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.
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.”
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.