I passed the months of March and April, 1919, in Paris. Can you guess by what remote symbol my imagination was obsessed during those two months? — the Tower of Babel! For the first time it seemed to me that I understood the profound significance of that passage in the Bible, which had always left an impression of enigmatic and slightly bizarre obscurity in my mind. I am almost tempted to say that during those two months I saw with my own eyes the confusion of tongues and dispersion of peoples actually come to pass in the very heart of Paris. Not until some later day shall we learn how many mistakes were made and how much time was lost by the representatives of all mankind at Paris, because they had not one, and only one, language with which all were familiar.
But a more serious matter than the confusion of speech was the confusion of mind. What a chaos! Those things which, to some, were good and righteous and just, were to others evil and vengeful and oppressive. The doctrines which during the war had been anathematized most vehemently, which had been made synonymous with Germany and her cause, reappeared, scarcely disguised, at the Congress, in the train of the victors, like official advisers of the policies to be followed in the reorganization of Europe and Asia. President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, accepted on the conclusion of the Armistice, by victors and vanquished alike, as the basis of the peace to be arrived at by mutual consent, proved three months later to be nothing more than an immense misunderstanding. Being a little vague in the author’s mind and in the original draft, they were, day after day, ridiculed, discredited, distorted, sometimes applied in part, sometimes laid aside, now interpreted in one sense, and the next day in a sense directly contrary—and most frequently adopted with compromises which changed their meanings or reduced them to mere ironical plays upon words.
In this endless confusion, discussion, instead of allaying discord, aroused it by inflaming men’s passions. From day to day one felt that the peoples concerned, whose unity the peace was supposed to reconstruct, were becoming disgusted with one another, and asked nothing more than to be left to themselves, each with its selfishness and its animosities. (I have often wondered what the capital of France would have been if the enemy’s representatives had been admitted to the Congress, as they were to the Congress of Vienna, a hundred and five years ago.) After the confusion of tongues followed the dispersion of men. The nations turned their backs on one another, and departed, each to its solitary fate.
Such seems to be the tragic epilogue of the most tragic of wars. And yet, only six years since, in the early months of 1914, Western civilization seemed to be a unit. We believed that we knew what we meant when we spoke of ‘good and evil,’ ‘right and violence,’ ‘justice and oppression,’ ‘liberty and despotism.’ And when Germany, in a frenzied outburst of pride and ambition, shattered that unity, we believed that we were in accord. But that was, again, a delusion. No sooner was the Armistice signed than the confusion of tongues became universal.
How did it happen? Why? What is this new Tower of Babel, which sees the ancient miracle reënacted at its feet? Such is the fateful question of life or death with which Western civilization is confronted. Let us try to solve it without fear and without shrinking; for it is a problem the solution of which demands, not only profound thought, but a fearless spirit.
Numerous are they who lay the blame for this confusion of tongues upon Mr. Wilson and the idealists, of whom, in Europe, at least, Mr. Wilson was momentarily the idol. Some have essayed to represent the world-war as a war of principle; but all those pleasing doctrines, more or less celebrated, for whose advancement the war was supposed to have been fought, could have no other result, according to this school of thought, than endless confusion, when imported into a discussion of things political and military, in which it was necessary to grasp realities and not to go hunting phantoms. And the realities were the inevitable conflict of ambitions and interests, the unconquerable selfishness of nations and states the supreme and final judgment of force. On the other hand, right, justice, the principle of nationality, the liberty of the peoples are the phantoms: mere words, when it comes to the great conflicts of history which force, and force only, can decide.
The current was much stronger at the Congress than one would have said, judging by appearances alone. It was concealed; but it was functioning vigorously beneath the official phraseology, which was more or less courteous to the Fourteen Points and their author, but quite out of tune with opinions of the American President and his activities expressed in private conversations. But the strength of the current appears in the decisions of the Congress. The peace is the more or less harmonious result of divergent predispositions and ideas. But among these predispositions and ideas the most manifest of all—the one which has exerted the greatest influence and which has imparted its character to the various treaties concluded down to the present time—is that which might be called the ‘Napoleonic’ idea.
