With many thanks to the Remembering Yugoslavia podcast and Peter Korchnak!
“But these people’s culture instructed them exactly how best they might live where they must live.”
BY TRAIN REBECCA West and her husband travel from Zagreb to Sušak in Dalmatia. From there they travel by car and boat to several towns along Croatia’s Adriatic Coast. She visits, in sequence, Sušak, Senj, Rab, Split, Salonae, Trogir, Korčula, and Dubrovnik, a series of coastal and island cities at one time mostly self-governing. This is the most travelogue-like part of the book. West acts like a tourist guide, noting points of interest for the reader. It is a peculiar departure from the omniscient voice she has used so far to braid criticism, biography, and history into a single narrative strand.
Then as now the Dalmatian coast is a southern European Mediterranean tourist destination. Dalmatia carries no political significance: it is an historical region, not an administrative district. It has mostly been part of Croatia throughout history. Incidentally, the Dalmatian dog breed is indeed from the region, with historical records documenting its appearance as far back as the mid-14th century.
Although each city is part of Dalmatia and shares much of the same history, every one is unique and distinct from the other. To me it recalls the unique cultures and strange customs of individual rabbit warrens described by Richard Adams in Watership Down. This is the benefit of reading West’s account. She combines her intense focus and aesthetic sense with extraordinary precision of language so that even without seeing what she is describing it is impossible to confuse one thing for another and, when you do look for what she is describing, it is very easy to find it. She does not characterize things. She describes them.
So West wanders the repurposed ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, which today forms the historic old quarter of Split. She describes the four church towers that dominate the island village of Rab. She describes the ramparts of Dubrovnik. Also the lack of ramparts in Trogir. There, the occupying Turks tore down the town walls and later occupiers refused to rebuild them. The result, West writes, is “like a plant grown in a flower-pot when the pot is broken but the earth and roots still hang together.”
The history of the region includes almost constant invasion. Each of the small city-states had to build alliances, fight off invaders, resettle refugees. Avars, Goths, Huns, Romans, Mongols. Turks, Venetians, Hungarians, Austrians. French, English, Germans. It is easy to be numbed by the drumming repetition of invasions, battles, empires, displacements, and occupation that West enumerates alongside plagues and earthquakes. She does this to serve her argument against empire. But when the full scope of the political disturbance over centuries is clear, it explains both the rise of Yugoslavia and its fall. It also strongly asserts that for a region with a reputation for instability and fratricidal violence, most of that violence was brought here.
In Korčula, she worries that an extraordinary experience visiting the city in the previous year has inflated her expectations for this visit. Then, she had witnessed virtually the entire town gather on the quai to carry a young and beautiful but desperately sick girl to a boat that would take her to a hospital. It was clear to West that the girl was resigned to her fate but in a way suggesting a self-regarding romance affected by adolescents. Then the same crowd parted for another woman carried on a litter, an old crone who like the girl was desperately ill but unlike her absolutely defiant in the face of death: “When the stretcher-bearers halted in manoeuvering her up the gangway she rose up in her chair, a twisted hieroglyphic expressing the love of life, and uttered an angry sound she might have used to a mule that was stopping in midstream.”
“The appetite for life comes from eating,” West concludes. Pleasure in life requires investment.
It is the point of travel to witness something you have never seen before and could not imagine based on your experience. West applies this to what she sees is the life-affirming aspect of Slavic culture. Korčula does not disappoint during her second trip. This time West and her husband wake in their hotel and step out with cups of coffee to watch a white steamer – “lovely as a lady and drunk as a lord” – drift to the quai. It is listing heavily to the port side, filled as it is with young army conscripts eager to see a new town. The quai is itself thick with waiting soldiers who are all singing together (an anti-government song, West’s guide notes). The soldiers board and the steamer sails away, sitting lower in the water. West hears all the young men on board singing, the song carrying across the water.
West wends biography inextricably into the landscape. She focuses in particular on Diocletian, a late emperor of Rome in the 3rd century. In Split he is best remembered for the retirement palace he built for himself in what is now the historic old town. It is a huge space – more than eight acres – that was until recently essentially reclaimed land. When West visited she saw the palace carved up into apartments and shops used by average people. Henry Andrews has carried with him a heavy book of lithographs by Robert Adams, who documented the palace and many other sites throughout the region in the late 18th century.
