Freight Books is a newish publishing firm, based in Glasgow. They have kindly sent me a copy of Outside Verdun, a new translation of a novel written in the early thirties by Arnold Zweig (no relation to Stefan). In Germany at that time, Hitler’s rise to power was helped by the myth of the German Army, undefeated in the field and betrayed by politicians at home. Zweig’s novel, Erziehung vor Verdun is a concerted attack on that myth, and on the self-conceit of the German Army. By 1935, when the book was first published (in German, but not in Germany) Zweig was an exile. In 1936 the novel was translated in to English by Eric Sutton, as Education before Verdun. The new translation by Fiona Rintoul is pacey, clear and readable.
Here in Britain we tend to think of All Quiet on the Western Front as the pioneering German Great War novel, but it had been preceded in 1927 by Zweig’s The Case of Sergeant Grischa, about a miscarriage of military justice brought about by incompetence and venality. This book is loosely linked to Sergeant Grischa, as part of a Zweig’s magnum opus, a six-volume sequence exploring the effects and meanings of the War, but it definitely stands on its own as an engrossing novel.
Unlike All Quiet, this is not about the infantry. Unusually, its hero is, as Zweig himself had been, a private in the Army Service Corps, the labourers of the battlefield, whose work could be quite as dangerous as that of the front-line troops. (This prompts the thought of how little such non-combatant units figure in British war fiction. Robert Keable’s Simon Called Peter is set in a labour corps, but we learn much less about the work of the men than about the chaplain hero’s sexual awakening.)
Also unlike the one-thing-after-another All Quiet, this novel has a plot. Because military corruption had skimped his unit of supplies, Christoph Kroysing, an NCO, an idealist and a poet, complains to a higher authority. For recompense, he is posted to dangerous duties near Verdun and certain death, while the file about his complaint is conveniently lost. Kroysing’s brother is a career officer with little time for idealists, but with a contempt for the soldiers who engineered his brother’s death. He sets about obtaining revenge.
Bertin, novel’s central character, is an ASC private enlisted by Lieutenant Kroysing as helper and witness. He begins with a dislike of the War but with a sense of it as a natural disaster, not a man-made one :
The war, operation instituted by men, still felt to him like a storm decreed by fate, an unleashing of powerful elements, unaccountable and beyond criticism.
(You might call this the Sleepwalkers interpretation of the War, I suppose.)
The ‘education’ of the book’s German title is his gradual coming to a different understanding. Zweig points out how difficult it is for a soldier to see beyond the immediate fact of war:
Perhaps one or two workers from Munich thought about it more deeply and held the orderly room responsible for the disaster. But that way of thinking had no momentum, because the French shells had so much more momentum.
The novel follows Bertin through to a different understanding of the War.
In the middle of the book comes the story of Judge Mertens, whose job is to investigate the Kroysing affair. He is a cultured man with an increasingly keen sense of Germany’s moral deterioration:
[The] names of Goethe, Beethoven and Hegel had shone over Germany [….] Now, 100 years later, conquests brought nothing but moral disintegration, obliteration of all values, an ardent wearing down of the moral culture that had revived since the Thirty Years War. He wondered what his father would have made of this war, of its glorification by Germany’s intellectuals – a war they knew nothing about but that they were all resolved to whitewash and falsify…
Mertens is appalled by the behaviour of the Army in the Kroysing case, but knows that this is no isolated incident. He has discovered that the atrocities in occupied countries are not merely figments invented by the British and French press:
In Luxembourg alone over 1,350 houses had been burnt to the ground and at least 800 people shot. In Belgium and Northern france the same methods had brought much worse results.
By the mid-thirties, it was customary on the British left believe the claim articulated in Ponsonby’s Falsehood in Wartime, that accounts of German atrocities in Belgium and elsewhere were all exaggerated; in this novel by a member of the German left, we are urged to take them seriously. Mertens, appalled by his knowledge, kills himself.
The book is fiction, of course, but is studded with details that have the ring of truth, and anecdotes that may be folklore or may be based on personal experience. For example, Kroysing describes the early use of gas by the Germans:
In the spring of 1915 […] we had the honour of being the first gas company. From February to April we slept cosied up to those large iron canisters. One time one of them leaked, and I saw the damage in the morning in the shape of 45 sappers, dead and blue. And when we did a test explosion with the bloody things on the drill ground, every man who’d touched them entered the hereafter too. They died slowly.[….] Anyway, there we were, waiting in our waterlogged trenches for a favourable wind. We kept having to relocate the canisters because they kept getting stuck in the clay. There were no gas masks back then. We were supposed to protect ourselves from the bloody stuff by shoving cotton wool in our noses. The Tommies kept throwing over cheery little notes, asking if the big stink was ever going to start. They were bursting with curiosity, they wrote. And then finally an east wind came and we blew our gas over and the Tommies were curious no more. Their trenches were full of blue-black corpses when we walked through them.
So is this novel the truth about the German Army? Well, it’s Zweig’s truth. As a Jewish Communist who exiled himself from Nazi Germany he certainly has a few axes to grind, and he grinds them. But the propagandist intent does not stop this from being an absorbing novel, with a rich depiction of military life, and a good sense of the social complexities of the German Army during the Great War.