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With very few exceptions, all the books we associate with World War I — fiction, memoir, poetry– were written after the war was over.   The best known, All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque was published in magazine installments in Germany in the late fall of 1928.  The first United States edition appeared in June of 1929.  Three Soldiers,  by John Dos Passos, appeared in 1921 but Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms took until 1929.

Books Lamszus Slaughter House2The Human Slaughter House: Scenes From the War That is Sure to Come by Wilhelm Lamszus is a notable exception, not only because its publication date of 1912 preceded the war it so accurately anticipates, by 2 years, but because it is entirely a work of the imagination, not of fictionalized reportage.  Lamszus was an elementary school teacher in Hamburg, and part of a group of young teachers trying to move German education from the rod and rule to more open and experimental schools in the early 1900s.  Following a few weeks of summer training with the Infantry Reserves he conceived of writing a book for young adults about what his experience had projected onto his imagination.  The result was The Human Slaughterhouse which, while reviewed favorably in Germany and in translation in the US  (though apparently not  Britain,) created a minor scandal in his school district: he was relieved of his duties, apparently after pressure from the Crown Prince, Wilhelm, himself.

Interestingly, despite high praise from peace organizations,  Lamszus was not a thorough-going pacifist.  While writing the Human Slaughterhouse he was also writing sketches of Dutch resistance to the Spanish in the Eighty Years War, and full of praise for it:

It was a glorious fight. The wrath of a people is mightier than all the guile and strategy on earth.

The morning sun is shining. But we are marching to death and singing: “Happy is he who knows how to die for God and his dear Fatherland.”

Like other writers who came of age during the Great War, such as John Dos Passos, and e e cummings, while the killing was horrible it was a manifestation of worse — mechanization, industrialization and the assault against the individual, the arrival of  monstrous machinery demanding monstrous loyalties, order and discipline.

He could also read history, a surprisingly rare capacity:

Not one of us has probably ever, with his own eyes, seen a field of battle. But we have heard about it from others, and we have read in books of other men what a battlefield looked like in 1870-71, and, as though with our own eyes, we have watched the shells shattering human bodies.

And, he could do the math:

… another thing we know is that forty years ago in spite of inferior guns and rifles, over a hundred and twenty thousand dead stayed behind on the field of honor. What percentage of the living will modern warfare claim? Armies are being marshalled vaster than the world has ever seen. Germany alone can put six million soldiers in the field; France as many.

If every man of those millions … fires about a hundred cartridges, and there is one bull’s-eye in every hundred, that works out at … that amounts to … and I can’t help smiling at this neat sum in arithmetic … then the answer is no one [is left] at all.

How wretchedly badly off they were in 1870-71 with their rattletrap needle guns . A single feeble bullet at a time, and after you had fired it came the long, complicated business of reloading. And yet the war accounted for well over a hundred thousand French and German dead. I wonder how many dead this war will account for? If only every fifth man is left on the field, and if another fifth comes home invalided … what will its harvest amount to then?

Though the  war planners and generals in all nations seem to have been taken by surprise by the effect of machine guns on advancing troops or charging cavalry, Lamszus certainly saw what they would do:

The mechanical side of war has been raised to a high standard of genius and a fine art. Two hundred and forty bullets and more to the minute! [Actually, the new Maxim gun could put out 600 rounds per minute…] What a marvel of mechanism one of those machine-guns is. You set it buzzing, and it spurts out bullets thicker than rain can fall. And the automaton licks its lips hungrily and sweeps from right to left. It is pointed on the middle of the body, and sprays the whole firing-line with one sweep. It is as though Death had scrapped his scythe for old iron; as if nowadays he had graduated as expert mechanic … they will have to shovel our millions of bodies underground with burying machines.

… We have passed on from retail to wholesale methods of business. In place of the loom at which you sat working with your own hands, they have now set the great power-looms in motion. Once it was a knightly death , an honorable soldier’s death; now it is death by machinery. That is what is sticking in my gullet. We are being hustled from life to death by experts—by mechanicians. And just as they turn out buttons and pins by wholesale methods of production, so they are now turning out the crippled and the dead by machinery.

What he brought to his work was more than doing the numbers, so obvious they seemed to have been hidden to all but a few.  He brought, as Steven Crane had before him, the power to imagine the soldiers, the farewells from mothers and sweethearts, the hopeful faces and untested courage on the marches to the front

The martial strain infects the excited streets, trumpets back from a wall of houses, stirs the blood so joyously, and exorcises the spectres of the night from your brain. Your muscles stiffen, you throw your head up, and your legs strut along proudly to keep step and time. And the rhythm of step and time infects the whole crowd.

Almost identical passages appear in books written from actual experience of the war, say Henri Barbusse in 1916, Under Fire, Roland Dorgelès, in Wooden Crosses

Above all he imagines death in all its particulars, never having seen it:

I rise to my feet again…. I have not been hit. But the man who leaped up beside me— he is lying flat in the sand and screaming in a broken voice. He is lying as if he had been nailed firmly through his stomach to the earth, and as if he could not get free again. The body itself is dead, only the arms and legs are still alive. And arms and legs are working wildly through the air.

