The Problem of Peace
by Albert Schweitzer
Nobel Lecture, November 4, 1954
For the subject of my lecture, a
redoubtable honor imposed by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, I have
chosen the problem of peace as it is today. In so doing, I believe that I
have acted in the spirit of the founder of this prize who devoted himself to
the study of the problem as it existed in his own day and age, and who
expected his Foundation to encourage consideration of ways to serve the
cause of peace.
I shall begin with an account of the situation at the end of the two wars
through which we have recently passed.
The statesmen who were responsible for shaping the world of today through
the negotiations which followed each of these two wars found the cards
stacked against them. Their aim was not so much to create situations which
might give rise to widespread and prosperous development as it was to
establish the results of victory on a permanent basis. Even if their
judgment had been unerring, they could not have used it as a guide. They
were obliged to regard themselves as the executors of the will of the
conquering peoples. They could not aspire to establishing relations between
peoples on a just and proper basis; all their efforts were taken up by the
necessity of preventing the most unreasonable of the demands made by the
victors from becoming reality; they had, moreover, to convince the
conquering nations to compromise with each other whenever their respective
views and interests conflicted.
The true source of what is untenable in our present situation - and the
victors are beginning to suffer from it as well as the vanquished - lies in
the fact that not enough thought was given to the realities of historical
fact and, consequently, to what is just and beneficial.
The historical problem of Europe is conditioned by the fact that in past
centuries, particularly in the so-called era of the great invasions, the
peoples from the East penetrated farther and farther into the West and
Southwest, taking possession of the land1. So it came about that the later
immigrants intermingled with the earlier already established immigrants.
A partial fusion of these peoples took place during this time, and new
relatively homogeneous political societies were formed within the new
frontiers. In western and central Europe, this evolution led to a situation
which may be said to have crystallized and become definitive in its main
features in the course of the nineteenth century.
In the East and Southeast, on the other hand, the evolution did not reach
this stage; it stopped with the coexistence of nationalities which failed to
merge. Each could lay some claim to rightful ownership of the land. One
might claim territorial rights by virtue of longer possession or superiority
of numbers, while another might point to its contribution in developing the
land. The only practical solution would have been for the two groups to
agree to live together in the same territory and in a single political
society, in accordance with a compromise acceptable to both. It would have
been necessary, however, for this state of affairs to have been reached
before the second third of the nineteenth century. For, from then on, there
was increasingly vigorous development of national consciousness which
brought with it serious consequences. This development no longer allowed
peoples to be guided by historical realities and by reason.
The First World War, then, had its origins in the conditions which prevailed
in eastern and southeastern Europe. The new order created after both world
wars bears in its turn the seeds of a future conflict.
Any new postwar structure is bound to contain the seeds of conflict unless
it takes account of historical fact and is designed to provide a just and
objective solution to problems in the light of that fact. Only such a
solution can be really permanent.
Historical reality is trampled underfoot if, when two peoples have rival
historical claims to the same country, the claims of only one are
recognized. The titles which two nations hold to disputed parts of Europe
never have more than a relative value since the peoples of both are, in
Similarly, we are guilty of contempt for history if, in establishing a new
order, we fail to take economic realities into consideration when frontiers.
Such is the case if we draw a boundary so as to deprive a port of its
natural hinterland or raise a barrier between a region rich in raw materials
and another particularly suited to exploiting them. By such measures do we
create states which cannot survive economically.
The most flagrant violation of historical rights, and indeed of human
rights, consists in depriving certain peoples of their right to the land on
which they live, thus forcing them to move to other territories. At the end
of the Second World War, the victorious powers decided to impose this fate
on hundreds of thousands of people, and under the most harsh conditions2;
from this we can judge how little aware they were of any mission to work
toward a reorganization which would be reasonably equitable and which would
guarantee a propitious future.
Our situation ever since the Second World War has been characterized
essentially by the fact that no peace treaty has yet been signed3. It was
only through agreements of a truce-like nature that the war came to an end;
and it is indeed because of our inability to effect a reorganization,
however elemental, that we are obliged to be content with these truces
which, dictated by the needs of the moment, can have no foreseeable future.