The peace concluded at Paris in 1919 did not, like that concluded at Vienna in 1815, undertake to reorganize Europe, according to a plan mutually agreed upon by victors and vanquished: it attempted to reduce to impotence the enemies of the victorious alliance by territorial amputations, by imposing disarmament upon the vanquished, by the creation of a certain number of new states, whose duty it shall be to hold in check the powers which were responsible for the world-war, and especially the most dangerous of them—Germany. This peace resembles those which were made by Napoleon during the last years of his reign (and which lasted so short a time) far more closely than it resembles the peace of Vienna, which was based on the principle of legitimate sovereignty. It is no exaggeration to say that the treaties signed at Versailles and at Saint-Germain are pure Bonaparte, tempered by a certain respect for the principle of nationality. Whenever it was possible to take advantage of that principle, to create new states or strengthen old ones, it was done.
It is clear that such a peace, however excellent it may be in itself, bears very little resemblance to a peace based upon such principles as President Wilson and the idealists had in mind. It is clear, also, that the attempt to conclude a ‘Napoleonic’ peace, under cover of a discussion of principles which are its very antithesis, was certain to cause great confusion. The opponents of President Wilson are right, in a certain degree, when they say that, if the question of principles had not been raised; if the peoples had not been led to believe that ‘justice’ and ‘right’ could decide such a conflict; if everybody had boldly faced the ‘realities,’ the confusion of tongues would not have come to pass, and the treaty of peace would have been more coherent. But it remains to be seen if it was possible not to raise the question of principles, and if, as many people in Europe seem to think, justice and right, self-determination of peoples, the principle of nationality, the League of Nations, are all an invention of Mr. Wilson and the small knot of dreaming idealists, or something more profound. There lies the whole question.
There is no doubt that, if Western civilization were disposed, following the example of certain periods and certain nations, to bow, always without discussion, to the decrees of the God of Battle, as being just in themselves, President Wilson and all the other idealists would have been embarrassingly in the way. Their action could not fail to put bounds to the sovereign and absolute rights which victory conferred over the political map of the world. But such a conception of war and of victory is possible only in civilizations completely under the domination of the military element. Only men of war can look upon war as a game, the result of which is accepted beforehand as just, without discussion, and by a sort of professional convention. According to this theory, winning a war is the same thing as winning a game of cards. The victor is entitled to enjoy his victory in the same measure in which his adversary would have enjoyed it if the war god had pronounced in his favor; just as the lucky gambler is entitled to pocket the cash of the opponent, who, had fortune been different, would have taken his. That is why Napoleon, who was a great soldier, but a soldier pure and simple, thought himself entitled to destroy and remake enemy states, just as his adversaries would have utterly destroyed his Empire if they had beaten him.
But this theory of war can no longer be entertained by the people, the masses, the civil elements, in an ancient civilization like that of Western Europe. Nations cannot be interested in war as a game forming an end in itself, but must look upon it as a means of gratifying certain passions or of defending certain interests. Now, among these passions justice must have its place, for the very reason that war may readily do violence to it. Victory is capricious: it passes from one combatant to the other while, in most cases, the human intellect cannot grasp very clearly the reason for the change. Professional soldiers may accept these freaks of fortune; but peoples, on the contrary, will never agree that their property, their independence, their liberty, their existence hang on the result of a battle or a war; that is to say, of events to which no one possesses the mysterious key.
One understands, too, why the whole history of civilization is an effort to erect for states and peoples, under varying forms, guaranties against the caprices of the god of war, and to withdraw them from the blind régime of omnipotent force. The solutions of this problem which have been put forward, while differing widely in form, can all, in substance, be reduced to two: either to limit the development of force itself, in such wise that one can regard with indifference the justice or injustice of these solutions because they can never seriously threaten the essential wellbeing of the vanquished; or to allow force to develop freely, but to subject it to a moral discipline which will prevent it from violating right and justice.
