Italy and Europe


A FRIEND of mine was once asked to characterize the rich as a class. After much pondering, he produced the following definition: ‘Well, I suppose you might know rich people by the way they start hollering for the police the moment they find themselves in trouble. That’s the surest reflex I can think of.’

Coming from an upper-class American, who had formed his ideas by looking at life with an observant eye, that definition struck me because of its coincidence with the new political creeds now obtaining in Europe. It gives in a nutshell what is right and what is wrong about them and about the issues they raise.

Coming after the German rearmament, the Ethiopian affair has created a momentous crisis. It stands there like the wanting on the wall, for all of us to see. If we are willing to work out its meaning with an absolute will toward the truth, civilization stands a reasonable chance of surviving. If, on the other hand, we have nothing to offer save muddled recrimination or superior cant, it is quite plausible to expect that we may go the way of Nineveh. The simple democratic belief (as distinct from the make-believe of statesmen) that right can be all on one side, and wrong on the other, led to mistakes such as the Versailles Treaty, which have never been paralleled in history. Mere virtuous indignation against Mussolini, clamorings for punitive action, cocky appraisals of ‘infantile regression’ and so on, may prove no better preventive of future wars.

Among the peoples of the world, it is perhaps the Americans who best know by actual experience what it means to be torn between two conflicting coalitions both believing in popular principles. They have been able to mature without outside pressure the lesson of the Civil War — perhaps they can best be expected to form a serious and constructive idea of the present situation and its possibilities. What strikes me most, as a European, is the clear-eyed and sensitive perception that intelligent Americans are able to bring to the problem of Europe — so different, especially in its moral quality, from the views obtaining among Europeans, even among such as are earnestly striving for a better order of their continent. Let us therefore look at the case as it stands.

Mussolini has vindicated his point of view against the self-sufficiency of the so-called ‘progressive’ people. Those who are still apt to portray him as a megalomaniac strutting under cheap military laurels, or an adventurer stampeded into a senseless expedition, are merely playing into his hand. For the Ethiopian war, as it stands consecrated by success, is definitely a clever act of constructive statesmanship. That it was a way out of internal difficulties no one who happened to live in Italy during 1934 will deny. The depression was settling down at that time into a slough of despond. Economy was working in the vicious circle of growing taxation and smaller returns. Worst of all, the people’s response to stimulus had become definitely deadened, and the rift between the Party and the masses was ever widening. No effort at propaganda seemed able to quicken interest in anything outside the bare necessities of subsistence.

Now the people has always been considered by those in power to be a tame beast of burden. But in a state of catalepsy it is to be accounted a sleeping dragon. Great tribunes like the Duce have a keen sixth sense which warns them when something new must be done in order to get the spark across. Moreover, they know only too well that their real ascendant does not proceed from their efficiency in providing work or in fighting off starvation, but from the prestige they are able to gain in the international field. The year 1934 had been a dark one indeed for the Duce’s diplomacy. The Balkan pact had closed southeastern Europe to his hopes. Hitlerism was becoming an unmanageable force. Mussolini had thought rashly of bringing up a wolf cub; he found himself confronted by a megatherium. There seemed no other course left but the refuge of a French alliance, under the benign supervision of England. The Duce was all but cornered.

There was still, of course, one other possibility: that of putting into effect the social revolution he had been announcing for so many years, and of throwing himself ‘on the side of the masses’ — whatever that meant. This was both dangerous and distasteful to him. It meant giving up the small bourgeoisie, his most trusted ally and the real support of the State idea. It involved tampering with the economic mechanism of an already impoverished country, and economics are a bugbear to his essentially political mind. His chief consideration as a nationalist must be to ensure his country such standing as would enable her to play the international game with ruthless neighbors. The doubtful support he could expect from the Left in France and elsewhere would have been more than offset by the iron ring that the propertied Powers were sure to clamp down on his asthmatic effort.


Up to January 1935, Mussolini remained uncertain as to the best course. Something had to be done — something spectacular. He talked to the people about the ethics of production and the senselessness of scarcity; he thought seriously of launching the corporative movement — seriously, that is, in a journalistic way.

There has been a good deal of misunderstanding about the Italian social experiment. It has been variously described as humbug and as a hidden revolution; it is both at once, and something else besides. As far as social legislation and the welfare of the worker are concerned, Italy is possibly the most advanced country to-day. But the corporative idea is more than that. It implies definite subordination of economy to the structure of the community, somewhat in the sense of the Five-Year Plan. If the creed of the community is radical, it will become another kind of Communism. If, on the other hand, the community is not interested in the rights of the individual, and believes only in the State and in the interest and power of the State, then it becomes just a means of State control, for whatever purpose the State thinks fit. In the end, it will bear a resemblance to State socialism, but a delusive one, for the socialist, element is there only apparently. There is as much of it as there was, let us say, in the now defunct employee representation plan of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was variously described as industrial democracy and company union, whereas it was simply a way to persuade the employees to renounce their collective bargaining power and trust the common sense of their superiors.

