A War of Spirit


By JAN CHRISTIAAN SMUTS, Premier of South Africa

Delivered to the Joint Session of the British Houses of Parliament, October 21, 1942

This text is from a transcription and not compared with the original.

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 39-43

MR. Chairman, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen: I am very sensible of the great honor you are doing me today and I appreciate this vast audience, the reception and the welcome you give me. But above all, I appreciate today the presence and the chairmanship here of my old leader "L.G." Words fail me to express my feelings on an occasion like this. But I am here today to address you on the war. The Prime Minister has led me into this; he brought me here; he created this occasion, and I feel now like the sacrificial lamb being led to slaughter. But I rely on your sympathy and your support to see me through. This, for me, is a very great occasion, and I am deeply sensible of the exceptional honor which you are doing me.

In my experience, it is indeed a unique occasion. It is no small thing to be called upon to address the members of this sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom, this mother of Parliaments, and of free democratic institutions, this senate of kings—to use the phrase once applied to the Roman Senate. I appreciate this honor which is more than I have deserved, but I accept it as expressing your goodwill to myself personally and to the small country and people whom I have the honor to represent.

I think—I know—you have singled me out for this distinction today largely because I happen to be the last surviving member still active in my office of the War Cabinet of the last war. I was the youngest and the least of that notable band and, no doubt, for very good and sufficient reasons, I have been spared—perhaps overlooked—by the storms and the years, and now I reappear after many years on this great scene and you are somewhat interested in this mythical figure from a past era and a bygone age, almost.

I know the subject of the War Cabinet is a minor matter of controversy among you, and I shall therefore avoid invidious comparisons between then and now. But you will allow me to refer to the two leaders in the two supreme crises of our sorely tested generation. As I have said, I am very proud to be honored today by the presence of my old leader, Mr. Lloyd George, but for whom who knows what might have happened in the mortal crisis of twenty-five years ago. Today, in this greater crisis, we gratefully remember his imperishable service and thank God for the gift of the saving grace of his great historic leadership. He stands out as the supreme architect of victory in the last war.

No less have we been blessed with distinguished leadership in this vaster struggle of today. I sometimes wonder whether people in this country sufficiently realize what Winston Churchill has meant and still means, not only to them, out also to the Allied peoples, the United Nations, and to brave men and women everywhere today in the world. His foresight, his courage and energy, have been an inspiration to all of us everywhere. He remains the embodiment of the spirit of eternal youth and resilience—the spirit of a great, undying nation in one of the greatest moments in history. Let us recognize with gratitude that we have been richly blessed with wonderful leadership, both in the last war and in this.

I have spoken of the two great actors—the two greatest actors—in this drama, the continuing drama of our age. I call this a continuing drama because I view this war as a continuation of the last war, and the whole is perhaps another Thirty Years War which began in 1914, was interrupted by an armistice in 1918, improperly called a peace, was resumed with greater ferocity in 1939, and may continue—who knows—until 1944. The intervening armistice was a period of feverish rest or unrest and dreams and illusions. I have referred to the two great actors in this drama of our age; there is a third and a greater actor to be mentioned; I refer to the British people and the spirit which animates them andthe young nations around them in the British Commonwealth of Nations.

One occasionally hears idle words about the decay of this country, about the approaching break-up of the great group which we form. What folly and ignorance! In some quarters, what wishful thinking. It is true that this great human experiment in political organization, this proudest political structure of time, this precedent and anticipation of what one hopes may be in store for human society in years to come—this great commonwealth is being tested as never before in its history. But is it not standing the test? Is not this free and voluntary association, is not this world-wide human comradeship today holding together more successfully than ever before under the most brutal attack?

Knowing the dangers and temptations we have had to face, the stresses and strains imposed on us, nothing has been more remarkable to me than the cohesion—the enduring cohesion—of this vast structure under the hardest hammerstrokes of fate. We have suffered; we are poorer; we shall be poorer still. We have had heavy setbacks and an exceptional run of bad luck. Is it a wonder that in the fourth year of war there may sometimes come moments of disappointment, sometimes moments of fatigue, and occasionally even a sense of frustration? But this, this great Commonwealth remains the heart of the defense against the most terrible onslaught ever made on human rights and liberties. It stands unshaken by the storms and the setbacks. The people of this island are the real heroes of this epic drama, and I pay my small tribute to their unbending unbreakable spirit.

