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Georg Brandes: Only officers and ammunition-makers wish 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 Fundamental Causes of the World War (August 1914)
Translated by Catherine D. Groth

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In March, 1913, the French review, Le Courrier Europeen, asked me if I would give my opinion on the outlook for world peace. “It is usually admitted,” the letter explained, “that political economists, business men as well as thinkers, are opposed to war, not as a matter of sentiment but of expediency. War is always a disaster — even to the victor. Besides, the commerce, industry, and finances of the great Powers in our day are so intertwined that a great war between them would be nothing short of madness.” 

Although I do not as a rule answer questionnaires, it is difficult to refuse a paper of which one is honorary editor. I therefore replied: 

“A great war would undoubtedly be madness, but unfortunately very few matters in this world depend on reason. As Disraeli remarked, Mormon has more disciples than Bentham. Since Voltaire advanced the idea, Jan de Bloch, an unusually able business man, was probably the first to develop the theory preached by Norman Angell that a great war benefits neither victor nor vanquished but always carries with it ruin and misery.

“In all countries most of the population is peace loving, if not pacifist. As a rule only officers and ammunition-makers wish war. And yet experience has shown how easy it is to excite war enthusiasm, and I do not believe it will be possible to do away with war or render it less frequent through any appeal to reason. The matter is not simple, for Europe is still in a state of medievalism. 

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“It must be borne in mind that if war does not increase the prosperity of the world, but on the contrary fills it with misery and evils of most appalling kinds, it sometimes — because of the barbarity of our social conditions — entails immeasurable advantages.

“A great European war would be an overwhelming tragedy for all concerned. Yet, in recent years many people have come to look upon such a war as inevitable, and some, even, seem naively confident that it would usher in a reign of justice. I have met with this theory in France and Austria-Hungary.”

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At the present moment five great European powers are tearing Europe with “murderlust” and destructive rage, while each one proclaims its love of peace and its desire to maintain it. Each one clamours its craving for justice…

The priests of the various Christian confessions pray for the blessings of Heaven upon their armies. Science and all inventions of benefit to humanity, all humanity’s genius, are now in the pay of bloodshed and murderous passion. Even the glory of the new century, the conquest of the air, is exclusively employed to serve what in former days was called the devil—spying and bomb-throwing. The aviator knows how to bombard; the soldier how to bring down the aviator, riddling his machine with bullets — while heavy cannon and light cannon, machine guns and perfected rifles, massacre human beings by the tens of thousands, and bombs wreck city after city. Torpedoes, mines, submarines destroy the marvellously equipped warships and their crews.

Blood cries out to Heaven. Hell spreads over the earth; it crackles in the air, roars and rages on the sea. 

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In 1913 [a] change had taken place. Belief in the maintenance of peace seemed to have vanished. War was inevitable — why not look facts in the face? Why have it hanging over like a threatening cloud? Even as high an authority as the president of the Seine Council, who a year before had believed in peace, now foresaw war without regret. Even the author who knew and understood Germany better than any one else, Romain Rolland, approved of war and awaited it with confidence. 

A cabinet officer, whose family and associations are reputed for their radicalism and passionate anti-militaristic tendencies, said to me, “My greatest desire is to live to shoulder my rifle and start for the front.” One of the directors in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a man who selects the candidates for the various embassies and consulates, a minister plenipotentiary, said: “We must have war; we cannot make headway without it. It will cleanse us, drive all discord and petty rivalries out of our spirit, and awaken France to new life.”

When such men desired war, it was evident that, in spite of the Socialists, war was looked upon as a possibility. 

It seemed almost symbolic that the grandchild of the great pacifist Renan, Ernest Psichari, should speak of war with Germany as a “holy war.” 

And then Charles Humbert, the publicist, came with his startling revelations as to the military unpreparedness of France. Most of the billions appropriated for defence had apparently slipped into the pockets of private persons. 

Jaures was the only man in public life who stubbornly believed in peace. The conviction cost him his popularity, and he fell, assassinated, a martyr for pacifism.

