The World After the War


The World After the War was published during the Great War in The Century Magazine, February, 1916. van Loom's essay reads like a parable about the harrowing effects of war in Europe, and a precursor for Americans on the verge of joining it (1917).
An illustration for the story The World After the War by the author Henrik Willem van Loon
The Century Magazine, 1916
An illustration for the story The World After the War by the author Henrik Willem van Loon
The Century Magazine, 1916
An illustration for the story The World After the War by the author Henrik Willem van Loon

OVER on the other side of the ocean, on the Continent of Europe, where a man's life counts for less than that of an insect, it seemed for just one short moment as though the veil of the future was torn away, and a vision of the future showed suddenly itself to me, like the view of a distant valley from a mountain top when there is a rift in the surrounding clouds.

At this particular time of our social development the reader will do well to spend a few moments in the perusal of M. Taine's book, "The Origins of Modern France." Speaking of the French Revolution, the great historian said in effect that over there was a very wondrous mansion, the top floors of which were inhabited by a gay and witty society. They spent their days in the pursuit of pleasure, but a few took their leisure for the improvement of their speculative ability. These few pondered upon the problems that confronted the management of their palace; for while the upper floors were a delightful place in which to dwell, there was a vast basement, much larger than the entire superstructure, in which lived the workers, the men and women who made the abode of mirth on the other floors a possibility. As the men of thoughts began to meditate upon the future of themselves and of those who dwelt below in the miserable caves of countless unsanitary cellars, they constructed fine theories and played with the Chinese rockets of their brilliant wit until one day a few sparks of their theoretical fireworks dropped into the cellar. The rubbish accumulated by centuries of neglect began to smolder. Some on the top floor noticed the smoke, and gave warning. "Never mind," the gay assembly said. "We have always heard these stories of fire. Let the thing burn after we are dead," and they went on with the dance until the flames burst forth through the windows, burned away the floor, and threw the entire august company into the flaming hell of the cellar. It left the blackened ruins of a house that had perished through its own recklessness.

So much for the little story of M. Taine. What happened after that not only in France, but all over Europe?

The old house was never rebuilt in its original shape. The fine ladies and gentlemen of the upper floors disappeared. Those who had not been killed by the conflagration never survived the shock. A new edifice had to be constructed. Who was to do this? The humble workers of the old cellar? They did not know how; but there was still another set of inhabitants. They were fewer in number, but more important. These were the butlers and the higher-class servants of the old régime. They had fled at the first sign of danger, but now they returned. Out of the ruins of the old palace they made a huge building of only a single story. The cellar, however, was kept as before. Heavy beams were laid across it, and huge walls were put together from the old masonry and an ugly, but useful, roof of structural iron was placed over all. The one great room was upholstered as well as could be with the remains of the furniture of the old order of society. The tapestries were not original, the chairs were rank imitations, and the sofa had been used by the last king.

"Why not?" the new inhabitants of the huge hall asked of one another. "After all, we are just as good as our former masters. Therefore, why should we not sit upon this bit of royal wood and horsehair and be as comfortable as they were?"

"Yes," said one of the cave-dwellers, sticking his head through the cellar door, "but what about us?"

"You, my friends," was the answer, "will be well looked after from now on. Do not worry. For the moment just go back to your work, for which you will receive a fair wage. And, by the way, since you are no longer a slave, if at any time you do not like our treatment, you may leave this house."

"That sounds very well," said the man, as yet unconvinced, "but where can we go to, since there is only this one house?"

"Oh, well, my friend, you can go out and live in the open, in the lovely fields of nature."

"And starve to death?"

"Of course. Therefore you had better stay where you are for the present and be contented. Later everything will be made right."

"Shut that door!" came the angry voice of a professor of political economy. "If the fellow has an economic right to be here in this pleasant room, he will get here in the end. So says the law of the only true science. Shut that door!" The door was shut. A heavy, old-fashioned cupboard was put across it, and everything went on as before. The new society was a little more mixed than the former. The manners were a boorish mimicry of what once had been considered good form. The taste in general had not improved, but in all its general essentials everything was a close repetition of what had gone before.

From time to time there were dangerous rumblings in the cellar. "Oh," the ladies said upon such occasions, "if these horrible people ever break loose, what a nasty business that will be!"

