The European Tragedy


ON the fourteenth of July I was in Paris, and curiosity took me to the grand review, held every year in the French capital on that day of national festival which commemorates the taking of the Bastille. I saw the splendid battalions file past, and I saw also, in the tribune of the President of the Republic, the accredited ambassadors to the French government, in gala attire. They were all talking tranquilly among themselves, most of them about their approaching vacations. Some were on the point of departure for the mountains or the sea, in search of a welldeserved rest. Austria and Russia, Germany and Servia, England and Belgium, were exchanging good wishes, compliments and friendly adieux, in the persons of their ambassadors. Who would have said that three weeks later these same men would exchange as many declarations of war?

The tempest broke so unexpectedly that we are still, as it were, dazed. Every one asks himself constantly if he is awake or dreaming. The European war, — that earthquake which perhaps will overturn from its foundations the civilization of the old world; the European war, of which every one has been talking for so many years, but for the most part without believing that it could occur, — just as one speaks of the day in which the sun will be extinguished in the heavens, or of the encounter of the earth with some stray comet cutting through space, — the European war broke out within a single week.

On the twenty-fourth of July all Europe, from Ionia to the Baltic, from the Pyrenees to the Urals, was still able to go to bed in peace and to dream of the approaching summer vacation, well-earned by the long labor of a year. The German Emperor, according to his custom at that season, was cruising in northern waters; the Emperor of Austria was at the Baths of Ischl; the President of the French Republic was leaving Russia, where he had visited the Tsar and toasted peace, to pay a visit to the Scandinavian sovereigns. On the morning of the twenty-fifth— it was a Saturday — Europe read in her thousand newspapers the menacing note sent from the Austrian minister to the Servian government; and on the Saturday after—the first of August— the German Ambassador at St. Petersburg handed to the Russian government the declaration of war. How did it happen? Through whose fault? From what motives?


Eventually, history will doubtless investigate, and recount what happened day by day, hour by hour, in the courts and in the chancelleries of Europe, during that fatal week. For the moment, every government is careful to divulge only what serves to throw back on the other governments the responsibility for the cruel catastrophe. The immediate occasion, so to speak, of the explosion, is therefore a mystery. Much clearer, on the other hand, is the play of the historical forces which, after forty-four years of peace, have prepared, and in the end precipitated, the terrifying disaster. This war is the supreme duel of the two European enemies who for a century have lived side by side in every state: Europe bellicose, the daughter, as it were, of the French Revolution; and Europe pacific, creature of the philosophy of the eighteenth century, and of the whole social movement of the nineteenth.

The French Revolution initiated in Europe the true war of the peoples. Until the French Revolution, sovereigns and states, rather than their subjects, had fought and made peace among themselves. Armies were recruited from professional soldiers alone; the greater part of the population was exempt, from the tribute of blood, as is still the case to-day in England and in America. All Europe approved when revolutionary France, in order to defend herself, made a universal obligation of military service, and inaugurated the general conscription. To compensate for the abolition of feudal servitude, for the division of the lands of nobles and clergy among the peasants, the Revolution imposed upon the people the duty of taking arms to defend the country. From one end to another of France resounded the terrible cry,

’Aux armes, citoyens!' But the marvelous victories of the Revolution and of the Empire obliged the monarchies of Continental Europe to imitate the example of France in a greater or less degree, and to arm their peoples. In almost all Europe, the ancient system of professional soldiery was abandoned; military service became a duty of the citizen and of the subject; the tribute of blood became as obligatory as the tax in money.

Since military conditions were changed in this way, as a result of the wars of the Revolution and the Empire, it was necessary to change the entire policy of the nations. In the eighteenth century, so long as armies were composed of mercenaries paid by the king, there was no need to explain to the soldiers the reasons or the motives for the wars to which the generals led them. To fight was their trade; they were paid to do battle, whatever the enemy or the motive. But this was no longer the case when the armies were recruited directly from the people, and service under the flags became a public duty. Then it was no longer possible to demand from the masses the tribute of blood, without explaining to them the reason for the sacrifice, without by some means quickening their eagerness for the conflict into which their rulers were sending them.