The first solution is the easier. To it many civilized peoples have had recourse in the past—in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, for example. The great writers on international law of the eighteenth century—Vattel, for instance—maintain that, if there be just and unjust wars, the justice or injustice of war is a question which concerns only natural law, that is to say, the conscience of sovereigns, and their responsibility at the bar of history and of God. In practice and in reality, these writers advised each belligerent, as a matter of convention, to regard the adversary’s cause as no less than his own, and never to claim to be the representative of righteousness against force and violence.
This doctrine, superficially considered, may well seem to us absurd and almost immoral; but by what arguments did these authors justify it? They said that, without this convention, there was neither code of law nor authority to decide the question of right and wrong as between the belligerent states; that each people would be the judge of its own cause; and so each would be convinced that it alone was in the right, and that all the offenses were the adversary’s. Consequently wars would come to be endless and universal. They would be endless because neither party would yield until its powers were exhausted; and the one that did yield would yield only to begin again as soon as it was in a position to do so; for justice demands that all wrongs be redressed. They would become universal, because every people, being convinced that it was defending no mere political interest but the supreme blessings of life, would seek to make sure of every prop it could find.
Thus conceived and justified, we cannot deny that this doctrine is profoundly and humanly true, but only on one condition: that the war does not threaten the essential well-being of the belligerents. It would be absurd to ask a state to admit that its enemy’s cause is as just as its own, when it is called upon to fight for its existence against an adversary who is determined, if victorious, to annihilate it.
Thus it was in the eighteenth century. The monarchies of that day waged a limited, conventionalized warfare which the strategists of the nineteenth century held in great contempt. But this conventional warfare was simply one method of making force less dangerous even in its most unjust caprices, by limiting the resources at its disposal; and of rendering useless the dangerous discussions concerning the justice of wars of their results.
The nineteenth century shattered this limited, conventionalized conception of war: the French Revolution and Napoleon substituted for it what Marshal Foch calls ‘absolute’—that is to say, unlimited—war, which recognizes as legitimate all possible methods of annihilating the enemy as rapidly as may be. This is a purely technical conception of war, evolved by military circles, which succeeded in imposing itself temporarily upon the world, thanks to the upheaval of Europe caused by the French Revolution.
But the conscience of the nations was not slow to react, at the Congress of Vienna. That Congress was, despite certain errors, — as with respect to Belgium, — a very serious attempt to make the states of Europe and their relations subject to a body of principles which would have the effect of immunizing them form the most dangerous caprices of force. We forgot this too readily in the midst of the civil wars which rent Europe asunder during the nineteenth century. Indeed, people came finally to believe that the principle of nationality was invented by the Prince de Talleyrand, the better to deceive all the world. But the Prince de Talleyrand was a more profound intellect than his futile detractors imagine; he was, in truth, one of the most profound intellects in the political history of the century; and posterity has thus far failed to realize the immense service he rendered to Europe, by finding this principle of unity still living in European monarchy, and adapting it, by an ingenious generalization, to the needs of a period which had taken from monarchy a part of its consecrated character and created other forms of government. Legitimate sovereignty, conceived as the consecration of governments by lapse of time, was to the Congress of Vienna a sacrosanct principle before which force, even victory itself, must of necessity bend the knee. At that Congress it played the part which the Fourteen Points should have played at Paris. By accepting it as the basis of the new order of things, the Congress of Vienna avowed, much more frankly and definitely than the Congress of Paris, that force alone, as Talleyrand said, creates no right.
After the French Revolution, then, Europe adopted the second solution of the great problem of force and justice in the world. Powerless to revert to the limited, conventional type of warfare, it subjected force to a principle destined to prevent it from committing excesses. This principle, derived from the past and adapted to the present, was strong enough and vital enough to ensure thirty years of peace to Europe. But it was not strong enough to control completely, and unaided, the life and history of Europe.
The Revolution of 1848 gave birth to a new principle, or, to be exact, to several new principles, which had germinated in obscurity during the thirty-three years of peace, safeguarded by the principle of legitimacy. They were the principle of nationality, the right of peoples to be free, and the obligation to respect their will. These principles had their birth in a noble sentiment, but they were all very vague, and had not, like the principle of legitimacy, a solid foundation in tradition and reason. By setting themselves up in opposition to the principle of legitimacy, as the representatives of a new and better world, they succeeded in weakening it, without the power to take its place and perform its functions with equal force.
