Poetry

1917 And The Pope’s Peace

“I think a curse should rest upon me – because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment — and yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it.”

These words, spoken by Winston Churchill to Violet Asquith on February 22, 1915, suggest a soul dislodged from the fundamental attitude proper to a member of Christian civilization. This attitude towards a war that was wrecking the vestiges of Christendom is not really surprising when we consider Churchill’s well-known membership in the Order of Freemasonry (from 1895) and his also well-known, at least to historians, initiation into the Neo-Pagan Druid Order (from 1908).

The existence and influence of such men as Winston Churchill are the only explanations for the blind inhuman ferocity with which World War I was pursued by the belligerents during the years 1914-1916. The theological, philosophical, and ideological positions of Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty and chief architect of the Gallipoli landings in 1915, simply exemplify the general loss of a Christian consciousness on the part of the leaders of the great Western Powers.

This complete lack of adherence to even the most basic principles of traditional Just War doctrine, was simply incomprehensible to Pope Benedict XV. Why would a war be tolerated which, unlike all others up until that date in European history, seriously threatened to wipe out a vast percentage of the young men on the Continent? Why would not the leaders of Britain and France, chastened and awakened after suffering the loss of 624,000 men in the Battle of the Somme alone, enthusiastically take up consideration of any proposal for a reasonable peace? Why were most of the peace initiatives during the years 1917 and 1918, treated to bemused dismissal and scarcely hidden contempt?

Pope Benedict XV, during the most critical year in contemporary history 1917, found himself confronting men who, like Churchill, appeared to have jettisoned “outdated” humane and moral concerns. That this new non-Christian understanding of conflict and war was not just to characterize the conflict of 1914-1918, is shown by Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s and President Franklin Roosevelt’s drafting and signing of a version of the Morgenthau Plan at the Second Quebec conference of 1944 in which they pledged to turn the heavily urbanized and industrial nation of Germany “into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character.”

What we can say with certainty is that July 1914 inaugurated a generation of political and military slaughtering which was often perpetrated for the sake of “Progress.” It was the dramatic end to an unparalleled era in European history, an era of civil and, on the whole, international peace. It is quite possible that the casualties of all European wars since the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte (1815) did not exceed in number the figure for a single day’s losses in any of the great battles of 1916.

War 1916: Stalemate , U-Boats, and Blockades

December 1916 marked a watershed in World War I. It was a moment when the increasing futility of the military stalemate on the Western Front, induced one side of the conflict – the Central Powers – to seriously consider a negotiated peace. Contrary to a certain simplistic understanding, a desire for a cessation of hostilities and negotiations does not necessarily originate from an experienced position of vulnerability and relative inferiority.

There was a definite long-range prudence and maturity revealed in the Central Powers’ (the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire) efforts towards a negotiated peace late in 1916. Not all of it can be attributed to the accession of devote and eminently humane Karl I to the Austrian Imperial Throne and the Hungarian Royal Throne at the death of his great-uncle Franz Josef in November. This “maturity,” which I speak of, can be shown by the fact that these Powers were actually “winning” the war to an extent.

Their military position and advantage appeared for all to see with their knocking the Entente ally, Romania out of the war and conquering Bucharest itself in the beginning of December 1916. Seeking to compensate for the British attempt at a starvation blockade of food and supplies to the Reich, the German military had ordered submarine warfare. This new kind of warfare, which targeted both enemy and neutral shipping, was roundly condemned by Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the Papal Secretary of State, in the autumn of 1915, speaking of it as “appalling and immoral.”

For the Germans, both during and after the war, this conflict on the open seas was only an attempt to offset the unrestricted blockade imposed by the Entente Powers, which was, also, contrary to established international law. The Great War thus became “as much a war of competing blockades, the surface and the submarine, as of competing armies.”

The German Peace Offensive

The complete stalemate in the Western trenches plus the ruthless warfare at sea, serves as the backdrop of the German Peace Note of December 1916. From the evidence, it appears that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany believed that everyone (i.e., the leaders of all of Great European Powers) secretly desired peace but that each belligerent was reluctant to be the first to admit it openly. The content of the German Note was simple and clear enough; some commentators called its tone “arrogant.”

Whatever the tone, the Note stated that the war was one of unprecedented fury that threatened to destroy the material and spiritual progress which the 20th century had such a right to be proud of. The Central Empires had amply demonstrated their might and would continue to fight boldly if this peace initiative was ignored. They were, however, desirous of putting an end to the bloodshed. If the Entente Powers agreed to immediate peace negotiations, the Central Powers would guarantee existence, honor, and freedom of development, and would do everything possible to restore lasting peace for the nations then engaged in conflict.

To this German Peace Note, there was no papal response. Benedict XV and Cardinal Gasparri would later, on March 7, 1917, explain, in a letter to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Cologne, that the reason for the coolness of the papal response to the peace gesture on the part of the German Kaiser was that a communication had been received from the British Government, which said that any intervention on the part of the Pope would be “ill-conceived” by Britain and France.

Benedict’s view was that if he offended the Entente Powers at that time, any future efforts would be met with outright antagonism. Moreover, since the Note lacked specific mention of a proposal for the reestablishment of independence for the Kingdom of Belgium, Benedict and Gasparri were not convinced of the usefulness of the initiative. So the Kaiser’s Peace Proposal came to naught. This German peace initiative is usually forgotten by conventional accounts of World War I.

What is also forgotten is the fact that it was only after the failure of this initiative that all restrictions on submarine warfare were lifted. German strategy in this war from the beginning was characterized by a great willingness to gamble. This appeared justified for the Germans at the time on account of the fact that the numbers, both in terms of man power and in terms of production capacity, were heavily skewed against them.

For example, the Entente enjoyed an immense economic superiority over the Central Powers with a combined national income 60% greater. The combined Allies also had 4.5 times as men as great a population as compared to the Germans, Austrians, and the Turks with 28% more men mobilized for the war effort. The policy of the Germans prior to early 1917 and the failure of their peace venture was to sink, without warning, ships believed to be carrying war supplies to Britain.

The German General Staff believed that such a gamble would bring about the defeat of Britain before the United States could make an effective military contribution to the war. This strategy was tried 3 times in 1915, when the Lusitania and Arabic were sunk. It was because of such actions that the German Empire found itself confronted with the outward, rather than just the covert, animosity of the American Republic.

The Pope’s First Moves

Even though British and French disapproval had prevented Pope Benedict XV from taking up the peace proposal made by the German Emperor in 1916 and identical pressure had persuaded him to remain officially aloof, although privately supportive, from the clandestine effort by Blessed Emperor Karl of Austria to establish a back-channel connection to France via his brothers-in-law, Prince Sixtus and Xavier of Bourbon-Parma, both Entente officers, Benedict and his Secretary of State were not inactive in pursuing what they say to be the only “solution” to the conflict, immediate peace and the restoration of the European status quo ante.

In this, they were joined by a whole menagerie of political groups and individuals who were moved by various motives, ideological principles, and, likely, simple human empathy to demand an end to the suicidal European conflict.

For those on the Left, this war was simply proving to be a capitalist enterprise in which the “military-industrial complex” was benefitting and capitalist nations were attempting to ruthlessly expand their markets. For the traditionalist Right, the war was proving to be just what many had, all along, feared it would be, the catalyst of European social, economic, and political breakdown. This rightist analysis seemed to be conclusively demonstrated by the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 in which the ancient Monarchy was toppled and a provisional parliamentary government put in its place.

It would be this unhistorical, rootless Russian parliamentary regime that the Communist coup d’état would topple in the famous October Revolution in that same year. We can perhaps see the mental make-up of the man when we realize that Woodrow Wilson became ecstatic when he heard the news of the fall of the Russian Imperial Dynasty and then naively stated that, “Now Russia is fit for a league of honor.” The US president, of course, meant that now Russia, having shed its age-old Monarchy, would continue the War as one of the “enlightened” Democratic Powers.

