Some Causes of the Italian Crisis

FROM time to time we have been told — and most frequently during the past few months — that Italy is on the verge of ruin. "Ruin ” is a superlative term to apply to a nation ; certainly to apply to Italy, who has demonstrated again and again in the course of a thousand years that she is endowed with marvelous vsitality. A country like Poland could, indeed, sink into ruin ; but between the conditions which wrecked Poland and those which now threaten Italy there run differences vast and fundamental. Italy is the Aaron’s rod among the peoples: when stripped bare and dry, suddenly she buds again, and puts forth a new generation of efficient, strong, intensely alive children. Her present crisis is interesting not only on its own account, but also because it illustrates principles to which other nations, and Americans as much as any, should give heed.

During the past fifty years Italy has passed through one stage of development, and has been passing through another. The former, which we may call the heroic period, ended in 1870, when Victor Emmanuel entered Rome and completed the geographical and political unity of the country ; the latter stage, which embraces the four-and-twenty years since 1870, we may call the economic period. During the heroic period, which required great sacrifices, the abnegation of local partisanskip, the creation of an army of devoted soldiers out of downtrodden citizens, and the guidance of strong but subtle statesmanship, the Italians had proved equal to all demands. On Austrian or Bourbon scaffolds, in Austrian or Bourbon prisons, they had endured with the fortitude of martyrs ; and when the time came for action, they had fought and died like heroes on many battlefields. Thanks to the assistance of France in 1859, thanks to Garibaldi’s epic expedition in 1860, thanks to a wise alliance with Prussia in 1866, they had redeemed the whole peninsula except Rome ; and Rome herself welcomed them on September 20, 1870, when the French garrison was withdrawn.

Then opened a new epoch. Italy now stood before the world as a nation of twenty-five million inhabitants, her frontiers well defined, her needs very evident. Nevertheless, if her national existence was to be more than a name, she must have discipline in self-government, and she must as quickly as possible acquire the tools and methods of the civilization prevailing among those nations into whose company her victories had raised her. Two thirds of her people lagged behind the Western world not only in material inventions, but in education and civic training. Railroads and telegraphs, the wider application of steam to industries, schools, courts, the police, had all to be provided, and provided quickly. Improvements which England and France had added gradually and paid for gradually, Italy had to organize and pay for in a few years. Hence a levying of heavy taxes, and exorbitant borrowing from the future in the public debt. Not only this, but ancient traditions, the memories of feuds between town and town, had to be obliterated ; the people had to be made truly one people, so that Venetians, or Neapolitans, or Sicilians should each feel that they were first of all Italians. National uniformity must supplant provincial peculiarity; there must be one language, one code of laws, one common interest; in a word, the new nation must be Italianized.

The ease and rapidity with which the Italians have progressed in all these respects have no parallel in modern times. Though immense the undertaking, they have, in performing it, revealed an adaptability to new conditions, a power of transformation, which are among the most remarkable characteristics of their race, and the strongest proofs that ruin will not now engulf them. Only a race incapable of readjusting itself need despair.

Happy had Italy been if, undistracted by temptation, she had pursued the plain course before her; still happy, had she resisted such temptation. But nations, like individuals, are not made all of one piece: they, too, acknowledge the better reason, but follow the worse ; they, too, through pride or vanity or passion, often forfeit the winnings from years of toil. In 1870, Italy’s well-wishers would have said to her: “ Your task, for at least twenty years, must be to build up your home. You must make character ; you must educate ; you must economize ; you must fuse these provinces into one organism ; you must cause laws to be respected. If the thirst for glory beset you, resist it; shun pomp ; live soberly, and you will be strong. With strength, aught else that may be necessary will come.”

