For one kind of person the important point was to fight the war, either on the side of Germany or against Germany: but in either event to fight the war, without regard to specific advantages—to fight the war in order that at last the Italian nation, created rather by favoring conditions than by the will of its people to be a nation, might receive its test in blood, such a test as only war can bring by uniting all citizens in a single thought, a single passion, a single hope, emphasizing to each individual that all have something in common, something transcending private interests.
This was the very thing that frightened the other kind of person, the prudent man, the realist, who had a clear view of the mortal risks a young, inexperienced, badly prepared nation would be running in such a war, and who also saw—a most significant point—that, all things considered, a bargaining neutrality would surely win the country tangible rewards, as great as victorious participation itself.
The point at issue was just that: the Italian Neutralists stood for material advantages, advantages tangible, ponderable, palpable; the Interventionists stood for moral advantages, intangible, impalpable, imponderable—imponderable at least on the scales used by their antagonists. On the eve of the war these two Italian characters stood facing each other, scowling and irreconcilable—the one on the aggressive, asserting itself ever more forcefully through the various organs of public opinion; the other on the defensive, offering resistance through the Parliament which in those days still seemed to be the basic repository of State sovereignty. Civil conflict seemed inevitable in Italy, and civil war was in fact averted only because the King took advantage of one of his prerogatives and declared war against the Central Powers.
This act of the King was the first decisive step toward the solution of the crisis.
The crisis had ancient origins. Its roots sank deep into the inner spirit of the Italian people.
What were the creative forces of the Risorgimento? The “Italian people,” to which some historians are now tending to attribute an important if not a decisive role in our struggle for national unity and independence, was hardly on the scene at all. The active agency was always an idea become a person—it was one or several determined wills which were fixed on determined goals. There can be no question that the birth of modern Italy was the work of the few. And it could not be otherwise. It is always the few who represent the self-consciousness and the will of an epoch and determine what its history shall be; for it is they who see the forces at their disposal and through those forces actuate the one truly active and productive force—their own will.