Such Terror Out of Europe

Geert Buelens, Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe

Verso, 400pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781784781491

reviewed by Eleanor Careless

Geert Buelens’ extraordinary, novelistic study of the poetry of the Great War concludes ‘so that was the First World War . . . a Twin Tower every afternoon.' Buelens’ concern to make the events of over a century ago measurable by contemporary standards introduces a radically new perspective to the field of war poetry studies. Rather than replicate the Western European-centric innocence-to-experience narrative popularised in works from LP Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953) to Ian McEwan’s Atonement (2001), Buelens supplies a densely detailed pan-European account of the violent, nationalistic culture from which the war inevitably arose. Conflict on a global scale, in this reading, does not come out of the blue.

Buelens begins in 1914, at the very onset of hostilities, when ‘50,000 war poems a day were written in Germany alone during the first month of the war’. Poetry, Buelens claims, was central to European education systems, widely circulated in newspapers, and poets, from the very start of the conflict, played a large role in mobilising the masses. Examples from Buelens’ encyclopaedic catalogue include Winston Churchill’s prediction, on the death of Rupert Brooke in 1915, that Brooke’s war sonnets would inspire thousands of conscripts. Italian poets such as Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Gabriele d’Annunzio published war-glorifying poetry on the front pages of Le Figaro. Czech-born Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry was allegedly carried in the knapsack of many German-speaking soldiers, and Ford Madox Ford (then Ford Madox Hueffer) worked for the British War Propaganda Bureau. Even Franz Ferdinand’s young Bosnian-Serb assassin, a reader of Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde, had poetic aspirations, ‘in tune with an age when poetic and revolutionary aspirations often went hand in hand.’

In a departure from First World War poetry studies that confine themselves to a single national paradigm, Buelens’ history encompasses the poetry of nations small and large, sovereign and annexed, new and old. Moving chronologically from the first year of the war through the battles of Verdun and the Somme to the Russian Revolution and the 1918 aftermath, Everything to Nothing brings the little known poetry of Transylvanian, Latvian, Flemish, and Bosnian poets into contact with the better known writings of Guillaume Apollinaire, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Anna Akhmatova. Buelens often prefers lesser known figures to take centre stage, as with the experience of the Germanophile British poet Charles Sorley, whose imprisonment in Germany as an alien in the early days of the war and prophetic poetry written from the trenches takes up more space than the unavoidable references to Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

As Everything to Nothing progresses, clashes and collusions between a radical avant-garde culture and widespread political chauvinism become apparent. Futurist poet D’Annunzio not only furiously encouraged Italian participation in the war, but was an innovative propagandist, pilot, military leader and pro-active Italian expansionist. Literary magazines, such as the incendiary British journal Blast edited by Wyndham Lewis, declaimed ‘Cosmopolitan sentimentality’ and ‘blasted’ national stereotypes. The German publication Die Aktion, meanwhile, remained staunchly anti-jingoist, and continued to publish poetry and obituaries of former contributors from both sides. Differently again, the subversive De Vlaamsche Stern, or The Flemish Voice, was secretly funded by the Germans to increase internecine Belgian strife. As Buelens is at some pains to show, the complex and shifting state of Europe’s nations at this juncture was such that assertions of national identity (that mainstay of propaganda) not only set Allies against Central Powers, but ally against ally, Hungarian Serbs against Serbs, Poles ‘killing each other with enemy bullets’, the Flemish against the Walloons and –inversely – irredentists alongside imperialists, Irish nationalists alongside their English colonisers, fighting jointly for the imperilled sovereignty of Belgium. Buelens’ unrelenting depiction of violent poets and poetics disturbs any easy alignment between ‘war poets’ and an ‘anti-war’ stance. Discussion pivots upon the relation between poetry and nationalism – albeit nationalism of very different stripes, from demands for national self-determination, to well-meaning patriotism, to explicitly xenophobic chauvinism.

Nationalism, for Buelens, is ‘a political movement that since its origin has been interwoven with literature.’ This contestation is the central claim of Everything to Nothing, which approaches the First World War as a contest of modern nations. Linguistic divides are central to nationalistic movements and in Buelens’ argument, the essence of a language is expressed in literature. So, ‘even when nationalist movements made the transition from the cultural to the political (and sometimes even the military) sphere, poets played leading roles.’ Examples include Janis Rainis’s ballad Daugava, which incited the Latvians to courageous acts that will ‘recapture the Latvian land,’ sold out of all 4,000 copies in two weeks and was carried around in soldiers’ boots. René De Clercq’s Flemish anthems incited internal rebellion amongst the Belgium army. New forms of nationalism were formulated in literary circles, including the vision of socialist (‘a theoretically internationalist ideology’) Gustave Hervé, who envisaged widespread self-determination for the oppressed Serbs, Czechs, Poles, and Jews of Europe as part of the fall-out of war – a ‘United States of Europe.’ Questions of sovereignty and self-determination, of nationalism’s compatibility with internationalism, of what it means to be European, feel timely indeed. Early twentieth century Europe’s nascent ‘Cold War style’ conflicts may not be all that far away from those of early twenty-first century Europe.

