Italy and the Balkan Crisis

By Gino C. Speranza
(The Outlook's Special Correspondent In Italy)

[The Outlook, December 8, 1915]

Venice, October 22

The last fortnight has offered many opportunities for criticism regarding the undiscoverable policy which Italy was going to follow in the face of the Balkan crisis. There was certainly an appearance of vacillation and indecision at a time when clear-sighted and quick resolution seemed imperative. Nevertheless, subsequent events have shown that most of the strictures against the Government were undeserved, though there still remains the mystery as to why the Government, with the effective restraint of the censorship in its control, allowed such an unfortunate impression of its intentions to get abroad in the land.

From the very first day when it became apparent that the diplomacy of the Allies had been outplayed by the Teutons in the Balkans, the "Giornale d'Italia," the quasi-official organ of the Foreign Office, took pains to insist that Italy's hands were entirely free as regards her obligations as an ally in that part of Europe. When Premier Viviani's speech to the French Chamber, some time after, seemed to point the other way, the "Giornale" hastened to "rectify" the impression thus made, both by explaining that the speech had been somewhat incorrectly reported, and by an out-and-out statement that Italy was under no pact to send troops to aid the Allies in the Balkans.

The statement, no doubt, was not meant to be read as an isolated declaration without reference to the context of the entire article; but the fact is that it evoked a mixture of sullen criticism and stupefied regret in the press of the Allies. The newspapers of Petrograd veiled their criticism by an unbelief in the official character of the announcement; those of Paris covered their disappointment under a "moderated enthusiasm;" a Swiss journal went so far as to assert that Italy would withhold her co-operation in the Balkans as she wished to see Servia dismembered; while in London, Lord Cecil, for the Foreign Office, was obliged to state officially that "it would be most regrettable if the least importance were to be attached to the assertion that between us and our allies there existed anything but the most absolute harmony."

To-day, re-reading dispassionately the "Giornale's" articles, one would see that they were essentially an effort—singularly cumbersome and unskilled as writings which must at least have been inspired by the crystalline mind of Sidney Sonnino—to prevent a general stampede toward the new battlefield chosen by Germany, irrespective of the general and larger considerations of allied effort against the central empires. For let it be said here that the prevailing opinion in Italy, as I shall point out later on, is that the Balkan move by Germany, while undoubtedly dangerous, is a symptom of weakness, not of strength.

The declaration made by Italy on October 19 that a state of war existed between herself and Bulgaria cleared up a most unfortunate situation, and was received by all most favorably, even by the Opposition "Secolo," which welcomed it "as attenuating, if not destroying, that sense of discontent which had been generated in this country by journalistic news badly inspired and worse expressed."

The language of that declaration ought to put an end to the too frequent insinuations made in America that Italy is fighting only a national battle, with little or no interest in the cause of her Allies. The language of the declaration reads as follows: "Bulgaria having commenced hostilities against Servia, allying herself with the enemies of Italy and fighting against her allies, the Italian Government, by order of his Majesty the King, has declared that there exists a state of war between Italy and Bulgaria," the italics being mine. Let us hear no more talk that Italy is not in spirit and in fact with the Allies against all the members of the coalition of central Europe. The captious have insinuated that the absence of a declaration of war between Italy and Germany shows that there is no solidarity between the Allies and Italy against the arch-enemy. The fact is that Italy cannot declare war against Germany at present, because the Triple Alliance Treaty has defaulted only against Austria; but she has prepared from the beginning, militarily and diplomatically, to meet German attack. She has taken every step to "blockade" Germany, and to give her no reason, however remote, to consider that anything but an aggressively hostile attitude exists. Diplomatic relations have been completely severed, there exists no mail or telegraphic communication, nothing comes from or goes to Germany from Italy, the few German subjects still remaining here are under the strictest police surveillance, many have been expelled, and the shops owned by Germans in Italy, where they have not been closed, have frequently been sacked by angry mobs. It is Germany that is unwilling to institute formal and open war against Italy; her reasons are unknown, but one consideration may be that there is so much German capital in Italy that it is believed that in case of even a successful attack on this Kingdom her losses financially could not be compensated by the value of victory.

