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“War and Peace”, Tolstoy

Destruction after car bomb, Damascus

Destruction after car bomb, Damascus

Destruction after car bombs, Damascus

Destruction after car bombs, Damascus

“War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy, first published 1868-9; Penguin Classics, 2005, translated by Anthony Briggs,

Volume 3, Part 1, Chapter 1, page 667

The latter part of 1811 saw a new build-up in the concentration and arming of troops in Western Europe, and in 1812 these forces – millions of men if you include those in transport and provisioning – moved from west to east, closing in on the frontiers of Russia, where the Russian forces had been similarly gathering since 1811.

On the 12th of June the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier, and war began. In other words, an event took place which defied human reason and all human nature. Millions of men set out to inflict on one another untold evils – deception, treachery, robbery, forgery, counterfeiting, theft, arson and murder – on a scale unheard of in the annals of law-courts down the centuries and all over the world, though at the time the men responsible did not think of these deeds as crimes.

What led to this extraordinary occurrence? What causes lay behind it? Historians, in their simple-minded certitude, tell us that the causes of this event were as follows: the violence done to the Duke of Oldenburg; non-observance of the Continental System; Napoleon’s megalomania; Alexander’s obstinacy; mistakes made by diplomats, and so on.

It follows, then, that all Metternich, Rumyantsev or Talleyrand would have had to do, between getting up in the morning and partying in the evening, was exert themselves just a little and make a nice job of phrasing some diplomatic note, whereupon all Napoleon would have had to do was write to Alexander saying, ‘Esteemed brother, I consent to the Duke of Oldenburg having his duchy back,’ and there would have been no war.

We can well understand why contemporaries might have seen things that way. We can understand why Napoleon might have attributed the cause of the war to the machinations of the English (indeed, he said as much from St Helena). We can further understand why English members of parliament thought the war had been caused by Napoleon’s megalomania; why the Duke of Oldenburg blamed the war on the violence done to him; why those in trade explained the war in terms of the Continental System, which was bringing Europe to its knees; why veterans and old-world generals blamed it all on their being called up for service again; why legitimists of the period would insist on the necessity of getting ‘back to basics’, and diplomats of the day put it down to the 1809 alliance between Russia with Austria not being properly concealed from Napoleon, plus the clumsy wording of Memorandum No. 178. We can well understand how these – and other causes, endless in number, infinite in their proliferation because of the endless points of view available – might have appeared to contemporaries. But for us, the descendants of these people, as we contemplate this vast accomplishment in all its enormity and seek to penetrate its dreadful simplicity, these explanations seem inadequate. It is beyond our comprehension that millions of Christian men should have killed and tortured each other just because Napoleon was a megalomaniac, Alexander was obstinate, the English were devious and the Duke of Oldenburg was badly done by. We can see no connection between these circumstances and the stark reality of murder and violence; we cannot see how an affront to a duke could have induced thousands of men to rampage through the other end of Europe, slaughtering the inhabitants of Smolensk and Moscow and getting slaughtered in return.

We, their descendants – those of us who are not historians seduced by the pleasures of research and can therefore review events with unclouded common sense – find ourselves faced with an incalculable multiplicity of causes. The more deeply we go into the causes, the more of them there are, and each individual cause, or group of causes, seems as justifiable as all the rest, and as false as all the rest in its worthlessness compared with the enormity of the actual events, and its further worthlessness (unless you combine it with all the other associated causes) in validating the events that followed. For instance, Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and restore the Duchy of Oldenburg seems to us no more valid as a cause than the willingness or unwillingness of any old French corporal to serve a second term, for had he refused to serve, and a second and a third and a thousand corporals and soldiers along with him, Napoleon’s army would have been reduced by that number and there could have been no war.

If Napoleon had not taken umbrage at the demand for him to withdraw beyond the Vistula and had not given the order to advance, there would have been no war. But if every last sergeant had refused to go back into the army there could have been no war either. And war would also have been impossible if there had been no deviousness from England, no Duke of Oldenburg, no offence taken by Alexander, no autocracy in Russia, no French Revolution with its consequent dictatorship and empire, nor any of those things that led up to the French Revolution, and so on and so forth. If any one of these causes had been missing, nothing could have happened. It follows therefore that all of these causes, billions of them, came together to bring about subsequent events, and these events had no single cause, being bound to happen simply because they were bound to happen. Millions of men, abandoning all human feelings and common sense were bound to march from west to east and slay their fellows, just as a few centuries ago hordes of men had marched from east to west, slaying their fellows. ….


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