Gilbert Murray.

Faith, war, and policy; addresses and essays on the European War online

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The best thing — suppose once the robbers are there
and intent on crime — the best thing is to overawe them
at once; the next best, to defeat them after a hard
struggle; the third best, to resist vainly and be martyred;
the worst of all, the one evil that need never be endured,
is to let them have their will without protest. (As for
converting them from their evil ways, that is a process
which may be hoped for afterwards.)

We have noticed that in all these cases of honour
there is, or at least there seems to be, no counting of
cost, no balancing of good and evil. In ordinary con-
duct, we are always balancing the probable results of
this course or that; but when honour or religion comes
on the scene all such balancing ceases. If you argued to
the Christian martyr: " Suppose you do burn the pinch
of incense, what will be the harm? All your friends
know you are really a Christian : they will not be misled.
The idol will not be any the better for the incense, nor
will your own true God be any the worse. Why should
you bring misery on yourself and all your family?" Or
suppose you pleaded, with the French atheist: "Why in
the world should you not trample on the Cross? It is
the sign of the clericalism to which you object. Even if


trampling somewhat exaggerates your sentiments, the
harm is small. Who will be a penny the worse for your
trampling? While you will live instead of dying, and all
your family be happy instead of wretched." Suppose
you said to the Red Indian: "My friend, you are out-
numbered by ten to one. If you will submit uncondition-
ally to these pale-faces, and be always civil and obliging,
they will probably treat you quite well. If they do not,
well, you can reconsider the situation later on. No need
to get yourself killed at once."

The people concerned would not condescend to meet
your arguments. Perhaps they can be met, perhaps
not. But it is in the very essence of religion or honour
that it must outweigh all material considerations. The
point of honour is the point at which a man says to some
proposal, " I will not do it. I will rather die."

These things are far easier to see where one man is
involved than where it is a whole nation. But they arise
with nations too. In the case of a nation the material
consequences are much larger, and the point of honour
is apt to be less clear. But, in general, whenever one
nation in dealing with another relies simply on force or
fraud, and denies to its neighbour the common consid-
eration due to human beings, a point of honour must

Austria says suddenly to Serbia: "You are a wicked
little State. I have annexed and governed against their
will some millions of your countrymen, yet you are still
full of anti-Austrian feeling, which I do not intend to
allow. You will dismiss from your service all officials,
politicians, and soldiers who do not love Austria, and
I will further send you from time to time lists of persons


whom you are to dismiss or put to death. And if you do
not agree to this within forty-eight hours, I, being vastly
stronger than you, will make you." As a matter of fact,
Serbia did her very best to comply with Austria's de-
mands; she accepted about two thirds of them, and asked
for arbitration on the remaining third. But it is clear
that she could not accept them all without being dis-
honoured. That is, Serbia would have given up her
freedom at the threat of force; the Serbs would no longer
be a free people, and every individual Serb would have
been humiliated. He would have confessed himself to
be the kind of man who will yield when an Austrian
bullies him. And if it is urged that under good Austrian
government Serbia would become richer and safer, and
the Serbian peasants get better markets, such pleas can-
not be listened to. They are a price offered for slavery;
and a free man will not accept slavery at a price.

Germany, again, says to Belgium (we leave out for
the moment the fact of Germany's special treaty obliga-
tions), "We have no quarrel with you, but we intend
for certain reasons to march across your territory and
perhaps fight a battle or two there. We know that you
are pledged by treaty not to allow any such thing, but we
cannot help that. Consent, and we will pay you some
compensation afterwards; refuse, and we shall make
you wish you had never been born." At that moment
Belgium was a free self-governing State. If she had
yielded to Germany's demand, she would have ceased to
be either. It is possible that, if Germany had been com-
pletely victorious and France quite unable to retaliate,
Belgium would have suffered no great material injury;
but she would have taken orders from a stranger who
had no right to give them, simply because he was strong


and Belgium dared not face him. Belgium refused. She
has had some of her principal towns destroyed, some
thousands of her soldiers killed, many more thousands of
her women, children, and non-combatants outraged and
beggared; but she is still free. She has still her honour.

