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PRO PATRIA: III1
1 Delivered In London, at the Queen’s Hall, 7 July, 1915.
ALTHOUGH nothing entitles me to the honour of addressing you in the name of my refugee countrymen, nevertheless it is only fitting, since a kindly insistence brings me here, that I should in the first place give thanks to England for the manner in which she welcomed them in their distress. I am but a voice in the crowd; and, if my words exceed the limits of this hall and lend to him who utters them an authority which he himself does not possess, it is only because they are filled with unbounded gratitude.
In this horrible war, whose stakes are the salvation and the future of mankind, let us first of all salute our wonderful sister, France, who is supporting the heaviest burden and who, for more than eleven months, having broken its first and most formidable onslaught, has been struggling, foot by foot, at closest quarters, without faltering, without remission, with an heroic smile, against the most formidable organization of pillage, massacre and devastation that the world or hell itself has seen since man first learnt the history of the planet on which he lives. We have here a revelation of qualities and virtues surpassing all that we expected from a nation which nevertheless had accustomed us to expect of her all that goes to make the beauty and the glory of humanity. One must reside in France, as I have done for many years, to understand and admire as it deserves the incomparable lesson in courage, abnegation, firmness, determination, coolness, conscious dignity, self-mastery, good-humour, chivalrous generosity and utter charity and self-sacrifice which this great and noble people, which has civilized more than half the globe, is at the present moment teaching the civilized world.
Let us also salute boundless Russia, with her wonderful soldiers, innocent and ingenuous as the saints of old, ignorant of fear as children who do not yet know the meaning of death. Yonder, along a formidable front running from the Baltic to the Black Sea, with silent multitudinous heroism, amid defeats which are but victories delayed, she is beginning the great work of our deliverance. Lastly let us greet Servia, small but prodigious, whom we must one day place on the summit of that monument of glory which Europe will raise to-morrow to the memory of those who have freed her from her chains.
So much for them. They have a right to all our gratitude, to all our admiration. They are doing magnificently all that had to be done. But they occupy a place apart in duty’s splendid hierarchy. They are the protagonists of direct, material, tangible, undeniable, inevitable duty. This war is their war. If they would not accept the worst of disgraces, if they were not prepared to suffer servitude,~ massacre, ruin and famine, they had to undertake it; they could not do otherwise. They were attacked by the born enemy, the irreducible and absolute enemy, of whom they knew enough to understand that they had nothing to expect from him but total and unremitting disaster. It was a question of their continued existence in this world. They had no choice; they had to defend themselves; and any other nation in their place would have done the same, only there are few who would have done it with the same spirit of self-abnegation, the same devotion, the same perseverance, the same loyalty and the same smiling courage.
But for us Belgians—and we may say as much for you English—it was not a question of this kind of duty. The horrible drama did not concern us. It demanded only the right to pass us by without touching us; and, far from doing us any harm, it would have flooded us with the unclaimed riches which armies on the march drag in their wake. We Belgians in particular, peaceable, hospitable, inoffensive and almost unarmed, should, by the very treaties which assured our existence, have remained complete strangers to this war. To be sure, we loved France, because we knew her as well as we knew ourselves and because she makes herself beloved by all who know her. But we entertained no hatred of Germany. It is true that, in spite of the virtues which we believed her to possess but which were merely the mask of a spy, our hearts barely responded to her obsequiously treacherous advances. For the German, of all the inhabitants of our planet, has this one and singular peculiarity, that he arouses in us, from the onset, a profound, instinctive, intuitive feeling of antipathy. But, even so and wherever our preferences may have lain, our treaties, our pledged word, the very reason of our existence, all forbade us to take part in the conflict. Then came the incredible ultimatum, the monstrous demand of which you know, which gave us twelve hours to choose between ruin and death or dishonour. As you also know, we did not need twelve hours to make our choice. This choice was no more than a cry of indignation and resolution, spontaneous, fierce and irresistible. We did not stay for a moment to ponder the extenuating circumstances which our weakness might have invoked. We did not for a moment consider the absolution which history would have granted us later, on realizing that a conflict between forces so completely disproportioned was futile, that we must inevitably be crushed, massacred and annihilated and that the sacrifice of a little people in its entirety could prevent nothing, could barely cause delay and would have no weight in the immense balance into which the world’s destinies were about to be flung. There was no question of all this; we saw one thing only: our plighted word. For that word we must die; and since then we have been dying. Trace the course of history as far back as you will; question the nations of the earth; then name those who have done or who would have done what we did. How many will you find? I am not judging those whom I pass over in silence, for to do so would be to enter into the secret of men’s hearts which I have not the right to violate; but in any case there is one which I can name aloud, without fear of being mistaken; and that is the British nation. This people too entered into the conflict, not through interest or necessity or inherited hatred, but simply for a matter of honour. It has not suffered what we have suffered; it has not risked what we have risked, which is all that we possessed beneath the arch of heaven; but it owes this immunity only to outside circumstances. The principle and the quality of the act are the same. We stand on the same plane, one step higher than the other combatants. While the others are the soldiers of necessity, we are the volunteers of honour; and, without detracting from their merits, this title adds to ours all that a pure and disinterested idea adds to the noblest acts of courage. There is not a doubt but that in our place you would have done precisely what we did. You would have done it with the same simplicity, the same calm and confident ardour, the same good faith. You would have thrown yourselves into the breach as whole-heartedly, with the same scorn of useless phrases and the same stubborn conscientiousness. And the reason why I do not shrink from singing in your presence the praises of what we have done is that these praises also affect yourselves, who would not have hesitated to do the selfsame things.
