Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/The rousing of the nations




We are within a few months of fifty years from the date of the grand consultation of Monarchs and States, out of which grew the Treaties of 1815; and we find ourselves invited to share in another consultation of the same kind, in order to the formation of a new set of Treaties, and a fresh division of the territory of Europe. From whatever point of view such an incident is regarded, it is one of extreme seriousness; and to be living in a time which admits of such a proposal is either a great blessing or a great curse. It is this last truth which is uppermost in my mind in beginning to speak of the French Emperor’s proposal of a Congress; and it is of this that I am about to speak. The Congress had been so generally discussed within a week of its being proposed that there is nothing fresh to be said here; and before what I now write will be read new circumstances will certainly have arisen, and it is even possible that the question of Congress or no Congress may be formally settled. I therefore leave that speculation on one side, and look in the direction in which so many eyes are turned,—that of observation of the state of mind of the peoples and the rulers of those countries which are animated or perplexed by hope or fear of change.

There is no question of the benefit and blessing of a thorough rousing of the spirit of a people in any case of self-defence. The holiness of a war of defence against invasion is nowhere denied: and the fervid glow of conscience and the keen joy of sympathy which sustain the spirits of patriotic men and women in times of sincere political revolution, mark the crisis as one of great dignity and charm, and the period as one in which it is a privilege to live. Such a time is the present, to not one but several of the nations of the world: and the most interesting point in the grand procession of phenomena now on its march is the expression of countenance of the persons and groups which compose it. From that expression we must derive whatever we can know of how far each people and each ruler is prepared to use the opportunity of the hour.

France claims to be the leading and guiding Power of Europe,—if not of the world. How is France faring in this crisis?

On the whole, surely not well. The opportunity of the last ten years might have been used for repairing the evils of a baulked revolution, and of the ignoble government which had preceded and caused it. When the agricultural interest was sinking in a slough of poverty; when the population of the country was stationary or declining; when peace and industrial prosperity were demanded by all the symptoms of the suffering body politic,—the contrary treatment was tried first. The Emperor who now proposes to settle all the quarrels of Europe in his own capital has made four wars quite spontaneously in ten years. He revived the quarrel about the Holy Places; and went into the Crimean war,—breaking it off before it was finished, against the will of his allies, and made his own private and special friendship with Russia on that ground, immediately after. He went to war with Austria, of his own will and pleasure, on behalf of Italy,—breaking that off, also, before it was finished, and making a special friendship of his own with the Pope, on the ground of having done so before Rome was swallowed up. As for the Italians,—he broke his promise of liberating Italy from sea to sea: he retained for Austria one province, and for the Pope another, by menace of war: he laid hands on Nice and Savoy, and, in yet more flagrant defiance of treaties, on portions of neutral territory, by which Switzerland is laid open to intrusion in the way from which it was supposed to be protected by the treaties which the French Emperor now holds up to the world as worn-out instruments.

Here are two wars: others have been threatened in Europe from year to year, and almost from month to month; and two have been undertaken in other continents: in Cochin China in the far East, and Mexico in the West, besides some smaller quarrelsome proceedings in half-a-dozen other places—on divers coasts and in various seas.

How far the French people generally ever approved of any one of these wars, and breaches of promises, and violations of treaties, the world does not and cannot know, for the plain reason that the French people themselves do not know. Their self-styled champion of peoples and leader of civilisation and progress does not permit the citizens to confer, to speak, to print, to be really represented in what is called their Chamber, or to know and understand anything of public affairs that he can keep from them. He has given them something else instead—employment of the trades of Paris, for which the nation pays; and paternal management of their affairs, social, domestic, and personal, which, saving them thought and trouble, has left them helpless and dependent; and free-trade, as far as they would accept it, which has been a true and unmixed blessing to them through their industry. After ten years so spent, what is the result which he has to show in support of his pretension to preside over the destinies of Europe?

The population of the country is now not only stationary but declining. The stature of the young manhood of the country has so deteriorated that the standard for conscripts, reduced more than once before, is again lowered. The agriculture of France is in greater contrast than ever with that of advancing countries,—not for want of incitement and encouragement by Government, but because the army is recruited from the peasant class, and the refuse of that order, unfit for military service, are left behind to till the soil. In this way, above all, does France need continuous peace and reduction of armies.

