Above the Battle/Chapter 4



I do not hold the doctrine expounded by a certain saintly king, that it is useless to enter into discussion with heretics—and we regard all those who do not agree with our opinions as heretics nowadays—but that it is sufficient to brain them. I feel the need of understanding my enemy's reasons. I am unwilling to believe in unfairness. Doubtless my enemy is as passionately sincere as I am. Why, then, should we not attempt to understand each other? For such an understanding, though it will not suppress the conflict, may perhaps suppress our hatred; and it is hatred more than anything else that I regard as my enemy.

However much I may feel that the motives actuating the various combatants are not equally worthy, I have yet come to the conviction, after reading the papers and letters which, during the last two months, have arrived in Geneva from every country, that the ardour of patriotic faith is everywhere the same, and that each of the nations engaged in this mighty struggle believes itself to be the champion of liberty against barbarism. But liberty and barbarism do not mean the same thing to both sides.

Barbarous despotism, the worst enemy to liberty, is exemplified for us Frenchmen, Englishmen, men of the West, in Prussian Imperialism; and I venture to think that the register of its methods is plainly set forth in the devastated route from Liége to Senlis, passing by way of Louvain, Malines, and Rheims. For Germany, the monster ("Ungeheuer," as the aged Wundt calls it) which threatens civilisation is Russia, and the bitterest reproach which the Germans hurl against France is our alliance with the Empire of the Tsar. I have received many letters reproaching us with this. In the Munich review, Das Forum, I read only yesterday an article by Wilhelm Herzog challenging me to explain my position with regard to Russia. Let us consider the question, then. I ask nothing better. By this means we shall be able to weigh the German danger and the Russian danger in the balance, and thus show which of the two seems the more threatening to us.

Of the actual events of the present war between Germany and Russia I will say nothing. All the information we have comes from Russian or German sources, equally unreliable. To judge by them it would appear that the same ferocity exists in both camps. The Germans in Kalish were worthy companions of the Cossacks in Grodtken and Zorothowo.—It is of the German spirit and of the Russian spirit that I wish to speak here, for this is the important thing and of this we have more definite knowledge.

You, my German friends—for those of you who were my friends in the past remain my friends in spite of fanatical demands from both sides that we should break off all relations—know how much I love the Germany of the past, and all that I owe to it. Not less than you, yourselves, I am the son of Beethoven, of Leibnitz, and of Goethe. But what do I owe to the Germany of to-day, or what does Europe owe to it? What art have you produced since the monumental work of Wagner, which marks the end of an epoch and belongs to the past? What new and original thought can you boast of since the death of Nietzsche, whose magnificent madness has left its traces upon you though we are unscathed by it? Where have we sought our spiritual food for the last forty years, when our own fertile soil no longer yielded sufficient for our needs? Who but the Russian writers have been our guides? What German writer can you set up against Tolstoï and Dostoievsky, those giants of poetic genius and moral grandeur? These are the men who have moulded my soul, and in defending the nation from which they sprang, I am but paying a debt which I owe to that nation as well as to themselves. Even if the contempt for Prussian Imperialism were not innate to me as a Latin, I should have learned it from them. Twenty years ago Tolstoï expressed his contempt for your Kaiser. In music, Germany, so proud of its ancient glory, has only the successors of Wagner, neurotic jugglers with orchestral effects, like Richard Strauss, but not a single sober and virile work of the quality of Boris Godunov. No German musician has opened up new roads. A single page of Moussorgsky or Strawinsky shows more originality, more potential greatness than the complete scores of Mahler and Reger. In our Universities, in our hospitals and Pasteur Institutes, Russian students and scholars work side by side with our own, and Russian revolutionaries who have taken refuge in Paris mingle their aspirations with those of our socialists.

