Ernest Belfort Bax

Reminiscences and Reflexions of a mid and late Victorian

Chapter XI
When the War Came

In considering the attitude of the world in July 1914, one irresistibly recalls the passages in the Gospels referring to the advent of the expected Messiah: “Two men shall be in the field, two women shall be grinding at the mill,” etc. This idea of the daily round, and the utter unexpectedness of a catastrophic event, was certainly realized in the Summer days of July 1914. Those who gave the European situation more than a cursory thought were few indeed among the general public. One day, about the middle of July, I was walking across Piccadilly Circus with an intimate friend, a well-known London publisher, when on the latter making some observation upon some current political topic, probably the Irish Home Rule question, I replied that all that was of no immediate interest or importance, but what really mattered was what was passing in Central and Eastern Europe, where the situation seemed to be big with stupendous events. My friend expressed surprise at the time, as he had not been particularly following the course of international politics recently, but he has more than once reminded me of the circumstance, which I had almost forgotten, during the last two years. As it was with this cultured and active-minded man, so it was, only very much more so, with the average British man or woman. The political horizon of the British public was bounded by Ulster, Sir Edward Carson, and Home Rule. The social and domestic horizon was filled by the usual round of business and summer interests, weekends, cricket, prospective holiday arrangements. I can well remember having occasion to call on relations on the afternoon of the eventful Saturday, the 1st of August, itself. I found them preparing to go to a cricket match! No interest, in fact, in the European crisis was visible with the general British public before the last week in July, when the possibility of the great upheaval seemed quite suddenly to dawn on this unimaginative intellectual element. It was on the Wednesday in the week in question that one first noticed anxious faces, groups discussing the question, and public interest generally aroused. Even then, as above shown, it was only partial. There were plenty of circles still obtuse to the actualities.

On Sunday, the 2nd of August, I attended the great Peace demonstration in Trafalgar Square, to which Socialist bodies, Radical clubs, and Trades Unions sent their delegations. The meeting was well attended, the Square being nearly full, but during the proceedings the boys appeared with the “specials” announcing the violation of the Luxemburg territory. Little attention was paid to the speakers, and there seemed to be a feeling of unreality about the whole proceedings. Everybody seemed to feel that the die was cast, and that the exhortations to peace amounted to little more than idle talk. As the meeting was being brought to a close, a heavy shower of rain hastened the dispersal of the crowds, and in a few minutes I found myself in the vestibule of my club, where numbers of members and their friends, fresh from the Square, had already taken refuge. Suspense and excitement were on all faces that Sunday evening. The sound of half-suppressed conversation made itself everywhere heard.

The next day, the Monday, which was Bank Holiday, I received from my son in Paris a letter stating that he was trying to get away, as Paris was no longer safe to remain in. Hurrying to town to ascertain as far as possible what routes were open, I noticed two or three of the customary wagonettes with their load of Bank Holiday makers bent on a day’s outing is the country, but only two or three. In place of the usual Bank Holiday emptiness of the London streets, I found groups of people in the chief West End thoroughfares. Parliament Street and Whitehall were particularly noticeable in this respect. The approach to the Foreign Office was barred by the police. The club, usually deserted on an August Bank Holiday, was as full as the streets. Relieved of anxiety for my son by receiving a telegram announcing his arrival in London, I remained in the club to hear the parliamentary news read out, as it came up on the tape, to the assembled members in the smoking-room. Everybody (including the London correspondents of some German papers who had for long been temporary members of the club) was breathlessly awaiting news of the decision of the Cabinet as regards war or peace, but no decision came that day, and not before the afternoon of the following day, Tuesday, the 4th of August, with the arrival of the telegrams announcing the invasion of Belgium, was the ultimatum of the British Government proclaimed, which was to take effect the ensuing midnight. On Wednesday, the 5th of August, accordingly, all England woke up to the fact that the country was at war, not with native races in backward parts of the earth, or with the Dutch colonists of South Africa, but with the first of Europe’s military Powers. Many people seemed stunned by the sudden realization of the fact. A certain panic was universal, which chiefly took the form of a dread of scarcity. All the gold possible had already been drawn out of the banks to be hoarded in private. Preposterous stores of provisions were laid in by many households against the contingency of Britain’s food supply being cut off. People were in vain adjured to go about their “business as usual,” but somehow or other business did not seem to be quite as usual. As will be remembered, a moratorium was at once proclaimed, and the banks officially closed till the Friday of that fateful first week of August. A general distraction fell upon the population, none knowing what was coming. Yet such is mankind that in a few weeks matters quieted down, and the population of the British Islands got, in some measure at least, used to the new conditions.

