Beverley Baxter's LONDON LETTER
Cut the Barbed Wire!
ONE DAY in the House of Commons not long ago, Sir John Simon announced that the original estimate of £1,500,000,000 for national defense would have to be exceeded considerably.
When Mr. Chamberlain first mentioned that gigantic sum a couple of years ago, the wise ones smiled knowingly. This, they said, was poker of a very high grade. Of course no such money could ever be spent. It was merely a clever political ruse to intimidate the dictators and to call a halt to their grandiose plans by showing that we would play the game to the end and with unlimited financial resources.
But this time when Sir John Simon said that the sum would have to be exceeded, the wise ones did not smile. They knew it was the truth; or if they had any doubts about it, that last sixpenny turn of the income tax thumbscrew thoroughly disillusioned them.
In vain did individual Members of the Opjx)sition call attention to the needs of the poor and the meagre existence they were enduring under the unemployment and old-age benefits. The reply of the Government was the only one that could be given. The first law of human nature is selfdefense, and it governs the action of nations the same as it does of men. The arts, the humanities, the decencies of life had to be swept aside for the stern necessities of national survival.
By a queer coincidence I went that night to the Ixmdon première of a French film called “J’accuse.” I knew that it had played for months in Paris, and had caused violent controversies there from time to time. I was curious to see how it would affect a Dmdon audience.
Film Shows Folly of War
THE beginning of the story is simple, almost commonplace. A section of the French front is shown on the night before the Armistice in November, 1918. The French film producers did not waste money, for the very good reason that they have none to waste. Therefore in creating the necessary war atmosphere, they simply used actual newsreel films taken at the front twenty years ago. The photography may not be up to modern Holly wood standards, but the realism is overwhelming.
There is something about the way in which a man crouches when a shell bursts near by that no actor has been able to copy.
In a dugout just behind the line, there is a battered platoon from a French infantry regiment sullenly discussing the prospects of peace. They have been through so much that they have lost the very capacity to believe in peace or in life itself.
As usual in French films, the parts are convincingly cast. There is no soldier more brave or less heroic than the poilu. He is always the citizen in uniform. Anyone who has ever seen a French cavalry regiment on the move with their bags and bottles and goods and chattels all over the horse, will know what I mean.
Suddenly, while the men are talking, an officer enters. They glance at him and read his thoughts at once. Bad news needs no language at the front. Quietly but with repressed resentment, he tells them that he has to send out a “death patrol” of twelve men. There isa certain spot where
. But the men know all about it. Noone has ever come back from that patrol. “I shall try to get the order cancelled,” says the officer. “But you had better get ready. You start in an hour’s time.” When he has gone, there is no excitement. One man sits
down and writes a half a dozen post cards addressed to his wife, each in turn dated ten days ahead. “Promise to post these once a fortnight,” he says to a sergeant who is not going on the patrol. “It will keep my wife happy that much longer.”
Another soldier continues to mend his boot; a third just whittles a stick until it is smaller than a pencil. Still another stares into space with eyes that are already fixed and unchanging.
They say nothing. Finally one man speaks. He takes a picture from the pocket of his tunic. “Those are my threechildren,” he murmurs. “I would have liked to have seen them again.”
If only one of the actors had shrieked or blasphemed, the scene would have been more bearable. Never have I seen restraint used so ruthlessly to tear one’s heartstrings from their roots.
The officer returns. They glance at him again and reach sullenly for their haversacks. The colonel has refused to countermand the order. The patrol must go out but “France will never forget.”
A boy of twenty llt;gt;ks up eagerly. His companion of forty shrugs his shoulders. That was a cruel, subtle touch. A soldier of fine appearance and with immense character in his face, confronts the officer. “I have no family,” he says, “I am not married. I will go in the place of that one who has three children.”
The film cuts to next morning at the hour of Armistice, when the “Cease fire” of the bugles pierces the sky. Fvervwhere soldiers are jumping and dancing and shouting with
excitement. Then there comes a hush. The patrol is coming back on stretchers, and the blankets are drawn over the faces. They are dead except for one man, the bachelor who volunteered. He is badly wounded but survives.
The years go by. He is now in business and doing well, but his mind is haunted by the memory ol his comrades of the patrol. They are buried at Verdun, and he steals away again and again to console them in their loneliness, to commune with them, to make them feel that he at least has not forgotten.
