Let’s treat police shootings like plane crashes

On January 13, 1982, when I was nine years old, my parents turned on the television to watch a horror.   Air Florida Flight 90 had crashed into the 14th Street Bridge near Washington, D.C., and plunged into the ice-choked Potomac River below.  We were watching the frantic rescue of a handful of survivors in appalling conditions: below-freezing temperatures, a driving snowstorm, and a frozen river.  I remember watching Larry Skutnik, a Congressional Budget Office employee, dive into the river to help save Priscilla Tirado, who was too weak to hold onto a life preserver dropped from a helicopter.  The 737 crash killed 78 people, including four motorists on the bridge.  Five people survived.  What had been a routine flight between Washington National Airport and Ft. Lauderdale instead became the horror we watched at home.

FAA photo via Wikipedia.

There are a few watershed moments in the history of commercial aviation, accidents that lead to a fundamental change or rethinking of flight safety, training, maintenance, operations, and procedures.  Air Florida joined the Tenerife disaster, the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings, the de Havilland Comet stress fatigue case, and the Tissandier high-altitude balloon flight of 1875 as object lessons for science and the industry.  In the case of Air Florida, improvements in flight training, cold-weather procedures and operations, and crew resource management spread across the industry and, happily, made commercial flight safer and more reliable.

Aircraft accidents are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board.  The NTSB is not a regulatory body.  It is not a criminal investigative agency.  It issues no legally enforceable orders.  It prosecutes no one.  And yet despite that the NTSB is the leading driver of continuous improvements in aircraft safety.  This is because the NTSB is a legal safe space: by statute, nothing published by the board can be used in any criminal or civil legal proceeding.  This practice rewards openness and transparency in the investigation for root causes – the more “evidence” provided, the less likely something will remain for prosecution or class action – and defuses the adversarial trial process where there is just one winner and the loser goes to jail.

Flight 90 was, despite its legacy, in almost every way a very typical case.  The vast majority of industrial accidents and airplane crashes are the result of a cascade of failures (sometimes called “normal accidents”), usually combining equipment or sensor failures with lack of training, inexperience, or misjudgements by the crew.  These are collections of smaller failures that individually would not cause or even contribute to the accident.  But a sequence of these small failures almost certainly will cause an accident.  In other words, these individual failures are individual risk factors that if checked one by one can dramatically reduce the probability of an accident.

The NTSB listed three “probable causes” in the Air Florida crash: crew failure to de-ice engines, crew failure to de-ice wing leading edges, and the captain’s failure to heed the first officer’s warnings during take-off.  The board found several other contributing causes, including crew inexperience in freezing conditions, the control tower’s clearance for take-off despite known problems with 737s in freezing temperatures, and prolonged time between de-icing in a freezing snowstorm.

Underneath this “probable cause” hid a cascade of other risk factors: nonstandard de-icing procedures by ground crew, improvisational de-icing by lining up behind a forward aircraft’s jet exhaust (which actually made the icing worse), a hierarchical cockpit culture where the captain is always right, and instrument failure that gave incorrect readings of engine power during take-off.

NTSB made 10 recommendations to improve safety operations, most of which related to adverse weather conditions.  But the most important outcome of the Air Florida disaster wasn’t mentioned in the report at all.  Crew Resource Management dramatically reformed cockpit culture, forcing air crews to work as a team rather than as captain and subordinate.  Two people working on the same problem have better chances than one ignoring the problem.  Accident investigations now rate crew resource management practices in the cockpit as important contributors to flight safety.

NTSB’s mandate is an important distinction because if every plane crash resulted in a criminal investigation the result wouldn’t be safer flying but prosecution of pilots and ground crew for human error, driving the best qualified people out of the industry, without improving the state of the art.  Treating an accident as a series of risk factors is a much more productive process than treating the accident as a crime for which someone must be punished or blamed.

This punishment approach is still the case with the vast majority of police use of force incidents resulting in fatalities.  These are most frequently investigated either internally by the police force itself or by prosecutors.  In most cases (such as the one I am about to use as an example), the use of force is determined to be “justified” under the circumstances.  The victim’s family is left with little recourse than to pursue a civil liability case against the department or city government while the officers and department are spared criminal liability.

But nothing changes because there was no “problem” found in the first place. And the cycle repeats itself far too often.

If we treat a police encounter like an aircraft – a dynamic combination of experience, technology, sensors, and judgment – that under normal conditions should not result in fatalities, then we can crack open up cases and expose them to much more scrutiny as we look for risk factors that, individually, may not cause a fatal encounter, but strung together or uninterrupted appear to lead inevitably to use of force resulting in death.

The case of Rayshard Brooks, who was shot twice by Atlanta police officers following a traffic stop in 2020, is a high-profile incident coming as it did two weeks after George Floyd’s fatal encounter with Minneapolis police.  A lot of information about Brooks’ case is in the public domain, including dashcam video, bodycam footage, the special prosecutor’s statement exonerating the officers, and the medical examiner’s report (to my knowledge this is the first public release of the complete report).  The police, public, and Brooks’ family all focus almost entirely on the 45 seconds between the arrest attempt and Brooks’ death.  But even a cursory examination of the series of events over a 45-minute encounter demonstrate several clear risk factors contributing to the fatal incident.  Let’s revisit the horror.

The medical examiner’s report describes Brooks’ fatal wound and apparent attempts at surgical intervention to save his life.  The bullet cut through Brooks’ torso, hitting several organs.  The medical examiner determined the cause of death to be this shot to the organs.  However, it also notes that the bullet pierced the aorta and the inferior vena cava.  These are, respectively, the main artery and main vein in the human body.  This detail helps make sense of the examiner’s finding that during the examination – after police intervention, ambulance transport, emergency surgery, and death – Brooks still had more than half a liter of blood pooling inside his body. Brooks died because he bled out internally.

While such an injury is almost certainly and immediately fatal, it still begs the question of why the police administered CPR to a gunshot victimChest compressions are at best useless in the case of severe haemorrhage.  There are no public records about Brooks’ treatment by EMTs or in the hospital emergency room that I can find.  (The medical examiner indicates aggressive surgical attempts to stem the bleeding, including sutures in the damaged aorta.  These measures were futile.)  While the focus on the shooting itself is clearly important, there has been no evaluation of decisions made along Brooks’ chain of care from the street to the hospital that might have resulted in his survival.

Let’s return to the beginning of the incident.  Bodycam video of the first officer on the scene immediately introduces two interpersonal factors that will pervade the entire encounter.  The first is Brooks’ noncompliance.  He does not comply with the officer’s first request to move his vehicle from the drive-through to a parking space and has to be asked several times.  Additionally, the officer’s apparent attempt to be polite and familiar means he asks, rather than orders, Brooks to park his car and remain in the vehicle.  This faux camaraderie masks the officer’s suspicions but may have hampered clear communication.

Even more telling is the officer’s remark to himself whether he wants to run this stop to ground.  He clearly considered the possibility of leaving Brooks in the parking lot, a decision that would have, of course, led to a completely different outcome.

Another factor that may be missed because it is obvious even on video: Brooks is clearly intoxicated by alcohol and this frames the rest of the police encounter.  However, the medical examiner also found cocaine and a type of amphetamine in his body.  While it is impossible to say whether the officers could determine Brooks had taken stimulants, the amphetamines could help explain how Brooks was not subdued by the officers’ first TASER shot and also managed to fight off two trained adult men trying to subdue him when he attempted to bolt from the scene.  If the officers knew Brooks had taken amphetamines they might have treated the encounter very differently.

Several news reports remark on the entre-acte between the officers and Brooks, in the moments between the arrival of the DUI-certified officer and Brooks’ struggle to avoid arrest, as cordial, respectful, and calm.  But there is a subtext here, part visible, part invisible, neither articulated in the open.  First, the DUI-certified officer is clearly skeptical of Brooks’ evasive and rambling answers.  The officer knows before administering the breath test for intoxication that Brooks is intoxicated.  As Brooks continues to dodge and weave, the officer’s clear suspicion colors the entire interaction.

The second aspect of this encounter is completely unspoken but, if mutually acknowledged and understood, might have led to a completely different outcome.  This is the fact, known to both of the officers and to Brooks, that he is on probation and if found guilty of a DUI would almost certainly go to prison.  This knowledge could explain in part his evasiveness and misdirection.  The officers know this, too, which makes them increasingly suspicious while raising tensions in the encounter.  (Examining the sequence of events also illuminates something that is often an aggravating factor in police encounters: Brooks carried no weapon.  He denied having a firearm to the first officer and was searched by the second.  The officers therefore had no reasonable fear of Brooks using a firearm.)  If the officers had informed Brooks of this knowledge, specifically articulated his arrest, and prepared physically to take Brooks into custody, it is possible the final, fatal encounter would never have begun.

This short, non-professional inquiry models the kind of faultless, independent investigation inquest in the mode of the NTSB or the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.  Logging every contributing factor to an accident, issuing a finding, and making recommendations will publicize risk factors in common with other cases, determine a probable cause without assigning criminal liability, and issues recommendations (for both police and the public) in policy, practice, and training.

While a federal investigative board comes to mind, policing is done primarily at the local level so a state or even a large city independent investigative board could be convened.  This would shield police from liability but it also will give a clear picture of incidents while recommending improvements to police practice that, aside from damages and a prison sentence, is the best possible outcome for the families of the deceased.  This is the case as much with aviation disasters in the Potomac as it is with fatal police encounters in Atlanta.  There are no winners.  There is only horror and loss.

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Vladimir Putin is Re-Thinking the Unthinkable

On July 25, 1945, acting U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Thomas T. Handy wrote orders to Gen. Carl Spaatz then commanding U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific.  The orders numbered one page and were remarkably succinct: upon receipt of the “special bomb” by the 509th Composite Group on Tinian Island, Spaatz would order its delivery after Aug. 3 on “one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Hiigata and Nagasaki.”

“Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by project staff,” the orders continued. “Further instructions will be issued concerning targets other than those listed above.”

In other words, the order to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan was operational, not political—a decision to be made not by the President but by the theater commander. At that moment, two bombs were ready for use in warfare. A third could be delivered to Tinian by Aug. 15, 1945. With two demonstrated designs, the Manhattan Project had reached industrial production of the atomic bomb. On Aug. 13, four days after the destruction of Nagasaki and only two days before the Japanese surrender, Col. Lyle Seeman, an aide to Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves, told Gen. John Hull that they could expect new bombs to be available at the rate of nearly three a month. Hull himself counted the weapons in total: seven available through September and October 1945.

Hull recognized the effect the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japanese morale.  That was their intention.  But if this and further bombings did not force the Japanese to capitulate, Hull was already thinking ahead to Operation Downfall, the planned Allied amphibious landings on the Japanese home islands.  He grasped the new weapon’s use on the battlefield to destroy division-strength formations of Japanese troops or to tear up lines of communication deep in the enemy’s rear.  If the atomic bomb failed as a strategic weapon, perhaps it could succeed as a tactical weapon.

The atomic bombs did not preclude conventional air attack.  Two days after Hiroshima, American aircraft firebombed Yawata and Fukuyama.  On Aug. 14, 1,000 American aircraft attacked Iwakuni, Osaka, Tokoyama, Kumagaya, and Isesaki.  The U.S. and its Allies had already firebombed Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Kessel, Darmstadt, and Pforzheim in Germany, Kobe and Tokyo, and Japanese-occupied Wuhan, China.  The Tokyo incendiary attack killed at least as many people as Hiroshima.  By the end of the war, Gen. Curtis LeMay had attacked 68 of 70 industrial targets across Japan.  “If you kill enough of them,” he once said, “they stop fighting.”

Today’s historical narrative summarizes the end of World War II as immediately following the two atomic bombings that saved a million Americans from having to invade Japan.  This is true but not complete.  At the time, the United States was prepared to fight a prolonged nuclear war to hasten surrender or completely destroy Japan’s warfighting capability.  The atomic bomb was a political weapon but very nearly became a common one.

Vladimir Putin reads history as only a cynic can.  He views Western rhetoric about humanitarian intervention, international law, and human rights, as simple cover for what is, to him, base national interest.  If the price for what he wants requires a little window-dressing, he can perform the necessary public gestures.  So Putin’s naked aggression in Georgia, Syria, Chechnya, West Africa, and Ukraine is legitimated by political referendum or legal argument.  There is no difference in his mind between shelling Grozny flat and the Second Battle of Fallujah.  There is no difference between poisoning dissidents in London and American drone strikes in Kabul. There is no difference between his intervention in Syria and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no difference between Russian protection of the self-declared independent Donbas republics and NATO-protected Kosovo, no difference between Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

Putin’s rhetoric extends well beyond cynicism into real danger.  His window-dressing is cover for his personal and national ambition: great power status, the new Russian empire, and an anti-modern political ideology.  He believes in the exigencies of state.  There is no Russia without a strong Russia.

If Putin has studied American war projections in mid-1945, he would see something very familiar from recent years: the United States using overwhelming force against a rapidly dwindling threat.  American leadership was already prepared to destroy Japanese cities one by one or annihilate whole armies in a stroke to end the war and avert mass American casualties.  The United States has never modified its nuclear first-use policy.  There is no doubt in Putin’s mind that if Warsaw Pact armored columns had poured through the Fulda Gap in 1983 that the U.S. and NATO would have started firing tactical nuclear weapons, the size of the first atomic bombs, into eastern Europe.

So what would keep Putin from doing the same?

This war of choice, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, is now existential—to him.  It is true he has been buoyed politically by the “special military operation” and he is genuinely supported by most Russians, propaganda victory or no.  The only real opposition comes from his right.  He is in a much stronger position than he was a year ago.  He has compromised all of his lieutenants so that, like Cortés scuttling his ships at Veracruz, their own survival is at stake.  So, in a sense, he has already won if what he risked was his own position and power.

But things could go badly for him very quickly.  He has managed to hide battlefield failures and the incompetent and hollowed-out Russian military so far.  It will be difficult to hide his defeat if Ukraine mounts a successful counter-offensive or if Russian forces capitulate, desert, or mutiny.  More importantly, the destruction of his armies will mean he has one less security backstop protecting him from a putsch.

This brings us to Putin’s scenario of the unthinkable:

With his armies fighting a rear-guard while trying to withdraw across the Donets River, Putin activates Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems prepositioned in Crimea. Russia has already deployed to the Black Sea land-attack submarines equipped with nuclear-tipped Kalibr cruise missiles.  As he did earlier in the invasion, Putin issues a vague threat to Ukraine and the international community—but the ultimatum would be clear.

Iskander (SS-26 Stone) tactical ballistic missile launcher. Wikipedia

Unheeded, he orders a strike on Odessa, population one million.  A missile launched from Crimea flying barely 400 kilometers reaches its target in seconds.  The 500-kiloton (estimated—yields on modern Russian nuclear weapons are not known) nuclear warhead explodes, destroying half the city instantly and setting fire to the rest.  A toxic plume of radionuclides pours out of the city.  Depending on the direction of the wind, fallout either settles into the Black Sea or spreads north over Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia, largely missing Russia. Ukraine’s only major seaport is now a razed, radioactive no-man’s-land.

Simulated 500kt airburst over Odesa. Center yellow circle is fireball radius. Outer yellow circle includes fatal thermal radiation. Simulation via NUKEMAP By Alex Wellerstein.

The international community is shocked and horrified.  But Putin has attacked his neighbor, not an ally.  He has drawn the nuclear saber and his ultimatum stands.  As a port, Odessa was a legitimate strategic target.  Putin orders Kyiv to capitulate.  There is no difference in his mind between the Western exigencies demanded to end World War II and his own survival.

Nuclear-capable improved Kilo-class Russian submarine Rostov-on-Don. Russian government official photo.

After a day without a response from Kyiv or the international community Putin orders another strike. The Russian Kilo-class submarine B-237 Rostov-on-Don, which transited the Dardenelles to enter the Black Sea in February, receives its order and fires a Kalibr cruise missile, aiming its thermonuclear warhead at Mykolaiv, a city of nearly 400,000 on the Buh River with access to the Black Sea. Mykolaiv is closer to Crimea, but it is also another strategic target with its shipbuilders and refit yards. In a moment, the city is devastated and the Buh boils.

Simulated 500kt airburst over Mykolaiv. Center yellow circle is fireball radius. Outer yellow circle includes fatal thermal radiation. Simulation via NUKEMAP By Alex Wellerstein

Two cities are destroyed, tens of thousands of Ukrainians killed, thousands of square kilometers laid waste and irradiated. This is no loss to Putin, who still claims innocently that he wants only the Donbas. The cost of clean-up and reconstruction will fall on Ukraine and its Western supporters. NATO will never extend its security guarantees to a defeated neighbor. The European Union will slow-track Ukrainian membership while it pours billions of euros into rebuilding and decontaminating the second-largest country in Europe. The mess, in other words, is in others’ hands, while the Donbas is in Putin’s. Mission accomplished.

Deterring or responding to a nuclear attack on a third country do not figure in current U.S. or NATO nuclear weapons planning.  We extend the protection of our nuclear umbrella to countries with whom we have written security agreements.  That does not include Ukraine.  For what we know at this point, deterrence has worked as intended: Russia has not resorted to chemical or nuclear weapons, it has not attacked countries outside Ukraine, and it has not explicitly threatened NATO member nations.

But with his back to the wall, his political survival suddenly at stake, Putin is all in and ready to call a bluff.  He bets the West will not respond in kind.  He bets NATO will not risk global thermonuclear war over two peripheral eastern European cities.  He bets European capitals will pressure Kyiv to cough up Donbas for everyone’s sake.  In which case, Putin will win.  Maybe not the full pot he expected when he tried to seize Kyiv, but enough that he can claim victory at home and further consolidate his power.  He could claim to have killed tens of thousands of fascists threatening Russia while he was at it and burdening the West with Ukraine’s clean-up and recovery.  Putin wins again.

If we can’t deter Putin, what options are available to prevent or respond to a nuclear strike?  Modern anti-aircraft weapons with anti-ballistic missile capabilities such as the U.S. Patriot, Israeli Iron Dome, or similar C-RAM systems can provide point defense against missile attacks and strike aircraft.  These should be sent to Ukraine with training immediately.  U.S. Aegis seaborne systems in the Black Sea and NATO AWACS surveillance aircraft deployed from Romania could warn of launch.  Western nations should also prepare equipment and training for Ukrainians to respond to a nuclear incident.

Putin’s willingness to play with this kind of risk is found not just in his cynical rhetoric but also in current practice.  Garrisoning the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station is only the latest example—Russian forces effectively bulldozed parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in their initial push to sack Kyiv.  With the stakes so much higher now, not just for military success and Russian glory but his own individual survival, Putin could very easily justify a rapid climb up the escalation ladder.

After all, he would say, it’s what the Americans did first.

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Moneyball and Blood Shed

In the movie Moneyball, based on the 2003 book by Michael Lewis, a young Yale-educated economist played by Jonah Hill explains to Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Bean, played by Brad Pitt, how baseball doesn’t know itself. “There is an epidemic failure within the game to understand what is really happening,” he says.  This failure is found in a consistently flawed evaluation of individual performance where star players fetch salaries wildly out of proportion to their actual added value.  He goes on:

People who run ball clubs, they think in terms of buying players. Your goal shouldn’t be to buy players, your goal should be to buy wins. And in order to buy wins, you need to buy runs.

He cites as an example Johnny Damon, the A’s star outfielder whom the Boston Red Sox had just pinched for $7.5 million. “When I see Johnny Damon,” he says, “what I see is an imperfect understanding of where runs come from.”

