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Letter on the
Peace Conference

by Leo Tolstoy


The idea expressed in your beautiful letter, that universal disarmament may be attained in the easiest and most certain way by means of the refusal of separate individuals to take part in military service, is quite correct.  I even think that it is the only way of freeing men from the ever-growing terrible calamities of militarism.  But you propose that the question about substituting public works for military service, in the case of those persons who refuse to do it, should be considered at the Conference about to be held at the request of the emperor.  This seems to me quite faulty, if for no other reason than that the Conference can be nothing else but one of those hypocritical meetings, whose purpose is not the attainment of peace, but, on the contrary, the concealment from men of that one means for attaining universal peace which advanced people are beginning to see.

The Conference, they say, will have for its aim, if not the abolition of armaments, at least the cessation of their increase.  It is assumed that the representatives of the governments at this Conference will agree not to increase their armaments.  If that is so, the question arises as to how the governments of those states which happen to be weaker than their neighbors will act.  It is not very likely that such governments will agree to remain weaker than their neighbors in the future.  But if they should agree to remain in this weaker condition, through their firm faith in the decrees of the Conference, they could be weaker still and not spend anything on the army.

But if the business of the Conference shall consist in equalizing the military powers of the states and in keeping them equal, and if it should be possible to attain such an impossible equalization, there arises another question: why do the governments need to stop at their present armaments, and why do they not reduce them?  Why is it necessary for Germany, France, or Russia to have, let us say, one million soldiers, and not five hundred thousand, or ten thousand, or one thousand?  If it is possible to diminish armies, why not reduce them to their minimum, or finally put up champions in their place – like David and Goliath – and decide international affairs according to the result of the fight of the champions?

They say that a court of arbitration will decide the conflicts of the governments.  But these differences will not be decided by representatives of the nations in question, but by representatives of the collective governments.  There would be no guarantee that the solutions would be correct, and who would execute the sentence of the court?  The armies.  Whose armies?  Those of all the powers.  But the forces of these powers are not equal.  Who on the Continent, for example, will enforce a decision that, let us say, will be disadvantageous for Germany, Russia, and France, which are united in an alliance?  Or who on the sea will enforce a decision that is opposed to the interests of England, America, or France?  The arbitration court’s decision against the military violence of the states will be executed by means of military violence; that which is to be limited will itself be the means of limitation.  That makes as much sense as catching a bird by throwing salt upon its tail

I remember that I was sitting one day during the siege of Sevastopol with the adjutants of Sáken, the commander of the garrison.  Into the waiting room came S. S. Urúsov, a very brave officer but a very odd fellow, and at the same time one of the best European chess-players of the time.  He said that he had some business with the general.  An adjutant took him to the general’s cabinet.  Ten minutes later Urúsov passed by us with a dissatisfied face.  The adjutant who saw him out returned to us and told us on what business Urúsov had come to see Sáken.  He came to Sáken to ask him to challenge the English to play a game of chess in the front trench of the Fifth Bastion, which had passed from side to side several times and had cost several hundred lives.

There is no doubt that it would have been much better to play chess in the trench than to kill people.  But Sáken did not consent to Urúsov’s proposition, as he knew quite well that it would be possible to play chess in the trench only if there existed a mutual confidence in the parties that the condition would be carried out.  But the presence of armies standing in front of the trench, and of the cannon directed upon it, proved that no such confidence existed.  So long as there were armies on either side, it was evident that the matter would be decided with bayonets, and not with a game of chess.  The same is true of international questions.  For them to be decided by a court of arbitration, it is necessary for the powers to have absolute confidence that they will mutually carry out the decision of the court.  If the confidence exists, there is no need whatsoever of the armies.  But if there are armies, it is clear that this confidence is lacking, and international questions cannot be decided in any other way than by force of arms.  So long as there are any armies, they are needed, not only for the purpose of making new acquisitions, as now all the states are doing – some in Asia, some in Africa, and some in Europe – but also for the purpose of retaining by force what has been acquired by force.  Only by conquering is it possible to acquire and retain by force.  What always conquers is the gros battaillons.  And so, if a government has an army, it has to have the largest army possible.  In this does its duty consist.  If a government does not do so, it is unnecessary.  A government may do a great deal in its internal affairs.  It may set free, enlighten, and enrich its people.  It may construct roads and canals, colonize deserts, and arrange public works.  But there is one thing it cannot do, namely that for which the Conference is called: it cannot reduce its military strength.

But if the aim of the Conference, according to recent explanations, shall consist in eliminating instruments of destruction that are specially cruel, such a prohibition of using any means that are at hand in the struggle is fully as possible as an injunction given to people, who are fighting for their lives, not to touch the most sensitive parts of their adversaries.  (Why not try at the same time to eliminate the seizure of letters, the forgery of telegrams, espionage, and all those horrible rascalities that are essential to military defense?)  And why are a wound and death from an explosive bullet any worse than a wound caused by the simplest kind of a bullet or a piece of shrapnel in a very sensitive spot, the sufferings from which reach the utmost limit, and from which death ensues as from any other weapon?

It is incomprehensible how mentally sound adults can seriously express such strange ideas.

