Above the Battle
by Romain Rolland, translated by Charles Kay Ogden
XV. The Murder of the Élite translated by Roger Fry
1966223Above the Battle — XV. The Murder of the ÉliteCharles Kay OgdenRomain Rolland



The phrase is not new-coined to-day;[1] but the fact is. Never, in any period, have we seen humanity throwing into the bloody arena all its intellectual and moral reserves, its priests, its thinkers, its scholars, its artists, the whole future of the spirit—wasting its geniuses as food for cannon.

A great thing, doubtless, when the struggle is great, when a people fights for an eternal cause, the fervour of which fires the whole nation, from the smallest to the greatest; when it fuses all the egoisms, purifies desire, and out of many souls makes one unanimous soul. But if the cause be suspect or if it is tainted (as we judge that of our adversaries to be), what will be the situation of a moral élite which has preserved the sad and lofty privilege of perceiving at least a part of the truth, and which must nevertheless fight and die and kill for a faith which it doubts?

Those passionate natures that are intoxicated by fighting or are voluntarily blinded by the necessities of action are not troubled by these questions. For them the enemy is a single mass; nothing else exists for them but this, for they have to break it; it is their function and their duty. And to each his special duty. But if minorities do not exist for such men, they do exist for us who, since we are not fighting, have the liberty and the duty to see every aspect of the case—we who form part of the eternal minority, the minority which has been, is, and always will be eternally oppressed. It is for us to hear and to proclaim these moral sufferings! Plenty of others repeat or invent the jubilant echoes of the struggle. May other voices be raised to give the tragic accents of the fight and its sacred horror!

I shall take my examples from the enemy camp, for several reasons: because the German cause being from the first tainted with injustice, the sufferings of the few who are just, and the still fewer who have spiritual perceptions are greater there than elsewhere; because these evidences appear openly in publications whose boldness the German censorship has not perceived; because I bow with respect to the heroic discipline of silence which France in fighting imposes on her sufferings. (Would to God that this silence were not broken by those who, trying to deny these sufferings, profane the grandeur of the sacrifice by the revolting levity of their silly jests in newspapers which are without either gravity or dignity.)

I have shown in a recent article that a part of the intellectual youth of Germany was far from sharing the war-madness of its elders. I cited certain energetic reproofs delivered by these young writers to the theorists of imperialism. And these writers are not, as one might think from an article in the Temps (though I gladly pay a tribute to its honesty), merely a small group as narrow as that of our symbolists. They count among them writers who appeal to a large public and who do not set out in any way (except for the group of Stefan George) to write for a select few—they wish to write for all. I stated, too, that the boldest review of all, Wilhelm Herzog's Forum, was read in the German trenches and received approbation thence.

But what is more astonishing, this spirit of criticism has possessed some of the combatants and even made its appearance among German officers. In the November-December number of the Friedens-Warte, published in Berlin, Vienna, and Leipzig, by Dr. Alfred H. Fried, there occurs "An appeal to the Germanic peoples," addressed, at the end of October, by Baron Marschall von Biberstein, Landrat of Prussia and captain in the 1st Foot Guards reserve. This article was written in a trench north of Arras, where on the 11th of November, Biberstein was killed. He expresses unreservedly his horror of the war and his ardent desire that it may be the last: "That is the conviction of those at the front who are witnesses of the unspeakable horrors of modern warfare." Even more praiseworthy is Biberstein's frankness when he decides to begin a confession and a mea culpa for the sins of Germany. "The war has opened my eyes," he says, "to our terrible unlovableness (Unbeliebtheit). Everything has its cause; we must have given cause for this hatred; and even in part have justified it.… Let us hope that it will not be the least of the advantages of this war that Germany will turn round on herself, will search out and recognise her faults and correct them." Unfortunately even this article is spoiled by Germanic pride which, desiring a world peace, sets out to impose it on the world. Herein it recalls in some respects the bellicose pacifism of the too celebrated Ostwald.

But another officer (of whom I spoke in my last article) the poet Fritz von Unruh, first Lieutenant of Uhlans on the western front, has written dramatic scenes in verse and prose. These have appeared recently under the title Before the Decision (Vor der Entscheidung). It is a dramatic poem in which the author has noted his own impressions and his moral transformations. The hero, who is like himself, an officer of Uhlans, passes through various centres of the war and remains everywhere a stranger; his soul is detached from murderous passions, he sees the abominable reality until his sufferings from it amount to agony. The two scenes reproduced by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung show us a muddy and bloodstained trench, where German soldiers, like beasts in a slaughter-house, die or await death with bitter words—and officers getting drunk on champagne around a 42 mm. mortar, laughing and getting excited till they fall beneath the weight of sleep and fatigue.

