Two Cultures: The Quick and the Dead


By E. M. FORSTER, Journalist

Over British Broadcasting Station, September 24, 1940

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 28-30.

BY profession I am a writer. I know nothing about economics or politics, but I am deeply interested in writing, also in music and art; in what is conveniently called culture; and I want it to prosper all over the world. My belief is that if the Nazis won, culture would be destroyed in England and the Empire, and I am going to give you my reasons. The fact is I feel about this war—Hitler's war—quite differently from what I felt about the Kaiser's war. In the Kaiser's war Germany was just a hostile country. She and England were enemies, but they both belonged to the same civilisation. In Hitler's war Germany is not a hostile country, she is a hostile principle. She stands for a new and, I think, a bad way of life, and if she won, would be bound to destroy our ways. There is not room in the same world for Nazi Germany and for people who don't think as she does. She says so herself and if any Nazi should honour me by listening to my remarks, I do not think he will disagree with them.

Now, Germany is not against culture. Let me make that point clear. She does believe in literature and art-that isto say, in certain kinds of literature and art. But she has made a disastrous mistake; she has allowed her culture to become governmental, and from this mistake proceed all kinds of evils. We in England have avoided that. Our culture is not governmental. It is national: it springs naturally out of our way of looking at things, and out of the way we have looked at things in the past. It has developed slowly, easily, lazily; the English love of freedom, the English countryside, English prudishness and hypocrisy, English freakishness, our mild idealism and good-humoured reasonableness have all combined to make something which is certainly not perfect, but which may claim to be unusual. Our great achievement has been in literature: here we rank high, both as regards prose and verse. We have not done much in painting or music, and patriots who pretend that we have only make us look silly. We have made a respectable, though not a sublime, contribution to philosophy. That—so far as it can be summed up in a few words—is the English achievement.

But before going on to the German achievement, which Was also an important one, I want to say something aboutfreedom, because to my mind, it is bound up with the whole question of culture. The Nazis condemn freedom, in practise and theory, and assert that civilisation will flourish without it. Individualists like myself believe that it is necessary. As a writer, I have three reasons for believing in freedom. Here they are.

The first reason concerns the writer himself. He must feel free. If he doesn't, he may find it difficult to fall into the creative mood and do good work. If he feels free, sure of himself, unafraid, easy inside, he is in a favourable condition for the act of creation, and he may turn out good stuff.

The second reason also concerns the writer—and indeed the artist generally. It is not enough to feel free; that is only the start of the thing. To feel free may be enough for the mystic, who can function alone and concentrate even in a concentration camp. The writer, the artist, needs something more—namely freedom to tell other people what he is feeling. Otherwise, he is just bottled up and because he is bottled up, what is inside him may go bad. He wants to communicate, and here, you see, is where the trouble starts. The Nazis step forward and say, "One moment, please. Allow me, the government, first to hear what you are wanting to say. If I decide it is convenient, you may say it, but not otherwise." You see, the Nazis do not and cannot prevent freedom to think and to feel—though they would no doubt condemn it from the National-Socialist point of view as a selfish waste of time. They cannot interfere there, but they can and do prevent freedom to communicate. They do step in and say, "Wait a minute. Before you publish your book, before you show your picture, before you sing your song, I must read, I must look, I must listen." And the knowledge that they can do this reacts disastrously upon the artist. The artist is not like the mystic; he cannot function in a vacuum, he cannot spin tales in his head or paint pictures in the air, or hum tunes under his breath. He must have an audience, he must express his feelings, and if he knows he may be forbidden to express himself, he becomes afraid to feel. Officials, even when they are well-meaning, do not realise this. Their make-up is so different from the artist's. They assume that when a book is censored, only the book in question is affected. They do not realise that they may have impaired the creative machinery of the writer's mind, and have prevented him from writing good books in the future.

