We still remember it vividly, that event of over eight years ago. For four long years the world had resounded with the fearful din of the battlefields, the piercing cries of the dying, the forlorn laments of parents and widows over the bloody corpses of their sons and husbands.
Then suddenly the terrible nightmare faded, the roar of the cannons was stilled; the unbelievable had really happened – the world war had ended!
Europe breathed again, raised its head, gazed out over the disconsolate fields of battle, over the endless mounds of smoldering ruins, toward the horizon and the breaking day. But the day would not be hurried. Dark clouds gathered from all sides and spread from country to country; stormy skies cast their menacing shadows first in one place, then in another. It was as if everyone was waiting for a dawn which would not come. Now insidious doubt seeps into men’s minds, breeding a melancholy uneasiness. Fear takes hold, and the powers of darkness gain sway. Suspicion and distrust grow between nations, between classes, and only thistles prosper in such soil. Hatred grows; increasing insecurity and fear paralyze all initiative, opening the way to every kind of blunder. There is talk of another war. It is as if the world, which had once before hovered on the brink and peered down into the abyss but which had at the eleventh hour dragged itself onto safer ground, is once again in perilous darkness being drawn back into the depths.
What is wrong? What is missing? It is the good human qualities that can grow only in the light of day: forbearance, confidence, compassion, the sincere desire for full cooperation in rebuilding the world.
A peace settlement following a ruinous war can easily degenerate into the imposition by the victors of more or less humiliating conditions upon the vanquished. Such terms, in their turn can easily bear fruit which will in time ripen into a fresh war. The Peace of Versailles can certainly not be said to constitute an exception to this rule. The more protracted the withering trial of war, the harsher the conditions imposed; so when victory is finally won, the demands are difficult, or even impossible, to fulfill. The coercion used to compel the vanquished to give beyond their capabilities only breeds greater hatred and the thirst for revenge. Failure to receive what the victors consider their just compensation for the wounds suffered in war begets disappointment and frustration. To these is added the insecurity and fear of possible consequences when forcible and oppressive means must be used to recover claims. The difficulties mount steadily; nations move further and further apart; insecurity, fear, anxiety foster rearmament.
Such is the picture that Europe presented in 1923, more than four years after the ending of the war. When Germany found herself unable to pay the reparations to which the French felt entitled, French troops marched into and occupied the Ruhr. The result was the disruption of the entire production of Europe. Hatred of France flared up in Germany more violently than ever. Paralyzing despondency spread among people of all European nations, and talk of the next war became more and more common.
Then, when the darkness was deepest, America extended a helping hand. The United States had hitherto kept out of the situation and was thus able to observe the unhappy events in Europe calmly and in perspective. The Americans now felt obliged to try to help Europe back onto her feet. An idea which had already been voiced by U.S. Secretary of State Hughes1 in December, 1922, now gained increasing support. This was that Germany’s capacity to pay reparations should be investigated by a competent committee in order to obtain an expert scientific basis for future deliberations.
The idea eventually found favor with Poincart and the French, and it was then agreed to appoint a committee of experts; the American government sent Owen D. Young and Charles G. Dawes, the latter becoming chairman of the committee2.
The first meeting took place in Paris on January 14, 1924. By April 9 of the same year the committee had drafted a plan, later known as the Dawes Plan. The committee proposed that the reparations should be paid by an altogether different system and that a moratorium should first be applied. It further proposed, among other measures, the complete reorganization of Germany’s finances and the granting of a foreign loan. The plan also regarded as an economic necessity the return of the Ruhr to Germany.
The importance of this plan was already evident from the fact that when it became apparent at the end of July, 1924, that it would be accepted by the Allied governments, confidence in the European economy immediately began to revive, and there was a consequent and marked improvement in the strength of European currency.
It is true that the plan envisaged a substantial reduction in the war reparations which Germany was to pay, but it did at least seek to ensure a considerable payment each year. Its adoption contributed to the decision to evacuate the Ruhr. It also brought a temporary halt to the endless conflicts about Germany’s reparations, which had been largely responsible for the pessimistic outlook in Europe and for the anxiety and insecurity which had characterized the first five years of peace.