The crimes of Tsarism are continually on your lips. We, too, denounce these crimes; for Tsarism is our enemy, and what I wrote but recently, I repeat now. But it is likewise the enemy of the intellectual élite of Russia itself. This cannot be said of your intellectuals, who are so slavishly obedient to the commands of your rulers. A few days ago I received that amazing "Address to the Civilised Nations" with which the Imperial army-corps of German intellectuals bombarded Europe; meanwhile the army-corps of German Commerce (Bureau des Deutschen Handelstages) shelled the markets of the world with circulars ornamented by the figure of Mercury, the god of lies. This mobilisation of the forces of the pen and of the caduceus, with which in good truth no other country could compete, has given us additional reason to fear the Empire's powers of organisation, no reason to respect it more. "Civilised Nations" read, not without amazement, that Address, the truth of which was vouched for by the names of the most distinguished scientists, thinkers, and artists in Germany—by Behring, Ostwald, Roentgen, Eucken, Haeckel, Wundt, Dehmel, Hauptmann, Sudermann, Hildebrand, Klinger, Liebermann, Humperdinck, Weingartner, etc.—by painters and philosophers, musicians, theologians, chemists, economists, poets, and the professors of twenty universities. They learned, not without surprise, that "it is not true that Germany provoked the war,—it is not true that Germany criminally violated the neutrality of Belgium,—it is not true that Germany used violence against the life or the belongings of a single Belgian citizen without being forced to do so,—it is not true that Germany destroyed Louvain" (destroyed it? no indeed, she saved it!), "it is not true that Germany——" It is not true that day is day and night is night! I confess that I could not read to the end without that feeling of embarrassment which I felt as a child, when I heard an elderly man whom I respected make false statements. I turned aside my eyes and blushed for him. Thank God! the crimes of Tsarism never found a defender amongst the great artists, scholars, and thinkers of Russia. Are not Kropotkin, Tolstoï, Dostoievski, and Gorki, the greatest names in its literature, the very ones who denounced its crimes!

Russian domination has often been cruelly heavy for the smaller nationalities which it has swallowed up. But how comes it then, Germans, that the Poles prefer it to yours? Do you imagine that Europe is ignorant of the monstrous way in which you are exterminating the Polish race? Do you think that we do not receive the confidences of those Baltic nations who, having to choose between two conquerors, prefer the Russian because he is the more humane? Read the following letter which I received but lately from a Lett, who, though he has suffered severely at the hands of the Russians, yet sides ardently with them against you. My German friends, you are either strangely ignorant of the state of mind of the nations which surround you, or you think us extremely simple and ill-informed. Your imperialism, beneath its veneer of civilisation, seems to me no less ferocious than Tsarism towards everything that ventures to oppose its avaricious desire for universal dominion. But whereas immense and mysterious Russia, overflowing with young and revolutionary forces, gives us hope of a coming renewal, your Germany bases its systematic harshness on a culture too antiquated and scholastic to allow of any hope of amendment. If I had any such hope—and I once had it, my friends—you have taken great pains to rob me of it, you, artists and scholars who drew up that address in which you pride yourselves on your complete unity with Prussian Imperialism. Know once for all that there is nothing more overwhelming for us Latins, nothing more difficult to endure, than your militarisation of the intellect. If, by some awful fate, this spirit were triumphant I should leave Europe for ever. To live here would be intolerable to me.

Here, then, are some extracts from the interesting letter which I have received from a representative of those little nationalities which are being disputed between Russia and Germany. They desire to maintain their independence, but find themselves obliged to choose between these two nations, and choose Russia. It is good to hear them speak. We are too much inclined to listen only to the Great Powers who are now at war. Let us think of those little barques which the great vessels draw in their wake. Let us share for a moment the agony with which these little nationalities, forgotten by the egotism of Europe, await the final issue of a struggle which will decide their fate. Let England and France heed those beseeching eyes which are turned towards them; let young Russia, herself so eager for liberty, help generously to shed its benefits abroad.

October 10, 1914.


30th September, 1914.

Sir,—I desire to thank you for your article, "Above the Battle." … Although by my education I am more akin to the civilisations of Germany and Russia than to the civilisation of France, yet I respect the French spirit more, for I am convinced, more than ever to-day, that it will furnish the greatly needed solution of the problems of national rights and liberty.

In your article you quote the words of one of your friends, a soldier and a writer, who says that the French are fighting not only to defend their own country but to save the liberty of the world. You can hardly imagine how such words re-echo in the hearts of oppressed nations, what streams of sympathy are to-day converging from all corners of Europe upon France, what hopes depend upon your victory.

And yet many doubts have been expressed with regard to these French and English assertions because both nations have allied themselves with Russia, whose policy is contrary to the ideas of right and liberty; and Germany herself maintains that it is precisely those ideas for which she is fighting against Russia.

It would be interesting to discover what German writers and professors really mean when they speak of a Holy War against Russia, Do they wish to assist Russian revolutionaries to dethrone the Tsar?—Every revolutionary party would refuse indignantly to accept assistance from Prussian militarism. Do they wish to set free the neighbouring countries, such as Poland, which are oppressed by Russia, by incorporating them with the German Empire?—It is well known that the Poles who are German subjects have suffered much more ignoble treatment than the Russian Poles, though even they have every reason to complain.

