“And the death of Elizabeth had shown me the scourge of the world after the war, Luccheni, Fascism, the rule of the dispossessed class that claims its rights and cannot conceive them save in terms of empty violence, of killing, taking, suppressing.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
REBECCA WEST BEGINS her book and her journey justifying this eccentric visit to her husband, Henry Andrews, who she discovers is already sleep in the neighboring wagon-lit. It is spring 1937. Alone with her thoughts, she recalls “the first time I ever spoke the name ‘Yugoslavia’ and that was only two and a half years before, on October the ninth, 1934.”
At that time she was recovering from surgery in a London hospital. By chance she learns from a radio broadcast that King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was assassinated while on a state visit to Marseilles. As the king left the quai, the killer approached Alexander’s car and shot him four times with a semi-automatic pistol. The fatal round pierced the king’s torso. The French Foreign Minister, Louis Bartou, who had accompanied the king, picked up a ricochet and later died in hospital. The assassin, a Bulgarian revolutionary named Vlado Chernozemski, was cut down by a French gendarme and beaten to death by the crowd in the street. Several others were wounded in the ensuing pandemonium. It was the first assassination captured in motion pictures:
This jolts West’s memory of another Balkan assassination, that of Austrian Empress Elizabeth, in 1898, when West was a girl. Then 60 years old, Elizabeth was traveling incognito in Geneva, Switzerland, when her hotel tipped off a newspaper to her presence. An Italian, Luigi Lucheni, was in town planning to kill Prince Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the pretender to the French crown, who had not actually come to Geneva. Instead he attacked Elizabeth, who was with her lady-in-waiting and preparing to embark on a boat at the lakeside. Lucheni stabbed Elizabeth in the chest with a sharpened file and ran off. Elizabeth, who initially thought she had merely been knocked down, boarded the lake boat. Her tightly corseted dress slowed and hid but did not stop the internal hemorrhage. She collapsed on the boat and died shortly afterwards.
Both crowns were important figures in their day and both assassins represented revolutionary movements au courant at the time. Elizabeth was noted for her intelligence and beauty and whose death was mourned in ways similar to the death of Diana Spencer in 1997. Her assassin was an anarchist, an ideology that drew as much alarm at the fin de siècle as the self-styled revolutionaries of the Red Army Faction and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s. Alexander, descended from rootless Serbian aristocracy, had been king of Yugoslavia for barely five years. He became a target of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization. If this appears confusing because Chernozemski was Bulgarian, it won’t be the last time. Chernozemski remains a controversial figure in both Bulgaria and Macedonia.
To an observer in the 21st Century, these events appear obscure, their connections vague. What could possibly link a stabbing in 1898 Geneva and a shooting in 1934 Marseilles? They were, in fact, singular moments in the advance of the most disruptive political movement in European history: the abandonment of hereditary monarchy as a system of rule and government in favor of republicanism and democratic parliaments. World War I accelerated this collapse by breaking up the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires. World War II liberated nations, moved borders, and fatally weakened the remaining empires of France, the United Kingdom, and Japan. Most importantly, the war smashed the last vestige of ruling monarchies in Europe. The only royalty to survive 1945 retained ceremonial titles only. They were eliminated entirely in eastern Europe. In Western Europe, parliaments and ministers ruled. The war finished what a long string of assassinations had started. In the late 1930s, with the second war not yet in prospect, West was reaching back to understand what would happen to her, her country, and Europe in the coming years.
To West, the revolutionaries, national movements, and assassins demonstrated not a violence unique to this small corner of the world (“Violence was, indeed, all I knew of the Balkans,” she admits) but the ruin and misery empires impose while dominating subject nations. She is keen enough to foresee that the cruelty loosened by empire and exacerbated by the unaccountable political organizations that opposed them seeded the ground for state terror and fascism. “Luccheni has got on well in the world,” she writes. “But now Luccheni is Mussolini.” Lucheni, a bastard abandoned as an infant and raised in orphanages and foster homes, took out his individual rage on the political system. But this did not make it legitimate:
His offense is that he made himself dictator without binding himself by any of the contractual obligations which civilized man has imposed on his rulers in all creditable phases…. This cancellation of process in government leaves it an empty violence that must perpetually and at any cost outdo itself, for it has no alternative idea and hence no alternative activity.
In addition to a mordant summation of fascism’s appeal and agenda, West demonstrates a much more sophisticated historical understanding of actual events than she is normally given credit for. The original sin, in her mind, was European imperialism that sought to divide and conquer, setting the weak off against one another rather than Rome. That Cain slew Abel was its logical, if not inevitable, result.