“These were exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known; and there were sixty millions of them in the middle of Europe.” (Journey)
WITH HER HUSBAND Rebecca West travels by train from Salzburg, Austria, to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. They climb to Badgastein and the Hohe Tauern railway tunnel built in 1909 (bearing the name of the emperor Franz Joseph at its entrance) to Villach, high in the Austrian alps. They traverse the Wörther See to Ljubljana, Slovenia, and then on to Zagreb. West does not visit Slovenia and fails to mention Ljubljana at all in the text, marking that station only on the map on the endpaper of the 1st edition.
West and her husband are joined in the first class car by a klatch of Germans who left Berlin for a 30-hour rail trip to the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic. Here we see West’s keen personal and cultural critic emerge as she scrutinizes these thoroughly average people leaving the hothouse of their country. She hears them fuss about comfort and diet and work. She watches them visibly relax as soon as they enter Yugoslavia. She observes them chastise a young man who attempts to join them in first class with a second-class ticket. “The vehemence…was so intense that we took it for granted that it must be due to some other reason than concern for our comfort, and supposed the explanation lay in the young man’s race and personality, for he was Latin and epicene.” She remarks their delight in her husband’s excellent German – he was interned as an enemy alien in Ruhleben during World War I and worked in Berlin until he objected to a Nazi hack replacing a Jewish colleague – “as if they were complimenting him on being good as well as clever.”
She also listens to their stories of the political transformation under way at home. Their children, they confide, are all for Hitler. They are not upset about the Nazi’s ideology so much as its political interference in their everyday lives, especially commerce. One explains how her hairdresser had lost her job after failing the test for her license. “Yes, I am good at my work!” she quotes her hairdresser, who proudly enumerates her services, “but keep from mixing up Göring’s and Goebbels’s birthday, that can I not do.”
West’s companions bewilder her completely. She feels warmth for them when they react like children to seeing the snow in the alps and she commiserates with their tales of political and economic chaos after 1918. This aside, she finds them irritating. They view the country they are passing through with naked contempt. Dalmatia is redeemed only because that is where Germans go and, as a result, they believe the hotels and food they are accustomed to at home will follow. West, piqued, insists that the local cuisine and accommodations are excellent.
They are prototypically middle-aged and middle-class. West might appear to have succumbed to anti-bourgeois sentiment common among leftists of the age but for a jarring, “climactic mystification” she witnesses as they reach their first station in Yugoslavia. As they are approached by a Croat conductor, West is astonished to discover all four Germans were squatting in the first class cabin on second class tickets. This explains their strange vehemence when ejecting the alien young man who had tried to do the same thing. The Germans try to bribe the Croat conductor, who turns purple in rage and indignation. He shouts them down and they meekly submit. West and her husband are quietly appalled at this “most monstrous perfidy”.
Most of this could pass as social commentary in the vein of E.M. Forster or P.G. Wodehouse, a slight comedy of manners diverting from the main argument of the book. But West hides in plain sight a cutting indictment in miniature of the regime that at the moment of writing controlled all of Europe. The lack of moral awareness evidenced by her German cabinmates, combined with their reflexive deference to authority and force, goes very far to explain Germany in the 1930s.
“It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and so apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted,” she writes. That is an extraordinary prediction given the book was published in 1941. Somehow even in that dark moment she saw the Armageddon that awaited Germany in 1945.
This section and the Prologue before it are comparatively shortish examples of West’s creative approach. She marries an astonishing attention to detail to very long exposition which can appear to meander, the interest in a shiny new thing taken to its logical extreme. But West always tells a story to reach its moral. She foreshadows what becomes reality outside the book but also, as we will learn, an individual exemplar who arrives in the narrative later. She is at once anticipating, observing, and explaining the reductive seduction of fascism.
She is also contrasting these fussy Bürgers to the Yugoslavs they scorn in relation to her own experience. As the train approaches a suburban station outside Zagreb, she observes:
“An elderly man, his thin body clad in a tight-fitting, flimsy overcoat, trotted along beside the train, crying softly, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’ He held an open umbrella not over himself but at arm’s length. He had not brought it for himself, but for the beloved woman he was calling. He did not lose hope when he found her nowhere in all the long train, but turned and trotted all the way back, calling still with anxious sweetness, ‘Anna! Anna! Anna!’”
As the train pulls away, she notes:
“A ray of light from an electric standard shone on his white hair, on the dome of his umbrella, which was streaked with several rents, and on the strong spears of the driving rain.”
In that evocative sketch, we see her repose, the strain of social pretense evaporating. She is relieved: “I was among people I could understand.”