The Baltic provinces of Russia alone remain, and here the Germans have for centuries had their pioneers among the large landowners and the merchants in the bigger towns. These, no doubt, Russian subjects but of German nationality, would welcome the German armies with enthusiasm. But they form only a caste of nobles and of the wealthy middle-classes, numbering at most a few thousands, whereas the bulk of the population, the Lettish and Esthonian nations, would regard the absorption of these provinces into Germany as the worst of calamities. We know well what German domination means. I am a Lett and can speak with authority, for I know the deepest feelings and hopes of my own countrymen.

The Letts are akin to the Lithuanians. They inhabit Courland, Livonia, and a part of the province of Vitebsk. Their intellectual centre is Riga. There are colonies of them in all the principal towns of Russia. Last year the Annales des Nationalités of Paris devoted two numbers to these two sister nations. Owing to the geographical situation of their country, which is only too desirable, they had the misfortune to be under the yoke of the Germans, before they were under the yoke of the Russians. To understand how much they suffered under the former it will be sufficient to say that, in comparison with the Germans, we think of the Russians as our liberators. By sheer force the Germans kept us for centuries in a state equivalent to slavery. Only fifty years ago the Russian Government set us free from this bondage; but, at the same time, it committed the grave injustice of leaving all our land in the hands of German proprietors. Nevertheless, within the last twenty or thirty years, we have succeeded in reclaiming from the Germans a part at least of our land, and in reaching a considerable level of culture, thanks to which, we are considered, together with the Esthonians and the Finns, as the most advanced people in the Russian Empire.

German papers often accuse us of ingratitude, and reproach us with our lack of appreciation of the advantages of the culture which they boast of having brought us. We listen to such accusations with a bitter smile, and in writing the word Kulturträger (bearer of civilisation) add an exclamation mark afterwards, for the behaviour of the Germans has brought the expression into contempt. We have acquired our culture in spite of their opposition, and against their will. Even to-day it is the German representatives in the Russian Duma who veto the occasional suggestions on the part of the Government to make reforms in the Baltic provinces. These provinces are administered in a manner that differs, and differs for the worse, from that adopted in the other provinces of Russia. We still submit to laws and regulations which no longer exist in other parts of Europe—laws which were made in the feudal ages and have been rigorously maintained amongst us, thanks to the exertions of the big German landowners, who are always sure of a hearing at the Imperial Court of St. Petersburg.

Formerly, when we were striving in vain to reconcile our sympathy and admiration for German thought and art with the narrow, haughty, and cruel spirit of its representatives amongst us, we explained it all by saying that the Germans in our provinces were of a peculiar type, and had little in common with other Germans. But the crimes of which they have been guilty in Belgium and in France show us our mistake. Germans are the same everywhere in the work of conquest and domination—wholly without humanitarian scruples. In Germany, as in Russia, there are two distinct tendencies—the one, provoked by the ideas of Pangermanism and Panslavism, is to seek national glory on the field of battle and in the oppression of the personalities of other nations; the other is to achieve the same end in the peaceful realms of thought and artistic creation. Just as the culture of which Goethe was typical has nothing in common with Prussian militarism, so Tolstoï may be considered as the representative of that other Russia which is so different from the one represented by the Russian Government of to-day. Certainly the gulf between these two tendencies is less deep in Germany than in Russia, and this is due to the immense size of Russia, which contains vast numbers of poor and ignorant human beings whom the Russian Government oppresses with the utmost brutality. But it is entirely unjust always to allude to the Russians as barbarians; and the Germans who invariably make use of this word when they speak of Russia have less right than any one to do so. No one who knows the intellectual world of Germany and Russia will venture to say that the former is much superior to the latter—they are simply different. And I would add that the one fact which makes us feel more drawn to the intellectual world of Russia than to that of the Germany of to-day, is that it would never be capable of justifying and approving the brutal conduct of its Government, as the German intellectuals are doing now. It has often been constrained to keep silence, but it has never raised its voice in defence of a guilty Government.

