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The War with the Newts: A Prophetic Satire Is Once Again Relevant



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In 1936, the great Czech antifascist writer Karel Capek published his book The War with the Newts, which brilliantly satirized the policies of the Allies in appeasing Hitler. Capek’s work has long been a favorite of mine, and in fact was the inspiration for my own 2003 science fiction satire, The Holy Land, dealing with the Middle East and the War on Terror.

But now, with the disgusting betrayal of Ukraine to the Putin regime by the Obama administration and the even more feckless western European allies, Capek’s work has become brutally relevant once again.

So here are a few choice bits.

The situation is this. The newts are human sized salamanders who want to expand their living space, which consists of shallow water and swamps. Following this imperative, they begin flooding human-inhabited coastal areas. This causes earthquakes in several locations, including Louisiana. The leader of the newts, Chief Salamander then takes to the airwaves to address the issue.

The book continues as follows:

“Hello, hello, hello! Chief Salamander speaking. . . .We regret the loss of human life. We have no wish to cause you unnecessary harm. We wish only that you evacuate those areas of coast which we will notify you of in advance. If you do as we say you will avoid anything regrettable. In future we will give you at least fourteen days notice of the places where we wish to extend our sea. Incidents so far have been no more than technical experiments. Your explosives have proved their worth. Thank you for them.

“Hello you people! Remain calm. We wish you no harm. We merely need more water, more coastline, more shallows in which to live. There are too many of us. Your coastlines are already too limited for our needs. For this reason we need to demolish your continents. We will convert them into bays and islands. In this way, the length of coastline can be increased five-fold. We will construct new shallows. We cannot live in deep ocean. We will need your continents as materials to fill in the deep waters. We wish you no harm, but there are too many of us. You will be free to migrate inland. You will not be prevented from fleeing to the hills. The hills will be the last to be demolished.

“We are here because you wanted us. You have distributed us over the entire world. Now you have us. We wish that you collaborate with us. You will provide us with steel for our picks and drills. You will provide us with explosives. You will provide us with torpedoes. You will work for us. Without you we will not be able to remove the old continents. Hello you people, Chief Salamander, in the name of all newts everywhere, offers collaboration with you. You will collaborate with us in the demolition of your world. Thank you.”

. . .

Some weeks later, the nations of the world met together in Vaduz.

The conference took place in Vaduz because in the height of the Alps there was no danger from the newts and because most of the world’s most powerful and socially important people had already fled there from coastal areas. It was generally agreed that . . . it was legally and practically impossible to declare war against the newts or put any other sort of international pressure on them; each state would have the right to take measures only against its own newts; it would be a purely internal matter. This meant that it was impossible to speak of any collective diplomatic or military campaign against the newts. Any state that came under attack from the salamanders could receive international aid only in the form of overseas loans for them to help defend themselves.

At this, England put forward the proposal that every state should at least bind itself to stop supplying the newts with weapons or explosives. After full consideration the proposal was turned down, mainly because those obligations were already contained in the London Convention; secondly because it would not be possible to prevent any state from providing its newts with equipment and weaponry to defend its own shores “according to its needs”; and thirdly, seafaring nations would “understandably wish to maintain good relations with residents of the sea”, so that it was deemed appropriate “not to be precipitate in taking any measure that the newts might feel to be repressive . . .

A suggestion put forward by the Colombian delegates in private session, that at least unofficial negotiations with the newts should take place, was accepted. Chief Salamander was to be invited to send his representatives to the conference. Great Britain protested loudly at this and refused outright to sit at the same table with the newts; but in the end the British delegation had to be content to depart, temporarily, to Engadin, for reasons of health. That night, all seafaring powers sent out an invitation to His Excellency Chief Salamander to name his representatives and send them to Vaduz. The answer was a rasping “Yes; this time we will come to meet you; next time we will expect your delegates to come into the water to meet me.”  . . .

