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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: What we are fighting for

25 August 2014

8:30 AM

25 August 2014

8:30 AM

The Spectator, 29 August 1914:

NO decent or self-respecting person will ever indulge in a word of recrimination even against those men who supported Germany and German aspirations till the beginning of the war, who deprecated any attempt to make adequate military provision for war in these islands, and who denounced as criminal, and even inhuman, the distrust of the governing class in Germany when it was publicly set forth. Time has proved those who held these views to be wrong, and they are now, as a rule, the last men in the world to entertain them; but their forced disillusionment, though it may prove them to have been wrong in fact, does not of course in the least prove them to have been wrong at heart. Their error was in thinking too well of human nature. They were deceived, no doubt, but deceived by artful pleas which appealed to their generosity and better feelings, and no true man will think the worse of them on that account. Indeed, they deserve our sympathy, for very bitter must be the sense of disillusionment to men who honestly believed that the German Government were utterly incapable of playing a false part, of interfering with human rights, and of seeking to destroy human liberty in the way that they are now doing. But though these men have our sympathy, and no foolish “I told you so” talk should ever pass our lips, such reticence is not necessary and is not wise in the case of those who still persist in suggesting that their country is in the wrong and the Germans in the right. Take, for example, the amazing letter from Mr. Arthur Ponsonby, the leader of the pacifist group in the House of Commons, published in last Saturday’s Nation. The letter, which no doubt is perfectly sincere though so astoundingly wrong-headed, takes the form of a long string of sophistical questions. They end as follows :—

“Is it not deplorable that when Great Britain is plunged into the most devastating war the world has ever seen, we should none of us know clearly what we are fighting for?—Yes.

Are the peoples of Europe going to be massacred in hundreds of thousands and are incalculable numbers of non-combatants going to be reduced to misery and ruin only because a few ministers, diplomats, and monarchs have quarrelled?—Yes.

Are the victorious going to gain anything either materially or morally by this war?—No.”

Let us take these questions in their order. If Mr. Ponsonby does not know what we are fighting for he is in a very singular position, or, rather, he is in the position of some of the extreme Radicals during the Napoleonic Wars, who, contrary to all evidence, believed that in siding with Napoleon, his military caste, his subservient Court of vassal Monarchs, and his military aristocracy of brand-new Dukes, Counts, and Barons they were siding with democracy and liberty. We are fighting against the determination of the ruling military caste in Germany first, to have their tyranny at home still more firmly established, by a foreign war, and next, to make Germany the dominant Power of the world—dominant as was Louis XIV in the height of his glory and as was Napoleon for the twelve years between 1800 and the failure of the Moscow campaign. The aims of the German military caste, of which the Emperor and the Hohenzollerns are the willing instruments, are exactly the aims of Napoleon. Their methods of realizing those aims by a “ruthless, relentless, and remorseless” war, which shall arouse the sense of terror and overwhelm all opposition, are also the same. Apparently they have also exactly the same power of making a certain small percentage of Englishmen believe that their killings, burnings, and slayings are all in the interest of civilization, freedom, and democracy. Mr. Ponsonby is no doubt a sincere hater of war, yet even now his sympathies are with the War Lord, or else it is impossible to believe that he would declare that he does not know what we are fighting for. Again, he would tell us, and of course truly, that his sympathies are with the small nationalities. Yet, though Belgium and Servia are drenched in blood, and Holland and Denmark are coerced by terror of the German arms, he cannot tell what we are fighting about. Further, we are sure that he prefers civil rights, justice, and freedom to tyranny and militarism, and yet again, and with the Zabern incident staring him in the face, he cannot tell what we are fighting about. If he will only be a little more honest with his own heart, and a little less susceptible to verbal refinements and dialectical sophistries, he will soon know clearly what we are fighting for.

