The Great Political Crisis in Europe


THE world has not yet taken account of the political results of the world-war, independently of the purpose and plans of the men who seemed to be guiding events. It still reasons as if we were living on the morrow of the Treaty of Utrecht. It has thus far seen, and still sees, only victors and vanquished, as if nothing more were involved than a transfer of power and prestige from certain powers to certain others. It has not yet discovered that in March, 1917, one of the two political principles upon which the whole structure of social order in Europe rested — the monarchical principle — received a first crushing blow in the Russian Revolution; that it received a second blow — a decisive and fatal one—in November, 1918, when the empires of the Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns collapsed. It does not suspect, even yet, that the downfall of the monarchical principle in Europe is of capital importance; that it marks the close of a political crisis that began two centuries ago; and that Europe is in danger of finding itself without any principle of authority whatsoever.

A rapid, searching glance at the chief events of the last two centuries may cast some light upon the dense shadows of the future that encompass us.

Christian Europe, emerging gradually from the ruins of ancient civilization, had found a solution of the political problem which, within the limits of the religious ideas then predominant, was almost complete. She had attributed a consecrated character to all those governments, republican or monarchical, aristocratic or democratic, which were legitimate, that is, those that owed their origin to a lawful action of indisputable validity, or that had been legitimized by lapse of time.

Obedience to such governments was a duty imposed by God, whenever they did not demand something opposed to divine law. As for the mistakes and misdeeds of such legitimate governments— according to this theory, it would not do to attach too much importance to them, when they did not threaten to lead to general demoralization, because, the final goal of life being the moral and religious perfection of the individual, such perfection might be attained independently of the perfection of the government. The abuses perpetrated by governments injured those who perpetrated them much more than their victims: the latter incurred only material losses and sufferings, whereas the others burdened their consciences with a sin for which they would be called most severely to account.

This theory of government brought into accord the duty of the chiefs of the state to govern wisely, the right of the peoples to be governed wisely, and the necessity of a certain degree of tolerance of the mistakes and misdeeds of those in power. But, nearly perfect as it was, it could be maintained only within the limits of the religious ideas then predominant. It began to be undermined by the wave of incredulity that spread among the governing classes throughout Europe after the Thirty Years’ War — a war which, by openly using Catholicism and Protestantism as weapons in a great political struggle, became the first great school of religious skepticism in Europe. The eighteenth century confronted it with the philosophical and rationalistic system that resulted in the French Revolution. Authority is a human thing: it has its source in the will of those who obey it and who, consequently, have the right to control it. Thus the real sovereign is the people; and the law, in order to do justice, can give expression only to the people’s will.

It was a seductive theory, and it seduced the mind of an enlightened age, overflowing with confidence, but dissatisfied, for many reasons, with the régime to which it was subject, whose weakness and inertia, whose subjection to routine and respect for traditions and for vested rights it reprobated as tyranny.


The French Revolution attempted to apply the new principle. But the obstacles to its application were not slow in making themselves manifest, as soon as theory was translated into action. What was the people? How was its real will to be recognized? Through what organs could it express itself? Everyone knows how the French Revolution twisted and turned in its attempts to answer these questions. One has only to follow the numerous constitutions that it manufactured within a few years, to realize how difficult, was the application of the principle of popular sovereignty. Now it was universal suffrage, now double suffrage, and, again, a tax-payers suflrage, which seemed to it the genuine expression of the people’s will. And in the end that will became a mere formality to legitimize a military dictatorship, set up by force and functioning with an authority far more nearly absolute than that of the monarchy.

But these gropings about are readily explained when we turn our attention to the new sovereign that was destined to take the place of the former ones. The people, whose will was supposed to be the governing power of the state, showed that it had very little will and no sort of idea of governing; somet imes, indeed, it exhibited an inclination to renounce its authority and to set up anew the powers it was to supersede. Could the new sovereign be left at liberty to abdicate? The whole French Revolution was at grips with that insoluble contradiction; for it was, at bottom, the struggle of a relatively small number of exceptional men, in the name of popular sovereignty, against the deeprooted determination of the masses.

Thus all the systems of government based upon a principle so wavering and vague proved weak and unstable — even the military dictatorship, which was the final consummation of all the strivings of the Revolution. Sustained by its victories, it fell to pieces when victory deserted it. Shaken by a long succession of wars, agitated by the struggle between the two antagonistic principles, Europe thereupon made a mighty effort to reconcile them and to reëstablish a durable condition of order.

