Élie Ducommun

Nobel Lecture

Nobel Lecture*, May 16, 1904

The Futility of War Demonstrated by History

War, we are told, shapes character; it resolves the major questions of international politics, consolidates nations, and indeed, constitutes the principal factor in the progress of civilization through its successive stages.

Since all assertions must be carefully examined in order to benefit from what they may contain, let us consult together, if you will, – the annals of history to see what war has managed to resolve and consolidate from the earliest times to the present day. This examination will enlighten us concerning the civilizing role which war may have played in the world.

The first theatre of war which history records is the vast expanse of territory comprising Greece and western Asia. In that area, at frequent intervals, there took place repeated migrations of armed tribes or hordes whose only thought was to acquire lands where they might first found tiny monarchies, and then empires. Law and reason were unknown: force was everything, and its abuse checked civilization at every turn by accustoming ignorant peoples to bend their heads before the saber.

To this category of warlike operations whose sole motive was plunder, belong, in chronological order, the expedition of the Argonauts in 1260 B.C., the capture of Troy by the Greeks in 1184 B.C., and later, the migration of the Ionians and the Dorians. Nothing remained of all these expeditions a few years later except the spectacle of devastation and of ruins whose traces had not even disappeared before some new disaster supervened.

These “Dark Ages” saw, among other things, the foundation of the kingdom of Macedonia by the Argive Caranus.1 Since much revolves around this unfortunate Macedonian, I ask you to bear with me if I depart from the chronological order of this study in order to follow the harrowing story of the Macedonian martyrology.

In the fourth century B.C., Philip of Macedonia2, an ambitious princeling, subdued the Greeks, who were no less rapacious than himself, and war ravaged lands whose inhabitants had no reason to slaughter one another. Philip’s son, the conqueror Alexander – called “Great”, no doubt because of his large-scale massacres – once more subjugated the Greeks, and then vanquished the Persians. With his death, however, the image of war which he had molded from blood and mire disintegrated, and from the ruins of his former empire, now weakened to the point of anemia, were formed the kingdoms of Macedonia and Egypt.3

Poor Macedonia who aspired to become queen of the world! Thirty years later she was ravaged by the Gauls, then by the Romans, and the Middle Ages found her under the heel of the Turk. Today in the anguish of a slow agony, her imploring arms reach out in supplication to Europe4.

Did war, at any stage of her miserable existence, consolidate the political institutions of the Macedonia of Alexander the Great, improve the lot of her peoples, or set her on the road to civilization?

Let us retrace our steps and see what became of other kingdoms which lived by the rule of force – the kingdom of the Medes and the kingdom of the Persians, for example.

About 600 B.C., the kingdom of the Medes conquered Assyria, which had been reduced to a pitiful state by the depredations of armed bands; but fifty years later Media was conquered by the Persians, who also seized Assyria and Egypt. More rivers of blood, more cities in flame, more ruins! Yet all this came to nothing, for after the Persian War, which lasted for fifty-one years, the king of Persia, Xerxes5, had been defeated by the Greeks, and Philip of Macedonia in his turn destroyed their monarchy, without in any way assuring the future of his dynasty or the supremacy of his nation.

Again, war had created nothing, consolidated nothing; it had served merely to abase human nature and plunge nations into anarchy.

Ancient Greece is rightly said to have scattered the shadows of these evil times with the light of her arts and literature. True, but far from owing her high degree of civilization to the insistence that might makes right, she became a source of light only when she had repelled the external invasions and renounced the civil wars which threatened to destroy the works of her geniuses. It cannot be said too often that it was to the ultimate establishment of peace that ancient Greece owed her glory and her prosperity.

What can be said of the kingdom of Thrace, set up by the Gauls who had ravaged Macedonia, or of the kingdoms of Pontus, of Bythnia, of Pergamum and of Syria, founded by adventurers after the battle of Ipsus in 301 B.C.? Not the slightest trace is left of these nations which, born in pillage, died in blood.

And what of the Roman Empire? Let us indeed talk of Rome, which for centuries brought ruin to every state then known and which flung at all mankind the challenge of the “civis Romanus”: Surrender or die! How well its legions, who made and unmade emperors, knew how to introduce civilization to the vast lands they overran!

