How many years are we away from a new world war? 1932 was not a year of peace. On the contrary, there were several wars in the world: the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay (1932-1935), the Leticia War between Colombia and Peru (1932-1933), Japan’s invasion of Manchuria (1931-1932), the war between Tibet and China (1930-1032), as well as many civil wars. But the spectre of a new world war was looming over the then center of the world, Europe. In 1932, the League of Nations’ International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation launched a call for intellectuals to exchange views on “the problems facing civilization”. One of the first intellectuals contacted was Albert Einstein, who chose Sigmund Freud as his interlocutor. In his letter, Einstein chooses the problem of war and asks a few questions. “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” Recognizing that the overwhelming majority of the population wants to live in peace, he asks: “how is it possible for this small clique to bend the will of the majority? How is it these devices [ruling classes’ propaganda in the press, Church and schools] succeed so well in rousing men to such wild enthusiasm, even to sacrifice their lives?” As he was addressing Freud, he added a question of a psychological nature. “Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness? Here I am thinking by no means only of the so-called uncultured masses. Experience proves that it is rather the so-called “Intelligentsia” that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw, but encounters it in its easiest synthetic form – upon the printed page.” Freud, who had already touched on the subject of war, responded two months later with a long letter. Typically Freudian, his response is complex: he refers to the dialectical relationship between law and violence, the impossibility of generalizing about war, the precariousness of solutions, whether peaceful or warlike, the coexistence of two contrary but mutually necessary instincts (the erotic instinct to preserve life and the aggressive instinct to destroy life). After this “unpleasant image of the human mind”, and fearing that “the mill grinds the grain so slowly that the population will starve before the flour arrives”, Freud asks: “why are you and I and so many others viscerally against war?” Science is not enough to answer that. It is the horrors of war that make Freud and Einstein pacifists. Once this ethical position is taken, then science can help: civilizational progress (which for Freud is the same as cultural progress) leads to the displacement and restriction of instincts: the intellect is strengthened in relation to the government of instincts, while the aggressiveness of instincts is internalized. War is the grossest negation of civilization. Recognizing that his hope is utopian (and perhaps desperate), Freud concludes: “But one thing we can say: whatever fosters the growth of civilization works at the same time against war”.
Almost one hundred years later, the conclusion we are forced to reach is one of two: there has been no progress in civilization, on the contrary, there has been a regression, so delusional is the move towards war; or, perversely, it is the very progress of this type of civilization that more and more induces war and destruction. In short, the civilization argument doesn’t help us. That’s why we should listen to other voices who, in the same period, were distressed by the possibility of a new war shortly after another had ended with the immense trail of destruction it had left behind.
In the same period, Romain Rolland, who had already risen up (almost alone among French intellectuals) against the First World War, saw a new danger of war on the horizon, in the idea of a “Pan-Europe”, a union of Europe that excluded Russia and was heading blindly towards war, just like in 1914. In a text entitled “Europe, élargis-toi, ou meurs!”, Rolland denounces a press sold out to the interests of capital and war and ridicules the chorus of the anthem “Europe, my homeland”, where we can recognize Josep Borrel’s predecessors. A new kind of nationalism is emerging which, after having humiliated Germany in 1919 (Treaty of Versailles), wants to be built without Russia and closes itself off from the emerging world of Asia. Reading Rolland and analyzing the current situation, we can’t help but conclude that we’ve already seen this film. And, like Rolland one hundred years ago, if this is Europe in the making, I declare myself anti-European!
The feeling of powerlessness, which is evident in the correspondence between Einstein and Freud, is also present in Rolland when he laments the fact that French intellectuals, after a short period of courageous citizenship during the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906), have consigned themselves to a complicit silence, if not to the apology of madness made official as European policy. A few decades later, the European Union managed to seduce the intellectuals who then settled into a celebratory silence. Today, if they want to break the silence, they are silenced.
Just as today, the spectre of war was associated with the spectre of fascism. And here too, the analogies between the two periods, separated by almost a century, are frightening. The spectre of fascism was the one that most insidiously deceived intellectuals, including the best. This was the case with Rabindranath Tagore, and the correspondence between him and Rolland is once again illuminating. It is a prolonged correspondence (1919-1940), made up of mutual admiration and some profound disagreements. Tagore visited Italy in June-July 1926. Received with all the honors of state and flattered by the welcome, Tagore declared himself fascinated by Mussolini, whom he compared to Napoleon or Alexander the Great. Rolland, well aware that intellectuals often confuse friends and admirers with sycophants and manipulators, was so distressed by Tagore’s “slip” that he wrote 50 pages in his diary protesting against the scandal of Tagore being the official guest of someone “who embodies the most brutal, the most oppressive and the most lethal tyranny”. It was under pressure from Rolland that Tagore published a long letter in the Manchester Guardian dispelling the misconception of his supposed support for Mussolini. On November 11, 1926, Rolland wrote to Tagore: “I feel guilty for disturbing your peace by diverting you from the faith you had in your Italian host. But my only interest is to protect your glory, which is more precious to me than your peace.” And shortly afterwards he added in a letter to Tagore’s assistant: “I understand that today’s Europe – so stained with blood – is dangerous territory for a foreigner who visits it with curiosity but without sufficient precautions.” A hundred years on, what we can say is that today’s Europe is dangerous territory for Europeans themselves, and especially for those who try to take the necessary precautions.
Between war and fascism again today
History doesn’t repeat itself, but humans keep trying. And they are trying so hard that they have managed to add to the spectres of the last century a new one that makes the other two even more frightening. I’m talking about the imminent ecological catastrophe. It’s a triangle of death. By recently paying homage to an old Nazi leader from Ukraine, the Canadian Parliament has combined its apology for fascism with its apology for war. By mortgaging its future on an eternal war that it has been commissioned to wage, Europe has forever lost its lead in the climate transition. On the contrary, Europe has become a vast test laboratory for new war technologies. A recent article in the US Army magazine on the lessons of the war in Ukraine calls for a “strategic inflection” due, among other factors, to the lack of combatants to replace those who die. According to the authors, there are an estimated 3,600 “casualties” a day (including dead, wounded and sick) and at this rate it will be impossible to maintain an adequate level of combatants. The solution lies in the use of artificial intelligence in ground combat with unmanned vehicles.
Is this the kind of technological experimentation that will mark Europe’s future? It is quite possible, as the authoritative Wall Street Journal reported on September 26, in a text with the subtitle “arms makers are getting orders for weapons being put to the test on the battlefield”, that “the war in Ukraine is also a giant arms fair”. All this in a context in which, according to the New York Times of September 28, the front line has changed little since the beginning of the year and Russian troops have conquered 200 square miles more than Ukrainian troops! So much death, so much devastation for this? And for how much longer? A new eternal war like the fight against terrorism in the heart of Europe? Or another one just around the corner in the Eastern Mediterranean where Israel has just found the pretext it was looking for – the “final solution” for the Palestinian people? “Just around the corner”? No, in the heart of Europe. Without soul or memory, Europe is incapable of seeing the similarity between the images of death and destruction in the Warsaw ghetto during the desperate Jewish uprising on April 19, 1943 and the images coming from the Gaza Strip. Gaza is Europe here and now.
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