Let not my testimony in favour of the Russians lead any one to believe that I am idealising them, or that my people, the Letts, have enjoyed any special privileges under their government. On the contrary! I have suffered more at their hands than at the hands of the Germans, and my nation knows only too well how heavy is the hand of the Russian Government, and how suffocating the atmosphere of Panslavism. In 1906 it was the Lett peasant and intellectual classes who enjoyed most frequently the privilege of being flogged; it was amongst these classes that the greatest number of unfortunates were shot, hanged, or imprisoned for life. And since that dreadful year there are to be found in all the principal towns of Western Europe colonies of Letts, formed of refugees who succeeded in escaping from the atrocities of the punitive expedition sent by the Russian Government against my country. But this fact is significant: at the head of the majority of the military bands commissioned to punish the country were German officers who had asked for this employment, and showed so great a zeal in shooting down men and setting fire to houses, that they went even beyond the intentions of the Russian Government. In those days the places might count themselves fortunate which were visited by dragoons commanded by officers of Russian nationality; for where Russian officers would have ordered the knout, German officers habitually inflicted a sentence of death.

If my nation had ever to choose between a German and a Russian government it would choose the latter as the lesser of two evils. I see in the Lett newspapers that the reservists of my country left for the war with enthusiasm. I do not imagine that this enthusiasm is due to the thought that they are fighting for the glory of a nation which, by every means in its power, seeks to hinder our national development, by forbidding instruction in our native tongue in primary schools, by attempting to colonise our land with Russian peasants, by compelling our own people to emigrate to Siberia and America, by excluding all Letts from any share in Government employment, etc. This enthusiasm nevertheless exists, and it is because the war is being waged against Germany, and because the Letts know that the Germans have long been aiming at the possession of the Baltic provinces. To prevent this we are prepared to make any sacrifice. We, who love our national civilisation and know well what Panslavism and Pangermanism mean, are of opinion that, of the two, Panslavism is less fatal to the civilisations of small nations. This is really due to the character of the two races.

German oppression is always systematic, hence always efficacious. In addition to this, their arrogant contempt for everything that is not themselves, the calm and calculated method in which they carry out their system of persecution wherever they dominate, all this makes them intolerable.

Russians are less logical by nature; their minds are not so regulated and they are more inclined to obey the dictates of their hearts; for this reason they are less to be feared as oppressors. The blows which they strike are often extremely cruel and painful, but they can repent from time to time. Their manners are rougher and more brutal (I speak here more especially of civil and military officials), but on the whole they are more humane than the Germans, who often conceal feelings of fierce savagery under the mask of perfect courtesy. In the year 1906, when there were executions in Russia on a large scale, there were many cases of suicide amongst Russian officers who could not reconcile their profession of soldiers with that of a hangman. The officers of German nationality, on the other hand, carried out their orders with enjoyment.

Nevertheless, Russian domination, though preferable to German, is still very oppressive. I hear the news of Russian victories with mingled feelings, rejoicing in so far as they are victories for the Allies, yet dreading the triumph of Russia. After the defeats of the Russo-Japanese War, when the Russian Government was weakened, it conceded certain liberal measures and then revoked them almost entirely as its strength returned. What have we to expect from a victory for Tsarism, especially we who are not Russians, but a savage revival of the crushing ideals of Panslavism?

This is the agonised question which the nations subject to Russia are asking now. I read in your article that the turn of Tsarism will come after that of Prussianism. In what sense is this to be understood? Is it your opinion that another war will presently break out against Tsarism, or will it be struck down by the blows of an internal revolution? Is it even possible that France and England obtained the promise of a reform in the internal politics of Russia before allying themselves with her? And is the proclamation to the Poles evidence of this? Will it have any real effect after the war? And those other nations oppressed by Russia—the Finns, the Letts, the Lithuanians, the Esthonians, the Armenians, the Jews …—will they too have justice done them?

These questions are probably devoid of any political significance. Yet without perceiving in what manner France and England can set us free, we do direct our hopes towards them. We believe that in some way or other they will take care in future that their Russian ally shall show herself worthy of them and of the ideas for which they are fighting, lest the blood of those who have died in the cause of freedom go to feed the strength of the oppressors.

Thus, sir, I have ventured uninvited to set forth rather fully to you the hopes and fears of a nation which has developed itself on a narrow strip of land between the two abysses of Pangermanism and Panslavism. Whilst ardently desiring the destruction of the former, we have everything to fear from the latter. Yet we do not aspire to political independence. We seek only the possibility of developing freely our intellectual, artistic, and economic powers, without the perpetual menace of being absorbed by Russia or Germany. We believe that, in virtue of the civilisation we have acquired in the face of obstacles, we are worthy of the liberties and rights of man; we are convinced that as a nation we have qualities which will fit us to play a valuable part in the great symphony of civilised peoples.

Journal de Genève, October 10, 1914.