Prophet of the Great War

In 1912, a German teacher anticipated the horrors of World War I in a novel. His name was Willhelm 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.

In 1908, the German philosopher Rudolf Eucken won the Nobel Prize for Literature; in 1910, the German novelist Paul Heyse followed him in this honor; in 1912, the playwright Gerhart Hauptmann was another German following both of them. None of them, nor any other known German poet, writer, author or scholar, wrote of or against the threat of an impending world war. The government and the arms industry it belonged to saw to it that there was no fame to be gained in telling the truth. You might perceive parallels to today's situation.

At the turn of the last century, a lot of pacifist writings were published, such as Bertha von Suttner's famous novel “Lay Down Your Arms!” (published in 1889) or “The History of War and the Future of Peace” by French physician Charles Richet (published in 1907). They were in a minority among writers. They were published in the sense one would publish the latest interpretation of Nostradamus: Curiosities which sold a few books to some specialized freaks. But for the exponents of exalted modern literature, war was not an issue except to idolize and adulate it much like today’s print media and games console producers do.

And so it was left to a school teacher at an elementary school in Hamburg to imagine the horror and utter the warning. Willhelm 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.

Willhelm 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.

Willhelm Lamszus was born in Altona (now part of Hamburg) in 1881. There, he grew up as a single child of a shoemaker. He discovered early on that he had a passion for education. In 1902, he joined the public school service of Hamburg as a teacher. He became part of a group of teaching rebels that went against an education system they perceived and recognized as completely outdated and inhumane; a system that was nothing more than the breeding ground and recruiting station for the army. At first, he wrote educational pamphlets exposing the shortcomings of the system. Their style, polemic force and emphasis carried them far beyond contemporary literature.

Willhelm Lamszus had the idea for “The Human Slaughterhouse” while on a military training course. "What a marvel of technology people had invented and constructed," he wrote later about the beginnings of his famous book. "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 Human Slaughterhouse” told the fate of a young family man and father who enthusiastically marches to the fields of promised glory and this of course against Germany’s hereditary enemy France. With uplifting martial music he and his comrades are sent off to fight for king and country, or more correctly Emperor and Empire. Prior to the cattle like transport to the front, the soldiers attend mass to consecrate their weapons of slaughter in church. In the name of God the Merciful, "He blesses our guns, that each of their expensive balls may count, that they may not get lost blown into empty air, that every precious cartridge may hit a hundred people and tear them to pieces all at once."

The protagonist of the novel was left nameless by Willhelm Lamszus. At the military front, he arrives after long marches through blood and iron and for the first time is confronted with death: "A cold fist touched our scared hearts."

This darkly poetic style does't last much further into the novel. Modern war knows no poetry. It knows only destruction. "We timidly peep out over the mounds. Has red hell opened? It screams and shrills and brings forth wild and boundless yells so unnatural that we huddle closer to each other ... and trembling, we see our faces and our uniforms were red with wet spots, and clearly visible we had meat pieces on our stuff," The soldier discovered "something white" on the dark sand": a nameless torn off hand ... and there ... and there ... pieces of meat still attached to bits of uniform - and we recognize it, and horror descends on us: Out there are arms, legs, heads, torsos ... they howl into the night, the whole regiment is there torn to pieces, a lump of human flesh that cries to heaven ..." In the end, the protagonist also dies and is dumped into a mass grave.

Willhelm Lamszus uses language that points forward in its insistence to the great adventure novels of the post World War I period: to Henri Barbusse’s “Fire”, to Arnold Zweig’s “Case of Sergeant Grisha” and Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” as well as to Gabriel Chevallier’s “Fear”. Despite it all, in Willhelm Lamszus' novel there is still hope left that it would be possible to avert the great disaster and to prevent the war.

For anyone thinking that war is something heroic, this book is a must read. And it should be on every curriculum all over the world. The harmless little weapons of the Great War have long since been put to the museum and have been replaced by really destructive weaponry. In that sense, the book only heightens in horror if you look at it in its historical connotation.

The unexpected success of the book confirmed the author in his hope to warn humanity of impending disaster. “The Human Slaughterhouse” published by publishers Alfred Janssen Verlag, Berlin and Hamburg, had an enormous echo. In a few months the 110-page novel reached 70 reprints; after three months, 100,000 copies had been sold. In 1913, a reduced-price "popular edition" of 20,000 copies was almost instantly sold out. In the same year, the book was available in an English translation in an edition of 10,000. It was published in French, Danish, Czech, Finnish and Japanese. It spoke for the importance of the novel that the French translation was done by the eminent Nexø Henri Barbusse; the Danish translation contained a foreword by Martin Andersen; and a later German edition received an introduction by Carl von Ossietzky.

