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Stefan Zweig: The whole world of feeling, the whole world of thought, became militarized

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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

During the five years of the war Romain Rolland remained in Switzerland, Europe’s heart; remained there that he might fulfil his task, “de dire ce qui est juste et humain.” Here, where the breezes blow freely from all other lands, and whence a voice could pass freely across all the frontiers, here where no fetters were imposed upon speech, he followed the call of his invisible duty. Close at hand the endless waves of blood and hatred emanating from the frenzy of war were foaming against the frontiers of the cantonal state. But throughout the storm, the magnetic needle of one intelligence continued to point unerringly towards the immutable pole of life – to point towards love.

***

In Rolland’s view it was the artist’s duty to serve his fatherland by conscientious service to all mankind, to play his part in the struggle by waging war against the suffering the war was causing and against the thousandfold torments entailed by the war. He rejected the idea of absolute aloofness. “An artist has no right to hold aloof while he is still able to help others.” But this aid, this participation, must not take the form of fostering the murderous hatred which already animated the millions. The aim must be to unite the millions further, where unseen ties already existed, in their infinite suffering. He therefore took his part in the ranks of the helpers, not weapon in hand, but following the example of Walt Whitman, who, during the American Civil War, served as hospital assistant.

Romain Rolland was one of the first to offer personal assistance. The Musée Rath was quickly made available for the purposes of the Red Cross. In one of the small wooden cubicles, among hundreds of girls, women, and students, Rolland sat for more than eighteen months, engaged each day for from six to eight hours side by side with the head of the undertaking, Dr. Ferrière, to whose genius for organization myriads owe it that the period of suspense was shortened. Here Rolland filed letters, wrote letters, performed an abundance of detail work, seemingly of little importance. But how momentous was every word to the individuals whom he could help, for in this vast universe each suffering individual is mainly concerned about his own particular grain of unhappiness. Countless persons to-day, unaware of the fact, have to thank the great writer for news of their lost relatives. A rough stool, a small table of unpolished deal, the turmoil of typewriters, the bustle of human beings questioning, calling one to another, hastening to and fro – such was Romain Rolland’s battlefield in this campaign against the afflictions of the war. Here, while other authors and intellectuals were doing their utmost to foster mutual hatred, he endeavored to promote reconciliation, to alleviate the torment of a fraction among the countless sufferers by such consolation as the circumstances rendered possible. He neither desired, nor occupied, a leading position in the work of the Red Cross; but, like so many other nameless assistants, he devoted himself to the daily task of promoting the interchange of news. His deeds were inconspicuous, and are therefore all the more memorable.

When he was allotted the Nobel peace prize, he refused to retain the money for his own use, and devoted the whole sum to the mitigation of the miseries of Europe, that he might suit the action to the word, the word to the action. Ecce homo! Ecce poeta!

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Too well did he know as historian that in the initial outbursts of war passion the veneer of civilization and Christianity would be rubbed off; that in all nations alike the naked bestiality of human beings would be disclosed; that the smell of the shed blood would reduce them all to the level of wild beasts. He did not conceal from himself that this strange halitus is able to dull and to confuse even the gentlest, the kindliest, the most intelligent of souls. The rending asunder of ancient friendships, the sudden solidarity among persons most opposed in temperament now eager to abase themselves before the idol of the fatherland, the total disappearance of conscientious conviction at the first breath of the actualities of war – in Jean Christophe these things were written no less plainly than when of old the fingers of the hand wrote upon the palace wall in Babylon.

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During the opening days of the war, Rolland was horrified to note how all previous wars were being eclipsed in the atrocity of the struggle, in its material and spiritual brutality, in its extent, and in the intensity of its passion. All possible anticipations had been outdone. Although for thousands of years, by twos or variously allied, the peoples of Europe had almost unceasingly been warring one with another, never before had their mutual hatreds, as manifested in word and deed, risen to such a pitch as in this twentieth century after the birth of Christ. Never before in the history of mankind did hatred extend so widely through the populations; never did it rage so fiercely among the intellectuals; never before was oil pumped into the flames as it was now pumped from innumerable fountains and tubes of the spirit, from the canals of the newspapers, from the retorts of the professors. All evil instincts were fostered among the masses. The whole world of feeling, the whole world of thought, became militarized. The loathsome organization for the dealing of death by material weapons was yet more loathsomely reflected in the organization of national telegraphic bureaus to scatter lies like sparks over land and sea. For the first time, science, poetry, art, and philosophy became no less subservient to war than mechanical ingenuity was subservient. In the pulpits and professorial chairs, in the research laboratories, in the editorial offices and in the authors’ studies, all energies were concentrated as by an invisible system upon the generation and diffusion of hatred. The seer’s apocalyptic warnings were surpassed.

A deluge of hatred and blood such as even the blood-drenched soil of Europe had never known, flowed from land to land. Romain Rolland knew that a lost world, a corrupt generation, cannot be saved from its illusions. A world conflagration cannot be extinguished by a word, cannot be quelled by the efforts of naked human hands. The only possible endeavor was to prevent others adding fuel to the flames, and with the lash of scorn and contempt to deter as far as might be those who were engaged in such criminal undertakings. It might be possible, too, to build an ark wherein what was intellectually precious in this suicidal generation might be saved from the deluge, might be made available for those of a future day when the waters of hatred should have subsided. A sign might be uplifted, round which the faithful could rally, building a temple of unity amid, and yet high above, the battlefields.

Source: 
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