What is so often misinterpreted as Italy's indifference to the common cause of the Allies is her unwillingness to be dictated to by any of her co-laborers as to what she should do at any given time with her forces in order to achieve the common end of defeating the central empires. She is an ally, not a vassal; she has capable military commanders, and diplomatically she is to-day probably one of the only two nations in all Europe possessed of an exceptional personality in its Foreign Office. So, while she has invited and participated in a constant Exchanged of views and suggestions, she has declined to abdicate her right as to the choice of time and means in the use of the forces at her command.

Keeping this in mind, let us consider Italian opinion and Italy's possible conduct in counter-checking Germany's move in the Balkans. In this war, and probably in every war, hard steel counts against an enemy like Germany more than any reasoning or appeal to sentiment or justice. The right moral impulse on the sudden German attack in the Balkans was undoubtedly to go en masse to the immediate aid of heroic Servia; but a righteous moral impulse may be pregnant with possibilities of military disaster under certain circumstances against an adversary whose principle is that might makes right.

I do not say that this conception expresses the official position of Italy in the Balkan crisis, but something of this nature would appear to be the prevailing tendency in Italian opinion, an opinion formed by two quite generally accepted considerations. These are: first, that the Teutonic attack in the Balkans is the most skillful of the German moves aimed at upsetting the well-considered plans of the Allies for a general offensive, and that Germany counts on its success in achieving this ulterior purpose by her belief that the Allies are still so "unmilitary" that they will rush pell-mell into a moral enterprise; and, second, that it is known that the Italian General Staff believes unflinchingly in a strategy of concentration of forces and is opposed to scattering its resources for the purpose of obtaining partial, isolated, and temporary successes.

In regard to the first consideration, it is admitted that the German move is a tremendously clever stroke, not merely because, if successful, her position will be a hundredfold better than it is now, but also because if it fails Germany will not be substantially any worse off than she is now. Yet it may be asked, as the Italians are asking, is the effort now being put forth by Germany coherent and consistent with the initial and fundamental purposes of the war she has brought upon Europe?

Colonel Borgese, perhaps the most acute of Italian observers, considers this at length in a recent number of the "Corriere della Sera," starting his inquiry with this query: Has Germany had in this war at any time in its development, "a limpid intelligence or a clear-visioned will?"

If we except the sharply clear will of her initial campaign, of appearing to be, and actually to be, stronger than any one else, she has been throughout shifting and chaotic in policy and plan. "She threw herself into the conflict with her eyes veiled by passions and illusions, and in this wise has she continued to fight, though occasionally a chill of possible defeat has seized her." She has disclaimed, one by one, the reasons she put forth at various times about the war," she has attempted to induce each one of her enemies to make a separate peace with her, and there is not a single object for which she has claimed to be fighting that she has not shown a disposition to renounce. "To-day she gives as her reason the necessity of opening a great way towards the Orient, but to do so she has had to manipulate very intricate machinery with the Balkan States and push to an extreme the policy of encouraging Bulgaria—a Bulgaria which has commenced by swallowing another bit of what is left of European Turkey, and which may end by becoming a far more formidable barrier between Germanism and Islam than the much-feared Pan-Slavic one."

German will, contends Colonel Borgese, is clear only in what refers to an immediate or near strategic purpose; it is not far-sighted in its wants and needs except in the one will-to-win. Though it grasps, for instance, the idea that to satisfy its colonial desires it must defeat England, it goes about it by attacking the Continental Powers, as if the Congo might be won by destroying the Russian armies. This will-to-win for the sake of winning Colonel Borgese tries to trace to a Teutonic state of mind described by the German word streben for which there is no Latin equivalent, and he reads in that state of mind, viewed in the light of history and of civilization, an activity relentlessly bound to failure.

