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Romain Rolland: Letter to Gandhi on total inadmissibility of war

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

French writers on war and peace

Romain Rolland: Selections on war

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Romain Rolland
Translated by R. A. Francis

There are two sorts of pacifism: pacifism by renunciation, out of impoverished vitality, and pacifism by calm trust in one’s strength, out of superabundance of vitality.

Diary 1921

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Tagore sees a universal symbol in the tragedy of Hamlet: the drama of a great idealist wanting to do his duty by means of a criminal action, who is ruined as soon as he dabbles in crime, even in intention; with his integrity, he has lost his force and his reasons for existence. This, Tagore says (in his eyes, at any rate), is the drama of Gandhi. Ever since the compromise which, during the Great War, led him to recruit soldiers for England, it has been a story of moral collapse (Tagore thinks). He honestly thought that in this way he could achieve his great object, the liberation of his people; but in vain.

Diary 1926

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Even Gandhi, whom I revere, has made mistakes. Shall I tell him how many times I’ve had the job of calming the worries of his obscure Western disciples upset by his attitude during the 1914 war and his attempts to conciliate nonviolence with his preaching inciting people to take part in the British Empire’s war!

Letter 1927

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From Letter to Mohandas Gandhi 1928

I (or rather my sister) have read in Young India of 16 February your examination of the part you played in the 1914 war. Forgive me if I tell you that though I should dearly love to enter into your thoughts and approve of them, I have not been able to do so!

I can understand…that men who do not believe in the nation and are horrified by war, but who cannot avoid it other than by getting themselves shot and have not enough moral force or faith to welcome this sacrifice which dishonours them in the eyes of the mass of their fellow-citizens, should weaken and allow themselves to be enlisted. I pity them, I suffer with them, and I have no right to reproach them. Each man must act according to his strength.

But for a man of great courage and absolute faith like yourself, who uncompromisingly condemns human bloodshed and national warfare, to take part in such activities – and out of choice, without being forced – in that case, nothing in the world can make me either admit or even understand it. And the reasons you cite (forgive me!) do not seem to me good ones. I could even go so far as to say that I should better understand your action without reasons than with the reasons you give!

Let us look at them:

You set out three alternatives:

1. As a citizen (either willing or by accepted force) of the British Empire, enjoying its protection and aspiring to obtain from it Home Rule for your people within the Imperial framework, you feel yourself obliged to share in its trials and injustices as well as its sufferings, – even in its crimes; and you think that from this evil heroically accepted there may come a good: that of Imperial recognition of the independence of your people, which, once master of itself, may impose on the Empire in its turn, by spiritual force alone, the law of justice and humanity called Ahimsa…Events have given you your answer – from the practical point of view. If you consider only the results, this most frank opportunism has been of no use to you; but even if it had led to practical success, to the recognition of your people’s independence, my friend, allow me to tell you quite bluntly that independence bought at that price, at the price of an accepted share in the bloody sacrifice of millions of men, would be a crime before God.

2. Boycott of the war and the Empire, which you rightly judge impracticable.

3. Individual civil disobedience, bringing with it the penalty of imprisonment. This you merely state, without dwelling on it. Why not? I don’t understand. It seems to me the only one of the three alternatives which is morally acceptable, if not adequate. And in many other circumstances you have set the example of accepting it – simply, without great gestures or phrases, without calculating the practical results – as the only way open to a conscience which has no accounts to render to anyone but God. Why not, then, have recourse to it at the hour of this “worst of crimes”, this mutual slaughter of peoples driven to the butchery by their bad shepherds. I don’t understand! And what grieves me is that an example like yours may and certainly will be exploited by our political masters as an acquiescence, as consent to the most loathsome of their crimes, which is the enlistment to help in their wars of sordid interest, of the wretched human masses of Asia and Africa, which they exploit and use as cannon and machine-gun fodder, as a substance less precious than European flesh. I’m writing to you just as I feel…I hope that one day soon we may better clarify our thought on this matter, and I rejoice in the dream that Europe – and my own eyes – may see you this year.

I assure you of my respectful and profound affection,
Romain Rolland

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