The War and Democracy

by Albert Bushnell Hart
Professor of History in Harvard University

[The Outlook, May 5, 1915]

"The proof of democracy," says an American sage, is, "does it democ?" Just now that question comes home to all civilized mankind. Up to July 23, 1914, every significant nation in the world from Montenegro to British Columbia had at least the appearance of the admission of the people to a share in their own government. Democracy was considered the ripest flower of the highest civilization. Out of the nine Great Powers of the world, three—the United States, France, and China were republics in form and in each of the other six—Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Italy, and Japan—-the representatives of the people had established their right to share the government with the personal sovereign.

To-day six of those nine Powers are plunged into the heat of the fray, and in every one democracy seems for the time being submerged. In not one of those countries are the people or their representatives now legislating for the crisis or keeping the ministerial executives in control by questions and criticisms upon military affairs. Nor does it appear that the people at large or the voters in any country resent this exclusion from a part in the great decisions that are being made. We hear vaguely of bread riots; but the only constitutional crisis that has come about in the eight months of the war has been the change of the Foreign Minister in Austria-Hungary from an Austrian to a Hungarian. In England a few criticisms of the Government are made in the public press, most of which are received by the public as disloyal utterances; none appear in Germany except a few rare complaints by Socialist members of the Reichstag. There is no public opinion—or, rather, public opinion compels every one not only to support the war but to support it with vehemence.

In the strongly monarchical countries of Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary the authority was naturally retained by the Emperor and his immediate group of councilors and officers. In all three countres the army and navy are closely centralized, and Parliaments have never had much to do with them except to vote upon the terms of service and the money credits. It is only about a year since the German Reichstag, by a vote of 293 to 54, expressed its discontent at the ill treatment of the civilians of Zabern by military officers; nevertheless, Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg refused to resign, and allowed the officers to be acquitted by court martial. In France and England the legislative bodies have for many years been accustomed to take a lively part in government while war was going on. Not even in the Boer War of 1899-1900, nor in the serious likelihood of wars involving France in 1905 and 1911, did those bodies abdicate their functions. They have done so now. For when the representatives of the people are silent the necessary decisions are not postponed; they are simply made by the executive. In this war the civil authorities have either given carte blanche to the military or have accepted and carried out their will.

Is this the end of European democracy? Will example and military pressure cause the end of American democracy? Are the people of the world giving over their destinies to the judgment of a handful of statesmen and warriors practically designated by themselves? Have the peoples as a whole no wisdom left? Is there a difference in the make-up of the human mind between times of war and times of peace? Or when the cyclone is past, will the owners of the various ships of state again claim the right to their own property? These critical questions come home with peculiar force to the people of the United States, for popular government in America depends upon the power of democracy to stand and repel the shock of militarism.

One reason for the atrophy of parliaments is that in every belligerent country the people accepted the war when it broke out, took it up, made it their own, and are carrying it on as a national duty. In every country the thinking people as well as the unthinking, were convinced that their country had been unjustly and maliciously attacked, and would be destroyed unless the population rallied to the support of the Government. The way for this conviction was prepared by a long propaganda in newspapers, periodicals, and books, especially in Germany, Great Britain, and France. For more than ten years writers in all three countries have tried to arouse their countrymen to a belief that they were in imminent danger of invasion by implacable enemies.

For example, in 1897 an English admiral in the "Fortnightly Review " declared that "if Germany were extinguished to-morrow there is not an Englishman in the world who would not be richer." In 1912 Bernhardi's book stated more clearly than previous writers the aspirations and dangers of Germany, and demanded for her "world power or downfall." Cartoons, pamphlets, and elaborate books have set forth the grievances of various countries, and have suggested methods of carrying on "the next war." In eastern Europe a campaign of hate has been going on ever since the Turkish Revolution of 1908. The Austrians and the Hungarians had been gradually accumulating a reservoir of wrath against the Servians, because of their manifest hope to split off the Serb provinces from Austria-Hungary. The Russians have been nursing resentment ever since 1908, when they had not the military strength to resist the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Austria.

In the French school geographies Alsace-Lorraine has for years been shown in a different color from the rest of Germany. Treitschke long ago taught his countrymen that "England is to-day the shameless representative of barbarisin in international law." Before the war broke out thousands of respectable people who could not bring themselves to believe unproved evil of their own friends and neighbors, the people, whom they knew best, were convinced that unknown English men and women, Russians, Germans, or Servians, were sodden with crime and thirsting for other people's blood.

