" I intend to
analyze with you an idea which seems simple and clear but which lends itself
to the most dangerous misunderstandings. . . . In our day one commits a
serious error: one confounds nation and race, and one attributes to
ethnographical or rather linguistic groups a sovereignty analogous to that of
real peoples. Let us try for some precision in these difficult questions where
the slightest confusion about the meaning of words, which are at the basis of
our reasoning, can produce the most disastrous errors.
Since the end of the
Roman Empire, or rather since the dissolution of the empire of Charlemagne,
Western Europe seems to be divided into nations. At certain times some of them
have sought to exercise a hegemony over the others, without being able to
arrive there in an enduring fashion. What Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon I
could not achieve, nobody, probably, will be able to do in the future. The
establishment of a new Roman Empire or a new empire of Charlemagne has become
impossible. The division of Europe is too great for an attempt at universal
domination not to provoke with speed a coalition which puts the ambitious
nation back within its natural limits. .
Nations in this sense
are something new in history. What characterizes these various nations is the
fusion of the populations which compose
them. Nothing similar exists in Turkey, where the Turk, the Slav, the Greek,
the Armenian, the Arab, the Syrian, the Kurd, are today as distinct as they
were on the day of the conquest. . . . Even by the tenth century all the
inhabitants of France are French. The idea of a difference of races in the
population of France has completely disappeared with the French writers and
poets after Hugues Capet. The distinction between the noble and the serf is
highly emphasized, but this distinction is in no way an ethnic distinction.
These great laws of
the history of Western Europe become obvious if we contrast them with the
events in Eastern Europe. Under the crown of St. Stephan, the Magyars and the
Slavs have remained as distinct today as they were 800 years ago. In Bohemia,
the Czech and the German elements are superimposed as water and oil in a
glass.. The Turkish policy of separating nationalities according to religion
has had the most serious consequences: it caused the ruin of the Middle East.
For, the essential element of a nation is that all its individuals must have
many things in common but it must also have forgotten many things. Every
French citizen must have forgotten the night of St. Bartholemew and the
massacres in the thirteenth century in the South. There are not ten families
in France who could prove their Frankish origin, and such a proof would be
deficient because thousands of unknown mixed breedings could derange all
According to certain
political theorists, the nation is above all the work of a dynasty
representing an ancient conquest which was first accepted and later forgotten
by the mass of people... Has such a law absolute validity?
Certainly not. Switzerland and the United States, which arose as
agglomerations of successive additions, have no dynastic basis. . . . One must
therefore admit that a nation can exist without the dynastic principle, and
even that nations which were formed by dynasties can separate themselves from
them without losing their identity thereby. Against dynastic rights, the right
of nationality has emerged. On what tangible fact could it be based?
I. Some people say
that it could be. based upon race. The artificial divisions created by the
feudal past, by princely marriages and diplomatic congresses have lapsed. What
remains firm and permanent is the race of the people. It constitutes a
legitimate right. According to this theory the Germans have the right to take
back the scattered members of the Germanic family, even if these members do
not seek annexation. Thus one creates a primordial right analogous to that of
the divine right of kings. This is a very great fallacy whose dominance would
ruin European civilization...
To base one’s
policy on an ethnographical analysis means to establish it on a chimera. The
noblest countries - England, France, Italy - are those where the blood is most
mixed. Germany is no exception. . . . Race as we historians understand it is
something which is formed by history and undone by history. The study of race
is of great importance for the study of the history of mankind, but it has no
place in politics. . . . Will the Germans, who have raised the banner of
ethnography so high, not see one day the Slavs analyze the names of the
villages of Saxony and of Lusatia, seek the traces of populations long dead,
and ask for an account of the massacres and the mass enslavement to which the
Germans under their Ottonian emperors subjected their ancestors? It is good
for all of us to know how to forget.
II. What we have said
of race is as true of language. Language may invite us to unite, but it does
not compel us to do so. . . . Languages are historical formations, which tell
us very little about the race of those who speak them. In any event, they
should not fetter human freedom when it concerns the fate of the group with
whom we wish to unite for life or death.
One abandons the
great air which one breathes in the large camp of humanity in order to shut
oneself up in conventicles of compatriots. Nothing could be worse for the
mind; nothing could be more troublesome for civilization. Let us not abandon
the fundamental principle that man is a
rational and moral being before he is penned up in this or that language,
before he is a member of this or that race, before he adheres to this or that
culture. Above the French, German, or Italian culture, there is a human
culture. Look at the great men of the Renaissance. They were neither French,
Italian or German. By their intimacy with the spirit of antiquity, they had
found the secret of the true education of the human mind, and they devoted
themselves to it with all their heart. How well they acted!
III. Nor could
religion offer a sufficient foundation for the
establishment of a modern nation. . . . One can be a Frenchman, an Englishman
or a German, by being a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew or an agnostic. Religion
has become something individual; it concerns the conscience of each person...