Hill’s character is loosely based on a real person, Paul DePodesta, a Harvard-trained economist who also played baseball for the Crimson. DePodesta and Bean built a championship team in a down market with a payroll that was literally a fraction of the richest teams in Major League Baseball.  They did this by applying a more critical methodology to evaluating baseball players and their contribution to a winning record.  Their approach was based on the eccentric scholarship of Bill James, a sausage plant security guard who self-published books about baseball statistics in his spare time in the 1970s and 1980s.

James dissected baseball’s ingrained assumptions about the relationship between measured player performance and game outcomes.  He pitched virtually all fielding statistics (an “error,” he noted caustically, “is a record of what an observer thinks should have been accomplished”) as too noisy to draw any meaningful conclusions about its relationship to winning.  He determined that some of the most-cited metrics of offensive performance such as RBIs, stolen bases, even batting average, had little to no direct relationship to runs and thus to wins.  How can a low batting average not predict runs? Because it ignores walks and hits-by-pitching.  The most reliable predictor of runs, James wrote, is on-base and slugging percentage.

By now the story of Billy Bean’s A’s and the revolution in baseball statistics is well-known. But flawed methodology for determining cause and effect lives on, notoriously in areas of social policy. Nowhere is this more the case than in the debate about firearms in the United States. Applying baseball statistics to gun violence may appear frivolous given the gravity of the subject. But the same reframing and close analysis applied in Moneyball can and should be applied to our approach to gun violence.

The focus on guns, like the focus of baseball on players, is misplaced in the debate over violence and death.  Because, to borrow from Moneyball, the focus of gun control should not be the firearms themselves.  The focus should be on the deaths caused by gun violence. The two are related, of course, just as buying baseball players is related to winning games. But the focus on gun control ignores what we’re really trying to do, which is to reduce violence that ends in fatalities.  If we widen or shift our focus slightly, the relationships between violence, injury, death, and weapons become much more clear.

For example, it is a common assumption, especially in gun control advocacy, that more guns means more deaths.  That appears to be borne out in readily available statistics, especially when we compare gun ownership in United States to similarly developed countries like Australia and the United Kingdom.  But this relationship breaks down on closer examination.  Here is where my Moneyball analogy applies. If we focus on deaths per population instead of firearms per population, we find the world upside down: The continental United States doesn’t make the top 10 among the most violent countries in the world.

World Population Review

Another examination of basic statistics demonstrates a weak relationship at best between the number of firearms and the death rate in the United States.  It is estimated that the number of firearms has grown to about 400 million in the U.S. This proxy chart demonstrates the explosion in background checks, which are pegged to firearm sales, in just the last 20 years:

If we assume a direct relationship between firearm ownership and death, then the homicide and suicide rate should track gun sales.  But they do not.  In fact, U.S. deaths per population have remained in a fairly narrow band for more than 50 years:

More insight into this paradox can be found in ownership records.  The percentage of households owning firearms has also remained relatively steady for the last 50 years (although it is on a slow downward trend since 1960).  So where are all the new guns going?  To households that already own guns.  This is relevant because it further decouples the number of weapons from death rates.  Unless households are getting bigger, there is little practical difference between an owner with one gun and an owner with ten.  There is also little practical difference between someone killed with a gun and somebody killed with 10: the outcome is the same.  Put simply, more guns in the same households does not result in more deaths.

This may appear to be a pro-gun argument but it is not.  By shifting the attention from guns to deaths, we can get by the impasse between gun control advocacy and the pro-gun lobby.  The lobby does not see gun control as the solution to the problem of gun violence. They believe more guns are the solution to gun violence: “the only answer to a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  The lobby has legislated this mantra through the expansion of the castle doctrine, open carry, and stand your ground.  In short, the answer to every mass shooting, family annihilation, homicide, or domestic abuse death is more guns.  But this is also plainly not true.  If it were, the trendline in deaths would be inverted to rising gun ownership.

By focusing on deaths, we do three critical things to the policy debate: 1) we decouple guns from the political discussion about how to prevent death, 2) we see more clearly the problem set as one that involves firearms but is not limited to them, and 3) we have much more innovative and creative ways available to us to reduce deaths than legal restrictions and regulation.

It is regularly noted in this debate that while mass shootings, especially at schools, capture the public’s attention, these events are comparatively rare.  That is true.  But again we may be missing the point hidden in plain sight:  each shooting incident is different.  A school shooting is different from a gangland homicide.  A suicide is different from an accident.  Intimate partner violence is different from a police shooting.  These types of incidents have factors unique to themselves beyond the weapon of choice. 

B.J. Campbell, “The Left Is Making the Wrong Case on Gun Deaths. Here’s a Better Case,” Medium, March 20, 2018.

By breaking down the types of death, the linkage between firearm ownership and specific deaths becomes much, much more clear than the aggregate statistics outlined above:

  • Suicides are the leading cause of death involving firearms
  • Half of all suicides involve a firearm
  • Suicide attempts with a firearm are 90 percent fatal

This may seem paradoxical given my previous argument.  How can guns be unrelated to overall death rates but be closely tied to individual deaths?  The answer is we have much more meaningful statistics based on the type of incident. Put more practically, 400 million guns is not as relevant as the handgun in your depressed uncle’s dresser.

A suicide prevention social marketing campaign can urge a disturbed person and their family to remove guns from their possession.  But it is not limited to that: it can provide mental health resources, early warning signs, risk factors, and prevention measures. (For example, a dramatic cut in suicides could be made by focusing on men aged 25-64, which not incidentally are the primary demographic for gun ownership.)

Graphic by the author.

Similarly, the relationship between firearm deaths and intimate partner violence is very clear:

  • Half of all women killed in the United States are killed by an intimate partner
  • Half of all intimate partner deaths are committed with a firearm
  • Women are five times more likely to die due to intimate partner violence if that partner has a gun
  • The vast majority of women shot or killed with a firearm experienced stalking or other abuse prior to their death

A campaign focused on domestic abuse victims and their families could urge the separation of the gun from the abuser.  But it is not limited to that: getting out of the home, finding shelter and mental health resources, accessing law enforcement, and restricting the abuser’s movements are all appropriate measures to put distance between the victim and the man who wields a weapon.

Graphic by the author

While school attacks and active shooters grip the imagination, we spend much more time preparing to hide, run, or fight than we do on early warning and prevention.  There is substantial evidence that active shooters leave an extensive forensic trail well before their death spree.  A social marketing campaign (see example below) could raise awareness of these warning signs and how to intervene.

Graphic by the author

While I am advocating for a change in policy – to include the popular and effective means of violence prevention including age restrictions, weapons registration, safety training, magazine caps, and limiting assault weapons – this task should not be left to legislation alone.  I am encouraging others, especially foundations, advocacy organizations, and think tanks, to develop creative initiatives that demonstrably lower violent death.  It is hard to imagine the pro-gun lobby like the National Rifle Association cooperating with such a campaign – although this is possible, especially when it comes to suicide prevention and weapons safety – but a social campaign can be successful regardless. Under the current dynamics, the lobby has a monopoly on the legislative process.  While the lobby pursues its more-guns agenda, a mass social marketing campaign can operate more creatively, independently, and without interference.

There is ample precedent for the efficacy of extensive, well-resourced, and sustained social marketing campaigns to change individual behavior and social norms.  In the case of the anti-smoking movement in the 1960s and 1970s and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in the 1980s, the campaigns paced social policy; the campaigns were so successful, the laws that followed were virtually moot.

MADD is an exemplar for the kind of campaign I am advocating. MADD did not promote restrictions on alcohol or cars but focused instead on social behavior that decoupled those two proximate causes, dramatically lowering fatalities and injuries.  Similarly, while the anti-smoking campaign included regulating and restricting tobacco and its advertising, the campaign’s ultimate aim was not to eliminate cigarettes but to reduce smoking-related disease.  And that was accomplished by changing social mores and individual behaviors so dramatically that lung cancer rates have fallen to 1950s levels.

I wrote this essay because in addition to the legislative stalemate, the unyielding positions of debate around gun violence, and the endless iteration of the same tepid proposals to restrict firearms, there is a sense of social despair that we can’t solve this problem.  Too many are demanding action but too few are offering workable solutions. I feel responsible as a citizen and a parent to contribute to this debate.

An open-ended and creative approach to violence prevention could be more successful than decades of thwarted legislation.  As in Moneyball, the positions in this debate are so dug in and invested that they can’t actually see the problem set for what it is.  We need a change in perspective and a fresh approach. At stake are the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year.

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Epilogue (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else. They stink so badly that I cannot believe that even in life they were healthy.

AS I WRITE this the first diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine to resolve the armed conflict between the two countries have ended.  The world has witnessed the most grotesque violation of the international order since the end of World War II.  The consequences of Russia’s attack on its neighbor will run far.  So it is as I finish reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that I feel a temporal kinship with Rebecca West.  She wrote her book during the five years following the Anschluss, Munich, the bisection of Poland, and the invasion of France, the Low Countries, and Norway to the moment that Britain stood alone against Germany.  She published this book in 1941, not long after the Battle of Britain and the German invasion of Yugoslavia.

(Wikipedia)

If anyone was paying attention, and West was paying attention, the expected and inevitable conclusion to her narrative was clear to see for many years.  It is the same for this moment.  Vladimir Putin’s behavior over the last 20 years has clearly led us here.  A fetid campaign of assassinations, false flags, cynical disinformation, wanton destruction, harassment and suppression, assault and annexation – with hardly any response from the civilized world – made him feel invincible.  Until this moment.

It is the spirit of the Ukrainian resistance that feels so familiar to this book.  “Often, when I have thought of invasion, or when a bomb has dropped nearby, I have prayed, ‘Let me behave like a Serb,’” West writes in her epilogue.  The history of Yugoslavia coincides with the legitimate national aspirations of the post-Soviet states in their insistence: We exist.  We don’t have to justify who we are.  We have value.  We have a right and duty to defend who we are against imperial, denuding, conforming power.  That threat is as clear today as it was in 1941.  This time, the diminutive corporal cosplaying Charlemagne is a diminutive ex-KGB apparatchik styling himself after Peter the Great as he attempts to reestablish the Russian Empire by force.

