Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

5. First News—1918
Four years ago, on the first day of August, in the town of Cracow, Austrian
Poland, nobody would believe that the war was coming. My apprehensions were
met by the words: "We have had these scares before." This incredulity was so
universal amongst people of intelligence and information, that even I, who had
accustomed myself to look at the inevitable for years past, felt my conviction
shaken. At that time, it must be noted, the Austrian army was already partly
mobilised, and as we came through Austrian Silesia we had noticed all the
bridges being guarded by soldiers.
"Austria will back down," was the opinion of all the well-informed men with whom
I talked on the first of August. The session of the University was ended and the
students were either all gone or going home to different parts of Poland, but the
professors had not all departed yet on their respective holidays, and amongst
them the tone of scepticism prevailed generally. Upon the whole there was very
little inclination to talk about the possibility of a war. Nationally, the Poles felt that
from their point of view there was nothing to hope from it. "Whatever happens,"
said a very distinguished man to me, "we may be certain that it's our skins which
will pay for it as usual." A well-known literary critic and writer on economical
subjects said to me: "War seems a material impossibility, precisely because it
would mean the complete ruin of all material interests."
He was wrong, as we know; but those who said that Austria as usual would back
down were, as a matter of fact perfectly right. Austria did back down. What these
men did not foresee was the interference of Germany. And one cannot blame
them very well; for who could guess that, when the balance stood even, the
German sword would be thrown into the scale with nothing in the open political
situation to justify that act, or rather that crime--if crime can ever be justified? For,
as the same intelligent man said to me: "As it is, those people" (meaning
Germans) "have very nearly the whole world in their economic grip. Their
prestige is even greater than their actual strength. It can get for them practically
everything they want. Then why risk it?" And there was no apparent answer to
the question put in that way. I must also say that the Poles had no illusions about
the strength of Russia. Those illusions were the monopoly of the Western world.
Next day the librarian of the University invited me to come and have a look at the
library which I had not seen since I was fourteen years old. It was from him that I
learned that the greater part of my father's MSS. was preserved there. He
confessed that he had not looked them through thoroughly yet, but he told me
that there was a lot of very important letters bearing on the epoch from '60 to '63,
to and from many prominent Poles of that time: and he added: "There is a bundle
of correspondence that will appeal to you personally. Those are letters written by
your father to an intimate friend in whose papers they were found. They contain
many references to yourself, though you couldn't have been more than four years
old at the time. Your father seems to have been extremely interested in his son."
That afternoon I went to the University, taking with me MY eldest son. The
attention of that young Englishman was mainly attracted by some relics of