Stefan Zweig: Propaganda is as much war matériel as arms and planes


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

Stefan Zweig: Selections on peace and war


Stefan Zweig
From The World of Yesterday
Translated by Benjamin W. Huebsch and Helmut Ripperger

It had only been a second, but one that showed me how easily people anywhere could be aroused in a time of a crisis, despite all attempts at understanding, despite all efforts. My whole evening was spoiled. I could not sleep. If this had occurred in Paris, it would have made me uneasy, but I would not have been so shocked. I shuddered at the thought that this hatred had eaten its way deep into the provinces, deep into the hearts of the simple, naive people. A few days later I told my friends about the episode. Most of them did not take it seriously: ‘‘How we Frenchmen laughed at fat Queen Victoria, and yet two years later we formed an alliance with England. You don’t know the French, politics do not enter into them too deeply.” Only Rolland saw things in a different light. “The more naive a people are, the easier it is to get around them. Things are bad since Poincaré was elected. His trip to Petersburg will not be a pleasure jaunt.” We spoke at length about the socialist congress which had been called for that summer in Vienna, but here too Rolland was more sceptical than the others. “Who knows how many will remain steadfast once the mobilization order has been nailed up? We live in a time of mass emotion, mass hysteria, whose power in the case of war cannot be estimated.”


A great wave crashed over mankind so suddenly, with so much violence, that as its foam covered the surface it brought from the depths the dark and subconscious primeval promptings and instincts of the human animal – what was insightfully described by Feud as the rejection of civilization, a yearning to escape from the middle-class world of laws and their wisdom for once and indulge in the ancient bloodlust of man. And maybe these dark forces also played a part in the savage intoxication that combined alcohol with the joy of self-sacrifice, a wish for adventure and simple gullibility, the old superstition of flags and patriotic declamations, a grotesque frenzy, one that for a time unleashed mad and virtually inexorable momentum to the gravest crime of our era.


Who in the villages and the cities of Austria remembered “real” war? A few ancients at best, who, in 1866, had fought against Prussia, which was now their ally. But what a quick, bloodless, far-off war that had been, a campaign that had ended in three weeks with few victims and before it had well started! A rapid excursion into the romantic, a wild, manly adventure – that is how the war of 1914 was painted in the imagination of the simple man, and the young people were honestly afraid that they might miss this most wonderful and exciting experience of their lives; that is why they hurried and thronged to the colours, and that is why they shouted and sang in the trains that carried them to the slaughter; wildly and feverishly the red wave of blood coursed through the veins of the entire nation.

But the generation of 1939 knew war. It no longer deceived itself. It knew that it was not romantic but barbaric. It knew that it would last for years and years, an irretrievable span of time. It knew that the men did not storm the enemy, decorated with oak leaves and ribbons, but hung about for weeks at a time in trenches or quarters covered with vermin and mad with thirst, and that men were crushed and mutilated from afar without ever coming face to face with the foe. The newspapers and cinemas had already made the new and devilish techniques of destruction familiar; people knew how the giant tanks ground the wounded under them in their path, and how aeroplanes destroyed women and children in their beds. They knew that a World War of 1939, because of its soulless mechanization, would be a thousand times more cruel, more bestial, more inhuman than all of the former wars of mankind. Not a single individual of the generation of 1939 believed any longer in the God-decreed justice of war : and what was worse, they no longer believed in the justice and permanence of die peace it was to achieve.


[T]he tales of gouged-out eyes and severed hands which appear on the third or fourth day of every war filled the newspapers. They did not know, those innocents who spread such lies, that the accusation of every possible cruelty against the enemy is as much war matériel as are munitions and planes, and that they are systematically taken out of storage at the beginning of every war. War does not permit itself to be co-ordinated with reason and righteousness. It needs stimulated emotions, enthusiasm for its own cause and hatred for the adversary.

It lies in human nature that deep emotion cannot be prolonged indefinitely, either in the individual or in a people, a fact that is known to all military organizations. Therefore it requires an artificial stimulation, a constant ‘‘doping” of excitement; and this whipping-up was to be performed by the intellectuals, the poets, the writers, and the journalists, scrupulously or otherwise, honestly or as a matter of professional routine. They were to beat the drums of hatred and beat them they did, until the ears of the unprejudiced hummed and their hearts quaked. In Germany, in France, in Italy, in Russia, and in Belgium, they all obediently served the war propaganda and thus mass delusion and mass hatred, instead of fighting against it.

The results were disastrous. At that time, propaganda not yet having worn itself thin in peace time, the nations believed everything that they saw in print in spite of thousands of disillusionments. And so the pure, beautiful, sacrificial enthusiasm of the opening days became gradually transformed into an orgy of the worst and most stupid impulses.

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