THE HERITAGE OF THE GREAT WAR
What if the soldiers
who fell in the War
were to rise from their
graves and return to
the world they had
died to redeem?
Contempt as the one enemy of peace, brotherhood and sanity
I was stirred, as I heard Eli Siegel speak in the recording of the April 3, 1977 class about the importance of the 1930 play, hardly known now, concerning World War I, by the Austrian writer, Hans [von] Chlumberg (1897-1930). He began by saying:
The Miracle at Verdun I have come
to feel, all in all, is the most valuable play telling about contempt.
I think the meaning of contempt--its full meaning--is the most valuable
information the world needs to know.... This play makes... the knowledge
of it clearer and greater. There are two kinds of contempt: (he continued)
the kind you can see immediately accompanied with... a sneer of the lips,
and then the contempt which is very quiet.
Hans Chlumberg, who
lived from 1897 to 1930, Mr. Siegel said, "represents a big feeling in
Germany [and Europe], which gave rise to expressionism; it is very much
in this play." When The Miracle at Verdun was put on in 1931
by the Theater Guild in New York, it failed, yet in Europe it made a profound
impression. "The feeling after the First World War that people had,"
Mr. Siegel commented "didn't take the form that [the war] was caused by
contempt, but there is enough [here] that you can see it." Contempt,
he has defined as "the addition to self through the lessening of something
Before Mr. Siegel
read a sketch of the author from the book Twentieth Century Plays, edited
by Frank W. Chandler and Richard A. Cordell, he placed some of the history
of the time, saying:
One should put oneself in Germany in
1918 with Hitler coming to be about 12-14 years later and [think about]
what was felt. Verdun was seen as the most costly battle in the history of the world... 2 million took part, 700,000 died... Stalingrad [the
turning point of World War II, which occurred in 1941] at least had a decision.
Verdun never had a decision.
In the sketch Chandler tells of how Hans
Chlumberg at the age of 17 at the outbreak of World War I, "went into action
as a lieutenant of cavalry on the Italian front":
He fought bravely, bearing part in the battle
of the Isonzo, but was shocked by the scenes of carnage he witnessed and
impressed by the madness and futility of it all... Chlumberg hop[ed] that
the reign of might would soon be succeeded by the reign of right, and that
the ideals of peace and brotherhood which he had always cherished would
"The large question here is:" Mr. Siegel asked,
"Is contempt the one enemy of peace and brotherhood, let alone sanity in
the world? That's the thing I'd like people to see as real."
In the sketch, Chandler presents Chlumberg's "highly novel conception"
of "The Miracle at Verdun." He writes:
What if the soldiers who fell in the War
were to rise from their graves and return to the world they had died to
redeem? Would that world really want or welcome them: Would they
find it any the better for their sacrifice, or the more determined to prevent
such a catastrophe in the future?
I respect Hans Chlumberg enormously for the questions
he was dealing with in this play. How urgent they are now.
Mr. Siegel said: "I don't know of a play that can make contempt more seeable,
more something that has affected people not just some of the time but all
of the time." Listening to this play with its courageous descriptions
of contempt, I felt even more the necessity of strict self-criticism.
There are eight scenes, and Mr. Siegel read the first three. He gave this brief description
of the plot: "Some of the soldiers, both French and German, arise
from a mass grave, but their return makes for too much of a disturbance
in the world, so they go back to their graves."
Scene One begins
at a war cemetery in the Argonne Forest in France. There is a mass
grave. It is August, 1934 20 years after the beginning of the war.
A group of tourists French, German, British, and American have arrived
late to view it. The stage directions tell us that MAZAS, the tourist
guide, pulls the bell-cord "violently," and calls out "Hello! Hey!" and
the tourists "shake the barred gate and pull long and hard at the bell-handle".
There is this dialog:
VERNIER [disabled cemetery attendant who
wears a military cap] [grumbling]. What the devil!... Who is it?... Don't
you know when we close up? No more visitors today!
Commented Mr. Siegel, "Having the grave and all
this human irritation is already dramatic. Something like this [likely]
occurred today with persons visiting the graves at Gettysburg."
TOURISTS [out of sight] What's
that? What's he saying? No more visitors? Why not?
What do you mean? Open! Open up!... We paid our money!
gives in and opens the gate, and there is this description:
The TOURISTS enter, conversing in their native
tongues. Many of them wear sport clothes and carry field-glasses
or cameras slung over their shoulders. They walk over to look at
the graves, try to read the inscriptions on the crosses, study their maps
and [guidebooks], or prepare to have a brief picnic...
