With many thanks to the Remembering Yugoslavia podcast and Peter Korchnak!
“Look,” I said, “the river at Sarajevo runs red. That I think a bit too much. The pathetic fallacy really ought not to play with such painful matters.” “Yes, it is as blatant as a propagandist poster,” said my husband.
SARAJEVO IS ONE of my favorite cities in the world. I never had the occasion to visit Bosnia for work while living in Brussels so I took a week in the summer of 2010 to make my first visit. The experience was even more extraordinary than I anticipated and resulted in completely random encounters that made me new, lifelong friends. I can still hear the muezzins calling my friend to prayer at Salat al-‘isha my last night in the city.
Today Sarajevo is a Muslim-majority enclave in a country half-split by the Dayton peace agreement between a Croat-Bosniak federation and a self-proclaimed Serb Republic. Once the most cosmopolitan city in the most diverse republic of the former Yugoslavia, Serbs cleansed themselves of Sarajevo and left Bosnia under virtual European protectorate status that endures to this day.
As with many of the cities West visited, Sarajevo survives as an amalgam of the many empires that have possessed it. The Old Town, which survived the war of the 1990s, was built under Ottoman possession. Walking the Old Town is a delightful experience, its very human scale a reminder that cities can be beautiful at the street level for pedestrian pleasure. Rebecca West records the corso in Dubrovnik and during the spring and summer this is true for Sarajevo as well.
The culverted river and national monuments from that era are mostly Austrian, including the Town Hall, which is done up in a rococo, self-conscious Moorish style. West immediately sees this as a colonial imposition and no genuine reflection of the Islamic or Turkish character of Sarajevo and Bosnia, “stuffed with beer and sausages down to its toes.” She is correct. A feline partisan, West notes the neighboring mosque’s minaret “has the air of a cat that watches a dog making a fool of itself.”
In retrospect this judgment feels unjust. The Town Hall was converted into the Bosnian national library in 1945, housing the earliest documentation of the nation. For that reason Serb gunners laying siege to Sarajevo in the 1990s shelled it without mercy. Incendiary rounds gutted the structure and burned it from floor to ceiling. (Happily, it has been completely restored with international help during the last 15 years, although the documentation is a total loss.)
Historically Sarajevo has been a true mix of the Abrahamic faiths, including Catholics and Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews. It is known as the city of 100 mosques but also hosts cathedrals, churches, and synagogues. West’s account is sympathetic to the Muslim community, but here she sets them aside along with the Christian community to spend ample time with Jewish artists, bankers, and intellectuals who called the city home. The intent of this focus becomes more clear in retrospect. Fortunately West provides an individual touchstone who foreshadows events to come.
The reconquista of Spain in 1492 included the expulsion of Spanish Jews, who scattered across the Mediterranean, including the Balkans. These Sephardim brought with them their unique faith practiced over centuries in Iberia, which included their language of Judeo-Spanish, sometimes called Ladino, an Old Spanish dialect incorporating Hebrew vocabulary and syntax. West spends time with a colorful figure she calls the Bulbul (“nightingale” in Persian), a beautiful Ladino singer whom she met on her first visit the year before. Lingering on the Bulbul is worth some additional time, not least for the impression she made on West:
“The Bulbul was not as Western women. In her beauty she resembled the Persian ladies of the miniatures, whose lustre I had till then thought an artistic convention but could now recognize in her great shining eyes, her wet red lips, her black hair with its white reflections, her dazzling skin.”
The Bulbul is a real person, a Sephardic Jewish Sarajevan named Natalia Šalom Vučković, known as Nina. The Canadian ethnomusicologist Dr. Judith R. Cohen identified her almost by accident in 1984. A scholar of Sephardic music, Cohen met Nina while participating in a concert that included Flory Jagoda, another refugee Sarajevan Ladino singer who only died in January 2021 not far from where I live in Virginia. (You can hear her singing in the YouTube link below). Cohen had read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and after learning Nina’s story quickly put two and two together. “‘Nina,’ [Cohen] said quietly, ‘you must be the Bulbul!’ Tears filled her eyes.”
(Cohen asserts that West got a detail wrong about Nina, ascribing to her proficiency in the gusla, a traditional string instrument, instead of the guitar which she actually played.)
Nina was at that time living on the Kahnewake Mohawk reserve near Montreal, where her doctor husband was administering to the First Nations community. She fled the German occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II, first with Jagoda to Korčula in the Adriatic and then to the United Nations refugee camp at El Shatt in the Sinai, where she joined 20,000 displaced Yugoslavs. There, a Red Cross nurse introduced Nina to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Opening the book, she immediately identified herself in the pages.
This is a photograph of Nina in 1951 taken for her identification card issued by the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in Bremen, West Germany. The IRO was the precursor organization for what would become the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. To my knowledge this photograph is previously unpublished.
The Bulbul’s story is even more astonishing than that. A refugee narrative written by Mira Altarac in 2008 corroborates Cohen’s research to fill out Nina’s biography. Before the war Nina had been married to her own uncle, Isak “Braco” Poljokan (whom West names as Selim while missing the fact that he was Nina’s blood relation, describing him approvingly as “a god sculpted by a primitive people…”) before fleeing the Nazis. They were divorced in Zagreb before she fled Split. A separate refugee narrative by Dr. Jacob Altaras reports that Poljokan was part of an Emigration Committee set up by the Jewish community of Split to help refugees flee Nazi occupation and later died in partisan action in 1944.
