Guglielmo Ferrero, a liberal Italian journalist and historian who lived from 1871 to 1942, considers here the question of how conscription—and the concomitant expansion of state power over the individual—came to Europe in the course of the Wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon. The book from which this extract is taken, Problems of Peace: From the Holy Alliance to the League of Nations (G.P Putnam’s Sons, 1919) was provoked by the catastrophe of the Great War and the manifold quesitons of reconstruction raised by the Paris Peace Conference. Ferrero styled it a message from a European writer to Americans, in which he undertook to explain the causes and consequences of Europe’s maladies to the newly empowered United States. While there is some special pleading of Italy’s position in the book’s closing, the body of the work, detailing the transformation of European politics over the long nineteenth century (1789-1914), contains many brilliant analyses, of which the following is an example. Here he takes up the grim question of how it was that the French Revolution, “meant to free the world,” brought with it the new servitude of conscription, and how France’s enemies, especially the great courts of Austria and Prussia, imitated France even as they feared her, becoming the French Revolution's "best scholars and its most implacable enemies." (3368 words)
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The question whether the French Revolution gave liberty to the world has been bitterly debated for more than a hundred years. Some say it did, others that it did not. In order to decide the point it would be necessary to know what each side means by liberty. But at any rate there is no doubt whatever that one of the first gifts generously bestowed by that Revolution on the peoples was that of compulsory military service.
This point is of such capital importance that we must stop to consider it for a moment. It must at once be admitted that any military system must be based on one of two contrary principles—the professional principle, whereby war is regarded as one among other arts practised by mankind, a pursuit voluntarily chosen as a means of livelihood by any one who feels he has a vocation for it, or the political principle, which regards the bearing of arms as a civic duty incumbent on all male persons whatever their profession, their social position, or their education. Each of these principles has its good and its bad side. The professional principle is best for those States which require only a small army but which must have it of the best quality, because men who have the vocation of arms are few. The political principle, on the other hand, is well suited to States which need a larger force of less high quality and not trained above the average. But it is clear that, of the two, the professional principle is the more in conformity with human nature and military science, while the political principle is not and cannot be more than a desperate expedient for increasing numbers. There is no art which, if it is to be thoroughly known and skilfully exercised, does not require aptitude, close study, and long practice and, if this is so, how can it reasonably be argued that we can all of us become improvised warriors in a few months ? For war is one of the most difficult of all arts, requiring as it does, not only much knowledge but a stern apprenticeship in such very arduous virtues as obedience, courage, and patience. This is why all nations have abhorred conscription as the most detestable of servitudes, and why it has always been difficult to induce them to submit to it. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries war was the chief occupation of the Courts of Europe, and yet none (though all were absolute monarchies) had the courage or the power to impose on all its own subjects the obligation to serve in its armies. The soldiers who served under their banners were not all volunteers, and they did not scruple to enlist soldiers by force when they could. But this was the exception, not the rule, and the men taken were of the humblest class, picked up here and there, over a long period of time. These forced soldiers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not citizens fulfilling a civic duty equally obligatory on all, but men compelled by their own exceptional ill luck to adopt the profession of arms. In any case, if volunteers were not numerous these impressed soldiers were even less so ; consequently, armies were small and the wars whereby the Courts strove to realize their territorial ambitions were limited not only by their poverty but by the difficulty, not a small one, of finding soldiers.
How was it then that the French Revolution, which was to free the world, brought with it this new servitude side by side with the Declaration of the Rights of Man? The governments of Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were at the same time both strong and weak. They were strong because they were legitimate, because they possessed a title to authority which all men recognized as genuine. These titles varied from State to State and were sometimes even contradictory. . . . But logical or illogical, just or unjust, decrepit or still vigorous and fresh, all these sovereignties appeared legitimate, not because all men venerated them as such in their hearts, but because everybody respected, or said they respected, them, and because no one dared to interfere. All being supported by many interests, all maintained themselves intact in the respect of the peoples, precisely because there were so many of them, and because there was none among them so strong as to be able to overthrow and destroy all the rest. But these governments, so strong in the possession of their authority, were extremely weak in exercising it. Instead of being gathered up in a few vigorous, well co-ordinated and subordinated organs of government, authority was scattered among a great number of different centres, ill co-ordinated and subordinated, each jealous of its own rights and privileges.
