Above the Battle/Chapter 7



November 17, 1914.

There has reached me, after much delay, at Geneva, where I am engaged on the International work of Prisoners of War, the echo of attacks against me in certain newspapers, roused by the articles that I have published in the Journal de Genève, or rather by two or three passages arbitrarily chosen from those articles (for they themselves are scarcely known to anybody in France). My best reply will be to collect what I have written and publish it in Paris. I would not add a word of explanation, for there is not a line that I did not think it my right and my duty to set down. Moreover, I think that there is better work to do at this moment than to defend oneself; there are others to defend, the thousands of victims who are fighting in France. Time devoted to polemics is like a theft from these unfortunates, from these prisoners and families, whose hands seeking each other across space we are trying to unite at Geneva.

But not content with attacking me personally, they have attacked ideas and a cause which I believe to be that of the true France; and since my friends expect me to defend these thoughts which are also theirs, I profit by the hospitality which is offered me to reply distinctly and frankly in good French.

I have published four articles: a letter to Gerhart Hauptmann, written the day after the devastation of Louvain, "Above the Battle," "The Lesser of Two Evils," and "Inter Arma Caritas." In these four articles I have stated that of all the imperialisms which are the scourge of the world, Prussian Military Imperialism is the worst. I have declared that it is the enemy of European liberty, the enemy of Western civilisation, the enemy of Germany herself, and that it must be destroyed. On this point I imagine we are agreed.

To what do my critics take exception? Without entering into the discussion of certain points of detail, such as the appeal made by the Allies to the forces of Asia and Africa of which I disapprove, and still disapprove because I see in it a near and grave danger for Europe and for the Allies themselves, and because this danger is already materialising in threats of disturbance in the world of Islam—exception is taken essentially on two grounds:

1. My refusal to include the German people and its military and intellectual rulers in the same denunciation.

2. The esteem and friendship which I have for the individuals in the country with which we are at war.

I will reply first of all without ambiguity to this second reproach. Yes, I have German friends as I have French, Italian, and English friends, and friends of every race. They are my wealth: I am proud of it and keep it. When one has had the good fortune to meet in this world loyal souls with whom one shares one's most intimate thoughts, and with whom one has formed bonds of brotherly union, such bonds are sacred, and not to be broken asunder in the hour of trial. He would be a coward who timidly ceased to own them, in order to obey the insolent summons of a public opinion which has no right over the heart. Does the love of country demand this unkindness of thought which is associated with the name Cornélienne? Cornéille himself has given the answer:

—Albe vous a nommé, je ne vous connais plus.
—Je vous connais encore, et c'est ce qui me tue.

Certain letters, which I shall reproduce later, will show the grief, sometimes almost tragic, that such friendships mean in these moments. Thanks to them, we have at least been able to defend ourselves against a hatred which is more murderous than war, since it is an infection produced by its wounds; and it does as much harm to those whom it possesses as to those against whom it is directed.

This poison I see with apprehension spreading at the present moment. Amongst the victim populations, the cruelties and ravages committed by the German armies have brought to birth a desire for reprisals. This, when once in existence, is not for the press to exasperate, for such a desire runs the risk of leading to dangerous injustice—dangerous not only for the conquered but above all for the conquerors. France has, in this war, the chance of playing the nobler part, the rarest chance that the world has ever seen. A German wrote to me a few weeks ago: "France has won in this war a prodigious moral triumph. The sympathies of the whole world are drawn towards her; and, most extraordinary of all, Germany herself has a secret leaning towards her enemy." All should wish that this moral triumph may be hers to the end, and that she may remain to the end just, straightforward, and humane. I could never distinguish the cause of France from that of humanity. It is just because I am French that I leave to our Prussian enemies the motto: "Oderint, dum metuant." I wish France to be loved, I wish her to be victorious not only by force, not only by right (that would be difficult enough), but by that large and generous heart which is pre-eminently hers. I wish her to be strong enough to fight without hatred and to regard even those against whom she is forced to fight as misguided brothers who must be pitied when they have been rendered harmless.

Our soldiers know it well, and I say nothing here of letters from the front which tell us of compassion and kindness between the combatants. But the civilians who are outside the combat, who do not fight, but talk, who write and embroil themselves in a factitious and lunatic agitation and are never exhausted; these are delivered over to the winds of feverish violence. And there is the danger. For they form opinion, the only opinion that can be expressed (all others are forbidden). It is for these that I write, not for those who are fighting (they have no need of us!).

