22-Horrors of War

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Ce qu'il faut dire--Censored

22-Horrors of War

In February 1905 Séverine published an article in Je Sais Tout entitled “The Horrors of War” in which she meticulously enumerates the deaths produced by the ensemble of wars in the 19th century. In France and abroad it totaled 15 million casualties during the “century of progress”, more than 400 a day. The battle of Mukden alone (the largest battle fought before World War I) cost 42,000 Japanese lives and 50,000 Russians that would weigh in at 8 million kilos of human meat, including the bones.

Séverine was a pacifist from day one. Over the past ten years her speaking engagements had brought her to many pacifist conferences where her convictions defended the young conscientious objectors and criticized the “Sacred Union.” More than just stupid, war was absurd. How else could the assassination of an exotic archduke in a distant country unleash the infernal machine?   Could anything stem the tide of coming war?

Jean Jaurès, the Socialist leader, was also fiercely antimilitaristic and tried to bring a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Franco-German hostilities. Still stinging from the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, many French were unwilling to back down as the nationalists beat the drums of war. Jaurès declared that in case of war he would call for a general strike. Could such a dangerous opposition be allowed to continue? No, they killed him on July 31 1914, the very day that he had declared, “If the mobilization is made, I’ll be assassinated.” Shot in the back through the window of the brasserie Croissant. That bullet marked the end of all hopes for a peaceful solution and silenced the countless voices that had risen up against the danger. On 3 August the war began. The next day they held the funeral for Jaurès, Séverine sat in the front row before giving her speech. If this man had lived could he have changed the course of history?

Raoul Villain, the nationalist assassin of Jean Jaurès was acquitted on 29 March 1919—an injustice as bleak and blatant as the murder of Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States.

Ordinary life in the country stopped. Social activity disappeared, including in the intellectual spheres where all kinds of voices used to shout out against social injustice. The factories went from making satin and lace to making bombs, bayonets and bullets. In 1914 there were 15,000 women working in the factories. By 1918 there were 1,500,000. Séverine wondered if they and all their counterparts in Germany could end the war by just folding their arms and refusing to work. But could they really do that when they had to feed their children as the men (4 million of them) were shipped off to the slaughter?

All revolutionary papers were suppressed at the outbreak of the war and those that remained were censored by the government. Meticulous civil servants armed with scissors haunted the editorial offices dissecting the copy being composed and cutting into it right there. Many words here and there and often entire paragraphs, anything suspicious or dangerous was expunged, especially if it invoked the enemy Germany, as did the horse-drawn carriage called a berlin. The “blanks” that invaded the papers became almost as meaningful as the words. Reading the news became a puzzle game trying to find the missing pieces.

Most journalists submitted without too much of a fight. But Séverine refused to become a spokeswoman for an institutional lie and support the official lunacy. As her bosses rejected her pacifism and refused to print anything subversive, they required her to talk about harmless subjects far from war. On the other hand, she started meeting secretly with others who opposed the war. Professors, lawyers, journalists, in strictly private meetings, embarked on a forbidden adventure almost as exciting as the Padlewski affair[1], trying to bring the bloody slaughter to an end. At 60 years old she began to find her old pugnacity. The stronger the enemy, the more fiercely she fought. And wasn’t she always known as the mother of lost causes.

Some pacifists refused to be silenced or stay in the wings. Hélène Brion was a teacher in Pantin. Militant socialist, feminist, pacifist, she was charged under the law of August 5 1914 for “propaganda destined to favor the enemy and to exercise a harmful influence on the morale of the army.” Likewise, she had expressed “defeatism” by diffusing three socialist brochures. Séverine had only met her once at the anniversary of the Commune in 1912 but appreciated her speech. She was asked to act as witness for the accused alongside Marguerite Durand. She accepted and transformed into a defense lawyer. The verdict was three years of prison and revocation of her post as teacher. For being a pacifist.

Séverine was still wearing the black mourning clothes for the death of her mother in 1913 and will continue to wear them for the millions of dead.

Workers did not stay silent either. In May 1917 the seamstresses went on strike demanding the English workweek and a salary increase for cost of living. On May 18 there were 10,000 of them on the streets, chanting while marching toward the union house. The next days they were joined by all kinds of manufacturing workers. By the end of the month the Parisian strikers numbered more than 35,000 and all their demands were met despite the serious, responsible people saying it was not the appropriate time.

When the war finally came to an end in November 1918, there were nine million dead on the battlefield, 1.5 million for France alone. Repopulation became more crucial than ever, so they gave the women working in factories a bonus for babies: 200 F for a boy and 100 F for a girl. Why the difference? Obviously, Séverine said, it’s for the next war. And with her usual insight she watched the people stretching out their docile necks, ready for the knife.

She had always refused to be elected for prizes, like the Legion of Honor, several times. But on one instance she accepted a nomination. In 1919 her candidature was presented for the Nobel Peace Prize. The jury preferred the American President Woodrow Wilson, a much more diplomatic choice.

[1] See 10-Soldiers and Spies