Originally posted March 2018.
"What You Read" is a short story which will be released in ten parts in this blog. It is inspired by the work I did for “The Pendulum”. It revolves around the question of what the books we read say about us.
In February 1945, as you left the smouldering ruins of Berlin for your parent’s rural estate that had survived the war, you looked out the window of the packed train, full of widows with bloodshot eyes and unnaturally silent children, and asked yourself: “Why?” Beside you were your four children, all under the age of ten. The fifth was on the way. Your husband, who remained in the SS bunker, would soon head south to fight in “The Final Victory,” and you never expected to see him again.
The exigencies of life would soon wash over that question, like the tide that takes back what it has washed onto the shore. Years later, when your nation’s fate had been settled, and you had established your own home back in the farmlands outside of Hamburg, it washed up once again.
“War and Peace” was over one thousand pages long, and had been published in six parts during 1865-9, sixty years after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, in the journal, “Russian Messenger.” You read it repeatedly, as though somewhere in its rich tapestry you would find the answer to your question of why men went to war. Although, as an adolescent, you had tried to escape it in the books at your attic window and had hoped for prosperity, war overtook your life like a tsunami, and now you wanted a simple answer.
At first, Tolstoy gave you one that you could distance yourself from, in the tale of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, and the urge of their men to battle. The smallest taste of the ecstasy, freedom and camaraderie of war was worth the stench of disease and death. In between battles, there was no need to think of purpose – one could even idle - loyalties were straight forward and life seemed simple. In contrast, peace was a devilishly complicated existence; something you saw in your husband, who clung to war long after it was over by sleeping with his revolver. This explanation allowed you to avoid feeling any responsibility. War was the realm of men and had nothing to do with you, because, according to Tolstoy’s tale, all that women could do was to wait, long and grieve.
As you read on, you realized that Tolstoy wouldn’t let you off so easily, which is the reason that you read this thousand-page novel repeatedly. In the detailed account of the circumstances surrounding the Battle of Borodino - Napoleon's defeat by the Russian army and the battle that Hitler did not take sufficient note of in his decision to invade Russia – Tolstoy advanced a theory that you would wrestle with for the rest of your life.
One could not attribute the will to war solely to leaders, he said. Rather, it was the product of a power relationship between the leader and the people; men and women, who would not hesitate to murder or depose their leaders if their “passion for destruction,” once ignited, was not fulfilled. This went to the heart of your fears: Underneath your passion for the highly civilized, did you too possess a passion for destruction? Your leaders had committed suicide, been sentenced and hung, but there remained a deafening silence about the past that masked your inner turmoil. The question of why men went to war evolved into the question of who was responsible. It dangled in your thoughts without a home, like one of the roots in those medicinal plant books.