While the wars of the Revolution and of the Empire lasted, the task was easy. In that convulsion of the old world the French soldiers were informed that they were fighting for liberty against the tyrants of Europe; and the peoples hostile to France, that they were warring against an impious race, destroyers of civilization, — foes of order, religion, and authority. Prussia after Jena was certainly, among the monarchies of Europe, the one which knew best how to excite hatred for France in the multitude, and to inspire her people with the keenest ardor in the supreme struggles against the rule of Napoleon.

But when Napoleon had fallen and the hurricane of the Revolution was stilled, the task became more difficult. How was it possible to continue to impose upon the multitude obligatory military service for a number of years? how could the people be maintained in arms, now that Europe had at last obtained the peace so long desired? It was necessary to attempt a justification of such a cruel sacrifice, yet how could it be done except by persuading the troops that an enemy was encamped beyond the frontier? The army which the Revolution created by calling a whole nation to arms is responsible for the fact that, ever since the fall of Napoleon, European writers, philosophers, statesmen, and military experts have tried to convince each new generation, in one way or another, of the existence of this menace along the frontier. Sometimes it has been described as a threatening people, desirous of oppressing its neighbors; sometimes as a people or peoples who must be impressed by a show of force. And all reasons and pretexts sufficiently convincing to create, to cultivate, and to diffuse this feeling of suspicion among the masses, have been looked upon as fair play throughout the countries of Europe. Such attempts are usually resorted to whenever there is a movement to increase the size of an army or a counter-movement to decrease the term of service.

Thus the nineteenth century and the twentieth have both tried to persuade French, English, Germans, Italians, Russians, and the rest, that they ought to distrust one another because they were all rivals and enemies. Each nation, naturally, blamed all the others for the hatred it felt for them. The difference in language, in institutions, in religious beliefs, in culture; the memories of the great wars of the past; a certain antagonism in material interests, have rendered this task of socalled national education easy in every country to writers, historians, philosophers, statesmen. How many theories have been invented concerning Germanism, Slavism, the Latin spirit, the destiny of the people, the superiority of certain races and certain cultural standards; how many have been seriously discussed in universities and academies, in books and reviews, which were designed solely to intensify the distrust and hatred of one people for another. How many literary works, sciences, philosophies, dogmas, have been admired, praised, magnificently rewarded in honors and in money, not because they were full of beauty and truth, but because they set nation against nation, and gave to international disagreements high-sounding and virtuous names!

Nevertheless, if political institutions and military exigencies incited the peoples of Europe to hate one another, civilization and economic interests also brought them together in the old world. The French Revolution had been forced to set all Europe on fire in order to defend itself, but it had also promised all men peace, liberty, and brotherhood. The philosophy of the eighteenth century, which was directly responsible for the Revolution, is optimistic: it is the first philosophy which has dared affirm that human nature is not perverse but good; it says that man, when he is not hindered or corrupted or oppressed by iniquitous and tyrannous institutions, is a creature of generous sentiments. These ideas, in a society already profoundly softened by Christianity, have also brought to birth in Europe in the last century a thousand doctrines, a thousand chimeras, a thousand generous and stupendous dreams, which are the precise opposite of that hatred among the peoples in which governments have all more or less sought to educate the masses. Hence the love of peace, the dreams of universal brotherhood, the proposals for concord, the spirit of cosmopolitanism, the attempts at international arbitration; hence the vast humanitarian propaganda of the socialist groups and all the democratic parties.

The example of America and her interests has favored the diffusion of these ideas. A century ago every country of Europe lived on its own territory, and had no commerce with other peoples except in objects of luxury; to-day railways have bound as it were into a single sheaf the most diverse necessities of all the peoples. England, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, Austria, may distrust one another and hate their neighbors as much as they will; but each one has need every day of the products of the other in order to satisfy the constantly increasing exigencies of the masses. What will happen in a few weeks when they begin to feel the economic effects of this sudden interruption of commerce in almost all Europe!