"Never mind," they were reassured by their gallant companions. "One of our men has just invented a new process of reinforced concrete, and we shall reconstruct our floor in such a way that nothing from below can possibly hurt us. Besides, we are not unreasonable. We are really very good to the people in the cellar. To-morrow we shall send them a barrel of beer and perhaps a box of cigars. Then they can be happy." And the people of the big hall, acting upon their generous impulse, engaged a circus to amuse themselves, and ate, drank, and lived happily.

Until one day they had a falling out among themselves. Nobody knew how the quarrel started, nobody cared much; but all of a sudden they were ready to fly at one another's throats. Then by a common impulse they rushed to the door of the cellar, and called: "We have been good masters. Come quickly and fight for us."

But when the men would not come, their masters had recourse to many arguments not heard since the days when the old people of the old ruined mansion had last been seen.

They insisted that the others must come because it was the will of God. But God, the men answered, had been dead these many years, and they refused to fight.

Then the inhabitants of the large hall called upon every patriotic sentiment that had been used in the olden days when such sentiments had an actual meaning. They started loud bands playing old well-known tunes. They hypnotized the blinded creatures of the cellar with a display of brilliant colors which they waved madly in the air. They promised to place golden spangles upon their ragged clothes if only the men would come and fight, and they promised them lovely colored ribbons in case they should suffer damage to life or limb. They rattled off every convincing argument that ever had served the purpose of forcing men into battle.

And the poor fellows, drunk with the artificial excitement, painfully climbed out of their miserable holes, took the arms that were pressed into their hands, set out to murder one another, and fought like demons. Until it was all over, and they were once more driven into their cellar?

No; because this time they will refuse to go back.

Historical prophecies of any actual value are impossible. History is an art and not a science. It is an art which, like every other art, is based upon a science; but a combination of unexpected circumstances, the strange interacting of character upon character, the sudden appearance of a leader of overpowering influence, may change the course of history at any moment. Yet we have a great deal of material about the past upon which we can base some of our contentions about the future.

Above all, keep in mind the fact that the great European War is not a struggle which is popular with the masses. Their ancient loyalty keeps the soldiers in the trenches, but their minds and their hearts are at all times with those whom they left at home. When they are mortally wounded, they feel that they lose their lives in a cause which might have been avoided if the powers that still rule the world had been inspired with greater foresight and with greater ability to lead the affairs of men. The stress of war, the anxiety about the safety of their own land, will keep their mouths shut as long as the struggle lasts; but the day will come when the last gun will be fired. Then the millions of armed men will return to their homes, and they will demand that their children be spared a repetition of this inexcusable waste of human life and happiness.

When peace comes back to earth, what will happen? Twenty million men will return to their homes. They will be asked to go back to their old tasks and take up the work which they left when they went to the war. There will be a terrific burden of taxation, and all men will be obliged to work harder than before. At the same time they will receive less money than they did formerly. Year in and year out they must pay the ever-increasing interest upon a capital the principal of which was destroyed in the form of dynamite, powder, nitroglycerin, war-ships, Zeppelins, cannon, machine-guns, and other unproductive investments. Economists shake their heads, and tell me that what I now state is an utter impossibility; but the time will come, probably within two generations, when the citizen, disgusted with the hard work forced upon him by the stupidity of a forgotten ancestor, will simply wipe this debt off the national slate. And who is there who can prevent this?

The economic notions of the average European laborer or farmer, not to speak of the peasant, who has always formed the bulk of every army, are extremely hazy. The poor fellow struggles through life trying to make both ends meet. Frequently he is not able to do this. Then he is turned out upon the street a pauper. Or if he succeeds in keeping the hungry mouths of his family filled, his life resolves itself into an endless worry lest to-morrow may not provide the food with which the family may manage to live until the day after.

Now behold what the war has done for him. It has fed him better than he has ever been fed before. It has put him into decent clothes. A heavy winter coat goes with the equipment of every soldier, and often he never saw such a garment before. Without sufficient food and shelter he is of no use as a fighting man; hence he is well fed three times a day. He likes it. He would be very happy if he were always as well looked after. But when he comes home from the war he will not be given this food unless he goes to dig coal out of a little black gallery half a mile beneath the surface of the earth or performs the dreariest of tasks in that dreariest of modern inventions, a factory. Formerly tradition and habit made him obey; but will he obey this time? That is the question. Will the man in khaki return to his shop and his workroom as quietly as the man in black of Cromwell's army?