It is easy to apply prescience and order to a narrative that is written in retrospect.  Europe was a very different place in 1937 compared to 1941, obviously, and nobody could have predicted the future even from West’s original vantage point in Yugoslavia.  In 1980 West admitted in a letter to her lawyer that the UK’s Ministry of Information suggested that she write the Epilogue.  This led to criticism late in her life that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was written as a vehicle for wartime propaganda.  I hope I have argued convincingly that cannot be the case.  The book’s elephantine volume and complexity should be evidence enough.  In any event, West viewed the Epilogue as the book’s “best part,” which, given all that preceded it, is a significant evaluation.  The book is a sprawling argument against war and empire.  She specifically links the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to the threat to Europe in 1939.  To her Ottoman Turkey and Nazi Germany are avatars of the same human bent toward violence and subjugation.  That reincarnation in Russian aggression today is just as clear.  

The contemporary relevance of West’s argument doesn’t need to rest on current events.  Her point is eternal.  Reaching back to her experience on Kosovo Field, where the Ottomans didn’t so much Turkify Serbia but simply ruin it, she imagines somebody visiting a deracinated, once-German-occupied England 500 years in the future:

Defeat, moreover, must mean to England the same squalor that it had meant to Serbia.  Five centuries hence gentleness would be forgotten by our people; loutish men would bind ploughshares to their women’s backs and walk beside them unashamed, we would grow careless of our dung, ornament, and the use of foreign tongues and the discoveries made by the past genius of our race would be phantoms that sometimes troubled the memory; and over the land would lie the foul jetsam left by the receding tide of a conquering race.  In a Denkmal erected to a German aviator the descendant of his sergeant in the sixteenth generation, a wasted man called Hans with folds of skin instead of rolls of fat at the back of his neck, would show a coffin under a rotting swastika flag, and would praise the dead in a set, half-comprehended speech, and point at faded photographs on the peeling wall, naming the thin one Göring and the fat one Goebbels; and about the tomb of a murdered Gauleiter women wearing lank blonde plaits, listless with the lack of possessions, would picnic among the long grasses in some last recollection of the Strength Through Joy movement, and their men would raise flimsy arms in the Hitler salute, should a tourist come by, otherwise saving the effort.

West has been changed by her journey.  She catalogues the melancholy and nostalgia of ending a holiday only to return to a grim, lived-in reality.  She and her husband travel from Kotor to Dubrovnik by boat and then Zagreb by train, stopping for a few days in the Plivitse Lakes.  On the way they meet friends who are astonished by their eccentric travel in Yugoslavia.  These same people profess support for Naziism as a viable alternative to Communism, if they hold political opinions at all; they inhabit a state of pure ignorance about what will soon come.

West and her husband encounter a demonstration by Croat students protesting the death of their comrades at the hands of Serb gendarmes.  Twice this situation is described to them, in “the same complaining and exultant whine,” the strange timbre of the publicly aggrieved.  That could easily describe Hitler’s mode of public speech.  This “peculiar whining tone” echoes loudly in Vladimir Putin’s louche desk harangues during which he eructs his bizarre and paranoid casus belli for invading Ukraine.

At home in London West meets a young graduate student writing her thesis about West’s work.  This “golden-haired girl” from Vienna irritates West all the more because she is defiantly unread in English and French literature.  This turns to bafflement when West learns the girl is Slav; the girl explains she was raised in Austria and proudly speaks no Serbo-Croatian.  Austria has warped the girl’s ignorance into contempt.  West is appalled.  “Such is the influence that Central Europe exerts on its surroundings,” she writes.  “It cut off this girl from pride in her own race….”

It’s important to note that West frames her entire narrative by the death of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia.  What appeared at the beginning of this book to be a miniature of the Balkans in 1934 takes on much, much larger implications for Europe in 1941 and well beyond.  In that sense the reader is changed by the journey from beginning, which recounts the murder of a forgotten European noble, to the end where Alexander’s assassination takes on much larger and coherent geopolitical import.  It is a destabilizing act with historical consequences that are only obvious in hindsight, that is, during the London Blitz. 

West’s very last words in the book reflect the hope that she felt seeing the stiff partisan resistance to the German assault of Yugoslavia.  It rings in the ears like an echo of the future:

For the news that Hitler had been defied by Yugoslavia travelled like sunshine over the countries which he had devoured and humiliated, promising spring. In Marseille some people picked flowers from tehri gardens and others ordered wreaths from the florists, and they carried them down to the Cannebière.  The police guessed what they meant to do, and would not let them go along the street.  But there were trams passing by, and they boarded them.  The tram-drivers drove very slowly, and the people were able to throw down their flowers on the spot where King Alexander of Yugoslavia had been killed.

The symbol of Ukrainian resistance today is the sunflower.  It represents spring and renewal, an affirmation of life and its pleasures free from compulsion and oppression.  It is the free choice of our earthly kingdom for the living relegating the kingdom of heaven for the dead.  Rebecca West would have recognized this immediately.  “That is what roses are like, that is how they smell,” she writes in the Epilogue. 

We must remember that, down in the darkness.

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Montenegro (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

Under my clothes my skin still kept the joy given by the salt water, the freshness had not left my blood.

REBECCA WEST’S EXCURSION in Yugoslavia is coming to an end.  That is clear in this slight chapter dedicated to Montenegro.  Here intrigue settles onto the narrative like an omen.  Her companions, including her driver Dragtuin, the akiltered Constantine, and a local official, appear agitated and constantly bickering.  Over and over they stumble across fresh indication of nefarious designs on Yugoslavia as foreign figures continue to appear after crossing the Albanian frontier only a few miles away.

West admires this small, cragged country and attributes a national heroic spirit to its mountain people.  By her companions’ telling, this national characteristic nearly led to her demise.  She describes another small set piece in which she and her husband hike a mountain led by a young guide who loses his way in the mist.  His martial pride prevents him from admitting that he is lost before Constantine finds them descending toward a slippery escarpment that the locals, except for the guide, are convinced West and her husband would surely fall from to their deaths.  A hero would brave the descent despite the risk, it is implied, rather that admit he had failed in navigating his own ground.

Budva, Montenegro. Source unknown.

This graze with death does not upset West.  But she appears distracted.  Her interest in the local environment and its people feels rote by this point.  Something else is on her mind.  She has spent the previous several weeks and more than 1,000 pages describing in close and sympathetic detail the difference, beauty, and meaning of different cultures and nations.  This extrospection at last swings inward to consider the worth of her own country which is as threatened by the fascist juggernaut as any other country in Europe. She writes:

My civilization must not die.  It need not die.  My national faith is valid, as the Ottoman faith was not. I know that the English are as unhealthy as lepers compared with perfect health.  They do not give themselves up to feeling or to work as they should, they lack readiness to sacrifice their individual rights for the sake of the corporate good, they do not bid the right welcome to the other man’s soul.  But they are on the side of life, they love justice, they hate violence, and they respect the truth.  It is not always so when they deal with India or Burma; but that is not their fault, it is the fault of Empire, which makes a man own things outside his power to control.  But among themselves, in dealing with things within their reach, they have learned some part of the Christian lesson that it is our disposition to crucify what is good, and that we must therefore circumvent our barbarity.  This measure of wisdom makes it right that my civilization should not perish.

It is impossible not to think of George Orwell’s “The Lion and the Unicorn,” perhaps the only other example of such ambivalent yet affirming patriotism under existential threat:

Yes, there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization.  It is a culture of the individual as that of Spain.  It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar-boxes.  It has a flavour of its own.  Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature.  What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photography young mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing except that you happen to be the same person.

And above all, it is your civilization, it is you.

With this on her mind the dark monition follows her.  In a restaurant Constantine stares down a group of “eight people, four men in open shirts and leather shorts, four women in dirndlish cotton dresses, all very fair and much overweight.”  She remarks that they seem harmless enough.  Constantine puts that notion down by idenitifying one of the men as “the chief German agent in Yugoslavia.”

It is possible that this German agent was Wilhelm Höttl, an SS intelligence officer.  He fits the profile and West’s corpulent description in 1937.  A doctor of history and a specialist on southeastern Europe, he joined the Nazi party and then held the position as head of intelligence for the region.  Höttl had a working relationship with Adolph Eichmann and gave testimony for the prosecution in Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem (he even appears in Hannah Arendt’s report on the banality of evil).  He is identified by several historical authorities (and some Holocaust deniers) as the first reference to the six million deaths of European Jews during the war.  Höttl played a weak hand well after the German defeat, surrendering to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency) in Switzerland and parlaying that into employment with U.S. Army intelligence.

The party stumbles across another German, whom Constantine identifies as the government minister in Tirana.  This was likely Eberhard von Pannwitz who at that moment served as the German ambassador to Albania in Tirana in 1937.  A career diplomat from a noble family, Von Pannwitz was captured after the German surrender and died in U.S. custody in December 1945.  His son, like Eichmann, emigrated to Argentina.

The last paragraph of this chapter ends the book’s main narrative on a note that would seem hysterical only if everything that followed West’s visit did not in reality occur.  In retrospect it sounds like a cry of alarm, like an air raid siren.  Constantine and the local official notice several foreign automobile makes parked near the town center; each one is driven by foreign diplomats posted to Albania.  They are immediately alarmed: the diplomats would only be here, in Montenegro, if they had to communicate with their capitals in a way the Albanians could not overhear or intercept.  Constantine flags down another acquaintance, hailing him in Greek, for the story.  He returns with this upsetting news:

“It is very bad.  It is a massacre.  The officials all are bought by Italian money and they have taken the four hundred young men who were most likely to give Italy trouble when she takes the country, and they have pretended it is a Communist rising, and they have killed them all.  It is all nasty, so nasty, and it will not stop until the end.”