All this in spite of decades of efforts to bring people into a better understanding with each other, and a conscious effort to found a kind of world democracy of men of science, letters, and business. Students have traveled from country to country; fellowships have been founded for foreigners; professors have been exchanged; addresses delivered by men from other countries. There has been an era of world congresses of physicians, of historians, of electricians, of engineers. Considerable groups of business men have traveled about to make themselves acquainted with the spirit of foreign countries. When the crisis came, of course, every man adhered to his own country; one cannot serve two masters. Was it also necessary for every man to deny his own experience of the character, courtesy, and high-mindedness of his foreign friends? Philosophic Eucken rolls under his tongue as a sweet morsel a denunciation of "Servian accessories to murder; Russian lust for conquest; English perfidiousness and, at last, Japanese scoundrelism, all united." On the other side, the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow declares the war to be " Christianity against paganism, the Cross and its civilization against the Crescent and its barbarism; against the even worse—because deliberate and calculated—barbarism of the War Lord."

It is a fair question whether most of these good people who enjoy bad language would not have been just as sure of the greatness of their respective nations and the wisdom of their leaders if they had been told that all the monarchs and all the ministers were convinced that there was no sufficient cause for war. The trouble in such crises is that it is impossible for the people to form a judgment as to the danger, because they have not the facts. They must rely on somebody to judge of the crisis as a whole. In the United States, we should expect the Senators and Representatives of the National Congress in such a crisis to be the people's eyes and lips. Congress might be more belligerent than the President, as it was at the beginning of the Spanish War in 1898; but Congress then believed that its constituents expected the action they took, and that was why only one member of the House ventured to suggest even a brief delay. Let the name of Boutelle, of Maine, be remembered as that of a brave and honest man who wished at least to give public opinion an opportunity to form.

When the pinch came in Europe, not a single one of the national legislatures based on popular representation did its duty. The facts are obvious and dangerous. At the time the war broke out four of these bodies were actually in session or could be immediately summoned. The Parliament of Great Britain, the Reichstag of Germany, the Senate and Chamber of France, and the Russian Duma were in existence, filled with national concern, ready to give their wisdom toward the great decisions that had to be made. Not one of them was consulted till after the war had actually broken out. Sir Edward Grey's first definite statement to Parliament was on the 3d of August, a day after he had committed his nation to the protection of the French coast. The Reichstag was consulted on August 4, when Germany was already at war both with Russia and with France. Premier Viviani made an imperfect statement to the Chamber on August 3, and not till August 5 did he fully explain the situation. The Russian Duma was called in special session August 8; seven days after war had broken out with Germany. The Japanese Diet was in session and acquiesced in the war; but when, later, it would not vote the military measures which the Prime Minister thought necessary, it was dissolved and a new election ordered. In Austria-Hungary there is no federal parliament; but neither the Austrian nor the Hungarian Parliament was consulted, either as to the ultimatum sent to Servia, July 23, or on the attitude of the Imperial Government toward the various propositions for mediation or toward a direct understanding with Russia.

When summoned, every Parliament practically abdicated; and probably would not have been allowed to remain in session if it had not been expected to abdicate. Representative democracy in Europe seems almost to have disappeared for the time being. In not one of those countries are the people, through their representatives, now legislating for their extraordinary needs, or keeping track of the manner in which their affairs are carried out by ministerial executives, or putting questions which might imply a lack of confidence in any military man or action. All the Parliaments receive prodigious measures and vote them without assuming the right to alter a hair's breadth. The British Parliament strove for nearly two centuries to acquire control over the purse; and is now ready to vote a thousand million dollars in a paragraph without so much as a suggestion as to the destination and use of the money. Enough that it is to be spent by the military men in carrying on the war. The German Diet voted the supply asked for by the Government with only one negative vote. Numerous statutes solemnly enacted after long and careful discussion by the legislative authority are now superseded or ignored by votes of the Bundesrath in Germany, or by Orders in Council issued by the British Ministry under a general authority from Parliament. That conquered provinces should be governed by military commanders who levy contributions, assess fines on the cities, and exercise the power of life and death, is not remarkable. So much was done in the Philippines by the American military authorities. It is, however an amazing spectacle to seethe interior of lands which have hardly as yet seen an enemy—England, Scotland, Ireland, Brandenburg, Bavaria, and southern France—practically governed by martial law.

The picture of the apparent abdication of popular government in Europe has bene deliberately drawn in strong colors because it is a part of a problem to which the people of the United States are now directing their minds. In not a single European country have the people any intention of giving up the hard-earned right to share in their own government. There is no reason to doubt that the German Socialists, for instance, will continue to send to the Reichstag a large number of their representatives. Some of the oppressed classes at the bottom of the social and political scale may come to their own. If Jews in Poland and gypsies in Rumania can die for their country, have they not earned the right to live in it on equal terms? The blind confidence of the various peoples, their sacrifices, their heroism, ought to be a living lesson that they are capable of helping to direct the destinies of their land. The Duma, which has stood by the Czar and the aristocracy of Russia, can hardly be treated in this furnace flame as a set of visionary radicals. The war ought to draw the social classes of every country closer together.