This was the task of the Congress of Vienna and of the Holy Alliance. While the Congress discussed the reconstruction of Europe on the basis of the principle of legitimacy, that is to say, the recognition of time and the affection of the peoples as legitimate claims to sovereign power, the majority of the great states were of the opinion that it was necessary to strengt hen the principle of legitimacy by the concession of representative institutions.

The legitimate dynasty was restored in France with the Charter. The Emperor of Russia aspired to the rôle of protector of liberty. The King of Prussia, likewise, promised his people a constitution. The Austrian Empire alone among the great states remained true to the doctrine of absolutism. The other great monarchies leaned more or less resolutely toward an accommodation of the two political principles, based upon the subordination of the new principle to the older one. The monarchy would continue to be the sovereign principle of the state, and the representative institutions would function under its guidance. Peace would facilitate this accommodation. Revolutionary ideas, aided by war, had shaken the foundations of monarchical institutions. The Holy Alliance would be a sort of truce between the monarchies, so that their contentions might not make the work of revolution too easy.

Put the attempt at an accommodation failed. In France the legitimate dynasty succeeded only by superhuman efforts in keeping the Chamber of Deputies in the subordinate position assigned to it by the Charter, although the Parliament was elected by a minority of wealthy men. The conflict between Crown and Parliament, between divine right and popular sovereignty, between the old aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, was endless, bitter, implacable. It contributed, by the apprehensions it aroused, to the victory,complete after 1821, of the absolutist party throughout Europe. Everywhere the ruling powers forgot, to grant the promised constitutions — divine right triumphed. In due time this triumph of divine right throughout Europe reacted upon France, where the ultra-legitimist party, under Charles X, carried the day.

The legitimate dynasty was overthrown in France. The principle of popular sovereignty emerged victorious from a bloody struggle of three days’ duration, in July, 1830. But it dared not carry its triumph to the end, proclaim a republic, and crown the people as sovereign of the realm. Even Lafayette himself hesitated; and when, on July 31, the Due d’Orléans appeared at the Hétel de Ville to do homage in his person to the sovereign people, he displayed on the balcony a tricolored flag. A group of adroit parliamentarians, led by a banker, Laffitte, arranged a new accommodation between the two principles: the bourgeois monarchy, or, as Louis Philippe himself described it, a throne surrounded by representative institutions. The King acknowledged the people, and the Parliament representing it, as the source of his authority; the hereditary peerage was abolished; the right of suffrage was slightly widened, albeit still strictly limited to taxpayers. The people, which governed France, was represented by 200,000 electors.

But the new accommodation was hardly more successful than the earlier one. The contradiction between a suffrage based on payment of taxes and the doctrine of the will of the people could still be tolerated under the legitimate monarchy, which asserted itself to be the supreme authority and accorded to the will of the people only a subordinate role. But the bourgeois monarchy simply exercised an authority delegated by the people, and was subject to the people, which had created it by virtue of its will. Could a paltry minority of 200,000 electors be recognized as the sovereign people? It was between 1830 and 1848, and by reaction from this unholy contradiction, that the doctrine of universal suffrage came to be the almost mystical expression of popular sovereignty.


The Revolution of 1848 was the great act of vengeance. France overthrew the bourgeois monarchy and proclaimed the sovereignty of the people in a republic founded upon universal suffrage. Europe followed her example, rose almost as a whole against absolute monarchy, and demanded constitutions. The uprising was so powerful that all the monarchies except Russia were forced to yield to it —even Prussia and Austria. As in France, universal suffrage was declared to be the source of all authority, in lieu of God, in almost all the great states of Europe. But thereupon, on a larger scale, was repeated what had already happened less manifestly at the time of the Revolution: when the first enthusiasm had died down, universal suffrage hesitated to accept the supreme power; it distrusted its own strength; it looked about in quest of props, and finally turned to the old-time principle of authority, which it was to have supplanted, in order to cast the burden of responsibility upon it.