In short, we have both the same conception of honour; and a like idea must needs bear like fruits. In your eyes as in ours, a formal promise, a word once given is the most sacred thing that can pass between man and man. Now far more than the valour of a man—because it rises to much greater heights and extends to much greater distances—the valour of a people depends upon the conception of its honour which that people holds and, above all, upon the sacrifices which it is capable of making for the sake of that honour. We may differ upon all the other ideas that guide the actions of mankind, notably upon the religious idea; but those who do not agree on this one point are unworthy of the name of man. It represents the purest flame, the ever more ardent focus of all human dignity and virtue.
You have sacrificed yourselves wholly to this idea; and, in the name of this idea, which is as vital and as powerful in your souls as in ours, you came to our aid, as we knew that you would come, for we counted on you as surely as you counted on us. You are ready to make the same sacrifices; and already you are proudly supporting the heaviest of sacrifices. Thus, in this stupendous struggle, we are united by bonds even more fraternal than those which bind the other Allies. Our union is more lofty and more generous, for it is based wholly upon the noblest thoughts and feelings that can inspire the heart. And this union, which is marked by a mutual confidence and affection that grow hourly deeper and wider, is helping us both to go even beyond our duty.
For we have gone beyond it; and we are exceeding it daily. We have done and are doing far more than we were bound to do. It was for us Belgians to resist, loyally, vigorously, to the utmost of our strength, as we had promised. But the most sensitive honour would have allowed us to lay down our arms after the immense and heroic effort of the first few days and to trust to the victor’s clemency when he recognized that we were beaten. Nothing compelled us to immolate ourselves entirely, to surrender, in succession, as a burnt-offering to our ideals, all that we possessed on earth and to continue the struggle after we were crushed, even in the last torments of starvation, which to-day holds three millions of us in its grip. Nothing compelled us to this course, other than the increasingly lofty ideal of duty held by those who began by putting it into practice and are now living in its fulfilment.
As for you English, you had to come to our assistance, that is to say, to send us the troops which you had ready under arms; but nothing compelled you either, after the first useless engagements, to devote yourselves with unparalleled ardour and self-sacrifice, to hurl into the mortal and stupendous battle the whole of your youth, the fairest upon earth, and all your riches, the most prodigious in this world, nor to conjure up from your soil, by a miracle which was thought impossible, in fewer months than the years that would have seemed needful, the most gallant, determined and tenacious armies that have yet been marshalled in this war. Nothing compelled you, save the spirit of emulation, the same mad love of duty, the same passion for justice, the same idolatry of the given word which, that it may be sure of doing all that it promised, performs far more than it would have dared to promise.
Now, during the last few weeks, a new combatant has entered the lists, one who occupies a place quite apart in the sacred hierarchy of duty and honour and in the moral history of this war. I speak of Italy; and I pay her the tribute of homage which is her due and which I well know that you will render with me, for you of all nations are qualified to do so.
Italy had no treaty except with our enemies. Her first act of justice, when confronted with an iniquitous aggression, was to discard this treaty, which was about to draw her into a crime which she had the courage to judge and condemn from the outset, while her former allies were still in the full flush of a might that seemed unshakable. After this verdict, which was worthy of the land where justice first saw the light, she found herself free; she now owed no obligations to any one. There was nothing left to compel her to rush into this carnage, which she could contemplate calmly from the vantage of her delightful cities; and she had only to wait till the twelfth hour to gather its first fruits. There was no longer any compact, any written bond, signed by the hands of kings or peoples, that could involve her destiny. But now, at the spectacle, unforeseen and daily more abominable and disconcerting, of the barbarian invasion, words half-effaced and secret treaties written by unknown hands on the souls and consciences of all men revealed themselves and slowly gathered life and radiance. To some extent I was a witness of these things; and I was able, so to speak, to follow with my eyes the awakening and the irresistible promulgation of those great and mysterious laws of justice, pity and love which are higher and more imperishable than all those which we have engraved in marble or bronze. With the increase of the crimes, the power of these laws increased and extended. We may regard the intervention of Italy in many ways. Like every human action and, above all, like every political action, it is due to a thousand causes, many of which are trifling. Among them we may see the legitimate hatred and the eternal resentment felt towards an hereditary enemy. We may discover an interested intention to take part, without too much risk, in a victory already certain and in its previously allotted spoils. We may see in it anything that we please: the resolves of men contain factors of all kinds; but we must pity those who are able to consider none but the meaner sides of the matter, for these are the only sides which never count and which are always deceptive. To find the real and lasting truth, we must learn to view the great masses and the great feelings of mankind from above. It is in them and in their great and simple movements that the will of the soul and of destiny is asserted, for these two form the eternal substance of a people. And, in the present case, the movement of the great masses and the great feelings of the people took the form of an immense impulse of sympathy and indignation, which gradually increased, penetrating farther and farther into the popular strata and gathering volume as it progressed, until it urged a whole nation to assume the burden of a war which it knew to be crushing and merciless, a war which each of those who called for it knew to be a war which he himself must wage, with his own hands, with his own body, a war which would wrest him from the pleasant ways of peace, from his labours and his comforts, which would weigh terribly upon all those whom he loved, which would expose him for weeks, perhaps for months, to incredible sufferings and which meant almost certain death to a third or a half of those who demanded the right to brave it. And all this, I repeat, occurred without any material necessity, from no other motive than a fine sense of honour and a magnificent surge of admiration and pity for a small foreign nation that was being unjustly martyred. We cannot repeat it too often: here, as in the case of the sacrifice which Belgium and England offered to the ideal honour, is a new and unprecedented fact in history.
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