Above the Battle/Chapter 1

Above the Battle by Romain Rolland, translated by Charles Kay Ogden
I. An Open Letter to Gerhart Hauptmann



Saturday, August 29, 1914.[1]

I am not, Gerhart Hauptmann, one of those Frenchmen who regard Germany as a nation of barbarians. I know the intellectual and moral greatness of your mighty race. I know all that I owe to the thinkers of old Germany; and even now, at this hour, I recall the example and the words of our Goethe—for he belongs to the whole of humanity—repudiating all national hatreds and preserving the calmness of his soul on those heights "where we feel the happiness and the misfortunes of other peoples as our own." I myself have laboured all my life to bring together the minds of our two nations; and the atrocities of this impious war in which, to the ruin of European civilisation, they are involved, will never lead me to soil my spirit with hatred.

Whatever pain, then, your Germany may give me, whatever reasons I may have to stigmatise as criminal German policy and the means it employs, I do not attach responsibility for it to the people which is burdened with it and is used as its blind instrument. It is not that I regard, as you do, war as a fatality. A Frenchman does not believe in fatality. Fatality is the excuse of souls without a will. War springs from the weakness and stupidity of nations. One cannot feel resentment against them for it; one can only pity them. I do not reproach you with our miseries; for yours will be no less. If France is ruined, Germany will be ruined too. I did not even raise my voice when I saw your armies violating the neutrality of noble Belgium. This flagrant breach of honour, which incurs the contempt of every upright conscience, is quite in the political tradition of your Prussian kings; it did not surprise me.

But when I see the fury with which you are treating that magnanimous nation whose only crime has been to defend its independence and the cause of justice to the last, as you Germans yourselves did in 1813 … that is too much! The world is revolted by it. Keep these savageries for us Frenchmen, your true enemies! But to wreak them against your victims, against this small, unhappy, innocent Belgian people … how shameful is this!

And not content to fling yourselves on living Belgium, you wage war on the dead, on the glories of past ages. You bombard Malines, you burn Rubens, and Louvain is now no more than a heap of ashes—Louvain with its treasures of art and of science, the sacred town! What are you, then, Hauptmann, and by what name do you want us to call you now, since you repudiate the title of barbarians? Are you the grand-sons of Goethe or of Attila? Are you making war on enemies or on the human spirit? Kill men if you like, but respect masterpieces. They are the patrimony of the human race. You, like all the rest of us, are its depositories; in pillaging it, as you do, you show yourselves unworthy of our great heritage, unworthy to take your place in that little European army which is civilisation's guard of honour.

It is not to the opinion of the rest of the world that I address myself in challenging you, Hauptmann. In the name of our Europe, of which you have hitherto been one of the most illustrious champions, in the name of that civilisation for which the greatest of men have striven all down the ages, in the name of the very honour of your Germanic race, Gerhart Hauptmann, I adjure you, I challenge you, you and the intellectuals of Germany, amongst whom I reckon so many friends, to protest with all your energy against this crime which is recoiling upon you.

If you fail to do this, you will prove one of two things: either that you approve what has been done—and in that case may the opinion of mankind crush you—or else that you are powerless to raise a protest against the Huns who command you. If this be so, by what title can you still claim, as you have claimed, that you fight for the cause of liberty and human progress? You are giving the world a proof that, incapable of defending the liberty of the world, you are even incapable of defending your own, and that the best of Germany is helpless beneath a vile despotism which mutilates master-pieces and murders the spirit of man.

I am expecting an answer from you, Hauptmann, an answer that may be an act. The opinion of Europe awaits it as I do. Think about it: at such a time silence itself is an act.

Journal de Genève, Wednesday, September 2, 1914.

  1. A telegram from Berlin (Wolff's Agency), reproduced by the Gazette de Lausanne, August 29, 1914, has just announced that "the old town of Louvain, rich in works of art, exists no more to-day."