England and the War
By Walter Raleigh
Public Domain Books
This book was not planned, but grew out of the troubles of the time. When, on one occasion or another, I was invited to lecture, I did not find, with Milton’s Satan, that the mind is its own place; I could speak only of what I was thinking of, and my mind was fixed on the War. I am unacquainted with military science, so my treatment of the War was limited to an estimate of the characters of the antagonists.
The character of Germany and the Germans is a riddle. I have seen no convincing solution of it by any Englishman, and hardly any confident attempt at a solution which did not speak the uncontrolled language of passion. There is the same difficulty with the lower animals; our description of them tends to be a description of nothing but our own loves and hates. Who has ever fathomed the mind of a rhinoceros; or has remembered, while he faces the beast, that a good rhinoceros is a pleasant member of the community in which his life is passed? We see only the folded hide, the horn, and the angry little eye. We know that he is strong and cunning, and that his desires and instincts are inconsistent with our welfare. Yet a rhinoceros is a simpler creature than a German, and does not trouble our thought by conforming, on occasion, to civilized standards and humane conditions.
It seems unreasonable to lay great stress on racial differences. The insuperable barrier that divides England from Germany has grown out of circumstance and habit and thought. For many hundreds of years the German peoples have stood to arms in their own defence against the encroachments of successive empires; and modern Germany learned the doctrine of the omnipotence of force by prolonged suffering at the hands of the greatest master of that immoral school–the Emperor Napoleon. No German can understand the attitude of disinterested patronage which the English mind quite naturally assumes when it is brought into contact with foreigners. The best example of this superiority of attitude is to be seen in the people who are called pacifists. They are a peculiarly English type, and they are the most arrogant of all the English. The idea that they should ever have to fight for their lives is to them supremely absurd. There must be some mistake, they think, which can be easily remedied once it is pointed out. Their title to existence is so clear to themselves that they are convinced it will be universally recognized; it must not be made a matter of international conflict. Partly, no doubt, this belief is fostered by lack of imagination. The sheltered conditions and leisured life which they enjoy as the parasites of a dominant race have produced in them a false sense of security. But there is something also of the English strength and obstinacy of character in their self-confidence, and if ever Germany were to conquer England some of them would spring to their full stature as the heroes of an age-long and indomitable resistance. They are not held in much esteem to-day among their own people; they are useless for the work in hand; and their credit has suffered from the multitude of pretenders who make principle a cover for cowardice. But for all that, they are kin to the makers of England, and the fact that Germany would never tolerate them for an instant is not without its lesson.
We shall never understand the Germans. Some of their traits may possibly be explained by their history. Their passionate devotion to the State, their amazing vulgarity, their worship of mechanism and mechanical efficiency, are explicable in a people who are not strong in individual character, who have suffered much to achieve union, and who have achieved it by subordinating themselves, soul and body, to a brutal taskmaster. But the convulsions of war have thrown up things that are deeper than these, primaeval things, which, until recently, civilization was believed to have destroyed. The old monstrous gods who gave their names to the days of the week are alive again in Germany. The English soldier of to-day goes into action with the cold courage of a man who is prepared to make the best of a bad job. The German soldier sacrifices himself, in a frenzy of religious exaltation, to the War-God. The filthiness that the Germans use, their deliberate befouling of all that is elegant and gracious and antique, their spitting into the food that is to be eaten by their prisoners, their defiling with ordure the sacred vessels in the churches–all these things, too numerous and too monotonous to describe, are not the instinctive coarsenesses of the brute beast; they are a solemn ritual of filth, religiously practised, by officers no less than by men. The waves of emotional exaltation which from time to time pass over the whole people have the same character, the character of savage religion.
If they are alien to civilization when they fight, they are doubly alien when they reason. They are glib and fluent in the use of the terms which have been devised for the needs of thought and argument, but their use of these terms is empty, and exhibits all the intellectual processes with the intelligence left out. I know nothing more distressing than the attempt to follow any German argument concerning the War. If it were merely wrong-headed, cunning, deceitful, there might still be some compensation in its cleverness. There is no such compensation. The statements made are not false, but empty; the arguments used are not bad, but meaningless. It is as if they despised language, and made use of it only because they believe that it is an instrument of deceit. But a man who has no respect for language cannot possibly use it in such a manner as to deceive others, especially if those others are accustomed to handle it delicately and powerfully. It ought surely to be easy to apologize for a war that commands the whole-hearted support of a nation; but no apology worthy of the name has been produced in Germany. The pleadings which have been used are servile things, written to order, and directed to some particular address, as if the truth were of no importance. No one of these appeals has produced any appreciable effect on the minds of educated Frenchmen, or Englishmen, or Americans, even among those who are eager to hear all that the enemy has to say for himself. This is a strange thing; and is perhaps the widest breach of all. We are hopelessly separated from the Germans; we have lost the use of a common language, and cannot talk with them if we would.
