The War and the Way Out: A Further Consideration

“The nobility of a people lies not in its capacity for war, but in its capacity for peace.”



In a previous essay, published in the Atlantic Monthly for December last, I showed at length how this war, like all European wars, was caused by the working of a false theory of the state on the minds and passions of rulers, statesmen, journalists, and other leaders of opinion. In the pages that follow it is my object to discuss in some detail the kind of settlement which will be needed at the peace, if such wars are not to recur again and again. But since men’s ideas as to the kind of peace that is desirable are affected by their conception of the causes of the war, I must begin by protesting against the view, industriously disseminated by the English, and, no doubt, by the French and Russian press, that the only cause of the war was the wickedness of Germany. For this view clearly is much too simple and superficial; and it leads to a wrong conception of the remedy. Let us then briefly examine it.

‘Germany,’ we say, ‘made the war.’ Germany? But what is Germany? The German people? The peasants? The factory laborers? The millions of Social Democrats? They made the war? Is it likely? Ten days before the war broke out they, like the people everywhere, were working, resting, eating, sleeping, dreaming of nothing less than of war. War came upon them like a thunderclap. The German people are as peaceable as every other. Their soldiers complain of it. We are fond of quoting General Bernhardi, but we never quote the passage in which he explains why he wrote his book. He wrote it, he tells us, to counteract ‘the aspirations for peace which seem to dominate our age and threaten to poison the soul of the German people.’ Now that the war has come, the German people are fighting; but they are fighting, as they believe, to protect their hearths and homes against the wanton aggression of Russia, France, and, above all, England. Like all the other peoples, they are fighting what they believe to be a defensive war. That is the tragic irony of it. Whoever made the war, it was not any of the peoples.

‘Then, it was the German government.’ Yes, or else it was the Russian, or else it was both. In any case, it was a very few men. The peace of Europe was in the hands of some score of individuals. They could make war, and the hundreds of millions who were to fight and to suffer could not stop it. That is the really extraordinary fact. That is what is worth dwelling on. How could it happen? Why are the nations passive clay in the hands of their governments?

First, because they do not know one another. They speak different languages, live different kinds of lives, have different manners and customs. They do not hate one another, but neither do they understand or trust one another. They do not feel that they belong together. Left to themselves, they would never, it is true, want to fight one another. They do not even think of one another; they are occupied with their own lives. But, since they do not know foreigners as they know one another, they can easily be made to believe that foreigners are their enemies. They do not think of them as real individual men and women. They think of them as a great solid mass, and attribute to this mass any qualities suggestion may put into their heads. So, at the moment, the ordinary Englishman believes that ‘the Germans’ are treacherous, brutal, bloodthirsty, cruel, while the Germans believe that ‘the English’ are cowardly, hypocritical, and degenerate. They believe these things because they are told to believe them, by the people who want to make bad blood. And they believe them the more readily because they are at war.

The fact, then, that to every nation every other is ‘foreign,’ makes the peoples of Europe the prey of those who want to make wars. We see in Germany who these peoples have been. They have been professors, like Treitschke, militarists like Bernhardi, journalists like harden. And in England, they have been a Maxse, a Northcliffe, a Cramb. The same kind of people are and have been at work in all countries for the same end. For years past they have been setting the Germans at the English and the English at the Germans. The German literature against England we have drawn from its obscurity since the war began. But what about the English literature against Germany? Here is a specimen from one of our most prominent and intellectual journals: —

‘If Germany were extinguished to-morrow, the day after to-morrow there is not an Englishman in the world who would not be the richer. Nations have fought for years over a city or a right of succession; must they not fight for two hundred and fifty million pounds of yearly commerce?’1

Policy, playing on ignorance, — that is the origin of wars. But why the policy? What is it aiming at? That, too, we must make clear.