The driving reality in both cases is the same — the ruthless will to power and achievement of great executives. But in the case of Italy the issues raised and the goal aimed at are immeasurably vaster and more complex — which makes President Mussolini a considerably greater man than President Atterbury, but also makes his ends well-nigh impossible of attainment.

Here was this living reality, a people all of whose instincts and ideals had been roused, and in whose newborn political life he must infuse something of the absolute of religious experience, if he wanted to succeed. On the other hand, if he did not want to be thrown off, he must avoid getting them into a stampede toward some too simple and definite goal — like social justice, for instance. He must keep the individual in a state of proper self-abasement and doubting awe in regard to the inscrutable will and power of the State. He must strip the people of every clear-cut vision or principle, teach them to expect fresh vistas at every shift of the blinkers, and to get full contentment out of the feeling of directed action.

But the beast was not so easy to tame, after all. The very forces that had brought Mussolini on high resented the curb. His workers’ leaders coalesced too readily with intellectuals; the slightest contact with foreign syndicalists (as a tentative congress showed about that time) would start them again asking for more definite programmes and more direct action. This was a disturbing signal: since 1926, he had felt the permanent menace of the Workers’ Confederation and had managed to break up its structure and apportion its budget among the various Ministries, most of which he held himself. Now he found it was time to weed out the danger; he suppressed the ‘young intellectual’ periodicals; he abolished the School for Corporative Studies in Pisa University which he himself had founded and fostered, and broke up its staff. Corporatism was decidedly too dangerous to be taken up except in newspaper headlines.

But you cannot fool all of the people all of the time, unless you give them an object great enough for all of their passion. That was what the Chamberlains and Lamonts and Garys who had kept purring approval of his ‘strong hand’ had failed to see. He despised them at heart, but he knew he must go them one better. The old emotional revolutionist was no more. He was going to be a statesman and a realist, to walk the way of the Powers That Be. The African expedition he had long been keeping in mind (since 1929, in fact) appeared to be the right thing. He looked at Europe, jittery and rigid with fear in the face of the impending crisis; England definitely in the hands of ‘second-rate men’; all of the main forces adrift. Now was the moment. Audaces fortuna juvat — and nothing succeeds like success.

Ethiopia was the last bit of earth still ownerless, the only bit not covered by national taboos. After consideration, he decided that no one was going to start a war just to prevent his expansion.

As to the financial side of things, he was told he could risk a billion dollars (which was the amount lying idle in the banks) without much harm, provided he cut himself adrift from world economy; the rest should come out of the colony’s undeveloped resources, directly or otherwise. The only major consideration was still whether this was the proper course — so to speak, the natural curve that his career must follow to its appointed end: a new life for the Italian people through achievement and belief in him.


It obviously was the proper course, and the reasons are not far to seek. It would work up the masses into the enthusiasm of easy conquest (back in 1911 he would have called it drivel, but somehow now it looked different); it would provide a proper release for the ‘suffocation psychosis’ and the various complexes of the Italian masses; it would settle the social question in the old Eldorado way. There has since been some talk of shipping a million colonists to Africa. From the statesman’s point of view, it is both improbable and unnecessary. The peasant masses have never troubled the sleep of dictators. A model colony of, say, some ten thousand families would be more than enough to keep the press and the people busy following developments. More important to a man like Mussolini would be the opportunity afforded for employing uncounted thousands of young workers as technicians, carabinieri, militiamen, and organizers of the native forces — more important still the creation of a Civil Service providing an outlet for the crowding unemployed young graduates who are the real nightmare of dictators.

But there is plenty of scope for constructive and enthusiastic action in running a nation of ten million laborers who have to be provided with the first essentials of civilization — scope for action and for dreaming, for prospecting, for hopes of illimitable wealth to be discovered to-morrow, or the day after. Those impressive statistics which claim to expose the fallacy of colonial expansion unfortunately include no charts of the many feelings that come to a conquering army advancing through the unmapped lunar landscape of the Ethiopian mountains, the experience of high adventure, of rushing teamwork, of a life worth while, that go with the occupation of the wide open spaces. The simple Italian peasant lad has experienced those feelings, as many soldiers’ letters show. It matters little that this state of grace was brought about by skillful emotional engineering; the scale itself of the adventure, even its relation to outside world conditions, are only secondary considerations. The action itself is what counts. In the case of Italy, it is all the more important because Fascism itself is a hothouse technique for coaching young nations into maturity, getting them to face squarely the dour realities of international life.