In El Shatt, Nina met Dr. Vukasin Vučković, whose own wife had just committed suicide by throwing herself into the Suez Canal, leaving him with their two small children. They married and after a few years wandering Europe seeking asylum, the new family finally settled in Canada. Vukasin died in 1974 while Nina lived on the reserve and in Montreal for 30 years before her death in 1986.
West lingers in Sarajevo and visits Ilidža, Trebević, Travnik, Jajce, and Jezero. These smaller towns serve as backdrop for her dramatic retelling of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by Gavrilo Princip—the most consequential individual act of the 20th century.
The result of the chance encounter between a minor royal and a consumptive teenager drove Europe into the abattoir of the Great War that killed some 22 million people, not including an additional 100 million during the resulting Spanish Influenza, which spread after the war as tens of millions of men demobilized. It destroyed the Austrian and Turkish Empires, precipitated the Armenian massacre, gave rise to Communism in Russia, Nazism in Germany and their genocidal regimes leading to World War II, created the modern Middle East, established the United States as a great power, and formed the League of Nations. Every major geopolitical crisis in the last 100 years is the direct result of World War I and its accelerant: two shots fired by Gavrilo Princip.
Modern observers express horror at the cascade of poor political decisions and battlefield blunders that led to the slaughter. The outcome appears inevitable in retrospect, but the reality is war is a choice. It is not foreordained. European leaders chose poorly. It is possible to imagine a different course of human events if wiser, cooler, and smarter heads were involved. But likewise it is also impossible to imagine the war breaking out at all if it weren’t for the assassination. There were tensions and competitions, of course, but no underlying casus belli to spark a major conflagration. Gavrilo Princip was the match.
Rebecca West makes clear, if not explicit, that this almost random encounter in recent history was populated by characters least likely to star in a modern drama. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was an entirely representative noble of the age, the personification of the mediocrity and rot that populated the ruling class of Europe. He was a thoroughly disagreeable man with an extremely morbid pastime: he hunted, or rather, shot game virtually point-blank as they were flushed into range for his ease and pleasure. He killed hundreds of thousands of animals on four continents. West’s documentation of this baleful, unslakable thirst for animal carnage fills out an unnerving psychological portrait of the archduke. It also foreshadows his own death, as West concludes:
“Long ago he himself, and the blood which was in his veins, had placed at their posts the beaters who should drive him down through a narrowing world to the spot where Princip’s bullet would find him.”
Franz Ferdinand held no real power in the dual monarchy. The ostensible reason for his visit to this provincial capital was in his official capacity as Inspector General of the Army. He was restricted by the abstruse rules governing monarchies from siring an heir to the throne of the Austrian empire because he married a not-noble-enough Czech noble woman, Sophie Chotek. Their morganatic marriage was nonetheless a happy one and possibly the only good thing to say about Franz Ferdinand is that he genuinely loved his wife and three children.
Gavrilo Princip was also an entirely unremarkable young man who only took his place in history as a result of official incompetence and blind luck. West describes him as “physically fragile,” a poor boy of uncertain parentage from the mountains. He attempted to join the Serbian army but his constitution collapsed and he was discharged. He was 19 when arrested for the assassination, a minor for purposes of Austrian imperial justice.
What brought these two parties together at that fateful moment would be considered an absurd farce if it had not resulted in such calamity. Reports of plots and intelligence were ignored. The archduke’s ruler-straight motorcade route and lax security are a remedial course for bodyguards in how to get your principal killed (see below). The motorcade drove down the left bank of the Miljacka, which alone drastically limited escape routes as a right turn would end up in the river. A failed attempt by Nedeljko Čabrinović to explode a bomb under the motorcade did not alter the route in the slightest. It continued to the City Hall, where Franz Ferdinand held a brief, strange, and strained audience, complaining about his explosive reception in the city. Despite this, he boarded his open car, which returned the way it came, that is, straight back into the kill zone.
There was a crew of five would-be assassins who lined the motorcade route. Each failed in their initial attempt. Armed with a bomb and pistol, Muhamed Mehmedbašić (notably a Muslim member of this mostly Serbian conspiracy) and Vaso Čubrilović failed to act. Following Čabrinović’s bombing attempt, Gavrilo Princip, Cvjetko Popović, and Trifun Grabež all missed their opportunity as the motorcade sped past them to the City Hall.
Princip had given up on the plot when the motorcade appeared again on its return down the quay. It made a wrong turn trying to reach the hospital where the injured from the bombing attempt were being treated. This mistake brought the archduke’s car directly abreast of Princip where it stalled. Princip stepped forward and fired and fired again. He did not miss his targets.
(West makes an error of fact here, describing Princip’s murder weapon as a revolver. It was a FN 1910 semi-automatic pistol. The difference is important because a balky revolver in the hands of this bumbling conspirator – a bad shot who washed out of army basic training – could have easily allowed Franz Ferdinand to escape, again, and the world to avoid the mass slaughter to follow.)
While not captured by motion picture as King Alexander’s assassination was 20 years later, the incident in Sarajevo is the most comprehensively documented act of terrorism prior to Sept. 11, 2001. An official tribunal investigated the chain of events and released a detailed report of its findings. All 15 plotters survived and were arrested, tried, and sentenced—the adults to death, the minors, including Gavrilo Princip, to prison terms. Not that this early manifestation of tender mercy mattered. Tuberculosis killed Princip in prison three years later.
