Letter To An Italian Friend
( Originally Published 1916 )
DEAR AND EXCELLENT PRESIDENT,—You have surely felt, in these historic days, how my thoughts fly straight to you with inexpressible eagerness. Our French country-side, seemingly silent for ten months, and which appeared never to have thought of celebrating the victory of the Marne, was stirred yesterday to the full depths of its being ; and our most remote villages were bright with a thousand flags displaying the colours of Italy.
I wish I were a poet, so that I might fitly tell you, dear friends of Assisi, what manner of joy has been given us now by your noble and great country.
From many an old man of our Cevennes I have felt the satisfaction, simple and natural, which comes to those who, after the supreme sacrifice they have made in the giving up of their well-beloved sons after concentrating their energies in this one supreme effort at last see arising to fight the same battles a new army, young, beautiful, alive with enthusiasm. But this material aid is far from being all that we owe you. And here I fear that my tongue will falter when I try to tell you what I feel so deeply in my own heart, and what I feel so profoundly moving the hearts of so many others.
In this war, which the people of France had thought impossible, and to which they found themselves called without a moment's warning, they have shown an energy surprising to themselves, a strength of which no one knew them capable, in their devotion to an ideal or, better still, to the greatest of ideals.
To themselves they seem to stand for moral effort, for the living soul, for the very spirit of creation threatened by material, brute force. They have fought instinctively with unconquerable faith, without a thought of whether, for the moment, successes shall come or repulses.
The firmness of their faith, their clear and distinct perception of duty have nothing to do with mere circumstance. Yet how their ardour flames anew, when they see other peoples answer the call of the same ideal !
They had never really doubted that victory must be theirs in the end, for such a doubt would have been a suicide of the spirit ; but between this mystic certitude of triumph and its actual achievement hard, even though it be not far away there is a road to travel.
Today we owe to you, friends and brothers of Italy, the swift, sure sense that we have almost accomplished the journey. All this may seem complex ; but I am sure that we understand one another. A few months ago, in an outburst of horror at the atrocities of which the story had come to you, and of pity for the thousands on thousands of innocent sufferers, you longed for peace, and tried hard to preserve it. And today this war is yours, too, just as it was ours.
Or rather, you have made it yours. We were forced into it. Nothing in the world could have spared us this trial except treason, or base submission. You, on the other hand, have made it yours by a deliberate act of your national will, in which your whole nation has joined together. Through more than nine months you saw, day by day, what it costs to make a stand against the onslaught of Germany. Two grandsons of Garibaldi, and with them a swarm of your fellow-countrymen, have already fallen there, in the Argonne, deathless heroes for whom every honest heart in the whole world has woven a wreath. Their living fellows in glory, and in battle, have told you what manner of thing the carnage is in modern war.
And here, in this gigantic struggle to the death which you deplored, so little while ago, and did your best to stop, you have yourselves joined with the full vigour of manhood. And in this decision, which at first glance may appear inconsistent with your effort for peace of those few months ago, you feel, I am certain, the joy of a great enfranchisement. If foreigners should read these lines they may perhaps find it strange that true lovers of peace should be glad of a declaration of war.
And, indeed, it is so. It has happened, if we perceive things aright, because Italy has been impelled to this decisive step by mysterious forces, beyond the scope of weighing or of counting, such as in those rare moments of history which are great bring all things crashing down, so that out of the ruin there may be shaped a new era.
It is not that I believe the attempts of diplomacy to have been hollow shams. They were sincere. I, for one, fully recognise the measureless moral and intellectual worth of Sonnino, but between him and his interlocutor, in the very depth of their council-chamber, there swept the spirit of the Latin race. And, at this moment, that spirit of the Latin race has won a victory which shall count among the greatest in its history.
The whole world held its breath, as it waited to see what should happen. The anxiety of France was deepest of all. It had a character all its own ; it was what a young girl might feel, who loves with all her heart, who believes that she is loved, and yet has not heard the word which should let her speak out her love, in all the nobility of its ideal. So she waits ; and in her waiting she is anxious and yet undoubting ; for to her such love as hers seems a part of nature, and of life. It is at once flaming, yet utterly pure ; its inspiration is a noble dream that human beings can work together to-wards an end that shall not be of the flesh.
So, day after day, France cast its eyes on Rome, and on those other cities of yours which count more, each by herself, in the history of mankind than Berlin and Vienna rolled into one. And signs which to others might have meant nothing, made the heart of France beat stronger.
