Universal Guilt

HEADING FOR THE ABYSS. Reminiscences by Prince Lichnowsky. (Payson & Clarke.)

WHEN the original edition of Prince Lichnowsky’s reminiscences appeared in Germany last year under the title “Auf dein Wege surm Abgerund,” a nation-wide storm of hostile criticism and abuse broke upon the aging author whose intentions seem always to have been better than his luck. Indeed a careful reader of the present volume is likely to suspect that the Prince’s ill luck was not unrelated to the almost naïve high-mindedness with which he played a game best suited to the cynical and shrewd. Fine phrases seem to have meant lofty realities to Lichnowsky, and a gentleman’s word seems to bave been borne for him a very old-fashioned significance.

Prince Lichnowsky, after years of retirement from the diplomatic service, was appointed Ambassador to England in 1912 and served until the outbreak of the great war. At the time of his appointment he was somewhat surprised at the sudden show of favor after so long a period of neglect; but, abnormally unsuspicious as he seems to have been, even at times when suspicion would have been a virtue, he came to realize at last that his belated preferment was in no way intended as a compliment to him. Rather, as he himself has suggested, he seems to have been sent to the Court of St. James in the belief that his weakness would best serve the interests of the dominant group in Berlin. If that dominant group desired a complicated misunderstanding with England that would readily lend itself to free interpretations, Lichnowsky was probably well chosen for his important post, and this because he assumed that the international game could be played in no other way than on the square by the rivals of Germany.

“Heading for the Abyss” is in the nature of an apologia, but in his very effort to justify his acts as ambassador, the author often reveals the futility of his own high-mindedness in such a game as he was playing. At times the reader is reminded of an honest, trusting man bargaining with a bunch of accomplished horse traders.

It was the purpose of Lichnowsky to prove that Germany’s nefarious scheming was the “root-cause” of the war, and to this end he has presented his correspondence with the German Foreign Office during the two crucial years of his service in England. On many of his dispatches to theGerman Government the Kaiser made marginal notations of a vitriolic sort. These are reproduced here, and they all reveal the imperial contempt for the writer’s alleged gullibility. Often even a casual reader is likely to feel that the Kaiser, with his ever active suspicion, was much nearer the vital facts in the case than was the Prince. A higher consciousness in conflict with the dominant lower is notoriously out of luck in this shrewd world of so-called “practical” men. And yet, after reading this rather saddening volume, one would prefer to be the Prince.

As a discussion of war guilt, “Heading for the Abyss” is no more convincing than most other discussions of the subject. It may be that Lichnowsky has proven Germany guilty of the occasion for the war, but it is necessary to penetrate the fog of diplomatic jockeying and all political hocus pocus in order of get at the “root-cause” of war. Curiously enough this is rarely done, and accordingly we have much talk of gentlemanly agreements whereby war, the inevitable result, shall cease to follow its profound cause — a worldwide economic injustice of which human society as a whole is guilty.