Above the Battle/Chapter 2



September 1914.[1]

Among the many crimes of this infamous war which are all odious to us, why have we chosen for protest the crimes against things and not against men, the destruction of works and not of lives?

Many are surprised by this, and have even reproached us for it—as if we have not as much pity as they for the bodies and hearts of the thousands of victims who are crucified! Yet over the armies which fall, there flies the vision of their love, and of la Patrie, to which they sacrifice themselves—over these lives which are passing away passes the holy Ark of the art and thought of centuries, borne on their shoulders. The bearers can change. May the Ark be saved! To the élite of the world falls the task of guarding it. And since the common treasure is threatened, may they rise to protect it!

I am glad to think that in the Latin countries this sacred duty has always been regarded as paramount. Our France which bleeds with so many other wounds, has suffered nothing more cruel than the attack against her Parthenon, the Cathedral of Rheims, "Our Lady of France." Letters which I have received from sorely tried families, and from soldiers who for two months have borne every hardship, show me (and I am proud of it for them and for my people) that there was no burden heavier for them to bear. It is because we put spirit above flesh. Very different is the case of the German intellectuals, who, to my reproaches for the sacrilegious acts of their devastating armies, have all replied with one voice, "Perish every chef-d'œuvre rather than one German soldier!"

A piece of architecture like Rheims is much more than one life: it is a people—whose centuries vibrate like a symphony in this organ of stone. It is their memories of joy, of glory, and of grief; their meditations, ironies, dreams. It is the tree of the race, whose roots plunge to the profoundest depths of its soil, and whose branches stretch with a sublime élan towards the sky. It is still more: its beauty which soars above the struggles of nations is the harmonious response made by the human race to the riddle of the world—this light of the spirit more necessary to souls than that of the sun.

Whoever destroys this work, murders more than a man; he murders the purest soul of a race. His crime is inexpiable, and Dante would have it punished with an eternal agony, eternally renewed. We who repudiate the vindictive spirit of so cruel a genius, do not hold a people responsible for the crimes of a few. The drama which unfolds itself before our eyes, and whose almost certain dénouement will be the crushing of the German hegenomy, is enough for us.

What brings it home to us most nearly is that not one of those who constitute the moral and intellectual élite of Germany—that hundred noble spirits, and those thousands of brave hearts of which no great nation was ever destitute—not one really suspects the crimes of his Government; the atrocities committed in Flanders, in the north and in the east of France during the two or three first weeks of the war; or (one can safely wager) the voluntary devastations of the towns of Belgium and the ruin of Rheims. If they came to look at the reality, I know that many of them would weep with grief and shame; and of all the shortcomings of Prussian Imperialism, the worst and the vilest is to have concealed its crimes from its people. For by depriving them of the means of protesting against those crimes, it has involved them for ever in the responsibility; it has abused their magnificent devotion. The intellectuals, however, are also guilty. For if one admits that the brave men, who in every country tamely feed upon the news which their papers and their leaders give them for nourishment, allow themselves to be duped, one cannot pardon those whose duty it is to seek truth in the midst of error, and to know the value of interested witnesses and passionate hallucinations. Before bursting into the midst of this furious debate upon which was staked the destruction of nations and of the treasures of the spirit, their first duty (a duty of loyalty as much as of common-sense) should have been to consider the problems from both sides. By blind loyalty and culpable trustfulness they have rushed head-foremost into the net which their Imperialism had spread. They believed that their first duty was, with their eyes closed, to defend the honour of their State against all accusation. They did not see that the noblest means of defending it was to disavow its faults and to cleanse their country of them.…

I have awaited this virile disavowal from the proudest spirits of Germany, a disavowal which would have been ennobling instead of humiliating. The letter which I wrote to one of them, the day after the brutal voice of Wolff's Agency pompously proclaimed that there remained of Louvain no more than a heap of ashes, was received by the entire élite of Germany in a spirit of enmity. They did not understand that I offered them the chance of releasing Germany from the fetters of those crimes which its Empire was forging in its name. What did I ask of them? What did I ask of you all, finer spirits of Germany?—to express at least a courageous regret for the excesses committed, and to dare to remind unbridled power that even the Fatherland cannot save itself through crime, and that above its rights are those of the human spirit. I only asked for one voice—a single free voice.… None spoke. I heard only the clamour of herds, the pack of intellectuals giving tongue on the track whereon the hunter loosed them, and that insolent Manifesto, in which without the slightest effort to justify its crimes you have unanimously declared that they do not exist. And your theologians, your pastors, your court-preachers, have stated further that you are very just and that you thank God for having made you thus.… Race of Pharisees, what chastisement from on high shall scourge your sacrilegious pride! … Do you not suspect the evil which you have done to your own people! The megalomania, a menace to the world, of an Ostwald or an H. S. Chamberlain,[2] the criminal determination of ninety-three intellectuals not to wish to see the truth, will have cost Germany more than ten defeats.