The plan was important not only for Germany, France, and the Allies, but; both economically and politically, for the whole of Europe and consequently for America as well. It restored confidence in the economy and future of Europe. It brought her safely through an acute crisis which could have resulted in the most serious danger to peace. But its greatest significance lies in the fact that it was a symptom of a psychological change in European mentality and at the same time a powerful impetus for continued change. It marked the beginning of the policy of reconciliation and peace which led to the Locarno agreements. This was the first dawning of the day after the long darkness.
Another memorable step along the path of peace was the Geneva Protocol adopted by the League of Nations Assembly in the autumn of 19243. For the first time the delegates of nations from all parts of the world declared aggressive war to be a crime. They also adopted the principle that all international controversies without exception must be settled by peaceful means, either by arbitration or before a court of law.
It is true that the Protocol was not ratified by the governments; nevertheless it is an important milestone in history, and its spirit should not be ignored by the statesmen of the future. For it was this spirit which prepared the way for what was to be accomplished later. The next great milestone bears the name of Locarno. The initiative on this occasion came from Germany, from Chancellor Luther and Foreign Minister Stresemann4.
During the negotiations which preceded the Geneva Protocol the French, and especially Briand, its warm advocate, strongly urged the necessity of guarantees to provide security against aggression and war. In a note dated February 9, 1925, Germany outlined the security guarantees which she believed were required and suggested a possible form for a security treaty which could “prepare the ground for a world convention of all states similar to that arranged for the Geneva Protocol by the League of Nations for the peaceful settlement of international disagreements”.
Following extensive negotiations, a meeting took place in Locarno from October 5 to October 16 of 1925. France was represented by Briand, Germany by Luther and Stresemann, Great Britain by Chamberlain, Italy by Mussolini, Belgium by Vandervelde, Poland by Skrzyriski, and Czechoslovakia by Benes5. A treaty clarifying the question of the Rhineland was concluded between Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Italy, and four arbitration agreements were made between Germany on the one side and Belgium, France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia on the other.
I shall not go into greater detail on the provisions of these treaties, for they are well known. Of the Rhineland treaty it has been said that for the first time since Louis XIV6, the Rhine has ceased to be a cause of dissension in European politics. So closes a chapter in history. Under the four arbitration agreements the nations undertake to submit to peaceful settlement through impartial mediation or arbitration all disputes except those “arising out of past events which took place prior to the present agreement”.
The Locarno agreements mark a radical and complete change in European politics, transforming the relations between the former antagonists in the war and infusing them with an entirely new spirit. This spirit derives from the almost unprecedented attempt to base politics on the principle of mutual friendship and trust.
What inspires one’s confidence is that it was neither idealism nor altruism, but a sense of necessity which prompted those concerned to make the attempt. The men who met at Locarno are no idealistic pacifists; they are realistic politicians and responsible statesmen who, having originally pursued directly conflicting policies, have come to the realization that the only chance of creating a real future for mankind is to stand united in a sincere desire to work together.
In a speech he made after the signing of the agreements, Briand aptly remarked: “The war has taught us one thing, namely, that a common fate binds us together. If we go under, we go under together. If we wish to recover, we cannot do so in conflict with each other, but only by working together.”7
Both Briand and Stresemann have rightly emphasized that every individual must first be a good citizen of his own country – a good Frenchman, a good German, a good Briton – but still a good European bound to other Europeans by the great ideals of the European civilization so gravely menaced by the events of the last war.
If we are to appreciate fully what these statesmen accomplished at Locarno for the peace of Europe, then we must not overlook the violent nationalistic opposition in their own countries which several of them had to overcome in order to push through the peace program. They strode ahead fearlessly in the conviction that they had now found the right road.
With Locarno an accomplished fact, it seemed as though a new day would be breaking and renewed courage and confidence would be returning to Europe with ever increasing tempo. But the agreements were not yet activated. One of their provisions was that Germany should enter the League of Nations. This step, however, was to encounter more serious difficulties than had been anticipated. Still fresh in our memory is that distressing special session of the Assembly at Geneva last March when the delegates met for the sole purpose of admitting Germany into the League, only to depart without having been able to do it.
But these events were followed by the Assembly meeting at Geneva last September when Germany’s delegates, with Stresemann at their head, were able to enter honorably and take their places among the members of the League. No one who was present will forget that moment.