Moreover the authority of the State was not merely scattered through a multitude of organs, it was also limited in every direction by acquired privilege, by tradition, by local autonomies and customs, and therefore it was forced to take a slow, difficult, and devious way among all these obstacles and impediments, like a river at the bottom of a narrow gorge twisted and obstructed at every turn by enormous boulders. Who, for instance, would believe that in 1806, when Revolution and War had already half uprooted the old order with its pedantic respect for legality, in the night of October 11th-12th on the eve of the Battle of Jena, the Prussian army encamped in the woods suffered severely from the cold because, not being in enemy territory, it had not the right to requisition even what was necessary for its support; that the horses went without fodder, though there were ample supplies in Jena afterwards taken by the French, because Wolfgang von Goethe, the Grand Ducal Commissariat Officer, did not inform the generals in time that they had his permission to take what was necessary ! . . .
But the eighteenth century was weary of obeying these governments which it still revered, for they were weak, incapable, and often unjust and oppressive, not because they were tyrannous in intention but because they were impotent. This is the contradiction in the work of that century, frivolous and tragic, trifling and powerful, little and great, which, when it felt that old age was creeping upon it determined to have its youth again even at the cost of selling its soul to the Devil. More than two hundred years previously, human reason, deserting the mediaeval schools, had ventured forth into the infinite, seeking truth no longer in the pages of a few books but in the affairs of real life. The art of war had been reborn in Europe and had emerged with the learning of the ancients from the oblivion of the Middle Ages. The principles of strategy and tactics were re-discovered in Greek and Latin books, and men worked out their application to the use of firearms then recently invented. Among the greater and lesser European dynasties had arisen a struggle to aggrandize themselves either by force of aims or by treaties, not in Europe only but also in Asia and Africa, and in America, the newly discovered continent. The wars of Religion which sprang from the Reformation, had supervened, and were often mixed up with wars of dynastic predominance and colonial conquest. Thus for two centuries what we now call militarism had been making great strides in Europe. Diplomatic skill, valour in war, success in negotiation and in fighting, were passports to the favour of the great Territorial aggrandizements and were valued almost in proportion to the efforts and the sacrifices they had cost. But armies required money, and war not money only but promptitude, vigour, and elasticity of organization in the belligerent States. Hence, in the eighteenth century, the dispersion of authority, the scrupulous respect for vested rights and for tradition characteristic of the old regime became specially obnoxious to the Courts engaged in these wars and conflicts, when they found that they were thereby weakened and embarrassed. This was the cause of the intellectual ferment and the mania for action and for novelty which agitated the upper classes of the greater European States at this time, driving them to seek sources of riches, beauty, and truth which had hitherto been unknown. In France, the human mind made a heroic effort to remove the source of authority from parchments, from historic rights, from the inscrutable depths of divinity, into the sphere of human beings who were recognized as having the right to sit in judgment on governments and therefore to accept a good government as a legitimate government. Germany, chained to the earth by the institutions of the Empire, took refuge in a paradise of the imagination, tried by means of romanticism to bring about a revolution in the realm of beauty by overthrowing classical models, and began to be fevered with that philosophic delirium which, growing with the disorder of the times, infected the whole of Europe in the ensuing century. England emulated the mythical achievement of Prometheus by creating docile, powerful, and unwearied slaves of iron animated by fire, by whose aid she might conquer the riches of the world. Every now and then Europe was startled by some portent which broke the ordinary course of human history. Now it was Frederick the Great who renewed the art of war; now Joseph the Second who desired to reform his empire from top to bottom; now the first partition of Poland. For the first time, three States came to an agreement to fall upon a weaker neighbour for no other reason than that they coveted her fertile lands, thus cancelling all the principles of international law as then acknowledged and putting in their place the right of force. There was immense fear and indignation in Europe at this event, but no less was the envy of all the States who might have wished, but could not or did not dare, to follow this disastrous precedent.
