Pro Patria:II by Maurice Maeterlinck

Story type: Essay

Pro Patria: II[1]

More than three months ago, I was in one of the grandest of your cities, a city that welcomed in a manner which I shall never forget the cause which I had come among you to represent. I was there, as I told my hearers at the time, in the name of the last remnants of beauty that the barbarians had left us, to plead with the land of every kind of beauty. Those threatened beauties, our only cities yet intact, the treasures and sanctuaries of our whole past and of all our race, are still reeling on the brink of the same abyss and, failing a miracle which we dare not hope for, they will suffer the fate of Ypres, Louvain, Malines, Termonde, Dixmude and so many other less illustrious victims. The danger in which they stand has no doubt aroused the indignation of the civilized world; but not a hand has armed itself to defend them. I blame no one; I reproach no one; the morality of the nations is a virtue that has not yet emerged from the state of infancy; and fortunately, by the hazard of war, it is not yet too late to save four innocent cities.

To-day I have not come to speak of monuments, of historical relics, nor even of the wrongs committed, of the violation of all the rights and laws of warfare and every international convention, of incendiarism, pillage and massacre; I have come simply to utter before you the last distressful cry of a dying nation.

At this moment a tragedy is being enacted in Belgium such as has no precedent in the history of civilized peoples, nor even in that of the barbarians, for the barbarians, when committing their most stupendous crimes, lacked the infernal deliberation and the scientific, all-powerful means of working evil which to-day are in the hands of those who profit by the resources and benefits of civilization only to turn them against it and to seek the annihilation of all its noblest and most generous characteristics. The despairing rumours of this tragedy come to us only through the chinks of that ensanguined well which isolates it from the rest of the world. Nothing reaches our ears but the lies of the enemy. In reality, the whole of Belgium is one huge Prussian prison, where every cry is cruelly and methodically stifled and where no voices are heard save those of the gaolers. Only now and again, after a thousand adventures, despite a thousand perils, a letter from some kinsman or captive friend arrives from the depths of that great living cemetery, bringing us a gleam of authentic truth.

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You are as familiar with this truth as I am. At the moment when her soil was invaded, Belgium numbered seven million seven hundred thousand inhabitants. It is estimated that between two hundred and fifty and three hundred thousand have perished in battle or massacre, or as the result of misery and privation; and I am not speaking of the infant children, the sacrifice of whom, owing to the dearth of milk, has, it appears, been frightful. Five or six hundred thousand unfortunates have fled to Holland, France or England. There remain therefore in the country nearly seven million inhabitants; and more than half of these seven millions are living almost exclusively on American charity. In what is above all an industrial country, producing normally, in time of peace, less than a third part of the wheat necessary for home consumption, the enemy has systematically requisitioned everything, carried off everything, for the upkeep of his armies, and has sent into Germany what he could not consume on the spot. The result of so monstrous a proceeding may readily be divined: on all that soil, once so happy and so rich, to-day taxed and pillaged and pillaged again, ravaged and devastated by fire and the sword, there is nothing left. And the situation of suffering Belgium is so cruelly paradoxical that her best friends, her dearest allies, even those whom she has saved, are powerless to succour her. Isolated as she is from the rest of the world, she would have starved even though nothing had been taken from her. Now she has been despoiled of all that she possessed, while France and England can send her neither money nor provisions, for they would fall into the hands of those engaged in torturing her, so much so that every attempt on their part to alleviate her sufferings would but retard her deliverance still further. Did history ever witness a more poignant, a more desperate tragedy? It is a fact that in the midst of this war we are constantly finding ourselves confronted with events such as history hitherto has never beheld. A people resembling an enormous beast of prey, in order to punish a loyalty and heroism which, if it retained the slightest notion of justice and injustice, the smallest sense of human dignity and honour, it ought to worship on its knees: this vast predatory race stealthily resolved to exterminate an inoffensive little nation whose soul it felt was too great to be enslaved or reduced to the semblance of its conqueror’s. It was on the point of succeeding, amid the silence, the impotence, or the terror of the world, when from beyond the Atlantic a generous nation took that heroic little people under its protection. It understood that what was involved was not merely an act of justice and elementary pity, but also and more particularly a higher duty towards the morality and the eternal conscience of mankind. Thanks to this great nation’s intervention, it will not be said, in the days to come, that justice, loyalty, honesty and heroism are no more than dangerous illusions and a fool’s bargain, or that evil must necessarily, at all times and places, conquer whenever it is backed by force, or that the only reward which duty magnificently done may hope to receive on this earth is every manner of grief and disaster, ending in death by starvation. So immense and triumphant an example of iniquity would strike the ideals of mankind a blow from which they would not recover for centuries.

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But already this help is becoming exhausted; it cannot be indefinitely prolonged; and very soon it will be insufficient. It is, moreover, at the mercy of the slightest diplomatic or political complication; and its failure will be irreparable. It will mean utter famine, unexampled extermination, which till the end of the world will cry to heaven for vengeance. It is no longer a question of weeks or months, but one of days. That is where we stand; and these are the last hours granted by destiny to an inactive Europe wherein to expunge the shame of her indifference.

These hours belong almost solely to you, for others have not your power. Whatever may happen, however long you may postpone the issue, one of these days you will be obliged to join in the fray. Everything advises, everything orders you to do so; and I can see nothing on the side of honour, justice or humanity, on the side of the will of the centuries or the human race, nor even on the side of prudence and self-interest, that allows you to avoid it. Is it not better and more worthy of yourselves than all the subtleties, plottings and petty bargainings of diplomacy?

The one hour, the peremptory hour has struck when your aid can break the balance between the powers of good and evil which, for more than two hundred days, have kept the future of Europe hanging over the abyss.

Fate has granted you the magnificent boon, the all but divine privilege, of saving from the most horrible of deaths four or five millions of innocent human beings, four or five millions of martyrs who have performed the finest action that a people could perform and who are perishing because they defended the ideals which your fathers taught them. I know that we are faced by duties which until to-day had never entered into the morality of States; for it is but too true that this morality still lags a thousand miles behind that of the meanest peasant. But, if such a thing has never yet been done, it is all the more glorious to be the first to do it, to make an effort that will raise the life of nations to a level which the life of the individual has long since attained. And no people is better qualified than the Italian to make this effort which the world and the future are awaiting as a deliverance.

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But I will say no more. I have been reproached for speaking of matters which, as a foreigner, I ought not to discuss. I believed that these great questions of humanity interested the whole human race. Perhaps I was wrong. I will respect the profound silence in which great actions are developed; and I leave to the meditation of your hearts that which I am constrained to leave unsaid. They will tell you very much better than I could all that I had to say to you.


[Footnote 1: Delivered in Rome, before the Associazione della Stampa, 13 March, 1915.]

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