فصل 39

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فصل 39

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And now we are coming to the time when my parents were young. They were able to tell me exactly what things were like. How more and more homes came to have first gas and then electric lighting, and then a telephone, while in the towns electric tramways appeared, soon to be followed by cars. How vast suburbs spread to house the workers, and factories with powerful machines kept thousands busy doing work which used to be done by perhaps hundreds of thousands of artisans.

But whatever happened to all those textiles, shoes, tins of food and pots and pans that were turned out every day in wagonloads by these great factories? A certain amount, of course, could be sold at home. People who had jobs could soon afford many more clothes and shoes than artisans used to own. And everything was infinitely cheaper, even if it didn’t last as long, so people had to keep buying replacements. But of course they didn’t earn enough to buy all the things the monstrous new machines produced. And if all those wagonloads of cloth and leather just sat around unsold, it was pointless for the factory to keep on producing more. It had to close down. But if it did, the workers lost their jobs and were no longer able to buy anything, and even less was sold. This sort of situation is called an economic crisis. And to make sure it didn’t happen, every country needed to sell as much as it possibly could of what its many factories produced. If it was unsuccessful at home it had to try to sell its goods abroad. Not only in Europe, where there were factories just about everywhere, but in countries where there weren’t any ­ countries where there were people who didn’t yet have clothes or shoes.

In Africa, for example. And so, all of a sudden, the industrialised countries found themselves falling over each other in a race to get to remote and wild places. The wilder they were, the better. They needed them not only so they could sell their goods, but also because those places often had things that their own countries didn’t have, such as cotton for making cloth and oil for petrol. But there again, the more of these so-called ‘raw materials’ they brought from the colonies to Europe, the more the factories were able to produce, and the more eager was their search for places where there were still people who would buy their vast output. People who were unable to find work in their own countries could now emigrate to these foreign places. In short, it became vitally important for the countries of Europe to own colonies. No one bothered to ask the native inhabitants what they thought about it. And, as you can imagine, they were often very badly treated if any of them tried shooting at the invading troops with their bows and arrows.

Of course, the British did best in this division of the world. After all, they had had possessions in India, Australia and North America for several centuries, and colonies in Africa, where their influence in Egypt was particularly strong. The French had also started early, and by now owned a large part of Indo-China and several parts of Africa, among them the Sahara desert ­ more impressive, perhaps, on account of its size than for any other reason. The Russians had no colonies overseas, but their own empire was vast and they didn’t yet have many factories. They wanted to extend their grasp across Asia as far as the sea, and trade from there. But their way was barred by those good students of the Europeans, the Japanese, who said: ‘Stop!’ In a dreadful war that broke out between Russia and Japan in 1905, the tsar’s mighty empire was defeated, and forced to give up some of its territory by tiny, new Japan. And now the Japanese also began building more and more new factories for themselves, and they too needed foreign lands, not only to sell their goods, but because there wasn’t enough room for them all in their tiny island kingdom.

Naturally enough, last in line for the share-out were the new states: Italy and Germany. While they had been fragmented they had been in no position to conquer lands overseas. Now they wanted to make up for centuries of lost opportunities. After much fighting, Italy obtained some narrow strips of land in Africa. Germany was stronger and had more factories, so its needs were greater. And in time, Bismarck succeeded in acquiring several larger stretches of land for Germany, mainly in Africa, together with some islands in the Pacific.

But because of the way the whole thing works you can never have enough land. More colonies means more factories, more factories means more goods and more goods means that even more colonies are needed. The demand isn’t driven by ambition or the lust for power, but by a genuine need. But now the world had been shared out. To create new colonies ­ or merely to prevent the old ones being snatched from them by stronger neighbours ­ it was necessary to fight, or at least to threaten to do so. So each state raised powerful armies and navies and kept on saying: ‘Attack me if you dare!’ The countries that had been powerful for centuries felt they had a right to be so. But when the new German empire and its excellent factories entered the game, built a great navy and tried to win more and more influence in Asia and Africa, the others took it very badly. And because everyone knew that sooner or later there was bound to be a fearful conflict, they all went on expanding their armies and building bigger and bigger battleships.