I have been absent from this country for almost ten years, and coming back now I can see for myself the vast change which the trials and sufferings and exertions of the war period have wrought. I remember the smiling land rebuilt and largely recovered after the last war, where a happy people dwelt securely, busy with the tasks and thoughts of peace.

I now come back to a country over which the fury of war has raged, a country whose people has had to face in their grimmest mood the most terrible onslaught in its history. Many of its ancient monuments are damaged or gone forever. The blitz has passed over cities, ports, churches, temples, humble homes and palaces, Houses of Parliament and law courts. Irreplaceable treasures of a thousand years of almost uninterrupted progress and culture and peaceful civilization have disappeared forever. War is a horror people still call forth, but in its modern scientific form very different from what passed before under that name. War has come to this favored land and attempted its work. Much has gone which is lost forever, but one thing—one thing is not lost; one thing, the most precious of all, remains and has rather increased. For what will it profit a nation if it wins the world and loses its soul? The soul remains. Glory has not departed from this land. I speak not of outward glory, but of what your Gallic neighbors call "la gloire"; I speak rather of that inward glory, that splendor of the spirit which has shone over this land from the soul of the people and has been a beaconlight to the oppressed and downtrodden people in this new martyrdom of man. Did the enemy say "Gott strafe England?" "God bless England" has been the response from the victims of this most fiendish onslaught in history.

But for this country, the stand it made from 1939 onward, its immeasurable exertion up to now, its toil and sweat, its blood and tears, this world of ours may have been lost for a thousand years and another Dark Age might have settled down on the spirit of man. This is its glory: to have stood in the breach and to have kept the way open to man's vast future. And when, after a long absence, I see todaythis flame of the spirit above the flame of the blitz, I feel that I have come to a greater, a prouder, a more glorious home of the free than I ever learned to know in its palmiest days. This is the glory of the spirit which sees and knows no defeat or loss but increasingly nurses, nourishes and sustains the will to final victory.

I have singled out for emphasis the spirit and service of this country because they have been the most important— indeed, the crucial factors for our Allied cause. But the spirit of resolution and endurance,—of sacrifice—is not confined to Britain. All the Allied Nations, each in its own degree, share in this spirit. When we survey the world today in its agony, we see everywhere the same spirit lighting up the somber scene. Think of China and its five years of suffering at the hands of the Japanese war lords with their so-called co-prosperity sphere in Asia. Think of Russia and its unbroken spirit under the hardest blows and the most cruel sacrifices of war. Look at the wonderful resurgence of the brave little people of western Europe whom no adversity, defeat, danger or chains can hold down. Think of the heroic guerrillas of Serbia and other small nations. Look at the new glory of Greece which has so effectively dimmed the tinsel grandeur of Mussolini's Rome. Truly a new Hellas has arisen to fulfill the poet's vision. And looking further afield, watch the young nations of our Commonwealth at their job. Last and greatest of all, see America in her invincible might, under one of the greatest of leaders marching forward to the flaming ramparts of the world in east and west. And shall we forget France—not dead, but like Lazarus only sleeping and waiting—waiting for the dawn to shake off the torpor which has temporarily overcome her historic genius.

No, the spirit of man is neither dead nor decadent. It will never bend a knee before the new slavery. The light of freedom which has lighted our slow and faltering advance through the ages still shines in the night which has overtaken us; the glory is still with us and we shall follow it with all our strength and devotion to the new dawn which surely awaits our race.

A dangerous and terrible passage lies before us and it will call for all our combined resources, all our concentrated will and effort, all our highest leadership to carry us to our goal. There is no place for complacency or wishful thinking. The mortal struggle is on and it will become more cruel and desperate as the end draws nearer, for indeed, it is a struggle for life and death between the contending systems and ideologies which now divide mankind.

