Tag Archives: WWI

Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

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Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

Schlump: Hans Herbert Grimm

Novels about combat in WWI seem to have commonalities (trenches, lice, endless shell bombardment, and various body parts strewn across the ground). And, of course, there’s always the sense of terrible waste. Hans Herbert Grimm’s (1896-1950) novel, Schlump contains many of the usual WWI scenes we’ve come to expect, and its 17-year-old protagonist, who’s later called a ‘lamb to the slaughter’ while on his first leave back home, goes off to war, like many young men, with absolutely no idea of the horrors that await him.

He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling, the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded . Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end.

Schlump became anxious that he was missing out on all of this.

Of course, Schlump enlists and at first he gets lucky. Training camp is “great fun,” and after that, Schlump’s ability to speak French lands him office work, and so at age 17 he is “responsible for the administration of three villages.” Men march in and men march out, and all the time, Schlump is “glad not to have been with them.” But of course, Schlump’s good luck can’t last forever, and eventually he ends up at the front lines.

schlump

Schlump is an interesting fictional character, and we immediately get that sense from his name alone. No hero would have that name, and while Schlump is not an anti-hero, rather he’s an observer, a participant by default and a largely optimistic fellow in spite of all the death that surrounds him. Over time and with horrendous experiences, he “had become smarter.” Yet in spite of everything there’s still an innocence about him, and a moment comes when he decides he must “distinguish himself.

During the course of the novel, Schlump is wounded and manages to get home on leave, and each subsequent leave reveals the deteriorating situation at home. At one point his mother starves herself beforehand so that there’s bread for Schlump when he returns. There are many memorable scenes here: the collecting of unexploded shells “because raw iron was needed back in Germany. The men were promised seven pfennigs for each piece,” and although the German soldiers risk their lives to collect these shells, they are never paid for their troubles. In another scene emblematic of the dearth of military strategy, an officer comes up with the plan to “bring back a British soldier, dead or alive, from the enemy trenches,” and Schlump goes along with another  German soldier to complete this mission.

In one quote, Grimm accentuates that enemies in life are levelled by that great denominator: death

Here lay a multitude of corpses–Germans and British, all mixed together. At one point they’d collected in a heap, as if in death they were trying to warm themselves. All were lying on their stomachs, heads turned to the side, revealing their greenish faces, teeth glinting faintly between pairs of black lips. Rifles, gas mask s everything in a muddle, soaked in blood and more blood.

My NYRB edition states, in the introduction, that Grimm met with East German authorities in 1950 and two days later committed suicide. I’ve been watching The Weissensee Saga on television, a wonderful series set in East Germany, so I have my ideas about what Grimm’s meeting was about and why he opted to commit suicide. Schlump was not a literary success. It’s not first-rate literature and the novel competed against All Quiet on the Western Front which was published around the same time. All Quiet on the Western Front is a seminal WWI novel, a book that can potentially profoundly impact the reader. Schlump doesn’t have that power, and yet it’s still disturbing, still manages to get under the skin.

Jacqui’s review is here.

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

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Filed under Fiction, Grimm Hans Herbert

The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován

After reading Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, a fictionalized  account of his experiences in WWI, I read an entirely different account written from the Hungarian view: The Burning of the World: a Memoir of 1914 by Béla Zombory-Moldován. While the narrator in Fear conveys the initial, naïve sentiment that many men looked forward to the war as an “adventure,” a break in their monotonous lives, Béla Zombory-Moldován (Béla from this point on) makes it quite clear that the war arrived as an unwelcome interruption. Fear and The Burning of the World are such completely different books, while still on the same topic of WWI, that they act as good companion books to be read fairly close together. That said, it’s probably inevitable that we identify with one book more than the other.

the burning of the worldBéla, a twenty-nine-year-old artist, and a member of a privileged Austro-Hungarian gentry family, is enjoying himself on holiday on an Adriatic beach, taking a solitary swim and trying to shake off the effects of the wine drunk the night before when he spies someone walking towards him with “some haste.” It’s through this man, the bathing attendant, that Béla receives the startling news that war has been declared and that a list giving “call-updates by year of birth” has been posted to the bathing station wall. The news comes so quickly and so jarringly rips apart Béla’s holiday, that we are almost as shocked as he is, and while the manner in which the news is conveyed may be simple, this is a moment that Béla, and anyone else who survived the war, will clearly never forget.

I stared at the poster as if I had just suffered a stroke, reading it over and over, until I realized that I was just looking at words rather than taking in the meaning.