Diocletian was a Dalmatian born in Salonae to a poor family. He rose in the ranks of the Roman Legion and was proclaimed emperor after the death of Carus and Numerian on campaign in Persia. He presided over a relatively stable period of time for Rome, resolving the crisis in the 3rd century by instituting a co-emperorship called the Tetrarchy to rule over the four geographic regions of the empire. This shouldn’t have worked – power hates sharing much more than it abhors a vacuum – but it did until Diocletian abdicated his role. He died only a few years into his retirement.
Diocletian’s retirement appears, in the historical narrative, as a point of no return in classical antiquity. The Tetrarchy collapsed in his absence and Rome fell into civil war that lasted 15 years until Constantine (Flavius Valerius Constantinus, not incidentally born in Niš, Serbia, perhaps the reason why West gave her Serbian guide the same name) consolidated control. Constantine’s shift of the political center from Rome to what is now Istanbul set in motion the split between eastern and western empires in the 4th century and the collapse of Rome in the 5th century. In many respects, Diocletian was the last undisputed Roman emperor.
West has a guide in Split. As with most of the contemporaries she mentions, she applies a pseudonym. In this case, she is accompanied by a man she calls the Professor. Most of the details she provides for him – he is older but not aged, he has abundant physical energy, and he was a leader of the Mt. Marjan Association – suggests this is Prof. Umberto Girometta, who despite his Italian name was a Croatian who was born and died in Split. He epitomizes the late-19th century European adventurer. Girometta was an alpinist, mountaineer, spelunker, and paleontologist, expertise he trained almost exclusively on Split and Croatia.
Mt. Marjan itself is an extraordinary story of resource depletion and community restoration. When Venice controlled Split, the Italians stripped the entire mountainside for pine to build its trading fleet. After regaining sovereignty, Split embarked on a remarkable renewal project that continues today. The pine and macchia were replanted and what had been a naked hillock is once again thick with trees, a nature preserve known as “the lungs of the city”.
Here we find evidence of West’s endorsement of traditional notions of sex and gender. She admires the raw masculinity of local men practicing age-old craft like shipbuilding. “These were men, they could beget children on women, they could shape certain kinds of materials for purposes that made them masters of their worlds,” she writes. The work they do is simple yet rugged and perfectly adapted in form and function to their ascetic coastal life. She compares these men unfavorably to a “cityish” sort of man, preferred by the English, “in the Foreign Office who has a peevishly amusing voice and is very delicate….” She admires feminine beauty and sexual attraction in women. “She was elderly, though not old,” she describes a local matriarch, “and it could be seen that she had been very lovely; and immediately she began to flirt with my husband.” This is uncomfortably close to certain cultural norms held by the far right, then as now. But she elides outright homophobia and it is difficult to square these notions with her avant-garde feminism.
Her use of language would be found problematic by modern audiences. This includes a color descriptor involving a racial slur, which was commonly used a century ago, and also this: “It is doubtful if even our own times can provide anything as hideous as the Mongol invasion, as this dispensing of horrible death by yellow people made terrible as demons by their own unfamiliarity.” (The Balkans were spared long-term occupation due to a succession crisis in Mongolia.) But here again it is difficult to nail West to the pillory. Her next sentence reads, “It is true that the establishment of the Mongol Empire was ultimately an excellent thing for the human spirit, since it made Asiatic culture available to Europe.” And it is clear that she is describing an invasion from the point of view of the invaded who cannot be expected to receive pillage, rase, and rape with enlightened tolerance.
“Politics, always politics. In the middle of the night, when there is a rap on our bedroom door, it is politics.” (Croatia/Zagreb VII)
ENDING THE JOURNEY of the previous chapter, Rebecca West and her husband arrive in Zagreb proper. Three friends, standing in the rain, greet them on the railway platform. One of them is arguably the most important character of the book besides West and the other two play rhetorical archetypes to set up an argument that will weave its way throughout the book: the nature and benefit of Yugoslavism, the Yugoslav idea, and Yugoslavia itself.