Hatred and suspicion break out again among the nations. Each one is afraid of the other. Violent speeches are made, and armies equipped with all the new and diabolical arms of modern warfare. The film progresses to the present day. The tension between the nations is reaching breaking point
and the scenes of 1914 are reenacted. Large mobs crowd to the Place de la Concorde. Newspapers pour into the street with great headlines proclaiming that war is inevitable.
The survivor of the patrol struggles to keep his sanity. Forces are pounding at his brain which he cannot throw off. He has promised the dead again and again that
their sacrifice would not be in vain. Now the moment has come when he must betray or fulfill that promise.
He leaves Paris and reaches Verdun at midnight. In the tower by the War cemetery two lights shift and glow like the eyes of an owl.
Once more he reaches the graves of his comrades. Softly lucalls them by name, but there is no res|xmse except the whining music of the wind. He talks to them as il they were his children, tenderly, appealingly. I le explains what is happening in the world. He fells them that he needs the dead to save the living from their folly.
At last he stands erect and his hands reach upward. "Je vous appelle" he c 'es. The wind shrieks but nothing more. "Je tous appelle" he cries again. Those words had an intensity that could not have lx-en duplicated in English. For him to have cried, “I call you!” could not have reproduced the despairing triumph of the other.
He breaks into German and then into English. No longer is he summoning merely the lost patrol, but he is demanding that the whole army of the dead shall rise.
Now his voice lias ceased to plead. It is becoming a terrible awe-inspiring command. With words rushing from his mouth, he proclaims the case against the living. It is a damning and unanswerable case. At the end he almost shrieks; "J'accuse! J'accuse!" Then turning swiftly to the graves he rejxats the cry: "Je votis appelle."
At last the shadowy movement begins. Slowly, wonderingly, wearily, the men of the different nations rise from their graves and, with him at their head, begin a slow, ghostly march on Paris. With relentless realism, the producer has used for this sequence actual survivors of the War whose facial and Ixxlily mutilations are normally hidden in the military hospitals of France. It is an appalling sight as they limp along with their ghastly faces to the slow beat of the drum and the wail of the trumix-ts. That is the story of “J’accuse.” It is a
devastating film. Strangely enough. Hitler has sanctioned its showing in Germany. It has the support of four million ex-service men in France. I wonder if this piece of celluloid may start a flame of sanity in Europe which will not easily be put out?
WHEN I went homo that night. I could not help but wonder what force is producing the dreadful situation of today, when nations are faced with two alternatives, either a war which will destroy civilization or a rearmament program which will bring them to economic ruin.
Has not the moment come when the voice of civilization should ask: “In the name of humanity, can nothing be done to end this madness?”
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At once the critics of the British Government will shout: "This wouldn't have
happened if you had stopped Japan in Manchuria ! You sold the pass in Abyssinia. The League could have prevented all this!”
Such cries are no more than the howling of a frightened dog at the moon.
A Japanese army, forced at the bayonet to withdraw from Manchuria, and an Italian army forced to withdraw from Abyssinia, would simply have created three Germanys instead of one.
With millions of others, I welcomed the League of Nations as something which might atone for the awful sacrifice of the
War. I did not realize that it would become almost at once a combination of European nations to enforce the peace terms of the victors against the vanquished.
Had there been no League, and no Geneva for the public meetings of diplomats and the private conversations of the hotel bedrooms, I believe that Great Britain, after the hysteria of Versailles had calmed down, would have approached Germany with the magnanimity she has always shown toward the defeated, and lifted her up from the ground.
It will be argued that Germany was ultimately included in the League and given her place as an equal. Technically,
yes, although you will remember how her admission to the Council was fought and blocked at the time. But Germany was never really treated as an equal. Her voice was listened to like that of a witness who comes from prison to give evidence and is taken back there after the court is adjourned.
I am not absolving Germany from blame for the present state of affairs. There was always a strong school of thought in Prussia that was determined to avenge the defeat of 1914-18 by any method.
There was also a genuine Liberalism in Germany, a sincere yearning for demo-
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cracv. We failed to sustain that Germany, which might in the end have become the strongest agency for peace in Europe.