Everything to Nothing makes a strong case for the connection between excessive patriotism and conflict, taking as its epigraph Franz Pfemfert’s words published in Die Aktion in August 1914: ‘Chauvinism is the constant threat to the survival of humanity’. Buelens is tenacious in his interrogation of the destructive role such chauvinism played, and does not shy away from acknowledging its frequent invocation in poetry that rouses xenophobia (‘the Hun is at the gate!’), clamours for patriotic self-sacrifice (‘Germany must live even if we must die!’), extols death (‘collapsing in the red smoke of their young blood’), glorifies violence (‘zit zit zit POW’) and calls to action (‘futurists, take to the streets!’). Europe’s violent avant-garde touted war and sacrifice as the saving purification and regeneration of stagnant, ‘degenerate’ national cultures. Such a connection is evident in Marinetti’s claim that ‘war is the only hygiene,’ in the Hungarian poet Béla Balázs' comparison of the war to a ‘moral bath,’ and in Mayakovsky’s conviction that the conflict would precipitate the ‘Great Leap Forward’ to a new world. This ‘Great Leap Forward’ transpired in the Russian revolution of 1917, described elegiacally by Buelens as spring dawning in the middle of winter – although the fall of the tsar did not immediately end Russia’s involvement in the war. Patriotism proved to be compatible with ‘the Revolution’ which in fact ‘fueled the old militaristic dream.’

Poetic critiques of nationalism are less prominent, but Buelens cites socialist poet and erstwhile correspondent of Lenin, Herman Gorter, who found the nation state to be complicit in the ‘ceaseless bloodshed of the war,’ and the communist poet Oscar Kanehl, for whom the ‘rejection of any national identity was a sign of civilisation.’ These pages supply plenty of war poetry that accuses, satirises and cautions (‘fresh made graves soon will fill every space’), but even anti-war poetry could be turned to propagandistic ends. Anna Akhmatova’s ironic ‘Consolation,’ in which Russian’s thousands of fallen men are depicted as ‘God’s soldiers now,’ was deployed by the Russian war machine to endow the horrors of war with meaning, where there otherwise would be none. This last function of poetry is a hazardous one, for it legitimates otherwise senseless violence. While not claiming that history repeats itself, Buelens contends that a nationalist rhetoric, and the clash of civilisations narrative that goes with it, have made a vigorous comeback post 9/11. Recall George W. Bush’s words shortly after that event: ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ Precisely that setting of ‘us’ against ‘them,’ of the Allies against the ‘Hun,’ of new nations against their ‘corrupting’ minorities, led Jewish poet Uri Tsvi Greenberg, survivor of a 1918 pogrom, to describe the bloody reality of nationalist altercations as ‘such terror out of Europe.’

If there are criticisms to be made of this study, they might address the grandiose register that opens the first chapter, which places a flamboyant emphasis upon the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’ and upon the terms ‘man,’ ‘brothers,’ and ‘fraternity.’ Although the parodic function of this rhetoric becomes gradually clearer to the reader, a greater recognition of the role that gender plays in this dense and accomplished account of poetry, nation and conflict would be welcome. A recognition of war as an almost entirely male domain would begin to deconstruct notions of machismo and self-sacrifice. While Buelens draws attention to the often sensuous portrayal of violence there is no acknowledgement of the extent to which this violence is gendered male. Likewise, poetic representations of the explicitly feminised European territories over which the war was fought pass without remark. Take the best-known Polish poem of the war, by Edward Sloński: ‘For I dream of her by day/And I see her in my dreams./SHE WHO IS NOT YET LOST/Will rise where our blood streams.’ Self-sacrifice is here legitimated – indeed, exhorted – via a romantic discourse that depends upon and shores up the binary between a vulnerable feminine body and an aggressive masculine agency. In an illustration of the violent masochism of the avant-garde, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa breathlessly compares ‘being torn to shreds by an engine to a woman submitting to ravishment,’ violently feminising the wounded male body. Elsewhere Paul van Ostaijen depicts ‘EUROPE according to its EROTIC BEDDINGS… here’s what women are like on Corfu,’ again equating territory and sexual conquest. Then, there are the central terms ‘patriotism’ and ‘chauvinism’, upon which Buelens’ critique of nationalism turns. Chauvinism is often synonymous with machismo, and patriot comes from patris, that is, the fatherland, the patriarchal order. Some discussion of these sexualised terms and images would do much to explicate the patriarchal conditions which fomented what Buelens calls a ‘nationalistic frenzy.’ Readers may also find themselves wishing for a closer analysis of the many poems quoted, although such close readings would conceivably distract from Buelens’ wider, pan-European project.

Most crucially, this cross-cultural project contributes to a critical deficit of attention in world war studies to more than the poems and prose of a few dozen white middle-class officers, as David Olusoga argues in a recent intervention. Such work begins to revive forgotten issues of race and nation, albeit on a European scale. As well as countering a chauvinistic culture de guerre with an impressively erudite cosmopolitanism of its own, Everything to Nothing supplies an apology for poetry for the twentieth century, that is, a defence of the power of poetry to influence and shape the real world, and as ‘a source of knowledge about the past and a demonstration of how that past was shaped by words.’ What historian David Reynolds has critically termed the ‘literary war,’ its legacy reduced to poetry and prose fragments that overshadow the history and obscure the senselessness of the conflict, is given new significance by Buelens’ far-reaching, rigorously historical study of literature and violence.
Eleanor Careless is a PhD researcher with the department of English at the University of Sussex, co-editor of The Literateur, and 2016 British Council Research Fellow at the Library of Congress.