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War And The Birth-rate Post by :36701 Category :Essays Author :Havelock Ellis Date :April 2011 Read :1269

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War And The Birth-rate

During recent years the faith had grown among progressive persons in various countries, not excluding Germany, that civilisation was building up almost impassable barriers against any great war. These barriers were thought to be of various kinds, even apart from the merely sentimental and humanitarian developments of pacific feeling. They were especially of an economic kind, and that on a double basis, that of Capital and that of Labour. It was believed, on the one hand, that the international ramifications of Capital, and the complicated commercial and financial webs which bind nations together, would cause so vivid a realisation of the disasters of war as to erect a wholesomely steadying effect whenever the danger of war loomed in sight. On the other hand, it was felt that the international unity of interest among the workers, the growth of Labour's favourite doctrine that there is no conflict between nations, but only between classes, and even the actual international organisation and bonds of the workers' associations, would interpose a serious menace to the plans of war-makers. These influences were real and important. But, as we know, when the decisive moment came, the diplomatists and the militarists were found to be at the helm, to steer the ship of State in each country concerned, and those on board had no voice in determining the course. In England only can there be said to have been any show of consulting Parliament, but at that moment the situation had already so far developed that there was little left but to accept it. The Great War of to-day has shown that such barriers against war as we at present possess may crumble away in a moment at the shock of the war-making machine.

We are to-day forced to undertake a more searching inquiry into the forces which, in civilisation, operate against war. I wish to call attention here to one such influence of fundamental character, which has not been unrecognised, but possesses an importance we are often apt to overlook.

"A French gentleman, well acquainted with the constitution of his country," wrote Thicknesse in 1776,(1) "told me above eight years since that France increased so rapidly in peace that they must necessarily have a war every twelve or fourteen years to carry off the refuse of the people." Recently a well-known German Socialist, Dr. Eduard David, member of the Reichstag and a student of the population question, setting forth the same great truth (in _Die Neue Generation_ for November, 1914) states that it would have been impossible for Germany to wage the present war if it had not been for the high German birth-rate during the past half-century. And the impossibility of this war would, for Dr. David, have been indeed tragic.

A more distinguished social hygienist, Professor Max Gruber, of Munich, who took a leading part in organising that marvellous Exposition of Hygiene at Dresden which has been Germany's greatest service to real civilisation in recent years, lately set forth an identical opinion. The war, he declares, was inevitable and unavoidable, and Germany was responsible for it, not, he hastens to add, in any moral sense, but in a biological sense, because in forty-four years Germans have increased in numbers from forty millions to eighty millions. The war was, therefore, a "biological necessity."

If we survey the belligerent nations in the war we may say that those which took the initiative in drawing it on, or at all events were most prepared to welcome it, were Russia, Austria, Germany, and Serbia. We may also note that these include nearly all the nations in Europe with a high birth-rate. We may further note that they are all nations which--putting aside their cultural summits and taking them in the mass--are among the most backward in Europe; the fall in the birth-rate has not yet had time to permeate them. On the other hand, of the belligerent peoples of to-day, all indications point to the French as the people most intolerant, silently but deeply, of the war they are so ably and heroically waging. Yet the France of the present, with the lowest birth-rate and the highest civilisation, was a century ago the France of a birth-rate higher than that of Germany to-day, the most militarist and aggressive of nations, a perpetual menace to Europe. For all those among us who have faith in civilisation and humanity, and are unable to believe that war can ever be a civilising or humanising method of progress, it must be a daily prayer that the fall of the birth-rate may be hastened.