Although Béla has a few precious days before he must report for duty, he can no longer enjoy his holiday. A page has been turned, and life which previously seemed carefree, can no longer be enjoyed. But Béla isn’t the only one altered by the news. The rhetoric, drama, and nationalism of war has invaded even lunch at the hotel dining room:

The dining room had changed. All the usual convivial noise, larking about and tittering had ceased. The guests had gathered at separate tables according to their nationalities. Groups which had previously spread themselves around now clustered together. Sereghy and his wife had come over to join us. Czechs, Serbs, Croats. Germans–all sat apart. People leaned in together over table and discussed events with animated gestures and low voices.

[..]

Everyone spoke in their mother tongue as is encyphering what they had to say.

The nationalistic segregation spreads, and it’s worse by dinner time. Hungarians who had not previously spoken to Béla join his table, the area no longer feels safe, everyone wants to return home.

There was something almost ostentatious now about the separation of nationalities. The Slavs huddles together. The Germans looked the least concerned: a huge country with a fearsome army.

These unique observations which show the narrator’s world changing with the speed of a natural disaster underscore the idea that the carefree holiday has turned into something completely different–the holidaymakers may be potential enemies. Béla grasps immediately, the flash of the bigger picture, that while some people speculate that the war will be over before it really begins, it may not be so simple:

This war may just be the first act of a global tragedy. It’s as if someone were struggling against an angry sea, while behind his back towers an immense wall of ice, ready to collapse onto him at any moment. This is the socialist revolution which will, one day, fall with full force on nations weakened by war. The war could be the least of our problems. Socialism has been agitating and organizing for the last hundred years. It’s just waiting for the opportunity to take power. Maybe it would be better if it did: one of its basic principles is to put an end to wars of conquest. Maybe it’ll be they who stop this war, if political theory and practice coincide for once.

Given what happened to the Austro-Hungarian empire, this is an interesting comment made by a man “caught up in the maelstrom [of] the fateful year when everything fell apart.” 

Béla returns home to Budapest, says his farewells to his family and his favoured locations. Initially, he wears a “mask” of normality and “confident gaiety” which finally drops. Béla joins the Thirty-First regiment of the Royal Hungarian Army as an ensign and since he’s there early, he witnesses the “torrent of men streaming” in from all over the region. The idiocy begins immediately when the regiment is ordered to make a seventy-five kilometer march, which as it turns out, is right into the Russian lines at Rava Ruska. The mouth to hell opens there in the wood as Béla encounters piles of abandoned rifles, clothing, and the corpses of dead Hungarians. Initially forbidden to dig foxholes “as this ‘leads to cowardice and undermines discipline’ ” Béla ignores that order after the officer who gave it is blown to shreds, and Béla digs in using a tin lid, while other men use their hands.

The term cannon fodder leaps to mind in the sheer insanity of shoving exhausted, inexperienced men right into the line of fire. The sense of chaos reigns, and Béla’s first encounter, almost surreal in its rapid, blinding intensity, is over almost before it begins. Always there’s Béla’s unused sword, part of his natty uniform getting in the way; it’s an incongruous, antiquated and as it turns out inconvenient accessory.

There’s a sense of privilege to Béla’s miraculous tale. Had he not been an officer with a “Slovak lad called Jóska” as a burly batman it seems doubtful he would have survived. As an officer, he fares better–better food, better billets, and throughout it all Jóska acts as Béla’s personal bodyguard ensuring that he gets home, gets food, acting as his feet, arms and legs when Béla is too weak to fend for himself. It’s in Béla’s attitude to Jóska, that the sense of privilege grates. The patronizing divide between classes gapes wide. To Béla, Jóska is a peasant, a “man-child”:

I owed a debt of gratitude to this healthy resourceful lad: though I knew that this personal service had been an opportunity for a bit of bunking-off on his part.

And:

My mother received Jóska without much enthusiasm; she seemed anxious. “Where shall we put him?”

“All he needs is a straw mattress at night, which can be put away somewhere during the day. He’s a good decent lad, and I’ve got a lot to thank him for. Let him rest here for a week as well. Then he’ll go back to the regiment.”

Jóska bathes and attends Béla and on the third day, Béla tells Jóska to return to the regiment.

The Burning of the World, as a memoir, is a much more personal document than Chevallier’s fictionalized account of his WWI experiences.  Whereas Fear is openly anti-war, The Burning of the World is not. Béla shows the chaos, lack of preparation and stupidity of those in command, but his complaints about “armchair generals” are directed towards ineptitude, archaic attitudes and methods of fighting, but he never  bitterly questions the hierarchy of the society in which he lives.  Whereas Chevallier’s narrator Jean notes “those who wanted all this” make public appearances on “palace balconies,” and for Jean, this was the moment when “the first–and last–machine gun should have done its work, emptied its belt of bullets on to that emperor and his advisors.” Similarly he notes, “in the revolution, they sent incompetent generals to the guillotine, an excellent measure.”

