The Wrack of the Storm Part 5

A hundred years ago, under Napoleon, France enjoyed her spell of hegemony, which she was not able to prolong because this hegemony was more the work of a prodigious but accidental genius than the fruit of a real and intrinsic power. Next came the turn of England, who to-day possesses the greatest empire that the world has seen since the days of ancient Rome, that is to say, more than a fifth part of the habitable globe. But this vast empire rests no more than did Napoleon's upon an incontestible force, inasmuch as up to this day it was defended only by an army less numerous and less well-equipped than that of many a smaller nation, thus almost inevitably inviting war, as Professor Cramb pointed out a year or two ago in his prophetic book, _Germany and England_, which has only recently aroused the interest which it deserves.

It seemed, therefore, as if between these two Powers, which were more illusory than real, pending the advent of Russia, whose hour had not yet struck; in this gap in history, between a nation on the verge of its decline, or at least seemingly incapable of defending itself, and a nation that was still too young and incapable of attack, fate offered a magnificent place to whoso cared to take it. This is what Germany felt, at first instinctively, urged by all the ill-defined forces that impel mankind, and subsequently, in these latter years, with a consciousness that became ever clearer and more persistent. She grasped the fact that her turn had come to reign over the earth, that she must take her chance and seize the opportunity that comes but once. She prepared to answer the call of fate and, supported by the mysterious aid which it lends to those whom it summons, she did answer, we must admit, in an astonishing and most formidable manner.

She was within a hair's breadth of succeeding. A little less prolonged and less gallant resistance on the part of Belgium, a suspicious movement from Italy, a false step made upon the banks of the Marne; and we can picture Paris falling; France overrun and fighting heroically to her last gasp; Russia, not crushed, but weary of seeking victory and making terms for good or ill with a conqueror impotent to harm her; the neutral nations more or less reluctantly siding with the strongest; England isolated, giving up her colonies to staunch the wounds of her invaded isle; the fasces of justice broken asunder by a separate peace here, a separate peace there, each equally humiliating; and Germany, monstrous, ferocious, implacable, finally towering alone over the ruins of Europe.


Now it seems that we have turned aside the inflexible decree. It seems that we have averted the fate that was about to be accomplished. It was bearing down upon us with the weight of the ages, with all the weight of all the vague but irresistible aspirations of the past and, perhaps, the future. Thanks to the greatest effort which mankind has ever opposed to the unknown gods that rule it, we are entitled to believe that the decree has broken down and that we have driven it into the evil cave where never human force before had compelled it to hide its defeat.

I say, "It seems;" I say, "We are entitled to believe." The fact is that the ordeal is not yet past. Even on the day when the war is ended and when victory is in our hands, destiny will not yet be conquered.

It has happened--seldom, it is true, but still it has happened twice or thrice--that a nation has compelled the course of fate to turn aside or to fall back. The nation congratulated herself, even as we believe that we have the right to do. But events were not slow in proving that she had congratulated herself too soon. Fatality, that is to say, the enormous mass of causes and effects of which we have no understanding, was not overcome; it was only delayed, it awaited its revenge and its day, or at least what we call its day, which may extend over a hundred years and more where nations are concerned, for fatality does not reckon in the manner of men, but after the fashion of the great movements of nature. It is important at this time to know whether we shall be able to escape that revenge and that day. If men and nations were swayed only by reason, if, after being so often the absolute masters of their happiness and their future, they had not so often destroyed that which they had just achieved, then we might say--and indeed ought to say--that our escape depends only upon ourselves. In point of fact, three-quarters of the risk are run and the fourth is in our power; we have only to keep it so. Almost all the chances of the fight are on our side at last; and, when the war is over, there will be nothing but our wisdom and our will confronting a destiny which from that time onward will be powerless to take its course, unless it first succeed in blinding and perverting them.

In this hour all that lies hidden under that mysterious word will be waiting on our decision, waiting to know if victory is with us or with it. It is after we have won that we must really vanquish; it is in the hour of peace that the actual war will begin against an invisible foe, a hundred times as dangerous as the one of whom we have seen too much.

If at that hour we do not profit by all our advantages; if we do not destroy, root and branch, the military power of an enemy who is in secret alliance with the evil influences of the earth; if we do not here and now, by an irrevocable compact, forearm ourselves against our sense of pity and generosity, our weakness, our imprudence, our future rivalries and discords; if we leave a single outlet to the beast at bay; if, through our negligence, we give it a single hope, a single opportunity of coming to the surface and taking breath, then the vigilant fatality which has but one fixed idea will resume its progress and pursue its way, dragging history with it and laughing over its shoulder at man once more tricked and discomfited. Everything that we have done and suffered, the ruins, the sacrifices, the nameless tortures and the numberless dead, will have served no purpose and will be lost beyond redemption. Everything will not have to be done over again, for nothing is ever done over again and fortunate opportunities do not occur twice; but everything except our woes and all their consequences will be as though it had never been.