New York Times front page, May 19, 1937.

Constantine is clairvoyant if not precisely correct.  A quasi-colonial power, Italy installed and propped up Albania’s King Zog and would invade Albania in 1939 less than two years later and one month before sealing the Pact of Steel with Germany. Two years after that Germany would invade Yugoslavia itself.  Constantine very likely describes a real political crisis in Albania.  On May 16, 1937, The New York Times reported “Revolt Flares in Albania, Town is Captured; Enemies of King Act on Unveiling of Women” in the town of Agyrokastron (today Gjirokastër). 

Constantine accurately notes that the Albanian rebels, led by former Interior Minister Ethem Toto, are deemed communists by the government.  (The Times insists on characterizing the revolt as inspired by Islamic mores and this appears to be true.)  It was likely not the massacre Constantine described, but it was violent enough.   Toto was “tracked down and shot”; six others were reported killed and 150 rebels captured.  (Zog, for his part, survived more than 50 assassination attempts.)  With the clear intrigue West documents, it is understandable that Constantine should be so distraught.

One of the last activities West and her party enjoy is a long-delayed dip in the Adriatic.  She describes this experience as the pure essence of physical pleasure.  “[T]he water was hardly water, being fused with sunshine,” she writes.  “It worked its progressive magic on us, delighting the skin, then the blood, then the muscles.”

Just to be alive is good.

It is impossible to hold this image in mind without its antipode, the cataclysm to follow.  This moment on the shore seems to be West’s argument in miniature.  A glimpse of the sea and the feeling of water are pure affirmation of life’s promise that is threatened by millions of human beings driven by a corrupt nihilist desire for domination and destruction.  That is what follows.  West knows this, writing in 1941.  But it is not simple retrospect.  It is true.  In just four years everything she has seen on her journey from London to the Adriatic will be plowed under.  All of this as it was will be gone.

Rebecca West’s travels in Montenegro.

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Old Serbia (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

I saw before me what an empire which spreads beyond its legitimate boundaries must do to its subjects. It cannot spread its own life over the conquered areas, for life cannot travel too far from its sources, and it blights the life that is native to those parts.

OLD SERBIA IS what we now call Kosovo, a partially recognized sovereign state that emerged following the 1999 NATO war with the federal Yugoslavia over ethnic cleaning in the formerly autonomous province.  Kosovo is a toponym derived from the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.  The battle figures prominently in West’s narrative as well as the history of Serbia and Yugoslavia.  In the Kosovo Polje, or Field of Blackbirds, the Ottoman army destroyed the Serbian defense, solidifying Turkish control over the Balkans for the next 500 years.  The blackbirds described are the carrion birds that descended on the dead.  Later, in a foreshadowing of Flanders Fields, legend tells that the field erupted in red peonies the following spring, the blood of the Serbian martyrs.

Gračanica (Kosovski božuri) (1913) by Nadežda Petrović; (Wikipedia)

In the early 16th century Muslim Albanians began to migrate to Kosovo.  Today, Albanians almost entirely populate this cradle of the Serbian nation.  In 1989, on the six hundredth anniversary of the battle, communist apparatchik Slobodan Milošević gave his infamous speech inciting the Serbian audience.  Standing at the rebuilt monument of Gazimestan, which West also visited, he used the heroic narrative to define his nationalist agenda that perpetuated war, massacre, and genocide across the former Yugoslavia for the next 20 years.

West tours the field, which like a medieval Gettysburg is scattered with various semi-monuments erected in memory of the dead.  Close by is a genuine treasure: the frescoes of Gračanica, the first Serbian Orthodox monastery she visits in Kosovo.  The Serbian monasteries West visits at Peć and Dečani are rightfully famous landmarks.  Most of them today are restored and preserved under the UN’s designation as World Heritage Sites. 

Monastery at Gračanica (Wikipedia)

West is genuinely enraptured by the devotional art here and she takes time to examine, deconstruct, and contextualize the frescoes painted centuries earlier.  She finds here a more experiential piety, immediate and deeply felt.  She intuits an uncanny communication between centuries: the expressionism on display in Gračanica from 1325 is painted in the same authentic, almost naive style as William Blake hones in the 1800s.  The similarities are indeed so striking it is easy to confuse the two.  There is no indication that Blake visited, saw, or even studied these obscure frescoes.  The fact that they both seem to express in the same way suggests they have tapped into a deep and universal experience.

St. Elijah, fresco, Gračanica.

For West, that universal trait is a mysticism that separates east and west.  “This is a study of what our people alone know,” Constantine observes. “This is mysticism without suffering.”  West finds this refreshing.  Instead of the half-mad mystic hermit of the Western church, who starves and thirsts himself in the desert for a chance at a vision of the truth, these Orthodox mystics are ascetic because what they think requires much more room than civilization can provide.  “Life is not long enough for these men to enjoy the richness of their own perceptions, to transmute them into wisdom,” she concludes.

God Blessing the 7th Day, William Blake, 1805

West revisits the Kosovo legend, about which the less said the better.  She quotes extensively, and has been extensively quoted as quoting, the poem that forms the Serbian national ur-narrative.  It describes the choice made by Prince Lazar as he assembled his forces against the invading Ottomans.  The angel Elijah, in form of a grey falcon, visits Lazar on the eve of battle. The angel offers the prince a choice between the kingdom of heaven and a kingdom on earth.  He chooses the former, after which his army is cut to pieces on Kosovo field.  It is an ages-old example of the noble Lost Cause (in which case St. Jude should have appeared before Lazar), which is purer in defeat than in victory.  Ignominy and slaughter are redeemed.  From the defeat of the Confederacy to Germany’s stab in the back, from Custer’s Last Stand to the Mother of All Battles, stories of nobility and self-sacrifice redress ancient carnage and catastrophe.  It is hard to imagine the grip of a 600 year-old legend on people in the 21st century, but there is much to echo William Faulkner here (“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”).

For West, Kosovo is even more sickening than her experience at the Sheep’s Field.  Here the grey falcon is the bridgehead to the black lamb. It connects animal ritual sacrifice to actual human sacrifice.  It is the terminus for humanity’s unconscious death wish. With a sardonic cut she writes, “So that was what happened, Lazar was a member of the Peace Pledge Union.”  This pro-appeasement organization, as with its fellow neutralist, nativist, and fascist parties and clubs across North America and Europe between the world wars, is conveniently forgotten today.

“[W]hat the pacifist really wants is to be defeated,” West writes.  She continues:

If it be a law that those who are born into the world with a preference for the agreeable over the disagreeable are born also with an impulse towards defeat, then the whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history, far longer than its little periods of victory.

Rebecca West’s travels in Old Serbia (Kosovo). (Google Maps)

The rest of the trip alternates between mystical revery and pure annoyance.  She makes an eccentric visit to the Stan Trg (an English typographical corruption of Stari Trg, “Old Mine”) mines at Trepča.  These pits have been continuously mined for more than 2,000 years and today remain the largest producer of lead-zinc and silver ore in Europe.  There she finds a Scotsman whom she calls Gospodin Mac, the mine’s general manager.  The author Ian Hamilton has identified the Mac as A.S. Howie, a career employee of the Selection Trust, who died not long after the meeting West records.  Not much more information is available about him, but West enjoys the company of her fellow countryman and his wife immeasurably.

The pitiful Constantine retreats into himself, hovering on the verge of nervous collapse as he tries to reconcile his wife’s animus toward him and his English friends.  He comes off as brusque and smug, but West sympathetically sees right through him.  “I paused, at a loss for words,” she writes.  “I did not know how to say that he was dying of being a Jew in a world where there were certain ideas to which some new star was lending a strange strength.” This is both a terrifying portent of the Holocaust and the most succinct summary of dual consciousness that I have ever read.

There are two other long shadows of the war to come.  First West and her husband encounter a strange man in a provincial café.  The man approaches them speaking German while claiming to be Danish.  But hearing the man speak Henry Andrews immediately determines, “That man has spoken Berliner German from his infancy.”  Constantine concedes the fake Dane is likely a German agent, but they remain confused why he would be here, so far from any large city or capital. 

Later, in Dečani, they are accosted by an irritating blond monk who brags he soon “will have the great honour of entertaining at Dečani Herr Hitler and Herr Göring!”  (Hitler later pressured the Regent Prince Paul of Yugoslavia to join the Tripartite Pact.  When Serbian officers ousted Paul in a coup and installed Peter II in 1941, Hitler declared Yugoslavia an enemy state and invaded.  Nevertheless, I can find no indication that Hitler visited Yugoslavia prior to the occupation. Göring visited Ragusa, Croatia, in 1935.)

West laboriously relates the descent and fall of the Serbian empire and Byzantium to the Ottomans.  A civil war among the descendants of King Milutin in the 1320s stalled Serbian plans to take Byzantium at Constantinople.  An internecine power struggle between Milutin’s grandson Stefan Dušan and his father resulted in the father’s imprisonment and Dušan being crowned emperor.  He proved an able leader and commander, initially offering his armies to Cantacuzenus, ruler of Byzantium, to fight his civil war.  That offer just as quickly reversed and Dušan went on a campaign of conquest throughout the Balkans. 

As a result of this reversal, Byzantium was suddenly extremely vulnerable.  To shore up its defenses, Cantacuzenus allied with the Turks and ceded territory in Europe to them to repay debts.  This placed the Ottomans in an opportune position to capitalize on Byzantium’s weakness coming out of its civil war.  When Dušan suddenly died, he left a leadership vacuum and vast imperial possessions without defenses.  The Ottomans then embarked on their conquest of the Balkans that included the Battle of Kosovo and the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.  Ottoman Turkey soon consolidated rule over an empire spanning from Baku to Algiers and from Budapest to Aden.