Let us assume that the diplomats, who devote all their lives to lying, are so used to this vice and constantly live and act in such a dense atmosphere of lying that they themselves do not notice all the senselessness and mendacity of their propositions.  How can honest, private individuals – not those who, in order to fawn before the emperor, laud his ridiculous proposition – help seeing that nothing can be the result of this Conference but the confirmation of the deception in which the governments keep their subjects, as was the case with Alexander I’s Holy Alliance?[1]

The Conference will have for its purpose, not the establishment of peace, but the concealment from men of the only means of freeing them from the calamities of war, which consists in the refusals of separate individuals to take part in military murder, and so the Conference can in no way take this question under advisement.

Every government will always treat all those who, from conviction, refuse to do military service as the Dukhobors have been treated by the Russian government.  At the same time that it proclaimed its quasi-peaceable intentions to the whole world, it secretly tormented, ruined, and expelled the most peaceable people of Russia, only because they were not peaceable in words, but in deeds, and so refused to do military service.  Just so, though less harshly, all the European governments have acted in cases of refusal to do military service.  Thus have acted the Austrian, Prussian, French, Swedish, Swiss, and Dutch governments; nor can they act differently.

They cannot act differently because, ruling their subjects with the backing of a disciplined army, they cannot leave the diminution of this force, and consequently of their power, to the accidental moods of private individuals.  In all likelihood, as soon as work could be substituted for military service by all men, the vast majority of people (nobody likes to kill and to be killed) would prefer work to military service, and very soon there would be such a great number of laborers and such a small number of soldiers that there would not be anyone to compel the laborers to work.

The liberals, socialists, and other so-called representative people, who are enmeshed in their own wordiness, may imagine that their speeches in the chambers of government, their meetings, their unions, their strikes, and their pamphlets are very important phenomena.  They may imagine that the refusals of separate individuals to do military service are unimportant phenomena, which are not worthwhile to consider.  But the governments know very well what is important for them, and what is not.  The governments gladly allow all kinds of liberal and radical speeches in the Reichstags, labor unions, and socialist demonstrations, and even themselves make believe that they sympathize with all that, knowing that these phenomena are very useful in that they divert the attention of the masses from the chief and only means of liberation.  But they will never openly permit any refusals to do military service or refusals to pay taxes for military service (that is one and the same thing), because they know that such refusals, in laying open the deception of the governments, undermine their power at the root

So long as the governments will rule their nations by force and will wish, as they now do, to acquire new possessions (the Philippines, Port Arthur, and so forth) and to retain those that have been acquired (Poland, Alsace, India, Algiers, and so forth), they will not only never reduce their armies, but will, on the contrary, constantly increase them.

The other day the news was announced that an American regiment had refused to go to Iloilo.[2]  This news is given out as something surprising.  But the surprise is why such phenomena are not constantly repeated.  How could all those Russian, German, French, Italian, and American people who have fought recently, at the will of strangers whom for the most part they do not respect, have gone to kill people of another nation, subjecting themselves to sufferings and death?  It would seem to be so clear and so natural for all these men to come to their senses – if not at the time when they were being enlisted, at least at the last moment when they are being led against the enemy – to stop, throw down their guns, and call out to their adversaries to do the same.

This would seem to be so simple, so natural, that all people ought to act like that.  But if people do not act thus, it is due to the fact that the people believe their governments, which assure them that all those burdens which men carry for the sake of war are imposed upon them for their own good.  All the governments have, with striking impudence, always asserted that all those military preparations, and even the wars themselves which they wage, are needed for the sake of peace.  Now they are making a new step in this field of hypocrisy and deception: those very governments, for the existence of which armies and wars are necessary, make it appear that they are busy finding measures for the reduction of the armies and the abolition of wars.  The governments want to assure their nations that separate individuals have no cause for troubling themselves about their liberation from war.  The governments themselves will so fix it through their conferences so that their armies will at first be reduced and later finally abolished.  But that is an untruth.

The armies can be reduced and abolished only against the will, and not with the will, of the governments.  The armies will be reduced and abolished only when the people who, from fear or advantage, sell their liberty and take up a position in the ranks of the army are branded as murderers by public opinion.  The armies will be reduced and abolished only when the people who, now unknown and condemned, refuse to give their liberty into the hands of other men to become instruments of murder, in spite of all persecutions and sufferings they bear, are recognized to be what they are: champions and benefactors of humanity.

Only then will the armies at first be reduced and then be entirely abolished, and a new era will begin in the life of humanity.

This time is at hand.

And so I think that your idea that the refusals to do military service are phenomena of immense importance, and that they will free humanity from the calamities of militarism is quite correct.  But your idea that the Conference will contribute anything toward it is quite faulty.  The Conference can only divert the people’s attention from the one means of salvation and liberation.

Moscow, January 1899

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[1] Transcriber’s note – The Holy Alliance was a coalition of Russia, Austria and Prussia, later joined by most European powers, which was supposed to instill the Christian values of charity and peace in European political life, but which was, in practice, an anti-democratic attempt to keep revolution from spreading across Europe.

[2] Transcriber’s note – Iloilo is a province in the center of the Philippines.