The Avatar Of The Hun

By Frederick Tupper

[The Nation; June 21, 1917]

In camp jargon of Tommies, in labels of cartoonists, in scare-heads of penny-sheets, metropolitan and colonial, in pleadings of war-orators to gaping cockneys, in versifyings of the convincingly "human boys" of Eden Phillpotts's story, and everywhere in colloquial give and take stalks frightfully "the Hun." Nor is this a mere tribal synonym, colorless and inaccurate, of "Teuton," as in Campbell's phrase, so dear to our boyhood, "furious Frank and fiery Hun," but a byword as connotative of barbarity and savagery as Alexandre's "Vandales" in his "Chansons pour les Poilus." "Smash the Hun!" As who should say, "Ecrasez l'infame!" Yet only he knows intimately the Hun of old tradition, grim Attila himself, in the dusty pages of the early historians, discriminating analysts of racial traits, Priscus and Jornandes, or in the lively chapters of that modern master, Thierry, can understandingly applaud the admirable aptness of the fifth-century name applied to the twentieth-century invader of Belgian Gaul and scourge of all the world. Altogether timely, then, are a few words anent Attila the Hun and his latest reincarnation.

"He is the tyrant of the world, aspiring to bend all people to his whim, making war without a quarrel, and thinking any crime allowed him, because his will is his only law. He measures his aims by the length of his arm, satisfying his pride by his lavish unrestraint. Without regard to or equity, he conducts himself as everybody's enemy; and therefore richly deserves the odium attaching to the common foe of all men. He seeks his goal, too, by snares and intrigues." So spoke, through his emissaries the Roman Emperor, soliciting Visigothic support against Attila. So, without the change of a single word, might any Entente statesman appeal for a powerful nation's aid against the modern Hun, scorner of everybody's rights, transgressor on neutral ground, and despoiler of weaker neighbors, plotter within the gates of friendly powers and instigator of "holy wars," legitimizer of criminal outrages against all mankind, madman running amuck in the world. Nor does the parallel end here, but assumes a more personal significance. The historical portrait of the leader of the Hunnish hordes finds readily its present counterpart. "He conveys everywhere the impression of a man born to shake the earth and to terrify all peoples. His step is haughty and his glances imperious. All his words and acts are marked by an emphasis the effect of which is carefully calculated. He threatens in frightful terms and overthrows enemies rather for the sake of destruction than of pillage, leaving thousands of unburied corpses as a warning to the living. The man of destiny, the imperial port, the "high astounding terms," the frightfulness of deed, all survive in our "natural foe of liberty." "The Hun is faithless and inconstant, recognizing as little as an animal what is honest or dishonest." Here one pauses to recall the shattered treaties, dishonored pledges, violated safe-conducts, lying promises of the present-day Hun. And when the old historian adds that "his language is obscure, tortuous, and filled with metaphors," one remembers with a grim chuckle the amazing weeds of rhetoric that flourished along the labyrinthine ways of the most ill-conceived and ill-worded sophistry that ever discredited a national propaganda. Said Carlyle to Norton of the preparation of his "Frederick the Great:" "It was good hard drudgery, siftin' mostly a monstrous accumulation o' lies. And o' all the nations, the German lies with most scrupulosity and detail." We understand now in the light of the Hunnish parallel.