All the evidence in the case says no. He will not. In this war he has been taught something which his many strikes and his labor warfare did not make clear to him. Before the year 1914, if in an encounter with his masters he used violence, he was regarded as an enemy of the law and was treated accordingly. This time he has with his own eyes and with his own hands noticed that organized violence is the best way to accomplish the desired results of his country. He has been trained to take from his enemy by violence what could not be obtained by arguments of reason. Is it likely in those circumstances that the mass of men will return peacefully to their unpleasant tasks when they know that they are possessed of the power with which they can obtain for themselves all they wish?

Call this statement socialistic, anarchistic, call it the most outrageous thing you have ever heard; but I am reporting what the men who make up the countless armies actually feel, not what they ought to think.

To make a long story short, after the war we may expect a most severe social revolution. We shall see the outbreak of labor troubles everywhere. These troubles will be of such magnitude that they will make themselves felt at once in the United States.

Of course the difficulties of France and Germany and Russia and England will all be very different. Germany, after more than a century of discipline in all matters of daily concern whether private or public, will act more slowly than the others. The Germans will proceed with order and in decency. They will appoint leaders, and they will obey these leaders as bluntly as they have formerly obeyed their political and military masters. The opposition will be organized by the greatly strengthened Socialistic party.

The question is often asked why this party did not make a definite stand against the war? Why not indeed? Because they did not have the slightest chance of success in any contemplated opposition in August of the year 1914. In our highly systematized world we often forget the great influence which the small subconscious sentiments have upon our deeds and our words. Socialism is a comparatively new doctrine. It has no traditions. It is not provided with an imaginary background in the minds of the true believers. On the other hand, the idea of state and of empire is based upon ancient tradition, mellowed by age.

Suppose the German Socialists had decided to oppose the war. Just imagine the situation. Somewhere in a dreary hall a number of Socialists meet, and after much rhetoric of a purely theoretical kind and the smoking of many cheap cigars they vow to obey their reason rather than their feelings and refuse to fight. Is it all clear to you, the smell of beer and bad tobacco, the forlorn bleakness of it all? And then think of what will happen the moment the imperial brass band and a battalion of soldiers come marching by. That excellent gathering of enlightened humanity will follow that band to hell provided it keeps on playing popular airs. Against the age-old traditions—traditions of valor and courage and honor and love for the colors of the fatherland and devotion to the ideals of empire—all the doctrines of the sublime Marx are effaced. These men assembled to uphold reason are at once swept away by some mysterious force which is much stronger than reason. They fall victims to the traditions of countless generations.

Of course, after a while, reason will return; then, however, it is too late. The citizen has become a soldier, and loyalty, that commonest of virtues in the world of simple-minded people, forces him to stick to the cause to which he once gave his support. He must stick it out until victory or defeat brings about peace.

But after the war! Then we shall have to deal with different men and in very different circumstances. The German workman understands that this war, even if it is victorious, can never repay him and his people for what they have lost and suffered. The glory, if there is any, will go to those who have been in command. I wish that you could have heard the bitterness with which that statement was often made—the bitterness of people with no vision but one of hopeless disappointment. No, to the vast majority of the people of Germany this war, with all its outward glory, is a gruesome labor that has to be finished one way or another.

It is no wonder that the reigning family has lost a great deal of the popularity with which it led its men into France and Russia at the beginning of hostilities. If everything had gone well during those first months, yes, if there had been a speedy and easy victory, it would have been a different question; but after years of struggle and suffering there will be a general detestation of the horror of our modern chemical warfare. A strongly organized Socialistic party, a phalanx of determined and brave men, will work quietly, but steadily, upon the problem of their own class, ninety per cent. of the entire population. If the Government has the sense to place itself at the head of this movement (and very likely it will do this), it may lead the men toward a completely socialized empire. But whatever happens, the good old days of a negligible parliament and a small clique of interested leaders who mysteriously guide the affairs of the nation for some equally mysterious benefit and according to rules of international conduct that were valid in the days of the Romans will disappear. And before ten years have gone by the German imperial cabinet will be dominated by Socialistic ministers.

What of France, the sublime, which, unprepared, arose out of the filth of the Caillaux trial to withstand an invading horde advancing to the very gates of her capital?

In France, in less than twelve months' time, the spirit of the people has undone the harm of forty years of bad government by and of and for the lawyers who fought for the possession of her political spoils. The story of France since the great debacle of 1870 is not an inspiring one. One dreary figure after the other carries the black silk hat and the red silk ribbon, the insignia of the highest dignity which the republic can give to her citizens. Not a single figure among them rises out of the class which we call mediocre. Her ministers are a national joke, and they change with a rapidity which is often a national disgrace.

