Is a Permanent Peace Possible?

The fighting in Europe prompted a noted British philosopher and pacifist to trace the “cruel absurdities” that had produced a world war—and to hope for peaceful means to settle future disputes.

The destruction of the war and the estimated $208.5 billion cost of waging it ruined the economies of Europe. (Berliner Verlag/Archiv/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

When the war began, certain writers, notably Mr. H. G. Wells, exhilarated by the romance of great events, and yet believing themselves to be lovers of peace, invented the theory that this was “a war to end war.” Both in England and in Germany, men who have professed a horror of war, but who do not wish it thought that they oppose this war, have argued that their own country is notorious for its love of peace … but that it has been attacked by unscrupulous enemies, and must quell their ruthless pride before the world can be relieved from the dread of war. This language is not insincere, but is the result of a very superficial analysis of the events and passions which led up to the conflict …

In surveying the larger causes of the war, we may leave altogether out of account the diplomacy of the last fortnight in July. Since the conclusion of the Anglo-French entente in 1904 the war had been on the point of breaking out, and could have been avoided only by some radical change in the temper of nations and governments. The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine had caused a profound estrangement between France and Germany. Russia and Germany became enemies through the Pan-Slavist agitation, which threatened the Austrian influence in the Balkans and even the very existence of the Austro-Hungarian state. Finally, the German determination to build a powerful navy drove England into the arms of Russia and France. Our differences with those two countries were suddenly discovered to be unimportant, and were amicably arranged without any difficulty … If goodwill and reason presided over international affairs, an adjustment of differences might have been made at any time; as it is, nothing but fear of Germany sufficed to persuade us of the uselessness of our previous hostility to France and Russia.

No sooner had this grouping of the European powers been brought about than the [British-French-Russian] Entente and the Alliance [of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy] began a diplomatic game of watchful maneuvering against each other. Russia suffered a blow to her pride in the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Germany felt humiliated by having to acknowledge, though with compensation, the French occupation of Morocco. The First Balkan War was a gain to Russia; the second afforded some consolation to Austria. And so the game went on, with recurring crises and alternate diplomatic victories, first for one side, then for the other.

In all this struggle, no one on either side thought for a moment of the welfare of the smaller nations which were the pawns in the struggle. The fact that Morocco appealed to Germany for protection against French aggression was not held to put England and France in the wrong. The fact that the Persians—the intellectual aristocracy of the Moslem world—had freed themselves from the corrupt government of the shah and were becoming liberal and parliamentary, was not regarded as any reason why their northern provinces should not be devastated by Cossacks and their southern regions occupied by the British. The fact that the Turks had for ages displayed a supremacy in cruelty and barbarism by torturing and degrading the Christians under their rule was no reason why Germany should not, like England in former times, support their tottering despotism by military and financial assistance. All considerations of humanity and liberty were subordinated to the great game: first one side threatened war, then the other; at last both threatened at once, and the patient populations, incited cynically by lies and claptrap, were driven on to the blind work of butchery.

A world where such cruel absurdities are possible is not to be put right by a mere treaty of peace. War between civilized states is both wicked and foolish, and it will not cease until either the wickedness or the folly is understood by those who direct the policy of nations. Most men do not mind being wicked, and the few who do have learned ways of persuading themselves that they are virtuous. But, except in moments of passion, men do mind being foolish …

The disease from which the civilized world is suffering is a complex one, derived from the failure of men’s instincts to keep pace with changing material conditions. Among savages, where there is no trade and little division of labor, the only economic relation between different tribes is that of competition for the food supply. The tribe which attacks with [the] most cunning and ferocity exterminates the greatest number of others, and leaves the largest posterity. Disposition to ferocity and cunning is, at this stage, a biological advantage; and the instincts of civilized men are those developed during this early stage. But through the growth of commerce and manufactures it has come about that nine-tenths of the interests of one civilized nation coincide with nine-tenths of the interests of any other.

A world where such cruel absurdities are possible is not to be put right by a mere treaty of peace.

So long as the disposition to primitive ferocity is not excited, men are able to see their community of interest—as, for example, most men do in America. But there remains in the background a readiness for enmity and suspicion, a capacity for all the emotions of the savage on the warpath, which can be roused by any skillful manipulator; and there remain many men who, from a brutal nature or from some underground effect of self-interest, are unable to see that friendship between nations is possible and that hostility has lost whatever raison d’être it once possessed. And so the old rivalries, now become an unmeaning and murderous futility, go on unchecked, and all the splendid heroism of war is wasted on a tragic absurdity.

The old methods have brought us to the present disaster, and new and better methods must be found. So much is agreed on all hands. But as soon as we attempt to specify better methods, disagreement breaks out, partly from conflict of opinion concerning the facts which have brought about the present situation, partly from desire to find a heroic solution which shall once for all make war impossible by some mechanical arrangement …

New methods in international affairs are required, not in the interests of one side or the other, but in the interests of mankind, lest civilization and humanity should perish from the world. It would be disastrous if new methods were imposed by the victors upon the vanquished as part of the humiliation of defeat: they ought to be adopted by all, at the suggestion of neutrals, as an escape from the tragic entanglement which has dragged a horrified Europe, as though by the compulsion of an external fate, into a cataclysm not desired beforehand by one man in 100 in any of the nations involved in the struggle. In every nation, men believe they are fighting for the defense of home and country against wanton aggression; for they know that they themselves have not desired war …

Most of the friends of peace are agreed in advocating some kind of international council to take cognizance of all disputes between nations and to urge what it regards as a just solution …

Far more important than any question of machinery is the problem of producing in all civilized nations such a horror of war that public opinion will insist upon peaceful methods of settling disputes. When this war ends, it is probable that every nation in Europe will feel such an intense weariness of the struggle that there will be little likelihood of a great war for another generation. The problem is, so to alter men’s standards and outlook that, when the weariness has passed away, they shall not fall back into the old bad way, but shall escape from the nightmare into a happier world of free cooperation.

The first thing to make men realize is that modern war is an absurdity as well as a crime, and that it can no longer secure such national advantages as, for example, England secured by the Seven Years’ War. After the present war, it should be easy to persuade even the most ignorant and high-placed persons of this truth.

But it is even more necessary to alter men’s conceptions of “glory” and “patriotism.” Beginning in childhood, with the school textbooks of history, and continuing in the press and in common talk, men are taught that the essence of “glory” is successful robbing and slaughter. The most “glorious” nation is the one which kills the greatest numbers of foreigners and seizes the greatest extent of foreign territory. The most “patriotic” citizen is the one who most strongly opposes any attempt at justice or mercy in his country’s dealings with other countries, and who is least able to conceive of mankind as all one family … So long as hate and fear and pride are praised and encouraged, war can never become an impossibility. But there is now, if men have the courage to use it, an awakening of heart and mind such as the world has never known before: men see that war is wicked and that war is foolish. If the statesmen will play their part, by showing that war is not inevitable, there is hope that our children may live in a happier world, and look back upon us with the wondering pity of a wiser age.