Among German Social Democrats, popularity of the publication was extremely high. Shortly after its release, excerpts from the book appeared in print in the party newspaper Hamburger Echo and were published in Stuttgart’s socialist weekly newspaper Die Neue Zeit. Editors praised the author emphatically and in a detailed review they stated that Willhelm Lamszus had "torn with a single but necessarily brutal style all colorful tatters from war with which it is customarily hung like the guise of chauvinism behind which war loves to hide".

As a matter of course, book and author were celebrated at the 5th German Peace Congress in Berlin as well as on the 19th International Peace Conference in Geneva. It is, publisher Bruno Wille said, a novel sized pamphlet that should be distributed in a hundred thousand copies all over the country. And Alfred Hermann Fried, founder of the German Peace Society and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1911, wrote: This book should come into millions of hands. It will become one of the sacred books of mankind.

But the editorial triumph was followed by imperial repression. On the intervention of His Imperial and Royal Highness the Crown Prince of the German Empire aimed directly at the Hamburg Senate in a bid to have Willhelm Lamszus dismissed from the education service, Hamburg banned the sale of the book briefly.

The senate of Hamburg set the political police to spy on him; their reports still lie in the Hamburg archives. Secret policemen came all dressed up in disguise to attend the funeral of Willhelm Lamszus' father in June 1914. As a matter of course, the spies filed all reviews and newspaper reports about “The Human Slaughterhouse” meticulously. All the same, they failed to incriminate Willhelm Lamszus as a public enemy, and even his expulsion from the school system and his teaching post proved difficult.

While this was going on, the reactionary press raged against him. They denounced Willhelm Lamszus as a bad German, as a weakling and nerveless coward, as an anarcho-syndicalist and revolutionary and as a supremely unpatriotic fellow. Things got into such a state that the Hamburg Senate had to do something. Fearing riots and protests in the city, the senate decided to spend money to get rid of him: Willhelm Lamszus received the most honorable but spurious task of traveling to North Africa. His commission was to study the situation of Germans in the French Foreign Legion. Thus accommodating an outward appearance of an anti-militarist stance, the Senate hereby had him discreetly removed from the school system and effectively deported from Germany.

Willhelm Lamszus was fully aware of the fact that he was being removed and sent into virtual exile. But he accepted the commission and traveled to Africa. The result of his research was a remarkable book called “The Prodigal Son”, which appeared in 1914 shortly before the war began. Willhelm Lamszus used the criticism he leveled at the Foreign Legion to give a sharp and pointed reckoning to a system whose excessive outgrowth is manifested by the system of militaristic imperialism. The book was published while Willhelm Lamszus was safely employed as a foreign envoy in Africa and safe from repercussions at home.

Paradoxically enough, when news of the mobilization reached him from Germany in August 1914, it hit Willhelm Lamszus out of the blue: "Because I was aware of the unspeakable horrors of this war in advance, I basically do not want to believe that it ever could come this far." At this point, his follow up of “The Human Slaughterhouse” entitled “The Lunatic Asylum” was ready for printing. However, it was suppressed and not allowed to be published until after the war. This third book - now confirmed by the personal wartime experiences of many people – received a great response. In his introduction, Carl von Ossietzky justified the need to portray the reality of war as it is, because it brings terrible suffering and because the time for mellower images had not yet arrived. War: "The old enemy of all culture and all human happiness is not vanquished. Drunk to the brim with red hot human blood the dragon has withdrawn into its lair. For how long, though?"

Willhelm Lamszus was captivated by that question and continued writing against war. His collection of poetry “The Mound of Corpses” published in 1921 and his co-editorship of “A Curse on Weapons” revealed his consistent and continued commitment to pacifism in their titles. 

After the Great War, there was an international "No More War" movement able to mobilize hundreds of thousands in England, Holland, Germany and the Scandinavian states. But how much of a force for pacifism was it really? In Germany about 70,000 people belonged to pacifist organizations. That was a lot compared to the 10,000 members before 1914, but negligible compared to the millions of members of nationalist associations (such as the Stahlhelm). 

Maybe 500 books were published describing the world as “All Is Quiet on The Western Front” did, showing war with all its hideous delusions. But there were uncounted thousands of books and pamphlets glorifying war and recounting misplaced heroism in adventure stories and heroic novels in the style of Werner Beumelburg and Ernst Jünger.

The military leadership in Berlin was already set for the big rematch. In secret, the generals and admirals were already playing with new gigantic fleets and whole armies of tanks. At the same time, agitators were drumming the war drums throughout the country; one of them was called Adolph Hitler. 

"It was a rare spectacle," Lamszus noted as early as 1922, "to see how people who had been dragged for more than four years up to their ears through a bloody swamp, people that had been goaded from disaster to disaster, people led into an abyss to be shattered, are today on the verge of voting for these selfsame leaders who so wonderfully brought them into that self same disaster. All of them are back again, the warmongers which temporarily had disappeared from the scene in ignominy. Those who opened up the slaughterhouse for their people in the first place, they will save the people! Surrender yourselves to them in trust! The way they are showing you will without a doubt lead from where you came from into the new human slaughterhouse that is waiting for you today as much as before!"

