The Redeemed Provinces Under The Civil Administration
of Their Italian Conquerors
By Gino C. Speranza
(Special Correspondent of The Outlook in Italy)
[The Outlook; February 23, 1916]
Germany's efficiency has been shown in the way she has occupied Belgium, but she has made of Belgium a subject province and has wrung out of Belgian cities heavy taxes and has suppressed the freedom of the Belgian people. Italy has likewise occupied conquered territory; but it is territory where her armies have been welcomed. What Italy has done in this conquered territory is told by Mr. Speranza, The Outlook' s special correspondent, in the following article. Mr. Speranza has had quite exceptional opportunities for ascertaining the facts, having been allowed access to places and to documents not ordinarily open to correspondents. Mr. Speranza's statements of fact have, moreover, been submitted to high authority in order to insure accuracy. We believe our readers will be 'particularly gratified by this account of one of the heartening effects of the European war. —THE EDITORS.
What a stirring thing it must be for the thousands upon thousands of Italian soldiers who are to-day fighting the ancient oppressor of their beloved land to know that upon the very roads they tread have passed the legions of Rome carrying the Imperial Eagles, that in the towns they capture the officials of the Serenissima administered for centuries the laws of the Venetian Republic, and that for the conquest of some of those very mountain peaks which they have stormed in the present war with such gallantry and dash the red-shirted followers of Garibaldi gave their young and ardent lives in times less fortunate for Italy.
It is well to bear in mind that the Italian people are to-day battling for two fundamental principles of civilization : the principle of democratic freedom in Europe against the militaristic ideal of Teutonic hegemony, and the principle of nationalism, for which they have struggled since the days of Dante's magnificent vision of a United Italy.
The territory which they are slowly but unceasingly wresting from Austrian rule is not only historically and ethnically part of Italia, but constitutes what has been considered an essential bulwark to her national safety almost from time immemorial. Even when Rome's dominion extended over three-quarters of the then known world that mighty Empire did not feel itself master within its own Italic boundaries until its generals had conquered all of that Alpine region, from Ligurian to Adriatic waters, which makes a natural barrier against invasion and had pushed its defenses in the Alto Adige as far north as the Brenner Pass.
Wherever the Roman hosts carried victory, however, they also brought the seeds of a civilization, which both in the Trentino and along the lower Isonzo flowered into peaceful and noble pursuits—in trade and agriculture, in government and the arts. Hence it is natural that the soldiers of the New Italy should be deeply conscious of those duties which rest upon the armies of a civilized nation towards the civilian population of conquered territory, and that already we should see the fruits of this spirit.
The working principle of the "conquerors" can be simply stated thus: As soon as Cadorna's soldiers have swept those communes beyond the old Italian frontier clear of the Austrian enemy, the soothing, recuperative, and reconstructive forces of Italian civil life are allowed the freest and the promptest play.
Early in the war the Supreme Military Command, imbued with this sense of responsibility towards certain needs which can best be met by civilian functionaries, conceived the plan of creating within itself, and responsible to itself, a staff of civil administrators or officials known as the Segretariato Generale per gli Affari Civili presso il Comando Supremo del Regio Esercito (General Secretariat for Civil Affairs off the Supreme Command of the Royal Army). At the head of this department it called a functionary of wide administrative ability, of tried good sense, a modest but determined official—the Commendatore, Dr. Agostino d'Adamo, formerly Chief of Cabinet to the Ministry of the Interior.
The administrative and legislative labors of this Civil Department of the Supreme Military Command have been carried on with two principles of law and of policy constantly in view: adherence to the requirements of international law in relation to conquered territory, and the acceptance and continuance of whatever of good was found in local institutions, legislation, or customs, even though of Austrian origin.
Territory conquered by force of arms is not thereby lawfully incorporated into the government of the conqueror; it must await a formal and solemn act of annexation or of a treaty agreement at the conclusion of hostilities. The Italians have strictly adhered to this principle in the conquered lands, although, as I have stated, they are historically and ethnically a part of the Italian nation.
The Italian civil administration has been carried on, therefore, as much as possible according to what it was under, local Austrian rule, except in so far as temporary military necessities forbade it. No oath of fealty to the King of Italy is exacted from the officials, and even the judgments of the civil courts are issued and enforced in the name of neither the King of Italy nor of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, but in that of the de facto government—"the Supreme Command of the Italian Army. "
Of the local governments (the consigli) few were found functioning. This was due to the fact that Austria had recalled all her men fit for army service up to the age of fifty, and of those left any and all who had Italian leanings had been ruthlessly interned. Those who could do so, and were in time, sought refuge by crossing the frontier into Italy, where they now can be found by the thousands.
