Essay, Research Paper
Philip Hoy (Interviewer)
"The contemplation of horror is not edifying":
Hecht describes his experiences as a soldier in WWII"
[Hoy] You’ve described your three years as an undergraduate at Bard as
‘unquestionably the happiest … of [your] life up to that time.’ How did it feel when,
three years into your studies, aged 20, you were drafted into the army, and sent off to
fight in the war? Was it something you’d been dreading?
[Hecht] I admit with shame that I felt neither brave nor patriotic. I was
profoundly scared. I had, as you say, just encountered something like happiness for the
first time in my life, and I was now required to give it up, and perhaps my life as well.
My reading had become so important to me that when I finally went off to the army
reception centre I brought with me a paperback collection of some Shakespeare plays, an
anthology of poetry, some Joyce, and a volume of Spinoza.
It wasn’t until about two weeks into basic training that I was allowed
enough leisure to ferret out one of those books, expecting to slip easily into the
receptive appreciation I enjoyed at college. But the words lay blank and flat on the page.
It was like reading a telephone directory. The combination of fatigue and the numbing
effect of close-order drill, along with other dehumanizing methods of military training,
had all but lobotomized me. I feared I would never be able to read anything with pleasure
again, should I even survive. It was a terrifying kind of pre-death.
In the end, all those faculties returned about six or eight months after I
got out. You saw action in France, Germany and Czechoslovakia, and witnessed the deaths of
a great many of your comrades. How did you cope with this? There is much about this I have
never spoken about, and never will. My father made a foolish and pitiful attempt to get me
discharged while I was in training in Missouri with the 97th Infantry Division, the outfit
with which I went overseas. He somehow managed to inform officers of the division of his
own mental breakdowns, and to imply that I was subject to the same frailties. I was called
away from a bivouac to be interviewed by a military shrink.
When I figured out what was going on, I realized I had only to put on an
act in order to get discharged on what the army called a Section Eight, or ‘mental’
grounds. I really felt that my life that morning was in my own hands. At the same time, I
felt unwilling to fake, and ashamed of what my father had done. I confined myself to
acknowledging that I hated the army – like Catch 22, this was regarded as a sign of mental
soundness – and refusing to address the interrogating officer as ‘Sir,’ an act of mild
but, to me, meaningful insubordination.
[Hoy] Did you make a good soldier?
[Hecht] Not by any real standards. I was honourably discharged at the end
of things, and I did not disobey any orders, though once I was genuinely tempted to. My
company had been pinned down by very heavy enemy fire in Germany. Our company commander
was a fool, wholly incapable of any initiative, who slavishly obeyed commands, however
uninformed or ill-considered, from battalion or regimental HQ, and without regard to the
safety or capacity of his own troops. (He was later awarded a Silver Star for action that
took place on a day when he was behind the lines being treated for dysentery.)
Anyway, on this day when we were hopelessly kept flat on the ground by
superior fire-power, some idiot at an upper echelon, far behind the lines and blissfully
unaware of our situation regarding the enemy (though probably eager to keep all forward
movements abreast of one another to protect all flanks) ordered my company to move
forward, and the captain ordered us to ready ourselves, though there would have been
nothing but total annihilation in prospect. At the last second, higher command called for
artillery, which turned the trick. And as we slowly rose from prone positions, I confessed
to my platoon commander, a second lieutenant just about my age, that if the order to
advance had not been countermanded I was very unsure whether I would have obeyed. ‘Of
course you would have,’ he replied, but with a look that meant a great deal. He fully
understood how foolish such a command would have been at the time, but as an officer,
whose duty was to set an example, he knew that he would have had to obey.
[Hoy] You served with the Infantry Division which discovered Flossenburg,
a concentration camp in the Bavarian forest, close to the Czech border. It’s not as
notorious as its neighbour, Buchenwald – it rates a mention in several of the history
books just because it was there that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered, a week before the
liberation – but it was a major camp, and one wouldn’t have to read a book like Robert
Abzug’s Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration
Camps to understand how devastating an experience it must have been for young G.I.s
like you, though you must already have witnessed some pretty awful things. Can you say
anything about this event, and its effect on you?
