Italy and the Adriatic

By Giglielmo Ferrero

[The Atlantic Monthly, July 1917]

When, in May, 1915, Italy declared war against Austria, it was generally thought that the intervention of this new power in the conflict must swiftly disturb the equilibrium of forces and hasten the end of the war. Every one now expected important and decisive events. For some weeks the eyes of the whole world were turned toward the Tridentine peaks of the Alps and the rocky slopes of the Carso. Then, suddenly, the fighting here also settled down into trench warfare. 'The new army, after insignificant engagements, remained inactive behind its defenses.

The attention of the world turned elsewhere. Many there were—and these the most kindly disposed to us Italians—who almost forgot that an Italian army was taking part in the European struggle. Others, more cynical, began to wonder whether Italy was playing the game in earnest. Then, in May, 1916, came the Austrian offensive in the Trentino to remind the nations that Italy was really at war. To many it came as a welcome surprise that the Italian army, concerning which so little had been said in the preceding months, had proved its ability to hurl back the enemy's formidable offensive. Their wonder changed to delight when, in August, 1916, the Italian army, advancing irresistibly, crossed the lsonzo, took possession of Gorizia, and pressed forward on the way to Trieste. At last, then, the world was convinced that Italy's heart was in the war.

How are these fluctuations of world opinion to be explained? All have their origin in an illusion which has been, and still is, general—an illusion which has prevented the spectators of this awful tragedy from understanding several of its most important aspects: the illusion concerning intervention. Wherein lies this illusion? In the belief that the powers which have entered the terrible conflict several months or several years after its beginning are in a better condition for fighting than those who have been involved from the start. The idea of a combatant who enters the arena with fresh forces against an adversary already spent by previous efforts has led astray the good judgment of most people. The truth of the matter, however, is quite different.

This war calls into action so many elements, and such great ones, that a nation cannot begin to make real preparation before the day hostilities are declared. All the powers involved in the struggle are expending from one to three billion lire each month; they have commandeered practically every form of industry and trade bearing in the remotest way on the war. Can one imagine a nation spending these fabulous sums while in a state of neutrality, and subjecting all its industries to military control? Such a thing is inconceivable. It is evident, then, that the powers which went to war at the beginning of August, 1914, necessarily held for a long time a great advantage over those entering later—the advantage of possessing a military organization tirelessly perfected and strengthened during months of war.

This was what happened to Italy. From August, 1914, to May, 1915, the Italian government devoted vast sums to arming its troops; but it did not, and could not spend, in eight months, as much as it now spends every month since it has entered into war. Could any one picture the Premier, Signor Salandra, proposing to Parliament the expenditure of a billion lire a month while the country was still neutral? The head of the government would have been commended to the care of an alienist. Even supposing that a parliament had been found sufficiently daring to consent to such an appropriation, Austria would have given no time to carry it out. To devote disproportionate sums to armament during the term of our neutrality, would have amounted to crying from the housetops that we intended to go to war.

But while Italy sought to stock her arsenals as best she could, while remaining neutral, Austria, though locked in a death-struggle with Russia, was arming feverishly, spending more than a billion a month in the manufacture of ordnance and projectiles, calling every available man to the colors, and training soldiers of the oldest and youngest classes alike.

Italy, then, was forced, like Roumania, to enter the war inadequately prepared; no other choice was left open to her. Inevitably, in the case of those nations that come late into the struggle, the first months have been the most dangerous for the new belligerent, in which its action has been least efficacious. If, in the first months after her intervention, Italy did not meet the fate of Roumania, it is because she chose her moment more wisely. Austria's hands were full with Russia; she was powerless to throw great forces against Italy, who was therefore given some time to get ready. Her real preparation for war, however, began on the day of her ultimatum to Austria, and lasted for several months. In fact, Italy's actual entry into the European conflict came in May, 1916, a year after the declaration, when the government had at last provided itself with sufficient soldiers and munitions to measure its strength with the adversary.

