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The Face of Humanity and Visions of Peace
In 1900, the most compelling question writers, artists, politicians, and other thoughtful people addressed was, what would the new century bring? We, in our more cynical times, might be surprised at how positive such conjectures were. To be sure, there were prophets of doom, like H. G. Wells, who conjured up a technological nightmare of a War of the Worlds in 1898. The Polish-born novelist Joseph Conrad also brought a pessimist's gaze to the future of the European project in his Heart of Darkness, published first in serialized form in 1899. But these voices were in the minority. In many public displays and private meditations, most imaginings of the twentieth century celebrated progress on the global scale and projected it optimistically into the foreseeable future. The key to their varied futures was peace.
I will consider three such visions of peace in this chapter. The first was the project of the Parisian banker, Albert Kahn, to photograph the whole world, and to preserve it in Paris for all to see as an Archive of the Planet. This initiative was more than one man'scrusade. Kahn was one of many who mobilized photography in order to show the overwhelming affinities between countries and cultures ostensibly hostile to each other. War from this point of view was an unnecessary and damaging family quarrel. The second is the cornucopia presented in the great world's fair of 1900 in Paris, a glittering visual encomium to European ingenuity and its spread through education and commerce to every corner of the globe. The liberal nineteenth-century message was clear: out of trade came a peaceful and beneficent future. War was bad for commerce, as generations of bankers and businessmen tirelessly affirmed. The third vision is that of the socialist Second International, and in particular that of its leader, Jean Jaurès. His quest for social justice and peace described a very different perspective from that of the organizers of the Paris expo or of Kahn's Archives de la planète. To Jaurès, peace would emerge when the voice of working people entered the conversation about international conflict. When they would gain the right to speak, they would expose war as a capitalist cabal, and force politicians to defend the well-being of the many rather than the interests of the few.
All three of these visions of the twentieth century were global in scale. Those who live at the beginning of the twenty-first century should pause before claiming globalization as a recent or unprecedented phenomenon. Who in 1900 could miss the framing of the world by imperial powers, armed with the latest technology? The decade from 1895 to 1905 was marked by armed conflict in every continent. In 1895, Japan defeated China. Following her defeat, China was powerless to stop the informal dismemberment of the empire by Western interests representing Austria, France, Germany, Britain, Japan, and Russia. Then the United States joined in following the suppression of a violent nationalist revolt known as the Boxer Rebellion. It was put down with a special ferocity. "Bear yourselves like the Huns of Attila," was the instruction Kaiser Wilhelm II gave his troops en route to China. They did so, killing, according to some estimates, over 100,000 Chinese in reprisals.
In 1896, perhaps 300,000 Armenians were massacred in the Ottoman Empire, as a result of the direct orders of Sultan Abdul Hamid, whose troops were engaged in war with Greece a year later. Between 1898 and 1903, as many as 100,000 people were killed in civil war in Colombia. In 1898, American forces seized the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam during hostilities with Spain. The United States then annexed Hawaii. Between 1899 and 1902 the British army fought a difficult guerrilla war to overcome a smaller band of Boer settlers in South Africa. The British ultimately succeeded but did so in part by attacking civilians; Boer families were incarcerated in what were termed "concentration camps," rife with disease. An uprising known as the Herero revolt by several Bantu-speaking tribes in German West Africa was quelled by German troops in 1904-6. Estimates vary, but it is possible that 80 percent of the Herero population was killed in the conflict. In February 1904, the Japanese attacked the Russian navy at Port Arthur in China; the Japanese forces prevailed in subsequent fighting, establishing Japan as a world power.
It is against the backdrop of worldwide violence that the dreams of peace and of a harmonious new century we examine in this chapter must be set. All three of the visions prophesied peace; all three under-estimated the extent to which imperial competition and conflict confounded their prophesies and made war and mass violence, not peace, the dominant feature of twentieth-century history.
Albert Kahn and the Face of Humanity
Before 1914 transformed both the landscape of the planet and the language we use to understand it, pacifism was an international force. On 4 September 1900, the first Hague Convention on the peaceful resolution of international conflicts entered into force. Throughout the world, many groups declared their wholehearted commitment to the idea that war could be done away with, that it could be made into an anachronism. One man who shared this dream, this hypothesis about the possibility of limiting recourse to violence in international affairs, was the French banker Albert Kahn.
