deutschland sind reiche Leute geworden—uns zerschrinnt die Ruhr die Daerme. Die Latrinenstangen sind stets dicht gehockt voll; --man sollte den Leute zu Hause diese grauen, elenden, ergebenen Gesichter hier zeigen, diese verkruemmten Gestalten, denen die Kolik das Blut aus dem Leibe quetscht und hoechstens mit verzerrten, noch schmerzbebenden Lippen sich angrinsen” ‘Es hat gar kein Zweck, die Hose wieder hochzuziehen—‘”
But the dominant focus of the novel is not on such physical consequences or on the cynical Western powers that profit from such horror, but rather on the unforgivable psychic damage the war will have done to those millions of young men, many still in their teens, who survive it. A generation, as Remarque says in the dedication to the novel, “die vom Kriege zerstoert wurde—auch wenn sie seinen Granaten entkam.” Bauemer speaks for these ruined innocents, his trench comrades on both sides of no-man’s-land:
“Ich bin jung, ich bin zwanzig Jahre alt; aber ich kenne vom Leben nichts anderes als die Verzweiflung, den Tod, die Angst und die Verkettung sinnlosester Oberflaechlichkeit mit einem Abgrund des Leidens….Wenn wir jetzt zurueckkehren, sind wir muede, zerfallen, ausgebrannt, wurzellos und ohne Hoffnung. Wir werden uns nicht mehr zurechtfinden koennen….die Jahre werden zerrinnen, und schliesslich werden wir zugrunde gehen.”
Remarque later traces the post-war fate of those lost young men in two books—Der Weg Zurueck (1931) and Drei Kameraden (1937)—but none of his many anti-war novels had the impact of his first. Im Westen Nichts Neues, translated into every major language, taught in schools and universities around the world ever since, has to date sold more than 30 million copies, and twice been filmed in English.
Ironically, it was the very popularity of Remarque’s work, and of other German pacifist novels of the period, such as Ludwig Renn’s Krieg (1928), that convinced Western readers a sane majority must still be ruling in the early years of the Third Reich, and would never allow the madness of another world war to be unleashed on humanity.
That trust was also based on worldwide awareness of Weimar Berlin, then recognized as the center of German intellectual and artistic life. To the German capital in the late 1920s, it seemed that every important artist of Remarque’s generation was inexorably drawn, including Schoenberg, Weill, Hindemith and Alban Berg, whose operatic adaptation of Wozzeck premiered in 1925. It was there, too, that the radical producer and director Erwin Piscator staged such anti-war plays as The Good Soldier Schweik and Ernst Toller’s Hoppla Wir Leben in 1927, both of which influenced the early works of Bertolt Brecht.
A few excerpts from Brecht’s first major success, Die Dreigroschenoper, which opened in Berlin at the end of August, 1928, are sufficient to indicate how radically his attitude toward war diverges from the standard romantic myths. Right at the outset of the opera, to Kurt Weill’s jazzy, upbeat score, he tells us the brutal truth of military life:
“John ist gestorben und Jimmy ist tot
Und George ist vermisst und verdorben
Aber Blut ist immer noch rot
Und fuer die Armee wird jetzt wieder geworben!
Auf den Kanonen
Vom Cap bis Couch Behar.
Wenn es mal regnete
Und es begegnete
Ihnen ‘ne neue Rasse
‘ne braune oder blasse
Dann machen sie vielleicht daraus ihr Beefsteak Tartar.”
Despite the Verfremdungseffekt of placing the action in England in the eighteenth century, Brecht drives home the nihilistic message that four years of senseless slaughter have communicated to his contemporaries. To Pirate Jenny’s question, “Denn wovon lebt der Mensch?” Macheath answers coldly:
“…Indem er stuendlich
Den Menschen peinigt, auszieht, anfaellt, abwuergt und frisst.
Nur dadurch lebt der Mensch, dass er so gruendlich
Vergessen kann, dass er ein Mensch doch ist.
Ihr Herren, bildet euch nur da nichts ein:
Der Mensch lebt nur von Missetat allein!”
There’s no space in his vision for the consolation of romantic love, either—what he calls elsewhere in the opera “der verdammte ‘Fuehlst-du-mein-Herz-schlagen’ Text.”