You will say perhaps that the ancient Romans, possessing at home a level of culture unknown to the rest of the human race, carried it with them to whatever part of the world they went. Wrong! People were tired of the ancient anarchy that had dominated their world, and at its end their longing for peace and security was manifest everywhere. But the bloody victories of the Roman emperors continually thwarted this awakening without offering to the vanquished in return even the smallest particle of their much vaunted civilization. The vanquished became no more than wretched slaves.

In support of militaristic ideas, people often cite the example of certain Roman lands whose populations, being far from any of the numerous theatres of war, lapsed into decadence. The fact in itself is true, but the corruption of the foremost families of these lands was precisely a result of the wars of conquest which had led to the loss of their homeland’s independence. The conqueror had bent them under his yoke, and its weight crushed any sense of dignity which could have inspired them to rebel. Under the domination of the conqueror, their choice lay between fighting wars for the glory and profit of Rome or becoming shameless lackeys of the master without hope of ever enjoying again the rewards of remunerative labor.

It is certainly true that if ever a colossal and persevering effort was made to build a world empire, it was made by ancient Rome, which drowned whole kingdoms in the blood of the people over many generations. Yet what is left now of this absolute power, this monstrous creation, this crowning achievement of war? After the Punic Wars, the destruction of Carthage, and the conquests of Spain and of Gallia Narbonensis, there followed, as if by way of expiation, the degradation of the Roman Empire by the barbarian invasions. In the fifth century A.D., the Alans, Suevians, and Vandals invaded Italy, Gaul, and Spain. The Visigoths and Burgundians, in their turn, settled in Gaul and the Saxons in Great Britain. Then, toward the middle of the next century, the Heruls put an end to the Western Empire. The Heruls were subsequently overrun by the Ostrogoths, whose own monarchy was soon afterwards destroyed by the Emperor Justinian 6.

And as the din of battle fades away, the work of civilization must start all over again in a world of physical and moral chaos. This, then, is what is known as the ennobling and civilizing influence of war through the ages!

No sooner had the human family begun to recover its balance, to emerge timidly from the ruins, than new wars came to plunge it back into the morass. The inexorable law of the strongest or of the most brazen reasserted itself in the seventh and eighth centuries with the appearance of the Saracen armies who seized Chaldea, Phoenicia, Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, Rhodes, and a part of Spain. Then, since once again wars of conquest were doomed to achieve nothing permanent, the Saracens were in their turn defeated at Poitiers by Charles Martel7 in 732. Half a century later, Charlemagne8 crushed the Lombard empire in Italy and the empire of the Avars in Pannonia (Hungary), overran Spain as far as the Ebro River, and conquered all of Germania.

A powerful empire was founded on the debris of monarchies and peoples. Would it now be possible to recuperate and take up again the thread of civilization which had been broken for so many centuries by bloody struggles of no lasting consequence?

Alas no! The so-called civilized world entered the eleventh century to find that the Furies of war once more awaited it in the form, on the one hand, of the first war between England and France under Philip I in 10879 and on the other, the First Crusade in 1096.

The hatred fomented by the first hostilities between England and France lasted for more than eight centuries; provinces were lost, retaken, and lost again, but to what useful end? In 1415 Henry V of England was proclaimed King of France10. In 1450 the English were expelled from French territory. In 1755 a new Anglo-French war broke out; this was followed by war at sea in 1778 which lasted until 178311 when the Peace of Versailles brought a momentary halt to hostilities. These, however, were soon resumed with renewed vigor, continuing throughout the period of the Republic and the Empire. Are we to pretend that such persistent hatred serves the cause of civilization and restores order where disorder prevailed in international relations? The detailed history of these wars gives us proof of the contrary.

