Speech by the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, at the ceremony held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War and to celebrate Italy’s National Unity and Armed Forces Day
I am very pleased to be here in Trieste, and particularly in this wonderful piazza so full of history and culture, to celebrate the National Unity and Armed Forces Day, which this year coincides with the centenary of the victorious end of the First World War. Trieste is a city both deeply Italian and European, a border and hinge city very dear to Italy. It is the capital of many worlds, as it holds the history of many histories. It is the symbol and metaphor of the complexities and contradictions of the Twentieth century. I would like to greet the people living in Trieste and all the Italians.
Today, with the arrival in Trieste of our Navy’s Audace and Grecale and the Army’s entry in Trento, the Republic is celebrating the end of the war and the Victory that ratified the total fulfilment of the Risorgimento dream to see Italy unified.
We are celebrating with legitimate pride and with passion, without forgetting the suffering and pain that marked that page in history.
With a true spirit of friendship and cooperation, we are also celebrating with the people and governments of those Countries whose armies fought next to or against ours, with equal valour and sacrifice. I would like to extend my warmest greetings to their representatives and express my gratitude for their significant presence here with us today, in Piazza Unità. To celebrate together the end of the war and to jointly honour the fallen – all the fallen – signifies to reiterate with force, all together, that over the path of war, we prefer to develop friendship and cooperation. The highest expression of such choice is given by the historic decision to share our future in the European Union.
Wars are always tragic, even if fought – as many Italians did – with the historic aim to complete the National Unity started during the Risorgimento.
The outbreak of war in 1914 proved the disastrous inability of the European ruling class of those days to pursue national aspirations and interests in a peaceful and cooperative way. As a matter of fact, it surrendered to the allurements of an aggressive nationalism that manifested itself in the desire for power, in the so-called sacred egoisms and in an expansionistic rhetoric.
As Claudio Magris wrote, «Each Country wanted to give a nice little lesson to the closest enemy, and obtain territorial advantages or other types of benefits …. No one imagined that the war would have been so dreadful, especially for the troops at the front, and that it would have lasted so long».
More than ten million soldiers died in the First World War, together with an extremely high and indefinite number of civilians. That sacrifice, though, did not give Europe the new order which many, even sincerely, were hoping for, founded on peace, goodwill and freedom. The war did not produce wealth and wellbeing, not even for the winners, but sorrow, poverty and suffering, as well as Europe’s loss of relevance at international level.
The war did not solve the ancient controversies between States, but created new ones even more serious. The ancient and civil European nations ended up sinking in the barbarisms of totalitarianisms, laying the foundations for another world conflict, even more destructive, inhumane and exacerbated.
The second decade of the Twentieth century was marked by the serious and avoidable mistakes made by the ruling classes and by the cruel and brutal war carried out by the High Commands. However, those events must not and cannot overshadow the heroic deeds and sacrifice of the soldiers that fought for their Homeland. We must never forget their valour, mobilization, solidarity and sense of duty.
Indeed, not far from here, in the terrible stony area of Carso, as well as in all the areas of the front, unforgettable pages of history were written narrating valour, courage, suffering, death and desolation.
Thousands and thousands of people died every day, especially young people, in the darkness of the trenches, in the mud, in the intense cold, victims of lethal and increasingly perfected weaponry, of hunger and terrible epidemics. Among the Italian soldiers, one out of ten died in battle or in the hospital. The same percentages, if not higher, were calculated in the armies of both allies and enemies. Not to mention the impossibility to count the mutilated, the disabled, the missing, the prisoners.
Men of all ages, from all over Italy, with different social backgrounds and cultural levels, found themselves joined – voluntarily or out of obedience – in trenches, terrible assaults, behind the lines, under the threat of bombings, gases, snipers. The Italian soldiers, each in their own way, found an inner strength to resist with courage and devotion, and to face extremely difficult trials, often way beyond human endurance.
Mention must also be made to the large number of Italians, living in the irredent territories, who were sent to the distant region of Galicia, where they fought and died wearing an Austro-Hungarian uniform.
We must pay tribute today to all the soldiers and seamen. Indeed, to all and each one of them: to the most fearless, certainly driven by willpower and their defiance of danger; to the many heroes, both known and unknown; but also to those who were resigned, distressed, full of fear. Soldiers are all united and burdened by the suffering produced from the cost of war, which is death and sacrifice.
As written immediately after the Great War for the awarding of the Medal of Honour to the Unknown Soldier, today we want to pay tribute to “The Unknown Soldier, the fighter that fought all battles, the hero at all times that, before dying, combined valour and mercy wherever he went or stopped. The soldier without a name and a story. He himself being the story: the story of our long torment, the story of our great victory.” As that is where the motivation lies.
I therefore wish to pay tribute to a simple soldier, Vittorio Calderoni. He was born in Argentina, in 1901, after his parents emigrated from Italy. When he was only 17 years old he sailed to Italy, to enlist and fight in the Italian Army. He died from his wounds just after the war ended, one hundred years ago in November.
