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The Wrack of the Storm Part 10

But, however grave the peril, we are, I repeat, far less concerned with this at the present moment than with the question of justice.

Poland has an absolute and sacred right to be treated even as the other two victims of this war of justice. She is their equal, she is of the same rank and on the same level. She has suffered what they have suffered, for the same cause, in the same spirit and with the same heroism; and if she has not done what the two others have done it is because only the ingratitude of all those whom she had more than once saved, together with one of the greatest crimes in history, prevented her from doing so.

It is time for the Europe of to-day to repair the iniquity committed by the Europe of other days. We are nothing, we are no better than our enemies, we have no title to deliver millions of innocent men to death, unless we stand for justice. The idea of justice alone must rule all that we undertake, for we are united, we have risen and we exist only in its name. At this moment we occupy all the pinnacles of this justice, to which we have brought such an impulse, such sacrifices and such heroism as we shall perhaps never behold again. We shall never rise higher; let us then form at this present time resolutions which will forbid us to descend; and Europe would descend, to a depth greater than was hers in the unpardonable hour of the partition of Poland, did she not before all else repair the immense fault which she committed when she had not yet discovered her conscience and did not yet know what she knows to-day.

THE MIGHT OF THE DEAD

XXII

THE MIGHT OF THE DEAD

1

In _A Beleaguered City_, a little book which, in its curious way, is a masterpiece, Mrs. Oliphant shows us the dead of a provincial town suddenly waxing indignant over the conduct and the morals of those inhabiting the town which they had founded. They rise up in rebellion, invest the houses, the streets, the market-places and, by the pressure of their innumerable multitude, all-powerful though invisible, repulse the living, thrust them out of doors and, setting a strict watch, permit them to return to their roof-trees only after a treaty of peace and penitence has purified their hearts, atoned for their offences and ensured a more worthy future.

There is undoubtedly a great truth beneath this fiction, which appears too far-fetched because we perceive only material and ephemeral realities. The dead live and move in our midst far more really and effectually than the most venturesome imagination could depict. It is very doubtful whether they remain in their graves. It even seems increasingly certain that they never allowed themselves to be confined there. Under the tombstones where we believe them to lie imprisoned there are only a few ashes, which are no longer theirs, which they have abandoned without regret and which, in all probability, they no longer deign to remember. All that was themselves continues to have its being in our midst. How and under what aspect? After all these thousands, perhaps millions, of years, we do not yet know; and no religion has been able to tell us with satisfying certainty, though all have striven to do so; but we may, by means of certain tokens, hope to learn.

Without further considering a mighty but obscure truth, which it is for the moment impossible to state precisely or to render palpable, let us concern ourselves with one which cannot be disputed. As I have said elsewhere, whatever our religious faith may be, there is in any case one place where our dead cannot perish, where they continue to exist as really as when they were in the flesh and often more actively; and this living abiding-place, this consecrated spot, which for those whom we have lost becomes heaven or hell according as we draw close to or depart from their thoughts and their desires, is in us.

And their thoughts and their desires are always higher than our own.

It is, therefore, by uplifting ourselves that we approach them. It is we who must take the first steps, for they can no longer descend, whereas it is always possible for us to rise; for the dead, whatever they have been in life, become better than the best of us. The least worthy of them, in shedding the body, have shed its vices, its littlenesses, its weaknesses, which soon pass from our memory as well; and the spirit alone remains, which is pure in every man and able to desire only what is good. There are no wicked dead because there are no wicked souls. This is why, as we purify ourselves, we restore life to those who were no more and transform our memory, which they inhabit, into heaven.

2

And what was always true of all the dead is far more true to-day when only the best are chosen for the tomb. In the region which we believe to be under the earth, which we call the kingdom of the shades and which in reality is the ethereal region and the kingdom of light, there are at this moment perturbations no less profound than those which we are experiencing on the surface of our earth. The young dead are invading it from every side; and since the beginning of this world they have never been so numerous, so full of energy and zeal. Whereas in the customary sequence of the years the dwelling-place of those who leave us receives only weary and exhausted lives, there is not one in this incomparable host who, to borrow Pericles' expression, "has not departed from life at the height of glory." Not one of them but has gone up, not down, to his death clad in the greatest sacrifice that man can make for an idea which cannot die. All that we have hitherto believed, all that we have striven to attain beyond ourselves, all that has lifted us to the level at which we stand, all that has overcome the evil days and the evil instincts of human nature: all this could have been no more than lies and illusions if such men as these, such a mass of merit and of glory, were really annihilated, had really forever disappeared, were forever useless and voiceless, forever without influence in a world to which they have given life.

