Miguel de Unamuno in the debate of the First World War, between neutrality and action

In Italy we recently had the opportunity to read the full collection of pieces that the Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno put together during the years of the Great War. Probably it's not by chance that it was an Italian publisher who took care of re-releasing this corpus of writings. In fact we can consider Unamuno's dedication to the fundamental theme of the First World War as a sum of two distinguished levels of reflection. The first part of the book goes back to his presence in the area of Kars, where he spent some time in September 1917 as a representative of a Spanish delegation of intellectuals, together with Manuel Azaña, the future president of the Spanish Republic. As everybody knows, Spain was not involved in the two World Wars of the twentieth century but had to face a bloody and devastating civil war during the 30s. And it’s a point of interest for us to understand what the avant-garde of Spanish writers and especially Unamuno as one of the most influencing and valued writer of his time thought about the “European war” and about the special case of Italy in the panorama of the European powers. In this first part of the book we read about the meeting with the Italian general Cadorna and we probably find here a different portrait of the man and of the general, that is very far from what is the common perception. The second part of the volume is more devoted to combine his personal view of the war with the reality of the massacre, and if Unamuno is extremely rich in detailing the interests that brought to war, at the same time he is not taking an open antimilitary position. On the contrary, like José Ortega y Gasset and the poet Antonio Machado, Unamuno wanted his country to be an active part in the conflict and was extremely harsh with the political decisions of Spain.

The title of the book in Italian is “L’agonia dell’Europa” (The agony of Europe). The perception of an “agony of Europe” is a recurring trait in many Spanish philosophers of that time – think about Maria Zambrano, for example. Unamuno's point of view is probably too intertwined with some views of the Nineteenth century: he does not consider for example the tragedy of the life and death in the trenches and the mass destruction caused by the mix of new weapons and old war techniques, and he is even too far from taking this into consideration; he rather sees the European war commenced in 1914 as a war among populations which has solid roots in the conflicts of the late nineteenth century, even as an opportunity. And of course this is a part of truth, but only a little one. And yet it is worth to underline Unamuno’s peculiar participation to the huge debate risen after the war’s outbreak (and we have to consider that we are with his writings in the long and terrible 1917, not at the beginning of the war). Similarly we could examine all the different positions in the Italian debate about the opportunity to fight or not to fight the war (and against who?), between July 1914 and May 1915, as well as we could enlist the reasons in favour or against neutrality. This would probably result into a never ending debate bringing us to a kind of no man’s land where the reasons of non-involvement and the reasons of interventionism delete each other’s motivations and explanations. Today it would be only hypocrisy not to look at the First World War considering the different motivations in favour of war or neutrality. Of course in occasion of the Centenary celebrations it’s preferable to share common and “warm” – yet not too hot – themes (like the human and psychological tragedy, the role of women, the development of medicine etc.: all crucial aspects which alone cannot however exhaust the whole topic), but we consider an incomplete approach the one which forgets that at the end this was a real war, i.e. a result of political decisions, with a winning and a losing part, even if the armistice was only a temporary truce. We stop here, otherwise we could open the huge chapter of the hypocrisy connected with all the conflicts and their inheritance, with clear examples from the present wars. This is why we suggest not to forget Unamuno’s contribution to this debate.