A German writer on the necessity of war (1914)

In 1914, the German military writer General Friedrich von Bernhardi wrote about an imminent war. In this extract he describes the necessity of war, as well as links between progress, Darwinism and war:

This desire for peace has rendered most civilized nations anaemic, and marks a decay of spirit and political courage… “It has always been,” von Treitschke tells us, “the weary, spiritless, and exhausted ages which have played with the dream of perpetual peace.”

Everyone will, within certain limits, admit that the endeavours to diminish the dangers of war and to mitigate the sufferings which war entails are justifiable. It is an incontestable fact that war temporarily disturbs industrial life, interrupts quiet economic development, brings widespread misery with it, and emphasises the primitive brutality of man. It is therefore a most desirable consummation if wars for trivial reasons should be rendered impossible, and if efforts are made to restrict the evils which follow necessarily in the train of war, so far as is compatible with the essential nature of war.

All that the Hague Peace Congress has accomplished in this limited sphere deserves… universal acknowledgment. But it is quite another matter if the object is to abolish war entirely, and to deny its necessary place in historical development. This aspiration is directly antagonistic to the great universal laws which rule all life. War is a biological necessity of the first importance, a regulative element in the life of mankind which cannot be dispensed with, since without it an unhealthy development will follow, which excludes every advancement of the race, and therefore all real civilisation.

“War is the father of all things”, wrote Heraclitus. The sages of antiquity long before Darwin recognised this. The struggle for existence is, in the life of Nature, the basis of all healthy development. All existing things show themselves to be the result of contesting forces. So in the life of man the struggle is not merely the destructive, but the life-giving principle. “To supplant or to be supplanted is the essence of life,” says Goethe, and the strong life gains the upper hand.

The law of the stronger holds good everywhere. Those forms survive which are able to procure themselves the most favorable conditions of life, and to assert themselves in the universal economy of Nature. The weaker succumb. This struggle is regulated and restrained by the unconscious sway of biological laws and by the interplay of opposite forces… In the human race it is consciously carried out, and regulated by social ordinances. The man of strong will and strong intellect tries by every means to assert himself, the ambitious strive to rise, and in this effort the individual is far from being guided merely by the consciousness of right. The life-work and the life-struggle of many men are determined, doubtless, by unselfish and ideal motives, but to a far greater extent the less noble passions – craving for possessions, enjoyment and honor, envy and the thirst for revenge – determine men’s actions.