Let us think this matter out more closely. Our
Tolstoyan will say: "We speak of Belgium's honour
and Serbia's honour; but who is Serbia and who is
Belgium? There is no such person as either. There are
only great numbers of people who happen to be Serbians
and Belgians, and who mostly have had nothing to do
with the questions at issue. Some of them are honour-
able people, some dishonourable. The honour of each
one of them depends very much on whether he pays his
debts and tells the truth, but not in the least on whether
a number of foreigners walk through his country or in-
terfere with his Government. King Albert and his Min-
isters might feel humiliated if the German Government
compelled them to give way against their will; but would
the ordinary population? Would the ordinary peasant
or shopkeeper or artisan in the districts of Vise* and
Liege and Louvain have felt particularly disgraced or
ashamed? He would probably have made a little money
and been greatly amused by the sight of the troops pass-
ing. Who will pretend that he would have suffered any
injury that can for a moment be compared with what he
has suffered now, in order that his Government may feel
proud of itself?"

I will not raise the point that, as a matter of fact,
to grant a right of way to Germany would have been
equivalent to declaring war against France, so that
Belgium would not, by giving up her independence, have


been spared the danger of war. I will assume that
nothing but honour was involved. In that form, this
question goes to the root of our whole conception of
citizenship and the position of man in society. And I
believe that our Tolstoyan friend is profoundly wrong.
Is it true, in a healthy and well-governed State, that
the average citizen is indifferent to the honour of his
country? We know that it is not. True, the average
citizen may often not understand what is going on, but
as soon as he knows he cares. Suppose for a moment
that the King, or the Prime Minister, or the President
of the United States, were found to be in the pay of a
foreign State, as for instance Charles II was in the pay
of Louis XIV, can any one pretend that the ordinary
citizens of Great Britain or America would take it
quietly? that any normal man would be found saying:
" Well, the King, or the President, or the Prime Minister,
is behaving dishonourably, but that is a matter for him,
not for me. I am an honest and honourable man, and
my Government can do what it likes." The notion is
absurd. The ordinary citizen would feel instantly and
without question that his country's honour involved his
own. And woe to the society in which it were other-
wise! We know of such societies in history. They are
the kind which is called " corrupt," and which generally
has not long to live. Belgium has proved that she is not
that kind of society.

But what about Great Britain herself? At the present
moment a very clear case has arisen, and we can test our
own feelings. Great Britain had, by a solemn treaty
more than once renewed, pledged herself to maintain the
neutrality of Belgium. Belgium is a little State lying


• between two very strong States, France and Germany,
and in danger of being overrun or maltreated by one
of them unless the Great Powers guarantee her safety.
The treaty, signed by Prussia, Russia, Austria, France,
and Great Britain, bound all these Powers not to attack
Belgium, move troops into her territory, or annex any
part of it; and further, to resist by armed force any
Power which should try to do any of these things. Bel-
gium, on her part, was bound to maintain her own neu-
trality to the best of her power, and not to side with any
State which was at war with another.

At the end of last July the exact case arose in which
we had pledged ourselves to act. Germany suddenly and
without excuse invaded Belgium, and Belgium appealed
to us and France to defend her. Meantime she fought
alone, desperately, against overwhelming odds. The
issue was clear, and free from any complications. The
German Chancellor, Herr von Bethmann-Hollweg, in his
speech of August 6, admitted that Germany had no
grievance against Belgium, and no excuse except " neces-
sity." She could not get to France quick enough by the
direct road. Germany put her case to us, roughly, on
these grounds. "True, you did sign a treaty, but what
is a treaty? We ourselves signed the same treaty, and
see what we are doing ! Anyhow, treaty or no treaty, we
have Belgium absolutely in our power. If she had done
what we wanted, we would have treated her kindly; as
it is we shall show her no mercy. If you will now do
what we want and stay quiet, later on, at our conven-
ience, we will consider a friendly deal with you. If you
interfere, you must take the consequences. We trust
you will not be so insane as to plunge your whole Empire
• into danger for the sake of 'a scrap of paper.'" Our


• answer was: "Evacuate Belgium within twelve hours or
we fight you."