It seems too elementary a point to insist on, yet the mists of ignorance and prejudice are so dense, the cataract of false patriotism is so thick, that for many even the most elementary truths cannot be discerned. In most of the smaller nations, indeed, an intelligent view prevails. Their smallness has, on the one hand, rendered them more open to international culture, and, on the other hand, enabled them to outgrow the illusions of militarism; there is a higher standard of education among them; their birth-rates are low and they accept that fact as a condition of progressive civilisation. That is the case in Switzerland, as in Norway, and notably in Holland. It is not so in the larger nations. Here we constantly find, even in those lands where the bulk of the population are civilised and reasonably level-headed, a small minority who publicly tear their hair and rage at the steady decline in the birth-rate. It is, of course, only the declining birth-rate of their own country that they have in view; for they are "patriots," which means that the fall of the birth-rate in all other countries but their own is a source of much gratification. "Woe to us," they exclaim in effect, "if we follow the example of these wicked and degenerate peoples! Our nation needs men. We have to populate the earth and to carry the blessings of our civilised culture all over the world. In executing that high mission we cannot have too much cannon-fodder in defending ourselves against the jealousy and aggression of other nations. Let us promote parentage by law; let us repress by law every influence which may encourage a falling birth-rate; otherwise there is nothing left to us but speedy national disaster, complete and irremediable." This is not caricature,(2) though these apostles of "race-suicide" may easily arouse a smile by the verbal ardour of their procreative energy. But we have to recognise that in Germany for years past it has been difficult to take up a serious periodical without finding some anxiously statistical article about the falling birth-rate and some wild recommendations for its arrest, for it is the militaristic German who of all Europeans is most worried by this fall; indeed Germans often even refuse to recognise it. Thus to-day we find Professor Gruber declaring that if the population of the German Empire continues to grow at the rate of the first five years of the present century, at the end of the century it will have reached 250,000,000. By such a vast increase in population, the Professor complacently concludes, "Germany will be rendered invulnerable." We know what that means. The presence of an "invulnerable" nation among nations that are "vulnerable" means inevitable aggression and war, a perpetual menace to civilisation and humanity. It is not along that line that hope can be found for the world's future, or even Germany's future, and Gruber conveniently neglects to estimate what, on his basis, the population of Russia will be at the end of the century. But Gruber's estimate is altogether fallacious. German births have fallen, roughly speaking, about one per thousand of the population, every year since the beginning of the century, and it would be equally reasonable to estimate that if they continue to fall at the present rate (which we cannot, of course, anticipate) births will altogether have ceased in Germany long before the end of the century. The German birth-rate reached its climax forty years ago (1871-1880) with 40.7 per 1,000; in 1906 it was 34 per 1,000; in 1909, 31 per 1,000; in 1912, 28 per 1,000; in an almost measurable period of time, in all probability long before the end of the century, it will have reached the same low level as that of France, when there will be little difference between the "invulnerability" of France and of Germany, a consummation which, for the world's sake, is far more devoutly to be wished than that anticipated by Gruber.

We have to remember, moreover, that this tendency is by no means, as we are sometimes tempted to suppose, a sign of degeneration or of decay; but, on the contrary, a sign of progress. When we survey broadly that course of zoological evolution of which we are pleased to regard Man as the final outcome, we note that on the whole the mighty stream has become the less productive as it has advanced. We note the same of the various lines taken separately. We note, also, that intelligence and all the qualities we admire have usually been most marked in the less prolific species. Progress, roughly speaking, has proved incompatible with high fertility. And the reason is not far to seek. If the creature produced is more evolved, it is more complex and more highly organised, and that means the need for much time and much energy. To attain this, the offspring must be few and widely spaced; it cannot be attained at all under conditions that are highly destructive. The humble herring, which evokes the despairing envy of our human apostles of fertility, is largely composed of spawn, and produces a vast number of offspring, of which few reach maturity. The higher mammals spend their lives in the production of a small number of offspring, most of whom survive. Thus, even before Man began, we see a fundamental principle established, and the relationship between the birth-rate and the death-rate in working order. All progressive evolution may be regarded as a mechanism for concentrating an ever greater amount of energy in the production of ever fewer and ever more splendid individuals. Nature is perpetually striving to replace the crude ideal of quantity by the higher ideal of quality.

In human history these same tendencies have continually been illustrated. The Greeks, our pioneers in all insight and knowledge, grappled (as Professor Myres has lately set forth(3)), and realised that they were grappling, with this same problem. Even in the Minoan Age their population would appear to have been full to overflowing; "there were too many people in the world," and to the old Greeks the Trojan War was the earliest divinely-appointed remedy. Wars, famines, pestilences, colonisation, wide-spread infanticide were the methods, voluntary and involuntary, by which this excessive birth-rate was combated, while the greatest of Greek philosophers, a Plato or an Aristotle, clearly saw that a regulated and limited birth-rate, a eugenically improved race, is the road to higher civilisation. We may even see in Greek antiquity how a sudden rise in industrialism leads to a crowded and fertile urban population, the extension of slavery, and all the resultant evils. It was a foretaste of what was seen during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when a sudden industrial expansion led to an enormously high birth-rate, a servile urban proletariat (that very word indicates, as Roscher has pointed out, that a large family means inferiority), and a consequent outburst of misery and degradation from which we are only now emerging.

As we are now able to realise, the sudden expansion of the population accompanying the industrial revolution was an abnormal and, from the point of view of society, a morbid phenomenon. All the evidence goes to show that previously the population tended to increase very slowly, and social evolution was thus able to take place equably and harmoniously. It is only gradually that the birth-rate has begun to right itself again. The movement, as is well known, began in France, always the most advanced outpost of European civilisation. It has now spread to England, to Germany, to all Europe, to the whole world indeed, in so far as the world is in touch with European civilisation, and has long been well marked in the United States.