West calls the three men Constantine, Valetta, and Marko Gregorijević. These are pseudonyms and eccentric ones at that. Valetta is described as a young Croatian from Dalmatia, 26 years old. He lectures in mathematics at the University of Zagreb. Gregorijević is an older Croatian journalist and critic, 57 years old. Based on the little biographical information West provides us, I was unable to determine the true identities of these two men (although Valetta may have been Stanko Bilinski, a mathematician of some renown, who matches Valetta’s profession and approximate birthdate but not his region of origin). I do not have access to West’s papers and the men are not described in her Selected Letters. They are not identified by even Croatian language references and sources I have searched.
Constantine, however, is much better documented, possibly because he is such a dynamic character in the book. He accompanies West throughout most of the journey she documents (and his wife, to appear later, will provide an archetype in another argument West sustains throughout the book.) Constantine’s real name is Stanislav Vinaver. West describes him as a poet, a Serb, an Orthodox, and a Yugoslav government functionary (as a censor). On the first page we meet him, she writes:
“Constantine is short and fat, with a head like the best-known satyr in the Louvre, and an air of vine-leaves about the brow, though he drinks little. He is perpetually drunk on what comes out of his mouth, not what goes into it. He talks incessantly.”
West relates that Constantine’s heritage is Jewish; his parents immigrated from the Pale of Settlement, at the time Russian Poland. He was born in Serbia and converted to the Serbian Orthodox Church. He is a Serb patriot in word and deed; he fought against Austria during World War I as part of the Serbian army. His father, a physician, was a medical officer during the war but died in a typhus outbreak in 1915. Constantine later fought in the royal Yugoslav army against the Germans during World War II. Captured, he was held as a prisoner of war but survived and died in 1955. His mother was less fortunate. She was murdered as a Jew by the Nazis during the occupation.
While compelling as a character in the book, Vinaver as an individual was more unnerving. In a letter to her sister during her first, unaccompanied visit, West recounts a harrowing experience with Vinaver in Ohrid, Macedonia. There, he attempts to sexually assault West in her hotel room not once but twice. Twice she fights him off, literally. But he is her official government minder and interpreter, she does not speak the language, has little money and no way to return to Skopje, so she is obliged to maintain his company until they return to the capital. On the return trip, she contracts a strep infection of the skin and runs a fever. She is confined to her hotel room, miserably ill. But this does not keep Vinaver from accosting her a third time. “For 3 hours,” she writes, “he stamped and raved and blustered beside my bed.” As a government official, he may have been unavoidable on her subsequent trips. But it also explains why West made this second trip accompanied by her husband.
In Zagreb, Constantine is the third leg on the uncomfortable stool that supports the political debate over Yugoslavia. Constantine is a Serb by adoption with the aggressive patriotic fervor of a convert. Gregorijević is an old Croat (West describes him as a dour version of Pluto, Mickey Mouse’s dog) who fought Hungarian domination of Croatia by the Habsburgs and sees Yugoslavia as a bulwark against imperial imposition. Valetta is too young to remember a time when Croatia was not part of Yugoslavia and views this political construct as a vehicle for Serb domination of its neighbors. (Yugoslavia’s King Alexander I and his issue, Peter II, who ruled Yugoslavia during this time, were Serbian by birth.) Although West finds their bickering tiresome, the debate personifies the political dynamics of the Balkans. I will discuss the idea of Yugoslavia in a later post. For now, you can see here the paradox of the Yugoslav experiment: individually, Yugoslavia’s constituent nations are too weak to defend themselves against their larger neighbors, but together Serbia dominates the union.
West and company visit St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb and another church in Šestine, in the mountains north of Zagreb. She does not name St. Mirko’s Church, which sits on a small rise at the town crossroads. But here again West’s description is so perfect that there is no doubt this is the church: “full to the doors, bright inside as a garden, glowing with scarlet and gold and blue and the unique, rough, warm white of homespun, and shaking with song.” I found this description of a Catholic mass bracing since good music has been thoroughly driven out of the Church in the United States.
They visit “Two Castles” that West also does not name. It is unclear why. They take government motorcars through heavy snow, which delights her and the locals who occasionally have to dig the vehicles out (“doubtless anxious to get back and tell a horse about it”). The castles can be found as she describes them. For example, she writes about the Trakošćan Castle as “something like a Balliol,” that is, the Oxford college (coincidentally Christopher Hitchens‘), which turns out to be perfectly apt. It dates to the 13th century but is stuffed full of Austrian cultural detritus – “a clutterment of the most hideous furniture…walloping stuff bigger than any calculations of use could have suggested, big in accordance with a vulgar idea that bigness is splendid….” This may appear frivolous – is there anything more poncy than English critique of interior design? – but it serves West’s larger argument that imperial imposition destroys and displaces local cultural expression that is delightful when left alone.