To follow the events of the war from this time forward would lie altogether outside the scope of the present book. During the terrible period we have traversed since that August week of 1914, I have resided partly near London, and partly, and indeed for longer periods, in the South of France. Thus I have had the opportunity of watching the effect of the course of events on the psychology of both the British and the French Populations. Of the former it is perhaps as yet too early to form any generalizations, but as regards the latter there is one change as compared to the traditional behaviour of the French temperament which cannot fail to strike every one at a glance. Hitherto, in national crises, and in none more than in the war of 1870, nothing has been more noticeable than the continued recurrence of gusts of excitement and panic. Nous sommes trahis was the cry on the occasion of every slight reverse, or absence of actual success. Men fancied spies everywhere. A state of nerves was chronic in the population. To-day, how very different the aspect of affairs! The impression gained by me in the course of a residence in both countries during the war is that of the two populations the British was more “nervy” than the French. The quiet, solid reasonableness with which the French population has behaved during the present crisis is the more remarkable in contrast to what it has been on former occasions, when one considers the fact of the occupation of a considerable section of French territory by the invader. Such a contrast is surely noteworthy, even if we discount the effects of the change in the French military system since the last war. Another point worth mention is the altered aspect of the French town, including Paris, since the war. The proverbial French gaiety has disappeared from the surface of things. The bands on the terraces of the cafés, so familiar to the residents and visitors of French towns, were no longer to be seen or heard after the outbreak of hostilities. Similarly, closed theatres, and the absence of all forms of public entertainment, was the rule. In the early period of the war even the terraces of the cafes themselves were abolished in some towns, no one being served except inside. These and sundry other severities in public manners, however, were subsequently relaxed. But all the same the traditional lightheartedness, and, as unkind British critics of the Puritan persuasion used to have it, the “frivolity” of the French temperament, has certainly been nowhere in evidence since the war began.

I have spoken of the aspect on the eve and on the outbreak of the war. In Paris, as I heard from my son on his arrival in London, there had been no very serious apprehension on the part of the people at large, till the Saturday, the 1st of August, when the fateful declaration came from Berlin. Thereupon the panic was indescribable, and not least among the foreign population, who were given twenty-four hours to leave Paris without formalities. But the difficulty was the money question. There was no change to be got anywhere. All the silver seemed to have disappeared as if by magic. The rush of the eager, clamouring crowds at all the great railway termini to obtain tickets, where no change was given, can hardly be imagined. The lucky ones who succeeded in boarding the trains counted themselves happy if they could squeeze into a guard’s van or on to a goods truck.

But what of the provincial towns of France lying on the eastern and north-eastern frontier, in the way of the threatening invasion? As an illustration of this a friend resident in Rheims has kindly furnished me with the following particulars

“The opinion generally expressed in Rheims was that some means would be found to avoid war. One of my friends called to the colours, on departing, said, ‘Don’t worry: it’s only a false alarm; I’ll be back in a few days.’ Poor fellow, he never will come back.

“The mobilization order was posted up on the first day of August, and strangers had to report themselves at the Town Hall. On going there, we found the great courtyard full of a seething mass of humanity. It took many days to deal with all these foreigners, and the people of Rheims were amazed to see how many enemy aliens were living in their midst. The authorities seemed very determined to rid the town of them all, and no permits to stay were given. This gave rise to some sad scenes. I remember noticing an intelligent-looking Hungarian, who was parted from his children and their French mother, for want of the legal knot. He was an enemy alien and must go; his family were French and must remain. We left him weeping bitterly.