This sinister parallel comprehends not only barbarous traits of past and present, but the very circumstance and setting of Hunnish crimes. In 451 A. D. Attila, seizing the pretext of a quarrel between two neighboring princes, decided to cross the Rhine and to invade Gaul. His diplomatic correspondence with the Roman Emperor, who sought to dissuade him, can be matched only by the German overtures to England in 1914. He urged the Romans not to interfere, quite as the modern Hun strove to seduce the English. "His quarrel was not with Rome, but with the Visigoths of Gaul, whose failure to observe faithfully their obligations was a perpetual menace and whose punishment therefore would redound to the good of the Roman Empire." At the same time he sought to lull the Visigothic king to a false security by chanting hate against the Roman alone. Meanwhile he was gathering his hosts, not only the Central Powers of that day; but the most hideous and ferocious representatives of Asia. Bulgarians, Hungarians, Turks (the very names!), treading on the heels of his soldiery, now made, as Thierry tells us, one step more toward Europe. "All the barbarian chiefs, with the eyes fixed upon Attila, awaited the least nod of his head, the slightest movement of his eyes; then they ran to take his orders and executed them without hesitation or protest." How does this differ from Hohenzollern mastery over attendant monarchs? Pillaging, desolating, setting villages aflame, the Hun passed into. Gaul and Belgium, his vast army occupying the land in all its length from the Jura Mountains to the ocean. Like his later field-gray self, he pleaded suavely with cities and kingdoms for entry or passage, but whether this was granted or denied him, he pressed onward, ever onward. To this overwhelming progress the Burgundians under their brave king, Gunther, worthy prototype of the Belgians under Albert, offered an opposition not altogether futile, as it saved precious time for the defenders of Gaul. Against the women, children, old men in their path, Attila's followers practiced cruelties rivalled only by the authenticated records of the Belgian Commission. Old, unhappy far-off things seemed strangely near, as we follow the track of that dreadful advance and mark uncanny coincidences with present horrors. From Metz Attila leads his forces to Rheims. More relevant in his early incarnation than in his later, the Hun spares the great Cathedral, but he makes martyrs then as now. The beautiful Eutropia, guilty only of protecting with a woman's weapons those dear to her, is murdered, leaving, like Edith Cavell, a saintly name to endure for ages. Laon and St. Quentin, storm-centres of to-day, are shattered by the earlier barbarians. Their curved helmets and scarred faces, persisting now in pickelhaube and schmarre, spread a terror that extends even to Paris, where the trembling inhabitants abandon hope so far as to make all preparations for a general exodus. But their guardian angel is kind, and the evil is turned aside.

Marching and counter-marching, the Hun is finally brought to bay by the Allies on Mauriac plain. Upon examining the map, one is startled to find that this plain is near Méry, almost in the Marne region, only a few miles to the south of Châlons which has given its name to the battle—the very vicinage of the barbarian's discomfiture, when he returned to earth some fifteen centuries later. Facing without confidence the issue, Attila took the arrogant tone, which so often of late has abused our patience. On the eve of the battle the Hun addressed his soldiers, quite in his present fashion, bidding them despise "the heterogeneous concourse of their enemies [Feinde ringsum!] whose reliance upon foreign support is an infallible sign of fear." He professes his scorn of the (contemptible little) army of the Romans, "weighed to earth even by the dust on their arms." "As Huns, give proof of your resolution and the strength of your weapons. Why should fortune [we are spared modern blasphemy] have made you conquerors of so many nations, if not to prepare you for the joys of this battle? This haphazard multitude cannot withstand for a moment the aspect of the Hun. I myself shall hurl the first javelin upon the enemy." That last burst of rampant egotism has the true, imperial ring. Fortunately for mankind, Attila's fears, not his vaunts, were confirmed on the morrow; and civilization, or what in that day passed as such, took the Hun by the throat and cast him out of Gaul, as it has throttled and thrown him back in his various recurrences, as Saracen at Tours, as Tartar at Bielawisch, as Turk at Lepanto, and, may we soon add, as Teuton on the Hindenburg line. There is a large measure of human comfort in the knowledge that the world has always proved too strong for the Hun.

Thus far the parallel between early Hun and late holds at every point. Now let it be frankly admitted that to press this farther would be grossly unfair to the Teuton and his Nietzschean philosophy of efficiency. The ruthlessness of the Scourge of God had its pitiful lapses from the master morality (Herrenmoral) of the Superman. The old historian tells us that "Attila was gentle to the submissive, clement to supplicants, generous to servants, considerate to subjects." All this, of course, is a flagrant breach of the modern Hun's gospel of hardness, which helps the weak and inoffensive by aiding them with true Dionysian charity to go to the wall, or to the bottom (if they are lying wounded and helpless on hospital ships). The "will to power" was strong in the older Barbarian, but, unhappily for its full fruition, he had not learned, as in his later manifestation, to be always the immoralist, the merciless machine. In wretched contrast to the rigid consistency of a von Bissing, recently gone to his mathematically fearful reckoning, Attila grants freely the petitions of more than one father of the church pleading for their flocks. How much more availing the intercessions of Lupus and Leo than those of Cardinal Mercier and the Vatican!

