The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 4

The Northern Newt

Not many years after the first newt colonies had been settled in the North Sea and the Baltic a German scientist, Dr. Hans Thüring, found that the Baltic newt had certain distinctive physical features - clearly as a result of its environment; that it was somewhat lighter in colour, it walked on two legs, and its cranial index indicated a skull that was longer and narrower than other newts. This variety was given the name Northern Newt or Noble Newt (Andrias Scheuchzeri var. nobilis erecta Thüring).

The German press took this Baltic newt as its own, and enthusiastically stressed that it was because of its German environment that this newt had developed into a different and superior sub-species, indisputably above the level of any other salamander. Journalists wrote with contempt of the degenerate newts of the Mediterranean, stunted both physically and mentally, of the savage newts of the tropics and of the inferior, barbaric and bestial newts of other nations. The slogan of the day was From the Great Newt to the German Übernewt. And what had been the origin of all the latter day newts on German soil? Had its glorious miocene skull not been found in Öhningen by the learned German Doctor Johannes Jakob Scheuchzer? There was therefore not the slightest doubt that the original Andrias Scheuchzeri had had its origin in the geological past on German soil; its migration to other seas and climatic zones was something it had had to pay for with its decline and degeneration; but as soon as it found itself back on the soil of its homeland it once again became what it had been in the past: the noble northern Scheuchzer Newt, light in colour, erect in gait and long in skull. It was only on German soil that newts could return to their pure and highest form, such as it had been found by the great Johannes Jakob Scheuchzer from the impression in the quarry at Öhningen. This was why Germany needed new and longer shores, it needed colonies, it needed the seas of the world so that a new generation of racially pure, original German salamanders could develop in German waters. We need new living room for our newts, wrote the German newspapers; and so that this fact was always present to the German eyes a grand memorial to Johannes Jakob Scheuchzer was set up in Berlin. The great doctor was depicted with a thick book in his hand; at his sits the erect and noble Nordic newt, gazing into the distance towards the boundless shores of the worlds oceans. There was, of course, a celebratory speech given at the unveiling of this national monument, and it attracted the attention of newspapers all around the world. A New Threat from Germany, asserted, in particular, the press in England. We have become used to this sort of tone but if, on an official occasion such as this, we are told that Germany is in need of five thousand kilometres of new coastline within three years we have to choice but to give a clear response: Just You Try It! See what happens if you encroach on British shores. We are prepared, and in three years time we will be even better prepared. England must have - and will have - a navy as large as the two biggest continental powers put together; this relation of power cannot ever be changed. Anyone who wishes to unleash an insane arms race in naval weaponry is welcome to try; no Briton will ever allow his country to fall a single step behind.

“We accept the challenge laid down by the Germans,” declared the first lord of the admiralty, Sir Francis Drake, in parliament and speaking on behalf of the government. “Whoever tries to lay a hand on any of the worlds oceans will have to find himself facing the might of our ships. The British Empire is strong enough to repel any assault on its outposts or the shores of its colonies and dominions. The construction of new land, island, fortress or airbase in any sea will be considered an attack of this sort if its waves wash onto coastline under British dominion, however tiny. Let this be the last warning to anyone who might wish to change the outline of the world’s seas, even if by no more than a yard.” In response, parliament allowed the construction of new warships at a preliminary cost of half a million pounds sterling. It was indeed an impressive response to the construction of the provocative memorial to Johannes Jakob Scheuchzer in Berlin; this memorial had cost no more than twelve thousand reichsmark.

The outstanding French publicist, the Marquis de Sade, who was always well informed, responded to this speech in this way: The British first lord of the admiralty declares that Great Britain is ready for any eventuality. That is all well and good, but is the noble lord aware that Germany has a standing army of heavily armed newts in the Baltic, currently comprising five million professional salamander soldiers, who are ready to engage in military action at any time on land or sea? On top of that must be considered the seventeen million newts engaged in technical and supportive functions who act as a reserve and are ready, at any time, to become an army of occupation? The Baltic salamander is presently the greatest soldier in the world; trained to the perfect mentality, it sees war is its proper vocation and the most noble; it enters every battle with the enthusiasm of a fanatic, with cool technical planning and the awful discipline of Prussia.

And is the British First Lord of the Admiralty moreover aware that Germany is frantically building new transport ships, any one of which can carry a whole brigade of warrior salamanders? Is he aware that hundreds and hundreds of small submarines are being built with a range of three to five thousand kilometres and whose crew will consist of Baltic newts?  Is he aware that gigantic underwater fuel depots are being established in various places? So now, let us ask the question once again: can the British citizen be certain that his great country really is well prepared for any eventuality?

It is not difficult to imagine, the Marquis de Sade continued, what a difference could be made to the outcome the next war by newts blockading the coasts and equipped with underwater howitzers, mortars and torpedoes; by my faith, this is the first time in history that no-one need envy the English in their splendid isolation surrounded by water. And while we are addressing these questions: is the British admiralty aware also that the Baltic newts are equipped with a new, normally peaceful, apparatus called the pneumatic drill which is capable of drilling ten metres deep into the best Swedish granite in an hour and can penetrate fifty or sixty metres deep into English chalk in the same time? (This was ascertained by secret experiments carried out at night by the German technical expedition on the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth of last month on the English coast between Hythe and Folkestone right under the nose of Dover Castle.) I suggest that our friends across the channel calculate for themselves how many weeks it would take for Kent or Essex to be drilled through below sea level like a piece of Swiss cheese. Until now, the Englishman on his island has always looked anxiously to the horizon as the place from which any harm to his flourishing cities, his Bank of England or his warm cottage, so cosy in its evergreen coat of ivy, might come. But now he had better put his ear to the ground where his children are playing: might he not hear, maybe today, maybe tomorrow, a digging and a scraping as, step by step, the newts with these tireless and fearsome drills grind their way deeper to create the paths for laying hitherto unknown explosives. The last word of the age we live in is not war in the air, it is war beneath the water and the land. We have heard the self confident words from the commanders of proud Albion; the ship of Albion today is still a vessel of great power, borne on the waves and master of them; but there might come a day when the waves will close over a vessel that has been broken and send it down to the depths of the ocean. Would it not be better to face this danger sooner rather than later? Within three years it will be too late!

The Marquis de Sade was a brilliant publicist, and his warning caused great consternation in England; despite all the denials, people in every part of England were able to hear the newts drilling into the ground beneath their feet. Officials in Germany, of course, issued a categorical denial and repudiated the Marquis’ speech, declaring that from start to finish it was no more than provocation and hostile propaganda; at the same time, however, combined manoeuvres were taking place in the Baltic involving the German navy, land forces and warrior newts; squads of sapper newts, in full view of foreign military attachés, under-drilled and blew up six square kilometres of sand dunes near Rügenwald. It was said to be a wonderful spectacle when, with a terrifying roar, the ground rose up and an enormous wall of steam, sand and tree trunks flew skywards; it became as dark as night, and the sand that had been thrown up was scattered over a radius of nearly fifty kilometres, even as far away as Warsaw there was still a sandy rain falling several days later. This enormous explosion left so much fine sand and dust suspended in the atmosphere that all through the rest of that year the sunsets throughout Europe were exceptionally beautiful, coloured a bloody red, and fiery like never before. The sea created after this piece of coast had been blown away was later given the name the Scheuchzer See, and it was the destination for countless school trips for German children singing their favourite newt anthem, Solche Erfolche erreichen nur deutsche Molche.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34