And when I hear the publicists trying to rouse the energies of the nation by all the stimulants at their disposal for this one object, the total crushing of the enemy nation, I think it my duty to rise in opposition to what I believe to be at once a moral and a political error. You make war against a State, not against a people. It would be monstrous to hold sixty-five million men responsible for the acts of some thousands—perhaps some hundreds. Here in French Switzerland, so passionately in sympathy with France, so eager both in its sympathies and in the duty of restraining them, I have been able for three months, by reading German letters and pamphlets, to examine closely the conscience of the German nation. And I have been able thus to take account of a good many facts which escape the greater part of the French people. The first, the most striking, the most ignored, is that there is not in Germany as a whole any real hatred of France (all the hatred is turned against England). The especial pathos of the situation lies in the fact that the French spirit only really began to exercise an attraction upon Germany some two or three years ago. Germany was beginning to discover the true France, the France of work and of faith. The new generations, the young classes that they have just led to the abattoir of Ypres and Dixmude, numbered the purest souls, the greatest idealists, those most possessed by the dream of universal brotherhood. If I say that for many among them the war has been a laceration, "a horror, a failure, a renunciation of every ideal, an abdication of the spirit," as one of them wrote on the eve of his death—if I say that the death of Péguy has been mourned by many young Germans, no one would believe me. But belief will be a necessity the day I publish the documents which I have collected.

It is somewhat better understood in France how this German nation, enveloped in the network of lies woven by its Government, and abandoning herself thereto with a blind and obstinate loyalty, is profoundly convinced that she was attacked, hemmed in by the jealousy of the world; and that she must defend herself at all costs or die. It is among the chivalrous traditions of France to render homage to the courage of an adversary. One owes it to that adversary to recognise that in default of other virtues the spirit of sacrifice is, in the present instance, almost boundless. It would be a great mistake to force it to extremes. Instead of driving this blind people to a magnificent and desperate defence, let us try to open their eyes. It is not impossible. An Alsatian patriot, to whom one could not impute indulgence for Germany, Dr Bucher of Strasbourg, told me not long since, that even though the German is full of haughty prejudices carefully fostered by his teachers, he is at any rate always amenable to discussion and his docile spirit is accessible to arguments. As an example, I would instance the secret evolution that I see in progress in the thought of certain Germans. Numbers of German letters that I have read this month begin to utter agonised questionings as to the legitimacy of the proceedings of Germany in Belgium. I have seen this anxiety growing, little by little, in consciences which at first reposed in the conviction of their right. Truth is slowly dawning. What will happen if its light conquers and spreads? Carry truth in your hands! Let it be our strongest weapon! Let us, like the soldiers of the Revolution, whose heart lives again in our troops, fight not against our enemies, but for them. In saving the world, let us save them too. France does not break old chains in order to rivet new.

Your thoughts are fixed on victory. I think of the peace which will follow. For however insistently the most militarist among you may talk, venturing as did an article to hold out the delightful promise of a perpetual war—"a war which will last after this war, indefinitely.… "[2] (it will come to an end, nevertheless—for lack of combatants!) … there must come a day when you will stretch out the hand of friendship, you and your neighbours across the Rhine, if it were only to come to an agreement, for the sake of your own business. You will have to re-establish supportable and humane relations: so set to work in such a manner as not to make them impossible! Do not break down all the bridges, since it will ever be necessary to cross the river. Do not destroy the future. A good open, clean wound will heal; but do not poison it. Let us be on our guard against hatred. If we prepare for war in peace according to the wisdom of nations, we should also prepare for peace in war. It is a task which seems to me not unworthy of those among us who find themselves outside the struggle, and who through the life of the spirit have wider relations with the universe—a little lay church which, to-day more than the other, preserves its faith in the unity of human thought and believes that all men are sons of the same Father. In any case, if such a faith merits insult, the insults constitute an honour that we will claim as ours before the tribunal of posterity.

  1. The editor of a great Paris paper having offered to publish my reply to those who attacked me, I sent him this article, which never appeared.
  2. Paul Bourget