I think that answer was right. Consider the situation
> carefully. No question arises of overhaste or lack of
patience on our part. From the first moment of the
crisis, we had laboured night and day in every Court of
Europe for any possible means of conciliation and peace.
We had carefully and sincerely explained to Germany
beforehand what attitude she might expect from us.
We did not send our ultimatum till Belgium was already

• invaded. It is just the plain question put to the British
Government, and, I think, to every one who feels himself
a British citizen : " The exact case contemplated in your
treaty has arisen: the people you swore to protect is
being massacred; will you keep your word at a gigantic
cost, or will you break it at the bidding of Germany? "
For my own part, weighing the whole question soberly
and without undue passion, I feel that in this case I would
rather die than submit; and I believe that the Govern-
ment, in deciding to keep its word at the cost of war, has
rightly interpreted the feeling of the average British

• citizen.

So much for the question of honour, pure and simple;
honour without regard for consequences. But, of course,
situations in real political life are never so simple as that;
they have many different aspects and ramifications.
And in the present case, though the point of honour
happens to be quite clear, it seems probable that even
without it there were compelling reasons for war. I do
not, of course, for a moment mean that war was going
to be "profitable" to Great Britain; such a calculation
would be infamous. I mean that, terrible as the conse-


quences of our taking part in the war were sure to be,
the consequences of our not doing so were likely to be
even more profoundly and widely evil.

Let us leave aside, then, the definite treaty binding
us to Belgium. Apart from that, we were faced with
a complicated question of statesmanship, of prudence,
of patriotism towards our own country and towards

Germany has for years presented a problem to Europe.
Since her defeat of France in 1870, she has been extra-
ordinarily successful, and the success seems to have in-
toxicated her. This is a complicated subject, which calls
for far deeper knowledge than I possess. I will merely
try to state, as fairly as I can, the impression that has
been forced on me by a certain amount of reading and
observation. From the point of view of one who really
believes that great nations ought to behave to one
another as scrupulously and honourably as ordinary,
law-abiding men, no Power in Europe, or out of it, is
quite blameless. They all have ambitions; they all, to
some extent, use spies; they all, within limits, try to
outwit each other; in their diplomatic dealings they
rely not only on the claims of good sense and justice,
but ultimately, no doubt, on the threat of possible force.
But, as a matter of degree, Germany does all these
things more than other Powers. In her diplomacy, force
comes at once to the front; international justice is hardly
mentioned. She spends colossal sums on her secret
service, so that German spies are become a by-word and
a joke. In the recognized sport of international treach-
ery, she goes frequently beyond the rules of the game.
Her Emperor, her Imperial Chancellor, and other peo-
ple in the highest positions of responsibility, expound


her ambitions and her schemes in language which would
only be used by an irresponsible journalist in England
or France. They discuss, for instance, whether the time
has come for conquering France once more, and how
best they can "bleed her white" and reduce her to im-
potence. They explain that Bismarck and his generation
have made Germany the strongest Power on the Conti-
nent. "The will of Germany is now respected" in Eu-
rope; it rests with the present Emperor to make it
similarly respected throughout the world. "Germany's
world-future lies on the sea." They discuss whether they
can build up a fleet strong enough to fight and beat the
British fleet without Great Britain interfering. They
discuss in public how many colonies, and which, they
will leave to Great Britain when the great " Day" comes.
They express regret, combined, so far as one can make
out, with a little genuine surprise, that the "brutal
egoism of Great Britain" should raise any objection to
this plan and they hope — openly and publicly — that
her well-known weakness and cowardice will make her
afraid to act. Since Great Britain has a vast number of
Mohammedan subjects, who may possibly be stirred to
disaffection, the German Emperor proclaims to "the
three hundred million Mohammedans who live scattered
over the globe" that whenever they need him, the
German Emperor will be their friend. And this in 1898,
in the middle of profound peace! Professors in German
Universities lecture on the best way of destroying the
British Empire, and the officers' messes in the German
Navy regularly drink the toast of "The Day." There is
no need to explain what Day. The curious thing is that
these plans are all expounded in public speeches and
books — strange books, in which the average civilized


sense of international justice or common honesty seems
to have been left out of account, as well as the sense
of common political prudence; in which the schemes
of an accomplished burglar are expounded with the
candour of a child.

