September 1, 1939 is now called the day when World War II started.
It was the day when German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler ordered his Nazi troops to invade neighboring Poland. He claimed it was an act of self defense, necessary to protect German citizens and the territorial rights of Germany.
“Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes,” Hitler said, in a proclamation he issued that day. “The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier. In order to put an end to this frantic activity no other means is left to me now than to meet force with force.”
Nobody could know at the time that this was the beginning of what would be a horrific worldwide conflict in which 60 million people would die.
But many people who heard the ominous news recognized it as the start of something bad.
British author and poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) was in New York when he heard about it. It led him to write a famous poem about his thoughts that day.
The poem was initially titled “September: 1939,” but changed to “September 1, 1939” when it was first published in New Republic magazine on October 18, 1939.
One line in this poem became a familiar and oft-used quotation: “We must love one another or die.”
It comes at the end of the next to last verse:
“All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.”
“September 1, 1939” is an eloquent condemnation of totalitarian governments and war; a plea for human empathy and peace.
Soon after being published, it became famous. But Auden himself soon decided it was sappy and self-indulgent, calling it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written.”
By the 1950s, he began refusing to allow it to be reprinted in poetry anthologies.
The poem — especially the line “We must love one another or die” — remain famous nonetheless.
NOTE: A version of Auden’s famed line was infamously used in Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy” ad.
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