Many things conspired to prevent Italy from following such advice : chief among these we may place national vanity. To appreciate the force of the temptation, we must remember that the Italians had been bereft of civic life, the laughing-stock of Europe for many generations. That experience made them all the more sensitive to any slight, or to any hint, however baseless, that their national existence was as yet only tentative. They felt that, having become a nation, they must imitate their neighbors, cost what it would. To what end all the previous sacrifices and wars, if Italy should not now, being admitted to the circle of the great powers, exercise her influence in the same way that they exercise theirs ? How could Italy convince the world that she was of more importance now than in the old days of servitude, if her army and navy were small, and if her statesmen did not play the game of diplomacy with the statesmen of France and Germany ? It might be well enough to bid her concentrate her attention upon internal affairs, but there must be something more interesting and dramatic than these to satisfy a people who had been kindled to a high pitch of enthusiasm by a war of independence, the achievement of which had but stimulated their ambition. Purely economic questions concerning taxes and tariffs, or questions of government and administration, seemed chill and sordid, compared with the patriotic cause which had so recently claimed a life-and-death devotion. Such questions have never, in any country, taken hold of the enthusiasm of the masses, for they are questions which appeal to the reason, and not to the emotions, and nowhere yet have the masses been taught to reason ; rather have they, by the treatment of economic matters emotionally, retarded a rational settlement of them. So long as an Austrian lingered in Venice, so long as Bomba’s soldiery swaggered in Naples, every Italian who yearned for his country’s independence knew what must be done: the task then was concrete, embodied in a blond-bearded oppressor. Very different was the present task, — a dealing with abstractions, which could not, by any magic of the imagination, be embodied in living persons. Whether the grist tax should be three soldi or four, was it advisable to increase the debt in order to construct a railroad,—these were concerns for the economists, not causes to lay down one’s life for. No wonder that they seemed peculiarly commonplace to a people who, in the heat of their heroic struggle, had supposed that in united and free Italy the humdrum details of national life from day to day would present no difficulties. In America we have had a similar experience. Have not thirty years of contest with the products of the Rebellion taught us that while the holiest of wars calls out some of the noblest virtues, it also engenders peculiar and obstinate vices which flourish with the return of peace ?

Little could it be expected, therefore, that Italians would content themselves with a national life restricted to the building up of internal strength and to the practice of unheroic economy, — unheroic except to a few wise watchers. In any community there is only here and there a philosopher who so orders his life ; a nation of philosophers has never existed. Italy was recognized as a great power by her neighbors, and she willingly persuaded herself that it washer duty to do what they did. In this civilized age, the first requisite of a great power is a large standing army. Not by preeminence in literature or arts or industries, not by public integrity and private morals, shall you determine the rank of a European nation to-day, but by the number of its soldiers ; by the success, that is, with which it withdraws its sons from loom and plough and workshop, to be, during the best years of their lives, converted into machines for loading and firing rifles. Doubtless they derive good from the training, but for every ounce of good they spend a pound of better. National existence is worth even that prodigious sacrifice; what makes the sacrifice supremely tragic is the fact that it is unnecessary. That the foremost nations of Europe should live side by side not otherwise than hostile tribes of scalp - hunting Iroquois once lived will some day seem incredible.

A large standing army being the first condition of ranking among the great powers, Italy set about preparing one. During her struggle for independence, before 1870, her plain duty had been to make as many as possible of her sons into soldiers to drive out her oppressors ; but, having attained her end, that duty ceased. Thenceforth she could use a great army for only one of two purposes, attack or defense. As to the former, she could legitimately entertain no designs. Her territory, except a few outlying and comparatively unimportant districts in Ticino, Tyrol, and Istria, had reached its natural frontiers. Only hotheads could propose to stake the solidarity of the newly formed kingdom on the chance of winning any, or all, of those “ unredeemed ” provinces. Conquest beyond the Alps was out of the question. Victor Emmanuel indulged in no dreams of aggrandizement; even he realized that Nice and his ancestral Duchy of Savoy lay outside of the logical boundaries of Italy. Since, therefore, no adequate reason existed for employing a great army on the offensive, we must assume that she needed it for defense; and this implies that she was threatened, or believed herself to be threatened, with attack by her neighbors.

