PART 2: The 30s




  the first world war
  the 1930s
This Excellent Machine  GO
Port Bou  GO
Newsreel  GO
Here War Is Simple 
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  women's voices

Here War Is Simple by W H Auden

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking. Dachau.




'simple': Auden later changed this to 'harmless'
'speaking': he changed this to 'talking'
'assert': 'state to be true'
'milk in bowls': this poem is one of several inspired by a visit to China (where people traditionally drank from bowls rather than cups) in 1938 and called 'Sonnets from China'; they were first published in a book called 'Journey to a War'.
'And we can watch a thousand faces' was later changed to 'For we have seen a myriad faces'
'Made active by one lie' was later changed to 'Ecstatic from one lie'; perhaps the poet had the Nazi rallies in Germany in mind, though it may simply have been the sound of the words that prompted the change.
'Nanking': the former capital of China
'Dachau': a prison camp in Germany





In August 1937 Japanese forces invaded China and embarked on a savage war which lasted until 1945 and in which at least 10m Chinese civilians were killed. In November the Japanese attacked Nanking, then China's capital city; by December they had taken it, and began a six week series of atrocities against the citizens. The soldiers raped, looted and burned, and upwards of 300,000 people were massacred with extreme cruelty.

The concentration camp at Dachau in Germany was opened on March 9 1933, less than a week after Hitler became supreme ruler. Almost at once several thousand people were imprisoned there (without trial) because they opposed Hitler's Nazi government. They included Communists, Socialists and Liberals, many of them academics and other distinguished people. Later, thousands of German and Austrian gypsies and Jews were held there before being deported to death camps set up in Poland. The Dachau camp was run by the SS, and with great brutality; many prisoners died there from ill-treatment, or were killed. In 1944 and 1945, when the Germans were hastily emptying concentration camps set up outside Germany, many surviving Jews were sent to Dachau on 'death marches'; those who collapsed were left to die. When American troops liberated Dachau in 1945 they found many dead, but also 33,000 starving survivors - only 2,531 of whom were Jewish.






'Here war is simple' is a sonnet: a poem of 14 lines divided into two stanzas of 8 lines and 6 lines respectively. The trick about a sonnet is that there is a break at the 8th line where the poem pivots or moves up into a new gear. Look at it again to see the effect of that gear-change here. (Would you agree that the first 8 lines say 'these things are so, and bad enough'; the last six say 'and so are these - and worse'?)

This poem is deceptively simple. It travels along several paths at once. It draws attention to the tranquillity and order of the headquarters where military decisions are made, and where those who will die are not seen as individuals, more as counters on a game-board. (Notice the impersonal objects: telephone, flags, maps, bowls.) The poem shows that a few people can make a 'plan' for the deaths of many, and carry it out. The poem shows that an idea - Nazism, Communism, Fascism, any political idea associated with power or fear - can be used to whip up mass enthusiasm. Carried on this emotional wave , crowds of people will eagerly sanction and support the killing of others who have opposing ideals and ideas.

Maps are diagrams showing locations and the routes between them. Maps indicate regions in an abstract, diagrammatic way; they don't show people, or what is happening to them. Maps don't show how easy it is to be cruel from a distance, and how soon it becomes easy to be cruel close to. (But both maps and people can be biased.)

As this poem was published (in 1939) war was about to begin in Europe, where the brutalities of Nanking and Dachau would be repeated over and over again.

How can writers get people to listen to their warnings of war?






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