The more things change … Stefan Zweig on the difference in mood attending the outbreak the two World Wars

I’ve been listening to The World of Yesterday, the memoirs Stefan Zweig. Zweig was probably the best-known author in 1930s Europe and produced a mountain of material. Essays, fiction, history, poetry, translations, you name it. Today few know of him, though that may be different in the German-speaking world. He was known to my Viennese grandmother so it seemed like a great book to transport me into the world that produced my Dad. The memoirs was produced shortly before departing this world by suicide in Brazil (of all places) in 1942. Zweig was a great advocate for, and optimist about the European project. How you manage that from the late 1930s on is a bit beyond me, but there you go. As Manning Clark used to say “who knows what goes on in the heart of a mango?”.

Be that as it may, I was fascinated to hear his description of the blind optimism before WWI, the conviction of the educated classes that progress was ineluctable, that nothing really serious could ever really happen to Europe as its culture grew in sophistication, it’s economy grew in wealth, and its policy transformed towards ever more democratic governance. And then it all changed. There was genuine horror that war was breaking out, but then a sublime moment of calm and unreality as war was organised in front of people’s eyes and the propaganda started gearing up.

I’ve reproduced below Zweig’s musing on the change in atmosphere as WWI breaks out and how utterly different things were 25 years later when it all happened again. It struck me that there’s a pretty direct analogue between what we thought we might be able to achieve as a society at the height of the optimism of the 1960s with its War on Poverty and the various crusades to build the Great Society and the endless disappointments of today. In both cases there’s been a largely deserved collapse of what sociologists now call ‘vertical trust’ – the trust the people have in the institutions and the people ‘above them’, while their horizontal trust – their trust in each other continues on its fairly happy way.

And then there’s the keenness the educated classes feel to be propagandists – just like today – though in peacetime they’re neatly arranged into advocates of the left and right.

Next morning, in Austria, there were notices up in every station announcing general mobilisation. The trains were full of recruits who had just joined up, flags waved, music boomed out, and in Vienna I found the whole city in a fever. The first shock of the war that no one wanted, not the people or the government, the war that, contrary to the intentions of the diplomats who had been playing games of bluff, had slipped out of their clumsy hands, had now turned to sudden enthusiasm. Parades formed in the streets, suddenly there were banners, streamers, music everywhere. The young recruits marched along in triumph, their faces bright because they, ordinary people who passed entirely unnoticed in everyday life, were being cheered and applauded.

To be perfectly honest, I must confess that there was something fine, inspiring, even seductive in that first mass outburst of feeling. It was difficult to resist it. And in spite of my hatred and abhorrence of war, I would not like to be without the memory of those first days. Thousands and hundreds of thousands of people felt, as never before, what they would have been better advised to feel in peace—that they belonged together. A city of two million, a country of almost fifty million, felt at this moment that they were witnessing history being made, experiencing a moment that would never return, and that everyone was called upon to fling his tiny self into this ardent fire to be cleansed there of all egotism. Differences of social station, language, class and religion were submerged at this one moment in a torrential stream of fraternal feeling. Strangers spoke to one another in the street; people who had avoided each other for years shook hands. Every single individual felt his own ego enhanced; he was no longer the isolated human being he had been before, he was a part of the whole, one of the people, and his person, formerly ignored, had acquired significance. Every little post office worker who usually worked from morning to night, Monday to Saturday, sorting letters without a break, every clerk, every cobbler suddenly saw another possibility lying ahead—he could be a hero, the women were already making much of men in uniform, those who were not going to the front respectfully bestowed the romantic term of hero in advance on those who were. They acknowledged the unknown power that was raising them above their ordinary lives; even their grieving mothers and anxious wives were ashamed, in these first hours of elation, to show their only too natural feelings. But perhaps there was a deeper, more mysterious force at work in this intoxicating frenzy. The great wave broke over humanity so suddenly, with such violence, that as it foamed over the surface it brought up from the depths the dark, unconscious primeval urges and instincts of the human animal—what Freud perceptively described as a rejection of civilisation, a longing to break out of the bourgeois world of laws and their precepts for once and indulge the ancient bloodlust of humanity. And perhaps these dark powers also played their part in the wild intoxication that mingled alcohol with the joy of self-sacrifice, a desire for adventure and sheer credulity, the old magic of the banners and patriotic speeches—an uncanny frenzy that eludes verbal description but is capable of affecting millions, the frenzy that for a moment gave wild and almost irresistible momentum to the worst crime of our time. Today’s generation, who have seen only the outbreak of the Second World War with their own eyes, may perhaps be wondering: Why didn’t we feel the same? Why did the masses not burn with the same enthusiasm in 1939 as in 1914? Why did they simply obey the call to arms with grave determination, silently, fatalistically? Wasn’t it the same as before, was there not even something higher and more sacred at stake in the war now being fought,4 which began as a war of ideas and was not just about borders and colonies?