Part II

If the real intervention of Italy began in the spring of 1916, it also became clear in the spring and summer of that year what were to be the character, the tendencies of the war so far as we Italians were concerned. Austria had tried to crush us by an offensive in the Trentino; we parried the blow by keeping to the defensive, and replied with an attack on the Isonzo. These efforts show the respective trends of the two states. Austria attempted to strike at the backbone of Italy, the Po Valley; Italy aimed at what may be called the heel of Austria—her Adriatic territories. Italy's efforts were directed, not merely at reclaiming Italian territory subject to Austro-Hungarian rule, but also at acquiring a foothold on the Adriatic, by means of which the future of this sea and of the various peoples which surround it would be profoundly modified. It is open to doubt whether the first of these purposes is in itself sufficiently important to justify the terrible sacrifices which Italy is making, for, all told, the Italians subject to Austrian rule do not number a million. The second object, though, is of the utmost weight for the future, as upon it depends a new era for the Balkan Peninsula—for Italy as well, and for the Adriatic Sea, which has been justly called the graveyard of the Mediterranean.

Italy's aspirations on the Adriatic are not over-ambitious: Trieste, with a modest hinterland; Istria; the islands; and some part of Dalmatia. Moreover, it is not altogether certain that a victory of the Allies would succeed in excluding Austria-Hungary from the Adriatic. Fiume must always be the seaport of such portions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as may be left after the war, or of Hungary, if that country becomes an independent state. In any case, it is not impossible that, when peace has come, there may be established on the shores of the Adriatic a Germanic-Magyar or a purely Magyar state. In proportion, however, to Serbia's success in expanding and attaining her long-desired outlet on the Adriatic, the political geography of this sea will surely undergo considerable change. Will this change be great enough to influence directly the future of this part of Europe? In what regions will it take place, to what degree, and under what conditions?

This transformation is contingent on the fulfillment and combination of three provisions, no one of which alone is sufficient to alter the future of the Adriatic: the spread of Italian domination in the Northern Adriatic, the aggrandizement of Serbia and its access to the sea, and the weakening of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a result of the combined effects of the European war. If these three eventualities are combined—and there is reason to hope they will be—the transverse partition of the Adriatic, as we may call it, will succeed what may be termed the longitudinal partition; and this change will radically alter the position and the importance of the peoples and states bordering on this sea.

These are obscure words, needing a political as well as an historical explanation. The Adriatic and the Balkan Peninsula have been, successively, the two great highroads for commerce, travel, and civilization between East and West, and North and South. The former direction prevailed under the Roman Empire. The Rhine and the Danube were then the northernmost boundaries of trade and civilization; the merchandise, customs, and ideas which passed beyond these two rivers, to be lost in the northern immensity of the European continent, with all its barbarity, were insignificant. The impulse of civilization from North to South stopped short at these barriers. All the greater, then, was the movement from East to West. For this reason Rome built, in the Balkan Peninsula, many highways which, crossing it, led toward the East and put Italy, lying beyond the Adriatic, in communication with Asia. The most famous of, these great roads was the Via Egnatia,—built by the Romans in 168 B.C.—which led across Macedonia from Dyrrachium (Durazzo)—to Thessalonica (Salonika) and Amphipolis. These roads were the channels through which, under the Empire, the civilization, the laws, the language and the customs of Rome entered the Balkan Peninsula and permeated it. Along them are still to be found the ruins of the most flourishing centres of the ancient civilization. Through their agency Rome maintained these countries, gave life to them, governed and latinized them. The Adriatic, therefore, while serving as a means for the coastal countries to establish communications between North and South, fulfilled its chief function as a highway between Italy, the Balkan Peninsula, and the East.

Venice, in turn, made use of the Adriatic as a means for transporting to the most northerly extremity of this sea, where she had established herself, the rich trade which she gathered in from all the Mediterranean and the Orient. It would seem that she had no ambition for other possessions in the Adriatic save the coasts and ports of call through which her vessels passed on their journeyings north and south; and that she did not seek to penetrate far into the interior, as Rome had done. It was not her purpose to reach a commanding position by developing vast reaches of hinterland, but to concentrate in her own hands and draw to the Northern Adriatic as much of the Mediterranean commerce as she was able.