Take his second question. Does he really believe that this is a quarrel of “a few ministers, diplomats, and monarchs”? Is that how he reads the White Paper and our Government’s pathetic struggle to maintain the peace? No doubt certain “ministers, diplomats, and monarchs” quarrelled with, or, rather, fastened a quarrel upon, France, Russia, Servia, Belgium, and Britain; but they did it, not because our Ministers or our diplomats or the Monarch of Russia were quarrelsome, but because they thought that the hour had struck—that they had reached the moment of least resistance in their antagonists and greatest strength in themselves, and that therefore they ought to strike. Bismarck tells us in his Memoirs that he made three wars, but that in every case he took care to ascertain that his country’s preparations were absolutely complete and that, as far as he could learn, he was bound to succeed. He added, if we are not mistaken, that he would have deserved to be hanged if he had not done so. The “peoples of Europe are going to be massacred in hundreds of thousands and incalculable numbers of non-combatants are going to be reduced to misery and ruin,” not because “a few ministers, diplomats, and monarchs have quarrelled,” but because the military caste in Germany and in Austria came, as we have said, to the conclusion that the hour had struck, and that they could make war with advantage to themselves’ and disadvantage to the rest of Europe. That is the answer to Mr. Ponsonby’s question, and if he did not let his mind be bemused by mere words he could not have failed to recognize the fact.

We come to his third question : “Are the victorious going to gain anything either materially or morally by this war?” That depends upon who is victorious. The Germans no doubt think—though here we believe they are mistaken—that if they are victorious they are going to obtain great material prosperity by seizing the colonies of their opponents and by the infliction of huge indemnities. If eight millions is the indemnity for one comparatively small city like Brussels, what would be the indemnity for Belgium, and what the indemnity for France or for Britain? To say what they would gain morally is somewhat difficult. If Mr. Ponsonby were to ask some German Professor of Philosophy or History at a State University, such Professor, if he cared to tell the truth, would say that they were going to impose German culture—the true culture—on the rest of the world, to take the sceptre of the seas too long held by an effete nation like the British, and, further, to put an end to the arrogance of a decadent France. From their point of view no doubt the Germans would esteem that a great moral gain. Germany would have her place in the sun, and have gained intellectually and morally as well as economically. If we, and not the Germans and the Austrians, are the victors, how is Mr. Ponsonby’s question to be answered ? That we shall gain nothing material we fully agree. Our material loss must be enormous whichever way the balance inclines. But what are we to say as to the moral loss or gain? The answer is plain to any man who will put the question to himself honestly, and not with a mind drugged by an inverted sense of patriotism. The whole world will gain by our victory, for it will be a victory for individual freedom, the government of the people by the people for the people, for national independence as against servile and dependent States, and defeat for a monopolizing and despotic military caste. If we lose, human liberty and national independence will go down for a generation at least in blood and thunder, perhaps go down never to revive again.

We know very well what will be Mr. Ponsonby’s answer to what we have written. He will say that we are talking Jingo claptrap, and will try to uphold his suggested defence of Germany by throwing Russia in our teeth and asking whether she is the model we should like to imitate. Our answer is not difficult. If Russia shows the same desire to dominate that Germany has shown and develops an arrogant military caste, we must restrain Russia also. But surely he must see that the chances of Russia doing this are not increased but greatly reduced by alliance with the democracies of France and Britain. States, like men, are known by the company they keep. Germany keeps company with Austria, an Empire more feeble, but none the less arrogant and dominating, than her own. Russia is linked to two democratic self-governing nations. Her alliance with France and Britain will make it very difficult for her, if she ever desires, of which we do not admit the possibility, to break her word to Poland, to the Finns, and to the Jews. The notion that Russia is as great a menace to liberty as Germany is a mere piece of special pleading put into the minds of Englishmen by German writers and speakers. There may be great faults in the Russian Government, but at any rate it is not organized with that dreadful mechanical harshness and efficiency which have made every independent State in Europe dread a German victory, as every independent State in Europe dreaded the victory of Napoleon.

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