He, also, revealed, in this outburst, that his campaign theme of 1916 “He Kept Us Out of War,” was not to be taken as final. Within a month, the United States, also, would be in this enlightened and “liberating” League. Here, contrary to the implicit beliefs of the Democratists, it was the democratic republican government of Russia in 1917 that wanted to continue fighting the war against the Germans and Austrians. It was the Emperor Nicholas II who was of the view that peace must be concluded quickly for the survival of Russia.

It was for precisely this reason that Lloyd George, the war-enthusiast “Methodist Machiavelli,” who refused to accept the Russian Imperial Family into exile in Britain since the Prime Minister viewed Nicholas as a traitor to the Entente cause. Remember, the Russian general’s phone which ought be “smashed” in order not to receive from the Emperor any order contrary to the provocative mobilization ordered by Minister of War, Sukhomlinov and General Yanushkevitch in August 1914.

What was the immediate cause of a new and final papal effort to halt the slaughter was the efforts of a man who was well-known to the Vatican. The leader of the German Catholic Center Party, Matthias Erzberger was the primary agent of the Imperial Government in its efforts of 1915 to keep Germany’s former ally Italy out of the war.

In this mission, Erzberger had worked closely with the Vatican and had meetings with Pope Benedict himself. Now, Erzberger, in the summer of 1917 after the US declaration of war against Germany but before significant involvement in the European theater of American troops, had been “converted” to a non-annexationist position, that is one which held that Germany should conclude a peace based upon the pre-war borders.

Benedict XV believed that Germany was the key to a successful peace process. Unlike the Entente Powers, Germany and Austria were in control of large areas of occupied territory, most especially Belgium, whose restitution was for the Entente the sine qua non of any settlement.

Benedict began with the premise that only the indication of willingness on Germany’s part to evacuate occupied territory would persuade the Entente to come to the negotiating table. Benedict and Cardinal Gasparri made careful preparations, in the winter and spring of 1917, for what would become their historic peace initiative. In May, in anticipation of the Peace Note, the Pope made personal contact with Blessed Emperor Karl and Empress Zita of Austria.

The Pacelli Factor

If the Germans were the key to peace, Benedict would need a trusted and skilled envoy who could fashion, in conjunction with the Germans, a plausible proposal for peace to present before the Western Allied Powers. That young cleric was Eugenio Pacelli, the priest who would occupy the Papal Throne during the 20th century’s next conflagration – a conflagration, by the way, which was almost the direct result of the failure of the Allies to accept the peace carefully crafted by Archbishop Pacelli. Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli was not a unknown factor at the Vatican in 1917. The Pacelli family had long been involved in Vatican affairs.

The two-year old Eugenio had been brought to the death bed of Blessed Pius IX who is reported to have said, “Teach this little son well so that one day he will serve the Holy See.” He had attended the elite Instituto Capranica, the seminary attended by Benedict himself, and Pacelli, like Benedict, had become a protégé of Cardinal Rampolla during the Cardinal’s years as Secretary of State under Leo XIII.

For those who understand the importance of the Fatima message, it cannot be without significance that Eugenio Pacelli was consecrated as a bishop, and then given the honor of the pallium, on May 13, 1917 (the first day of the Fatima apparitions in Portugal) in a ceremony in the Sistine Chapel by Pope Benedict XV himself. The Pope wanted to give Msgr. Pacelli as much prestige as would be necessary in the royal courts of Germany for this most important peace venture.

If it were not for the eventual contemptuous dismissal of the Pope’s Peace, Archbishop Pacelli’s mission to Germany in this critical year of the war would have been a complete success. After arriving at the royal court of Bavaria (there very much used to be such!), Archbishop Pacelli found the opportunity of making a personal overture, in the name of Benedict XV, to Kaiser Wilhelm himself.

For a man who had been trained to display a complete self-control and dignified comportment, it was indicative of the Emperor’s frustration and emotion when he, with quivering lips, angrily responded to the papal letter which asked him to redouble his efforts to hasten the advent of peace even though it should be at the expense of some of the German objectives.

Wilhelm said that he could not conceal his annoyance at the fact that his own peace efforts of December 1916 had been “snubbed by Benedict XV in so unheard of a manner as not to have merited the courtesy of some reply.” While maintaining complete composure, Archbishop Pacelli stated that certain actions of Germany, for example the deportation of Belgian workers, did not give the Pope reason to attach much confidence to the peace overtures.

According to Walter H. Peters, “The Emperor seems to have taken this argument in good part. He admitted that although the action looked bad at first sight, it had not been against international law. He could not be forced to run the security risk of allowing civilians to remain behind German lines.” Despite the friction and voiced complaints, the meeting with Nuncio Pacelli seems to have made a very positive impression on the Kaiser.

In his autobiography published in 1922, after his abdication and during his exile in Holland, Wilhelm II described his impression of the young Archbishop Pacelli at this critical meeting — critical for what would become Pope Benedict XV’s most important intervention in the World War. The Kaiser describes Pacelli as having, “an aristocratic, likeable, and distinguished appearance, with great intelligence and impeccable manners, the perfect model of a high prelate of the Catholic Church.”

This favorable impression, and the potential within the papal appeal, led the Kaiser, within two weeks, to follow up on the issues discussed at this meeting. On July 12th, the Kaiser arranged a dinner meeting at which the German Chancellor was to present the final draft of a peace resolution which was to go to the German parliament, the Reichstag.

Wilhelm was pleased with the draft since it repeated the statement that the Emperor himself had made in his Address from the Throne of August 4, 1914, in which he stated, “We are not animated by any desire for conquest.” It, also, repeated the statement that Germany had taken up arms only to preserve her independence and to keep intact her possessions.

This was the basic text passed by the Reichstag, with some slight alterations made due to the increasing influence of Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. On July 14, 1917, the revised peace resolution was laid before the Kaiser, along with a reply that was to be sent to the letter presented by Archbishop Pacelli.

The Kaiser, seeing that the letter was dated August 13 – meaning the Chancellor had intended to significantly delay the German response to the Pope’s letter – said, “Vier Wochen, das ist unhöflich gegen den alten Pontifex!” (“Four weeks, that is discourteous towards the aged Pontiff!). Archbishop Pacelli was delighted with the German response to the Pope’s proposals.

After meeting for two days with the German Chancellor, he returned to Rome on July 25th, with an understanding that the German government was now ready to accept papal peace proposals. Pope Benedict then used this occasion to present his very specific peace proposal to the British representative at the Vatican, Count de Salis.

The Holy Father gave him several sealed envelopes. Each contained a copy of the historical Papal Peace Note of 1917. The British Government was asked to forward the note to France, Italy, and the United States whose governments were not represented at the Vatican. The die was cast.

The Papal Peace Note of August 1917

The Papal Peace Note was very straight forward and apparently non-controversial. It does not seem possible that it could have received such a negative response from several of the warring parties. In the introductory paragraph, the Pope enumerated appeals he had previously made in general terms. He said that the time had come to propose concrete and practical propositions. The task of adjusting them and completing them he would leave to the nations themselves.

The specific proposals were seven in number: 1) Substitution of Moral Force of Right for Law of Material Force; 2) A Simultaneous and Reciprocal Decrease of Armaments; 3) The Establishment of International Courts of Arbitration to Adjudicate Conflicts between Nations; 4) True Freedom and Community of the Seas; 5) Reciprocal Renunciation of War Indemnities; 6) Evacuation and Restoration of All Territories Occupied During the War; 7) Examination in a Conciliatory Spirit of Rival Territorial Claims [e.g., the question of Alsace and Lorraine].

The National Responses to the Papal Peace Proposals were as follows:

Germany: “For a long time His Majesty [Wilhelm II] with profound respect and sincere gratitude had followed the efforts of His Holiness to assuage the sufferings of war…and to hasten the end of the hostilities. The emperor sees in this most recent step of His Holiness a new proof of the noble and humanitarian sentiments, he entertains the lively hope that…success may come to the papal appeal.”

Austria-Hungary: Blessed Emperor Karl I gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the Papal Peace Note.