3

It is hardly possible that this could be so as regards the external survival of the dead; but it is absolutely certain that it is not so as regards their survival in ourselves. Here nothing is lost and no one perishes. Our memories are to-day peopled by a multitude of heroes struck down in the flower of their youth and very different from the pale and languid cohort of the past, composed almost wholly of the sick and the aged, who already had ceased to exist before leaving the earth. We must tell ourselves that now, in each of our homes, both in our cities and in the country-side, both in the palace and in the meanest hovel, there lives and reigns a young dead man in the glory of his strength. He fills the poorest, darkest dwelling with a splendour of which it had never ventured to dream. His constant presence, imperious and inevitable, diffuses through it and maintains a religion and ideas which it had never known there before, hallows everything around it, forces the eyes to look higher and the spirit to refrain from descending, purifies the air that is breathed and the speech that is held and the thoughts that are mustered there and, little by little, ennobles and uplifts a whole people on a scale of unexampled vastness.

4

Such dead as these have a power as profound, as fruitful as life and less precarious. It is terrible that this experience should have been made, for it is the most pitiless and the first in such enormous masses that mankind has ever undergone; but, now that the ordeal is almost over, we shall soon derive from it the most unexpected fruits.

It will not be long before we see the differences increase and the destinies diverge between the nations which have acquired all these dead and all this glory and those which were deprived of them; and we shall perceive with amazement that those nations which have lost the most are those which have kept their riches and their men. There are losses which are inestimable gains; and there are gains whereby the future is lost. There are dead whom the living cannot replace and the mere thought of whom accomplishes things which their bodies could not perform. There are dead whose energy surpasses death and recovers life; and we are almost every one of us at this moment the mandataries of a being greater, nobler, graver, wiser and more truly living than ourselves. With all those who accompany him, he will be our judge, if it is the fact that the dead weigh the soul of the living and that on their verdict our happiness depends. He will be our guide and our protector, for it is the first time, since history has revealed its misfortunes to us, that man has felt so great a host of such mighty dead soaring above his head and speaking within his heart.

5

We shall live henceforward under their laws, which will be more just but not more severe nor more cheerless than ours; for it is a mistake to suppose that the dead love nothing but gloom; they love only the justice and the truth which are the eternal forms of happiness. From the depths of this justice and this truth in which they are all immersed, they will help us to destroy the great falsehoods of existence: for war and death, if they sow innumerable miseries and misfortunes, have at least the merit of destroying as many lies as they occasion evils. And all the sacrifices which they have made for us will have been in vain--and this is not possible--if they do not first of all bring about the fall of the lies on which we live and which it is not necessary to name, for each of us knows his own and is ashamed of them and will be eager to make an end of them. They will teach us, before all else, from the depths of our hearts which are their living tombs, to love those who outlive them, since it is in them alone that they wholly exist.

WHEN THE WAR IS OVER

XXIII

WHEN THE WAR IS OVER

1

Before closing this book, I wish to weigh for the last time in my conscience the words of hatred and malediction which it has made me speak in spite of myself. We have to do with the strangest of enemies.

He has knowingly and deliberately, while in the full possession of his faculties and without necessity or excuse, revived all the crimes which we supposed to be forever buried in the barbarous past. He has trampled under foot all the precepts which man had so painfully won from the cruel darkness of his beginnings; he has violated all the laws of justice, humanity, loyalty and honour, from the highest, which are almost godlike, to the simplest, the most elementary, which still belong to the lower worlds. There is no longer any doubt on this point: it has been proved over and over again until we have attained a final certitude.

But on the other hand, it is no less certain that he has displayed virtues which it would be unworthy of us to deny; for we honour ourselves in recognizing the valour of those whom we are fighting. He has gone to his death in deep, compact, disciplined masses, with a blind, hopeless, obstinate heroism of which no such lurid example had ever yet been known, a heroism which has many times compelled our admiration and our pity. He has known how to sacrifice himself, with unprecedented and perhaps unequalled abnegation, to an idea which we know to be false, inhuman and even somewhat mean, but which he believes to be just and lofty; and a sacrifice of this kind, whatever its object, is always the proof of a force which survives those who devote themselves to making it and must command respect.