“About this time we saw the departure of several battalions of a famous regiment of the first line of defence. The first battalion left near midnight, almost secretly. There was no enthusiasm, hardly a spectator. They marched along, silent and grave. There was no flinching, and there would be none, though they were marching to their doom.

“It may not be historically correct to describe England as taking France’s part, but that is how her declaration of war against Germany was construed. The effect was magical; foreboding gave place to confidence. So the departure of the second battalion was marked by scenes of enthusiasm, The soldiers were decked out in flowers. Their tread was martial. Courage and determination seemed to radiate from their ranks. The contrast between these two scenes made a profound impression on me.

“The prompt answer of the nation to the call to arms was grand. All classes of society, from working men to learned professors, might be seen in those terrible red trousers which, it is said, cost the French troops such heavy losses in the early months of the war. I did not hear of one ‘conscientious objector,’ though there can have been no illusion as to the deadly nature of the ordeal before them.

“Opinions as to the result of the war fluctuated a good deal. We had no official news of French disasters, and were easily elated by the great Servian victories, and by the Russian advance, which would land our allies so soon in Berlin. But whatever elation those distant victories provoked soon gave way, before the steady advance of the German armies on Paris, to a feeling of hopelessness. ‘What can we do against such desperate odds?’ people asked. And when the Germans occupied our town, many said to me, ‘I suppose we are Prussians now!’ or words to that effect. There was a feeling of despair – that all was lost, and that nothing remained, as even the most sanguine people said, but to make peace, pay an indemnity as in ’70, and wipe the slate clean again.

“The town was administered admirably by the Mayor, who was quite the man of the hour, and who formed committees to regulate every branch of the town’s activities. Coin had disappeared from circulation; it was replaced by paper money, the smallest coupon being 25c. (2d.). The prices of the principal articles of food were fixed, and so there was no rise.

“Towards the end of August, Belgian soldiers who had escaped from Namur began to arrive. Then for days there was a steady stream of refugees pouring in from Mezieres and that region. These people were of all ages and conditions. Most of them bore bundles on their backs or pushed baby-carriages loaded with a heterogeneous array of ill-assorted household goods – clocks, frying-pans, clothes, crockery, all thrown together pell-mell, testifying to their hasty flight before the dreaded German invasion. In the last degree of exhaustion, they presented a most forlorn picture of ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ For ten terrible days they had tramped along the highways, living for the most part on what raw roots they could scratch up as they passed along, sinking by the roadside when they could drag themselves no farther. How the children survived I do not know.

“Rheims gave them the kindliest welcome. They were housed, fed, and comforted, and then sent on, it was said, to the South of France. Some of them had terrible tales to tell of butchery and burnings, but most of them had their faculties too blunted by what they had gone through to give any account of themselves.

“On September 3rd seven Uhlans rode in and established themselves at the Town Hall. Next day staff officers of the Saxon Army arrived, and while they were closeted with the Mayor the town was violently bombarded. The Saxons accused the Mayor of treachery, and threatened terrible reprisals. It is already a matter of history how the Mayor proved conclusively, from fragments, that the shells were German ones, and thus saved the town from one of those scenes of bloody reprisals which characterized the German advance through Belgium and France.

“Apart from this tragic event, the Saxon domination was bearable. Their requisitions, it is true, were on a vast scale. This organized robbery was evidently part of their campaign of ‘frightfulness.’ But the courage, energy, and diplomacy of the Mayor and his coadjutors conjured every peril.

“The Saxon soldiery, speaking generally, were correct in their behaviour. What they bought they paid for in cash. I heard of very little thieving. Some of them could speak a little French, and made friendly advances to the inhabitants. I heard one of them explaining, with many gestures, that the Saxons were not Prussians, whom they detested – they were ‘Saxon-Englisch.’ Another drew a coin from his pocket, and tapping the effigy of the Kaiser with his finger, exclaimed, ‘Lui, très mauvais!’

“The officers were arrogant and highhanded. Every day saw some new proclamation threatening death for any breach of its regulations. They were also accused of plundering the houses they were billeted in. I was not brought much in contact with them, but found them polite enough.