When the bodies of the two Garibaldis left our trenches, France followed them not as one might follow a funeral procession, but as the relics of martyrs are followed who have had the glory and the joy of bearing witness to the truth, and whose death has changed the course of things to come.
The funeral rites of Bruno and of Costante proved that the heart of Italy was beating in unison with the heart of France ; when union of spirits is so close, the rest must follow soon.
Such, dear friends of Assisi, are the feelings which give the diplomatic papers now uniting your country with ours a depth and a scope such as in all the course of the ages no international documents have ever had before.
There has never been a time, to be sure, when any civilised people has been even tempted to regard treaties as scraps of paper. But even the most important diplomatic documents are generally concerned only with material affairs. This time the work of the Chanceries was preceded, was inspired, was controlled, if one may use the term, by an outburst of emotion in which the most vital forces which inspired both of our peoples seemed bound to work together, in harmony with crescent power, until in the end they should rise together to a height whence together they could plan the civilisation of the future.
It is by no mere chance that the Allies Slays, Anglo-Saxons, and Latins who are making in common their great effort to resist mere brute force, have been apt to call their own alliance by the name of Entente, or Understanding. This new term implies that their cohesion is moral, that it is inspired at once by the intellect and by the heart, that material conditions are not the milestones in the road which we mean to travel, and that we shall tread this road together so long as we can see or foresee.
Our watchword, at this moment in which we are starting, hand in hand, on this new path of glory, has in it no tinge of hatred. We abhor the atrocities of the Germans, of their hateful militarism organised with so terrific a system that it seems to have blurred out of its conscience any distinction between good and evil. We have shuddered, and had it been possible, we might have been tempted to doubt the being of God and of Truth, when we saw their coarse hypocrisy profane the two noblest forces in humanity religion and science. But our instinctive spirit of hope soon took the lead of us again. We have on our side the deep forces, and the true : those which in the course of history have now and then been threatened for a while, but which through all troubles and perils have never ceased to struggle forward into ever greater growth : the forces of right, of justice, of freedom, of life, of love.
It is for the triumph of these that we are striving, and not for dreams of bloodshed.
When Germany shall at last be shackled, and put where she can no longer endanger those about her, we shall have duties towards her. We do not abandon those who are possessed of devils, nor the mad, however dangerous they be, but after we have placed them where they can do no more harm we watch for the lucid interval wherein we may perhaps reawaken them to consciousness and conscience.
So we shall do for our enemies of to-day, with no undue hope that their cure can come in any short space of time, on our guard against the genius for dissimulation which we know to be a part of madness,
but firmly determined to do for them all which we owe them as fellow-members of the human race.
So this war, more atrocious than any which imagination could have conceived beforehand, takes on, when seen from where we ourselves stand now, the character of a moral crusade.
Forgive me for dwelling so long on what you all know already. I have felt the need of speaking of it to you, of dreaming of it with you, as one dreams of some music, heard every day, yet never cloying, in the notes of which there is exhaustless food for the spirit, for ever old yet for ever new.
And then it must be admitted that all the dangers which threaten us are not on the further side of the lines defended by oursoldiers. German ideas have soaked in everywhere, and here and there our own youth are seduced for the while by the theories of Superman, and of Might makes Right.
By appealing to our most animal passions, Germany has aroused instincts dormant in us all, almost subdued by centuries of civilisation, but still so strong that we must guard against their resurrection. We are almost fatally tempted to meet our enemy on his own ground, and to fight him with his own weapons. Here our patriotism must rise to a height not yet attained by mere humanity, unexampled in the history of the past.
To conquer our foes in battle, to make them sue for terms of peace, is nowise our only duty. When that is crowned with full success, another will be before us, for which we must begin to make ready even now. I mean the strife which we must wage, in our own countries and in our own hearts, against the ideals and the methods of Germany.
Neither the men of God there nor the men of learning can perceive to-day the moral and political enormities to which they have been led by a mistaken notion of the love they owe their Fatherland.
A few generations, during which every artistic, every scientific, and every religious voice has taught untruth to the heads and the hearts of Germany, have sufficed to make that country not only a peril to all its neighbours in Europe, but a moral peril to all civilisation.