The war came, and the useless superstructure was at once swept away. Men of deeds took the place of men of mere words. Whatever the outcome of the war, France knows that among the masses of her people, among the millions of industrious workers of her rich country, she has the very best that this world possesses. After the war there is only one course that France can follow: the old aristocracy which made the France of glorious outward fame and horrible domestic misery can never return to power. The middle class has had a fair trial, and it has failed. For better or for worse, the old home of the emancipation of the human mind will have to turn to a new order of things. Parliamentarism as France has known it for almost half a century, the haggling of small politicasters for the benefit of their own little interests, will be a thing of the past. In the tremendous struggle for national existence a new leadership is being born—the leadership of the capable men from among the masses.

Is n't this remark too Utopian? Can a neglected class suddenly produce men capable of leadership? For answer I refer you to the leaders who guided France through the days of the Revolution. The miracle which they performed has been seen before and it will be seen again. Do not expect a repetition of the old times of the sea-green Robespierre and the wholesale drownings of his enemies in the River Loire. Indeed, as I see the future, the men who will come to the front will resemble the old Huguenot chieftains. They will be men of a serious purpose, they will be men of deep religious feeling; only now their religion will be a socialism of the future.

Of the events in Russia we can speak with certainty. Every foreign war in which the empire has ever been engaged has meant a prelude for a bitter revolution. The explanation is a simple one. During times of peace the inefficient bureaucracy of Russia can find ways and means by which to perform the strictly necessary tasks for the management of the empire, meanwhile trusting to a kind Providence to take care of any possible emergencies. But never yet has this machine of inefficiency been tried by any period of stress without disastrous results to all those concerned. In the great conflict which now rages in eastern Europe Russia has seen her best armies wasted, her fleet doomed to inactivity, the richest part of her territory surrendered to an invader, and all of this because of a lack of foresight and the indifference of the ruling class. It is merely a question of months and perhaps of weeks before there will be a repetition of those events which occurred immediately after the Japanese War. The Slavic people, ruled by a system which was originated by Tatars and Byzantines and which was hammered into shape by German drill-masters, will once more make an attempt to rid itself of this unbearable yoke.

Their task will not be an easy one. Revolutionary propaganda is difficult in a country which can neither read nor write, but the chances for victory are better than they were in the year 1900. Ten years of a semblance of popular government, however primitive, have done their work better than most people know. There will be more cohesion and more system in the attempts of the man who will stir up the masses.

Of course, in Russia, which is not preponderantly a manufacturing nation, but an agricultural one, the ever-present question is that of the division of the land. Compared with the magnitude of this problem, all other difficulties are of minor importance. The ignorant peasant, without books or learning, knows through the ancestral legends of the olden times when the land belonged to him and not to his masters. He feels the injustice of the slavery to which he was condemned during the first years of the seventeenth century. He wants neither rights nor privileges; first and last and all the time he wants his land. The revolutionary outbreak in Russia will be of a rural nature. In the large cities, where the undesirable elements from the country districts have been gathered into a hopeless proletariate, there will be violence such as we know from our own strikes and labor struggles. But the main issue in Russia will be fought out far away from cities, on the land. Never was a time so favorable for an uprising of all the discontented elements. It is not going to be a charming affair, and there will be much in the nature of the horrible peasant uprisings of the late Middle Ages.

The system which the masters of Russia had forced upon their subjects at the time when two hundred years of Tatar domination had entirely broken the spirit of the people will disappear amid much bloodshed and violence. The old order of things, which was merely a system of "organized anarchy" for the benefit of those who were in power, will be replaced by a new anarchy, which will not even have the saving grace of a systematized purpose. For the first time in their history the Slavic people will work out their own salvation, and will live as they want to and not as somebody thinks that they ought to want to. For eleven centuries Russia has obeyed foreign masters and has allowed her own destinies to be shaped by outside influences of one sort or another. The war, which is breaking the iron bonds which have kept the old system together, means the emancipation of the Slavic people. Hereafter we shall hear less of an ever-growing Russian Empire. We shall hear more of the development of the Slavic genius in all fields of human endeavor.