The only neighbors who could assail her by land were France, Switzerland, and Austria. No one pretended that Switzerland could, if so disposed, give her any trouble : what was the danger from the others ? At first it seems as if Austria, whether from her position or her hereditary policy, justified Italian apprehension. Her troops could with ease cross the stream which separated Istria from Venetia, and afforded no strong line of defense ; and it might further he apprehended that she would seize the first opportunity to recover the rich provinces she had lost in 1866. But the truth is that the Franco-Prussian war had closed one epoch of European international combinations, and had opened a new epoch. That war not only completed the unification of Italy and Germany, but also, in promoting Germany into the first place, it necessitated a readjustment of Austria’s aspirations : the empire of the Hapsburgs would be more than compensated in the Balkan Peninsula for its losses on the Po. Manifest destiny — that imaginary sanctifier of national rapacity — seemed to designate Austria as the receiver of the property of the bankrupt Sultan, or at least of those provinces contiguous to Austria’s Danubian possessions. Salonica, as a seaport of great possibilities, beckoned from afar. Tbe substitution of the Balkan States for Venetia, as a field in which Austria might appease her landhunger, offered, therefore, a fair outlook to Italy on that side ; she had, moreover, a stronger reason for believing herself secure. The events of 1870—71 had forced Austria to see that her interests must henceforth be regulated by those of Germany. For seventy years Austria and Prussia had competed for the hegemony of the Teutonic race ; Prussia had at length, and conclusively, triumphed. The Hapsburg dynasty was German : the Austrian capital and the minority, but the dominant minority, of the Austrian Empire were German, Whatever difference or conflict there might he in the mutual interests of Austria and Germany, those two empires, as Teutonic powers, must hold the same general attitude toward the alien French race on the west and the alien Slavs on the east. Austria especially, with a large body of Slavic subjects already under her sway, and with hopes of further acquisition in the Balkan Peninsula, could expect to form no profitable alliance with Russia, the proclaimed champion of Panslavism. Just so far, therefore, as Austria pursued a Teutonic policy she must coöperate with Germany ; and we do not exaggerate when we say that at no time since 1871 would the politicians at Vienna have been so rash as to embark in any general war unless they had first secured the approval of the statesmen at Berlin.

Accordingly, after 1870, Italy had to fear Austrian aggression only in case Germany should consent to it : the possibility of that consent being given was incalculably small. Germany had no territorial or dynastic reason for envying Italy her independence ; she had been drawn to Italy by the aid rendered in 1866, and although gratitude among nations counts for little, and is but a slight factor compared with revenge or covetousness in determining international combinations, still, in this case, in the absence of stronger motives to the contrary, it stood for something. Bismarck could not be unmindful of the advantage of having in Italy a compact nation in alliance with which he might, if necessary, check any anti-Teutonic vagaries into which the politicians at Vienna might fall through pique or folly or stubbornness. Far greater than these, however, were two reasons for making him not merely indifferent or neutral, but actively friendly toward Italy. From the day when Paris surrendered, he set before him the isolation of France as the foremost purpose of his diplomacy; and with the unexpectedly rapid recuperation of the French, and with their growing thirst for revenge, he labored the more strenuously to thwart them in negotiating any league that might make their passion formidable. As he had already persuaded Austria that her welfare lay with Germany, he had most to fear an alliance of the Latin races, — the French, Italians, and Spaniards, — to frustrate which he had only to win over the Italians. This was not hard to do, for Italy was ready to believe that the French Republicans, smarting under defeat, and realizing that they could not recover Alsace and Lorraine, might seek to recoup themselves by territorial conquest in the valley of the Po ; or that, if the Republic should succumb to a monarchical restoration, the restored Monarchists might interfere in behalf of the reëstablishment of the Pope’s temporal power at Rome. In any event, the presence of a new nation, and a possible enemy, on her southeastern border could not be regarded with pleasure by France ; whereas that same nation, if secured as an ally, must bring corresponding satisfaction to Germany.

Finally, Bismarck was then engaged in a conflict with the Pope, — a renewal in modern fashion of the mediæval struggle between the Church and the Empire, — and the Pope was the internal enemy whom the Italians feared most. For the Pope, through his spiritual arm, might stir up the Catholics throughout the world against them, in his solicitude to recover his temporal power. This was their dread, founded upon centuries of experience with a hierarchy which subtly used its spiritual weapons to advance its temporal interests. It was a legitimate dread, and yet we may well believe that the Italians have overestimated the danger from this source, when we reflect that, in establishing a nation in which temporal concerns were separated from spiritual, they obeyed the inevitable tendency towards the secularization of government which has been operating with greater and greater momentum during the past hundred years. Nevertheless, this consideration was most potent in strengthening the friendship between Germany and Italy.

Sure, therefore, that Germany held France in check on the one side, and Austria on the other; sure, also, that Bismarck would encourage no international combination which looked to the restoration of the Pope at the expense of Italy, the Italians might have spared themselves the burden of a great military establishment. The German army was their best protection, and would be maintained whether they had one or not. Or, if Germany grew cold, they might turn to France and throw their weight with her, to the menace of the Germans. But such an unspectacular policy would not have satisfied public opinion in Italy. Public opinion demanded that she should cut a figure in the world ; and one of the most evident ways by which to cut a figure in the modern European world is to support a large army. If the last French manœuvres were brilliant, would not the average Italian ask why Italy had no manœuvres ? If Germany ordered a new equipment of Krupp guns, would he not ask why she had none? To be in the fashion, to keep pace with one’s neighbors, to be applauded by them for the qualities which they affect, — these are traits which shape the destiny of nations as of men. Anybody suddenly thrust into a society which regarded ability to turn somersaults as the first test of manhood would lose no time in taking a course in gymnastics, although he might still hold privately that somersaults do not exhibit one’s moral and intellectual excellence.