That despair of even individual happiness also infects the prose of Americans living in France and Germany during the 1920s, those demobilized soldiers and expatriate writers Gertrude Stein called the “lost generation.” Hemingway’s first war novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), feature U.S. World War I veterans, one of whom deserts from the Italian army and loses both his lover and their child, while the other, his manhood torn away by shrapnel, loses even the chance for domestic happiness. Even American silent films—The Big Parade (1925) and Wings (1927)—feature protagonists who either come through the war with amputated limbs or are accidentally killed by their own men. Both movies enjoyed widespread popularity in Europe in the late 1920’s. Similarly, D.H. Lawrence’s last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1930), depicts a war survivor not only unmanned by a shell, but paralyzed below the waist. Despite the privileges of wealth and class, Lord Chatterley is condemned to sit pathetically on his veranda or careen cursing through the flowers in his motorized wheelchair, while his wife is enjoying the virility of the gamekeeper.
Robert Graves, a poet, novelist, and close friend of Siegfried Sassoon at the front, also wrote a popular anti-war memoir in the late twenties. Goodbye to All That (1929) matches Ernst Juenger’s diaries in gruesome detail, but Graves has no patience with myths of heroism. Instead, the soldiers Graves recalls are those that casually rob and murder their German prisoners; comrades who queue up outside make-shift brothels in the nearest French village to be serviced, along with 150 enlisted men, by a single prostitute; officers and men who manufacture excuses to avoid night patrols in no-man’s-land. Graves’ own Welsh battalion is “among the first to participate…in the Christmas 1914 fraternization”; and the fallen Englishmen that Graves hauls back to the British lines after an attack are not the stuff of romance. He describes only swollen corpses: “The colour of [their] dead faces [changed] from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy.”
And in Berlin, right up until the Machtergreifung silenced dissent, German, British and American writers continued to thrive in a climate of protest and iconoclasm. Egon Erwin Kisch, briefly imprisoned in 1916 for reporting Austrian misconduct on the warfront, published a scathing memoir of his experiences, Schreib das auf, Kisch!, in 1929. Among those in the Berlin circle who subscribed to the Neue Sachlichkeit was also Robert Musil. His critique of decadent militarism permeates both volumes of Ein Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, a two-volume novel that appeared in 1930 and 1932 to loud praise from Thomas Mann himself. Even Alfred Doeblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), which hardly conforms to the Neue Sachlichkeit, features a protagonist who comes out of the trenches of France only to lose himself in an underworld of prostitution and murder.
The last significant anti-heroic treatment of the 1914-1918 conflict reached the European public on the eve of the next world war. Jean Renoir, director and former French pilot on the western front, brought Le Grand Illusion to the screen in 1937. The film exposes many illusions—illusions not only of war as a glorious exercise, but also of national, racial and class superiority as cultural values worth preserving. Its insistence that a decadent socio-economic order is responsible for the war is directly in line with the sentiments of his fellow Frenchman, Henri Barbusse, 22 years earlier. Le Feu and Le Grand Illusion mark, in fact, the opening and the closing of an era, an era dominated by the voices of those who came back from the Great War determined to tell a terrible truth.
There have been, of course, other wars to report since, other mechanized, mass suicides to warn us of. Pablo Picasso, long-time resident of Paris, responded to the massacre of Basque villagers during the Spanish Civil War with the now-iconic mural, Guernica, arguably the visual art’s most powerful anti-war statement.
In the same year, 1937, in response to the same war in Spain and the threat of a worse one to come, Virginia Woolf spoke out again--this time in a book-length essay. Three Guineas not only inveighs against war, but, echoing Lysistrata, it places the blame for war and for the romantic myths that surround it squarely on men. Woolf addresses her misguided male counterparts: “If you insist upon fighting to protect me, or ‘our’ country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share….” And women, she advises, should avoid the dangerous enthusiasms of their men:
“Take no share in patriotic demonstrations…assent to no form of national self-praise…make no part of any claque or audience that encourages war…absent [yourself] from military displays, tournaments…and all such ceremonies as encourage the desire to impose ‘our’ civilization or ‘our’ dominion upon other people.”
Moreover, that whole first generation of anti-war writers did their best to speak out against the next world war—Brecht reacted to the invasion of Poland with Mutter Courage und Ihre Kinder (1939), and Remarque’s Zeit zu Leben und Zeit zu Sterben (1954) painted the Second World War as unrelieved nightmare, both at the front and at home. Oedon von Horvath, a practicing playwright through most of the years of Weimar Berlin, warned of the coming wave of fascism from his place of exile in Paris in 1938. His novel, Jugend Ohne Gott, which looks at Hitlerism from the perspective of an adolescent boy, is still widely read in both German and in its English translation, The Age of Fish. In addition, Paul Celan’s Todesfuge and Brecht’s later poems sustained the wave of German anti-war poetry well beyond the Second World War.
