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Romain Rolland: The intellectual drunkeness of war propaganda

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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
From a letter to Mohandas Gandhi
February 17, 1929
Translated by R. A. Francis

All I should like to do is to offer you a few reflections on the fearful days which India faces.

You know the conditions of modern combat. You know that the first act of the modern state in warfare is to ruin its adversary in the opinion of the rest of the world; to this end it stifles its enemy’s voice and fills the world with its own. You know that the British Empire is past master in this art, and that it has all the wherewithal to blockade India and cut her off from the rest of the world, which it can then flood with its own propaganda. The process has already started. For the last month events in Bombay have served as a pretext for making the world think that India is in flames, and every day the main French papers, with a docility which I suspect is well-paid, receive the reports coming from England and carry stories with large headlines about “Hell in Bombay” and the “sinister tally” of each day – as if the trouble extended to the whole of India and as if there were no evil, crimes or massacres anywhere but in India – as if the salvation of all humanity depended on the good gaoler keeping the prison doors well bolted, to protect the world from the Indian hydra which he alone in his heroism is able to keep in chains! It is easy to imagine how shrill this propaganda will become as the decisive hour approaches, and when the gauntlet is down it will know no bounds.

Now I have already seen far too much evidence of the terrifying intellectual passivity in which the peoples of Europe are at present lying. Ever since the first day of the 1914 war their poor brains have been subjected to so much daily intoxication from the whole of their press that they have become unable to react. This is another type of intellectual alcoholism, no less ravaging in its effects than the other. There is hardly a free newspaper left in the West. There is not one where a free man like myself can write (except for a few poor news-sheets with no circulation and one or two large reviews which do not reach a wide public because they appear at infrequent intervals and cost quite a lot).

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No one fights alone today. The whole world is involved in every conflict, and it throws the enormous weight of its opinion into one of the trays of the balance – either for or against. It was largely by this weight of opinion, well directed and well manipulated by the Allies, that the German Empire was crushed.

It would be unwise of the Indian leaders to neglect these great forces. It seems to me indispensable that they should use this year to prepare European opinion, to open the eyes of the thousands of men here who are blindfolded by their domesticated press.

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From his diary, June 1930

The British Empire may use whatever arms it wishes, but its days are numbered. Let us not be deceived by its displays of power and bluster! From this day forth it is a hunted animal fighting for its life. The British Empire was built on a pile of monstrous injustices, on the murderous exploitation of millions of men; these millions of men have rediscovered their own strength. They only have to shrug their shoulders and the British Empire is already trembling on its foundations. We all see it crumble, and may all empires based on pillage follow in its fall! We too need to settle our accounts with humanity!

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From his diary, 1931

For our enemy is almost impossible to grasp, and has no name. It is not a foreign master, creeping in like a maggot under a nation’s skin, nor is it a national master, with whom one can, and must, settle accounts man to man. It is an international combination of capitalist interests and enterprises, secretly including the great industrial and commercial tycoons of a whole bloc of nations (even nations officially hostile to each other, like France and Germany) and spreading its net over the whole world. For twenty or thirty years now it has been working in the shadows. Its intrigues in the pre-war years have been precisely traced, and during the war it strengthened its position in monstrous fashion, as revealed by a large number of publications and even public revelations in parliamentary debates – subsequently strangled and stifled by occult financial powers. During the war, national policies and even, in some circumstances (such as the Briey mining basin in Lorraine), troop movements were subordinated to them. In the last twelve years their supremacy has become established; most national governments on the continent are no more than screens for their activities, and nearly all the European press is subject to them. How can one fight? Pacifist organizations are senile almost as soon as they are born; they waste all their energy, most of which is merely verbal anyway, against false targets; for the hidden masters of politics and the shady international businessmen use peace as well as war, one after another, to serve their profits and their domination.

We can no longer count as we used to do on the slow evolutionary rhythm of events. The same accelerated movement which carries along the European machine-age and its inventions is also arousing peoples and states. A social conflict or a world war which in the past would have taken decades or a half-centuries to ripen now takes shape, swells and erupts like an abscess in a few years. Resistance and defence must be just as prompt – and, if necessary, as overwhelming – as the attack.

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