In stating the case thus, I would not make Italy’s foolish conduct seem too irrational. I hope that I have intimated how strong and plausible was the temptation against which she should have nerved herself. Perhaps more than any other European nation she was excusable in desiring to show that her citizens could become soldiers, for she had been taunted time out of mind with her effeminacy, her cowardice. It might be argued, too, that she received a larger dividend in indirect compensation for her capital invested in the army than her neighbors received from theirs. Uniform military service helped to blot out provincial lines and to Italianize all sections ; it also furnished rudimentary education to the vast body of illiterate conscripts. These ends might have been reached at far less cost by direct and natural means ; but this fact should not lessen the credit due to the Italian military system for furthering them.

Tradition, example, national sensitiveness, all conspired in this way to persuade Italy to saddle an immense army on her back. Like many follies, this wore an aspect of expedience, if not of necessity. The taxpayer, chafing under his burdens, discovered a new meaning in the motto “ Noblesse oblige,” or at least he consented to accept that as an undebatable proposition. But a mistaken public policy does not stand still; like a tumor, it grows by encroaching upon the sound parts, its health being proportioned to the sickness of the body on which it fastens. A military system is such a tumor. In Italy, its existence revealed a condition of national character, a tendency to yield to temptation, which rendered it improbable that strength would suddenly be acquired to check the inevitable encroachments of the army. If you train a people to regard military service as their first duty and test of citizenship, if you bestow the highest honors and rewards upon soldiers, you cannot complain when the army dominates national legislation. In Italy, politicians of all parties have shrunk from opposing military encroachments, for fear that their opposition, however just, would be branded as unpatriotic. The history of pension legislation in the United States will enlighten us as to how such cowardice can overcome men otherwise brave. And with the tyranny of a great army system, besides the men who honestly believe that it must he supported because it is necessary, there is a horde of men who encourage its expansion because they derive selfish profit from it: the contractors for uniforms, arms, and stores, and the ambitious, for whom the army in peace or war is the shortest ladder to promotion. In addition to these, every country has its minority of civilian fire-eaters, restless and blatant fellows, who gauge an administration by the success with which it carries out a “ spirited foreign policy.” These do not distinguish between swagger and strength, between bullying and courage. They are preternaturally sensitive in detecting an insult to the nation’s dignity; they talk familiarly of the national flag as if it were a part of their personal apparel which some wicked enemy were trying to put on ; they modestly claim that they alone are patriotic.

That Italy should have had a large litter of these Jingoes need not surprise us ; what was her craving to cut a figure in the world but Jingoism ill concealed ? It had led her to imitate her neighbors in organizing a great army; it led her likewise to yield to another temptation. One evidence of being a “ great power, according to the political standard of the time, consists in ability to establish colonies, or at least a protectorate, in distant lands ; therefore, Italian Jingoes goaded their government on to plant the Italian flag in Africa. France was already mistress of Algiers ; Spain held a lien on Morocco; Italy could accordingly do no less than spread her influence over Tunis. For a few years Italy complacently imagined that she was as good as her rivals in the possession of a foreign dependency. Then a sudden recrudescence of Jingoism in France caused the French to occupy Tunis. The Italians were very angry ; but when they sounded the situation, they realized that it would be folly to go to war over it. The fact that Bismarck consented to the French seizure, and refused to listen to any plea for restitution,taught the Italians prudence. They also learned thereby the terms on which their friendship with Germany rested. Bismarck connived at French adventures in Africa and elsewhere, because he saw that they would divide the attention of French politicians, and require the withdrawal of French troops from France ; he cared not a whit that Italy’s pride suffered in the process.