In 1924, he published the book “The Genius on the Gallows” - a blazing, expressionistic tinted plea against the death penalty. Besides his writing, he remained a passionate teacher. At an experimental school in the district of Hamburg-Barmbek, he experimented with new forms of teaching and continued to develop his education for peace.

For the tenth anniversary of the horrific Battle of Ypres where the German imperial forces used chemical weapons for the first time, he wrote the play “Poison Gas.” It was first played in the concert hall Conventgarten at Hamburg’s Kaiser-Wilhelm-Street in 1925. The focus of the play was on the inventor of a poison gas machine that should make his country the conquerors of the world. The play had a remarkable success - and again showed prophetic qualities. Three years later on premises in the port of Hamburg-Stoltzenberg, a tank with phosgene gas exploded. Twelve people died and about two hundred were injured.

To the world, the accident made public the fact that Germany produced gas for combat purposes in violation of international law. Willhelm Lamszus wrote a new preface for the 72nd edition of his novel “The Human Slaughterhouse”: "The disarmament show played out for the benefit of the people is composed of a renouncement of outdated war methods while eliminating useless war machinery that has become the stuff for history museums. In the background of peace congresses and the League of Nations meetings, the organization of the new war is in full progress and mountains of air fleets and of poison gas and incendiary grenades are growing." We all know this process all too well today. For decades, the United States and Russia have played this selfsame game together with the United Nations and.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, peace became fragile and increasingly more fragile. For Willhelm Lamszus, time was running out. A further anti-war publication on poison gas to be released at the beginning of the 1930s was repressed. Willhelm Lamszus tried in vain to find a publisher. Just before Hitler took power, he sent a duplicate of his latest manuscript to Claus von Ossietzky with the suggestion to publish single chapters in the Weltbühne. His request came too late: On February 28, 1933, Ossietzky was arrested and deported to a concentration camp. Warned, Willhelm Lamszus immured the manuscript and other writings and historical documents including incriminating books within his family home in the district of Hamburg-Borstel, in order not to endanger his family any further. (The cache was discovered by chance in 2005 during renovation work in the building.)

Willhelm Lamszus harbored no more illusions at that point. That extended to his teaching position and to the future of more than two hundred experimental schools in Germany. As early as 1924, he speculated with a view to Italian Fascism: "We know that our fate will be decided by historical forces. If tomorrow Mussolini arrives at the helm of this state, he will extinguish as the first step all life from our new schools. Under the pretext of restoring national education, he will expose the school system to reactionaries."

In 1933, the author was dismissed from his teaching position. Coupled with a ban on teaching, he was banned from writing and reading, too. At first, Willhelm Lamszus as a father of three young children was able to supplement his financial situation by clandestine collaboration in the feature pages of the Hamburger Anzeiger. That it was him hiding behind the names of Paul Willis or Lucy Kahl was not even know to the editor in chief. A group of dissenting journalists holding on to their jobs into the mid-thirties covered the outlaw and made it possible for him to continue low key writing.

Although the situation was obvious, Willhelm Lamszus decided not to emigrate. He worked through and survived with difficulty World War II. After the liberation, he was immediately involved in the German Peace Society. As the first German writer, he tried in 1946 to approach the experience of nuclear war in his prose. In 1960 he received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Education of the Humboldt University in East Berlin, East Germany.

On January 18, 1965, Willhelm Lamszus died in Hamburg. "Today, on the evening of my life," the 81-year-old wrote in 1962, "I am certain that the third world war will not take place. Millions of people in all countries have realized that one must face the danger of renewed war bravely. The day by day growing legion of peace fighters can prevent a new world conflagration and keep our planet from once again being transformed into a slaughterhouse from which this time no one would escape."

So far, he was right. The Cold War didn't escalate and the apocalypse failed to materialize. And yet, the 20th century passed without the dangers of war being banned permanently. Willhelm Lamszus' work remains as a reminder and as a continued warning.

Reference: Book ‘Das Menschenschlachthaus – Bilder vom Kommenden Krieg’; Author ‘Willhelm Lamsusz’; Publisher ‘Weismann’; Published ‘Munich, 1980, commented reprint of the 1st edition of 1912’. Book ‘Antikrieg: die literarische Stimme des Hamburger Schulreformers gegen Massenvernichtungswaffen’; Editor ‘Andreas Pehnke’; Publisher ‘Europäischer Verlag der Wissenschaften’; Published ‘Frankfurt on Main, Berlin, Bern, Brussels, New York, Oxford, Vienna, 2003’. Book ‘Der Hamburger Schulreformer Wilhelm Lamszus (1881-1965) und seine Antikriegsschrift "Giftgas über uns"’; Editor ‘Andreas Pehnke’; Publisher ‘Sax’; Published ‘Beucha near Lepzig, 2006, 1st edition of the manuscript of 1932’.