Zweig on doing good rather than grandstanding: a story

I’ve quoted Zweig several times on this blog since reading his memoirs, but I was going to post this — and forgot. So, better late than never, here it is. A lovely story:

One day I had an express letter from a friend in Paris, saying that an Italian lady wanted to visit me in Salzburg on important business, and could I see her at once? She called on me the very next day, and what she had to tell me was indeed shocking. Her husband, a distinguished medical doctor of humble social origin, had been educated at the expense of Matteotti. When Matteotti, leader of the Socialists, was murdered by the Fascists, world opinion, already weary with all the demands on it, had reacted once more against a single crime. All Europe had risen in indignant protest. His loyal friend the doctor had been one of the six brave men who dared to carry Matteotti’s coffin openly through the streets of Rome. Soon after that, ostracised and under threat, he had gone into exile. But the fate of Matteotti’s family weighed on his mind. In memory of his benefactor, he tried to smuggle Matteotti’s children out of Italy to safety abroad.

However, in the attempt he himself had fallen foul of spies or agents provocateurs, and had been arrested. As everything calling Matteotti to mind was an embarrassment to Italy, the outcome of a trial on those grounds would not have been too bad for him, but by devious means the public prosecutor had associated his trial with another going on at the same time, and that case was concerned with an attempt to blow up Mussolini with a bomb. So this doctor, who had won the highest honours serving his country on the battlefields of the Great War, was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour.

Naturally his young wife was extremely distressed. Something, she said, must be done to overturn the sentence, which her husband could not survive. An appeal must go out to all the literary names in Europe to unite in loud protest, and she was asking me to help her. My immediate reaction was to advise her against trying to get anywhere with protests. I knew how threadbare such demonstrations had worn since the war. I did my best to explain that no country, for reasons of national pride, was going to let outsiders change the decisions of its judiciary, and that European protests in the case of Sacco and Vanzetti in America had had the opposite of the desired effect. I urged her not to do anything of that kind, pointing out that she would only make her husband’s situation worse, because Mussolini would never—indeed, could never—recommend leniency if foreign attempts were made to force his hand. But I was genuinely shocked myself, and promised to do my best. It so happened that the next week I was going to Italy, where I had friends in influential positions. Perhaps they could quietly do something to help her husband.

I approached my friends on my very first day in the country. But I could see how fear had already eaten into all minds. As soon as I mentioned the doctor’s name everyone looked awkward and said No, he was sorry, but he had no influence, it was impossible to do anything. I went from one to another. I came home feeling ashamed and afraid the man’s poor wife might think I hadn’t done all I could. Nor, as a matter of fact, had I. There was still one possibility—the direct approach. I would write to the man in whose hands the decision lay, Mussolini himself.

I did that. I sent him a perfectly honest letter. I was not, I wrote, going to begin with flattery, and I ought also to say at once that I did not know the doctor personally or the extent of what he had done. But I had seen his wife, who was certainly innocent of any crime, and she too would suffer the full rigour of the court’s sentence if her husband spent all those years in the penitentiary. I did not intend to criticise the verdict in any way, but I could well imagine that it would save the young woman’s life if her husband were allowed to serve his sentence not in the penitentiary, but on one of the island penal colonies where wives and children are allowed to live with exiles.

I took the letter, addressed it to His Excellency Benito Mussolini, and put it in the usual Salzburg postbox. Four days later I heard from the Italian Embassy in Vienna. His Excellency, said the Embassy, thanked me for my letter, said that he would do as I asked, and in addition to commuting the doctor’s sentence had taken it upon himself to shorten its length. At the same time I had a telegram from Italy confirming that the doctor, as I had asked, had been moved to a penal colony. Mussolini himself had granted my request with a single stroke of his pen, and in fact the convicted doctor soon received a full pardon. No letter in my life has ever given me so much delight and satisfaction, and if I ever think of my own literary success, it is this instance of it that I remember with especial gratitude.

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