And all through this period, in which she plots against
her neighbours and tells them she is plotting, Germany
lives in a state of alarm. Her neighbours are so un-
friendly! Their attitude may be correct, but it is not
trustful and cordial. The Imperial Chancellor, Von
Bulow, explains in his book that there was only one
time when he really breathed freely. It was in 1909,
when Austria, his ally, annexed by violence and against
her pledges the two Slav provinces of Bosnia and Herze-
govina. All Europe was indignant, especially Russia,
the natural protector of the Slavs, and England, the
habitual champion of small nationalities. But Germany
put down her foot. The Kaiser " appeared in shining
armour beside his ally/' and no Power dared to intervene.
Germany was in the wrong. Every one knew she was
in the wrong. It was just that fact that was so comfort-
ing. Her army was big enough, her navy was big enough,
and for the moment the timid creature felt secure.

Lastly, we must remember that it is Germany who
started the race for armaments; and that while Russia
has pressed again and again for a general limitation of
armies, and England made proposal after proposal for
a general limitation of navies, Germany has steadily
refused to entertain any such idea.

Now, for some time it was possible to minimize all
these danger-signals, and, for my own part, I have al-
ways tried to minimize them. There are militarists and


Jingoes in every country; our own have often been bad
enough. The German sort seemed unusually blatant,
but it did not follow that they carried their country
with them. The Kaiser, always impulsive, said on the
whole more friendly things than unfriendly things. At
any rate, it seemed wiser and more statesmanlike to
meet provocation with good temper, and to try by per-
sistent friendliness to encourage all the more liberal and
reasonable elements in German public life. This policy
seemed possible until the July of the present year. Then
certain facts were forced upon us. They are all detailed
in the White Paper and the other diplomatic correspond-

We suddenly found that Germany and Austria, or
some conspiring parties in Germany and Austria, had
arranged for a great stroke, like that of 1909 on a larger
scale. It was so obviously aggressive in its nature that
their ally, Italy, the third Power in the Triple Alliance,
formally refused to act with them. The Alliance only
applied to a defensive war. The time had been carefully
chosen. England was supposed to be on the verge of
a civil war in Ireland and a new mutiny in India.
France had just been through a military scandal, in
which it appeared that the army was short of boots and
ammunition. Russia, besides a general strike and in-
ternal troubles, was re-arming her troops with a new
weapon, and the process was only half through. Even
the day was chosen. It was in a week when nearly all
the ambassadors were away from their posts, taking
their summer holiday — the English Ambassador at
Berlin, the Russian Ambassadors at Berlin and Vienna,
the Austrian Foreign Minister, the French Prime Min-
ister, the Serbian Prime Minister, the Kaiser himself,


and others who might have used a restraining influence
on the schemes of the war party. Suddenly, without a
word to any outside Power, Austria issued an ultimatum
to Serbia, to be answered in forty-eight hours. Seventeen
of these hours had elapsed before the other Powers were
informed, and war was declared on Serbia before all
the ambassadors could get back to their posts. The
leading statesmen of Europe sat up all night trying for
conciliation, for arbitration, even for bare delay. At the
last moment, when the Austrian Foreign Minister had
returned, and had consented to a basis for conversations
with Russia, there seemed to be a good chance that
peace might be preserved; but at that moment Ger-
many launched her ultimatum at Russia and France, and
Austria was already invading Serbia. In twenty-four
hours, six European Powers were at war.