The supporters of the League—and they were moved by genuine idealism- concentrated on one aspect of the Covenant to the exclusion of almost all the others. “Collective Security. Collective Security. Collective Security.” Never was a parrot cry more false.
The League as a super policeman with his eye on the prospective malefactor and the handcuffs jingling from his belt, was a grotesque conception. From the beginning it had one chance and one chance onlyto be the rallying point for the moral forces of the world.
Instead of a lamp, we gave Geneva a truncheon supplied by the victors in the War.
Lofty in its conception but false in its development, the pretense of a super-armed state collapsed, and the real master of Europe appeared once more, naked and unashamed.
Let us pay it proper homage. It is to Fear that dictators, presidents, premiers and chancellors bow the knee today.
I talked the other day to the Polish ambassador. “Poland is in the front line,” he remarked quietly. The next day the Roumanian Minister came to the Daily Sketch offices to inaugurate a telephoto exchange between the Daily Sketch and the leading newspaper of Bucharest. The Minister talked to me of the condition of Europe. “We are watching day and night,” he said.
What country is Roumania watching? When Czechoslovakia talks of ensuring peace, what country has it in mind? The French and British are conferring now on joint military tactics. Against whom?
I need not give the answer. The only nation in Europe that is not gripped by fear of Germany is Russia. Stalin, by turning Moscow into a shooting gallery, has succeeded in taking his people’s minds off other dangers.
There is no secret about it. From the North Sea, to the Mediterranean and the Baltic, we are all staring at Germany and sharpening our knives for “Der Tag."
And what about Germany?
Supreme Effort Needed
T TNDOUBTEDLY she is proud of her restored prestige and the immense material achievements of Nazi-Socialism. But do you think she is not gripped by fear?
The isolation of Germany is more complete than in 1914. She may enslave her neighboring states, but the memory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire will remind her that enslaved peoples are doubtful assets in a war.
Germany looks at France with her superb army and indomitable spirit. She sees Britain with her vast resources of wealth and raw materials and manpower, a Britain arming to the teeth. She sees
Russia as the imponderable nation that cannot be conquered even if defeated.
Do you think there is no fear in Berlin? Europe is in the grip of fear. It is in every country and in every home. It haunts the teeming millions of Paris and the cottages of the Balkan peasants. It echoes in the mountains of Switzerland and fastens like a vise on Berlin.
In the name of pity and sanity, can nothing be done about it?
One man alone has emerged who is courageous and clear-sighted enough to face the truth. Neville Chamberlain has dared to come into the open and to ask Italy and Germany what is the cause of the estrangement between ourselves and them.
Already the tension has been relaxed between Italy and Britain. That miserable chapter of vulgar taunts and silly posturings (and not all on one side) is over, I hope, forever.
The conversations with Germany will be more difficult, for the spirit of the German is arrogant, his pride has been deeply hurt.
Yet he must know that war would mean the certain annihilation of Germany, and the return of all Europe to a jungle of warring, hungry tribes.
Great Britain is ready to enlarge the frontiers of opportunity for the German people, to assent to any reasonable extension of economic influence that can be gained by mutual, unforced consent, and to enter into a pact to preserve the peace.
Powerful as Germany is in manpower and tactical position, she cannot live without friendship and the confidence of other nations. We must offer Germany a bridge between herself and the Western democracies.
That bridge would lead to understanding. And only understanding can annihilate fear.
Can we abolish fear? That is the greatest and most pressing task before this nation today.
To do that, we must clear our own minds of hatred and ignorance, which are the begetters of fear. We must cut the barbedwire entanglements of political differences that separate the peoples from each other.
Rearmament must go on. We have no other choice in the bedlam of international affairs. But simultaneously a supreme effort must be made to bring the four great nations of Europe together and to say:
“If we go on as we are doing now, Europe can reach only two objectives economic ruin or war. In either case it is the end of Western civilization, and the gates will be opefted to races not of Europe. Are we so bankrupt of statesmanship, so lacking in tolerance and good will, so determined on self-destruction, that we cannot end our grievances?”
The living and the dead demand that a supreme effort shall be made to end the blasphemy and the horror of Europe’s drift to war. The conscience of the world is crying ‘‘Je vous appelle!” to men oí good will.