The Dangers of War in Europe

JANUARY, 1913

BY GUGLIELMO FERRERO

I

IF one among the many liberal statesmen and thinkers who, during the first half of the nineteenth century, suffered and struggled for the destruction of the absolutism which ruled the old world, were to-day permitted to revisit the earth, what a surprise would be in store for him!

A permanent peace was the precious gift promised to the nations by those writers and philosophers who, during the century just past, strove to shift authority from the Court to the Parliament, from the King to the People, and whose aim it was to subject government to supervision by a free press, and by a strong and enlightened public opinion. It was a cardinal point of their philosophy that the wars which desolated Europe during the second half of the seventeenth century were brought about by ambitious rulers, jealous courtiers, and intriguing ministers, the more inclined to waste the blood and treasure of the people, since the latter could not protest, much less struggle. Therefore, when the day should come that the people, fitted for self-government, should assume the right to oversee, criticise, and advise the government, it was argued that they would no longer intrust their most vital interests to an absolute monarch and an aristocracy trained to the use of arms, nor would they allow kings and courts to squander their blood and treasure to satisfy royal caprices and a senseless thirst for glory. War, then, would become more and more rare; for a spirit of aggression and conquest is not characteristic of free peoples. They would consent to it only in order to defend themselves against those nations, still under the bondage of tyrants, which were led against their will into offensive warfare. Liberty, parliamentary institutions, and peace, these would be the fruits of a single tree which all Europe would garner at the same time.

It is now about fifty years since all the European states, Russia excepted, came of age and acquired the right to express their will and criticise the policy of their governments. For better or worse, representative institutions, in one form or another, have taken root in nearly all the countries of Europe, and carry forward their work, even if slowly. Peace, therefore, according to the prophecies of the doctrinaire liberals of 1848, should reign throughout Europe by the will and authority of the people and in despite of bellicose governments and rulers, ceaselessly in search of adventure, both by virtue of ancient tradition, and on account of their education and their inheritance.

Such was the expectation. What of the realization? On every hand we see governments and kings struggling against their people and against public opinion. It is the people who are fired with a desire for war, while their governments, together with their sovereigns, devoted to the preservation of peace, resist as long as they can the pressure of public opinion, even at the risk of losing that popularity for which they so eagerly strive.

Last year, Italy gave the world a singular example of this phenomenon. It is no secret that the government and the King were very reluctant to undertake the conquest of Tripoli. The difficulty of finding a decent pretext for declaring war on Turkey; the expense and manifold dangers of such an expedition; the solicitude not to disturb the economic and political equilibrium of internal affairs, attained after so much labor; the great uncertainty as to the value of the territory to be conquered, j ustly gave the government pause. It is even said in Rome that the King defined Tripoli as ‘the dry leaf of Africa.’ I am unable to testify to this, for rumors are always rife in regard to important matters and it is impossible to verify them. Certain it is, however, that even if the phrase attributed to the King is one that he never uttered or even dreamed of, the words remain an eloquent proof of the existence, in high circles, of hesitation and misgiving in the face of the responsibility of such an ent erprise. And, indeed, the Italian government would have been unworthy of ruling the destinies of a great nation if it had not hesitated before the dangers and uncertainties of an undertaking whose outcome was problematical. Regardless of its own desire, however, the government was forced to overcome its hesitation and yield unwillingly to the pressure brought to bear upon it by the people.

Those who were in Italy during the summer of 1911 witnessed the following extraordinary phenomenon. Within the space of a few weeks, in the midst of European peace, a quiet, thrifty, industrious people, accustomed to the comforts, conveniences, and safeguards of modern civilization, a people whose country had been spared the horrors of war for forty-five years, and for whom, therefore, war was as the memory of some distant historical event, some revolution, or famine, — this people suddenly burst forth into such a blaze of militant excitement that the government was reduced to choosing between the alternatives of satisfying it and of succumbing to it. The war in Tripoli was made by the people and those newspapers which were the people’s organs, and so great was their combined eagerness that the conservative and monarchical papers even went so far as to upbraid the King because of his supposed hesitation and reluctance, and openly reminded him that nowadays the sovereign is but the servant of the people, and that when the people demand war he must satisfy them; or, if he lack courage, why then he may abdicate!