This is an extensive narrative backdrop to the situation West finds in Old Serbia in the late 1930s.  Dušan’s turn on Byzantium, she argues, sealed the fate of the Eastern Church and opened the door to 500 years of Turkish domination in southeastern Europe.  West sees the lasting result in Old Serbia, which serves her argument about the destructive nature of empires.  She sees in real time the consequences of centuries of conquest and subjugation.  Her argument isn’t that the Ottomans Turkified or Islamized Kosovo so much as do almost the opposite: there is almost nothing left.  In the place of what should be the Serbian national heartland, she sees instead an absence, a cultural void that follows colonization. 

Battle of Kosovo, Adam Stefanović, 1870. (Wikipedia)

“Yet people here had once known all that we know, and more,” she writes, “but the knowledge had died after the death of Stephen Dušan, it had been slain on the field of Kosovo.”

NOTE: This article has been corrected to indicate that Hermann Göring visited Yugoslavia in 1935.

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The Yugoslav Idea (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

The whole of history since the ascension of Jesus into heaven is concerned with one work only: the building and perfecting of this “City of God.”

St. Augustine

THE ONLY QUESTION in western political philosophy is how people live together.  All forms of government seek to answer this question.  We most often talk about this in terms of thesis and antithesis, examining the differences between republicanism and monarchy, democracy and autocracy, prime ministers and dictators, power and autonomy, pluralism and homogeneity.  These oppositional dichotomies tend to dominate our understanding of politics and distract from the similarities they often share.  I find it much more illuminating to compare like cases than unlike cases.  Which brings us to the idea, and the problem, of Yugoslavia.

The idea of a political union of the western Balkans dates to the 17th century and took its modern form following the 1848 national revolutions in Europe.  During World War I, politicians in exile in London formed the Yugoslav Committee to pursue the project.  As the war ended and the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes arose more or less organically as the constituent states declared independence and pledged loyalty to the new kingdom to be led by Alexander I.

Proclamation of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs in Congress Square, Ljubljana, Slovenia, October 1918. (Photo by Fran Grabjec, Museum of Modern History via Wikipedia)

Yugoslavia was one of only two polities that lived and died in the 20th century.  The Soviet Union was the other.  Several imperial regimes collapsed as Yugoslavia rose, but most had existed for centuries, dominating the western Balkans during that time.  Twentieth century Yugoslavia was created to solve a 19th century problem, which was domination and interference from more powerful neighbors, including Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Italy, Russia, and Bulgaria.  All southern Slavic populations experienced this but with very different effects and outcomes.  After centuries of being divided and conquered, the historically Slavic states determined they were stronger united.

This was true as far as it went.  While the western Balkans shared history, language (mostly; Macedonian is more related to Bulgarian and Albanian has no peer anywhere), and some beliefs, in reality Serbia with the largest population was the most dominant republic.  So after resolving the problem of external domination, Yugoslavia next had to address the problem of Serbian domination of the union.

Kingdom of Yugoslavia coat of arms

Following Alexander’s assassination, the kingdom was named Yugoslavia.  Germany invaded in 1941, one of the most costly misadventures in the war.  Soviet-supplied communist partisans led by Josip Broz, known as Tito, were the most successful guerilla outfit in Europe.  Tito managed not only to bleed the Germans: he sidelined the Yugoslav government in exile, consolidated power, and won material from both the Allies and from Italian forces stranded in the Balkans after the capitulation.

As the war ended, Tito had a strong hand.  He had won over or coopted every other major political or opposition group in the country.  With this coalition, he held the first election after the war in 1945 and won a majority of seats in parliament.  The parliament promptly removed Peter II (he refused to abdicate and died an alcoholic in Denver in 1970) and rewrote the constitution as a socialist republic with Tito as head of state.  He remained in control for the next 35 years.

Socialist Yugoslavia’s coat of arms

Tito proved adept at driving the middle ground between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, playing them off one another to the country’s benefit.  He dodged several Soviet assassination attempts and co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement.  Yugoslavia had perhaps the most workable, purely socialist economy in Europe, with factory and farm collectives operating independently in a kind of managed competition.  There were no immigration restrictions so Yugoslavs traveled freely.  The country’s exports (including firearms and Fiat cars built under license by Zastava) permitted foreign imports as well.  For my friends in Warsaw Pact countries during this time, Yugoslavia was a consumers’ paradise compared to home.

There are, of course, many arguments for why Yugoslavia fell apart.  Tito, the strongman, died in 1980.  The parliament then decentralized the government and economy to the constituent republics.  This needless, inefficient multiplication of government functions helped stall the economy.  By the early 1970s, 20 percent of the Yugoslav workforce was employed abroad.  Following the oil shock, the Yugoslav economy began to fall apart.  The dinar cratered and the government soon buried itself in foreign debt to prop up production.

Into this crisis and power vacuum stepped recently radicalized ex-communist apparatchiks like Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman.  Milosevic, as nominal president of the federal Yugoslavia, first deployed the Serb-dominated national army to corral republics like Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia from seceding.  When this failed, he unleashed his army and irregulars in the Bosnian Republika Srpska to absorb Serbian populations centers and cleanse Bosnian Muslims from their country.  This resulted in the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide of Srebrenica that provoked first UN and eventually NATO intervention to halt the slaughter.

French forces deployed by NATO to Sarajevo, January 1996. (NATO)

The war, it should be said, was not unique at the time.  As the Soviet central government weakened, republican leaders like Boris Yeltsin seized power and legitimacy.  With Mikhail Gorbachev deposed and the special committee dissolved in 1991, the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union realized their independence.  That came not without bloodshed, including the prospect of a pitched battle in Moscow between rival Russian and Soviet authorities.  Gorbachev warned he would not intervene in his eastern European client states but did not hesitate to crush national demonstrations in the Baltic republics.  Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova all engaged in civil war after independence.  The object of this violence, as in Yugoslavia, was political control.

But neither was the war inevitable.  It was not the fated result after centuries of smothered ethnic hatreds and foreign domination.  Political power can be shared peacefully.  War is always a choice.  That is why the comparison of similarly structured states and governments are more worthwhile than pitting opposites against each other.  For example, the similarities between Yugoslavia and Belgium are clear to see: a loose federation of three semi-autonomous regions, divided by language and (partially) religion, each triplicating government services.  As unsatisfactory and inefficient as this system of government is, it is impossible to imagine Walloons, Flemish, and ostbelgien taking up arms to destroy the state.

What is left behind in the former Yugoslavia?  As my friend Peter Korchnak has diligently documented, there is much to remember and a powerful nostalgia for that country pervades those who fled the war only to return to a landscape they could no longer recognize.  Yugoslavia made sense of the complex intersection of language, faith, and ethnicity especially in mixed marriages (which depending on the census ranged from 10 percent to 30 percent of all couples).  It stood as an example of united opposition to fascism and genocide.  It rejected as false the dichotomy between liberalism and communism. It meant something.

Yugoslavia was, in short, an ideal – an e pluribus unum in the Balkans – whose death, like the threat to democracy we now face, feels like a betrayal.

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Macedonia (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

The argument here, in Sveti Naum, which has been recognized for a thousand years, is a persuasion towards sanity; a belief that life, painful as it is, is not too painful for the endurance of the mind, and it is indeed essentially delightful.

IF REBECCA WEST had a destination in mind during her travels through Yugoslavia, it would be Macedonia. It is “the most beautiful place in the world,” she explains, and the rite observed at the end of her visit is the climax of the entire narrative, the culmination of her voyage through time and space. Macedonia is where she wanted to go.

Rebecca West’s travels in Macedonia (Google Maps)

In Skopje West sees a city that no longer exists.  By chance and by politics, in 1941 West may have recorded the last comprehensive narrative description of old Skopje.  In 1963, a 6.1-magnitude earthquake completely leveled the city, spurring one of the first major humanitarian rescue efforts to follow World War II, with the United States and Soviet Union both contributing to recovery and relief.  Unfortunately, the rebuilding of the city came under Marshal Josip Broz Tito and at the peak of the International Style, which meant that Skopje was rebuilt almost entirely in brutalist concrete.

Rebeca West’s travels near Skopje, Macedonia (Google Maps)

Ironically, one of the buildings West found most atrocious in 1937, the Officers Club, partially survived the temblor. Her claws come out for this one while also being very funny: it is “one of the most hideous buildings in the whole of Europe,” she writes, made of “turnip-coloured cement, like a cross between a fish-kettle and a mausoleum, say the tomb of a very large cod.”

Old Army Officers Club, Skopje (Balkan Insight)

In 2012 Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski initiated a redesign of central Skopje that produced a Las Vegas kitsch classicism that looks like a reject bid for the makeover of Nur Sultan in Kazakhstan. The Skopje rebuild includes dozens of statutes of Macedonian national figures, including Alexander the Great on horseback; a pell-mell menagerie placed in every alcove and square inch of unoccupied space in the city center. But the Officers Club’s ruins have neither been torn down completely nor rebuilt.

Lake Ohrid (photo by the author)

West travels to Ohrid, close to the Albanian frontier. She visits the fabled Sveti Naum Monastery on the northwest bank of the lake. There is not much more than the natural environment to enjoy here, but that is quite the point: it ranks with most beautiful places in Europe. Lake Ohrid is one of the deepest and oldest on the continent; the Tahoe of the Balkans. The lake is an almost wholly contained ecosystem, with dozens of endemic species. West extols the excellent Ohrid trout, the belly scales of which the locals emulsify and shape into pearl-like jewelry.

Sveti Naum Monastery, 1934 (Wikipedia)

West’s three visits to Yugoslavia each coincided with Easter.  The beauty and ceremony of the Orthodox Christian rite capture something in her that she feels lacking in Western societies: magic.  She moves from church to church describing the frescoes and intricately decorated iconostasis (a screen that separates the sanctuary from the altar in a church).  She finds Slavic devotion intense, embodied, and sincere.  Experiencing this faith is a driving motivation for her trip.