In Jajce, West unexpectedly meets Čabrinović’s sister Vukosava, herself a dentist and also an accomplished folk singer. Unusual among West’s unnamed characters, Vukosava Čabrinović is fairly well-documented. David James Smith in his book One Morning in Sarajevo details her sympathies, including a relationship with Princip and her correspondence with her brother, who like Princip also died in prison. She is portrayed by Vera Veljovic-Jovanovic in the 1990 film “Last Waltz in Sarajevo,” not incidentally the last film produced in Yugoslavia before its breakup.
It is important to consider one more thing. Princip was a Serb born and raised in Bosnia. The Young Bosnia organization he joined was pan-Slav in agenda and furnished weapons by the secret Serbian Black Hand organization. In 1914, the Kingdom of Serbia was sovereign while Austria-Hungary possessed the Central European Slavic states as well as Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia. For the catastrophe that followed it is easy to miss something extraordinary in the assessment of the assassination: that this least likely, most fated individual in fact achieved his political objective. In 1914, Princip espoused a union of south Slavs free of Austrian domination. By 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire was destroyed and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, the predecessor of Yugoslavia, was a free, unitary state.
West also documents the sad afterlife of Franz Ferdinand and his wife. It is hard not to be sympathetic despite the fact they were simply bodies in boxes that had to be repatriated to Vienna. Emperor Franz Josef felt their death had corrected the wrong of their morganatic marriage. The emperor’s chamberlain used his position to delay their arrival to the capital. There he placed Sophie’s coffin lower than the archduke to indicate her inferior rank. No public respects were paid. The coffins had been moved by train to Pochlarn, Austria, arriving without reception at one o’clock in the morning. There, a deluge forced the coffins and mourners into the train station terminal to ride out the storm. In the morning they were transferred to a river ferry, but the continuing storm terrified the horses, and Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were spared just barely from being pitched bodily into the Danube.
Postscript: This story was updated on Dec. 8, 2021, to include additional information furnished with the permission and assistance of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. I would like to thank the Memorial and in particular Susan Evans, Ed.D., for their help.
“Here in Mostar the really adventurous part of our journey began.”
HERZEGOVINA, LIKE DALMATIA, is an historical region in the former Yugoslavia, serving no political or administrative purpose beyond its tie to Bosnia as the outline of that state. West visits Trebinje and Mostar on day trips from Dubrovnik before traveling to Sarajevo in the next chapter.
I have written extensively about Mostar, primarily around its signature span linking the left and right banks of the Neretva River. In this city, then a mix of Croats and Bosniaks, West has her first sustained encounter with the cultural and religious legacy of the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Until this point, the Turks have mainly served as background narrative describing how the region struggled against the imperial domination of Vienna and Istanbul.
But here Turkey has permanently altered the urban environment. People pray in mosques. West finds this influence becoming. The town is impeccably clean, “more likely to be due to the Moslem’s love of nature, especially of running water, which would prevent him from desecrating the scene with litter in the first place.” She continues:
“They build beautiful towns and villages. I know of no country, not even Italy or Spain, where each house in a group will be placed with such invariable taste and such pleasing results for those who look at it and out of it alike. The architectural formula of a Turkish house, with its reticent defensive lower story and its projecting upper story, full of windows, is simple and sensible; and I know nothing neater than its interior. Western housewifery is sluttish compared to that aseptic order.”
She observes and admires the local dress of Christian and Muslim alike. “The great point in favour of Moslem dress in its Yugoslavian form is a convenience in hot weather,” she writes, “which in these parts is a serious consideration, for even in Mostar the summer is an affliction. The cotton overall keeps the hair and the clothes clean, and the veil protects the face from dust and insects and sunburn.” This is a cogent, if practical, defense of pious dress.
But she is also shocked by a local custom. She describes the Muslim women dress in Mostar:
“It consists of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it. It is cut with a stiff military collar, very high, perhaps as much as eight or ten inches, which is embroidered inside, not outside, with gold thread. It is never worn as a coat. The woman slips it over her, drawing the shoulders above her head, so that the stiff collar falls forward and projects in front of her like a visor, and she can hide her face if she clutches the edges together, so that she need not wear a veil.”
This is so astonishing to her that she reproduces a photograph in the first edition (see above), a postcard image that appears to have been widely available at the time. But this kind of dress, known locally as feredža (from the Turkish ferace) is not as strange or unique as it may first appear. It is primarily an outer garment that allowed the wearer to dispense with a face covering, as West notes. It shares in common elements with the Persian chador or Arab niqab.
In fact, it looks remarkably like the elaborate dress of the tapadas limeñas of Peru (above) and the Mulheres do Capote e Capelo in the Portuguese Azores (below), both during the same era. All of these together appear to be the result of constant intermingling of cultures, from the Spanish Mantilla and Coptic Christian covering to Catholic habits, Jewish ferace, and Orthodox veils, that were much more common across Europe than West may have known at the time. Indeed, in many cases it would be difficult for the modern lay person to tell the various dress and purpose apart.
This misunderstanding aside, West’s comprehension of and respect for Islamic culture and practice is strong for a Western woman. It is perhaps at this point that we can discuss this book and the insinuation of an Orientalist bias in the text. This stems, in my understanding, mostly from Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova. Todorova quotes West extensively in her book but West herself is mentioned only four times. None of these citations suggests a clichéd interpretation of the region. Todorova may have had more evidence in West’s exploration of the veil which, at the end of this chapter, she insinuates both male oppression and sexual mystery commonly associated by Western observers.
