January 24, 2017

The New York Times in 1936: Does the World Today Resemble 1914?

The New Leaders of Europe
"2,000 volunteers in Birmingham donned gas masks and went through an elaborate drill. These three firemen were fully equipped, from rubber boots to masks, for the mock gas 'invasion,'" March 16, 1938 (source)
This article is part of a series of posts on how newspapers covered the rise of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler in Italy and Germany prior to World War II. In 1936, amid growing fears of another large-scale war breaking out in Europe, New York Times journalist P. W. Wilson questioned whether the current political situation resembled the prelude to World War I.

From The New York Times Magazine, April 5, 1936, pp. 10-11, 25:
The Leaders Upon Whom The World Has Rendered Its Verdict Are Contrasted With Those Who Face the Present Crisis

In August of 1914 Europe was plunged into the most disastrous of all wars. Today there has arisen another crisis in Europe and war is again a word on men's lips. One crisis recalls the other.

The statesmen of 1914 have been summoned to the bar of history and, on the whole, the verdict is against them. If they did not launch the war, they lacked the energy and intelligence to prevent it. It is now the turn of statesmen, here and now, to face similar judgment by public opinion, and in their case, also, there will be a verdict. We may thus compare the two groups of men who are associated respectively with the two world crises.

In simple terms, the position in 1914 was a balance of power. That equilibrium had been repeatedly shaken by disturbing events. Finally it was upset. The statesmen, in frantic alarm, tried to recover the balance, but at the eleventh hour they lost control of the position and the crash came.

Today Europe has been trying to maintain a collective security. The League of Nations, the Pact of Locarno, and other treaties were intended to draw the Continent out of several camps into one camp. It is this collective security that, like the balance of power in 1914, has been gravely disturbed. In one case as in the other, the status quo was unreliable. The rulers of Europe in 1914 included men of very different personalities; so do the rulers today. Yet each of the two groups is embraced within one comprehensive association of ideas; each is distinguished from the other by an inexorable element—namely, time. It was the pre-war mind that failed in 1914. It is the post-war mind today that faces an ordeal.

•   •   •

The rulers of yesterday impressed the world as mature in their statesmanship. The rulers of today seem to be young. On the average they are young in years. They are still younger in experience—these new men facing a new era. Throughout the entire Continent of Europe there is no one in office whose experience entitles him to rank with a veteran Gladstone, Disraeli, Palmerston, Balfour or Talleyrand.

Europe lost Hindenburg of Germany, Venizelos of Greece, Piłsudski of Poland, Briand of France, to mention but a few of the departed. An old King of England has been succeeded by a young King, and in Czechoslovakia on old President, Masaryk, has surrendered his mantle to a disciple, Edvard Beneš. Of the official hierarchy that handles the crisis in 1914 two alone survive and both are septuagenarians. The Kaiser is now exiled at Doorn. For fourteen years David Lloyd George has been out of power.

The astonishing thing is that rulers of the new Europe—powerful rulers, men who held their positions for years—arise like an illusion of the magician. Their emergence surpasses the fantastic incredibilities of the Arabian Nights. Nothing like it has ever happened before.

The Czar Nicholas II was surrounded by a glittering court, a gorgeous church, a powerful bureaucracy and a conscript army. And who was his Foreign Minister? A trained diplomatist of the old school, Sazonoff, who had never been anything else. At ceremonials of all kinds, few faces were more familiar than his. Sazonoff wore his gold lace as camouflage that concealed his intentions. He was very adroit. But over his scruples there were two opinions—his own and that of others who had dealings with him.

Who would have conceived it possible that the day would come when all of the "Holy Russias" would be governed by the Socialist son of a shoemaker who had been banished into a remote Siberia, a man whose name had appeared seldom if ever in any ordinary newspaper of the English-speaking world? Who would have supposed that a salesman called "Mr. Harrison," hurrying with a satchel to catch his morning train into London and badly wanted by the Russian police for a revolutionary hold-up of a convoy with money at Tiflis, would sit in the seat of Sazonoff and, changing his various names to Maxim Litvinoff, would represent Russia during a continuous period of seventeen years or thereabout? The new Russia has crashed the gates.

