Europe's Heritage of Evil

By David Jayne Hill
(Formerly United States Ambassador to Germany)

[The Century Magazine, May 1917]

In the retrospect of future historians the year 1914 may have a place not less important than the year 1453, which has been accepted as marking the dividing line between medieval and modern history. The fall of Constantinople and the establishment of the Ottoman Turks in Europe revealed the insufficiency of the bond that had held Christendom together. In like manner the present European War reveals the inadequacy of purely national conceptions for the complete organization of mankind; for as Christendom failed to unite the whole world by faith, so civilization has failed to maintain itself by force. Whatever the future of the world is to be, it cannot be a mere repetition of the past. There will be a new Europe, which will radically change the order of the old, and mark the beginning of another era in the development of mankind.

The great tragedy of history has been the conflict between the universal humanism that Rome endeavored to establish, first by law and afterward by faith, and the tribalism of the primitive European races. In the fifteenth century tribalism triumphed. In the twentieth, universal humanism may reclaim its own, and reassert the substantial unity of the human races.

In both instances there has been disillusionment. In the fifteenth century Christendom assumed the existence of a unity of belief that had not in reality been attained. Both the empire and the papacy, in which great minds had placed implicit faith, proved unable, in the face of racial conflicts, either to rule the world or to preserve the coherence of Christendom. All that had given grandeur to Rome seemed to have ended in failure when the Greek Empire, the last bulwark of Roman imperialism, already long and bitterly alienated from the Roman Curia, paid the penalty of separatism, and fell before the Ottoman assault. With it the splendid postulates of the Roman imperial idea—the essential unity of mankind, the supremacy of law based upon reason and divine command, the moral solidarity of all who accepted the formulas of faith, and the effective organization of peace as a condition of human happiness—seemed to have suffered a fatal catastrophe. In place of the Pax Romana, Faustrecht, the right of the mailed fist, widely prevailed within the confines of Christendom. Slowly dying during a thousand years, the traditions of the ancient world, which the Greek Empire had endeavored to preserve long after they had been undermined by tribalism in the West, were now definitively abandoned. The future was seen to belong to the separate nations, which alone possessed a strong sense of unity. The disparity of races, the spirit of local independence, the conflict between the spiritual and the temporal forms of obedience, combined to render possible the development of powerful national monarchies, and dynastic ambition was eager to make use of them for its own designs.

It was Machiavelli who expounded the new theory of the state and the methods of securing its advancement; and in this he was inventing no system of his own, but merely stating in definite terms the principles which successful monarchs were already putting into practice. "'The Prince,'" declares Villari, "had a more direct action on real life than any other book in the world, and a larger share in emancipating Europe from the Middle Ages;" but it would be more exact to say that Machiavelli's work, written in 1513 and published in 1532, was the perfect expression of an emancipation from moral restraints already far advanced. The Christian idealism of the Middle Ages had already largely disappeared. The old grounds of obligation had been swept away. Men looked for their safety to the state rather than to the church; and the state, as Machiavelli's gospel proclaimed it, consisted in absolute and irresponsible control exercised by one man who should embody its unity, strength, and authority. Thus began the modern world.

With the dissolution of the feudal organization through the predominance of the national monarchies disappeared the sense of mutual obligation which under the feudal regime had constituted an ethical bond between the different orders of society. What remained was the bare conception of irresponsible "sovereignty" considered as a divinely implanted, absolute, unlimited, and indivisible prerogative of personal rule, the charter right of each dynasty to seek its own aggrandizement, preponderance, and glory regardless of all considerations of race, reason, or religion.

With such a conception of the nature of the state, the whole system of international relations was necessarily based upon military force. Until Grotius appealed to the ethical motive, and the treaties of Westphalia recognized the de jure rights of territorial sovereignty, there was among the nations of Europe no semblance of public law which jurisprudence could recognize. But even after the Peace of Westphalia, the so-called "law of nations" was little more than a theoretical acceptance of the equal rights of autonomous sovereigns, each of whom could work his will without interference within his own domains, leaving to each ruler the unquestioned prerogative of dictating the religion of his own subjects, of taxing them, of arming them, and of making war with their united forces for his own advantage. In effect, the Peace of Westphalia, by rendering even petty princes absolute, permitted more than three hundred independent rulers to carry on the sanguinary game of war for plunder or conquest without restraint; and all, left free to destroy one another, were thus entitled by public law, through war and diplomacy, to seek their fortunes with complete autonomy. Sovereignty, defined as "supreme power," regardless of any principle of right, was conceived to be the very essence of the state. It remained simply to discover by a trial of strength which power was entitled to be esteemed supreme.