And the Crusades? That absurd epic, which originated in 1096, declared its aim to be the deliverance of the lands of the Holy Sepulchre from the Turks. There were seven Crusades, which cut down the flower of Europe’s nobility and annihilated innumerable poor serfs for a period of more than 150 years until 127012. At this time the Greeks, having thrown off the Crusaders, revived the Eastern Empire, and eleven years later, the Turkish Empire came into being. The Crusades, it is claimed, brought to the people of the East the civilization of the West. It is more probable that they bestowed upon the West the vices of the East. In any case, it is certain that the peoples of Europe who had taken part in the Crusades were even more ignorant at the end of these distant expeditions than when they had first heard the cry of Peter the Hermits: “God wills it! God wills it!”13

Moreover, to gain some idea of the sort of civilization spread abroad among nations by these great and entirely fruitless wars, it is enough to refer to the state of anarchy prevailing, for example, in France, where the habitual contempt for law led inevitably to armed strife, province against province, town against town, castle against castle; and always, the peasant was the victim sacrificed to the sins of his noble masters.

The dismal night of the Middle Ages is so familiar to us that we need not dwell on its era of violence and human retrogression. This chaotic period, the product of bloody contests whose sole, though unavowed, purpose was spoliation, shows well enough that war can lead only to war and never to progress or civilization.

Let us now go into the history of the formation of the modern state where we will find war once more the evil genie of misery and injustice at every stage of development.

The year 1618 saw the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War, waged by the German States, Austria, Sweden, and France under the pretext of religion. Massacre, pillage, the burning of villages and of whole lands, famine and demoralization – such is the sinister record of over a quarter of a century’s folly. After the population of Germany had been decimated, a peace was signed in Westphalia which did no more than reaffirm the original state of affairs except for granting some concessions to princes who did not even know how to preserve them. It was certainly not worth the trouble of tearing one another apart for thirty years just to arrive at the conclusion that nobody knew for what or for whom he had been fighting.

The lesson learned would seem to have been forceful enough to persuade everybody, from then on, to devote himself to establishing the permanent peace so badly needed. However, the waves stirred up by the storm were not so easily calmed, and the end of the seventeenth century was marked by a series of intrigues and truces which continued to the middle of the eighteenth, alternating with periods of so-called general peace which, even then, allowed few people to breathe freely.

We certainly cannot claim that civilization made no progress at all in the course of the centuries following the Dark Ages. Wars, however frequent and destructive they may be, have never been able to kill entirely the intellectual and moral sense which raises man above the beast. The spirit of discovery and the need for solidarity as a prime condition of personal well-being had not been lost in the debris of kingdoms made and unmade by war. Great inventions and important discoveries had broadened the scope of productive activity, first of individuals and then of groups, and mankind was beginning to seek protection against an arbitrary use of violence that served only ignorance and oppression. The relative calm of the second half of the seventeenth and the first half of the eighteenth centuries nurtured this tendency, allowing it to grow – timidly at first among the enlightened – and to spread later among the masses. The concept of justice was emerging, escaping from the shackles of violence.

The Republic which succeeded the Bourbon monarchy in France had to wage wars in order to assert the right of the people to establish for themselves a political regime which would support their chosen internal policy. So it was that the clamor of war finally confused France to the point of making her forget that her role was a defensive one. Militarism reappeared, more ruthless than ever, bringing about the terrible era of the Napoleonic Wars and a reversion to barbarism in full contradition of the great principles proclaimed by the Revolution of 1789.

There are those who maintain that the war which followed for twenty unbroken years, spreading to every corner of Europe, had the merit of circulating modern ideas even though presented to various peoples on the bayonets of the French grenadiers; who maintain, in short, that the frequent massacres, the sacking of cities and towns, and the crushing of the defeated had this time been the true agents of civilization.

This is a flagrant misconception to be found in extravagantly chauvinistic history books. The principles of the French Revolution would have forced their way into the consciousness of nations more surely and more quickly during peace and prosperity than they could ever have done in an atmosphere of hatred and defiance which encouraged excesses of unwarranted violence.

It is a fact that the end of the wars of the first Empire found populations, that of France above all, drained of manpower and resources of every kind. After dreaming of world domination, leading her armies to the farthest frontiers of Europe, and serving the whims of a despot, France now had to give up a part of her own territory and, under monarchs set on the throne from without, begin the toilsome climb from the depths of the abyss into which militarism had hurled her.

