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

Deborah Longworth salutes the range and reach in Everything to Nothing

November 12, 2015
Review: Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe, by Geert Buelens
A Battery Shelled by Wyndham Lewis

For much of the past century, the First World War has been remembered through the myths created in its aftermath. The memoirs and autobiographical writings of these years, preoccupied with their need to remember and to forget, told a story of lost youth and innocence, of the sweeping away of past certainties, of a gradual recognition that the “enemy” was not the other side but the politicians and war profiteers at home, and of the insufficiency of words to articulate the shock and hell of what this war had really been like. This “innocence to experience” model of the Great War also provided the frame by which the poetry of wartime was understood; the patriotic idealism and heroic rhetoric of young officer poets at its start giving way, by 1916 and the Battle of the Somme, to bitter disillusionment and a determination to reveal the realities of the war with angry protest or melancholic personal testimony.

Belgian literary scholar Geert Buelens’ Everything to Nothing presents a very different account of the cultural history of the war, one in which the radical art movements burgeoning all over Europe in the years immediately preceding it are implicated in the politics of the war from its beginning, and in the cultural shaping of national identities and responses during and after. “From the start of the conflict, poets played a central role in mobilizing large groups of people,” Buelens declares. “The war culture that characterized the First World War was, to a large extent, a literary culture, and more specifically a poetic one.”

For a contemporary society that has come to assume that all war poets were, or at least became, anti-war, it is a discomfiting claim, but Buelens makes it unflinchingly, demanding that readers recognise the consequences of the national jingoism and revolutionary idealism of poets from Rainer Maria Rilke to Fernando Pessoa, Vladimir Mayakovsky to Guillaume Apollinaire. Drawing together poetic voices from France, Germany, Britain, Russia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Italy, Portugal and elsewhere, he reveals how the politics as well as the pity of the war were shaped by the power of words.

In England, myth would have it that on the eve of the conflict an island nation was enjoying a halcyon Edwardian summer, oblivious to the possibility of war. But this was also a period of radicalism, unrest and revolution – manifest in the claims to suffrage, to Home Rule for Ireland, in trade union strikes and in the aggressive aesthetics of radical art movements, with their rhetoric of violence and warfare. As Buelens demonstrates in rich detail, cultural and political debate across Europe in the 1910s was saturated by the language and imagery of militarism, aggression and destruction, with an ideal of war widely celebrated as a panacea against the degeneration of modernity, from which would emerge a better, purer world.

A cultural climate of revolution and regeneration thus developed alongside the increasingly tense political relations of Europe’s key nation states, as the new and rapidly modernising German empire continued to expand its military, much to the concern of the established powers of Russia, England and France, while the imploding dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary threatened to draw all of them into overt antagonism. Writers across Europe were not unaware of the uneasy relations between different nations, and the complexity of the interdependent strategic alliances that promised to topple the world into conflict. “We seem to see Great Britain drifting inevitably towards a war with Germany,” the half-English, half-German novelist Ford Madox Ford (then Hueffer) wrote as early as 1909. “There are a hundred factors that make for it; we can observe none that makes for peace.”

Among Europe’s avant-garde art movements, it seems that few actually desired peace. In London, English artistic radicalism at its most belligerent was represented by Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticism, and its bombastic manifesto in Blast (published in July 1914). For all Lewis’ “blasting” of the British Establishment, however, the violence of Vorticism never really moved beyond rather vague fantasies of cultural warfare. His continental European counterparts were far less circumspect. In the same month, Italian Symbolist poet Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote a letter to the French ambassador in Russia, declaring: “It is only through war that those peoples who have degenerated can stop their decline, for war unfailingly gives them either glory or death.”

The Futurist leader Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was as eager as D’Annunzio to turn his militaristic aesthetic ideals into pro-war propaganda. As Italy hesitated over where its allegiances lay, the Futurist newspaper Lacerba announced that it would henceforth be devoted to politics, firmly declaring that it was Italy’s duty to join the war against the Central Powers. Marinetti devised a number of propaganda campaigns to encourage the call to war, and in September 1914 organised a public burning of the Austrian flag. When Italy finally declared war on Austria-Hungary the following May, many of the Futurist movement signed up, only to find themselves assigned to the Lombard Volunteer Cyclists corps. “This was perhaps not as ultramodern as they had hoped,” Buelens writes, in one of the moments of irony to which he is always attuned. “Rather than a dynamic background crackling with Futurist ideas of progress, the Italian-Austrian front was a place of death, drudgery and deadlock.”