When in its moral awakening the Europe of the latter part of the eighteenth and early part of the nineteenth century began to think for itself—or at least to follow the thinking of Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Kant, and others who sought to find the true foundations of the state in the conception of law based upon the nature and necessities of men rather than upon dynastic power—Europe found itself under the incubus of this sinister inheritance.

Without a convulsion that would shake the whole of Europe to its foundations it was powerless to throw it off. Rousseau had in "Le contrat social" merely transferred the idea of sovereignty from the monarch to the people, but he had not essentially altered its character. It was still "supreme power," still the "absolute, indivisible, and perpetual" thing which Bodin, seeking to give royalty a philosophical pedestal to stand upon, had said it was. Inherent in the people, it was still the personification of all the public powers; and the volonté générale, the general will, regardless of its moral qualities, was the unlimited, irresponsible source of law, the possessor of all, the dictator of all, and the ultimate authority in all things, which the individual man must respect and obey.

When the French Revolution judged and condemned the king, it was done as a sovereign act, and was, therefore, not permitted to be questioned by the monarchs of Europe. Was not sovereignty territorial? Then it belonged to France. Was it not indivisible? Then it belonged to the French people. Was it not perpetual? Who, then, could ever take it away or in any way dispute it? And thus the volonté générale of one nation, having swept away the monarchy, soon rose to the height of a war on all kings; and in the person of the residuary legatee of the Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte, made emperor by the assent of the volonté générale of France, assumed to act as sovereign over the whole of Europe. There was no moment during the whole revolutionary period when sovereignty ceased to be conceived as unlimited supreme power. Recent French writers not only recognize, but emphasize, the fact. The distinguished critic and academician Emile Faguet declares:

The French Revolution neither enthroned individualism nor suppressed absolutism. It did precisely the contrary.... It put the sovereignty of the people in place of the sovereignty of the king, and it did nothing else.... It was the absolute effacement of the Individual by the majority of his compatriots...votre Majorité in place of votre Majesté—that is, without qualification, the sum and substance of the French Revolution.

And thus the malign inheritance of Europe, in so far as it was affected by the Revolution, is essentially unchanged. Monarchy and democracy alike, without distinction, have regarded sovereignty merely as "supreme power," "absolute, indivisible, and perpetual." Thus it stands in all the text-books of the law of nations. So many sovereignties, so many absolute autocrats. Being the sole sources of law, how can they be subject to law? And there being no law which they may not set aside, since it is but their creature, sovereign nations are irresponsible, and have no more to do with moral right or wrong than so many untamed animals seeking to satisfy their appetites. The right to make war at will and to be answerable to no one, that was, and is, the accepted doctrine of the old Europe, which merely asserted itself anew in 1914.

This does not signify that it has never been contested. More than three hundred years ago a now almost-forgotten German jurist, though recognizing sovereignty as the foundation of the state, defined it as an attribute not of the people as an unorganized mass, but of a "body politic" organized for the promotion of justice, deriving its authority as a moral entity from the rights of its constituent members, whom it is organized to protect against wrong, and therefore from its very nature charged with mutual rights and obligations. The only authority it can claim is authority to defend the rights and interests thus committed to its guardianship. As a moral entity—for this is what Althusius taught that a state founded on rights necessarily is—it should be ready to apply the principles of justice and equity in its dealings with other states.

Were this conception of sovereignty generally accepted, justice and equity would not halt at the frontiers of a nation. The right of war would exist, but it would not be, as the old Europe has generally recognized it to be, a virtually unlimited right. There could be, under this conception, no permanently subject peoples. There could be no world dominion. There could be no legal schemes of conquest. War would mean the punishment of offenders against the law of nations, the suppression of anarchy and brigandage, resistance to the ambitions of the conqueror.

