Antiwar Literature


LRC regularly includes many articles related to antiwar culture (for example, these on films and songs). With no forethought, I have recently come across three examples of antiwar literature, fiction and nonfiction. I bought Kangaroo (1923), by D. H. Lawrence (18821930), at a church book sale for 25p in Salisbury, UK. I had never heard of the book and am not a particular fan of Lawrence, but living in France it is nice to pick up some cheap books in English (I also bought a small volume of Simon Templar, "The Saint" stories by Leslie Charteris). The other two, the novel Beware of Pity (1939) by Stefan Zweig (1881—1942) and An Interrupted Life, the Diaries 1941—1943 by Etty Hillesum (19141943), were recommended by my wife. We had no discussions about the antiwar aspects of either book before or after my reading them. The three Europeans, writing after the First and into the Second World War, in very different ways reflect on a common theme, that a fundamental aspect to being antiwar is maintaining your own individuality while recognizing the individuality of others. I hope you find the passages presented here interesting.

As you might expect, Kangaroo is set in Australia. The story follows the experiences of an English writer named Richard Lovat Somers, newly arrived in Sydney, who becomes involved with a fascist-like conspiracy. The leader of the plotters is nicknamed Kangaroo. In fact, Lawrence was forced to leave England with his German wife, spending a couple of years in Australia. The following passage is from an autobiographical chapter called "The Nightmare" on his wartime experiences living in rural Cornwall.

He had known such different deep fears. In Sicily, a sudden fear, in the night of some single murderer, some single thing hovering as it were out of the violent past, with the intent of murder. Out of the old Greek past, that had been so vivid, sometimes an unappeased spirit of murderous-hate against the usurping moderns. A sudden presence of murder in the air, because of something which the modern psyche had excluded, some old and vital thing which Christianity has cut out. An old spirit, waiting for vengeance. But in England, during the later years of the war, a true and deadly fear of the criminal LIVING spirit which arose in all the stay-at-home bullies who governed the country during those years. From 1916 to 1919 a wave of criminal lust rose and possessed England, there was a reign of terror, under a set of indecent bullies like Bottomley of John Bull and other bottom-dog members of the House of Commons. Then Somers had known what it was to live in a perpetual state of semi-fear: the fear of the criminal public and the criminal government. The torture was steadily applied, during those years after Asquith fell, to break the independent soul in any man who would not hunt with the criminal mob. A man must identify himself with the criminal mob, sink his sense of truth, of justice, and of human honour, and bay like some horrible unclean hound, bay with a loud sound, from slavering, unclean jaws.

This Richard Lovat Somers had steadily refused to do. The deepest part of a man is his sense of essential truth, essential honour, essential justice. This deepest self makes him abide by his own feelings, come what may. It is not sentimentalism. It is just the male human creature, the thought-adventurer, driven to earth. Will he give in or won’t he?

Many men, carried on a wave of patriotism and true belief in democracy, entered the war. Many men were driven in out of belief that it was necessary to save their property. Vast numbers of men were just bullied into the army. A few remained. Of these, many became conscientious objectors.

Somers tiresomely belonged to no group. He would not enter the army, because his profoundest instinct was against it. Yet he had no conscientious objection to war. It was the whole spirit of the war, the vast mob-spirit, which he could never acquiesce in. The terrible, terrible war, made so fearful because in every country practically every man lost his head, and lost his own centrality, his own manly isolation in his own integrity, which alone keeps life real. Practically every man being caught away from himself, as in some horrible flood, and swept away with the ghastly masses of other men, utterly unable to speak, or feel for himself, or to stand on his own feet, delivered over and swirling in the current, suffocated for the time being. Some of them to die for ever. Most to come back home victorious in circumstance, but with their inner pride gone: inwardly lost. To come back home, many of them, to wives who had egged them on to this downfall in themselves: black bitterness. Others to return to a bewildered wife who had in vain tried to keep her man true to himself, tried and tried, only to see him at last swept away. And oh, when he was swept away, how she loved him. But when he came back, when he crawled out like a dog out of a dirty stream, a stream that had suddenly gone slack and turbid: when he came back covered with outward glory and inward shame, then there was the price to pay.