Nonetheless West defends the Balkans against outsider accusations of inbred violence by comparing the Christian lower classes in Ottoman lands to the exploited English proletariat and suggests that the former were better off being governed by the far more civilized Turks. And while Todorova quotes West’s infamous opening lines (“Violence was, indeed, all I knew I knew of the Balkans…”) it is clear from the context that West was admitting her ignorance at the time – a gulf that she resolutely began to fill with this book.
More evidence against Orientalist bias comes in Trebinje. Here is West’s first impression:
“We saw the town suddenly in a parting between showers, handsome and couchant, and like all Turkish towns green with trees and refined by the minarets of many mosques. These are among the most pleasing architectural gestures ever made by urbanity.”
West and her husband visit an old Turkish villa in the suburbs at the insistence of a small boy handing out calling cards in the city center. What they discover is hard to read and not because of the affected performance of Orientalist tropes, including a faux harem and pornographic photography, but because West and her husband instantly recognize the farce but allow it to play through. Their guide – “It was evident he was affected by the glad pruritis of the mind,” West dryly notes – hits all the beats of fevered Western visions of the East, which they reject. This chamber piece has a meta aspect as the guide, playing a stereotype, expects West and her husband to play their own stereotype as civilized Westerners offended by Eastern sexual decadence. They refuse to perform their expected parts but see the sham through to the end. “Shall I throw him downstairs?” West’s husband offers. “No,” she responds, “I find him enchantingly himself.”
Despite her disgust at this charade, West’s empathy has not left her. Her interest in a loom and some third-rate kerchiefs inadvertently humiliates the three girls on display, who are pretty but malnourished, because they do not know how actually to weave or sew. West recognizes them as the urban underclass, domestically unskilled because they are too poor to own sheep. Caught in the open, the girls can only laugh and “exchange bitter remarks.” West understands their Serbian but only because “slight knowledge of a foreign tongue lets one in not at the front door but at the back….I was able to grasp clearly what these young women were saying about me, my husband, my father, and my mother.”
West uses Trebinje to shortly tell the extraordinary story of Jeanne Merkus, a Dutch mystic of the late 19th century. Orphaned at a young age by wealthy parents and raised by a cleric uncle, she moved to Palestine and built a villa in Jerusalem to await the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. She waited there 15 years before bolting to fight in the Herzegovina uprising, a revolt in 1875 led mainly by Bosnian Serbs against the Ottoman administration. She later spent her fortune on weapons for the rebels and joined the Serbian Army just as the war came to an end. Merkus lived out the rest of her life in poverty on the French Riviera and Utrecht in the Netherlands while Turkey took possession of her villa in Jerusalem. West clearly admires Merkus and suspects she would be better known to history if only she “had acted in an important Western state as a member of the Roman Catholic Church in the right century.”
As it was, Merkus died in obscurity, with very little written about her and her family destroying the rest, “sad proof of what happens to Jeanne d’Arc if she is unlucky enough not to be burned.” I have half the mind that West was thinking of herself and her legacy, which she could intuit but not predict: distorted and maligned in the 20th century before facing erasure in the next.
(Very many thanks to my friends Alma S. and Suada H. for their historical assistance!)
“My dear, I know I have inconvenienced you terribly by making you take your holiday now, and I know you did not really want to come to Yugoslavia at all. But when you get there you will see why it was so important that we should make this journey, and that we should make it now, at Easter. It will all be quite clear once we are in Yugoslavia.” (Prologue)
REBECCA WEST MADE three trips to Yugoslavia in the late 1930s but never again visited the country, even after the end of World War II. The single volume treats these three journeys as one long meditation. She first visited for a lecture tour organized by the British Council in the spring of 1936, which explains in part her delight in Orthodox Easter while she visited Skopje and Ohrid in Macedonia and Belgrade in Serbia. She was seriously ill in Yugoslavia and sought treatment outside the country. It was during this travel to and from Yugoslavia through Central Europe that she witnessed the cultural shift and aggressive preparation in Germany in particular that presaged World War II.
West made her second visit, this time with husband Henry Andrews accompanying her, in spring of 1937, returning that May. He is not named but provides quiet observation and mordant commentary throughout the narrative. Under deadline pressure for an opus that was ballooning into two volumes, West returned a third time in 1938. The book was published shortly after the Battle of Britain during World War II, the result of five years’ writing and research.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon has always been classified as a travel book or travelogue since it describes itself as “a journey through Yugoslavia.” As I and other authors have noted, it remains indispensable as an accompaniment to visiting the region because it describes with such clarity what still remains there. But it is evident from the start that the story is not really about a journey, country, or even history. She is working on something much larger. The place in time and the journey through it are framing devices for expansive interrogations of politics, identity, gender, historiography, religion, the nature of good and evil, empire, life, pleasure, pain, liberty, and death. These were all topics West spent much of her life thinking and writing about, and they all came together in this book. “It was much more than a travel book,” writes biographer Victoria Glendenning. “It turned out to be the central book of her life.”
Nevertheless, without recourse to an established genre it is difficult to explain the book at all. I borrowed prosopography as the closest, if unfamiliar, descriptor: a history of a people as a collective, particularly in contrast to other groups. In any event, the term helps explain how West categorizes people according to (currently outdated) notions of race or nation. In West’s Europe there are Germans and Austrians, Hungarians and Russians, Jews and Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics, Turks and Macedonians, Serbs and Croats, and so on. Using this sorting tool, she draws lessons from the experiences of individual nations, for this is how millennia of conquerors, colonizers and empires viewed them. It is also how they saw themselves.