The second castle they visit was built by the same house that owned the first. A large hilltop fortification, it served during West’s visit as a tuberculosis sanitorium. Happily, today, Klenovnik Castle is a modern hospital treating pulmonary diseases. It remains the largest castle in the country.
“[T]he place was clean, fantastically clean, clean like a battleship,” she writes, noting that might be the only thing it had in common with English hospitals which she knows too well. West admires the hospital, its patients and doctors, and its methods precisely because they were un-English. The doctors are doting but forbearing with their patients, whom they treat in what we might call a holistic way. The food is excellent, grown on the castle grounds, and ample enough to send patients home several kilograms heavier. “[The patients] sometimes fall in love, and it is a very good thing,” the superintendent remarks. “It sometimes makes all the difference, they get a new appetite for living, and they do so well.” West approves. She writes:
“These people hold that the way to make life better is to add good things to it, whereas in the West we hold that the way to make life better is to take bad things away from it. … Here a patient could be adult, primitive, dusky, defensive; if he chose to foster a poetic fantasy or personal passion to tide him over his crisis, so much the better. It was the tuberculosis germ that the doctor want to alter, not the patient….”
West delights in good things that give pleasure and she sees those things in the sanitorium. This is the soft edge of a sharper argument she makes more explicit later in the book: that good things are good on their own, they exist for our pleasure, and don’t require sacrifice, pain, or the prospect of death to enjoy. This almost feels like moral philosophy but as we might apply it to tangible things like the embroidered homespun, strong plum brandy, or “sucking-pig so delicate that it could be spread on bread like butter” that she enjoys while in Croatia.
West ends this chapter with a miniature social comedy. She, her husband, and Constantine visit the Gregorijevićs, husband and wife both described as long and melancholy as Great Danes. They have a small dog who expresses its outrage at these strangers by defecating on the living room rug. The Gregorijevićs are mortified, even more so as West and her husband try to defuse the situation with humor, a very English trait. The family’s maid, “in peasant costume,” comes to clean up, “grinning from ear to ear at the joke the dog’s nature had played on the gentry.” Constantine rescues the Gregorijevićs’ dignity by solemnly taking up the piano to play a Bach motet and then a Mozart sonata. This may appear to be simply an amusing endnote to her visit, but again West manages to weave her themes through it. Gregorijević takes Henry aside “to murmur in a voice hoarse with resentment that he had owned both the poodle’s father and grandmother, and that neither of them would ever have dreamed of behaving in such a away. ‘Nothing, man or beast, is as it was. Our ideals, think what has happened to our ideals…what has happened to our patriots.’…”
For some, the country has literally gone to the dogs.
“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.”
“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.
“I write books to find out about things.” (Paris Review, 1981)
FOR THIS PROJECT I have four individual editions of Black Lamb separated in publication by 80 years. More than 25 years ago I started reading the 1994 Penguin Books single-volume paperback. It was published without an introduction. I don’t recall purchasing this book, but I had likely read Balkan Ghosts (1993) around this time. This was author Robert Kaplan’s paean to “Dame Rebecca” and her life-defining tome, which he considered more valuable than his passport. That same year my first article for the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student paper, was about European attempts to end the war in the former Yugoslavia.
I started reading this edition in 1997 with my coffee at five o’clock in the morning. I got about 300 pages into it (according to the book darts I left in the pages, I appear to have gotten as far as Sarajevo) before abandoning the effort. I really was not equipped to make sense of the book. A mere undergraduate education (more than what Dame Rebecca managed, which is all the more telling) and an undisciplined interest in Yugoslavia were insufficient. I knew none of the region’s histories, languages, or literature. I didn’t even know anyone from Yugoslavia. Consequently, each page I turned was an isometric effort: laborious but unproductive.