Every preparation for the arrival of the newts was made with all haste; the most luxurious bathrooms in the city were prepared for them and a special train was chartered to bring cisterns of sea water for the newt delegates to bathe in. The reception for them that evening at the railway station in Vaduz had been meant to be unofficial, but it was still attended by many of the delegates’ secretaries, representatives of government offices and around two hundred journalists, photographers and film makers. At exactly twenty-five minutes past six the Orient Express arrived at the station and came to a halt beside the red carpet. From the saloon car emerged three tall and elegant gentlemen with a number of sophisticated-looking secretaries carrying heavy briefcases. “Where are the newts, then?” somebody muttered. Two or three officials went forward uncertainly to meet the three gentlemen; but the first of the gentlemen had already begun, quickly and quietly, to say, “We are the newt delegation. I’m Professor van Dott from The Hague. Maître Rosso Castelli, avocat de Paris. Doctor Manoel Carvalho, avocado of Lisbon.” The officials bowed and introduced themselves.

“So you are not newts, then,” the French secretary said with a sigh.

“Of course we are not newts,” said Dr. Castelli. We are their lawyers. Excuse me, but I think these gentlemen might want to take some photographs.” And then the photographers and newsreel makers took a great many pictures of the smiling newt delegation. The secretaries of the legatees already present also showed their pleasure. It was, after all, only reasonable and proper that the newts should send human beings to represent them. Human beings were easier to deal with. And most of all, it would avoid certain social unpleasantnesses. The first discussions with the newts’ delegates took place that same night, addressing the question of how to renew peace with the United Kingdom as soon as possible. Professor van Dott asserted that there was no question that the newts had come under attack from Great Britain; the British gunboat, Erebus, had fired on the newts radio ship on the open sea; the British admiralty had broken peaceful trading with the newts by preventing the Amenhotep from unloading the cargo of explosives they had ordered; thirdly, the British government had instigated a blockade against the newts by its ban on their receiving any supplies of any sort. The newts were unable to make a complaint about these hostile acts either at The Hague, because the London Convention denied them the right to make any complaint, or in Geneva, because the newts were not a member of the United Nations; they were therefore left with no alternative but to defend themselves. Chief Salamander was nonetheless willing to end hostilities under, of course, the following conditions: 1. The United Kingdom was to apologize for the offences cited above; 2. All restrictions on supplies to the newts were to be lifted; 3. As compensation, the newts were to be ceded the lowland areas of the Punjab where they would create new bays and shorelines. The chairman of the conference stated that he would pass these conditions on to his honorable friend, the representative of the United Kingdom, who was currently unable to attend; however he made no secret of his fear that Britain would find these conditions difficult to accept; but we could all hope that they might be the starting point for further negotiations.

Next on the agenda was the complaint by France about the newts having caused explosions on the coast of Sengambia, thus interfering in a French colonial dependency. This was answered by the famous Parisian lawyer, Dr. Julien Rosso Castelli. “Prove it!” he said. Seismographs around the world indicate that the earthquake in Senegambia was of volcanic origin and was connected with volcanic activity in Mount Pico on the island of Fogo. “Here in this dossier,” he declared as he slapped his hand against it, “are all the scientific proofs you need. If, on the other hand, you have any proof that the earthquake in Senegambia was caused by any activity of my clients, then we await them with interest.”

BELGIAN DELEGATE, CREUX: Your Chief Salamander declared himself that it was done by the newts.”

PROFESSOR VAN DOTT: His speech was not official.

M. ROSSO CASTELLI: We are authorized by our clients to deny the contents of that speech. I request that expert witnesses be heard on whether the technology is available to create a fissure in the Earth’s crust sixty-seven kilometers long. I suggest they should try the experiment of creating such a fissure. Unless, gentlemen, you have proof of the opposite, then we will be forced to talk of volcanic activity. Nevertheless, the bay created in Senegambia would be suitable for settlement by a population of newts and Chief Salamander is willing to purchase it from the government of France. We are authorized by our clients to negotiate a price.

FRENCH DELEGATE, MINISTER DEVAL: If this is understood to be an offer of compensation for the damage caused, then we are willing to discuss the matter.

M. ROSSO CASTELLI: Very well. Although the newt government does request that the contract of purchase cover also the territory of the Landes, extending from the mouth of the Gironde as far as Bayonne, an area covering six thousand seven hundred square kilometers. In other words, the newt government is willing to buy this piece of land in southern France.

MINISTER DEVAL (native of Bayonne, member of parliament for Bayonne): So that these salamanders of yours turn part of France into seabed? Never! Never!

