Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Dance of Death

The Nameless 1914 (Den Namenlosen 1914) by Albin Egger Lienz
Twenty-eight-year-old German poet and playwright Hugo Ball greeted the outbreak of the First World War with enthusiasm, declaring in his early poem “Splendor of the Flag” (“Glanz um die Fahne”) that the corrupt world could be renewed by “abandoning itself to the primitive energy released by the conflict.”* In the early months of the war, Ball volunteered repeatedly for the German army, but three times was turned down due to a heart condition. Wanting to see the war first-hand, he traveled to Belgium, where his ideals were shattered. In his diary, he protested, “the war… is based on a stupid mistake; men have been mistaken for machines; it is the machines that should be decimated, not the men.”° By November of 1914, at the Belgian front, he wrote that “the world had fallen prey to diabolical madness.”°°

Soldat und Tod (Soldier and Death), Hans Larwin 1917
Upon returning to Berlin, Hugo Ball’s anti-war stance made life nearly impossible, and in May of 1915, he emigrated to Switzerland. Less than a year later, he and a group of fellow writers and artists opened Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub that mixed avant garde entertainment with politics, giving rise to the Dada movement.  One of the more shocking cabaret numbers was a poem Ball had written, “Totentanz 1916” (Dance of Death), a parody of a German marching tune and the popular cabaret song “That’s how we live.” With a chorus of soldiers’ voices, the performance scathingly described soldiers “engaged in an erotic dance of mutual slaughter as they thank the Kaiser for the privilege of dying.”  
A German music video of the poem (with English subtitles) can be viewed here.††

Dance of Death, 1916

So we die, we die
And die every day,
For it is so comfortable to let ourselves slip away.
The morning, stuck in sleep and dream,
By midday already there,
Come evening deep within our graves.

The Path of Glory by Edmund J. Sullivan
The battle is our pleasure-house,
Our sun is made of blood,
Death our emblem and our password.
Child and wife we leave behind:
What use have we for them!
When we can only rely upon ourselves!

So we kill, we kill,
And every day we kill
Our comrades in the dance of death.
Brother, present yourself before me!
Brother, your breast!
Brother, that you must fall and die.

We don’t grumble, we don’t groan,
Every day we hold our tongue
‘Til our leg wrenches from the hip.
Hard is our resting place,
Dry is our bread,
The dear Lord bloodied and soiled.

We thank you, we thank you,
Herr Kaiser for your mercy,
In choosing us to die.
Sleep, sleep softly and still,
Till you are woken
By our poor bodies, shrouded beneath your lawn.
Hugo Ball, 1918
            —Hugo Ball, trans. Edmund Potts†††

Scholar Patrick Bridgwater has remarked, “If Ball had been living in Germany at the time, ‘Totentanz 1916’ would have been treasonable.” The poem names enemy soldiers as brothers and comrades, depicts the Kaiser as a calculating murderer, and re-imagines the glorious ideal of war as a sordid brothel. Patrick Bridgwater’s translation of the second stanza’s first line reads, “Battle is our bawdy house.”‡‡

Not surprisingly, “Dance of Death 1916” was used by Germany’s enemies for their own propagandist purposes. The Allies printed copies of this poem and other German literature that criticized the war, and the leaflets were dropped behind German lines in August of 1918, hoping to break morale.‡‡‡  Even poetry was weaponized in the Great War. 
* Hugo Ball cited in Geert Buelens, Everything to Nothing: the poetry of the Great War, revolution and the transformation of Europe, Verso, 2015.
** Hugo Ball cited in Patrick Bridgwater, German Poets of the First World War, St. Martin’s, 1985, p. 71.
° Ball cited in Bridgwater’s German Poets, p. 73.
°° Ball cited in Buelens, Everything to Nothing.
Timothy Shipe, “Hugo Ball,” Encyclopedia of German Literature edited by Matthias Konzett, Routledge, 2000, p. 68.
†† Music by H.J. Vermeulen, animation by Artur Poterski and Anne Fie Salverda.
††† Hugo Ball, “Totentanz—The Dance of Death,” translated by Edmund Potts, The Project: A Socialist Journal, 30 June 2014,, Accessed 19 Feb. 2018.
‡ Bridgwater, German Poets, p. 74.
‡‡ Bridgwater, German Poets, p. 176.
‡‡‡ Bridgewater, German Poets, pp. 74-75.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A story to tell