After graduate school – where I watched Allied aircraft pummel Serbia in 1999, televised havoc I would later see with my own eyes visiting Belgrade as a NATO official – I moved to Europe and eventually to Brussels and the North Atlantic Alliance itself. When I joined in 2005, Kosovo was NATO’s largest out-of-area deployment with about 15,000 troops. Catching up on this important Allied theater of operations, I schooled myself on the tragedy of the former Yugoslavia and began visiting the region as the new republics aligned themselves with NATO and the European Union. As a result, I met people across the region trying to build a new regional politics, liberal, internationalist, and Western-leaning.
My Penguin paperback with a homemade cardstock cover protecting it accompanied me during my trips. I found it easier to approach the book by sections that corresponded to where I was visiting. West described places and history I could visit and see and touch. The more I read, and the more I traveled, the more I could connect the parts of the books into a coherent regional narrative. It was a productive re-introduction to the book.
That led to criticism and commentary of West, including Geoff Dyer, Brian Hall, and Larry Wolff. Richard Holbrooke and Lord David Owen, policy-makers, followed. Holbrooke coined the pejorative “bad history, or the Rebecca West Factor” – a line Christopher Hitchens would parrot – and piled on Hall’s allegations that West was a pro-Serb crypto-nationalist and Islamophobe. That verdict perfectly but inaccurately explained what had just happened in Bosnia as Serb-dominated Yugoslav federal forces reinforcing Bosnian Serb irregulars “cleansed” Muslim-majority cities through siege and massacre. Never mind that West’s intended destination was Macedonia, not Serbia, and she visited Montenegro, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Herzegovina as part of her research. Only in retrospect – actually a narrative heuristic similar to post hoc fallacy – does Kaplan and, by extension, West appear to be prophetic. Robert Kaplan felt the need to defend himself and his West-derived “bad history” in later editions of Balkan Ghosts (in Yugoslavia, he visited only Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia and spent the other three-quarters of his book in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania). His main thesis was the best way to understand contemporary politics is through history, which Rebecca West well understood. The past is prologue to what follows but it is not necessarily the provocateur.
There began my initial intuition that these critics, writers and statesmen (they were all men), with the exception of Kaplan, had got something fundamentally wrong about Dame Rebecca. My sporadic reading of Black Lamb, while incomplete, did not fit the accusation of an ethnic polemic. Racist screeds usually burn themselves out well before 1,100 pages. So I returned to the book looking for bias with an eye toward writing an apologia in the old style.
That opportunity came in 2016 as the 75th anniversary of the publication approached. West originally serialized what became the book in The Atlantic and Harper’s Bazaar in early 1941. The first two-volume editions were published by The Viking Press in the United States and Macmillan in the United Kingdom later that same year. To my surprise nobody noted the anniversary date given how much-discussed the book had been just 20 years earlier. NATO was still on the ground in Kosovo and so was a European Union peacekeeping mission in Bosnia.
Augmenting my research was a Kindle version of the Penguin 2007 edition published with Christopher Hitchens’ introduction, which he unsurprisingly handled like an dull mattock. Irritation aside, the Kindle edition features searchable text, bookmarking, highlighting, and a dictionary. This facilitated certain research. For example, the easy exenteration of Hitchens’ claim that “the most repeatedly pejorative word in [West’s] lexicon is ‘impotent’”—a word that appears just six times in the entire book. Likewise “Greater Serbia”—which, like Hall, Hitchens uses to bind West in a chain of causality leading to Serb ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosnia-Herzegovina and specifically the Srebrenica genocide in 1995—West mentions twice. (More Hitchens gralloch in a future post.)
I published my article in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July 2017. It had an immediate and thoroughly unexpected result: the executor of West’s literary estate read my article and ordered up a new edition in time for the book’s 80th anniversary. Coincidentally, the global COVID19 pandemic gave claustrophobic adventurers reason to travel virtually the old-fashioned way. So Black Lamb has enjoyed a minor renaissance as more readers with more time rediscover it for an ambitious long read.
With this turn of events, I had to possess the alpha and the omega. Working with Capitol Hill Books in Washington, D.C., I bought the two-volume US first edition. These volumes include photographs and maps. The endleaves feature a visual log of West’s travels. The photos are not terribly good, not even qualifying as postcards. Occasionally, however, they provide insight, such as illustrating West’s astonished description of covered Muslim women’s dress in Mostar “consist[ing] of a man’s coat, made in black or blue cloth, immensely too large for the woman who is going to wear it.” The photo confirms her power of description.