With the passing of Venice, Austria, upon whom had fallen the mantle of Adriatic domination, adopted the Venetian scheme under a different form and gradually applied it to the Balkan Peninsula. Such, for a century, has been the policy of Austria—a policy which brought the European crisis to a head, which sought to block as far as possible the intercourse between the eastern and western coasts of the Adriatic, to cut off Serbia from the sea, to prevent the construction of railways leading from the Adriatic to the Orient, and to divert northward, toward Vienna and Budapest, as great a portion as possible of the commerce and the political and intellectual life of the Balkan Peninsula, as well as of the nations lying along the coast.

Austria, in a word, has attempted to become the intellectual mistress, the political guide, the industrial purveyor, and the capitalist of the Balkan and Eastern Adriatic peoples. She has attempted at the same time to erect between the eastern and western shores of the Adriatic an insurmountable barrier of customs duties, railway tariffs, national hatred, and political suspicion, and to prevent the Adriatic from ever becoming a crowded waterway between East and West; in other words, to isolate Italy from part of the Adriatic. This sea was to form for us a sort of frontier, far harder to transcend than the chain of the Alps itself.

This policy, and its consequences, is one of the, causes which has brought Europe to the present crisis. The European war, however, will radically change this situation if Austria-Hungary is obliged, as we all hope, to recognize the rights of Italy and Serbia. Once more the policy of Rome will prevail in the Adriatic, transforming this sea into a line of communication between East and West, and vice versa. The ports of Dalmatia, of Montenegro, and of Albania will become terminals for railway lines which, like the Via Egnatia, will penetrate to the heart of the Balkan Peninsula and pass across it. The two shores of the Adriatic will be united by many lines of swift steamers. Ancona, Bari, and Brindisi will increase their intercourse with, Spalato, Zara, Antivari, and Vallona. Serbia will seek to supply herself, as far as possible with the industrial products which she lacks and which Italy stands ready to supply to her. Italy, in her turn, will draw on the countries lying across the Adriatic for all those agricultural and mineral products of which she is in need—timber in particular. The Slavic population of these regions will look to Italy for those elements of superior culture which their own national traditions cannot furnish. Both shores of the Adriatic, impoverished and depopulated as they are, will flourish once more from these fresh contacts, these new relations. The cities will grow larger and more beautiful; they will wax prosperous. At Bari Italy will be enabled to found schools and institutions of higher learning whose renown will spread across the whole Adriatic. To Bari, to Rome, and to Naples will flock the young Slavs who before the war went to study at Berlin and Vienna.

Part III

The new era of the Adriatic will begin when Italy and the Slavs have put themselves in a position to grow great and prosperous by substituting for the Austro-Hungarian policy, which sought to divide them, a policy which will draw them together. But it is essential, in order that these legitimate hopes may be fulfilled, that Italians and Slavs proceed in harmony and find a way to adjust such dissensions as may come up between them in the Adriatic with a spirit of justice and political ability. Such dissensions already exist in germ: they arise from the fact that in many localities along the Adriatic coast the Slavic and Italian elements are mingled. As a rule the Italians are in the majority in the cities, the Slavs in country districts; hence disputes, problems, and struggles arise and grow heated, as to which of the two races is entitled to supremacy in this or that region. In no part of the Adriatic coast has the friction been so intense as in Dalmatia. It is plain that the two races cannot join hands across the Adriatic and set in motion those new reciprocal currents of civilization between East and West, if they do not first settle to each other's satisfaction their respective rights in those regions which, when freed from Hapsburg rule, will be contended for by both countries. Such harmony is not only an essential condition of the renewal of the great days of the Adriatic, of the prosperity of both peoples and the states to which they belong, but is also absolutely indispensable for the future peace of Europe.

If such cordial relations are to be established, how are we to plant the fruitful seed of such great and precious fruit? I can see only one way: the Italians must reduce annexation on the eastern coast to the minimum amount required by strategic considerations; the Slavs must give such pledges as will leave no openings for trickery or double-dealing, and respect as far as possible the national rights of those Italians living in parts of the Adriatic coast which are not annexed by Italy. On this mutual agreement depend the interests of both races and the peace of Europe in years to come.

