Italy's Bargain

By H. N. Brailsford

[The New Republic; June 26, 1915]

It has been said that the business of every Peace Congress is to arrange the war of the day after to-morrow. The epigram deserves indeed to rank among the great safe commonplaces. Half our professors of history have made an honest living by illustrating this generalization from the records of the Congress of Vienna. The Congress of Berlin is a case hardly less notorious. One may safely say that it made this particular war by handing over Bosnia to Austria, as it made the two Balkan wars by restoring Macedonia to the Turks. The epigram, however, is not quite fair to congresses. They are commonly impotent even for mischief. The sinister arrangements which they ratify are commonly made in bargains between individual Powers outside them; and before they meet. Russia, for example, sold Bosnia to Austria as the price of her neutrality during the Russo-Turkish war. When and where the aged survivors of the present war will meet in congress we do not know, but already we can catch a glimpse of one of these characteristic arrangements. It has been signed and settled for about a month in nominal secrecy, over the heads of all the peoples concerned, and if the next congress should ratify it, even a cautious prophet may safely predict the nature and cause of the next European war. It will not be at all an original war. It will simply be another war for the completion of south-Slav Unity, and the only doubtful point about it is whether it will be like this, a universal war, or whether Italy and the new Serbia will be left to fight it out with a limited number of allies and seconds. The arrangements have been made chiefly in London and Paris, but Petrograd has given a reluctant consent. I refer, of course, to the bargain by which Italy has adhered to the Triple Entente in the understanding that she shall annex the greater part of Dalmatia.

The plain facts about the ethnography of the Adriatic region are fortunately not in dispute. One may argue indefinitely about the ethnography of Macedonia and Albania, and in the end the decision will turn on whether a man who learned to speak Albanian at his mother's knee, and was thereafter persuaded by his teachers and his priests that Greek is the only tongue for an educated man, should be reckoned as an Albanian or a Greek. There is much to be said for either view, and a perfectly disinterested man may adopt either, or even each in turn. But these puzzles need not vex us on the Adriatic shore. The districts in which Italians predominate are limited and clearly defined. There is an Italian majority in the big city of Trieste which dwindles in its outer suburbs and disappears in the surrounding countryside. There is also an Italian majority along the western coast of the peninsula of Istria which disappears as one gets but of sight of the sea. Fiume, the Croat seaport, is by an immense majority Slavonic. The long coast-line province of Dalmatia, a thin strip of island and shore between the sea and the mountains, is Slav from end to end. The Slavs form ninety-six per cent of its population, and even the three per cent which is politically Italian includes many families whose names and home language are, or lately were, Slav. The densest Italian population in Dalmatia is to be found in the town of Zara, and even there it does not amount to a third. These are the figures of the Austrian census, usually a reliable and scientific piece of work, superintended by officials who have no tenderness either for Italians or Slavs, and no fixed preference for either.

The wildest Italian irredentist has never ventured to assert that the Italian population of Dalmatia is over ten per cent. That figure is highly exaggerated, but even if we were to accept it, the argument would not be affected. The plain fact is that Italy has claimed, and the Triple Entente has assigned to her, a province whose population is at least nine-tenths Slav. It is true that it is not perfectly homogeneous. Some are Croats, who belong to the Roman communion and use the Latin alphabet. Some are Serbs, who are Orthodox and use the Cyrillic script. They speak the same language; their old feud has been for many years a thing of the past. At the worst they were always united against Italian pretensions. For some years, with the exception of a small and elderly clerical minority which is pro-Austrian and not pro-Italian, the Croats have been as eager as the Serbs for the union of all the south Slavs in one great Serbian federation. One may go further; of all the branches of this divided race, the Croats of Dalmatia are probably the most advanced, the best educated, the most race-conscious, and the most likely to suffer by alien rule. The Slovenes of Goritzia and behind Trieste are also pure Slavs, but they speak a dialect—perhaps one should call it a, language—which differs appreciably from Serbo-Croat. But they have no Italian sympathies, and they also have latterly adhered to the program of south-Slav unity. I do not know exactly where the Italian boundary has been drawn behind Trieste, but it certainly engulfs some Slovenes, probably a large number. In Dalmatia the frontier has been drawn below Sebenico, and includes in that province alone over a half million Slavs.

