Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Other Possibility

Freiheit (Freedom)
by Constantin von Mitschke-Collande, 1919 ©LACMA 
In his multi-volume novel November 1918, German author Alfred Döbler describes the return of the defeated German army to Berlin in December of 1918:
And then came the sight that caused many in the crowd to weep.  Men as well as women, moved by the feeling of humanity’s common fate, remembering the long war and all the dead.  Did the people see the troops? They were looking at the long war, at victories and at the defeats.  Before them a piece of their own life was marching past, with wagons and horses, machine-guns and cannons.*
Everywhere in Europe, the old life was gone, never to be recovered, but perhaps nowhere was this more evident and mourned than in Germany. An estimated two million German soldiers died in the war, and Germans on the home front endured years of hunger and disease. The German national debt, which stood at 5 billion marks in 1913, had soared to 153 billion marks by the war’s end.**

I can give him another injection; in the state he's in,
he won't notice anything at all. 
In Germany after the First World War, Richard Bessel notes, “Post-war German governments, whatever their political complexion, faced the task not of how ‘to bring culture and prosperity to the working people’ but of how, in effect, to distribute poverty.”° The Versailles Treaty had assigned Germany and its allies blame for the damages caused by their war of “aggression,”°° and in 1921, the Allies presented Germany with the bill for reparations: 132 billion gold marks.  In practice the figure was adjusted to 50 billion marks over thirty-six years—still an enormous sum.°°° British economist John Maynard Keynes protested that the terms of peace were in actuality a “policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation” thereby causing “the decay of the whole civilised life of Europe,”† while a German official labeled the reparations as “the continuation of the war by other means.”††

In 1929, amidst soaring unemployment, social unrest, and political instability, German author Erich Kästner wrote a poem that imagines a different version of reality.

The Other Possibility

If we had won the war with waving
of flags and roaring, if we had
then Germany would be past saving,
then Germany would have gone mad.

One would attempt to make us tame
like savage tribes that one might mention.
We’d leave the sidewalk if a sergeant came
and stand attention.

If we had won the war of late
we’d be in a proud and headstrong state
and press in bed in our dreams
our hands to our trouser seams.

Women must bear, each woman serves
a child a year. Or calaboose.
The state needs children as preserves,
and it swills blood like berry juice.

If we had won the war, I bet
that heaven would be national,
the clergy would wear epaulets,
God be a German general.

Trenches would take the place of borders.
No moon, insignia instead.
An emperor would issue orders.
We’d have a helmet and no head.
Berlin bookburning, 1933

If we had won, then everyone
would be a soldier; the entire
land would be run by goon and gun,
and all around would be barbed wire. 

On order, women would throw twins,
for men cost hardly more than stone,
and above all one cannot win
a war with guns alone.

Then reason would be kept in fetters,
accused and always on the spot.
And wars would come like operettas.
If we had won the last war—but
we were in luck and we did not.
            —Erich Kästner, translated by Walter Kaufmann

Kästner’s alternate version of events produces a fiercely nationalist, militaristic, rigidly patriotic country, a German society in which everyone is always under orders and no one is valued, for “men cost hardly more than stone” – they are cultivated like cabbages for cannon fodder. Kästner had fought in the First World War as a young artillery gunner, an experience that shaped his pacifist views.  His poem re-invents the close of the Great War while simultaneously anticipating and warning against future threats. 