… Explosions and screams, and the hissing of lead, and the shrieks of men, and blood and water foam up, till no one knows whether he has been hit or is still alive;  for in front of me— so close that I could clutch it— I see a jugular vein, ripped through, spurting in an arch like a fountain— and in his blood the fellow hit staggers back, and blood and howls surfeit the black flood, until it is at length reddened with human blood—

…we see that our faces, our uniforms, have red, wet stains, and distinctly recognize shreds of flesh on the cloth. And among our feet something is lying that was not lying there before— it gleams white from the dark sand and uncurls … a strange dismembered hand … and there … and there … fragments of flesh

He saw the use of airplanes to rain death on those below:

That was Death flying toward us on propellers. The spectres of the night whirred above us; we shot blindly into the air— for every moment the storm was bound to break over us…. Torpedo tubes above us … they’ll spurt in a minute … they’re going to fling down dynamite … and then the magnesium bombs blazed out …

He sounds the irony that so many later came to see: religion in the service of the state, in the service of death:

He is blessing our rifles that they may not fail us; he is blessing the wire -drawn guns on their patent recoilless carriages; he is blessing every precious cartridge, lest a single bullet be wasted, lest any pass idly through the air; that each one may account for a hundred human beings, may shatter a hundred human beings simultaneously.

Not only does he see the deaths, he sees what would come to be called shell-shock, and the revolt of the men against their officers, and each other, maddened by the excruciating, constant noise, exhaustion and fear.

The slender book is quite a tour de force of the imagination, if not of excellent writing.  It is saturated not only in graphic scenes but with melodramatic exaggeration where subdued description might have been more powerful.  It is, of course, a translation, by Oakley Williams, and as such likely suffers from the styles and choices of 100 years ago.  Like many of the novels that came during and after the war, there is little or no character development and no plot other than one day following another.  There are no problems encountered and solved through human agency.  Of course not.  The overwhelming problem was nonstop mechanized hell on earth, of being a soldier under fire.  There was no solution but survival.  As one commentator puts it, the enormity of the firepower erased all distinction between courage and cowardice: hiding in a hole was as good a means of surviving to fight another day as holding steady against an onrushing enemy.

Above all, The Human Slaughter House was a warning, intended as such and received, though not where it would have done the most good.  Sales of the book were shut down in Hamburg for being,

“A peril to the public safety,” “a morbid phantasy.” He was condemned for being “an hysterical neuropath,” “a socialist-anarchic revolutionary,” “a cowardly weakling,” “a landless man ,” “an imported alien draining the marrow of patriotic backbone,”

Interest, however, soared in other parts of Germany.  Some 100,000 are said to have been sold three months after publication.  The Nineteenth Universal Peace Congress in Geneva, September, 1912 sent a letter of thanks for “furnishing the cause of peace with a weapon of considerable importance.”

The nationalistic right did not think so highly of the book, however.  Protests and threats mounted until the Hamburg Senate awarded him a stipend to go to North Africa and study the Germans in the French Foreign Legion — a promotion to the desert. From this he wrote an attack on the imperialism producing overseas armies such as the Legion, calling it The Prodigal Son.  Just months before war was declared he sent his follow up to The Human Slaughterhouse, The Lunatic Asylum, to the printer.

And yet, of course, the war he predicted, came.

The Lunatic Asylum was not printed until after the war when Lamszus had this to say:

“We were drawn into the war as into an insane asylum, and we were mentally ill, even before the first bullet was fired…Even as I outwardly displayed composure before the horrible events, it felt to me as if the world had become an insane asylum.

He continued his efforts to educate and plead the cause of peace, with a volume of poems in 1921 and co-editorship of A Curse on Weapons. In 1924 he published “The Genius on the Gallows,” a searing indictment of the death penalty. For the 10th anniversary of the First Battle of Ypres he wrote “Poison Gas,” produced as a play in 1925.

[I haven’t been able to find these books, even in German, and credit Patrick von Stutenzee and here, for the information.]

Though Lamszus continued his opposition to war,  Alfred Noyes, a British poet, writing in his introduction to The Human Slaughterhouse, 

From a logical point of view a war between civilized peoples is as insane as it is foul and evil. The pacificists are fighting the noblest battle of the present day. They are not going to win without a struggle; but they will win.

… did not.  Though he had opposed the Boer war, when WW I came, he joined John Buchan, the most famous and persuasive propagandist holding a British pen, in the Foreign Office, “writing morale-boosting short stories and exhortatory odes and lyrics recalling England’s military past and asserting the morality of her cause.”  After the war was over, he again contributed anti-war poems to the public, the best known being “The Victory Ball,” [read here] contemplating the dead young men beneath the feet of light-stepping dancers.  When WW II arrived, he returned to the writerly trenches.

I don’t know if the two corresponded again.  It would be interesting to know, though not unusual if they did not.  All over Europe writers, pacifists, socialists and anarchists found their loyalties over questions of war and peace severely tested.  Lamszus lived until 1965, leaving a legacy which had some modest effects in his day, and is waiting a diligent scholar and translator to revive his books and tell us more about a remarkable life. Meanwhile, The Human Slaughterhouse,in English, is available free in several place.  Here is the link to Gutenberg.org. 

It’s a short novel and begs to be read by anyone trying to understand the resolute failure of human beings to take the predictable seriously, to stop the cheering long enough to think: people are really going to die. And die ugly.  Put Lamszus up against say, Under Fire, by Henri Barbusse, written after two years in the trenches on the Western Front, to see what an ordinary, German school teacher can see, two years ahead of time, and ask ourselves: why not more of us?