But the old Europe has never been disposed to give to sovereignty that meaning. It could not do so while it was identified with royal legitimacy. That principle triumphed a hundred years ago in the Congress of Vienna, which strove to neutralize the effects of the French Revolution by ending forever the sovereignty of the people. Then followed the effort to establish Europe firmly upon the principles of absolutism by crushing out all constitutional aspirations. To accomplish this the unlimited right of war was necessary, for without armed intervention by the allied sovereigns the task was hopeless. Legitimacy was to be everywhere sustained by the Holy Alliance. Wherever a state adopted a constitution, the powers bound themselves at the Congress of Troppau, "if need be by arms, to bring back the guilty state into the bosom of the Alliance."

The unlimited right of a sovereign state to make war for any reason it considered sufficient, or for no reason at all, thus seemed to be written into the public law of Europe, That was the unhallowed inheritance which modern democracies have received from absolutism. Being entitled to all the prerogatives of sovereignty as historically understood, they have not repudiated the heritage. And thus they have tacitly accepted the evil principle of the despotisms against whose iniquities they have rebelled, and whose pernicious influence they were struggling to throw off.

In the call for the first Hague Conference "all questions concerning the political relation of states" were expressly excluded from the deliberations of the conference. In that, and in the second conference, rules were laid down regarding the manner of conducting war both on land and sea; but nowhere were any regulations prescribed regarding the causes or conditions of declaring war that were to be considered legal or illegal, just or unjust. As one of the best-accredited authorities on the subject says:

Theoretically, international law ought to determine the causes for which war can be justly undertaken; in other words, it ought to mark out as plainly as municipal law what constitutes a wrong for which a remedy may be sought at law. It might also not unreasonably go on to discourage the commission of wrongs by investing a state seeking redress with special rights, and by subjecting a wrong-doer to special disabilities.

In fact, however, it does nothing of the kind. The reason is not merely that there would be no means except war for enforcing such rules—for that would apply equally to the regulations concerning the manner of conducting war that have been explicitly laid down—but because no sovereign state has thus far been disposed to pledge itself not to engage in war except under conditions that in harmony with its own principles of legislation would be considered just. "Hence both parties in every war are regarded as being in an identical position, and consequently possessed of equal rights." Aggressor and victim alike, triumphant force and helpless innocence, these are held in equal honor by the public law of Europe as it now stands, and this law has been tacitly accepted by the "family of nations"!

It is upon this unlimited right to resort to war, and the consequent general irresponsibility in international relations, that the idea of neutrality reposes; and yet neutrality is historically an immense step forward in the path of progress when compared with the Machiavellian doctrine that no opportunity for gain from the quarrels of others should be allowed to pass unutilized. In every war, Machiavelli declares, one side or the other will win, and the wise course for an intelligent prince to pursue is to join at the proper moment with the probable winner, whoever he may be, in order to be able to share with him the spoils of victory.

The modern doctrine of neutrality, which considers war an unavoidable evil, is no doubt an amelioration of Machiavelli's policy; for, instead of widening the range of hostilities, it aims to narrow the area of conflict. It is inspired, however, chiefly by the consideration that it is a national right to avoid the infection of a pestilence that the neutral power has not caused and for which it is not responsible. So long as the belligerents, who are conceded the privilege of mutual destruction—but often with very unequal facilities for engaging in the conflict—do not too deeply offend the neutral states by their activities, powerful nations feel justified in standing silent and inactive while weak states are crushed into subjection and the laws of war, which they themselves have helped to make, are violated.

From a moral point of view this appears to be a strange proceeding for a member of the "family of nations;" but it must be considered that this is a family of a very peculiar kind. In it each member, by tacit consent, is believed to fulfil his whole duty by looking solely after his own interests. Governments, it is held, are in every case responsible to their own constituents for the preservation of the safety and well-being of the nations intrusted to their care, and consequently they cannot act with the freedom of a private person. They may not, therefore, incontinently plunge their people into war without reasons that involve the national interests. Until there is a better organization of international relations, this condition must continue; but it is rapidly coming to be perceived that, if civilization is not to suffer shipwreck, a better organization must be sought.