“The Saxon occupation lasted barely ten days. On retreating, they carried off about one hundred hostages, whose names were posted up, and a proclamation announced that they would all be hanged if the army were molested in its retreat. However, they came back safely, and reported that the commander had expressed his satisfaction with the conduct of the town, and promised that it should not be again bombarded. If he meant this as a joke, it was a grim one, for that same night the first shells of a bombardment that has already lasted more than two years (October 1916) fell on the town, and the destruction of the Cathedral of Rheims quickly followed this deceptive promise.

“The bombardment which marked the entry of the victors made over one hundred victims. When. first saw those horribly mutilated and mangled bodies, lying in great pools of blood, all feelings of pity and compassion were swamped by the physical repulsion and nausea that overpowered us. Our one desire was to get away, and it required a tremendous effort to remain and render aid where it could be of any avail. As the recurrent bombardments inured us to the sight of death, I observed a change in our mental attitude. We no longer sought to avoid the ghastly sights resulting from German ‘frightfulness,’ but rather felt a morbid curiosity as to what had happened, and this developed into something like callousness. I do not think we felt less sorrow for suffering, but a certain numbness of sensation had befallen us. Yet we did not lose all capacity for emotion. ‘We were living under the constant menace of a sudden and horrible death, and the ruthless and barbarous slaughter of so many innocent people, mostly old men, women, and children, aroused intense indignation. Anger, keen and vehement, was openly expressed, and the Kaiser would have received a short shrift had he fallen into our hands.

“Our only refuge from the shells was the cellars of the great champagne houses. It is difficult to give you a clear impression, in a few words, of life in those cellars. Imagine several hundred people, congregated in groups, lying on straw or boxes, on a cement flooring, fifty or sixty feet below ground, in semi-darkness, for there was but a candle every dozen yards or so. Little food but bread. No hot meals, though the manager made them tea as long as his stock lasted. Sanitary arrangements improvised in the most primitive manner. Many of the people never washed themselves, judging by appearances. The predominant emotion, fear, finding vent in vociferous apostrophes to the Deity, especially in moments of panic. It was a nightmare from which we were glad to escape when occasion at last offered. We found the quiet and tranquillity of Paris strange after the noise and devastation of Rheims. Nothing would induce us to repeat our experiences. But we shall not readily forget the dark champagne cellars, nor the kindness of those in charge of them.”

A noteworthy fact in connexion with the earlier period of the war was the ignorance in which both the French and British public were kept as to the course of events. Had they known of the great defeat, reported as a “check,” of the French Army between Metz and Strasburg, towards the end of August, or of the rout of Rennenkampf’s army in East Prussia, a few days later, also reported as a “check,” of the full extent of the reverses at Mons and Charleroi, or of the full significance of the march on Paris, there might have been something like a panic in both countries. The second week of September the battle of the Marne of course altered the face of the situation. But no one for weeks after realized the true import of the change consequent on that event, from the “war of movement” to the “war of positions.” Up to this time the hostilities had been conducted pretty much on the accustomed lines of warfare – the sending out of scouts, followed by the advance of armies, engagements in the field, strategic manoeuvrings, etc. From the middle of September onward the course of affairs began to change, till before another month had elapsed they had assumed quite another character, and one that may fairly be said to have been unknown to the wars of previous European history. Though in all warfare entrenchment has been an incident, yet it has been no more than a local incident, a matter of hours or at most of days. In the present war the case is quite different. Here entrenchment is the central fact of the war, the main factor on which the whole course of hostilities has turned, after the first two or three months of the campaigns on the various fronts. The causes of this great revolution in the conditions of warfare is of course a highly interesting subject of inquiry, but one which only a technically equipped and competent authority on military matters can effectively handle. One consequence of the change is, however, sufficiently noticeable to the layman. Trench warfare on a great scale, as at present, would seem indefinitely to prolong a campaign by rendering decisive engagements highly improbable, where not impossible. In trench warfare a Waterloo or a Sedan is scarcely conceivable. The section of a line even seriously broken does not by any means necessarily imply a disastrous defeat for the army in question, which by judicious retreat and reconstitution of its line may quite well continue to operate as if nothing had happened to it, provided it has sufficient reserves. In former wars things were quite otherwise.