Now, the secret history of this strange intrigue is not
yet known. It will not be known for fifty years or so.
It is impossible to believe that the German nation
would have backed up the plot, if they had understood
it. It is difficult to think that the Kaiser would; and
the Austrian Foreign Minister, when once he returned,
tried to undo the work of his subordinates. But some-
how the war parties in Germany and Austria got the
upper hand for one fatal week, and have managed to
drag their countries after them.

We saw, as Italy had seen, that Germany had pre-
arranged the war. We saw her breaking her treaties
and overrunning little Belgium, as her ally was trampling
on little Serbia. We remembered her threats against
ourselves. And at this very time, as if to deepen our
suspicions, she made us what has been justly termed an
"infamous proposal," that if we would condone her


treaty-breaking now, she would have an "understand-
ing" with us afterwards.

Suppose we had not been bound by our treaty to
Belgium, or even our natural and informal friendship
with France: what could we have done? I wish to take
no low ground; I wish to face the question from the
point of view of a statesman who owes a duty to his own
country and a duty to Europe.

The one thing which we could not have done, in my
opinion, was to repudiate our responsibility. We are
a very strong Power, one of the strongest in the world,
and here, under our eyes and within range of our guns,
a thing was being done which menaced every living
creature in Europe. The one thing that no statesman
could possibly do was to say: "This is no concern of
ours. We will go our ways as usual." It was perfectly
possible to stand aside and proclaim our neutrality.
But — apart from questions of honour — to proclaim
neutrality was quite as grave a step as to proclaim
war. Let no man imagine that he can escape blood-
guiltiness by standing still while murder is committed
before his eyes.

I will not argue here what the right decision would
have been. It depends, unlike the point of honour, on
a careful balancing of evidence and consequences, and
scarcely any one in the country except the Government
has sufficient knowledge to make the balance. For my
own part, I should have started with a strong predilec-
tion for peace, even a fragmentary peace, but should
ultimately have been guided chiefly by the public men
whom I most trust. But, as things fell out, our Govern-
ment was not forced to make a decision on this difficult


ground at all, because Germany took a further step
which made the whole situation clear. Her treatment
of Belgium not only roused our passionate indignation,
but compelled us either to declare war or to break our
pledged word. I incline, however, to think that our
whole welfare is so vitally dependent on the observance
of public law and the rights of nations, and would have
been so terribly endangered by the presence of Germany
in a conqueror's mood at Ostend and Zeebrugge, not to
speak of Dunkirk and Calais, that in this case mere self-
preservation called us to fight. I do not venture to lay
any stress on the hopes which we may entertain for the
building up of a better Europe after the war, a Europe
which shall have settled its old feuds and devised some
great machinery for dealing with new difficulties as they
arise, on a basis of justice and concord, not of intrigue
and force. By all means let us hope, let us work, for
that rebuilding; but it will be a task essentially difficult
when it comes; and the very beginning of it lies far
away, separated from the present time and the immediate
task by many terrific hazards. We have no right to
soothe our consciences concerning the war with profes-
sions of the fine and generous things that we are going
to do afterwards. Doubtless Germany was going to
make us all good and happy when she was once sure of
our obedience. For the moment we can think only of
our duty, and need of self-preservation. And I believe
that in this matter the two run together: our interest
coincides with our honour.

It is curious how often this is the case. It is one of
the old optimistic beliefs of nineteenth-century Liberal-
ism, and one which is often ridiculed, that a nation's


duty generally does coincide with its interest. No doubt
one can find abundant exceptions, but I believe that in
the main, for nations as for individuals, real palpable
conscious dishonesty or wickedness is exceedingly un-
profitable. This is a more interesting fact than it looks
at first sight. 5 i

There are many poisons which arc simply so nasty
that, undisguised, they cannot be swallowed. No power
could induce a man or dog to sip or lap a tablespoonful
of nicotine or prussic acid. You might coax the dog

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Online LibraryGilbert MurrayFaith, war, and policy; addresses and essays on the European War → online text (page 3 of 19)