More and more, as these new principles permeated the universal conscience, Western civilization came to regard as essential to its happiness a social order in which force should reject certain principles of right and justice. But it did not know how to formulate these principles with the clarity and definiteness which they required in order to govern the world; it could not recognize any authority charged with the duty of deciding doubtful questions, and of imposing respect for these principles upon the passions and selfish interests which might have sought to violate them. In its eyes justice and right were not empty words; they were, on the contrary, living, but still sadly confused, realities, which it ardently desired, but knew not how or where to obtain.
As the principles capable of imposing respect for right and justice grew weaker, the material resources which the states had at their disposal increased to a fabulous degree. The doctrine of ‘unconditional’ war, the military institutions of the French Revolution, the development of industry and of wealth, created gradually the most gigantic armies that the world had yet seen.
Thereupon a terrible tragedy began in the history of Western civilization—a tragedy which the great writers on international law of the eighteenth century, unconscious prophets, ahd predicted to their heedless grandsons. The first act of this tragedy was 1870, the last and greatest of the wars growing out of the turmoil in which the Revolution of 1848 had involved Europe. For the first time a great power declared that it considered as of no effect a treaty imposed upon it by force, at the end of an unsuccessful war, because it violated an indefeasible right of the people of Alsace and Lorraine. For the first time the doctrine that there are such things as rights of populations, superior to force, of which governments cannot dispose, issued form men’s lips and in revolutionary speeches and programmes, to become the guiding principle of the politics of one of the great states of Europe.
It was a tremendous revolution in the history of Western civilization; but, like all revolutions, it should have been carried to its extremest consequences. A new body of international law should have been created, with its doctrines and its organs, which should have defined the rights of peoples before which force must lay down its arms. If we admit that a treaty is invalid when it violates these principles, and if we permit a people to define its own rights in its own way, then will come to pass what was foreseen by the great writers of international law in the eighteenth century: no treaty will have any value whatsoever, and a state of war will become permanent and peace an absolute impossibility. Every state will declare to be of no effect, as contrary to right and justice, all treaties which do not happen to suit it. It will simply have to adopt the definition of ‘right’ and ‘justice’ which its own desires and ambitions demand at any given time.
Europe did not realize the perilous situation which was destined to develop gradually as a result of this great incomplete revolution. France maintained as against Germany, arrogant in her ever-increasing strength, the principle that the right of the peoples is to be regarded as sacred; but she dared not go further and lay the foundation of the new international law which would have justified her protest by making it more definite. Weakened by the violence which she had undergone, by internal disturbances, by the distrust which encompassed her, by the ineradicable contradiction between the tendencies which had rent her for three centuries, she retired within herself, in an attitude of immutable but passive protest.
Europe looked on at this species of inactive duel between right and force, with a curiosity not exempt from a sort of malevolent irony, as if it were a matter which concerned Germany and France alone. But gradually an increasing sense of discomfort spread throughout Europe. Cast a glance at the forty-three years between the treaty of Frankfort and the world-war; how deep-seated was the universal distrust pervading those years, which should by rights have been among the most brilliant in history! Why was it that the vast riches accumulated in that long period of peace gave to the world neither tranquility nor happiness? It was because during that period Europe enjoyed only an apparent peace. The war declared on July 18, 1870, really continued without remission. The treaty of Frankfort was no more than an armistice. A peace which, in the eyes of the vanquished, is but an iniquitous imposition of violence, is a mere truce so long as the vanquished has some chance of shaking off the yoke and of making an attempt to wreak vengeance, either alone or with allies. The sole guaranty of the treaty is the force which imposed it. In fact, from the treaty of Frankfort sprang the unlimited rivalry in armaments and the diplomatic contest for alliances which resulted in the world-war; both were simply desperate efforts to preserve by force a situation which force had created by imposing that treaty upon the vanquished.
