New York Tribune/1916/The Lusitania Anniversary

The Lusitania Anniversary (1916)
by Frank H. Simonds
136966The Lusitania Anniversary1916Frank H. Simonds

On the anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania it is natural and fitting that Americans should review all that has happened since a wanton murder first brought to this side of the Atlantic a nascent realization of the issue that was being decided on a world battlefield.

There will be no anger and no passion in American minds. We have never asked, never desired, that the slaughter should be avenged. No portion of the American people or of the American press has clamored for vengeance, no man or political party has demanded that there should be German lives taken because American lives had been ended.

It is not too difficult to reconstitute our own minds as we stood in the presence of that supreme atrocity. The horror that seized a whole nation in that moment has no counterpart in our history. We have known war, we have fought Great Britain twice, we have fought Spain and Mexico; within our boundaries we have conducted the most desperate civil war in human history.

But it was not the emotion provoked by war or the acts of war which moved Americans. It was not even the emotion stirred by the sinking of the Maine nearly two decades ago. It was certainly something utterly remote from the feelings our fathers and grandfathers on the morrow of the firing on Fort Sumter.

The Lusitania Massacre was not an act of war. The victims were not soldiers, only a portion of them were men. Essentially the thing was a new phenomenon to the American people. It was at first incomprehensible, unbelievable. Despite the solid and inescapable evidences of death, men's intelligence doubted what their senses told them.

So for days and weeks the American people stood doubtful and puzzled. They waited for that evidence they expected, they believed would come; that there had been an accident, a mistake, the blunder of a subordinate which would be repudiated by a government, the crime of a navy that would be disavowed by a people. But instead far borne across the seas they heard the songs of triumph of thousands of German men and women, who hailed the crime as a victory, the eternal disgrace as an everlasting honor.

Day by day, week by week, we Americans have since then been learning that we are not in the presence of a war between nations, a conflict between rival powers; that we are not the agonized witnesses of one more conflagaration provoked by conflicting ambitions of hereditary enemies. We have been learning that hwat is going forward remorselessly, steadily, is a war between civilization and barbarism, between humanity and savagery; between the light of modern times and the darkness of the years that followed the collapse of Rome.

Time and again Americans have been murdered, time and again our government, our people, have had recourse to the ordinary machinery and the ordinary conceptions of civilized life. But each time we have beheld the utter collapse of every appeal based upon reason, justice, common humanity. The Germans who slew our women and our children flung us back the challenge that they and not we possessed the true civilization, and that their civilization, their Kultur, was expressed in their works, which were altogether good and right.

Slowly, steadily, we have been learning. We still have much to learn, but the primary truth is coming home to many day by day. This German phenomenon which fills the world is a new thing and an old thing; it is new in our generation, it is new in recent centuries; but it is as old as that other barbarism which, descending upton the Roman civilization, beat upon it and spread destruction until it was conquered and tamed amidst the ruins and desert it had created.

The French, who see things as they are, have beheld and appraised the German phenomenon justly. The British, like ourselves, have partially and temporarily failed to understand the nature of the German assault. We have insisted upon applying to the German mind our own standards and upon believing that the Germans thought as we thought, believed as we believed, but were temporarily and terribly betrayed by a military spirit and by dynastic madness.

Nothing is less true, nothing more fatal to a just appreciation of the essential fact in the world in which we live. These things which we name crimes are neither accidents nor excesses; they are not regretted or condemned by a majority or even a minority of the German people. They are accepted by Kaiser and peasant; they are practiced by Crown Prince and private soldier; they are a a portion of what Germany holds to be her right and her mission.

The Lusitania Massacre should have been a final illumination for us. Blazing up as it did, it should have revealed to us the ashes of Belgium and the ruins of Northern France. We should have seen in our slain women and children the sisters and fellows in misfortune of those who died more shamefully in Louvain and a score more of Belgian cities. We should have seen the German idea working here and revealing in each incident the same handiwork, the same detail. All these things were similar as the different impressions left by a single stamp.

We did not see. We have not yet as a nation, or as a people, perceived that the German phenomenon is an attack upon civilization by barbarism, a barbarism which combines the science of the laboratory with the savagery of the jungle, but a barbarism because it denies all those doctrines and principles which have been accepted after long years as the proof of human progress and the glory of mankind's advance.

In France the people will show you the atrocities of Germany commited not upon human beings, but upon the inanimate things, the destruction of the village church and the Rheims Cathedral, of the little thing of beauty quite as well as the larger and more famous thing, with far more emphasis than they will recount the horrors suffered by women and children. In the assault upon things beautiful because they are beautiful, an assault provoked neither by lust nor by passion, they recovnise the revelation of that which is essential barbarism.

For us the Lusitania Massacre was a beginning. It was only a beginning, but it was not possible then, it is hardly possible now, for men and women, living in peace under the protection of laws framed to protect human liberty and human rights, living in the full sunlight of this Twentieth Century, to believe that suddenly there has broken out from the depths the frightful and the all-destroying spirit of eras long forgotten.

We have been learning - we must continue to learn. The road of suffering and humiliation is still long. But the Lusitania was a landmark and it will endure in American history. Our children and our children's children recalling this anniversary will think of it as did the Romans over long generations, after the first inroads of the barbarians had reached their walls.

Today is not a day for anger or passion. It is not in panger or in passion that civilized men go forth to deal with wild animals, to abolish the peril which comes from the jungle or out of the darkness. We do not hate Germans and we shall not hate Germans because on this day a year ago American men, women and children were slain willfully, wantonly, to serve a German end, slain without regard to sex or condition, slain in the broad daylight by German naval officers and men whose countrymen hailed the killing as the supreme evidence of German courage, manhood and Kultur.

But as we view the thing without passion we must see it without illusion. If the German idea prevails, all that we believe in government, in humanity, in the thing we call civilization, is doomed. If Germany succeeds in this war then it is not again time, as Pitt said after Austerlitz, "To roll up the map of Europe," but it is time to burn our ancient parchments and dismiss our hard won faith. All that there is in the German idea was expressed in the Lusitania Massacre, it was expressed in the killing of women and children, innocent of all offense, entitled to all protection as helpless, unoffending, as the children of a race not at war, at least entitled to immunity which hitherto was reckoned the right of women and children, neutral or belligerent.

The war that is being fought in Europe is a war for civilization. The battle of Great Britain, of France, of Russia, is our battle. If it is lost, we shall return to the standards and the faiths of other centuries. The truth of this is written in the wreck of the Lusitania, it is written in the wreck of Belgium and the desert of Northern France for those who may see. Where the German has gone he has carried physical death, but he has done more, he has carried spiritual death to all that is essential in our own democratic faith, which derives from that of Britain and France.

This war in Europe is going on until the German idea is crushed or conquers. The world cannot now exist half civilized and half German. Only one of two conceptions of life, of humanity, can subsist. One of the conceptions was written in the Lusitania Massacre, written clear beyond all mistaking. It is this writing that we should study on this anniversary; it is this fact that we should grap today, not in anger, not in any spirit that clamors for vengeance, but as the citizens of a nation which has inherited noble ideals and gallant traditions, which has inherited liberty and light from those who died to serve them, and now stands face to face with that which seeks to extinguish both throughout the world.