I know very well that this heroism is not like the heroism which we love. For us, heroism must before all be voluntary, freed from any constraint, active, ardent, eager and spontaneous; whereas with them it has mingled with it a great deal of servility, passiveness, sadness, gloomy, ignorant, massive submission and rather base fears.

It is nevertheless the fact that, in the moment of supreme peril, little remains of all these distinctions and that no force in the world can drive to its death a people which does not bear within itself the strength to confront it. Our soldiers make no mistake upon this point. Question the men returning from the trenches: they detest the enemy, they abhor the aggressor, the unjust and arrogant aggressor, uncouth, too often cruel and treacherous; but they do not hate the man: they do him justice; they pity him; and, after the battle, in the defenceless wounded soldier or disarmed prisoner they recognize, with astonishment, a brother in misfortune who, like themselves, is submitting to duties and laws which, like themselves, he too believes lofty and necessary. Under the insufferable enemy they see an unhappy man who also is bearing the burden of life. They forget the things that divide them to recall only those which unite them in a common destiny; and they teach us a great lesson. Better than ourselves, who are removed from danger, at the contact of profound and fearful verities and realities they are already beginning to discern something that we cannot yet perceive; and their obscure instinct is probably anticipating the judgment of history and our own judgment, when we see more clearly. Let us learn from them to be just and to distinguish that which we are bound to despise and loathe from that which we may pity, love and respect.

Setting aside the unpardonable aggression and the inexpiable violation of treaties, this war, despite its insanity, has come near to being a bloody but magnificent proof of greatness, heroism and the spirit of sacrifice. Humanity was ready to rise above itself, to surpass all that it had hitherto accomplished. It has surpassed it. Never before had nations been seen capable, for months on end, perhaps for years, of renouncing their repose, their security, their wealth, their comfort, all that they possessed and loved down to their very life, in order to accomplish what they believed to be their duty. Never before had nations been seen that were able as a whole to understand and admit that the happiness of each of those who live in this time of trial is of no consequence compared with the honour of those who live no more or the happiness of those who are not yet alive. We stand on heights that had not been attained before. And if, on the enemies'

side, this unexampled renunciation had not been poisoned at its source; if the war which they are waging against us had been as fine, as loyal, as generous, as chivalrous as that which we are waging against them, we may well believe that it would have been the last and that it would have ended, not in battle, but, like the awakening from an evil dream, in a noble and fraternal amazement. They have made that impossible; and this, we may be sure, is the disappointment which the future will find it most difficult to forgive them.

2

What are we to do now? Must we hate the enemy to the end of time? The burden of hatred is the heaviest that man can bear upon this earth; and we should faint under the weight of it. On the other hand, we do not wish once more to be the dupes and victims of confidence and love.

Here again our soldiers, in their simplicity, which is so clear-seeing and so close to the truth, anticipate the future and teach us what to admit and what to avoid. We have seen that they do not hate the man; but they do not trust him at all. They discover the human being in him only when he is unarmed. They know, from bitter experience, that, so long as he possesses weapons, he cannot resist the frenzy of destruction, treachery and slaughter; and that he does not become kindly until he is rendered powerless.

Is he thus by nature, or has he been perverted by those who lead him?

Have the rulers dragged the whole nation after them, or has the whole nation driven its rulers on? Did the rulers make the nation like unto themselves, or did the nation select and support them because they resembled itself? Did the evil come from above or below, or was it everywhere? Here we have the great and obscure point of this terrible adventure. It is not easy to throw light upon it and still less easy to find excuses for it. If our enemies prove that they were deceived and corrupted by their masters, they prove, at the same time, that they are less intelligent, less firmly attached to justice, honour and humanity, less civilized, in a word, than those whom they claimed the right to enslave in the name of a superiority which they themselves have proved not to exist; and, unless they can establish that their errors, perfidies and cruelties, which can no longer be denied, should be imputed only to those masters, then they themselves must bear the pitiless weight. I do not know how they will escape from this predicament, nor what the future will decide, that future which is wiser than the past, even as, in the words of an old Slav proverb, the dawn is wiser than the eve. In the meanwhile, let us copy the prudence of our soldiers, who know what to believe far better than we do.

THE MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS

XXIV

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