Nationality is not a principle which one can push to fanatical extremes. There are many cases in Europe where a reasonable settlement would have to ignore it, for the sake of economic .convenience or geographical necessity. Isolated minorities must sometimes be engulfed, and ports must sometimes be given away. The most one can demand in such cases is some security for tolerance and self-government. In this instance such, considerations tell the other way. Even Trieste, for all its indisputably Italian character, is naturally the port of Central Europe, and belongs to Italy only by sentiment and culture. Dalmatia belongs economically and geographically so obviously to its Slav hinterland, that even if its population were mainly Italian there would be a strong case for including it in a Great Serbia. To shut a race off from the sea is always a precarious policy, even when it does not inhabit the coast, but, to rob it of its coast and population at once is to double a geographical error with a political crime.

What then does Italy want? Some Italians will remind us that the Venetians once held much of this coast—as they held Crete and the Morea—or that the architecture is Italian—as indeed it is all over the Near East-—or else that the culture of the country owes much to Italy—as what culture does not? This is the mere embroidery of politics. The plain fact is that Italy wants to assure to herself the absolute mastery of the Adriatic. She dreads the development of Great Serbia as a strong naval power—for the Croats of the coast are fine seamen—and she thinks to assure herself by leaning her rivals of the future with nothing but a beggarly "outlet" at Ragusa and Cattaro. Even if it be true, as we are assured, that pledges have been given for freedom of trade at Flume and other ports, the political menace remains. Serbia may be effectually prevented from becoming a naval power; one hopes, indeed, that she might be wise enough to renounce the ambition. But she will be a formidable military power, and whatever submission one may make to a hard necessity today, she will never renounce the ambition of one day redeeming this population which Italy has filched from her.

The prospect that the peace of southeastern Europe will be overshadowed by this crime against nationality is in itself sufficiently serious. It will mean continual repression in Dalmatia itself; it will mean the arming to the teeth of all the Serbs for another war of unification. Worst of all, perhaps, it will mean diplomatic intrigues and alliances. Italy proposes also to take Avlona from the Albanians. They may one day, in spite of their present immaturity and anarchy, be strong enough to resent it. She has taken Rhodes and the Twelve Islands from the Greeks. It needs no great foresight to foresee an eventual combination of Greeks and Serbs, and even perhaps of Albania, to reverse these anti-national arrangements.

I detect a smile on the countenance of any official Italians who may chance to read these lines. "You forget Bulgaria, my dear sir. If we rob Serbia, you may be sure that Serbia will not restore Macedonia to Bulgaria. Two wrongs don't make a right, but they do make a Balance, of Power. If Serbia should dare to move against us, Bulgaria will attack her flank." It is an astute Machiavellian calculation, but precarious as all such calculations are. It does indeed seem to make the policy of injuring Serbia a little less flagrantly improvident than appears at first sight. But what a prospect it opens out for the future of Europe. This robbing of Serbia does indeed make it all but certain that Bulgaria will not receive the satisfaction of her legitimate national claims. If Italy steals a slice of Dalmatia, Serbia will cling as "compensation" to her own unjust gains in Macedonia. If Bulgaria in her turn wants compensation, she too will be told to take it by robbing someone else—by taking Thrace, which has a large Greek and Turkish population, but only a faint tincture of Bulgarians.

This bargain between Italy and the Triple Entente may help to win this war, but Europe will be lucky if we escape two future wars as a consequence, one for Serbian and another for Bulgarian unity. The Allies began this war in the name of nationality. They have now sanctioned a crime against nationality far less excusable than the German annexation of Alsace in 1871, and as certain to bring disaster. Alsace was German by race and language. But Dalmatia has never been Italian, and by no dragooning or coercion can it be made Italian. The facts are well known in England. Sir Arthur Evans, and Dr. Seton-Watson, have made their unavailing protest. Our Foreign Office has made its bargain, and it will stick to it, it would say, "immovably." Russia, under Franco-British pressure, has yielded with, great reluctance, influenced in the end by the views of the Holy Synod and other forces of darkness which were rather glad to see these heretic Catholic Slavs excluded from Orthodox Serbia. But Serbia has not yielded, and until she yields, the question is not settled. She is capable of reckless, some would say heroic obstinacy. A compromise is easily conceivable which would give to Italy all the strategic points requires without subjecting the people of Dalmatia to alien rule, It is not too late for the last of the neutrals to speak an emphatic word. America cannot stop this war, but she might do something to prevent the next.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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