Before attempting to find a basis for a revision of international relations it is necessary to consider how intimately national interests have become associated with war. For a long time all the interests of the state were regarded as personal to the sovereign. All its territory was his territory. All the property of the nation was his property, of which the people enjoyed only the usufruct. Even their persons and their lives were at his disposal, for they were in all respects his subjects. To-day the identity of the sovereign is changed, but not the conception of sovereignty. The people, standing in the place of the sovereign, claim the right of succession to all the royal prerogatives. The national interests have become their interests. The appeal to their patriotism rests upon this ground. The power, gain, and glory of the state are represented to be theirs. Even where it has not entirely superseded the monarch, the nation believes itself to have entered into partnership with him, and the people consider themselves shareholders in the vast enterprise of expanding dominion. Even the beggar in the street is assured that it is his country; and though ragged and hungry, he takes a pride in his proprietorship.

It is the nation's territory, industry, commerce, and prestige that are now in question. And government, even the government of the people, is no longer merely protective. It enters into every kind of business, owns railways, steamship lines, manufactories, everything involving the life and prosperity of the people. The state has become an economic as well as a political organ of society. The modern national state is, in fact, a stupendous and autonomous business corporation, the most portentous and the most lawless business trust, and views other nations as its business rivals, aiming at the control of foreign markets, and of the sources of raw materials wherever they may exist. And these vast economic entities, with their vision fixed on gain, combine not only the command of armies and navies, but absolute freedom from effective legal restriction with immensely concentrated wealth, such as the kings and emperors of the past never had at their disposal.

Whatever, from an internal and social point of view, the merits or defects of the extension of state functions may be, they are bristling with possibilities of war, and when modern nations engage in it, it is no longer a dynastic adventure, but a people's war. Commanding the strength and resources of a whole people, and acting for its alleged interests, these great economic corporations are fitted for aggression as well as for defense. If they were subject to the usual laws of business that prevail in the regulation of private enterprises within their own borders, in accordance with the principles they apply at home, these mailed and armed knights of trade might not be dangerous to the world's peace; but they are not subject to these or to any such regulations. They recognize no law which they feel themselves obliged to obey. Inheriting by tradition from the past alleged rights of absolute sovereignty, and equipped with military forces on land and sea, they are engaged in a struggle for supremacy which they would not for a moment permit within their own legal to pronounce specific condemnations jurisdiction. Were a similar organization formed within their own borders, adopting as its principles of action the privileges usually claimed by sovereign states, it would be promptly and ruthlessly suppressed as a dangerous bandit.

This statement implies no reflection upon any particular nation, for all to some extent share in the responsibility. What is here condemned as essentially unsocial and anarchic is the indifference of these great national economic corporations to one another's rights, and above all the absence in the law of nations, as it is now understood, of any accepted regulations such as the lesser constituent elements of the business world are required by these very states to obey under their authority. If civilization is to endure, and nations are not to become privileged highway robbers on the land and pirates on the sea, this part of the law of nations must be revised not only as respects the rules of war, but the rules of peace. In so far as a nation is a business entity it should be governed by the same principles in its dealings with other nations as civilized states apply to business within their own limits. But international law has not yet reached the stage of formal development where this is recognized. It is still under the influence of the inherited customs of the past, the baneful fiction of an absolute sovereign prerogative. Just as Christendom found that it was not in fact so organized as to restrain the Hun and the Tatar, so we are discovering that civilization is not yet so organized as to restrain their modern counterparts. So long as international business is controlled by an absolute conception of sovereignty, and sustained by military force, there will be no prospect of peace or equity in the world.

Let us not here undertake to speak of remedies. We must first comprehend the nature of the disease. Nor should we here attempt to apportion blame, which would end only in bitter controversy. If the evil is in the system, then it is the system that must be changed; and it will be time enough to inquire how to change it and to pronounce specific condemnations when we know what change is required and who may refuse to participate in making it.

Undoubtedly, we have all of us been cherishing illusions. Let us, then, endeavor to dissipate them.