And there IS this bitter and sordid after-war price to pay because men lost their heads, and worse, lost their inward, individual integrity. And when a man loses his inward, isolated, manly integrity, it is a bad day for that man’s true wife. A true man should not lose his head. The greater the crisis, the more intense should be his isolated reckoning with his own soul. And THEN let him act, of his own whole self. Not fling himself away: or much worse, let himself be DRAGGED away, bit by bit.

Awful years — ’16, ’17, ’18, ’19 — the years when the damage was done. The years when the world lost its real manhood. Not for lack of courage to face death. Plenty of superb courage to face death. But no courage in any man to face his own isolated soul, and abide by its decision. Easier to sacrifice oneself. So much easier!

Stefan Zweig was an Austrian contemporary of Mises. His only novel, Beware of Pity, is the psychological story of a simple young officer who, unaware of her handicap, asks a lame girl to dance. From this incident, and the pity he feels, Zweig describes in excruciating detail the descent to a tragedy. In the prologue to the story a character like Zweig meets a famous former soldier who received the highest honor for bravery directly from the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. This soldier, the formerly simple young officer, is compelled to describe his life prior to the war to the Zweig character. The following passage depicts the conversation at a party where they first get to know one another.

Our Host, a lawyer by profession and dogmatic by nature, opened the discussion. Employing the usual arguments, he put forward the usual airy nonsense: the present generation, he said, knew all about war and would not let itself be tricked so innocently into the next war as it had been into the last. At the very moment of mobilization the guns would be pointed in the wrong direction, for ex-soldiers like himself in particular had not forgotten what was in store for them. I was annoyed by the smug assurance with which, at a moment when in thousands and hundreds of thousands of factories explosives and poison gas were being manufactured, he dismissed the possibility of a war as lightly as he might flip the ash off his cigarette with the tap of his forefinger. One should not always let the wish be father to the thought, I protested with some firmness.

The ministries and the military authorities who ran the whole war machine had likewise not been sleeping, and while we had been befuddling ourselves with Utopias, they had taken full advantage of the interval of peace in order to organize the masses in advance and have them ready to hand, at half-cock, so to speak. Even now, while Europe was at peace, the general attitude of servility had, thanks to modern methods of propaganda, increased to unbelievable proportions, and one ought boldly to face the fact that from the very moment when the news of mobilization came hurtling through the loud-speakers no opposition could be looked for from any quarter. The grain of dust that was man no longer counted today as a creature of volition.

Of course they were all against me, for, as is borne out be experience, the instinct of self-deception in human beings makes them try to banish from their minds dangers of which at bottom they are perfectly aware by declaring them non-existent, and a warning such as mine against cheap optimism was bound to prove particularly unwelcome at a moment when a sumptuously laid supper was waiting for us in the next room.

And now, to my surprise, the gallant hero of the day before entered the lists in my support — the very man in whom my false intuition had led me to suspect an opponent. Yes, it was sheer nonsense, he declared vehemently, to try nowadays to take into account the willingness or unwillingness of human material, for in the next war all the actual fighting would be done by machines, and men would be reduced to no more than a kind of component part of the machine. Even in the last war he had not met many men at the front had either unequivocally acquiesced in or opposed the war. Most of them had been whirled into it like a cloud of dust and had simply found themselves caught up in the vast vortex, each one of them tossed about willy-nilly like a pea in a great sack. On the whole, more men perhaps escaped into the war than from it.

I listened in astonishment, my interest particularly aroused by the vehemence with which he now went on: "Don’t let us deceive ourselves. If in any country whatever a recruiting campaign were to be launched today to some utterly preposterous war, a war in Polynesia or in some corner of Africa, thousands and hundreds of thousands would rush to the colours without really knowing why, perhaps merely out of a desire to run away from themselves or from disagreeable circumstances. But as for any effective opposition to war — I wouldn’t care to put it above zero. It always demands a far greater degree of courage for an individual to oppose an organized movement than to let himself be carried along with the stream — individual courage, that is a variety of courage that is dying out in these times of progressive organization and mechanization. During the war practically the only courage I came across was mass courage, the courage that comes of being one of a herd, and anyone who examines this phenomenon more closely will find it to be compounded of some very strange elements: a great deal of vanity, a great deal of recklessness and even boredom, but above all a great deal of fear — yes, fear of staying behind, fear of being sneered at, fear of independent action and fear, above all, of taking a stand against mass enthusiasm of one’s fellows. It was not until later on in civil life that I personally realized that most of those reputed to be the bravest at the front were very questionable heroes — oh, please don’t misunderstand me!" he said turning politely to our host, who was pulling a wry face. "I do not by any means except myself."