I pass on to the war situation. For the first three years of the war our role was necessarily a defensive one. That role was imposed on us by the intensive secret preparations of the enemy for six years before the war, by the false sense of security he had sedulously fostered among us, and by the mood of appeasement which had in that way come about. That advantage of the enemy no immature offensive on our part could possibly have overcome. We could barely maintain our self defense against the most terrible odds. In those cases where we were in honor bound to take the offensive in support of other small peoples, we suffered reverses which still further weakened us. Let us, however, never regret the help we did our best to bring to Norway, Holland and Greece in their hour of need. In those common sufferings which we shared with them the United Nations were born.

But these efforts were beyond our resources at that time, and we suffered discouraging reverses. Only in Africa could we assume the offensive—but modesty prevents me from dwelling on that theme. Then came the most deadly catastrophe of all, when France fell. It was an awful moment in history. The sudden fall of a great nation, a world power,is a phenomenon almost unknown in history and this particular blow was as unexpected as it was deadly. The enemy looked upon it as the end for us also, and this mistake probably eventually saved us. Instead of immediately turning upon London, Hitler changed his plans and crossed to Paris, and gave us the opportunity to recover our breath and prepare for the blitz against London. And what a defense it was! What a defense it was! Surely never in history did the future hang on so slender a thread and was the outcome so painfully and prayerfully watched by so many millions all over the world. Providence saved us there but—let us admit—the devil helped also. Such is always the function of evil in this world. The defeat of the Luftwaffe in that supreme crisis saved not only London and Britain, but, I firmly believe, the whole Allied cause and the future of the world. The fall of France was followed by two other events both of the greatest importance, for the subsequent course of the war. The first was another fatal blunder of Hitler. Balked in his air attack on London, he saw that it was unsafe to attempt an invasion of Britain before first clearing his rear in Russia. The fortitude and duration of the Russian resistance have surprised not only Hitler but everybody else. Probably no such losses on both sides have ever been suffered in the history of war. If the Russian losses must have been terrible, it is equally true that the German army is bleeding to death in Russia.

The appalling blood-letting which is necessary for Hitler's ultimate defeat is being administered by the Russians, and they alone can do it. In spite of their losses in men and material and territory, the Russians show not the least sign of giving in, and the bitter defense will go on to the bitter end. This impression is confirmed by all the best inside information.

Hitler has done his best to avoid Napoleon's example, but history may yet record that the course he actually adopted was even more fatal than was Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. The course for the Allies to follow is clear; whatever help in whatever form we can give to Russia to help to sustain her in her colossal effort should be given in the fullest measure and with the utmost speed. She is bearing more than her share at present—more than her share of the common cause.

The second result of the fall of France was the almost total collapse of the entire Allied position in the Far East. Vichy opened the door to Japan in Indo-China. Through that unexpected opening the flood poured into Siam, Malaya and Burma. Indo-China was the back door to Singapore—a back door which we never dreamed would be opened by our ally against us—an event for which the defense of Singapore made no adequate provision and which made its fall inevitable. And when Singapore fell, the whole Dutch East Indies and the other island groups in the Far East were doomed, and it has only been possible to stop the flood at the very shores of Australia and New Zealand.

People who have not followed or understood the inevitable, the terrible logic of events have blamed the Allies for these tremendous setbacks. England's foes have taken the loss of Singapore as a proof of decadence and a sign of the approaching downfall of the Commonwealth. As a matter of fact, it was merely a consequence—and a logical consequence—of the downfall of France and nothing more.

We mourn these losses. We mourn especially the temporary loss to Holland of her great empire in the Far East which has been a model of colonial government. We deplore our diminished opportunities, at the moment, of helping China in her stout defense. But these things will pass. For Japan, as surely as for Hitler's Germany, the writingis on the wall. All that will remain of this spectacular Japanese success will be Japan for the Japanese.

For Japan has infallibly sealed her own doom. Pearl Harbor was at once a challenge to America, to western civilization and to the principles of good faith on which it is basically founded. In the long run, Japan will not be good enough as an associate even for Germany. There are degrees even in infamy. Not that I deplore Pearl Harbor. From our point of view it was a heavy price, but well worth paying for the immense gains that have resulted. It was what the chemists call a "catalyst" which suddenly crystallized, precipitated and solidified American opinion as nothing else in the world could have done. At one sudden leap America was in the war.

These are the steps that have marked our climb out of the abyss into which the fall of France had all but precipitated us.

