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.
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.