Seventy years ago today, the military might of Nazi Germany was thrown against the free state of Poland. Hitler’s planes, troops and tanks swept across the northern, southern and western borders of the nation that had through treaties allied itself with Great Britain, France and other European states that had grown increasingly wary of fascism’s territorial ambitions.
World War II had begun.
W.H. Auden, an Englishman who was of the left that had tried to raise the alarm about Hitler, Mussolini and their minions by speaking up for the Spanish loyalists in their fight against Franco, heard the news while sitting at the Dizzy Club in New York City.
Auden did what came naturally.
He began crafting a poem. And in it was perhaps the finest line of that or any war: “We must love one another or die.”
Auden’s “September 1, 1939” was a political poem, with its references to “Imperialism’s face/And the international wrong.”
But it was, as well, a love poem–very much a hymn to humanity and the ideal of a solidarity, both personal and universal, that might sustain us.
A decade later, after the fascists had been defeated at a cost too great for imagining even now, E.M. Forster wrote of Auden in his book Two Cheers for Democracy. “Because he one wrote ‘We must love one another or die’ he can command me to follow him,” observed Forster.
Forster was not alone. World War II was a war fought by soldiers who read poetry. The arsenal of democracy included textbooks with thin covers, and surveys of literature both classic and modern. As a child, I learned poetry first by reading the blue-covered manual my father had been issued as an 18-year-old volunteer.
Not all soldiers read Auden. But more than a few did, especially that line about loving one another or dying.
And so it is, on this anniversary of a war fought by men and women now in their 80s and 90s, that we recall a struggle not between countries but between ideologies–between those who chose “the strength of Collective Man” over the strongman, the “affirming flame” of solidarity over Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich,” love over hate.
And we recall it best now, as in that dark fall of 1939, with Auden as our guide:
September 1, 1939
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.