Such pliancy is sheer weakness, of course! The true masters recognize no law but their own advantage. Many years before this war the high prophet of aristocratic individualism reminded us who were groping on the low levels of the so-called slave-morality (Sklavenmoral) of quiet conformity to international obligations: "Against the stranger everything done is lawful—outrage, murder, pillage, torture; against him the nobles once more become magnificent beasts to prey; and they return from their sanguinary freaks in a joyful mood, their consciences at peace, fully convinced that they have carried out a glorious exploit worthy to be sung by the poets." Ignobly susceptible to the meanly conventional appeals of pity, gentleness, benevolence, we, the despised, listen all agape to Nietzsche's splendid tribute in his "Genealogy of Morals" to "the audacity of the noble races...their indifference to and contempt for security, life, and happiness, their ineffable serenity of soul, their profound delight in destruction, victory, and cruelty." The old Hun, confessing a few of our human weaknesses of heart, which bar the way of true mastery, is intelligible to our abject minds until his present tremendous manifestation of frightfulness unashamed and unalloyed.

Nor is this manifestation in any way accidental. By the Zarathustrian law of Eternal Return (whatever may be the meaning of that abominable fustian), Attila has come to live and reign among the people who for centuries have honored him in song and story. The Hun, condemned and rejected by those "blonde beasts," the Saxons and Scandinavians, as a monstrous exponent of barefaced power, has been accepted and enthroned by the Central and Southern Germans in their national epos. The "Nibelungen-Lied" glorifies Attila as an ideal king who kept out of war for a number of years (like the present "prince of peace" candidate for the Nobel Prize), environed though he was by his ruthless Recken or Junkers. From their valiant deeds he derives large lustre, but for their fatally cruel blunders he must not be blamed—this reasoning is still painfully familiar. Admit that he massacred within his own gates close kinsmen relying upon his safe conduct, he is shielded from all reproach by the yet serviceable device of shifting the responsibility to his victims. In his present avatar the Hun vaunts with all the old persistence his traditional superhumanity and immunity.

Thus the Hun again lives and rules along the Rhine and the Danube, dominant, imperial, but not, we hope, irresistible. It cannot be that everywhere, even in that German land of "blood and iron," his ideal is cherished and exalted. So to say would indeed be to "bring an indictment against a whole people." What of that happy company of folk, with whom one watched the incoming of spring on a Thuringian hillside, all eyes fixed on the old Wartburg in the joy of its young green, all ears ringing with the echoes of the rapturous May lyric in "Tannhäuser"—such comfortable bürgerliche Leute? Has the darkening shadow of the Hun fallen across those kindly hearts flooded with song and sentiment? And what of that learned band of pundits who held high feast at Weimar on Shakespeare's birthday, and alternately laughed and wept, as loudly as only German professors can, over the pranks of Autolycus and the woes of Hermione? These men loved England and English thoughts and speech. Did all of them subscribe, I wonder, to the Hunnish policy of frightfulness? And where now are those high-bred boys of the Berlin days, corps-brethren of Rhenania, so courteous and cordial to their foreign guest at many a Kneipe and Mensur? Some of them, I remember, had gentle, girlish faces, marred, of course, by a scar or two. Are all these gallant youngsters leaders of Hunnish legions, burning, pillaging, ravishing in the cause of the Superman? If all this sunshine of spirit, in which some of us once delighted, has been turned to midnight blackness or, at best, to deceptive twilight, then the havoc that the Hun, in his latest incarnation, has wrought among the bodies and belongings of men everywhere is far less pitiful than the hell-gloom into which he has plunged the souls of his chosen people.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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