I. WAR AS IDEAL

IT can be said that a first although unexpressed assertion of anti-militaristic thought took place in the history of historiography when, in the nineteenth century, boredom and irritation developed towards books entirely made up of accounts of wars and of negotiations preparing or concluding them; and there arose the insistent demand for another form of history which would give what truly corresponded to the major interests of the human mind and soul: the history of religion, of philosophy, of science, of the arts, of customs and moral life -- in a word, the history of civilization. Along this line modern historiography moved, always going forward, not only restricting the too-large field which formerly had been given to matters of war, but infusing even into its accounts of these a spirit of which they had formerly been deprived, referring them to the development of the spiritual life in all its forms. Even the history of warfare as a technique, as one of the various techniques of human endeavor, is an aspect of this spiritual history, and more directly of the history of applied science. But war, considered as war in itself, does not lend itself to any historical intelligence, since it cannot be referred to a proper category or ideal of its own.

In fact, this is a fever which periodically fires up in the veins of men and in the course of which individuals and peoples, whatever may be their qualities or rank, fight to overcome and destroy one another. The vicissitudes of the struggle can be followed, by anyone that looks upon them detached and from afar or reads of them in books, with a lively participation of the imagination and as strong a fellow feeling as those with which one watches the spectacles of the circus, the wrestling ring or the cinema. But substantially those vicissitudes are nothing more than a monotonous beating and being beaten, in which luck plays a great part and which is not reducible to historical configuration, because the nexus -- or, let us say, the logical and historical significance -- is to be found elsewhere.

As in historiography the accounts of wars have been overcome and dissolved in the manner indicated, so in human societies, progressively as they removed themselves from savage and barbaric conditions (like those of the medieval renewal of barbarism in which battle was daily and general), and as, breathing more deeply, other orders of facts and works called upon the soul, war faded from the horizon. Sometimes, indeed, humanity appeared to have outgrown that condition. To its return all civilly educated men, lovers of peace and industry, felt the same sort of repugnance as to criminal insanity. Not that military institutions were any the less attentively and jealously cared for, since the intimate conscience warns us that war cannot be suppressed from the world and that it is necessary to keep them ready in case of need, as we keep doctors and medicines and surgical instruments ready for a malady that may always begin again. In the years of our Risorgimento, even during the necessary wars, men always looked forward to that which is above wars, and the longed-for Italy showed itself (as a verse of Tommaseo says) "severe and humble, armed and loving." This state of feeling endured even after 1871, and was disturbed in Italy (as more strongly in other parts of Europe) only at the end of the century. Then there was written in England, against the threatening idea of a war which the inexpert courted, a very wise book -- Norman Angell's "The Great Illusion" -- which received universal praise. And when in spite of everything the new fever, the new war, was set alight some years later, when at last it had been dominated and was spent, then that aversion to war immediately formed itself again in some of the major peoples of the two worlds. War was feared by them like a disease and not exalted as an ideal.

Now, how has it come about that, in spite of this stage attained in civilization, in spite of this general good sense, war in some intellectual currents has in fact been made to conform to an ideal -- to a sublime, resplendent and inebriating ideal? And that for the concept "war disease" has been substituted one of "war health?" And that the continual struggle in which we are accustomed to symbolize life, which is "war against war" -- a "negation of negation," as we say in philosophical terms -- has received in its own content that against which it fights? And that instead of the image of the honest man who takes arms because of duty and not by taste for warmaking, and through duty attains strength, courage and the spirit of sacrifice, imaginations have created or made idols representing others very different -- unheard of beings whose appearance, voices and manners are warlike, rapacious, obsessed by butchery and destruction? Undoubtedly such a disturbance of the intellect and imagination is to be traced to that retrograde romanticism, strongly sensualist and materialistic, which was called decadence. It ignored and wounded many delicate sentiments and soiled and corrupted many pure affections, contaminating them with libido and sadism. Moreover, it corrupted the virile and dutiful resolution to fight in the wars which the world's course might make necessary, transforming it into the criminal folly of exalting and provoking and instigating war, the equivalent of deliberately engendering the diseases which are to be cured. At the same time, it corrupted noble and humanitarian traditional patriotism into a sort of ferocious bestiality which to begin with took the name of "nationalism."