The answer is simple—they did not feel the same because the world in 1939 was not as childishly naive and gullible as in 1914. At that earlier time people still blindly trusted the authorities governing them; no one in Austria would have ventured to think that, in his eighty-fourth year, the venerated father of his country Emperor Franz Joseph would have called on his people to fight without extreme necessity, or would have asked men to sacrifice their own blood if evil, malicious and criminal adversaries were not threatening the peace of the realm. The Germans, in their turn, had read their Kaiser’s telegrams to the Tsar, in which he strove to keep the peace. Ordinary men still felt a great respect for those in high places, government ministers and diplomats, and were sure of their insight and honesty. If war was upon them, then it could be only have happened against the will of their own statesmen, who could not themselves be to blame in any way; no one in the entire country was to be blamed at all. Consequently the criminals and warmongers must all be on the other side; it was in self-defence that they were taking up arms, self-defence against a villainous and malicious enemy who had attacked the peaceful countries of Germany and Austria for no reason whatsoever. In 1939, on the other hand, this almost religious faith in the honesty or at least the ability of your own government had disappeared throughout the whole of Europe. Nothing but contempt was felt for diplomacy after the public had watched, bitterly, as it wrecked any chance of a lasting peace at Versailles. At heart, no one respected any of the statesmen in 1939, and no one entrusted his fate to them with an easy mind. The nations remembered clearly how shamelessly they had been betrayed with promises of disarmament and the abolition of secret diplomatic deals. The least of French road-workers mocked Daladier; in Britain any faith in Chamberlain’s vision had gone after Munich, when he brought home “peace for our time” from negotiations, and in Italy and Germany the people looked apprehensively at Mussolini and Hitler. Where, they asked themselves, will they drive us now? Of course they could put up no resistance—the fatherland was at stake, so soldiers must bear arms and women must let their children go, although not now, as in the past, believing firmly that the sacrifice was unavoidable. They obeyed, but in no spirit of jubilation. Men went to the front, but not dreaming of becoming heroes; nations and individuals alike felt that they were merely the victims of either ordinary political folly or the power of an incomprehensible and malicious fate.

And what did the people as a whole know about war in 1914, after almost half-a-century of peace? They had no idea what it was like, they had hardly ever thought of it. War was a legend, and its distance in time from them made it seem heroic and romantic. They still saw it as it was shown in school textbooks and the picture galleries in museums—daring attacks by cavalrymen in immaculate uniforms, fatal shots always obligingly fired straight through the heart, the whole campaign an exultant triumphal march. “We’ll be home for Christmas!” cried the recruits in 1914, smiling at their mothers. Who in the whole country still remembered what war was really like? At the outside, a few old men who had fought in 1866 against Prussia, now our ally, and what a swift, bloodless, faraway war that had been, a campaign of three weeks ending before anyone had stopped to draw breath, and without too many casualties! A quick excursion into the realms of romance, a bold and virile adventure—that was how the ordinary man imagined war in 1914, and young people were genuinely afraid they might miss out on this wonderfully exciting event in their lives. That was why they impetuously flocked to join the army; that was why they sang cheerfully in trains taking them to the slaughter. A red wave of blood surged feverishly through the veins of the entire Reich. But the generation of 1939 knew about war. They no longer deceived themselves. They knew that war was barbaric, not romantic. They knew it would last for years and years, a part of their lifespan that they would never get back. They knew that you did not set out adorned with oak leaves and coloured ribbons to attack the enemy; instead, thirsty and infested with lice, you vegetated for weeks on end in trenches and military quarters waiting to be smashed to pieces or mutilated from a distance, without ever having set eyes on your adversary. You knew in advance from the newspapers and cinema newsreels about the new and terrible arts of technological destruction, you knew that huge tanks crushed the wounded in their path and aircraft blew women and children to pieces in their beds, you knew that a world war in 1939, thanks to its soulless mechanisation, would be a thousand times worse, more bestial and inhuman than any earlier war mankind had seen. None of the generation of 1939 believed in a just war with God on their side any longer, and yet worse, they did not even believe in the just and lasting peace that it was supposed to usher in. They still remembered only too clearly all the disappointments the last war had brought—poverty instead of prosperity, bitterness instead of satisfaction, famine, hyperinflation, riots, the loss of civil liberties, enslavement to the state, nerve-racking insecurity and the mutual suspicion of all and sundry.

