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A FEW days before Italy formed her great resolve, the following lines appeared in one of the leading Pangermanic organs of the peoples beyond the Rhine, the Kreuzzeitung:
“We have already observed that it will not do to be too optimistic as to Italy’s decision; in point of fact, the situation is very serious. If none but moderate considerations had ruled Italy’s intentions, there is little doubt as to which path she would choose; but we know the height which the wave of Germanophobia has attained in that country, a significant mark of the Popular sentiment being the declaration of the Italian Socialists upon the reasons of their inability to oppose the war. An equal source of danger is the fact that the government feels that it no longer controls the current of public opinion.”
The whole drama of Italian intervention is summed up in these lines, which explain it better than would the longest and most learned commentaries.
The Italian government, restrained by a politic wisdom and prudence, excessive, perhaps, but very excusable, did not wish for war. To the utmost limits of patience, until its dignity and its sense of security could bear no more, it did all that could be done to spare its people the greatest calamity that can befall a land. It held out until it was literally submerged and carried away by the flood of Germanophobia of which the passage which I have quoted speaks. I witnessed the rising of this flood. When I arrived in Milan, at the end of November, 1914, to speak a few sentences at a charity-fête organized for the benefit of the Belgian refugees, the hatred of Germany was already storing itself up in men’s hearts, but had not as yet come to the surface. Here and there it did break out, but it was still fearful, circumspect and hesitating. One felt it brewing, seething in the depths of men’s souls, but it seemed as yet to be feeling its way, to be reckoning itself up, to be painfully attaining self-consciousness. When I returned to Italy in March, 1915, I was amazed to behold the unhoped for height to which the invading flood had so swiftly risen. That pious hatred, that necessary hatred, which in this case is merely a magnificent passion for justice and humanity, had swept over everything. It had come out into the full sunlight; it thrilled and quivered at the least appeal, proud and happy to assert self, to manifest itself with the beautiful tumultuous ostentation of the South; and it was the “neutrals” that now hid themselves after the manner of unspeakable insects. That species had all but disappeared, annihilated by the storm that was gathering on every hand. The Germans themselves had gone to earth, no one knew where; and from that moment it was certain that war was imminent and inevitable.
In the space of three months a stupendous work had been accomplished. It is impossible for the moment to weigh and determine the part of each of those who performed it. But we can even now say that in Italy, which is governed preeminently by public opinion and which, more than any other nation, has in its blood the traditions and the habits of the forum and the ancient republics, it is above all the spoken word that changes men’s hearts and urges them to action.
From this point of view, the admirable campaign of agitation and propaganda undertaken by M. Jules Destrée, author of En Italie, was of an importance and possessed consequences which are beyond comparison with anything else accomplished and which are difficult to realize by those who were not present at one or other of the meetings at which, for more than six months, indefatigably, travelling from town to town, from the smallest to the most populous, he uttered the distressful complaint of martyred Belgium, unveiling he lies, the felonies, the monstrosities and the acts of devastation perpetrated by the barbarian horde and making heard, with sovran eloquence, the august voice of outraged justice and of baffled right.
I heard him more than once and was able to judge for myself of the magical effect—the term is by no means too strong—which he produced on the Italian crowd. It was a magnificent spectacle, which I shall never forget. I then perceived for the first time in my life the mysterious, incantatory, supernatural powers of great eloquence.
He would come forward wearing a languid, dejected and overburdened air. The crowd, like all crowds awaiting their master, sat thronged at his feet, silently humming, undecided, unshaped, not yet knowing what it wanted or intended. He would begin; his voice was low, leisurely, almost hesitating; he seemed to be painfully searching for his ideas and expressions, but in reality he was feeling for the sensitive and magnetic points of the huge and unknown being whose soul he wished to reach. At the outset it was evident that he did not know exactly what he was going to say. He swept his words across the assembly as though they had been antennæ.