The earlier stages of the war are remarkable for having been the soil on which originated among English people two thoroughgoing and elaborate myths of the approved antique pattern. The first of these was the stories of the angels at Mons, and the second the wide-spread, and for a few days the almost universally accredited, report of the huge Russian army landed in Scotland, and sent down south to check the German advance on Paris. The angels at Mons, of course, had the usual vouchers in the shape of personal witnesses which are forthcoming wherever the supernatural is in question. Valiant British soldiers, as was alleged, swore to having seen something not of this earth, though as to precisely what it was the accounts varied. One version had it that it was a legion of angels that held up the German advance and saved the British battalions ; with others, it was the solitary figure of St. George on horseback, as impressed on the five-shilling piece. In deference to the French allies, there were, I think, one or two variants which identified the celestial visitation with the figure of St. Michael, and, if I remember rightly, of Jeanne d’Arc. According to the opinion of many persons the whole thing arose out of a little feuilleton by Mr. Arthur Machen in the Evening News, though there were others who strenuously denied this, alleging the reports in question to have originated before Mr. Machen’s article appeared, and in any case quite independently of it. Be this as it may, among those who professed to believe the story were at least one popular Nonconformist minister, and, if I mistake not, two or three other members of the clerical profession well known to the public.

The other myth referred to bore no overt relatiou to the supernatural, but presented all the characteristics of a true myth, notwithstanding. Here also the origin of the astounding report was untraceable. There was not even a Mr. Machen or a newspaper statement to fall back upon. The story of the Russian army landed in Scotland spread like wildfire from mouth to mouth among the public before it even got into the newspapers. Of this there is no question. People had seen blinded trains at various junctions and had caught a glimpse of undoubted Cossacks peering out of railway compartment windows. The evidence was such, indeed, as to deceive the very elect of true British caution and common sense.

As already indicated, I was living near London when the war broke out, and remained there till the beginning of December, when circumstances urged me to go to Paris, partly for family reasons, and partly as a stage towards seeking my appartement in Nice, for considerations of health, during the winter months. Travelling on the Continent just then was generally regarded as an unpleasant business. Many had been the stories told in the papers, during those early months of the war, of trains held up and their occupants turned out into some temporary shed, to make room for convoys of wounded; of other trains run into sidings and left there for hours, or it might be a day or two, with their passengers, in order to leave the line clear for the; transport of troop. This being so, most civilians were disinclined to hazard their luck in crossing the Channel, an undertaking itself regarded as more or less risky, owing to the danger of submarines. Nevertheless, accompanied by my wife and my friend the London publisher before alluded to, I went, albeit with certain misgivings of what might happen, this being my first experience of travelling, in war-time, through a tract of country that had been partially occupied by hostile troops not more than three months before, and which was still within comparatively short distance of the battle-front. However, beyond an unpleasant and tempestuous Channel crossing, nothing happened. The journey from Boulogne to Paris by way of Beauvais, the railway viaduct near Amiens, blown up by the Germans, not having as yet been rebuilt, passed off without incident, though it necessarily took some two hours longer than by the usual route.

We found Paris itself quiet and wonderfully dark on our arrival. The next day further showed us a city chastened by adversity, but no signs of excitement or panic of any kind. The Boulevards looked, indeed, somewhat deserted as compared with ordinary times, but the restaurants and cafes were open as usual. My friend and myself having accomplished what we had to do in Paris, we started by the night train for the South, where we arrived, also without having encountered any incident suggestive of wartime, the following afternoon. It is interesting to note that, contrary to the experience of others at the time we are referring to, we were not challenged for our “papers” in Paris or on the journey.