The real reason for the present state of democracy is obviously that the people of every nation believe that their only hope of victory is in concentration of their force. What they have, really done is to constitute groups of dictators for the time being. Never was there a greater mistake than to suppose that the Emperor Francis Joseph and Kaiser Wilhelm II are tyrants who have usurped power. Authority has been deposited in their hands because national armies directed by a single impulse are doubly as effective as armies acting separately. We of the United States know that full well, because General Grant, in 1864, was the first man to insist that the Eastern and Western armies should move at the same time and with a common purpose; and that is why Grant and herman and Thomas and Farragut finished up the war. Even in our war the legal authority was concentrated in the hands of President Lincoln. No military critic would admit that the Senate and House at that time contributed much to military efficiency. The main service of Congress was to keep the Government in touch with the people at large, to maintain enthusiasm through four dragging years. The Germans are right and the English are right in their feeling that the whole country must pool its issues, must concentrate its confidence, must accept great decisions made by a few self-chosen people.

For the national dangers are terrific. Every belligerent except Russia has thrown into the fray its existence on the scale which it deems respectable. If Great Britain is defeated, she will lose a great part of her colonies and the naval prestige accumulated during three centuries. If Austria is defeated, she may be dismembered. If Servia is defeated, she becomes a province of Austria, which to the Servians is a repulsive Nirvana. The Belgians have been defeated and for the time being have gone off the map of Europe. When we are in such danger is no time to stickle on a vote or a parliamentary inquiry.

All the European countries are much more familiar than we are in the United States with capital decisions made by others than legislators. They have a tradition of royal prerogative enhanced by the titles, distinctions, rewards, and promotions which are at the disposal of the sovereign. In England treaties are made by the Ministry and submitted to Parliament for discussion after they have gone into effect. In France the Ministry and the individual Ministers use large authority to bind the individual even in time of peace. Imperial rescripts, royal orders, and ministerial minutes have the force of law; and accordingly Europeans do not feel the same sense of usurpation that would be roused by similar action in this country.

Hence it is idle to suppose that the war may result in the overthrow of European thrones except perhaps in the Balkans. King George and perhaps Victor Emmanuel of Italy are the only royal sovereigns whose jobs might be endangered; because the difference between their being kings and being simply an Englishman or an Italian is already small. The Russians, the Austrians, and the Germans have no national conception of a government without a crown.

Will the war also enhance the representative part of the various governments? That depends in large degree upon the success of republican France and essentially democratic England. The world is bound to take notice of the relative efficiency of popular and aristocratic governments. The ordinary voter is not a political philosopher, and if England and France win through, even by dispensing with the parliamentary regime for the time being, the people will feel that democracy has triumphed. They will feel so rightly, because it will be a proof that countries brought up under popular government, in which the military and naval systems and preparations are subject to parliamentary control, can hold their own against armies officered, trained, and directed by a more nearly absolute system. Rome was no less a republic after Cincinnatus returned to his plow. Some republics have perished in similar crises because the commanders of the army and navy have turned upon their creators; but nobody has the slightest dread of a King Kitchener the First, or an Emperor Joffre Premier, or even an Emperor Hindenburg, Duke of the Masurian Lakes. It is a fine tribute to democracy that nobody dreads the Man' on Horseback.

The success of the combination of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey would reaffirm the Oriental type of government in the Turkish Empire, in which the Young Turks, with all their efforts, have not been able to establish an actual parliamentary Government, and are ruled by a self-perpetuated cabal. Thereafter Turkey would stand toward Germany in the relation that Egypt occupied toward Great Britain down to the present war—a nominally independent nation, while actually in complete dependence on its sponsor.

As for Austria-Hungary, it seems impossible that the Slav elements in a reconstituted empire should not gain more liberty and right of self-expression than in times past. They deserve something, for they have inflicted a big scare upon the monarchy yet have not revolted. The present forms of democracy may be expected to continue in Germany; for the German Reichstag, with its manhood suffrage, was organized by Bismarck so as to give to the smaller states substantial representation in the Empire. Doubtless success in war would somewhat exalt Prussianism, militarism, distinctions of classes and military methods of government, which seem to outsiders so contrary to the genuine spirit of democracy. The future trend from or toward democracy will depend on who is the victor.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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