Kahn was a self-made man. He was an Alsatian Jew, born in 1860, when the two eastern provinces of France were under German rule. At age 16 he decided to seek his fortune in Paris. He was a shy man, something of a recluse, who remained a bachelor throughout his life. In the French capital he found employment as an apprentice in the banking house of a family friend. His work for the private bank of Eduard Goudchaux occupied him by day; by night, he studied philosophy. His tutor, Henri Bergson, was Jewish, too, and just a year older. Their friendship lasted long after both became famous, Kahn in the world of international finance, and Bergson in the field of philosophy. Bergson was the first Jew elected to the Académie Française. Both had a vision of the transformative power of knowledge. Their common interests and aspirations, shared in conversation over 60 years, marked a profound friendship.
The two facets of his interest-finance and philosophy-fused in the field of international banking. His breakthrough came when he went to South Africa to help secure options for gold and diamond mining. Financing the De Beers and Rhodes operations was a gamble that paid off and handsomely. In 1897, at the age of 37, he became a partner in the bank.
South African interests were only the beginning of Kahn's work in international banking. After the turn of the century his attention turned to Japan. There he found a second home, and worked both as financier and as economic adviser in the Imperial Court. Here, too, he made friendships that lasted throughout the following turbulent decades.
It is in this period of phenomenally successful business activity, and the accumulation of a fortune in its wake, that Kahn apparently conceived of his life's work. His aim was to stay in the shadows, discreetly but firmly acting as the éminence grise behind a host of initiatives in the cause of world peace. Was it the vision of economic growth in South Africa and Japan that led him to see the need to link prosperity to perpetual peace? (For without peace, Kahn believed, economic development was meaningless.) Was it the racial exploitation behind the hugely profitable extractive industries in the Cape, or the bloodshed of the Russo-Japanese war, that led him to fear for the future if productive forces were not harnessed to peaceful ends? Or, perhaps, did he suffer a crise de conscience in the 1890s, which led him to reconsider his beliefs and his mission in life? We will never know for sure, since this intensely private man left little correspondence to posterity. But his fleeting comments, dictated after his economic ruin in the stock market crash of 1929, disclose a man with a mystical turn of mind. "I am convinced there is a pattern to history, a pathway leading from narrow particularism to universality," he wrote in one of his reveries. He had a metaphysician's temperament, a taste for philosophical speculation about the quest for peace to which he returned throughout his later life. Kahn committed his fortune to educating people who lived in confined national frameworks to see the challenges and dangers of a world much more unified than ever before.
From a small town in Alsace to Paris to Capetown to Tokyo: the trajectory Albert Kahn followed at the turn of the century was truly global. Once established in the world of international banking, Kahn saw the need to break down the insularity of European attitudes about the non-European world. To this end he began to sponsor a number of ventures to send young men and women on voyages of discovery. In 1898 he set up a scholarship program titled "Bourses de voyage autour du monde" (Scholarships for Trips Around the World). This was intended to widen the horizons of young men (and, later, young women) who had passed the Agrégation, the entrance exam into the field of university teaching, and who were professeurs at lycées, elite high schools, throughout France. Many would go on to careers in scholarship, politics, or public administration.
This benefaction, given to the University of Paris, and administered by the Ecole normale supérieure, came four years before the establishment of Cecil Rhodes's scholarships at Oxford. Both are the gifts of men whose fortunes came out of South African mining; both had a sense that great wealth carried the responsibility of using it to benefit the world. Both had a mystical element in their outlook. And both funded elite programs, aimed at the creation of an internationally minded group of future leaders. But consider the central difference. Rhodes wanted to bring young men from areas of white settlement (and from Germany) to what he saw as the "seat" of civilization, Oxford, whereas Kahn wanted to send his boursiers away from Paris. They were to be citizens of the world, not future proconsuls of an empire.
Kahn made his views clear in the note he sent to the rector of the University of Paris setting up the scheme. Kahn believed firmly in meritocratic democracy; those who passed the Agrégation were selected not on social criteria but solely on intellectual merit. And yet, what Kahn feared was that those trained to teach the next generation would do so "without contact with life." This personal, direct engagement was the aim of the scholarships, funding those who
would see that their interests should be directed towards the benefit of humanity as a whole. For this they need more than abstract knowledge, but contact with the world. This contact will show the variety of experience and contradict simple formulae about the world.