The winter of 1914-15 was naturally a gloomy one for the Mediterranean town. At Nice the opera house was closed, and the theatres likewise, leaving a few “cinemas” as the only form of popular entertainment to be indulged in. There was one thing, however, which agreeably distinguished the Mediterranean littoral from the places in the North nearer the seat of war. There was no restriction as to lighting beyond what municipal parsimony, encouraged by the absence of visitors, suggested. For the rest, the dreary monotony of the daily bulletins of trenches taken, lost, or retaken, told on the spirits of the genial children of the South, no less than on those of less favoured climes.

In dealing with the war, every Socialist is naturally brought up against the fact of the treachery to the fundamental principles of Socialism, as well as to International party ties, on the part of the Social Democratic members of the Reichstag. When we consider that but a few days before the outbreak of the war, both at the meeting of the International Socialist Bureau at Brussels and, on the part of certain of the leaders at least, a day or two subsequently in Paris, the strongest assurances were given by members of the present majority of the Reichstag “fraction” that the German proletariat would never consent to fight their French brethren, and that the party members in the Reichstag would never vote war credits for the Government – when we consider this, the action of these very same men, and of the colleagues in whose name they spoke, scarcely more than a week later, must constrain the mildest and most indulgent critic to admit that history can hardly show-a baser and a viler instance of treachery and broken pledges than their conduct. Of course, writing as I am before the end of the war, when most of what is going on in Germany is hidden from the view of the outer world, it would be unfair to assume that the majority of the Social Democratic Party throughout the country ought to be regarded as in any way accomplices in this act of treachery. Until a party Congress can be held at which all members of the party, those now at the front no less than those at home, can be represented and speak their minds freely through their delegates, we have no right to assume that the majority of the party in the country is in sympathy with the majority of the present Reichstag representation. We know, as a matter of fact, that the followers of Karl Liebknecht are numerous throughout Germany, but we do not know how numerous, or what proportion they represent to the other sections of the party. One thing is certain, however, and that is that, outside Germany, no one calling himself a Socialist should consent again to meet in Congress or to hold any intercourse whatsoever, either directly or indirectly, with traitors to the principles of Socialism, to the International Socialist Party, and to Humanity, such as the “majority” of the present representation of the Social Democratic Party in the German Reichstag.

It does not lie within the scope of this chapter, as conceived by the author, to provide one more of the fancy sketches of the political reconstruction of Europe with which the British public has been regaled since the beginning of the war. It behoves all friends of progress and peace to look to it that the European democracy is not cheated, by any secret understanding among the governing classes of the Entente States, of the full attainment of that object which has been so often officially proclaimed as that for which we are fighting – to wit, the extinction of Prussia as an independent Military Power, and the reconstitution of the German States on the basis of equality in a loose federal bond, the necessary consequence of this. We may be good pro-Allies, but it is well for us not to forget that governing classes are governing classes all the world over, have interests in common against the democracy, and that, as William Morris was fond of saying, “Dog doesn’t eat dog!” Into the details of the actual reconstruction after the war it is in my opinion premature to enter at the present time of writing.

The effect of the war upon the Socialist movement more or less in all, but especially in belligerent, countries has had its repercussion in Great Britain in the split in the British Socialist Party, and the foundation of a rival organization, the National Socialist Party, by a large and growing section of British Socialists, comprising, almost to a man, all the surviving “old guard” of the pioneer Socialist body of this country, the old original Social Democratic Federation.

From the beginning of the war was visible an inevitable tendency to scission between partisans of a “peace at any price,” even at the price of leaving Prussian despotism and Prussian militarism intact, to continue to terrorize Europe and start another war probably in less than ten years’ time, and those who wished to see the military monarchies of Central Europe destroyed once for all, and who cherished the hope at least that the present war, the most terrific in the world’s history, may prove to be the last war, at least on a large scale. Those who take this view regard the Entente Powers as acting simply in the capacity of a politico-international police force to punish crime and aggression.