When we realise this we are also enabled to realise how futile, how misplaced, and how mischievous it is to raise the cry of "Race-suicide." It is futile because no outcry can affect a world-wide movement of civilisation. It is misplaced because the rise and fall of the population is not a matter of the birth-rate alone, but of the birth-rate combined with the death-rate, and while we cannot expect to touch the former we can influence the latter. It is mischievous because by fighting against a tendency which is not only inevitable but altogether beneficial, we blind ourselves to the advance of civilisation and risk the misdirection of all our energies. How far this blindness may be carried we see in the false patriotism of those who in the decline of the birth-rate fancy they see the ruin of their own particular country, oblivious of the fact that we are concerned with a phenomenon of world-wide extension.

The whole tendency of civilisation is to reduce the birth-rate, as Leroy-Beaulieu concludes in his comprehensive work on the population question. We may go further, and assert with the distinguished German economist, Roscher, that the chief cause of the superiority of a highly civilised State over lower stages of civilisation is precisely a greater degree of forethought and self-control in marriage and child-bearing.(4) Instead of talking about race-suicide, we should do well to observe at what an appalling rate, even yet, the population is increasing, and we should note that it is everywhere the poorest and most primitive countries, and in every country (as in Germany) the poorest regions, which show the highest birth-rate. On every hand, however, are hopeful signs. Thus, in Russia, where a very high birth-rate is to some extent compensated by a very high death-rate--the highest infantile death-rate in Europe--the birth-rate is falling, and we may anticipate that it will fall very rapidly with the extension of education and social enlightenment among the masses. Driven out of Europe, the alarmist falls back on the "Yellow Peril." But in Japan we find amid confused variations of the birth-rate and the death-rate nothing to indicate any alarming expansion of the population, while as to China we are in the dark. We only know that in China there is a high birth-rate largely compensated by a very high death-rate. We also know, however, that as Lowes Dickinson has lately reminded us, "the fundamental attitude of the Chinese towards life is that of the most modern West,"(5) and we shall probably find that with the growth of enlightenment the Chinese will deal with their high birth-rate in a far more radical and thorough manner than we have ever ventured on.

One last resort the would-be patriotic alarmist seeks when all others fail. He is good enough to admit that a general decline in the birth-rate might be beneficial. But, he points out, it affects social classes unequally. It is initiated, not by the degenerate and the unfit, whom we could well dispense with, but by the very best classes in the community, the well-to-do and the educated. One is inclined to remark, at once, that a social change initiated by its best social classes is scarcely likely to be pernicious. Where, it may be asked, if not among the most educated classes, is any process of amelioration to be initiated? We cannot make the world topsy-turvy to suit the convenience of topsy-turvy minds. All social movements tend to begin at the top and to permeate downwards. This has been the case with the decline in the birth-rate, but it is already well marked among the working classes, and has only failed to touch the lowest social stratum of all, too weak-minded and too reckless to be amenable to ordinary social motives. The rational method of meeting this situation is not a propaganda in favour of procreation--a truly imbecile propaganda, since it is only carried out and only likely to be carried out, by the very class which we wish to sterilise--but by a wise policy of regulative eugenics. We have to create the motives, and it is not an impossible task, which will act even upon the weak-minded and reckless lowest social stratum.

These facts have a significance which many of us have failed to realise. The Great War has brought home the gravity of that significance. It has been the perpetual refrain of the Pan-Germanists for many years that the vast and sudden expansion of the German peoples makes necessary a new movement of the German nations into the world and a new enlargement of frontiers, in other words, War. It is not only among the Germans, though among them it may have been more conscious, that a similar cause has led to the like result. It has ever been so. The expanding nation has always been a menace to the world and to itself. The arrest of the falling birth-rate, it cannot be too often repeated, would be the arrest of all civilisation and of all humanity.

 

NOTES:

(1) Ralph Thicknesse, _A Year's Journey Through France and Spain_, 1777, p. 298.

(2) The last twelve words quoted are by Miss Ethel Elderton in an otherwise sober memoir (_Report on the English Birth-rate_, 1914, p. 237) which shows that the birth control movement has begun, just where we should expect it to begin, among the better instructed classes.

(3) J.L. Myres, "The Causes of Rise and Fall in the Population of the Ancient World," Eugenics Review, April, 1915.

(4) Roscher, _Grundlagen der National--konomie_, 23rd ed., 1900, Bk. VI.

(5) G. Lowes Dickinson, _The Civilisation of India, China, and Japan_, 1914, p. 47.


(The end)
Havelock Ellis's essay: War And The Birth-Rate

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