We have assumed that in some mystical manner progress is inherent in society that it is necessarily produced by natural laws; that the mere duration of time carries us forward to perfection; and that the older civilization becomes, the wiser it tends to be. Trusting to these baseless generalities, we have in a spirit of optimism forgotten that we have duties to perform, renunciations to make, and sacrifices to offer if the state, or the so-called society of states, is to prosper. We have formed the habit of looking to the state as a source of personal benefit to ourselves, which calls for only the smallest contributions from us in return. We have made exorbitant demands upon it, as undisciplined children extort gifts from overindulgent parents. We have wanted better wages, better prices for our commodities, better opportunities of trade, better conditions of life, free schools, free books, playgrounds, public provisions of every kind at the expense of the state. In order to obtain these benefits, we have desired that the state should become omnipotent, seeking to augment its resources by despoiling the rich within its limits, and exploiting or even conquering foreign territory wrested from other peoples, in the belief that this would render it easier to meet all our necessities, and through its increased power become the dispenser of happiness. When for this purpose armies and navies have been required, it has been easy to obtain them ; for may not the state, being a sovereign power, do all things necessary for its own interest? Thus our consciences have been put to rest.

This tendency of modern states and the sudden revelation of its meaning have been forcibly expressed by a recent writer. He says:

A few more teasings, a few more pistols held at the head of the state, and a scheme, we were expecting, would be forthcoming that would render us all happy in spite of ourselves. Then, one fine morning in August, there came a rude awakening. We got a message from the state couched in language we had never heard before. "I require you," said the state, "to place your property and your lives at my service. Now, and for some time to come, I give nothing, but ask for everything. Arm yourselves for my defense. Give me your sons, and be willing that they should die for me. Repay what you owe me. My turn has come."

And thus Europe is called upon to pay the debt its theory of the state and of the state's omnipotence has incurred. We, too, in America may sometime be called upon to pay the debt if we are not wise.

We have trusted blindly to the process of social evolution. Industrialism and commerce, we have assumed, will automatically bring in a new era. Before it militarism, the grim relic of the old regime, will disappear. There will soon be no need for fighting. When all the world turns to industry, as it will, wars will cease. Commerce will cement the nations together and create a perfect solidarity of interests.

But the present war has thrown a new light on the relations of militarism and industry. Forty years ago, Herbert Spencer, with his strong proclivity for brilliant generalization, fancied that the age of militarism was soon to be superseded by an age of universal industrialism. He described their opposite polities, the conditions of the gradual transition, and the final triumph of industry over militancy. But what do we now behold? Has militarism diminished with the growth of industry? Has not militarism simply become more titanic and even more demoniacal by the aid of industry, until war has become the most stupendous problem of modern mechanics? And now we see militarism wholly absorbing industry, claiming all its resources, and even organizing and commanding it.

And why is this? It is because the state as a business corporation is employing military force as its advance-agent, struggling for the control of markets and resources, and the command of new peoples who are to feed and move the awful enginery of war.

And this condition of the world is the logical outcome of the inherited theory of the state. This fact is now beginning to be recognized, and recently there has been much said regarding imperialism and democracy, often assuming that the mere internal form of government is responsible for the international situation in Europe. But it is not the form, it is the spirit, and above all the postulates, of government that are at fault. If democracies may act according to their "good pleasure," if the mere power of majorities is to rule without restraint, if there are no sacred and controlling principles of action, in what respect is a multiple sovereign superior to a single autocrat? If the private greed of a people is sustained by the pretensions of absolutism in international affairs, democracy itself becomes imperial, without accepting the principles of equity which give dignity to the imperial idea. In truth, the most dangerous conceivable enemy to peace and justice would be a group of competitive democracies delirious with unsatisfied desires.

If there is to be a new Europe, it will be far less the result of new forms of organization than of a new spirit of action. Europe must renounce altogether its evil heritage. It must reconstruct its theory of the state as an absolutely autonomous entity. If the state continues to be a business corporation, as it probably in some sense will, then it must abandon the conception of sovereignty as an unlimited right to act in any way it pleases under the cover of national interests and necessity. It must consent to be governed by business rules. It must not demand something for nothing, it must not make its power the measure of its action, it must not put its interests above its obligations. It may plead them, it may argue them, and it may use its business advantages to enforce them; but it may not threaten the life or appropriate the property of its neighbors or insist upon controlling them on its own terms. It may display its wares, proclaim their excellence, fix its own prices, buy and sell where it finds its advantage; but it must not bring to bear a machine-gun as a means of persuasion upon its rival across the street.