Paris is like a new city. It is a matter of opinion whether the gain in genuine beauty is great: but there is no question of the vast power which a military government has thus acquired over and, if need be, against the citizens. As for the rest, the increase of wealth in the whole country and the pressure of poverty seem to have kept company. The dearness of food and shelter is such as may well alarm a government which dreads revolution. Credit is in an artificial and fluctuating state: the finances are presented under a mask, because the features are terribly ugly: the Cochin China war, and the climate there, have been abundantly expensive; but the whole concern is a trifle in comparison with the Mexican enterprise. There is no appearance of success in that enterprise, while its costs and sacrifices go on,—happily without the complicity of the people of France. Abroad, France is not regarded at all affectionately. The Emperor has kept Italy in an inexcusable suspense which has cost thousands of lives, put a fearful strain upon the tempers of a nation, perpetuated turmoil, discontent, and crime, and protracted the unbearable agony of Venice and of Rome. He has played with the hopes and fears of small princes, and trifled with the affections of great ones. His position, therefore, is now so difficult as to have induced him to risk the world’s ridicule once more. He, the maker of four wars; he, the violator of the treaties of Europe; he, who is not bound by oaths any more than by promises, can expect no mercy from jesters when he proposes to obviate war, and cause the creation of new treaties, made binding by fresh oaths,—by bringing together the Powers of Europe, to be led and presided over by himself! It must be a very stringent pressure of difficulty which can bring him once more to tempt the world’s ridicule; and the embarrassment is indeed great which his political countenance betrays.

Of the people of France finding or making an opportunity of expressing what they think and feel nobody now has much hope. They have lost so many liberties, and so evidently prefer losing them to undergoing the risks of resistance, that no popular vigilance or readiness is to be expected. That there are patriots still living and moving in society, the recent elections show; but the national helplessness is evidenced by the Mexican expedition, which is believed to be altogether against the sense and will of the people, from the highest to the lowest. If they desire peace with all the world, they cannot get it. If they desire a war on behalf of Poland, they have not yet got it. All indications tend to the impression that nothing will come out of the present crisis for the French people, unless it be such trammels of embarrassment for their paternal ruler as may possibly rouse them to inquire whether they are not of age, and entitled to declare what sort of political life they desire to lead.

For other and very different reasons, the Russian people offer themselves to observation as unlikely to strengthen their political vitality by the present crisis. Rarely in the world’s history has any great empire been such a spectacle of political ruin and overthrow as Russia is now; and there is nothing in the aspect of the people to soften the horror of the sight. There is no middle class there, to obtain liberties, and preserve them at all cost. There is an aristocracy divided into an old Russian and modern German party: there is a bureaucracy which renders good government impossible: and there is a labouring class, freed from personal subjection, but ignorant beyond conception, and irritated by the disappointment of absurd expectations. What a soldiery that class makes, let the plundered and tortured people of Poland tell. If such are the people, what is the bearing of the Czar in this critical hour? I really cannot dwell on this. It is enough to point to his pride, his recklessness, his certain knowledge of the acts of Mouravieff and Berg, and his caprices, which render his servants equally afraid to execute and not to execute his orders, to show that he perpetuates the family type of character. It is more to the purpose to look at the loosening and falling asunder of the departments of the empire.

We have seen the Czar devoting himself lately to humouring the people of Finland,—promising them a constitution, while strengthening the military works which are to be put in action by them or upon them, as occasion may prescribe. All parties round know very well that the Fins long and intend to join the Swedes at the first moment when the inevitable strife between Russia and Sweden breaks out. The encroachments attempted by Russia in all leisure intervals on the northern coasts of Sweden, and in the Baltic, keep all Scandinavia incessantly on the watch. We have seen what alliances Sweden has made since the Crimean war,—with England and with Denmark; and these point to apprehensions from Russia. These alliances are no less important to Finland, whose deliverance depends upon them. The Czar may use all his most winning ways with the Fins; but he will never have any confidence that they will not join his enemies on the first practicable occasion. A constitution bestowed by him who shows how he can treat guaranteed rights in the case of Poland, will not attach a people who are not Russians, never desired to be so, and never meant to be so.

Next come the Baltic Provinces. The precautions there, and the repressive force distributed through them, show the distrust entertained of their loyalty. Next comes Poland, which speaks for itself. The resolution of the Poles to maintain their insurrection through the winter may be as important to the existence of Russia as the first breaking out of the revolt. As for south-western and southern Russia, it is no secret that the inhabitants expect the restoration of Poland with confidence; that they keep in their houses as hidden treasures portraits of the Polish kings and warriors, which are shown to the children in sacred hours; that they keep up in the retirement of home the old language, and the study of the old literature, in preparation for the day when the Czar shall no longer be their sovereign, and their loyalty may find its own direction. There may be more objects than one in the prodigious efforts made to assemble those troops in Bessarabia and Kherson which have caused Turkey to arm and prepare for what may happen. The Czar may really mean to look imposing to Turkey, and the Principalities, and Austria: but he may also find it necessary to overawe his own provinces from Poland to Astrakhan. Then, there is the Caucasus,—as far from being subdued as ever. The indomitable tribes there have gained so many advantages over him lately, that he is actually breaking through the restrictions of the treaty of Paris in his building of ships of war in the Black Sea. He has to send forces to the Caspian; for there is mischief on his southernmost frontier. The last generation foresaw the consequences of his father’s act of sending the children of troublesome Poles down to Georgia for life, or to be made soldiers of. Those children are now men and women, as strong in their national feelings as their parents were; and recent news from that quarter tells us that every Pole in Georgia is to be sent to serve in the interior, or on the north-eastern frontiers of the empire.

