The Suicide of European Civilization

By William Ostwald

[The Independent, August 17, 1914]

The following remarkable article was written shortly before the outbreak of the present European war and explains from a German viewpoint the conditions that have led to the conflict. Professor Ostwald held for many years the chair of chemistry in Leipzig University and in 1909 received the Nobel Prize for his researches. In recent years he has devoted himself to the application of scientific laws to philosophy and sociology and has energetically opposed the militarism which has now, as he foresaw, brought ruin upon Europe and struck, a deadly blow at modern civilization.—THE EDITOR.

WHEN forty thousand Swedish peasants marched to the palace of King Gustav and demanded an increase in the armaments of Sweden, the highwater mark of Europe's militarist craze was reached.

In spite of the Baltic agreement which guaranteed the preservation of the kingdom, in spite of the protests of the most enlightened and most conservative elements of the population, Sweden was compelled to join the other nations of Europe, already groaning under the vast burden of their war preparation.

Why should Sweden arm, one may ask; what enemies has she, with her territory and her sovereignty guaranteed by all the Baltic powers? Everywhere it is the same answer that has induced the nations of Europe to burden themselves with huge military outlays-—the fear of Russia. The woful economic depression from which Austria is at present suffering is no less a result of self-bloodletting for military purposes occasioned by fear of Russia than is the burden of billions of dollars imposed by the German Empire upon itself.

This war-crazy, billion-dollar taxation is not the only sacrifice the German nation is making. The extreme intensification of the worst form of militarism, the supercilious notion that the soldier, the man who wears a uniform, is higher, nobler and more worthy of respect than any other citizen, is the immediate consequence of the unseemly haste to grant so extravagant a military budget. The Zabern incident showed the whole world what we get in return for our military taxes, and the loss 'in cultural values the Germans must suffer is a heavier burden on our international credit than even the bleeding of our economic system of billions of dollars. For as the process of paying the tax is distributed over three years, it will in that long period make more effective propaganda against excessive militarism among those who have to pay it than could possibly have been done by all the pacifists and internationalists.

And why all this? On account of Russia, Russia which in all its great wars now for nearly a century has either been defeated or just managed to escape defeat. Was not Russia the first white nation that ignominiously lost a war against an army composed of men of the yellow race, against a state which in extent of territory and in population is but an infinitesimally small fraction of Russia? Has not Russia just passed thru a most violent internal revolution? Does not the revolutionary fire, tho trampled and supprest, still continue to smolder under the surface, and is it not merely waiting for an opportunity to burst out again into a conflagration?

When you try to think these matters over calmly you clutch at your head in despair. You ask how it is possible that Europe, after creating a specter for itself, should seek to save itself by cutting deep into its own flesh and offering new bloody sacrifices to appease the idols of militarism. It is no longer merely the pardonable mistakes of diplomacy due to lack of far-sightedness and acumen on the part of statesmen. A real popular nationalistic craze is sweeping over the population of Europe, comparable to the craze that took possession of the people during the Crusades and the religious wars which worked havoc with reason and civilization.

Even France, the country which at first perhaps promised itself the greatest advantage from this state of things, does not benefit by it. The enormous military equipments which began in Russia and from there spread to Germany and the other European countries have not freed France from the almost intolerable burden which every citizen of the republic has to carry by serving two years in the army. On the contrary, as a logical consequence of this movement the French Government thought it essential to increase the term of military service to three years and thereby bring about so serious a setback to the country's progress that it is doubtful whether she will ever be able fully to recover.

To understand the beginning of this chain of mischief it is necessary to go a long way back. It began more than a hundred years ago, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, when the French people set about freeing themselves from the intolerable economic and political yoke of the decayed feudal rule and an incompetent monarchy. The Middle European legitimists saw their very existence threatened by the deposition and execution of the French king, and so undertook an invasion upon the French nation from the east. It had no other justification than to hinder the French people from independently shaping their own destinies in order to force them back to monarchism, from which, by a tremendous convulsion and with great sacrifice of blood, they had just liberated themselves. That irresistible combination of the forces of the people which later found its leader and ruler in the first Napoleon was nothing but a reaction against this violence from the outside. Napoleon's first work was to drive out the foreign invaders. Then, by a perfectly natural counter-reaction, he seized the opportunity afforded by the immense power of a popular army, then appearing for the first time in modern history, and used it for the conguest of the neighboring countries.

What course European history would have taken, had the great Corsican preserved his power of objective judgment intact a few years longer, has been a subject of frequent speculation. Had he applied his judgment as well as his remarkable energy to existing conditions and to the administration of technical, commercial and political affairs, operations of a more effective and more enduring character than his futile expeditions against Russia, the history of Europe might have been different. But he failed to do so, and his military power broke down.

The justifiable wars of liberation of the outraged nations of Middle Europe in the end brought no other result than the restoration of the old legitimist principles and the reestablishment of the royal power. The organization of the people's forces, which Scharnhorst learned to copy so well from the enemy, was effected only under the pressure of a foreign invasion, and after the victory was immediately abandoned. Among the people the Idea of liberty was not yet sufficiently developed for them to make use of the power to create a government corresponding to the needs of the nineteenth century. Thus in Germany after every war a deep reactionary wave gets in, and worst of all after a victorious war. This is a phenomenon that may be observed in all modern history. Thus, a people that has achieved victory with its own blood is, so far as freedom is concerned, always worse off after than before the war. Such was the case in France after the wars of Napoleon I; in Germany to a much larger extent after the war of liberation of 1812-13 and in consequence of the wars of 1866 and 1870. A similar reactionary wave is now pressing upon us.