We have to find a way to take note of the exact role the diverse nations play on the face of the globe, we need to determine their diverse aspirations, see where they lead, if they tend towards violent shocks or if they can be reconciled. Abstract discussion can only provide possibilities and probabilities, a contact with the world provides firm, vibrant, and communicable impressions.
Thus a small group of highly talented and well-educated people-the future "intellectual and moral elite of the nation," but who were "not old enough to have fixed ideas"-would come "to see with their eyes the different faces of the world over 15 months." They would thereby learn "something about social life in diverse parts of the world, how governments form public spirit, the means used to develop the genius of each nation, and how in particular domains, particular groups realize their potential." In its first two years, this program provided 15 scholarships of 15,000 francs each. The candidates had to have a clean bill of health and a working knowledge of English. They could choose different itineraries, but the preferred one was the following: Paris, London, Liverpool, Marseilles, Athens, Constantinople, Beirut, Damascus, Cairo, Ceylon, India, Burma, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Japan, United States, Germany, Russia-Saint Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa-then Budapest, Vienna, and back to Paris, all in 15 months. They had to travel alone or in groups of two, and keep in contact with both French consulates and the Ecole normale supérieure.
Eight years later, the program yielded a society-the "Cercle autour du monde," in which young people, fresh from their exploration of what Henri Bergson termed "the great book of the world," and distinguished older men and women would meet for conversation and, for the young, inspiration. "I have antennae," Kahn noted, "I study events and then find personalities called to higher destinies." Among the notables addressing this society of internationalists were the sculptor Auguste Rodin, the Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, the Spanish man of letters Miguel de Unamuno, the British imperial writer Rudyard Kipling, the French socialist leader Jean Jaurès, and the future president of the French Republic Raymond Poincaré. A second center for such cosmopolitan encounters was opened in Tokyo in 1906.
Kahn's belief in meritocracy did not diminish the inherent elitism of this project, which fitted perfectly into both the Third Republic and the velvet-gloved world of pre-1914 international diplomacy. To find those who mattered, and to convince them to see the world beyond the confines of their national and intellectual boundaries, Kahn sponsored a range of initiatives. Perhaps the most daring of them all was photographic and cinematographic in character. He called it "Les Archives de la planète" (Archives of the Planet).
Kahn's archive was a collection of photographic and cinematographic images of many parts of the world. It is enormous, encompassing 75,000 still photographs and over 450 kilometers of film. In its entirety it provided a way of visualizing the world as a whole. It is important to highlight the Victorian pacifist core of this project, and its affinities with other liberal visions. Here I speak of a European variant of British liberalism, the liberalism of Victorian parliamentarians like Richard Cobden and John Bright, men who were persuaded that free trade was the fundamental source of the amity of nations. The more trade, the less likelihood that an increasingly interdependent world would destroy itself: such was the faith of several generations of free trade pacifists.
Kahn was one of them, but he added a darker note of skepticism and anxiety. Kahn was in Paris during the great expo of 1900, which I shall describe later in this chapter. Along with millions of others, he saw the new and varied machinery of progress which were on spectacular display. But Kahn knew as well that these engines of construction and creativity could all too easily become engines of destruction and disaster. Kahn was firmly convinced that knowledge of the world would place constraints on the exercise of power in it. To this end, he was prepared to devote his fortune to a unique kind of Exposition universelle.
This one would be fixed-in his estate on the outskirts of Paris. His collection of images would have a permanent home. In the mansion and gardens Kahn created and occupied in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb of Paris, from 1894, they would be displayed to all comers. There anyone could make a visual journey around the world.
Kahn believed that the collection and analysis of images was a matter of great importance for philosophy and for the emerging social sciences, in particular for geography. To see is to know, he believed, and to know is to better predict the future. This essentially positivist creed took on many different forms, but one was through the study of geography. This was an entirely Republican choice. Fashion had it that the political right in France sent its sons to study the classics; the left preferred geography, and through the study of the environment and of everyday life this led to an appreciation, a celebration of the people of France, the citizens of la France profonde.
Excerpted from Dreams of Peace and Freedom by Jay Winter Copyright © 2006 by Jay Winter. Excerpted by permission.
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