It will therefore be a matter of holding our own against the enemy whom we do not see and mastering him until the turn or chance of the accursed race is past. How long will that be? We cannot tell; but, in the swift-moving history of to-day, it seems probable that the waiting and the struggle will be much shorter than they would have been in former times. Is it possible that fatality--by which I mean what perhaps for a moment was the unacknowledged desire of the planet--shall not regain the upper hand? At the stage which man has reached, I hope and believe so. He had never conquered it before; but also he had not yet risen to the height which he has now attained.

There is no reason why that which has never happened should not take place one day; and everything seems to tell us that man is approaching the day whereon, seizing the most glorious opportunity that has ever presented itself since he acquired a consciousness, he will at last learn that he is able, when he pleases, to control his whole fate in this world.





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-fete 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 itself, 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 Destree, 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 the 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 antennae. 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 hall. 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 of 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. Destree 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 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 some famous wine; then one among them would come forward, requesting, gracefully and respectfully, that we would do them the 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.





At moments above all when history is in the making, in these times when great and as yet incomplete pages are being traced, pages by the side of which all that had already been written will pale, it is a good and salutary thing to turn to the past in search of instruction, warning and encouragement. In this respect, the unwearying and implacable war which Athens kept up against Sparta for twenty-seven years, with the hegemony of Greece for a stake, presents more than one analogy with that which we ourselves are waging and teaches lessons that should make us reflect. The counsels which it gives us are all the more precious, all the more striking or profound inasmuch as the war is narrated to us by a man who remains, with Tacitus, despite the striving of the centuries, the progress of life and all the opportunities of doing better, the greatest historian that the earth has ever known. Thucydides is in fact the supreme historian, at the same time swift and detailed, scrupulously sifting his evidence but giving free play to intuition, setting forth none but incontestable facts, yet divining the most secret intentions and embracing at a glance all the present and future political consequences of the events which he relates. He is withal one of the most perfect writers, one of the most admirable artists in the literature of mankind; and from this point of view, in an entirely different and almost antagonistic world, he has not an equal save Tacitus. But Tacitus is before everything a wonderful tragic poet, a painter of foul abysses, of fire and blood, who can lay bare the souls of monsters and their crimes, whereas Thucydides is above all a great political moralist, a statesman endowed with extraordinary perspicacity, a painter of the open air and of a free state, who portrays the minds of those sane, ingenious, subtle, generous and marvellously intelligent men who peopled ancient Greece. The one piles on the gloom with a lavish hand, gathers dark shadows which he pierces at each sentence with lightning flashes, but remains sombre and oppressed on the very summits, whereas the other condenses nothing but light, groups together judgments that are so many radiant sheaves and remains luminous and breathes freely in the very depths. The first is passionate, violent, fierce, indignant, bitter, sincerely but pitilessly unjust and all made up of magnificent animosities; the second is always even, always at the same high level, which is that which the noblest endeavour of human reason can attain.

He has no passion but a passion for the public weal, for justice, glory and intelligence. It is as though all his work were spread out in the blue sky; and even his famous picture of the plague of Athens seems covered with sunshine.


But there is no need to follow up this parallel, which is not my object. I will not dwell any longer--though perhaps I may return to them one day--upon the lessons which we might derive from that Peloponnesian War, in which the position of Athens towards Lacedaemon provides more than one point of comparison with that of France towards Germany. True, we do not there see, as in our own case, civilized nations fighting a morally barbarian people: it was a contest between Greeks and Greeks, displaying however in the same physical race two different and incompatible spirits. Athens stood for human life in its happiest development, gracious, cheerful and peaceful. She took no serious interest except in the happiness, the imponderous riches, the innocent and perfect beauties, the sweet leisures, the glories and the arts of peace. When she went to war, it was as though in play, with the smile still on her face, looking upon it as a more violent pleasure than the rest, or as a duty joyfully accepted. She bound herself down to no discipline, she was never ready, she improvised everything at the last moment, having, as Pericles said, "with habits not of labour but of ease and courage not of art but of nature, the double advantage of escaping the experience of hardship in anticipation and of facing them in the hour of need as fearlessly as those who are never free from them."[5]

For Sparta, on the other hand, life was nothing but endless work, an incessant strain, having no other objective than war. She was gloomy, austere, strict, morose, almost ascetic, an enemy to everything that excuses man's presence on this earth, a nation of spoilers, looters, incendiaries and devastators, a nest of wasps beside a swarm of bees, a perpetual menace and danger to everything around her, as hard upon herself as upon others and boasting an ideal which may appear lofty, if it can be man's ideal to be unhappy and the contented slave of unrelenting discipline. On the other hand, she differed entirely from those whom we are now fighting in that she was generally honest, loyal and upright and showed a certain respect for the gods and their temples, for treaties and for international law. It is none the less true that, if she had from the beginning reigned alone or without encountering a long resistance, Hellas would never have been the Hellas that we know. She would have left in history but a precarious trace of useless warlike virtues and of minor combats without glory; and mankind would not have possessed that centre of light towards which it turns to this day.


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