Probably such an ideal or counter-ideal would nevertheless have exhausted itself in the realm of inflated and empty literature if it had not found its point of support in a people at the very center of Europe. This people made of it the directive idea of moral and political life, giving up such universalism and cosmopolitanism as had shone forth in its great philosophicalpoetic age, and rendering itself sealed and deaf to any understanding of the substantial teaching of Kant or Goethe. It would be a very insufficient and moreover improper explanation to say that Germany, lately arrived at unity and the power that unity gave her, had been seized by the need of expansion and dominion against other peoples holding world empire. Such a need would have been able to seek and find satisfaction by means of policy, and even upon occasion by arms and war, without any necessity for thereby poisoning the very springs of moral life.

That country (it is always well to remember) does not have the civilization of Greece and Rome or that of Christianity at the origins of its national history and of its participation in European history, but the ferocity and devastating impulse of the barbarian invasions. Its heroes of those days were merely the chiefs of hordes, and its epic does not present the human figures of the epics of Greece and Rome or even of the French -- not Achilles, Hector and Aeneas, not Roland and Olivier, neither Andromache nor Lucretia -- but those of somber cut-throats and of atrocious and semi-demoniacal bloodstained females; just as in its subsequent modern history it found its most conspicuous expression in Prussianism, from the Teutonic Knights to Frederick II of Hohenzollern and to Bismarck, the founder of unity, who gave his imprint to the new Germany with everything he had in himself of the cruel, sneering and cynical, an imprint which those who succeeded him incised more strongly in its face. Once these and other similar German historical traditions had been fused with the romantic decadence we have outlined, straight out of the mixture came racism, the new zoölogical form of the myth of the chosen people "which does not contaminate itself with the nations." Thus one might almost say that the fight to the death which "Germanism" has undertaken against "Hebraism" comes from no other than professional jealousy and rivalry, since, as is well known, this concept is rigorously Hebraic and was conceived and put forward in the fourth century before Christ by Esdras, who, however, had some serious motive for holding by it. All the cynically and obscenely ferocious words which we have heard with shudders in the course of the present war issued from the mouth of that people, boasting of its warlike destiny and scorning its adversaries as merchants. These are the ugly words which are fabricated in war when it is elevated to the ideal, when by internal logic it is led to adopt sentiments, attitudes, images and accents usual in the world of crime: such is not the custom of the despised merchant peoples, whose custom is sociable and preserves even in the agitation of passion the restraint and the manners of good breeding and moral discrimination.

It is probable and indeed natural that at the end of this long and terribly ruinous war there will again be discussions and excogitations on the way of establishing in the world "perpetual peace" (whereas it would be a great enough thing if there could be established a peace temporary but durable, in which all the peoples might find, as near as may be, their best). Perpetual peace is perpetual utopia, because it contemplates nothing more or less than the shattering of the mainspring of human life, which is in sorrow and peril. But what certainly should and can be done is to clear away from the mind every residuum and tear out every smallest root or filament of "war as ideal," and against the warrior to set up the worth of the citizen and merchant, remembering that merchants know how to hold their own against warriors when necessary and to win, as can be seen at the present time and as our far-off ancestors of the Lombard League taught the warriors of Barbarossa. That we Italians, in spite of traditions which are so clearly opposed to those of Germany and Prussia, should have been swept on to serve their policy by a faction which had mastered the powers of the state and degraded to its instrumentality a king whose title originated in national and liberal plebiscites, is one of the strangest and most horrible distortions that the interweaving of events can bring about in a people. Then was when we heard the solemn exhortation to make ourselves, in a word which had always been repugnant to us, "militarists." The lesson was administered to us in the inspired accent of the elementary schoolmaster who has freshly received, dogmatically, in his noncritical mind, and hastens to proclaim before the peoples, what seems to him a profound and original scientific truth but in reality is altogether banality and foolishness: "We not only do not believe in perpetual peace, but we consider it a depressant and a negation of the fundamental virtues of man, which only through the cruelty of battle are demonstrated in the light of the sun."

As if in the course of public and private life there could be any fear that sorrow and tragedy might be lacking, and with them the opportunities to prove the virtues proper to man!

But here I must pause, feeling as I do that from the theoretical clarification which I had proposed to make of certain concepts concerning historiography and ethics I have trespassed into cases and problems of our present life, and have entered into the heart of our dolorous passion, to the appeals of which the purpose of attending solely to scientific discourse today cannot always close the gates of the soul. At all events, even this trespass carries with it a proof of the importance of the rebellion that took place in the nineteenth century against histories of wars, and of the fecundity of the new beginning which historiography then made.

