January 1, 2011

Heinrich von Kleist: The military is "a living monument to tyranny"

The German poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist wrote in one of his letters:
"The greatest wonders of military discipline, while objects of awe to all the experts, became objects of my own most heartfelt contempt; the officers I regarded as so many drillmasters, the soldiers as so many slaves, and when the whole regiment was performing its tricks, it seemed to me a living monument to tyranny. What is more, I began to feel keenly the evil effect that my position was making on my character. I was often compelled to punish when I would gladly have pardoned, or I pardoned when I should really have punished; and, in either case, saw myself as the punishable one. At such moments, the wish to leave such a profession began to grow within me as a matter of course, constantly martyred as I was between two completely incompatible principles, and always in doubt whether to act as an officer or as a human being, for I consider it an impossibility to combine the obligations of both under present conditions in the military.

And yet I regarded my moral development as one of my most sacred duties, because it was just in this, as I have explained, that my happiness would be grounded, and so, to my natural aversion for soldiery, the moral obligation to give it up must be added." - Heinrich von Kleist. "An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist with a Selection of Essays and Anecdotes. Edited, Translated, and Introduced by Philip B. Miller." (1982). E. P. Dutton: New York. Pg. 22. The quote is an excerpt from a letter dated March 18, 1799.