Finally, I ordered the new Canongate edition which at this time is only available for sale from the UK. It was delivered with the satisfaction of seeing my original LARB article prominently blurbed in the front leaf.
“What is Kaimakshalan? A mountain in Macedonia, but where is Macedonia since the Peace Treaty? This part of it is called South Serbia. And where is that, in Czechoslovakia, or in Bulgaria? And what has happened there? The answer is too long, as long indeed, as this book, which hardly anybody will read by reason of its length. Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.” (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)
THIS YEAR MARKS the 80th anniversary of the publication of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Written over five years and totaling more than 1,100 pages, it was almost immediately and universally acclaimed as a masterwork of 20th Century English literature—luster dimmed slightly by aspersions cast during the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. After 2000, however, this extraordinary book fell not just from favor but from popular consciousness. So much so that nobody noticed when its 75th anniversary passed in 2016.
Nobody, it seems, but me. In 2017 I wrote about this collective oversight in the Los Angeles Review of Books and defended West against the ludicrous accusation that her 1930s wayfaring prosopography fed Western inaction during the violent, genocidal breakup of the former Yugoslavia. To my surprise, West’s literary estate flagged my article and ordered an 80th anniversary edition. That edition is now available from Canongate with an introduction by Geoff Dyer.
This moment presents an opportunity to revisit the book in detail and in depth. In the coming weeks and months I will write here about the book as I move through it, region by region. The book is rich and dense with observation and moment so there will be plenty of material for digressions and diversions. I have visited several of the locations covered in the book, including Serbia, Macedonia, and Bosnia in addition to Austria, Greece, Hungary and Bulgaria. My admiration of West and her work grew as I realized what she described in 1941 remained completely true to my own experiences.
I also believe reexamining this book will bring clarity to our own generational inflection point. As several commentators have noted, during her travels in the mid-1930s West saw and anticipated the crest of fascism preparing to crash across Europe. Black Lamb documented the damage of rank nationalism and the imperialism of centuries. West plainly saw the antecedents and historical analogies. “The difference between [Kosovo] in 1389 and England in 1939,” she wrote, “lay in time and place and not in the events experienced.”
Many thought 1989 was the last caesura with that legacy. But history has no end. The apex of post-Cold War democratic advance came in Tunis in 2011. Since then, more than a dozen countries have rallied to the cynical column led by Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran. Freedom House noted of 2020, “[D]emocracy’s defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes, shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny.” Western democracies themselves have not been immune to this retrogression, as 2021’s capitol insurrection surely demonstrated.
West saw the same thing coming 85 years ago and warned us. We should listen.
I hope you’ll join me on this historiographical odyssey. Please feel free to comment below or e-mail me directly at the address listed under “About James Thomas Snyder”.
Today more than 200 museums, galleries and libraries in nearly 40 countries on five continents symbolically closed exhibits in solidarity with seven closed and threatened cultural institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina. More than 20 galleries and universities in North America, 50 in Croatia alone, two score across Western Europe, and more across the Middle East, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and beyond are demonstrating their support this month for their brother and sister institutions that survived the war of the 1990s only to confront ruin by political neglect in the Bosnian federal parliament.
You can hear my friend Jasmin Mujanovic speaking to the CBC’s As It Happens about the crisis in Bosnia threatening the cultural institutions (in English). You can watch my friend Prof. Azra Aksamija speaking to Al Jazeera here (in Bosnian).
Pour nos amis francophones, voici un blog Le Monde. C’est un peu court, mais je travail dur pour le changer. Ecrivez Le Monde, France24 ou les autres medias pour nous aider!
Of course, please visit our CULTURESHUTDOWN site to join the conversation about how we can change the circumstances in Sarajevo.
Perusing John Brown’s long-running blog on public diplomacy, I was jarred to find his crotchety rant about the minimalist linguistic antics of the young Americans he is forced to listen to on the Washington, D.C., Metro. He compared these inarticulate slobs baying into their iPhones, like — unfavorably? — to the crisp, articulate Croatians whom he taught, in English, during a recent detail to Dubrovnik. Brown writes:
“It is also enchanting, while enjoying the privilege to give my course, to be blessed with hearing complete sentences, increasingly passé in America, coming from the mouths of twenties-something, even if uttered with an ‘accent.’ Moreover, the absence among my current English-speaking Dubrovnik students of uptalk, unfortunately still prevalent in the U.S., is equivalent to being spared of aural torture.”
