Th. Rothstein Justice, 11 February 1911

The German Menace
3. The Smaller Nationalities and the Sanctity of International Treaties

Source: Justice, 11 February, 1911, p.5;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Comrade Jaurès has frequently been reproached in these columns with the habit, when dealing with the realities of foreign politics, of relapsing into a bourgeois-idealistic mode of thinking. I think the reproach in some cases, such as his recent appeal to Pichon to show “an example of the spirit of equity” in submitting all conflicts with other Powers to arbitration, has been well justified. We certainly are all in favour of universal arbitration. As a matter of fact, the principle is proclaimed in our Party programme, both in this country and abroad. With all that we know that it will never be realised except by the strong will of the organised proletariat refusing to lend itself to warlike agitations engineered by the ruling classes in their interests. We, therefore regard all appeals to the good sense or spirit of equity of capitalist Governments as a mischievous delusion, calculated to confuse the direction in which our efforts should be concentrated.

Yet this sort of idealism is quite harmless when compared with the idealism exhibited by comrade Hyndman in calling upon the Government of this country to increase, and, if necessary, to use its armed forces in defence of the smaller nationalities, in accordance with the international treaties to which it is a party, against Prussian aggression. Older members of the Party will, perhaps, remember our comrades attitude at the time of the Armenian massacres some seventeen years ago, and will wonder why he who was so bitterly opposed then to all suggestions of intervention on behalf of a people actually massacred, to which, moreover, this country, in virtue of express international treaties, stood in a sort of loco parentis, should now advocate a directly opposite course on the mere suspicion that certain small nationalities are running the risk, not, indeed, of being massacred in their hundreds of thousands, but of being absorbed by another Power. Apart, however, from this inconsistency, it must be clear that such an “idealistic” appeal to the spirit of equity or humanity of a bourgeois Government is far more dangerous than any that have ever been made by Jaurès to M. Pichon. From time immemorial, all unscrupulous and ruthless acts of aggression have been committed under the cloak of humanity and equity but while formerly this cloak was mainly an article of diplomatic luxury, it has now, in our more democratic age, when the people either hold the strings of the purse or directly supply the food for powder, become a real necessity, without which no successful war can be waged. Nothing, therefore, can delight a capitalist Government so much as to be supplied with a suitable pretext for carrying out its predatory objects and this is precisely what comrade Hyndman, if successful in his plea with the masses of the people, would succeed in doing.

It, indeed, requires a good deal of “idealism” to believe that a capitalist Government has ever paid, or would ever pay, the slightest respect to the rights of a small nationality or to the so called sacredness of international obligations. Small and weak nationalities have never been more than pawns in the game of the greater and stronger Powers among themselves, and treaties were made and broken with the sole regard to convenience. When in 1846 the Austrians, in direct violation of the Treaty of Vienna, seized and annexed Cracow, the British Government could not be moved to intervene but when, two years later, Manin appealed to Palmerston on behalf of the Venetian Republic, it was the “sacredness” of the same Vienna Treaty which induced the British Government to range itself against him. In our days, in October, 1908, when Austria performed her coup d’etat by annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina, the British Government was prepared to go to war over this outrage of the “public law” of Europe as established by the Treaty of Berlin. But when, two years later Japan annexed Korea in contravention of all treaties guaranteeing the independence and integrity of the Hermit Empire, this country never thought of even raising a protest. It is not otherwise with respect to the upholding of the integrity and rights of weaker nationalities. When Russia threatened to capture Constantinople and break up the Ottoman Empire, it was England which, in the name of the integrity of Turkey, interfered and compelled Russia to disgorge a good part of her spoils. Yet, in the very act of doing so England contrived to grab the island of Cyprus, and four years later installed herself in Egypt, one of the autonomous provinces of the Ottoman Empire, in spite of the solemn guarantees, which she had just given to the Concert of Europe at the Therapia Conference not to seek on the Nile any territorial advantage or “exclusive privilege.” The revolution of July 24, 1908, in Turkey was greeted by royal telegrams from Buckingham Palace, and enthusiastically welcomed by the British public as the awakening of an Eastern nationality. An exactly similar revolution by Arabi in Egypt had however, been denounced as anarchy, and the present nationalist movement there is being suppressed on the alleged score of Pan-Islamism. In Persia we even had the two attitudes following one another in succession. The awakening of the Persian nation was first greeted and even materially and morally supported; now it is denounced, and the country itself is virtually parcelled out between England and Russia.

I quote these examples mainly with a view to showing that the fault with which Jaurès is frequently, and with considerable justice, charged in these columns, is one which in a more aggravated form, is being shared by comrade Hyndman when he appeals to the British Government to defend the smaller nationalities of Europe and the public law of international treaties against German aggression. It would seem, in face of these examples, as well as in view of the fate of Morocco bartered away to France, of Northern Persia bartered away to Russia, of the Comoro Islands permitted to be annexed last year by France, of the South Orkney Islands grabbed by Britain herself at the same time, and last, but not least, of the intrigues now going on with a view to a protectorate in the Persian Gulf and South Eastern Arabia – it would seem I say, in face of these facts, that comrade Hyndman might with more consistency have appealed, if not to Germany, at least to the people off this country to stop the aggression of the British Government all over the world.

It has frequently been said that the British Empire is one which has “arrived,” and only requires peace and leisure for digestion. Even without the facts quoted above – and one may also mention the quiet annexation of 15,000 square miles of the Siamese territory in 1909 – such an opinion is as untenable as would be one which supposed that a capitalist undertaking, having reached a certain degree of prosperity, could stop and rest content with what it has got. There is as little finality in Empire building – that is, in grabbing new territories and in subjugating new nationalities and races – as in the capitalist process of production, of which it is itself but a counterpart. The same plea of having “arrived” was used by Bismarck after the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, and is being put forward at the present day by Count Aehrenthal after having annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet no one, except their own Press, ever took or takes him seriously. With no more seriousness ought we to take the similar declarations of the ruling classes and the Foreign Ministers in this country when they put forward this plea in order to show their disinterestedness as against the intentions of Germany. Whatever these intentions may be – and I speak of intentions not of wishes – England, during the forty years which have elapsed since the establishment of the German Empire, has committed more outrages on weaker nationalities and more breaches of faith from the point of view of public law and morality, than perhaps any other Great Power, and it appears to me, highly misplaced for a Social-Democrat not only to permit, but actually to support, the hypocritical plea by which certain cliques in this country, anxious to obtain the support of the masses of the people, are endeavouring to justify their anti-German campaign.

It will perhaps be said: We are no apologists for the British capitalist Government and we quite recognise that its hands are as dirty as could be yet if we can use it for stopping another Power from doing mischief and preventing it from absorbing, or subjecting to its domination, the greater part of Europe and hurling the whole world into a war, why should we not do so? It is permissible to learn from the enemy; surely it is also permissible to make use of him for good cause?

The argument may sound plausible but apart from the obvious retort, that before going abroad to stop mischief, even at the cost of a war, it would be more appropriate to try and prevent its being done by our own Government, there are two considerations which completely refute it. The first is that the mischief alleged to be contemplated by Germany is a mere figment of imagination; second, that if there is at present any danger to the people of Europe it emanates from England herself. For the discussion of these two considerations the now much debated question of Dutch coastal defence will supply us with a very good text.