Byzantine in his multiplicity of uniforms, the Kaiser was an All-Highest War Lord, an autocrat whose grandiosity was backed by the most formidable military forces ever developed by mankind. The Germany over which he reigned remembered three wars—against Denmark, Austria-Hungary and France. Each of these wars had been a greater triumph than the last. It was victory alone in which the nation could believe—no one living could remember anything else—and the Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, was among the statesmen who hoped that the Reich, feared and respected, would rest on its laurels. Amid the lurid sunset of the Europe to which he belonged, he is seen—a figure worthy of Aeschylus—protesting in angry horror against Britain's inexplicable decision to fight for a scrap of paper.

•   •   •

Who now receives an emperor's salute? Adolf Hitler, who in 1914 was an architect's draftsman of apparently insignificant personality, who enlisted as a soldier in the ranks and obeyed orders like other soldiers, wields an omnipotence to which the most boastful of autocrats in his most exalted moments did not dare to aspire.

The men who speak for Germany are the products not of victory but of defeat. Joachim von Ribbentrop—the soft-spoken, violin playing Ambassador at Large—is of military family and fought in the war as lieutenant of hussars; and there are two others.

Having a club foot, Paul Joseph Goebbels, the son of a peasant, born in 1897 near Duesseldorf, could not fight. But he could hate. He could make speeches. He could write. And one of his words wounded like a barbed arrow. He described the anti-Fascist press as "journaille." It was a deadly combination of "journal" and "canaille." It was deadly because it was French.

By birth and upbringing Hermann von Goering is poles apart from Goebbels. But they are fused into one alloy by the flame of indignation, feeding on impoverishment, which is sweeping over Germany. Prime Minister of Prussia and Hitler's close associate, Goering is a Bavarian aristocrat. Here is no indoor official chained to his desk. Goering is a mountaineer, above all an aviator, the rebellious airman who, at the armistice, withdrew his planes inland rather than surrender them to the Allies. In Goering the Kaiser is reincarnated. Goering is, among the Nazis, the man of many uniforms, against whom the jest is that a thief stole thirty-seven of them, yet he did not notice the loss.

What had been victory in Germany was defeat in France, and the German defeat was a French victory. In 1914 all the leading French statesmen—Poincaré as President, Viviani as Prime Minister, Clemenceau as the Tiger of Parliament and the press—had grown up under the shadow of national humiliation. The statue of Strasbourg in Paris, draped perpetually in black, symbolized the mood. It was sullen and unappeased.

•   •   •

It is a victorious war that France now remembers. Born in 1889, nineteen years after the Franco-Prussian War began, Foreign Minister Flandin was among the millions who flung themselves against the German invader. Standing 6 feet 6 inches high, he became an air pilot, and aviation is still his enthusiasm. "Here," they say of him, "is no café politician." Here is a man of the open air who shoots grouse in Scotland, a man of open mind who wants France to have whatever of President Roosevelt's New Deal may suit her special needs.

In 1914 the leading statesmen of Italy—Salandra, the Prime Minister, and Giolitti, who had held that office—were party men among party men whose lives had been devoted to the play of politics. Today such politicians are in retirement. The son of a blacksmith who had been a soldier in the ranks arose like a Samson and swept all of the parties into the discard. Benito Mussolini installed himself as dictator in their stead.

Italy has her Flandin in Dino Grandi, the farmer's son, olive in complexion, blackbearded, sonorous in his voice; like Goering, a man of the mountains. By profession a lawyer, Grandi had to be a soldier and a great soldier he proved to be. "Very well, my children," he said, laughing to his company flinching under fire, "You'll find I am broad enough to shield you all, so we will go forward as ordered."

Belgium has passed from pre-war to post-war. When King Albert, the mountain-climber, stumbled and fell to his death, a page was turned. A King with a future succeeded the King whose glory was the past.

The Prime Minister of Belgium—still in his early forties—is among the new rulers who think entirely in terms of today. His background is not merely a bombarded Liège. It is Princeton University of which he is an alumnus. What attracts him is the economic gospel of Keynes. Flandin has flirted with a New Deal for France. But in Belgium, van Zeeland has achieved something of the kind.
A crowd salutes Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, at a rally in London, October 3, 1936 (source)
Great Britain is a country where forms are religiously perpetuated. Between her statesmen of 1914 and her statesmen of today there is a similarity on the surface. Baldwin, like Asquith, knows how to "wait and see." Each handling his own crisis—a possibility of war—the two men have played the same game. They have sought peace by postponement.

But there is a profound change in the British attitude toward foreign affairs. Asquith, in 1914, knew of war only by anticipation. Baldwin has seen war with his own eyes. And in 1936 the fight for peace in London is much more determined than it was in those days when modern war existed only in the imagination.

