A Letter to Gerhart Hauptmann

By Romain Rolland

[The New York Times/Current History, December 12, 1914]

I am not, Gerhart Hauptmann, of those Frenchmen who call Germany barbarian. I recognize the intellectual and moral grandeur of your mighty race. I realize all that I owe to the thinkers of old Germany; and even at this extreme hour I recall to mind the example and the words of our Goethe—for he belongs to all humanity—repudiating national hatred and preserving his soul serene in those heights "where one feels the joys and sorrows of all peoples as one's own." It has been the labor of my life to bring together the minds of our two nations; and the atrocities of impious war shall never lead me to soil my heart with hatred.

Whatever reason I may have, therefore, to suffer through the deeds of your Germany and to judge as criminal the German policy and the German methods, I do not hold responsible the people who submit thereto and are reduced to mere blind instruments. This does not mean that I regard war as a fatality. A Frenchman knows no such word as fatality. Fatality is the excuse of souls that lack a will.

No. This war is the fruit of the feebleness of peoples and of their stupidity. One can only pity them; one cannot blame them. I do not reproach you for our sorrows. Your mourning will not be less than ours. If France is ruined, so also will be Germany. I did not even raise my voice when I saw your armies violate the neutrality of noble Belgium. This forfeit of honor, which compels the contempt of every right-thinking mind, is too well within the political tradition of Prussian Kings to have surprised me. But the fury with which you treated that generous land whose one crime was to defend, unto despair, its independence and the idea of justice—that was too much! The world revolts in wrath at this. Reserve for us your violence—for us French, who are your enemies. But to trample upon your victims, upon the little Belgian people, unfortunate and innocent—that is ignominy!

And not content with assaulting the Belgium that lives, you wage war on the dead, on the glory of past centuries. You bombard Malines, you put Rubens to flame, Louvain comes from your hands a heap of ashes¬¬—Louvain with its treasures of art and knowledge, the holy city! Who indeed are you and what name do you conjure us to call you, Hauptmann, you who reject the title of barbarian?

Are you the children of Goethe or of Attila? Do you wage war against armies or against the human spirit? Kill men if you must, but respect man's work. For this is the heritage of the human race. And you, like us, are its trustees. In making pillage of it as you have done you prove yourselves unworthy of this great inheritance, unworthy of holding rank in the small European army which is the garde d'honneur of civilization.

It is not to the sense of the rest of the world that I appeal against you. It is to yourself, Hauptmann. In the name of our Europe, of which up to the present you have been one of the noblest champions—in the name of that civilization for which the greatest of men have struggled—in the name of the honor even of your German race, Gerhart Hauptmann, I adjure you, I comand you, you and the intellectual élite of Germany, where I have so many friends, to protest with utmost vehemence against this crime which leaps back upon yourselves.

If you fail in this, one of two things will be proved that you acquiesce, (and then the opinion of the world will crush you), or that you are powerless to raise your voice against the Huns that now command you. And in that case, with what right will you still pretend, as you have written, that your cause is that of liberty and human progress?

You will be giving to the world a proof that, incapable of defending the liberty of the world, you are helpless even to uphold your own; that the élite of Germany lies subservient to the blackest despotism to a tyranny which mutilates masterpieces and assassinates the human spirit.

I await your response, Hauptmann—a response which shall be an act. The opinion of Europe awaits it, as do I. Bear this in mind; in a moment like this, even silence is an act.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury