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In times of transition

Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)
Torgny Segerstedt,1940. Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)

Published on 12 October 1940 in the column IDAG in Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning (GHT).

Sometimes you can't get rid of a sentence or a line of poetry. The words ring persistently in your ears. It's as if they emanate from invisible transmitters:

"Fathers die, kinsmen die, one I know never dies, the judgment of dead men."

"Judgment on dead man." There may be a lot in that word. Perhaps the expression is a reflection of the Christian notion of eternal punishment. Perhaps something else is meant. As words go, they have their profound meaning, without all the subtle interpretations.

"Fathers die, kinsmen die, one I know never dies, the judgment of dead men."

In times of rupture, when the spotlight relentlessly illuminates those who act on the stage, their true proportions become apparent. The thoughts of many hearts are revealed, it is said, when the sword of anguish passes through men. Small souls, the withered, the fearful, can cover their weakness under calm conditions. Though the sharp-eyed have perceived the faults, they are not universally manifest. The weak play the part which their position imposes on them without being revealed. They are honoured, envied, die and receive their runes, are buried and receive their tombs. The stream of time flows on. They are forgotten. The herons of oblivion take their memory under the shadow of their wings. They may have thought themselves great boxes; they are gathered together with all the other nameless ones. That is the judgment of dead men.

When the storm passes over the world, the actors do not escape so lightly. Lightning illuminates the scene and its blue-white light exposes what would otherwise benefit from the gloomy day. Then it is noticed how the mediocrities fall short, then it becomes apparent whether the man is grown up to his task or not. The fate of a people may depend on the moral strength of its agents, on the firmness of its character. It is not only the intelligence of the man that must be commensurate with his task, it is his character. He who fails and betrays cannot excuse himself by saying that he did the best he could. The excuse cannot be accepted. The icy silence that meets all defensive speeches is the verdict of a dead man. It would read in words: why did you not give up the job to others? It is an honest thing not to be able. It is not an honest thing to cling to a task one cannot do. It may concern immeasurable values, the welfare of a people, the future living conditions of the family. It is not only their external living conditions that are at stake. It may be the soul of a people that is lost. What is the soul of a people, ask those who seek escape. Alas, these foolish men, who base their pretensions to be realistic and wise, on following the precepts of fear, and sacrificing all that has to do with freedom of spirit and mind for something material, which they thereby also forfeit. They let everything that gives life lustre and meaning perish - and write their epitaph: he was the misfortune of his people.

One thing I know that never dies: the judgment of dead men. The tribute will testify how those who, in stormy times, did their people harm. No extenuating circumstances, no excuses will be accepted in the court of history. The question that falls is this: why did you assume a responsibility when you were not adults? You did not shrink from the knowledge that millions of people would suffer for every wrong which your fearfulness led you to commit. You dared not strain the cord for fear that it would break. In the end, the string was too slack to be tightened. Looseness is the gravest rust of a people.

One thing I know that never dies: the judgment of dead men.

Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordic Museum (CC BY-NC-ND)

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