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Georg Brandes: The World at War

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Georg Brandes: Selections on war

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Georg Brandes
From The World at War (1917)
Translated by Catherine D. Groth

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All the emperors and kings who are now beginning war call each on his God to crush the enemy. So in ancient days Moab cried to Kamosch, Israel called on Jehovah…In short, there are enough gods and causes of justice in the ring, but if there had been one single statesman worthy of the name the gods would not have had to allow Beelzebub to take the place of the Holy Ghost and the cause of justice would have been advanced without mass murder. Justice! It is hard to see what it has to do with the slaughter of the youth of Europe.

When the war broke out and blazed to proportions which no other war on this earth ever reached, all of the warring states disclaimed responsibility for it, and began to lay all the blame on their enemies. The most violent and passionate protests were voiced as to the methods of warfare. Not only the press and governments of belligerent nations, but numerous artists and men of science — neutrals as well as belligerents — have, as it is known, taken sides, passionately.

I witnessed the War of 1870-71. I was in France and Italy at the time and read the French papers carefully. They never spoke the truth, of course. The truth was too sad. One of the duties of the press was to infuse confidence into public opinion and to stimulate it during reverses. Finally, however, part of the truth leaked out, and the losses had to be admitted. But all the articles were characterised by one phrase, “At least we may be consoled by the thought that this is the last war.”

Since then there have been a dozen bloody wars, and now the worst of them all has lasted a year. And still the imbecile refrain rings in article after article, in all countries, “At least there is consolation in the thought that this will be the last war.”

In the lulls between wars, humanity imagines it is at peace at last and that no more wars will arise. Humanity does not want and does not dare to look truth in the eyes. If war breaks out, in spite of optimistic assertions, humanity reacts and cries that after this war justice and peace will reign. Every war is to be the last war.

If the duel could die a natural death one may dream of a day when war will die. But just as the duel could not be eradicated by decapitating duellists, as attempted by Richelieu, so militarism cannot be uprooted by conscription, long military service and a profusion of munitions.

It would be interesting, dear Mr. Archer, if you would tell us for which ideals Russia is fighting at the present moment? Or for which ideal England fights when she makes as many German babies as possible die of hunger, when she establishes a state of siege in Ireland, does away with Persia’s independence, and when with the word “Nationality” on her lips she gives half a dozen small nations over to enslavement? Or for which ideal France and England are fighting when they strangle little Greece?

Once every hundred years a statesman may act nobly and unselfishly out of high-mindedness and pride, as George Washington. After the War of Independence had been successfully carried out with the help of the French under Lafayette, he declared himself neutral during the war between England and France. Unlike Wilson at the present moment and grasping American money-makers, he forbade under the severest penalty and imprisonment the exportation of arms and munitions to either belligerent.

If the war is to end by an overwhelming victory for one side it will probably have to last two years more, at least. By that time, however, Europe’s capital will be exhausted, and still more misery will have spread over the earth.

By that time the miserable serfs who in times of peace sweat in the factories, and who, in times of war by means of the highly praised instrument of oppression called compulsory military service are sent into the fire like slaves, will have arrived at such a frenzied state of exaltation and despair that the social revolution, of which there has been so much talk, will become a reality.

One of the most desperate phases of the present war…is the way in which the leaders in belligerent countries, men of science and culture, unhesitatingly and under deafening applause cater to the prejudices of their own country. They are as blind and unable to look truth in the face as the cheapest newspaper they read and condemn. Each one defends his country’s holy cause and falsifies history. All write the same way. It is only necessary to replace the word German by English, or Russian by Hungarian, and the articles read exactly alike.

Suppose it were possible to point to half a dozen men whom one could blame for the war. Powerful men like Graf Tisza, the German Crown Prince, Sir Edward Grey, Mr. Sazonoff, M. Delcasse, writers like General Bernhardi, Maximilian Harden, the Englishman Maxse, and the Frenchman Barres. Let us imagine, for an instant, that they could be called the guilty ones.

Would so-called justice be meted out if these men were tortured and executed with all the atrocities of former days? No man in his senses could think so. How much less, then, is justice carried out by obliging a few more million men to be shot in the trenches while a few extra million civilians, women and children, are doomed to death, mutilation and misery!

I imagine that every one agrees, more or less, that when German business men and bankers demand the annexation of Belgium and the north of France it is because they look upon these territories as coal. This is called reprehensible. But may it not equally well be admitted that when Persia is regarded by the English foreign department as petroleum needed by the English navy, right is also flouted?

Militarism’s national colour is of little importance. It is pretty much the same all over…Such is English militarism. Will it be — is it — much better than Prussian when the English people’s national feeling, as that of other nations, is stirred to insanity?

In ancient times people put the eyes out of the old horses set to drag the mill stones round and round. In the same way to-day, the unfortunate nations of Europe, blinded to reality, under the yoke, believing themselves free, grind the mills of war.

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