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THE HOUR OF DESTINY
WE ARE already free to speak of this war as if it were ended and of victory as if it were assured. In principle, in the region of moral certainties, Germany has been beaten since the battle of the Marne; and reality, which is always slower, because it goes burdened beneath the weight of matter, must needs come obediently to join the ranks of those certainties. The last agony may be prolonged for weeks and months, for the animal is endowed with the stubborn and almost inextinguishable vitality of the beasts of prey; but it is wounded to the death; and we have only to wait patiently, weapon in hand, for the final convulsions that announce the end. The historic event, the greatest beyond doubt since man possessed a history, is therefore accomplished; and, strange to say, it seems as though it had been accomplished in spite of history, against its laws and contrary to its wishes. It is rash, I know, to speak of such things; and it behoves us to be very cautious in these speculations which pass the scope of human understanding; but, when we consider what the annals of this earth of ours have taught us, it seemed written in the book of the world’s destinies that Germany was bound to win. It was not only, as we are too ready at the first glance to believe, the megalomania of an autocrat drunk with vanity, the gross vanity of some brainless buffoon; it was not the warlike impulses, the blind infatuation and egoism of a feudal caste; it was not even the impatient and deliberately fanned envy and covetousness of a too prolific race close-cramped on a dreary and ungrateful soil: it was none of these that let loose the hateful war. All these causes, adventitious or fortuitous as they were, only settled the hour of the decision; but the decision itself was taken and written, probably ages ago, in other spheres which cannot be reached by the conscious will of man, spheres in which dark and mighty laws hold sway over illimitable time and space. The whole line, the whole huge curve of history showed to the mind of whosoever tried to read its sacred and fearful hieroglyphics that the day of a new, a formidable and inexorable event was at hand.
The theories built up on this point in the last sixty years by the German professors, notably by Giesbrecht, the historian of the Ottos and the Hohenstaufens, and Treitschke, the historian of the Hohenzollerns, do not necessarily carry conviction but are at least impressive; and the work of these two writers, which we do not know as well as we should, and of Treitschke in particular possessed in Germany an influence that sank deep into every mind, far exceeding that of Nietzsche, which we looked upon as preponderant.
But let us ignore for the moment all that belongs to a remote past, the study of which would call for more space than we have at our disposal. Let us not question the empire of the Ottos, the Hohenstaufens or the Hapsburgs, in which Germany, at least as a nation and a race, played but a secondary part and was still unconscious of her existence. Let us rather see what is happening nearer to us and, so to speak, before our very eyes.
A hundred years ago, under Napoleon, France enjoyed her spell of hegemony, which she was not able to prolong because this hegemony was more the work of a prodigious but accidental genius than the fruit of a real and intrinsic power. Next came the turn of England, who to-day possesses the greatest empire that the world has seen since the days of ancient Rome, that is to say, more than a fifth part of the habitable globe. But this vast empire rests no more than did Napoleon’s upon an incontestible force, inasmuch as up to this day it was defended only by an army less numerous and less well-equipped than that of many a smaller nation, thus almost inevitably inviting war, as Professor Cramb pointed out a year or two ago in his prophetic book, Germany and England, which has only recently aroused the interest which it deserves.
It seemed, therefore, as if between these two Powers, which were more illusory than real, pending the advent of Russia, whose hour had not yet struck; in this gap in history, between a nation on the verge of its decline, or at least seemingly incapable of defending itself, and a nation that was still too young and incapable of attack, fate offered a magnificent place to whoso cared to take it. This is what Germany felt, at first instinctively, urged by all the ill-defined forces that impel mankind, and subsequently, in these latter years, with a consciousness that became ever clearer and more persistent. She grasped the fact that her turn had come to reign over the earth, that she must take her chance and seize the opportunity that comes but once. She prepared to answer the call of fate and, supported by the mysterious aid which it lends to those whom it summons, she did answer, we must admit, in an astonishing and most formidable manner.