And the tragedy has not come to an end with the world-war—far from it. We must have the courage to see and to speak the truth. That war, waged for the triumph of justice,t hreatens to extend this tragic situation throughout Europe. It has shown us how strong, even in their lack of definiteness, are the sentiments which we express by the words justice, right, liberty of the people. Except for these vague phrases, and except for the emotion they have the power to awaken, no state would have been capable of arousing the various peoples to the enormous effort of the war. The strength of these sentiments was so great that even the aggressors tried to utilize it. They did all they could—in part successfully—to make their people believe that they too were fighting for justice and for liberty. The very enormity of the act of violence of which the world was a victim for four years, and the extent of the danger incurred by all the belligerent states, were sure to carry to extremes in men’s minds the sentiments of justice and right. But the exaltation of sentiment was not accompanied, either during the war or afterward, by any serious effort to give precision to the meaning of the words. In what sense should we understand the right of peoples to dispose of themselves? What must we understand by ‘nationality’ and by ‘self-determination’? And what are to be the principles and the instruments of the international law of the future? These are the points upon which no one has sought to acquire precise information. All the peoples are left at liberty to define right and justice as they please; consequently they have found in their consciences only a very weak resistance to the dangerous passion which victory was fatally certain to arouse in them. This passion, most dangerous in itself, and by reason of the paroxysmal heights to which victory has excited it, is the one which seemed to be a great force, whereas it is in reality a great weakness, of the Western world—its bland and artless confidence in its own omnipotence.
This point is so important for a true comprehension of the terrible crisis in which Europe is now struggling, that I shall dwell upon it for a moment, at the cost of making a slight digression. Western civilization has made great strides in the past century: its learning, its wealth, the power which it has achieved with the aid of its discoveries and its inventions, have intoxicated it. At the same time that it called upon justice to regulate the relations between nations and to reign over the world, it gradually lost all idea of what was possible, and of the limitation of its powers in all spheres of activity. The world-war, a ghastly mirror wherein Western civilization might detect all its deformities, was. Decisive proof of this tragic contradiction. It was to the powers attacked a war of right and justice; but it was also, for everybody involved, a series of frenzied assaults upon human nature, in order to obtain from it the impossible; as if the impossible had become the simplest and most natural thing in the world.
How amazed future historians will be at this amazing blindness! We took millions of men, educated in peace and for peace; we tore them, day by day, from their homes, from their families, from their private affairs, and, after a few weeks of instruction, we hurled them into the horrors and terrors of the bloodiest war that has ever ravished the earth; we subjected societies accustomed for three or four generations to the enjoyment of full political and economic freedom to the most arbitrary despotism. Certain men, all of them raised to power during this period by the hazard of the most trivial parliamentary combinations, disposed, during three or four years, of the property and the liberty and lives of millions of other men, with the boundless power wielded by Louis the Fourteenth of Diocletian; yet no one was surprised.
Day by day it was necessary, in order to carry on the war, to consume the wealth accumulated by three generations. In four years Europe destroyed the ingenious system by which it drew raw materials and harvests from other continents and supported a dense population; it converted the credits which it possessed all over the world into debts; it lost a part of the clientele which throughout the world fed its industries and kept its agriculture alive; it condemned itself to depopulation and to prolonged destitution. But the masses went through the crisis, being fully persuaded that the world was the richer for it, and that Western civilization was capable of causing wealth to flow even form destruction. Victory carried to the point of frenzy this blind confidence in the possibility of the impossible. The war came to an end with the complete destruction of two empires and the almost complete destruction of a third. A fourth empire had already disappeared during the war. These four countries governed almost one half of Europe and Asia. Nothing takes longer and is more difficult to create than a government; but how many people have seen and measured with their eyes the enormous abyss which is yawning in Europe and Asia? The great majority regarded all these occurrences as perfectly natural; and, especially since the victory, has had no fear that the consequences of this catastrophe would affect the whole world. It was well acquainted with the ministers and diplomatists who were to meet in Paris; it knew that they were men, because it had spewed them out and assailed them with insults, like servants, a hundred times before that day; yet it expected, and still expects, from these men, with naïve confidence, a miracle which only gods could bring to pass. The peoples have believed, and still believe, that a few ministers and diplomats, assembled in Paris, pen in hand, before a map, could in a few weeks reconstruct the work of centuries, create a new order out of the chaos and void left by the crumbling of four empires, and restore peace and prosperity to the world after such horrifying destruction!