The Italio-Turkish War in Tripoli has brought about a great Balkan war. Bulgaria, Servia, Greece, and Montenegro are engaged in a concerted attack upon Turkey. Their armies are realizing a victorious campaign. At the moment of writing the European powers are in a state of great uneasiness. If the rulers of the four states alone were the arbiters of the situation Europe might rest easy. The governments understand perfectly that the Balkan war, just now, may let loose such a storm as to be a great present danger, whatever its ultimate result, to those smaller states not always on the best terms with one another. But in Servia, Greece, Bulgaria, even in Montenegro, it is not governments alone, but parliaments and newspapers, which express the will of the people. It is the people who demand war. While the government hesitated, they accused it of cowardice, and restively awaited the order for mobilization. From the outset their impatience was so great, and so publicly expressed, that the governments dared not oppose it, openly relying solely upon a temporizing policy. Throughout Europe it was no secret that these would have to give in sooner or later.

The most typical case of present-day conditions is, perhaps, that of the German Emperor. When William II ascended the throne, Europe expected nothing less than to see a new Barbarossa burst into the arena of European politics. Strange legends were current about him: some said he had sworn never to drink a glass of champagne until Champagne should be annexed to the German Empire; others, that his one ambition was to cover his name with glory, and that his warlike aspirations were boundless. This was common talk, and the newspapers of the day printed it. Twenty-four years later the Emperor could boast, as he did not long ago to a French friend of mine, alluding to the Morocco incident and the crisis of 1905, ‘History will recognize that Europe owes her peace to me.’ And history will, doubtless, recognize this pacific disposition of his in the future more than his people do now. For the past few years the German Emperor has not been so popular as he was during the first ten years of his reign. The reasons would be too many to give here, but one is his constant and determined pacific policy. He has invariably tried to reconcile himself with France rather than to seek occasion for another war. On this account a portion of his people accuse him of loving peace overmuch and therefore of following a weak and vacillating policy, letting slip opportunities which might never present themselves again.

So in Germany, the sovereign, Hohenzollern though he be, loves peace more than his people, whose criticism of him is that he will not squander their blood and treasure, but wishes, at all costs, to save the one and the other.

II

Such, more or less accurately, is the situation in all the European states; a paradoxical situation, unforeseen, and full of danger. The international balance of power, which it must ever be remembered is, in Europe, the result of weary centuries of effort and struggle, may at any moment be threatened by one of those ‘heat-waves’ which pass over nations, and which, even if they do not bring about a general war, oblige governments to increase military expenditure to a ruinous extent. What are the causes of this condition of affairs, and how can it be explained?

The inexperience of a generation which has never seen a war, and the innate, inherited tendencies of the populace, are certainly among the causes which underlie this condition. In the nineteenth century, Europe expected too much from the progress of democracy and the natural proclivities of the masses. As the masses have gradually acquired consciousness of themselves, and gained a certain influence in the state, it appears clearly that they are more conservative, more faithful to tradition, more tenacious of ancient ways of thought, more like the generations which preceded them, than the poets and philosophers and reformers of the nineteenth century gave them credit for being. Revolutionary ideas, novel sentiments which are to change the character of a civilization, spread more easily in those small aristocracies which are endowed with broad culture and accustomed to the world and society, than they do among a populace confined within a narrow circle of experiences, and fearful of doing what its grandfathers and great-grandfathers never did. Now in the history of the world war is as old as man himself; and peace, a lasting peace, as the normal condition of the life of a people, is the painful and recent acquisition of our modern civilization. War, therefore, exercises a morbid fascination on the imagination of the masses, especially when they have not had to undergo its hardships, and have no conception of the fearful suffering it entails.

In fact, we now see in Europe, that the Christian and humanitarian education of centuries has not succeeded in eradicating from the masses their warlike propensities, while a prolonged season of peace, with the omnipresence of newspapers, and the superficial instruction of the elementary schools, easily deceives the popular imagination by representing war under a romant ic aspect, as a kind of national sport, creating at once entertainment and glory. One should see with how much eagerness, interest, and excitement the peasants and artisans and poorest villagers of Italy read the papers which describe episodes of the Tripoli war. What the newspapers relate to their readers, day by day, is not a hurried summary of events, but a thrilling popular romance or legend. Conventional it may be, lurid in color, rough in outline; but never mind: the imagination of the people must now, each day, work itself up to a high pitch of excitement, and cares for neither contradictions nor improbabilities in the tales it feeds on. It takes delight in this false image of war, and thus keeps up its patriotic and warlike fervor. This state of mind is, of course, keener and deeper in Italy just now, than among other European states, because Italy is fighting;1 but among them all are to be found the germs of this elemental and romantic love of war.