We accuse Germany of making an unprovoked attack upon France and Russia, and we are indignant. But we forget that, if Germany so acted, she was acting in accordance with the principles and practice dominant throughout Europe for centuries past. Our English national hero, Lord Roberts, warned us that she would act just so. But he added that she would be quite right and that we ought to do the same. When the Germans began to build their fleet there were plenty of Englishmen who urged us to pick a quarrel with her at once and destroy her before she grew too strong. There is nothing peculiarly monstrous or unique about the conduct we impute to Germany. It is the conduct fostered by the European system which England, too, supports. That system is one of armed states always expecting to be attacked, and therefore always ready to anticipate attack. We are engaged merely in one act of a long and tragic drama. Let us look for a moment at the whole set of facts from which this war proceeded.

In 1870 there was war between Germany and France, — a war of mutual jealousy and fear, with no good cause behind it and no good end before. In that war Germany was victorious. She took from France two of her provinces and left her burning for revenge. Germany had made a permanent enemy on the west. On her east lay Russia. Between Russia and Germany there was no cause of quarrel. They had coöperated to crush Napoleon, and since then had commonly acted in sympathy. There was no talk, during all those years, of Russian barbarism, or of the inevitable conflict between Teuton and Slav. That idea was the effect, not the cause, of the hostility between the two nations. The cause was the alliance of Germany with Austria in her quarrel with Russia. Russia and Austria were contending for the mastery of the Balkan peninsula. Greed of territory and power was the ultimate source of their dispute, — supported, o the part of Russia, by the sentiment of race. And this quarrel in the east was presently knit up with the quarrel in the west. To strengthen herself against Germany, France allied herself with Russia. Henceforth a war in the east would make a war in the west. Italy had already joined Germany and Austria.

But England was not yet involved. What brought her in was the building of the German fleet. We regarded it as a menace. Perhaps it was. At any rate we thought so. And to secure ourselves we joined hands with France and Russia. The Triple Entente faced the Triple Alliance in arms. The materials for the explosion were there. It was merely a question who should first drop the match. Our discussions as to who that was are not as important as we think. This year, we believe it was Germany. But if it had not been Germany this year, it might have been Russia next. And some other year it might have been France or England. The war came out of the European system, the system of states armed against one another, and dominated by mutual suspicion and fear. While that system continues, war will continue. If we want to stop war, we must alter that.


At the origin, then, of this war, there was no good cause at all. It was one of the many wars for power and position. Englishmen, it is true, have been strongly moved by the invasion of Belgium, and I throw no doubt on the genuineness of their feeling. But it was not the invasion of Belgium that made the war, although that was a contributory cause of the English intervention. The origin of the war was ambition and fear. But the origin is not the same as the purpose. The purpose is that we choose to make it. What then is our purpose, now we are at war? This question has been little discussed, and there is little willingness in Europe to discuss it, while the issue of the war hangs in the balance. But it is already clear that it will divide the nation. We are united in pursuing the war. We shall not be united in ending it.

On one point, no doubt, the peoples of the allied nations are agreed. The Germans must evacuate Belgium and indemnify her, so far as it can be done, for the martyrdom inflicted on her by one of the greatest crimes of history. That, at least, if the Allies win. But what more? There are two ways of answering that question, and much of future history will depend on which is adopted.

The one answer accepts frankly the traditional system. It assumes that the states of Europe must always be enemies and always settle their differences by war. That being so, the only end it can conceive for any war is the weakening of the vanquished and the aggrandizement of the victors. It is thus that all former wars have been ended, and thus that they have always prepared new wars. The view I am considering accepts this consequence. It means to ‘crush Germany’ in order to strengthen England. Quite openly it sneers at the profession that this is ‘a war to end war,’ the profession that the best of our youths carry in their hearts to battle. Quite openly it justifies the militarism against which we have announced to the world that we are fighting. It approves militarism. All that it disapproves is the militarism of Germany. It wants to make us too a military power, prepared by compulsory military service for that ‘next war’ which it proposes to make ‘inevitable’ by the pace. This view, already frankly expressed by the Morning Post, will, no doubt, when the moment is thought to have come, be urged also by the Times and its group of associated newspapers. It will be supported by educated people, and will appeal to the passions to the uneducated, and will probably be urged by some members of the government. Let us then consider it.