From the first scene I take these terrible words of one of those who wait in the trenches under fire of the machine guns, a Dreissigjæhriger (man of thirty).

In my village they are laughing—they drink to each victory. They slaughter us like butcher's cattle—and they say "It's war!" When it is over, they are no fools, they will feast us for three years. But the first cripple won't be grey headed before they will laugh at his white hairs.

And the Uhlan, possessed by horror in the midst of the massacre, falls on his knees and prays:

Thou who gavest life and takest it—how shall I recognise Thee? In these trenches strewn with mutilated bodies I find Thee not. Does the piercing cry of these thousands suffocated in the terrible embrace of Death reach not up to Thee? Or is it lost in frozen space? For whom does Thy Springtime blossom? For whom is the splendour of Thy suns? For whom, O God? I ask it of Thee in the name of all those whose mouths are closed by courage and by fear in face of the horror of Thy darkness: What heat is left within me? What light of truth? Can this massacre be Thy will? Is it indeed Thy will?

(He loses consciousness and falls.)

A pain less lyrical, less ecstatic, more simple, more reflective, and nearer to ourselves marks the sequence of Feldpostbriefe of Dr. Albert Klein, teacher in the Oberrealschule at Giessen and Lieutenant of the Landwehr, killed on the 12th of February in Champagne.[2] Passing over what are, perhaps, the most striking pages from the point of view of artistic quality and power of thought, I will only give two extracts from these letters which are likely to be of special interest to French readers.

The first describes for us with an unusual frankness the moral condition of the German army:

Brave, without care for his own life! Who is there among us that is that? We all know too well our own worth and our own possibilities; we are in the flower of our age: force is in our arms and in our souls; and as no one willingly dies, no one is brave (tapfer) in the usual sense of the word: or at least such are very rare. It is just because bravery is so rare in life, it is just for that that we expend so much religion, poetry, and thought (and this begins already at school), in celebrating as the highest fate death for one's fatherland, until it attains its climax in the false heroism which makes such a sensation about us in newspapers and speeches and which is so cheap—and also in the true heroism of a small number who do risk themselves and lead on the others.… We do our duty, we do what we ought; but it is a passive virtue.… When I read in the papers the scribblings of those who have a bad conscience because they are safely in the rear—when I read this talk which makes every soldier into a hero, I feel hurt. Heroism is a rare growth, and you cannot build on it a citizen army. To keep such an army together the men must respect their superiors, and even fear them more than the enemy. And the superiors must be conscientious, do their duty well, know their business thoroughly, decide rapidly, and have control of their nerves. When we read the praises which those behind the line write of us, we blush. Thank God, old-fashioned, robust shame is not dead in us.… Ah! my dear friends, those who are here don't speak so complacently of death, of disease, of sacrifice, and of victory as do those who behind the line ring the bells, make speeches, and write newspapers. The men here accustom themselves as best they may to the bitter necessity of suffering and of death if fate wills; but they know and see that many noble sacrifices, innumerable, innumerable sacrifices have already been made, and that already for a long while we shall have had more than enough of destruction on our side as well as the other. It is precisely when one has to look suffering in the face as I have that a ie begins to be formed that unites one to those over there, on the other side (and one that unites you too with them, my friends! Yes, surely you feel it too, don't you?) If I come back from here (which I scarcely hope for any more) my dearest duty will be to soak myself in the study and the thoughts of those who have been our enemies. I wish to reconstruct my nature on a wider basis.… And I believe that it will be easier after this war than after any other to be a human being.

The second fragment is the account of a touching encounter with a French prisoner:

Yesterday evening I was strangely touched. I happened to see a convoy of prisoners and I talked to one of them, a colleague of mine, Professor of classical philology in the college of F——. Such an open-minded, intelligent man, and with such a fine military bearing, like all his fellows, although they had just been through a terrible experience of machine-gun fire.… It was a proof to me of the senselessness of the war. I thought how much one would have liked to be the friend of these men, who are so near us in their education, their mode of life, the circle of their thought and their interest. We started talking about a book on Rousseau and we began to dispute like old philologists.… How much we are alike in force and worth! And how little truth there is in what our papers tell us of the shaken and exhausted conditions of the French troops! As true, or rather as untrue, as what the French newspapers write about us.… My French colleague showed in his remarks such a balanced mind and such understanding and admiration of German thought! To think that we were made so clearly to be friends and that we had to be separated! I was altogether overcome, and sat down crushed by it. I thought and thought and could not escape my mood by any sophistry. No end, no end to war, which for nearly six months now has swallowed in its gulf men, fortunes, and happiness! And this feeling is the same with us as with the other side. It is always the same picture: we do the same thing, we suffer the same thing, we are the same thing. And it is precisely for this reason that we are so bitterly at enmity.…

The same accent of troubled anguish, together with a despair which at moments nearly reaches to madness, and at others breathes a religious fervour, are seen in the letters of a German soldier to a teacher in German Switzerland. (We have known of these at the Prisoners' Agency for three or four months and they were published in Foi et Vie of April 15th.[3] They have been passed over in silence, so we shall persist in calling attention to them, for they thoroughly deserve it). In these letters, which cover from the second fortnight of August to the end of December, we see from the 25th of August onwards the evidence of a desire for peace among the German soldiers.

