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Either - or

Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)
Torgny Segerstedt,1940. Photo: Gullers, KW / Nordiska museet (CC BY-NC-ND)

"With this power of violence no peace can be made. Here, as I said, it is a matter of life. Everything can be tolerated, except this one thing: the stifling of freedom." - Torgny Segerstedt

The world still lives in the shadow of the Great War. It seems as if the millions of young men whose lives were sacrificed for nothing still sent the furies of vengeance to haunt the nations. No one and nothing seems to be able to confound the evil powers which have unleashed their wrath upon the world.

Very soon after the outbreak of the war, it was noticed that the culture which we thought had taken a firm hold of the people was not able to permeate their being. It faded away, and a form emerged which showed all too many of the traits we had believed to be buried in the tombs and coffins. The effect of the war itself was also felt in the growing crudeness and in the blunting of resistance. The ability to be outraged and disgusted by atrocities relaxed. The horrors grew over people's heads.

After the war, a relapse into political barbarism has gone hand in hand with a cultural degeneration. The crudest forms of misrule have risen from the basement vaults of the past and have spread their obscurity over public life. A political tyranny, the like of which can only be seen in the deepest periods of decay in the history of peoples, has blossomed.

It has not been depressing to find that such tendencies have persisted in the dregs of society. It was well known before. What was depressing was that great peoples, who had produced a rich spiritual culture, so easily fell prey to this revived straw man. The German people certainly gave the impression of being over-disciplined. Yet no one had thought that they would submit to anything, only a crude voice of command shouted out its commands.

And what has happened in Germany, Italy and Austria has been echoed, more or less, in many quarters. Theories are put forward to the effect that the dictates of business life, the blind self-assertion of instinct, are justified in themselves. The senseless is taken as the seal of vitality. The apollonically clear is condemned because it bears the stamp of moderation and reason. That which indulges in the unbridled play of forces in violence is hailed as the viable. The higher unity of the two is not sought, the dark forces that well up from the bowels of life and the form of right and truth that wit gives them in the daylight of thought.

This trend is a reflection of the renaissance of violence that has taken place in many parts of the world. Arbitrary power has settled in the highest court. Violence and domination have seized power and driven all freedom into flight. And these powers have then shrouded themselves in a haze of outdated romanticism, in the old enthusiasm for antiquity and blood relations, characteristic of the pretentious half-education.

This relapse into political barbarism has forced a regrouping on the battlefield of state life. The crowds that could fight each other because they all felt the ground of democracy under their feet have found themselves in the position of having to go out to defend this ground themselves. They have had to realize that there is one thing they hold sacred in common and that this very thing is threatened: liberty. The freedom to think and to express one's thoughts is above all else. It is the lifeblood of humanity. Without this atmosphere of freedom, spiritual life withers away. Men can do without everything, but not this. Where it is touched, there is what makes us human, there is what makes us moral, there is life. When violence seeks to consolidate its power and to lay its foundation in the clay of the river over which its building is to be erected, it always seeks to break down free thought. It muzzles the press, it buries free speech in dungeons, it tries to take the nerve out of the young's thinking by dressage. It preys on the human spirit itself.

With this power of violence no peace can be made. Here, as I said, it is a matter of life. Everything can be tolerated, except this one thing: the stifling of freedom. Freedom, of thought and word, is the lifeblood of human existence. When it is touched, all grumbling and all nagging about other things must cease. Those who understand what the battle is about, have to stand back to back. Only when the great, the one, the necessary, is once more assured, can disputes about worldly things once more take hold.

The River of Events has been drained of its old riverbed by the Great War. Dead falls stand there as memorials of silence over the rushing waters of the past. The river shall never again flow in its old channel. But its waves shall not therefore cease to roll on to the shoreless sea in which the river empties its waters. It flows up into the distant unknown and remains gone in an equally unknowable distance.

The only thing that gives substance and value to the life that flows with its waves is the freedom to look out over its waters, to see the sunbeams on the waves, the freedom to try to understand and to understand the limits of our knowledge, the right in a word to be human.

With those who assume this right, there is no reconciliation, no negotiation, no truce. In that strife there can be no pardon given and no pardon taken. Here is for or against, here is an irreconcilable either-or.

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