We are to ‘crush Germany’; or, as a progressive newspaper phrases it, we are to drive her, ‘at no matter what cost to ourselves in lives and money, into unconditional surrender.’ That is, we are to carry on the war (if we can) far beyond the point at which the Germans have abandoned Belgium; beyond the point, even, at which they have abandoned Alsace-Lorraine and Posen. The Allies, as it is sometimes explained, are to ‘dictate terms at Berlin,’ whatever terms and however reasonable may be offered before they get there. A war which is destroying men as they have never been destroyed before, from which at the best the nations will emerge permanently degraded in their stock, poorer in physique, duller in intelligence, weaker in will than they went in, this war is to be protracted until the whole manhood of Europe is decimated, in order—in order to what? Let us ask in detail.

In order, we are told, that the Germans may ‘feel they are beaten.’ And then? They will be good in future? They will admit they were wrong? They will lick the hand that chastised them? Who believes it? The more completely they are beaten, the more obstinately they will be set on recovery. When France was beaten to the dust in 1870, did she repent for having provoked the war? On the contrary, she gathered up her forces for revenge. And Germany will do the same.

‘But we shall prevent her!’ How? By partitioning her? By disarming her? By changing the form of her government? All those things were tried by Napoleon, and none of them can achieve their purpose. A nation does not consist in its territory, or its armaments, or its government. It consists in the tradition, the character, and the spirit of its people. While Germany wants to be one, while she wants to be strong, while she wants to be monarchic, nobody and nothing can prevent her. A nation has never been crushed by anything short of annihilation. Look at Ireland! Look at Italy! Look at the Balkan States! You may weaken Germany, yes; you may cripple her for a time, as she, if she were victorious, could weaken or cripple us. What of it? She will rise from humiliation more determined than ever to assert herself. We can no more crush her than she can crush us. It is certain, then, that if we can succeed in ‘crushing’ Germany, and if we do nothing else, we are preparing war for the future, not peace. It may be easier for us to realize this point if we remember that there are Germans, too, who expect and desire to get peace out of this war, and that they too hope to do it by ‘crushing’ their enemies. Thus, for example, the Frankfürter Zeitung writes: —

‘One cannot count upon any other ways of carrying out of peace except by “force.” By that, of course, we do not refer to the evil generally connected with the word, but to something which has been expressed in various ways during the last few months: we wish to have as the result of this war a state in which the countries which have now attacked us shall for all time be unable to repeat their attack. Germany, peaceful, as its allies, has with them been entrusted with the historical mission of dictating a permanent peace to Europe. We are fighting primarily for existence, but still more for this—that there may be rest in Europe from vain, ambitious madmen and brigands, and that they may be shown, like all others, the fit and natural sphere to which they belong. They must be deprived once and for all of the desire to attack us; till then, not a word of peace! Then, and then only, can the law of peace, protected by forces which are strong and just, be established.’

This is the German version of the same idea that is sometimes put forward on behalf of the Allies. Peace, say we, by crushing Germany, since she is the only disturber of the peace. Pace, say the Germans, by crushing the Allies, since they are the only disturbers of the peace. But how does this view of the Germans look to us? Does it look like peace? Do we imagine ourselves lying down forever, beaten, humbled, and repentant, under the contemptuous protection of an armed Germany? Just as we feel about the German idea, so, we may be sure, do they feel about ours. That route does not and cannot lead to peace. Nothing can, except a radical change in the ideas and policy of the nations of Europe, and an expression of that change in a definite political organization.


Those, then, who really desire a settlement that will secure peace in the future, must abandon the idea of ‘crushing’ Germany. Let us turn, now, to the other view of our purpose in this war.