The Burning of the World covers a period of about eight months beginning with Béla hearing the “news of Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia” until March 1915 when he reports back to duty after being injured and recuperating. At 184 pages, we are left wishing for more, but the introduction explains what happened to Béla for the rest of the war and beyond.  The book includes some maps, a painting from Béla, and a wonderful photograph of a large group of people on holiday at Novi Vinodolski–“three days before Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia and the start of the first World War. ” It’s peculiar how some people can dominate a photograph, and in this photo, Béla, a man of his time and his class, stands out.

The manuscript for The Burning of the World was found in 2013 “locked away among family papers,” and what a wonderful find this is. Translated and with an introduction by the author’s grandson Peter Zombory-Moldován who notes that “by the end of the war, Austro-Hungarian casualties were almost seven million out of a population (in 1914) of fifty-one million.”

 Review copy/own a copy

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Fear: A Novel of WWI by Gabriel Chevallier

About a third of the way into Gabriel Chevallier’s WWI novel, Fear, our young narrator, Jean Dartemont, finds himself in a hospital recuperating from wounds. The nurses seek tales of war, glory and valiant duty–after all, Jean must have had a number of stories that prefaced his horrible wounds and successful evacuation. But instead Jean, who was  a student prior to entering the war in 1915, tries to convey the realities of war to an audience who simply do not understand. Jean’s fervent arguments disturb the universe of the nurses–mostly delicate young women from the best of French society, who’ve volunteered to do their duty for the war effort. Jean notes that “their heads are stuffed with good intentions, which have been garnished with the bric-a-brac of noble sentiments tied up in a pretty bow.” He admits that during the war his “chief occupation” was fear, and the nurses react as though he said “something obscene.” For this “demoralizing talk” the chaplain is sent to lecture Jean, but goes away from the encounter dissatisfied.

FearAfter this brief respite in hospital, Jean is sent back to the front where he is in involved in some of the most horrendous, notable  battles of the war. The novel is written in retrospect, the war is over, and Jean has spent a great deal of time trying to understand this period of madness:

Men are sheep. This fact makes armies and wars possible. They die the victims of their own stupid docility.

When you have seen war as I have just seen it, you ask yourself” ‘how can we put up with such a thing? What frontier traced on a map, what national honour could possibly justify it? How can what is nothing but banditry be dressed up as an ideal, and allowed to happen?’

They told the Germans: ‘forward to a bright and joyous war! On to Paris! God is with us, for a greater Germany!’ And the good, peaceful Germans, who take everything seriously, set forth to conquer, transforming themselves into savage beasts.

They told the French: ‘The nation is under attack. We will fight for Justice and retribution. On to Berlin!’ And the pacifist French who take nothing at all seriously, interrupted their modest little rentier reveries to go and fight.

So it was with the Austrians, the Belgians, the English, the Russians, the Turks, and then the Italians. In a single week, twenty million men, busy with their lives and loves, with making money and planning a future, received the order to stop everything and go and kill other men. And those twenty million individuals obeyed the order because they had been convinced that this was their duty.

Jean admits that a sense of duty was not the “real reason” he went to war:”Through my own behaviour I can explain that of a great many others, especially in France.”

They set off without any hatred at all, drawn by an adventure from which everything could be expected. The weather was lovely. This war was breaking out right at the beginning of August. Ordinary workers were the most eager: instead of their fortnight’s annual holiday, they were going to get several months, visiting new places, and all at the expense of the Germans. A great medley of clothes, customs and classes, a great clamour, a great cocktail of drinks, a new force given to individual initiatives, a need to smash things up, leap over fences, to break laws–all this, at the start, made the war acceptable. It was confused with freedom, and discipline was then accepted in the belief that it was lacking.

Everywhere had the atmosphere of a funfair, a riot, a disaster and a triumph; a vast intoxicating upheaval. The daily round had come to a halt. Men stopped being factory workers or civil servants, clerks or common labourers, in order to become explorers and conquerors. Or so at least they believed. They dreamed of the North, as if it were America, or the pampas, or a virgin forest, of Germany as if it were a banquet; they dreamed of laying waste to the countryside, breaking open wine barrels, burning towns, the white stomachs of the blonde women of Germania, of pillage and plunder, of all that life normally denied them. Each individual believed in his destiny, no one thought of death, except the death of others. In short, the war got off to a pretty good start, with the help of chaos.

That’s a fairly long quote, one of my favourites from this highly quotable and much highlighted book. The quote gives a strong sense of the author’s style but also it’s a good example of the novel’s tone. The author through his observant narrator always keeps a sense of distance from his subject matter, and really that’s just as well. Who doesn’t cringe at just the thought of the squelch of mud-filled trenches, the “wasteland full of corpses,” and the stench of rancid, rotting human flesh found in a WWI novel? But while the narrator may be in the thick of things, there’s always a sense of distance and also of anger. Anger at the carnage, anger at the incompetence, and anger at those who ‘manage’ the war from a safe distance. 