Thus we see, if we follow the thread of history farther, that the German wars of liberation involved France in new complications under the incompetent royal house restored to the throne. A strong legitimist and clerical reaction resulted, leading in turn to a series of revolutions culminating, as it was bound to, in a return to Caesarism under Napoleon III. Altho at first Napoleon tried to follow, a proper rational course for the economic advancement of his country, as he grew older and his intellectual faculties diminished he succumbed to the reactionary war party and the war of 1870 brought a speedy end to the empire.

Today, after a lapse of half a century, we are still suffering from the consequences of that huge blunder multiplied and intensified by a second one worse than the first. For the French nation, instead of regarding these war adventures as contrary to its real nature and imposed upon it by the Corsican-Spanish ruling pair, allowed its ambition, under the leadership of a few individuals who knew how to make clever use of the lower stratum of popular thought, to pursue the idea of revenge and to work on the national passions. Since then, instead of guiding and determining its policies first and foremost in the interest of progress, this highly gifted and civilized people has made them subservient to an atavistic principle, the principle of revenge, unworthy of a leading nation.

The natural and inevitable consequence of the policies pursued is shown by the fruit it bore. I do not speak of the positive decline in French creative force during that time. In science and art France has been ousted from the leading position that she unquestionably occupied half a century ago, and has been relegated to the second or third place. Since, it is commonly held that the development of science and art is dependent upon a multiplicity of other factors, it may be doubted whether this is due to the same cause, tho an energetist like myself feels perfectly sure that such was the cause. An energetist knows that the amount of energy at our disposal is limited. If, therefore, a nation expends the largest portion of its energy, not in cultural and productive effort, but in work which at best can result only in the satisfaction of a feeling of revenge without yielding any cultural values, then, according to the law of the limited amount of energy, that nation will show a corresponding minus in all the other sides of its activity, that is, in real cultural work.

But even setting aside these considerations and regarding only the purely political facts we. are still led to the same conclusion. What has forced France into this close alliance with Russia? In the whole of Europe there is no nation that in every field of culture is so distinctly the antithesis of France as Russia. It was only the hope that with the help of Russia she would be able to carry out her plan of revenge that misled France into the most unnatural of all alliances. What is the result? She has not only sunk her savings there. That may be a fairly good tho rather risky investment. But into the same abysmal pit as Russia she unexpectedly finds herself constrained to throw the youthful forces and energies of her growing generations. The energy of her youth is her most precious possession. She is getting less and less of it every year. To express her chagrin over the economic and commercial competition of Germany due to this same fundamentally false view of European politics, England has joined this alliance.

Fortunately, in the long run unreason will destroy itself. Thus we see in our day that the true, that is, the cultural, conception of European nations is at last slowly beginning to assert itself. From those who see in the retardation of progress the only possibility of conserving their position, which long ago became unstable and untenable, it has to overcome very strong opposition. As soon as Germany, France and England form a determined bloc for the peace of Europe, then the Russian menace loses—all its force, since the other small states, especially Austria, will be bound to ally themselves with this overwhelming power. When such an alliance of the leading nations, in the interest of civilisation, is effected, then, and not until then, may civilization hope to receive that care and attention from the economic efforts of the nations, which it imperiously demands and must have if Europe is to preserve her leading role.

Unfortunately, this alignment of our European relations is too rational, too much in accord with true progress, to be at once realized. It is too rational and too progressive to be felt so strongly and deeply as to rouse our people in Germany to an energetic and irresistible movement for that purpose. In the preservation of the barbaric conditions that have hitherto prevailed our present reactionary ruling class of the northeast of Germany is too directly interested not to exert all its efforts to retard this development. It would hinder it entirely if it were in its power, but fortunately it is not.

To express it in the most general terms, the object of all the ruling politics today is solely to retard progress. The great movement of civilization follows its definite course as laid down in the second law of thermodynamics. Along a certain line human affairs move irresistibly, regulating themselves in such a manner that more and more the friction surfaces disappear and everywhere well-ordered, cooperative activity with a just balance between opposite claims gives way to struggle and strife. The only question in relation to this law is the velocity with which this fixed course is traveled. This is the point where the individual and small groups of men may exercize a decisive influence in historic development.

In chemistry there are substances known as catalyzors which have the power of accelerating slow chemical processes even when present only in small quantities. The greater their amount the greater their action. They cannot change the direction or tendency of the process, but they can hasten or retard its inevitable progress. This is precisely the function of thinkers and workers in the political field. They can accelerate or retard, they cannot change or reverse the social process. The more clearly they understand the necessary course of evolution, the easier it will be for them to create the conditions for the acceleration or hindrance of that evolution. They must content themselves with the modest role of catalyzors if they are to exercize any influence at all. Even so self-willed a character as Bismarck chose as the expression of his activity the maxim, unda fert, nec regitur, "You ride on the wave, but you don't direct it."

In relation to the sad state of affairs now prevailing in our country the German patriot, in view of these facts, often asks what he is to do. There is only one answer. He can do but one thing. Of all our Government organs the German Reichstag is the most democratic, hence the most progressive. The thing to do, therefore, is always and in all matters to concentrate attention upon the German imperial idea and to make the national body the determining factor in German cultural polities. It is a long and difficult task, but it can be accomplished.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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