Returning from this digression to the main consideration of Italy's attitude towards the Balkan crisis, insistence must be made upon the right of choice on the part of Italy as to how she shall contribute towards the success of the common cause. Unless this is borne clearly in mind, the diplomatic and military moves of this country will be entirely misunderstood. Her military decisions must take into account the views and offensive measures of her allies, but must be the responsible resolves of her own General Staff. To hold otherwise would involve, for instance, the understanding that the Anglo-French Staffs should decide, when Italian troops were needed to patch up their mistakes in the Dardanelles, or, as an American resident suggested, it might result in England urging Italy to fill gaps in her front in Flanders instead of compelling her own sons, through conscription, to replace the losses.

Insistence must also be made on the fact that Cadorna's strategy of concentrated effort has not only ample and splendid military precedents, but that, as developed by him on the Austro-Italian front, it has had marked benefits, not only for Italy, but for the general plans of the Allies. The test in this respect is not only the amount of territory conquered, but the intensity and the effects of the Italian effort; any other test would leave us to conclude, for instance, as Luigi Barzini points out in a general review of the war, that France has accomplished nothing because she has not advanced appreciably in the territory held by the enemy.

It has been estimated by a neutral observer that at least twenty Austro-German army corps have been "immobilized" by the Italian offensive, counting the forces on the fighting line and the reserves in the war zone. It is not claimed that Italy saved the Russian armies from destruction; but that the violence of the Italian offensive contributed sensibly to relieving the Teutonic pressure on the Czar's lines in September is admitted by all military observers, including those of Russia. The half a million men whom Italy obliges the enemy to keep at her front are half a million men who, if thrown either against the eastern or western allied lines, might quickly decide the war. Nor is it to be overlooked that Italy is not merely immobilizing this heavy contingent of the common enemy, but daily hammering at it and beating it back; she is not merely holding it, but fighting down its strength, and in this respect also she is working for the general plans of the Allies.

What those plans are, in their main and essential lines, is no military secret and can be summarized as follows: To reduce by constant detrition the efficiencies of the Teutonic armies, and to prepare for a general offensive on such a stupendous and merciless scale that, when it comes, it will be irresistible, short, and final.

The first part, generally known as Joffre's "nibbling," is being carried out so methodically as to have become almost a mathematical proposition to decide when the wear and tear shall have reached the proper point. It is fairly estimated that three hundred thousand men are killed or otherwise lost to the enemy every month by this method, and Italy is now adding a substantial increase to this relentless reduction of adverse forces.

The second part of the programme is what Germany most fears; by simple mathematical computations she can establish the number of men which, with time, the Allies can roll up against her, and she realizes, what we already are apt to forget, that the control of the seas by her enemies is the most telling factor in the long run against her. Over the seas from which she has been methodically and completely swept away are coming part of that huge supply of armaments and munitions which the Allies are collecting for the great drive.

That when this comes it will be irresistible has been sufficiently shown even to Germany by the terrible Anglo-French offensive of a month ago. That was merely a sample, and it was resorted to in advance, of the time set, by the situation in the Balkans, where, the fear of and belief in the invincibility of Germany led and still leads the policies, of those states. The offensive will not commence in earnest until the Allies are so thoroughly supplied that they will be able to keep up the irresistible bombardment, carried on in Champagne for seventy-two hours, for a period, if necessary, of thirty consecutive days.

This is no secret, and Germany knows it better than any one else. It is this knowledge which, in the opinion of Italian observers, has led her to choose a new field for her offensive in the Balkans. It will either upset the terrible judgment the Allies are preparing or put off the evil day.

It is on this assumption that Italian opinion bases its belief on the necessity of allowing nothing to deviate Italy from her direct part in the supreme plan. It may be a wrong and unreliable assumption, but a consideration of past facts and of the controlling needs of the European situation, as distinguished from the sympathies and sentiments which seem undoubtedly more immediately, compelling, give a basis of substance to the Italian opinion. Not that gallant Servia should be left to its fate any more than Belgium has been, but heavy additional sacrifices may have to be borne by the former, as they are still borne in unspeakable measure by the latter, for the sake of the great objective—the downing of that Power which has respect for no small state, and the assuring to every nation "the right of continuing to be itself.

Florence, Italy, GlNO C. SPERANZA.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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