Anti-war literature is by its nature, radical, subversive, but Fear, in its unsentimental detachment, doesn’t take the usual position of loss and waste, and instead emphasizes anger at the insanity of events which foments until Jean explodes with his opinions–no matter the consequences. At one point Jean notes “those who wanted all this” make public appearances on “palace balconies,” and for Jean, this was the moment when “the first–and last–machine gun should have done its work, emptied its belt of bullets on to that emperor and his advisors.” Similarly he notes, “in the revolution, they sent incompetent generals to the guillotine, an excellent measure.”

Fear is a unique entry into the canon of WWI fiction, for even though the story follows the normal trajectory of WWI novels, a young man enlisting into a carnage that is impossible to even imagine, its unsentimental approach makes the novel unique.  We are there with Jean when he sees his first corpse, picks off the first lice, watches the first killings, learns to keep his head down, hears dying soldiers begging to not be abandoned, grasps at jobs that will temporarily remove him from danger, cowers in a cave hoping he won’t be buried alive, and as he insanely volunteers to take another man’s place for a dangerous mission. The sense of chaos surrounding Jean is underscored by the ridiculous, senseless demands made by the officers, and also by the way we never discover the fate of some of the few named characters who cross Jean’s path. What happens to these soldiers as they lay trampled in the mud, or, if they’re lucky, are carried off the field to one of evacuation sites where they may, if their wounds are too severe, be left to rot and die as the overworked doctors save those who are considered salvageable? While Fear covers some familiar territory here: the incompetence of generals, the type of men who excel at wartime, the dehumanization of soldiers, and the collaboration of society’s vested interests (the church, the state, the police, and the bourgeois), Gabriel Chevallier’s unsentimental approach in a situation that is driven by Jean’s anger, the strong narrative voice, and the manner in which the author excels at description, secure this novel’s place in the must-read list of WWI novels.

Author Gabriel Chevallier fought in WWI. The introduction written by John Berger mentions that Fear was published in 1930, and as an “anti-war book had the misfortune to run into a new one. In 1939, its author and publisher freely agreed to suspend sales.” Perhaps this is why the book faded from view.

Review copy. Translated by Malcolm Imrie

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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

“The culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood.”

All Quiet on the Western Front from author Erich Maria Remarque appears on most lists as one of the greatest war novels ever written. The author fought in WWI, and was wounded five times. Almost a century later, the book hasn’t lost one iota of its power, and it stands as a testament to the inhumanity and insanity of war.

Narrated by nineteen-year-old German Paul Baumer, the story begins with Paul and his classmates on the front lines. He notes that all of the pupils were under tremendous pressure to enlist from their schoolmaster Kantorek and other gung-ho war supporters who were “convinced they were acting for the best–in a way that cost them nothing.” Paul notes that “even one’s parents were ready with the word `coward’; no one had the vaguest idea what we were in for.”

Paul, a sensitive young man, describes leaving his books and his poems behind and attending army-training camp. He details how the experience involves a “renunciation of personality” and the recruits were “trained for heroism as though we were circus-ponies.” The hierarchal structure of the army, the flattening of the recruits’ personalities, and the acceptance of meaningless orders all result in the process of dehumanization and become a matter of course by the end of Paul’s training.

Sent off to the front line, Paul’s classmates are killed or horribly maimed, one by one. Even those who survive will be forever changed by their experiences, and Paul notes, “The war swept us away.” While each loss is felt deeply by the other men, they continue on comforting each other and sharing their paltry rations whenever they can. Surreal memories of his past life flood through Paul’s consciousness, but the memories “do not awaken desire as much as sorrow.”

Remarque’s novel would be unbearably painful to read had the author handled the text any differently. In spite of the subject matter, the story is told unemotionally-although there is certainly an emotional reaction from the reader. Amidst the death and carnage, there are brief moments of life and humour-a shared feast, and revenge against a tyrannical soldier. In calm moments, the soldiers speculate how the war started and conclude that war is a “kind of fever” and that it would never have happened if “20 or 30 people in the world had said `no’.”

Paul describes the painful difficulties of taking leave–inevitable questions from civilian relatives about conditions are avoided. If pressed, Paul lies to spare his family the truth, but the horrors of war are revealed to the reader. If there is one good thing created by war, then surely it must be the camaraderie that exists between the soldiers, and Remarque’s protagonist is eternally bonded to his fellow soldiers. What a paradox war is-the best thing it produces is the loyalty and camaraderie experienced by those who fight, and yet while the soldiers fight and help defend one other, they are ultimately exposed to death as either destroyers or victims. All Quiet on the Western Front is an amazing, unforgettable book–it’s just as relevant today as the day it was published.

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