Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

The Refusal of Reciprocity

In the last summary I suggested that Barbarism, as we mean it, is not mere
ignorance or even mere cruelty. It has a more precise sense, and means
militant hostility to certain necessary human ideas. I took the case of the
vow or the contract, which Prussian intellectualism would destroy. I urged
that the Prussian is a spiritual Barbarian, because he is not bound by his
own past, any more than a man in a dream. He avows that when he promised to
respect a frontier on Monday, he did not foresee what he calls "the
necessity" of not respecting it on Tuesday. In short, he is like a child,
who at the end of all reasonable explanations and reminders of admitted
arrangements, has no answer except "But I _want_ to."

There is another idea in human arrangements so fundamental as to be
forgotten; but now for the first time denied. It may be called the idea of
reciprocity; or, in better English, of give and take. The Prussian appears
to be quite intellectually incapable of this thought. He cannot, I think,
conceive the idea that is the foundation of all comedy; that, in the eyes
of the other man, he is only the other man. And if we carry this clue
through the institutions of Prussianised Germany, we shall find how
curiously his mind has been limited in the matter. The German differs from
other patriots in the inability to understand patriotism. Other European
peoples pity the Poles or the Welsh for their violated borders; but Germans
pity only themselves. They might take forcible possession of the Severn or
the Danube, of the Thames or the Tiber, of the Garry or the Garonne--and
they would still be singing sadly about how fast and true stands the watch
on Rhine; and what a shame it would be if any one took their own little
river away from them. That is what I mean by not being reciprocal: and you
will find it in all that they do: as in all that is done by savages.

Here, again, it is very necessary to avoid confusing this soul of the
savage with mere savagery in the sense of brutality or butchery; in which
the Greeks, the French and all the most civilised nations have indulged in
hours of abnormal panic or revenge. Accusations of cruelty are generally
mutual. But it is the point about the Prussian that with him nothing is
mutual. The definition of the true savage does not concern itself even with
how much more he hurts strangers or captives than do the other tribes of
men. The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you;
and howls when you hurt him. This extraordinary inequality in the mind is
in every act and word that comes from Berlin. For instance, no man of the
world believes all he sees in the newspapers; and no journalist believes a
quarter of it. We should, therefore, be quite ready in the ordinary way to
take a great deal off the tales of German atrocities; to doubt this story
or deny that. But there is one thing that we cannot doubt or deny: the seal
and authority of the Emperor. In the Imperial proclamation the fact that
certain "frightful" things have been done is admitted; and justified on the
ground of their frightfulness. It was a military necessity to terrify the
peaceful populations with something that was not civilised, something that
was hardly human. Very well. That is an intelligible policy: and in that
sense an intelligible argument. An army endangered by foreigners may do the
most frightful things. But then we turn the next page of the Kaiser's
public diary, and we find him writing to the President of the United
States, to complain that the English are using Dum-dum bullets and
violating various regulations of the Hague Conference. I pass for the
present the question of whether there is a word of truth in these charges.
I am content to gaze rapturously at the blinking eyes of the True, or
Positive, Barbarian. I suppose he would be quite puzzled if we said that
violating the Hague Conference was "a military necessity" to us; or that
the rules of the Conference were only a scrap of paper. He would be quite
pained if we said that Dum-dum bullets, "by their very frightfulness,"
would be very useful to keep conquered Germans in order. Do what he will,
he cannot get outside the idea that he, because he is he and not you, is
free to break the law; and also to appeal to the law. It is said that the
Prussian officers play at a game called Kriegsspiel, or the War Game. But
in truth they could not play at any game; for the essence of every game is
that the rules are the same on both sides.

But taking every German institution in turn, the case is the same; and it
is not a case of mere bloodshed or military bravado. The duel, for
example, can legitimately be called a barbaric thing; but the word is here
used in another sense. There are duels in Germany; but so there are in
France, Italy, Belgium, and Spain; indeed, there are duels wherever there
are dentists, newspapers, Turkish baths, time-tables, and all the curses of
civilisation; except in England and a corner of America. You may happen to
regard the duel as a historic relic of the more barbaric States on which
these modern States were built. It might equally well be maintained that
the duel is everywhere the sign of high civilisation; being the sign of its
more delicate sense of honour, its more vulnerable vanity, or its greater
dread of social disrepute. But whichever of the two views you take, you
must concede that the essence of the duel is an armed equality. I should
not, therefore, apply the word barbaric, as I am using it, to the duels of
German officers, or even to the broadsword combats that are conventional
among the German students. I do not see why a young Prussian should not
have scars all over his face if he likes them; nay, they are often the
redeeming points of interest on an otherwise somewhat unenlightening
countenance. The duel may be defended; the sham duel may be defended.