No one can make a thorough and impartial inquiry into the causes of the present European conflict without perceiving that their roots run deep into the soil of trade rivalry. Beneath the apparent political antagonisms are the economic aspirations that have produced them. In the light of history we can no longer accept the doctrine that industrialism and commercialism by a process of natural evolution automatically supersede militarism. On the contrary, we perceive that militarism on the one hand, and industry and commerce on the other, are at present partners rather than antagonists. They are different, but closely associated, activities of modern business policy as conducted by the state. If there were no economic questions involved, the conflict of nationalities could soon be ended. Modern wars are trade wars. Modern armies and navies are not maintained for the purpose of ruthlessly taking human life or of covering rulers with glory. They are, on the one hand, armed guardians of economic advantages already possessed; and, on the other, agents of intended future depredation, gradually organized for purposes alleged to be innocent, and at what is esteemed the auspicious moment despatched upon their mission of aggression. Mere international misunderstandings are readily adjusted where there is the will to adjust them but against the deliberately formed policies of national business expansion—the reaching out for new territory, increased population, war indemnities, coaling-stations, trade monopolies, control of markets, supplies of raw materials, and advantageous treaty privileges, to be procured under the shadow of the sword—there is no defense except the power to thwart or obstruct them by armed resistance.

We must, then, definitively abandon the thesis that industrialism is essentially pacific, and will eventually automatically disband armies and navies, and thus put an end to war. On the contrary, modern armies and navies are the result of trade rivalry, and are justified to those who support them on the ground that there are national interests to be defended or advantages to be attained by their existence. So long as even one powerful nation retains its heritage of evil and insists that it may employ its armies or navies aggressively as an agency in its national business; so long, to put the matter directly, as the nations must buy and sell, travel and exchange, negotiate and deliver, with bayonets at their breasts, so long defensive armies and navies will be necessary, and the battle for civilization must go on.

Strange as it may seem, it is not the poorest nations, but the richest, where discontent is deepest and most wide-spread. It is the great powers that are most inclined to war, and are most fully prepared to make it; and the reason is not difficult to discern. The greater the state, the greater its ambitions. It is easily within the grasp of five or six great powers to secure the permanent peace of the world, and, far more important than that, to secure the observance of just laws by all the nations. But, unfortunately, governments, feeling themselves charged with the duty of augmenting the resources of the state, find no limit to their ambitions except in their powers of action, which are great. The whole future of the world has in the past virtually lain in the hands of a small number of men, not all of them monarchs, but the recognized leaders of public thought and action in their respective nations.

This order of things is less likely to continue in the future than at any time in the past. Far less frequently than in former times will individual men shape the destinies of nations. No man, probably, will ever do for Great Britain what was done for it by William Pitt, and no man will ever do for Germany what Bismarck did. And this is an important augury for the new Europe. Only a few men, and they but temporarily, framed and executed the policies that have, for example, created the British Empire. As the historian Seeley said, "We have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind." And in all this process the British people have never been consulted, just as the German people were not consulted in the two critical moments of their existence; for in the past peoples were seldom consulted regarding their national destiny. But that time has passed forever. Henceforth no intelligent people will ever be led into the shambles of modern warfare without being in some sense consulted. That is the first mark of difference that will distinguish the new Europe from the old. And, being consulted, will they not ask with increasing earnestness why nations cannot conduct their business as the state generally requires private business to be conducted, in accordance with reasonable rules of procedure? Many negative answers will, no doubt, be given, for governments are tenacious of their traditions; but, nevertheless, there will be a general revision of the inherited conception of the nature of the state, and a perception that world dominion is not the prerogative of any single nation. States, like individual men, must henceforth admit their responsibilities to one another, accept the obligation to obey just and equal laws, and take their respective places in the society of states in a spirit of loyalty to civilization as a human and not an exclusively national ideal.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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