The Task at Paris

The New Republic/March 22, 1919


by Walter Lippmann

IT looks as if a large number of Americans were thoroughly frightened at what a world war can do to the world. Curiously enough this state of fear seems to exist among those who not only were heart and soul for the war themselves, but were convinced that they were a little more heart and soul for it than anyone else. They expected better of this war, and they are really rather disappointed at the way things are working themselves out. They had anticipated that once the Hun was licked, the world would automatically return, if not to righteousness, at least to something rather like what it enjoyed in the days when the Kaiser was still flattering millionaires and professors. Instead they discover Mr. Wilson engaged in making a peace that to them passeth all understanding; instead of the comfort of having won and letting the other fellow worry, it seems to be the victors who have to perform the extremely complicated and unmistakably dangerous task of setting the earth to rights. The old idea that to the victor belong the spoils, has turned into the victor’s duty of listening to everybody’s troubles. Not only that. His duties do not end with listening, but do actually involve a mass of responsibility for the future of which it is fair to say most Americans had no notion when they entered the war. They did not suppose that so many things would be irrevocably changed. “War measures”—the vast interruptions necessary to the fight—they endured without murmuring, but now they would like to resume.

It becomes clearer every day that the war was not an interruption which will end with the end of the war. For the plain fact is that international relations as they existed in 1914 were almost completely determined by the military imperialisms of which Prussia was the chief. And until we master the fact that the empires of Hohenzollern, Hapsburg, Sultan and Czar were the foundations of law and order in Europe before 1914, we shall not understand either the meaning of their destruction, or the consequences of our own victories. They were the basis of “peace,” such as it was, and of normal conditions, as men suffered them. Only America seemed to lie outside the orbit of their influence, and this proved in the end to be a delusion. The ambitions, intrigues, necessities, and tyrannies of those empires were the point of reference for all the world. They set the pace in armaments. Those towering systems of power necessitated the building of another system of power to balance them. The character of the competition they created in the backward portions of the globe stimulated an imitative competition. It did not matter who liked their game or hated it. They made the game, and reluctantly or otherwise the game was played.

From Prussian Germany came the example of how to modernize and make a success of ideas at which this generation was inclined to jeer. She was not the first of the imperial despotisms, nor altogether unique either in manners or morals. Where her peculiar danger lay was that in all the others there had arisen controlling popular forces, or, as in Russia, the administration of tyranny was collapsing through sheer incompetence. But Prussia was competent, and because of that competence she threatened to erect a dazzling modern triumph out of ideas which lingered only fitfully in the dusty corners of stale chancelleries. She came uncomfortably close not only to making her will the law of three continents, but to making her ideas the pattern of conventional human thought. She almost demonstrated how tyranny could be made successful and on a worldwide scale.

Her downfall brought down with it the hopes of those feebler empires which existed as competitors or vassals or imitators, and made a mockery of those empires which existed in the dreams and propaganda of hopeful jingoes. ‘Europe,’ as it presented itself to the old-school diplomat, is gone. The continent is still there, most of the population is still there, to be sure, but Europe as a diplomatic system is hopelessly gone. Its organization from the Rhine to the Pacific, from the North Sea to the Moslem world is broken, and all the subsidiary organizations which leaned upon it, and against it, are suspended on nothing. Only small groups of far-seeing men have comprehended even partially that this is what the “victoire integrale” would mean; that victory would compel us to make a new framework for human society. It is no wonder, then, that many elder statesmen, educated in that ruined order, should still act for the ideas which belonged to it, that Baron Sonnino should behave like a diplomat of the Triplice, or M. Pasic should be puzzled by the younger Serbs, that M. Pichon should have forgotten nothing but a little of what democratic France has professed.

The meaning of complete victory was certainly not known to those statesmen who wrote the secret treaties and memoranda which passed between the Allies in 1915 and 1916. To be sure, the execution of what they claimed would have required clear victory over the Central Powers. But although the victory was to be decisive, it was somehow to change nothing very radically. These documents belonged in spirit to a world in which Prussia was temporarily defeated, but in which Prussianism survived as the pacemaker of Europe. Moreover, they presupposed an easy victory—a victory which did not wrack every nation to its depths, and call forth the suppressed energies of revolution. They were written under the double illusion that the Europe of Sazanov, Sonnino, the Quai d’Orsay and the Morning Post was strong enough to defeat the German Empire—and that having defeated her, Europe could carry on as before. Events proved that Prussia could not be replaced by paler reflections of herself. For in destroying her, it was necessary to awaken dormant peoples and submerged classes and the western hemisphere.

Why anyone should suppose that it was possible to tear down the authority which ruled in central and eastern Europe without producing disorder, it is difficult to understand. We have torn down authority. We have willed to tear it down. It was a vile authority, but it was the existing authority in law and in fact. We sent two million men to France with orders to tear it down, to crush it beyond hope of resurrection. And when you tear down, you have torn down. We started to destroy a supremely evil thing and it is destroyed. The result of destroying it is destruction, and what is left are fragments, and possibilities, the stirrings of new life long suppressed, old hopes released, old wrongs being avenged, and endless agitation. It is chaos by every standard of our thinking, wild and dangerous, perhaps infectious, and thoroughly uncomfortable. But we cannot, having deliberately torn a central part of the world order to pieces, leave the wreckage in a panic and whimper that it is dreadful. Nor can we spare it, or save ourselves, by calling everybody who examines it dispassionately some idiotic name like pro-German and Bolshevik.

It calls for imagination to picture just what has happened to Europe and the world by the disappearance of its imperial organizations. We find ourselves in a world where four of the eight or nine centres of decisive authority have collapsed; where hundreds of millions of people have been wrenched from their ancient altars of obedience; where the necessities of bare existence are scarce, and precariously obtained. These people have lost homes, children, fathers. They are full of rumor and fear, and subject to every gust of agitation. Their leaders are untried, their lands undefined, their class interests and property in a jumble, they cannot see ahead three weeks with assurance. It was inevitable that it should be so, once the decision was taken to destroy autocracy to its foundations. For Prussian Germany was the last strong source of authority in Eastern Europe, and the only bulwark of absolutism to which the old order could turn for help.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s