George Bernard Shaw’s 1939 satiric play “Geneva” takes place in a court case designed to denounce and defame the nasty activities of three power mad European nasties, Herr Battler, Signor Bombardone, and General Flanco (parodies of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Francesco Franco) who are responsible for the Fascist “unpleasantness” in Europe and the war clouds that are massing. In the three act play, they are summoned before the international Court of Justice in The Hague to be tried for crimes against humanity. Illustrated by Polish-born, England-based Feliks Topolski, “Geneva”, which has a timely resonance today, is mildly critical of the politics of these buffoons, whose militarism is a threat to world peace.
The Judge, who speaks in Shaw’s voice, says, “None of you seems to have any idea of the sort of world you are living in. Into the void created by this ignorance has been heaped a groundwork of savage superstitions: human sacrifices, vengeance, wars of conquest and religion, falsehoods called history, and a glorification of vulgar erotics called romance which transforms people who are naturally as amiable, as teachable, as companionable as dogs, into the most ferocious and cruel of all the beasts. And this, they say, is human nature!”
At the offices of the “Committee of Intellectual Cooperation” in Geneva, the only person present is a overwhelmed secretary called Miss Begonia Brown. Various people turn up demanding redress of grievances: a Jew who complains of oppression in Germany; a colonial politician who had been denied the right to take his seat and a South American woman who objects to the politics of assassinations and vendettas. A British vicar and a Russian Bolshevik also complain about the respective influence of their competing ideologies.
The ogres are the leaders Battler (Hitler), Bombardone (Mussolini) and Flanco (Franco). Before the world is destroyed by their evil ambitions, a Dutch judge summons the dictators to the court where are put on trial, which is broadcast to the world. Battler, Bombardone, and Flanco each defend themselves with grandiose speeches. The judge comments, “It turns out that we do not and cannot love one another—that the problem before us is how to establish peace among people who heartily dislike one another, and have very good reasons for doing so: in short, that the human race does not at present consist exclusively or even largely of likeable persons”. Sir Orpheus Midlander, the British Foreign Secretary, threatens Battler that if Germany invades another country, Britain will take military action.
As the situation seems to be escalating towards the fail safe point, news arrives that the earth has jumped out of its orbit and all humanity is threatened with freezing to death. Political differences no longer seem significant. But now all the leaders have a different plan to deal with the problem—or to ignore it. It is soon discovered that the report was false. Will this moment of shared, albeit illusory, danger help to bring the nations together? It’s doubtful. But the play ends on a note of hope: “They came, these fellows. They blustered: they defied us. But they came. They came.”
Full of wit and humor, the depictions fiddle with evil to come. Yet Shaw intentionally made the dictators’ cases more rational in order to create a more balanced version satire. In the early version the Jew and Battler have an argument in which the Jew claims to represent an intellectually superior, educated people, while Battler maintains that he wants to eliminate sub-humans, poisonous vermin and Jews. The play, in all its revisions, is interesting because after the war Shaw stood firm to his criticism of both dictators and of parliamentary democracy, reaffirming his often-repeated view that “Civilization’s will to live [is] always defeated by democracy”, arguing for a form of technocratic and meritocratic government. He said that Hitler had proved to be “a pseudo-Messiah and madman.” Sounds somewhat like history might repeat itself.