The epitaph for the Battle of Passchendaele – as with so much of our understanding of the First World War – came from a British war poet. But what of their German counterparts? We explore the poetry that emerged from the other side of no-man’s land
‘I died in hell,/ (They called it Passchendaele),’ wrote Siegfried Sassoon in his 1918 poem Memorial Tablet.
Sassoon’s words, from a poem describing a soldier drowning in the mud after a shell explosion during the Third Battle of Ypres, will be widely quoted during the commemorations for the centenary of the battle, becoming as familiar as Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est and Rupert Brooke’s ‘If I should die think only this of me,’ passage from The Soldier.
Britain’s First World War poets have become part of the national fabric, and rightly so. Casualty statistics and monochrome photographs of muddy plains, blasted trees and men in trenches self-consciously raising mugs of tea with gap-toothed smiles beneath pushed-back tin helmets can only convey so much. Poetry adds the context, evoking the fear, the mud, the hell, the futility of it all.
Now that the war’s participants are all gone, poetry is the closest link we have with the experiences, thoughts and feelings of those who fought in it and endured it. There’s an intimacy to the poems that still speaks to us down the decades, reminding us of the horror and trauma in stark, evocative stanzas. We even wear a remembrance poppy each November largely because of a poem, In Flanders Fields by the Canadian surgeon John McCrae written at Ypres in 1915.
The poetry makes the war a shared experience, a human experience, regardless of class, rank or creed. Yet search anthologies that feature the likes of Sassoon, Owen, Brooke, Edward Thomas and non-combatants such as Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy and you won’t find names like Georg Trakl, Walter Flex, August Stramm or indeed any poets from the other side of the conflict.
History may be written by the winners but can the same really be true of poetry? The Germans, after all, still lived through the same mud, rats, lice and the perpetual gnawing fear of sudden death falling upon them at any moment.
Given that the poetry of the First World War is so important to us, surely reading some of the poetry from the other side of no-man’s land would provide a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the conflict?
It’s easier said than done: very little German poetry beyond Goethe, Schiller and Rilke is available in English translation, making the sourcing of German First World War poetry a difficult task.
It is worth the hunt, though. Much of the verse produced in Germany and on the Western Front during the conflict is rich, affecting and echoes the experience of the poets from the British side with whom we’re so familiar. There are evocations of the reality of life in the trenches, horror, disillusionment, questions about patriotism and a widespread lack of respect for those in charge. There’s a strong seam of expressionism running through German war poetry too, an early manifestation of a movement that would go on to flourish in the 1920s in German literature, music and most notably in cinema.
Two notable poets were killed in the early days of the war, leaving behind a slim body of work that only hinted at what might have followed. The war was barely five weeks old when 25-year-old Berlin law graduate Alfred Lichtenstein was killed, but he’d already seen through the military hierarchy leading him into battle. In the searingly satirical A Lieutenant General Sings the eponymous officer is full of himself, admiring how ‘important people and regimental chiefs bend their knee’ before him, with the concluding lament, ‘Would that there were an endless war/ With bloody howling winds./ Ordinary life/ Holds no charm for me’.
A poet of genuine wit, Lichtenstein’s Leaving For The Front is all the more poignant knowing it was written when its author had only a few weeks to live. It’s a short poem of false cheer and fake bravado in which the narrator rolls his eyes at the tears of his mother and girlfriend, masking his near-certainty that he won’t return. ‘And now look, the sun begins to set/ A nice mass grave is all that I shall get,’ he laments, before concluding, ‘Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red./ In thirteen days I shall probably be dead.’
Ernst Stadler was working at the university in Strasbourg when the war came, its declaration preventing him taking up the academic post in Toronto for which he was about to depart. Instead, as a reservist, he was ordered back to Germany. ‘Evening lecture cancelled,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘morning shopping: revolver.’
A native of Alsace, the 31-year-old was well-travelled outside Germany. He’d taught at Brussels University and had also spent time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He only published one collection in his lifetime, 1913’s The Awakening, a joyous affirmation of youth and nature but one whose eponymous poem hinted at what was to come. ‘Perhaps by evening, victory marches would console us with their touch,’ he wrote. ‘Perhaps we would lie stretched out somewhere beneath corpses./ But before our seizure and before our sinking down,/ Our eyes ablaze would drink till sated by world and sun.’
Stadler was killed at the end of October 1914 not far from Ypres.
The deaths of Stadler, Lichtenstein and thousands of other young Germans were as sobering at home as the rising casualty lists were in Britain. Yet at the start of the war there had been much poetic sabre-rattling. ‘How the hearts of all the poets caught fire when the war came!’ exclaimed Thomas Mann, but the most overt expression of patriotic German blood rising came from a German-Jewish poet named Ernst Lissauer.
Lissauer was sitting in a Hamburg café shortly after war broke out when he read of how American medical supplies intended for German hospitals were being impeded by the British. This was too much for the poet and he immediately dashed of an excoriating poem called Hymn of Hate, the concluding lines of which read:
‘Hate by water and hate by land,/ Hate of the head and hate of the hand,/ Hate of the hammer and hate of the crown,/Hate of seventy million choking down./ We love as one, we hate as one,/ We have one foe and one alone – ENGLAND!’
Unsurprisingly this became a smash hit in Germany, with the Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht printing off copies and distributing them among his troops. The reaction on this side of the Channel ranged from appalled (Arthur Conan Doyle called it ‘very painful and odious’) to outright derision: the hundred-strong Royal College of Music choir set it to music and staged a performance during which they could barely contain their laughter.
Lissauer himself, however, grew to detest the work, refusing to allow permission for its inclusion in an anthology for schools and wishing the whole thing would just go away. For one thing, as anti-Semitism rose in Germany during the 1930s Hymn of Hate’s vitriolic tone was labelled ‘un-German’. A year before his death in 1937 Lissauer sighed, ‘To the Germans I am a Jew masquerading as a German and to the Jews I am a German who is faithless towards Israel’.
The left wing poet and playwright Ernst Toller was also swept up in the early patriotic fervour of the war. Just 21 and studying in France when war broke out Toller hurried back to Germany to enlist, endured months of a relatively dull posting as an artillery observer and requested a transfer to the front line.
‘How happy I am to be going to the front at last!’ he wrote. ‘To do my bit, to prove with my life what I think and feel.’
In his poem Spring he wrote ‘I have never felt so strongly/ How much I love you, O Germany./ As the magic of spring surrounds you/ Amid the bustle of war.’
Present at Verdun, however, the reality of the conflict soon removed any illusions from the idealistic Toller. In Corpses In The Wood he described ‘A dung heap of rotting corpses./ Glazed eyes, bloodshot,/ Brains spilt, guts spewed out,/ The air poisoned by the stink of corpses./ A single, awful cry of madness.’
In May 1916 a frazzled Toller was evacuated from the front due to exhaustion and nervous stress and discharged from the army as unfit for service. ‘I see, and see, and I am struck dumb,’ he cries in Corpses In The Wood. ‘Am I a beast? A murderous dog?/ Men violated./ Murdered.’
Toller’s war experiences dictated the course of the rest of his life and by 1917 he was a committed pacifist and socialist. ‘What separates a German mother from a French one?’ he asked. ‘Slogans, which so deafen us we cannot hear the truth.’
Having spent five years in prison for his role in the short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic in 1919, the Jewish Toller watched the rise of Nazism with unease, escaping first to Britain and then the US where he shot himself in 1939 on learning his brother and sister had been sent to German extermination camps.
‘Germany,’ he’d written years earlier in the First World War poem Deutschland, ‘your sons will/ No longer play/ as children.’