Great Speeches of the War/Balfour
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Rt. Hon. A. J. Balfour
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[Speech at a great Mass meeting, held in Colston Hall, Bristol, December 12, 1914. in support of the War Office appeal for 3,000 more men.]
My Lord Mayor:—This is not the first time that I have addressed a Bristol audience. Nor is it the first time I have spoken in this hall. But when I appeared last before you it was as speaking for a party—a party in which I believe, and of which I am still as ardent a member as ever. [Cheers.] But now my friend, Mr. Brace, and I, feeling that all smaller questions must be brushed into oblivion, have come here to make an appeal to you upon the greatest of all national causes. If, say, fifteen or twenty years ago any man had prophesied that within the lifetime of those whom he was addressing a war would spring up, in which one great community in America, the whole of Australasia, by far the greater part of Africa, by far the greater part of Asia, and by far the greater part of Europe should simultaneously be engaged, I think that prophecy would have been looked on as the nightmare of a mad-man. [Hear, hear.]
It has come about. And if the prophet who made this forecast had been asked, How can these things be in modern civilization, with the telegraph, the railway, all the modern contrivances for conquering nature multiplying day by day?—how would he have felt if he had been told it was by these very inventions, from this very progress in knowledge, science, and civilization, it had been possible to marshal together these hosts of a magnitude of which history gives us no parallel or record, and to bring them up against one another for mutual slaughter?And if again he had been asked if such a war is to be will it not at all events be waged in circumstances of a growing humanitarianism; will it not be waged under new conditions, where at all events the non-combatants would be saved from all needless suffering; and if the seer had proclaimed in answer
(Late Leader of the Conservative Party)
Now, do not suppose that a catastrophe of this magnitude has not got its causes deeply rooted in some historic past. It is not the accident of a day. It is not due to a dispatch having been answered or not at a particular time. It is not due to this diplomatic error or to that. It is due, believe me, to causes far deeper, causes which have gradually, and by an almost inevitable destiny led up to the terrible tragedy which we now see before us. What are those causes? It is quite true to say that we are at war because treaty obligations and national honour [cheers] require us to defend a nation whose neutrality we were bound to support [cheers] against another nation equally bound to support it, but which had nevertheless violated it with every circumstance of military horror and abomination. ["Shame."] But the tragedy of Servia and the tragedy of Belgium are but two episodes in a still greater tragedy; and the crimes that have been committed in Flanders and in the North of France are but two episodes in a yet greater crime against civilization and progress.
Germany's great error, and as I think, her great misfortune, is that she was not content to be on the Continent of Europe first among equals. A distinguished German writer has said that a great nation [he was speaking of Germany] must be everything or nothing [laughter]. Well, I don't want Germany to be nothing. But rather than that Germany should be everything, there is not a man of us who ought not to lay down his life gladly [cheers]; and she never will be everything while there is one cartridge left to fire, and one stout heart left to fire it.
There is a fantastic conception—made in Germany [laughter]—of what is called the super-man; a monster of aggressive egotism, to whom such virtues as humility and kindness are virtues fit only for slaves. I think, myself, that this conception of the super-man is slightly ludicrous. If ever he should materialize—is that the phrase? [laughter] I think he might well be left to the police. [Laughter.] But while the super-man is simply absurd the super-state is dangerous. It is the ideal of the super-state which has brought civilization to the peril in which it now stands, and it is this ideal which we have got to crush. [Hear, hear.]
There are persons so ignorant of history and of human nature that they think it matters little what ideals of conduct men and nations entertain. Believe me it is all important. And if the world is now at war it is because the Germans have mistaken the true ideal of national greatness, because they are trying by the most brutal methods to force themselves into a position absolutely inconsistent with the very notion of a great community of independent nations. After all, the world is made up of nations. It never will be one nation. I don't think it is desirable that it should ever be one nation. [Hear, hear.] But if it is to be made up, as it is now, always has been, and always will be, of many nations, is it not absolutely imperative that those who love civilization should gradually come to an understanding as to how international relations should be conducted? [Cheers.] Are we, while we talk of civilization within the nation, going to press forward ideals of barbarism between nations? ["No."] Are the powerful always going to trample on the weak? ["No."] Is the fate of the small nations, as the author I have already quoted said, always to be miserable? ["No."] To me, and I believe to all men of English speech, wherever they may live, it seems that the future of our race—the international future of our race—lies in, so far as possible, spreading wide the grip and power of international law, of raising more and more dignity of treaties between States [cheers], more and more striving that controversies between States should be decided not by the sword, but by arbitration. [Cheers.] That is the ideal which we hold. That is the ideal which we wish to see grow in all parts of the world. That is the ideal which, with every mark of contumely, contempt, and derision, the Germans trample under foot, both in theory and in practice. [Cheers.]
