Monday, 4 August 2014

The Human Slaughterhouse

I’ve been reading Patrick von Stutenzee's History Blog, which can be found at:

There is an extraordinary story in it about Wilhelm Lamszus, a teacher who was born in July 13, 1881 and died January 18, 1965 in Hamburg, and his book “Das Menschenschlachthaus - Bilder vom kommenden Krieg”.

Patrick recounts his story as follows:

“In 1912, a German teacher anticipated the horrors of World War I in a novel. His name was Wilhelm Lamszus. With his bestseller "The Human Slaughterhouse – Pictures of the Coming War" he wrote a disturbing prophecy about things to come in what we now call the Great War or World War I.”

“It was left to a school teacher at an elementary school in Hamburg to imagine the horror and utter the warning. Wilhelm Lamszus' novel, you may call it a prophecy, “The Human Slaughterhouse - Pictures of the Coming War” was published in the summer of 1912. It triggered a scandal, or rather a series of scandals.

“Wilhelm Lamszus’ slender work had been intended for a young adult readership. The teenage book market was then as marginal as the theme he chose to write about. But the novel still amazes readers today by its eloquence and visionary description of the world war horrors that would unfold from 1914 to 1919. His vision was more realistic than any of the hero mongering movies produced by government agencies for lots of money under the guise of a free market today.”

Apparently, he had the idea after a military training course, where he saw the machines of destruction – machine guns, guns for firing shells, and saw the technology would change the way wars were conducted. As Wilhelm wrote:

“The war machine had become ingenious, had developed into an art form. Someone was allowed to pull a trigger and let a machine gun purr and it squirted bullets denser than falling raindrops! As if death had thrown its scythe on the scrap heap and had become a mechanic instead!”

The Celebrity Savvy Blog also has this to say:

“Wilhelm Lamszus wrote a book predicting the horrors of World War I years before it started. Coming from a German, that was unacceptable for the Imperial authorities. He was repressed, hassled, bullied and finally promoted out of Germany. He was sent as an envoy to Africa to study the fate of German soldiers serving in the French Foreign Legion. It was also hoped that his report would supply a further casus belli against France.”

The book itself can be read here, in an English translation, published in New York in 1913. Evidently it was too shocking for British publishers.

Here are a few extracts.

The padre blesses the troops before battle, and this is especially pertinent locally, as we hear the Dean of Jersey was also encouraging the troops in 1914. It is something I find profoundly disturbing:

“Look! He is now stretching forth his hands. We incline our heads. He is pronouncing the Benediction over us in a voice that echoes from the tomb. He is blessing us in the name of God, the Merciful. 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.”

For anyone who has seen “War Horse”, here is a passage where he contrasts old warfare with the new, and the butchery of the machine:

“And while to the right and left of me the rifle fire chatters incessantly, the grim mockery of it maddens my blood, and makes me see red before my eyes. I see scale-armour and visors ... high in their stirrups the knights burst blazing out of the wood, and I, a reckless horseman of the past, I leap into the saddle—my broad sword flashes clear and kisses the morning breeze—and now up and at them like a thunderbolt. Then eyes are flashing into mine and hands are raised for the mêlée—and stroke for stroke, breast to breast, the pride of youthful, virile strength.... Ha-ha-ha-ha! What has happened? Where have horse and rider vanished? Where is my sword? We are not even charging men. Machines are trained on us. Why, we are only charging machines. And the machine triumphs deep into our very flesh. And the machine is draining the life-blood from our veins, and lapping it up in bucketsful. Those who have been hit are already lying mown down in swathes behind us and are writhing on their wounds. And yet they are racing up behind us in their hundreds—young, healthy human flesh for the machines to butcher.”

And here is the muddy land, drawing people into death, as they struggle across the battlefield. That this was written in 1912 is extraordinary:

“But everyone has ceased to be conscious of what he is doing. And though our eyes start out of our head at the terror we see in front of us, Death is breathing its cold breath into the back of our neck.”

“And into the gurgling water, wriggling with bodies and alive with lungs, over human bodies writhing beneath the water, Death tramples us to the other bank. Any man who goes down is lost, for they are pressing on behind us past all holding. The water is already up to our armpits. But there is a firm bottom beneath our feet. True, the bottom may clutch at us, and cling round our feet. True, the water may bite savagely at our flesh with teeth and with nails. But whatever may be trying to draw us down to itself from below, we trample underfoot. The shoulders of a form emerge; they plunge down again, and disappear. The faces of drowning men emerge and cleave to the light, and sink gurgling into the depths. Lost arms wave about in the air and try to find support on the surface of the water. We dodge these arms, for whomever they may seize they draw down with them to Death.”

“And in the thick of this hurly-burly of Death, amid these whistling lungs, amid these panting, red, panic-stricken faces, the cloud of shells strikes home, and hurls its hail of iron overhead. The water spurts up in jets.”

And the ending is the narrator himself, speaking of his own death, and how the death of so many has left much more for those who are left; it is almost suggesting that one purpose of the war was to rid the nation of too many mouths to feed, too many people seeking work, and in this, it will be triumphant. It is an ending thick with irony, as the narrator contemplates how the war has, in a stroke, solved problems of over population, limited food supply, and in the end, the individuals count for nothing.

“They have now covered up our hot breath with earth. Why are you blinking at me with your bleared eyes, my brother? Are you not glad? Don't they envy us our sweet death? They have laid us out in a picturesque row, and you need only turn your head to rub against human flesh at once, and if you turn your yellow eyeball, you can see nothing but corpses in the twilight. One beside the other, that is how they are sleeping. And corpse upon corpse, ever more of them, through the whole length of the loose soil of the potato-field, and we even fill the whole adjoining field of roots.”

“Wonder whether the sun still goes on shining above us?—whether they still know how to laugh in the towns as we used to in our time? Wonder whether my wife still goes on remembering her dead husband—and my two kiddies—whether they have already forgotten their father? They were so tiny at the time—another man'll come along—they will call another fellow father—and my wife is still so young and fair.”

“We poor dead heroes! So do not disturb our last sleep any longer. We had to die to enable the others to live. We died for our native land in its straits. We are victorious now, and have won land and fame, land enough for millions of our brothers. Our wives have land, our children, our mothers, our fathers have land. And now our poor native land has air to breathe. It need no longer be stifled. They have cleared the air of us. They have got rid of us, of us who were far too many. We are no longer eating the bread away from other folks' mouths. We are so full-fed, so full-fed and quiet. But they have got land! Fertile land! And ore! Iron mines! Gold! Spices! And Bread!”

“Come, brother philosopher, let us turn our faces to the earth. Let us sleep upon our laurels, and let us dream of nothing but our Country's Future.”

That is the one area where the prophecy goes astray, because we do remember them, but there are still many who died without name, whose fate is that of the unknown soldier, and who are lost in the quagmire that was the field of death.

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