A People That Has Not Grown Up

So here are two of my reasons for believing that freedom is necessary for culture. The third reason concerns the general public. The public, on its side, must be free to read, to listen, to look. If it is prevented from receiving the communications which the artist sends it, it becomes inhibited, like him, though in a different way: it remains immature. And immaturity is a great characteristic of the public in Nazi Germany." If you look at a photograph of our enemies they may strike you as able and brave and formidable, even heroic. But they will not strike you as grown up. They have not been allowed to hear, to listen, or to look. Only people who have been allowed to practise freedom, can have the grown-up look in their eyes.

I do not want to exaggerate the claims of freedom. Freedom does not guarantee the production of masterpieces, and masterpieces have been produced under conditions far from free. Freedom is only a favourable step—or, let us say, three little steps. When writers (and artists generally) feel easy, when they can express themselves openly, when their public is allowed to receive their communications, there is a chance of the general level of civilisation rising. Before the war, it was rising a little in England, it was rising a great deal inFrance, it was rising in Czecho-Slovakia, Scandinavia, the Netherlands. In Germany it was falling. During the last ten years her achievements in art, in literature, in speculation, in unapplied science, were contemptible. But she was perfecting her instruments of destruction and she now hopes by their aid to reduce neighbouring cultures to the same level as her own.

I have said that our culture is national. Well, when a culture genuinely is national, it is capable, when the hour strikes, of becoming super-national, and contributing to the general good of humanity. It gives and takes. It wants to give and take. It has generosity and modesty, it is not confined by political and geographic boundaries, it does not fidget about purity of race or worry about survival, but, living in the past and sustained by the desire to create, it expands wherever human beings are to be found. Our civilisation was ready to do this when the hour struck, and the civilisation of France, our lost leader, was ready, too. We did not want England to be England for ever; it seemed to us a meagre destiny. We hoped for a world to which, when it had been made one by science, England could contribute. Science has duly unified the world. The hour has struck. We cannot contribute. And why?

The historian of the future, and he alone, will be able to answer this question authoritatively. He will see the true perspective of this 1940 crisis, and it may appear as small to him as the crisis of 1914 already appears to us. The so-called "great" war of 1914 was obviously only a little one, and our present troubles may be the prelude to a vast upheaval which we cannot hope to understand. We have to answer out of our ignorance, and as well as we can. And to my limited outlook, Hitler's Germany is the villain, it is she who, when the hour struck, ruined the golden moment and ordered an age of bloodshed.

The Nazi Blind-Alley

Germany also has had a great national culture, but she has made the fatal mistake of allowing that culture to become governmental. She was supreme in music, eminent in philosophy, weak (like England) in the visual arts, and highly gifted though not supremely gifted in literature. That, put in a sentence, was her achievement, and all the world was wanting to share it with her, and to profit by it, and to give and take. The Nazis willed otherwise. A national culture did not suit them. It had to be governmental. It can never become super-national or contribute to the general good of humanity. Germany is to be German for ever, and more German with each generation. "What is to be German?" asked Hitler, in a speech he made a few years ago at Munich, and he replied: "The best answer to this question does not define: it lays down a law." Did you ever hear such an extraordinary reply? To be German is—to be German. Thus labelled, Germany presses on to a goal which can be described in exalted language, but which is the goal of a fool. For all the time she shouts and bullies her neighbors, the clock of the world moves on, and science makes the world one. "Gangsterdom for ever" is a possibility and the democracies are fighting against it. Germany for ever is an uneducated official's dream.

When a national culture becomes governmental, it is always falsified. For it never quite suits the official book. You see, the words and the images that have come down to us through the centuries are often contradictory, they represent a bewildering wealth of human experience, which it is our privilege to enjoy, to examine and to build on. A free country allows its citizens this privilege. A totalitarian country cannot because it fears diversity of opinion. The heritage of the past has to be overhauled so that the output of the presentmay be standardised, and the output of the present has to be standardised or Germany would cease to be German. Nothing could be more logical than the dreary blind-alley down which the Nazis advance, and down which they want to herd the whole human family. It leads nowhere, not even into Germany. They have got into it because they have worshippedthe State. And they cannot feel safe until the rest of the world is in it too. Wherever they see variety, spontaneity, anything different from themselves, they are doomed to attack it. Germany's very gifts, her own high cultural achievement, must be re-compounded and turned to poison, so that the achievements of others may perish.