Bulgaria (one of the Central Powers): King Ferdinand replied to the Peace Note on September 26, 1917, in terms of reverence and loyalty.

Ottoman Empire: The Sultan of the Turkish Moslem Empire, Mehmed V, in an autographed letter on September 30, said that he was “deeply touched by the lofty thoughts of His Holiness.”

France: No direct response to the Pope’s Note. Merely a sharply worded statement issued by Foreign Minister Ribot to the British Government indicating that they (the French) did not intend to have an official statement in writing communicated to the Holy See. The British Government was asked to, “discourage any further attempt on the part of the Papal Secretary of State in the direction of an official intervention between the belligerents.”

Italy: In an address to the Italian Senate, Baron Sydney Sonnino, Italian Foreign Minister, stated that the Note was nothing but the work of Germany and that the proposals were utterly impracticable.

Britain: Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Minister (famous for the Balfour Declaration), responded in a very non-committal way: “His Majesty’s Government, not having as yet been able to take the opinion of their Allies, cannot say whether it would serve any useful purpose to offer a reply or, if so, what form such a reply should take. Although the Central Powers have admitted their guilt in regard to Belgium, they have never definitely intimated that they intend either to restore her to her former state or entire independence or to make good the damage she has suffered at their hands.”

Papal Peace Meets American Democratic Messianism

Wilson’s Intervention “What does he want to butt in for?” Here we have the unique first response from President Woodrow Wilson upon the presentation of the Pope’s Peace Note to him at the White House in August of 1917. The relations between the Roman Pontiff and the Presbyterian minister’s son from the Shenandoah Valley who sat in the White House had always been a bit tense. Contrary to pacific statements and neutralist campaign slogans, at the Vatican it was always understood that the United States, under its Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, was not actually a neutral and impartial player in the Great European Conflict.

The United States was clearly helping the Entente and for what the Vatican believed were selfish reasons. It was held that the US was committed to France and Britain because of economic ties. Benedict XV, in particular, deplored the United States’ arms trade with France and Britain, especially when it was carried on the passenger vessels, thus providing a causa belli against Germany. In light of this, it was as early as April of 1915, a full two years before official US involvement in the war, that Benedict called upon the United States to enforce an arms embargo against both sides.

This, of course, was never done. Included in this analysis of the American attitude towards the war, must have been a recognition that the tragedy of the sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania, had been engineered to ease the United States’ entry into the war. This joint British-American operation had been executed at the expense of 1,198 human lives. Among the dead were 128 Americans.

On April 22, 1915, a week and a half before the liner departed, an announcement was issued by the German Embassy in Washington which warned passengers that Germany was in a state of war with Great Britain and, therefore, all ships sailing under her or her allies’ flag were subject to attack and that passengers were, therefore, traveling at their own risk. For some unknown reason, newspapers did not publish the warning until the day of departure. Some 8 miles off the coast of Ireland, a German U-20 submarine fired one torpedo at the liner. After the torpedo hit there was a second explosion. Within 18 minutes the ship sank, with the passengers in general panic.

As the Germans insisted at the time, and a 1960 investigation by an American John Light confirmed, the ship had been filled to the gills with contraband munitions making it a legitimate target according to international law. Included in this stock, were some 4,200,000 rounds of Remington .303 rifle cartridges.

This was also confirmed by later British documents that came to light along with the ship’s manifest, which had been given to Woodrow Wilson and was only released at the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Allen Welsh Dulles, brother of the future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, knew well of the engineering of the tragedy.

It would still be some 2 years until the United States officially entered the conflict. Perhaps, this was to get past the presidential election of 1916 in which Wilson barely, due to a narrow margin in the State of California, beat his Republican opponent Charles Evans Hughes, on a platform of neutralism and peace, “He Kept US Out of War!” It was immediately after the election that Wilson momentarily acted as the neutral observer of the horror of the European conflict.

On December 20, 1916, when the peace efforts of the Central Powers were well underway, the United States issued an appeal that included the statement, “The President is not proposing peace; he is not even offering mediation. He is merely proposing that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations [here he apparently includes the United States] with belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs with an intense and increasing longing.”

When, only 4 months after the “peace appeal,” Wilson broke off relations with the German Empire, clearly in preparation for a declaration of war, the Holy See attempted to heal the breach — seemingly due to the impression at the Vatican that the United States was merely reacting to individual acts of the German military and political authorities. Therefore, we can understand the shock experienced by the Pope when he heard the news of the United States’ declaration of war against the Central Powers in April of 1917.

This was understood by Pope Benedict XV to be an unmitigated disaster. His Holiness understood, with utmost clarity, that American intervention would extend the time of the conflict since there would be absolutely no reason for the Entente Powers to consider a cease-fire or armistice.

Even though it is difficult get into the mind of another man, particularly if that man is the Vicar of Christ, it appears that the Pope did not fully appreciate the extent to which the Presbyterian President viewed the war in Europe as a “crusade” for equality and democracy.

This is the only explanation for the blind-siding of the Pope in this case and in Wilson’s final and conclusive rejection of Benedict’s great peace initiative of August 1, 1917. Wilson believed that this war was one of the “enlightened” Powers of parliamentary and democratic regimes, recently stripped of the “embarrassment” of Nicholas II, against the dark “holdovers.”

Wilson’s throwing of America’s sword onto the scale of the Entente Powers, changed the conflict from a fratricidal conflict over Alsace-Lorraine and Flanders, to a global crusade against Monarchy and, what would show itself after the war, against Papal influence in the political affairs of the world. In other words, against historical Christendom.

It would not be stretching it to say that with the rejection of Pope Benedict’s Peace Note of August 1917, Woodrow Wilson became the grave-digger of Christendom. What might not have happened had not the war continued to its tragic end – the downfall of the Russian, Austrian, and Prussia monarchies? Can we venture Communist Russia, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, World War II, the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine, Korea, Red China, Vietnam, the Social Revolution of the 1960s, and perhaps, Vatican II?

What we can be certain of is that these things would not have happened as they did if Wilson had not, “butted in.” It is only with this anti-monarchical and anti-papal attitude in mind that we can understand the patronizing and cool response of Woodrow Wilson, through his Secretary of State Robert Lansing, to the Papal Peace Note.

Robert Lansing prepared the world for Wilson’s fatal response by his own articulation of the fundamental principle of American foreign policy, both then and now: “No people can desire war, particularly an aggressive war. If the people can exercise their will, they will remain at peace. If a nation possesses democratic institutions, the popular will will be executed. Consequently, if the principle of democracy prevails in a nation, it can be counted upon to preserve peace and oppose wars…If this view is correct, then the effort should be made to make democracy universal.”

In a letter dated August 27, 1917, Robert Lansing, speaking for President Wilson, responded to the Pope’s Peace Note by stating the following, “No part of this program can be carried out. The object of this war is to deliver the free peoples of the world from the menace and the actual power of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible government which having planned secretly to dominate the world, proceeded to carry the plan out. This power is not the German people. It is the ruthless master of the German people. It is no business of ours how that great people came under its control. But it is out business to see that the history of the rest of the world is no longer left to its handling…. They desire no reprisal upon the German people who have themselves suffered all things in this war which they did not choose. They believe that peace should rest upon the rights of the people, not the rights of governments….The word of an ambitious and intriguing government on the one hand and a group of free peoples on the other….We cannot take the word of the present rulers of Germany as a guaranty of anything that is to endure, unless explicitly supported by such conclusive evidence of the will and purpose of the German people themselves.”

Pope Benedict’s attempt to stop the war which would kill 9.4 million and open the Age of Totalitarianism ended with this rejection. The Entente Powers allowed Wilson to speak for them. As the great biographer of Pope Benedict XV, Walter Peters, states, “Wilson could not endorse Benedict’s plan because the prime premises of the two men differed so radically. Wilson was motivated by an urge to punish. In Wilson’s opinion, it was absolutely necessary that the ruling dynasties of Germany and Austria be forced to abdicate.”

Pope Benedict XV told one of his friends that it was the bitterest moment of his life when he heard of the rejection of the Note by Woodrow Wilson.