We are fighting, say our best spirits, for freedom, and against domination. What do these terms mean? By domination we mean the imposition of rule by force, upon unwilling subjects. In the relation of man to man the simplest form of domination is slavery. In that of state to state its form is empire.2 It is one of the great contending powers in the tragedy of history. It is real; and also it has been championed as an ideal. Machiavelli is its philosopher, Carlyle its prophet, Treitschke its historian. Rome stood for it in the ancient world, Spain in America, England in Ireland. And Germany stands for it now in Belgium. By freedom, on the other hand, we mean the power and right of individuals and of nations to live their own lives and unfold their own capacities. This does not imply that they should do simply what they like, but that the restrictions they admit should be self-chosen and self-approved, with a view to the equal freedom of others. The formula is so familiar as to be tedious. But its meaning is infinite and profound. We have hardly yet begun to spell its first letters. It inspires the whole movement of democracy and all the wars of liberation. It is the other great protagonist of history; and of the history of the last century it is the very nerve. For that reason, it cannot be truly claimed as the principle of this or that nation. It has been contending in them all at death grips with its enemy. The angels of light and darkness do not preside over different nations. They contend in each for victory.

Nevertheless there is truth in the idea that modern Germany stands for domination, and modern France and England for freedom. The unification of Germany in an empire obscured, if it did not ruin, the German spirit of liberty. The governing and articulate classes became arrogant and aggressive. The mass of the people became passively acquiescent. They were content to formulate freedom instead of struggling for it. They became the harmless pedants of democracy. Meanwhile the government pursued the ordinary course of empire. Wherever they ruled over people of alien race and ideals, they set themselves by force to convert them into their own likeness. In Poland, in Alsace-Lorraine, in Schleswig, they imposed on the unwilling natives their language, their education, and their ‘culture.’ In Poland they have been endeavoring for years to expropriate the Poles and substitute a German population. ‘No consideration for the Polish people,’ writes Prince von Bülow, ‘must hinder us from doing all we can to maintain and strengthen the German nationality in the former Polish domains.’ And he adds with unconscious irony, ‘In our policy with regard to the schools we are really fighting for Polish nationality, which we wish to incorporate in German intellectual life.’

This is the traditional policy of empire. The English pursued this policy in Ireland with even greater vigor and ruthlessness throughout the eighteenth century. And it is, perhaps, only the happy accident that we are an island power that has prevented us from being, to this day, the champions of domination. But history has helped us, and we have learned from history. It is a chance, but a very significant chance, that made the outbreak of this war coincide with our final abandonment of the policy of coercion in Ireland. The British system now, so far as men of white race are concerned, is one not of empire but of free communities. And the spirit that has brought about this change will proceed, if we escape reaction, to inspire our policy in the great dependencies of men of alien race. Abroad, as at home, the English have been learning the lesson of freedom. And there is good hope, if we are true to our tradition, that our victory may contribute to the extension of freedom in Europe. In France, too, the long fight between antagonistic ideals has been inclining toward freedom. She too will join with us, we may believe, to confirm the liberty for which, throughout a century, she has been shedding her blood in civil strife.

While, then, it is unhistorical and unjust to pretend that Germany, as such, stands for domination, and the western powers for freedom, yet we may say with truth that a victory of the western powers, so far as their influence can reach, should make for freedom, while a victory of Germany will make for domination. That is the ideal cause, rising above our mere need of self-defense, that may inspire us in our efforts for victory. But if it be that which we carry in our hearts, — and the young among us, I believe, do carry it, — how must we endeavor, when the time comes for peace, to translate it into acts?

Mr. Asquith has given us the formula in words which I have quoted once in the Atlantic, but shall repeat again, — for they cannot be too often repeated. Never, perhaps, has a responsible statesman had the courage and the wisdom to look so far and so generously ahead.