The population of the conquered territory is scattered over one hundred and twenty-two communes, constituting ten political districts, of which eight have been already entirely organized and are functioning under a commissario or civil representative of the Supreme Military Command. The communes have their own consigli, or assemblies, and each town has its mayor, whose title of podesta, however, recalling too vividly Austrian rule, has been changed in form but not in function to that of sindaco.
The matter of the administration of justice is under development. Here, obviously, great difficulties exist, owing to the fact that, all this territory being in the fighting zone, military exigencies continually vary, and there cannot be that absolute and unchanging application of the usual procedural guarantees of the civil code to which a citizen is entitled in normal times in a state at peace.
One of the first duties of the civil authorities has been an active interest in the re-establishing of the local schools. Such teachers as were left were confirmed in their positions, and vacancies were filled with members of the teaching profession who had fled into Italy to escape Austrian repression. The only higher educational institution within the new territory is the Ginnasio Reale at Ala, and in order to encourage its continuance and beneficent action the Italian Government has contributed towards its support a larger subsidy than was paid to it by Austria. Twelve scholarships have "been established for deserving students who might desire to complete their education at any of the higher institutions of Italy.
Some changes have been made in the curricula and in the text-books of the schools, but it will hardly be claimed to be a violation of law if the Italians have taken away histories which taught children to hate Italy. The authorities are not only supplying all schoolbooks free, but every child in the schools or in the day nurseries is given a substantial warm lunch at the expense of the state.
Special provisions have been enacted in order to facilitate the work of students who had followed the Austrian curricula, so as to equalize their standing in Italian schools of approximately the same grade; the study of German has been accepted and recognized as equivalent to courses in French, either language being left optional with the student. Small but sufficient libraries have been started in various centers, and ricreatori, or children's settlements, in the larger towns.
Nor are the children the only beneficiaries of Italian foresight in providing for the daily needs of the civilian population. One hears all over those lands the phrase: "Gli italiani hanno portato l'abbondanza" (The Italians have brought abundance). The Austrians in their retreat carried away all foodstuffs and supplies, and the Italian army of occupation had to feed, and in some instances still feeds, the civilian population. Where normal conditions have been to a certain extent established great depots of food stuffs have been opened where the people can buy necessaries at cost price; so that we have the population of the conquered provinces getting their food at about one-third of what their conquering brothers are paying in Italy.
This is not an isolated instance of that mixture of generous feeling and good sense which characterizes the Italian occupation of the new territory; the Italians, for example, have continued to pay old age pensions to those who were entitled to them under Austrian law, they have made no changes or reductions in the salaries of civil employees whom they found and confirmed in office, and they are actually paying to the wives and children of those Austrian subjects who are under arms (and perhaps fighting against Italy in the Austrian army) the same subsidies to which they were entitled under Austrian regulations.
The utmost care having been exercised to protect the Austrian archives, all records of the civil status of the inhabitants, of the ownership of real estate and of property in general, are being used as the basis of new local legislation and administration; these data, as found, serve for taxation purposes, for the preservation of titles, and the continuance of business by or on behalf of the lawful owners. In the matter of taxation great liberality has had to be exercised on account of the condition of the inhabitants; nevertheless the army has brought so much new business that in many of the larger places the returns from local taxation have almost sufficed to pay the expenses of the local administration.
Economic, social, and industrial problems are under active study, with some practical results already under way. The Rural Savings and Loan Bank of Ala, which had suspended operations, as Austria had interned all its directors, has been reorganized and is doing business; tobacco culture, which was an important industry in certain sections, has been started up anew under Italian Government experts, and General Cadorna has decreed that all laws regarding workmen's accident compensation, sick benefits, and old age pensions shall be binding and in force even during the periods of the most intense military operations, with only such minor procedural modifications from the Austrian provisions as may be made necessary by the abnormal conditions which exist to-day in the conquered territory. A plan is also being rapidly worked out for an agricultural colony for the children of those peasants in the new lands who have been orphaned by the war.
Agriculture and forestry have been of much concern to the authorities, In the non-mountainous regions it was of the utmost importance to the local population that the harvests should be saved; I have it from the highest authority that, though in some instances soldiers had to expose themselves to the enemy's fire in order to cut the grain, practically the entire harvests were gathered.
In the Trentino the Austrian Government had pursued a wise and very intelligent work of forestation; the Italian occupation gave to Italy a much-needed element of prime necessity in war—timber. Yet, though the temptation to vast cuttings has been great and the necessity for them real and urgent, the work has been put under the restraining wisdom and professional foresight of one of Italy's foremost experts in forestry.
Nor have the conquerors thought only of the material needs of the redenti; no less promptly have the Italians considered their duties towards religion and art.