Buelens’ account of the trajectory of the Futurists’ glorification of modern warfare, from the manifestos with their celebration of the purity of the machine, through the incendiary political aesthetics of 1914, to the realities of Italian mobilisation, is just one of the many case studies that weave through the extraordinary comparative range and discursive reach of his book. If extended analysis of poems and essays are to an extent sacrificed for a comprehensiveness in range, this is perhaps the inevitable result of his paradigm-shifting approach. Few studies have attempted such ambitious attention to the interrelation of the unfolding historical events and concurrent literary perspectives on the war since Samuel Hynes’ A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture more than two decades ago. Buelens’ cross-European perspective, moreover, redraws the lines of national models for the literary history of the First World War.

Thus British writers have their say amid Buelens’ transnational symphony of voices, but their significance is relative to the wider context of European literary interventions and responses, and we perceive them afresh as a result. If the traditional paradigm of English poetry of the Great War has Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen as its defining centre, for example, in Buelens’ volume the most prominent British voice is surely the Germanophile poet Charles Hamilton Sorley, who after six months spent living in Schwerin from January to August 1914 declared, “When I got home, I felt I was a German, and proud to be a German…I felt that perhaps I could die for Deutschland and I have never had an inkling of that feeling about England, and never shall.” Sorley understood the shame and pity of war far earlier than Sassoon or Owen. He would die for England, aged 20, at the Battle of Loos in 1915, but not before his own poetry had predicted the “millions of the mouthless dead” across all nations whose voices would be silenced during this most literary of wars.

Deborah Longworth is senior lecturer in English, University of Birmingham. She is author of Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City and Modernity (2000) and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Modernisms (2007).

Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe
By Geert Buelens
Translated by David McKay

Verso, 400pp, £20.00
ISBN 9781784781491 and 1507 (e-book)
Published 2 November 2015

The author

Geert BuelensBelgian literary scholar Geert Buelens lives in Utrecht in the Netherlands with his girlfriend, Anne. He was born and raised in Duffel, “a small town between Antwerp and Brussels, the second of two children. My father was a factory worker, my mother a nurse”.

Now professor of modern Dutch literature at Utrecht University, Buelens believes the influence of his background can be seen in the man he has become.

“Oh yes. It really matters when you come from Nowhere :-). It gives you a specific outlook on life: in my case, both the ambition to get out of there and a very strong feeling about what you've left behind; the latter dramatically increased since I moved to the Netherlands.

“Coming from a working-class family has also strongly influenced my life as an academic and the way I write – I mean, trying to write about topics that matter to people outside of the academy and without any jargon. And coming from Flanders/Belgium also really matters: feeling and knowing that your identity is never straightforward.”

He adds: “I wrote this book while Belgium seemed to be falling apart because of separatist tendencies, which were also a direct result of the First World War. On that level, the Great War has always felt very present to me, and it’s no coincidence that nationalism is one of the book’s main themes.”

As the book’s dedication shows, Buelens’ own family was touched closely by the war. Everything to Nothing is dedicated to Alfons Buelens, “a soldier of the Great War”, and the author’s grandfather. 

“One of my earliest memories is of the day of his funeral. A few years ago when one of his many sons died – he had 12 children, and my father was the 11th – I inherited my grandfather’s war medals; a very touching moment. I recall looking at them, as a child, in my grandmother’s living room, wondering how it had been for him. I don’t come from a family of readers, to put it mildly (I don’t think he owned any books apart from the New Testament). As far as I know, from a conversation I had with one of his older sons, he didn’t like to talk about the war at all.”

As a child, was Buelens studious? “Yes, in the sense that I wrote my first ‘book’ when I was about 7. And I always loved reading newspapers. But I also loved sports. In football I used to be the goalkeeper. A mediocre novelist might attribute some meaning to that detail.”

He studied Dutch and English language and literature in Brussels, and at the University of Antwerp, where he also took his PhD and would hold his first academic post, as assistant professor of literature, from 2001 to 2005. As a university student, he says, he was “ambitious and determined, yes, but also – as I was raised with a very strong feeling of responsibility towards society and towards my own talents – I just did what I felt I had to do.” 

In 2005, he moved to the Netherlands when he took up his current post at Utrecht. “It’s been ten years now and the culture shock is still there,” he comments. “Flemish and Dutch culture seem very related, because of the language – they are about as similar as British and American English or as German and Austrian German – but just about everything turned out to be different: classes, meetings, students, organisation and planning, budgets, etc. I see myself as a luxury migrant, but a migrant nevertheless. It was a very important experience (because of being an outsider).”