The National Assembly elected in France, in 1848, by universal suffrage was made up, as to one half, of partisans of the old monarchical régime; and the other half was divided between a large majority of improvised republicans and a small minority of sincere and fervent republicans. Its will was so confused and vague, its confidence in its own authority so feeble, its action so far from energetic, that great disorder spread over the whole of France. The Revolution soon found itself confronted by this paradoxical problem: Has universal suffrage, which happens to be the sovereign power, the right to renounce its supreme authority in favor of the old régime? In the bloody days of June, 1848, the extreme Left wing of the Republican party rose against the Assembly and universal suffrage, which it accused of betraying the Revolution! It was beaten; universal suffrage remained, in theory, the master of the State; but it grew feebler and feebler, more and more discouraged, in face of the increasing internal and external difficulties, down to the day when, being called upon to elect a president of the Republic, it chose Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Emperor; that is to say, it assumed the chapeau and sword of the first Napoleon, to give itself the bearing of a genuine sovereign. From that day the fate of the Republic was sealed: universal suffrage was ere long to serve no other end than to legitimize a military monarchy established by a coup d’état on the prestige of a name.

The same drama was enacted, more rapidly and under simpler forms, in Germany. What did the Parliament of Frankfort look about for, almost as soon as it had been chosen by universal suffrage? An emperor for all Germany! It had no other ambition than to replace the Pope of the Middle Ages by a modern emperor. It addressed itsell to the Emperor of Austria, to the Archduke John, to the King of Prussia; and when it. found that all its appeals were fruitless, it allowed itself to be dissolved without much resistance, as if it had nothing further to do.

Thus the Revolution of ’48 came to naught on all sides. Popular sovereignty endured but an instant. Timid and distrustful constitutions, which made representative institut ions subordinate to the monarchical power, as in the Charter of Louis XVIII — these were all that was left in those countries where absolutism did not succeed, as it did in Austria, in withdrawing all the concessions made. The check was so complete that democratic parties and democratic doctrines were disheartened by it for three generations.

But the victorious principle — divine right — was no less weakened by its victory, than the vanquished principle by its defeat: that is the tragic contradiction of 1848, which is the key to the whole history of Europe down to the world-war. The victorious principle was weakened, not only by the concessions it was forced to make before the menace of revolution, and by the parliamentary institutions established after 1848 by almost all the great states, but also by the discords that grew up between thegreat and small monarchies.

The Revolution of ’48, although it did not uproot monarchy from European soil, did shatter the Holy Alliance — the truce between the monarchies. France, under the rule of Napoleon’s nephew, could no longer form a part of a system which was organized against the new Emperor’s family. The King of Sardinia, first of all, had had the courage in 1848 to tear up the treaties of 1815 by declaring war against the Austrian Empire. The Parliament of Frankfort, even if it had not found an emperor, had succeeded in sowing distrust and suspicion between Prussia and Austria by offering its crown to the King of Prussia. The Crimean War was destined soon to embroil the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs for all time. The concord between the three great Northern courts, which was, in the plan of the Holy Alliance, the foundation of monarchical power in Europe, was shattered forever; Europe was, as it were, abandoned to herself, in a condition of uneasy confusion, full of discords.

Victor Emmanuel II and Cavour were the first to take advantage of this confusion, or of these discords. By making the most of the jealousy and suspicion that the reëstablishment of the Empire in France had aroused between that power and Austria, they succeeded in drawing Napoleon III into a war against the Empire of the Hapsburgs. By waving the banner of liberalism and constitutionalism, they succeeded, after Solferino, in stirring up a movement of wide extent 1 hroughout the Italian peninsula, which enabled them to unite it into a single state.

But events in Italy would not of themselves have sufficed to draw Europe forth from her state of uncertainty, had not Piedmont opened the road for Prussia. By a stroke of extraordinary audacity, Bismarck succeeded in putting an end to the uncertain situation created throughout Europe by the Revolution of '48, to the profit, of Germany and the monarchical principle. Taking advantage of the discord that the Revolution of ’48, the Crimean War, the Italian War, and the Polish Revolution had sown between Austria and Russia, bet ween Russia and France, and between France and England; making use of the reorganized Prussian army and of the revolutionary doctrine of universal suffrage, he succeeded, against the wishes of the Prussian Parliament, in whipping Austria, and in founding the North German Confederation under the hegemony of Prussia; he hurled the Confederation against France, and founded the German Empire, under a monarch by divine right and with a Parliament chosen by universal suffrage.