When war finally did break out, however, it wasn’t where it had been expected all those years. Nor was it on account of some dispute in Africa or Asia. It was caused by another country, the only great state in Europe to have no colonies at all: Austria. That ancient empire, with its mosaic of peoples, wasn’t interested in conquering far-off lands on the other side of the world. But it did need people to buy the goods made in its factories. So, just as it had done since the wars with Turkey, Austria kept on trying to acquire new lands towards the east, lands only recently liberated from Turkish rule where there weren’t yet any factories. But these small populations of newly liberated eastern peoples, such as the Serbs, were frightened of the great empire and didn’t want it to reach out any further. When, in the spring of 1914, the heir to the Austrian throne was visiting one of these newly conquered regions called Bosnia, he was murdered by a Serb in the capital, Sarajevo.

Austria’s generals and politicians thought at the time that a war with Serbia was inevitable. The dreadful murder had to be avenged, and Serbia humbled. Frightened by Austria’s advance, Russia was drawn in, whereupon Germany, as Austria’s ally, also became involved. And once Germany was in the war, all the ancient enmities were unleashed. The Germans wanted to begin by destroying France, their most dangerous enemy, so they marched straight across neutral Belgium to attack Paris. Britain, fearing that a German victory would make Germany all-powerful, now joined in as well. Soon the whole world was at war with Germany and Austria, and the two countries found themselves surrounded by the armies of the entente (meaning their allied enemies ­ those who had an understanding with one another). Germany and Austria, in the middle, were known as the ‘central powers’.

The gigantic Russian armies pressed forward, but were brought to a standstill after a few months. The world has never seen a war like it. Millions and millions of people marched against each other. Even Africans and Indians had to fight. The German armies were stopped when they reached the River Marne, not far from Paris. From this moment on, real battles, in the old sense, would only very rarely be fought. Instead, giant armies dug themselves in, and made their camps in endlessly long trenches facing one another. Then, for days on end, they fired thousands of guns at each other, bursting out in assaults through barricades of barbed wire and blown-up trenches, across a scorched and devastated wasteland strewn with corpses. In 1915, Italy also declared war on Austria, despite having originally been its ally. Now people fought in the snow and ice of the mountains of the Tirol and the famous exploits of Hannibal’s warriors during their crossing of the Alps seemed like child’s play compared with the courage and endurance shown by these simple soldiers.

People fought each other in the skies in aeroplanes; they dropped bombs on peaceful towns, sank innocent ships, and fought on the sea and under the sea, just as Leonardo da Vinci had foreseen. People invented horrible weapons that murdered and mutilated thousands each day, the most terrible of which were gases that poisoned the air. Anyone who breathed them died in terrible agony. These gases were either released and carried to the enemy soldiers on the wind, or fired in the form of grenades which released their poison when they exploded. People built armoured cars and tanks which moved slowly and inexorably over ditches and walls, demolishing and crushing everything in their path.

The people of Germany and Austria were destitute. For a long time there was hardly anything to eat, no clothes, no coal and no light. Women had to queue for hours in the cold to buy the smallest piece of bread or a half-rotten potato. But just once there was a glimmer of hope. In Russia a revolution had broken out in 1917. The tsar had abdicated, but the bourgeois government which followed wanted to continue with the war. However, the people were against it. So there was a second great uprising in which the factory workers, under the guidance of their leader, Lenin, seized power. They shared out the farmland among the peasants, confiscated the property of the rich and the nobility, and tried to rule the empire according to the principles of Karl Marx. Then the outside world intervened, and in the fearful battles that followed millions more people died. Lenin’s successors continued to rule Russia for many years.

The Germans were able to recall some of their troops from the eastern front, but this didn’t help them much because new, fresh soldiers now attacked them from the west. The Americans had decided to step in. Nevertheless, the Germans and Austrians held out for more than a year against overwhelming odds. By putting all their efforts into a last desperate attempt in the west, they very nearly won. In the end, however, they were exhausted. And when, in 1918, America’s President Wilson announced that he wanted a just peace in which each nation would determine its own fate, many of their troops gave up. So Germany and Austria were forced to agree to a ceasefire. Those who had survived returned home to their starving families.