Etty Hillesum was a young Dutch Jew, living in Amsterdam during the war. She is a thoroughly modern woman. She enjoys sex and thinks about it often. She becomes deeply involved as a patient, assistant, and lover, with the psychoanalyst Julius Spier, who had studied with Carl Jung in Switzerland. The Diaries are painful to read as the Nazi noose is tightening around Etty and her family and friends; not least because we know in the end they will all be murdered. But they are also inspirational to read because her spiritual growth is what I would call saintly.

15 March, 9:30 A.M. [ . . . ] Yesterday afternoon we read over the notes he had given me. And when we came to the words, "If there were only one human being worthy of the name of u2018man,’ then we should be justified in believing in men and in humanity," I threw my arms round him on a sudden impulse. It is the problem of our age: hatred of Germans poisons everyone’s mind. "Let the bastards drown, the lot of them" — such sentiments have become part and parcel of our daily speech and sometimes makes one feel that life these days has grown impossible. Until suddenly, a few weeks ago, I had a liberating thought that surfaced in me like a hesitant, tender young blade of grass thrusting its way through a wilderness of weeds: if there were only one decent German it is wrong to pour hatred over an entire people.

That doesn’t mean you have to be halfhearted; on the contrary, you must make a stand, wax indignant at times, try to get to the bottom of things. But indiscriminate hatred is the worst thing there is. It is a sickness of the soul. Hatred does not lie in my nature. If things were to come to such a pass that I began to hate people, then I would know that my soul was sick and should have to look for a cure as quickly as possible. I used to believe that my inner conflicts were due to a particular cause, but that was much too superficial explanation. I thought that they simply reflected a clash between my primitive instinct as a Jew threatened with destruction and my acquired, rationalist and socialist belief that no nation is an undifferentiated mob.

19 February 1942. Thursday, 2:00 P.M. If I had to tell what made the greatest impression on me today I would say: Jan Bool’s great big purple chilblained hands. Somebody else was martyred today. That gentle boy from "Cultura." I still remember how he used to play the mandolin. He had a nice girlfriend at the time. She had since become his wife, and there was also a child. "He was one of the best," said Jan Bool, in the crowded university corridor. They have finished him off. And Jan Romein and Tielrooy and several more of the fragile old profs. They are now prisoners in a drafty barracks, in the same Veluwe where they used to spend their summer holidays in friendly guest houses. They are not even allowed their own pajamas, or anything else of their own, Aleida Schot said in the cafeteria. The idea is to demoralize them completely and to make them feel inferior. Morally they are all strong enough, but most of them are rather frail. Pos has retired to a monastery in Haren and is writing a book. Or so they say. It was very gloomy at this morning’s lectures. And yet it wasn’t altogether depressing. There was one bright spot. A short unexpected conversation with Jan Bool as we walked through the cold, narrow Langbrugsteeg and then waited at the tram stop. "What is it in human beings that makes them want to destroy others?" Jan asked bitterly. I said, "Human beings, you say, but remember that you are one yourself." And strangely enough he seemed to acquiesce, grumpy, gruff old Jan. "The rottenness of others is in us, too," I continued to preach at him. "I see no other solution, I really see no other solution than to turn inward and to root our all the rottenness there. I no longer believe that we can change anything in the world until we have first changed ourselves. And that seems to me the only lesson to be learned from this war. That we must look into ourselves and nowhere else." And Jan, who so unexpectedly agreed with everything I said, was approachable and interested and no longer proffered any of his hard-boiled social theories. Instead he said, "Yes, it’s too easy to turn your hatred loose on the outside, to live for nothing but the moment of revenge. We must try to do without that." We stood there in the cold waiting for the tram. Jan with his great purple chilblained hands and his toothache. Our professors are in prison, another of Jan’s friends has been killed, and there are so many other sorrows, but all we said to each other was, "It is too easy to feel vindictive." That really was the bright spot of the day.

And now to have a nap and then to learn a little about Rilke‘s girlfriend. Life goes on, and why not! I should write more regularly. But there is much too little time.