If this pilgrimage had a personality, it was Nikolai, the Orthodox Archbishop of Ohrid. She describes him:

He struck me now, as when I had seen him for the first time in the previous year, as the most remarkable human being I have ever met, not because he was wise or good, for I have still no idea to what degree he is either, but because he was the supreme magician.

Nikolai was a real person. Born Nicholas Velimirović, he was canonized by the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2003 and is considered by some as the greatest Serbian philosopher of modern times. His life was more complicated. He expressed right-wing, pro-German, and antisemitic opinions and policies. In 1926, he restored the German World War I memorial that West will soon visit near Bitolj.

But he was persecuted first by the Nazi occupiers and later by the post-war Communist government.  The Germans arrested him and sacked his monastery at Žiča.  In detention he was transferred to the death camp at Dachau which held political prisoners of the Reich.  After liberation by the U.S. Army in Tyrol, Austria, he migrated to England.  Considered a German collaborator by the victorious socialist government of Yugoslavia, he emigrated as a refugee to the United States where he taught until he died in 1956.

Nicholas Velimirović (Orthodox Canada)

The pictures of Nikolai support West’s description of his spiritual presence and charisma. She describes him presiding over a meal, importing the spiritual and mystical transubstantiation of Christ in boiled eggs he passes out to the worshipers:

Bishop Nikolai stood up and cried, “Christ is Risen!” And they answered, “Indeed He is risen!” Three times he spoke and they answered, and then they stretched out their hands and he gave them eggs from a great bowl in front of him. This was pure magic. They cried out as if it were talismans and not eggs that they asked for; and the Bishop gave out the eggs with an air of generosity that was purely impersonal, as if he were the conduit for a force greater than himself. When there were no more eggs in the bowl the people wailed as if there were to be no more children born in the world, and when more eggs were found elsewhere on the table the exultation was as if there were to be no more death.

Of course the cretin Gerda disrupts this reverie by passing out eggs herself. The spell is broken, the magic dies. This mortifying faux pas does not seem to perturb her. Nikolai rescues the moment, briefly, by ministering to a blind beggar. Then Constantine commits a second gaucherie with a harangue. Nicholas, taking all he can stand, rallies the children in three cheers for the voluble Constantine before bolting from the table in a flurry of incense and robes.

On the road from Ohrid to Bitolj, the traveling party stops near the ruins of Heraclea Lyncestis, a fourth-century B.C. city founded by Philip II of Makedon himself.  For me what follows is the most extraordinary passage in the entire book.  West describes two women as they meet each other in a nearby Orthodox cemetery (likely the Assembly of the Holy Apostles):

I have a deep attachment to this cemetery, for it was here that I realized Macedonia to be the bridge between our age and the past. I saw a peasant woman sitting on a grave under the trees with a dish of wheat and milk on her lap, the sunlight dappling the white kerchief on her head. Another peasant woman came by, who must have been from another village, for her dress was different. I think they were total strangers. They greeted each other, and the woman with the dish held it out to the new-comer and gave her a spoon, and she took some sups of it. To me it was an enchantment; for when St Monica came to Milan over fifteen hundred years ago, to be with her gifted and difficult son, St Augustine, she went to eat her food on the Christian graves and was hurt because the sexton reproved her for offering sups to other people on the same errand, as she had been wont to do in Africa. That protocol-loving saint, Ambrose, had forbidden the practice because it was too like picnicking for his type of mind. To see these women gently munching to the glory of God was like finding that I could walk into the past as into another room. (My emphasis.) 

Outside Bitolj the traveling party visits a German memorial to World War I. This is an eccentric stop but it serves her narrative for here is the final confrontation and break with Gerda. The memorial is a round rampart with a squat chapel at the tangent. West and her husband are appalled. It is not a cemetery. It contains no markings, no indication of the 3,500 individual German soldiers buried there, which lend the memorial its morbid appellation tottenborg. West’s husband, who lived and worked extensively in Germany, and was interred as an enemy national during World War I, finds the structure disrespectful to the memory of the dead. West sees in its hillside position, like a fortress or garrison, overlooking Bitolj a threat of a German return (which would indeed occur the year this book was published).

German War Memorial, Bitolj (Traces of War)

Gerda, however, is enraptured.  She has never seen anything so magnificent.  She demands the opinion of her English companions and appears to be genuinely hurt and insulted after she pries an unvarnished opinion from West’s husband.  She makes a scene and vows to return to Belgrade, refusing to remain in the company of foreigners who clearly hate Germany and Germans.

West uses this otherwise negligible side stop — who goes out of their way to visit an obscure memorial of a sworn enemy in a foreign country? — to tee up a small set piece that follows as West’s husband attempts to understand and describe Gerda. This is an insightful, psychological précis of a certain type of mind and class. “Gerda has no sense of process,” he says. “She wants the result without doing any of the work that goes to make it.” This sounds like laziness, but it is quite more than that. It is a misunderstanding of life itself. In its fundamental miscomprehension of how the world works it encourages suspicion and resentment. If a person like Gerda cannot understand why another is rich or happily married, he implies, she is more likely to believe secret conspiracies, racialist plots, and subversion.

It is tempting to extend this examination to all Germans and all Germany at that time—and from there a description of all those in thrall to fascist or nationalist ideas throughout time. In my mind I immediately connect the misconception of “process” to the insane conspiratorialism that drove the January 6 Capitol insurrection. The attackers seem to have a juvenile understanding of political process, imagining the assault as if it were an adult game of capture the flag. The belief that disrupting a purely ceremonial process would reverse the result of a national election is like a child believing they can catch Santa Claus in the act. It has no bearing on or understanding of reality. The attackers had clearly never visited the Capitol, which is an open and public place. They believed that sacking the Senate would furnish evidence of sedition. They believed things that were not true because they did not understand how simple process works. They shared Gerda’s belief in demonstrative patriotism: that a public display of patriotic fervor, announcing alta voce that one is a patriot, flag-waving and flag-hugging, the internal conviction that one is a patriot and his enemies are traitors, were all per se the patriotic act rather than the symbolic or allegorical representation of patriotism, which is found in democratic process. But they, like Gerda, would like to be considered patriots without having to do the work that true patriots enact without complaint.

The narrative climax comes at the end of the chapter on St. George’s Eve. St. George is not well known in modern America because St. George is an Anglican and Orthodox icon with little purchase in mainstream American Protestantism. (See Expedition.) St. George’s standard, the red cross on a white field, forms the national emblem of England. Its apotheosis is in the flag of Georgia. St. George was the original hero who rescued the damsel from the dragon, another threat of virgin sacrifice. In the former Yugoslavia St. George’s Eve is called Đurđevdan, and it is marked by Christians, Romani, and Muslims alike.

Here West observes the fertility rite of the Sheep’s Field (Oveche Polje) near Veles. There stands a large flat rock where families sacrifice animals to cure barrenness. West finds the site covered in blood, viscera, and the bodies of sacrificed animals. She is revolted and not just by the carnage. Her reaction is strong and requires close examination: this is the apex of her argument, the closest to the theme of the book. The entire narrative has been driving to this point. This is the Black Lamb of the title.

Sheep’s Field, Macedonia. Photo by Dragana Jurišić. Used with permission.

In her disgust, she attributes the same cruel, unnecessary, and futile death and sacrifice seen at the rock to the larger notion “that Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretense that pain is the proper price of any good thing.”  The expulsion from the Garden to Abraham’s willing sacrifice of Isaac, from the crucifixion of Jesus to the first Christian martyrs, from the death of St. George to the Crusades against Jerusalem, all that is considered holy and good in the Western Christian tradition are made that way through pain, exile, violence, and death.

A thousand generations have sacrificed animals on this rock in a rite that includes all – Muslims, Roma, Christians – in its promise of fertility.  While it is easy to dismiss West’s harsh sentence of this site as the hyper-sensitivity of a germ-phobic foreigner, a closer examination of the rite supports its strangeness.  The rock is filthy, matted brown from constant blood-letting that is left to coagulate and dry out where it falls.  It stinks.  Animal parts and carcasses attract flies in the sun.  It is the very picture of bestial horror.  And it is therefore supremely strange given the faith traditions that participate in the rite.

Sheep’s Field, Macedonia. Photo by Dragana Jurišić. Used with permission.

Muslims are well-known for their ritual sacrifice, particularly during Eid Al Adha.  That marks the day God spared Isaac from death and Abraham sacrificed a ram in his son’s place.  Muslims ritually slaughter lambs to mark al Adha.  But Muslims are meticulous in their hygiene.  They incorporate ritual ablutions before prayer.  In ritual sacrifice and for human consumption animals are bled completely from the neck before being fully cooked.  Blood per se is considered haram

Christians sublimate sacrifice in their ritual Communion of bread and wine, but these are only symbolic acts invoking the death of Christ.  The very literal sacrifice of animals for the purpose of worship has not been present since the earliest days of the faith, when Christians tried to distinguish their faith from Judaism.   Jews, for their part, ended ritual animal sacrifice with the destruction of the Second Temple, substituting symbolic gifts made as offertories to God.

That leaves the Roma, known to West as gypsies, the itinerant population of south-eastern Europe.  Despite pejorative stereotypes in European communities that attribute child abduction and sacrifice to the Roma community, they have no known tradition of ritual sacrifice not borrowed from host populations.  The Roma migrated from northern India, where the rise of Hinduism ended ritual animal sacrifice.

Which leaves the ancient pagan or Roman practice of animal slaughter that has somehow preserved itself at this rock in Macedonia. This obscure and ancient rite supports West’s argument that ritual sacrifice manifests an instinctive, even genetic, death wish—an impulse toward self-destruction inherent to the human condition. “Only part of us is sane,” she writes:

only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.

This is as good as any explanation for the human tendency toward self-immolation. It explains death cults, family annihilators, political violence, and suicide pacts. It explains hate crimes, serial killers, and active shooters. It explains the cynical nihilism of Nazism and its successors: hatred and violence stoking death and destruction for their own sake. Death comes for every man but often he appears all to willing to hasten the inevitable.