What is now happening in Europe proves that a long period of peace may produce in nations a spirit of imprudence and levity which renders them careless about playing with the dangers of war. A long peace, the inexperience of the masses, a literature which falsely exalts the heroic in war, and exaggerates its influence among the populace, are insufficient in themselves to explain the warlike impulses of public opinion in the eyes of the world, but they afford a partial explanation of the phenomenon. These movements are too dangerous, and give rise to too many complications among the different governments, for us to believe that they are merely the result of a deranged public opinion.

Observing at close quarters the policy of European governments, it is easy to see that this warlike spirit would not be so strong and deep in the masses were it not pertinaciously fostered by the newspapers, and by the political parties they represent, by the wealthy classes, and by the nobility, who have so much influence in Europe, even where, as in France, they have lost political power, or in Italy, where they are losing it. In all the countries of Europe it is the upper classes, or a portion of the upper classes (and in this portion I include the moneyed classes, the aristocracy, and that part of the professional class which comes most in contact with the nobility) who strive in every way to excite the belligerent spirit of the artisans, and of the populace, even at the cost of bringing about a terrible war, and of forcing the people into a hostile attitude toward the government and its ruler.

The reason why a portion of the upper classes have adopted this dangerous and violent policy, — descending even to the lowest methods of propaganda, — the reason why this policy succeeds and finds numerous and enthusiastic supporters among the wealthy and the cultured, among business men, manufacturers, men of letters, and University professors, who all help to excite and inflame the masses, is a deep-seated one. It must be sought in the great political and social upheaval produced in European society by the spread of democratic and socialistic ideas among the working classes, their rapidly increasing ambitions and demands; and by the spirit of independence and criticism which, developing rapidly, has separated the masses from the influence and patronage of the classes, organizing the populace into parties, and impelling them to a policy different from the rich man’s policy, and often opposed to it. This phenomenon is so vital and important that it needs to be analyzed even if only in a cursory fashion.

In Europe the political influence and social prestige of birth and wealth, while still great, are rapidly diminishing. The fruits of the French Revolution are still ripening. Everywhere the classes opposed to the aristocracy— tradespeople, artisans, and peasants —are organizing and taking an interest in public affairs. They are learning to read the papers, and to make use of their political rights. They are beginning to demand explanations, to discuss and criticise those various forms of authority which formerly they blindly obeyed — that of the capital which employs them in the factories and the fields, that of the priest who speaks to them in the name of God, and that of the government which, in the name of the king, makes the laws which are their guaranties of law and order.

Naturally, none of these ancient forms of authority can any longer maintain their former position and privileges. The practices of religious and monarchical forms are those which are most deeply affected by this change in the masses. In eighteenthcentury Europe an atheistic aristocracy ruled over a pious and bigoted people; now, on the contrary, the upper classes have become religious and mystical; while the people, especially in the cities, neglect the churches and break away from that religion which for so many centuries educated them to respect the aristocracy. Royalty itself imposes little respect, and no awe, upon the multitude. Even in Germany the Emperor is constantly and bitterly criticised by political parties, both in the newspapers and in public meetings. He is especially blamed for still keeping up the appearance of a real monarch whose will is law, and who wishes to have the full power of a genuine authority felt throughout the state. The kings of Belgium and of Italy have succeeded in escaping from the adverse criticism of their people, but how? By standing aside, by the great simplicity and modesty of their habits of life, by the utmost approachability, and by mildness in the exercise of their authority, trying thus to render acceptable a popular monarchy, homely and simple, from which etiquette is banished, and which does not disdain to put itself on a level with its people.

The old-fashioned monarchy, based on divine right, is trying to become democratic; and with it the government, the press, and a large portion of the cultured world. The common effort of all these factors is to level themselves down in order to satisfy the aspirations, prejudices, and desires of the people. This is a wholly natural tendency because, in proportion as the lower classes and the populace crowd into cities and acquire education and organization, they become the predominant political force. This is the inevitable result of political liberty, of the spread of education and universal or quasi-universal suffrage. The journals cater to the public which supports them, for, since the middle and lower classes are more numerous than the upper, they form a more important clientèle. It is therefore not surprising if in all countries the greater part of the press should become the organ of the numerically large class which supports it, rather than of the rich and cultivated, but numerically small aristocracies.

In proportion as suffrage is extended, and the number of electors increases, elective institutions have to modify their tactics, and necessarily end by favoring the greatest numbers. All over Europe the upper classes have consented to the extension of the franchise, in the hope that, through their own preponderant influence, they may coerce the increased number of voters. But, sooner or later, their calculations have everywhere proved to be wrong. Under various names parties are forming, or have already been formed, which, by stirring up the passions of the masses, or by rousing their greed, or by means of some promised advantage, have succeeded in separating some portion of the artisan or laboring classes from the patronage of the wealthy. Thus by their own sheer strength of numbers, these parties have striven to acquire influence with the government.

