The New Yorker
Dec. 9, 2002
WARNING: Extremely graphic violence.
For a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war. Fourteen years before [Virginia] Woolf published Three Guineas — in 1924, on the tenth anniversary of the national mobilization in Germany for the First World War — the conscientious objector Ernst Friedrich published his Krieg dem Kriege! [War Against War!].
This is photography as shock therapy: an album of more than one hundred and eighty photographs mostly drawn from German military and medical archives, many of which were deemed unpunishable by government censors while the war was on. The book starts with pictures of toy soldiers, toy cannons, and other delights of male children everywhere, and concludes with pictures taken in military cemeteries. Between the toys and the graves, the reader has an excruciating photo-tour of four years of ruin, slaughter, and degradation: pages of wrecked and plundered churches and castles, obliterated villages, ravaged forests, torpedoed passenger steamers, shattered vehicles, hanged conscientious objectors, half-naked prostitutes in military brothels, soldiers in death agonies after a poison-gas attack, skeletal Armenian children.
Almost all the sequences in War Against War! are difficult to look at, notably the pictures of dead soldiers belonging to the various armies putrefying in heaps on fields and roads and in the front-line trenches. But surely the most unbearable pages in this book, the whole of which was designed to horrify and demoralize, are in the section titled “The Face of War,” twenty-four close-ups of soldiers with huge facial wounds.
But Friedrich did not make the mistake of supposing that heartrending, stomach-turning pictures would simply speak for themselves. Each photograph has an impassioned caption in four languages (German, French, Dutch, and English), and the wickedness of militarist ideology is excoriated and mocked on every page. Immediately denounced by the government and by veterans’ and other patriotic organizations — in some cities the police raided bookstores, and lawsuits were brought against the public display of the photographs — Friedrich’s declaration of war against war was acclaimed by left-wing writers, artists, and intellectuals, as well as by the constituencies of the numerous antiwar leagues, who predicted that the book would have a decisive influence on public opinion. By 1930, War Against War! had gone through ten editions in Germany and been translated into many languages.
In 1938, the year of Woolf’s Three Guineas, the great French director Abel Gance featured in closeup some of the mostly hidden population of hideously disfigured ex-combatants — les gueules cassees [“the broken mugs”] they were nicknamed in French — at the climax of his new J’accuse. (Gance had made an earlier, primitive version of his incomparable antiwar film, with the same hallowed title, in 1918-1919.) As in the final section of Friedrich’s book, Gance’s film ends in a new military cemetery, not just to remind us of how many millions of young men were sacrificed to militarism and ineptitude between 1914 and 1918 in the war cheered on as “the war to end all wars,” but to advance the sacred judgment these dead would surely bring against Europe’s politicians and generals could they know that, twenty years later, another war was imminent.
“Morts de Verdun, levez-vous!” [“Rise, dead of Verdun!”], cries the deranged veteran who is the protagonist of the film, and he repeats his summons in German and in English: “Your sacrifices were in vain!” And the vast mortuary plain disgorges its multitudes, an army of shambling ghosts in rotted uniforms with mutilated faces, who rise from their graves and set out in all directions, causing mass panic among the populace already mobilized for a new pan-European war. “Fill your eyes with this horror! It is the only thing that can stop you!” the madman cries to the fleeing multitudes of the living, who reward him with a martyr’s death, after which he joins his dead comrades: a sea of impassive ghosts overrunning the cowering future combatants and victims of la guerre de demain. War beaten back by apocalypse.
And the following year the war came.