There is an element in the psychology of the ultra-pacifist British Socialist which must not be lost sight of. It is the acute anti-patriotic bias which reduces political and ethical judgments to an absurdity. The bias implies that because Great Britain happens to be on a particular side, that side must necessarily be in the wrong and its enemies in the right. Now, it is quite true that in the colonial wars of the nineteenth century, and last, but not least, in the Boer War which ushered in the present century, this country has almost invariably played an aggressive and criminal role as a State. Hence the moral judgment of all fair-minded and disinterested persons, with a strength of conscience sufficient to resist the “jingo” or patriotic bias, has condemned the policy of this country. In that most flagrant case, the Boer War, so much bitterness was engendered, and the moral sense of a large section of Englishmen was so much shocked by the official conduct of their country, that it is not perhaps surprising that the strength of the anti-British bias then engendered should still be operative, especially among certain sections of Radicals and Socialists who bore the heat and burden of the protest at that time. This, there is no doubt, is the underlying cause of much of the Pacifism and pro-Germanism in England to-day. It is, nevertheless, strange to find such an utter lack of logical faculty in these worthy persons that they cannot see that precisely the same moral principles which led them to execrate the action of Great Britain in the Boer War ought necessarily to lead them to execrate the action of Germany in the present war. To allow one’s anti-patriotic bias to run so wild as to kick over all the bounds of ethico-political logic seems scarcely compatible with the sane mind. Yet so it is. In addition to this, of course, certain well known fallacies play their part, as, for example, the obsession alluded to by Mill in one of his chapters on Fallacies (Logic, vol.ii. p.351), to wit, that there must always be faults on both sides, an obsession which blinds a man to truth and justice when it is to be found on one side only, as it very often is. Another fallacy which in this as in other cases is apt to lead the ordinary man astray, is the confusion of issues. This fallacy of the untrained mind is very much in evidence amongst the pacifist and pro-German Socialists. Because Socialists have attacked all existing governments as institutions for the maintenance of the present class-State, in the interests of Capitalism and land-monopoly, it is therefore argued that we cannot take the side of the Allied States in the present war for the overthrow of the Prussian military power. Here comes in the fallacy of failing to grasp the bearings of a specific issue. The Allied Powers may have all the evil qualities in their governmental institutions, as in the economic system common to all existing States, that Socialist criticism ascribes to them, and yet they may be wholly in the right as regards the specific issue of this war. The distinction is recognized in common life. The most strenuous votary of the Nonconformist conscience would presumably not trip up a policeman while chasing a burglar, on the ground that he was a person of immoral life. In most cases, indeed, he would hardly claim it to be his duty, on the above ground, even to refuse him his active assistance to capture the burglar. He would generally have sense enough to recognize that the question of the private conduct of the policeman’s life, and his act of apprehending a burglar, were two distinct and irrelevant issues. And so it is with this war. Russian despotism at home and British earth-hunger abroad do not affect the, issue of the present struggle. However bad in themselves these characteristics of the States in question may be, their policy may nevertheless be wholly justified in its resistance to Prussian aggression.

There is another thing to be observed in this connexion. Although the colonial policy and the colonial wars of England have, almost invariably, from any consistently Democratic or Socialist point of view, been infamous, yet British action in continental politics has not quite invariably been so. Thus, though the war with revolutionary France organized by Pitt in the interests of European reaction was scandalous enough, the later campaign for the overthrow of the military empire of Napoleon I was undoubtedly in the interests of the peaceful development of Europe generally, apart from any legitimate patriotic justification it may have had in removing from the country the threat of invasion. The present situation is in some respects analogous. In place of the French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte we have the Prusso-German Empire of the Hohenzollerns. In either case the war represents the resistance of Europe to an aggressive military despotism. As to the ultimate issue of the war, the terms of peace, etc., at the time of writing it would seem futile, as already said, to enter on any discussion. I may remark, however, that I agree with my friend Jules Guesde in deprecating any far-reaching cutting-up of German territory, while holding fast by the principle of the absolute and final destruction of the military power of the Central Monarchies. The future of Germany, it seems to me, should take the form of a loose federation of the different German States, without the hegemony of any one State, with no military power beyond that of a local State militia, in general analogous to that of Switzerland, but without arty central or national directing power, or Ober-commando. This would seem to represent the general terms, the minimum conditions, under which a lasting peace with the Central Nations (I expressly forbear to say the Central Powers) could be effected.


Last updated on 28.3.2004