Above the battle/XIV

 

XIV

WAR LITERATURE

The intellectuals on both sides have been much in evidence since the beginning of the war; they have, indeed, brought so much violence and passion to bear upon it, that it might almost be called their war!

It seems to me, however, that attention has not been sufficiently drawn to the fact that, with a few exceptions, it is only the voice of the older generation that has been heard—the voice of Academicians, and Professoren, of distinguished members of the press and the universities, of poets of established reputations, and the doyens of literature, art, and science.

As far as France is concerned, the explanation of this is simple: nearly all those up to the age of forty-eight who are able to bear arms are now acting instead of talking. In Germany the situation is rather different, since for various reasons, which I shall not attempt to elucidate, much of the literary youth of the nation has remained at home, and continues to publish books. Even those who are at the front contrive to send articles and poems to the Reviews (for the passion for writing dies hard in Germany).

It seems to me to be of importance to ascertain what spiritual currents are influencing the young intellectuals of Germany.[1]

It has been pointed out that in all countries the extremest views have been expressed by writers who have already passed el mezzo del cammino. We shall attempt to find the reason for this at some later date. At present we are content again to verify this fact in the case of German writers. Almost all the celebrated and acknowledged poets, all those who were rich in years and in honour, were swept off their feet at the beginning of the war. And this fact is all the more curious because some of them had been up to that time the apostles of peace, of pity, and of humanitarianism. Dehmel, the enemy of war, the friend of all men, who said that he did not know to which of the ten nationalities he owed his intellect, is now writing Battle Songs (Schlachtenlieder), and Songs of the Flag (Fahnenlieder), apostrophising the enemy, praising and dealing death. (At the age of fifty-one he is learning to bear arms, and has enlisted against the Russians.) Gerhart Hauptmann, whom Fritz von Unruh calls "the poet of brotherly love," has shaken off his neurasthenia, and bids men "mow down the grass which drips with blood." Franz Wedekind is pouring out invectives against Czarism, Lissauer against England. Arno Holz is raving deliriously. Petzold desires to be in every bullet that enters an enemy's heart; whilst Richard Nordhausen has written an Ode to a Howitzer.[2]

At first the younger writers as well were possessed with the same madness for war; but, in contact with the sufferings they endured and inflicted, it quickly disappeared. Fritz von Unruh enlisted as a Uhlan, and left for the front, crying "Paris, Paris is our goal!" Since the Battle of the Aisne, in September, he has written "Der Lamm": "Lamb of God, I have seen thy look of suffering. Give us peace and rest; lead us back to the heaven of love, and give us back our dead." Rudolf Léonhard sang of war at the beginning, and is still fighting; on re-reading his poems shortly afterwards, he wrote on the front page: "These were written during the madness of the first weeks. That madness has spent itself, and only our strength is left. We shall again win control over ourselves and love one another." Poets, hitherto unknown, are revealed by the cry of compassion wrung from their anguished hearts. To Andrea Fram, who has remained at home, it is a grief that he does not suffer, whilst thousands of others suffer and die. "All thy love, and all thy agony, in spite of thy ardent desire, avail not to soothe the last hour of a single man who is dying yonder." Upon Ludwig Marck each minute weighs like a nightmare:—


Menschen in Not…
Brüder dir tot…
Krieg ist im Land…

The poet who writes under the pseudonym of Dr. Owlglass proposed a new ideal for Germany, on the seventieth anniversary of the birth of Nietzsche (October 15th): not the superman, but at least—man. And Franz Werfel realises this ideal in poems thrilling with a mournful humanity, which takes part in the sacrament of misery and death:

"We are bound together not only by our common words and deeds, but still more by the dying glance, the last hours, the mortal anguish of the breaking heart. And whether you bow down before the tyrant, or gaze trembling into the beloved's countenance, or mark down your enemy with pitiless glance, think of the eye that will grow dim, of the failing breath, the parched lips and clenched hands, the final solitude, and the brow that grows moist in the last agony.… Be kind.… Tenderness is wisdom, kindness is reason.[3]… We are strangers all upon this earth, and die but to be reunitea."[4]

But the one German poet who has written the serenest and loftiest words, and preserved in the midst of this demoniacal war an attitude worthy of Goethe, is Hermann Hesse. He continues to live at Berne, and, sheltered there from the moral contagion, he has deliberately kept aloof from the combat. All will remember his noble article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of November 3rd, "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!" in which he implored the artists and thinkers of Europe "to save what little peace" might yet be saved, and not to join with their pens in destroying the future of Europe. Since then he has written some beautiful poems, one of which, an Invocation to Peace, is inspired with deep feeling and classical simplicity, and will find its way to many an oppressed heart.


Jeder hat's gehabt
Keiner hat's geschætzt.
Jeden hat der süsse Quell gelabt.
O wie klingt der Name Friede jetzt

Klingt so fern und zag,
Klingt so tranenschwer,
Keiner weiss und kennt den Tag,
Jeder sehnt ihn vol Verlangen her.…

("Each one possessed it, but no one prized it. Like a cool spring it refreshed us all. What a sound the word Peace has for us now!