Thus the press, parliamentary institutions, and public opinion, which, until within the last fifty years, were almost wholly under the controlling influence of the aristocracy, are now rapidly slipping from its control. Nor does public service, whether in the higher ranks or the lower, escape a similar fate. Until within the last fifty years the chief offices of state, civil or military, were held with few exceptions by men in the higher walks of life. This is no longer the case. On the one hand, with the growing number of officials, the aristocracy is unable any longer to fill the increased number of positions; on the other hand, with the increase of wealth in the middle class, its facilities for study, and its ambition to rise, there is a rapid increase in the number of persons who attempt successfully to attain the highest places. All over Europe, even in the most aristocratic states, the official world is made up from the two opposing ranks; a method which is often a source of weakness to the government because each party brings into the combination widely differing ideas and a spirit of rivalry and jealousy.

So, even in Europe, the people are waking, and democracy is making rapid strides, to the detriment of the privileged classes which for so many centuries ruled almost unchecked. But these classes are not going to allow themselves to be ousted without a struggle. Too weak to defend themselves openly, they are trying to preserve their influence by arousing in the masses a patriotic and warlike spirit. Patriotic enthusiasm, the fighting spirit, hatred of a national enemy, on these the aristocracy have been obliged to fall back. Their old allies have begun to fail them. Religion has been weakened, the monarchy has become popularized, and the governments lack the strength to oppose the political action of the majority. In order to separate at least a portion of the middle class and populace from the growing influence of democratic and socialistic ideas, the privileged classes have fallen back upon a new line of defense.

At this point of my argument the reader may justly observe that if the trouble I have described is indeed the deep-seated cause of such a serious condition of things, the aristocracy, by their policy, would deserve to be stripped of their privileges at the hands of the lower and middle classes. Under such circumstances, the reader’s sole regret would be that their feathers should be slowly plucked. By a mean and egotistical spirit that, for selfish reasons, seeks to check a social evolution which, though it impaired their power, would yet be generally beneficial, are not aristocrats exposingEurope and its civilization to the risks of a fearful calamity? Has not the middle class — which for so many centuries was content to serve and worship small and powerful oligarchies — contributed through its organization, its education, and its aspirations after power, to the moral betterment of the world? Has not its rise to power aided in the suppression of abuses, excesses, and impositions so frequent in the days when the world was ruled by absolute, all-powerful governments, subject to no check or control? Does not democracy — the pride of our civilization — consist essentially in the awakening of the political conscience? Is not our civilization grander and richer than the ages which preceded it, just because each man feels himself to be a tiny but active atom in the great body politic? This is a natural train of thought. But he who so judges this serious condition cannot have understood it, and runs the risk of giving a superficial opinion of its meaning.

That the belligerent policy of the European aristocracy is partially influenced by a selfish dread of losing popularity and power, there can be no doubt. But if this policy were simply the result of selfishness it would not be very dangerous. Its greatest strength and greatest danger lie in the fact that it has succeeded in convincing and carrying with it those very classes of the lower and middle order against whose interests and ambitions it was directed. Now, one cannot presume too much either on the blindness or the intelligence of men, nor can one believe that one party is so able and adroit as to hoodwink another and induce it to act wholly against its own interests. One part of the community cannot move the whole. A minority cannot move the majority of a great nation, if side by side with its own interests it cannot also do battle for interests which are higher and more universal. This is precisely what is happening in Europe, and unless this difficult point is understood, it is impossible to understand the present situation.

Let me make my remarks quite clear. The first effect or result which marks the accession to power of a new party is invariably a relaxation of discipline. Whoever acquires power, whether an individual, or a class, or a party, wishes to enjoy it, and the first and most immediate method of enjoying it is to abuse it. This abuse may take the form of lax application of the laws generally, or it may express itself through a disregard of the severer ones. Only as a result of long practice, and of experience of the dangers result ing from an abuse of power, does a governing class or party gradually learn that it must willingly, and without attempt at evasion, undergo severe self-discipline; that it must be the first to set an example of obedience to the laws which it creates.

As institutions, politics, and customs have become progressively more democratic, the consequent relaxation of discipline has become, during the last fifteen years, the most conspicuous social phenomenon in Europe. Everywhere the same spectacle is exhibited. In political parties, in great public and private undertakings, in manufacturing, in the church and religious sects, even in families, the feeling for passive obedience and silent respect is vanishing. Everybody, down to the humblest citizen, must discuss, criticise, advise, argue, refute, and give his own opinion. Everywhere authority is more and more involved in a network of customs, laws, rules, and precedents limiting the power of the government over the governed.