This then is the present situation. How do we perceive the problem of peace
In quite a new light - different to the same extent that modern war is
different from war in the past. War now employs weapons of death and
destruction incomparably more effective than those of the past and is
consequently a worse evil than ever before. Heretofore war could be regarded
as an evil to which men must resign themselves because it served progress
and was even necessary to it. One could argue that thanks to war the peoples
with the strongest virtues survived; thus determining the course of history.
It could be claimed, for example, that the victory of Cyrus over the
Babylonians created an empire in the Near East with a civilization higher
than that which it supplanted, and that Alexander the Great's victory in its
turn opened the way, from the Nile to the Indus, for Greek civilization. The
reverse, however, sometimes occurred when war led to the replacement of a
superior civilization by an inferior one, as it did, for instance, in the
seventh century and at the beginning of the eighth when the Arabs gained
mastery over Persia, Asia Minor, Palestine, North Africa, and Spain,
countries that had hitherto flourished under a Greco-Roman civilization.
It would seem then that, in the past, war could operate just as well in
favor of progress as against it. It is with much less conviction that we can
claim modern war to be an agent of progress. The evil that it embodies
weighs more heavily on us than ever before.
It is pertinent to recall that the generation preceding 1914 approved the
enormous stockpiling of armaments. The argument was that a military decision
would be reached with rapidity and that very brief wars could be expected.
This opinion was accepted without contradiction.
Because they anticipated the progressive humanization of the methods of war,
people also believed that the evils resulting from future conflicts would be
relatively slight. This supposition grew out of the obligations accepted by
nations under the terms of the Geneva Convention of 1864, following the
efforts of the Red Cross. Mutual guarantees were exchanged concerning care
for the wounded, the humane treatment of prisoners of war, and the welfare
of the civilian population. This convention did indeed achieve some
significant results for which hundreds of thousands of combatants and
civilians were to be thankful in the wars to come. But, compared to the
miseries of war, which have grown beyond all proportion with the
introduction of modern weapons of death and destruction, they are trivial
indeed. Truly, it cannot be a question of humanizing war.
The concept of the brief war and that of the humanization of its methods,
propounded as they were on the eve of war in 1914, led people to take the
war less seriously than they should have. They regarded it as a storm which
was to clear the political air and as an event which was to end the arms
race that was ruining nations.
While some lightheartedly supported the war on account of the profits they
expected to gain from it, others did so from a more noble motive: this war
must be the war to end all wars. Many a brave man set out for battle in the
belief that he was fighting for a day when war would no longer exist.
In this conflict, just as in that of 1939, these two concepts proved to be
completely wrong. Slaughter and destruction continued year after year and
were carried on in the most inhumane way. In contrast to the war of
18704.the duel was not between two isolated nations, but between two great
groups of nations, so that a large share of mankind became embroiled, thus
compounding the tragedy.
Since we now know what a terrible evil war is, we must spare no effort to
prevent its recurrence. To this reason must also be added an ethical one: In
the course of the last two wars, we have been guilty of acts of inhumanity
which make one shudder, and in any future war we would certainly be guilty
of even worse. This must not happen!
Let us dare to face the situation. Man has become superman. He is a superman
because he not only has at his disposal innate physical forces, but also
commands, thanks to scientific and technological advances, the latent forces
of nature which he can now put to his own use. To kill at a distance, man
used to rely solely on his own physical strength; he used it to bend the bow
and to release the arrow. The superman has progressed to the stage where,
thanks to a device designed for the purpose, he can use the energy released
by the combustion of a given combination of chemical products. This enables
him to employ a much more effective projectile and to propel it over far
However, the superman suffers from a fatal flaw. He has failed to rise to
the level of superhuman reason which should match that of his superhuman
strength. He requires such reason to put this vast power to solely
reasonable and useful ends and not to destructive and murderous ones.
Because he lacks it, the conquests of science and technology become a mortal
danger to him rather than a blessing.
In this context is it not significant that the first great scientific
discovery, the harnessing of the force resulting from the combustion of
gunpowder, was seen at first only as a means of killing at a distance?
