Writing Against War: A Tale of Two Magazines, 1914-1918

Illustration /  Eddie Stok  for AWE

Illustration / Eddie Stok for AWE

O —God, if Thou didst “in Thy wisdom plan”
This Universe of which I am a part,
If Thou didst really work with conscious art,
Great God, I pity Thee! May never man
Reach in his quest for immortality
Thy overpowering lust for misery!
— Ralph Bacon, The Masses, 1917


On August 14, 1917, Romain Rolland, a French writer with a Nobel Prize, picks up a pen, deeply concerned. After three years of European descent into chaos, Rolland has become used to censorship, public denouncement, and restrictions on what could be published. Many of his articles have been banned in France, as his pacifist appeals elicit huffs of défaitisme from French government officials. To them, Rolland is a traitor. Someone who discourages soldiers to fight for their country. Someone who demoralizes the nation’s men and women.


All of that is of peu importe to Rolland. On this particular day in August, his thoughts are with the other side of the Atlantic, on the East Coast of the United States--specifically, in Greenwich Village, New York, the home of Max Eastman, to whom he addresses a brief letter.  


“My dear Mr Eastman,

I have received your friendly letter of June 27 and the two numbers (June and July) of The Masses. Thanks with all my heart. … I congratulate you, and I congratulate your collaborators—artists and writers—for the good and rude combat which you wage with so much verve and vigor. I give you my hand across the seas.

Yours faithfully,

Romain Rolland”


Max Eastman, who had been raging against the war for as long as Rolland, was the editor and “soul” of The Masses, a socialist magazine conceived and produced by Greenwich intellectuals, who in its pages mixed politics with sharp humor, poetry and an extraordinary variety of illustrations and artwork. Evidently unencumbered by modesty, The Masses described itself as “A Revolutionary and not a Reform Magazine; a Magazine with a sense of Humor and no Re­spect for the Respectable; Frank; Arrogant; Impertinent; Searching for the True Causes; a Magazine Directed against Rigidity and Dogma wherever it is found; Print­ing what is too Naked or True for a Money-Making Press; a Maga­zine whose final Policy is to do as it Pleases and Conciliate Nobody, not even its Readers—A Free Magazine.”

Even before tensions in Europe had escalated into armed conflict in 1914, Eastman had advocated against militarism. After the outbreak of war, he had hoped that U.S. President Woodrow Wilson would not send his army across the Atlantic, or at the very least, would offer relative leniency for people who refused conscription.

It was not to be that way. The U.S. entered the war in April, 1917, just three months before Rolland penned his brief note to his fellow writer and anti-war activist. In the months that followed, one anti-militarist magazine after the other fell silent. People who discouraged the war effort faced violent punishment, including imprisonment. Under the Espionage Act, introduced in June 1917, any active opposition to the government’s conscription measures could lead to a sentence of 20 years and a fine of $10,000. Angry mobs lynched outspoken pacifists, and neighbor spied upon neighbor. The first cost of Wilson’s so-called war for democracy, Eastman quickly decided, were freedom and democracy themselves.

But everybody who wants to know the whys and wherefores of this war today is ‘guilty’.
— Charles Wood, The Masses, 1917


Eventually, The Masses bore the cost as well. In the summer of 1917, Albert Sidney Burleson, the US Postmaster General, banned the magazine from postal delivery; likewise, newspaper stands in the New York subway were forbidden from stocking and selling new issues.

Reflecting on the new post-August reality, John Reed, one of Eastman’s closest friends, concluded that it had been “the blackest month for freemen our generation has known. With a sort of hideous apathy the country has acquiesced in a regime of ju­dicial tyranny, bureaucratic suppression and industrial barbar­ism, which followed inevitably the first fine careless rapture of militarism.”

What had been the sobering status quo in Europe ever since the war started had made its way across the Atlantic.

In response to censorship laws, The Masses and other pacifist publications like it fell back on their far-reaching networks. Anti-war magazines were smuggled across borders, and letters, essays, and poems were exchanged, translated, and disseminated by writers determined to look beyond the war to the future. Writers like Romain Rolland, who moved from France to Geneva in 1914, where he worked for the Red Cross, wrote for a publication called Demain, and tirelessly reached out to fellow intellectuals around the world, insisting that they too commit to pacifism.