Yugoslavia was at the time of her first visit not even 20 years old. The idea of a federated polity of Slavic-language speakers in Southern Europe dates to the late 17th century, but it was created only in 1918 from the possessions of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and included the independent Serbia in the aftermath of World War I. The ethnic, religious, and linguistic regions had existed for centuries and throughout its tortured history regional and global powers exploited those fractures. Over time the area late known as Yugoslavia was occupied, annexed, colonized, or conquered by Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, Hungarians, Austrians, Germans, Italians, and Turks. This explains in part the Yugoslav experiment: a modern federation was stronger than any of its individual member republics against the predations of its more powerful neighbors.
Some of those constituent republics West visited don’t really exist. At least one country she didn’t visit at all. In the book’s table of contents West lists, in order, Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia, Old Serbia and Montenegro. Today Macedonia is officially North Macedonia. Herzegovina is an historic region of Bosnia but has never been geographically defined and serves no administrative purpose. The Croatian peninsula of Dalmatia is similarly an undefined historical region and former kingdom.
Old Serbia is Kosovo, which for most of its modern history was part of Serbia. It was an eyalet, or province, under Ottoman rule. Socialist Yugoslavia declared Kosovo an autonomous area, a status that was revoked after 1989. Following the federal campaign against Kosovo in 1999, NATO secured the territory, which declared itself an independent state in 2008. West visited Kosovo but not Albania, which while not part of Yugoslavia shared the language and religion, Islam, of the majority of Kosovars then as now.
But as we will soon see, West’s omnivorous appetite for detail provides her a critical tool that even many academics and certainly most journalists do not possess. From this book, West is often quoted that she “had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood.” That serves certain easily digested narratives. Her real agenda is more comprehensively summarized by a story she recounts in the prologue. She discovers to her horror and despair that a Viennese laundry has completely destroyed the Macedonian peasant dresses she had brought with her. This acts as a parable about how the West broadly and imperialism in particular devalue and degrade small vibrant cultures and communities. Oppressive reign ruins those it rules. West’s husband does not understand her emotional reaction and wonders what Macedonia could possibly have that could upset her so much. “Well, there is everything there,” she says. “Except what we have. But that seems very little.” This is a powerful display of empathy that is the root and branch of all great writing.
“To look at it is good; to stand on it is as good.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
THE COVER OF nearly every edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon prominently features the same extraordinary architectural, cultural, and pontine monument found in Mostar, Herzegovina (see page banner above). Rebecca West called it “one of the most beautiful bridges in the world,” which to me only suggests she hadn’t seen every bridge in the world. Elegant in its simplicity, its centrality on the Neretva river, dramatically emphasized by its towering height over the deep and narrow culvert, and its rustic setting, all contribute to the aesthetic effect of the bridge. It is virtually impossible to take a bad picture of the Stari Most (“Old Bridge”) and it is hard to imagine the city without its signature span. (Although the words Mostar and Stari Most are clearly related, they do not mean the same thing. Mostar is derived from mostari, “bridge-keeper”.)
It may have been this bridge on the cover, more than anything else, that drew my attention to the book initially and eventually to the tortured history of Yugoslavia. It appeared to me ancient, alien and alluring, staggeringly beautiful, unreachable. It was a goal for years to see it and stand on it myself.
Stari Most is a pedestrian bridge in both senses of the word: it simply joins the two sides of the city straddling the Neretva and was designed for foot traffic. Motor bridges came later. Walking it can be a challenge especially if you are, like me, prone to vertigo. (I had the same heart-pounding experience walking the Stari Most as I have driving the high, narrow Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Maryland.) The Stari Most deck itself is graded at a steep 10 degrees, cobbled and ribbed. The walk feels precarious (at 6’4”, my center of gravity towers over the low parapet) but is worth the experience.
The bridge’s signature feature—what accentuates its height, position, and weightless feeling—is also its central structural element: the pointed arch. On first glance, the arch may appear to be a true semi-circle, a commonplace of Roman architecture. It is created, in fact, by the superimposition of a smaller circle at the top of the arc of a larger circle. As a result, the deviation of the curve from a true circle is extremely subtle.
While a familiar architectural feature today, the pointed arch – sometimes called an ogive arch – is an Islamic engineering innovation first exhibited at Qusayr ‘Amra in present-day Jordan in the early 8th Century CE and most famously known from the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The pointed arch distributes load more efficiently and allows for the construction of tall, lightweight, open structures. Although the precise means and time of transmission are unclear, there is no doubt that the European gothic arch, the hallmark of Christian medieval engineering, is derived directly from the pointed arch of Islamic provenance.
As unique as the Stari Most is, its basic elements are common throughout the former Ottoman lands. While visiting Sarajevo in 2010, I walked to the “Goat’s Bridge” upriver on the Miljacka: simple, utilitarian, sturdy (see above). The Mehmet Pasha Sokolovic bridge (below) in Visegrad, Bosnia – arguably more famous than the Stari Most as the centerpiece of Nobel Prize-winning Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina – exhibits the same feature over ten arches.
The history of the Stari Most is straightforward. Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent commissioned the bridge, attributed to Mimar Hayruddin, in 1557 CE. Replacing a wooden span, it was completed by 1567 CE. (Legend has it Hayruddin was so apprehensive of the arch’s structural integrity that he planned his own funeral in advance of what he was sure would be a complete collapse of the span.) There it remained a lovely architectural jewel to be encountered by adventurers from Evliya Çelebi and Joseph Hammer to Rebecca West.