Erich Kästner
Just three years after “The Other Possibility” was published in the collection Ein Mann gibt Auskunft (A Man Gives Information), Kästner stood in Berlin’s Opernplatz Square and watched as a mob of over 40,000 people burned the books of fourteen undesirable authors. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Erich Maria Remarque were among the banned authors – as was Kästner himself, who had chosen not to flee Germany, but to remain and chronicle events.  During the Second World War, he was refused admission to the compulsory Nazi writers’ association and interrogated several times by the Gestapo; his career never recovered from the self-censorship required for his personal survival.  Shortly before Kästner’s death in 1974, his friend Marcel Reich-Ranicki described him as “Germany’s most hopeful pessimist,” writing that “he belonged to the moralists that are at the same time jesters.†††
* Alfred Döblin, November 1918, iii, Heimkehr der Frontruppen, Deutscher Taschenbuch Vergag, 1978, pp. 152-153, cited in Richard Bessel’s Germany after the First World War, Clarendon Press, 1993, p. v.
** Philipp Blom, Fracture: Life and Culture in the West, 1918-1938, Basic Books, 2015, p. 75.
° Richard Bessel’s Germany after the First World War, Clarendon Press, 1993, p. 102.
°° Article 231 of the treaty specified: “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”
°°° David Reynolds, The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century, WW Norton & Company, 2014, p. 131.
† John Maynard Keynes, Economic Consequences of the Peace, Macmillian and Company, 1920, p. 209.
†† The Long Shadow, p. 133.
††† Marcel Reich-Ranicki, quoted by Jacob Comenetz, “German Embassy’s ‘Erick Kästner Days’ Celebrate Beloved Author,”, Accessed 19 Mar. 2018.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Envelopes of pain

It was the news no one wanted to hear; it was the knock at the door that everyone dreaded. Donald Overall was a young boy, but it was a morning he never forgot:
I remember the day we heard very distinctly .… Mother and I were downstairs in the main hall when the doorbell rang.  I was hiding behind her as she was handed an envelope.  I remember she opened the letter immediately.  I didn’t know what it said, but she screamed and collapsed on the floor in a dead faint. I tried to wake her up; I didn’t know what was wrong. I was holding on to her skirts and called out for help and an elderly couple who lived in a lower flat came out and comforted both of us.  Mother came round slowly and they eventually got her upstairs into the bedroom. She was there for about ten days and it was while she was getting better, that she turned onto her side and said to me, ‘Your father’s dead, he won’t come back.  Now you are the man of the house, you must do things as best as you can.’ And I said, ‘Me, Mum?’ I was five years old.  That changed my life; it had to.*

Families of the war dead received news of their soldier’s death in a variety of ways: officers’ next-of-kin received telegrams (Australian telegrams were pink), while the families of the other ranks typically were sent an official form in the mail (British death notices were sealed in buff envelopes). Notification was slower during major offensives with heavy casualties, and a fellow soldier might write the family if he saw a man killed or found his body.  Some families heard the news through word-of-mouth from a soldier on leave, and officers or chaplains might send a personal letter if they had the time.  It was also possible to receive letters from the fallen soldier, written before his death but arriving after official notification of his death had been received. 

War Time

Telegram sent to Mrs H Allen,
notifying her of the death of her son
Young John, the postman, day by day,
In sunshine or in rain,
Comes down our road with words of doom
In envelopes of pain.

What cares he as he swings along
At his mechanic part,
How many times his hand lets fall
The knocker on a heart?

He whistles merry scraps of song,
What'er his bag contain—
Of words of death, of words of doom
In envelopes of pain.
            --Mary Eliza Fullerton 

Over 60,000 men from Australia died in the First World War, and an estimated one in every four families mourned a son or husband who had been killed.** But for those living thousands of miles from the battlefields where their loved ones had died, there was no object to which their grief could attach.  They were deprived of bodies to prepare for burial and graves to visit, and as historian K.S. Inglis notes, “the war which created such unprecedented levels of bereavement may actually have tended to reduce its public expression. The British government discouraged deep mourning as bad for the nation’s morale.”†  In “War Time,” the only physical link with the dead soldier is the envelope that brings the news. The jarring contrast between the carefree postman and the “words of death, words of doom,” implies that society expects mourners to internalize their emotions, to seal them in metaphorical envelopes of pain. 