You will gather from what I have said that to my thinking the struggle on which we are engaged is more than national; the whole international future of the world is hanging in the balance. If victory should go to those the law of whose being seems to be to grasp domination irrespective of scruples, and by all means—if that should be the unhappy fate of the world, then, indeed, we might look forward with gloomy prognostications to the International future of civilization, with the very doubtful comfort of having German "culture" rammed down our throats by German bayonets whether we liked it or not. Well, what is your duty in circumstances such as I have described? ["To fight," and cheers.]
I have always loved the young, and I have always believed in them, but I have never envied them till to-day. They can do what, alas! I can no longer hope to do—they can strike a blow themseves for the greatest of all causes in the greatest of all known wars. [Cheers.] Let them not undervalue the greatness of their own destiny. Rarely has it happened in the history of mankind that a man could say to himself: "I am now going to take my part in the front row of combatants in a cause on which the fate of my country, and not merely the fate of my country, but the fate of civilization as a whole may truly be said to depend." Rarely has that opportunity been given to any country or to the young men of any country in the past history of the world. That opportunity is now given to you. [Cheers.]The Lord Mayor, in his opening remarks, has told you that Bristol has not shown itself oblivious to the great duties thrown upon it, and that it has already responded to the patriotic call to arms made in the interests I have endeavoured to describe. You have done much, but you have not yet done enough [cheers], and I know that the appeal, which however feebly I have made to you, finds an echo in your own hearts—that you know, no less well than I know, how much depends upon every man in this great national emergency sinking all manner of petty considerations, and throwing himself whole-heartedly into the great struggle. You know as well as I do how pressing is that call. You will obey it. You will follow your own sense of right and patriotism, and for my own part I do not doubt for one instant that the result of this meeting, as the result of countless other meetings not less magnificent than this held in other parts of the country, will be that Britain will show an example to the world—a unique example to the world, worthy of a unique occasion, and will show that without compulsion [cheers] and from the mere sense of public duty and public patriotism she will flock to the national standard and take her full share in the great struggle now being carried on on the Continent of Europe. [Loud cheers.]
What is that crime? It is the crime of a nation which has resolved not merely to be great, to be powerful, to be prosperous, but a nation which says, "All these things are valueless to me unless I can also dominate and coerce the whole civilized world." [Hear, hear.]
That is the root difficulty which we have got to face. That is a circumstance which can never be forgotten, either by those who take part in this war, or by those who will have something to say of the settlement after this war is concluded. [Cheers.] My public life does not go quite back to the Franco-German war of 1870, though my memory does, and I well remember the general feeling in this country towards the growth of the German Empire. The Germans themselves—or, at any rate, the writings of those Germans I happen to be acquainted with—always talk as if Germany had been the perpetual subject of irritable envy to the people of this country. Nothing can be more false. [Cheers.] I believed, and I was not alone in believing up till, let us say, certainly twenty years ago and less—I was not alone in believing that Germany, sated with glory, absolutely secure in her strength, her wealth, and her population, growing day by day with almost unparalleled rapidity, would have felt that her ideal would have been that of the great, peaceful, cultivated nation, strong enough to preserve her own honour and her own rights, anxious for the liberty of all other nations, and a determined ally of peace. That has not been the course of German thought. Germany's ideas have not progressed, have not developed, upon those lines. Unhappily for herself, unhappily for mankind, she has apparently felt that it is not enough to be great, honoured, wealthy, and secure, but that any nation worthy of the name, having domination within its grasp, ought, by all means, fair and foul alike, to pursue domination until it is secured.
Now I think that is one of the greatest, if not the greatest tragedy of history. It almost looks as if the war of 1870 and the unexampled outburst of prosperity which succeeded it turned the heads of a great nation and polluted the consciences of a mighty people. They speak of themselves, of their culture, of their valour, and of their greatness in terms which I should have thought any one with a sense of humour [cheers] would not have for an instant thought of describing their own performances. I have seen, not in the reckless literature of the German press, but in the writings of quite able and apparently quite sober German statesmen and thinkers, views of German culture, expressions which I should think were incredible to any people with a sense of the measure in the language they use.
Our Allies the French, with all their great history behind them have not always been supposed by unfriendly critics to hide their light under a bushel. There was a time when French culture—to use a word which is now in fashion—reigned supreme on the continent of Europe—from the Bay of Biscay to the Ural Mountains—when every small German thought he could do nothing better than imitate to the best of his ability the manners and the work of Versailles. The greatest of Prussian monarchs, while he was winning victories from French troops in the field, looked—and looked solely—to French criticisms and to French art as the measure of any culture he aspired to possess. Had the French in those days talked as the Germans talk now we should have accused them of gross exaggeration. But assuredly they had reason to describe triumphs of French culture in language far stronger than any which sober criticism would now apply to Germany. [Cheers.]Do not suppose that I now underrate what Germany has done in the past, or that I entertain doubts of what Germany may do in the future for the general progress of the human race. Most gladly do I grant that at least in one art and in many sciences the work of Germany has been epoch-making. But while I make this acknowledgment fully and freely, I must add that nothing in her history justifies that amazing tone of arrogant self-laudation she has adopted for herself, or the equally arrogant contempt which she showers upon less fortunate nations. [Hear, hear.]