That was the difference. The war of 1939 had intellectual ideas behind it—it was about freedom and the preservation of moral values, and fighting for ideas makes men hard and determined. In contrast, the war of 1914 was ignorant of the realities; it was still serving a delusion, the dream of a better world, a world that would be just and peaceful. And only delusion, not knowledge, brings happiness. That was why the victims went to the slaughter drunk and rejoicing, crowned with flowers and wearing oak leaves on their helmets, while the streets echoed with cheering and blazed with light, as if it were a festival. …

My position within my circle of friends proved … difficult …. Most of our Austrian writers, who had little European experience and saw life entirely from the German point of view, thought their best course was to reinforce the enthusiasm of the masses, promoting the alleged glories of war with literary calls to arms or scholarly ideologies. Almost all the German writers, headed by Hauptmann and Dehmel, thought it their duty to imitate the bards of ancient Germanic times and inspire the advancing warriors, by singing lays and casting runes, to go willingly to their death. Poems rhyming Krieg—war—with Sieg—victory—and Not—necessity—with Tod—death—came thick and fast. Writers swore to have nothing to do culturally with a Frenchman or an Englishman ever again. Indeed, overnight they took to denying that there had ever been any such thing as British or French culture. It was all slight and worthless, they said, by comparison with German art and the German nature. Scholars were even worse—all of a sudden philosophers could think of nothing better than to call the war an “immersion in steel”, which would have a beneficial effect by keeping the strength of the nations from being sapped. They were joined by the medical doctors, who sang the praises of their new prosthetic limbs so eloquently that you almost felt like having a healthy leg amputated, so as to get it replaced by an artificial limb. The clerics of all religious faiths were not to be outdone and joined the chorus. Sometimes it was like listening to the rantings of a horde of men possessed, yet they were all figures whose reason, creative power and humane attitudes we had admired only a week or a month ago.

But the worst of this madness was that the majority of its proponents were honest men. Most of them were too old to do military service, or physically incapable of it, but felt it was their right and proper duty to make some kind of helpful contribution to the war. They owed what they had done in life to their language and their country, so now they wished to serve the country with its language. They would tell people what they wanted to hear—that right was entirely on one side in this conflict and wrong entirely on the other; Germany would triumph and the enemy be shamefully defeated—with no idea that they were betraying the writer’s true mission of preserving and defending values in common to all humanity. It is true that, once the fumes of that first intoxicating enthusiasm had dispersed, many of them were soon nauseated by the bitter taste of their own words in their mouths. But during those first months, the more wildly you raved the more of a hearing you got, and so writers on both sides shouted and sang in a crazy chorus.

To me, the most typical and distressing case of such well-meant yet pointless ecstasy was embodied in Ernst Lissauer. I knew him well. He wrote succinct, cogent and harsh little poems, yet he was the kindest man imaginable. Even now I remember how I had to tighten my lips to hide a smile when he first visited me. Instinctively, I had pictured the author of those pithy verses, which aimed for the utmost concision, as a lean, bony young poet. But into my room waddled a stout little man, fat as a barrel, with a friendly face above two double chins, bubbling over with enthusiasm and a sense of his own importance as his words tumbled over themselves. He was possessed by poetry; it was impossible to stop him quoting and reciting his own verses over and over again. For all his absurdities, you couldn’t help liking him because he was warm-hearted, honest and a good friend, and had an almost daemonic devotion to his art.