Everything to Nothing was first published as Europa! Europa! Over de dichters van de Grote Oorlog in the original Dutch. Although its primary readerships in Flanders and the Netherlands share a language, the two countries’ experiences of the First World War were very different: a terrible and significant experience of invasion, war and suffering for one, and neutrality, albeit a conflicted and complex one, for the other.  

Buelens, who remarks that even after 10 years he cannot get used to the fact that Remembrance Day, or Wapenstilstandsdag, a solemn national holiday in Belgium, is not celebrated in the Netherlands, says that he “wrote the book very much as a Flemish person writing for a Dutch audience, in the sense that I added information about Belgium’s political history that most Belgian readers would know. But I also used many Dutch sources, to bring in the neutral perspective but also to illustrate that the war was a very big deal for the Dutch at the time.”

He adds: “I’m now part of a HERA [Humanities in the European Research Area] project with partners from King’s College London, Berlin and Poznan about the First World War as a site of cultural encounter for the colonised, belligerents and neutrals.” 

The project, Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict: Colonials, Neutrals and Belligerents During the First World War, is documented at http://www.cegcproject.eu/

David Reynolds, in The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century, has argued that that the British (and specifically English) “collective memory” of the First World War is unique in Europe, and that it is a “peculiar British preoccupation” to focus on the poetry instead of the history. Reynolds also suggests that the “great” English poets of the First World War (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon) are not well known outside of the UK. What is Buelens’ view of this argument? 

“I could write pages about this question ;)” he replies. “The British do seem to be obsessed with the Great War and the war poets. On that level I think their position is quite unique in Europe. No other culture, as far as I know, has canonised their war poets the way the British did and do.

“But what struck me while I was researching this book was that just about every important European poet of the era was very much involved in the Great War (Apollinaire, Akhmatova, Rilke, Trakl, Mayakovsky, Pessoa, Ungaretti) and that their experiences and contributions complement our understanding of the war in important ways.

“The English war poets are maybe not as well known internationally as they are in Britain, but they’re nevertheless considered to be major voices about the war, not only in Flanders but also in the Netherlands and Germany, as I noticed while I was promoting the book there.”

Buelens is himself a poet. Has he ever written about war – or the Great War – himself? “I did, yes. But not really about the war experience itself – who am I to think that I could write something more interesting than the many poets who witnessed it firsthand? – but about our way of remembering it.”

He has also edited an anthology of First World War-related poetry. Which of the poets included there, and perhaps not as well known in the UK, should British readers seek out? 

“I started to write Everything to Nothing as a Kluge Fellow in the Library of Congress in the US, and the plan was to make a separate, complementary anthology with the work of about a dozen European poets. But when I started digging in the library’s collections, I found so many interesting poems that the project kept on expanding. In the end it turned out to be an anthology of 700 pages, with poems from 30 languages, presented in the original with a Dutch translation, and from 40 countries: First World War poems from just about every European literature, and also from Turkey and India, poems in Arabic and Georgian, etc.

“From this beautiful but quite expensive book, published as Het Lijf in Slijk Geplant in 2008, I selected 100 poems, and they were published in a nicely priced book [De 100 Beste Gedichten van de Eerste Wereld Oorlog] last year.”

He continues: “There are so many great war poems that deserve to be as well known as the British war poets; in particular, many Hungarian and Yiddish poems struck me as revelations. As for soldiers’ poetry, it pleased me to hear from David McKay, who translated my new book into English, that he considered the verse of the Flemish soldier-poet Daan Boens the best he had to translate for the project.

“Apollinaire and Cendrars wrote remarkable poems – very different from the British ones. And from German poetry, the Verdun veteran Anton Schnack deserves to be better known, I believe. From Dutch poetry I’d like to mention Jacobus van Looy, who wrote a very long poem about a man who goes to the cinema to see what death is really like – the poem is a very detailed description of the famous documentary The Battle of the Somme, from 1916; it is a remarkable text about war, suffering, media and sensationalism.” 

What gives Buelens hope?

“This turned out to be the most difficult question you’ve asked me to answer,” he confesses. “So I guess this means I’m not really that hopeful.

“What does give me hope – and I know it gives me hope because I tend to find it extremely moving when it happens – are moments when people come together for a cause. After decades of phony liberalism, I hope we enter a new age of collective action. We desperately need to try to safeguard the planet, social programmes, and universities.”

Karen Shook


Print headline: If I should die for Deutschland...

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