This month marks the 70th anniversary of the death of Wolfgang Borchert, a young German writer who was seriously wounded in World War II then imprisoned for resistance activities. Physically destroyed, he lived only two years after the war. During that time he wrote antiwar literature that is widely read in Germany but little known in the USA, where it is currently most needed. His play about a traumatized veteran, DRAUSSEN VOR DER TÜR (THE MAN OUTSIDE), brought him literary fame after his death. “Dann gibt es nur eins!” (“Then There’s Only One Choice”) is the last poem he wrote before his death in 1947 at the age of 26. It shows a perceptive foresight of the inevitability of global destruction unless the people of the world refuse to serve the military.
Then There’s Only One Choice
By Wolfgang Borchert
Translated from the German by William T. Hathaway
You. Man at the machine in the factory. When they tell you tomorrow to stop making pots and pans and instead make helmets and machine guns, then there’s only one choice:
You. Woman in the store, woman in the office. When they tell you tomorrow to fill grenades and mount telescopic sights on sniper rifles, then there’s only one choice:
You. Factory owner. When they tell you tomorrow to make gun powder instead of baby powder, then there’s only one choice:
You. Researcher in the laboratory. When they tell you tomorrow to invent new ways to kill people, then there’s only one choice:
You. Songwriter in your studio. When they tell you tomorrow not to sing love songs but hate songs, then there’s only one choice:
You. Doctor in the clinic. When they tell you tomorrow to declare soldiers fit for combat, then there’s only one choice:
You. Minister in the pulpit. When they tell you tomorrow to bless murder and sanctify war, then there’s only one choice:
You. Captain of the freighter. When they tell you tomorrow to ship cannons and tanks instead of wheat, then there’s only one choice:
You. Pilot of the plane. When they tell you tomorrow to drop bombs on cities, then there’s only one choice:
You. Tailor in your shop. When they tell you tomorrow to make uniforms, then there’s only one choice:
You. Judge in robes. When they tell you tomorrow to serve on a court-martial, then there’s only one choice:
You. Railroad worker. When they tell you tomorrow to give the signal to send the troop and munition trains, then there’s only one choice:
You. Man in the country, man in the city. When they try to recruit you into the military, then there’s only one choice:
You. Mother in Normandy, mother in the Ukraine, you, mother in San Francisco and London, you, on the Yellow River and the Mississippi River, you, mother in Naples and Hamburg and Cairo and Oslo — mothers of all continents, mothers of the world, when they tell you tomorrow to raise children to be nurses for field hospitals and soldiers for new battles, then there’s only one choice:
Say NO! Mothers, say NO!
Because if you don’t say NO, if YOU don’t say no, mothers, then:
In the noisy steamy dusty port cities the great ships will groan into silence and float like cadavers of drowned mammoths, slapping sluggishly against the lonely docks while algae, seaweed and mussels grow on the once roaring gleaming hulls that now lie decomposing in a watery cemetery stinking of squishy decayed fish.
the streetcars will become dull senseless glass-eyed beetles lying crudely dented and peeling next to skeletons of tangled wires and rusted tracks, behind dilapidated sheds with holes in the roofs, in desolate, cratered streets —
a mud-gray, porridge-thick, leaden stillness will roll over everything, devouring, growing spreading over schools and colleges and theaters, over sport fields and playgrounds, gruesome and greedy, unstoppable —
the juicy sun-ripened grapes will rot on their broken arbors, the green rice will wither on the parched earth, the potatoes will freeze in the abandoned fields, and the cows will raise their death-stiffened legs like upside-down milking stools towards heaven —
in the research centers new medicines discovered by great doctors will turn to fungus and mold —
in the kitchens, dining rooms and cellars, in the cold-storage lockers and warehouses, the last sacks of flour, the last jars of strawberries, pumpkins and cherry juice will spoil — the bread under the overturned tables and smashed plates will turn green, and the rancid butter will reek, the grain will lie limp as a fallen army in the fields next to rusting plows, and the smokestacks of the pounding factories will fall and smash and crumble to be covered with eternal grass —
then the last person, with lacerated bowels and polluted lungs, answerless and alone under a poisonous glaring sun and wobbling sky, will stagger back and forth between gaping mass graves and massive concrete idols of the deserted cities, the last person, scrawny, cursing, accusing, insane — and his terrible cry: WHY? will die unheard, fading across the plains, whispering through the shattered ruins, brushing against the rubble of churches and bunkers, sinking into pools of blood, the last answerless animal cry of the last human animal —
all this will happen, tomorrow, maybe tomorrow, maybe tonight, maybe tonight, if — if —
if YOU don’t say NO!
For more about Wolfgang Borchert: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolfgang_Borchert.
William T. Hathaway is a Special Forces combat veteran now working to overthrow the empire he previously served. He is the author of Radical Peace: People Refusing War, which presents the true stories of activists who have moved beyond demonstrations and petitions into direct action, defying the government’s laws and impeding its ability to kill. Noam Chomsky called it, “A book that captures such complexities and depths of human existence, even apart from the immediate message.” His new book, Lila, the Revolutionary, is a fable for adults about an eight-year-old girl who sparks a world revolution for peace and social justice. Chapters are posted on www.amazon.com/dp/1897455844. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org.