There is a sense here of something both serious
and everyday. The scene continues and we can ask: Is there contempt
VERNIER: Ladies and gentlemen!... Some
very bitter fighting took place here, and there were very heavy casualties,
especially in 1916 and 1917
JACKSON (an American) [making notes] Wait
a minute. How many were killed?
VERNIER. The exact number isn't known,
sir... I should say about ten thousand... Or even fifteen thousand, perhaps!
But anyway, the losses were very great, sir.
JACKSON [making notes]. Ten thousand,
fifteen thousand. So. [Pause.] Now last year we were in Flanders
and they showed us battlefields where four hundred thousand were killed!
Six hundred thousand! In a single year!
Then we see another aspect of contempt how a war can make for good business
prospects. Vernier explains that the area, surrounding the historic
cemetery, now has a hotel which "is equipped with the most modern conveniences.
It has an excellent jazz band, golf courses and tennis courts." There
is satire here, as Chlumberg deals with opposites in every person: nobility
and cheapness, large and small, life and death, the ordinary and the strange.
In his writing, we feel he informs and criticizes us. The dialog
JACKSON. Wait a minute. How many graves
do you have...?
VERNIER. About two thousand, sir.
JACKSON. ...Well I'll be damned. Ten
thousand killed and two thousand graves but it costs us two hundred French
francs to see them.
VERNIER. What's that, sir...?
JACKSON. [vexed] I mean your company
is damned expensive, charging so much and showing so little...
Contempt is Building
Commenting on World War I, Mr. Siegel noted,
"Americans didn't see how much Europe suffered. "Of course America
suffered somewhat herself but not the way Europe did." As the dialog
goes on, contempt is building: the Americans and English have it for the
French, the French for the English and Americans all this going on in
a cemetery with persons visiting, seemingly, to honor soldiers lost in
MISS GREELEY. [an English woman] ...there
was one cemetery that had twenty thousand graves of unknown German soldiers,
and they gave us lunch and dinner... Well, that's France for you!
this exchange we are deeply moved as Vernier explains that the French and
German trenches "ran parallel to each other and hardly more than 100 meters
apart" and here in a mass grave they "lie side by side."
[The French Tourists turn around almost
LARAT. Who the Devil sent for you?
Why don't you stay home and visit your own battlefields, if you don't
SHARPE [Englishman... with appearance of great
dignity] These are our battlefields, gentlemen.
MARSHALL [old Englishman]. We won this soil
back for you with English and American blood because you couldn't do it
JACKSON. Yes! If we hadn't bled
for you, you would have been lost!
FRENCH [with an angry laugh]. You bled for
us? You ?
REMUSAT. You bled for your business!... You
entered the war after your ships were sunk, and, of course, you didn't
care about your war credits, your war profits?
MISS GREELEY [indignant]. ...Why, they
that the next day there will be ceremonies commemorating the soldiers,
and "divine services" and prayers for the dead. Government delegates
will be visiting and speeches will be given. A German tourist asked
"What do they want, for those fellows down there...? What will they ask
for, in their prayers...?
VERNIER. ...That was only in the beginning,
I believe. But then ...we lay... they lay so close together in the
same trench. They were being fired at from both sides. They
had to press close together for protection. The same shells killed
or wounded them. They had to bind one another's wounds, share their
drinking water, their provisions, their cigarettes, their gas masks.... [In
the end]... Neither army wanted to leave the trench in possession of the
enemy, so they blew it to pieces from behind the lines.
VERNIER. You ask strange questions,
sir... For the peace of their souls, I suppose. For their comfort...[Pause.]
And most of all, for their glorious resurrection! That especially,
I should imagine!
The Dead Rise from their Grave
In Scene One, Part Two, the MESSENGER, sent by the Lord, tells the dead
of Verdun to rise,
May your graves therefore open... and let
you go forth!... But, the mad pestilence that brought upon you untimely
destruction does not cease to rage on earth. No! The earth will shortly
be full of misery again, and desolate...
In researching for this
report, I learned that after World War I, there was a desire in people
in many nations that there never be another war, and various treaties were
signed. My colleague, Lois Mason, who teaches American history, told
me about the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1929, which was eventually signed by
62 nations, making war illegal. Meanwhile, during the same years
militarism was building in Japan, Germany, and Italy. "With all the
talk of pacifism and the call for war," Mr. Siegel explained, "the cause that
of contempt was not given." And with the understanding that people
throughout the world desperately need to know, he said:
I'm reading this so the cause can be tested.