German Jewish soldiers celebrate Hanukkah, 1916
When war broke out in Germany in August of 1914, German Jewish newspapers urged men to volunteer:
To all German Jews! At this hour we must again show we Jews, proud of our heritage, belong to the best sons of the Fatherland.  The nobility of our thousands of years of history demands this of us. We expect that our youth will volunteer for the flag with joy in their hearts. German Jews! We call up on you, in the sense of our old Jewish commandments, to devote yourselves with all your heart, soul and property to the service of the Fatherland.*

An estimated 100,000 Jewish soldiers joined the German army, and for every eight of those who enlisted, one was killed -- 12,000 died in the First World War.**

Much as Israel’s King David asked God in the imprecatory Psalms to punish his enemies, Jewish rabbis led prayers for the destruction of Germany’s foes:
Our Father Our King: Oppose the evil ones of the earth who are fighting against us. Send against them calamity upon calamity, breach upon breach.  Destroy them utterly by your wrath and your anger each time they attack us….Weaken their armies and swallow up their thoughts and let both them and their ships go down together into the uttermost depths….Therefore harm will not come to our country, because You will bring destruction to our foes.***

Alfred Lichtenstein
Alfred Lichtenstein, a Prussian Jew born in Berlin, was less than two months from finishing his year of compulsory military service when the war began.  Lichtenstein had graduated with a law degree in October of 1913, but in August of 1914, he was ordered to the Western Front with the 2nd Bavarian Infantry Regiment.  His friends knew him as “a clown, a wit, a man apart, possessed by a profound sense of the absurdity of the world.”†  Historian Niall Ferguson asserts, “Lichenstein has a good claim to have been the first of the anti-war poets. His ‘Prayer before Battle’ predates Sassoon’s change of style by a year and a half.”††

Prayer before Battle

The troops are singing fervently, each for himself
God, protect me from misfortune,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
That no grenades strike me,
That the bastards, our enemies,
Do not catch me, do not shoot me,
That I don’t die like a dog
For the dear fatherland.

Look, I would like to go on living,
From Chicago Tribune, 20 Dec. 1914
Milk cows, bang girls
And beat the bastard, Sepp,
Get drunk often
Until my blessed death.
Look, I eagerly and gladly recite
Seven rosaries daily,
If you, God, in your grace
Would kill my friend Huber or Meier,
And not me.

But if the worst should come,
Let me not be too badly wounded.
Send me a slight leg wound,
A small injury to the arm,
So that I may return as a hero,
With a story to tell.
            —Alfred Lichtenstein,
            trans. by Sheldon Gilman, Robert Levine, and Harry Radford†††

Lichtenstein did not return home as a hero.  Shot in the stomach in the German attack on Vermandovillers on the Somme, he died several days later on 25 September 1914.°  He is buried in one of the fifteen mass graves in the German War Cemetery at Vermandovillers, the largest German War Cemetery in France and the final resting place of 22,632 German soldiers. 