Bismarck seems, then, to have solved the problem that Louis XVIII and Charles X had been unable to solve: to cause the monarchical principle and the democratic principle to collaborate by subordinating the last-named to the first. For forty-four years Germany carried out successfully the political system that had brought about the downfall of the legitimate dynasty in France, in 1830. That is why the War of 1870 appeared to the conservative parties of the entire world as the vengeance of monarchy on the Revolution of ’48 — the impressive triumph of the monarchical principle. For forty-four years thereafter that principle seemed to strengthen its position to such a. degree, that it ceased to fear many democratic doctrines and institutions hitherto regarded as incompatible with monarchical government. Parliamentary institutions came to be almost universal, — Russia alone held out until 1905, —and the basis of the electorates became broader and broader. Even Austria finally adopted universal suffrage.

Republican ideas lost ground more and more; France found herself isolated, in a political point of view; and although she succeeded, by dint of persistent and continuous efforts, in setting up a republic based on universal suffrage and public opinion, she was left alone among the Great Powers of Europe. Thus an attitude of serious distrust encompassed her. It was no longer doubtful that she could carry on her audacious plan in comparative tranquillity, because she profited by the solidly established general good order all over Europe, assured by the restored power of the monarchies. The monarchical principle seemed to have won a definitive victory in the great struggle with democratic doctrines that began in 1789.

But this, again, was a delusion. The accord between the three great Northern courts, — Berlin, St. Petersburg, and Vienna, — the foundation of the supremacy of the monarchical principle, was shattered forever. All of Bismarck’s efforts to reëstablish it came to naught. Russia, in the end, formed an alliance with France. Armies raised by conscription, a dangerous gift of the revolution to the monarchies, sprang up everywhere, especially in Germany and Russia. The prestige of the monarchical principle was augmented by these new armies of Xerxes, commanded by so many kings and emperors; but no one suspected that too great power may become more dangerous than weakness.

Finally, the monarchical system in Europe rested entirely on the hegemony of Germany; and that hegemony could be maintained in the long run only by proving that the strength that had established it was as preponderant as it had been in 1870, or even more so. Sooner or later the day must inevitably come when Germany would offer that proof to the world.

That day arrived! Germany and Austria attacked Russia with the immense armies that conscription and the development of manufacturing had enabled them to organize. Thence sprang into being a limitless war, in which Germany and Austria destroyed Russia, and in destroying her, committed suicide. The Russian Revolution, by force of example, and by the void that it left on the flank of the Central Empires; the limitless war, by the ghastly exhaustion of all the energies of both countries, brought about the German Revolution and the Austrian Revolution. The downfall of the Hapsburgs and the Hohenzollerns, following that of the Romanoffs, marked the final overthrow of the monarchical principle — that is to say, of the principle of authority that held sway over the greater part of Europe.


So it is that, in the early years of the twentieth century. Europe finds herself in the situation of the Roman Empire at the opening of the third century — between two equally helpless principles of authority; that it is to say, without any principle of government whatsoever. The great conflict between the democratic and monarchical principles, begun in 1789, seems to have come to an end with the destruction of the two adversaries. The monarchical principle is dead. Already shaken to its foundations by incredulity, by rationalism, by the doctrine of equality, and by the wars and revolutions of a century, it was completely uprooted by the world-war. There are still thrones in Europe here and there, like cliffs rising above the deluge; but those who occupy them arc not kings — they are shades. Europe may still witness some partial restorations; but they will be no more than political expedients and combinations; and they will last as long as such combinations usually last. Respect, admiration, the almost religious confidence in the principle, are dead for years to come. The catastrophe that killed them was awful beyond words.

But the contrary principle, the one that should have reaped the benefit of the destruction of the other — is it in a position to take that other’s place? We may well doubt it. There are in Western civilization three governments that rest really and exclusively on the principle of popular sovereignty: Switzerland, France, and the United States.

Not only is Switzerland a small country, but, as in all small countries, the political conditions there are quite exceptional, so that it can serve as an example only to a very limited extent. The United States has proved that even a vast continent can be governed by democratic institutions; but she has proved it in America, and America is not Europe. Franee is a great European state governed by the democracy. But she succeeded in setting up democratic institutions only by a persistent and sometimes terrible struggle, which lasted more than a century, amid a stable and tranquil Europe, and by sacrificing to that supreme object many valuable advantages and many interests.

