The World Upon Which Youth Must Look


By NICHOLAS MURRAY BUTLER, President, Columbia University

Delivered at the Opening of the 186th Year of Columbia University, September 27, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 25-26.

WHAT can be said to the youth of today and tomorrow that will aid them to comprehend the world which faces them and in which they are soon to begin to do their life work? That world so far as its professed and constantly extolled ideals are concerned is in a state of well-nigh total collapse. Those principles of intellectual understanding and interpretation and those principles of morals which have for centuries been proclaimed to be the true guide of all conduct, whether personal or public, are almost everywhere lying in the dust. Their place has been taken by the most appallingly cruel and wicked manifestations of the gain-seeking motive. Modern man has returned, for the time being at least, to the jungle, where animal preys upon animal and where force and cunning, and force and cunning alone, shape the happenings day by day.

Leaving quite apart the vast intellectual and moral achievements of those civilizations which we call ancient and medieval, modern civilization has been torpedoed as by a submarine, by emotional, unintelligent and power-seeking madness. The great philosophers, men of letters and men of science who dominated the thought of the modern world during the past two hundred years are no longer recognized or even referred to as offering guidance for conduct and for public policy. Governments on at least two continents are engaged in that type of assault, of arson and of murder which is euphemistically called war.

Conditions have so developed during the past half century that it has now come to be within the power of a single government, not only to shape its own policies in terms of possible war and to bend all its efforts, economic, social and political, toward achieving success in that war, but to compel other and otherwise-minded governments to do the same thing in order to prevent being demolished by force. More than this, as matters have developed during the past twenty-five years, it is now possible for a sufficiently dramatic and emotion-stirring individual to gather about himself a sympathetic and subservient group through whom he can terrorize or hypnotize a whole people which may be quite otherwise-minded into a blind acquiescence in his policies. When somewhat similar happenings took place in years long gone by, they were attributed to an undeveloped and far from complete civilization. They were looked upon as something which was passing and could never return. Today, however, as the world approaches the middle of the twentieth century, these cruel, reactionary and essentially barbarous forces have returned at their very worst.

Outstanding is the example of what has happened to the truly great German people. From the time of Frederick the Great, that people began to take a place of leadership in the modern world which steadily increased in importance. The great names which marked their philosophy, their literature and their science from the middle of the eighteenth century to the first decade of the twentieth, were quite unrivaled. German scholarship, German music and German art were the center of the world's attention and approval. Today that great people has been reduced, as no great people has ever before been reduced in all history, to a position where only barbarians should be found. To suppose that the German people will permit themselves to remain forever, or even for a long time, in such a state of intellectual and moral downfall and decay is not to be believed for a moment. But if civilization is to be saved and if the forces of intelligence and morality are to be restored to even a partial but steadily growing control of public policy, the German people must not delay. Today they may have it in their power to save or to wreck the modern world. In order to save the modern world, they must first wreck the mad and reactionary tyrant who for the moment holds them in his grip. Can they and will they do it?

The most powerful appeal for perpetual peace which the literature of the world contains is that made by the outstanding German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, nearly a century and a half ago. Kant in his philosophy, in his view of life and in his appeal for a better world, represented the German mind at its highest and best. He has properly been described as the Copernicus of philosophy. He might also be described as the author of the Magna Carta of German intellectual life. If the German people of this day and generation could be brought to read Kant's immortal essay, Zum ewigen Frieden, and to translate its thought into action, they would quickly resume their intellectual importance in this world of ours and would lead the way toward the establishment of universal and lasting peace. To do this, however, they must free themselves from the emotional grip of an unrivaled despot whose aim is power and for whom the German people are an instrument in seeking to achieve that power. From the grip of this despot they must free themselves in order to return to the proud and commanding Germany of Herder and of Lessing, of Kant and of Fichte, of Goethe, of Heine and of Schiller, of von Ranke, of Zeller and of Paulsen, of Bach, of Beethoven, of Mendelssohn and of Wagner. They must become again the truly great German people whom the world is ready to admire and to praise. In order that allthis may be possible, German slavery must give way to German freedom.

Shortly after dawn on the morning of Monday, August 3, 1914, I was alone in the great railway station at Lauzanne, Switzerland. My anxious aim was to find some way to return promptly to America, since what proved to be the Great War of 1914-1918 had just broken out. The French frontier was closed. The Italian frontier was closed to all but Italian citizens summoned to return to Italy for military service. I soon found that there was one other person in that great railway station besides myself. He was a railway servant more than seventy years of age and therefore not liable for that military service to which all of the younger Swiss had been called for the defense of their eastern frontier. This man was a German Swiss and viewed me, as a stranger, with unconcealed suspicion. When he found me to be an American, he spoke more freely, particularly as it was quite plain that there was no one else in that railway station to hear what he said. He told me that his two sons had been summoned by the Swiss government for the purpose of de-fending the Austrian frontier but that he himself, who had served in the Franco-Prussian War, was now too old to be summoned.

This railway servant then added these words, which are as remarkable as any that I have ever heard: "Sir," he said, speaking in German, "this war is not a people's war. This is a king's war. When it is over there may not be so many kings." He doubtless lived to see Russia and Austria and Germany lose their ruling monarches.

So, a quarter-century afterwards, I may repeat in sub-stance the words of that extraordinary man and say: This is not a people's war. This is a despots' war, and when it is over there may not be so many despots. The conflict is between ideas and ideals. The combatants are both of German origin. They are Kant's Zum ewigen Frieden and Hitler's Mein Kampf.