1918: Why The War Ended

When considering the failure of the peace initiatives of the Holy Father and others, we can understand why the war did not end. But why did it end? Did the Germans lose? Yes and No. According to the most recent historians of the period, it was the collapse of German morale on the Western Front, which brought about the defeat of Germany and Austria in the Great War.

Even after the failure of Ludendorff’s famous Michael Offensive in the Spring of 1918, the Germans and Austrians were still killing the Allies at a faster rate than they themselves were getting killed by the British and French (Note, the US Army was on the Western Front in substantial number only in the Autumn of 1918).

In the last 3 months of the fighting, for example, 63,500 British soldiers were killed, while 28,000 Germans were killed. It was not the Germans who elected to continue fighting who brought about the collapse of the Central Powers, it was those Germans who elected to surrender – or desert, shirk or strike – who ended the war.

This becomes clear, even by looking at the basic casualty count for the entire war 1914-1918: 9.4 million total casualties, 4 million dead from the Central Powers and 5.4 million dead from the Entente.

Most of the surrendering occurred at the end of the war, from August 1918 when General Ludendorff first started asking for an armistice and the second week of November when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and went into exile in Holland. Probably the greatest chance Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had of winning the struggle, was if Emperor Nicholas II had accepted, as early as 1915, a separate peace offer from the Germans and Austrians.

The Central Monarchies might well have won the war early and Russia would almost certainly have avoided Communism. When the Russians spurned these advances, the Germans went on to inflict total defeat on them, making the triumph of Communism possible. In 1919, the Versailles Conference met without the attendance of a representative of the Holy See.

Just as the Versailles Treaty was the first one since the early years of Christendom not to invoke the Holy Trinity, the Father of Christendom would have no place at the table which would profoundly rearrange the map of Europe. As Emperor Franz Josef stated at the end of his life, “Europe is dead.” It was the tragic fate of Pope Benedict XV, the man who loved Europe most, to weep at her tomb.

Peter Chojnowski is a professor, writer and currently teaches at Immaculate Conception Academy in Post Falls, Idaho.

The image shows, “Kaiser’s Got The Blues,” cover or sheet music from 1918.

Sergei Yesenin: Tragedy And Poetry

The prominent Silver Age poet was never far from controversy.

“My Russia, wooden Russia! I am your only singer and herald”

Sergei Yesenin was born in the village of Konstantinovo in Ryazan Region on Oct. 3, 1895. From the window of his house, he could see a church and the hilly bank of the Oka River – all of which he would often recall in his poems.

He began writing poems as a child, and when he left school, he headed to conquer the literary world of Moscow, where he published his first poems.

Soon, in search of fame, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he attended literary salons wearing traditional clothing, bast shoes or felt boots, with sheets of his poems wrapped in a rural headscarf.

The stunt – canny self-promotion in an age well before the PR industry – worked brilliantly, and the self-taught village poet with a mop of golden curls became incredibly popular. In 1916, he had the opportunity to perform to the family of Emperor Nicholas II.


“Infamy has come to me, / That I am an abuser and scandalmonger”

Yesenin also earned notoriety as a troublemaker. He was closely involved with the literary scene and often teased other poets. His best-known literary duels were with another famous poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

With his love of rural space, Yesenin did not accept his counterpart’s revolutionary and industrial poems. Mayakovsky, however, urged him not to waste his talent describing nature and dedicate it to Bolshevism instead.

During a public poetry reading Yesenin told Mayakovsky that he would not give “his” Russia to him: “Russia is mine! And you are an American!” To that, Mayakovsky replied sarcastically: “Take it, here you are! Eat it with bread!”

“Many women loved me, and I loved more than one, too”

Love is the second major theme in Yesenin’s work. A handsome ladies’ man, the poet had four children from his numerous affairs. His first common-law wife, Anna, gave birth to a son, Yuri, in 1914, but Yesenin left his family for St. Petersburg and only rarely visited the child.

In 1917, he married the beautiful actress Zinaida Reich, who gave birth to a daughter, Tatyana, and a son, Konstantin. The separated two years later, and Reich soon married the renowned director Vsevolod Meyerhold, becoming one of Moscow’s most famous actresses.

The poet’s second official wife was the American dancer Isadora Duncan. She was 18 years older than him and neither spoke the other’s language. Their marriage was full of endless scandals and lasted about two years. The poet accompanied Duncan on tour in Europe and America, where he would perform at parallel literary events.

Sofya, Yesenin’s third wife, was Leo Tolstoy’s granddaughter, Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya. The poet married her a few months before his death, and this was also an unhappy marriage. “Everything here is too filled with the ‘great old man,’ it is choking me,” Yesenin complained while living in Sofya’s home. It is Tolstaya who did a lot to preserve his legacy and left memoirs about him.

“Silly heart, don’t beat …”

Yesenin greeted the 1917 Revolution with enthusiasm and the hope that Russia would be transformed, but he soon saw the hunger, destruction and terror in the country, and began describing apocalyptic scenes: “the garden of skulls” and “rabid glow of corpses.”

In his long poem, “Pugachev” – about the famous rebel and impostor who organized a mass revolt against Catherine II – Yesenin turns to the theme of confrontation between power and the people. The Land of Scoundrels, another long poem, would continue this theme.

In 1924, a year before his death, in the poem. “The Return Home,” he describes a ravaged village with its poor wooden houses and a calendar portrait of Lenin hanging instead of an icon. Seeing Yesenin as an ideological and cultural danger, the authorities harassed the poet, bringing arbitrary court cases against him.

In 1925, nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and pressure from the authorities landed Yesenin in a mental hospital. A month later he was found hanging from a pipe in the Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known in the Soviet Union). The previous day, Yesenin had composed his final poem, “Goodbye, my Darling, Goodbye,” in blood:

Goodbye, my darling, goodbye
My love, you are forver in my heart.
This farewell was preordained
As shall be our reunion.

Goodbye. No handshake or fond word.
Let’s not have sadness furrow the brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
And nothing new in living either.

The official cause of death was suicide, but many alternative versions have been put forward in the last decade. The most common is that the troublesome poet was murdered by the Soviet authorities.

Inna Parfenova writes about literature and culture for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a portrait of Sergei Yesenin. Provenance and authorship unknown.

November 11, 1918: The Poems of Bertram John William Andrews

[In commemoration of the end of the First World War, one hundred years ago, we present a series of poems only recovered in 2015. They are written by Bertram John William Andrews, who died of his wounds on July 31st, 1917 in the Third Battle of Ypres. He was twenty-two years of age. The poems, unpublished, were left with Annie Knox, a girl that Bertram was courting. It was the niece of Annie who found the poems in 2015. There are many famous poets of World War I – but the few verses that Andrews left behind, presented here, also possess a delicacy and fineness of thought that is rare.]

 

Bertram John William Andrews (1895 – 1917)

 

Love and War

A while ago in London town,
I watched the crowds come trooping down
And mark’d the people passing by,
(Such hosts of people passing by)
All speeding on so pensively.
Oblivious of my stare.
Yet all the time I was aware
That one had gone who should be there,
Thus, searching in my memory,
I could not think who it should be
Till, happily,

I saw a soldier home from France
“’Tis he”, I thought, “That merry glance!
“’Tis Cupid who, his bow and dart
“For bomb and bayonet laid apart,
“No longer wars on human heart
“But wages warfare new.
“Yet that,” I ponder’d,” can’t be true.
“The land has lovers still a few.
“Who then can Cupid’s place supply,
“Since still his arrows seem to fly
“unerringly?”

Anon a maiden chanc’d to pass,
A bright and winsome, laughing lass;
Who, as she went, provokingly
Enslav’d mankind and dext’rously
Contrived, their hearts should captive be
To her whom next they view’d.
Now Cupid fights, his ancient feud
Is by his sister still pursued:
But deadlier her artillery
(His bow and quiver idle lie),
Her roguish eye.