The experience of this old policy of the Czars seems to teach nothing to new occupants of the throne. The present Emperor goes on transporting the people of one region into another,—of a frontier town to a steppe in the interior; and above all, the members of intellectual society into remote Asiatic settlements; and he seems to be as insensible to considerations of policy as of humanity in the case. This leads us round to the quarter in which perhaps the greatest danger lies.

It is some years now since the world began to understand that Siberia was not altogether a desert;—by no means the vast howling wilderness that had been supposed. The climate is, in the most peopled parts, more than endurable: the society of the towns is enriched by accessions of the most intelligent men in the Czar’s dominions, who are settled with their families for life. Before the present Emperor came to the throne, schemes were maturing for the establishment of the independence of this, the great Asiatic portion of the Russian empire; and Alexander II. has done nothing to check, and much to promote the enterprise. He has sent there the wisest and ablest men of many provinces;—men who not only know how to plan and achieve revolutions, but who are singularly looked up to by such of the Russian soldiery as are intelligent or have grievances. What the grievances and discontents of the Czar’s soldiers in Siberia are, the narratives of some returned exiles have made known. These things being understood, and the amount of this year’s transportation to Siberia being considered, it will surprise nobody if, in the Czar’s darkest hour of weakness and perplexity, the Asiatic part of his empire falls away from him by means which be himself and his predecessors have furnished. Then the counsels of Peter’s Will will have an ironical significance, and the Czars will indeed have to attend most to their European dominions. But the same process must have worked in the same direction there. Transplanted populations, and deported individuals spread discontent wherever they go: and at this moment, Tartars from the Crimea, Cossacks from the Don, Poles from the west and the south, Circassians from the Black Sea coasts, and Livonian gentry from the Baltic, are sowing disaffection in the very heart of Russia, and on its remotest frontiers. What can any Congress do for Russia, when such a process of disintegration is actually begun, round the whole circuit of the empire?

And what of the people? It is not (unless in Siberia) a case of popular awakening. Russian society is not so organised or so advanced as to admit of any established idea or sentiment of nationality, or of a national polity, to be treasured and guarded by the people. Under a failure of funds and soldiers, the Czar can only submit to circumstances. He has no resource in an organised society trained to political thought and action.

In Germany the people’s opportunity is present if they can but see it, and concert together to use it. The recent conference of Sovereigns has taught them that German nationality can never revive through the princes; while, in the two great States of Germany events favour popular action so markedly as to leave no excuse for apathy. The rapid progress made by Austria in constitutional government, and the crisis in Prussia are both in fact appeals to the people. If the people use their privileges fully and intelligently in Austria; if the Prussian nation stands steadily by its constitutional rights,—surrendering anything rather than those; if, throughout Germany the intelligent classes pronounce against wasting power, life and money on the Schleswig dispute, to no purpose, and against the opinion of all the world outside of Germany, while the vital interests of the great German nation are dying out of the business of Europe and the records of history, a greater result may grow out of the present crisis than congresses and specific wars are ever likely to bring about. When the German sections obtain free institutions, and a faithful observance of them, from their rulers, they will have become qualified for consolidation and organisation as a great Power in Europe. Till they do this, nobody can help them; and congresses held over their heads can only hinder them. At this moment, the prominent truth is that they must rise or fall a long way, according to their use of the crisis in Denmark. If they are not above being agitated about Schleswig, or in favour of the pretender to the Duchies, they are below the hopes and sympathies of all free nations. If they should unexpectedly show themselves superior to agitation about small and outlying affairs, while the world wonders at their apathy about interests which lie at the heart, and involve the life of their nationality, they may even yet attain to a real representation by their rulers, and every support of sympathy and respect from without. Prussia fixes all eyes just now. Thus far, the People’s Chamber has done all that could be expected; and there is yet no sign of wavering. Minds and hearts are certainly kindled there, and in full glow; and it is reasonable to see in this the real privilege of unquiet times, and to be thankful for it, whether it is seen at one end of Europe or the other.

Denmark speaks for itself; and in such a way that all Europe is listening. Under their late king the Danes made an effectual stand against the petulance and aggression of the German princes and armies; and if necessary they will no doubt do it again. They do not seem to want or desire anything from a Congress. They can probably take good care of their own kingdom; and if not, it would be the interest and duty of all Europe, as well as the pledged duty of Sweden, to see that their State was preserved unimpaired.

