November 10, 1929

All Quiet on the Western Front

This sermon takes its title from the anti-war novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, published in German in 1928 and in English translation in 1929. Delivered on the day before Armistice Day, this sermon was a demonstration of Rabbi Eisendrath's pacifism and his disregard for the personal consequences of proclaiming it, Canada's strong allegiance to the British Empire and its contribution to the Great War notwithstanding.

Armistice Day was to Rabbi Eisendrath a "day of bitter memories", and "tragic retrospection", but also in 1929 a day that could be celebrated in an atmosphere of "awakening faith,"
... for I do believe that during the single year just gone by mankind has made more distinct progress toward peace than during the entire decade since that memorable day, November 11th, 1918. It has witnessed the ratification of the Kellogg-Briand treaties by over half a hundred nations, [1] it has seen adopted the Young Plan which finally makes a gesture toward the solution of that financial mess perpetuated by the Versailles Treaty, [2] it has gazed at last upon the long-delayed evacuation of the Rhineland by French and British troops, it has beheld the leaders of the two mightiest nations, [British Prime Minister Ramsay] MacDonald and [American President Herbert] Hoover met together in friendly interchange of views, it has heard their respective pledges in behalf of disarmament and their promises to pursue permanent and abiding peace.
This progress, the rabbi said, came none too soon, for already some were forgetting the horrors of war. There were conventions of veterans where men might seek out their old buddies and assure each other "It was a great old war", and there was, too, a new generation of youth "bred and suckled once more on the false ideals of war."  Post-war writers, he believed however, were preserving the true memory of the war.
Contemporary authors [Henri] Barbusse, [André] Maurois, [Arnold] Zweig and Bruno Frank will not permit this generation to slip into a lethargic and somnolent apathy toward war. They have poured forth a flood of novels and essays and diaries which are stripping war of all its mock heroics and false posturings ... These writers of our day will not permit us to forget, they would hold before us, and particularly our children, constantly the true picture of war with its writhing bodies, its headless torsos, its greenish and gangrenous limbs, its dung filled trenches, its maddened minds and stunted souls ...
This, the rabbi's audience must have recognized by now, was not to be an Armistice Day address of the traditional sort, remembering the patriotism of our soldiers, and honouring their sacrifice. He continued,
And so the past year has brought us two more such gruesome portraits of war. The English play [by R. C. Sherriff] Journey's End  and the German novel [by Erich Maria Remarque Im Westen nichts Neues] - All Quiet on the Western Front.
Was the message of these authors being heeded by civic leaders? Rabbi Eisendrath feared it was not.
Else we would tomorrow have an Armistice Day far different from those which I have always sorrowfully, regretfully and disappointedly witnessed. Sham battles, the roar of cannon ringing in our ears, magnificent parades with flashing, blazing bayonets, endless speeches on the courage and heroism of those who fell in their "country's cause".
What, the rabbi wondered, would the Unknown Soldier say, of the ceremonies at his tomb on Armistice Day?

At this point in the sermon, the rabbi quotes at length a work that he has "chanced upon", a fantasy, an imagined monologue, by the Unknown Soldier himself. [3] The soldier has little regard for the political and military leaders paying tribute to him.
"You know how they used to take bullocks in olden days and dress them all up and play music and march in splendid procession ... round the altars in the temples and then kill the dumb and helpless creatures, smear their blood all over the place and called this slaughter a religion? Well that's what they did to us. That's exactly what they did to us. They took us like so many beasts, dressed us up in fine uniforms, played stirring music, marched us in procession amid wondrous fireworks and pageantry and slaughtered us and now they smear our blood upon this altar, this tomb, and they - they call it also a religion.
"... I thought they'd let me rest in Flanders field, 'neath the poppies and the sun. But they dug me up, they put a flag on my coffin, they brought me home and suddenly I was something, something more than dust and bone, I became a symbol and a name. I was carried by crowds and paraded in pageants and blessed by holy men and now they bring little children to my grave and teach them how beautiful it is to be a soldier, and how glorious it is to die for one's own, one's native land, and they hold festivals on holidays, with prayers and songs and magic rites - every day they slay me again, every hour they lay me fresh upon the altar and spill my blood. Will they never be done - will they never forget me and leave me to rot in peace?"
There are other graves, the Unknown Soldier says, of heroes "braver and nobler and more inspired." He mentions several: in Russia, of Leo Tolstoi who said "I know that all men everywhere are my brothers"; in Germany, of Karl Liebknecht "who they imprisoned and tortured and killed because he could not slay his fellow"; in France, of Jean Léon Jaurès, "assassinated as the war began for his crime of loving peace"; in America, of Eugene Debs, prosecuted for the crime, to which he willingly confessed, of obstructing the war; and in Britan, of E.D. Morel "imprisoned and slowly slain for loving peace too well."
"And there are graves far off of prophets who said 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you' and 'Have we not all one father, hath not one God created us all - wherefore then do ye deal treacherously each man with his brother.' " [Matthew 5:44, Malachi 2:10]
These, Rabbi Eisendrath says, (still quoting his Unknown Soldier) are the real heroes. "Here build your altar of faith and hope and love, and here let your children worship and bow down and pray."

The manuscript that we have concludes here, at the bottom of the twenty-fourth page, somewhat abruptly and sooner than most of his Sunday sermons, which were often as long as forty pages. [4] Perhaps we are missing some additional pages.

How was this sermon, so unreservedly pacifist, received? We have no record of the community's reaction. But this was not the first expression of Rabbi Eisendrath's pacifism, nor the last. He had previously written an editorial "We Pacifists?" for the Canadian Jewish Review, that caused great controversy. A sermon "Must we have war?" delivered in 1931 had a pacifist message. Several of his students recall the time he sent a young man home from confirmation class because the boy was wearing a military cadet's uniform.

Events that followed forced the rabbi to change his views. He documents this in his 1964 memoir Can Faith Survive? in a chapter entitled "The Dilemma of a Pacifist". Still, pacifism was always important to him. He greatly admired the non-violent philosophy of Martin Luther King, and the very last sermon that he wrote (in 1973, he died the day before he was to deliver it), condemned the American war in Vietnam.


[1]  The Kellogg-Briand treaty was a multi-national agreement renouncing recourse to war for the solution of international controversies. Great Britain, with Canada and other Commonwealth countries, France, Germany and the United States as well as Belgium, Italy, Japan, Poland and Czechoslovakia were the original signatories in 1928, with many additional countries adhering to the agreement by mid-1929. It had, unfortunately, no mechanism for enforcement.

[2]  The Young Plan was an agreement restructuring and reducing the obligations of Germany to pay war reparations.

[3] The quotation appears to be taken, inexactly, from a sermon "The Unknown Soldier Speaks" by John Haynes Holmes, later published in an anthology of his sermons, The Sensible Man's View of Religion, Harper and Brothers, 1933.

[4] Manuscript pages were about 6"  by 9".

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please allow time for your comment to appear online.