[Hecht] Flossenburg was an annex of Buchenwald. It was both an
extermination camp and a slave-labour camp, where prisoners were made to manufacture
Messerschmitts at a factory right within the perimeter of the camp. When we arrived, the
SS personnel had, of course, fled. Prisoners were dying at the rate of 500 a day from
typhus. Since I had the rudiments of French and German, I was appointed to interview such
French prisoners as were well enough to speak, in the hope of securing evidence against
those who ran the camp.
Later, when some of these were captured, I presented them with the charges
levelled against them, translating their denials or defences back into French for the sake
of their accusers, in an attempt to get to the bottom of what was done and who was
responsible. The place, the suffering, the prisoners’ accounts were beyond comprehension.
For years after I would wake shrieking. I must add an important point: after the war I
read widely in Holocaust literature, and I can no longer separate my anger and revulsion
at what I really saw from what I later came to learn.
[Hoy] Were there any aspects of life in the army that you valued?
[Hecht] Not at the time, certainly. I found that all the officers I
encountered from the rank of captain on up were contemptible and often ignorant,
swaggering in the full vigour of their incapacity, and this was true up to as high a level
as division commander, which I had the opportunity of observing. While I came to this
conclusion independently and on the basis of personal experience, I find that I’m not the
only one to have held such views. Allow me, if you will, a small literary flourish. In
Joseph Andrews Fielding writes about Nature, personified as a goddess of great powers, who
equips creatures with a cranial cavity for the brains and their rational government of
ordinary men, ‘whereas,’ Fielding goes on to remark, ‘those ingredients being entirely
useless to persons of the heroic calling, she hath an opportunity of thickening the bone
so as to make it less subject to any impression, or liable to be cracked or broken; and
indeed, in some who are predestined to command armies and empires, she is supposed
sometimes to make that part perfectly solid.’
It would have been a convenient balance and fitting irony to say that, by
contrast, the ordinary draftees with no military ambitions or careers, were often good and
generous people, and this is what I believed at first. But a few days of heavy front-line
combat changed my attitude in a terrible way. We had already suffered some severe
casualties from enemy mortars and land mines. These first casualties and deaths came to us
as a rude shock; our friends and comrades, with whom we had trained, undergone real
privations and endured grave dangers were now legless, armless, or dead. So the mood of
the company was shaken when, one morning, we found ourselves hugging the ground at the
crest of a hill, in the shadow of trees, looking out across a green field that dipped
shallowly in the middle before rising to a small height not far away, and behind which
German troops were lobbing mortar shells at us.
We fired back, and the exchange went on for a while, until at last the
enemy simply stopped firing. This could, of course, have been preliminary to something
else, a trick, anything. We remained exactly where we were. And then, to my astonishment,
a small group of German women, perhaps five or six, leading small children by the hand,
and with white flags of surrender fixed to staves and broom-handles, came up over the far
crest and started walking slowly toward us, waving their white flags back and forth. They
came slowly, the children retarding their advance. They had to descend the small incline
that lay between their height and ours. When they were about half way, and about to climb
the slope leading to our position, two of our machine guns opened up and slaughtered the
Not long after we were able to take the enemy position, from which all
their troops had withdrawn. For the rest of the day there was much loud and insistent talk
about that morning’s slaughter, all intended as justification. ‘They might have had bombs
on them.’ ‘They might have had some radio devices to direct German artillery toward us.’
Things like that. This was all due to the plain panic of soldiers newly exposed to combat,
due also to guilt, to frustrated fury at the casualties we had suffered. In any case, what
I saw that morning was, except for Flossenburg, the greatest trauma of the war – and,
believe me, I saw a lot of terrible things. But that morning left me without the least
vestige of patriotism or national pride.
