Valery, Paul: Address on the Second World War

A Radio Address [September 1939]

[From History and Politics, transl. Denis Folliot and Jackson Mathews; © Princeton University Press; published by permission]

NOTHING today must be overlooked that can define and clarify in all minds -friend’s or enemy’s- the true nature of the war that has begun.

It is important to France and her cause, which is the cause of all men worthy of the name, that for the eyes of the world the strongest light should be thrown on the conditions that made this war at first possible and then inevitable. These conditions can be summed up in a few words: this is a war between certain free countries and one that is not.

What is a free country? It is a country in which there is reciprocity of service and obligation between the State and the individual. In a free country the State is not an island; it is a necessary organization that must constantly justify its necessity, and must ask of each citizen only what is explicitly required for the good of all.

Those countries where the public’s freedom counterbalances the power of the State have often been disparaged, ridiculed, or vigorously criticized. But all the ill that can be thought of our liberties, or attributed to their excess, vanishes in the light of the present explosion -whose flame tragically illuminates a very simple truth, that a free country is a country where it is impossible for peace or war to be the act of a single human being.

Consider this: on the one hand, a man, who is simply a man, for whatever he is worth; on the other, a whole people dependent on that man’s slightest gesture. All it takes is an insignificant act, as simple as pressing a button or turning a switch, for that man to set fire to Europe and to let loose on millions of men incalculable evils and the most extreme calamities.

This what we cannot imagine, we French or English. We are fighting absurdity. It is inconceivable to us that a people -among the most educated and reflective peoples in the world- should submit to the monstrous authority of a single man and silently follow him beyond all reason. Yet such a people exists, and its existence shows us that what makes the difference between a free country and one that is not, is not a difference in political regime so much as an irreducible difference in character. In our time, a country that is not free is a country in which men have no heart to be free, nor even the desire or need to be, nor even the idea that they could be. They would scarcely wish to be free. That is the mainspring of the present war.

It must be admitted: we do not understand the Germans. What a strange people is that great people! They have produced admirable and universal works of the mind; and yet they deliver themselves up to a persecutor of the mind. They delight in painstaking research, in works methodically pursued and scrupulously executed; they excel in foresight and thoroughly rational preparations; and yet they entrust their destiny to the fatal impulses of a gambler who, in the delirium of a run of luck, is bound to be swept to his ruin.

But how was that man able to impose his inordinate power on a people of advanced and very wide culture? He could never have robbed them of their free self-determination without first having subjugated or degraded their minds. He did so. Literature, philosophy, religious belief, and even the plastic arts, everything that elevates life and sets it free from abjection, has there been reduced to a miserably timid existence and controlled activity. Goethe himself is barely tolerated. If he were alive, he would be either in prison or with us.

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