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  • Yehoshua Paul

1936 - War with the Newts

1936. Hitler violates the Versailles and Locarno treaties and sends German forces into the Rhineland, a move which shifts the balance of power in Europe away from France and its allies towards Germany, which can now behave even more aggressively. The major world powers are pretty okay with this. France is not willing to pay the economic cost of mobilizing its army, and instead secures a vague military commitment from the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom, thinks that the restrictions imposed on Germany were unjust to begin with, and anyway they really can’t afford to do anything at the moment. Belgium decides to remain neutral. Poland assures France that it will mobilize its forces after the French army mobilizes its own first. The United States are definitely not going to get involved in another European mess, and adopt a “hands off” policy. The Soviet Union publicly denounces the German move, and then signs a commercial treaty to expand German-Soviet trade. And the League of Nations? Due to economic dependence, and the effects of the Great Depression, the only country to vote in favor of sanctions is the Soviet Union – the country that spent most of the 1920s rearming Germany.

Germany’s neighbors are nervous. The country has already openly torpedoed the World Disarmament Conference, withdrawn from the League of Nations, signed a non-aggression pact with Mussolini, signed the Anti-Comintern pact with Japan, and begun drafting German boys from age 10 into the Hitler Youth (Seriously? Who does that!). It’s no secret that Hitler wants to expand his territory. In 1935, he annexed the Saarland, admittedly after a referendum, and sent all the opponents to his regime, who were hiding there, to a prison. Austria and the Sudetenland know they are next on the list, and it looks as though the great world powers are willing to let Hitler have his way if it will improve their relations with Germany. So yes, people are nervous. They’re less than happy with where their future is going, and they need to find ways to cope. In Karel Čapek’s case, this meant writing War with the Newts and becoming public enemy number two of the Nazi regime.

Hitler youth at rifle practice (1943)

Karel Čapek (1890-1938) was a Czech writer, playwright and critic, best known for his science fiction writing, and being the brother of the person who invented the word “Robot”. Čapek was a strong proponent of pragmatic liberalism who campaigned for freedom of speech, and openly opposed the rise of Fascism, Communism and Nazism in Europe. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature seven times, an honor he never managed to receive. However, after he died several awards were established in his name, such as the annual Karel Čapek Prize granted by the Czech PEN Club to literary work that contributes towards reinforcing or maintaining democratic and humanist values in society.

Čapek’s writing is characterized by intelligence and humor, and his work is best known for its unique and interesting way of describing reality. He wrote in Czech, and together with his contemporaries, brought about a literary revival in that language. Čapek also helped popularize science fiction before it became a widely recognized genre, and much of his work examines the ethical aspects of the inventions already being widely predicted by the genre, such as nuclear weapons and intelligent artificial beings. Čapek also used his writing to express his fear of the logical outcomes of the behaviors of modern human societies, which can be seen in dictatorships, violence, human stupidity, the unlimited power of corporations, and greed. And, while the logical outcome of most of these things tends to be depressing, Čapek still strove where possible to look for hope. These fears are expressed in War with the Newts, a satirical dystopia he wrote in an era where fears of Nazis were openly ridiculed by those who thought better trade relations with Germany would bring about world peace.

The novel is divided into three parts, or books, and tells how the discovery of an intelligent sea dwelling race of newts in the Pacific, reshapes human society across the globe, bringing about the eventual downfall of our species. In “Book one – Andrias Scheuchzeri”, the adventurous Captain J. van Toch, discovers the Newts on a remote island, where natural barriers kept them confined, and they are frequently suffering from attacks by predatory sharks. Captain Van Toch, realizing the Newts potential for pearl farming, trades them knives and shark guns in exchange for pearls, and then heads back to Prague, where he persuades a Jewish businessman, Mr. Bondy, to help him free the Newts from their natural confines in exchange for using them as pearl farmers. Mr. Bondy agrees, and his ships help spread the rapidly breeding Newts around the world where they are used as pearl divers. At this point in time, the Newts are perceived as an advanced form of animal and treated as such. They are the subject of much disagreement in the scientific community, and treated as objects of fascination and scorn by pretty much everyone else who view them as basically harmless.

In “Book Two – Up the Ladder of Civilization” human civilization is slowly coming to grip with the Newts. The Newts are now being used for advanced coastal and water constructions, such as reshaping islands, receiving an education and more advanced equipment, and even being used by the militaries of various countries. International agreements need to be negotiated, regulations need to be put in place, and in the meantime the Newts are breeding even faster to the point where they outnumber humanity, which is great because it means the Newts can do even more work.

“Book Three – the War with the Newts” tells the story of the inevitable conflict between the rapidly growing Newt population and the human nations. The seas and coastal enclaves are now too confining so the Newts led by a Hitler-like “Chief Salamander” demand that they be given the continents to demolish, and form into bays and islands where the Newts can continue to breed. Chief Salamander promises to not harm any humans, claims he is being reasonable, offers gold in trade, and sends his human lawyers to negotiate appeasement – for the betterment of humanity. I’ll let you figure out how the novel ends.

Fossil of the extinct giant salamander Andrias scheuchzeri, the basis for Čapek's newts

The Omer today is kindness in foundation. In War with the Newts, kindness ends up threatening the literal foundations the world is resting on. The decision to remove the Newts from their tiny island, may have been motivated out of kindness, but the logical outcome of that move was not pretty. Of course, in this case the kindness was tempered by a very heavy dose of human greed for Newt pearl farmers, which later became Newt construction workers and Newt cannon fodder – and this probably affected the relations between the species. Would things have been any better if the Newts had been left alone on their tiny island in Sumatra to continue suffering from predatory sharks? I don’t know, I don’t think even Čapek knows. All I can say is that Captain Van Toch’s kindness/greed ended up costing humanity their continents, and that’s something we should think about the next time there is an opportunity to arm a new intelligent species we plan on using as a cheap source of labor.