Georg Brandes: The Praise of War
From The Praise of War (1915)
Translated by Catherine D. Groth
When I wrote some time ago that Denmark would gain nothing by acquiring North Schleswig if the German Empire were humiliated so that it would be filled with revenge and a determination to seize the provinces again at the first opportunity, a cry rose against me in the Danish and the French press. Esteemed “fellow citizens” attacked me in the back in French papers. I have been positively bombarded with insults in anonymous and signed letters. Not only am I accused of having shown myself up as an immeasurable coward, but, as insidiously suggested by Clemenceau, I suffer from a peculiar mental aberration. I seem to nourish a sort of idiotic fear that Germany be humiliated. As if Denmark had not been humiliated, France humiliated, etc.! A physician must feel as I when all the patients in an insane asylum scream that he is the insane man among them.
The student of humanity cannot doubt but that the war madness which rages all over the earth is a relapse to the oldest hereditary instincts. It goes back to the Stone Age. The old Mexicans worshipped the war god above all other gods. He was the supreme protector of the tribe. In all Egyptian literature there is not one word of criticism against war. In old Hellas, war was the normal relation between cities, and it was an accepted fact that whenever a city was conquered all the men were killed and the women and children carried away and sold into slavery.
In old Israel, Jehovah desired war and wished it carried out in the most merciless way. If a king spared his enemies he was accused of disobeying the prophet, whereas he was considered dear to God’s heart if he exercised the most ingenious cruelty.
Without knowing anything about these precedents, the old Vikings, a couple of thousand years thereafter, on their expeditions to England and Normandy, were equally convinced that their gods were pleased by their warfare. In the Christian Era victory — no matter how it may have been won — was always considered the judgment of God, a sign of divine grace, and a proof of the justice of the cause. The vanquished had to be content to let their priests explain the defeat was due to their past sins and God’s wrath therefor.
Victor Cherbulliez once calculated that from the year 1500 b. c. to about 1860 a. d. about eight thousand peace treaties had been signed, each one supposed to secure permanent peace and each one lasting on an average two years.
A peace treaty does not guarantee peace. Neither does a convention signed by all the Powers. Machiavelli once said something which all the sovereigns and statesmen of to-day seem to bear in mind: “A prudent ruler does not keep his word if by so doing he goes against his best interests, or if the reasons which induced him to bind himself no longer exist.” One would think Machiavelli had foreseen the year 1914. Another political essayist, the English Major Steward Murray, completes Machiavelli’s remark: “The European waste basket is the place where all treaties sooner or later find their way. It is unwise to allow one’s fate to depend on something which will probably find its way to the waste basket.”
National security is not to be had by treaties. Nor yet by war. If this had been the case, the war of 1871 would have settled the problem of Alsace-Lorraine. Security is only to be had when the difficulty is resolved in a way which both parties consider just. This solution does not satisfy “pen heroes” whose number is legion, but it does satisfy human beings, and fortunately their number is greater. And I for one have a sincere and not wholly unjustified hope that eventually common sense will dominate and that the logic of things will prove more powerful than the madness of fanatics.
From a former article several papers have concluded I consider the struggle against war hopeless and even regard war as a beneficent power. In the article I merely hinted that this might not be the last war and that it might not usher in a reign of justice on earth.
I simply meant that human nature evolves very slowly for the better. By nature man is but a higher sort of beast of prey, an evolved ape.
But let no one believe that I imply humanity will never rid itself of war. One thing, however, is sure. The methods used by the nations hitherto do not bring them nearer the goal.
The Allies claim in chorus that the object of the war is to crush Prussian militarism. But as surely as two and two are four, militarism cannot be crushed by militarism.
The attempts to do so are fruitless, insane.
But this does not mean that militarism will never be eradicated. Merely that it will come about in some other way.
We are all acquainted with the old rigmarole that absence of war would not advance the world but would dull mankind and allow it to relapse into a life of ease. We know Moltke’s words, logical in the mouth of a general, that permanent peace is a dream and not even a beautiful one. We have all heard that war alone develops a nation’s self-sacrifice and enthusiasm.
No one can deny that war gives birth to something besides horrors and atrocities without number. It reveals heroism, abnegation. But this is no reason for worshipping it.
A fire gives courageous firemen an opportunity to show their bravery, their agility, and endurance; but no one praises fires, least of all a blaze that destroys a city.
Appalling epidemics give conscientious doctors and brave nurses an opportunity to display heroism, forethought, intelligence, and quick-wittedness, and many other virtues; but no one sings hymns to cholera or typhus.
Poverty and misery often occasion charity and human-kindness. Yet no thinking person feels that these qualities justify starvation.
Europe at the present moment is in the hands of moderately endowed political dilettantes. He who admires statesmanship has no cause for admiration. All progress made by Europe is being turned into mass murder, for the ultimate profit of the Powers outside of Europe which, in the future, will fight for supremacy: Japan and the United States. Europe is being bled to death by its own towering and almost imposing insanity.
In the face of this apparent almightiness of brutality, some of the younger generation seem to feel that absolute brutality is real civilisation. I wish they would abandon this view. A single, genial, active personality is worth more to the world than all masterly organised brutality.