Germany’s admission was welcomed in a remarkable speech by Briand. Among other things, he said: “No more war!… From now on it will be for the judge to decide what is right. Just as individual citizens settle their disagreements before a judge, so shall we also resolve ours by peaceful means. Away with rifles, machine guns, cannons. Make way for conciliation, arbitration, peace!”8
On this point we can now see daylight again. Is it not almost as if we are seeing the new earth turn green again after Armageddon9?
The Locarno Pacts, together with Germany’s entry into the League of Nations and the speeches which followed it, hold much promise for the future – they all tend to build up confidence and to strengthen the will to carry on the good work. But all this must not blind us to the fact that there is still a long way to go before the goal is reached and lasting peace really secured. Noble words and noble intent on the part of leaders are a great encouragement, but they are not enough. Words must be translated into action, intent into earnest toil, for shining promises have often come to nothing in the past and the blue skies of hope have again been filled by storm clouds.
Our watchword must be: “No more war!” And what does this mean? It does not mean “no more world war”, with everyone, and especially the principal powers, free to indulge in small private wars whenever they are so disposed. It does not mean “no more war” except when a power is able, without any great effort on its part, to crush a weak neighbor that falls easy prey to superior force. It does not mean “no more war” except when what we used to call national honor is at stake.
It means none of these. What it does mean is no more war of any kind whatsoever, no more aggression, no more of the bloody and futile clashes which have tarnished the history of mankind for so long. It means working to eradicate the use of force from national policies; to stamp out suppression of others in whatever form it appears; to liberate ourselves now and for all time – as we in this generation can do if we so resolve – from the hideous corruption of warfare between different groups of the human race, be it between nations or within nations.
I say without hesitation that this is the greatest of all the causes which now command our attention. The question of how we can put an end to all war is the vital problem of our time, not only for international politics, but for national politics as well.
This may strike many people as an exaggeration, even as a misuse of language. To them such problems as those of miners’ strikes, social reform, customs barriers, prohibition, or whatever, seem far more important. I say with utter conviction that those who think so are wrong.
War, preparation for war, the burden of armament, particularly in the case of the larger countries – these are the first and vital problems. If we can erect barriers against war, if we can abolish the armament – burdens which Europe suffers today, if we can destroy the evil specter of militarism which still haunts the world and so vouchsafe complete security for all time, then we shall obtain, and swiftly at that, the social reforms we desire, the development of our resources, the many forms of progress we hope for; we shall move forward toward a new and better life.
But if we do not get rid of war, if we do not put a complete end to it, if Europe does not reduce and limit its armaments, then we shall have no reforms and no progress of any significance.
We can be certain that in the future, just as in the past, armament will call forth counterarmament, alliances and counteralliances; it will engender suspicion and distrust, bringing fear to men’s hearts; it will lead to international crises; it will lead to war, perhaps to small local wars at first, but, finally and inescapably, it will bring down upon us a great world war no less frightful than the last.
If the work for disarmament which the League of Nations has now begun does not produce results, if the level of armaments is maintained, then war will result. It seems to me that all our past experience shows this to be incontrovertible. But do not take my word for it. Listen to what more qualified authorities have to say.
Lord Grey, foreign minister of Great Britain at the outbreak of the war10, has said, and he has said it time and time again, that it was Europe’s steadily increasing armaments which led to the war in 1914. He has warned us that if armaments in Europe are maintained, if the nations of the world embark on a new contest in military preparedness, we will bring upon ourselves anew war as inevitably as we did the last one. And he has told us that a new war will mean the end of our civilization as we know it today.
Who will question Lord Grey’s authority to speak on this subject? Many other leading statesmen have uttered the same sentiments on several occasions. Let me mention just one. As recently as January of this year, Mr. Baldwin, the present prime minister of Great Britain11, said: “A new war in the West and the civilization of our era will collapse in a fall as great as that of Rome.”
These men I have mentioned are not fanatics, indeed not even pacifists; they are responsible statesmen who have exercised or who will in the future exercise great power in the leadership of the world. If they mean their statements seriously, then it seems to me to follow that there is scarcely any other political problem worth discussing until the problem of the next war is resolved.
Let us pause for a moment to consider what they have said. It may seem fantastic to state that our civilization can be obliterated.