What cannot be defended is something really peculiar to Prussia, of which
we hear numberless stories, some of them certainly true. It might be called
the one-sided duel. I mean the idea that there is some sort of dignity in
drawing the sword upon a man who has not got a sword; a waiter, or a shop
assistant, or even a schoolboy. One of the officers of the Kaiser in the
affair at Saberne was found industriously hacking at a cripple. In all
these matters I would avoid sentiment. We must not lose our tempers at the
mere cruelty of the thing; but pursue the strict psychological distinction.
Others besides German soldiers have slain the defenceless, for loot or lust
or private malice, like any other murderer. The point is that nowhere else
but in Prussian Germany is any theory of honour mixed up with such things;
any more than with poisoning or picking pockets. No French, English,
Italian or American gentleman would think he had in some way cleared his
own character by sticking his sabre through some ridiculous greengrocer who
had nothing in his hand but a cucumber. It would seem as if the word which
is translated from the German as "honour" must really mean something quite
different in German. It seems to mean something more like what we should
call "prestige."

The fundamental fact, however, is the absence of the reciprocal idea. The
Prussian is not sufficiently civilised for the duel. Even when he crosses
swords with us his thoughts are not as our thoughts; when we both glorify
war, we are glorifying different things. Our medals are wrought like his,
but they do not mean the same thing; our regiments are cheered as his are,
but the thought in the heart is not the same; the Iron Cross is on the
bosom of his king, but it is not the sign of our God. For we, alas, follow
our God with many relapses and self-contradictions, but he follows his very
consistently. Through all the things that we have examined, the view of
national boundaries, the view of military methods, the view of personal
honour and self-defence, there runs in their case something of an atrocious
simplicity; something too simple for us to understand: the idea that glory
consists in holding the steel, and not in facing it.

If further examples were necessary, it would be easy to give hundreds of
them. Let us leave, for the moment, the relation between man and man in
the thing called the duel. Let us take the relation between man and woman,
in that immortal duel which we call a marriage. Here again we shall find
that other Christian civilisations aim at some kind of equality; even if
the balance be irrational or dangerous. Thus, the two extremes of the
treatment of women might be represented by what are called the respectable
classes in America and in France. In America they choose the risk of
comradeship; in France the compensation of courtesy. In America it is
practically possible for any young gentleman to take any young lady for
what he calls (I deeply regret to say) a joy-ride; but at least the man
goes with the woman as much as the woman with the man. In France the young
woman is protected like a nun while she is unmarried; but when she is a
mother she is really a holy woman; and when she is a grandmother she is a
holy terror. By both extremes the woman gets something back out of life.
There is only one place where she gets little or nothing back; and that is
the north of Germany. France and America aim alike at equality; America by
similarity; France by dissimilarity. But North Germany does definitely
aim at inequality. The woman stands up, with no more irritation than a
butler; the man sits down, with no more embarrassment than a guest. This is
the cool affirmation of inferiority, as in the case of the sabre and the
tradesman. "Thou goest with women; forget not thy whip," said Nietzsche. It
will be observed that he does not say "poker"; which might come more
naturally to the mind of a more common or Christian wife-beater. But then a
poker is a part of domesticity; and might be used by the wife as well as
the husband. In fact, it often is. The sword and the whip are the weapons
of a privileged caste.