"Distant it sounds, and fearful, and heavy with tears. No one knows or can name the day for which all sigh with such longing.")

The attitude of the younger reviews is curious: for whereas the older, traditional reviews (those which correspond to our Revue des Deux Mondes or our Revue de Paris) are more or less affected by military fervour—thus, for instance, the Neue Rundschau, which printed Thomas Mann's notorious vagaries on Culture and Civilisation (Gedanken im Kriege)—many of the younger ones affect a haughty detachment from actual events.

That impassive publication, Blätter für die Kunst, over which broods the invisible personality of Stefan George, published at the end of 1914 a volume of poems of 156 pages, which did not contain a single line referring to the war. A note at the end affirms that the points of view of the various authors have not changed on account of recent events, and anticipates the objection that "this is not the time for poetry," by the saying of Jean Paul: "No period has so much need of poetry, as the one which thinks it can do without it."

Die Aktion, a vibrating, audacious Berlin review, with an ultra-modern point of view, totally different from the calm impersonality of Blätter für die Kunst, stated in its issue of August 15, 1914, that it would not concern itself with politics, but would contain only literature and art. And if it finds room in its literary columns for the war poems sent from the field of battle by the military doctors, Wilhelm Klemm and Hans Kock, it is in consideration of their value as art, and not for the vivacity of their patriotic sentiments; for it scoffs mercilessly at the ridiculous bards of German Chauvinism, at Heinrich Vierordt, the author of Deutschland, hasse, at the criminal poets who stir up hatred with their false stories, and at Professor Haeckel. The dilettantism of this review is extreme. Its weekly issues contain translations from the French of André Gide, Péguy, and Léon Bloy, and reproductions of the works of Daumier, Delacroix, Cézanne, Matisse, and R. de la Fresnaye: (cubism flourishes in this Berlin review). The issue of October 24th is devoted to Péguy, and contains, as frontispiece, Egon Schiele's portrait of the man, who is honoured by Franz Pfemfert, the editor, as "the purest and most vigorous moral force in French literature of to-day." Let us hasten to add, however, that, as is often the case on the other side of the Rhine, they are carried away by their zeal in deploring his death as of one of their countrymen, and in proclaiming themselves his heirs. But the pride which admires is at least superior to the pride which disparages.

The most important of these young reviews is Die Weissen Blätter; important on account of the variety of questions it deals with, and the value and number of its contributors, as well as for the broad-mindedness of its editor—René Schickele. An Alsatian by birth, he belongs to those who feel most acutely the bitterness of the present struggle. After an interval of three months Die Weissen Blätter, which almost corresponds to our Nouvelle Revue Française, reappeared in January last with the following declaration, akin to that of the Revue des Nations, at Berne: "It seems good to us to begin the work of reconstruction, in the midst of the war, and to aid in preparing for the victory of the spirit. The community of Europe is at present apparently destroyed. Is it not the duty of all of us who are not bearing arms, to live from to-day onwards according to the dictates of our conscience, as it will be the duty of every German when once the war is over?"

By the side of these disinterested manifestoes about actual politics, appear lengthy historical novels (Tycho Brahé by Max Brod) and satirical comedies by Carl Sternheim, who continues to scourge the upper classes of German society, and the capitalists, for Die Weissen Blätter is open to all questions of the day. But in spite of the actual differences which must necessarily exist between a German and a French review, we cannot but point out the frankly hostile attitude of these writers to all the excesses of Chauvinism. The articles of Max Scheler, "Europe and the War," show an impartial attitude which is entirely praiseworthy. The review opens its columns to the loyal Annette Kolb, who, as the daughter of a German father and of a French mother, suffers keenly in this conflict between the parts of her nature, and has lately raised a tempest in Dresden, where in a public lecture she had the courage to admit her fidelity to both sides, and to express her regret that Germany should fail to understand France. In the February number, under the title "Ganz niedrich hængen!" there appeared a violent repudiation of the Krieg mit dem Maul (the war of tongues); "If journalists hope to inspire courage by insulting the enemy, they are mistaken—we refuse such stimulants. We dare to maintain our opinion, that the humblest volunteer of the enemy, who from an unreasoned but exalted sentiment of patriotism, fires upon us from an ambush, knowing well what he risks, is much superior to those journalists who profit by the public feeling of the day, and under cover of high-sounding words of patriotism do not fight the enemy but spit upon him."

