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Wars invariably impact literature, art, music – culture in all its manifestations. World War I gave birth to the League of Nations and to the International Labour Office, whose motto “si vis pacem, cole justitiam” (if you want peace, cultivate justice) could also be our motto. The inter-war period saw the publication of much anti-war literature, including Erich Maria Remarque’s All quiet on the Western Front, but the traumata also silenced many authors, notably Rainer Maria Rilke, who suffered a cultural shock lasting many years that made it impossible for him to write — until that felicitous explosion of inspiration in 1922 at the Château de Muzot in the Swiss Valais, where he produced the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus in a mere two weeks.

As a reaction to the horror or the slaughter of Europe’s youth, PEN International was launched in London in 1921 as a private peace-through-literature initiative, in a way anticipating UNESCO’s universal vocation. A British novelist, Mrs. C.A. Dawson Scott, founded the first P.E.N Club in London.

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At the end of the First World War, intellectuals and writers were convinced that the “war to end all wars” had been a colossal calamity, and a thoroughly avoidable conflagration. Henceforth it should be a high priority of writers to endeavour to build bridges among nations and peoples, in order to help prevent future wars through better understanding of our common values and interests, through open dialogue over our differences and through sincere efforts to settle potential sources of conflict. Indeed, if we know each other’s literature, we would be less afraid of our neighbours, because we would recognize our very own yearnings and feelings in their novels and poetry. Thus, we should make words — instead of war.

We remember the poetic forebodings of the British soldier Wilfred Owen in his
Anthem for Doomed Youth (1917)

What passing-bells2 for these who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –

The shrill, dementedchoirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

These sad verses were put to music by Benjamin Britten in his stupendous War Requiem, written after World War II.

We also remember Rilke’s less known antiwar poem from the Larenopfer cycle:

In dubiis


Es dringt kein Laut bis her zu mir
von der Nationen wildem Streite,
ich stehe ja auf keiner Seite;
denn Recht ist weder dort noch hier.

Und weil ich nie Horaz vergaß,
bleib gut ich aller Welt und halte
mich unverbrüchlich an die alte
aurea mediocritas.


Der erscheint mir als der Größte,
der zu keiner Fahne schwört,
und, weil er vom Teil sich löste,
nun der ganzen Welt gehört.

Ist sein Heim die Welt; es misst ihm
doch nicht klein der Heimat Hort;
denn das Vaterland, es ist ihm
dann sein Haus im Heimatsort.

In doubt


No sound nor sense I hear
of the nations’ angry strife.
No side I favour, only life,
for justice is not there nor here.

I never can forget Horace,
and show good will to every class,
observing wise old maxims as
aurea mediocritas[1].


I hold a person in esteem
who will not swear to flags unfurled,
remaining free from every scheme,
belonging to the open world.

And be the globe a home for all,
one misses still the native earth,
the homespace, intimate and small,
for such is patriotism worth.[2]

The First World War, in which some 9 million Europeans lost their lives, would yet be followed by the Second World War, even more frightful than the first, claiming some 50 million lives. How many artists lost their lives in those wars, how many were silenced by the traumata? The Bled Manifesto on Peace, adopted 2013 by PEN International’s Writers for Peace Committee is an important document that is being taken into account by the inter-governmental working group of the UN Human Rights Council, which is tasked with the adoption of a United Nations Declaration on the Right to Peace.

Views on the First World War have evolved over the past century and will continue to evolve. We cannot expect spectacular discoveries through further archival discoveries or the release of classified documents. Early on the Soviets did release many embarrassing documents from the Tsar’s archives, gradually Austrian, German, British and French documents have completed the picture. A serious problem has been to weed out propaganda and discard teleological history-writing with its penchant for anachronisms that have plagued and continue to impact many interpretations of the origins, conduct and consequences of the war.

Everyone knows who won and who lost. But there is no consensus (and probably will never be) on who was responsible or “guilty”. Already in 1928 Harvard Historian Sydney Fay published his 2-volume classic on the Origins of the War, which challenged the guilt paragraphs of the Treaty of Versailles and apportioned the responsibility more generally. Article 231 stipulated:

“The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.”

This was the clause upon which the reparation claims against Germany were based. Not only was this article historically untenable, it also caused a festering sense of injustice that fed radical and nationalistic movements in Germany, contributing directly to the outbreak of World War II.

The Australian Professor Christopher Clark, currently teaching at Cambridge University, has made quite an impact with his new book “Sleepwalkers”, which contradicts much of the politically-correct narrative, but does not bring much that was already available for anyone who wanted to read it. In any event the simplistic and one-dimensional perspective of Fritz Fischer (Griff nach der Weltmacht, 1961) is now mercifully discredited.

What seems more important and relevant today is to develop a strategy to anticipate conflicts and facilitate dialogue and negotiation so as to prevent the threat or the use of force, both of which are prohibited in article 2, paragraph 4, of the UN Charter. Whereas the League of Nations was incapable to prevent the outbreak of World War II, the United Nations has mediated many potentially dangerous disputes and the world has been spared a world war for nearly seven decades. In light of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, a world war today would probably mean the end of the human species on the planet.

We need a change of mind-set and a shift of priorities away from the military-industrial complex and toward the promotion of all human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. Instead of producing more weapons, we must ensure the right to food and clean water, the right to shelter, the right to one’s homeland and identity.

Patriotism is not war-mongering but actively waging peace. It is not expansionism, or looking for what land to invade next. It does not strive to subjugate others or take advantage of them.   Only chauvinism takes pleasure in exploiting others and doing injustice to them. 

Patriotism is consciousness of the noblest potential of one’s homeland and the will proactively to advance this potential. It means working for social justice and against privilege and corruption. Let us remember the motto of the Peace of Westphalia (1648) which ended the horrendous Thirty Years War: Pax optima rerum. Peace is the highest good.

Alfred de Zayas

[1] Rilke is not praising mediocrity – far from it. Horace’s aurea mediocritas means the “golden mean” and draws from the old Greek tradition of moderation and proportionality – metron ariston, meden agan.

[2] Alfred de Zayas, Translation of Rainer Maria Rilke, Larenopfer, Red Hen Press, 2nd edition 2008 with a preface by Ralph Freedman.