The conquest of the air, thanks to the internal-combustion engine, marked a
decisive advance for humanity. Yet men grasped at once the opportunity it
offered to kill and destroy from the skies. This invention underlined a fact
which had hitherto been steadfastly denied: the more the superman gains in
strength, the poorer he becomes. To avoid exposing himself completely to the
destruction unleashed from the skies, he is obliged to seek refuge
underground like a hunted animal. At the same time he must resign himself to
abetting the unprecedented destruction of cultural values.
A new stage was reached with the discovery and subsequent utilization of the
vast forces liberated by the splitting of the atom. After a time, it was
found that the destructive potential of a bomb armed with such was
incalculable, and that even large-scale tests could unleash catastrophes
threatening the very existence of the human race. Only now has the full
horror of our position become obvious. No longer can we evade the question
of the future of mankind.
But the essential fact which we should acknowledge in our conscience, and
which we should have acknowledged a long time ago, is that we are becoming
inhuman to the extent that we become supermen. We have learned to tolerate
the facts of war: that men are killed en masse -some twenty million in the
Second World War - that whole cities and their inhabitants are annihilated
by the atomic bomb, that men are turned into living torches by incendiary
bombs. We learn of these things from the radio or newspapers and we judge
them according to whether they signify success for the group of peoples to
which we belong, or for our enemies. When we do admit to ourselves that such
acts are the results of inhuman conduct, our admission is accompanied by the
thought that the very fact of war itself leaves us no option but to accept
them. In resigning ourselves to our fate without a struggle, we are guilty
What really matters is that we should all of us realize that we are guilty
of inhumanity. The horror of this realization should shake us out of our
lethargy so that we can direct our hopes and our intentions to the coming of
an era in which war will have no place.
This hope and this will can have but one aim: to attain, through a change in
spirit, that superior reason which will dissuade us from misusing the power
at our disposal.
The first to have the courage to advance purely ethical arguments against
war and to stress the necessity for reason governed by an ethical will was
the great humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam in his Querela pacis (The Complaint
of Peace) which appeared in 15175. In this book he depicts Peace on stage
seeking an audience.
Erasmus found few adherents to his way of thinking. To expect the
affirmation of an ethical necessity to point the way to peace was considered
a utopian ideal. Kant shared this opinion. In his essay on "Perpetual
Peace", which appeared in 17956, and in other publications in which he
touches upon the problem of peace, he states his belief that peace will come
only with the increasing authority of an international code of law, in
accordance with which an international court of arbitration would settle
disputes between nations. This authority, he maintains, should be based
entirely on the increasing respect which in time, and for purely practical
motives, men will hold for the law as such. Kant is unremitting in his
insistence that the idea of a league of nations cannot be hoped for as the
outcome of ethical argument, but only as the result of the perfecting of
law. He believes that this process of perfecting will come of itself. In his
opinion, "nature, that great artist" will lead men, very gradually, it is
true, and over a very long period of time, through the march of history and
the misery of wars, to agree on an international code of law which will
guarantee perpetual peace.
A plan for a league of nations having powers of arbitration was first
formulated with some precision by Sully, the friend and minister of Henry
IV. It was given detailed treatment by the Abbé Castel de Saint-Pierre in
three works, the most important of which bears the title Projet de paix
perpétuelle entre les souverains chrétiens [Plan for Perpetual Peace between
Christian Sovereigns]. Kant was aware of the views it developed, probably
from an extract which Rousseau published in 17617.
Today we can judge the efficacy of international institutions by the
experience we have had with the League of Nations in Geneva and with the
United Nations. Such institutions can render important services by offering
to mediate conflicts at their very inception, by taking the initiative in
setting up international projects, and by other actions of a similar nature,
depending on the circumstances. One of the League of Nations' most important
achievements was the creation in 1922 of an internationally valid passport
for the benefit of those who became stateless as a consequence of war8. What
a position those people would have been in if this travel document had not
been devised through Nansen's initiative! What would have been the fate of
displaced persons after 1945 if the United Nations had not existed!
Nevertheless these two institutions have been unable to bring about peace.
Their efforts were doomed to fail since they were obliged to undertake them
in a world in which there was no prevailing spirit directed toward peace.