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Feb. 24, 2022 update: This post has been updated with two photographs taken by Dragana Jurišić and first published in her book “YU: The Lost Country” in 2015. Photos are reproduced here with permission.

Serbia (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“In the colourless light descending its vaults there waited Constantine’s wife, Gerda, a stout middle-aged woman, typically German in appearance, with fair hair abundant but formless, and grey eyes so light and clear that they looked almost blind, vacant niches made to house enthusiasms.”

I VISITED BELGRADE in 2009, just a few years after Serbia had again reverted to its own republic following the independence of Montenegro. Joined until 2006, the two entities had made up what was left of Yugoslavia following the wars of succession in the 1990s and the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 following the NATO air campaign against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The evidence of that war was still manifest as I walked past mangled ministry buildings on the city’s main thoroughfare.

West does not spend much time describing the place.  But she is evocative when she does.  Initially Belgrade depresses her.  “I felt a sudden abatement of my infatuation for Yugoslavia,” she writes.  But her spirits are rescued by an extraordinary scene she witnesses in the hotel bar.

“[I]n none of those great cities have I seen hotel doors slowly swing open to admit, unhurried and at ease, a peasant holding a black lamb in his arms….He was a well-built young man with straight fair hair, high cheekbones, and a look of clear sight.”

This is the first reference to a black lamb in the book and while West here alludes to this encounter the titular animal actually follows later in the book. In the meantime, she marvels:

“He stood still as a Byzantine king in a fresco, while the black lamb twisted and writhed in the firm cradle of his arms, its eyes sometimes catching the light as it turned and shining like small luminous places.”

I strolled Kalemegdan park covering the historic battlements and a commanding promontory over the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers.  “Kalemegdan…is the special glory of Belgrade and indeed one of the most beautiful parks in the world,” West writes, accurately.  She enjoys a stroll in the park, separated from the city bustle, passing “busts of the departed nearly great” as children play among the lilacs.

The fortress at Kalemegdan Park, Belgrade. Photo by the author.

There is one peculiarity in the park, a sculpture by Ivan Meštrović whom West otherwise extols throughout her travels: the “Victor” war memorial.  It is a statue of a naked male figure mounted high on a column at the prow facing the delta.  West relates this is an awkward display.  Too accurately male, Belgrade authorities felt its display would offend women if placed prominently at street level within the city.  So it was located here in Kalemegdan where it is only slightly more appropriate, as the figure faces the direction from which so many have attempted to sack Belgrade over centuries.  But that means the main public view of the statue from the park is the Victor’s ass.

West uses this view as a point of departure to explain, in often overpowering detail, the history of 19th Century Serbia.  She illustrates this through the personal stories of two noble houses, cutthroat rivals for the crown of Serbia.  For an observer from the 21st Century, these machinations of royal politics in the Balkans can appear tedious.  And they are, at least in comparison to the sexualized violence of Game of Thrones or the exotic prize of Arrakis in Dune.

The Obrenović Dynasty ruled Serbia for most of the 19th century.  Supported by the hated Austro-Hungarians, their rule came to an extremely violent end when Serbian nationalist officers, part of the secret Black Hand organization (led by Dragutin Dimitrijević, who would figure later in the assassination of Franz Ferdinand), murdered King Alexander I and his wife Queen Draga in her bedroom.  They were shot and their bodies stripped, mutilated, and disemboweled before the conspirators threw them off a second-floor balcony.  West recalls this horror early in the book as part of her early assessment of prior understanding of Yugoslavia.

Alexander was only 26 years when murdered.  Draga had been his mother’s lady-in-waiting, 12 years his senior. Their marriage caused a scandal.  Draga was widely hated.  West documents ample fuel for the fire of public opinion, all of them quite beyond Draga’s control: she was older, a divorcée, sexually experienced, unattractive, and incapable of having children (likely because her groom was infertile).

This last fact is crucial to understanding their assassination.  Because Draga had no children, Alexander had no heir to the throne.  This set up a succession crisis with Alexander maneuvering his brother to assume power while the Serbian parliament positioned the Russian-backed House of Karađorđević to succeed the reviled Obrenovićs.  Which is exactly what they did after the assassination, returning Peter Karađorđević to the throne 45 years after being deposed.

This history reads as a much more intimate and bloody history than anything shown in The Crown. Indeed, it makes for much more vivid storytelling than even the 1936 abdication crisis West had just observed. And the geopolitical stakes could not be higher, with every empire and major power in the region facing a loss or gain depending on the succession. More importantly, it positioned Serbia even more strongly against Austria-Hungary in the years leading to World War I.

History aside, in this chapter West introduces a character who will play foil to her Balkan reveries.  As she arrives in Belgrade, in passing West introduces us to the antipole character in her narrative, the wife of Constantine, whom she calls Gerda.  Their first meeting sets the tone for the rest of the narrative.  West has a book under her arm that Gerda has no trouble judging by its cover.  West finds this rejection out of hand to be baffling; Gerda doesn’t appear to evince even modest curiosity.  She is too happily and self-righteously ensconced in the citadel of bourgeois ignorance.  Gerda proves later to be a terrible traveling companion.  Although West does capture Gerda in moments of content repose, a sliver of her humanity shining through dark clouds of prejudice and resentment, the overwhelming impression of Gerda is of a spiteful, sociopathic racialist and shrew.  (Ironically, in response to her editor’s concern that Gerda is treated too harshly, West argued if anything else she had “toned down” her nemesis’ character.)

Elsa Vinaver with her husband Stanislav (right) and son Konstantin, date unknown but following World War II. From Gojko Tešić, editor, Citat Vinaver, 2007, and used with permission of the Stantislav Vinaver Facebook group

There was a larger personal dynamic at work in this awkward square dance.  Constantine was indispensable to West as a guide, but given her experience with him (see Croatia, above) she deliberately traveled with her husband Henry Andrews to protect against Constantine’s predations.  Constantine for himself appeared sincere in his affection, writing West a love letter in exquisite French.  Every biographer of West writes that Gerda knew all too well her husband’s obsession for West and very likely elbowed her way into the traveling party to check him too. (West herself recalls their first meeting when Constantine calls home from his office: “Tell your mother that I will not be home to lunch because I have run away with an Englishwoman.”)

Elsa Vinaver, age two, second from left, 1899. Brother Karl is second from right. Used with permission of the Silex Family.

Gerda was Elsa Vinaver, born Elizabeta Silex in 1897 in Stettin, at the time a major port city for the German Empire, but today is now Szczecin in western Poland, on the Baltic Sea about two hours from Berlin.  Her father was a Lutheran rector.  She had a sister and two brothers, one of whom was named Karl Silex.  West describes Karl in passing in her Collected Letters as a “Nazi journalist”.  This is true as far as it goes.  Karl Silex was indeed a journalist and the editor of the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung during the peak years of Nazi control (1933-1943) and after the war edited the Tagespiegel.  He was a Rhodes Scholar, wrote in English, and while living abroad briefly married an Englishwoman.  He wrote several books, including his memoirs.

Karl Silex, c. 1960 (Tagesspeigel)

He also served in both world wars with the Imperial German Navy and later the Kriegsmarine.  During the waning days of World War II, he commanded a mine-laying ship attached to an unconventional “small unit” that fought in the North Sea.  His ship appears to have participated in Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of German civilians and soldiers from East Prussia ahead of the Soviet Army advance in early 1945.  He documented several attacks and sinkings of his flotilla but Silex himself survived the war.

This relationship provides some potential insight into Elsa’s character.  West is unstinting in her disgust for her in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and that hatred is carried over in her letters.  She describes Elsa as “mad,” having attempted suicide and infanticide and reports that she had been committed to asylum at least twice.  “The Nazi business has made her madder,” West writes her husband.  Elsa is horrified that she had married a Jew and had “polluted the sacred Nordic blood” by having two sons with Vinaver (the youngest of whom is named, not coincidentally, Konstantin).

While publicly available information suggests Silex resisted Nazi propaganda during the war — he was a member of the Fuhrer Council of the German Press but never joined the party — the truth is he served the regime both in and out of uniform.  Knowing that her more prominent brother was serving the Fatherland may have been an aggravating factor in Elsa’s state of mind.

There is an extraordinary story buried below the few details about Elsa that we have. West and her husband offered asylum to Vinaver during the war but as a Yugoslav patriot he remained and served in the army opposing the German invasion in 1941. He was almost immediately captured and spent the remainder of the occupation in a prisoner of war camp. He managed to hide his Jewish origins which very likely saved his life. That was not the fate of his mother, who perished in the notorious Banjica concentration camp near Belgrade. It is all the more moving knowing her fate today, information that wasn’t available to West when she recorded their meeting.

Stanislav Vinaver, fourth from the left, with Yugoslav Royal Army prisoners of war, Osnabrueck, Germany 1941. Used with permission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which holds this image in their archives as part of the private collection of Miriam Spitzer Onel.

It is impossible to ignore the contradictions involved in this family.  Elsa apparently remained in Yugoslavia during the war even while her husband was imprisoned and her mother-in-law was murdered.  It is not known what she thought of the German occupation.  Information in English is scarce but it appears that the Vinaver marriage survived the war, as evidenced by a picture of Elsa and Stanislav taken with their youngest son soon afterwards (see above). 

Stanislav died in 1955.  Elsa outlived her husband by nearly 25 years.  It appears she never left Yugoslavia and died in Belgrade in 1979.  Perhaps the most extraordinary result of this union is the family burial of the Jewish Vinavers, Stanislav and Elsa, and their son Konstantin, who died in 2000, together in a Christian grave in the cemetery of Serbian heroes in Belgrade.

The extended family of the Silexes and Vinavers spanned the extreme experience of the war, from the Holocaust and occupation to national service, resistance and imprisonment.  It remains an untold story of epic proportions.

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