1920 leaflet "To the German Mothers....
do not tolerate that a Jewish mother is scorned in her grief
The expressionist poet died two years before Germans imposed the Jewish military census of 1916, the Judenzählung, intended to expose Jewish perfidy. As casualties mounted and Germans faced starvation on the home front, old prejudices were exposed. Germans began to blame Jews for the country’s psychological and economic collapse, charging that Jews were war profiteers who shirked military service. For Jewish soldiers, “the census represented a catastrophe as well as a direct insult.  It showed clearly that neither society, nor the military nor the government recognized their patriotism or their sacrifice.”°° In the years following the war, the situation would worsen dramatically for German Jews as “through one of the most immoral conjuring tricks in history,” the Jewish people became the scapegoat for their nation’s military losses: Germans came to believe the invented argument that their army had not lost the war, but “had been betrayed by communists, Jews, and other dissidents.”‡ Lichtenstein was killed fighting for Germany in September of 1914; his mother and two of his siblings were killed by the Nazis 28 years later.‡‡
*Editorial appearing in Jüdische Rundschau, 7 Aug. 1914, cited in Peter C. Appelbaum’s Loyal Sons: Jews in the German Army in the Great War, Vallentine Mitchell, 2014, p. 49.
**Applebaum, Loyal Sons, p. 272.
***Applebaum, Loyal Sons, pp. 49-50.
† Patrick Bridgwater, German Poets of the First World War, St. Martin’s, 1985, p. 63.
†† Niall Ferguson, “Introduction,” The Pity of War, Penguin, 1999.
††† Alfred Lichtenstein, The Prose and Verse of Alfred Lichtenstein, translated by Sheldon Gilman, Robert Levine, and Harry Radford, Xlibris, 2000, p. 181.
° Ray Ockenden, “The Neglected Voice of Alfred Lichtenstein,” Oxford German Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, 2012, p. 364.
°° Applebaum, Loyal Sons, p. 261.
‡ Jay Winter, “Foreword” to Peter C. Appelbaum’s Loyal Sons, p. xxiv.
‡‡ Sheldon Gilman, Robert Levine, and Harry Radford, “Introduction,” The Prose and Verse of Alfred Lichtenstein, Xlibris, 2000, p. 13.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Balancing on a broken world

 Grave of Pvt Wilbert Willman, died 18 Aug 1918
Library of Congress, Army Signal Corps photo 
Although the American Expeditionary Force was engaged in combat less than seven months (from April of 1918 until November 11th), the last months were the deadliest.   Two-thirds of American military deaths occurred between September of 1918 and the Armistice.* In addition to combat deaths, the world was also reeling from one of the deadliest pandemics in history.  The Spanish flu killed more than 50 million people between 1918 and 1920—an estimated 2.5 - 5% of the world’s population.**

American imagist poet Amy Lowell describes the surreal experience of living an ordinary day in an extraordinary time.

September, 1918

This afternoon was the colour of water falling through sunlight;
The trees glittered with the tumbling of leaves;
The sidewalks shone like alleys of dropped maple leaves,
And the houses ran along them laughing out of square, open windows.
Under a tree in the park,
Red Cross Volunteers, image from Time magazine
Two little boys, lying flat on their faces,
Were carefully gathering red berries
To put in a pasteboard box.
Some day there will be no war,
Then I shall take out this afternoon
And turn it in my fingers,
And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate,
And note the crisp variety of its flights of leaves.
To-day I can only gather it
And put it into my lunch-box,
For I have time for nothing
But the endeavour to balance myself
Upon a broken world.
            —Amy Lowell

Amy Lowell
It is no easy task to balance upon a broken world. In early September of 1918, Lowell received a letter from author D.H. Lawrence, who related news of their mutual friend, British soldier and poet Richard Aldington, reporting that Aldington was “still all right – in France, back of the firing lines.” Lawrence then confessed to feeling overwhelmed in a world spiraling out of control:
I can’t do anything in the world today—am just choked. – I don’t know how on earth we shall get through another winter—how we shall ever find a future. Humanity as it stands, and myself as I stand, we just seem mutually impossible to one another. The ground dwindles under one’s feet—what next, heaven knows.†
Lowell also felt unmoored, set adrift by the violent changes accompanying the war.  Explaining to a colleague, she said,   
The war has shaken us out of an eddy into the main stream of the centuries, and has given me the sensation of swirling along on a rapidly moving current, passing woods and water-plants and shores almost too fast to glimpse them, realizing as I pass that many other shingles like me have rushed down this same river, rushed toward something which I cannot now see.††