Founded in 1916 by a feisty French journalist, Henri Guilbeaux, Demain existed for 31 issues spanning over three years, each one vibrating with pacifist theory and a rejection of cultural nationalism. One rigorous political analysis followed another, often revealing a particular distaste for social patriotism. Socialist politicians who voted for war budgets raised a red flag for Guilbeaux, who maintained close links with Russian revolutionaries, like Lenin, Trotsky, Balabanoff, and Radek. “Le danger n’est pas à droite, il est au centre,” wrote Gilbeaux in one issue, “méfiez vous des centristes.” The danger is not on the right, but in the center—beware of centrists.  

La guerre possède une organization, - une organization coûteuse et mécanique. Pourquoi la paix n’aurait-elle pas son organisme technique?” / War possesses an organization, a costly and mechanical organization. Why is it that peace would not have such a technical organism?
— Henri Guilbeaux, Demain, 1916


As the shining star among Demain’s contributors, Rolland dove deep into moral responsibility, arguing that acceptance of the war equalled complicity with it. “We all play our part,” he wrote, “some willingly, others by weakness; and weakness brings with it no less guilt.” Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, a close friend of Rolland, would later describe him as Europe’s last moral conscience.

Surprised to receive two issues of The Masses despite the censorship that was in full force, Rolland noted in his diary on August 14th that he did not expect such good luck to happen again. How forcefully the magazine was written! How dedicated the articles, how rigorous the analysis! The following month, he penned a twelve-page article in Demain extolling the intellectual freedom of the American sister publication: “Mais le monde a beau hurler et se boucher les oreilles, nous forcerons le monde à entendre ces voix,” he wrote. The world may very well scream and shut its ears, but we will force the world to hear these voices.

By raising their voices against the war, Demain and The Masses quickly became enemies of the state. Both magazines were, from their inception, inherently socialist in outlook (locating the roots of the conflict in imperialism and capitalism) but as the war dragged on they became increasingly radical, and increasingly strident. It was only a matter of time before they would both turn into port-paroles of the Russian Revolution.

In November 1917, the American government accused a number of artists and editors who worked for The Masses (including Max Eastman and John Reed) of having violated the Espionage Act. Although the defendants won the ensuing trial, the magazine never recovered, and was discontinued within a month of their prosecution. Demain, too, was shut down before the end of WWI, failing to survive Guilbeaux’s feud with the French government, with which Swiss police eventually cooperated. After months of surveillance and threats, including the fabrication of evidence and three weeks spent in detention in the summer of 1918, Guilbeaux left for Moscow. The two publications, together with their contributors, were rigorously silenced for their vision of unity and equality among the nations.

A flat century later, The Masses is known only to a relative few, and Demain, though praised by Zweig as one of the most extraordinary publications during war time, is not even digitized. So, what then is their legacy? Can we even say that they have one? After all, both magazines were defeated by their worst enemy, censorship.

Ici s’exprime la verité non-officielle, qui n’est, elle aussi, qu’une partie de la verité. Mais nous avons le droit de connaître la vérité totale, qu’elle plaise ou qu’elle déplaise. / Here, we find the non-official truth, which, too, is merely a part of the truth. But we have the right to know the whole truth, pleasant or unpleasant.
— Roman Rolland, Demain, 1917


And yet, there is much to learn when flipping through their pages. In light of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the periodicals published during the conflict constitute a strange source of comfort. Through them, the reader has access to voices of opposition—people who actively defended values of humanity and equality. Men and women who believed in the strength of words and the wonders of literature to be vehicles for dynamic pacifism in a time of global barbarism. Demain and The Masses provide an account that differs from the sugar-coated, propaganda-infused, government-promoted version of the era. The magazines did not shy away from clearly confronting the costs of the war, calling out the profit of a few at the expense of loss—massive loss—borne by the many. Each magazine embodied an act of social and political rebellion.

What was necessary in 1914-1918, is equally necessary today. Europe is not on the cusp of a continent shattering conflict, but there are cracks and splinters emerging between the two Atlantic pillars of post World War II global stability. Within Europe there is Brexit, the rise of radical right wing parties, the challenge of illiberal democracy in Hungary and Poland. What are the different shades, positions, ideas and stories that shape the collective European consciousness and beyond? Where do opportunities still lie? How can we defend values of tolerance, humanity and cultural exchange in light of rising nationalism and disillusionment?

Looking briefly to the past, not just at what went wrong, but at those who tried to make it right, might be a good start.  



The Ocean Between Us

76 pages of illustrated

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