Anzac Day and war-madness 1914

Anselm Kiefer, Abendland (1989)

Bertrand Russell against his War-Mad Countrymen, August 1914

It’s that time of the year again in Australia: Anzac Day. Below is a small contribution to perhaps demystifying the patriotic, militaristic official propaganda – of purported ‘national identity’ via the constructed entity called ‘the Anzac Spirit’ – that surrounds us and our children on that day each year. Perhaps reading the brave dissenting words famed British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote to a newspaper at the very beginning of the First World War may remind us of what that war and probably most wars are really about (besides plunder) and whom they really benefit. Surrounded by naïve and/or militarist countrymen and -women, perhaps we can take some comfort in a radical historical voice of humanity and reason. Especially in times of crisis, the slope to a descent into ‘primitive barbarism’ or friendly Fascism may be quick to appear and is slippery indeed. (PLN) –

‘Against the vast majority of my countrymen, even at this moment, in the name of humanity and civilization, I protest against our share in the destruction of Germany.

A month ago Europe was a peaceful comity of nations; if an Englishman killed a German, he was hanged. Now, if an Englishman kills a German, or if a German kills an Englishman, he is a patriot, who has deserved well of his country. We scan the newspapers with greedy eyes for news of slaughter, and rejoice when we read of innocent young men, blindly obedient to the word of command, mown down in thousands by the machine-guns of Liège.

Those who saw the London crowds, during the night leading up to the Declaration of War saw a whole population, hitherto peaceable and humane, precipitated in a few days down the steep slope of primitive barbarism, letting loose, in a moment, the instincts of hatred and blood-lust against which the whole fabric of society has been raised. ‘Patriots’ in all countries acclaim this brutal orgy as a noble determination to vindicate the right; reason and mercy are swept away in one great flood of hatred; dim abstractions of unimaginable wickedness – Germany to us and the French, Russia to the Germans – conceal the simple fact that the enemy are men, like ourselves, neither better nor worse […]

And all this madness, all this rage, all this flaming death of our civilization and our hopes, has been brought about because a set of official gentlemen living luxurious lives mostly stupid, and all without imagination or heart, have chosen that it should occur rather than that any one of them should suffer some infinitesimal rebuff to his country’s pride. […]

And behind the diplomats, dimly heard in the official documents, stand vast forces of national greed and national hatred – atavistic instincts, harmful to mankind at its present level, but transmitted from savage and half-animal ancestors, concentrated and directed by Governments and the Press, fostered by the upper class as a distraction from social discontent, artificially nourished by the sinister influence of the makers of armaments, encouraged by a whole foul literature of ‘glory’, and by every text-book of history with which the minds of children are polluted.’

(Letter to the Nation 12 August 1914, from: M. Rosen & D. Widgery (Eds.), The Vintage Book of Dissent, London: Chatto & Windus Ltd 1996, pp. 320-321).


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 21, 2010.

2 Responses to “Anzac Day and war-madness 1914”

  1. He seemed one of the few people at the time who saw that war from the beginning for what it was – a fight for empires.

    I don’t think too many of our fellow Australians choose to remember that we jumped on an imperial bandwagon to kill people who had little to do with us (those ANZACs weren’t defending us from much, I don’t think the Turks had much interest in the greater world at the time). At least in World War 2 you could say there was justification for defence of Australia.

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