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Romain Rolland: Letter to Gandhi on confronting age of global wars

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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
April 16, 1928
Translated by R. A. Francis

However great would be my joy to see you and speak with you, I still believe that it would be neither right nor fair for you to come to Europe solely for that.

But it would be right and it would be fair for you to come to Europe in order to make contact with the youth of Europe, which needs your help, your advice and your enlightenment.

And it is necessary in either case (whether you come or not), it is indispensable that you should give an absolutely clear, precise and definitive formulation to the listening world of your doctrine, your faith, on the matter of war and non-acceptance.

We are both of us fairly old and of suspect health; we may disappear any day. It is important that we should leave a precise testament to the youth of the world which it can use as a rule of conduct, for it will have a terrible burden to bear in the coming half-century. I see fearful trials building up in front of them. It no longer seems to me a matter of doubt that there is in preparation an era of destruction, an age of global wars beside which all those of the past will seem only children’s games, of chemical warfare which will annihilate whole populations. What moral armour are we offering to those who will have to face up to the monster which we shall not live to see? What immediate answer to the riddle of the murderous Sphinx, who will not wait? What marching orders?

Our words must not be equivocal. We have the sad example of Christ, whose admirable Gospels contain too many passages which, though not contradictory in fundamental content, at least appear so in form, and lend them selves to the self-interested interpretations of the worst Pharisees. In the last war we saw in all countries how hypocrites, fanatics, statesmen like Lloyd George, bishops and pastors, false believers and, worst of all, true believers, could by chosen passages from the New Testament justify themselves for extolling war, vengeance and holy murder. In the coming crises, there must be no doubt about Gandhi’s thought.

Then again, it is necessary to weigh all the consequences of the orders given, to weigh the forces of the men to whom they will be entrusted. The young men of Europe are aware of the trials waiting for them. They don’t want to be duped about the imminence of the danger, which too many “pacifists” are trying not to see and to put out of their minds. They want to look it clearly in the face, and they ask: “To what extent is it reasonable, to what extent is it human, not to accept? Must the sacrifice be total, absolute, without exception, without any consideration either for ourselves or for the things which surround us and depend on us? And in all honesty to ourselves, can we be sure that this total sacrifice will diminish the sum total of future human sufferings – does it not risk handing over man’s destiny to a barbarity without counterweight?”

I’m asking the questions (some of the questions) which I feel are being turned over in the minds of the young. I’m not giving my own answers. I don’t count. My importance in this matter is secondary alongside yours. The man of pure thought (pure in the intellectual sense) has no more than a weak effect on the present; his forecasts have only a long-term chance of working themselves out. But you as a man of active faith are the direct intermediary between the forces of Eternity and present movements. You are on the poop-deck; you have the power to give direct orders to the sailors how to steer the ship in the storm. Give those orders! Let’s stop thinking about the port we have left (that 1914 war, about which we seem unable to reach understanding and which risks confusing all our discussions) and look to the port we must reach – in the future! My dear friend, I’m sorry to be always speaking to you so freely. I am aware of my moral inferiority. I am not worthy to touch your feet. But I know the anxiety and the doubts which assail the best men in Europe, and I am passing on what they say.

Assuring you of my respectful affection,
Romain Rolland

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