Plumstead
August 1916

**********

At Eventide

The scented zephyr whispers down the hill.
The trees droop low to catch his message sweet.
Rippling, it flows from bough to bough until
It tells me, murmuring softly and discreet.
My love is nigh – and all my pulses fill
With longing: while the summer beauties fleet
Unseen, unmarked, before my eyes that strain
For that first glimpse of her whose magic
Stirs my brain.

The summer takes a fresher sweetness now
The flow’rets bloom in colours yet more fair
And those caressing breezes softer flow
And add more radiant perfume to the air.
Enchanted, Nature’s beauties brighter glow.
She dons a magic loveliness more rare.
My love is nigh – the earth becomes more bright,
And learns to show more lovely in my
loved one’s sight.

The brazen sun his boldness finds too gay,
Confronted with that beauty: and apace
Red and asham’d, he hastes to flee away:
And earth, relieved, still finds a newer grace
When he is gone. And in the twilight grey
Ethereal shines that perfect wistful face.
With benediction stars awake high above
And all my heart goes out in strong
Abiding love.

In passion’s colours, scarlet, purple, mauve.
The sun expires: and silver floods the land
All virginal and pure the moonbeams rove
And line with light the earth on ev’ry hand.
There, where the fierce descending Phoebus strove
With Dian’s onrush, now a stately band
White, fleecy clouds, float through the steel-blue sky
On earth is peace, and in my soul, for Love is nigh.

The nestling villages in silence sleep
The little rivers murmur quietly.
Athwart the moonlit hills the shadows creep
And all the night seems full of mystery.
It’s silences my inmost fibres steep
And lull my spirit to an ecstacy.
Cathedral-like the stillness broods, and rest
Sentient of Love, lies like a garment on Earth’s breast.

Gailes
July 1916

**********

Dreams

I dreamed I was a warrior whose cuirass
Shining in splendour paled Apollo’s light.
Massive my shield and fierce it’s polish’d brass
And terrible my helmet’s nodding height.
Within my sword dwelt Slaughter and pale Fright
Ran o’er the lands, submerged neath sable pall,
For with my reeking triumph fell bleak night
And death. Yet all this had I left, to fall
Vanquished before thy feet and own myself thy thrall

And yet again I dreamed: that Music’s pow’rs
Intoxicating, from my fingers flow,
While nations wondered and the woodland flow’d
Entranc’d , in still more perfect beauty glow’d.
At times my strains like shrieking tunes rode
Upon the tempest’s height: at times they fell
With sigh as soft as snow; yet ever strode
As victors o’er men’s natures. But their spell
To thee could not express what all my
Heart would tell.

At last the radiance of pure happiness
Poured on my soul. I dreamed a perfect dream
And Love fulfill’d my life with loveliness
And hid in glory that faint, pallid gleam
Of War’s long stress and Music’s pulsing stream.
“To be thy lover.” Such soft harmony
Lies in those words, which sweeter sounding seem
Than all the magic strains of Faëry.
Ah! loved one, grant it may no more be dream to me.

Gailes
July 1916

**********

Memories

Some mem’ries cling as the heart grows old
Of happy days in the long ago:
And thoughts drift back, sweet thoughts of gold
None else can know

The passionate scent of your windswept hair,
The charm of your slow-waking smile
Those fathomless eyes of mischief rare;
Still will beguile.

And it may be years will pass away,
And Life wan dim and Death draw nigh;
That glorious dream of a sweet June day
Will never die.

Turnberry
Midsummer 1916

**********

The Ship of Dreams

A vessel sails the midnight air
Merrily, merrily,
With merchandise of treasures rare
In purple majesty.
Bright dreams are all its costly freight
And to the port of souls it glides
To charm, where care was, and make glad.
Its choicest wares make strong the sad.
In stormy souls serene it rides
To give respite where sorrow rode.
Ah! Shining argosy!

That ship casts anchor oft, where I,
My soul in stark dismay
From days dark torment, restless lie:
And lulls that torment’s sway.
From foreign sea and distant land
Float dreams, surpassing Ophir’s waves,
The day’s chief beauties and delight,
The mystic wonders of the night,
The chiefest wealth that vessel bears,
More rich than gems of Samarkand
Or pearls from the Cathay.

Ash Rifle Range
5/9/16

**********

Explanations

That aged one, who still the fire
Of headstrong youth retains:
Who kindles ev’rywhere desire
And binds all men in chains:
Who sometimes hard and cruel would seem
Who makes and shatters many a dream:
For him, harsh master many a ream
I’ve spoil’d and lost my pains
Poor wight!

Each eve old Love comes sailing down
To wake my slumb’ring lyre.
And, for a while, without a frown
With verse he will inspire.
Then, when I think I’m going strong,
He hides his face and all goes wrong.
I’m stranded, so’s my lovely song.
Love smiles and I retire.
Good night!

Gailes
July 1916

**********

Epilogue

Thus has this little book an end:
But, friend,
If you should read its lines and them condemn:
Pray stay your judgment while I crave
Your patience. Though I sing a strain
Of Sentiment, remember once again
It is the best so dull a knave
As I can sing. And if I dare
Exhort you to refrain awhile:
Has one verse pleas’d you, made you smile?
A little then I pay to Ayr,
Which pleasant town I in my heart do bless
For pleasant folk and three month’s happiness

So I retire. I make my bow
Right now
If anyone to jeer still dares
Who cares?

15 August 1916

[Second Lieutenant Bertram J.W. Andrews, Royal Sussex Regiment, 13th Battalion (the South Downs), is buried in Dozinghem Military Cemetery, in Belgium].

 

These poems are provided through the courtesy of Discover War Poets.
The photo shows, “Mud Road to Passchendaele,” by Douglas W. Culham, painted in 1917.

In Response To Psalm 50

Psalm 50:3: “Our God shall come, and shall not keep silence: a fire shall devour before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him.”

 

September

Seven embers of thought enflamed,
a mind on fire, in a wooden frame.
That single wick of a candle, broken
into a shaft of smoke, crying
molten words unspoken.

The Ether

The ether,
suspended above the clouds
like a sunset whittled down
to its final shavings,
sucked up by the moon
into the vacuum of high noon,
where the echoes go on raving…
Raving…
Raving.

 

Airships

Blowing leaves,
motion without sound,
airships breaking heaven
where only silence is unbound.

 

Cosmin Dzurdzsa is the senior editor of The Post Millennial
The photo shows, “King David Playing the Harp,” by Gerard van Honthorst, painted in 1622.

Animals And Humans In King Lear

Scattered throughout Shakespeare’s King Lear are references to animals. These references serve as points of comparison, and affinity, with the human animal. The purpose of these references is to highlight human existence on the appetitive level – that which solely feeds and nurtures the body, without concern for concepts that drive human society, such as ethics and morality.

In fact, it is for this very reason that Lear is turned out into the wild heath, very much like a feral beast, wherein he can enact his tragedy, free from all associations with the constructs of civilization.

In effect, the animal references in King Lear emphasize humankind’s affinity with all living things, in that each of us is involved in a cycle – birth, begetting offspring, death – life outside civilization, life as the instinctual drive to breed and survive.

As well, it is important to realize that human society is also a construct of superfluity in that human beings tend to accumulate wealth and power, without thinking about why they need to carry on in this way.

This is precisely the painful lesson that Lear learns on the heath. He has been turned out into the storm like some mad, unwanted animal. He, the king, is powerless before nature. All his wealth, all his influence, even his fifty companions that he kept with him at all times as a show of his might – are all stripped away. On the heath, he is no more than a lost, old man whom no one wants.

Interestingly enough, Lear the king, living in his court, was more appetitive, more driven by his own sense of power (since he could make or break the lives of his daughter, especially Cordelia) – more like an animal – than the human being that he becomes on the heath.

It is by suffering like a wretched animal, by being cast to the very lowest level of subsistence, that Lear learns about truth of a human life, indeed the value of a human life.

It by suffering that he undergoes purification, where all superfluity is stripped from him, and he becomes a man that finally understands the value of love and compassion. And the animals teach this lesson to him:

Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just (III.iv.28-36).

