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3 August 2021

From the NS archive: A Prayer for the Führer

10 and 24 June 1939: A poem and a heartfelt response in the face of Nazi atrocities

By New Statesman

In June 1939, Brian Howard, a poet who is thought to be the model for Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, wrote a poem for the New Statesman in which he imagined numberless oppressed people yearning for the death of Hitler. Two weeks later, the magazine published a response on its correspondence pages from a letter writer who signed himself simply “A Refugee Boy”. The boy, aged 17, showed himself to be both devout and contemplative. He had reason to hate Hitler – he himself had been driven out of Germany, his family ruined and sent to concentration camps – but he could not bring himself to pray for the tyrant’s death. He offered too a recipe for others in his situation – the best poetry, the choicest paintings, a dose of nature. It may have seemed a naïve and simplistic response but it was undoubtedly from the heart.

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A Prayer for the Führer

In happy America, on the useless roads of Europe, in thousands of small, far streets,
In ditches, in prisons, in hundreds of thousands of furnished rooms,
There lives a silent, separated people, with a few pennies, and no plan.
A father without a child, say, or a lost sister,
Or a soldier, or just an unknown, furious old man.
Their two hands grind together every night, and again in the warning morning
As they kneel on the carpet, grass, stone; as they’ve knelt since it all began,
And their fingers crack like the prophecy of shooting.
Their eyes burst with tears, and liquid sounds burst through their breath.
They are saying their prayers. Their prayers are for your death.

Brian Howard

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Sir, Last night I was sitting in the grass of a small garden in a Berkshire town, after a rather bleak and very English afternoon, and watched the sun which had appeared but for a few moments from behind the clouds, as he was already setting again after the brief period of warmth and pleasure it had given to us, and there came into my mind some lines from Wordsworth:

And I have felt,
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something, far more deeply interfused
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns…

And I pondered over this passage, especially as I had just read Mr Brian Howard’s poem in your paper. I reread it while the sun sank behind the White Horse Hills, and here are some of the thoughts I had, some making me smile and some weep. I am a refugee, stranded on this country’s hospitable shores two years ago, and living on charity ever since. When I left my native country, beloved above all others I know, I was a boy of 15 years, who had passed what are perhaps the most exciting and sensitive years of life in Germany, and I had experienced the complete ruin of a once very prosperous family, the loss of values which meant everything to a fanatic and romantic boy, who had put up open resistance against all that was so wrong, whose relations had suffered agonies in concentration camps, whose parents had been subjected to the most devilish treatment while he was already abroad and unable to help.

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I am still a complete foreigner, I do not know what the next day will bring, I face a very miserable future. And Mr Howard assumes that because of all this I kneel down in the grass at night and pray for Hitler’s death. He is wrong about me and most other refugees. I have reminiscences which should make me hate.

That time is past
And all its aching joys are now no more
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I nor murmur, other gifts
Have followed, for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on Nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt…  

Wordsworth again. And he is right. I have learnt during the past years what values are eternal and what values ephemeral. This is no vain boasting, under the influence of continued and strong lasting experiences, I have learnt to despise many comforts. Hitler and his Germany are ephemeral. I pray at night, but not for their death, for such a prayer would not be in agreement with my religious views, which command me to pardon even this sinner, and moreover, since he is not eternal, he must disappear sooner or later. I pray for the souls of those who are misguided, those who are afflicted in mind and body. That embraces murderer and victim. When I see in a vision those who are still suffering in Germany, I often wonder if they might not admire the sunset too, for that is still left to them as it is to me. I ought to hate Hitler, I know, but I cannot. Perhaps even he might watch the scene from the “Berghof” at Berchtesgaden, and might have more human thoughts.

May I give an advice to the refugees (if there are any) to whom Mr Howard apparently dedicates his poem? That they should force themselves to come to the same conclusions as I have done, by comparatively simple and quite cheap methods. A copy of Wordsworth, or, for that matter, any one of the language’s great poets, is available I am sure without great difficulty, and a walk on your local downs, or on the common, or along the river, are something you ought to be able to afford. These things, perhaps combined with a few pictures in the great galleries, will between them be comprehensive enough to enable you to build up an entire new life on this basis, and a far more beautiful life than the one you used to lead. This poetry does not include the modern dynamic outbursts in so-called lyrical pieces, nor Mr Howard’s lines (though I am in no way unaware of and though I greatly appreciate their undoubted merit as a piece of verse) nor do the pictures include modern problem paintings and surrealist puzzles.

Yes, Mr Howard, there is a world, even amongst refugees, which has nothing to do with hatred for Hitler, but love for real values. And when I had thus addressed a sermon lying in the grass, the sun had disappeared. But a faint glow remained for some time on the horizon, and I think I was neither ridiculous nor insincere (as Mr Howard would probably allege me to be) when I folded my hands, and prayed that God may preserve in me the greatest gift he has given me ever: that I might further be allowed to see the things in life that are essential, even though hunger and idleness might drive me mad: and Hitler’s death is not one of the essentials.

A Refugee Boy

​***

[Mr Brian Howard writes: I most certainly do not think of “A Refugee Boy” as either ridiculous or insincere. On the contrary, I find his attitude admirable, and, in the case of a contemplative nature, wise. My poem was intended solely as an expression of indignation at sufferings which I myself have not endured, but which have crippled the lives of many of my friends. And when they dream of the extinction of what has now become the most powerful source of evil in the world, I dream with them.

Another year! – another deadly blow!
Another mighty Empire overthrown!
And We are left, or shall be left, alone;
The last that dare to struggle with the foe.
’Tis well! from this day forward we shall know
That in ourselves our safety must be sought;
That by our own right hands it must be wrought;
That we must stand unpropped, or be laid low.

Wordsworth wrote that, too.]