From Russia to England is a far cry. The two countries are antipodes in everything except geographical situation. England is an earthly paradise to all those who can appreciate the greatest refinement of material things; Russia is avoided by the foreign traveler unless he is of an adventurous and courageous nature. Yet this delightful country of smiling fields surrounded on all sides by a profitable ocean, this merry old country of happy ballads and recollections of a charming past, will be affected by the war to a greater extent than any of the other participants of the great struggle.

England has always been a country divided into two distinct parts. One of these, the ruling caste of the land, was delightful. The other one, the class of the servants, created to contribute to the happiness of their masters, was perfectly hopeless. But during the last years of our era the forgotten masses working at the bottom of coal-mines and sweating in the bowels of gigantic factories have come to a realization of their own importance in the cosmos of human beings. Under the guidance of strange leaders they set deliberately to work to accomplish their own emancipation. They were in a fair way to succeed when the war broke out and forced a momentary interruption of their activities. In this war the masses of England have had much of which they may righteously complain. They have suffered needlessly and uselessly through extremely bad management on the part of the Government.

Life had been too easy to those in command. They had not grown up to realize the demands of their own times. Their ideals were those of a bygone age. Science, which is to decide the future of man, was a neglected quantity. In many instances it was a despised attribute of little value except as a means of livelihood in some smelly factory. Thousands upon thousands of good British lives have been lost because the leaders were ignorant of the work before them. When the end of the struggle comes there will be a very persistent and serious demand for an accounting. The pent-up discontent of years of silent suffering will break forth with a violence which has not been seen in the British Isles for many a century.

It is not a question of a more or less ineffectual king or a cabinet which was incapable of doing its full duty. There is more than that. People will have to decide this time about the future of their own race. Will it develop as it has done hitherto as a combination of two separated classes, or will it give to all men the chance of developing their own powers to the best of their ability in the most favorable circumstances for all? The men who will come out of the trenches will have their answer ready. No one who has seen anything of this war can doubt for a moment what this answer will be. After the war the laboring world of England will come forward with an ultimatum of no indefinite purport. Their demands will be backed up by the violence which has been taught to those men for the purpose of beating their German enemies. No doubt the England of the pretty Christmas cards will be a little less picturesque and not so comfortable as it was before. But there will be a great house-cleaning. That cellar, that horrible and unspeakable cellar of which I have already spoken, will be filled up with the debris of the war, and in this way an evil thing may yet work for the good of us all.

Thus far I have mentioned the influence of the war upon the men of the race. It will affect the position of women to an even greater degree. The war is the strongest and most effective ally of those who strive for an improvement in the fate of women. When I speak of women, please do not think of those happy creatures who can spend thirty-five cents to read this magazine. Think of the millions who are obliged to feed and wash and clothe a family on this same amount. Think of the women in the greater part of Europe who pull their husband's plow together with his ox, who carry his bundles and bear his children and wash and cook and clothe and wait upon his entire family without receiving the wages or treatment of a servant. Try to imagine what the war means to these unfortunate creatures. For the first time in their dreary lives they have known what it was to be their own masters. They have tasted of liberty. Their lord and master has gone and has left them to manage for themselves. In many instances they discover that they can handle affairs much better than their men, who used to treat them as domestic animals, little less valuable than a good cow. Visit the central part of Europe, countries like Hungary and East Prussia, and you will find that a new spirit has descended upon these strong and healthy beings who thus far were accounted of no value except as propagators of the race and busy workers in their master's vineyard. Ask the wives of the men who spend their lives in the drudgery of some industrial center whether they have not had visions of a new world now that they have some time in which to breathe and to be masters of their own minds and bodies. Through this horrible cataclysm they will have gained what centuries of peaceful pleading could not have given to them.

The old order of things is going. As a matter of fact, it has gone. It went out of existence when the ancient régime of predatory politics made its last great attempt at world supremacy.

The guns that battered the forts at Liège did not only demolish a certain quantity of cement and steel. They destroyed the roof of the fine structure of which I told you at the beginning of my little story. The shell went clear through the building. It blew a hole into the cellar that let in the daylight and fresh air and gave my cave-dwellers a chance to escape. You may dislike the author of these pages for prophesying a state of affairs which will mean the destruction of that charming world with which we and our ancestors have grown up; but this is the way in which we see the future of events on this morning of the fourth of November of the year of disaster 1915.

The World After the War was featured as The Short Story of the Day on Mon, Feb 21, 2022

You may enjoy reading our collection of World War I Literature.


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