Spain could not apparently gain by any Conference of Powers; for all that Spain wants must be done by herself, if at all. If she dislikes being excluded from all the Exchanges in Europe, she must pay her debts. There is no other way of obtaining a place in the world of credit. If she dislikes the imputation of conniving at the African slave trade, after having received 400,000l. from England, on consideration of effectually prohibiting the traffic; and of her princes and nobles deriving splendid incomes from this very trade, while bound to put it down, she must stop the slave trade to Cuba. If she dislikes the way in which the whole world at present regards her possession of St. Domingo, as stolen goods, and her treatment of its betrayed inhabitants, she must withdraw from her ill-gotten colony, and call it by its right name, of an independent Republic,—not shielding from republican trial the wretch who sold it for his own profit.

These are matters in which Congress can give no help; and in which no help is needed beyond that of an upright courage, and such magnanimity as is supposed to exist in the souls of princes and free nations.

If it could be hoped that a Congress sitting at Paris, on the invitation of the French Emperor, would undo mischief and repair aggressions adventured by that Emperor, Switzerland and Italy might be excused for favouring the project. Switzerland ought thus to recover the security she had from the neutral character of that territory on the shores of her great lake which the Emperor has seized: and the king of Italy might hope to recover his hereditary kingdom of Savoy, ruthlessly extorted from him, under the frown of the whole world. But such interests will not assemble a Congress. And when Rome and Venice are at length made a part of free Italy, it will be by the strength of a popular will, in the presence of which any congress of Sovereigns appears like a group of humming-birds prescribing the spring or autumn course of all the swallows. The brigands will be put down, however long and zealously the Church of Rome and her Eldest Son sustain that class of the pious. Italy has become a European Power by her own energy; and the patriotism which made her so does not need the outside dignity of sitting in that capacity at any Board in Europe.

There remain of the continental powers only Turkey and Greece. They may hold their own by doing their duty, and abstaining from quarrel with each other, and with the rest of the world. The restlessness which each betrays may be most successfully treated by a temper of calm justice on the part of greater nations, and of cordial sympathy with such struggles towards good government as the Greeks have just been making. There, the people must be blind not to see their opportunity. They have been treated magnanimously in the yielding up to them of the Ionian Islands; and the only return desired by their best friends is that they should prove themselves capable of instituting, securing, and duly enjoying good government, and the peace and progress which it involves.

There remains only England: and I have nothing to say of England here. We are too far from perfect in our political life at home to have any excuse for pride and a boastful demeanour before Europe; and we have that to atone for in China and Japan which must prevent our feeling altogether serene in the Court of Conscience of our own generation. But we have nothing to ask from a Congress,—nothing to propose to it,—nothing to fear from it. The popular soul is always awake and alive in England; our liberties only need gradual extension, and are never in real peril. We have weaknesses to repair, and improvements to make at home: but nothing to ask or to receive from abroad.

We are thus at liberty to contemplate and grow wiser by the aspects of society under its present agitations;—under excitements as various as the sections, the national departments, into which society is divided. It is not wonderful that the political world makes itself merry with the notion of the European Sovereigns actually sitting face to face in a congress;—the Pope and the King of Italy,—the Pope and the Czar,—the Pope and Queen Victoria’s representative; and again, the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria and the King of Denmark; and again, the Emperor of Austria and the King of Italy. No wonder there is a laugh everywhere at such a scheme,—of bringing each Power into contact with its favourite aversion, under the most galling circumstances, in order to secure universal peace. But the graver view is more important and much more interesting. Long after the laugh is over and forgotten, the deeper emotions will live on;—the exultation or the grief, as it may happen, at the citizens of the European States being able or unable to see and use their opportunity.

The Italians have proved their quality: there can be no doubt about them. Next to them the French, perhaps, excite the most interest, because their own welfare, and the security of the world, depend incalculably on whether they are rising above the fidgety vanity, and the false notion of glory which makes them meddle in the affairs of all countries, and struggle for the lead in all movements, and invent agitations rather than be quiet at home,—content to mind their own business. The general impression seems to be that the people of France have outgrown this childish tendency; and that if their Ruler pretends that they have not, it is for his own purposes. To see the Danes stedfast,—the Poles successful,—the Germans wide awake and practical,—the Turks energetic and prudent,—the Greeks sensible and orderly,—the Spaniards in love with commercial as well as other honour,—the wretched Russians permitted to stay at home quietly till they have learned to feel and understand what citizenship is,—and the British sympathetic with the guardians and seekers of liberty, all the world over, always ready to testify on behalf of right and to denounce wrong, while neither meddling, nor permitting meddling, and all the while using the experience they gather from abroad to promote the welfare of the nation at home,—this is what we would fain see as the result of the political restlessness of our continent in our time. That some political advancement will accrue it is thoroughly reasonable to expect:—whether it will be anything like what we desire, some who are living, and I hope watching, will be sure to see.

From the Mountain.