Notes From Emil Reich’s “Foundations of Modern Europe” Part V

Note: The library I blog at will be closed this coming Monday, so you can expect the next installment of this series to be posted on Wednesday the twenty-first. If something prevents this from happening, then the next part will most likely be posted on Friday instead. Thank you.


The Unity of Italy

The political events in the twenty years from 1851 to 1871 were so great that they can, like all great events, be summed up in a few clear words. They may be reduced to the following five groups of facts:

(1) The establishment, prosperity, and downfall of the second French Empire.

(2) The fall of the Austrian Empire from its former greatness.

(3) The defeat of the Russians by the English and French, and the consequent gravitation of Russia not towards the West, but towards the East, that is, Asia.

(4) The rise of the unity of Italy.

(5) The rise of the unity of Germany.

It will be seen that these five groups of facts completely changed the physiognomy of Europe. France, after a temporary rise to first-class importance, was humiliated and deprived of her great influence. It was so with Austria, which up to 1850 was one of the great Powers and of decisive influence in all Continental matters; it was even so with the influence of Russia, which for a long time back had been appreciable in nearly the whole of Europe and which now proved unable to make any headway, whether in the southwest portion of her Empire, or in Germany, and was forced to seek for new fields of conquest in uncivilized Asia. Finally, by the rise of a united Germany and Italy, new powers were introduced into the concert of Europe which, as everybody knows, have had influence not only on the Continent, but on the international position of England, America, and the Far East. These momentous changes were realized chiefly by the genius, luck, and energy of two men, Bismarck in Germany and Cavour in Italy. If we now add similar events, not as comprehensive, but of almost equal importance, such as the unification of Hungary by Francis Deák and the rise of the Danubian principalities and kingdoms (kingdom of Roumania, kingdom of Servia, principality of Bulgaria, etc.), we have exhausted the number of really important and influential events during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Louis Napoleon, as we saw, was made President of the French Republic, and by the coup d’état of the 2d December, 1851, he made himself Emperor of the French. There are few men in modern history with regard to whom the judgment of their contemporaries was led astray in a more pitiable manner than with regard to Louis Napoleon. As the heir of the great Napoleon he impressed the nations and gave rise to an appreciation wholly out of proportion to his real merits. Napoleon III. was neither a man of genius nor a man of action. He was a strange combination of a dreamer and yet a persistent worker; a man lacking in the chief quality of a ruler, that is, in the sense of proportion as applied to the great events and leading persons of his time. Nearly all the ideals floating before his mind were impracticable and adverse to the interests both of his dynasty and of his subjects. He pursued a nationalist policy, dreaming of the union of nations and wasting his time, money, and power on an enterprise that promised neither glory nor profit.

The Italians, ever since they had been united into the kingdom of Italy by Napoleon the Great, had never given up the idea of restoring the unity of the Peninsula. That idea had been in their minds and hearts for over a thousand years previously. The greatest minds and characters of Italy; generals and admirals, thinkers, poets and men of action, all had, in innumerable books, articles, poems, and actions, attempted to pave the way for the restoration of the unity of Italy. All these attempts had been, however, in vain. It is one of the deepest lessons of history that Italy, which in times before Christ had, under Roman rule, succeeded in uniting the whole Western world, was, after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century of our era, absolutely unable to make good her own unity. It is a further curious teaching of History, it must now be added, that the unity which Italy before Christ conferred upon the European world and which after Christ she was unable to secure for herself, was in the nineteenth century given to her by the great Powers of Europe, chiefly by France. Thus there is no exaggeration in saying that the unity which Italy formerly gave to the world, the world gave to her in the nineteenth century.