How clumsy you are! I believe that of all your faults maladresse is the worst. You have not said one word since the beginning of this war which has not been more fatal for you than all the speeches of your adversaries. It is you who have light-heartedly furnished the proof or the argument of the worst accusations that have been brought against you; just as your official agencies, under the stupid illusion of terrorising us, have been the first to launch emphatic recitals of your most sinister devastations. It is you, who when the most impartial of your adversaries were obliged, in fairness, to limit the responsibility of these acts to a few of your leaders and armies, have angrily claimed your share. It is you who the day after the destruction of Rheims, which, in your inmost hearts, should have dismayed the best amongst you, have boasted of it in imbecile pride, instead of trying to clear yourselves.[3] It is you, wretched creatures, you, representatives of the spirit, who have not ceased to extol force and to despise the weak, as if you did not know that the wheel of fortune turns, that this force one day will weigh afresh upon you, as in past ages, when your great men, at least, retained the consolation of not having yielded to it the sovereignty of the spirit and the sacred rights of Right! … What reproaches, what remorse are you heaping up for the future, O blind guides—you who are leading into the ditch your nation, which follows you like the stumbling blind men of Brueghel!

What poor arguments you have opposed to us for two months!

1. War is war, say you, that is to say without common measure with the rest of things, above morals and reason and all the limits of ordinary life, a kind of supernatural state before which one can only bow without discussion;

2. Germany is Germany, that is to say without common measure with the rest of nations. The laws which apply to others do not apply to her, and the rights which she arrogates to herself to violate Right appertain to her alone. Thus she can, without crime, tear up written promises, betray sworn oaths, violate the neutrality of peoples which she has pledged herself to defend. But she claims in return the right to find, in the nations which she outrages, "chivalrous adversaries," and that they should not be so, that they should dare to defend themselves by all the means and the arms that remain to them, she proclaims a crime! …

One recognises there indeed the interested teaching of your Prussian masters! Great minds of Germany, I do not doubt your sincerity, but you are no longer capable of seeing the truth. Prussian Imperialism has crushed down over your eyes and conscience its spiked helmet.

"Necessity knows no law." … Here is the eleventh commandment, the message that you bring to the universe to-day, sons of Kant! … We have heard it more than once in history: it is the famous doctrine of Public Safety, mother of heroisms and crimes. Every nation has recourse to it in the hour of danger, but the greatest are those who defend against it their immortal soul. Fifteen years have passed since the famous trial which saw a single innocent man opposed to the force of the State. Fifteen years have passed since we French affronted and shattered the idol of public safety, when it threatened, as our Péguy says, "the eternal safety of France."

Listen to him, whom you have killed; listen to a hero of the French conscience, writers who have the keeping of the conscience of Germany.

"Our enemies of that time" wrote Charles Péguy, "spoke the language of the raison d'État, of the temporal safety of the people and the race. But we, by a profound Christian movement, by a revolutionary effort, at unity with traditional Christianity, aimed at no less than attaining the heights of sacrifice, in our anxiety for the eternal salvation of this people. We did not wish to place France in the position of having committed the unpardonable sin"

You do not trouble yourselves about that, thinkers of Germany. You bravely give your blood to save the mortal life, but do not bother about the life eternal. It is a terrible moment, I grant. Your fatherland as ours struggles for its life, and I understand and admire the ecstasy of sacrifice which impels your youth, as ours, to make of its body a rampart against death. "To be or not to be," do you say? No, that is not enough. To be the great Germany, to be the great France, worthy of their past, and respecting one another even while fighting, that is what I wish. I should blush for victory if my France bought it at the price for which you will pay for your temporary success. Even while the battles are being fought upon the plains of Belgium and amongst the chalky slopes of Champagne, another war is taking place upon the field of the spirit, and often victory below means defeat above. The conquest of Belgium, Malines, Louvain and Rheims, the carillons of Flanders, will sound a sadder knell in your history than the bells of Jena; and the conquered Belgians have robbed you of your glory. You know it. You are enraged because you know it. What is the good of vainly trying to deceive yourselves? Truth will be clear to you in the end. You have done your best to silence her—one day she will speak; she will speak by the mouth of one of your own in whom will be awakened the conscience of your race.… Oh, that he may soon appear and that we may hear his voice—the pure and noble voice of the redeemer who shall set you free! He who has lived in the intimacy of your old Germany, who has clasped her hand in the twisted streets of her heroic and sordid past, who has caught the breath of her centuries of trials and shames, remembers and waits: for he knows that even if she has never proved strong enough to bear victory without wavering, it is in her hours of trouble that she reforms herself, and her greatest geniuses are sons of sorrow.