We have a sense of vitality and strength, a feeling that a great future lies ahead of us. But let us not forget that civilizations have been wiped out before. Powerful nations, which seemed as strong then as the most powerful states of our time seem to us now, have vanished. The Roman Empire, which ruled Europe for a period hundreds of years longer than the lifetime of our modern Western civilization, was swept away by the invasion of barbaric hordes.
You have no sense of any impending disaster, you are too conscious of the forces of life around you. I feel the same. I too feel these forces. But I also sense that the last war inflicted upon our civilization a terrible wound, a painful wound that is still far from healed. It was as if the very foundations shook under Europe. And, worst of all, most Europeans still do not understand the true nature and significance of the last war. They are already about to forget it before they have learned the lesson it should teach them. They are forgetting their dead.
Of course, there are still millions of people in practically every country of Europe who cannot forget the horrors of the war. The carnage of the battlefields, once seen, is not easily forgotten. These people can tell of the merciless slaughter on the lovely countryside of France; of the agony of mind, the terror inspired by the big bombardments and the ceaseless rattle of gunfire in a modern offensive; of the inconceivable suffering of wounded and broken men hanging perhaps for days on barbed wire, crying out for the death which they themselves had not the strength to inflict. Of such horrors and worse can these people tell, and if Europe would only heed them, if all its people would only remember the war’s bestiality, its barbaric cruelty, they would see to it that war would never occur again.
But there are other aspects of war which I, perhaps more than most people, have had the opportunity to observe. For more than six years now, it has been my task, on behalf of the League of Nations12, to investigate and as far as possible to alleviate the terrible aftereffects of war. During all these years I have had to deal with hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, with famine, with refugees – frightened refugees, each with his own story of endless heartrending tragedy, the old, the women, the little helpless children left alone because of the vicissitudes of war, and all of them lost, plundered, bereft of everything of value in this world.
I wish I could give you a picture of what I have seen and experienced. I wish I could just for one moment make you feel what it is to see a whole nation fleeing in wild terror along the country roads; or to travel among a people struck down by famine; to enter huts where men, women, and children lie still, no longer complaining, waiting only for death in countries where corpses are dug up out of their graves and eaten, where maddened mothers slay their own children for food. But no, I cannot attempt it now.
All this endless misfortune, all this misery and incredible suffering, these hundreds of thousands of forsaken prisoners of war, these famines, these millions of helpless refugees – they are all, directly or indirectly, the results of the war. But, believe me, all these calamities cannot occur without undermining our entire social system; they sap the vitality of nations and they inflict wounds so deep that they will take a long time to heal, if they ever do.
And still, even still, people talk about the probability of another war. Do we not stop to think what this would mean? Even if the next war is no worse than the last, I believe it will destroy our European civilization. But of course the next war will not be like the last. It will be incomparably worse.
I shall not weary you by going further into that. It is enough to say that in the event of a new war we face the threatening fact that our civilization can be annihilated, just as other civilizations have been annihilated in the past. But we also have the means to avert this threat. War does not come unless we wish it upon ourselves. War is not the result of some uncontrollable catastrophe of nature; it is the result of man’s will. It is his own shame. And truly, with reasonable policies, it would be comparatively easy to put an end to war.
Let me suggest the course which I believe can lead us forward. The governments of Europe must unite around and stake their all on what I shall, for the sake of brevity, call the League of Nations policy.
Do not misunderstand me here. The League of Nations is no longer a remote or abstract idea. It is a living organism. Its institutions are now an essential part of the machinery of world control. If we can put the full force of the combined power of individual governments behind these institutions, behind the policy of disarmament, behind all the policies pursued by the League, then we shall put an end to war.
But the governments, whether of large countries or of small, must stake everything on this policy without reservations. There must be no clinging to ancient rights to wage private wars. There must be no secret hopes that, if the League is weak in certain areas, it can be made to serve private interests.
We must follow the new road in international politics mapped out at Locarno, and we must burn behind us the bridges that lead back to the old policies and the old systems which have failed us so tragically. It has always been my conviction that, in the great things of life, it is of decisive importance to have no line of retreat – a principle which certainly holds good here.
By the very nature of things, progress will depend essentially on the actions of the great powers. But small nations like our own can also do much. For the large states must take into account such a variety of factors, such a multitude of conflicting interests, that their leaders may often find it difficult to follow their own convictions, assessing all the time, as they must, the political currents among their electorates, the national self-interests of their countries, not to mention the complex intrigues which frequently surround them. All these circumstances can often restrict their freedom to act.