II. DUTIES AND DUTY

We know that the spirit is a system of distinctions which for that reason is itself a unity. If the distinctions were not, the unity would not be; since a unity without distinctions is mathematical and abstract, not organic and complete. If the unity were not, neither would the distinctions be; because they are such only in the unity which they compose. Outside of unity the noun distinction loses all sense, becoming a simple sound of the voice. By this full identity of the two terms it is not permitted to pose unity (though often this has been attempted) as the superior principle from which the distinctions separate -- a mythical God, as it were, who, existing in himself, resolves to create a world, instead of the true God who creates himself with the world and creates it enjoying and suffering.

The very same activity which has the specifically unificatory function is one of the distinctions -- or, it may be said, one of the forms of the spirit -- and is called moral activity, which continually conquers disharmony, that is to say the necessary negative moment of every activity, and attains spiritual harmony. Thanks to this, the spirit moves from conquest to conquest and life continually enlarges upon itself.

Disharmony, the negative moment, is in fact the ever resurgent desire of a particular form of the spirit to persist and develop without taking account of the other forms, from which it is necessarily born as new from old in order to become old itself, leading the others and retreading with the others the eternal spiritual circle. It is, for example, the pretense of creating poetry with a soul empty of the experiences of human passions, a soul which comes to conclusions within itself, as the aesthetes and decadents believe, without resonance and without consequences in the whole spirit, without producing an ulterior mental and practical process. The same may be said of philosophical thinking or of practical doing which force themselves into absolute self-sufficiency or autarchy, endeavoring, the former to do without practical, moral or poetical life, the latter to do without theoretical, moral and religious life. Not, of course, that this deviation and error has not, like all deviations and errors, a motive of truth in it, since every special form of activity obeys a law of its own and a "duty" of its own. But the deviation or error comes from wishing to rise above everything of which one is a part, contradictorily substituting the part for the whole. Thus, under the appearance of rigid observance, a duty passes over effectively into violation of duty.

Among the perils of spiritual life this is the most insidious and, it might be said, the most diabolical, if the devil (as Dante heard them say in the theological schools of Bologna) is "a liar and the father of lies." Nor is it needful nowadays to collect or multiply examples when we have had for several years before our eyes the spectacle of a people which contributed greatly in the past to the work of Europe, but which, entering into a horrible delirium, not only exalted the negative to the place of the positive, and made of war (which had been counted for centuries as one of the three calamities, along with pestilence and famine) an ideal of superior life, the only one worthy of the German man, a hero and warrior by nature, but also, with equal distortion, conferred abstract absoluteness on the concept of the fatherland and on the duty of defending the fatherland. Love of one's country has justification and moral worth only when it is born and lives on the trunk of humanity, towards which it stands in one respect as a compendious image and a symbol thereof, and, in another respect, as the nearest field, even though certainly not the exclusive field, of our duties. Montesquieu nobly wrote in a notebook of his thoughts: "Si je savais quelque chose utile à ma patrie et qui fut préjudiciable à l'Europe, ou bien qui fut utile à l'Europe et préjudiciable au genre humain je la regarderais comme un crime."

A fatherland which is to stand über Alles (if that were not, as it usually is, a simple emphatical expression) would express a perverse and criminal feeling. Similarly, the war maxim to "do the greatest damage to the enemy" encounters its logical and moral limits in the exclusion of such damage as strikes that which is equally sacred to the enemy and to ourselves -- which, being lost, diminishes both him and us, and us rather more than him, we having been authors of the loss and taking upon ourselves the hatred and shame. Herein is the moral momentum of what is called jus gentium, natural law or international law, which in every other respect is a law like the others.