We all, even those who were hottest for the fight at the beginning, want nothing now but peace, our officers just as much as ourselves.… Convinced as we are of the necessity to conquer, warlike enthusiasm does not exist among us; we fulfil our duty, but the sacrifice is hard. We suffer in our souls.… I cannot tell you the sufferings I endure.…

September 20th. A friend writes to me: "On the 20th to 25th of August I took part in big battles: since then I suffer morally even to complete exhaustion, both physical and spiritual. My souls finds no repose.… This war will show us how much of the beast still survives in man, and this revelation will cause us to make a great step out of animalism: if not, it is all up with us!"

November 28th. (A splendid passage where one almost hears the voice of Tolstoi.) What are all the torments of war compared to the thoughts that obsess us night and day? When I am on some hill from which my view commands the plain, this is the idea which ceaselessly tortures me: down there in the valley the war rages; men who are facing one another as enemies. And up there on the hill opposite you there is, perhaps, a man who, like you, is contemplating the woods and the blue sky and perhaps ruminating the same thoughts as you, his enemy! This continual proximity might make one mad! And one is tempted to envy one's comrades who can kill time in sleeping and playing cards.

December 17th. The desire for peace is intense in every one; at least, in all those who are at the front and who are obliged to assassinate and be assassinated. The newspapers say that it's hardly possible to restrain the warlike ardour of the fighters.… They lie—consciously or unconsciously. Our chaplains in their sermons dispute the legend that our military ardour is slackening.… You can hardly believe how such tittle-tattle annoys us. Let them be silent, and let them not talk about things of which they can know nothing! Or better still, let them come not as almoners who keep to the rear, but into the firing-line, rifle in hand! Perhaps then they will get to know of the inner changes which take place in so many of us. According to these chaplains, any one who is without warlike enthusiasm is not a man such as our age demands. To me it seems that we are greater heroes than the others, we, who without being upheld by warlike enthusiasm, accomplish faithfully our duty, while hating war with our whole souls.… They talk of a holy war … I know of no holy war. I only know of one war which is the sum of all that is inhuman, impious, and bestial in man; it is God's chastisement and a call to repentance for the people that throws itself into war or lets itself be drawn into it. God sends men through this hell so that they may learn to love heaven. For the German people this war seems to me to be a punishment and a call to repentance, and most of all for our German Church. I have friends who suffer at the idea of being unable to do anything for the fatherland. Let them stay at home with a calm conscience! All depends on their peaceful work. But let the war enthusiasts come! Perhaps they will learn to keep silent.

"Why publish these pages?" I shall be asked by some people in France. "What good is it, when once war is let loose, to arouse pity for our adversaries, at the risk of blunting the ardour of the combatants?"—I answer, because it is the truth, and because the truth substantiates our judgment, the judgment of the whole world against the German leaders and their policy. What their armies have done we know; but that they were able to do it containing as they did such elements as those whose confessions we have just heard, incriminates still more deeply their masters. From the depths of the battlefield, these voices of a sacrificed minority rise up as a vengeful condemnation of the oppressors. To the accusations drawn up against predatory Empires and their inhuman pride, in the name of violated right, of outraged humanity by the victim peoples and by the combatants, is added the cry of pain of the nobler souls of their own people whom the bad shepherds who let loose this war have led and constrained into murder and madness. To sacrifice one's body is not the worst suffering, but also to sacrifice, to deny, to kill one's own soul!—You who die at least for a just cause, and who, full of sap and loaded with faith, fall like ripe fruit, how sweet is your lot beside this torture! But we shall so act that these sufferings shall not be vain.

Let the conscience of humanity hear and accept their complaint! It will resound in the future above the glory of battles; and whether she wills or no, History will place it on her register. History will do justice between the hangmen and their peoples. And the peoples will learn how to deliver themselves from their hangmen.

Journal de Genève, June 14, 1915.
  1. I take the phrase from M. Lucien Maury in an article written before the war: (Journal de Genève) March 30 1914. This is quoted recently by M. Adolphe Ferrière who, in his remarkable Doctor's thesis, La loi du Progrès attempts to solve the tragic problem of the part played by the élite.
  2. The review Die Tat, published by Eug. Diederichs at Jena, prints long extracts from them in its issue for May 1915.
  3. With an introduction by C. E. Babut.