The elite of the eighteenth century longed, in a word, for governments stronger, more alert, and more intelligent than those by which Europe was then ruled, even if they should possess fewer antique parchment credentials, if only they were ready to provide capacity and energy in the place of the legitimacy which seemed to have no life left in it. For this reason, encouraged by sovereigns and powerful personages, they were ready to assail the existing order, or at least such parts of that order as seemed most out of date and most insensible to the aspirations of the day. There is, however, nothing on earth, which is at the same time more stable and more fragile than a legal principle. It will resist for centuries all the criticisms of reason, all the protests of sentiment, and all the assaults of opposed interests, only to fall in a few weeks when overwhelmed by a war, or a revolution. On this occasion also, the earthquake of the Revolution overthrew in a few years what the criticism of philosophers and the reforms of princes had barely shaken. After hesitating between several aims, the Revolution, attacked on all sides and on the point of being overwhelmed by numbers, had recourse to the political principle of military service. Owing to the desperate necessity of finding soldiers, soldiers, and yet more soldiers, it assembled its youthful levies under officers and non-commissioned officers, who had served the Monarchy, inflamed them with a passion of patriotism and revolutionary ardour, squandered their blood without stinting, unreservedly adopted the principle, never fully accepted by the eighteenth century, that war annuls all rights which are in force in time of peace, and conquered a Europe which depended on little armies recruited on the professional principle.
But for success in war, valorous and well-led armies are not enough. Resolute and energetic governments are also necessary; and so the Revolution had to set about creating in France a powerful State, based on the ruins of the ancient principles of legitimacy and its own dreams of happiness and freedom. The Church and the Nobility, the two powers which under the ancien regime had overpowered the Monarchy they pretended to serve, were humiliated. Authority was concentrated in the State which received well-defined powers and was administered by a capable staff recruited according to merit. Wide roads of common law convenient to all were driven through the tangled thickets of privilege and vested rights which had burdened so much of the old France. The medley of the ancient laws was codified and made simple. In short, there was improvised a simpler and stronger government, more efficient, and more in harmony with the dictates of reason, which plunged boldly with fresh forces into the struggle for territorial expansion, making a free and ever more audacious use of the sovereign right of force which, to the great scandal of all Europe, Russia, Prussia, and Austria had, for the first time, applied to Poland.
The Revolution did not, however, succeed in finding or applying any new principle of legitimacy. For a time, some attempt was made to rediscover the mystic source of lawful authority in the will of the people; but as no one knew exactly where this will was to be found or how it was to be expressed or recognized, it was finally confounded and identified with the genius, the energy, the fortunes; and the victories of a single man. The Republic was, practically without intermission, governed by a dictatorship until an ex-captain of artillery, born of a needy family of the minor nobility of Corsica, ascended the throne of France because he had proved that he knew how to rule and make war, and became the first champion of the new Divine Right of intelligence which was apparently imposing itself upon Europe.