She was within a hair’s breadth of succeeding. A little less prolonged and less gallant resistance on the part of Belgium, a suspicious movement from Italy, a false step made upon the banks of the Marne; and we can picture Paris falling; France overrun and fighting heroically to her last gasp; Russia, not crushed, but weary of seeking victory and making terms for good or ill with a conqueror impotent to harm her; the neutral nations more or less reluctantly siding with the strongest; England isolated, giving up her colonies to staunch the wounds of her invaded isle; the fasces of justice broken asunder by a separate peace here, a separate peace there, each equally humiliating; and Germany, monstrous, ferocious, implacable, finally towering alone over the ruins of Europe.
Now it seems that we have turned aside the inflexible decree. It seems that we have averted the fate that was about to be accomplished. It was bearing down upon us with the weight of the ages, with all the weight of all the vague but irresistible aspirations of the past and, perhaps, the future. Thanks to the greatest effort which, mankind has ever opposed to the unknown gods that rule it, we are entitled to believe that the decree has broken down and that we have driven it into the evil cave where never human force before had compelled it to hide its defeat.
I say, “It seems;” I say, “We are entitled to believe.” The fact is that the ordeal is not yet past. Even on the day when the war is ended and when victory is in our hands, destiny will not yet be conquered. It has happened—seldom, it is true, but still it has happened twice or thrice—that a nation has compelled the course of fate to turn aside or to fall back. The nation congratulated herself, even as we believe that we have the right to do. But events were not slow in proving that she had congratulated herself too soon. Fatality, that is to say, the enormous mass of causes and effects of which we have no understanding, was not overcome; it was only delayed, it awaited its revenge and its day, or it least what we call its day, which may extend over a hundred years and more where nations are concerned, for fatality does not reckon in the manner of men, but after the fashion of the great movements of nature. It is important at this time to know whether we shall be able to escape that revenge and that day. If men and nations were swayed only by reason, if, after being so often the absolute masters of their happiness and their future, they had not so often destroyed that which they had just achieved, then we might say—and indeed ought to say—that our escape depends only upon ourselves. In point of fact, three-quarters of the risk are run and the fourth is in our power; we have only to keep it so. Almost all the chances of the fight are on our side at last; and, when the war is over, there will be nothing but our wisdom and our will confronting a destiny which from that time onward will be powerless to take its course, unless it first succeed in blinding and perverting them.
In this hour all that lies hidden under that mysterious word will be waiting on our decision, waiting to know if victory is with us or with it. It is after we have won that we must really vanquish; it is in the hour of peace that the actual war will begin against an invisible foe, a hundred times as dangerous as the one of whom we have seen too much. If at that hour we do not profit by all our advantages; if we do not destroy, root and branch, the military power of an enemy who is in secret alliance with the evil influences of the earth; if we do not here and now, by an irrevocable compact, forearm ourselves against our sense of pity and generosity, our weakness, our imprudence, our future rivalries and discords; if we leave a single outlet to the beast at bay; if, through our negligence, we give it a single hope, a single opportunity of coming to the surface and taking breath, then the vigilant fatality which has but one fixed idea will resume its progress and pursue its way, dragging history with it and laughing over its shoulder at man once more tricked and discomfited. Everything that we have done and suffered, the ruins, the sacrifices, the nameless tortures and the numberless dead, will have served no purpose and will be lost beyond redemption. Everything will not have to be done over again, for nothing is ever done over again and fortunate opportunities do not occur twice; but everything except our woes and all their consequences will be as though it had never been.
It will therefore be a matter of holding our own against the enemy whom we do not see and mastering him until the turn or chance of the accursed race is past. How long will that be? We cannot tell; but, in the swift-moving history of to-day, it seems probable that the waiting and the struggle will be much shorter than they would have been in former times. Is it possible that fatality—by which I mean what perhaps for a moment was the unacknowledged desire of the planet—shall not regain the upper hand? At the stage which man has reached, I hope and believe so. He had never conquered it before; but also he had not yet risen to the height which he has now attained. There is no reason why that which has never happened should not take place one day; and everything seems to tell us that man is approaching the day whereon, seizing the most glorious opportunity that has ever presented itself since he acquired a consciousness, he will at last learn that he is able, when he pleases, to control his whole fate in this world.
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