The other countries in Europe, mutilated and devastated by twenty years of war, did not, in the midst of their ruins, seem to appreciate very much the lessons in civilization which were supposedly imparted to them along with the grapeshot. Beyond doubt the people would have accepted these modern ideas of law and justice more willingly and more quickly if they had peaceably discovered their source instead of discovering it while watching their fields laid waste, their homes burned, and their young men killed.

Let no one refer to the sword of Napoleon I as the instrument of progress and civilization!

Some will object perhaps that I have so far spoken only of wars of conquest and will ask me what I think about the wars of independence which broke out in Europe after the Restoration of 1815; no doubt they will demand comment particularly about the intervention on behalf of the Greeks in 1827 and about the aid given by France in 1860 to Italy in her struggle to resist Austrian domination.

Such a question would not embarrass me. The struggles of races and nations to regain their independence are the products of earlier violations of right, which constitute provocation in the eyes of the passive nations. Had the latter not, in the first place, been deprived of their autonomy, been oppressed and cut off from lands to which they had a natural affinity, their people would not have resorted to force in order to rectify an original abuse of force. The Greek war of independence, for example, was no more than the conclusion of an earlier war of conquest; the same is true of every other uprising of a people demanding their right to independence.

These calls to arms are for the purpose of reestablishing the natural order of affairs as it was before its violation by foreign invasions in an era when force superseded law; they are simply the result of these invasions and of the oppressive measures taken to assure their continued effect. These wars would not have occurred, nor would these situations themselves have arisen, if a regime of international justice such as that advocated by the friends of peace had been established rather than repressed for over two thousand years by the apologists of war.

What can we say of other wars of our time which did not have the liberation of oppressed peoples as their primary objective? Fomented by diplomatic intrigues or by private speculation, these intermittent reversions to primitive brutality have produced nothing, apart from the spilling of blood, except the creation of a state of anarchy in international relations and the foundation for future conflicts. In 1855, France, England, and the Piedmont seized Sebastopol in order to weaken Russia and strengthen Turkey14. Now, these same powers are allying themselves with Russia in an effort to impose their will on the Sultan with respect to the internal administration of his states15.

The French expedition to Mexico in 1861 cost the French 800 million francs and exacted untold material wealth and manpower from the Mexicans, only to end in the disaster at Querétaro which erased all traces of the empire on whose throne the French army had placed the Archduke Maximilian16.

The invasion of Schleswig-Holstein by Austria and Prussia in 1864 had, by 1866, resulted in mutual recrimination between the two who had conspired together in this act of violence, thereby appointing themselves the sole judges of their own cause. Austria, humiliated at Sadowa, later joined hands with Prussia again to form the Triple Alliance17, which now is scarcely worth the paper it is written on.

Again in Europe, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 was concluded by the Treaty of San Stefano, which the Treaty of Berlin later nullified and which was even less well disposed to the claims of the Balkan peoples.

As for the Spanish-American War over the possession of Cuba, or the war in the Transvaal, or the combined expedition against China, or the present Russo-Japanese War – all these are too recent18 for us to be able to draw any conclusions. One thing, however, is certain, and that is that they have contributed appreciably to the discrediting of war. I leave to the militarists the difficult task of trying to explain to us how these wars have served to shape character or to promote the progress of civilization, or to achieve the reign of justice on earth. So far, they have not come forward with the explanation.

In concluding my historical survey, I invite the attention of those who wish to devote some serious study to the relationships between war and the moral and material development of mankind.

One question often asked of pacifists is: Granted that war is an evil, what can you find to put in its place when an amicable solution becomes impossible? The treaties of arbitration concluded in the past few years19 provide an answer to this question by showing with what ease, given goodwill on both sides, international disputes can be ironed out and eliminated as cruel preoccupations of our times.

The Convention for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes’ signed at The Hague in 1899 by twenty-six nations offers a solution to international conflicts by a method unknown in the ancient world, in the Middle Ages, or even in modern history, a method of settling quarrels between nations without bloodshed. The method is not yet perfect, it is true, but it is an expression of what we were hoping for in bettering the conditions which gave it birth. Let it become a duty to apply its provisions in every case possible, and the friends of peace will be satisfied with this beginning. Later, after some experience has been gained, it will be perfected, and the human conscience, at last awakened, will regard it as the cornerstone of the structure of law and justice which will preside over international relations in the future.