During the wars of succession of the former Yugoslavia, Mostar became the battleground of two consecutive conflicts: the Croat/Bosnian war against Serb-dominated federal Yugoslavia and, following Croat gains from that battle, the siege of Mostar by Croatian national forces and local irregulars. As a symbol that also physically linked the Catholic Croatian right bank to the Muslim Bosnian left bank of the Neretva, the bridge became a primary target for Croatian gunners on November 8, 1993.
You can see its destruction here:
It is hard to watch something so beautiful destroyed. There is some satisfaction, to me at least, that something that looks so light and delicate withstood such pounding as long as it did.
The Croatian-Bosnian war ended with a ceasefire in 1994. Yugoslavia broke up into sovereign constituent republics and plans were immediately made to rebuild the bridge. A multinational and multilateral coalition raised the money and recovered original building materials from the riverbed for reconstruction that started in 2001. The new bridge was inaugurated on July 24, 2004. It was this span that I visited and crossed in 2010.
With Iraq on the edge of calamity, a hoary, dangerously stupid idea has again been floated by people smart enough to know better. With primarily Sunni extremists breathing down the Tigris and Euphrates river valley toward Baghdad and the mainly Kurdish north taking local advantage of the resulting power vacuum, the time has come these observers say to cut up Iraq into independent regions based on ethnicity.
This idea has been floated at least since the insurgency of 2005-2006 if not earlier. Critics and some Iraqis complain that the borders were artificially drawn by European colonial officers that ignored ethnic, linguistic and tribal realities. The result was a series of artificial hotchpotch polyglot countries designed to be politically unstable. So of course it makes sense that they should be carved up again — again by those doing it by armchair mapmakers removed from the region — into something that looks like Europe where the French have France and Germans have Germany — Kurdistan for the Kurds, a large Sunni state for the Sunni Arabs, a large Shiite Arab state, and so on.
Except there are a couple of large, demonstrable problems if we think this through. First, it ignores the ethnic reality of the region, which is marbled and faded rather than neatly divided into segregated blocks of mutually opposed antagonists. Ignorant observers see monoethnic polarities (above) where plural blending actually occurs (see below) and conveniently or blithely ignore the same problems that face us today in the current crisis, just in different configurations and proportions: different people figuring out how to order themselves and get along. The U.S. domestic equivalent would be taking the electoral college results from the last election, determining there is no reconciling the two, and then literally dividing the United States along red and blue states after simply ignoring that each election was contested and forgetting the political pluralities contained therein.
This leads me to the second problem. There has never been a single, unitary, state with one ethnic group and one language predominating, ever. Every state, even the most red and most blue, is at some level purple. All countries everywhere throughout history have had to cope with ethnic, linguistic and political pluralities. It is the nature of humanity and political order for people to be different. If we weren’t, we would have no politics, simply “the administration of things”. As long as there has been open communication and trade between nations, different people have lived close to one another and states have had to govern how we live together. (It is why the tower of Babel figures so prominently in the Old Testament.) Even in the modern European nation-state, governments must contend with ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities. We do not entirely segregate ourselves. We cannot be so neatly divided. Only the fanatics — ethnic, religious, and political — believe we can be separated and purified.
Dividing a country like Iraq does two things. First, it essentially cedes to the extremists of the so-called Islamic State its territorial demands. They win. Congratulations. Anyone with the monopoly of violence gets what they want. And second, we give license to the inevitable ethnic cleansing that follows as they force out, or people are compelled to leave, anyone who does not conform to their rule.
I know this to be true because it already happened in the Balkans. A map of Bosnia-Herzegovina shows what occurred before and after the war driven during the 1990s by the Serb-dominated Federal Yugoslav Army. What had been a pluralistic, marbled multi-ethnic state became — with the full consent of the international community as ratified by the Dayton Peace Accords — a radically segregated federation of three largely monoethnic cantons. The country’s federal governing system — championed by many for Iraq — is a corrupt, ethnically myopic hash still under the paternalistic protectorate of the European Union. Bosnians themselves are chafing under its weight and have finally had enough.
By contrast in Iraq during 2005-2006, when faced with the apocalyptic bloodletting particularly of Sunni minorities in Baghdad, the surge of U.S. forces effectively stopped the violence and, in effect, compelled the communities to live with each other. I am not yet convinced of the ethnic nature of the current conflict in Iraq — I see it for now primarily as a power struggle between a group of religious fanatics backed by former regime elements and the weak central government they are targeting — so we should not fall for this false narrative. But the strength of national and political unity is all the more important when facing this outside threat — whether it is a political or ethnic insurgency.
All the more reason, too, since in a political context people can be led to live with one another just as much as they can be agitated to kill one another. I am inclined to believe most ethnic conflict is primarily political conflict and requires as much leadership and organization as any other political effort. People do not spontaneously murder their neighbors en masse. They must be mobilized and compelled to do these terrible deeds — witness the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan, Burma or anywhere else “ancient hatreds” are alleged to erupt.
The only course when confronted with these centrifugal forces — political, ethnic or otherwise — is to counteract with centripetal force. We have no choice among ourselves than to live with one another, so why would we ask anything less from somebody else? We can help and aid the governments and countries and civil organizations of our friends to build the institutions and societies that will help plural nations to survive and prosper. There are other ways to defeat organizations like the Islamic State. But dismembering a country like Iraq or any other would be an essential loss in the struggle against extremism. Because they are fighting for the same arbitrary and pure abstractions that do not not exist in humanity and do not exist on any map.