Not warned by this experience, Italy, a few years later, plunged yet more deeply into the uncertain policy of colonization. England and France having fallen out over the control of Egypt, then England, having virtually made the Khedive her vassal, suggested that it would be a very fine thing for Italy to establish a colony far down on the coast of the Red Sea, whence she could command the trade of Abyssinia. Italian Jingoes jumped at the suggestion, and for ten years the red-white-and-green flag has waved over Massaua. But the good that Italy has derived from this acquisition has yet to appear. Thousands of her picked troops, stationed in that most unhealthy tropical region, have died of dysentery or sunstroke, or have been killed in unequal combat by the warriors of Ras Alula. Millions of money have been wasted in an enterprise almost as foolish as would be the attempt to plant an orange orchard on an iceberg. Yet the Jingo pride which involved Italy in this folly prevents her from abandoning it. I remember saying to an Italian officer, shortly after the massacre of a whole battalion of brave soldiers at Dogali, in 1887, that the time had come for Italy to get out of Africa. “We cannot,” he replied ; “ all Italy would howl at an administration which proposed to back out. England might retreat from a blunder, and the world would not accuse her of cowardice ; but we cannot; every one would laugh at us.” The essence of Jingoism breathed in my friend’s confession.

Equally slow have they been to learn that their partnership in the Triple Alliance has entailed upon them sacrifices out of all proportion to the benefits. To associate on apparently even terms with Germany and Austria was doubtless gratifying to national vanity, and an Italian premier might be pardoned for welcoming an arrangement which seemed to bring him into intimate relations with Prince Bismarck and Count Kálnoky ; but who can show that Italy has been more secure from attack since she entered that league than she was before ? If our analysis is correct, she ran no risk from Austria, because Austria was pledged to a Teutonic policy which bespoke for her protection from Russia, and the chance to expand south of the Danube; likewise Italy had the strongest guarantee that France would not assail her, for such an assault would have let loose the German war-dogs against France. For the sake, then, of a delusive honor, — the honor of posing as the partner of the arbiters of Europe, — Italy has, since 1882, seen her army and her debt increase, and her resources proportionately diminish. None of her ministers has had the courage to suggest quitting a ruinous policy; on the contrary, they have sought hither and thither to find means to perpetuate it without actually breaking the country’s back. No doubt many of them have honestly believed the Triple Alliance to be indispensable to Italy’s welfare ; no doubt, also, that others, Jingoes themselves, have encouraged the spread of conditions in which, under a veil of patriotism, roguish politicians can advance most comfortably their selfish schemes. One of the first tricks discovered by wily ministers after government by cabinets was established in Europe was that of diverting attention from maladministration at home by fomenting a quarrel, if not a war, with their neighbors ; for internal needs and the incompetence of public servants cannot be discussed in the presence of foreigners. This also is Jingoism. Transparent though the trick is, we have seen it successfully played during the past decade by Ferry in France, by Blaine in the United States, and by Crispi in Italy.

In forming this diagnosis of Italy’s maladies, I have fixed the attention on her army system to the exclusion of her other diseased parts, both because that is the most easily verified, and because her other ills proceed largely from that; unless it be more precise to say that the national weakness of character which allowed her to yield to the military temptation predisposed her to succumb to other evils. An examination of any one of these — her high tariff craze, for instance, with the resultant loss of trade with France, or her insincere financial system — would lead to a similar conclusion. We may grant that it was expedient for her to create a large navy to protect her long seacoast and her many opulent ports ; but the maintenance of a great army besides has been justified neither by her needs nor by her resources. The German army since 1870 has been Italy’s strongest protector, and it afforded her the best protection gratis. In old days Italy complained of being the prey of eight or nine score thousand of idle, able-bodied priests and friars ; was it consistent in her to add twice as many conscripts to the multitude of idlers ? Or is the military goose-step a more productive form of labor than are monkish genuflections? Since 1870, an army of one hundred thousand men would more than have sufficed to put down the brigands incited by the Pope and the Bourbons, to maintain order in her most lawless regions, to garrison her frontier outposts and her harbors, and to have fostered a reasonable military spirit. Her excess has revealed not only the weakness of her resources, hut — and this is more regrettable — her lack of judgment and her dangerous vanity. Merely as a matter of business, it is foolish to hire special watchmen when your nextdoor neighbor keeps a dozen.

But Jingoism, or national swagger, infects great nations as well as small. Vanity and false pride are its seeds, vanity and humiliation are its fruits. Happy is the land which, when this mania becomes epidemic, has a statesman with wisdom to perceive the evil, with courage to denounce it, and with strength to turn his countrymen against their wishes to a policy that is sober and just. Italy has had many earnestly patriotic public men during the past generation, but since Cavour died she lias had no statesman who could do these things. Yet not on this account shall we despair of a country which, in spite of folly, has achieved much against great odds, and which has shown a wonderful capacity for sloughing off her past. Hardship itself, though it be the penalty of error, may, by restricting her ability to go astray, lead her back to the path of reason.

William R. Thayer.