He came from a prosperous German family, had been educated at the Friedrich Wilhelm Grammar School in Berlin, and he was perhaps the most Prussian or Prussian-assimilated Jew I knew. He spoke no living language apart from German, and had never been outside Germany. Germany was the whole world to him, and the more German something was the more enthusiastic he felt about it. His heroes were Yorck, Luther and Stein;5 the German War of Liberation of 1813-1815 was his favourite subject. Bach was his musical idol; he played him very well in spite of his short, stubby, thick and doughy fingers. No one knew more about German poetry; no one was more in love with the German language or more enchanted by it—like many Jews whose families came to German culture only quite late in the day, he believed more fervently in Germany than the most fervent of native Germans.

When the war broke out, therefore, the first thing he did was hurry to the barracks and volunteer. I can imagine the mirth of the recruiting sergeants and their men as his stout form, panting for breath, made its way up the steps. They sent him straight away again. Lissauer was in despair, but now, like other writers, he wanted at least to serve Germany with his pen. As he saw it, everything the German newspapers and military communiqués said was Gospel truth. His country had been attacked, and the worst offender—this was how they had staged the scenario in Wilhelmstrasse6—was Lord Grey, the perfidious British Foreign Minister. Lissauer vented his belief that Britain was chiefly to blame for opposition to Germany and for the war in a Hymn of Hate For England, a poem—I do not now have it before me—which in cutting, succinct verse raised the writer’s abhorrence of that country to an eternal oath never to forgive England for its ‘crime’. Disastrously, it was soon obvious how easy it is to set the forces of hatred working, for here the stout, deluded little Jew Lissauer was anticipating Hitler. His poem had all the effect of a bomb thrown into an ammunition depot. Perhaps no poem made the rounds of Germany as quickly as his notorious Hymn of Hate, not even The Watch on the Rhine.7 The Kaiser was enthusiastic, and gave Lissauer the Order of the Red Eagle; the poem was printed in all the newspapers, schoolteachers read it to their pupils, army officers at the front recited it to their men until everyone knew the litany of hatred by heart. But even that was not enough. The little poem, set to music and arranged for a chorus, was performed in theatres; soon there was not a single one of the seventy million Germans populating the country at the time who did not know the Hymn of Hate For England from the first line to the last, and not long after that so did the whole world—if with rather less enthusiasm. Overnight, Ernst Lissauer had won the most fiery reputation that any poet ever did in that war. Later, it was to burn him like the shirt of Nessus. For no sooner was the war over, businessmen were beginning to trade again and politicians were genuinely making efforts to achieve a rapprochement, than they did all they could to disown a poem calling for eternal hostility to England. And to absolve themselves of any blame, they pilloried poor Lissauer, the ‘England-hater’, as the man solely responsible for the crazy hysteria of hatred that in point of fact was shared by everyone in 1914. All who had praised him then now turned ostentatiously away from him. The papers stopped printing his poems, and when he appeared among his literary colleagues a dismayed silence fell. Finally, deserted by one and all, he was exiled by Hitler from the Germany he loved with every fibre of his heart and died a forgotten man, a tragic victim of that one poem that had raised him so high, only to dash him down to the depths again.

This entry was posted in Democracy, History, Philosophy, Political theory. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
paul frijters
paul frijters
3 years ago

fascinating story on the enthousiasm of the populations in WWI. That’s pretty much what they told us in history class at school. Many of the things he observes about the group madness of that period, in my perception, have been repeated near perfectly the last 13 months.

I am not so sure about his description of how populations felt on the eve of WWII though. The German population was pretty gung-ho as far as I know. The Austrians after the Anschluss were also pretty keen. The fanaticism of the hitlerjugend, the SS, the Japanese, and the fascists in general is legendary, particularly after their spectacular early victories. Maybe he is right about how the population of the allies felt, but one just has to suspect he projected his own misery.

I am and will always be Not Trampis
I am and will always be Not Trampis
3 years ago

Well Paul is an acknowledged expert on madness at present! I agree Nick on delusions. We have seen that plenty of times here at Troppo unfortunately.

If we tale Germany for example they had The government somewhat curbed by Parliament dominated by the social democrats.
Germans were not gung ho in 1938. They thought a world war was about to occur and the jews were a fifth column hence they agreed they should be arrested and locked up.
Germans certainly di not want war.
Whilst they di not want war neither di the majority want democracy.