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Stefan Zweig: A single conscience defies the madness of war

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

Stefan Zweig: Selections on peace and war

Romain Rolland: Selections on war

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Stefan Zweig
From Romain Rolland: The Man and His Work
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul

In the eyes of the patriots, Rolland’s first crime was that he openly discussed the moral problems of the war. On ne discute pas la patrie. The first axiom of war ethics is that those who cannot or will not shout with the crowd must hold their peace. Soldiers must never be taught to think; they must only be incited to hate. A lie which promotes enthusiasm is worth more in wartime than the best of truths.

***

Would the war between European brethren have ever broken out if every townsman, every countryman, every artist, had looked within to enquire whether the mines of Morocco and the swamps of Albania were truly precious to him? Would there have been a war if every one had asked himself whether he really hated his brothers across the frontier as vehemently as the newspapers and the professional politicians would have him believe? The herd instinct, the pattering of others’ arguments, a blind enthusiasm on behalf of sentiments that were never truly felt, could alone render such a catastrophe possible.

***

The war-current rose yet higher, the stream being fed by new and ever new blood flowing from innocent victims. Again and again some additional country became involved in the carnage. At length, as the clamor still grew louder, Rolland paused for a moment to take breath. He felt that it would be madness were he to continue the attempt to outcry the cries of so many madmen.

***

The spiritual character of the new work [Clerambault] recalls a long-forgotten tradition, the meditations of the old French moralists, the sixteenth century stoics who during a time of war-madness endeavored in besieged Paris to maintain their intellectual serenity by engaging in Platonic dialogues. The war itself, however, was not to be the theme, for the free soul does not strive with the elements. The author’s intention was to discuss the spiritual accompaniments of this war, for these to Rolland seemed as tragical as the destruction of millions of men. His concern was the destruction of the individual soul in the deluge produced by the overflowing of the mass soul.

***

The quiet suburban household is suddenly struck as by a thunderbolt with the news of the outbreak of war. Clerambault takes the train to Paris; and no sooner is he sprinkled with spray from the hot waves of enthusiasm, than all his ideals of international amity and perpetual peace vanish into thin air. He returns home a fanatic, oozing hate, and steaming with phrases. Under the influence of the tremendous storm he begins to sound his lyre: Theocritus has become Pindar, a war poet. Rolland gives a marvelously vivid description of something every one of us has witnessed, showing how Clerambault, like all persons of average nature, really takes a delight in horrors, however unwilling he may be to admit it even to himself. He is rejuvenated, his life seems to move on wings; the enthusiasm of the masses stirs the almost extinguished flame of enthusiasm in his own breast; he is fired by the national fire; he is physically and mentally refreshed by the new atmosphere. Like so many other mediocrities, he secures in these days his greatest literary triumph. His war songs, precisely because they give such vigorous expression to the sentiments of the man in the street, become a national property. Fame and public favor are showered upon him, so that (at this time when millions of his fellows are perishing) he feels well, self-confident, alive as never before.

“Forgive us, ye Dead,” the dialogue of the country with its children, is published. At first no one heeds the pamphlet. But after a time it arouses public animosity. A storm of indignation bursts upon Clerambault, threatening to lay his life in ruins. Friends forsake him. Envy, which had long been crouching for a spring, now sends whole regiments to the attack. Ambitious colleagues seize the opportunity of proclaiming their patriotism in contrast with his deplorable sentiments. Worst of all for Clerambault in that his innocent wife and daughter have to suffer on his account. They do not upbraid him, but he feels as if he had aimed a shaft against them. He who has hitherto sunned himself in the warmth of family life and has enjoyed the comforts of modest fame, is now absolutely alone.

He perseveres in his pilgrimage even when he has lost faith in his power to help his fellow men, for this is no longer his goal. He passes men by, marching onward towards the unseen, towards truth; his love for truth exposing him ever more pitilessly to the hatred of men. By degrees he becomes entangled in a net of calumnies; his troubles develop into a “Clerambault affair”; at length a prosecution is initiated. The state has recognized its enemy in the free man. But while the case is still in progress, the “defeatist” meets his fate from the pistol bullet of a fanatic. Clerambault’s end recalls the opening of the world catastrophe with the assassination of Jaurès.

***

For five years Romain Rolland was at war with the madness of the times. At length the fiery chains were loosened from the racked body of Europe. The war was over, the armistice had been signed. Men were no longer murdering one another; but their evil passions, their hate, continued. Romain Rolland’s prophetic insight celebrated a mournful triumph. His distrust of victory, his reiterated warnings that conquerors are merciless, were more than justified by the revengeful reality. “Victory in arms is disastrous to the ideal of an unselfish humanity. Men find it extraordinarily difficult to remain gentle in the hour of triumph.” These forecasts were terribly fulfilled. Forgotten were all the fine words anent the victory of freedom and right. The Versailles conference devoted itself to the installation of a new regime of force and to the humiliation of a defeated enemy. What the idealism of simpletons had expected to be the end of all wars, proved, as the true idealists who look beyond men towards ideas had foreseen, the seed of fresh hatred and renewed acts of violence.

***

Strange has been the rhythm of this man’s life, surging again and again in passionate waves against the time, sinking once more into the abyss of disappointment, but never failing to rise on the crest of faith renewed. Once again we see Romain Rolland as prototype of those who are magnificent in defeat. Not one of his ideals, not one of his wishes, not one of his dreams, has been realized. Might has triumphed over right, force over spirit, men over humanity.

Yet never has his struggle been grander, and never has his existence been more indispensable, than during recent years; for it is his apostolate alone which has saved the gospel of crucified Europe; and furthermore he has rescued for us another faith, that of the imaginative writer as the spiritual leader, the moral spokesman of his own nation and of all nations. This man of letters has preserved us from what would have been an imperishable shame, had there been no one in our days to testify against the lunacy of murder and hatred. To him we owe it that even during the fiercest storm in history the sacred fire of brotherhood was never extinguished. The world of the spirit has no concern with the deceptive force of numbers. In that realm, one individual can outweigh a multitude. For an idea never glows so brightly as in the mind of the solitary thinker; and in the darkest hour we were able to draw consolation from the signal example of this poet. One great man who remains human can for ever and for all men rescue our faith in humanity.

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