That is what we must not forget for a single instant. Even though in the allied countries public opinion still be pure, even though in them patriotism still be consecrated by love of truth and of justice, of right and of liberty, we must ever cherish these germs of idealism in ourselves and in those about us, to the end that on the morrow of this European cataclysm they shall be stronger than ever.
We cannot all do everything, but we can each do his own part, that the glory of God shall shine day by day with new brightness.
We have started to free Servia and Belgium, to redeem Alsace and Lorraine, to revive Poland : in this attempt we have with us all the energies of humanity, not only admiring us and urging us on, but as it were bound to find themselves in communion with our spirit, fellow-workers in that which we shall achieve.
The Entente the Understanding shall grow wider still, and the peace of Europe shall base itself on foundations unknown of old. But if, on the other hand, we yield to the temptation of taking vengeance on our enemies, wielding against them their own weapons, inspiring our own spirits with their methods, making anew countries which shall claim redemption, repeating the story of Alsace, our victory shall be for only a little while, and our peace shall have no security but the sword.
The moral foundations of the Entente of the Understanding must be so stamped in our standards that they shall forbid the joining with us of any who should plan to make use of our moral superiority to limit or to modify the rights and the liberties of others.
It would be terribly dangerous not to realise how vast a task we have undertaken. Neither our children nor our children's children shall see its end. The overthrow of Prussian militarism, the humbling of German pride, will be only the beginning. Then we must go on to determine the causes, to fix the responsibility. Then we shall prove clearly that the crimes which have filled the whole trembling world with amazement and wrath are the natural and immediate results of moral mistakes.
The scientific blindness of those leaders of German criticism and science who signed the manifesto of the Ninety-three, the want of any gleam of conscience, of pity, or of love among their cardinals and bishops, as well as among their salaried Protestant clergy, who have calmly looked on at massacres and sacrileges too horrible for words, all spring from the error which makes a deity of the Fatherland, and sees in its interests, even of the most earthly kind, a supreme end to strive for. These German pitfalls will endanger all peoples, but most of all ourselves, now at war, when the time shall come for us pitifully to care for our own countries, and to do what we may to heal their wounds.
If after victory on the field of battle, we fail to win spiritual victory, and to place ideals where they truly should be, the heroism of our soldiers will have done no more than postpone our own catastrophe for a few years.
The worship of might and of matter which Germany has erected into a State religion has left no nation quite free from its allurements. Since we are all now arisen together to oppose its triumphal progress, let us be well aware of the gigantic task we are called on to do. At this moment we embody the rise of all humanity toward truth and holiness ; and all the strivings, all the fervours, all the hopes which leaped in the heart of Francis of Assisi should leap in ours.
The mission imposed on us is to rebuild the temple of the ideals which are everlasting : " Vade, Francisce, et repara domum meam quae tota, ut cernis, destruitur."
In this work, which shall consist neither in destroying the past nor in restoring it, but in fulfilling it and in giving to the new moral and spiritual civilisation a strength comparable with that already achieved in material things, the chosen people of the whole world must work together. Yet you will not find it strange, I hope, if the other members of the Entente of the Understanding turn themselves in full faith towards Italy, reminding themselves that Italy is the classic land not only of art and of sunshine, but equally of saintliness.
And we lovers of the spirit of Francis from beyond the Alps, we who are your brethren and your grateful admirers, we even more than our fellow-countrymen — are certain that the soil of Umbria has not lost its richness, and that the land which gave the world Saint Benedict, Saint Francis, Saint Clara, Brother Giles, Brother Leo, and so many more, shall give birth still to devotees of the great ideal, in following whose footsteps we may breathe out the words : " Rorate, coeli, desuper et nubes pluant justum."
It will be pleasant to think, dear friends of Assisi, that this too long letter of mine will not vex you, and that it may seem to you not too unworthy of a reading on that sacred soil where the Patriarch of Christian Democracy was born, the forerunner of a new dispensation. I have not come to speak in your midst in this most solemn of times, for I am persuaded that you, fellow-citizens of the greatest of all the refreshers of the soul who have come into being since Christ, have already under-stood the vastness of the account to which the new Europe shall be called ; and that the little city, whereof Dante sung, shall bring to pass the prophecy of the deathless poet :
"... Chi d' esso loco fa parole non dica Ascesi, the direbbe corto, ma Oriente, se proprio dir vuole."
Your most loving and happy fellow-citizen,
Translated by Professor Barrett Wendell.