Romain Rolland: A father’s plea against war
From Clerambault (1920)
Translated by Katherine Miller
His first word was a cry of self-accusation:
“FORGIVE US, YE DEAD!”
This public confession began with an inscription; a musical phrase of David’s lament over the body of his son Absalom:
“Oh! Absalom my son, my son!”
I had a son whom I loved, and sent to his death. You Fathers of mourning Europe, millions of fathers, widowed of your sons, enemies or friends, I do not speak for myself only, but for you who are stained with their blood even as I am. You all speak by the voice of one of you, — my unhappy voice full of sorrow and repentance.
My son died, for yours, by yours. — How can I tell? — like yours. I laid the blame on the enemy, and on the war, as you must also have done, but I see now that the chief criminal, the one whom I accuse, is myself. Yes, I am guilty; and that means you, and all of us. You must listen while I tell you what you know well enough, but do not want to hear.
My son was twenty years old when he fell in this war. Twenty years I had loved him, protected him from hunger, cold, and sickness; saved him from darkness of mind, ignorance, error, and all the pitfalls that lie in the shadows of life. But what did I do to defend him against this scourge which was coming upon us?
I was never one of those who compounded with the passions of jealous nationalities. I loved men, and their future brotherhood was a joy to me. Why then did I do nothing against the impending danger, against the fever that brooded within us, against the false peace which made ready to kill with a smile on its lips?
I was perhaps afraid to displease others, afraid of enmities; it is true I cared too much to love, above all to be loved. I feared to lose the good-will of those around me, however feeble and insipid such a feeling may be. It is a sort of play acted by ourselves and others. No one is deceived by it, since both sides shrink from the word which might crack the plaster and bring the house about our ears. There is an inward equivocation which fears to see clearly in itself, wants to make the best of everything, to reconcile old instincts and new beliefs, mutually destructive forces, like the ideas of Country and Humanity, War and Peace…We are not sure which side to take; we lean first one way and then the other, like a see-saw; afraid of the effort needed to come to a decision and choose. What slothful cowardice is here! All whitewashed over with a comfortable faith in the goodness of things, which will, we think, settle themselves. And we continue to look on, and glorify the impeccable course of Destiny, paying court to blind Force.
Failing us, other things — and other men — have chosen; and not till then did we understand our mistake, but it was so dreadful to admit it, and we were so unaccustomed to be honest, that we acted as if we were in sympathy with the crime. In proof of this sympathy we have given up our own sons whom we love with all our hearts, more than life — if we could but give our lives for theirs! — but not more than our pride, with which we try to veil the moral confusion, the empty darkness of mind and heart.
We will say nothing of those who still believe in the old idol; grim, envious, blood bespattered as she is — the barbarous Country. These kill, sacrificing themselves and others, but at least they know what they do. But what of those who have ceased to believe (like me, alas! and you)? Their sons are sacrificed to a lie, for if you assert what you doubt, it is a falsehood, and they offer up their own children to prove this lie to themselves; and now that our beloved have died for it, far from confessing it, we hide our heads still deeper not to see what we have done. After our sons will come others, all the others, offered up for our untruth.
I for my part can bear it no longer, when I think of those who still live. Does it soothe my pain to inflict injury on others? Am I a savage of Homer’s time that I should believe that the sorrow of my dead son will be appeased, and his craving for light satisfied, if I sprinkle the earth which covers him with the blood of other men’s sons? — Are we at that stage still? — No, each new murder kills my son again, and heaps the heavy mud of crime over his grave. He was the future; if I would save the future, I must save him also, and rescue fathers to come from the agony that I endure. Come then, and help me! Cast out these falsehoods! Surely it is not for our sakes that men wage these combats between nations, this universal brigandage? What good is it to us? A tree grows up straight and tall, stretching out branches around it, full of free-flowing sap; so is a man who labours calmly, and sees the slow development of the many-sided life in his veins fulfil itself in him and in his sons. Is not this the first law, the first of joys? Brothers of the world, which of you envies the others or would deprive them of this just happiness? What have we to do with the ambitions and rivalries, covetousness, and ills of the mind, which they dignify with the name of Patriotism? Our Country means you, Fathers and Sons. All our sons. — Come and save them!