IV. The community of
interests is certainly a strong tie among men. But are interests sufficient to
create a nation? I do not believe it. The community of interests creates
commercial treaties. Nationality is something sentimental too; it is body and
soul at the same time; a custom-union is not a fatherland.
V. Geographhy, or as
one says, the natural frontiers certainly plays a considerable part in the
division of nations. . . . Can we say, however, as certain people
believe, that the frontiers of a nation are marked on the map, and such a
nation has the right to adjudicate to itself what it regards as necesary to
round off its contours. to reach some mountain or some river, to which credits
a kind of a priori quality? I do not know of any doctrine which would
be more arbitrarily disastrous. With it one can justify all violence. One
speaks of strategic reasons. Nothing is absolute; clearly, certain concessions
must be made to necessity. But these concessions should not go too far.
Otherwise everybody would demand what is strategically convenient to and a war
without end would ensue. ..
...A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are
but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past,
one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of
memories; the other is present- day consent, the desire to live together, the
will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an
undivided form. Man, Gentlemen, does not improvise. The nation, like the
individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice, and
devotion. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the
ancestors have made us what we are.
A heroic past, great
men, glory (by which I understand genuine glory), this is the social
capital upon which one bases a national idea. To have common glories in the
past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds
together, to wish to perform still more-these are the essential conditions for
being a people. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices to which one has
consented, and in proportion to the ills that one
has suffered. One loves the house that one has built and that one has
handed down. The Spartan song-"We are what you were; we will be what you
are" -- is, in its simplicity, the abridged hymn of every patrie.
More valuable by far than common customs posts and frontiers conforming to
strategic ideas is the fact of sharing, in the past, a glorious heritage and
regrets, and of having, in the future, [a shared] programme to put into
effect, or the fact of having suffered, enjoyed, and hoped together. These are
the kinds of things that can be understood in spite of differences of race and
language. I spoke just now of "having
suffered together" and, indeed, suffering in common unifies more than
joy does. Where national memories are concerned, griefs are of more value than
triumphs, for they impose duties, and require a common effort.
A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling
of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is
prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past;
it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent,
the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation's existence
is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a
daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual
affirmation of life. That, I know full well, is less metaphysical than divine
right and less brutal than so called historical right. According to the ideas
that I am outlining to you, a nation has no more right than a king does to say
to a province: "You belong to me, I am seizing you." A province, as
far as I am concerned, is its inhabitants; if anyone has the right to be
consulted in such an affair, it is the inhabitant. A nation never has any real
interest in annexing or holding on to a country against its will. The wish of
nations is, all in all, the sole legitimate criterion, the one to which one
must always return.
We have driven metaphysical and theological abstractions out of politics.
What then remains? Man, with his desires and his needs. The secession, you
will say to me, and, in the long term, the disintegration of nations will be
the outcome of a system which places these old organisms at the mercy of wills
which are often none too enlightened. It is clear that, in such matters, no
principle must be pushed too far. Truths of this order are only applicable as
a whole in a very general fashion. Human wills change, but what is there here
below that does not change? The nations are not something eternal. They had
their beginnings and they will end. A European confederation will very
probably replace them. But such is not the law of the century in which we are
living. At the present time, the existence of nations is a good thing, a
necessity even. Their existence is the guarantee of liberty, which would be
lost if the world had only one law and only one master.
Through their various and often opposed powers, nations participate in the
common work of civilization; each sounds a note in the great concert of
humanity, which, after all, is the highest ideal reality that we are capable
of attaining. Isolated, each has its weak point. I often tell myself that an
individual who had those faults which in nations are taken for good qualities,
who fed off vainglory, who was to that degree jealous, egotistical, and
quarrelsome, and who would draw his sword on the smallest pretext, would be
the most intolerable of men. Yet all these discordant details disappear in the
overall context. Poor humanity, how you have suffered! How many trials still
await you! May the spirit of wisdom guide you, in order to preserve you from
the countless dangers with which your path is strewn!
Let me sum up, Gentlemen. Man is a slave neither of his race nor his
language, nor of his religion, nor of the course of rivers nor of the
direction taken by mountain chains.
A large aggregate of men, healthy in mind and warm of heart, creates the
kind of moral conscience which we call a nation. So long as this moral
consciousness gives proof of its strength by the sacrifices which demand the
abdication of the individual to the advantage of the community, it is
legitimate and has the right to exist.
If doubts arise regarding its frontiers, consult the populations in the
areas under dispute. They undoubtedly have the right to a say in the matter.
This recommendation will bring a smile to the lips of the transcendants of
politics, these infallible beings who spend their lives deceiving themselves
and who, from the height of their superior principles, take pity upon our
mundane concerns. "Consult the populations, for heaven's sake! How naive!
A fine example of those wretched French ideas which claim to replace diplomacy
and war by childishly simple methods." Wait a while, Gentlemen; let the
reign of the transcendants pass; bear the scorn of the powerful with patience.
It may be that, after many fruitless gropings, people will revert to our more
modest empirical solutions. The best way of being right in the future is, in
certain periods, to know how to resign oneself to being out of