Home > Uncategorized > Stephen Spender: The Woolfs in the 1930s: War the inevitable result of an arms race.

Stephen Spender: The Woolfs in the 1930s: War the inevitable result of an arms race.


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

Stephen Spender: Selections on war


Stephen Spender
From World Within World (1948)


There would be talk of politics, that is to say, of war. For Leonard and Virginia were among the very few people in England who had a profound understanding of the state of the world in the 1930s; Leonard, because he was a political thinker and historian with an almost fatalistic understanding of the consequences of actions. So that when, in 1934, I asked him whether he thought there would be a war he replied: “Yes, of course. Because when the nations enter into an armaments race, as they are doing at present, no other end is possible. The arms have to be used before they become completely out of date.”


Perhaps the worst of the 1930s was not that politicians attempted to compromise with Hitler: but that they did Hitler’s work by blinding themselves, and others, to the forces with which they were compromising. Hitler did more than gain political victories in Europe. He also demoralized international politics. There came a day when the democratic statesmen who played politics with him, were forced to accept elections in Austria and the Saar, directed by Hitler, as expressions of the will of the people; to recognize the Anschluss and the seizure of Czechoslovakia as voluntary corrections of European frontiers; and to deny, during the Spanish Civil War, that British ships were sunk by Italian submarines in the Mediterranean. There statesmen came to represent a cynicism which lacked the courage of Hitler’s blackguardism. If it is pointed out that after all the democracies overthrew Hitler, I must reply that this was not until they had inherited and taken to themselves the worst of his plans – total war followed by a dictated peace.


The intelligentsia also had more sinister reasons for understanding Hitler. These were the elements of pure destructiveness, of attraction to evil for its own sake, and of a search for spiritual damnation, which had been present in some European literature for the past century, and which were fulfilled in Nazi politics. European literature had diagnosed, without purging itself of, the evil of nihilism. In Hitlerism the nightmares of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, of Nietzsche and of Wagner, were made real. The cultured Europeans recognized in this political movement some of their own most hidden fantasies. Hatred of it was deeply involved with a sense of their own guilt. And as though to demonstrate this to the utmost, certain writers in the occupied countries were actually to welcome Hitler as a destructive force which their art had prophesied.

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