The forces of the Italians themselves were curiously inadequate. In the Italian character there are, as in all high-strung natures, the most surprising contradictions. In private life there is no more dramatic nation that the Italians, yet they have never produced dramatic literature of any high order. In public life there are no more ardent politicians than the Italians, and their wonderful intelligence, dash, and courage seemed to promise national or concerted action on a grand scale. In reality, however, the Italians of the last century consistently shrank from grand and open actions, and their greatest statesman, Cavour, instead of choosing the methods of Bismarck or of some Italian hothead like Garibaldi, unswervingly clung to methods quite the reverse of open warfare and military exploits. Already during the time of the Reaction, as we have seen, the Italians essayed to make good their unity by secret societies, anonymous risings, and nameless political murders. It seemed impossible to prevail upon the people in Italy to rise in a body. With all due recognition of the immense merits of the Catholic Church for the rest of the world it cannot be denied that in the nineteenth as well, as in the preceding centuries the Papacy prevented the Italians from accomplishing any great action on behalf of Italian unity. The Papal States took up the very centre of Italy and thus cut the Peninsula into two halves, linked by a state neither national nor powerful enough to offer protection. This “third body” in the polity of Italy has, as Machiavelli observed, always been the real cause of the disunion of Italy. The Popes had in former times very frequently invoked the help of foreign potentates in order to foil any attempt on the part of Italian princes or heads of states to secure the unity of Italy. Cavour now turned the tables on the Popes; and the very policy that they had used for centuries to deprive Italy of the advantages of union was now utilized by Cavour to secure that unity, despite all the antagonistic policy of the Pope and of the smaller monarchs in Italy. Bismarck, as is well known and as we shall see in a subsequent chapter, had proceeded on the lines of a policy in many ways directly the opposite to that of Cavour. He, too, laboured at the unity of Germany, but he was convinced, and events proved him right, that that unity could only be obtained by “blood and iron.” Cavour, on the other hand, who had made a deep study of English, French, and Italian history, had come to an entirely different solution of the same problem. Without entirely discarding the more aggressive patriots, he was determined to secure the unity of Italy by making that great aim an interest of France in the first place, of England and Prussia in the next. Once, he rightly thought, the great Powers of Europe, or most of them, are interested on behalf of the unity of Italy, their combined forces will force down all opposition on the part of Austria, the Pope, or the King of Naples; just as had been the case in 1830 when Belgium wanted to become an independent State and succeeded, because England in the first place, and also other Powers, had an interest in seeing Belgium separated from Holland.

The deep diplomacy of Cavour was very considerably aided by some of the most excessive radicals, demagogues, and patriots of Italy. For this is the unfailing sign of a great policy, that circumstances apparently opposed to it are in reality helping it forward. Nothing more contradictory can be imagined than the cautious, prudent, cunning policy of Cavour, and the exaggerated zeal of some of the Carbonari who, like Mazzini, Orsini, and others, were firm in their belief that the unity of Italy could be achieved more rapidly by the dagger and the bomb than by diplomatic negotiations. Yet these very radicals and extremists helped Cavour so essentially that his great triumph in July, 1858, the secret alliance with Napoleon III., was entirely owing, in the first place, to the desperate action of Orsini in January of the same year. A few words will put that quite clearly. Cavour in reality, as an Italian statesman, was technically only the minister of the King of Sardinia, that is, of the western part of Lombardy, then a small and unimportant country. The diplomacy of the House of Savoy or the Kings, formerly the Dukes, of Piedmont in Sardinia, has, like that of many a small nation surrounded by mighty Powers, always been characterized by exceeding subtlety and carefulness. It was in Cavour that that dexterity in seizing the reins of diplomacy was carried to its highest perfection. Cavour wanted to persuade Napoleon to wage war with Austria, which ever since the Congress of Vienna had been the most important military power in Italy. Austria possessed practically the whole of the north of Italy except Sardinia, and was preponderant in the rest of the Peninsula. The King of Sardinia single-handed could not hope to cope successfully with Austria; and no serious hope of uniting the other monarchs of Italy against Austria could be entertained. Military help therefore was bound to come from France. It was sufficient for Cavour that England and Prussia should give their moral support in the matter, which they both did in ample measure. Already in 1854, when England and France had begun the Crimean campaign against Russia, Cavour, in order to place them under obligations to Italy, had sent out a considerable corps of Italian soldiers to the Crimea as an auxiliary army for the allies.