Beyond an extraordinary contempt for young Americans who are still learning – some, apparently, in Brown’s charge – Brown demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the nature of language both in the United States and in Europe that he views through a prismatic Anglophone bias he proclaims to decry.
Brown apparently missed all the talk about dramatic demographic shifts in the United States that doomed the campaign of Mitt Romney, who not incidentally speaks excellent French. Brown does not list the languages he speaks, and presumably he speaks many, because he served two decades in the U.S. Foreign Service. But he may be forgiven for missing this huge demographic shift because 1) nobody talks about any of the linguistic implications regarding those demographics beyond the growing Latino population and 2) Brown is apparently only listening in on the Metro’s English conversations.
This eavesdropping is entirely self-selecting because English is the common, if not official, language of the United States. But Brown no longer knows his own country: on aggregate, 20 percent of Americans — that’s one in five — speak a language other than English in the home. The Census catalogs more than 300 languages spoken in this country; I’ve seen listed more than 400. After Spanish — whose speakers in this country alone outnumber Canadians — is Chinese (2.5 million speakers), Tagalog (1.5 million speakers), French (!) (1.4 million speakers), Vietnamese (1.2 million speakers), German (1.1 million speakers) and Korean (1.1 million speakers). I would assert that the United States is the most linguistically diverse country in the world.
The linguistic environment in Europe is the inverse of the United States, right down to the self-selection. The continent has long been linguistically diverse and has traded common languages over the centuries. Those Croatians Brown admires so much were entirely self-selected for their own benefit if not his — he entered the English-speaking classroom much as he would have entered an English-dubbed movie theater, because he could not have functioned, much less found his way there, otherwise. As much as the Croatians have achieved, his students are not typical of the population at large and I would suggest if he had traveled inland from the tourist-dominated Adriatic to Osijek or Vukovar he would find far less English proficiency.
The European aspiration of population migration, enabled by economic integration and by some lingua franca, is largely a myth. Beyond a limited elite — which I can attest from personal experience it is easy, again, to be deceived by a false self-selection — in fact there has been only modest economic migration across the European Union, with only about two percent of Europeans living outside their country of origin. (That’s a dramatic comparison to our 20 percent.) The primary language of European integration is English, and those who learn the language in reality generally flock to local, rather than international, capitals and locations.
Back in the United States, if it is the fact that the “80 percent” (to borrow a phrase, perhaps) do not speak a foreign language that Brown laments, that is far more a result of our educational system, which must balance practical demands with language-education for an English-speaking majority against the needs of a growing immigrant population of diverse linguistic background who also require education in the public language. Put it this way: ask any parent if they want their child to learn a second (or third!) language, they would definitely say yes. Informed that the best way to do this is to immerse them starting from pre-school, they would likely demur; skills in English for success in the United States are far more important on balance than skills in another language — as Brown has made all too clear in his tirade about our youth’s facility with the language of Uncle Walt.
But at the same time, our language diversity is a natural boon for a country that still dominates the global economy and international trade, except our institutions don’t really know how to take advantage of it. We don’t have very many language schools and most programs are primarily structured to study and teach languages to those who don’t speak these languages. How do we take advantage of and enable those who speak the “strategic languages” needed in foreign commerce, intelligence, and diplomacy? The talent is there, but the institutions and resources are not prepared to absorb them. In my experience this is the grown-up version of the parents’ pre-school dilemma: in relation to virtually any other marketable skill, language will always lag. Companies and the government want primary skills and view languages as a side or additional benefit. Translators and interpreters can be hired as necessary. (I don’t agree, but that’s the way it is.)
Brown wouldn’t appear to know the advantages we enjoy or the challenges our native speakers of foreign languages face. Instead, he indulges in the kind of cheap cultural contempt for the United States common at the bottom of the political spectrum where the anti-American left and the cultural-warrior right often uneasily meet. Americans are a lot smarter, bigger, harder-working, and tolerant than most of the world gives us credit for, and it’s sad to see a practitioner of public diplomacy trafficking in these kinds of wholly unsubstantiated stereotypes.