Everybody recalls this frenzied excitement of the nations after the victory, because everybody took part in it, more or less. The craving for peace and justice was not extinct in men’s hearts; but the principles which were to have bestowed that peace upon the world were sorely vague and ill-defined, and they became still more confused through the action of the passions roused by victory, especially through the action of that exalted confidence in their own omnipotence which victory inspired in the various governments. It was so easy for each people to persuade itself that whatever is desired—even vengeance and oppression of the vanquished—was right and justice! The statesmen, skeptics by profession, had never had a very lively faith in the principles of liberty and justice about which they had prated so much during the war; they believed in the superior rights of force, all the more strongly because they imagined that they possessed it; and because they were subjected, after victory, to the influence of the military element.
In fine, the confidence of the peoples in their omnipotence—the prevailing malady of the age—being over-stimulated by victory, was destined inevitably to infect them. Napoleon did not believe in the boundless power of his will until after the legendary triumphs of a unique career. But he was of an epoch when men were more distrustful of themselves than we are. Nothing on earth could have made the men who negotiated treaties in those days believe that there would come a day, toward the end of a war, when they would be as gods, creating states and nations by a frown. And yet not one of them had the slightest difficulty in deeming himself a god, for at least a year of his life.
Thus it is that the peace of Paris, in the end, contrary to all preconceived ideas, bears a much greater resemblance to Napoleon’s great treaties than to the peace of Vienna. The subtle, ingenious, and sometimes chimerical schemes of force had much more weight therein than the application of any moral principle. We cannot say that the principle of nationality, which should have played in the Congress of Paris the rôle played at Vienna by the principle of legitimacy, was altogether neglected. But the attempt was made to combine it with the self-seeking designs of force by creating, in the name of the principle of nationality, great states too often composed of divergent and more or less hostile national elements. The peoples looked on at what was being done because they had no comprehension of it; indeed, they could have none, for they themselves had no precise conception of what they demanded in the name of right and justice.
But the sentiment which they meant to express by those words still exists, and is beginning already to manifest itself anew. The tragedy predicted by the great writers of the eighteenth century is bound to continue, spreading now from France and Germany to the whole of Europe. There is no room for illusions: the Germans will adopt toward the treaty of Versailles the same attitude that the French adopted toward the treaty of Frankfort. They will say that it violates the principles of President Wilson, and the rights of free peoples, as they define those rights to suit the necessities of their cause; that it is, therefore, null and void, and that they submit to it simply because it is imposed upon them by force.
All the peoples who are dissatisfied, for any reason, with the treaties which have reconstituted Europe will do the same; so that there will be no other guaranty of public order than force.
The consequences of such a situation it is easy to foresee, at least in their general tenor; and they seem likely to be especially serious in the states which the treaties of Versailles and Saint-Germain have built upon the ruins of the former Austrian Empire. In the construction of these new states the mixture of the principle of nationality with the crafty scheming of force is more evident than in the mere transformations of former states. There have been constituted states which are half-national, like the great states of the West, and half-imperialistic, as were the former Austrian and Russian empires, in the hope that they will checkmate the expansion of Germanism.
The future will tell us in what measure this hope can be fulfilled; but without seeking to assume the mantle of the prophet, one may for the moment wonder what authority these states will possess over the peoples which belong to other nationalities. Ancient states may be able with comparative ease to impose their sway upon a different race, because they have the prestige and authority born of lapse of time—according to Talleyrand, the most potent source of legitimacy. Although the awakening of the spirit of nationality in the Austrian Empire began in the first half of the nineteenth century, the prestige of the crown of the Hapsburgs was able to hold together until 1914 Slavs, Hungarians, and Germans, in a single state. But it would be rash to believe, for example, that Professor Masaryk’s republic will enjoy the same prestige in the eyes of Hungarians and Germans that the Conference of Paris has ascribed to it; that the Hungarians and Germans will regard it as their legitimate government and will hold themselves bound to obey it. Sacred in the eyes of the Czechs, as the expression of their nationality, and therefore legitimate, the new republic will be, in the eyes of the other nationalities, a foreign government, imposed upon them by force, without a single element of legitimacy.