Such a technique is new. Like ferroconcrete in architecture, it has not yet faced the test of time. No one knows — least of all the Duce himself, who has to keep his mind and his sixth sense open about it — what the new contraption is really worth. What else, except the test of actual enterprise, could bring it definitely into the realm of reality?

No one who came into contact with the leading ‘hierarchies’ of the Fascist Party could help sensing a doubt hidden behind the aggressive poise of those young men who were running the country on the lines of a combined circus and steel trust. Most of them were too young even to have the war to fall back on. A muscular feeling-good, a strenuous bustling activity, an incessant search for new slogans — all this insatiable appetite for organizing and ‘getting things done’ was wearing itself out on a popular mass that had become almost Taoistically remote in irony and acceptance. The critical aloofness of world opinion, the many spiritual values of their elders which they daily professed to scorn without having more than a dim perception of them, all came to weigh more than they would admit.

To perceive all this was, in a measure, to outgrow it. The best among the Fascist youth felt uncomfortable about always having to talk Spartan morals and then having nothing to practise save the virtues of bureaucracy. Many, at the onset of the Ethiopian campaign, volunteered with a feeling of relief. The obscure craving for an ascetic life which torments European youth found here a definite and, for many, quite sincere expression. It meant getting out of the moral slough; it meant also, in the secret heart of the more serious section, getting away from the unbearable patronizing of the war generation and winning the title of veterans who would carry a voice in the councils — and possibly in the revolution — of to-morrow.

Thus the schemes of a self-seeking dictator and the uncertain dreams of youth grew into the common will. It was not only a solution; it was — even if against fearful odds — the solution.


What was wrong about it? From the strictly national point of view, nothing. From the point of view of world opinion, or of that part of it which believed in Geneva — everything. In that regard, the Ethiopian adventure was the most tactless and irritating move that could have been thought of. People — experienced diplomats — marveled at the ‘sudden stupidity’ of this intelligent man. The self-conscious blustering and blundering of his press campaign appeared ominous to them. They hinted darkly that he was in the process of being demented by the gods.

Now that the Duce has proved up to the hilt that his calculations were correct, as well about effective conquest as about its moral repercussions at home and abroad, it becomes essential to understand the how and the why. For by his well-weighed decision a serious wrench has been given to the mechanism of history. Whatever the consequences, — even in the improbable case that England should work her vengeance on him, and that he should fail miserably, — he will be to his people a national hero who never doubted the fortunes of Italy, who exposed international hypocrisy, who twisted the Lion’s tail and held him up to derision.

Mussolini has never despised international opinion as such. A great journalist himself, thirsting for a world rôle, his ceaselessly roving attention reverted again and again during the past years to the possibilities of a revision campaign, of a world drive for peace, of continental economic unions, of clever and prudent arbitration in Geneva or elsewhere. Aside from the promptings of his temperament, he was free to take his choice, which democratic statesmen are not. It is therefore significant that after years of intercourse with rulers, having become by now the Elder Statesman of Europe, he decided that so-called good will and the so-called values of civilization stood for exactly nothing, and that the only language the essential vested interests would understand was the very same that the Carnegies, Morgans, and Rockefellers had used in their time. What he said to the propertied Powers was this: —

‘Now look here. You are sitting in Geneva, at what is officially a Round Table, but in fact we all know it is a dinner table where the Big Ones help themselves generously and keep the small fry in order with what is left. You are afraid of outsiders. Very well, make room for me, and I shall begin to see good reason for helping you to preserve the sanctity of treaties.’

The other ones countered, in true diplomatic fashion, with the explanation that ‘it is n’t done any more’ — and the offer of a couple of non-negotiable desserts. Then Mussolini yanked off the tablecloth.

To speak of this as an outrage to the whole of European civilization is not quite fair. It would be more accurate to say that it was a shock to English manners. To the French it did not come as a shock, but rather as the annoying realization of a dangerous truth: ‘On est toujours l’Éthiopie de quelqu’un.