And when I hear empty talk about that war having been a ‘good war’, as
contrasted with, say, Vietnam, I maintain a fixed silence. The men in my company, under
ordinary circumstances, were not vicious or criminal, but I no longer felt close to any of
them. Battle, which is supposed to bring fellow soldiers together, failed to do that. As
for whether there were any aspects of army life that I valued, I’d have to maintain my
equivocal posture. The army put me in what may be the best physical shape I would ever
enjoy, and as though to annul this benefit, it taught me to smoke. And I went on smoking,
addictively, for thirty-five years.
"If a way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the
Hecht discusses his poetry’s concern with cruelty and suffering
[Hoy] The Hard Hours opens with ‘The Hill’, a monologue, whose
speaker tells of an experience he’d had while walking through the Piazza Farnese in Rome.
One minute it had been sunny and warm, crowded and noisy, the next:
the noises suddenly stopped,
And it got darker; pushcarts and people dissolved
And even the great Farnese Palace itself
Was gone, for all its marble; in its place
Was a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle. A hunter, I guessed;
At least I was not alone. But just after that
Came the soft and papery crash
Of a great branch somewhere unseen falling to earth
And that was all, except for the cold and silence
That promised to last forever, like the hill.
The speaker claims not have been bothered by this incident in the ten
years since it occurred. What moves him to talk about it now is the sudden remembrance of
where he’d first encountered that hill:
it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.
So, perhaps, one part of the mystery is removed. What had overtaken him in
the Piazza wasn’t something requiring supernatural explanation, but something permitting
explanation in terms of accepted psychological categories – memories, hallucinations, and
the like. But if one part of the mystery is removed, another, more serious, remains. Why
would a boy stand for hours in front of a scene whose plain bitterness was to leave an
adult scared for days?
I wonder if I can ask where that image of the hill comes from? It clearly
has some special significance for you, since it, or things very like it, appear in a
number of your poems – ‘Christmas is Coming’, ‘The Short End’, ‘Auspices’, ‘The Venetian
Vespers’, ‘See Naples and Die’, ‘Death the Whore’ …
[Hecht] My therapist had a lot of theories about that poem. Anyway, when
you ask, ‘why would a boy stand for hours in front of a scene of great bitterness?’ the
answer is, of course, that he does not do so willingly; he is compelled to. And he is
compelled to because no one comes to take him away from all this barrenness. You are
perfectly right to see arid and defeated landscapes cropping up in a good number of my
poems, as is the case with certain winter scenes of Breughel. They were for me a means to
express a desolation of the soul. There are such scenes in Hardy, as well as in a fine
young poet, not yet well known, named Timothy Murphy. May I quote a short poem of his?
Bristling with fallen trees
and choked with broken ice
the river threatens the house.
I’ll wind up planting rice
if the spring rains don’t cease.
What ancestral curse
prompts me to farm and worse,
convert my woes to verse?
I’m not a farmer, and thus not subject to their special dangers, but for
me a bleak and forlorn landscape can assemble and convey a deep sense of despair.
[Hoy] ‘The Hill’ serves as a kind of warning to readers of The Hard
Hours, because, as they read their way through the book, they are going to be
confronted with visions of plain bitterness, visions of suffering, madness, and death
whose power to scare is not in the least mysterious. In one poem we are given vivid
descriptions of the daily flogging, and eventual flaying, of the Roman emperor Valerian;
in another, a promise is made to the ghost of a child lost to its parents as a result of
miscarriage; in a third, the burning at the stake of one Christian by others is juxtaposed
with an atrocity committed in the vicinity of Buchenwald …
But there are mysteries associated with these poems, and I can get at the
most perplexing of them by quoting Flaubert, who wrote to Am?lie Bousquet as follows:
‘Human life is a sad show, undoubtedly: ugly, heavy and complex. Art has no other end, for
people of feeling, than to conjure away the burden and the bitterness.’ Is this too narrow
a conception of art? Or is there a sense in which your poems can be said to conjure away
the burden and bitterness, even as they force us to confront them? I’m the more intrigued
by your answer because of what you say in ‘Rites and Ceremonies’: ‘The contemplation of
horror is not edifying, / Neither does it strengthen the soul.’