And being only legal institutions, they were unable to create such a spirit.
The ethical spirit alone has the power to generate it. Kant deceived himself
in thinking that he could dispense with it in his search for peace. We must
follow the road on which he turned his back.
What is more, we just cannot wait the extremely long time he deemed
necessary for this movement toward peace to mature. War today means
annihilation, a fact that Kant did not foresee. Decisive steps must be taken
to ensure peace, and decisive results obtained without delay. Only through
the spirit can all this be done.
Is the spirit capable of achieving what we in our distress must expect of
Let us not underestimate its power, the evidence of which can be seen
throughout the history of mankind. The spirit created this humanitarianism
which is the origin of all progress toward some form of higher existence.
Inspired by humanitarianism we are true to ourselves and capable of
creating. Inspired by a contrary spirit we are unfaithful to ourselves and
fall prey to all manner of error.
The height to which the spirit can ascend was revealed in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries. It led those peoples of Europe who possessed it
out of the Middle Ages, putting an end to superstition, witch hunts,
torture, and a multitude of other forms of cruelty or traditional folly. It
replaced the old with the new in an evolutionary way that never ceases to
astonish those who observe it. All that we have ever possessed of true
civilization, and indeed all that we still possess, can be traced to a
manifestation of this spirit.
Later, its power waned because the spirit failed to find support for its
ethical character in a world preoccupied with scientific pursuits. It has
been replaced by a spirit less sure of the course humanity should take and
more content with lesser ideals. Today if we are to avoid our own downfall,
we must commit ourselves to this spirit once again. It must bring forth a
new miracle just as it did in the Middle Ages, an even greater miracle than
The spirit is not dead; it lives in isolation. It has overcome the
difficulty of having to exist in a world out of harmony with its ethical
character. It has come to realize that it can find no home other than in the
basic nature of man. The independence acquired through its acceptance of
this realization is an additional asset.
It is convinced that compassion, in which ethics takes root, does not assume
its true proportions until it embraces not only man but every living being.
To the old ethics, which lacked this depth and force of conviction, has been
added the ethics of reverence for life, and its validity is steadily gaining
Once more we dare to appeal to the whole man, to his capacity to think and
feel, exhorting him to know himself and to be true to himself. We reaffirm
our trust in the profound qualities of his nature. And our living.
experiences are proving us right.
In 1950, there appeared a book entitled Témoignages d'humanité [Documents of
Humanity]9, published by some professors from the University of Göttingen
who had been brought together by the frightful mass expulsion of the eastern
Germans in 1945. The refugees tell in simple words of the help they received
in their distress from men belonging to the enemy nations, men who might
well have been moved to hate them. Rarely have I been so gripped by a book
as I was by this one. It is a wonderful tonic for anyone who has lost faith
Whether peace comes or not depends on the direction in which the mentality
of individuals develops and then, in turn, on that of their nations. This
truth holds more meaning for us today than it did for the past. Erasmus,
Sully, the Abbé Castel de Saint-Pierre, and the others who in their time
were engrossed in the problem of peace dealt with princes and not with
peoples. Their efforts tended to be concentrated on the establishment of a
supranational authority vested with the power of arbitrating any
difficulties which might arise between princes. Kant, in his essay on
"Perpetual Peace", was the first to foresee an age when peoples would govern
themselves and when they, no less than the sovereigns, would be concerned
with the problem of peace. He thought of this evolution as progress. In his
opinion, peoples would be more inclined than princes to maintain peace
because it is they who bear the miseries of war.
The time has come, certainly, when governments must look on themselves as
the executors of the will of the people. But Kant's reliance on the people's
innate love for peace has not been justified. Because the will of the
people, being the will of the crowd, has not avoided the danger of
instability and the risk of emotional distraction from the path of true
reason, it has failed to demonstrate a vital sense of responsibility.
Nationalism of the worst sort was displayed in the last two wars, and it may
be regarded today as the greatest obstacle to mutual understanding between
Such nationalism can be repulsed only through the rebirth of a humanitarian
ideal among men which will make their allegiance to their country a natural
one inspired by genuine ideals.