It is, of course, evident that Italy has no advantage to gain from an undue expansion of her territorial holdings on the eastern shores of the Adriatic. Here the Italian population lives only on the coast, or near it, and for this reason Italy cannot spread her dominion far into the interior without incurring the risk of coming into serious and severe conflict with the subject Slavic population, or with those Slavic states which will be in a position to intervene in their defense. Italian mastery of the eastern coast would therefore be limited to a thin littoral strip of land; and one need not be a great strategist to understand what a disadvantage it would be for Italy to have to defend a long line of frontier a few dozen kilometres from the coast, behind which would lie a vast hinterland occupied by people seething with discontent at being cut off from the sea. If Italy, then, does not wish to become involved in long and arduous wars for the conquest of this hinterland, her purposes will be best served by reducing to a minimum her territorial annexation on the further shore of the Adriatic.

But on this eastern coast Italy has moral, historic, intellectual, and economic interests which cannot be abandoned. Fiume is an Italian city. If destiny should allot it to another state, we cannot endure, after so long and costly a war, that its Italian citizens should continue to be treated as the Hungarians treated them during the ten years preceding this present conflict. Zara is an Italian city; and if the Italian element in this or any other Dalmatian settlement is to undergo persecution and annoyance at the hands of the Slavs, armed conflict will become inevitable. A question of sentiment, involving grave political interests as well, is at stake; if the Slavs fail to take account of it, it may complicate the whole Adriatic problem to the point of rendering it insoluble. It is evident that each coast line of the Adriatic must naturally become one with its respective hinterland; this is a fact which the acute political sense of the Italians will, I feel sure, recognize without too much difficulty. Only too obvious are the political, economic, and military disadvantages which would arise from cutting off, on the opposite shore of the Adriatic, a narrow strip of land and isolating it by a political frontier and a chain of custom-houses from that great territory of the interior which is its natural support, especially in these days of a civilization whose railway-systems are its chief vital organ.

Economic, political, and military interests, however, do not count for, everything, even in times like ours, against which the charge of materialism has been so often brought—and not without reason. The fact is that on the eastern shore of the Adriatic there is a historical element which—whatever may be the strategic, economic, and political exigencies of the modern world—exists and exerts influence on the ideas and feelings of men, forming an important factor in the problem of the Adriatic. Any one disregarding this in favor of purely strategic, political, and economic considerations, would commit the most serious and dangerous of errors. In one way only can this historic element be recognized and dealt with: those states with language differing from ours which, after the final reorganization of Europe, find themselves in possession of trans-Adriatic cities or colonies populated by Italians, must scrupulously respect all the national rights of these Italians—their language, schools, customs, traditions, and law. They must completely renounce every form of that compulsory and violent denationalization which was so popular during the thirty years proceeding the European conflagration, and which furnished one of its principal causes.

Part IV

Even while assenting to this necessity, many people will smile incredulously. They will reply that the spirit of young peoples is all-victorious; that the conflict between languages and nationalities is a sort of natural law, which cannot be evaded; that the stronger race and language has always oppressed, dispossessed, and exterminated the weaker; and those things must ever be thus. These are the arguments with which a whole political party is urging Italy to expand to its utmost limits her programme of future annexation across the Adriatic. The supporters of this party declare that the Italian race and speech will disappear, sooner or later, from those Adriatic countries which she does not now make her own; and, in truth, if one is to forecast the future from the experience of the past ten years, one must conclude that they are in a measure right. In nearly all the countries of Europe there has prevailed a policy of savage persecution of those nationalities which happen to be in the minority. Attempts have been made to denationalize whole peoples by violence.

Are we obliged, however, to conclude that such policies of relentless struggle are a biological necessity, a law of life? The annals of mankind deny this. Denationalization is a constant and beneficent phenomenon of history. Even those countries which, like France, are most closely knit from a nationalistic point of view, are formed of different races, of populations which originally possessed widely divergent customs, speech, and traditions, and which little by little ended by being fused into one integral nation.

Now there are two kinds of denationalization—voluntary and compulsory. The voluntary method was followed by ancient Rome, who, far from attempting to coerce her subjects into changing their language, customs, and religion, left them complete liberty to be guided by what they considered their own best interests. By this policy, at once flexible and intelligent, Rome latinized in the space of a single century all Southern Europe, the Balkan Peninsula, and Northern Africa.

