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.

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