I have on my heart as I write these words the destruction which officers of the German Command deliberately made, in spite of having been warned that they were about to destroy things which belonged neither to Naples nor to Italy but to the international world of studies, of the Great Archives of Naples, with their treasures of medieval parchments, the register of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, the Angevin registers, the Aragonese chancellery, the Farnese papers, the documents of Neapolitan history which were interwoven with those of the history of Europe and the Orient, an inexhaustible fount of precious information, the object of indefatigable research by Italians and foreigners, jealously preserved all down the centuries, now no longer in existence, devoured by the flames after having been sprinkled with gasoline. How many hours of my youth did I pass consulting those volumes, and those other bundles of papers, now also ashes, which contained the records of southern commune and family life! With what joy I returned to them whenever my studies led me back again! How I see now, with my eyes veiled in tears, those old men, those masters of mine, who were, in the ancient monastery of San Severino, their proud and loving custodians -- Bartolomeo Capasso at the head of them all! And to think that the men who, in the light of the culture of the world and of Germany, made themselves guilty of such an act (comparable to what was habitual with poor ignorant barbarians like Alaric or Genseric and suchlike deutsche Recken, giants of German history) themselves believed, perhaps, that in this way they served their fatherland and fulfilled their duty!

But men who keep themselves fundamentally and substantially men know how to make duties submit to duty, as Schiller said he denied particular religions because of religion. They spring at once, with the heart which does not deceive, to the right side, in such emotion as sometimes breaks out spontaneously even in the souls of brigands and others given to sin and vice and crime, who have not burned out in themselves every spark of humanity and have not fallen into the state of automata and machines, as -- all too truly -- have those Germans whom we saw devastate Europe all around us, and who today systematically and methodically are destroying our Italy, not only in the lives of her citizens, not only in the patrimony of her sons' weary labor, but in the ideal patrimony in which she was and is a mistress to other peoples. Fear, repugnance and horror diffuse themselves about those men because of the extreme degradation of humanity which has befallen them through their fatherland and devotion to the fatherland and discipline for the fatherland, through that stupidity of an extrinsic and pedantically conceived duty and of a blind, inhuman obedience to an idol or Moloch of theirs. "Inhumanity" is the word which rises above all others. I still remember, by contrast, in what accents a young Jewish lady, a student of classical antiquities, who came to Italy after the ferocious persecution of the Jews in Germany had begun, carrying in her thin face and sorrowful eyes the signs of the shock and misery she had suffered, said to me in wonder at the welcome she found in Italy: "The Italians are human!"

How came it to pass that the Germans, whom we used to love in their classical philosophy, in their Goethe's poetry, in music and in the good fellowship of their honest and industrious habits, and whom we still further admired for the services they rendered to science and technique, for the wealth and power to which they had raised their country, have become that which they are today, an object of abhorrence for the whole world on the part of every kind of person? That is a problem harassed with terrible difficulties: and it will impose itself upon the entire world in that day in which we must somehow establish a cohabitation of peoples and in which certainly we shall not dream of cancelling the German people from the earth.

I have never believed, and most certainly I will not be led by passion now to believe, in the myth of peoples and races and of their indelible characters; and I shall continue to adhere to the concept, both critical and consoling, that such characters are not naturalistic and deterministic facts, but historical formations, of more or less long duration, of various intensities, which can be dissolved and give place to other different and opposite formations.

This historical formation of that which stands before us today as Germanism I have summarily traced out elsewhere for what it is. But perhaps in the conceit of the superiority of the Germans towards the other peoples, in their weakness for the argument of force, in the language of the conquering barbarian which is their habit, there is, more than may seem at first, a hidden tormenting consciousness of inferiority because they have never yet succeeded in competing with the other peoples in the liveliness and clarity of intuition, in the art, style and act of behavior, in moving others to interest and sympathy and attracting the imagination and giving rise to imitation and fashion, in calling luck to themselves and taking advantages that are spontaneously offered, thus giving proof of political sense; in making themselves respected by respecting others: so that for their limitless ambition and their dream of the Kolossal there is nothing left to try except imposition by violence. The scourge, the club, and whatever more modern and more scientific and more terrifying weapons have been substituted for or added to these, have seemed to them means conducive to procuring by short cuts the dominion of the world -- from which, obtained in this manner, in a vacuum, and what is more in the midst of the revolt of every moral force, one cannot see how they could profit. "Triumphs," once said a poet of theirs in the time when Germany, too, warmed itself in the rays of European liberty, "are equal to defeats when their fruit consists in the lamentation and boundless hatred of the world."

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  • BENEDETTO CROCE, Minister of State without Portfolio in the Italian Government formed April 1944; former Minister for Public Instruction; author of "Filosofia dello Spirito," a philosophic system translated into many languages
  • More By Benedetto Croce