But there is also the compulsory method of denationalization, which, in great measure, is the invention of the Germanic peoples, forming part of that dominant and militaristic conception of the State which they stand for in the world. In Germany, this procedure was applied to the Danes, the Poles, the Alsatians and Lorrainers; in Austria, to the Italians and Slavs. The Germans also passed it on to the Russians (who in their turn applied it with little discrimination to their own vast empire), and to the Hungarians and Bulgarians, who made use of the greatest severity in dealing with the Roumanians and Serbs.

In spite of the fact that this programme of coercion enjoyed during the last thirty years that particular esteem which, up to August 1, 1914, had been the portion of all things Germanic, it is not unlikely that the policy of ancient Rome may once more come into favor. The European War, that terrible ordeal of the Old World, is bound to have some good results. Was not this conflict, to a large extent, the direct result of the Germanic policy of compulsory denationalization? Was it not this policy which brought about the internal crisis in Austria and forced her to embark on the fatal venture of a war with Serbia? Was it not this policy which kept open on the flanks of France the wound of Alsace-Lorraine? How could France forget 1870, and the violence she then suffered, while her two former provinces were undergoing torment before her very eyes at the hand of Prussia's bandits? What endless difficulties, too, this policy has created for the Allied Powers which are now-at war with the Germanic empires! Because of the bitterness stirred up by Russian action in Finland, Sweden has been a partisan of Germany, and it was feared, for one moment, that she would take up arms on the side of the Teutons. The Poles should have been a mighty bulwark in the struggle against Germanism, for they know Germany to be their true enemy; but Russia as well has applied to Poland the coercive method of denationalization, without achieving any result. The Poles, therefore, maltreated by all the three powers which partitioned their country, have at best shown only a vacillating allegiance.

For all these reasons we must hope that a great change will come over the public spirit of Europe, and that her most powerful and liberal states, shaking themselves free from that fatal obsession of imitating the Germans which has led the world to the verge of ruin, will follow once more the lofty example of Roman policy. They must pledge themselves to observe scrupulously the national rights of such weaker races as may be under their dominion, and to renounce every form of forcible denationalization. The Adriatic will become one of the fields wherein this new policy, inspired by ancient Rome, will find its happiest and most liberal application. On its shores—if the issue of this war should favor our arms—there will be Slavs under Italian rule and Italians under Slavic domination. Italy is a nation which, in spite of the extensive Germanization she has undergone since 1870, has preserved the liberal and democratic tendencies of her policy. The future Slavic state which will rise from the restored and reunited fragments of Serbia cannot fail to have these liberal tendencies as well. This state, which will have come into being through the efforts of a coalition in which France, England, and Italy have played so vital a part, after a fearful struggle against Germanism and its autocratic, oppressive tendencies, will be drawn irresistibly to liberalism. The essential nature of both states, therefore, will lead them to adopt, in questions of nationality, a policy of freedom, tolerance, and respect for the rights of men.

To these political inclinations will be added the consideration of Italian and Slavic interests. The Adriatic is an Italo-Slavic sea. All its coasts are peopled by Italians and Slavs. The Germans, as well as the Magyars, are intruders on its shores; they forced their way in and took possession by violence, profiting by the weakness and discord of the two peoples who, by every right of race, are the lawful lords of the Adriatic. A new epoch in the history of this sea can begin only through an alliance of Slavs and Italians which will exclude the Germans and put an end to the 'longitudinal' policy by means of which they have always tried to draw northward the vital forces of the Balkans and the Eastern countries of the Adriatic.

If such an alliance is to endure, however, it is essential that each of the two nations respect scrupulously the rights of the other, leaving its subjects of different race free to preserve their own nationality or to change it. In this way, a double, spontaneous process of denationalization will be in progress on both shores of the Adriatic during the term of several generations, working out a simplification of the present complex ethnological situation. Slavs will become Italianized and Italians will undergo Slavic influence, spontaneously and without resistance, without revulsions of hatred and bitterness, increasing the harmony and power of the two races whose destiny it is to divide the mastery of the Adriatic. If, on the other hand, these two races should become involved in a policy of forcible denationalization, following the ignis fatuus of becoming sole ruler of the Adriatic, this sea would be once more the theatre of fresh conflict between Slavs and Italians, from which profit would accrue to one element alone—the Germanic element.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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