In the field of religion, most parishes were found without their priests; where the parish priest remained the Italians confirmed him in his office; the vacancies they filled from clerics suggested by the bishops of adjoining Italian dioceses. In order to avoid hierarchical conflicts or the exercise of favoritism, a field bishop (Vescovo Castrense) of the Roman Catholic Church was added to the staff of the Supreme Command, who is the Church dignitary in charge of all pastoral matters relating to that changing and tragic bishopric which comprises the fighting forces of Italy and the civilian population of the lands they are winning.
The Supreme Military Command has also created in its staff the office of curator of all historic and artistic property or monuments in the redeemed lands. Such an office has no parallel in the armies of the Allies, because, unfortunately, its only purpose among them would be to keep the tragic record of the national monuments which have been destroyed or have fallen into the hands of the enemy.
The curator appointed by the Supreme Command is the Commendatore Ugo Ojetti, of Florence, a literary man and art critic of international reputation. As a volunteer officer in the army he holds the humble rank of sub-lieutenant, but he possesses plenary powers for the enforcement of General Cadorna's severe regulations regarding the preservation of all property of "artistic, historic, archaeologic, and paletologic interest."
Perhaps I can give a better idea of the work of the curator by quoting from my record of an interview which Signor Ojetti kindly granted me in the war zone.
"While there is little evidence of premeditated vandalism in places from which the Austrians have been driven," he said, "there is no question that they have systematically removed, or attempted to remove, everything of artistic value. Churches have been stripped of their treasures, and proof is available that parish priests were ordered to send anything of value in their charge to the interior. On the very day when von Bülow, as the mediator for Austria, was offering certain parts of the territory now conquered, the Austrians were removing from the Archaeological Museum of Aquileja sixteen hundred of its most precious objects, including bronzes, jewels, coins, and glass and amber treasures. Where they could not be removed they were carefully hidden or buried under ground, and it is part of my work to discover such objects, identify them whenever possible, catalogue them, and add them to the official inventory which is being made of all such art and historic property. '"
Except in the case of objects of supreme artistic value or when there is danger of their exposure to the risks of battle, the objects found are left in charge of either the parish priest or of some reliable local person—often the village schoolmaster—who thereby becomes a sort of semi-official assistant curator.
Signor Ojetti gave two striking examples showing the difference between Italian and Austrian methods towards artistic and historic property. In the town of X——— the villa of a prominent Teutonic diplomat had been seriously damaged by the artillery of the retreating Austrians, who had fired upon it despite the fact that it contained personal and diplomatic archives of importance. When the Italians occupied the town, soldiers were put at once to dig in the ruins so as to save such archives; the collected papers were put in sealed boxes, shipped to the interior, to be held in safety till the end of the war, when they will be returned to their lawful owner.
Contrast this with the Austrian method of excavating Roman remains in the Italia Irredenta; such remains, if seen by the people, might have strengthened their wish to become Italians in name as well as in fact; so the Austrians, after baring the ruins, removed everything of value which could be carried away, and then, irrespective of the historic and artistic interest of what remained, covered them over again and planted wheat or other crops upon the soil.
All over the Trentino in the northern advance and at Grado and Aquileja in the east there is much of historic and artistic value. General Cadorna believes in letting the soldiers see whatever there is of art in the conquered lands, so that even the untutored but observing mind of the contadino soldier may grasp the fact that the territory for whose conquest he has offered his life is historically and artistically a part of Italy.
It is well known that the companion-at-arms of these humble soldiers, the present King Victor Emmanuel III, in his travels to various European capitals in his younger years was obliged to avoid the railway route through the Trentino; once only did he go that way without incurring the anger of Austria, but on that occasion he had to travel by night. Yet, despite the darkness and the late hour, it is said that the railway tracks at many points were crowded with irredenti watching the royal train speed by.
To-day he and his gallant soldiers come as deliverers. True, not all look upon them as such; some, indeed, have had to be treated as dangerous enemies. But the great majority of the civilian population left, the men of peaceful callings—the peasants and the shepherds, the humble folk of the mountains and of the fields—are learning to respect the kindly, orderly, and democratic ways of their conquerors, and already feel the blessings of the new freedom.
Let me close with a little picture of that vita nuova—of that peace which follows in the wake of the Italian armed advance. From the now peaceful valleys below comes a song, echoed and re-echoed by the mountain fastnesses:
"E col nostro signor capitano
Fino a Vienna vogliamo anda'!"
Amid those vast spaces, to the simple hearts of those shepherds and contadini this canzonetta of the Italian fantoccino sounds neither boastful nor trivial; it is a hymn, not of hatred, but of promise, borne by the evening air to those other members of the great Italian family who must still await deliverance.
They will not wait in vain!
San Domenico di Fiesole, Italy
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald