Behind the Scenes in Fighting Europe



Delivered at the Detroit Town Hall Forum, January 17, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 296-299

THE first thing to be noted about the tremendous struggle now going on in Europe is that it is not merely another war between Germany and Great Britain for the leadership of Europe. It is not another phase of the age-old conflict between Germany, Great Britain and France. It is a profound and very deep social revolution, the gravest and most far-reaching that the world has seen since the French Revolution. As I go up and down this country I am frightened by the failure of my fellow-citizens to understand this fundamental truth. I cannot recall that I have seen in any utterance of President Roosevelt or Secretary Hull anything to indicate that they realize the tremendous forces that are in play. Most people talk as if it were merely a repetition of what happened from 1914 to 1918. They act as if Germany were the same kind of Germany and think that if we enter the war we shall again have no trouble in defeating the Germans. That is just about as far from the truth as it could well be. There is no comparison possible between the behind the scenes situation in Europe today with what was going on between 1914 and 1918. Undoubtedly, if Germany wins, Europe faces for some time to come a complete totalitarian system of government, but not necessarily, for long. I do not believe that any system based on violence, murder, torture, limitless cruelty, fraud, deceit and intellectual and moral retrogression can last very long. In all history dictatorships have not demonstrated their lasting power. But whether Germany wins or loses there can be no outcome to this war but far-reaching revolution.

This is clearly recognized in England. It was my good fortune to have been in London when the war began and to have seen with my own eyes the extraordinary courage, determination and patriotism with which the people rallied to the defense of the government. This was not because they, all of them, had approved of the conduct of their governmentand its foreign policies in the years leading up to the catastrophe. Far from it. There were plenty who freely admitted that their own government had a large share of the responsibility for the coming of this war, yet when it came they stood behind the government, though not behind Mr. Chamberlain, to such a degree that it can hardly be said that more than one per cent actively opposes the continuance of the war. Wherever I went and met the plain people, waiters, chambermaids, taxicab drivers, tram conductors, people on the trains, minor officials, every one of them was ready and determined to see the war through. In what spirit of fortitude and devotion they are carrying on now in the face of the horrible attach upon England you know as well as I, for our newspapers are bringing us full and accurate stories of what is going on.

I think I can illustrate this to you by two truthful incidents. The first is that of a woman who was dragged out from the ruins of her house in which lay dead her husband and two children. Said she: "If Hitler thinks he can put us down by doing things like this he is all wrong. We won't give in." The second is that of a mother in an air raid shelter whose terrified child was sobbing and crying out to her mother: "Make them go away"—the hostile airplanes could be heard overhead. The mother found it necessary to apologize for the child's fright. She said: "Please excuse her. She doesn't usually behave like this, but we have been bombed so many times." I could tell you one incident like this after another. The letters that I receive from England are nothing less than amazing in their determination to hold out no matter what the odds, no matter how many the deaths, how terrible the loss and the suffering. I believe it to be beyond question the greatest spiritual victory of mind over force and suffering that the world has ever seen, surpassed only by the moral grandeur of the greatest of men, the half-naked Gandhi, who, by the nobility of his spirit and the unbeatablepower of his righteousness and non-resistance, has compelled the great British Empire to treat him as if he were the head of another great government.

From the beginning of this war in the very finest British tradition there has been full and free discussion of what the aims of Great Britain ought to be and what the future Europe should comprise. Nothing has stopped that debate, nor has the government sought to do so, although it has itself refused to state its war aims. There is H. G. Wells, for example, the foremost English writer. He is for the complete defeat of the Germans, but he insists that when this war ends it is the plain people of England who must profit by the victory. He has demanded that England when peace comes again shall abolish all titles, prerogatives and privileges. He and his group have issued a far-reaching "declaration of the rights of man." They believe with Lord Macaulay one hundred years ago that "to reform is to preserve the watchword of great events." They are for a new and equitable distribution of economic power. They feel that if England wins the war it will not be Winston Churchill's achievement, nor that of any one but the plain people who are content to bear the burden of suffering and loss without hope of rewards or privileges or adequate recompense. If they are right we shall not recognize England after the war, whether it wins or loses.

The latest and perhaps the most striking of the statements and forecasts coming from English writers and public men is the book just published by Prof. Harold J. Laski called "Where Do We Go From Here?" One of the spokesmen of the British Labor Party, he declares that revolution is now inevitable and has become necessary. He demands the socialization of those vested interests in England which today, as in 1918 stand in the way of the modification of the principle of State sovereignty. He believes, however, that England by itself cannot bring about international union, just as he throws over all thought of its being brought about by another League of Nations or by any of the steps taken in the making of the Treaty of Versailles. He insists that unless similar privileged interests in other countries are similarly socialized, that is until there is a universally accepted social basis of modern life, no international structure can be reared on a lasting foundation. On this basis, however, he thinks that an international organization would be able to develop the unexploited sources of wealth for the benefit of the masses everywhere. The basis of common interest then would be that equitable distribution of economic power for which Mr. Wells and his associates have called, and innumerable other spokesmen in England also, both in and without the Labor Party.

Thus Prof. Laski's conclusion is that there can be no peace without a new international order which abrogates some of the rights of the individual States. In his words it is a "choice between the dark days of privilege and the dawn of equal fellowship among men." That there must come out of the war an international organization was the belief that I found wherever I went in England. For example, one of our own distinguished military officials in England, a lifelong soldier and a graduate of West Point, said to me that there must be some form of international security after this war is over because, he said, hereafter "no nation can afford the soldier." By that he meant that the whole modern military, total-war system has become such a terrific burden that no country will be able to support it in peace time hereafter. I am aware that this thing has been said after other wars, but please remember that never before have we had mechanized armies of such costly apparatus in all fields of warfare. Before I left London I had two hours with a high official, one of the highest, who stressed this point to me, saying by wayof illustration that an airplane could be purchased in the last war for $25,000 and today a similar one might cost $250,000. There is absolutely no limit to the legitimate expenditures of a government in war time; it is justified, for one thing, in buying enormous quantities of supplies of war materials in excess of its own needs, to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy.

To my astonishment I found officials in the British Foreign Office expressing the belief that the day of Britain's colonial empire was over and that in the new world to come there must be a new method of handling backward nations in the interest of the natives concerned and of the whole world in its search for raw materials. English officials as they are, they believe that the day of England's monopoly of her colonies is reaching an end. Yet over here I find only the fewest people who understand that a new order is coming. Not the horrible and impossible new order of Hitler, with its mad theories of race superiority, of subject groups, of Poles and Czechs merely the slaves of their conquerors without even the opportunity of education, but a real league of nations in which there shall be no domination by victors, no imposition of a peace dictated by England and the United States or by anybody else. I have many reasons why I am opposed to the United States entering the war, but a chief one is that if we go in we shall fight without the slightest pre-vision as to what we are getting into, without the slightest agreement as to what we wish to achieve, without the slightest moral and spiritual preparedness to deal with the terrific forces of revolution and social convulsion which lie just under the surface.

When I reached Germany I found a sullen, bitterly unhappy and discontented people, and I came out believing that of the older people above the youths who have been from childhood up indoctrinated with the foul Nazi ideology, fully 75 per cent and more are opposed to the Nazi doctrines of Hitler and fully 90 per cent opposed to the war. I went into Germany believing that I should find it difficult to get in touch with any anti-Nazi. I took in a list of names given me by Quakers in London of people who were antagonistic to the regime, but I never used one name on that list. My difficulty was in finding any people outside of the military and the civilian officials and the party members who were not bitterly opposed. But their concern was far less with the future of Europe than with their immediate situation. Even men in uniform told me that they knew where the war-guilt for this struggle lay and that it rested on the present-day leaders of Germany. They asked me what I thought they could do about it since, if a man as much as opens his mouth or lifts a finger in protest, he faces the concentration camp or the firing squad.

When I reached London again one of the first questions asked me, and I heard it constantly, was "Well, what are the sane Germans thinking about the world that is to come?" My answer was that not a single German had suggested the question to me, that they were so bound up in their misery and so full of shame and rage and unhappiness as to what is being done in this war in their name that they could find no time to plan for the future. Planning is out of their hands. There is not a single newspaper which could permit a free discussion in its columns of what the new order of which Hitler speaks should be like and what it should not be. They are hopeless, helpless, hapless. I say are, because, while it is more than a year now since I was in Germany, I have kept in touch not only with friends in the Reich, but with returning travelers, officials and newspaper men and women, and I find that the pictures those who have just arrived give me differ in nowise from those I brought out with me. The German's one hope and thought and prayer is for the end of thiswar. The victories gave the thoughtful ones no joy at all. There was an uplift among the masses after the unbelievably swift and complete victories in Holland, Belgium and France. It was an uplift, I believe, due largely to the hope that they foretold peace. The Nazis made use of it, of course, but today, according to all reports, the glamour of victory has disappeared in the face of the reality of a second year of this horrible struggle. That the Nazis are aware of this popular unhappiness is evidenced by the fact that Dr. Robert Ley, one of the key men in the Nazi structure, the head of the Labor Front, has found it necessary to promise the German workers that just as soon as the war is won Hitler will abolish the work camps and compulsory military service, and will rely upon a small mechanized army.

I recall the picture of a man high in official life, an old friend of years standing who came to visit me with great reluctance because he said he, in his high position, was being watched, and my reputation as an anti-Hitler American liberal was well known. He told me that he only ventured to stay a few minutes; that he could not see me again or entertain me in his home as he so wished to do. We talked for a very few minutes and then as he got up to leave he said: "Think of me and of my wife as two of the unhappiest people that you know. When the day's work is done and the children have gone to bed my wife and I look at one another and try to read and to forget. We do not venture into the blacked-out city; we have no heart for dinner parties. We sit at home. Think of us when you get back to the free air of New York as two of the unhappiest people in all the world."

I found men like this one and many of the businessmen and economists expecting one thing for the future for Germany and that is the coming of Communism. They told me that they believed whether Hitler won or lost that within three years Germany would be completely communized—not from underneath by a proletarian revolution, but from above, a Communism imposed by Hitler as a result of war necessity. They hated the treaty with Russia and the alliance with the Bolsheviks as much as we should hate a similar alliance between our country and Russia today, but they said that it was not surprising, that Fascists and Bolsheviks were brothers under the skin and naturally drifted toward one another. They were convinced that if the war continued the alliance would become stronger because of the increasing similarity of the policies of the two governments.

I cannot stress to you too strongly that this belief was concurred in by many American observers both in and out of our official life with whom I came into contact. One man after another said that if this war went on even two years there would be nothing left of Europe but chaos—famine, disease, the disruption of all normal community and international life in Europe, financial ruin, economic collapse. This was the view of the German businessmen, of Dutch bankers with whom I talked, of thoughtful English people. Only one German businessman ventured to doubt and he wore the button of the Nazi party. This is another reason why I think that the United States should not go into this war and prolong it, why I believe that we shall render a disservice to England if we actively participate. It is one of the terrible spectres behind the scenes in fighting Europe. One American official felt it so keenly that he said to me: "I am for an ignoble peace and I do not care who knows it. The alternative is too terrible."

This is one reason why I have felt so disappointed that the President of the United States did not take advantage of the interval before the coming of the Blitzkrieg when people were calling the struggle a "phoney war," to offer mediation. I took the liberty of telling him on my return, when he kindly sent for me, that I should offer mediationwere I in his place on even Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and odd Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays with all Sundays thrown in for good measure. This was, of course, long before the Blitzkrieg of May last. It was in line with the speech made by Premier De Geer of Holland on January 3rd, 1940, when he said that the people of all countries including those at war, "should understand that it would be better to confess the errors of 1918 and to unite than to risk the general exhaustion and poverty." Such exhaustion, he said, "would make Europe the victim of obscure powers affecting the civilization of all countries." Although "almost entirely pessimistic," the Premier said that the most hopeful signs were "voices in Europe and the United States which warn the world not to continue its present course but to try to find a peaceful arrangement. We know many millions in all countries are longing for the moment that nations now engaged in bitter struggle will again understand and trust each other." In our present state of hysteria these words would be received when coming from anyone as those of an appeaser. They were the words of a man who did understand the grim character of the forces behind the scenes in fighting Europe and hated and dreaded Hitler.

The die was soon thereafter cast. Europe and the United States, if we go in will be, in my judgment, swept along irresistibly in the whirlpool of this tremendous social convulsion without even being able to control it, or to say where and when we shall emerge, or whether if we emerge we shall bear anything like the aspect of our present political and social life. This is not a popular thing to say, yet many sound and true Americans are sounding this warning and they hate Hitler as much as men and women can, and they yield to none in their admiration and support of Great Britain. They are not appeasers. They are not pro-Nazis. They are not defeatists. They are men and women who for one reason or another are able to look below the surface and to see the tremendous eddying currents which are sweeping the world onward to its new fate. They do not want this country to be involved without the clearest understanding of the risks to which we will subject our country if we go in without some kind of that mental and moral preparedness which is indisputably essential if the long-range objectives are to be won.

They have not forgotten that we went into the last war with the fine program of the Fourteen Peace Points and did not achieve them, and indeed achieved no peace, but merely an armistice—it was one of our peace commissioners, General Tasker H. Bliss, a rare combination of a great soldier and statesman, who declared at Paris that it was not peace which was being acclaimed, but merely a breathing spell in a forty-year war. His prophecy has come true largely because we entered the war unprepared and led by leaders who had not the courage nor knowledge, nor the moral force and power to stipulate in advance of our entering what the peace terms should be, or to insist upon them at Paris in the face of the intrigue, the underhandedness, the follies and stupidities which produced the worst peace in modern history and made inevitable the struggle before us which may easily leave Europe in total ruin, even if victory comes to those who, under heaven, deserve it.

Every day brings us fresh and alarming news of the growth of famine, the rapid dwindling of all supplies, the tightening of belts, the lowering of the standard of living of all peoples. Yet on both sides there is again the fear of making peace. No one in England in his sane senses would trust the word of Hitler, and few in Germany would trust the word of the English or the Americans, since they laid down their arms in 1918 in the faith and the belief that the Fourteen PeacePoints would prevail. The answer is that there is no faith left among nations—did not England betray Czechoslovakia and break its solemn pledges to that country? Is it not said of the United States that it has violated more treaties than any other country? Hence there can be no peace treaty which will endure at the close of this war save one that is founded on good faith, fair-play and justice, and with the offer to build a lasting peace through an international structure in which all nations shall have equal treatment and equal rights, even as our forty-eight States within the government of the United States. In other words no treaty with Hitler or anybody else will last which is not self-enforcing because of the justice of its provisions and the sincerity of its purpose to create a new, a better, and a warless world. In no other way will it be possible to defeat the terrific forces of destruction and evil now rising behind the scenes in fighting Europe than by the making of such a peace before Europe is in total ruin. I can conceive of no nobler task for the United States whenever the opportunity comes, or one more in consonance with our own glorious national traditions than that of utilizing our great moral power and unselfish idealism to lead in the building of the new world that is to come.