Under the influence of the ideas which have sprung up in opposition to the abuse of force represented by war, several nations, including some of the most important ones, have recently signed treaties agreeing to submit to arbitration at the Court of The Hague any differences which may arise between them. We have welcomed the signing of such treaties between France and Great Britain, between France and Italy, between Great Britain and Italy, between France and Spain, and between The Netherlands and Denmark. Other similar conventions are being drafted by most of the European nations. This is a true sign of the times and, for once, the militaristic mind will be hard put to plunge mankind again into the follies of the past.20

That is not all: France and England, taking advantage of the security given them by their treaty of permanent arbitration, have just concluded an agreement with respect to all the colonial questions that might have become a source of friction or dispute between them; namely, those of Egypt, Morocco, Siam, Newfoundland, etc. Let us admit that if all the other signatory nations of the Hague Convention were to draw up arbitration treaties between each other, and then were to settle points that might possibly constitute a source of conflict, there would no longer be any need to declare peace: it would exist ipso facto. No longer would the reign of peace be subject to the perpetual contradictions of war, for it would rest on the unassailable bedrock of justice, of law, and of the solidarity of peoples!

* The laureate, having been granted permission to give his Nobel lecture later than the Statutes ordinarily allowed, delivered this speech on the evening of May 16, 1904, at seven o’clock in the Hals Brothers Concert Hall in Oslo. The translation is based on the French text in Les Prix Nobel en 1902, a text that is virtually identical to the holograph original in the Archives of the International Peace Bureau, UN Library, Geneva.

1. Caranus founded the Argive dynasty in Macedonia about the middle of the eighth century B.C.

2. Philip II (382-336 B.C.), king of Macedonia (359-336 B.C.).

3. Alexander (III) the Great (356-323 B.C.), king of Macedonia (336-323 B.C.).

4. At the time of the laureate’s lecture, insurrection in Turkish-ruled Macedonia – long the prey of raids by rival Serbian, Greek, and Bulgarian revolutionaries – had resulted in intervention by the powers, who were now engaged in argument with the Turkish government over details of a reform program for Macedonia.

5. Xerxes I (519-465 B.C.), king of Persia (486-465 B.C.).

6. Justinian (I) the Great (483-565), Byzantine emperor (527-565).

7. Charles Martel (688?-741), called the Hammer, Frankish ruler of Austrasia (715- 741).

8. Charlemagne (742-814), king of the Franks (768-814), first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (800-814).

9. William (I) the Conqueror (1027?-1087), king of England (1066-1087), attacked Philip I (1052-1108), king of France (1060-1108) in the Vexin in 1087.

10. Henry V (1387-1422), king of England (1413-1422), defeated the French at Agincourt in 1415 and by the Treaty of Troyes (1420) was designated regent of France and heir to the throne.

11. The Seven Years War (1755-1763) resulted in the loss of most of the French colonial empire; from 1778 to 1783 France joined the Americans against England in the American War of Independence.

12. Some historians identify a total of nine Crusades undertaken between 1096 and 1272, a period of 176 years. The text in Les Prix Nobel reads “durant plus de 250 ans”.

13. Peter the Hermit (c. 1050-1115), French monk and preacher; led one section of the First Crusade.

14. In the course of the Crimean War (1853-1856).

15. As in Macedonia, for example. See fn. 3, p. 18.

16. Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph (1832-1867), Austrian archduke and brother of the Austrian emperor.

17. The alliance of Germany and Austria in 1879 became the Triple Alliance when Italy joined in 1882.

18. Spanish American War (April-December, 1898); Boer War (1899-1902); Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900) against foreigners in China was put down by composite forces of all the major powers; Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

19. The Les Prix Nobel text reads: “Les traités d’arbitrage conclus de ces demiéres annees…”; the holograph original reads: “Les heureux événements de ces demiéres annees…”.

20. For detailed discussion of this Convention, see the Nobel lectures of laureates Albert Gobat and Louis Renault, pp. 31-35; 155-158.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1901-1925, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

To cite this section
MLA style: Élie Ducommun – Nobel Lecture. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Fri. 22 Sep 2023. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1902/ducommun/lecture/>

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