I very recently finished a major public diplomacy project supporting the NATO Summit which took place May 20-21 in Chicago. I interviewed 12 NATO member state ambassadors to the United States and U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, Chairman of the American delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for a series of video capsules to explore the meaning and importance of this enduring international organization where I worked for six years.
Working at NATO for as long as I did I became used to a familiar series of critical tropes attacking the organization. Policy critics typically harped on burden-sharing, as if countries as disparate as Greece and Luxembourg could possibly be compared to France and Great Britain, never mind the United States — an absurd comparison. Nobody claims the Mississippi National Guard isn’t pulling its weight compared to the Texas National Guard (which has deployed the most during the last 10 years), yet the National Guard system is the better analogy to the military organization of Europe than comparing individual European states to one another or to America.
The anti-war movement, when roused to turn its animus towards NATO, can be relied upon to call the organization a terrorist organization, an armed proxy for American foreign policy, or the jack-booted thugs of the industrialized West. Needless to say having worked there and watched the consensus process at its best (and worst), I can vouch that none of these caricatures is remotely accurate.
Both factions, though, share a fascination with the utility of force (to borrow a phrase) — which is easy to grasp in its simplistic contours (usually in troop numbers or bombing sorties) and makes for often compelling or grisly graphics and therefore the 24-hour news cycle. A predictable dichotomy has fallen into place as a result, and neither side sees it much in their interest to deviate from its comforting narrative: policy critics think Allies are doing too little, in effect, and anti-war protestors think NATO is doing too much. There’s no common ground, of course, but no rhetorical alternative.
Much less immediately obvious or compelling — boring, really, to watch but just as real in its effects — is NATO’s political function, which has transformed Europe and its surrounding neighborhood to a terrain unrecognizable to an earlier generation, never mind historians of an earlier epoch. NATO now approaches the OSCE and the UN for its expansive and expanding network of peaceful, productive political relationships developed since the end of the Cold War.
This is the alternative ground lacking in the NATO-critical dialectic and I happily found it crossed over and over again during my interviews. I was taken by the extraordinary language of reconciliation, openness, and inclusion used by several of the ambassadors who talked about their countries’ desire to expand NATO’s membership to their neighbors, with whom (mostly in the Balkans) they had fought in less than a generation. Two ambassadors talked about how NATO member countries sought agreements among themselves, with the Soviet Union (at the time) and with Warsaw Pact countries to lower and limit nuclear and conventional arms in the waning days of the Cold War, well before the collapse of both NATO’s rivals. NATO of course helped many former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries rejoin the West and integrate with the European Union. But even the Latvian ambassador talked specifically how NATO helped his country become more friendly with Russia following the Soviet occupation.
In other words, NATO is not purely a security organization to them. It is a forum for political reconciliation in a region that has seen centuries of war, conflict, shifting borders, and collapsing demographics. After the French and Germans and Poles and Balts had reconciled their histories, now the Croats and Slovenes are working hard to expand NATO to include the Macedonians, Bosnians, Montenegrins and (someday!) the Serbs. The European Union will follow close on NATO, which despite current troubles grows only to the greater good of the larger neighborhood, an extraordinary counter-historical experiment in European political integration and reconciliation.
Vaclav Havel once talked about politics being the art of the impossible. As president of Czechoslovakia he presided over the break-up of his country into Czech and Slovak lands. He lamented (hoped) at the time that one day the two countries might once again be reunited. It sounded crazy when he said it, but he wasn’t far wrong. Both countries eventually were rejoined, side by side, first in NATO and then the European Union. The same may soon be said for the states of the former warring Yugoslavia, and a more political NATO will be the forum for their pacific reunion.
I reiterate here my concern that the term “political” has evolved almost exclusively into a pejorative, so that in calling NATO political evokes notions of a sclerotic organization mired in and paralyzed by petty infighting. In reality a flexible, truly political organization — as I have argued here — has much more to offer than that. NATO is far more than what its policy critics can grasp and embodies perhaps the greatest aspirations its anti-war opponents could wish upon the world.
UPDATE July 5: This post was adapted and updated for a op-ed with (with Brett Swaney) for the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University.