Small nations and their leaders enjoy greater latitude in this respect; they have fewer conflicting interests, and for them a policy of peace without restrictions or reservations is a natural one. If all the small nations will work together resolutely and systematically in the League of Nations to lay the ghost of war, they can achieve much, greatly strengthening the League in the process.
Certainly, it cannot be denied that the great powers can give and on occasion have given the impression of acting somewhat arbitrarily and without proper consideration for the views of the other members of the League. But the small nations have ample opportunity to state their case if they will just confidently take it. And when they fail to do so, the blame falls chiefly on themselves. As Briand said in his splendid speech to the last Assembly, there must in future be no more resorting to “methods of negotiation which are inconsistent with the true spirit of the League of Nations”, and “the League’s work shall in future take place in the full light of day and with the collaboration of all its members.”13
It is, then, the duty of all members, and not least of the small nations, to unite in the task of abolishing war, to participate positively in this work, not to wait passively but to act.
If we really want to put an end to war, if we want to be rid of heavy armaments, the governments must, as I have said, stake everything upon the policy of the League of Nations without thinking about any lines of retreat. They must work in every way and at every opportunity to build up the power and strength of the League. If they do so and if their peoples support them in the same spirit, then shall the evil monster of war be felled and our future secured for the work of peace, that of building, not tearing down.
* Mr. Nansen delivered this speech on December 10, 1926, in the auditorium of the Nobel Institute in Oslo to a distinguished audience convened to witness the presentation of the Peace Prizes for 1925 and 1926. After an orchestral overture, Mr. Fredrik Stang, chairman of the Nobel Committee, announced that the prize for 1925, having been reserved in that year, was awarded equally to Sir Austen Chamberlain and to Charles G. Dawes and that the prize for 1926 was awarded equally to Aristide Briand and to Gustav Stresemann. Mr. Ragnvald Moe, secretary to the Committee, spoke briefly on Dr. Nobel, this day being the thirtieth anniversary of his death. Mr. Nansen then delivered the speech printed here. It is not the typical “presentation speech”. But it serves the purpose of such a speech since it deals with the 1924 plan of reparations prepared by the so-called Dawes Committee and with the Locarno Pact in which the other three laureates played leading roles. In a sense, therefore, it is a presentation speech for four laureates, but it departs from the usual form of such a speech by developing a theme derived from the speaker’s own thinking. Since none of the laureates was present on this occasion, the diplomatic representatives of the four nations concerned accepted the prizes on their behalf. The text of Mr. Nansen’s speech does not appear in Les Prix Nobel; the text published in Norwegian in Eventyr – lyst – Ingen krig mere: To taler av Fridtjof Nansen (Oslo: Jacob Dybwad, 1927), pp. 71-100. has been used for this translation.
2. Raymond Poincaré (1860-1934), president of France (1913-1920); premier (1912; 1922-1924; 1926-1929). Owen D. Young (1874-1962), American lawyer and corporation executive, chairman of the Reparations Conference of 1929; the Young Plan of reparation payments which replaced the Dawes Plan took its name from him.
5. Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), Italian premier and dictator (1922-1943). Émile Vandervelde (1866-1938), Belgian minister of foreign affairs (1925). Count Aleksander Skrzyxbki (1882-1931), Polish prime minister (1925-1926). Eduard Benei (1884-1948), foreign minister of Czechoslovakia (1918-1935); president (1935-1938; in exile 1939-1945; 1946-1948).
7. According to Vallentin-Luchaire in Stresemann (New York: Smith, 1931), p. 211, and according to the (London) Times of December 2, 1925, p. 16, these words are from the speech made by Gustav Stresemann after the official signing of the Locarno Pacts in London on December 1, 1925.
8. From Briand’s speech to the Seventh Plenary Meeting of the Assembly, September 10, 1926 (League of Nations, Official Journal, Special Supplement 44, p. 53); for text in French see Achille Elisha, Aristide Briand: Discours et écrits de politique étrangère (Paris: Plon, 1965), pp. 176-184.
13. See fn. 8.
Their work and discoveries range from paleogenomics and click chemistry to documenting war crimes.
See them all presented here.