Despite the darkness that pervades the entire play, King Lear is about the discovery of love. All too often a lifetime will go by before we understand the reality of love.

In fact, the entire play is structured around the idea of inversion – things that we assume are normal and therefore proper (such as Lear the King parceling out his kingdom to the daughter who loves him the most) – are twisted and inherently wrong, if not evil.

By his own action, by trying to see which daughter loves him the most, Lear unleashes the tragedy that shall consume in the end. Lear the “wise, old king” is in fact a foolish old man – for he actually believes he can discern true love by initiating a game – “Let’s play who loves Dad the most.”

But Cordelia refuses to play. She knows that true love is not contained in mere words, but is in fact found in actions and deeds – something Lear himself bitterly learns:

No, no, no, no! Come let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too –
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out (V.iii.8-15).

Birds in a cage are freer than kings at court. They are completely without guile and deception. The inversion continues, for the cage is the freest place for Lear; it is there he finds truth, and it is there that he finds true love that Cordelia bears for him.

Of course, it is in the nature of Shakespearean tragedy that death comes precisely – and only – when complete realization is achieved and truth laid bare.

Thus, when Lear finds Cordelia, it is too late. Death takes away the very person that Lear sought throughout the play – someone who would love him without hope for reward.

And it is at this very juncture that we have the strongest evocation of the parallel between human existence and animals – for as living creatures we share the same fate – some will die soon, others a little later, but human and animals – indeed all life – is bound to the cycle of life and death:

Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never (V.iii.307-309).
The finality of “Never” rings like a knell upon all human hopes to be greater and higher than what we really are – human animals.

It is this question that Kent asks as he sees Lear carry in the dead Ophelia: “Is this the promis’d end” (V.iii.265).

When the play ends, we must answer Kent and say, “Yes. This is the promised end – for death makes animals of us all.” And it is to Kent that we must leave the final word: “Break, heart, I prithee, break”(V.iii.314).

 

The photo shows, “King Lear, Act I, Scene I (Cordelia’s Farewell),” by Edwin Austin Abbey, painted in 1898.

Two Sonnets

I.

You sit besplendoured midst celestial spheres,
To bebass you is thus fit heaven’s joy:
Just as the mists play upon placid meers
And hearts in love must first wisdom employ.

How is the tree in just one seed embowed?
How comes the earth to conceal each bright face?
What silence emblazons the drifting cloud?
Why yearns the soul for the fire’s embrace?

It is you alone that bestir the heart
And give the eye grand Promethean light;
In your limbs is found the highest of art
To kneel ‘fore which is supernal delight.

When Now grace and reason are wedded in you,
When As the fresh day’s herald is dawn’s soft dew.

 

II.

Like lightning that strikes through the mighty oak
To find the arcane, dark richness of earth,
So does the patience of reason invoke
Grand gestures of both sadness and high mirth.

I reach forth in silence the joy of you
Which bepens your name upon my blank soul;
It is the mark of you, the purest hue,
The very urge that makes the sea to roll.

How halting the tongue that seeks to extol
The consummation found hidden in you,
The charter of which is read by but few
Like slow plaintiff birdsong that must condole.

When Like leaves and flowers true Nature convoke,
When So are my scanty words for you bespoke.

 

The photo shows, “Waiting By The Window,” by Carl Holsøe, date not known.

 

The First Poem About Babiy Yar By Olga Anstei

[Editor’s Note: We are publishing this poem by Olga Anstei, which appears here for the first time in English translation, along with the original Russian. Dr. Maria Bloshteyn is translating Anstei’s work and has very generously agreed to let us share with our readers this moving record of a great evil].

 

Kirillovsky Yar

 

Translated by Maria Bloshteyn

 

I.

Raindrops fell on that windless day.
Thorny sloes prickled with acerbic youth.
A limping tree stump in the twilight,
knocked-over tombstones, chapels…
A slip of a girl, a dusky Dryad—
down the damp path into the nocturnal ravine!
There, in the wild garden’s balmy thicket,
unloved but faithful, he’ll fall at my feet!..
Into the depths, down the slopes—until stars come out!
The most carefree of all carefree places!

 

II.

Closer to noon.  It was sunny and bright.
Youthful acerbity flows out gently,
growing more mellow, growing more joyful.
On the hot chalky bluffs the swift
turns his clever head.
Wormwood wilts, held between palms.
Thyme trembles on an angled ledge.
The bumblebee is a beloved tiny brother!
Blue warmth flows down into the Yar…
Handful by handful from all around
into the most fragrant of all fragrant places.

 

III.

Onward.  Obedient to some obscure call,
I go to the crossroad between older graves,
out of a hushed beloved house,
where Azrael stands at the threshold.
I carry a cross that still wants tears,
that raises three mortal candles
that is covered with wax drips
that saw a shroud and head-wreath in the night…
It will be dug into place there, a loathed gift,
at the head of a nameless grave…
The most frightening of all frightening places!
A frightening brown contorted cross!

 

IV

The last cup of all.  The same place where
nature once drowsily luxuriated,
became Golgotha, the base of the cross
to a strange and fateful people.
Listen!  They were lined up,
their belongings piled on the gravestones…
Half-smothered, half-killed,
then half-covered with soil…
Do you see those old women in kerchiefs,
elders, dignified like Biblical Abraham,
and curly-headed babes, like those in Bethlehem,
in their mothers’ arms?
I can’t find words for this.
Look:  here on the road lie dishes,
a torn tallit, scraps of Talmud,
shreds of passports washed out by rain!
A black—murderous—blood-encrusted cross!
The most horrific of all horrific places.

(December 1941)

 

Кирилловские яры

 

I

Были дождинки в безветренный день.
Юностью терпкой колол терновник.
Сумерки и ковыляющий пень,
Сбитые памятники, часовни…
Влажной тропинкой — в вечерний лог!
Тоненькой девочкой, смуглой дриадой —
В тёплые заросли дикого сада,
Где нелюбимый и верный — у ног!..
В глушь, по откосам — до первых звёзд!
В привольное — из привольных мест!

 

II

Ближе к полудню. Он ясен был.
Юная терпкость в мерном разливе
Стала плавнее, стала счастливей.
Умной головкою стриж водил
На меловом горячем обрыве.
Вянула между ладоней полынь.
Чебрик дрожал на уступе горбатом.
Шмель был желанным крохотным братом!
Синяя в яр наплывала теплынь…
Пригоршнями стекала окрест
В душистое из душистых мест.

 

III

Дальше. Покорствуя зову глухому,
На перекрёсток меж давних могил
Прочь из притихшего милого дома,
Где у порога стоит Азраил —
Крест уношу, — слезами не сытый,
Смертные три возносивший свечи,
Заупокойным воском облитый,
Саван и венчик видавший в ночи…
Будет он врыт, подарок постылый,
Там, в головах безымянной могилы…
Страшное место из страшных мест!
Страшный коричневый скорченный крест!

 

IV

Чаша последняя. Те же места,
Где ликовала дремотно природа —
Странному и роковому народу
Стали Голгофой, подножьем креста.
Слушайте! Их поставили в строй,
В кучках пожитки сложили на плитах,
Полузадохшихся, полудобитых
Полузаваливали землёй…
Видите этих старух в платках,
Старцев, как Авраам, величавых,
И вифлеемских младенцев курчавых
У матерей на руках?
Я не найду для этого слов:
Видите — вот на дороге посуда,
Продранный талес, обрывки Талмуда,
Клочья размытых дождём паспортов!
Чёрный — лобный — запёкшийся крест!
Страшное место из страшных мест!

 

(декабрь 1941)

 

 

Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the United States. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

 

The photo shows, “Execution at Babi Yar,” by Felix Lembersky, painted in 1952, which depicts the murder of Jews, by the Nazis, at Babi Yar, on September 29-30, 1941. Some 80,000 people were killed at this place, including 33,771 Jewish men, women and children.

Olga Anstei: A Life In Brief

Babiy Yar (“The Old Woman’s Ravine”) is a large and beautiful ravine in Kiev (Kyiv), the capital of Ukraine, that will be forever associated with the mass murder of Jews by Nazi troops in War World II.