First, the defeat of the German Luftwaffe over London; second the treacherous attack of Germany on Russia, in spite of the peace treaty between them; third, Pearl Harbor and its sudden and timely effect in carrying America 100 per cent into the war, while Admiral Nomura and Mr. Cordell Hull were talking peace at the conference table. We have much to be thankful for, but not least for the colossal mistakes of our enemies. Will a fourth blunder be committed? Will Japan, in spite of her peace treaty with Russia, launch a treacherous attack against her also? Time alone will show. We can await the issue.

We have now reached the fourth year of this war and the defense stage has now ended. Let me set your minds at rest; I am not going to discuss the future offensive strategy of the war—the amateur strategists can do that with greater freedom and less responsibility. I only wish to emphasize that one phase is ended and another phase has begun. The final alignment, both of the Allies and our enemies, has been made. Resources have been developed and mobilized on a colossal scale, ours still on the increase, those of the enemy on the decline. Our manpower is still growing; that of the enemy is getting depleted, while he makes ever heavier drafts on his suffering vassal peoples. The spectre of want, hunger, and starvation is beginning to stalk through the subject countries. The spirit of unrest is moving and rising. The explosive limits of endurance are drawing near. We are approaching the point when both on the war front and on the home front in enemy countries the situation is ripening for far reaching developments.

So far, time has been in our favor and has, on the whole, been kind to us. In spite of heavy setbacks and many disappointments, we have had the necessary time to prepare, to parry blow for blow, and to assemble and consolidate the forces and resources on which we rely for the Allied victory. Once the time has come to take the offensive and to strike while the iron is hot it would be folly to delay, to over-prepare and perhaps miss the opportunity. Nor are we likely to do so—of that I am satisfied. On this point it would be unwise for me to say more, lest it should bring unnecessary and harmful speculation. I only would point out to you that today is Trafalgar Day. It reminds us of that dark hour—the darkest hour in the Napoleonic wars—when your great national hero, the embodiment of the heroic offensive spirit of this people—sought out the superior forces of the enemy and dealt them that fatal blow which not only saved England from invasion, but turned the whole tide of war and finally saved Europe from being overwhelmed by the insensate domination of one man. This is not only an anniversary; it is a reminder and an inspiration to us to go forward and do likewise. I am sure it will not be lost onus and our gallant allies. For us too, the great offensive moment is ripening.

I pass now on to another point and wish to emphasize the deeper significance of the struggle on which we are engaged. It is no ordinary political issues that are at stake, and the outcome of this war will not be immaterial to the future character of our civilization. In spite of the specious promises of a new order and the alluring appeals to the idealism of youth, actual events have in the last three years revealed the true nature of Nazi ideology. We know now beyond all doubt what Hitler's New Order means. Persecution, domination, suppression, enslavement of the free human spirit, extermination—these are the dominant features of the new creed as practiced in the occupied countries.

It is written in blood and tears and nameless sufferings of vast numbers of innocent men and women of all ages and conditions.

It is in contrast to this that I have emphasized the heroic spirit of the suffering Allied peoples now under Hitler's heel, because I feel that this is the heart of the matter. This, at bottom, is a war of the spirit, a war of man's soul. Hitler has tried to kill the spirit and to substitute for it some ersatz thing, something which is really negation. He has instilled into German youth a new racial fanaticism. He has sought strength in the ancient discarded forest gods of the Teutons. He has sunk into reversion to the pagan past and to denial of the spiritual forces which have carried us forward in the Christian advance which constitutes the essence of European civilization. He has trampled under foot the great creed which had proved the greatest dynamic of all human history and made western civilization the proudest achievement of man; he has trampled on the Cross and substituted for it the crooked cross, his symbol for the new devil worship which he has tried to impose on each country in the world. Nietzsche's superman is substituted for the Man of Nazareth as the new leader of the human race. He has stamped on the human virtues which we had learned to cultivate under the symbol of the cross. Decency, sympathy, mercy are not words found in this new code. He has trampled on the spirit of liberty which had become the accepted political creed of the modern world. He has started a new era of martyrdom for the human spirit, an era of persecution such as mankind had not known since it emerged from the Dark Age. The suffering he has inflicted on Jews and Christians alike, the tide of horror launched under his Gestapo regime over the fair west, constitutes the darkest page of modern history. He has outraged and insulted and challenged the very spirit of humanity and tried to found a new barbarism.