Spurious nationalism is rampant in countries across the seas too, especially
among those peoples who formerly lived under white domination and who have
recently gained their independence. They are in danger of allowing
nationalism to become their one and only ideal. Indeed, peace, which had
prevailed until now in many areas, is today in jeopardy.
These peoples, too, can overcome their naive nationalism only by adopting a
humanitarian ideal. But how is such a change to be brought about? Only when
the spirit becomes a living force within us and leads us to a civilization
based on the humanitarian ideal, will it act, through us, upon these
peoples. All men, even the semicivilized and the primitive, are, as beings
capable of compassion, able to develop a humanitarian spirit. It abides
within them like tinder ready to be lit, waiting only for a spark.
The idea that the reign of peace must come one day has been given expression
by a number of peoples who have attained a certain level of civilization. In
Palestine it appeared for the first time in the words of the prophet Amos in
the eighth century B.C.10, and it continues to live in the Jewish and
Christian religions as the belief in the Kingdom of God. It figures in the
doctrine taught by the great Chinese thinkers: Confucius and Lao-tse in the
sixth century B.C., Mi-tse in the fifth, and Meng-tse in the fourth11. It
reappears in Tolstoy12 and in other contemporary European thinkers. People
have labeled it a utopia. But the situation today is such that it must
become reality in one way or another; otherwise mankind will perish.
I am well aware that what I have had to say on the problem of peace is not
essentially new. It is my profound conviction that the solution lies in our
rejecting war for an ethical reason; namely, that war makes us guilty of the
crime of inhumanity. Erasmus of Rotterdam and several others after him have
already proclaimed this as the truth around which we should rally.
The only originality I claim is that for me this truth goes hand in hand
with the intellectual certainty that the human spirit is capable of creating
in our time a new mentality, an ethical mentality. Inspired by this
certainty, I too proclaim this truth in the hope that my testimony may help
to prevent its rejection as an admirable sentiment but a practical
impossibility. Many a truth has lain unnoticed for a long time, ignored
simply because no one perceived its potential for becoming reality.
Only when an ideal of peace is born in the minds of the peoples will the
institutions set up to maintain this peace effectively fulfill the function
expected of them.
Even today, we live in an age characterized by the absence of peace; even
today, nations can feel themselves threatened by other nations; even today,
we must concede to each nation the right to stand ready to defend itself
with the terrible weapons now at its disposal.
Such is the predicament in which we seek the first sign of the spirit in
which we must place our trust. This sign can be none other than an effort on
the part of peoples to atone as far as possible for the wrongs they
inflicted upon each other during the last war. Hundreds of thousands of
prisoners and deportees are waiting to return to their homes; others,
unjustly condemned by a foreign power, await their acquittal; innumerable
other injustices still await reparation.
In the name of all who toil in the cause of peace, I beg the peoples to take
the first step along this new highway. Not one of them will lose a fraction
of the power necessary for their own defense.
If we take this step to liquidate the injustices of the war which we have
just experienced, we will instill a little confidence in all people. For any
enterprise, confidence is the capital without which no effective work can be
carried on. It creates in every sphere of activity conditions favoring
fruitful growth. In such an atmosphere of confidence thus created we can
begin to seek an equitable settlement of the problems caused by the two
I believe that I have expressed the thoughts and hopes of millions of men
who, in our part of the world, live in fear of war to come. May my words
convey their intended meaning if they penetrate to the other part of the
world - the other side of the trench - to those who live there in the same
May the men who hold the destiny of peoples in their hands, studiously avoid
anything that might cause the present situation to deteriorate and become
even more dangerous. May they take to heart the words of the Apostle Paul:
"If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men".13
These words are valid not only for individuals, but for nations as well. May
these nations, in their efforts to maintain peace, do their utmost to give
the spirit time to grow and to act.
Dr. Schweitzer delivered this lecture in the Auditorium of Oslo University
almost a year after having received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Oslo
Aftenposten for November 5 reports that he read quietly from a manuscript
and that the seriousness and simplicity of his speech moved the audience.
This translation is based on the text in French, the language which Dr.
Schweitzer used on this occasion, published in Lex Prix Nobel en 1954.
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