Two souls, then, lived side by side, in every country, in every party, almost in every man of old Europe: a soul of war and a soul of peace. Hence the infinite contradictions in thought and action which have bewildered the old world from the middle of the century to the present moment, and which have at last, in the space of a week, resulted in this fearful catastrophe. For what reason has the soul of war conquered the soul of peace?


One cannot deny that in the last thirty years the idea of peace had made great strides in Europe. France and England, the two nations of Europe which fought the greatest wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, have been governed for ten years by parties openly averse to all aggressive intentions, by declared pacifists. Russia is governed by an Emperor who had hardly mounted the throne when he chose to connect his name with a great work of peace. In all Europe, Socialism has acquired millions of adherents among the lower classes, especially those classes from which the soldiers are recruited. Who does not know that Socialism affirms that peace ought to rule among the peoples; that the proletariat ought to clasp hands across the frontiers, and beat swords into ploughshares ? It is true that during the same period all the governments were asking for money to forge new weapons; but there was not one which, in asking for them, failed to declare that cannon and guns were the surest instruments of peace.

The Goddess of Peace seemed to have found a new and singular method of enchaining the God Mars: by loading him down so heavily with arms that he could no longer move. Whence many came to suppose that European war was no longer possible. Even the writer of the present essay, while aware that in foretelling the future it is prudent to leave a little chink always open for the unexpected, was profoundly convinced in his own heart that he was destined to close his eyes without having seen the horrid spectacle of which, like thousands of others, he is to-day a terrified witness. In fine, it seemed to many, and with reason, that after forty-four years of peace the victory of peace over war was imminent. And instead, war has become again at one blow master of the old world! Why? The chief reason is the prestige and the power of the military caste in Germany.

Although the spirit of peace in the last fifteen years had found its advocates throughout all the rest of Europe, it had hardly ventured across the frontiers of Germany, and cannot be said to have obtained a foothold in the German Empire. The memories of the war of 1870, the immense prestige with which that war had invested the German army and the dynasty of the Hohenzollerns who command it, had rendered the Empire impervious, or nearly so, to the spirit of peace. Behind the frontier of Germany there lived a people which believed itself invincible. Noble or Socialist, Prussian or Bavarian, every German stated again and again, either in pride or in sorrow, that no army in the world was so well organized, or conducted by so intelligent a general staff, or animated by so formidable a defensive spirit, as their own. But a people that believes itself invincible through the power of its army will never, or in Europe at least, can never, be profoundly pacifist. The military caste will so rejoice in such prestige that it will never allow the desire for peace to increase beyond a certain point.

This is precisely what has happened in Germany. One might affirm that the European war of 1914 was almost an inevitable heritage from the war of 1870. Between 1900 and 1905 France had made less haste to increase her armaments, and had shown by a thousand signs her readiness to be reconciled with her old rival, to forget Alsace and Lorraine. Germany continued without pause to increase and make ready her weapons. Between 1900 and 1910 England tried more than once to come to an agreement with Germany to limit the increase of naval expenditures. Every attempt was vain. To every hint that the other nations of Europe gave of wishing, I will not say to disarm, but to arm with less fury, the German government responded by the rapid increase of its own armaments.

Since 1900, Germany has taken the initiative in all the increases of military outlay which have caused the expenditure of so many millions in Europe. The Socialists, and a certain fraction of the liberal parties in the Reichstag, were opposed to this; but what was the use of this opposition? The prestige of the army and the power of the government, allied to the military party, were too great: the parties of opposition never succeeded even in moderating the demands of the government. At every election the nation was able to increase the number of Socialist deputies who sat in the Reichstag; but what was the use?