They came back to him charged with sympathy and strength and precise information. Then his delivery became more rapid, his body drew itself erect, his stature and his very size increased. His voice grew fuller; it became tremendous, seductive or sarcastic, overwhelming like a hurricane all the ideas of his audience, beating against the walls of the largest buildings, flowing, through the doors and windows, out into the surging streets, there to kindle the ardour and hatred which already thrilled the hail. His face—tawny, brutal, ravaged, furrowed with shade and slashed with light, powerful and magnificent in its ugliness—became the very mask, the visible symbol 1 the furious and generous passions of the crowd. At moments such as this, he truly merited the name which I heard those about me murmuring, the name which the Italians gave him in that kind of helpless fear and delight which men feel in the presence of an irresistible force: he was “the Terrible Orator.”
But all this power, which seemed so blindly released, was in reality extremely circumspect, extremely subtle and marvellously disciplined. The handling of those shy though excited crowds called for the utmost prudence, as a certain French speaker, whom I will not name, but who wished to make a like attempt, learnt to his cost. The Italian is generous, courteous, hospitable, expansive and enthusiastic, but also proud and susceptible. He does not readily allow another to dictate his conduct, to reproach him with his shortcomings or to offer him advice. He is conscious of his own worth; he knows that he is the eldest son of our civilization and that no one has the right to patronize him. It is necessary, therefore, beneath the appearance of the most fiery and unbridled eloquence, to observe perfect self-mastery, combined with infinite tact and discretion. It is often essential to divine instantaneously the temper of the crowd, to bow before the most varied and unexpected circumstances and to profit by them. I remember, among others, a singularly prickly meeting at Naples. The Neapolitans are hardly warlike people; but they none the less felt on this occasion that they must not appear indifferent to the generous movement which was thrilling the rest of Italy. At the last moment, we were warned that we might speak of Belgium and her misfortunes, but that any too pointed allusion to the war, any too violent attack upon the Teutonic bandits would arouse protests which might injure our cause. I, being no orator, had only my poor written speech, which, as I could not alter it, became dangerous. It was necessary to prepare the ground. Destrée mounted the platform and, in a masterly improvisation, began by establishing a long, patient and scholarly parallel between Flemish and Italian art, between the great painters of Florence and Venice and those of Flanders and Brabant; and thence, by imperceptible degrees, he shifted his ground to the present distress in Belgium, to the atrocities and infamies committed by her oppressors, to the whole story, to the whole series of injustices, to the whole danger of this nameless war. He was applauded; the barriers were broken down. Anything added to what he had said was superfluous; but everything was permissible.
For the rest, it must be admitted that a wonderful impulse of pity and admiration for Belgium sustained the orator and lent his every word a range and a potency which it could not otherwise have possessed. This unanimous and spontaneous sympathy assumed at times the most touching and unexpected forms. All difficulties were smoothed away before us as if by magic; the sternest prohibitions were ingeniously evaded or benevolently removed. From the towns which we were due to visit the hotel-keepers telegraphed to us, begging as a favour permission to give us lodging; and, when the time came to settle our account, it was impossible to get them to accept the slightest remuneration; and the whole staff, from the majestic porter to the humblest boot-boy, heroically refused to be tipped. If we entered a restaurant and were recognized, the customers would rise, take counsel together and order a bottle of famous wine; then one among them would come forward, requesting, gracefully and respectfully, that we would do them honour of drinking with them to the deliverance of our martyred motherland. At the memory of what that unhappy country had suffered for the salvation of the world, a sort of discreet and affecting fervour was visible in the looks of all; it may be said that nowhere was the heroic sacrifice of Belgium more nobly and more affectionately admired and understood; and it will be recognized one day, when time has done its work, that, although other causes induced Italy to take upon her shoulders the terrible burden of what was not an inevitable war, the only causes that really, in the depths of her soul, liberated her resolve were the admiration, the indignation and the heroic pity inspired by the spectacle, incessantly renewed, of our unmerited afflictions. You will not find in history a nobler sacrifice nor one made for a nobler cause.
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