With nods to George Kennan, Joan Didion, and Cervantes, enjoy this excerpt from my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy about an extraordinary visit I made to Macedonia in 2006 published in The Foreign Service Journal.
Although I wrote this many months (even years) ago, the article is particularly apropos given very recent events in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It documents the activities many young people in the region are making to turn toward each other and articulate a new future for themselves and their countries.
Once again I send my sincere thanks to the editors of The Foreign Service Journal for agreeing to publish this article.
The past two weeks have been astounding to witness in Ukraine and Bosnia- Herzegovina. While I haven’t been able to follow quite as intimately what has happened in Ukraine, media reporting from that country has been very good. In Bosnia I have several friends, and I heard my colleague and friend Jasmin Mujanovic, a New York-based academic (and apparently inexhaustible tweeter), speak on a panel yesterday to a packed house at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs about the dynamic events in that country.
It’s been very interesting to note the similarities, as Jasmin’s co-panelist Janusz Bugajski did yesterday, between the two countries. In both countries, citizens took to the streets to protest a sclerotic and unresponsive political system, widespread and petty corruption, and a sluggish economy. In Ukraine and Bosnia, people want closer ties to Europe and the West (if not necessarily the European Union). I would note, as Gene Sharp has noted, that initial protests were sparked — or helped organizers to consolidate demonstrations — around a singular provocative event. In Ukraine, it was President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to proceed with closer ties with the European Union that brought thousands of people onto the street. In Bosnia, it was the federal parliament’s inability to issue identity papers and passports, effectively rendering a new generation of children identityless, that brought thousands of mothers out to demonstrate.
And critically, in both countries peaceful demonstrations were set upon by overreactive security services to which the protesters reacted violently. In Bosnia, protesters attacked municipal buildings in almost every major city in the country. In Ukraine, protesters stood their ground and fought back against the security services. In both cases, there were echoes of the first response against Egyptian security in Tahrir Square, when the people had just enough power to counter the force of the government to prevail. This is an important, if unsettling, development. Because in both cases, the government may still have the monopoly of force. It depends entirely on whether the military will side with the government or stay off the domestic battlefield.
But here the two countries diverge. In Bosnia, the initial violence almost immediately abated. It’s clear from those I’ve heard from that seeing the burning buildings reminded too many of the war from 20 years ago and peace was quickly restored. This is an extraordinary development. The Bosnian army or, for that matter, the small European Union force contingent in the country, was never called up.
In Ukraine, it appears that Western pressure — public calls by US civilian and military officials and their counterparts in the European Union and NATO, all of which have worked diligently during the past 20 years to build strong institutional and personal relationships with Ukraine’s military establishment — paid off by keeping the Ukrainian army (for now) out of the political power struggle. That kept bloodshed to a minimum, at least, and avoided the precedent we’ve seen in Egypt of making the military establishment a political kingmaker or outright ruler in the country.
Unfortunately, while the Ukrainians figured out a way to counter the initially violent response of the state, and in such a dramatic way, this essentially means there is no rulebook for the way forward in the country. The opposition, now in control of Kiev and, presumably, the western part of the country, could reach out to the Russian-leaning east and Crimea. But if divisions in the country become acute there is no precedent for the peaceful sharing of power across the entire country. If Crimea wants to join Russia or parts of the country want to break away or become autonomous, it may require the army to enforce union. And why not? Kiev was defended with force and won fairly the same way — that is to say, violently.
But in Bosnia something more astonishing took place and continues to take place. People have abandoned violence entirely to assemble spontaneously in municipal “plenums” and issue collective demands to their own local authorities. This has led to the resignation of at least five cantonal governments. Bosnia’s “federal” government structure, imposed by the Dayton peace accords, is Byzantine and bloated to an extreme. Exhausted and exasperated by this internationally imposed, ethnically dominated, and thoroughly corrupt system, Bosnians are now asserting their own, direct, democratic axis of power to demand that their government respond to them and their needs.
It is important to note, particularly in the context of the regional and linguistic divide in Ukraine, that the protests in Bosnia have asserted themselves as Bosnian rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic. This is a critical development. While limited to the Federation, Bosniaks and Croats have reached out to Serbs in the Republika Serpska and have been rewarded by several individuals and organizations rallying to them in reaction to a political system that helps none of them and punishes all of them equally. While I’m sure there are some who are trying to make the same argument in Ukraine, I think the dividing line is far more stark in that country.
While the concept of the assembly is as old as democracy, it is amazing that the Bosnian plenum is so fresh and new to this wave of popular uprisings against thuggish and sclerotic regimes. De Tocqueville wrote admiringly of American civil society and our town hall culture. Hannah Arendt wrote about citizens’ assemblies (she unfortunately wrote about the early “soviets”) as a unique expression of democratic power and direct governance. She also wrote about the concept of politics as an open space where people could gather to discuss issues of common concern — the more open, the more free and dynamic a political space is. That is exactly what we are witnessing in the Bosnian plenums.
What makes them more extraordinary is that the plenums themselves are opening a political space between the people and their own, nominally democratic and elected governments. The Dayton constitution, exacerbated by ethnic chauvinism and sheer political myopia, had simply closed off politics to most Bosnians. The plenums have very effectively crowbarred open the political space again. Where once we saw Solidarity seated on one side of the round table from the Communist Party in Warsaw — forcing the political space open between the people and their government — today we see the Bosnian plenums assembling down the street from the governments that purport to represent them in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica and elsewhere.