I consider it my duty to honour his memory in this piazza, as this is where eighty years ago Mussolini delivered his speech that ushered the Country in the dark and tragic period of racial persecution, and Vittorio Calderoni was Jewish, the youngest of some 400 Italians of Jewish origin who died in the Great War.
The battle of Vittorio Veneto was the final act of a war fought with courage and determination by an army that was strong and tenacious, to the point of overcoming the terrible defeat of Caporetto, caused by the serious mistakes in the chain of command, and not certainly by the cowardice of our soldiers. Indeed, in that crucial moment, what prevailed in those soldiers was their desire for freedom and unity, the love for their Country. The contribution of the valiant Italian Army was decisive for the victorious outcomes of the allied coalition. The Eastern Front was the first to fall under the Italian pressure, inducing the Central Powers to sign the Armistice. Then, a week later, the Western Front fell as well.
Before coming to Trieste, I went to pay homage to the fallen soldiers buried at the Memorial of Redipuglia.
Amid the over one hundred thousand tombs of Italian soldiers of all ages and provenance, there is the niche of the only woman buried at the Memorial.
It is the tomb of Margherita Kaiser Parodi Orlando, a red cross nurse with middle-class origins, who went to the front when she was barely 18 years old. She died of Spanish flu, three years later, after assisting and taking care of hundreds of wounded soldiers.
I also wish to pay tribute to Maria Plozner Mentir, of humble origins, mother of four children, killed by a sniper in 1916. Awarded the Gold Medal of Military Valour, she was one of the many “bearers” in Carnia, women who voluntarily and courageously went to the first lines to bear food, clothing and munitions to our soldiers.
And finally, I wish to mention Queen Elena, very much loved by the people, who during the war did her utmost serving as nurse, setting up a field hospital at the Quirinale, hospitalizing and medicating the wounded and the mutilated.
I wanted to remember these women as they are representative of all the Italian women who fought at the front or in factories, who raised their children alone, who did all they could to sew clothing, find food or assist the wounded and the dying. Without those women, the victory would not have been possible.
Women, elderly people, children, disabled persons fought another war, perhaps less fierce, but not for that less courageous or less burdened by losses and suffering. And indeed, still today, women, elderly people and children are the weakest victims of every war and conflict. The Great War did not involve only soldiers: destruction, affliction and hunger fell upon the civilian population as well, in particular in Veneto and Friùli whose areas were occupied after the defeat of Caporetto.
On the National Unity Day, the Italians stand by the Armed Forces with gratitude. And we must not forget the Guardia di Finanza, today as during the First World War. Their history, full of heroic deeds, has continued up to our current days following the most noble traditions, yet projected into the future with the same devotion, altruism and passion.
The Italian Constitution, founded on the struggle of the Resistance, rejects war as instrument for solving controversies, privileging peace, international collaboration, the respect of human rights and minorities. Our Armed Forces are a fundamental part in this design and are committed in guaranteeing safety and peace at international level, strengthening Italy’s prestige in the world.
While we are celebrating this important anniversary, 5,600 Italian soldiers are deployed abroad in peacekeeping operations organized by the United Nations, the Atlantic Alliance, the European Union, with large or small contingents. Moreover, there are almost eight thousand women and men serving in the Armed Forces involved on the national territory in the operation “Strade Sicure” (“Safe Streets”) and in the Mediterranean Sea with “Mare Sicuro” (“Safe Sea”).
I would like to express the Country’s and my personal utmost gratitude to all of them. Thank you for what you are doing. And my gratitude goes also to your families who, rightfully proud of you, support you even in the most difficult moments.
In these hours, many of our women and men serving in the Armed Forces – whom I greatly thank – are working hard, together with many volunteers, to provide aid and carry out emergency operations in the territories that, from the mountain regions of Friuli, Veneto and Trentino, through other areas down to the province of Palermo, have been hit by severe weather conditions causing dramatic consequences, deaths and devastation. My full solidarity and that of the Country goes to the families of the victims and to all the populations living in the devastated areas.
To conclude from this territory where immense tragedies took place – such as the foibe massacres –, I would like to extend a special thought to the Italian youngsters. I warmly encourage them to keep alive the memory of the fallen and of the civilians’ suffering, as an antidote against the risk of new wars.
For you youngsters – actually the same age of the many fallen back then – the dark days and suffering of the two World Wars certainly seem very remote in time. Always remember, though, that it is only by keeping an active and alert memory of the suffering and of the victims of those conflicts that it will be possible to consolidate and make choices increasingly irreversible aimed at peace and freedom. Indeed, this is what leads people and populations to live together peacefully and respectfully.
I wish all the best to Italy and its National Unity, to the Armed Forces, to the Republic, and may there be Peace!