Of all these young writers who are striving to preserve the integrity of their minds against the force of national passions, the one whose personality has been most exalted by this tempest, the most eloquent, courageous, and decided of all is Wilhelm Herzog. He is the editor of the Forum at Munich, and like our own Péguy, when he began to publish his Cahiers de la Quinzaine, he fills almost the whole of his review with his own burning articles. The enthusiastic biographer of H. von Kleist, he sees and judges the events of his own time with the eyes of that indomitable spirit. The German censor attempts in vain to silence him and to forbid the publication of the lectures of Spitteler and of Annette Kolb; his indignation and cries of vengeful irony spread even to us. He attacks bitterly the ninety-three intellectuals who "fancy they are all Ajaxes because they bray the loudest," those politicians of the school of Haeckel, who make a new division of the world, those patriotic bards who insult other nations; he attacks Thomas Mann mercilessly, scoffs at his sophistry, and defends France, the French Army,[5] and French civilisation against him; he points out that the great men of Germany (Grünwald, Dürer, Bach, and Mozart amongst others) have always been persecuted, humiliated, and calumniated.[6] In an article entitled "Der neue Geist,"[7] after having scoffed at the banality that has reappeared in the German theatres, and the literary mediocrity of patriotic productions, he asked where this "new spirit" may be found, and this gives him an opportunity to demolish Ostwald and Lasson.

"Where is it to be found? In the Hochschulen? Have we not read that incredibly clumsy (unwahrscheinlich plumpen) appeal of the 99 professors? Have we not appreciated the statements of that double centenarian (des zweihundertjæhrige Mummelgreises) mummy Lasson? When I was studying philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Berlin, the theatre in which he lectured was a place of amusement (Lachkabinett) for us—nothing more. And to-day people take him seriously! English, French, and Italian papers print his senile babblings against Holland, as typical of the Stimmung of the German intellectuals. The wrong that these privy councillors and professors have done us with their Aufklärungsarbeit can hardly be measured. They have isolated themselves from humanity by their inability to realise the feelings of others."

In opposition to these false representatives of a nation, these cultured gossips and political adventurers, he extols the silent ones, the great mass of the people of all nations who suffer in silence; and he joins with them in "the invisible community of sorrow."

"One who is suffering and knows that his sorrow is shared by millions of other beings, will bear it calmly; he will accept it willingly even, because he knows that he is enriched thereby, made stronger, more tender, more humane."[8]

And he quotes the words of old Meister Eckehart: "Suffering is the fastest steed that will bear you to perfection."

At the close of this summary review of the young writers of the war, a place must be found for those whom the war has crushed—they counted amongst the best. Ernst Stadler was an enthusiastic admirer of French art and of the French spirit. He translated Francis Jammes, and on the eve of his death, in November, he was writing to Stefan Zweig from the trenches about the poems of Verlaine, which he was translating. The unfortunate George Trakl, the poet of melancholy, was made lieutenant of a sanitary column in Galicia, and the sight of so much suffering drove him to despair and death. And there are many hidden tragedies, still unrevealed. When they are made known, humanity will tremble in contemplating its handiwork.

I reflected, as doubtless many of my French readers have also done, in reading through these German writings inspired by the war—writings through which from time to time there passes a mighty breath of revolt and sorrow—that our young writers are not writing "literature." Instead of books they give us deeds, and their letters. And in re-reading some of their letters I thought that ours had chosen the better part. It is not for me now to point out the position that this heroic correspondence will occupy, not only in our history but also in our literature. Into it the flower of our youth has put all its life, its faith and its genius: and for some of those letters I would give many of the finest lines of the noblest poems. Whatever be the result of this war, and the opinion as to its value later, it will be recognised that France has written on paper, mud-stained and often blotted with blood, some of its sublimest pages. Assuredly this war touches us more nearly than it does our adversaries, for who of us would have the heart to write a play or a novel whilst his country is in danger and his brothers dying?

But I will make no comparisons between the two nations. For the present the essential thing is to show that even in Germany there are certain finer minds who are fighting against the spirit which we hate—the spirit of grasping imperialism and inhuman pride, of military caste and the megalomania of pedants. They are but a minority—we have no illusions about that—and we ought to redouble our efforts on that account to vanquish the common enemy. Why then should we trouble to make these generous but feeble voices heard? Because their merit is the greater for being so little heeded; because it is the duty of those who are fighting for justice to render justice in their turn to all those men, even when they dwell in a country in which the state represents the violation of right by Faustrecht, who are defending with us the spirit of liberty.

Journal de Genève, April 19, 1915.

  1. The literary appreciation of the work cited is here treated as of secondary importance, in order that evidence may be discovered with regard to the thought of Germany.
  2. See the article of Josef Luitpol Stern, "Dichter," in Die Weissen Blätter, March 1915.
  3. Hohe Gemeinschaft.
  4. Fremde sind wir auf der Erde alle.
  5. Die Uberschaetzung der Kunst (December 1914).
  6. Von der Vaterlandsliebe (January 1915)
  7. December 1914.
  8. Hymne auf den Schmerz (January 1915).—It is to be noted that the Forum is read in the trenches, and that it has received many letters of approval from the front. (Der Phrasenrausch und seine Bekaempfer, February 1915.)