It is a fact that Mussolini has no use for what Anglo-Saxons (and, in their wake, the small Powers) are wont to call European civilization. He scorns bourgeois humanitarianism as the Blanquist he is at heart. He has no understanding of the Victorian ideals and the complicated subconscious legerdemain that enable the English to feel virtuous whatever happens. These are in his mind elaborate pastimes suitable for the affluent. But he is not a savage for all that, no more than was Frederick II in the face of church morals. Indeed, his situation in this affair is typically Frederician. The question is: Are we entitled to claim that civilization has made any essential progress since the time of Frederick or of Hobbes? Has the essential relation of man to society changed since that time? Or of nations to each other?

That is the moot point which Mussolini has thrown up to the socalled forces of civilization. And he has done so in a style that is, whatever its descent, definitely new and significant.

Let us work out what the answer was; but first, in fairness, we should consider what the worries of European executives were in 1935.


France had succeeded in clamping round Germany a three-cornered vise whose jaws were the Maginot line, the Czechoslovak frontier, and Russia — Italy being the main articulation. England felt the risk of being left out in the cold, and proceeded to reassert herself by stirring trouble with the Naval Pact, at the same time giving Italy the glad eye, to keep her from complete allegiance toward France. There were after all, it was hinted, opportunities for ‘collaboration.’ The local chiefs had really become troublesome on the Somaliland frontier, and a slight punitive action on the part of someone — for example Italy — might have been not unwelcome. Mussolini promptly took up the cue: there obviously were still a couple of years of lull ahead in Europe; the Tories could protest only half-heartedly if he pulled some of the blanket on his side. So, having secured assurance of ‘hands off’ on the part of France, he went for Abyssinia while the going was good.

The storm of British public opinion came to him as the greatest surprise of his life. In his socialist-trained mind, he had never dreamed that public opinion could be aught but a convenient tool for certain governmental or vested interests. Now he found himself in a pea-soup fog. Nonetheless, he felt confident that he knew which were the real interests of British imperialism. So he went ahead, staking his all.

The British Cabinet, on its side, was sorely distressed. It knew the Englishman refused to fight on almost any consideration, that he even refused to vote armaments. The moral centre of gravity had laboriously been shifted from London to Geneva, the capital of the Empire of Virtuous Peace. And now this mad Italian was going to ruin everything, besides getting his unruly mind to work on that most delicate spot of the Empire, the Red Sea, where Great Britain had intended him to keep hanging on to the window sill, as had been the laudable custom of his predecessors for forty years. A most deplorable affair. Away from the Nile and back on the Brenner was where he belonged, and he was told so with increasing exasperation. ‘And,’ added Admiral Fisher once in conversation, ‘if those Johnnies won’t listen, the only thing to do is to close the Canal so they’ll have to be back by June where they are needed — that’s all.’

That was truly about all, and it was so very simple. Someone must be found to fight for the Channel Ports in case of need and uphold the Sanctity of Treaties; it could not very well be the British, so it would have to be the Italians. The British fleet would take care of that. It would shoo them off from this harebrained and inconvenient adventure and get them back to their proper place in the scheme of things. Besides, such an opportunity to harness the Laborites and Conservatives into imperial teamwork was not to be missed. So all hands came out for the Sanctity of the Covenant.

This simple and cunning statecraft did not provide any striking effort at originality; it had all been worked out long ago. What was needed was a territorial army somewhere to take care of the dirty work of ‘balance.’ Once upon a time it had been the Hessians and the Prussians and the Spanish; now it was going to be the Abyssinians or the Italians, according to time and tide. Spontaneous feeling for the Negus, and/or traditional friendship with Italy, would see to that.

It was all so obvious and sincere, this belief that people ought to behave properly, — and in case they don’t, it’s enough to send the fleet around, — that the infuriated Italians felt it somehow worth while to throw themselves into the maw of that benevolent Lion, were it only to give him the hiccups.

Mussolini had already achieved one thing — complete national union. The situation was almost unbearably tense, but he never lost his nerve. Though he certainly felt like a quarry at bay, his composure, his courtesy, and his easy attention to the matters in hand made his staff marvel. He lost patience only when someone hinted at means of placating world opinion. He then averred, with curses, that the only way to placate foreigners was to show up as ‘tough mugs’ — in which contention, by the way, he proved to be exactly right.

Government circles, in the feverish summing up of each day’s news, relied solely on reckless confidence. ‘What can England do after all? Why, nothing.’ And ahead they went. Shipload after shipload of troops sailed out to Libya and the Canal, tense but eager, as into an oncoming storm. Dozens of young airmen enlisted every day in the ‘Legion of Death’ bombers, pledged to hurl themselves bodily on to the British warships. Europe was to them only a hazy abyss of iniquity, and England a creaking obsolete Fafnir coming out to guard its treasures.