Nothing of the sort is found in any of the countries that set up hastily improvised republics in 1917 and 1918. From day to day these countries have adopted institutions, which they had hitherto regarded with contempt, based upon principles that have been discredited in their eyes since 1848 by the force of events and by adroit propaganda. What faith can they have in these principles? A democratic republic is to these peoples simply an improvisation of despair, the only alternative being a dictatorship of brute force.

Russia proves this. The democratic republic lasted only eight months — from March to November, 1917. In November the sovereign people, after a very brief reign, was dispossessed by the dictatorship of the Communist party, or, to speak more accurately, of the small oligarchy that rules that party. One of its earliest exploits was to dissolve the Constituent Assembly; after which it began a relentless campaign against the democratic principles of the West, opposing the bourgeois ideology of democracy with the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is simply an anticipatory justification of a régime of absolutism.

In Hungary the republic soon fell before the dictatorship of the proletariat ; and this in turn fell before a military dictatorship, which is still in control.

In Germany the republic is struggling painfully, in utter helplessness, between two extreme factions of the opposition, which are attacking it with ever-increasing vehemence from both Right and Left.

In the other republics of recent formation, there is the same uncertainty. At the same time, confusion and disorder are gaining ground in the monarchies that are still resisting by endeavoring to resemble republics as closely as possible: Italy, Roumania, Serbia.

Such seems to be the greatest peril that threatens Western civilization today. Excepting France and Switzerland, Continental Europe no longer has a clear vision of how it can and should govern itself. It no longer believes in any universally respected principle of authority; and in the dire uncertainty in which it is enveloped, it allows itself to be seduced easily by revolutionary frenzies, and to be drawn into crazy adventures. The world-war has caused 1 lie ruin of many things; but how little all the others count in comparison with the destruction of all principles of authority! If Europe had governments of some strength and of recognized authority, the work of reconstruction would be easily and quickly done, with the tremendous resources that Western civilization has at its disposal. But, ruined by the war, sunk in profound destitution, at grips with all sorts of difficulties — political, economic, military, diplomatic — caused by the war, and without governments capable of governing, the larger part of Europe may well be involved in a long period of anarchy. What would happen then, the history of the third and fourth centuries enables us to divine. The principle of authority is the master-key of all civilizations; when political systems disintegrate into anarchy, civilization rapidly disintegrates in its turn.

That is why I have recalled to the memory of my contemporaries at tedious length this tragic page of ancient history. Three countries are to-day in a relatively better condition: the United States, Great Britain, and France. They have won the war, although at fearful cost; they are richer than the others; and they have governments that continue to function amid the general anarchy. France seems especially favored, from this standpoint. She is preparing to reap the fruit of her century-long travail; for she has the good fortune to find herself with a democratic government, which is ‘carrying on’ at this extraordinary epoch, when democratic government is the only possible one outside of dictatorship and tyranny.

But for this very reason, these countries should employ their wealth, their strength, and the comparative good order they enjoy, in assisting the other countries to reconstruct upon the only possible foundations their states and their wealth. Let them not allow themselves to be seduced, by the illusion of power, into isolating themselves in the rising flood of anarchy! This anarchy may well result in a general disruption of civilization in two thirds of Europe, and it will not be long before they will be swallowed up in the immense void. Europe will be saved, or will perish, as a whole.

The peril is the greater for all, because the triumph of anarchy would be, in certain aspects, much more dangerous in our epoch than in the third century. In the third century the State and civilization became disorganized in the bosom of two religious faiths, — Paganism and Christianity, — which imposed bounds upon intellectual and moral, and indirectly upon political, anarchy. In those days every man had at least a certain number of ideas and principles which would remain immovable in his mind though the whole universe should crumble.

The political anarchy that the downfall of all principles of authority may let loose upon Europe to-day would be added to the most complete intellectual anarchy that Europe has ever known. Each faction, or group, which, in the revulsions of this anarchy, should possess itself of supreme power for a single day, would consider itself entitled to reconstruct the whole world on new principles; the state, morals, æsthetics, the family, and property! Imagine the utter confusion that would result from such performances! Russia shows us what it would be.

It would be wise to regard the events that have kept Russia in a turmoil for three years past from this point of view. They would perhaps suggest to a civilization full of illusions concerning its strength and its solidity what the consequences may be of the destruction of a principle of authority in an age in which there has ceased to be any intellectual discipline.