‘I should like, if I might for a moment, beyond this inquiry into causes and motives, to ask your attention and that of my fellow countrymen to the end which in this war we ought to keep in view. Forty-four years ago, at the time of the war of 1870, Mr. Gladstone used these words. He said, “The greatest triumph of our time will be the enthronement of the idea of public right as the governing idea of European politics.” Nearly fifty years have passed. Little progress, it seems, has yet been made toward that good and beneficent change, but it seems to me to be now, at this moment, as good a definition as we can have of our European policy. The idea of public right, — what does it mean when translated into concrete terms? It means first and foremost the clearing of the ground by the definite repudiation of militarism as the governing factor in the relation of states, and of the future moulding of the European world. It means next that room must be found and kept for the independent existence and the free development of the smaller nationalities—each with a corporate consciousness of its own.

‘Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries, Greece, and the Balkan States, — they must be recognized as having exactly as good a title as their more powerful neighbors, — more powerful in strength as in wealth, — exactly as good a title to a place in the sun. And it means, finally, or it ought to mean, perhaps by a slow and gradual process, the substitution for force, for the clash of competing ambitions, for groupings and alliances and a precarious equipoise, the substitution for all these things of a real European partnership, based on the recognition of equal right and established and enforced by a common will. A year ago that would have sounded like a Utopian idea. It is probably one that may not or will not be realized either to-day or to-morrow. If and when this war is decided in favor of the Allies, it will at once come within the range, and before long within the grasp, of European statesmanship.’

Let us comment a little on this noble utterance and show how the ideas it voices hang all together. Those ideas are nationality, law, and peace. Let us remind ourselves of their meaning and connection.

Nationality is a Janus, facing both ways. So far as it stands for the right of a people to govern itself, it stands for freedom. So far as it stands for the ambition to govern other people, or to destroy them, or to shape them into an alien world, it stands for domination. Throughout history it has stood for both. Athens had no sooner beaten back the Persian attempt at domination, than she set out, herself, to dominate the Greek world. Rome won freedom at home to destroy it abroad. Free Holland, free England, set forth to conquer a world. Italy, liberated, falls upon Tripoli. The Balkan nations unite to expel the domination of the Turk, and divide to impose domination on one another. Finally, the German nationality is no sooner established in security than it threatens that of every other people. Nationality, then, is respectable only when it is on its defense. When it is waging wars of liberation it is sacred. When it is waging wars of domination it is accursed. It is therefore an ideal only when it is associated with law and pace. And it is only in that association that the allies can desire to foster and secure it. They should seek on the one hand to deliver the nations that are suffering oppression, and on the other to prevent them in future from becoming oppressors themselves.

To achieve this the new rectification of frontiers will not suffice. Nothing can achieve it but toleration carried through with faith and courage in every state. Poland may be freed from Russian and German and Austrian domination; but that, of itself, will not free Polish Jews from domination by Poles. The Serbs may be freed from Hungary, but that, of itself, will not free the Turks or Greeks or Bulgars who may still be included in a greater Servia. It is impossible to make territorial boundaries correspond accurately with nationality. A change of heart is therefore as necessary s a change of frontiers and allegiance. Still, since changes of frontiers will and shall be made, the Allies, if they stand for the ideal of freedom, must see that such changes are made with a view only to the desires and the well-being of the peoples to be transferred, and not with a view to the aggrandizement of the victors. Every German colony that the English or French may take for the sake of their own power, will be a proof that they have abandoned the ideal of freedom. The English, through their Prime Minister, have said that they seek no territory. Let them prove it to the world, or stand self-convicted of hypocrisy.

The settlement of Europe, in such a way as to deliver nationalities from oppression, so far as that can be done by political arrangements, and so far as territory comes up for readjustment, will itself make for the other great purposes of the war, the substitution of law for force, and therefore, and in consequence, the maintenance of peace. The only wars between civilized nations that are justifiable are wars of defense. But there can be no defense without offense. Let the nations, having acquired the right to govern themselves, do so in peace without aggressive ambition. That must be the rule for the new Europe. But it too implies a change of heart. It implies the abandonment of the base and crude ambition that hitherto has dominated states, and the substitution of a noble ideal of free and progressive personality.