It will suffice to recall what happened in connection with the great military law of 1912, which prepared the way for the war of 1914. The German government had proposed to increase the army to eight hundred and seventy thousand men, and to get the money by imposing an extraordinary war-tax on the rich classes. The parties of the Right in the Reichstag desired that the army should be increased, but not that the rich classes alone should be called upon to pay the cost. If the Socialists who did not wish the increase of the army had also voted against this special war-tax, the government would have found itself in grave perplexity; which might possibly have forced it, because of the financial difficulty, to moderate its requests. And perhaps then the war of 1914 would not have broken out. But the Socialists, although they disapproved the military law, were not able to resist the temptation to bleed the rich through an increased income-tax. The government was able therefore to obtain the additional troops by a majority of the Right, and to obtain the money by a majority of the Left, — in which there were more than a hundred Socialists; and within two years Europe burst into flames.

In a nation in which the military caste is so respected and powerful, pacificist ideas cannot find much of a following among the upper and educated classes, among those at least which have the most influence in public affairs. In fact, especially within the past ten years, a quite contrary policy has obtained, and ideas of German supremacy, of German culture, of Germany’s World-Mission, and of Germany’s right to illuminate the world, have been diffused through an ardent propaganda, continuous, unwearied, among the aristocracy, in official circles, in the universities, in the newspapers. Great associations like the Naval League, the Military League, aided by professors, experts, journalists, have labored with a truly Teutonic perseverance, to quicken a kind of aggressive national sentiment in the masses and in the middle classes.

Thus, little by little, while the other states of Europe were preparing themselves for the changes which might have assured universal peace, in Germany the idea was taking root pretty nearly everywhere that a new war was inevitable; that Germany could not fulfill her great historic mission without once more drawing the sword of ’70; that since it was necessary to fight, it was desirable that Germany should choose the right moment, that is, some opportunity before Russia had recovered entirely from the wounds of the Russo-Japanese war.

A very intelligent but very skeptical German said to me one day, ‘My friend, there is only one pacificist in Germany; it is William II. But he can do nothing because he is the Emperor! ’ A paradox which contains a certain amount of truth. William II will have to shoulder before the world, and in history, the chief responsibility for the war. Yet those who know the secrets of political Europe are aware that he has been for twenty-five years perhaps the most active protector of European peace. In 1905 he prevented the war which a strong party around him already wished, when the disputes about Morocco began with France. ‘History,’ said he one day, to a French friend of mine on board the Hohenzollern during the regatta at Kiel, ‘history will give me credit for this at least, that Europe has owed its peace to me.’

By temperament, by a certain mystical tendency, by the sagacity of a statesman, William II was and wishes to be an emperor of peace. But he is also a Hohenzollern — the head of the army which is reputed strongest among them all, and invincible. Thus his ruling passion for peace was not pleasing to the very powerful military caste which surrounds and sways him; and it has been the chief reason for the covert hostility which a section of the aristocracy, of the government, and of the press, have since 1895 carried on in opposition to him, resulting finally in the setting up of the Crown Prince as the leader of the opposition to him. Every one still remembers the scandal of 1909, the cause of which was the interview granted by the Emperor to a great American magazine. When the whole history of this scandal is known it will also be known what was done on this occasion to discredit the Emperor by the military party, and by that section of the government which could not forgive him for not having declared war against France in 1905, with Morocco as a pretext.

I have no doubt therefore that this time, on the evening of August 1, the Emperor declared war on Russia and set Europe afire, not because he wished the catastrophe, but because he was unable to resist the war-party, which has increased in numbers, influence, and audacity during the past three years, since the Balkan conflicts and the war between Italy and Turkey have filled all Europe with restlessness and distress. It is sufficient to say that, in the days preceding the declaration of war, newspapers conservative in the extreme, like the Kreuzzeitung, published articles almost threatening William II; reminding him that he had not the right to sacrifice his duties as emperor to the personal hobby of his pacificism. In fine, the European war was let loose by the German military party; for among all the countries of Europe, in Germany alone the army had enough power and enough authority to compel the government to take so frightful an initiative. Destiny was fulfilled on August 1, 1914,—a date memorable and fatal in the history of the twentieth century, which posterity will perhaps remember with terror through the ages.


And now, what will happen? What new Europe will arise from the ruins of that in which we were born and grew up? How will it be possible to reconstruct order out of this chaos let loose in one blow?

