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Romain Rolland: Letters on conscientious objection

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

Nobel prize in literature recipients on peace and war

French writers on war and peace

Romain Rolland: Selections on war

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Romain Rolland
Translated by R. A. Francis

From a letter to Jenny Guyot 1923

Look closely at the question of the Conscientious Objectors, Gandhi’s heroic non-violence, the International Civil Service. These are the rare roads to salvation available to a Europe infected by the spirit of violence, and pregnant with new wars which will inevitably destroy her great races unless there is a desperate effort on the part of their moral elite

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From a letter to Pierre Cérésole 1923

I should greatly encourage young people looking for a thesis topic in history to study the origins and development of Conscientious Objectors. The movement seems to go back a long way. Gandhi in the Transvaal, twenty years ago, was referring to the English Conscientious Objectors whose activities had struck him. But in fact they must always have existed, ever since the early days of Christianity and the rebels against the orders of recantation issued by the Church rallying to the power of Constantine…

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From a letter to Henri Barbusse 1922

But there is another arm, much more powerful and within everyone’s reach, high or low; an arm which has proved its effectiveness among other races, and it’s surprising that it’s never mentioned in France; the arm used by thousands of Conscientious Objectors among the Anglo Saxon nations, and by which Mahatma Gandhi is at present undermining the dominance of the British Empire in India. I refer to non-acceptance (and I’m not saying non-resistance), for make no mistake about it, this is the supreme resistance. To refuse consent and co-operation to the criminal State is the most heroic act open to a man of our time; it demands of him – just him, an individual, alone in face of the State colossus which can coldly throttle him behind closed doors – an energy and spirit of sacrifice incomparably greater than that of confronting death when your breath and the dying sweat on your brow are mingled with those of the throng. Such moral force is possible only if one kindles in the heart of man – each man individually – the fire of conscience, the quasi-mystic sense of the divinity which is in every mind and which, at the decisive hours of history, has raised the greatest races to the stars…

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From a letter to B. De Ligt 1928

For a genuinely heroic soul like Vivekananda (whose life story I am at present writing), non-resistance is forbidden to anyone who hypocritically slips the slightest cowardly thought into it. For the question of the conscience, or perhaps one should say the salvation of the soul, has a much greater place in their thought than that of material social progress, for their concerns are those of the director of conscience. War is detestable in their eyes less for its ravages on the battlefield than for those it makes in the human heart.

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From a letter to Eugen Relgis 1929

In general what seems to me most urgent, as also to Pierre Doyen, Han Ryner, Einstein, Delpeuch and Stefan Zweig, is to set aside all doctrines for the time being and come to an agreement on a precise action, a collective “No”! For war is an action, not a doctrine, and when it breaks out there will be no time for Byzantine discussions on the sex of the angels. We shall have to say ‘Yesl” or “No!” to war on the spot, and thereby accept all the terrible consequences for ourselves and those closest to us…Pacifist mobilization needs extensive preliminary intellectual exercises, so as to rehearse the parts to be played.

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From a letter to Reginald Reynolds 1930

The “pacifism” of “good people” (It’s not very much to be “good people”! What we need is “brave people”) is fatal to all virtues, and above all else to energy, the mother of them all – energy of thought which does not evade the issue and dares to be sincere with itself – and energy of the will which dares to say what it believes to be true, and to act on what it says. The emasculated “pacifist” movement has allowed itself to be taken in by the deceptive mask of today’s democratic states, who are ruining their peoples producing armaments for the most ferocious of wars. This mask must be torn away; no dealings are possible with hypocrisy!

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From a letter to Albert Einstein 1930

Nothing seems to me more appropriate to the celebration of one of India’s spiritual leaders than to express, as you wish to do, our moral adhesion to the principle of non-acceptance without violence, which in our civilization is translated into the refusal of military service. You know that this is my conviction as well. I should merely like to be sure that we never forget, and we never let those who listen to us forget, that in our violent Europe, on the eve of a new attack of delirium tremens, this refusal has, or will have, self-sacrifice as a necessary consequence. Those over whom we have spiritual charge must not be allowed to form illusions on the strength of our words; they must realize that we are leading them to almost certain martyrdom. If they agree to this, then so do we. In our hard human life, martyrdom is almost always the necessary stage through which reason must pass in order to progress into the world of facts.

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