I ONCE knew an old Italian painter, a Roman Republican, who had fought for Italian Unity and lived to see it accomplished. Yet, when one spoke of the success of the .Risorgimento, and the great achievements of the new Italy in every high branch of human endeavour, the old man frowned. He was dissatisfied ; the cabals, the politicians, the slipshod management of public works, the absorption of the people in money-getting and petty cares. . . . ” But all this,” we told him, ” could be said, and is said, against every country in the world. Are you disappointed because Italy has a King instead of a Republic ? ” ” No,” he said. ” We have a King who is much too good for us. It is that we have not suffered enough.” ” Not suffered ? But you were talking just now of the hardship of the peasants’ lives, of the heavy taxes. . . .” ” That is not what I call suffering,” he would answer. ” We suffered under the Austrians and the Bourbons ; we suffered in the long struggle for our freedom. But it was not enough to purify us. We are a materialist nation ; a materialist nation, like all the others ! . . . Taxes, earthquakes, poverty, quarrelling among ourselves all that is no good. We need more suffering of the old Risorgimento sort, suffering for a Cause, where each man works and dies, not for him-self, but for Italy and Humanity.”
I like to think how my friend’s severe old face would have softened and lit up if he had lived to see the doings of 1915. If he could have seen Italy standing for a time at the cross-roads, with every excuse for remaining passive for ever ; and then, deliberately and almost with one voice, deciding, in spite of all obstacles, for the road of sacrifice which is also the road of honour. On one side lay ease and comfort, material advantage and apparent safety, or at least a long postponement of the time of peril. It needed only that Italy should forget her ideals and be content, let freedom and public faith be destroyed to right and to left of her, and then, when all was safe, make friends with the conqueror. And on the other side lay every sort of danger, every hardship and suffering and the certainty of deaths innumerable, a long struggle and a doubtful issue ; only, whatever the end might be, Italy would stand in her true place among the great nations ; the sons and the mothers of Italy would have given their lives and their hearts to a cause greater than themselves.
The world in these years is deciding a tremendous issue, and no one yet knows which side will prevail. It is not merely one nation against another ; it is one religion against another. For the salvation of Germany herself, or what is best in her, depends on the victory of her enemies. The end must be either the establishment of common freedom for all nations, of good faith and honesty and human kindliness, and all that we have hitherto considered holy among men ; or else of a new form of Evil enthroned, a new tyranny such as humanity has never seen, the rule of the war-machine and the poison-gas, and of men who make it part of their ideal to be as inhuman as the one and as treacherous as the other.
Almost all nations know by this time what the issue is. Some, no doubt, for reasons good or bad, still hesitate. Their weakness, their exposed position, their mixed population, or their peculiar scruples, lead them still to remain outside the conflict, to forgive offences against themselves, and condone crimes against others, in the hope of pre-serving amiable relations with both sides. They are the best judges in their own case, and we wish them all prosperity. Let them by all means pre-serve their safety if they cannot also preserve their full honour. But for Italy there was only one road, and that a hard and uphill road, if she was to be her true self, the Italy of Garibaldi and Mazzini and Victor Emmanuel, of Dante and Virgil ; the MAGNA PARENS VIRUM ; the Torchbearer of nations, who awakened the modern world from its slumber and keeps alive the great beacon of republican Rome. It is the road of sacrifice and of freedom ; may it be also the road of victory !