The next thing that happened was that revolution broke out in these exhausted countries. The emperors of Germany and Austria abdicated and the various peoples of the Austrian empire ­ the Czechs and the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Poles and the Southern Slavs ­ declared themselves independent and founded individual states. Then, having understood from President Wilson that there was to be a peace treaty, and that negotiations were to be held in the ancient royal palaces of Versailles, St Germain and the Trianon, Austria, Hungary and Germany sent envoys to Paris, only to discover that they were excluded from these negotiations. Germany was held chiefly responsible for the war and was to be punished. Not only did the Germans have to surrender all the colonies and lands which they had taken from France in 1870, and pay vast sums of money to the victors each year, but they even had to sign a formal declaration saying that Germany alone was to blame for the war. The Austrians and the Hungarians fared little better. So this was how President Wilson kept his promises. (What you have just read is what I believed to be true when I wrote this account, but read my explanation in the final chapter of this book.) Eleven million people died in that war and entire regions were devastated in a way that had never been seen before. The suffering was beyond imagination.

Mankind had come a long way in its mastery of nature. With a telephone you can now sit in your room at home and talk about everything or nothing with someone on the other side of the world in Australia. You can tune in on the radio to a concert in London or a programme on raising geese broadcast from Portugal.

People build gigantic buildings, far higher than the pyramids or St Peter’s church in Rome. They make great aeroplanes, each one capable of killing more people than the whole of Philip II of Spain’s Invincible Armada. Ways have been found to combat the most fearsome diseases. There have been amazing discoveries. People have found formulas for all sorts of things that happen in nature which are so mysterious and so remarkable that few people understand them. But the formulas are correct: the stars move in exactly the way they predict. Every day we know a little more about nature, and about human nature too. But the horror of poverty remains. There are many millions of people on our earth who cannot find work and every year millions die of starvation. We all hope for a better future ­ it must be better! Imagine time as a river, and that we are flying high above it in an aeroplane. Far below you can just make out the mountain caves of the mammoth-hunters, and the steppes where the first cereals grew. Those distant dots are the pyramids and the Tower of Babel. In these lowlands the Jews once tended their flocks. This is the sea the Phoenicians sailed across. What looks like a white star shining over there, with the sea on either side, is in fact the Acropolis, the symbol of Greek art. And there, on the other side of the world, are the great, dark forests where the Indian penitents withdrew to meditate and the Buddha experienced Enlightenment. Now we can see the Great Wall of China and, over there, the smouldering ruins of Carthage. In those gigantic stone funnels the Romans watched Christians being torn to pieces by wild beasts. The dark clouds on the horizon are the storm clouds of the Migrations, and it was in those forests, beside the river, that the first monks converted and educated the Germanic tribes. Leaving the deserts over there behind them, the Arabs set out to conquer the world, and this is where Charlemagne ruled. On this hill the fortress still stands where the struggle between the pope and the emperor, over which of them was to dominate the world, was finally decided. We can see castles from the Age of Chivalry and, nearer still, cities with beautiful cathedrals ­ over there is Florence, and there the new St Peter’s, the cause of Luther’s quarrel with the Church. The city of Mexico is on fire, the Invincible Armada is being wrecked off England’s coasts. That dense pall of smoke comes from burning villages and the bonfires on which people were burnt during the Thirty Years War. The magnificent chateau set in a great park is Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles. Here are the Turks encamped outside Vienna, and nearer still the simple castles of Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa. In the distance the cries of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ reach us from the streets of Paris, and we can already see Moscow burning over there, and the wintry land in which the soldiers of the Last Conqueror’s Grand Armée perished. Getting nearer, we can see smoke rising from factory chimneys and hear the whistle of railway trains. The Peking Summer Palace lies in ruins, and warships are leaving Japanese ports under the flag of the rising sun. Here, the guns of the World War are still thundering. Poison gas is drifting across the land. And over there, through the open dome of an observatory, a giant telescope directs the gaze of an astronomer towards unimaginably distant galaxies. But below us and in front of us there is nothing but mist, mist that is dense and impenetrable. All we know is that the river flows onwards. On and on it goes, towards an unknown sea.

But now let us quickly drop down in our plane towards the river. From close up, we can see it is a real river, with rippling waves like the sea. A strong wind is blowing and there are little crests of foam on the waves. Look carefully at the millions of shimmering white bubbles rising and then vanishing with each wave. Over and over again, new bubbles come to the surface and then vanish in time with the waves. For a brief instant they are lifted on the wave’s crest and then they sink down and are seen no more. We are like that. Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future. We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again. We can hardly be seen in the great river of time. New drops keep rising to the surface. And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave. But we must make use of that moment. It is worth the effort.

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