I have heard it said on this side of the ocean: ‘ How is it the Italians absolutely declined to grasp the moral issues of the conflict?’ Well, no, they thought they saw them pretty plainly; and from their own national point of view they did. Great Britain was calling for international action in the name of the Letter of Treaties. In other words, the rich man was calling for the police.

This may appear a crude caricature of Mr. Baldwin’s appeal to the communis sensus. But it must be admitted that neither was that gentleman’s case absolutely watertight.

Great Britain has successfully established for herself the reputation of taking few engagements and keeping them up to the hilt. Hence her claim to be the Guardian of the Word. Now it is quite true that the British dislike for ‘chiseling’ has always ensured proper fairness and decorum, but on closer scrutiny it becomes evident that Great Britain never allowed her pledges to interfere seriously with her imperial interests. Being so large as to be able always to fall back on herself, she never had to feel the keener edge of the law, any more than the rich man need enter into collision with the police. Her code is all of her own making, and she will not brook any other. It would be a strange day of topsy-turvydom when, say, Argentina should summon her courage and her faith in majorities to haul Great Britain before the bench in Geneva and ask about the Falklands. Still, such a course would be far more conformable to the League of Nations, as a democratic institution, than the present one.

To the Fascists, in their peasant horse sense, the situation read simply as follows: ‘The British might easily enough get the Negus to enter into a mandate agreement with us. If they won’t, it is simply because they find it more convenient to use us as a sacrifice to their League. They have painted the map red, and now even the last bit they want to hold back as a game preserve. They have devised sanctions as a means to keep power in the hands of the rich.’ To all concerned the moral issue appeared quite obvious. Passions interlocked: ethics, indignation, sportsmanship, compassion, greed, disillusionment, anger, and despair joined to make the confusion worse.

The only thing Great Britain could do at that point was to cut the Gordian knot by sheer imperial power, and send everyone home with a spanking. But she thought that the show of power was enough, and that Abyssinia would do the rest. Only on October 17 did she realize that she was risking war, and the possible loss of half of her fleet.

From that moment the course of the Cabinet was quite clear; there stand as evidence the Hoare-Laval plan and the present settlement. The Cabinet realized — a little late — that Mussolini wos quite willing to hand over Italy to revolution rather than let foreigners seize it. And this he would surely have done. He told them so in no unequivocal terms. And meanwhile he was working up the masses, telling them that this was an enterprise of the people, by the people, for the people, against international plutocracy.


It has been contended that the main element in English policy has been the German risk. This can be turned both ways. In the beginning it worked against Mussolini, for the British clearly thought that the downfall of one dictator would be an effective curb on the surviving one. Later it may have worked for him, but never in a decisive way. As a normal element in the European game, it was understood that Italy would be a welcome pawn to counter the German moves; but more conventionally than in reality, for the British rating of Italian strength was absurdly low. Trusting a General Staff whose judgment has become proverbial, the British expected the Abyssinian army to sweep the Italians into the sea any minute, and stuck to this belief to the last.

They saw quite plainly what a victory of the League would mean for the Empire and for world peace; they wore quite ready to appear again the generous sponsors of Italian freedom; but — they could not afford an Italian revolution. So they promptly took back their transparent hints and polite wishes. The instinctive tenderness they used to feel for the Duce is surely gone. With one base on the Nile and another in Leros, he has become an uncomfortable partner; but he still stands for law and order, or at least for that peculiar brand of it which they think good enough for Continentals. And there the matter rests.

The failure of President Wilson’s peace plan was surely one of the major factors of post-war anarchy. The failure of the League will no doubt precipitate another series of regrettable events. It is maddening to the lesser nations to feel that the only Power capable of maintaining some sort of reasonable order has backed out of the game. No amount of revision talk will make up for that.

To England, things are looking not so bad after all. Providence seems to take care of those who are able to take care of themselves. England tried honestly to enforce collective action — provided it did not go too far. Through the shiftiness of France and everybody else’s fault, this did not succeed. Very well, England will revert, in the words of Mr. Chamberlain, to strong defense of limited interests — to the old policy of balance of power, which implies offsetting a deficit of twelve thousand men in the Home Army with a few million dead foreigners somewhere else.

By raising the moral issue, and then being unable to live up to it, Great Britain has acted in a way disruptive to the life of Europe. No one doubts the sincere pacifism of British opinion, or the prophetic ardor of many of its leaders. On the other hand, the cleverness with which the Cabinet carried through the sanctions move is up to the best traditions of British statesmanship. Everything was in the Cabinet’s favor; but its conscience was split — it did not know what it really wanted, and the other man did.