This isolated and deep ravine, historically a site of a military camp, a church, and two cemeteries (an Orthodox Christian one and a Jewish one), provided the perfect place for killing large numbers of people, a fact noted by the Nazi military governor of Kiev, the SS and Police Commander, and the Commander of SS death squads when they were planning the extermination of the Jews of Kiev.

There were other nationalities and groups killed at Babiy Yar, including Roma, Ukrainian Nationalists, the mentally ill, Soviet prisoners of war, Communists, and dissenters of all kinds.

The largest single massacre occurred on September 29-30, 1941, when more than 33,771 Kievan Jews were brought to the site and executed (the largest single massacre of Jews by the Nazis up to that point).

According to witnesses and the few survivors, Jewish men, women, and children were brought to this place of execution under pretense of relocation. Then, they were stripped of belongings and clothing, made to lie down naked on the bodies of Jews already killed in the ravine, and then shot.

This horror has been commemorated in poetry, music, and art, most famously by Evgeny Yevtushenko.  His long poem “Babiy Yar” (1961), written after he visited the site and discovered it had been turned into a garbage dump, is specifically about the massacre of the Jews and the unwillingness of the authorities to acknowledge this crime.

The poem exploded Soviet silence about the Jewish victims buried of Babiy Yar. In fact, Soviet authorities had long refused to acknowledge the numbers of Jews killed at the site.

Yebtushekno’s poem was translated into seventy-two languages, and inspired Dmitry Shostakovich’s  Thirteenth Symphony.

Yevtushenko, himself, however, had always pointed out that his was not the first poem about Babiy Yar.

There were, indeed, other poets who had already memorialized the Jewish massacre at this site, such as, Ilya Ehrenburg in his Babiy Yar” (1944), and Lev Ozerov in “Babiy Yar” (1944-1945).

However, the very first poet to write about this slaughter was a remarkable woman who lived in occupied Kiev in 1941 and who witnessed firsthand—if not the executions at Babiy Yar—then certainly the tragedy of Kievan Jews.

Olga Anstei (the nom de plume of Olga Shteinberg, 1912-1985) was born in Kiev. Her family combined Russian, Cossack, Ukrainian, and – apparently – Jewish backgrounds.

She was a beloved only child, well-educated as only a girl raised by Russian-Ukrainian intelligentsia could be, with a special love for poetry and literature.

It is not surprising then that she started writing poetry while very young. She wrote mostly in Russian, but also in Ukrainian, and French. In fact, she was a polyglot, for she spoke Russian, Ukrainian, German, French, and English (something that would help her in all sorts of ways later in life), and she also translated from these languages.

After graduating from the Institute of Foreign Languages, she married the poet and translator Ivan Elagin (nom de plume of Ivan Matveev), who, like Anstei, became one of the most prominent poets of the so-called second wave of Russian immigration.

They were married in a church, in 1938, in great secrecy – at 2 in the morning – since such religious sacraments were decried in the Soviet Russia of that time.

When the war came, the Anstei-Elagins found themselves in Nazi-occupied Kiev. In a daring gamble, Olga managed to convince the occupiers that she and her husband (who was half-Jewish) were actually Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans).

Accordingly, they were given privileged treatment, and Elagin even managed to enrol in a school for medics, instituted by the Nazi regime.

When the Nazi troops retreated before the advancing Soviet forces, Olga Anstei, her mother, and Ivan Elagin decided to leave with them, partly to get away from the Soviet regime, which already had Elagin’s father executed as the enemy of the people in 1937, but also because they surely realized that they would have been considered collaborators and shot by the Soviets.

After many misadventures and tragedies (their first child, born in Germany, had died in infancy), Olga, Ivan, and their second child, a daughter who would grow up to become a Russian-American poet Elena Matveeva, and Olga’s mother ended up in a displaced person camp, where the latter died of a heart attack.

The couple now emigrated to America, where Olga and Ivan divorced, though they retained a cordial relationship, as well as a deep admiration for each other’s work.

Elagin went on to become a professor of Russian in Pittsburg University, while Olga eventually became a translator at the UN.

She regularly published poems, stories, and essays of literary criticism in émigré journals, all of which were well-received and widely praised by major critics.

Her work is permeated by a deep spirituality (she had a life-long connection with the Russian Orthodox Church), and a lyricism that makes her keenly aware of the beauty of life around her.

She possesses a deep clarity of vision that allows her to look at life unflinchingly and to write with precision.

This gives her work a sense of connectedness with the larger body of Russian poetry, which allows her to conduct a poetic dialogue with her predecessors and contemporaries.

One critic wrote that it is not possible to talk about the influence of a particular poet on Anstei; rather, she absorbed the experience of an entire generation of Russian poets.

She wrote her poem, “Kirillovsky Yar” (a name for the larger area of gullies and ravines in Kiev that includes Babiy Yar) in December of 1941. It was first published in Munich in 1948.

Ironically, Anstei, who translated so many poems so well, has not been translated very much herself, even though her poems reach out across the years and impress and delight the reader in equal measure.

Here, I offer the first English translation of “Kirillovy Yar,” which is the very first poetic response to the Babiy Yar massacre, and one of the first poetic reactions to the horror of mass extermination.

Perhaps better than anything it shows that whatever evil and insanity that may come, it is still only temporary.

But what remains—as close to eternity as is humanly possible—is the triumph of the human voice lifted in lament, the triumph of beauty over ugliness, the triumph of the human spirit.

 

Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the United States. She is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

 

The photo shows, “Execution at Babi Yar,” by Felix Lembersky, painted ca. 1944-1952.

Three Rendezvous: A Poem By Vladimir Solovyov

I triumphed over death ahead of time,
And time itself through love I overcame,
I shall not name You, my Eternal Friend,
But You’ll still heed these reverent strains …

I had no faith in the illusive world,
Yet underneath matter’s coarse shell,
I sensed Your flawless mantle’s glow,
Discerning the Divine that therein dwells.

Hadn’t You thrice revealed Yourself to me?
Not as mind’s fancy, which is best ignored.
My soul cried out, your countenance appeared —
A portent — or an aid — or a reward.

 

I.

The first time—O, how long ago it was!
Thirty-six years have come and gone since then,
When my child’s soul came all at once to know
Love’s melancholy dreams and anxious pangs.

I was but nine and she…*  was nine as well.
“It was a fine May day in Moscow” to quote Fet.**
I had professed my love.  Dead silence.  Oh, my God!
She loves another!  Ah!  He’ll pay for that!

I’ll duel him right now!!!  Church.  Ascension Mass.”***
Torrents of passion seethe within my soul.
Let us together… cast off… our earthly cares…
The notes expand, grow hushed, then silence falls.

The altar’s open… But where’s priest and deacon?
Where is the crowd of worshippers at prayer?
The streams of passion suddenly run dry.
Sky-blue descends, my soul fills with azure.

Suffused with golden azure, there You stood,
Holding a bloom from climes unknown.
You nodded at me, smiled a radiant smile,
Entered the gathering mist and were gone.

My childish love now seemed an alien thing,
My soul became forever blind to earthly joys.
Our German nanny kept repeating sadly,
“Ach, little Volodya!  Too much a foolish boy!”

 

*Author’s note:  “She” in the stanza was just an ordinary young lady, and has nothing in common with the “you” to whom the preamble is addressed.

**Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet (1820-1892) was a master of the Russian lyric confessional poem and a close friend of Solovyov from his Moscow university days.

***Church feast that commemorated Jesus’s ascension to Heaven.  According to Russian folk beliefs, the feast concludes a 40 day period when boundaries are dissolved between worlds of the living, the dead, the divine, the mortal, the sinners, and the righteous.

 

II.

Years passed.  I’ve got my Master’s, I’m a docent.
First time abroad—I’m off on a mad flight!
Berlin, Hannover, and Cologne emerge,
Flash by, and disappear from sight.