After what has happened since 1939 in the occupied countries and elsewhere both in peace and war, there is no more doubt about the meaning of it all. The main issue has now become perfectly clear. This is a challenge to all we have learned to value and to prize even above life itself. Behind all the issues of this war lies the deeper question now posed to the world: which do you choose, the free spirit of man which has shaped the values of our civilization, or this substitute, this foul oppression, now resuscitated from the underworld of the past? This, in the last analysis is what this war is about.

At bottom, therefore, this war is a new crusade, a new fight to the death for man's rights and liberties and for the personal ideals of man's ethical and spiritual life. To that fanaticism we oppose this crusading spirit which will not sheath the sword till martyrdom and all its works have been purged from this fair world. And in that spirit the United Nations will march forward to victory and to the world which will follow the victory.

I come to this question: what is the sort of world which we envisage as our objective after this war? What sort of social and international order are we aiming at? These are very important questions if we mean not only to win the war but also the peace. Our ideas of these matters 22 years ago were much too vague and crude and at the same time much too ambitious with the result that when they came to be tested by hard experience they proved wanting. With that experience before us, we ought this time to hammer out something more clear, more definite. A great deal of thought is, no doubt, already being given to these matters and one may hope that we shall approach the peace much better informed and equipped than we were last time.

Certain points of great importance have already emerged. Thus we have accepted the name of the United Nations. This is a new conception, much in advance of the old concept of a league of nations. We do not want to be a league, but something more definite and organic, even if, to begin with, more limited and less ambitious than the League. The United Nations is, of course, a truthful conception, and on the basis of that conception much of the machinery for the functioning of an international order might well be restored.

Then again, we have the Atlantic Charter, in which certain large principles of international policy in the social and economic spheres have been accepted. That too marks a great step forward; it only requires more careful definition and elaboration to become a real Magna Charta of the nations.

Again, we have agreed on certain large principles of social policy involving social security for the citizen in matters which have lain at the root of much social unrest and suffering in the past. We cannot hope to establish a new heaven and a new earth in the bleak world which will follow after this most destructive conflict of history, but certain social and economic evils could be tackled on modest practical lines, on an international scale, almost at once.

Then again, we have accepted the principle of international help underlying the mutual aid agreement. The open hand in international life is already a matter of practical politics, and should be suitably extended after the war. This, too, is a far reaching innovation, pointing the way to fruitful developments in future.

All these are already indications of considerable advances to a better world and a richer life for man. To these we may add much of the social and economic work of the League of Nations. Much of the League organization could continue to function for the future well-being of mankind. In sober resolution, in modest hope, and in strong faith, we move forward to the unknown future. There is no reason why we should not hopefully and sincerely attempt to carry out for the world the task which now confronts us as never before in the history of our race.

An American statesman has called this the century of the plain man, of the common people. I feel that by the vast suffering through which our race is passing we are being carried to a deeper sense of social realities. We are passing beyond the ordinary politics and political shibboleths. It is no longer a case of Socialism or Communism or any of the other "isms" of the market place, but of achieving justice and fair play for all. The people are searching their own souls for the causes which have brought us to this pass. May it be our privilege to see that this suffering, which has troubled and seared man's spirit, shall this time not be in vain.

Without feeding on illusion, without pursuing the impossible, there is yet much in the common life of the people which can be remedied, much unnecessary inequality andprivilege to be leveled away. Health, housing, education, decent social amenities, provision against avoidable insecurity —all these can be given and much more can be provided for, and thus a common higher level of life achieved for all. Between the nations a new spirit of human solidarity can be cultivated and economic conditions can be built up which will strike at the root causes of war and help lay a deeper foundation for world peace.

With honesty and sincerity on our part, it is possible to make basic reforms both for national and international life which will give mankind a greater chance of survival and of progress. Let this program, by no means too ambitious, be our task and let us already now, even in the midst of war, begin to prepare for it. And may heaven's blessing rest on our work, in war and in peace.