During this same period patriotic passion ran riot in Germany. The nation was convinced that if Germany was disliked it was because of her virtues, her initiative, her amazing development, her industry. This hatred felt by other nations for Germany was looked upon as the basest of all, being founded on envy and spite. Economic conditions obliged Germany to pursue an imperialistic policy, and she felt entitled to supplant England as the ruling power in Europe. Germany believed in her ethical right to take whatever might be necessary to satisfy her national ambition, and her belief was strengthened by a deep-rooted conviction that both France and England were unworthy of their rank. Both were said to be degenerating.

Many German military associations fostered a martial spirit among the young. It was due to them, perhaps, that 1,800,000 men enlisted as volunteers within a week after the declaration of war. The French are a nation of fighters, but they are not pugnacious by temperament like the Germans. When in 1900 it was announced in Paris that the attack on the allied ambassadors in Pekin demanded revenge, 120 men enrolled voluntarily, while the officers demanded that their pay be increased beyond that of colonial warfare. Urbain Gohier, the writer, complained bitterly about this. In Germany, at the same time, the announcement brought 130,000 volunteers, and instead of demanding higher pay the officers vied with each other in being allowed to participate.

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Germany’s dissatisfaction may be summed up in few words. Germany needed an outlet for her too numerous population. She had previously allowed her people to emigrate to America, but the twenty million inhabitants the United States thereby gained were practically lost to the mother country. So Germany, pressed by the need of expansion, looked about for colonies of her own. But she found that everything worth while had already been taken and very frequently England stood in her way. And the new, growing empire began to believe that England purposely thwarted its colonial ambitions. Yet Germany herself, twenty-five years ago, had no thought of colonial expansion. A generation ago Germany was personified by Bismarck, and Bismarck did not want colonies which he looked upon as a snare or a danger. He encouraged the French in Africa, hoping to make them forget Alsace, and sent them to Tunis and Madagascar and received, therefor, Barthelemy de St. Hilaire’s truly imbecile thanks.

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In the past England has systematically destroyed every navy which could menace Great Britain or be used against the empire (as Denmark’s). In this way England annihilated the Spanish, Dutch, French, and Danish fleets. England’s position as a world Power would have been changed if she had allowed Germany to increase and again increase her fleet. 

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A German invasion of England has been a bugbear created by English nationalists, but the German army does not have to cross the Channel in order to menace England. An attack through Belgium and France — as the present one — and — after victorious battles — the annexation of Belgium would be a death blow to England’s world supremacy. 

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While Darwinism in England was interpreted to mean the survival of the fittest without special reference to the selection made in war, Darwinism in Germany was made the basis of worship of war. Lessing and Kant, Herder and Goethe, were peace lovers — Kant was a pacifist; but new Germany has made the holiness of war her motto, believes war a link in the divine organisation of the universe, and considers peaceful endeavour of little worth compared with war. Without war and perpetual preparedness for war nations and individuals grow weak and flabby. The catchword from Nietzsche, the lust of power, has been generally accepted and especially his insolent phrase: ” A good cause does not ennoble war but a good war ennobles any cause.” 

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Most assuredly, to Belgium and Germany, Germany and France, Russia and Germany, Austria and Serbia, Germany and England, etc., justice means exactly the opposite.

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.

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The future…remains dark. The moment is so great that one is awed into silence. The grim tragedy is beginning. No one can peer into the future, and if our heads remain cool, our hearts are full of terror.

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. rosemerry
    January 10, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    What an interesting writer. To my shame, I had never heard of him.Thanks to Rick and STOP NATO.

    • richardrozoff
      January 10, 2013 at 11:12 pm

      Truth be told, I had never read Brandes before either. Have had his volume on 19th century German romanticism on a shelf for 25 years but had never touched it. So have really discovered him through his anti-war writings. He appears to have been the only European intellectaul to have forcefully spoken out against the First World War from the very beginning.

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