I dreamt of neither Paris—world’s great centre,
Nor Spain, nor yet the gaudy glittering East.
My one dream was of the British Museum—
And it didn’t disappoint me in the least.

Could ever I forget that blessed half a year?
I paid no heed to fleeting beauty—here and gone,
To people’s daily lives, passions, or nature,
My soul, the whole of it, was ruled by You alone.

Let human masses scramble about their business,
Amidst the roar of fire-breathing trains,*
Let them erect their giant soulless buildings,
I’m here alone, where sacred silence reigns.

Well, naturally, take that cum grano salis,**
Alone does not mean that I hated man.
Despite my solitude, I still met with some people.
Let’s see:  which of them should I mention then?

A pity that their names won’t fit my meter,
Names, that, one might say, were not unknown;
There were a couple British wonder-workers,
Two or three Moscow docents, far from home.

Still, I was frequently alone when reading,
And (you can think whatever you like) God knows,
That some mysterious powers led me
To everything about Her ever put to prose.

And when, if spurred on by some sinful fancy,
Toward “another genre” of book I’d roam,
Such incidents ensued, that I would often
Have to pick up and, mortified, go home.

Then, once (it happened sometime in the fall),
I told Her, “Oh, Divinity at its height,
I know You’re here, but since that time in childhood
Why hadn’t You revealed Yourself to sight?”

And just as I had thought these words unspoken,
Golden azure enveloped me again,
And right in front of me, I saw Her glimmer,
But just Her face—that’s all I saw back then.

That moment turned into long-lasting joy,
My soul once more grew blind to mundane things,
And if I talked to “sober, serious types,”
My words seemed muddled dumb imaginings.

 

*Literally, the Russian phrase can be translated as “fire-breathing machines” but in the 19th-century, “fire-breathing machines” was a byword used to describe trains.

**“With a grain of salt” (Latin).

 

III.

I told Her then, “You had revealed Your face,
But how I yearn to see the whole of You…
What You did not begrudge a child,
Denying a young man just wouldn’t do!”

“Go forth to Egypt,” a voice within resounded.
I must reach Paris then! –The railway rushed me south.
Reason and feeling never had to argue,
Reason turned idiot and shut its mouth.

From Lyons to Turin, Piacenza, then Ancona,
From Fero to Bari, and then to Brindisi,
And finally a British steamer raced me
Across the quivering blue bosom of the sea.

In Cairo, I found both shelter and credit
At the Abbot Hotel, alas, gone long ago…
A cozy, modest place, the best hotel around!
Russians lodged there—even from Moscow.

The General in room nine cheered all the lodgers
With stories of the Caucasus of yore…
It’d do no harm to name him—he’s long dead,
And I’ll recall just good things, nothing more.

It was the famous Rostislav Fadeev,
Retired war hawk, handy with the pen,
He’d name a strumpet or a church council
with equal ease—a most resourceful man.

Twice daily we‘d meet over the table d’hôte,
He talked a lot and all in cheerful vein—
He’d always have off-coloured jokes at hand
And from philosophizing he would not abstain.

But I awaited my cherished rendezvous.
Then, one still night, it happened:  I could hear
A passing cool breeze whisper to me:
“I’m in the desert, come to meet me there.”

I’d have to walk (neither in London nor Sahara
Does anyone transport young men for free—
Meanwhile, my pockets were completely barren;
Credit alone had been sustaining me).

So one fine day, without funds or provisions,
I set off, like Nekrasov’s Uncle Vlas,*
(Say what you will, but I’ve secured my rhyme now)
Where I was going, I was at a loss.

You must have laughed to see me in the desert:
I donned a tall top hat and overcoat—
I frightened a huge Bedouin nearly witless,
I was the devil himself, he must have thought.

He would’ve killed me too, but there was a council—
Two sheikhs of different tribes argued what to do
In noisy Arabic, then bound my hands together
As if I were a slave, and without much ado

Took me as far from them as possible,
Graciously untied my hands and walked away.
I’m laughing with You now—both gods and humans
Can laugh at troubles once they’ve had their day.

Meanwhile, a silent night descended;
It came right down:  no beating round the bush—
I watched the darkness midst the flickering stars
And heard nothing around me but the hush.

I lay down on the ground, as I looked on and listened,
When lo: a jackal howled, atrociously enough.
He must have longed to eat me for his dinner,
And I didn’t even have a stick to beat him off!

But never mind the jackal!  It was freezing…
It fell to zero, but was hot all through the day.
The stars were shining mercilessly bright;
Both light and cold were keeping sleep at bay.

And long I lay there in that awful stupor,
When suddenly it came:  “Sleep, my poor friend!”
I fell asleep and when I roused awake,
The scent of roses filled both skies and land.

Aglow in a celestial royal purple,
Eyes blazing with an azure flame,**
You looked on, like the early dawning
Of a universal new creation day.

What is, what was, what’s coming through the ages,
Was all embraced by that unmoving gaze…
Below me I could see the blue of seas and rivers,
The distant forests, snowy mountain chains.

I saw the whole of it, and all of it was one—
A single image of feminine beauty,
The measureless encompassed in its measure,
No one but You, before me and within me.

Oh, radiant-eyed!  I hadn’t been deceived:
Back in the desert I was shown You whole…
And in my soul those roses will not fade,
wherever I will be, whatever might befall.

One moment—that was all!  The vision disappeared,
The sun’s orb was ascending the horizon.
The desert lay still.  My soul was praying,
Within it, church bells pealed on and on.

My spirit was hale!  But for two days I fasted,
And my spiritual vision was growing dim.
Alas, no matter how sublime the soul,
You have to eat, for hunger is no whim!

I set my course west to the Nile, like the sun,
And came back home to Cairo at nightfall…
My soul retained a trace of that rose-hued smile,
My boot soles showed many a new hole.

To outsiders the whole thing looked quite silly.
(I told them what took place—but not the vision).
The General ate his soup in solemn silence,
Then looked at me, and uttered with derision.

“Having a mind gives one the right to folly,
But it is best not to abuse this fact:
Most people are too dull to tell apart
The different sorts of madness—this and that.

So if you wouldn’t want the reputation
Of either a madman or a simple dolt,
Make sure you talk to no one else about this—
A story this disgraceful mustn’t be told!”

He kept on spouting witticisms , but before me
I saw the blue mist cast its radiant rays
And, conquered by this ethereal beauty,
Mundanity’s ocean ebbed away.

 

*Author’s note:  This device for finding a rhyme, consecrated by Pushkin’s own example, is all the more forgivable in the present case, given that the author—more inexperienced than young—is writing narrative verse for the first time.

[Nikolay Nekrasov [1821-1878] was a poet and critic known for his defence of the poor and the downtrodden. His 1855 poem “Vlas” tells of a man who gave up all his worldly goods to wander Russia as a bedraggled beggar, collecting money for the building of churches.—trans].

**Author’s note:  From Lermontov’s poem.

[Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov [1814-1841] was one of the greatest Russian Romantic poets—trans].

 

***

And so it was, while still this vain world’s captive,
That underneath matter’s coarse shell,
I sensed the glow of the flawless mantle,
Discerning the Divine that therein dwells.

Triumphing over death by premonition,
And dreaming dreams to vanquish time,
I shall not name You, my Eternal Friend,
And You’ll forgive me my uncertain rhyme.

 

Author’s Note:  An autumn evening and a dark forest inspired me to render the most significant events that happened to me in my life heretofore, in these humorous verses.  For two days memories and rhymes rose up irrepressibly within my conscience, and on the third day this small autobiography was finished (and it appealed to some poets and some ladies).

(26-29 September 1898).

[Translated by Maria Bloshteyn].

 

Maria Bloshteyn, PhD, researches Russia and the West and is the author of The Making of a Counter-Culture Icon: Henry Miller’s Dostoevsky. She is also a literary translator and has published Alexander Galich’s Dress Rehearsal: A Story in Four Acts and Five Chapters, and Anton Chekhov’s The Prank.  Her various translations have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

 

The photo shows, “In The Church” by Sergei Gribkov, painted in the 1860s.