Wednesday, July 2, 2014

All Our Yesterdays by Manes Sperber

It is astonishing how little has been written about the 15th of July 1927*, and how few eyewitness reports have recorded it for future generations, for there were thousands of us who directly experienced it and have preserved it in our memory like a frequently recurring nightmare. People shrink from the difficultly of describing events that became intimate, confusing experiences and took a course that was as simple as a scenario by an untalented, unimaginative author who seeks his effects only in an incessant repetition of the same dramatic incidents. This event which was at once absurd and monotonous, led everyone to surmise that it might have a hidden meaning and carelessly ignored causes. It was a a symbol-laden injustice, as inflammatory as the judicial murder of Sacco and Vanzetti that had been prepared for years and was actually carried out but thirty-eight days after the fifteenth of July. It has not been forgotten that the fate of these Italian-American anarchists had stirred millions of people throughout the world to action –not for political reasons, though the organizers of the countless marches in the big cities had a political agendas, but out of uncontrollable anger at an injustice that convulsed everyone as if he were, or could be a victim of it.

I am surely not the only person whom this experience has never ceased to affect. In vital situations it has shaped my conduct almost as strongly as the happenings at the Zablotow cemetery in the winter of 1915. Of both events I have retained something that only appears to be harmless: a negative astonishment at events and at those who were involved in them as actors, victims, and witnesses – including myself. This astonishment is unending. And it diminishes my ability to cope with the natural things and situations without which everyday life would be inconceivable.

In all essential points I agreed with Marxism, which I studied seriously; I embraced historical materialism and the necessity to create a classless society in our lifetime – that is, without delay. Yes all this seemed demonstrable to me and yet not self-evident. The negative astonishment that had awakened my doubts about God’s power and justice and finally his very existence later fed my doubts about the rationality of human beings as shapers of their own history, their collective and individual fate. The rationality of the irrational, the methodical nature of madness, the conclusiveness of a chain of errors that remains unassailable as long as the initial error is allowed to stand as an unimpeachable truth –all this I encountered in my psychological work every day, disappointed but also ironically amused as I critically examined my own actions.

When I was asked to review Emil Ludwig’s once widely read biography of Wilhelm II, I began an in-depth study of the history of the world war, its premises, indirect and direct causes, and finally its course. Countless memoirs had already appeared in which statesmen, generals, politicians, diplomats, and agents of every kind “told all”. There, too, I never ceased to be astonished, for those sensible presentations left the young reader who spent whole nights reading them with only one certainty: never before had such murderous madness been prepared so logically and so calculatingly to the misfortune of all mankind and kept going so methodically day in and day out for four-and-a-half years. Reasonable errors reveal themselves like barking dogs, and a forgery betrays itself by being so much more genuine than the original, which is allowed to be flawed.


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