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An essay by Maurice Maeterlinck

Pro Patria: I

Title:     Pro Patria: I
Author: Maurice Maeterlinck [More Titles by Maeterlinck]

Pro Patria: I [1]

I need not here recall the events that hurled Belgium into the depths of distress most glorious where she is struggling to-day. She has been punished as never nation was punished for doing her duty as never nation did before. She saved the world while knowing that she could not be saved. She saved it by flinging herself in the path of the oncoming barbarians, by allowing herself to be trampled to death in order to give the defenders of justice time, not to rescue her, for she was well aware that rescue could not come in time, but to collect the forces needed to save our Latin civilization from the greatest danger that has ever threatened it. She has thus done this civilization, which is the only one whereunder the majority of men are willing or able to live, a service exactly similar to that which Greece, at the time of the great Asiatic invasions, rendered to the mother of this civilization. But, while the service is similar, the act surpasses all comparison. We may ransack history in vain for aught to approach it in grandeur. The magnificent sacrifice at Thermopylae, which is perhaps the noblest action in the annals of war, is illumined with an equally heroic but less ideal light, for it was less disinterested and more material. Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans were in fact defending their homes, their wives, their children, all the realities which they had left behind them. King Albert and his Belgians, on the other hand, knew full well that, in barring the invader's road, they were inevitably sacrificing their homes, their wives and their children. Unlike the heroes of Sparta, instead of possessing an imperative and vital interest in fighting, they had everything to gain by not fighting and nothing to lose--save honour. In the one scale were fire and the sword, ruin, massacre, the infinite disaster which we see; in the other was that little word honour, which also represents infinite things, but things which we do not see, or which we must be very pure and very great to see quite clearly. It has happened now and again in history that a man standing higher than his fellows perceives what this word represents and sacrifices his life and the life of those whom he loves to what he perceives; and we have not without reason devoted to such men a sort of cult that places them almost on a level with the gods. But what had never yet happened--and I say this without fear of contradiction from whosoever cares to search the memory of man--is that a whole people, great and small, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, deliberately immolated itself thus for the sake of an unseen thing.

And observe that we are not discussing one of those heroic resolutions which are taken in a moment of enthusiasm, when man easily surpasses himself, and which have not to be maintained when, forgetting his intoxication, he lapses on the morrow to the dead level of his everyday life. We are concerned with a resolution that has had to be taken and maintained every morning, for now nearly four months, in the midst of daily increasing distress and disaster. And not only has this resolution not wavered by a hair's breadth, but it grows as steadily as the national misfortune; and to-day, when this misfortune is reaching its full, the national resolution is likewise attaining its zenith. I have seen many of my refugee fellow-countrymen: some used to be rich and had lost their all; others were poor before the war and now no longer owned even what the poorest own. I have received many letters from every part of Europe where duty's exiles had sought a brief instant of repose. In them there was lamentation, as was only too natural, but not a reproach, not a regret, not a word of recrimination. I did not once come upon that hopeless but excusable cry which, one would think, might so easily have sprung from despairing lips:

"If our king had not done what he did, we should not be suffering what we are suffering to-day."

The idea does not even occur to them. It is as though this thought were not of those which can live in that atmosphere purified by misfortune. They are not resigned, for to be resigned means to renounce the strife, no longer to keep up one's courage. They are proud and happy in their distress. They have a vague feeling that this distress will regenerate them after the manner of a baptism of faith and glory and ennoble them for all time in the remembrance of men. An unexpected breath, coming from the secret reserves of the human race and from the summits of the human heart, has suddenly passed over their lives and given them a single soul, formed of the same heroic substance as that of their great king.

They have done what had never before been done; and it is to be hoped for the happiness of mankind that no nation will ever again be called upon for a like sacrifice. But this wonderful example will not be lost, even though there be no longer any occasion to imitate it. At a time when the universal conscience seemed about to bend under the weight of long prosperity and selfish materialism, suddenly it raised by several degrees what we may term the political morality of the world and lifted it all at once to a height which it had not yet reached and from which it will never again be able to descend, for there are actions so glorious, actions which fill so great a place in our memory, that they found a sort of new religion and definitely fix the limits of the human conscience and of human loyalty and courage.

They have really, as I have already said and as history will one day establish with greater eloquence and authority than mine, they have really saved Latin civilization. They had stood for centuries at the junction of two powerful and hostile forms of culture. They had to choose and they did not hesitate. Their choice was all the more significant, all the more instructive, inasmuch as none was so well qualified as they to choose with a full knowledge of what they were doing. You are all aware that more than half of Belgium is of Teutonic stock. She was therefore, thanks to her racial affinities, better able than any other to understand the culture that was being offered her, together with the imputation of dishonour which it included. She understood it so well that she rejected it with an outbreak of horror and disgust unparalleled in violence, spontaneous, unanimous and irresistible, thus pronouncing a verdict from which there was no appeal and giving the world a peremptory lesson sealed with every drop of her blood.

But to-day she is at the end of her resources. She has exhausted not her courage but her strength. She has paid with all that she possesses for the immense service which she has rendered to mankind. Thousands and thousands of her children are dead; all her riches have perished; almost all her historic memories, which were her pride and her delight, almost all her artistic treasures, which were numbered among the fairest in this world, are destroyed for ever. She is nothing more than a desert whence stand out, more or less intact, four great towns alone, four towns which the Rhenish hordes, for whom the epithet of barbarians is in point of fact too honourable, appear to have spared only so that they may keep back one last and monstrous revenge for the day of the inevitable rout. It is certain that Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and Brussels are doomed beyond recall. In particular, the admirable Grand'Place, the Hotel de Ville and the Cathedral at Brussels are, I know, undermined: I repeat, I know it from private and trustworthy testimony against which no denial can prevail. A spark will be enough to turn one of the recognized marvels of Europe into a heap of ruins like those of Ypres, Malines and Louvain. Soon after--for, short of immediate intervention, the disaster is as certain as though it were already accomplished--Bruges, Antwerp and Ghent will suffer the same fate; and in a moment, as I was saying the other day, there will vanish from sight one of the corners of this earth in which the greatest store of memories, of historic matter and artistic beauties had been accumulated.

The time has come to end this foolery! The time has come for everything that draws breath to rise up against these systematic, insane and stupid acts of destruction, perpetrated without any military excuse or strategic object. The reason why we are at last uttering a great cry of distress, we who are above all a silent people, the reason why we turn to your mighty and noble country is that Italy is to-day the only European power that is still in a position to stop the unchained brute on the brink of his crime. You are ready. You have but to stretch out a hand to save us. We have not come to beg for our lives: these no longer count with us and we have already offered them up. But, in the name of the last beautiful things that the barbarians have left us, we come with our prayers to the land of all beautiful things. It must not be, it shall not be that, on the day when at last we return, not to our homes, for most of these are destroyed, but to our native soil, that soil is so laid waste as to have become an unrecognizable desert. You know better than any others what memories mean, what masterpieces mean to a nation, for your country is covered with memories and masterpieces. It is also the land of justice and the cradle of the law, which is simply justice that has taken cognizance of itself. On this account, Italy owes us justice. And she owes it to herself to put a stop to the greatest iniquity in the annals of history, for not to put a stop to it when one has the power is almost tantamount to taking part in it. It is for Italy as much as for France that we have suffered. She is the source, she is the very mother of the ideal for which we have fought and for which the last of our soldiers are still fighting in the last of our trenches.


[Footnote 1: Delivered at the Scala Theatre, Milan, 30 November, 1914.]

[The end]
Maurice Maeterlinck's essay: Pro Patria: I