In 1914 the British Foreign Secretary was Edward Grey; today it is Anthony Eden. Both men have been drawn from the landed aristocracy. Both went to Oxford. Both acquired the charm, the restraint and simplicity of manner which is characteristic of a British diplomat. Both were promoted young—Grey was Secretary of State at 43, Eden at 38.

Grey brooded over war and prayed that it might be avoided. But never had he been shaken out of the even tenor of his impregnable composure. To Eden, war is no misgiving merely; it is memory. He fought in the trenches, won the Military Cross and became the youngest captain in the British Army.

Between King George twenty-five years ago and King Edward today there is a startling contrast. Before the war monarchy was the accepted system. It is now the most conspicuous of all anomalies. King Edward, as he moves about, is still in the trenches. His throne is Toc H, that veterans' shrine where the lamp of dedication to duty is perpetual; his aim is to stop the horror of war at any cost; he demands no balance of power that may be upset, but a commonwealth of all nations wherein no balance of power is necessary.

•   •   •

So do we gather the old Europe and the new rulers into their two groups, so do we compare the groups. Can we differentiate them by standards of background and experience, them by standards of background and experience, of social strata and methods of wielding authority? It is a question on which, in years to come, libraries will be written.

These rulers of Europe succeed to an age-long inheritance of responsibility. They perpetuate an authority once reserved to Kings and Emperors and served by statesmen whose names recall great memories—Richelieu, Pitt, Bismarck and the rest.

For a thousand years it has been the supreme ambition of Europeans to enter the governing class and enjoy its privileges. Before the war a statesman was advanced to the forefront according to something that could be regarded as a rule. He might be assisted by private means. He might have been valuable to a political party. There were certain recognized avenues that converged on the summit of men's hopes.

The prize of power might be hard to win. But it was worth the winning. It had more or less permanent value. Let a man receive the award and he secured a possession.

The post-war era is revolution. It is not merely revolution as a violence that happens. It is revolution as the air that people breathe. The helmsmen of the ship of state change with the political weather.

•   •   •

It is not enough to say that many men of obscure origin have risen to positions of conspicuous authority. That has happened before. The fact to be faced is that no statesman, wielding authority, knows for certain what may happen to him as the barometer rises or falls. A Curzon, being a Marquis, may see a trade-unionist called Henderson presiding over the most exclusive of all foreign offices, and Henderson, in his turn, may be ousted in favor of a corporation lawyer, Sir John Simon. Goebbels the plebeian and Goering the patrician sit side by side and are interchangeable. So with Ramsay MacDonald, the Socialist, and Stanley Baldwin, the Conservative.

A change from personal security to personal insecurity affects the outlook of statesmen. The rulers of yesterday had a motive for thinking of the yesterdays. The past was a title deed to their privileges. The rulers of today have no reason to think of anything except today. It is no part of their task to prolong the past. The war obliterated much of the past. What engrosses the post-war generation is the urgency of the present and the shadows of the future.

Experience has fallen to a discount. All precedents are canceled. What is meant by ability signifies ingenious improvisation—calling a new conference, devising some dilatory formula, turning awkward corners, inventing compromises. The art of the new rulers is opportunism. Sometimes it seems as if rulers, whether new or old, are little more than the marionettes in a puppet show where the fates manipulate the unseen threads of destiny.

•   •   •

There is a difference between yesterday and today. It is a difference that makes all the difference. A fact has developed which was less developed in days gone by. That fact is public opinion.

The rulers of yesterday, even in the democracies, considered that they were answerable only to the privileged few. Behind closed doors they talked to one another. Diplomacy was an occult proceeding into which the British Parliament itself must not inquire too closely, and the idea that responsible statesmen would explain their policy to mammoth meetings and make apologies to the whole world by means of radio would have been unthinkable.

Dictatorship itself, with its censorship, is a measure of the fear inspired by public opinion, and this fear is acting as a deterrent on militarism. The collective statesmanship of Europe, whatever its follies and failures, is far less reckless than the light-hearted insanity that plunged Europe into war in August 1914. Half a dozen times during the last few years events—not forgetting assassinations—have occurred which, a quarter of a century ago, would have led to war. The new rulers, with all their excesses and limitations, have at least learned a certain lesson. It is that war is fatal to those who allow it to happen.