Wars are related to the fact that we think in terms of nations. A nation-based way of thinking is invested in the negation of the individual and the recruitment of the masses. But what can overcome the ‘folk-spirit age’ today? The spirit of individual selfhood can to lead people to humanity.
The standard of ethics in the 21st century is the individual, the human being – not the crowd. The mass of soldiers, an army, is a mis-measurement and a disregard for the individual. In the First World War, recruitment numbers were driven up. The Entente fielded nearly 42 million soldiers and the Central Powers nearly 24.5 million. At the end of this First World War, there were 17 million dead. At the front, it was the masses that counted. Personalities loved at home died like flies amidst the fate of the anonymous soldier. The place of the individual is the comprehensible social community. In the past this was the family, today perhaps it is still the ‘home’: the living environment in which I try to live out my destiny, with my job, partner, children, hobby, and garden. In this community I become an individual because of the others. Their recognition takes me out of the anonymity of the mass of people. In this community, anonymous soldiers became missing persons.
At the front, they were one of an unimaginable number who had to be replaced as soon as possible by someone who had moved up. In the community at home, they left a gaping hole that could no longer be filled; irreplaceable. This gap must take hold of us through and through as a whole human being, must go to our hearts – only then will we do justice to this individual, irreplaceable gap, and also to an ethics of the individual.
A scene from the film ’The Chorus’ (Die Kinder des Monsieur Mathieu, or Les Choristes): Little Pépinot waits in front of a boarding school in 1949 for his father to come and fetch him. But not only his father, but his mother had died in the war. This child will wait forever for his parents – an eternal silent gap will remain, an unfulfilledness, a longing that can only be experienced here on earth: the sensual, physical presence of beloved souls. The emotion of this scene sinks even deeper into the heart at the end of the film – and it is only in this depth of the heart that the place of an ethics of the individual is found. Pépinot decides to follow the retiring Monsieur Mathieu and take him to be his father. The small hand of the orphaned child fits in the big hand of the new father. A new beginning, resulting from the free act of two loving souls who surrender themselves to each other through this individual act.
The fundamental irreplaceability of the individual must become the standard for social interaction. Today, no human being may walk among us as an anonymous person, let alone leave us as such. Who was this person? What moved and inspired them? What plagued them? Not knowing this leaves an unfulfilled gap. True interest in the other only installs their individuality. Such interest must be able to live into the drama, suffering and joy of another person. Whether someone is useful or applicable to one’s own concerns looks past the individual and evokes the tragedy of the anonymous gap for the one who falls into the shadows as a result of such misinterest. And in the same way, a gap is created when one keeps to oneself – be it out of rational calculation, or out of soulful restraint.
An ethic that has the individual as its standard requires the affirmation of a genuine encounter, i.e. a culture of exchange in which all participants are open-minded and at the same time open to the future. The fact that billions of people are starving, that this is still possible today, cries out to heaven. But not by the number of billions, but by the umpteen repetition of a single case: that this concrete human being, this individual, dies of hunger. And even if it were only one person who died of hunger, the cry would go up to heaven just as loudly. It is the disregard for the individual, the disregard for their will that is crying out. A gap is left where a person could not find a home in whose community he or she would have been allowed to develop. But the masses have had their day. It is the individual, the human being that counts.
Image The white graves of fallen soldiers from the First World War at a Belgian military cemetery in West Flanders. Photo: CC0 Public Domain.