September 1914.

Since these lines were written I have watched the birth of the anxiety which little by little is making its way into the consciences of the good people of Germany. First a secret doubt, kept under by a stubborn effort to believe the bad arguments collected by their Government to oppose it—documents fabricated to prove that Belgium had renounced her neutrality herself, false allegations (in vain repudiated four times by the French Government, by the Commander-in-Chief, by the Cardinal and the Archbishop, and by the Mayor of Rheims)—accusing the French of using the Cathedral of Rheims for military purposes. Lacking arguments, their system of defence is at times disconcerting in its naïveté.

"Is it possible," they say, "that we should be accused of wishing to destroy artistic monuments, we, the people above all others who venerate art, in whom is instilled this respect from infancy, who have the greatest number of text books and historical collections of art and the longest list of lectures on æsthetics? Is it possible to accuse of the most barbarous actions the most humane, the most affectionate, and the most homely of peoples?"

The idea never strikes them that Germany is not constituted by a single race of men, and that besides the obedient masses who are born to obey, to respect the law—all the laws—there is the race which commands, which believes itself above all laws, and which makes and unmakes them in the name of force and necessity (Not …) It is this evil marriage of idealism and German force which leads to these disasters. The idealism proves to be a woman; a woman captive, who like so many worthy German wives, worships her lord and master, and refuses even to think that he could ever be wrong.

It is, however, necessary for the salvation of Germany that she should one day countenance the thought of divorce, or that the wife should have the courage to make her voice heard in the household. I know already several who are beginning to champion the rights of the spirit against force. Many a German voice has reached us lately in letters protesting against war and deploring with us the injustices which we deplore I will not give their names in order not to compromise them. Not very long ago I told the "Fair"[4] which obstructed Paris that it was not France. I say to-day to the German Fair, "You are not the true Germany." There exists another Germany juster and more humane, whose ambition is not to dominate the world by force and guile, but to absorb in peace everything great in the thought of other races, and in return to reflect the harmony. With that Germany there is no dispute; we are not her enemies, we are the enemies of those who have almost succeeded in making the world forget that she still lives.

October 1914.

Édition des Cahiers Vaudois 10e cahier, 1914 (Lausanne, C. Tarin).

  1. Written after the bombardment of Rheims Cathedral.
  2. When I wrote this, I had not seen the monstrous article by Thomas Mann (in the Neue Rundschau of November 1914), where, in a fit of fury and injured pride, he savagely claimed for Germany, as a title to glory, all the crimes of which her adversaries accuse her. He dared to write that the present war was a war of German Kultur "against Civilisation," proclaiming that German thought had no other ideal than militarism, and inscribes on his banner the following lines, the apology of force oppressing weakness:

    "Denn der Mensh verkümmert im Frieden,
    Müssige Ruh ist das Grab des Muts.
    Das Gesetz ist der Freund des Schwachen,
    Alles will es nur eben machen.
    Möchte gern die Welt verflachen,
    Aber der Krieg lässt die Kraft erscheinen.…"

    (Man deteriorates in peace. Idle rest is the tomb of courage. Law is the friend of the weak, it aims at levelling all; it would reduce the world to a level. War brings out strength.)

    Even so a bull in the arena, mad with rage, rushes with lowered head on the matador’s sword, and impales himself.

  3. As one of these ’pendants of barbarism’ (so Miguel de Unamuno rightly describes them) writes, "one has the right to destroy, if one has the force to create" (Wer stark ist zu schaffen, der darf auch zerstören).—Friedr Gundolf: Tat und Wort im Krieg, published in the Frankfurter Zeitung, October 11th. Cf. the article of the aged Hans Thoma, in the Leipsiger Illustrierte Zeitung of October 1st.
  4. Jean-Christophe, part v, "La Foire sur la Place." In vol. iii of the English version.—Trans.