Every people will consider itself at liberty to rebel whenever it has the power. Thus the foundation of these new states, so far as their non-national subjects are concerned, will be mere brute force, unless they discover some means of satisfying the national consciences of all the nationalities included within their boundaries, as Switzerland has succeeded in doing. Aside from this possibility, which at this moment seems most problematical, these states will be compelled to apply to their non-national subjects a system of government much more harsh and oppressive than that of Austria. And this will be still another paradoxical result of a war in which so much blood has been shed in the cause of liberty of the peoples!
So, then, the confusion of tongues which has come about at Paris is the consequence of a deep-seated and serious disease which is undermining Western civilization. This disease is manifested in an impotent aspiration toward a world-order based upon justice. This aspiration is vigorous and sincere, for it has sprung, not form a morbid degeneracy of sentiment, but from a vital necessity. But for it, Western civilization would be enslaved, and would in time be destroyed by the most monstrous aggregation of the elements of force which the genius of man has ever been able to create. But this aspiration is impossible of fulfillment, for the doctrines and institutions essential to such fulfillment are lacking. The Congress of Vienna discovered one principle which was capable of bringing a little order into war-ravaged Europe. The Congress of Paris has not discovered such a one, because all those of which it tried to make use were vague expedients of the moment.
The crisis is serious, and cannot be averted unless Western civilization shall find some principle of union—a common language, an Esperanto of the spirit if not of the flesh. Now such a principle can be found only in the principle of nationality, understood and loyally applied in its strict, definite signification, as a principle of right, after the style of the principle of legitimacy; or in universally accepted doctrines—supra-natural, so to speak—which will make it possible, and even desirable, for different races and peoples to live under the same government.
I shall not try to draw aside the veil of the future and guess which of the two solutions has the better chance of success. But I do not consider that I am putting forward too bold a hypothesis if I say that neither will be able to bestow upon Western civilization the peace and good order of which it stands in need, so long as men’s minds shall continue to be swayed by the overweening confidence in the omnipotence of the modern man, and by the intellectual confusion to which such confidence gives birth. So long as this confidence and this confusion shall endure, the tongues of men will become more and more confounded upon earth, and the generous doctrines of universal fraternity will serve only to kindle anew the flames of war.
Such has been the tragic destiny of Europe from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution: as soon as an idea of fraternity among men appears, wars, within and without, break forth anew, implacable and never-ending. How is this contradiction to be explained? Did not the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries derive this inspiring idea from Christianity, which inundated the world with love and benevolence? Aye; but they modified it by taking from it the profound pessimism which characterizes it in Christian doctrine, and substituting therefor an exalted confidence in human nature and in the unlimited power of its genius.
Therein lies the whole danger. Men have never felt themselves to be brothers in good-fortune, in pride, in ambition, in success, in the emotion born of conquest and of enjoyment of earthly blessings; but in the face of danger, in misfortune, in times of trial. Christianity could bid men to regard one another and to treat one another as brothers, because at the same time it told them that they were weak and imperfect creatures, needing to assist one another and always menaced by the enemy they held concealed within themselves. The nineteenth century, on the contrary, told men that they were brothers, but told them at the same time that they were destined, one and all, to be monarchs of the universe. And in order to be monarchs of the universe, men and nations, instead of embracing like brothers, threw themselves upon one another, arms in hand.