Pass from the closest of all differences, that between husband and wife, to
the most distant of all differences, that of the remote and unrelated races
who have seldom seen each other's faces, and never been tinged with each
other's blood. Here we still find the same unvarying Prussian principle.
Any European might feel a genuine fear of the Yellow Peril; and many
Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Russians have felt and expressed it. Many might
say, and have said, that the Heathen Chinee is very heathen indeed; that if
he ever advances against us he will trample and torture and utterly
destroy, in a way that Eastern people do, but Western people do not. Nor do
I doubt the German Emperor's sincerity when he sought to point out to us
how abnormal and abominable such a nightmare campaign would be, supposing
that it could ever come. But now comes the comic irony; which never fails
to follow on the attempt of the Prussian to be philosophic. For the Kaiser,
after explaining to his troops how important it was to avoid Eastern
Barbarism, instantly commanded them to become Eastern Barbarians. He told
them, in so many words, to be Huns: and leave nothing living or standing
behind them. In fact, he frankly offered a new army corps of aboriginal
Tartars to the Far East, within such time as it may take a bewildered
Hanoverian to turn into a Tartar. Any one who has the painful habit of
personal thought, will perceive here at once the non-reciprocal principle
again. Boiled down to its bones of logic, it means simply this: "I am a
German and you are a Chinaman. Therefore I, being a German, have a right
to be a Chinaman. But you have no right to be a Chinaman; because you are
only a Chinaman." This is probably the highest point to which the German
culture has risen.

The principle here neglected, which may be called Mutuality by those who
misunderstand and dislike the word Equality, does not offer so clear a
distinction between the Prussian and the other peoples as did the first
Prussian principle of an infinite and destructive opportunism; or, in other
words, the principle of being unprincipled. Nor upon this second can one
take up so obvious a position touching the other civilisations or
semi-civilisations of the world. Some idea of oath and bond there is in the
rudest tribes, in the darkest continents. But it might be maintained, of
the more delicate and imaginative element of reciprocity, that a cannibal
in Borneo understands it almost as little as a professor in Berlin. A
narrow and one-sided seriousness is the fault of barbarians all over the
world. This may have been the meaning, for aught I know, of the one eye of
the Cyclops: that the Barbarian cannot see round things or look at them
from two points of view; and thus becomes a blind beast and an eater of
men. Certainly there can be no better summary of the savage than this,
which as we have seen, unfits him for the duel. He is the man who cannot
love--no, nor even hate--his neighbour as himself.

But this quality in Prussia does have one effect which has reference to the
same question of the lower civilisations. It disposes once and for all at
least of the civilising mission of Germany. Evidently the Germans are the
last people in the world to be trusted with the task. They are as
shortsighted morally as physically. What is their sophism of "necessity"
but an inability to imagine to-morrow morning? What is their
non-reciprocity but an inability to imagine, not a god or devil,
but merely another man? Are these to judge mankind? Men of two tribes
in Africa not only know that they are all men, but can understand
that they are all black men. In this they are quite seriously in
advance of the intellectual Prussian; who cannot be got to see
that we are all white men. The ordinary eye is unable to perceive
in the North-East Teuton anything that marks him out especially
from the more colourless classes of the rest of Aryan mankind. He is simply
a white man, with a tendency to the grey or the drab. Yet he will explain,
in serious official documents, that the difference between him and us is a
difference between "the master-race and the inferior-race." The collapse of
German philosophy always occurs at the beginning rather than the end of an
argument; and the difficulty here is that there is no way of testing which
is a master-race except by asking which is your own race. If you cannot
find out (as is usually the case) you fall back on the absurd occupation of
writing history about pre-historic times. But I suggest quite seriously
that if the Germans can give their philosophy to the Hottentots, there is
no reason why they should not give their sense of superiority to the
Hottentots. If they can see such fine shades between the Goth and the
Gaul, there is no reason why similar shades should not lift the savage
above other savages; why any Ojibway should not discover that he is one
tint redder than the Dacotahs; or any nigger in the Cameroons say he is not
so black as he is painted. For this principle of a quite unproved racial
supremacy is the last and worst of the refusals of reciprocity. The
Prussian calls all men to admire the beauty of his large blue eyes. If they
do, it is because they have inferior eyes: if they don't, it is because
they have no eyes.

Wherever the most miserable remnant of our race, astray and dried up in
deserts, or buried forever under the fall of bad civilisations, has some
feeble memory that men are men, that bargains are bargains, that there are
two sides to a question, or even that it takes two to make a quarrel--that
remnant has the right to resist the New Culture, to the knife and club and
the splintered stone. For the Prussian begins all his culture by that act
which is the destruction of all creative thought and constructive action.
He breaks that mirror in the mind, in which a man can see the face of his
friend or foe.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Sorry, no summary available yet.