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Pro Patria: III
by [?]

Pro Patria: III[1]

Although nothing entitles me to the honour of addressing you in the name of my refugee countrymen, nevertheless it is only fitting, since a kindly insistence brings me here, that I should in the first place give thanks to England for the manner in which she welcomed them in their distress. I am but a voice in the crowd; and, if my words exceed the limits of this hall and lend to him who utters them an authority which he himself does not possess, it is only because they are filled with unbounded gratitude.

In this horrible war, whose stakes are the salvation and the future of mankind, let us first of all salute our wonderful sister, France, who is supporting the heaviest burden and who, for more than eleven months, having broken its first and most formidable onslaught, has been struggling, foot by foot, at closest quarters, without faltering, without remission, with an heroic smile, against the most formidable organization of pillage, massacre and devastation that the world or hell itself has seen since man first learnt the history of the planet on which he lives. We have here a revelation of qualities and virtues surpassing all that we expected from a nation which nevertheless had accustomed us to expect of her all that goes to make the beauty and the glory of humanity. One must reside in France, as I have done for many years, to understand and admire as it deserves the incomparable lesson in courage, abnegation, firmness, determination, coolness, conscious dignity, self-mastery, good-humour, chivalrous generosity and utter charity and self-sacrifice which this great and noble people, which has civilized more than half the globe, is at the present moment teaching the civilized world.

Let us also salute boundless Russia, with her wonderful soldiers, innocent and ingenuous as the saints of old, ignorant of fear as children who do not yet know the meaning of death. Yonder, along a formidable front running from the Baltic to the Black Sea, with silent multitudinous heroism, amid defeats which are but victories delayed, she is beginning the great work of our deliverance, Lastly let us greet Servia, small but prodigious, whom we must one day place on the summit of that monument of glory which Europe will raise to-morrow to the memory of those who have freed her from her chains.

So much for them. They have a right to all our gratitude, to all our admiration. They are doing magnificently all that had to be done. But they occupy a place apart in duty’s splendid hierarchy. They are the protagonists of direct, material, tangible, undeniable, inevitable duty. This war is their war. If they would not accept the worst of disgraces, if they were not prepared to suffer servitude, massacre, ruin and famine, they had to undertake it; they could not do otherwise. They were attacked by the born enemy, the irreducible and absolute enemy, of whom they knew enough to understand that they had nothing to expect from him but total and unremitting disaster. It was a question of their continued existence in this world. They had no choice; they had to defend themselves; and any other nation in their place would have done the same, only there are few who would have done it with the same spirit of self-abnegation, the same devotion, the same perseverance, the same loyalty and the same smiling courage.

But for us Belgians–and we may say as much for you English–it was not a question of this kind of duty. The horrible drama did not concern us. It demanded only the right to pass us by without touching us; and, far from doing us any harm, it would have flooded us with the unclaimed riches which armies on the march drag in their wake. We Belgians in particular, peaceable, hospitable, inoffensive and almost unarmed, should, by the very treaties which assured our existence, have remained complete strangers to this war. To be sure, we loved France, because we knew her as well as we knew ourselves and because she makes herself beloved by all who know her. But we entertained no hatred of Germany. It is true that, in spite of the virtues which we believed her to possess but which were merely the mask of a spy, our hearts barely responded to her obsequiously treacherous advances. For the German, of all the inhabitants of our planet, has this one and singular peculiarity, that he arouses in us, from the onset, a profound, instinctive, intuitive feeling of antipathy. But, even so and wherever our preferences may have lain, our treaties, our pledged word, the very reason of our existence, all forbade us to take part in the conflict. Then came the incredible ultimatum, the monstrous demand of which you know, which gave us twelve hours to choose between ruin and death or dishonour. As you also know, we did not need twelve hours to make our choice. This choice was no more than a cry of indignation and resolution, spontaneous, fierce and irresistible. We did not stay for a moment to ponder the extenuating circumstances which our weakness might have invoked. We did not for a moment consider the absolution which history would have granted us later, on realizing that a conflict between forces so completely disproportioned was futile, that we must inevitably be crushed, massacred and annihilated and that the sacrifice of a little people in its entirety could prevent nothing, could barely cause delay and would have no weight in the immense balance into which the world’s destinies were about to be flung. There was no question of all this; we saw one thing only: our plighted word. For that word we must die; and since then we have been dying. Trace the course of history as far back as you will; question the nations of the earth; then name those who have done or who would have done what we did. How many will you find? I am not judging those whom I pass over in silence, for to do so would be to enter into the secret of men’s hearts which I have not the right to violate; but in any case there is one which I can name aloud, without fear of being mistaken; and that is the British nation. This people too entered into the conflict, not through interest or necessity or inherited hatred, but simply for a matter of honour. It has not suffered what we have suffered; it has not risked what we have risked, which is all that we possessed beneath the arch of heaven; but it owes this immunity only to outside circumstances. The principle and the quality of the act are the same. We stand on the same plane, one step higher than the other combatants. While the others are the soldiers of necessity, we are the volunteers of honour; and, without detracting from their merits, this title adds to ours all that a pure and disinterested idea adds to the noblest acts of courage. There is not a doubt but that in our place you would have done precisely what we did. You would have done it with the same simplicity, the same calm and confident ardour, the same good faith. You would have thrown yourselves into the breach as whole-heartedly, with the same scorn of useless phrases and the same stubborn conscientiousness. And the reason why I do not shrink from singing in your presence the praises of what we have done is that these praises also affect yourselves, who would not have hesitated to do the selfsame things.