Apocalypse Now

National Guard Apache gunship. South Carolina, 2017.

It has often been said that when two armies face each other across a battlefront and engage in mutual slaughter, they may be considered as a single army engaged in suicide. Now it seems to me that when countries, each one doing its best to arrest its economic ruin, do their utmost to accelerate the ruin of each other, we are witnessing the suicide of civilisation itself.

The threat of a complete collapse of civilisation is more imminent in Russia than elsewhere. But it is clear enough in Poland, it cannot be disregarded in Germany, there is no doubt of its existence in Italy, France is conscious of it; it is only in England and America that this threat is not among the waking nightmares of everybody. Unless the struggle, which has hitherto been going against us, takes a turn for the better, we shall presently be quite unable to ignore it ourselves.

There are people in both camps who believe that armed and economic conflict between revolutionary and non-revolutionary Europe, or if you like between capitalism and communism, is inevitable. These people, in both camps, are doing their best to make it inevitable. Sturdy pessimists, in Moscow no less than in London and Paris, they go so far as to say “the sooner the better”, and by all means in their power try to precipitate a conflict. They are accelerationists, for lack of a better term.

The main effort in Russia today, the struggle which absorbs the chief attention of all but those few  who, blind to all else, demand an immediate pitched battle over the prostrate body of civilisation, is directed to finding a way for Russia out of the crisis, the severity of which can hardly be realised by people who have not visited the country, and to bringing her as quickly as possible into a state in which Russia can export her raw materials and import the manufactured goods of which she stands in need.

For nearly two decades, Germany has been convinced that the balance of power in Europe was an obstacle to her world future. Furthermore, she believed that the balance imposed fetters upon her which only her formidable economy could break. All of Germany’s energies in the domain of diplomacy have been set in motion to make this balance a mere figment of the imagination. Europe would be hers, even if the French had to take a part of her power, and the British had to be pushed out.

In pursuing this end, it has suited Berlin’s purpose to declare all attempts at maintaining the outward appearances of equality between the powers of Europe to be Machiavellian schemes against her existence. Or to cite Kaiser Wilhelm’s own words, “to deprive Germany of her place in the sun”.

The United Kindom’s entente policy was the only one calculated to preserve our own existence, and to restrain Germany from establishing its hegemony in Europe. Britain was convinced that the domination of Europe belonged to her by right of mental, moral and military superiority over her neighbours, but failed to assert herself.

I believe that this struggle is ours as well as Russia’s, though we British, to whom the threat is less imminent, are less desperately engaged. Victory or defeat in this struggle in Russia, or anywhere else on the world’s surface, is victory or defeat for everyone. I cannot but think that anyone who cares more for humanity than for politics, must do his utmost to postpone the conflict which a few extremists on each side of the barricades so fanatically desire.

Not in vain have Germany’s educational institutions inculcated the belief in her population that the UK is an effete monstrosity with feet of clay; France a rotten, decaying empire, and Russia a brutal capitalist power with no new kultur to offer Europe except the Kalashnikov. Inspired by such conceptions, together with an astoundingly exaggerated idea of Germany’s peerlessness, the entire nation has long since held that by right of its virtues, her superiority over other nations was guaranteed.

If a renewed conflict is indeed inevitable, its consequences will send Europe back to the Stone Age once and for all. Only the blind cannot see that Europe is moving towards such a cataclysm. We should shudder at the thought of the devastation such an exchange will bring. This will be the war to end all wars.  There will be no return to centre, as there was after WWII and the Cold War.

Russia is like an emphasised engraving, in which every line is damaged by repeat washes of acid. Several new lines, however, are being added to the drawing, for in Russia the processes at work elsewhere have gone further than in the rest of Europe, and it is possible to see dimly, in faint outline, a new stage of decay. The struggle to arrest that decay is the real crisis of Europe today.

In the earlier days, it seemed quite simply the struggle between revolutionary and non-revolutionary countries. I now think that that struggle is a foolish, unnecessary, lunatic incident which has disguised from us the existence of a far more serious crisis, in which the revolutionary and non-revolutionary governments are fighting on the same side to no discernable end. All they can do is fight, without purpose, even though both profess to be motivated ideologically.

It’s the apolitical nature of their conflict that makes it so deplorable. When there is nothing to fight for, everything is a struggle.  That’s why, this time, it’s civilisation that’s at stake. Not so much because it is not already dead. Clearly, it imposes no restraints. We just need a ritual to consummate its end, as though to finally convince ourselves that culture is finally over and done with.

Adapted from The Crisis in Russia, by Arthur Ransome and What Germany Thinks, by FA Smith. Photograph courtesy of the South Carolina National Guard. Published under a Creative Commons license.