This play is all about contempt with the living having contempt for the
dead, and the dead for the living. At the same time contempt as a
universal presence is not seen. I think Chlumberg couldn't have said
that the purpose of the "mad pestilence" was to get to the quietude of
contempt. There wasn't a feeling that a quiet thing like contempt,
which everyone enjoys, could be the cause of the Somme and Verdun.
It is a momentous fact of the 20th century, that
Eli Siegel described what contempt is and showed it to be not only the
cause of domestic pain and cruelty, the cause of mental weakening, insanity,
but also the cause of war. That this explanation is not known worldwide
even now, as horrors are taking place, is for one reason: the press and
media out of conceit have kept the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism from
reaching people. What's in this one lecture should be on the front
pages of newspapers tomorrow!
the German and French war dead rising from their graves so movingly:
[Their faces are pale, their eyes circled
with shadows; a peculiar frozen, absent expression gives them the appearance
of lost creatures... Their words come slowly, dully, brokenly, from raw
WEBER. Are you shivering... Brother?
MOREL. It's... so... cold, Kamerad...
WEBER. Move up closer to me, Kamerad...
SONNEBORN If I only... If I only had something
warm on my head...
HESSEL [gets up with an effort, listens, in
tense rapture. Then he whispers, his eyes large with wonder] Kameraden!
Do you hear I hear the wind!
BAILLARD. I hear leaves rustling. It must
be blowing through trees?
MOREL. The light over there!... Look the
light! [Comprehending.] I'm not blind any more!
The Dead Are Not Welcomed Back
But as the risen
war dead begin making the journey back to their towns, countries, and homes,
nowhere are they welcomed in fact, people are angry that they have come
back to life. In Scene III various political dignitaries of France,
Germany, and England are told of this, and each contemptuously dismisses
the news. "[This scene] is more like a customary play," Mr. Siegel
observed, "[it has the] social and domestic." The French Premier
MICHEL DELCAMPE gets the call at 2 AM at the home of his mistress:
No, you didn't wake me! Why, I don't
sleep here!... I'm sitting at the... desk and working. Quite right,
my friend. Yes, work is our only salvation.... That's right. Our country
comes first. No, the public has no idea.... So! Monsieur Leblanc--... I
must say you astonish me. "The dead have risen!" Well, I'm not stupid:
The press has made unfavorable comments on my speech to-day... But I can
justify every word I said! Tell your friends that, M. Leblanc!
And you can also tell them from me that they don't have to raise the dead
from their graves to get my resignation!
At the same hour,
the home of the German Reich Chancellor is called. Grumbling about
being disturbed, "After... such a strenuous day! [with] The speeches and
all that nonsense," the Chancellor's wife, Frau Overtuesch answers the
phone. Hearing of the dead soldiers rising from their graves, she
In France, you say? Well, that's fine.
Let them have a little trouble too... God knows they have it coming to
them. But... what can we do about it? You have the wrong department!
Whom should you call?... The Papal Nuntius? The Archbishop?
Or even the Chief Rabbi, for all I care! But not the Chancellor of
the Reich! He has nothing to do with the dead! He has a hard
enough time with the living!
Then she tells her husband who asks about the
It isn't worth talking about, Father.
Don't let it interfere with your sleep. Something about France and
the dead. It can wait till tomorrow.
And the Prime Minister of England, Lord Grathford,
meets this astonishing news with complacent, cold indifference.
What Mr. Siegel
was showing about contempt in this play needs to be known by people everywhere
so there can be lasting peace in the world, not widening war. This
is the urgent, beautiful study that Aesthetic Realism provides. I
close my report with these great sentences by Mr. Siegel from issue 165
of the international journal, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known
titled What Caused the Wars":
The next war has to be against ugliness in
self. And the greatest ugliness in self is the seeing of contempt
as personal achievement. Contempt must be had for contempt before
squabbles grow less, terror diminishes. Respect for what is real
must be seen as the great success of man.
If you want to visit Lynette Abel's homepage, please click here.
Or, if you want to comment on this and send Lynette Abel an e-mail, please click here.
More on Eli Siegel's Lectures here.
Back to the frontpage of The Heritage of the Great War.