As a result, I am more optimistic about events in Bosnia than I am in Ukraine. I am not fatalistic about what will happen on the Black Sea, but I am concerned that the recourse to violence there will beget more violence. The protesters in Bosnia recognize their power in the plenum. That is an extraordinary, unique and genuine contribution to political and democratic development that, if successful, should be a model for us all to emulate.
This month in Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens protested government paralysis in every major city in the country, in some places leading to destruction of municipal government buildings. In Sarajevo, somebody took advantage of the chaos and burned the city archives – a terrible echo of the war of the 1990s, when the beautiful National and University Library was shelled by federal Yugoslav gunners and gutted, destroying the entire collection.
This event is particularly poignant given the recent release of “The Monuments Men,” the George Clooney film about an odd clutch of Allied soldiers tasked with saving art looted from across Europe by Adolph Hitler. Such an action may seem superfluous in the middle of the titanic struggle with fascism in Europe and nationalism in Asia, with literally millions of lives in the balance. Indeed, as the movie and the book by Robert Edsel make clear, the treasure hunt was seen by some as a distraction from Allied war aims. But Lt. George Stokes, Clooney’s character, understood the stakes all too well. “If you destroy a people’s history, it’s as if they never existed,” he says. “That’s what Hitler wants.”
Unfortunately, as events in Sarajevo demonstrate, the world’s cultural patrimony faces an array of threats less immediate but all the more dire and insidious for it. And we lack a coherent, coordinated ability to respond to threats to art and culture that measures up to the achievement of the monuments men.
Today the Sarajevo Haggadah – the oldest Hebrew codex in the Balkans – sits in the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina which has been closed for a year, unprotected. The Bosnian national parliament cannot agree on its status as a federal institution and refused to fund it. The Balkan Wars, both world wars and the wars of the former Yugoslavia could not shut down the museum, which until last winter had remained open for 125 years. This is only part of the reason why Bosnians are protesting.
Without funding and support, professional curators and preservationists cannot ttend to their collections and artifacts. Climate goes uncontrolled. Collections are left unguarded and unmonitored. An entire nation’s patrimony is at risk. And Bosnia is not alone in Europe. Due to the financial crisis, the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania cut funding and closed many or parts of their national museums and galleries. Their collections, too, were threatened.
Direct threats remain as well. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, they ripped out a part of the Afghan nation. When Ansar Dine extremists destroyed the mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints in Timbuktu, they assaulted an ancient center of Islamic history and Malian identity. It is difficult to justify intervention on behalf of works of art, but it is impossible to say we won’t help restore them the way the Stare Most was rebuilt after it was destroyed more than 20 years ago in Mostar, Bosnia.
But the United States today has no means, no unified institution and no philosophy – in short, no foreign cultural policy – to do what the monuments men did 70 years ago: to advocate on behalf of, preserve and, if necessary, rescue endangered art and culture around the world. What we have now in the United States is a hodge-podge of various agencies, bodies and private foundations – the Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery of Art, the State Department, USAID – each pursuing its own, limited projects without coordination, direction or support to match the need.
Some of these projects are important and noble. For example, the Smithsonian moved rapidly after the 2010 earthquake leveled Port-á-Prince to rescue Haitian art. The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation provides flexible funding to U.S. embassies to support museums and galleries. But programs like these are small-bore or one-off. The Ambassadors Fund amounts to little more than $5 million per year for the entire world and only a fraction goes to securing the art works themselves.
In my recent book, I proposed creating a public-private entity called the U.S. Arts Restoration Trust to coordinate government and private resources for the advocacy of art and culture around the world. USART would need to work with the State Department, because execution of these projects would by necessity be enabled through American embassies which have permanent personnel on the ground. And it would need to work with private foundations and galleries with the financial resources and technical know-how to help preserve and restore art in foreign countries.
USART would represent, too, an ideological argument in our particular American approach to promoting art and culture. Culture in the United States is not entirely cut loose in the free market, but it is far more so than the rest of the world. American galleries and museums depend on philanthropy, particularly in contrast to their European or Asian counterparts. While the Smithsonian receives some federal funding, most municipal galleries and museums rely on local foundations and corporate charities. More precisely, we have a far deeper and longer history of philanthropy to draw on. When the European arts community was hit by the financial crisis, it was largely a recession of state support, and they had nowhere else to look for funding. As a result, their collections and personnel suffered.
While traveling abroad I saw the Ma’il Qur’an at the British Library, one of the oldest copies of this sacred text in the world. The importance of a library for preserving a codex becomes clear when you hear what senior conservator David Jacobs told the Arab News about the Ma’il Qur’an. “The problem with that particular manuscript is pigments that are quite friable and flaky, so obviously it needs care and attention and constant monitoring of its condition.” That kind of monitoring is no longer available to the Sarajevo Haggadah and possibly countless other irreplaceable texts and art pieces around the world.
When viewing treasures saved by the monuments men or preserved in the British Library, it is impossible to imagine them not existing. But that is because they survived and are protected to this hour. Rescuing threatened art was a mission we assumed 70 years ago and it is a duty we should take even more seriously today.
Hear my interview with The Public Diplomat’s PDCast, courtesy of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications and its Master’s Program in Public Diplomacy. I talk about working at NATO, my new book, and effective public diplomacy. Many thanks to Michael Ardaiolo for conducting the interview!