Mary Eliza Fullerton was an Australian writer and activist who campaigned for women’s rights and protested military conscription.  In his history of Australian women writers, Dale Spender writes,
Mary E. Fullerton
Given that Mary Eliza Fullerton is acknowledged in H.M. Green’s History of Australian Literature, it could almost be said that here was one woman poet who had ‘made it’ into the literary canon—except of course that she rates no mention in the Oxford History of Australian Literature, or in Geoffrey Dutton’s Literature of Australia, and she is not included in the Oxford Anthology of Australian Literature. Why she should have been omitted from these later surveys and selections is a matter for speculation, for it cannot be because she was unknown or that her work was without merit…. Mary Fullerton wrote provocative polemic poetry which still makes its point today.”††
Her poem “War Time” appeared in The Breaking Furrow, published in 1921. 
* Richard van Emden, The Quick and the Dead, Bloomsbury, 2011, pp. 108-109.
** Bruce Scates, “Bereavement and Mourning (Australia),” 1914-1918 Online International Encyclopedia of the First World War,, Accessed 10 Mar. 2018.
† K. S. Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne UP, 1999, p. 98.
†† Dale Spender, Writing a New World: Two Centuries of Australian Women Writers, Spinifex, 1988, p. 203.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The bannerless, unhating dead

Cerny-en-Laonnois cemeteries
Photo courtesy of Abellio†
Running along an east-west ridge north of Paris, the Chemin des Dames saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the Great War during the First (1914), Second (1917) and Third (1918) Battles of the Aisne. Estimates of the combined casualties suffered by both sides in the Second and Third Battles of the Aisne exceed 600,000 men. 

Situated on the Chemin des Dames, the village of Cerny-en-Laonnois was completely destroyed; a French guide reports that it “no longer existed after the war,” and 53% of the area was designated a “zone rouge,”* an area so environmentally damaged as to be unfit for human habitation. Where the village once stood, thousands of bodies were buried. Today, visitors find one of the most unusual cemetery configurations on the Western Front: a French and a German military cemetery adjoin one another, meeting in one corner where no fences, walls, or boundaries separate the two cities of the dead. 

Here is the final resting place of 5,150 French, 7,526 Germans, and 54 Russians.  Only half of those buried at Cerny-en-Laonnois were able to be identified; the rest lie in mass graves or ossuaries. Nearby, memorials are also dedicated to the 1st Loyal North Lancashire Regiment (part of the British Army known as the “Old Contemptibles”) and the 38th African Infantry Division (which included troops from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria).  Following the Second World War, a memorial chapel was privately built at the site “to further the reconciliation of people by the memory of their sons killed on opposing sides of the battlefield.”**

A year after the war ended, French poet René Arcos published Le Sang des autres (The Blood of Others).  His poem “The Dead,” describes enemies joined by shared suffering and loss. 

The Dead
Grave in No Man's Land,
Margaret Hall, 1918-1919
Metropolitan Museum of Art 

The widows’ veils
In the wind
All blow the one way.

And the mingling tears
Of the million sorrows riverwards
All flow the one way.

Rank by rank, shoulder to shoulder
The bannerless, unhating dead,
Hair plastered down with clotted blood,
The dead all lie the one way.

In the single clay, where unendingly
The dying and the coming worlds make one,
The dead today are brothers, brow to brow,
Doing penance for the same defeat.

Oh, go clash, divided sons,
And tear Humanity asunder
Into vain tatters of land—
The dead all lie the one way;

For in the earth there remains
But one homeland and one hope,
Just as for the Universe there is
But one battle and one victory.
            —René Arcos, translated by Ian Higgins

René Arcos
Fighting with the French, René Arcos was injured early in the war, but returned to the Western Front as an anti-war correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.  In 1923, Arcos became editor-in-chief of the newly published literary magazine Europe. In the inaugural issue, he wrote,
We speak of Europe because our vast peninsula, between the East and the New World, is the crossroads where civilisations meet. But it is to all peoples that we address ourselves … in the hope of averting the tragic misunderstandings that currently divide humanity …. It is urgent that we learn to look higher than all the interests, the passions, the selfishness of individuals and ethnic groups. There can be no victory won by man against man.***
† Further photos and information on Cerny-en-Laonnais and Arcos' "The Dead" can be found at
* Cerny-en-Laonnois,” Commémoration du Centenaire de la Bataille du Chemin des Dames, Dimanche 16 avril 2017, p. 36,, Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.
** Etienne Verkindt, “Cerny-en-Laonnois: la Chapelle-Mémorial et les cimetières français et allemande,” Le Chemin des Dames,, Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.
*** René Arcos, “Patrie Européenne,” Europe, No. 1, February 1923, pp. 110, 113,, Accessed 2 Mar. 2018.