But the crucial days are drawing near; the peoples which make up Western civilization may to-day rediscover a deep-rooted sentiment of brotherhood in the consciousness of the common misery into which they have fallen. This is not the material poverty, dire as it is, which threatens directly the less wealthy peoples of Europe, and indirectly those most favored by fortune: it is the slavery to mere matter, which lies, an intolerable burden, upon us all. In order to attain the summit of power, in order to become rulers of the universe, we have created, by fire and the sword, instruments of formidable strength. They were intended to serve us as slaves: to give us wealth, power, freedom of spirit, dominion over time and space, ubiquity. They have given us certain of these almost divine privileges; but they have become our masters. Created to serve us, they rule, as tyrannical despots, all of Western civilization, awaiting the moment to devour it, a living victim.
What was, in reality, the phenomenon of over-production before the war, which was one of the causes of the awful catastrophe? It was simply production and consumption over and above all needs, which had become obligatory for Western civilization, and was forced upon whole peoples, in order to keep their economic system in operation. It was not the machinery which functioned to satisfy our needs: it was we who were fain to work and increase our needs in such measure as was necessary to keep all the existing machinery at work.
The war broke out. It has been defined as a war of materiel. The definition is exact enough, — at least, in a certain sense, — because weapons played a greater part in it than in other wars, to the disadvantage of the human factor. As in peace men were slaves of their trade, — of the lathe or the locomotive, — so in war they were slaves of the trench and the cannon. The length of the war, the torrents of blood that were shed, the prodigious expenditure, the superhuman fatigue of the troops—these are other consequences of this tyranny which the instrument exerts over its creator.
And, the war being at an end, do we not believe that this despotism of matter will manifest itself in new and unanticipated shapes? The most brilliant of civilizations threatens to be wiped out for lack of coal; intellectual life is strangled by the price of paper! The masses are in revolt to-day against this shocking tyranny; indolence, strikes, the hope of obtaining higher wages for fewer hours of work, are simply frenzied attempts to break the chain of this new slavery. But to-day, as always, the slave who tries to break his fetters, in an outburst of rage, does no more than wound his bruised limbs.
The secret of the way to recover freedom lies deeper than this. It is necessary that the instruments turn about and serve the master who created them, instead of directing him; and they will not so turn until the day when the master shall cease to ask them to give him a power incompatible with the laws of life and of human nature.
The questions of peace within and of peace without lead to the same conclusion: the first essential condition of salvation is a return to a clearer and more precise consciousness of the limits set by nature and by actualities to the longings and ambitions of Western civilization.
The task is hard: all the spiritual energy of our age will scarcely suffice to accomplish it; for we must needs overcome many passions, selfish motives, and prejudices. Let religion, art, literature, science, and politics unite to accomplish this mission and to save Western civilization from the blood-soaked destruction which otherwise may well befall it anew.
Let the League of Nations organize speedily, and with the necessary force to conquer the distrust and hatred which encompass it. Let it succeed, above all, in solving the capital question—that with which all others are connected: the question of armaments. It is in this matter of army organization that the frenzy of the unlimited, the disease of which Western civilization is dying, has manifested itself most violently and most menacingly. It is in the matter of army organization that the sense of what is possible, and of what I have called the human measure of our efforts, should first of all be born anew. If the unlimited rivalry in armaments between the great powers shall be renewed, at the present stage of economic exhaustion, political turmoil, and uncertainty between peace and war in which Europe is struggling, it is hard to see by what miracle we can avert a general war, which will bring the whole world, victors and vanquished, down to the same level of misery. The result of this policy will be bankruptcy, famine, and either a social revolution or a horrible despotism.
There is but one way to escape this danger: a general agreement between all the powers, Germany included. The principles which should underlie the agreement would seem to be two: an engagement on the part of the great European powers not to exceed a certain maximum of military and naval armaments, which should be the same for all, whatever the size of their population; and the creation of a code of maritime law, under the guaranty of all the powers, which will make the sea the common highway of mankind.
However great the obstacles in the way of reaching this agreement, they cannot be beyond the moral and intellectual powers of Western civilization; for we could not live on except on the condition that they are overcome. But if we do overcome them, the League of Nations will be the temple of justice, erected by wisdom, confronting the Tower of Babel, erected by pride; and in the shadow of that temple men will learn again to speak a common tongue.
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