Thus the French Revolution became at once the terror and the model of European monarchies, by which it was the more hated the more they were obliged to learn from it. Among all the rest, the two great Germanic monarchies, Austria and Prussia, were its best scholars and its most implacable enemies. This contradiction contains one of the two most profound and terrible secrets of the history of Europe in the nineteenth century. Taught by their imitation and by their defeats, Austria and Prussia sought to strengthen themselves as France had done by taking advantage of the upheaval which had weakened in every mind the sentiments of legality and tradition, and the respect for treaties and for the established order. In 1793 and 1795, while at war with France, Austria and Prussia, profiting by the difficulties with which their adversary was struggling, agreed with Russia to seize the Polish territories which had escaped the first partition. Austria began to introduce conscription, though to a less degree than in France, and, in 1797, under the Treaty of Campo Formio, she came to an understanding with the French Republic to which she surrendered Belgium, Lombardy, and the eastern bank of the Rhine, receiving in exchange the territories of the Venetian Republic. The young Republic, the daughter of the Revolution, and the Holy Roman Empire agreed to tear up parchments and scraps of paper in order to aggrandize themselves at the expense of old and legitimate governments, among which was no other than the Republic of Venice, the most brilliant jewel among Medieval and Renaissance States, a miracle of well-preserved beauty. Henceforth, no legitimate government which could not defend itself was recognized as possessing any rights at all. As Napoleon said to Martens, International Law was the same thing as the law of the stronger. Ambition and suspicion were now sufficient motives for war; the international order ceased to be stable, and, as no State was safe, all had to arm themselves. There was terror at the French victories and at the ever imminent danger of war. An even greater terror of the catastrophe which had destroyed the French nobility and the Monarchy was inspired in Austria, Prussia, and the lesser German States, where the aristocracy, the clergy, the army, and the official class rallied to the support of legitimate monarchy against the upstart power of France and the dragon of Revolution. They made a willing sacrifice of vested right, tradition, and all privileges which limited or hindered, even to their advantage, the authority of the King. At Vienna, centralized absolutism, which had been fighting tenaciously for two hundred years against the spirit of autonomy, rapidly prevailed. Resistance weakened; the provincial Diets gave up contending for their constitutional rights. Germany began to awaken from her long sleep, her philosophic delirium increased as the old world fell to pieces around her; behind Kant stood Fichte and Schelling. Even the lesser Princes felt and admitted that the day was at hand when they would have to be merged and disappear in a higher and more powerful unity. In all the monarchical States, the authority of the Court increased because the Court, following the example set in France, now watched over and directed everything. But the more the legitimate monarchies, as their power grew, imitated Napoleon, the more they hated the usurper and the more they longed to overthrow him. Hence one war sprang from another in a concatenation which seemed as if it would never end, and, with each new war, there crumbled away some new part of the ancient order under which Europe had lived. In 1801, the Treaty of Luneville surrendered the whole of the left bank of the Rhine to the French Republic. In the following year the stronger States of Germany—Prussia and Austria among them—compensated themselves for this loss by agreeing to the immediate annexation of a great number of the smaller States, for the most part Free Cities and ecclesiastical Principalities. In 1804, while the war against France and the Third Coalition were being prepared, Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, and Francis I. at once followed suit by proclaiming himself Emperor of Austria "with all due regard to the independent States." This double status did not last long, for in 1806, after the Battle of Austerlitz, the discomfiture of the Third Coalition, and the Peace of Presburg, Napoleon united Western and Southern Germany, including Bavaria, in the Confederation of the Rhine which was placed under his protection, and, on August 6th, Francis I. declared that the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was dissolved. Destiny was fulfilled. Henceforth the German people was freed from the system of little Kingdoms, respected but impotent, under which it had become feeble. The little German principalities which had escaped from the ruin of 1802 were now incorporated in a few more powerful States. Germany had taken another step towards her unification, and in her midst there arose the new Empire of Austria, imitating but hating the French Empire.
It is very frequently said that the Empire of Austria is a relic of the Middle Ages, a feudal State, and a living anachronism. This is only partly true. The Austrian Empire would be younger by a few months than the Empire of the Napoleonidæ, if the latter had not been shattered by Fate in its earliest years. She also is a daughter, albeit a bastard daughter, of the French Revolution, one of the States which, like Prussia, profited by the ideas, the innovations, and the institutions that the Revolution and the Empire created or experimented with, not in order to alter the principles of government or to liberate the world, but to aggrandize themselves, to increase their military power, and to free themselves from many of the impediments from which, under the ancien regime, owing to the dispersion and the limitation of its authority, the State suffered.
After her defeat at Jena, Prussia followed this path even more ardently than Austria. The State was modernized by the addition of all the institutions and all the principles of the Revolution which could reinforce the authority of the monarch, the government, and the nobility. The principle of compulsory military service for all citizens was definitely adopted, and applied more resolutely and coherently than in all other countries, not excepting France. . . .
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This photograph of Ferrero is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
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This photograph of Ferrero is courtesy of Wikipedia Commons