The incurable optimists who feel called upon to find a saving virtue in every evil and in every loss a compensation have been comforting the world since the outbreak of the great war with the assurance that the nations of Europe would arise purified and ennobled from the ashes of the war's destruction. It is not difficult to share this hope, but it gives its little comfort if we have any sense of proportion and are able to see what the individual is paying for a possible ultimate gain to the nations. We cannot help but think of the thousands of graves on the countrysides of Europe that are mute testimonies to the tragedy of individual life as revealed in this war, when we are asked to accept these optimistic assurances. The heroes and victims will not arise from their graves, though Europe may rise from its destruction.
This war presents a tragic climax to a pathetic history of individual life in its relation to the nation. The history is a pathetic one because the individual has held a pitiful place in society from the very beginning. The race has never had an adequate appreciation of his unique worth, and has always been too ready to claim his loyalty for petty ends. In primitive society the individual owned no property that the tribe could not claim, and he dared no action that its customs did not sanction. His life was valuable only in so far as it could be used to realize tribal and national ambitions. Since primitive society lacked the direction of public opinion, these ambitions were dictated by the caprice of the rulers. Whether the ruler was a tribal chieftain, racial king, builder of empires, or feudal lord, he sacrificed the individual's life in any venture or adventure to which he was prompted by his jealousy or avarice, his pride or passion. No cause was too petty to be advanced by blood; no price in human values too high to be paid for its advancement. History is not lacking in national ventures that can be morally justified, but on the whole it presents a dismal succession of petty jealousies, often more personal than national, of cheap ambition and unrighteous pride, all of which claimed the individual as a victim.
To this history of individual life this war is a tragic climax, because it convinces us that the forces of history have not favored individual life as much as we thought. Before the war there was a general tendency to regard the moral weaknesses and injustices of nationalism as relics of primitive days which the forces of modern civilization were gradually overcoming and eliminating. But the war has taught us that the nationalism of to-clay is distinctly modern in some of its aspects, in its faults as well as in its virtues.
To begin with, the nation has never been so powerful as it is now. Two forces have contributed to its power. One is the rise of racial self-consciousness which began with the fall of the Roman Empire, or, to be more exact, with the disintegration of the Empire of Charlemagne. The development of nations upon the basis of racial unity proceeded slowly during the Middle Ages, hampered as it was by the power of feudal lords and by the custom of dividing a kingdom among all the heirs of the king. Nevertheless, racial solidarity gradually became the basis of political power. Among the nations of today Germany is perhaps the best example of national power based on racial solidarity. It is not an empire of peoples, and, popular opinion notwithstanding, it seems not to cherish the imperial ideal; it feels that its power is derived from the intense self-consciousness of a single race. That is more or less true of all modern nations, although most of them control several minor races without absorbing them.
The other, and even more potent, cause of modern nationalism is the advance of democracy. There is a peculiar irony in this fact. Democracy, we rejoiced to believe, favored the individual. It is indeed based upon a greater appreciation of personal and individual values, and has resulted in their development. But, although it may have espoused the cause of the individual, it has strengthened the power of the race with even greater success. The democratic tendencies of modern history have done more to free the race from the tyranny and caprice of its rulers than to free the individual from exploitation by the race. They have taken the supreme power of history out of the hands of the few and lodged it with the many, but they have done less to secure the liberty of the one against the power of the many. Democracy has trodden in the paths of constitutionalism and constitutionalism gives stability to the state. A government established upon law and deriving its power from the people is naturally more stable than were the governments that lived by the power and fell with the weakness of individual rulers. Its power to exploit the individual is correspondingly enhanced.
The accumulation of national debts is a striking example of this development. Primitive states would not have dared to make unborn generations responsible for stupendous national debts in the making of which they had no part. They refrained from this policy of modern states, not because they had more conscience but because they possessed less power. They lacked the credit to amass large debts. When constitutions did not fix the order and mode of succession, kings could not guarantee the payment of debts by their successors and therefore quit fighting when their exchequer was empty. The enormous national debts of today are obviously by-products of constitutionalism. The stability of modern governments is making the nation more powerful than it has ever been in history. There was a time when other communities disputed the nation's claim to the loyalty of the individual. In the Middle Ages the church, the empire, and the fief competed with the nation for supremacy; and in more recent times the class tried to establish itself as the ultimate community. But when this war broke out, class consciousness, so carefully nurtured before the war, was impotent before the passion of patriotism and the superior organization of the nation. The ruthless manner in which the belligerent nations have been able to suppress opinions that differed from the national policy, arouses the suspicion that the latter is a more potent factor in modern nationalism than the former.