DR. ROSSO CASTELLI: France will come to regret these words of yours, monsieur. Today we have still been talking of purchase.

At this, the session was brought to an end.

The subject of the next meeting was a substantial international offer made to the newts: to cause damage to established and densely populated areas was unacceptable, but they would be able to build new shores and islands for themselves; in which case they could be assured of substantial loans to cover the costs; the new lands and island would then be recognized as their independent and sovereign territory.

DR. MANOEL CARVALHO, renowned lawyer from Lisbon, offered his thanks for this proposal which he would convey to the newts; but any child could understand, he said, that building new land would take much longer and cost far more than demolishing old land. Our clients are in need of new bays and shorelines as soon as possible; it is for them a matter of life and death. It would be better for mankind to accept Chief Salamander’s generous offer of buying the world from the human beings instead of taking it by force. Our clients have found a way of extracting the gold contained in seawater; so that they have almost unlimited means; they would be able to pay for your world very well, very well indeed. You would do well to bear in mind that, from their point of view, the price of the world will become lower with time, especially if — as might well be expected — any further volcanic or tectonic disasters take place which might well be far larger than anything we have been witness to so far, and these might well substantially reduce the size of the continents. Today you still have the opportunity to sell the world while it is still its present size; when there is nothing left above water but the ruins of a few mountains no-one will want to pay you a penny for it. I am here as representative and legal advisor for the newts, and it is my duty to defend their interests; but I am also a human being just like yourselves, gentlemen, and the well-being of mankind is just as close to my heart as it is to yours. This is why I advise you, indeed I implore you: Sell the continents before it is too late! You can sell them as a whole or sell them country by country. Everyone now is aware of Chief Salamander’s generosity and modernity; he gives his assurance that in the course of these unavoidable changes to be made to the surface of the Earth everything possible will be done to protect human life; the continents will be flooded in stages and in a way that will avoid any panic or unnecessary catastrophe. We have been authorized to negotiate either with this illustrious world conference as a whole or with individual states. The presence of such outstanding lawyers such as Professor van Dott and Maître Julien Rosso Castelli is your assurance that we are concerned not only to defend the legitimate interests of our clients but will also co-operate closely with yourselves to protect those things that are dearest to us all; human culture and the good of all mankind.

The atmosphere of the conference had become somewhat tense when another proposal was put forward: that the salamander should be allowed to flood and occupy central China; in return for which the newts would bind themselves in perpetuity to stay away from the shores of Europe and its population.

DR. ROSSO CASTELLI: In perpetuity, that is rather a long time. Let us say for a period of twenty years.

PROFESSOR VAN DOTT: Central China is not a very large area. Let us say the provinces of Nganhuei, Honan, Kiangsu, Chi-li and Fung-tien.

The Japanese representative protested at the ceding of Fung-tien which lay in the Japanese sphere of interest. The Chinese delegate said something, but nobody, unfortunately, was able to understand him. There was an air of growing anxiety in the negotiating chamber; it was already one o’clock in the morning.

Just then the secretary to the Italian delegation came into the room and whispered something into the ear of the Italian representative, Count Tosti. The count turned pale, stood up, and although the Chinese delegate, Dr. Ti, was still speaking, he called out hoarsely: “Mister Chairman, may I say something. Reports have just come through that the newts have flooded part of the region of Venice near Portogruaro.”

There was a chill silence, broken only by the Chinese delegate who was still speaking.

“Chief Salamander did warn you of this long ago,” grumbled Dr. Carvalho.

Professor van Dott turned impatiently and raised his hand. “Mister Chairman, may we return to the subject at hand. We were discussing the province of Fung-tien. We have been authorized to offer the Japanese government compensation for it in the form of gold. The question following on from that is what our clients would receive from the states concerned for the task of evacuating China.”

[Translation by David Wyllie.]

Hounded by the Nazis, the broken hearted and exhausted Capek died in December 1938 at the age of 48, just two months after Chamberlain’s government fulfilled his satiric prophesy and betrayed Czechoslovakia, and with it the collective security of the western democracies, to Adolf Hitler.

It’s too bad that none of the putative statesmen currently leading the western alliance toward defeat appear to have read his book.

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Energy of Lakewood CO, and the author of Energy Victory. The paperback edition of his latest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism was recently published by Encounter Books.



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