In post-war England, George Orwell took the violent lessons of the first half-century one step further in a final, grim novel, 1984, while Bertrand Russell led mass gatherings of protestors in Trafalgar Square in the “Ban the Bomb” movement of the 1950s. Since then, the task of demythologizing war has passed to generations of artists in all three cultures. In the 1960s and early 70s in Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, in Siegfried Lenz’s Deutschstunde, in Gerry Raffles Oh What a Lovely War—to name but a single example from each country—writers and film directors have continued to underscore the bitter cost of both world wars.
One can argue, in fact, that the outrage that began in the slaughter-pens of France and Belgium a century ago has never gone quiet. It’s a story told every day in fiction and non-fiction, in paintings and poems, in speeches, songs, films and plays, in the ubiquity of the peace symbol on skin and clothes and cars, and in the streets and meeting halls of major cities across Europe and America. Consider the protest slogans: “Make Love Not War,” “War is Not the Answer,” “Fight the Rich Not Their Wars,” “Kapitalismus Kann Toedlich Sein,”—and the songs: “On the Eve of Destruction,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “The Universal Soldier,” “What is War Good For? Absolutely Nothing!” and “All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance.”
All of this begs a difficult question. Given that the experience of World War I has profoundly changed European literature and culture, embedding new images and archetypes that the most stubborn romantic can hardly ignore, what effect has that new consciousness, that continuous stream of anti-war commentary had on those who would make war? At first glance, one is tempted to say none at all. Heads of state simply ignored the public outcry in 2003 and committed thousands of troops to the Iraq invasion. Millions have died across the middle East in the years since. Genocides have stained the record of the twentieth century from Armenia at the start, to Rwanda at the end. It seems, in fact, that the Western powers wage new wars with ever increasing barbarism. Only 10% of those killed in World War I were civilians, but that figure rose to 50% in World War II as air power obliterated whole populations. The widespread use of napalm and Agent Orange in the Vietnam conflict meant 70% of those killed between 1965 and 1973 were non-combatants, and to date 90% of the victims of the Iraq war have been civilians. One might even argue that the last 100 years represent our worst century so far.
On the other hand, there is increasing evidence from the end of World War I onwards of, first fear, then repression, and finally retreat on the part of Western governments in the face of rising public skepticism about war. As early as 1919, the SPD sensed the threat of pacifist sentiment, banning or jailing German anti-war poets; the Nazi Buch-und Filmverbrennungen during the thirties were a direct reaction to the popularity of Remarque, Brecht, Kisch, Renoir, and other “decadent” pacifists; and from 1934 on, Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl propagandized their reluctant countrymen into war, feeding the German people an exclusive diet of hyper-nationalistic, racist messages. On the U.S. side, Hollywood did much the same in the forties, blackballing conscientious objectors and countering anti-war sentiment with dozens of cheap, pro-American imitations of Riefenstahl’s Triumph des Willens.
The balance began to shift, however, in the Vietnam era, as international protests and the fierce resistance of U.S. civilians and conscripted soldiers reached a crescendo. Political leaders were driven from office, the U.S. gave up the fight, and the draft ended for good. And since the turn of the new century, public pressure on war-makers has begun to take its toll again. America found few European allies for its Iraq invasion—notable holdouts included both France and Germany—and those it did find lost domestic political capital as a result of their participation. Almost all, in response to public pressure, have since brought their troops home.
Today, even for a superpower to sustain a war, journalists must be embedded with the troops, banned from field hospitals and military funerals and, on more than 70 occasions in Iraq, simply shot, to prevent unhappy news from reaching a skeptical electorate. Such repressive tactics, along with the exclusive employment of mercenaries and volunteer armies, are a direct response to memories of the powerful anti-war movement of the sixties and seventies, and to the danger represented in protests that brought 10 million people into the streets on a single day in 2003. The pattern is clear: lies and censorship may prevail for a time, but inevitably the truth leaks out and confirms the public’s underlying sense that war is no longer morally defensible. Though it was once a revolutionary point of view (and still is among many in the U.S.), opposition to war as a legitimate response to political and economic issues has been gaining currency in European culture for generations now.
That it has indeed become more and more difficult to hide the insanity of war from those who must be asked to fight it, and nearly impossible to position it as anything remotely like a picnic, is largely traceable to the groundwork of the soldier-artists who spoke out from the troglodyte world of the trenches so many years ago. It is to our credit as humane men and women that their words and their warnings haunt us yet.
Painting by Paul Nash