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WHEN THE WAR IS OVER
BEFORE closing this book, I wish to weigh for the last time in my conscience the words of hatred and malediction which it has made me speak in spite of myself. We have to do with the strangest of enemies. He has knowingly and deliberately, while in the full possession of his faculties and without necessity or excuse, revived all the crimes which we supposed to be forever buried in the barbarous past. He has trampled under foot all the precepts which man had so painfully won from the cruel darkness of his beginnings; he has violated all the laws of justice, humanity, loyalty and honour, from the highest, which are almost godlike, to the simplest, the most elementary, which still belong to the lower worlds. There is no longer any doubt on this point: it has been proved over and over again until we have attained a final certitude.
But on the other hand, it is no less certain that he has displayed virtues which it would be unworthy of us to deny; for we honour ourselves in recognizing the valour of those whom we are fighting. He has gone to his death in deep, compact, disciplined masses, with a blind, hopeless, obstinate heroism of which no such lurid example had ever yet been known, a heroism which has many times compelled our admiration and our pity. He has known how to sacrifice himself, with unprecedented and perhaps unequalled abnegation, to an idea which we know to be false, inhuman and even somewhat mean, but which he believes to be just and lofty; and a sacrifice of this kind, whatever its object, is always the proof of a force which survives those who devote themselves to making it and must command respect.
I know very well that this heroism is not like the heroism which we love. For us, heroism must before all be voluntary, freed from any constraint, active, ardent, eager and spontaneous; whereas with them it has mingled with it a great deal of servility, passiveness, sadness, gloomy, ignorant, massive submission and rather base fears. It is nevertheless the fact that, in the moment of supreme peril, little remains of all these distinctions and that no force in the world can drive to its death a people which does not bear within itself the strength to confront it. Our soldiers make no mistake upon this point. Question the men returning from the trenches: they detest the enemy, they abhor the aggressor, the unjust and arrogant aggressor, uncouth, too often cruel and treacherous; but they do not hate the man: they do him justice; they pity him; and, after the battle, in the defenceless wounded soldier or disarmed prisoner they recognize, with astonishment, a brother in misfortune who, like themselves, is submitting to duties and laws which, like themselves, he too believes lofty and necessary. Under the insufferable enemy they see an unhappy man who also is bearing the burden of life. They forget the things that divide them to recall only those which unite them in a common destiny; and they teach us a great lesson. Better than ourselves, who are removed from danger, at the contact of profound and fearful verities and realities they are already beginning to discern something that we cannot yet perceive; and their obscure instinct is probably anticipating the judgment of history and our own judgment, when we see more clearly. Let us learn from them to be just and to distinguish that which we are bound to despise and loathe from that which we may pity, love and respect.
Setting aside the unpardonable aggression and the inexpiable violation of treaties, this war, despite its insanity, has come near to being a bloody but magnificent proof of greatness, heroism and the spirit of sacrifice. Humanity was ready to rise above itself, to surpass all that it had hitherto accomplished. It has surpassed it. Never before had nations been seen capable, for months on end, perhaps for years, of renouncing their repose, their security, their wealth, their comfort, all that they possessed and loved down to their very life, in order to accomplish what they believed to be their duty. Never before had nations been seen that were able as a whole to understand and admit that the happiness of each of those who live in this time of trial is of no consequence compared with the honour of those who live no more or the happiness of those who are not yet alive. We stand on heights that had not been attained before. And if, on the enemies’ side, this unexampled renunciation had not been poisoned at its source; if the war which they are waging against us had been as fine, as loyal, as generous, as chivalrous as that which we are waging against them, we may well believe that it would have been the last and that it would have ended, not in battle, but, like the awakening from an evil dream, in a noble and fraternal amazement. They have made that impossible; and this, we may be sure, is the disappointment which the future will find it most difficult to forgive them.
What are we to do now? Must we hate the enemy to the end of time? The burden of hatred is the heaviest that man can bear upon this earth; and we should faint under the weight of it. On the other hand, we do not wish once more to be the dupes and victims of confidence and love. Here again our soldiers, in their simplicity, which is so clear-seeing and so close to the truth, anticipate the future and teach us what to admit and what to avoid. We have seen that they do not hate the man; but they do not trust him at all. They discover the human being in him only when he is unarmed. They know, from bitter experience, that, so long as he possesses weapons, he cannot resist the frenzy of destruction, treachery and slaughter; and that he does not become kindly until he is rendered powerless.
Is he thus by nature, or has he been perverted by those who lead him? Have the rulers dragged the whole nation after them, or has the whole nation driven its rulers on? Did the rulers make the nation like unto themselves, or did the nation select and support them because they resembled itself? Did the evil come from above or below, or was it everywhere?
Here we have the great and obscure point of this terrible adventure. It is not easy to throw light upon it and still less easy to find excuses for it. If our enemies prove that they were deceived and corrupted by their masters, they prove, at the same time, that they are less intelligent, less firmly attached to justice, honour and humanity, less civilized, in a word, than those whom they claimed the right to enslave in the name of a superiority which they themselves have proved not to exist; and, unless they can establish that their errors, perfidies and cruelties, which can no longer be denied, should be imputed only to those masters, then they themselves must bear the pitiless weight. I do not know how they will escape from this predicament, nor what the future will decide, that future which is wiser than the past, even as, in the words of an old Slav proverb, the dawn is wiser than the eve. In the meanwhile, let us copy the prudence of our soldiers, who know what to believe far better than we do.
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