We cannot understand them; is it remotely possible that they will ever understand us? Here, too, the difficulties seem insuperable. It is true that in the past they have shown themselves willing to study us and to imitate us. But unless they change their minds and their habits, it is not easy to see how they are to get near enough to us to carry on their study. While they remain what they are we do not want them in our neighbourhood. We are not fighting to anglicize Germany, or to impose ourselves on the Germans; our work is being done, as work is so often done in this idle sport-loving country, with a view to a holiday. We wish to forget the Germans; and when once we have policed them into quiet and decency we shall have earned the right to forget them, at least for a time. The time of our respite perhaps will not be long. If the Allies defeat them, as the Allies will, it seems as certain as any uncertain thing can be that a mania for imitating British and American civilization will take possession of Germany. We are not vindictive to a beaten enemy, and when the Germans offer themselves as pupils we are not likely to be either enthusiastic in our welcome or obstinate in our refusal. We shall be bored but concessive. I confess that there are some things in the prospect of this imitation which haunt me like a nightmare. The British soldier, whom the German knows to be second to none, is distinguished for the levity and jocularity of his bearing in the face of danger. What will happen when the German soldier attempts to imitate that? We shall be delivered from the German peril as when Israel came out of Egypt, and the mountains skipped like rams.
The only parts of this book for which I claim any measure of authority are the parts which describe the English character. No one of purely English descent has ever been known to describe the English character, or to attempt to describe it. The English newspapers are full of praises of almost any of the allied troops other than the English regiments. I have more Scottish and Irish blood in my veins than English; and I think I can see the English character truly, from a little distance. If, by some fantastic chance, the statesmen of Germany could learn what I tell them, it would save their country from a vast loss of life and from many hopeless misadventures. The English character is not a removable part of the British Empire; it is the foundation of the whole structure, and the secret strength of the American Republic. But the statesmen of Germany, who fall easy victims to anything foolish in the shape of a theory that flatters their vanity, would not believe a word of my essays even if they were to read them, so they must learn to know the English character in the usual way, as King George the Third learned to know it from Englishmen resident in America.
A habit of lying and a belief in the utility of lying are often attended by the most unhappy and paralysing effects. The liars become unable to recognize the truth when it is presented to them. This is the misery which fate has fixed on the German cause. War, the Germans are fond of remarking, is war. In almost all wars there is something to be said on both sides of the question. To know that one side or the other is right may be difficult; but it is always useful to know why your enemies are fighting. We know why Germany is fighting; she explained it very fully, by her most authoritative voices, on the very eve of the struggle, and she has repeated it many times since in moments of confidence or inadvertence. But here is the tragedy of Germany: she does not know why we are fighting. We have told her often enough, but she does not believe it, and treats our statement as an exercise in the cunning use of what she calls ethical propaganda. Why ethics, or morals, should be good enough to inspire sympathy, but not good enough to inspire war, is one of the mysteries of German thought. No German, not even any of those few feeble German writers who have fitfully criticized the German plan, has any conception of the deep, sincere, unselfish, and righteous anger that was aroused in millions of hearts by the cruelties of the cowardly assault on Serbia and on Belgium. The late German Chancellor became uneasily aware that the crucifixion of Belgium was one of the causes which made this war a truceless war, and his offer, which no doubt seemed to him perfectly reasonable, was that Germany is willing to bargain about Belgium, and to relax her hold, in exchange for solid advantages elsewhere. Perhaps he knew that if the Allies were to spend five minutes in bargaining about Belgium they would thereby condone the German crime and would lose all that they have fought for. But it seems more likely that he did not know it. The Allies know it.
There is hope in these clear-cut issues. Of all wars that ever were fought this war is least likely to have an indecisive ending. It must be settled one way or the other. If the Allied Governments were to make peace to-day, there would be no peace; the peoples of the free countries would not suffer it. Germany cannot make peace, for she is bound by heavy promises to her people, and she cannot deliver the goods. She is tied to the stake, and must fight the course. Emaciated, exhausted, repeating, as if in a bad dream, the old boastful appeals to military glory, she must go on till she drops, and then at last there will be peace.
These may themselves seem boastful words; they cannot be proved except by the event. There are some few Englishmen, with no stomach for a fight, who think that England is in a bad way because she is engaged in a war of which the end is not demonstrably certain. If the issues of wars were known beforehand, and could be discounted, there would be no wars. Good wars are fought by nations who make their choice, and would rather die than lose what they are fighting for. Military fortunes are notoriously variable, and depend on a hundred accidents. Moral causes are constant, and operate all the time. The chief of these moral causes is the character of a people. Germany, by her vaunted study of the art and science of war, has got herself into a position where no success can come to her except by way of the collapse or failure of the English-speaking peoples. A study of the moral causes, if she were capable of making it, would not encourage her in her old impious belief that God will destroy these peoples in order to clear the way for the dominion of the Hohenzollerns.