States hitherto have measured their worth in terms of population, territory, and power. That estimate leads them inevitably to war. For while they are governed by it they must always desire to expand at the cost of one another. Every war in Europe since the wars of religion may be traced to this cause. And even the wars so-called of religion were largely wars for power. The wars of nationality in the nineteenth century were reactions against this false ideal. Yet the nations that reacted have not discovered or pursued a truer one. There can be no peace, not even genuine desire for peace, until men realize that the greatness of a people depends upon the quality of life of the individual citizens. A city like Athens or Florence is worth all the empires that have ever been. A state of a few thousands among whom should be found a Socrates, a Michelangelo, a Goethe, outweighs beyond all calculation one whose gross insignificant millions shall be dragooned by the drill sergeant and sophisticated by the university professor.

The nobility of a people lies not in its capacity for war, but in its capacity for peace. It is indeed only because the nations are incapable of the one that they plunge so readily into the other. If they had the power of living they would neither endure to kill, nor desire to die. The task of war is to destroy life; the task of peace is to create it; to organize labor so that it shall not incapacitate men for leisure; to establish justice as a foundation for personality; to unfold in men the capacity for noble joy and profound sorrow; to liberate them for the passion of love, the perception of beauty, the contemplation of truth. Of all these things war is the enemy. All men of profound experience have known this, — not the teachers of religion only, but the prophets of secular life. Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Shelley, preach peace no less than Jesus Christ or Francis of Assisi or George Fox. For peace is not a negative ideal; it is the condition of all positive ones. In war man seeks escape from life in blind intoxication. In peace he discovers and fulfills life by impassioned reason. It is because our peace is so bad that we fall into war. But every war makes our peace worse. If men had given to the creation of life a tithe of the devotion they have offered again and again to its destruction, they would have made of this world so glorious a place that they would not need to take refuge from it in the shambles. It is our false ideals that make for war. And it is the feebleness of our intelligence and the pettiness of our passions that permit such ideals to master us. We seek collective power because we are incapable of individual greatness. We seek extension of territory because we cannot utilize the territory we have. We seek to be many because none of us is able to be properly one. Once more we are witnessing whither that course must lead us. Once more we are witnessing the vast and vile futility of war. Once more we shall recover reeling from the horrible intoxication in which we have taken refuge, to look with dismay on our bloody hands, and the bloody work they have achieved. Once more we shall have a chance of learning the lesson. Shall we learn it? I cannot tell.

But I hope. I hope because of the young. And to them I now turn. To you, young men, it has been given by a tragic fate to see with your eyes and hear with your ears what war really is. Old men made it, but you must wage it, — with what courage, with what generosity, with what sacrifice, I well know. If you return from this ordeal, remember what it has been. Do not listen to the shouts of victory; do not snuff the incense of applause. But keep your inner vision fixed on the facts you have faced. You have seen battleships, bayonets, and guns, and you know them for what they are, forms of evil thought. Think other thoughts, love other loves, youth of England and of the world! You have been through hell and purgatory. Climb now the rocky and stair that leads to the sacred mount. The guide of tradition leaves you here. Guide now yourselves and us! Believe in the future, for none but you can. Believe in what is called the impossible, for it waits the help of your hands to show itself to be the inevitable. Of it and of all our hopes, the old, the disillusioned, the gross, the practitioners of the world are the foes. Be you the friends! Take up the thought and give it shape in act! You can and you alone. It is for that you have suffered. It is for that you have gained vision. And in your ears for your inspiration rings the great sentence for the poet—

‘Libero, dritto, sano e lo tuo arbitrio,
E fallo fora non fare a suo senno,
Per ch’io te sopra te corono e mitrio.’3

  1. This passage is referred to in Prince von Bülow’s book, Imperial Germany (p. 99, English translation), as illustrating English feeling against Germany. – The Author.
  2. I use this term in the sense of a system in which one state or nation imposes its power by force on other states or nations. – The Author.
  3. ‘Free, right, and sane is they will, and it will be base not to act at its bidding. Wherefore I crown and mitre thee lord over thyself.’