[Hecht] A difficult question to which there is no easy answer. One
mistaken way of construing the Flaubert assertion would be to say that he is recommending
escape literature and fairy tales that end with the protagonists living happily ever
after. But ‘conjuring the burden and bitterness away’ demands serious necromancy. I would
summon to my aid Hardy’s apology from ‘In Tenebris’: ‘If a way to the Better there be, it
exacts a full look at the Worst.’ In his poem called ‘No Possum, No Sop, No Taters’,
Wallace Stevens writes, ‘It is here, in this bad, that we reach / The last purity of the
knowledge of good.’
And I would enlist the further support of Keats in the letter to his
brothers in which he says that ‘the excellence of every Art is its intensity, capable of
making all disagreeables evaporate, from their being in close relationship with Beauty
& Truth – Examine King Lear & you will find this examplified [sic] throughout’
(21-27 December 1817). The fact is that Lear was for many years my favourite among the
tragedies, and has never lost its appeal for me. And it has its full component of bleak
landscapes. I taught it for years before I found out that there are two proper versions
and that I would have to choose between them. I had so grown used and devoted to the
conflated text that I found myself unwilling to relinquish some of the lines I prized.
Anyway, I’ve always been on guard, as a reader first of all, against what
has been called ‘Land-of-heart’s-desire’ poetry, which tends to be vapid and sentimental.
On the other hand, I would still continue to affirm what I wrote about the contemplation
of horror not being edifying. I have always found that the stories and paintings of
Christian martyrdom are very strange because they can be understood in two different and
opposing ways. The orthodox way is to say that they inspire admiration for fixity of faith
in the face of the most horrible and obstinate persecution. At the same time, of course,
they are often remarkable for their morbidity, and, alas, a part of their meaning seems to
concern the ineradicable savagery of the human race; and not just of pagans and infidels
but people of all kinds, as the many religious wars among Christians – the Thirty Years’
War, the so-called Wars of Religion in Spain, France and the Netherlands being merely
examples – have abundantly demonstrated.
There’s a Byzantine mosaic icon in Washington of ‘The Forty Martyrs of
Sebaste’ – they were ’stripped naked, herded onto a frozen pond, and kept there; to help
break down their resistance a fire was kindled and warm baths prepared where they could
see them. By the next day most of them were dead; those who were not were killed,’ says a
little handbook of hagiography. But this is no more than a puny prologue to the Holocaust.
It is the Vatican’s dubious position that German anti-Semitism as it was exhibited under
the Nazis ‘had its roots outside Christianity,’ and that the people who ran the camps were
This, however, fails to agree with the Nazis’ own view of the matter. In
Peter Matheson’s documentary account, The Third Reich and the Christian Churches,
he writes of a report by one Hanns Kerrl on the membership and finances of the Churches,
dated 3, July, 1944 (not long, that is, before the war ended) – a report sent to Goebbels
‘on the request of the Ministry for popular Enlightenment and Propaganda,’ containing
statistics ‘with the rather anxious request that caution be used in their exploitation for
propaganda purposes. It is worth noting how little success the National Socialists had in
winning people away from their adherence to Christian beliefs. Only 3.5% acknowledged
themselves as "Gottgl?ubige",’ a word that Cassell’s German dictionary defines
as ‘followers of the modern German cult of non-Christian theism,’ and which Matheson calls
[Hoy] In Philip Larkin’s ‘Ambulances’, passers-by, looking on as people in
extremity are fetched off to hospital, are said to ’sense the solving emptiness / That
lies just under all we do, / and for a second get it whole, / So permanent and blank and
true.’ Larkin was clearly no stranger to the experience he describes here, but my guess is
that you are. It’s hell you worry about, not the void …
[Hecht] I agree. Larkin did not have to serve in the war and he was not a
Jew, and he counted himself lucky on both scores. It may be that one of the appeals of his
poetry for many readers lies in his contemplation of ‘the solving emptiness,’ which is
obscurely comforting. Not paradise, to be sure, but a kind of beneficent anaesthesia.
the Lines: Interviews with Poets. For additional extracts from the Hecht
interview, click here.