Peace in Our Time, or Piece with Honor?

By Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg
W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem
March 2010

When Neville Chamberlain signed the notorious agreement with Herr Hitler that he waved around and called "Peace in our Time," he was trying to follow the lead of Lord Beaconsfield sixty years earlier, who came back from the Berlin Conference of 1878 with another piece of paper that he called "Peace with Honor." But Benjamin Disraeli, elevated to the peerage late in life, had secured not only a piece of paper from the Russians and the Turks and prevented war in the Dardenelles, but he had also obtained the island of Cyprus for the British Empire. Disraeli, whom Bismarck greatly admired and called "Der alte Jude, das isst ein Mann," had succeeded in the search for a permanent if fragile peace where so many others had failed.  Unlike the case of the unfortunately named "Perpetual Peace" concluded in January 1502 between the Scots and the English, which resulted only a few years later in the battle of Flodden Field and the massacre of thousands.

Like apple pie, everyone is in favor of peace, but what do people mean by the word? In general it seems to mean, "Peace on my own terms," and so it is different for everyone. But it goes further, because peace seems to mean different things, not only to different people, but also different things in different languages. The English word “Peace” is related to the French paix, the Italian pace and ultimately the Latin pax. And that word goes back to something like "pact," an agreement between the parties. Peace comes about after agreement between the warring parties.

Russian is different; their word is mir, which also means "world." Perhaps it suggests an agreement with the rest of the world, but it could perhaps also mean peace through world domination, an unpleasant thought. But the Russians, and the Poles, also use pokoj and spokoj. The first is the same as the word for chamber, an obscure similarity, but the second quite clearly means rest and quiet, which also seems to be the meaning of the ancient Greek. Indeed the Greeks have a word for it, eirene, which has evolved into nice English names like Irene and Renée, but its origin is obscure and probably means calm and restfulness. The Spanish and Portuguese adopt paz from the Latin, but they also use tranquilidad, clearly opting for the restful bit.

The German word for peace, frieden, has similar overtones. It implies satisfaction as well as tranquility, maybe satisfaction at the result of the war, or tranquility due to the ending of hostilities. It may have a distant relationship to freedom and the idea that peace will bring freedom of action at home. The Scandinavian person uses the German idea and says fred, which again is a good English name!

Our Semitic language is quite different. Shalom is a word related to that for payment (as leshalem, to pay, to complete) and is based on a kind of completion, the completion of a transaction. It is also used as a place-name, where Malchizedek is the "king of Shalem" (Gen. 14:18) which in the traditional understanding is taken to represent Jerusalem. This however is challenged by the Samaritans, who quote Gen. 33:18, which reads, "And Jakob came (to) shalem, the city of Shechem." Normally translated as Jakob came "in peace" to Shechem, the Samaritans claim it means he came "to Shalem, which is the city of Shechem." This a fine point of controversy between the men of Judah and the men of Samaria but both agree the city's name is somehow related to the idea of peace.

But what kind of peace is that? Shalom means "completion," or better "resolution," when things are finally resolved and one can sit back and relax. But shalom is not just the relaxation, it must incorporate the conditions that lead to the resultant peace and quiet, the conditions that produce a situation where the conflicting parties have resolved their differences one way or another. Its meaning is not Chamberlain's illusory "Peace in our Time", but rather Disraeli's more permanent "Peace with Honor" to both sides. 

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.