These are questions to which no one can reply to-day; which no one even dares suggest. The dismay of souls surprised by the catastrophe is too great. We all feel that our destiny is in the control of historic forces which elude our understanding. No one can say whether the war will be long or short, who will conquer or who will lose; and in what manner the conquered will be conquered and the victorious victor.

Nevertheless from the study of the causes of this upheaval one conclusion appears already probable. This war will either increase still more the military caste in Germany or will largely destroy it. Germany is moved to the conflict with the expectation of repeating 1870: that is, of making a rapid victorious campaign, the cost of which will be covered by the immense indemnities imposed upon the conquered. And if the General Staff succeeds in this enterprise, the German army, and the Hohenzollerns who are its leaders, will achieve such prestige in Germany, in Europe, and in the world, that no strength can oppose them. If instead Germany is, I will not say actually conquered, but not wholly successful, and is unable to snatch territorial and financial indemnity from her adversaries, then the prestige of the army and of the Hohenzollerns will receive a very heavy blow. The people will cherish eternal resentment because of the terrible sufferings which the war will have caused them: they will accuse the monarchy and the military party of having led the nation lightly into a ruinous adventure, provoking the whole of Europe.

In the first place, it is difficult to foresee what the future of Europe can be. The mind is appalled merely in thinking about it. The darkest prophecies seem legitimate. Oppressions, new wars, revolutions, a terrible crisis, economic, political, moral, in which a great part of European civilization will perish, this is what one may predict. For however great may be the qualities of the Germans and the services that they have rendered to civilization, Europe can never and will never be dominated entirely by them. As it rebelled a century ago against the French supremacy, so it would revolt to-day against the German supremacy. Europe is and will continue to be a mosaic of cultures and of diverse languages. Therefore, for real success there is need of a certain equilibrium among the diverse races which inhabit it. If this equilibrium is destroyed, Europe will no longer be Europe; and to denaturalize her in this way, to change the course of her history, the European war would not suffice. The democratic, humanitarian, pacificist tendencies are how too strong, and rooted in too large a part of the continent. Victorious Germany could impose herself on Europe only by a systematic oppression which would provoke the most terrible reactions and the greatest disasters.

If on the other hand the second supposition should be realized, if the prestige of the Hohenzollerns and of the German army should collapse because of the horror and destruction of this war which they have willed, Europe will finally find peace and concord in a reasonable equilibrium of forces and desires. Germany will become at last democratic and pacific, like England and France. The Prussian aristocracy, so powerful to-day, will be forced to grant a reform of the Prussian electoral system, and to open the doors to the power of the middle classes. In Prussia, and in the Empire, the representative régime, instead of remaining constitutional, will become parliamentary; ministers will no longer be nominated by the emperor but by parliaments; the influence of the court and the general staff will diminish. The parties of the Left, and even the Socialists, will have risen to power. Germany in short will be inwardly renewed as France was renewed after 1870.

Between France and England on the one side and Germany on the other, there will no longer be that lack of harmony in impulses and political forms which has been the true reason why all the attempts at understanding, repeated during the past thirty years, have failed. Germany, like France and England, will be dominated by a liberal democratic spirit: and it will therefore be possible finally for these three peoples to reach a permanent and true understanding. On that day when all the peoples shall abandon the thought of trampling on each other, and shall desire only peaceful emulation among themselves in favor of the progress of the world,—on that day on which their governments shall be animated by the same spirit of sincere friendship and loyal concord, — there will be room under the sun for French, English, Germans — all races — to dwell together in unity.

France and England are ripe for a rule of ordered and peaceful democracy. They desire it and press toward it. The chief point that this war ought to decide is whether Germany also wishes to become democratic and peaceful, or whether instead she wishes to isolate herself still in Europe, like a formidable camp, sustained by force and by an autocratic and hierarchical spirit. On this alternative depends the future of Europe and the destiny of our civilization. Every one therefore can understand, without further parley, the anxiety which is felt to-day in Europe by the kind of people who are in a position to appreciate the importance of this conflict. As long as they live they will not forget the August of fatal 1914!