LISTENING IN BRUSSELS
not expect me to write essays. I am writing letters. Let me be as discursive
as I please. But you will see at the end of my labors that the building has
a frame, and that all the parts are in place.
Having philosophized the last time, I will now tell you a story.
When the German army passed through
unresisting Brussels (three days, if I remember rightly, it was passing
through, a long, moving grey-green river of men, on whose helmeted ripples
the sunlight or the lamplight glittered), I stood for an hour unnoticed upon
a balcony, reading the thoughts of man after man as he passed before my
As I have explained to you before, I have no difficulty in
reading the thoughts of the Germans; it is only in trying to make them
understand me that I often fail.
The river of men and the river of thoughts, each man a ripple,
each thought a ripple!
Here are a few ripples of thought which
caught the light of my attention:
“What a beautiful city Brussels is!”
“My feet are tired. My shoes hurt me.”
“That tree yonder is like the one beside the door at home.”
“Mother will be making coffee at this hour.”
“What a pretty girl—the one with the bread in her basket!”
“I wonder if Gretchen will talk much with Hans now I am gone.”
“That gate on the left is the one that Marie sent me on a
picture postcard last year.”
“My feet are tired. My shoes hurt me.”
“So this is Brussels! I always wanted to see it.”
“My head aches.”
“Deutschland über Alles! Deutschland über Alles!”
“I wonder if the Lieutenant paid his tailor.”
“How warm it is!”
“What is father doing now?”
“I wish I had a glass of beer!”
“I am glad we don’t destroy Brussels!”
“What is all this war about, anyway?”
“The Fatherland! The Fatherland!”
“What will they give us for supper?”
“I wonder where we are going?”
“This isn’t so fine as the Unter dem Linden.”
“When we get to Paris I must see the Venus of Milo.”
“My head aches.”
“Our baby has a tooth!”
“Will it ever be supper-time!”
And so on and on and on, as the long grey-green river flowed
through the city of Brussels.
And these were the men that in a little while would murder and
rob and burn and rape, and murder and rob and burn! Many of them had done so
already—these tired men with their aimless, unwarlike thoughts, their
commonplace soldier thoughts, of home and food and aching feet and of
postcards Marie sent last year and the hour for mother’s coffee!
What power transformed them into devils? What demon dehumanized
them till they forgot their weariness? Was it the raucous cry of the
war-trumpet? Was it the devil behind the devil who blew the trumpet? Was it
the evil spirit of a nation, or merely the spirit of war?
It was all of these things.
Perhaps when they began their marching they thought of glory and
hate and life and death and honor; but they had been marching long and their
thoughts had become simple as the thoughts of weary old men.
What was it all about? What power was driving them on?
Some of these men killed unresisting civilians, struck down
helpless children, maltreated nuns and other virgins, drove old men and
women before them as a shield against the fire of the opposing forces.
What roused the devil in them? Your friend is right in saying
that the war-trumpet is an instrument that can rouse the demon that sleeps
in the human breast. He says that the demonic forces outside can make their
entry into our world and our personalities riding on the tones of the
trumpet-horn. He is right.
He says that it brings the element of fire into the soul.
Profoundly true! Fire, the element of destruction, that purifies by
destroying what cannot resist it. Fire in the soul and fire in the nerves
and fire at the end of a rifle—and death by fire to all that gets in its
I have listened for days to the
ear-splitting noise by which Germany seeks to put hell into the hearts of
her soldiers. My ears rang with it yesterday.
Why do you start? Have you not yet accustomed yourself to the
thought that I can go back and forth, from the hell of Europe to the
purgatory of New York? Yes, the Germans in New York are in purgatory, for
they know that their cause is lost. Purgatory is for purgation. Let us hope
that it may accomplish its purpose in their hearts. And I do not say this to
be unkind, but rather as a blessing. I love the Germans, and all other
races. So also do you—in your heart of hearts.
Yes, it was I who, through an easy instrument, directed you to
the German doctor. I wanted you to see how good a German can be. There are
many such in that hell-racked nation.
You should understand that hell comes into
a man—he does not go into hell. Have you not heard that man is the Microcosm
of the Macrocosm? Those tired grey-green soldiers that I watched in their
march through Brussels were each of them large enough to contain hell and
heaven and a world of spirits. All of them had contained heaven many a time,
when listening to the strains of their master-musicians. It was when the
war-trumpet sounded, and the war-hate and the war-lust awoke in them, that
they contained hell.
Many a time have I clutched with my too-tenuous hands a German
soldier who was about to disgrace himself.
Once, at Namur, I kept a young man from doing something that
would have darkened his judgment of himself while his life lasted—and it
lasted only twenty-one days thereafter. He was a good boy; but the devil
awoke in him as it awoke in others. It was because he was more sensitive
than some others that I could make him feel my restraining hands. He thought
they were the hands of his dead grandfather, who had left him only a year
before. What matter? He let his victim escape.
(Yes, look up Namur on the map, if you wish to! You will find it
in the right place. Your uncertainty as to Belgian geography does not
trouble me; but your return to the world of your own thoughts has broken the
thread of mine.)