Now, this critical and democratic attitude of mind must not be considered as an evil in itself. All over the world, extreme conservatives, who look upon order and disorder, discipline and the lack of it, as contrary and incompatible conditions, are inclined so to regard it. In this they are wrong. Rightly speaking, in the evolution of a state from order and discipline to disorder and anarchy, such as would render life intolerable and progress impossible, the transitions are all gradual. Each one of the stages may seem dangerous to those who compare it to the most strictly ordered of the stages which preceded it; but if fairly judged, the condition of things is, on the cont rary, quite tolerable in itself, and admits of reasonable adjustment. Its possible disadvantages are accompanied by many indirect advantages.

All forms of liberal government give rise to a certain disorder which is compensated for by increased initiative, energy, and dignity in the individuals who live under it, and by the keener, deeper sense of personal responsibility which it generates among men.

Therefore if Europe, like the United States, were to live in one great confederation, fearing no serious danger from without, it might, like America, quietly consider the inevitable drawbacks of a free government and the difficulties involved in the gradual transfer of power from the upper to the lower classes. In Europe, democratic disorder is far from being so great as of itself to threaten a social calamity, and moreover, with us as well as in America, the increased liberty of every class begets an increase of energy and initiative. But Europe is like a great camp wherein seven great powers and a certain number of smaller ones live side by side, armed to the teeth, and yet at the same time in dread of war. Furthermore, in every state, the sad, universal, constant, almost tragic subject of consideration for serious and thoughtful men is this: May not this undisciplined, critical spirit which is spreading among the people, even though it may legitimately liberate the energies of a nation, diminish its military strength, whether for offense or defense? May not these democratic ideas weaken a nation in the face of its rivals? Of course, history tells us of nations, racked by internal convulsions, throwing themselves with overwhelming force upon enemies beyond their border and coming off victorious. Rightly or wrongly, however, the general opinion of thinking men in Europe is that the military miracles of the French Revolution are an exception rather than a rule, and appear only under conditions of extreme danger. Usually, when a people, torn by anarchy, rushes into war, it either abuses its victories, or is itself destroyed. In a word, a people may face the trial of war with greater assurance in direct proportion as the masses are content to follow the ruling class without criticism or murmur of discontent. Doubtless, if this lawless, critical spirit of liberty were spread equally throughout all countries it would not cause much anxiety, because the effect would be everywhere identical. But how is it possible to ascertain whether this be so?

Nowadays, the European states are scrutinizing one another anxiously; but lawlessness is not, like merchandise for export or import, susceptible of exact appraisal, and its study may be carried on far more easily in one’s own country than in a distant, foreign land. In face of the impossibility of calculating, with any approach to accuracy, whether this evil is as great at home as it is abroad, the desire grows in every nation to check its progress as much as possible. Moreover, since a patriotic and warlike spirit is a certain though dangerous specific against lawlessness, there is an ever-increasing number of people in all classes, even in the middle class, whose ambition is checked by such a spirit, — who work zealously to stimulate it in the masses, under the firm conviction that by so doing they are benefiting their country and increasing its greatness and its power.

This belligerent state of mind now agitating Europe is the last phase of that great struggle which began with the French Revolution, between conservatives and liberals, between the principle of authority and the idea of liberty, between the state and democracy. What the outcome will be is hard to say. If the time should come when organized armies should be no more, but when whole peoples armed with fearful instruments of destruction should hurl themselves upon one another — the very thought of it would be appalling to us. Yet no less serious does the possibility appear to the eyes of many Europeans. They are fearful lest the democratic and socialist movement of the middle and lower classes will continue to progress swiftly; and lest, as the democratic movement, spreads, there spread with it the conviction that the discipline of obedience to constituted authority is everywhere growing weaker. Europe is not America. Every European state has its own traditions of culture, and its own political and military duties, which it could not live up to if its constitution were to become as democratic as that of the United States.

Standing between the alternatives of war on the one hand, and of lawlessness on the other, the European nations are all equally bewildered, in doubt which way to turn, while the approaching crisis is all the more serious because thinking men are giving up politics for business. This neglect of public duties by the class which once bore the entire responsibility is one of t he most regrettable results of industrial development and universal wealth. I trust the day may never come when Europe will be forced to realize that it would have been better for her if she were less rich but more wise, if she were endowed wit h less machinery and capital, but with more powerful, more stable, and more enlightened governments.

  1. Signor Ferrero wrote this essay shortly before the treaty of peace between Italy and Turkey. - THE EDITORS.