Lowell resisted the tumult with poetry, convinced that it had the power to comfort, inspire, and change the world. She invested her energies in convincing the American public of the value of contemporary poetry. Learning that American Army training camps were requesting books for their libraries, Lowell arranged to supply poetry books to 34 military bases across the United States, and she also donated funds to supply books to military hospitals.  As scholar Nina Sankovitch notes, “by the summer of 1918, Amy Lowell had placed poetry in the hands of just about any United States soldier asking for it. Modern or classics: they wanted poems and she answered their need.”•
* Carol R. Byerly, “War Losses (USA),” 1914-1918 Online, International Encyclopedia of the First World War,, 8 Oct. 2014, Accessed 7 Feb. 2017.
** Laura Spinney, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World, Public Affairs, 2017. 
† D.H. Lawrence, “To Amy Lowell, 11 Sept. 1918,” The Letters of D.H. Lawrence: October 1916-June 1921, Cambridge UP, 2007, p. 280. 
†† Amy Lowell to Franz Rickaby, quoted in Carl Rollyson’s Amy Lowell Anew, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, p. 113.
• Nina Sankovitch, “Amy Lowell: Making the World Safe for Poetry,” The History Reader: Dispatches in History from St. Martin’s Press,, 25 May 2017, Accessed 7 Feb. 2018. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Black Watch Poet of Dundee

WWI soldier's grave, Ohlsdorf Cemetery, Hamburg
photo by Beate Felten-Leidel

“A gash goes through all our lives, and that gash is the war.  With a brutal hand it has torn our lives in two.”
            —Willibald Hanner, German disabled veteran of the First World War*

Two million German soldiers died in World War I, and the International Encyclopedia of the First World War estimates, “Taking into account those who lost two or more children…at least 1 million [German] parents grieved for their sons.”**  Medical research has found that grief can be literally heart-breaking; the risk of suffering a heart attack is 21 times greater for individuals in the 24-hour period following news of a loved one's death than before, and it is 6 times greater in the week following the experience of grief.†

In 1916, Scottish soldier-poet Joseph Lee published Ballads of Battle. The slim, author-illustrated volume included the following poem:
German mourning card
The Bullet

Every bullet has its billet;
Many bullets more than one:
God! Perhaps I killed a mother
When I killed a mother's son. 
            —Joseph Lee

Lee published an even briefer poem on the same theme in his second collection of war poetry, Work-a-Day Warriors:

Casualty List

Maidens and matrons; mothers o’sons,
How many have fallen a prey to the guns? 
           —Joseph Lee

It is impossible to determine how many died of grief during the First World War.  Known as the “Black Watch poet,” Lee and his battalion fought at Festubert, Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, and the Battle of Loos.  During the war, Lee was one of the more popular of the trench poets; Ballads of Battle “was relatively successful at the first run, becoming increasingly popular as the public started to take note, and eventually three further prints were run.”†† The London Spectator's review of Lee's war poetry was enthusiastic: 
Of the verse that has come straight from the trenches, the Ballads of Battle, by Lance-Corporal Joseph Lee, of the Black Watch, are among the very best. In him the “Jocks” have found a true interpreter. The horror, the exultation, the weariness, and the humour of trench warfare are here, and at the back of it all the vision of “the little croft beneath the Ben.”°

Joseph Johnston Lee, 1916
© Dundee University Archive Services
During the Battle of Cambrai, Lee was taken prisoner by the Germans.  He survived the war and returned to a career in journalism, dying in Dundee in 1949.  His poem “Epitaph,” which appeared in Work-a-Day Warriors (1917), is a fitting tribute to Scotland’s forgotten war poet:


Where the long trench twines snake-like
To keep the foe at bay,
There be the place to lay me,
And this be what you say:

Here lieth one who loved all life,
Sunshine and song, and sword and strife;
Sea and storm, and wind and rain,
Breaking bud, and bursting grain,
Pulsing pleasure, and stabbing pain—
Who would, an he could, live all over again!
* Williband Hanner speech, quoted in Robert Weldon Whalen’s Bitter Wounds: German Victims of the Great War, 1914-1939, Cornell UP, 1984, p. 182.
** Silke Fehlemann, “Bereavement and Mourning (Germany),” 1914-1918 Online, International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 10 Aug. 2014. DOI10.15463/ie1418.10177.
† Elizabeth Mostofsky, Malcolm Maclure, Jane B. Sherwood, et al. “Risk of acute myocardial infarction after the death of a significant person on one’s life: The determinants of myocardial infarction onset study,” Circulation 125, 2012, pp. 491-496.
†† Bob Burrows, Fighter Writer, Breedon Books, 2004, p. 84.
° “Literary Supplement: War Time Poems,” 7 October 1916, p. 19.